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.