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What it's Like to Crash a Motorcycle

“Damn it. John Burns thinks I’m a dick.”
That was one of the predominant thoughts going through my head as I slid down a Florida highway at 60 mph back in March.
It’s weird how the mind works. Time slows in a crash. Every tiny image burns into memory, so your brain can replay it over and over and over at night for the next who knows how many weeks.
In the moments before I crashed, I was riding the Harley-Davidson Street Rod along County Road 34 in central Florida. I’m not sure which county. The accident report simply records it as “County Code 61,” but the internet can’t agree on which county that is. Maybe I was in Indian River County; maybe I was in Suwannee County; maybe I was in Flagler County; I don’t know. I guess it doesn’t matter; I was somewhere. The road passing through that somewhere was long and straight – not the sort of place where one usually crashes – and the weather was perfect.

“My God, I am so happy,” I was thinking. “I am so incredibly lucky to be here – to live t…

The forgotten names

How many have you heard of?
  • Abingdon 
  • Advance 
  • AJS 
  • Ariel 
  • Arno 
  • BAT 
  • Beardmore 
  • Beeston 
  • Brough Superior
  • BSA
  • Centaur
  • Chater-Lea
  • Clyno
  • Cotton
  • Coventry Eagle
  • CTS
  • Douglas
  • Excelsior
  • Garrard
  • Greeves
  • Grigg
  • Grindlay Peerless
  • Humber
  • Hyde
  • Invicta
  • James
  • Lea Francis
  • Levis
  • Marsh
  • Martinsyde
  • Matchless
  • Minerva
  • Montgomery
  • N.U.T.
  • New Comet
  • New Imperial
  • NLG
  • Norman
  • Norton
  • NVT
  • OEC
  • OK Bradshaw
  • OK Supreme
  • Panther
  • Quadrant
  • Rex
  • Reynolds
  • Rover
  • Royal Enfield
  • Rudge Whitworth
  • Scott
  • Singer
  • Sunbeam
  • Triumph
  • Velocette
  • Vincent
  • Wilkinson Sword
  • Wooler
  • Zenith
This is Part III of my Yorkshire Dales trip.

I was up early on the trip's final day. Showered and with all my gear packed before breakfast, I was keen to be on the road by 9 a.m.  Because I ended up fussing over my tank bag, however, actual departure time was on the lateish side of 9:30.

I have an Oxford X30 magnetic tank bag, which is a damned useful bit of kit but for the fact that it causes paint damage. I'll write a full review at some point in the future but I can tell you simply the bag is so useful that even when it starts making tiny little scratches on your tank you'll find it difficult to replace. All those pockets come in handy.

On the way up to Yorkshire I had strapped it instead to the rear rack. That removed some of the bag's functionality (e.g., I couldn't just pull to the side of the road and dig out a map or bottle of water without getting off the bike) but I thought it worth it for the sake of my paint job. At the end of that day's ride, however, I noticed the bag had shifted to the left quite a bit, despite being held down by a number of bungee cords.

Because I was using the Oxford X30 to carry my laptop, I found myself fretting too much when packing up for the ride back. Better to suffer scratched paint than the loss of a MacBook, I decided. Though it took me half an hour to make that decision.

Yorkshire Dales
Finally on the road, I learned Yorkshire Dales National Park on a weekday is absolutely one of the best places in Britain to ride. The roads were perfect and so quiet I was able to loop back and re-run certain sections, pushing my skills while staying within my comfort zone. 

For instance, I found a great section of switchback curves that I initially hit at about 45 mph. Traffic was non-existent, so I was able to go back and do the section again and again, slowly working up to taking it at 60 mph.

After a while I made my way out of the country roads to the bustle of Leeds, stopping to check out one of the physical shops for GetGeared, sort of a UK version of Revzilla. In my head, this shop was going to be ginormous and burgeoning with the toys and accoutrements of motorcycling –– a place where I could see and touch all the things that are sold on the GetGeared site. But, of course, it wasn't. 

That's sort of the way with motorcycling, isn't it? Or, at least, that's sort of the way with motorcycling in the UK. You have to downscale your expectations. Things are never as big or as flashy as you want to be.

You go to a Sideburn event hoping for Wheels & Waves, but instead find it's just four dudes drinking cider next to a rat rod Harley. You go to a bike show picturing food vendors and rock bands and custom bikes and revelry, but instead it's just a dozen rollie-smoking middle-aged blokes in worn-out leather onesies eating bacon sandwiches and prodding Ninjas with all the enthusiasm and cheer of a wet cat. You go to the brick-and-mortar location of a large internet retailer imagining an endless wonderland of goods, but instead it's just a dusty shop in an industrial estate.

I looked at a few bags, bought a new pair of riding sunglasses for £14, and got back on the road.

The northern trunk of England is split by the Pennines, a mountain range of sorts oft referred to as the "backbone of England." The main transportation arteries in that part of the country run on either side. Dropping to Leeds and thereby following the eastern route home had tacked on an additional 20 miles to my journey home but I didn't have anywhere particular to be and it's always nice to see someplace new.

National Motorcycle Museum
Plus, this route took me past the National Motorcycle Museum –– a place I've been wanting to visit for a while. I've mentioned before that Britain has an incredibly rich motorcycle past, and that I find it sad so little of that spirit is felt in the modern era. The British archipelago was once home to hundreds of motorcycle manufacturers, and their products were an integral part of life here. From the Isle of Man TT to the ton-up boys, the motorcycle was for many decades intrinsic to the British character.

Take a look at the names listed on the right side of this post. They are the bike manufacturers you will find represented at the National Motorcycle Museum –– still only some of the names from the United Kingdom's amazing and largely forgotten motorcycling past.

I was excited to go to the museum to see these machines and learn their history, to learn more about the culture in which they existed (What factors led to the UK having so many motorcycle manufacturers? Why wasn't there a similar culture in the United States?), and the people of that culture. I wanted to learn about the ton-up boys, the rockers, the mods, the road racers, the war dispatch riders, the butlers on Royal Enfields, the fiery socialists who would speed from rally to rally, the wild poets who would fly down country lanes. These are all tales that I have heard pieces of, tales that have been features of greater tales, but not tales in and of themselves.

1934 New Imperial
I imagined spending all day at the motorcycle museum, getting lost in the story of each bike. But remember a few paragraphs ago when I was talking about downscaling expectations?

Yeah. That.

The National Motorcycle Museum is squeezed into a building that appears to be an abandoned Holiday Inn. Taking up three large conference rooms of this "hotel" is a great mass of bikes that are placed within inches of each other, the overall effect being that everything just sort of blurs together. The bikes feel more as if in storage rather than on display, with single sheets of paper identifying them. In most cases, these sheets of paper offer only the make, model, year and engine size of the bike –– no information about the bike's significance or history is given.

Basically, the National Motorcycle Museum is just a collection of things. There is almost no interpretation. A good example of this was the CTS motorcycle Robin Jac had ridden in the Isle of Man. I only knew it was his bike because on the seat had been placed a copy of Y Fellten Goch, the Welsh-language book about him.

1938 OEC
Robin Jac was an absolute nutcase who used to spray paint his racing leathers red and smoke cigarettes whilst racing. But what visitor to the National Motorcycle Museum –– located in  Birmingham, in the heart of England –– would know that? I'll bet the number of Welsh speakers who visit each year could be counted on one hand.

You could create an entire interpretive display around Robin Jac's motorcycle and the character who rode it. Pictures, perhaps video, and some text telling of his wilder adventures (such as the fact that he used to practice for the Isle of Man TT by screaming down public mountain roads in Snowdonia National Park). And that's just one bike among hundreds.

Within the National Motorcycle Museum there exists incredible potential for rich and fascinating storytelling. Thousands of tales are right there to inspire and excite the imagination. But as is, the museum is just a big warehouse full of oily old pieces of metal. Three rooms full of forgotten names. It is a great disappointment and not really worth the £9 admission price.

1932 Panther
On the floor above the museum I found a balcony where I sat and ate some food I had packed in the morning. Looking out across the car park, I saw two motorbikes trundling up, both dirty from the road and absolutely weighed down with gear. One was considerably older and rougher than the other, though: placing its rider in a cafe racer position, spitting smoke and growling its way through the car park.

I watched as the riders parked, dismounted and walked toward the museum to experience its disappointment for themselves. I tried to get my things together quickly enough to meet them downstairs and ask about their bikes but was too slow. Truthfully, though, one part of me was happy with this, though, because it meant I could scrutinise their bikes more closely, without worrying that I was making the owners uncomfortable by standing too close or paying too much attention to this or that aspect.

Arriving at the bikes, I could tell said owners would not have given a damn about my having a look. Both machines wore the black-and-silver number plates of a classic motorcycle. One was a late 80s Honda Revere, though: a 650-cc shaft driven lump of ugly that I personally feel fudges the definition of "classic." No doubt, the damned thing will continue to run for the next century, until it really is a classic.

Moving history
Next to it was a ridden-hard Triton. I mean, it had really been ridden hard. The air-cooled engine still tink-tinking with heat, it had already marked its territory with a few drops of oil. The rider had wrapped the grips in gaffer tape, with a dowel rod being taped to the throttle to serve as a homemade cramp buster. The tank was dented, the pipes were rusted, and it was clear the only time the thing saw cleaning was when it rained. But this bike told more of a story than any of those I had seen in the museum.

Walking back to my own bike I saw it now in a slightly different light. It's a workhorse is my Honda CBF600 SA. She's not sexy, she's not terribly fast, but she goes and goes and goes, and she takes me where I want to be. Maybe that's what I want right now. Or, at least, what I should be thankful for right now.

Sure, a BMW F800GT might do it better, an Indian Scout would definitely do it with more style, but the Honda is what I have. And the point of a bike is not for it to be just something to look at, to be something to put in a museum and have serve as a lifeless example of what a motorcycle looks like. The point is that it takes you places; it's the research tool for all the stories you'll tell.

The story I wanted to tell now, though, was one of being home, back in Penarth with Jenn. I covered the last 120 miles of my ride as quickly as I could, finding light traffic on the M50 and only stopping once to pee.

With the NATO summit now just days away, the area between Newport and Cardiff was crawling with security. Police officers were stationed on every single bridge that crossed the M4. But this somehow resulted in a more steady flow. It turns out all those traffic planners are right: if people would just stick to a consistent speed we really would get places faster.

A short while later, the sun was starting to set as I washed the bugs off my bike. I oiled the chain and went through my usual post-ride ritual of checking fluids and spraying bits with WD-40 to help keep away rust. The engine still had a tiny bit of warmth as I pulled on the bike's heavy cover.

"You're alright, girl," I said aloud to the bike. "Thanks for taking me on adventures."

Comments

  1. It's like a motorcycle becomes a girlfriend who just gives and gives, and faithfully waits. You gotta be a rider to understand.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Chris,

    My daughter's family will be moving to England in October...my son-in-law will be stationed at Molesworth. I'm already looking forward to visiting and seeing England. If I'm lucky I might even rent a bike for a day and do a little riding.

    I've enjoyed your photos and descriptions of the English countryside and I know how you feel about your bike. I think about getting a bigger bike alot but I always come back to how well my Sportster fits me and how much fun she is to ride. There really is something to the old saying, "love the one your with"!

    Cheers,
    Curt

    Live Free. Ride Hard. Be Happy.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for this. It's really nice to read a well written UK ride diary for a change!

    ReplyDelete
  4. The 'dents' in the Triton's tank are deliberate.. Hand clearance for the clip-on bars at full-lock.
    Great blog by the way!

    ReplyDelete

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