There was a time when I got my thrills through intellectual endeavour. Deciphering a piece of architecture by Peter Eisenmann was a big thing, and then I bought a motorbike.
The year was 1997 and it was the first motorbike I had ever owned. Prior to that the only two wheeled contraptions I had sat on were bicycles and those 125cc workhorses used by motorbike training schools. But my first bike was an Aprilia.
At that time the Aprilia RS125 was the bike that propelled Valentino Rossi to world champion status. Aprilia RS125s were not for the faint hearted and I was learning on one. The bike was delivered at two in the morning by a guy who earned two and a half grand a week. It could do over 100mph, even though it was meant to be restricted to 5hp or something monkeyish like that. After taking a test on a bog standard bike, getting back onto the Aprilia was like abseiling head first down a building.
Aprilias were also fancied by bike thieves. They had a go twice at mine. The first attempt involved freezing the security chain with liquid nitrogen. The whack with a hammer was audible and woke me up. The thieves skedaddled into a neighbour’s house. Yes, a neighbour’s house. The police made arrests, but not the neighbour.
About a year later the thieves were successful and my Aprilia was found in bits on a nearby housing estate. But by this time I was ready to take my riding test for a full license and after a bureaucratic mix-up at a pedestrian crossing the license was mine. However, it was limited for six months to 33hp, which was no good for anything, so I spent that six months rebuilding my next bike.
The Suzuki SV650s was a v-twin sports tourer with a throaty growl and a lot of bent bits and pieces after the crash that led it to the scrap yard where I found it. I learned a lot about bikes in the rebuilding of that heap, but unfortunately learned nothing about electronics.
The bike had a black box, a computer engine management system which, one day, simply switched off. Replacements didn’t do anything to improve the situation and the bike ate batteries like they were going out of fashion. (A crisis which resulted in one Suzuki dealer pondering life before exclaiming ‘I think Earnie Wallace might have one.’ ‘Who the f***s Earnie Wallace?’ Turns out he was a dealer in Warrington and he didn’t have a battery either.) There was a worldwide shortage of batteries for the SV650.
Problems eventually came to a head at a set of temporary traffic lights when I began to disappear in a cloud of smoke. The battery was on fire and, as is the case with all motorbikes, I was sat directly above it. I survived, but I sold the bike and bought my next one.
When I had the Aprilia, it looked like a big bike until you parked it next to Yamaha Thundercat. I bought a Thundercat, a 600cc four stroke sports tourer. Yellow and silver, it did me right until one morning when I went up to the shops in the car.
I came home and had one of those sixth sense feelings there was something not quite right about the driveway. It was empty. The bike was gone. I made an insurance claim and after seven weeks the insurers paid up. After eight weeks I got a knock on the front door. The police had found the bike.
It was abandoned on the same housing estate where the Aprilia had been found. The police very kindly left me there to arrange recovery of it … at ten o’clock at night. As I waited several hours for a recovery truck I was pestered by a drug dealer offering me £200 for what was left of the bike. But it wasn’t mine to sell, it belonged to the insurance company, and he eventually gave up and wandered off towards a distant flashing light.
A few years later and with a garage in the driveway behind six foot high gates, I bought my fourth and most recent bike. A Suzuki GSXR-750. An out and out sports bike: Suzuki’s homologation model for the World Superbike championships.
I saw it advertised on Bike Trader and was for sale in Norfolk, about two hundred miles away. I rang the dealer about delivery and the conversation went something like this:
Dealer ”D’yer have a fork lift truck?”
Me “No. Why do I need a fork lift truck?”
“To get it off the delivery lorry.”
“No, I haven’t got a fork lift.”
“Okay. Juz a moment while I ‘ave a word wi’ moi brother….”
He went away for five minutes and then came back to the phone.
“D’yer have a tractor tyre?”
“We can drop the bike off the lorry onto a tractor tyre.”
“Sorry, no. I don’t have a tractor tyre.”
“Okay. Let me just ‘ave another word wi’ moi brother….”
I don’t know who his brother was. Some kind of Buddhist guru sat out the back issuing wisdom on bits of ticker tape, but the bike eventually arrived on a bog standard flatbed truck. No tractor tyres, no fork lifts, boat cranes, elephants or teams of Moldovan slaves.
One night coming back from Southport I did 122mph on that bike before a stone wall and a right turn forced me to slow down. It was a menace in slow traffic, and the incessant gear changes left me with swollen arms and pins and needles in my left hand. The GSXR, or Gixxer, was built for the racetrack not the public highway.
When I sold it the woman who bought it asked for her money back when the engine went south three weeks after buying it. Caveat emptor, I told her. She test rode it, was made aware of all the ‘issues,’ her friend even lifted it upside down to look underneath it, and still she bought it.
Someone once said to me that when you own a motorbike you sprout horns. I’m normally a mild mannered casual kind of chap. I always tell people I put the ‘amble’ into ‘ramble.’ But on a motorbike I become a monster. I’ve cheated death on more than one occasion, carried out suicidal overtaking manoeuvres I would never do in a car, but that’s what motorbikes do to you.
Before I owned them I lived for the intellectual challenges in life, but I gave all that up when I realised that life is a sensory visceral experience. The closest I’ve come to the sensation of being on a motorbike at 70mph is being on a horse that spooks and gallops off with you still sat on it.
That’s the difference between a horse and a motorbike: handlebars and brakes. However, a horse doesn’t have a battery. Unless Earnie Wallace has got one and hasn’t told us.