As I sit here, waiting for my molten-hot Turkish coffee to cool to a temperature that won’t induce third degree burns, I’m watching my teenage years ride past. More accurately, it’s the smell of the passing two-wheeled scenery in the fluorescent lights from the restaurants that’s most evocative.
Mingled with the coffee and the heavy evening jasmine is the sharp-edged aroma of two-stroke oil. I’m straight back to the evening in 1985 when I handed over £80 in hard-earned waiting-table fivers and got, in return, the keys to a metallic red Suzuki A100 that was my introduction to motorcycling.
The bike came with a yellow, plastic open face helmet and a white, plastic topbox. A mate had already given me an old ex-police pair of Lewis Leathers boots. I had my own black, hide jacket and a pair of gloves that would keep the worst of the rain off. It didn’t matter that the ancient jacket, with its ripped red silk lining, had seen tarmac action a few times. I wasn’t even worried by the leaky zip on the boots.
But the Tupperware topbox needed to go. So did the plastic, Belisha-yellow lid. A few spanner twists later and I had a bike no longer disfigured with a hump. I sold the old box to another riding tyro and added to the helmet fund.
I had a bike. I had my freedom.
And I used it. It didn’t matter that it was January. A combination of excitement and newspapers stuffed down the front of my jacket kept me warm enough. I rode for miles around the Somerset lanes. As I gained confidence, if not ability, I headed down into Dorset and Devon on expeditions that got longer and longer.
The drill was simple. Top up the two-stroke oil tank just under the seat (no MZ-style premix here, thank you), tyre pressures, spare five pound note, rucksack with lunch. And I was away. I got wetter and colder than I had ever been before – or since – but I grinned like an idiot. I was even still grinning when, on one sleety January evening after 80 miles of ring-a-ding on the limit riding, getting soaked by every passing truck, I arrived in Exmouth. I had to be pried off the bike and dumped in a hot bath to thaw. My gloves were still frozen hand shapes, the fingers like Popsicles, two hours later.
The yellow lid took a few more weeks of waitering slavery to sort out. Fortunately, getting the cash I needed and getting sacked for dumping a pot of mustard over a diner to whom I took a dislike coincided. I hated being a waiter anyway.
The nearest bike shop that sold helmets was in Bath, a mere eleven miles away. Best of all, the run back took me down the Woolverton straight. A clear, wide stretch of Roman road that measured about two miles. This was a challenge. And downhill.
In Bath I kitted myself up with a full-face, black and white Boeri helmet and felt like a real racer. The ancient biker who sold it to me suggested, with a grin, that I use the bin at the back of the shop for my old, flimsy open face lid.
So, newly helmeted, I prodded the A100 into life and weaved my way through the Bath traffic snarl (bad even in the 1980s), heading for Woolverton. To get there, I had to lug the poor little two stoke up the Farleigh Hungerford hill. But, with a bit of grace and second gear, we did it. The Straight beckoned.
No cars. No lorries. A clear run. Off the top of the starting hill, I snicked up through the gears. 30…40…50…55…feet on the pillion pegs to cut the air resistance…56…flat across the tank now…57…58…BANG!
My world went dark in an instant. I couldn’t see.
But the brakes still worked and hauled me down from the dizzying heights of terrifying speeds now illegal in Somerset.
Shaking, I clambered off the bike, still blind. I realised why as I hauled off my new helmet and saw the visor. Across it were splattered the remains of the biggest wasp I’ve ever seen. The visor was cracked too.
Still shaking, I turned around and rode back to Bath, where the now grinning biker gave me a new visor and wouldn’t take any money. He couldn’t. He was laughing too hard at the look on my face and the mess of wasp still smeared across my visor.
It was only when I got home I realised what would have happened if the wasp and I had met on the way there rather than the way back. I’ll take luck over ability any day. And I still rather fancy an old two-stroke.