Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Startin' Out

Elation, frustration, satisfaction and ultimately depression are just some of the emotions motorcycles have brought out in me.

Elation as l sped down the open road, wind in my hair and not a care in the world. Never mind that it was only 50mph on an ancient B120 with bent forks and a rusted out frame. I was just 14 and those Cornish Forestry Commission tracks were trails through the forests of North America to me. Originally scavenged only to rob its ignition coil for my far raunchier DT125, the little Suzuki covered about 700 miles in 18 months of riding around my father's farm and local tracks. Apart from petrol, I spent nothing on it and it let me down only once on a dark, wet winter's evening when I attempted to ford a storm swollen river and flooded the motor.

Frustration was the result of having owned a bike for three years and spent countless hours working on it, yet only getting about half a dozen hours of riding from the thing. That bike, an early DT125, was bought for £40 as a non runner and it stayed that way for a long time. Most weekends, when I should have been doing my homework, were spent tinkering with the very decrepit machine, polishing what remained of the chrome or just straddling the awesome beast, imagining what it would be like to ride.

What I lacked in mechanical knowledge I tried to make up for with youthful enthusiasm. A hundred times I thought had found the answer and heaved the monster to the top of the farm yard to try and bump start it, since it had no kickstart. Every putt or bang, the occasional few moments of erratic running, would spur me on to further efforts. Hours later, dripping with sweat, I would push it back into the workshop and concede defeat for another week. 

Satisfaction came when I eventually discovered the burnt out ignition coil and replaced it with one from a Honda C50 liberated from a disused mineshaft, and again when I successfully modified the kickstart shaft in the school engineering shop so that a bicycle crank could be used as a lever. Never mind that the knackered engine could barely push the bike to 60mph, I had brought this wreck back to life all by myself.

Since the time she watched me use a stone wall as a banked curve when the Yam's brakes failed, my mother has never been too keen on motorcycles and she was less than impressed when, a few days after my 16th birthday, I proudly presented my new steed, £80s worth of TS50ER.

Bought from a boy at school a couple of years older than me, I had made a 30 mile train journey, then walked a further ten miles to look at this rusty heap. Rattly, rough and with 28000 miles on the clock, it was utterly gutless, but with its looks and riding position I could at least pretend it was a real motorcycle. With a hundred hard earned notes in my pocket and yearning for independence and freedom, there was no way I was going home empty handed. The prospect of riding home through Plymouth city centre in the evening rush hour, though I had never legally ridden on the road before, did nothing to deter me. 

In just under a year I covered about 4000 miles on this bike and replaced both sets of brake shoes, the front tyre and the battery. Top speed on the flat was only 35mph so it was thrashed continually and returned only 80mpg, but at least I was mobile. Schoolmates mocked, its feeble performance and tatty appearance, laughed at me in my waterproof leggings and open face helmet, but I know that this was merely to conceal their envy of my mobility and independence. I frequently rode it purely for fun, up to 100 miles at a time, but I didn't enjoy my occasional crashes that much - I can't recommend the wet weather qualities of Cheng Shin trials tyres! 

l vividly recall one incident on a damp, grey morning. Late for my train, I tried to take a tight 90 degree corner on full throttle and, whilst banked over, lost it as the rear tyre hit a patch of that silky smooth tar so beloved of the Cornwall Highways Dept. As I lay in the road, writhing around, a woman casually walked past, totally ignoring me. What is it about motorcyclists, I wondered, that the general public finds so repellent?

Considering the hard life the bike had led (9 owners in 7 years, all young and inexperienced), reliability was pretty good - only three breakdowns in a year. The first time was my fault, I didn't tighten the main jet properly after cleaning the carb. Miles from home and with the light fading fast, the motor began to misfire, cough and die. Feeling pretty desperate, I pushed the bike to the nearest farm, whose owner and l incorrectly diagnosed a duff plug.

The kindly old boy then produced a pencil and showed me how to put graphite on the electrodes to temporarily beef up the spark. "That’ll get ‘ee 'ome, boy," said he encouragingly. Unfortunately that was not to be and I ended up pushing the bike a long way up steep hills in the dark to a friend's house, where I left it overnight. Just as well it wasn’t raining.

The second breakdown really was an ignition failure, understandable since it occurred during a thunderstorm, whilst the third was caused by the disintegration of the front sprocket while ascending a 1 in 5 slope, resulting in the bike's ultimate demise. My meagre finances were stretched beyond breaking point and my two wheeled collection was sent ignominiously to the breaker's yard.

A card on the 6th form common room notice board caught my eye: Motorcycle for sale, MZ250, new tyres, needs some attention. Must go, owner moving house, £20. The owner turned out to be none other than my friendly bearded history teacher, the one who wore BSA leathers whilst riding an XS650. It just needs a new gearchange return spring, he told me, I'm moving house this afternoon but I'll leave it in the back street, he said as I swapped £20 for the keys and a Haynes manual.

An agreement was reached with my friendly local potato merchant - I helped unload a few tons of spuds at a Plymouth chippie and we brought the MZ back on his truck. It took a while to find the place and back the truck up the steep, narrow, cobbled alley but there it was, looking as only an MZ can - ugly. As we heaved it into the back, the rear wheel showed a reluctance to turn, but it was not until I arrived home that I realised the motor was seized solid.

Not one to give up easily, I took the motor out of the frame, lifted the head and put some serious effort into moving that piston - no chance. Blow lamps, sledge hammers and ingenious arrangements involving fencing stakes and tractors all failed to move that piston even the slightest bit. I consoled myself with the thought that it was too hideous to ride anyway. My mother told me never to trust a man with a beard. 

l thought I never wanted to see another bike as long as I lived and when a neighbour told me he was dumping a CZ175 that was cluttering up his workshop, a bike that earned him a driving conviction at the age of 15, I told him to go ahead. A few days later, however, I succumbed to the temptation and picked up what was left of the bike, plus the remains of a very similar CZ175. Just for fun, I put together something vaguely resembling a motorcycle from the two, flushed the carb, set the timing and strapped a car battery to where the seat should have been. A quick bump start down the road and - bam, bam, bam!

The sound from the open header pipes resounded loudly through the valley as l flashed up and down the lane. Figuring that any cop would be feeling generous - he'd have to be on Christmas morning, I took it for a glorious bare headed blast down Cornish roads, through some villages and home again, throttle on the stop and the needle on 70mph for as long as l dared with a splitting front tyre, bald rear Skidmaster and no oil in the forks. More than one early morning church goer got a shock to their eardrums that Christmas, though it sounded better than any organ music to me. And you wonder why bikers have a bad reputation?

l discovered bikes about the same time as many of my friends found out about women and I guess my love-hate relationships with those lumps of rotting metal were not so very different from their early experiences with girls. Doubtless, Freudian scholars would say that motorcycling is a substitute for sex.

Relating these experiences brings back a flood of memories. Though it didn't always seem that way at the time, they were happy days and I suppose bikes did much to shape my character in those formative years (the UMG also has something to answer for). Not only did I learn something about bikes and machinery generally, but also about people and life as a whole and, through spending long periods alone, about myself; experiences I wouldn't have missed for anything.

Dan Ledger

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