As we teeter on the cusp of middle age, our thoughts often turn to the pursuits and passions of our youth – and in particular to those pleasures that raising a family and chasing a career so often oblige us to abandon.
Take motorcycling: bikers know the risks, but they’re outweighed by the sense of freedom, of being able to go where you want when you want, without being stuck in a tin box in a traffic jam.
Amazingly, thanks to a steady increase in EU legislation aimed at making it harder for younger people to get started on two wheels, more than half of Britain’s bikers today are over 40 and 25% are over 50.
To discover what makes motorcycling so worthwhile and why bikers’ passions run deep, we talked to three enthusiasts.
Paul Davey, 52, orthopaedic surgeon
Rides a Mondial 175 Sprint and an 865 Bonneville
Heavily influenced by two older biker brothers, Paul Davey bought a sports moped as soon as he could legally apply for a licence. These ‘sixteener-specials’ were all a 16-year-old could legally ride in the mid-Seventies. Often capable of more than 50mph, they were proper little 50cc motorcycles with rudimentary pedals tacked on to comply with the law.
‘We spent our teenage years tinkering with our bikes in our garden shed in Twickenham – it was a great way to learn how machinery works and a lot of fun too. But when I was old enough I got my first “proper” bike, a Yamaha DT175, which a lady car driver very kindly turned into a V-shape just three weeks before I was due to take my test.’
Paul was more-or-less unhurt although he had to rush out and buy a little Suzuki RS125 for the test. After he’d passed, he moved on to a Yamaha RD400 – ‘just about the fastest, sexiest middleweight you could buy then, and probably the nicest bike I ever owned.’ Ironically, Paul sold that Yamaha to one of his brothers so he could afford a car. ‘I’d fallen for the line that “girls fancy boys on bikes but they actually go out with ones who’ve got cars”. A very foolish mistake.’
Sometime later, Paul decided to pursue a career in medicine. ‘Tinkering with bikes certainly had an influence on my decision to become a surgeon because I was – and still am – fascinated by how lots of individual components fit together and work and, as with a motorcycle, so too with the human body.’
However, the long and impoverished years of study, and marriage to the sweetheart he’d met when he was just 17, meant no more motorcycling until he qualified as a doctor. ‘That day I rushed straight down to the nearest bike shop and bought myself a rather frumpy but very sensible Yamaha XJ600, which I used for commuting to my new job at Kingston Hospital. Once biking is in your blood,’ he says, ‘it never really leaves you. It would be fair to say that I enjoy the risks, even the danger, but I never push it too far.’
Paul is still riding to work virtually every day, currently aboard an 865cc Bonneville, the born-again Triumph factory’s hi-tech version of its legendary Sixties classic sportster. His consultancy work now takes him to different hospitals in Surrey and Kent and, he says, ‘A bike is both the quickest and the most exhilarating way to get there.
‘I am unashamedly reliving my youth now that the kids have grown up. I’ve got some time back to myself so I’m rebuilding an RD400 like the one I foolishly sold to buy a car. I’ve also got a 1959 Mondial 175, a beautiful little Italian bike that I competed on in the Moto Giro last year.’
Susan Francombe, 50, barrister
Rides a Kawasaki Z1000
As a civil engineer working on big construction projects, Susan Francombe grew so used to construction disputes that she decided to take a part-time legal course and passed her bar exams. ‘I’d like to say it was part of a career plan,’ she laughs, ‘but it wasn’t.’
She runs her own consultancy, acting as an arbitrator for the construction industry. The work is stressful, so the sense of release is a major reason for riding a bike. ‘Plus – I hate to bring up women’s problems – but the insomnia and anxiety I experienced with the menopause drove me mad. On a bike that disappears. You hear the engine, you feel it, you feel the road, and you make a conscious decision about which gear you choose to go round a corner and, good or bad, it’s your decision and very satisfying. There’s a conscious connection too: it sounds daft, but with my engineering background I can fall in love with a machine.’
Susan’s parents were petrolheads who went go-kart racing and did car rallies. One of her earliest memories as a child was lap-scoring for them at Brands Hatch.
‘But after a car accident, they forbade me from riding a motorcycle. But when I got to 30 and was living independently, I thought “Now is the time”, passed my test and bought a really nice Suzuki GS500.’
After a couple of years, another serious car accident put her right off the idea of getting back on a bike and it wasn’t until 16 years later that the bug bit again.
‘My new partner was an experienced biker with a sexy Italian bike and, although she didn’t put me under any pressure to join her, I started remembering how much fun it was. Then one day she said she was just going out for a pint of milk but came back three hours later with a big grin and I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll just let her take me up the road on the pillion…”
‘I took a refresher course, bought a Suzuki Gladius and haven’t looked back. I plan to carry on riding as long as I’m able and if I’m not physically able to handle a bike, then I’ll buy a trike!
‘Yes there are risks, but dozens of people trip up and fall downstairs to their deaths every year. I know which way I’d rather go! I haven’t had a single bike accident. I think that tells you, generally speaking, that motorcyclists are far more aware of what’s happening around them than drivers.’
Joining the all-women Curvy Riders was another milestone, ‘because their whole ethos is to encourage people to gain confidence and not just go out and ride as fast as possible. We have some great ride-outs and it’s a real kick turning up at a hotel car park and seeing a hundred women from all walks of life all on bikes.’
For details, visit curvyriders.co.uk
Nick Davey, 57, master carpenter
Rides a Harley-Davidson Sportster and Rickman Métisse
Like many of his generation, Nick Davey got into bikes as a means of cheap transport because the ride from his home in Wandsworth, South London to his teaching job at a school in northwest London ‘was a long old trek on a pushbike… with a lot of steep hills’.
People kept asking him if he was a biker because he looked like one, so by his late twenties he got round to taking his test and bought a Kawasaki GT550 – a slow old lump but utterly reliable, which he rode for 45,000 miles.
Then he moved near enough to his job not to need a bike. ‘I spent an awful lot of the time sitting in the car in a line of traffic watching all these bikes zipping by. I missed the freedom to keep moving in almost any situation.’
After a year or two, the temptation to be out in the open air, enjoying the physical sense of motion you just don’t get in a car, became too strong and he bought a Yamaha Virago, a Japanese pastiche of a Harley-Davidson V-twin, ‘because I couldn’t afford a Harley at the time!’ he laughs.
For the past nine years he has worked as a master carpenter at a West End theatre, commuting daily from his home in Surrey, usually on a Kawasaki ER-6, ‘which will do anything in any weather’.
He has a collection of bikes old and new, including a tricked-up Harley-Davidson Sportster, a beautiful 1961 BSA Gold Star. This doesn’t get used much, says Nick, as if he’s out on a run with his mates it’s embarrassing if he can’t start it.
He does a lot of his own maintenance, much of which he learnt the hard way, working on a BMW he’d virtually rebuilt. ‘But the good thing about bikes, compared with cars, is that everything’s accessible and fairly logical.’ Nick also enjoys the camaraderie among bikers, especially bike shows and autojumbles.
‘I’m a keen photographer, so I like capturing some of those moments.’
The biggest problem about being a biker these days, says Nick, is drivers.
‘They’re insulated in their cars and they’re not thinking about what’s going on outside them. But I’ll carry on riding ad infinitum… I can’t think of anything more depressing than not being able to.’
This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Saga Magazine.
Subscribe today for just £12 for 12 issues...