Riding

When do you really own a bike?

For a while, a couple of years ago, I had an ST1100 – a Honda Pan European. It was THE most competent bike I’ve ever owned. My business partner, James, and I rode back from Cornwall one freezing February – him on his Triumph TT600, me on the Pan. I was quite happy at 90-ish, heated grips on, snow building up on the sideboard-sized fairing as I sat there snugly. James nearly froze to death and we had to pry his fingers off the bars when he got back.

I hated that Pan. You couldn’t interact with it. It just sat there, smugly, knowing it was smarter, faster and way more competent than you. Check the oil? Why bother? It’s a Honda. It won’t have used any. And, besides, to look at the oil level you have to unbolt a little panel in the Tupperware that shrouds the engine. Tappets? You could, but it’s a Honda. They’ll still be as perfectly in adjustment as the day one of Sōichirō Honda’s chaps snugged down the valve covers to precisely 20nm when it left the factory. And you’ll have to unbolt enough plastic panels to make a couple of exhibition stands to do it.

In short – a splendid, effective, fast, comfortable tool. Like a drill or a microwave. Not – in my view – a motorcycle.

Motorcycles should be about interaction. Working on bikes is as much part of being a rider as the riding. How can you trust your neck to something when you don’t know how it works and can’t maintain and fix it?

It’s why I love the Ural so much. It’s truly interactive. Don’t maintain it? It’ll let you know pretty rapidly. Forget the weekly checks – brakes, oil level, bolt snugness? Soon – very soon – it’ll start running rough. Then really rough. Then stop. Or not, if you’ve forgotten to adjust the brakes.

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Invest some time and love though, and the bike’ll repay you. It’ll run smoothly, purr as much as a Siberian-manufactured Russian lump of iron ever can, and reward you in the process. There’s something wonderful, in our sealed for life, sealed off, throwaway age about making something mechanical and complicated run as beautifully as it can. You learn. You start to recognise the sounds your bike makes – and what they mean. It’s a bit quiet – better check the tappet adjustment as they’ve probably nipped up a bit.

And, slowly, you realise you’re hooked. It’s a drug. You could no more ride a modern bike, with its plastic panels and nasty little tinny fasteners and electric engine management systems, than fly. Or, in my case, dance.

And I like it that way. Yes, my bike is slower than yours. It’s more unreliable than yours (but when it goes wrong I know how to fix it). It’s older and more primitive than yours. And I don’t care. I like it that way. I’m a rider, not a passenger.

But, best of all, I own my bike. Because you don’t ever truly own a bike until you’ve worked on it, interacted with it mechanically and, in the process, invested some of you in it.

Riding is as much about the spannering as the road.

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3 thoughts on “When do you really own a bike?

  1. How true this is. I had exactly the same feelings about my Pan as you did. Awe, respect, admiration – but never affection. A bike that could cross continents in the blink of an eye, or hold its own with all but the most determined sportsbike rider – but which sat on the drive until needed, while my eBay heap of an XT600 got ridden every day out of sheer pleasure. There’s a bit of me in every single system of the XT. I’ve worked to get it fit and reliable, and that makes us pals rather than business partners.

    I sold the Pan and got a Bonneville, which is part of the way to the situation you describe. Everything is visible, everything can be got at, everything is user-serviceable (apart from the ignition box), and the engine is tuneable. Half the power, half the speed, twice the fun.

    I’ve considered a Ural combo, just for the sheer bonkosity of it, but I am also sure that there is a Brit classic somewhere in my future. My goal is a tour of Europe on something older then I am. Like a rigid BSA B31. I’ll buy it, take it to bits until I know how everything works, and then I will set off. And if anyone asks, I will quote the last three paragraphs of this post.

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  2. yappo says:

    i agree totally with you.i find no enjoyment in just riding.the laying on of hands and with it the fear and happiness which follow is not to be missed.i was born long after the horse age but imagine it all the same when i’m feeding and watering my /5.old bikes have always revealed this to me and i’m delighted to know i’m not alone in my feelings.

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  3. I completely agree – the mechanical bonding ensures the mixing of the DNA .

    I stare in disbelief at the introduction of technological miracles such as the BMW 1600 6 cylinder – what is the real BENEFIT? Expense, compexity or what?
    I believe that it was LJK Setright who stated that the only worthwhile advancement in (automotive) technology this century (20th?) had been the introduction of the electric starter. I might add ABS but 2 cylinders are more than enough for any motorcycle although I am now dabbling with 3.

    Interesting blog – I’m happy to have stumbled into it.

    N

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