The dark side of the joy of motorbikes

<em>Picture: Leigh McMahon</em>
Picture: Leigh McMahon
By Tom Morton

Forty years of motorcycling, and I haven’t fallen off once. Now here I am, in the deceptively sloping car park of Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, lying underneath a Triumph Street Triple R. Six hundred and seventy-five cubic centimetres of rampant hooligan motorcycle has just toppled with a sickening crunch onto my legs and torso.

There’s no pain, not yet. There was a sense of awful inevitability as, swinging my leg over the heavily laden bike to get off, I caught my foot on the tailpack, fell heavily to the ground and watched the Grey Beast (the R in its name, signifying its uprated thrash-punk credentials, standing in my opinion for Ridiculous) teeter on its dodgy kickstand and then descend towards my aged body.

Gordon, distillery manager, and Rob, travelling companion, saunter (not rush; they’re laughing too much) to my aid. They lift the bike off my trapped body. Gingerly, I try to move my legs. I am Douglas Bader. No, I’m not. Everything works. Ankles, toes, knees. The Triumph’s ungainly rear footpegs, engine casings and protuberant indicators have born the brunt. To the tune, a dismayed Triumph factory will later inform me, of over £2,000 in damage.

It’s a press bike, one of two borrowed for a long-distance charity ride – the Barnard Challenge – which will take us around the UK and Ireland’s distilleries. Eventually we will cover 3,700 miles. For the moment, though, it’s out with the gaffa tape and off to Cork, then the ferry to Wales, down to Norfolk (again) and up to Scotland (again). 

It’s over now. We did it all (Norfolk–Leicester–Orkney–Stranraer–Belfast–Bushmills–Cork–Rosslare–Fishguard–Merthyr Tydfil–Norfolk–Inverness) in just over a week. Apart from that incident in Ulster, neither Rob nor I suffered a scratch. I sit now, the autumn howling in, my own bike (a Moto-Guzzi; Italian, rusty, lovely and medieval) securely stored in its winter shed. Thankful for surviving another summer on two wheels. Looking forward to the next.

Far too many other motorcyclists did not survive this summer. The A9, which Rob and I covered the length of three times in a week, has claimed more than its share of lives, none more affecting than that of 38-year-old mother of two Sharon Topping, from Moodiesburn. Having secretly taken motorcycle lessons as a surprise for her keen biker husband Stephen, the couple had travelled north to collect Sharon’s first bike, bought on eBay. Stephen was following Sharon down the A9 when she hit the central reservation and was killed. That happened the day after Rob and I tore down the road on our way to Stranraer.

It’s the reality of these personal tragedies that can be too easily forgotten in the reporting of the “yet another biker killed” kind. Bikers become anonymous to other road users, swathed in fibreglass and leather, visored, helmeted, sinister. Colin Rafferty, 51, and his son Keir, who was riding as a pillion passenger, were travelling along the A72 when their BMW bike left the road. They were on their way home from football practice. Both died. They both loved motorcycling, loved motorbikes.

Peter and Jacqueline Corris, from Leyland, killed on their way home, again on the A9, from the Thunder in the Glens Harley-Davidson rally. Two children survive them. Their funeral was thronged with Harleys, the snarling of poorly-silenced V-twins an ironic and, to many, ugly requiem.

Why? Why do it? Motorcycling is dangerous. Why put yourself at risk?

Well, per journey there’s as much chance of dying on an aeroplane flight as on a motorcycle. And, package-holiday fans, vice versa. But that’s not the point. People ride bikes not, on the whole, for necessity – the advent of the Mini in the late 1950s spelt the end of the motorbike as mass transportation, though the moped/scooter commuter market has expanded in recent years. People ride for the joy of it. For fun. For the thrill. For the fact that, balanced at speed on two wheels, every mile covered is two (numbed) fingers in the face of death.

The dirty secret is this: motorcycling is about death. Facing it, avoiding it. Using your skill and the power of the machine you’ve learned to master to navigate through the constant threat of destruction. It’s better than life. And if it isn’t. It isn’t.

And it has all this … stuff associated with it. In no other context can a mature man or woman wear leather trousers with impunity. The notion of “gear queer” may offend some motorcyclists, already wrestling perhaps, with the inescapable gay iconography of biker chic. But the term originated among post-Iraq special forces soldiers, for men – always men – obsessed with the equipment of warfare, and its fashionability. William Gibson has based an entire book on the subject.  In motorcycling, you can pay more for a German helmet and some groovy Scandinavian riding gear than for a good bike.

There is desperately unfashionable equipment, too. I wore a Leatt neck brace for the Barnard trip. This ugly Klingon slave collar was designed by a South African doctor who watched a friend die from a broken neck after a motorbike crash. The cheapest version costs £200. It makes you look stupid, and it did nothing for me in the Bushmills car park.

I wore a £2 Hi-Viz vest over my expensively black Cordura armour. A yellow flicker in the peripheral vision of some numpty on the M6 may have saved my life. Who knows? I was too busy concentrating. Because that focus is crucial to riding safely. There is no room for dreaming, no space for distractions.

Motorcycling is about becoming the eyes, ears, brain of the machine – and, as a consequence, it provides a deep sense of satisfaction and, after you stop, euphoria, which is utterly addictive. Somehow, you’re alive. It’s a drug. Even at the age of 54, when I for one should probably know better.

But sometimes you need to reduce life to its simplest. Sometimes you need to escape contemplation, self-consciousness, self-observation. (I have a theory that too many bad bikers spend too much time imagining what they look like on their bikes, preening. That way disaster lies.) Fail to focus, let your concentration lapse, and you will, at best, fall off. You may be killed. It’s elemental stuff.

It’s irresistible.