Artwork by Mr. Jensen

Hailwoods, Spencers… and Us

Last month I wrote about the Four Stroke Singles National Owners Club lunches on successive days in Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. At the third lunch I sat with a friend from Tulsa, a guy I know through the club. He’s been riding since he was a teenager, so his riding life may be closer to 60 years than 50.

Like me, he spent his formative motorcycling years on British bikes. Fewer and fewer of us, even many who have been riding for decades, recall those BSA and (Coventry) Triumph days. After all, the Honda 750 four, the death knell of the British bike industry, was introduced in ‘68, as I recall. By the time you read this, 1968 will be—gulp—a half-century ago.

Fifty years ago, your British bike demanded frequent, intensive maintenance. You loved it despite that. Many of today’s riders, in contrast, have never bought a can of chain lube. Few have gapped points or set ignition timing. We no longer have to do those things.

We certainly did back when, and there were many other crucial, tedious jobs. How did we learn how to do them? Our riding friends showed us. We watched them work on their bikes or they helped us work on ours.

Because there were fewer of us then and because our bikes genuinely needed fussing-over to survive, we were more likely to bond—with our bikes, with our riding friends and with the guys who worked at (and hung out at) “our” motorcycle shops. It really was a fraternity.

We made friendships that lasted… well, longer than those motorcycles. If you rode with a guy who handled his bike well and whose bike did not present problems, that guy was the real thing and would probably be a good friend.

Artwork by Mr. Jensen

My buddy from Tulsa is like that. He owns several bikes, small ones, large ones and some in the middle. He loves singles, especially SRX-6 Yamahas, and signs his emails, Thump, Thump! That’s devotion. We connect as if we’ve known one another all these years.

As we chatted, I asked him if he senses in himself any erosion of riding skill.

“I feel,” I said, as he thought about his response, “that I cannot consistently approach a curve, lean the bike over just-so and hold that angle of lean clear through the bend. As I used to do. Instead, I correct mid-bend and feel like a damn novice. I blame my age.”

“I find myself braking mid-corner,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve certainly lost something over the years. I love my riding as much as ever,” he said, “and, mind you, the changes time has brought would not be visible to an onlooker, but they’re there.”

I remember that conversation because it’s uncommon. We’re proud, we riders. And not just us old guys. Lots of motorcyclists are proud of their riding and unhappy to hear criticism of it.

We could ask track school instructors: Are we as good as we think we are? Probably some of us think that, given a few lucky breaks and a wealthy sponsor, we too would have MotoGP contracts. Hey, we ride great!

We old-timers certainly hate to admit to our riding friends that we’re watching ourselves grow less adept, less reliably perfect, in the saddle. We’d rather not admit it to ourselves, thank you.

But some erosion of our skills is inevitable, right? I’m not talking about gross losses that would keep us from passing a skills test. Or would make us feel we should buy trikes or bigger, clumsier, slower motorcycles.

My friend and I also agreed that a riding day for us has grown shorter, that we no longer want to ride from dawn to dusk as we did in the past. Four hundred miles is a satisfying day of travel.

Four hundred miles was enough in the ‘60s too. Our bikes did not coddle us. Most of us on non-Harleys were out in the wind, and you didn’t feel you could cruise at highway speeds for hours. Oil would seep out, bulbs would blow and parts would fall off.

A Bonneville might be called a T120 because one of them went that fast once—but your own Bonneville couldn’t tolerate 80 mph sustained. Not that you loved it any less.

Just as we’ve learned to study traffic around us, we’ve learned to monitor our own riding. We know we’re not always at optimum sharpness, at least some of us do. We hope that even our sub-optimum efforts will be enough. Eventually, even our best seems less than we remember.

Thousands of us have returned to motorcycling after years of family-raising. We conveniently forget that we haven’t been on a bike in decades, that we’re not the Hailwoods or Spencers we imagined we were in ‘76 or ’86… or even ‘96.

Those of us who never quit riding have perhaps quit improving. We’re fortunate if we’ve maintained the skill levels we had back when. My friend from Tulsa and I trust each other enough to admit that we fear we have not.

This story originally appeared in our December 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.