Motorcyclists, if they are any good, make great drivers. On a motorcycle you examine roads carefully for a surface change or a manhole cover, or a slippery patch that could send you to eternity. Nothing sharpens the mind so much as the thought of falling off.
There can be a sense of sociality too, between a driver seeing a headlight in the mirror and the rider of a fast bike. A swift beckon with a left-hand winker is quite satisfying. You can sense the rider’s concentration leaning low across the tank, acknowledging the gesture with a gloved hand.
I used to ride bikes. Not often and not fast, until tempted back to them briefly on a sort of second childhood. During the first they had been old British singles, occasionally twins, friends’ bikes as often as not, and when my first modest vintage two-stroke spent most of its time dismembered on the garage floor (it was well beyond my wit and skill), I climbed on more pillions than was probably good for me. One was Iain Carson’s ex-WD 350cc Royal Enfield with girder forks like the RAF one in the Goodwood group pictured below.
Nobody ever dropped me on to the road. Helmets were not compulsory and I never wore one because buying it would have meant confirming to anxious parents that I was actually riding motorcycles.
The second childhood was years later, at a Guild of Motoring Writers’ Test Day at Chobham, riding a BMW big twin, smooth, quiet and, to someone who had never done more than about 85 on two wheels, unbelievably fast. Inside a lap or two I was doing 120. It felt like flying. Cars seemed tame, undemanding. I found at Chobham I didn’t need courage, a bit of self-possession perhaps but not much more.
Modern bikes, I discovered, came with on-board, no-extra-cost self-confidence. Your vision didn’t blur at 90, and you could step off without tingling from the vibration. Any weakness at the knees came only from knowing that if you fell off at these speeds it would have hurt. Yet what sheer delight. No kick-starting, the oil stayed inside the engine and gearbox, you could feel the track through the steering, it was smooth, secure, safe.
If bikes like these had been around in my first childhood, and had I been able to afford them, I would have been out there with the same abandon that led to those countless miles without a hat, far less without a helmet. I would have been riding, mindless, reckless showing off, swerving and jinking through the traffic.
At Chobham I lost my heart to a Honda 4-cyliner (top picture). I coveted Triumph Twins in the old days, with machine-finished engine fins to gladden the engineer in me. I loved the distinctive rhythm of Norton Dominators; I even enjoyed the smooth-running 197cc Villiers two-strokes on a James. Yet beyond about 5,000rpm every one of them felt stressed. At Chobham the Honda transverse four revved freely to 9,500. It sang. It was a revelation. The smooth gleaming motor was pure mechanical art. I was captivated, all set for a second childhood on two wheels.
I never did it. I knew, as with cars, how addictive adrenalin could be. I have done maybe two million miles in hundreds of test cars. I have never put one off a road, or off a test track for that matter. Never collided with anything – a brief encounter with a milk lorry at 23 and an RAC Rally competitor on the wrong side of the road hit my press Vauxhall Ventora (what an underrated car). A tram once drove into me in Geneva but with two industry PRs in the car I was pronounced blameless. I have driven at 185mph, lapped Fiorano in Ferraris; banked tracks, off-road courses and racing cars came easily. But at any speed self-confidence can become over-confidence. I spent that Chobham track day going faster in perfect safety but I knew a red mist when I saw one.
I have scarcely been on a motorcycle since.