Alistair Maclean's Web Site
Riding over the edge
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The First Crazy Thought

I started riding in late 1979, I was 21 years old. I felt I needed some transport but didn't fancy the cost of a car, having ridden bicycles for years it seemed that motorcycles would be an easy transition. Was I wrong!

Selection

I wandered round many dealers in Lincoln in the autumn of '79 looking for something that I could ride, there were legal niceties that were imposed on us that limited learners to 250cc bikes - this probably saved my life. In 1979 dealers didn't have the slick showrooms they have today, bikes were piled into small rooms with bare floors and drab walls, the smell of engine oil permeating the atmosphere. Customer assistance hardly existed. I found a small dealer down a back street that was selling Kawasaki's (Bol D'Or of Lincoln) and someone had the presence of mind to ask me what I was looking for, then gave me advice. I went home with a glossy pamphlet and gloated over it. One phrase sticks in my mind to this day: "snicking through the gearbox." It was an evocative thought to a young man and soon I was signing a check for my first motorcycle.

Training

The new Kawasaki Z250 motorcycle was delivered to a training ground at an old barracks building on the outskirts of Lincoln. A large parade ground was filling with people and motorcycles. It was cold. We were broken into small groups and given class room instruction, when that finished after an hour, it was out to learn to ride. I could not get the idea of using a clutch into my head - at all. I managed to crash for the first time right there, the first day, in front of my instructor. Fortunately, only my pride was hurt. The excitement of the day took its toll on me though and toward the end of the training I had to go off, excusing myself, and 'hurled' my breakfast.

I managed through perseverance, trial and error, and more crashes to get the hang of this riding thing. I was hooked. I had wheels, I could get petrol and maps were plentiful. I just had to find good roads.

The Test

To get a bigger bike, or just to get rid of the dreaded "L" plate, you have to pass a motorcycle test in the UK. This is not a tough test, but the testers have such a dreadful reputation that you have to take things seriously or you're stuck with the L-plates forever. My first test occurred about 4 months after I started riding. I had covered over 9000 miles and was getting pretty good at staying up and pointed in the right direction. The day of the test was a gray day, threatening clouds scudded low over the test center, it was the first damp day in weeks. The examiner came out and interrogated me with the first questions, then he told me to ride around the block in a particular direction. He observed my progress from the side of the road, then called me to a halt. He told me to ride in the other direction and warned that I might need to do an emergency stop. Off I went round the block again. This time, as I approached him he walked into the road with his clipboard raised - I was to do the emergency stop! I put on the brakes and came to a stop a few feet from him. He seemed irritated, saying the attempt was not good enough, that I should do it faster the next time. Off I went again, zipping along the streets, turned back onto the road he had been on the last time and gunned it. I was on a driving test doing 40 mph on a narrow, car lined road in the center of a largish town. He jumped out from between some cars - just feet from me. I grabbed the front brake, but on the damp road the front tyre lost traction quickly. The front tucked and down I went. As I bounced down the road I looked up and was pleased to see the instructor jumping for his life to avoid the now pilotless bike. There was a difference of opinion about the incident but my first test ended without me failing, nor passing either; we agreed that the bike was incapable of completing the test.

Three months later, July 4th 1980, I took the test again, this time I passed. I have always felt that it was an omen that I should pass on America's Independence Day. The L-plates were retired and I got on with the serious business of finding the limits of traction.

University

I selected a university over 200 miles from home, in the city of Portsmouth on the English Channel coast. Academically the place was a disaster, socially it was incredible. What I learnt in the classrooms was not fit to teach, what I learnt out of class is pretty much XXX rated but has stood me well.

PPMCC. Portsmouth Polytechnic Motor Cycle Club. This was a Student Union funded activity that partially financed a good bit of antisocial behaviour. The club's first meeting of the year would see 200 motor cycles hurtle through the streets of Portsmouth then on into the country side. With luck we would get to a pub with most of the club riders still intact. On my first nights ride we ran head long into 50 Hell's Angels out for their own club run filling up at the local petrol station. I have rarely seem so many scared people in one place, even the students looked worried. This ride showed me a new dimension that I was to explore for many years to come - SPEED. A group of older students took off into the night and blasted away faster than I could possible comprehend. Oh my.

University is a place to learn. Well, if the Computer Science guys can't teach you anything then you have to learn on your own. I created a heady mix of hacking and crashing that somehow I survived. The next few years became a survival course, where crashes in ever more convoluted settings would take place. At one point I was falling off about once each week. I almost got to like the sound of scraping metal. My first aid kit was second to none, and while I only ever broke one bone doing all this, it taught me to dress for protection.

I suppose part of the issue was that I found I was trying to test my limits from the outside of the envelope, so to speak. By going into corners way too fast and crashing I knew I had to slow a bit, if I didn't crash I was not going fast enough and had to speed up the next time. This somewhat Darwinian approach to riding had me on my ear a great many times, but the other effect was that I could ride rings around most people on just about any road - a useful trait if the other person is in a police car.

Work

University ended and I had to get a real job. I found employ as a computer programmer; it's a thankless job, but someone's got to do it! I had obtained another motorcycle while at university, a Kawasaki 550, but it had come to no good when a car driver tried to mow me down on a roundabout near Peterborough in the east of England, one night a week before I finished university. I had to fettle the old war scared 250 to get to work. It did me well, it got me to work, to client sites, and helped me earn my keep. I needed power though, the 550 needed to be reborn!

I rebuilt the 550, changed jobs, and now commuted over 45 miles each way. Lincolnshire is a large county on the east of England famous for the Tank, Newton, Tennyson, Thatcher (spit!), and the Pilgrim Fathers. It is less well known for its quiet winding roads. Good job too, because I prowled these roads every opportunity I had.

Cadwell Park

There is a race circuit in the Lincolnshire Wolds, the hills that form the spine of Lincolnshire, its a narrow, fast track that is a fabulous motorcycle race track, it is Cadwell Park. It's been there since before the Second World War, has seen many track layout changes and is home to a racing school. I did two race schools at Cadwell over the years. The first with the Chas Mortimer school on beat up Yamaha RD400's, later I went to a Brands Hatch Race school and used the vilest VF400's imaginable. Over the years I went to the circuit for many race events as well.

The Chas Mortimer race school gave me the opportunity to lap everyone in my class. The Brands school event gave me the chance to bump start a stalled bike so many times I just wanted to put idle jets back in the damnable machine. Of course bump starting a bike is a good way to get frustrated, so I was having to try a little harder to catch up, the suspension flat gave up and I was dragging all sorts of bike bits in corners, then the brakes, those vented monstrosities Honda thought would save you in the wet, completely faded. Going into a corner called the Goose Neck, the brakes gave up entirely. At about 100mph I took to the grass, cut a strange line across the corners and headed down the hill, getting ever nearer a solid looking tyre barrier. Just when I thought I had it all under control, slowed down to perfection, the bike stepped out and pitched me over the bars. I was doing about 5 mph. The leathers were the schools, my skin was fine.

Big Bikes

I was earning now, all that work stuff was paying handsomely. I was feeling quite affluent. I decided that a bigger bike was in order. After looking at building my own Harris Magnum kit motorcycle, I decided to go for one of the new Kawasaki GPz900's that was due before long. I found a dealer in Nottingham willing to take my deposit and I sat back and waited for the call to come and pick it up. Impatiently.

The great day arrived. It was early April 1984, I went to the dealers on a saturday morning (by train), dressed in my most fashionable rain suit, and waited for the end of the day when I could take the bike. It seems that Kawasaki UK had other ideas than me riding the bike, they wanted the bikes to stay on the dealer floors the entire release weekend. I was having none of that! I argued the case that the dealer had promised me the bike, he had the money, where's the keys!!! So, with a local journalist taking photos (of my most fashionable rainsuit), I wobbled off down the road that lead back home. The next day (Sunday) I went down to London where a friend convinced me to take the bike out for a pose in Epping Forest (one of places that gave rise to the concept of Cafe Racers). I had one of very few Ninjas in the UK (probably only 3 or 4 - the other 300 being held in dealer showrooms), and the locals were duly enthralled.

The 900 was a fast bike. It taught me things about cornering speed and absolute straight line speed that I will not easily forget. It also had a dark side that would show itself occasionally. This was a motorcycle that had a big motor and a modern chassis, well, not THAT modern. A 140mph tank slapper was a thrill! Braking hard from 110mph, the antics from the front end were cause for momentary thought on mortality. These minor issues aside, the bike performed like a trooper, gave me more excitement than seeing most girls naked - most, not all - and provided a stunning level of transportation. Days hurtling round Lincolnshire, blasting through corners, doing 115mph wheelies over blind rises...

The show stopped one afternoon when a young girl decided to turn her bicycle in front of me while I was doing 60mph. No one died, but two bodies were well beaten up. I freak seeing young cyclists, I hope this girl looks before maneuvering on the road now.

A 500 Kawasaki followed the 900, after I resurrected the 550 again. Are you thinking that just, may be, I am hooked on this Japanese make? I contend its an ample lesson in why dealers have to show an interest in their clients, some of us spend small fortunes down the road. The 500 came in 1985, and stayed with me till I left the UK and moved to America. It provided less thrust than the 900, but the ability of the 900 to crush all competition on the road was leading to some seriously dull rides; you couldn't just pick any car or bike to have a race with, it had to be something that could do 140+. And those rides are just not that common. Because the 900 reached its 140 in just over a 1/4 mile, almost any car was history before its driver had reached 3rd gear. Bikes were a different matter, a girlfriend reshaped my kidneys when I went after a Suzuki 1100 (catching it, of course) because she finally decided that this riding style was not for her. I also vowed never to get another big sports bike with a passenger seat.

In the 500 I found a charismatic machine, with strange mechanical limitations, that I could ride quite deeply into its performance envelope, sliding its tyres, standing it on its nose, hurling it to its exhaust pipes, yet staying rubber side down. It was transport almost every day - except for one winter when I decided that 18 inches of snow was just a few too many inches of lack of traction.

Zen???

The four bikes above account for about 200,000 miles of travel, they took me to France, Scotland and all over England and Wales. They provided me with economic transport and plenty of fun (and just a little heartache). But most importantly they gave me a sense of being, a feeling that I was alive and do live, that we don't have to believe in Gods - though I am not going to dispute the possible presence of one (or more) - or have all the money ever printed to have a good and valuable life.

Am I crazy for having ridden against the odds for so long? I don't think so. I tried to do things with my riding that failed, but then we all fail in certain activities when we exceed our bounds and capabilities. The various motorcycles helped me to conquer my failures by providing a tool to experiment in new and entertaining ways. Everyday I go out on a motorcycle I feel that I have the opportunity to learn something new. It may only be a small thing, a nuance; the sight of a previously unseen road, the feeling of the back end stepping out; it is all an integral part of understanding that we are alive and able to do things that seem so confounding when viewed from a distance.


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