I’ve owned several cycles, from the barely functional to the state of the art (and crashed every one, with or without the assistance of others). I’ve owned several cars (and dented them – I’m especially talented at ripping wingmirrors off the side if you ever need someone to fulfil that function for you).
But I’ve only owned one motorcycle. A rather decrepit Honda 125.
I bought it off my brother. I should have known better. I was usually beyond broke so I carried out any repairs and servicing myself. I certainly should have known better. There were these books called ‘Haynes Manuals’ which were meant to be a pictorial step by step guide to cars and bikes, helping the incompetent to carry out those simple tasks like cleaning the carburettor. Sadly they tended to assume a certain knowledge – such as what carburettor was. They always seemed to photograph a before and an after but never a during, thus leaving the servicing to include (a) guess work (b) witchcraft and (c) luck.
The result was that I was fairly reluctant to travel far on said machine. Until, eventually I had to.
After finishing my degree and having decided that a career as a solicitor would suit me, I needed to pass the second level of my professional exams – neatly named my ‘part twos’. Keep it simple. Only they were far from simple. Seven subjects to be crammed into a six month course in Guildford followed by a week of the worst exams stress I have ever experienced. I was to live in a small Surrey village of Cranleigh, some seven or eight miles from the College and the only way to get to the compulsory lectures was by car or bike. Thus is was that one day in late July 1977 I drove my bike from the family cottage in the New Forest to Cranleigh. Dad kindly drove with my clothes and stuff, to drop them off but the idea of going in some sort of convoy never occurred to him. “See you there, boy.”
Why I thought the best preparation for this journey was to attempt to service the bike is yet another example of stupidity winning out over sense by two clear goals. However I did. It actually sounded pretty good when I kicked it over and I set off, if not with confidence then with hope. Which lasted until I began to weave my way around the north of Southampton. There were a lot of lights and junctions and the stop-start did the engine and, specifically the flow of petrol no favours.
I lost count of the number of times the engine cut out and the subsequent kick starts. So it was that on a stretch of dual carriageway near Bitterne, the engine flooded and despite my precarious position on the side of a fast road the bloody thing stubbornly refused to go.
I’d been in enough duff cars by then to understand the concept of the bump start, something I imagine my children think is old school foreplay. Only up to that point I’d only ever seen or been involved in bump starts in cars. But surely the principle was the same for a bike and I had a vague memory of someone – maybe my brother as he’d had a few motorbikes – explaining how this neat trick worked on two wheels.
Basically, as I now remember it, you:
1. Put the bike in first
2. Engage the clutch – this is on the handlebar for those unfamiliar with motorbikes
3. You push the bike ideally down a slight slope to gain momentum
4. You let in the clutch, thus forcing the engine to fire and blasting the surplus petrol from the carburettor; there was a suggestion that to increase the traction, jumping onto the seat and forcing the back wheel down increased the chances of success
5. With the engine now engaged you pull the clutch back in so you are idling in neutral and engage the handbrake. You can now take up your driving position and recommence your journey.
Great theory. Ahead of me, in the increasing drizzle was a set of traffic lights. Next to me two lanes of traffic. The cars moved fast but when the lights went red they slowed. Activating my best brain I reckoned that if I begun the bump start as the lights went red I’d be as safe as I could be.
Which is what I did. Dressed as I was in a heavy coat and boots, getting up to any sort of speed was a challenge. And the road to the lights sloped gently upwards. All that, plus the increasingly inclement weather meant I needed to add some muscular oomph to my pushing. I was still wearing my crash helmet, of course. Safety first.
But I’m a diligent and resilient bloke so, nil desperandum, I began to trot and then, head down essay a sort of run. Puffing hard, I decided now was the moment to let in the clutch…
I have had many ‘oh shiiit’ moments in my life and this is probably in the top ten in a motorised context, up there with cycling into a drainage ditch full of chicken guano when drunk and affecting a rather cool impersonation of a bouncing bomb as I skittered across the bonnet of a white van.
The previously coy engine discovered its inner ego, burst into life with a small explosion out of the exhaust which had the effect of leaping the bike forward, making it impossible for me to reach let alone engage the clutch. It also meant that my right hand, firmly gripping the throttle for dear life, had pulled it open and rendered the idea of pulling back the brake moot.
Have you ever tried sprinting alongside a manic motorbike, in first gear, engine screaming as its speed increases towards 20 mph? In more clothes than an arctic explorer? Wearing a crash helmet?
The gap between me, the bike and the traffic lights, still red was shrinking quicker than the chocolate supplies in my fridge. I was also vaguely aware of the surprised faces of the occupants of the cars, waiting in a short queue at the lights as I hurtled past. I don’t suppose they often see someone trying to out-sprint a riderless bike. Even in Southampton, the mechanised rodeo isn’t yet a popular form of entertainment.
Now, stay with me. I was reaching a sort of personalised event horizon, a cycling singularity. By now I wasn’t going to stop the bike in any sort of traditional way because, arms fully outstretched I could no more get a grip on the brakes than I could the principles of quantum mechanics. I had a stark choice: keep running and hope the bike ran out of petrol somewhere near Portsmouth; or let go.
It was a no brainer. I would like to say it was the logic of self preservation that told me to let go. In fact it was my instinctive lawabidingness – I knew better than to cross while the lights were red.
I let go. The bike now free of my hands and my weight, did a sort of skip and shot across the junction. Fortunately nothing was crossing so it sailed on as it made its bid for freedom, before a strategically placed pothole redirected it into a ditch.
I sank to my knees, wondering at the damage. Several people got out of their cars. All but one went to check on the bike. The one was a lady with a tight grey perm, a sympathetic smile and the air of someone who instinctively cared. Like kind grandmas everywhere. She put a hand on my shoulder, bent her head until I could see her face and asked, “Why the fuck did you do that?”
Oddly the bike was fine. Covered in mud but purring smoothly. It behaved impeccably all the way to Cranleigh. I still needed it, still had to care for it, but we were no longer friends. I’ve not sent it a Christmas card since.
And the title of this piece? After one servicing attempt, when I tried to fix the exhaust, Dad came outside, looked at me trying to work out why it was spluttering and said, “Sounds like a mechanised fart”. It sort of stuck.