I loved motorcycles, but here’s why I’ll never ride again | Thank Frankel it’s Friday
Motorcycles are as much part of the fabric of Goodwood as cars or aeroplanes, and there was a time when I was damn near as crazy about them as I was about Porsches, Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Astons. But it was a very long time ago.
Being born in the mid-1960s, I became aware of and enthused by all things fast and mechanical in the early 1970s. And just as many quite rightly regard 1971 as the greatest year for rock ‘n’ roll, so too could you argue well enough the same applied to cars. It was, after all, the same year that the Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer, Lamborghini Countach and Maserati Bora were all seen for the first time, the original automotive holy trinity. But while the Italians continued to reign over supercar land, on two wheels the landscape was changing, and would do so forever.
I am no expert, but I think it is generally accepted that the 1969 Honda CB750 was the first proper Japanese superbike, and certainly the template it provided – a twin-cam, air cooled four-cylinder motor, each fed by its own tiny carb, installed transversely across the frame, soon became the norm for all such bikes. I missed the importance of this bike on account of being three at the time of its introduction, but by the time the next one came along, the Kawasaki Z900 in 1972, I was hooked. I loved the look, I loved their sound, I loved looking at their rev-counters and seeing how absurdly high these motors could be persuaded to spin.
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Don’t ask me why, but the one I really fell for was the Z650. Maybe I was a bit older – I was 10 when it came out in 1976 – or thought its balance of power and handling would be better, but really, I just thought it looked cool and would be an incredible way of getting about. So I became a Kawasaki man – I mean boy – through and through. Which is why when Honda produced the six-cylinder 1.0-litre CBX in 1978 I barely noticed, yet when Kawazaki introduced the six pot Z1300 the following year I could scarcely believe it. Here was a motorcycle with an engine bigger than that in my mother’s 1275GT Mini! As soon as I was able, I would get my licence and ride for the rest of my life.
Except things didn’t quite work out like that. My eldest brother got a Honda SS50 moped at 16, graduating to a Z200 at 17, which was then hit by a car causing him to fall off and suffer injuries that trouble him to this day. Then the son of a family friend got killed, then the DJ in the club I frequented lost an arm, and the whole thing rather lost its shine. I did ride, a bit, on a mate’s Honda 250N and then a brilliant little bullet of a bike called a Honda VT250F, but I was always scared, not least because I’d never sat a test and was therefore uninsured and completely illegal.
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So I switched off. For decades. Cars became my thing and so they remained. So I guess it was one of the first signs of mid-life when a tiny two-wheeled spark which had been dormant for so long, appeared once more in my mind. But by then I had small children and knew all the crash statistics about middle-aged men climbing on motorcycles for effectively the very first time. I was an accident waiting to happen. Besides by then I’d chalked up another two friends in this industry who’d survived accidents that could quite easily have gone another way.
But that nagging feeling didn’t go away. Another decade and bit passed. Then a close local friend took and passed his test, while another couple of friends – both very well-known car journalists who’ve been bikers for decades – encouraged me to try it out. I was older now, far more sensible, knew the risks and would manage them accordingly. What’s more my children were becoming young adults and were in the process of flying the nest. I became acutely aware that if I didn’t do it now, I never would. And if I didn’t, I’d spend the rest of my life wishing I had. So I decided to give it go.
Photography by Lydia Collins.
And then, before I’d even booked his lesson, Henry had his accident. You’ll all either know or know of Henry Hope-Frost because he too had become an indispensable part of the Goodwood furniture, and the day he died returning home from a Goodwood track day in the spring of 2018 was also the day I gave up for good the dream of learning how to ride a motorcycle. We’d both been at the Geneva show a few days before, he’d texted me suggesting we met up, but I was too damn busy and never saw him again.
But it wasn’t as a mark of respect to my friend that made decide not to ride, for Henry would have had none of that. It was the dawning realisation of the thing all those accidents that had killed, maimed or just seriously injured friends and family had in common: like Henry’s, all bar one of them had nothing to do with the bloke on the bike. Through no fault of their own they’d found themselves in situations from which there was no escape.
Today I am not anti-bike, let alone anti-biker – the very idea is laughable. I don’t know much about them these days, but still have good friends who ride regularly, are kind enough to share their passion with me by telling me all about their latest acquisition and I couldn’t be happier for them. It’s just not for me, and I now know that, finally, it never will be.
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