Biking­inbri­tain

Motorcyclist - - Contents - BY CHRIS NORTHOVER

Bike sa­vant Chris Northover on what makes the U.K. a mo­tor­cy­cling strong­hold

IIf you’re pick­ing a coun­try to be a mo­tor­cy­clist in, the United King­dom might not be top of the list. At around 800 miles from tip to toe, it’s pretty small, gaso­line costs $7 per gal­lon, and the de­fault weather is driz­zle. Yet from the mo­ment peo­ple started adding en­gines to wheels, the British have been bang­ing at the heart of mo­tor­cy­cling. His­tory can be a woolly sub­ject at times, and the ori­gin of the first-ever mo­tor­cy­cle is much de­bated, but Britain was right in the mix with Ed­ward But­ler’s three-wheeler in 1884.

Once the prac­tice of adding com­bus­tion en­gines to a bi­cy­cle re­ally started to take hold, the U.K.’S ob­ses­sion with the mo­tor­cy­cle got out of hand. No doubt helped by the num­ber of bi­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers al­ready in the U.K., by the 1930s there were around 80 dif­fer­ent mo­tor­cy­cle man­u­fac­tur­ers. The big names like Tri­umph, Nor­ton, and BSA went on to drive the in­dus­try for­ward through­out the 1950s and 1960s, de­vel­op­ing bet­ter en­gines, im­prov­ing han­dling, and in­creas­ing re­li­a­bil­ity.

Britain has long been an en­gi­neer­ing na­tion, from steam en­gines to de­vel­op­ing the first pneu­matic tires for bi­cy­cles, so the mo­tor­cy­cle gave the per­fect medium through which to ex­per­i­ment and de­velop. The low cost and rel­a­tive simplicity opened the door to small com­pa­nies and in­ven­tors up and down the coun­try.

After such promi­nence and suc­cess in the pi­o­neer­ing days of the mod­ern mo­tor­cy­cle, by the 1970s the story of the British mo­tor­cy­cle in­dus­try took a turn. The grit and de­ter­mi­na­tion that had forged com­pa­nies like BSA, Tri­umph, and Nor­ton gave way to stub­born­ness and com­pla­cency. Ul­ti­mately, the British mar­ques were eclipsed by more so­phis­ti­cated com­pe­ti­tion from Ja­pan. So, that was it: BSA, done; Ariel, done; Tri­umph and Nor­ton, done. It wasn’t a quick end­ing; work­force buy­outs, bold new mod­els, merges, splits—ev­ery­thing was thrown at the ef­fort to keep the British bike in­dus­try alive, but it was all five years too late. Ja­pa­nese bikes be­came the norm, café rac­ers gave way to two-stroke sport­bikes, and ev­ery­one car­ried on chas­ing the sun.

That could have been it, job done, British bikes used to be awe­some. But it wasn’t. In the 1990s, Tri­umph started the long climb out into the light. It took over two decades of cash in­jec­tion, de­ter­mi­na­tion, suc­cesses, and fail­ures be­fore Tri­umph mo­tor­cy­cles were turn­ing a profit once more. From the ashes, the British bike in­dus­try was back. Nor­ton re­opened, Ariel be­gan build­ing bikes again, and more re­cently, de­sign and de­vel­op­ment of Royal En­fields re­turned to British soil with a new tech­nol­ogy cen­ter. That tenac­ity is not cor­po­rate, it’s deeply hu­man.

Britain breeds gnarly bike rac­ers— take Barry Sheene’s in­cred­i­ble come­backs from mas­sive in­juries, Cal Crutchlow’s bru­tally hon­est in­ter­views, or Carl Fog­a­rty’s win-or-bust World Su­per­bike hero­ics. When you look at bike rac­ing in the U.K., that grit should come as no sur­prise—for decades there has been a strong club rac­ing scene feed­ing fiercely com­pet­i­tive na­tional cham­pi­onships. And you can’t talk about rac­ing in the U.K. without men­tion­ing the Isle of Man TT races. The mod­ern event goes around a 37.7mile course, lined with stone walls, through vil­lages, and across moun­tain roads. Top rid­ers lap at an av­er­age speed of over 130 mph.

No sin­gle event cap­tures the spirit of mo­tor­cy­cling in the U.K. bet­ter than the TT road­races. It’s a won­der the tiny 32-mile-long is­land doesn’t sink when 45,000 ex­cited race fans rock up for the an­nual rac­ing fes­ti­val. Once race week starts, peo­ple cram them­selves along every avail­able spot on the edge of the cir­cuit, strain­ing to catch a glimpse of truly heroic rid­ers flash­ing past inches from their faces. The whole is­land be­comes a cel­e­bra­tion of bike rac­ing and, best of all, be­tween the races and when the roads re­open, you can ride laps of the very same cir­cuit. Not only that, but over the fast moun­tain sec­tion of the course there is no speed limit, and on TT week they make the roads one-way. Could you imag­ine Mo­togp mar­shals pulling back the bar­ri­ers at the end of a race and let­ting the fans run a few laps in the evening?

BY THE 1930s THERE WERE AROUND 80 DIF­FER­ENT MO­TOR­CY­CLE MAN­U­FAC­TUR­ERS IN THE U.K.

Even without the TT, the na­ture of cir­cuit rac­ing in Britain re­wards the brave and the gutsy. You are never more than a cou­ple of hours from a race­track, and from fa­mous in­ter­na­tional cir­cuits like Don­ing­ton Park to air­field cour­ses with cor­ners made from traf­fic cones. The tracks are tech­ni­cal and bumpy— there’s no room for fuss­ing about hav­ing the most pre­cise mid­corner setup on a bike when you’re con­stantly work­ing a com­pro­mise that has to cope with jumps, bumps, and com­pres­sions. Once you’ve fig­ured out how to put a lap time to­gether when your wheels are rarely on the ground at the same time, then comes the chal­lenge of mak­ing a pass. Packed grids and nar­row cir­cuits mean every over­take is tight, con­tact is com­mon, and most club rac­ers spend some time in the gravel, won­der­ing what hit them. To suc­ceed, rac­ers have got to be tough, pre­pared to stick a bike in a gap that isn’t re­ally there, and ride a ma­chine that is al­ways fight­ing you.

Sim­ply rid­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle in the U.K. com­mands a de­gree of de­ter­mi­na­tion. The is­land is famed for a cli­mate based around rain and chilly tem­per­a­tures. But it never gets too hot to ride, the snow rarely stays around for long, and so, in the­ory, you can ride year-round. And so peo­ple do. In prac­tice, you are never guar­an­teed good rid­ing weather, even in the height of sum­mer. Through rain, fog, mist, and sleet there’s a hardy de­ter­mi­na­tion not to let the weather in­ter­rupt the rid­ing—all in hope of catch­ing those spe­cial, all-too-rare days when the sun shines, the roads dry, and the wa­ter­proofs can be left in the tail pack. Great rid­ing weather is never a given and al­ways a bless­ing worth bunk­ing off work for. Peo­ple ride be­cause they want to ride. Pos­ing doesn’t work when you’re wear­ing three jack­ets and have snot in your ’stache; the con­cepts of free­dom and con­ve­nience have dis­ap­peared over the hori­zon while you’re hop­ping around be­neath an un­der­pass, fight­ing with your wa­ter­proofs. For­tune may fa­vor the brave, but dry roads and sun­shine fa­vor those who ride out into the sleet at 7 a.m. on the off chance that it might dry up.

That fight­ing spirit, call it pluck­i­ness, de­ter­mi­na­tion, even stub­born­ness, is rooted deep in British cul­ture. It is the strug­gle, the jour­ney, and the hero­ics of the un­der­dog and not the des­ti­na­tion or the ul­ti­mate vic­tory that is deemed story-wor­thy. Talk­ing of win­ning a race by a mile is dis­missed as vul­gar or self-in­dul­gent, un­less gal­va­nized by a strug­gle against the odds to get there. The British cul­ture is one of al­most awk­ward mod­esty, where speak­ing of your own achieve­ments or your proud­est mo­ments is a con­stant bat­tle not to be con­strued as be­ing ar­ro­gant or brag­ging. Boast­ing, and those traits of ar­ro­gance, are seen as most un­de­sir­able, and in ef­forts to avoid this, peo­ple can be al­most self-dep­re­cat­ing when speak­ing of their suc­cesses. Yet the story of a long path to your goal, mired by set­backs and de­feats, punc­tu­ated by mo­ments where a sane per­son would have thrown in the towel to ar­rive tri­umphant, has al­ways mo­ti­vated and cap­ti­vated.

There’s no one clear thing that ex­plains why Britain is such an in­flu­en­tial place in the world of the mo­tor­cy­cle. Per­haps it’s a small-man syn­drome on a con­ti­nen­tal scale, or maybe a byprod­uct of un­co­op­er­a­tive weather that has in­stilled a cul­ture of chip­per de­ter­mi­na­tion. What­ever the case, the im­pact is last­ing. British rac­ers rep­re­sent their coun­try in the top lev­els of all forms of the mo­tor­cy­cle sport. British rid­ers have dom­i­nated in tri­als and in Mo­togp, and from Dakar to Don­ing­ton Park. Their suc­cesses in su­per­bike rac­ing alone far be­lie the size of the place.

As much as the U.K. has had an out­size im­pact on mo­tor­cy­cling, so the ink rubs off the other way. From the bi­cy­cle on­ward, two-wheeled ma­chines have in­spired this is­land to big­ger and bet­ter things, and with the resur­gence of the café racer and cus­tom scene, British mo­tor­cy­cling cul­ture is stronger than ever.

THE NA­TURE OF CIR­CUIT RAC­ING IN BRITAIN RE­WARDS THE BRAVE AND THE GUTSY.

IL­LUS­TRA­TIONS BY JESSE LENZ

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