The Real Biker

My announcement yesterday that I have ordered a new Liquid cooled R1200RT prompted an interesting discussion – that is, it reignited an old theme; the identity of real motorcyclists.

This theme was doing the rounds when I was new to motorcycling back in the mid seventies. By the early eighties, the new modern Japanese machines were sweeping the board and real bikers would complain about this new-fangled hardware. One, I recall complained that these modern bikes weren’t up to much as they had cam chains rattling around inside the engine. Sure to lead to trouble that was. Better to have reliable push rods (things went downhill when they fitted clutches and it sure got bad with the move to the foot operated gearshift). And when the kick start finally died a well deserved death, real bikers were wondering how all these new sissy weekend bikers would manage when they had a flat battery (call the RAC, perhaps?). Thing is, we’ve had chain driven camshafts and electric starts for the past three decades and disaster has not struck.

I recall with fondness some of the bikes I rode back then and they were of variable quality. My Laverda was a lovely bike with typical Italian handling and unlike some of its Japanese contemporaries, had cast iron brake disks that worked in the wet. Unfortunately the paint peeled off as soon as you looked at it and the case hardening on the cam followers suffered poor quality control. This was not a cheap machine. I switched to Yamaha after that. But, even then, it was expected that after about thirty thousand miles or so, I would have to do some major engine work – replacing worn cam chains or de-coking the top end. This was normal. Real bikers had oil under their fingernails and real, real bikers could strip their engines on the roadside. The question being, of course, why would they want to? I certainly didn’t.

I recall a conversation in one of the less salubrious pubs in south Bristol back in the eighties. One of the local Hell’s Angels was decrying the fact that my XS650 was sporting Krauser panniers. Real bikers don’t put suit cases on their bikes. Far be it for me to point out that I rode in all conditions throughout the year and needed to carry my kit with me. I had never actually seen this guy with his legs astride a bike, so who was the real biker here?

And, on the subject of quirky, character or, as I like to call it, piss-poor design and build, the Aermacchi Harley Davidson was probably the most vile machine I have ever ridden, yet they had the cheek to offer this contraption to the market and expect unwary punters to pay them for it. These days, you don’t buy bad bikes. All will handle well, brake well and last a decent time. The rider is not expected to have to carry out roadside repairs because the machine will be sufficiently well designed and built to reach its destination without failure. Long gone are the days when I set out wondering if I would reach my destination without getting the spanners out and that’s a good thing, not a bad one. If having to coax my machine through corners or wondering if those brakes will stop me before the hazard is character, give me bland every time.

Since buying the new breed of boxer, I’ve enjoyed thousands of miles of trouble-free motorcycling and not had to stop at the roadside to carry out repairs. Nor have I ever had to wonder if the bike would throw me off because they are all impeccably behaved, they don’t rust, they don’t shake themselves apart and they are a joy to ride. Yes, some folk get pleasure from tinkering in the garage. I don’t. For me the pleasure is in the riding. And, yes, it’s a good thing that there are enthusiasts who will keep those old bikes running for the rest of us to admire from time to time – and, yes, get a twinge of nostalgia, but I don’t want to do that and I don’t want to go back. We are all different and have different needs and tastes. Those who are coming new to it are spoiled for choice, but this does not make them lesser riders because the machines are better built and designed than their forebears.

My bikes are working vehicles, and when I spend a not inconsiderable sum of money buying one, I want quality, efficiency and reliability. Given this, I can concentrate on what is important – the ride.

My father turned eighty this summer. He currently rides a 700 Deauville. If I was to ask him if he would like to go back to the BSA C11 that he used to commute between Maidstone and Catford when he was in his twenties, he’d think I’d gone mad.

Real bikers move with the times.


Edited to add: A recurring theme in these discussions is that of being in control – that somehow modern machinery divorces the rider from what is going on. I disagree as I am always in control of my vehicle. You still have to exercise control, it’s just different. My guiding principle here is a very simple one. Grin factor. Do I enjoy riding it? If so, it’s a good bike. My current R1150RT passes this test with ease. I have no doubts whatsoever that its replacement will pass likewise and I will enjoy the technological advances that come with it.


  1. I went from a CBR to a Royal Enfield Bullet 65, to enjoy the real bike experience with a relaxing classic. I nearly died in a nightmare scenario when the throttle stuck open and yet it still kept running when I switched the ignition off. Not ideal when approaching a T junction at 60mph. Sold it and bought a Bandit, which did everything. better except the sound.

    • Ah yes, the bowden cable… Now fortunately on the way out. I believe the new Beemer won’t have any of them. The throttle and choke being the last bastions on my current machine. Automatic choke, electronic injectors and fly by wire throttles will put paid to antiquated cables. I won’t miss ’em.

      The Bandit may sound buzzy, but compared to an Enfield? No comparison…

      • Ah yes the “Drive by wire” throttle. If my experiences of this abortion on 4 wheeled vehicles are anything to go by, you are welcome to it! The small, but noticeable, delay to any input (both opening & closing), the deliberate gradual reduction in revs when you lift off, making smooth gearchanges more difficult than they need to be. And god help you if the EGR valve gets sticky…. Sorry, this is one aspect of modern tech that is NOT an improvement. It might suit the manufacturers, and is pretty well essential for meeting emission regulations, but when I am driving or riding I want to be the one making decisions, NOT some bloody computer.

        I can understand you not wanting to go back to the “Good old days”‘ but surely one of the main reasons for riding a bike is to get away from the isolation of a tin box, and feel a bit more in control? Once you have the whole gamut of high tech stability controls and twin clutch transmission allowing push button gearshifts, you might just as well be driving a car – at least you won’t be suffering the weather…

        • BMW have been using this for years without problem on their cars. The RT has three settings – one of which allows for the instant throttle control you are talking about. No, it isn’t like driving a car and never will be – it has two wheels and will always be like riding a bike. As for weather – it hasn’t bothered me for years. A decent fairing and proper waterproof clothing sees to that. I can then concentrate on what is important to me – the ride.

          • I would add to this, that I have eschewed the quick shift option as I doubt I would make use of it. If they were offering a fully automatic box, I would have been tempted.

  2. The first thing the Japs did when mass producing for the motorcycle market,was to split the engine horizontaly,instead of verticaly.So it could not leak oil,pure genius I wonder why we did,nt think of that

    • Yes, that too. The problem (well one of them) with the British motorcycle industry was not a dearth of innovation, but a failure to capitalise on it.

      • That’s a problem not limited to the motorcycle industry.

        The UK is a nation of big ideas, small businessmen and low aspirations. A few exceptions (like ARM) aside, the UK just doesn’t do major multinational corporations well. Even the Italians have FIAT.

  3. A workmate and I, who both prefer more modern machinery, used to have this argument with an old codger at work all the time. The codger in question had a collection of old bikes that he hardly ever went out on. Despite the fact that the old stuff was far superior, the two bikes that he actually used were a Honda and a Suzuki. I’m sure that the guy would find himself much happier if he sold all of his old junk and bought a modern Bonnie.

    • I do like the modern Bonnie. Lovely machine with a hint of old world charm – but not practical enough for me, unfortunately.

      My father belongs to a bike club that is, ostensibly for British bike enthusiasts. He has a B40 in his garage that is in a constant state of restoration. None of them actually ride old Brit iron, so the club isn’t really about old bikes at all. Indeed, he did suggest that they drop that idea and just become a bike club. They are thinking about it, I believe…

  4. Well my comments to the last thread were meant to be a bit tongue in cheek! I remember when I was an apprentice motorcycle mechanic starting in ’74 the difference in the ethos between the old British industry products and the Japanese was astounding, I gave up working on bikes in the U.K. to earn a living as it paid very badly however I continued to learn by preparing race bikes for Drag and 24 hour endurance racing which made for an interesting contrast in attitude and ethos. I now have a small business repairing motorcycles, I repair all Japanese makes and have a niche for the old British stuff and I agree about the B.S.A. B40 , I have 2 clients with B441’s and they typify the old industry, one is nothing but trouble, I have practically rebuilt a supposedly restored bike and the other runs well (for an awful design), as to the old Bonneville I have built lots of them, they can be made to go well enough, even not to vibrate with the original crank but they just are not and never can be, a modern bike, I put a T160 engine into mine to make it faster and vibrate less but even with all the best bits it is a garage queen, I love modern stuff (which is anything after the Z1) because it is well thought out, well made and of very good quality, and easy to work on, but then anything out of Japan, except for some of Honda’s early V4s are very logical; having worked on BMW’s proffessionally I have to say anything from the 1st 1200’s on are definitely NOT home maintenance designed which is fine if you are happy to pay BMW rates for any work to be done. Back in ’80 I swapped a Triumph Chopper, a proper one with Californian Frame and Springer forks for a Moto Guzzi 750-S3 , in 4 years I rode it 100 thousand + miles, maybe not the most comfortable bike but certainly reliable and a chassis a million miles from my old ’72 XS2 650 Yamaha, my most modern bike is a Yamaha TDM 850 and my most exotic a Honda RC30, still after 25 years an extrordinarily capable and reliable fast road bike; I have had many modern bikes, EXUPS, CBR’s a new generation Z1000 but now I rest with older bikes; ultimately if I have to go long distances by bike the TDM is still perfectly profficient and certainly fast enough to lose my license without any particular effort, the older stuff takes me back to a more naive period in my life, I now no longer am obliged to ride for a living so I ride for pleasure and bimbling around the Dordogne with some like minded pals on older bikes on a fine day winter or summer is for me very pleasurable and the age or quirkiness of which ever bike I choose to ride enhances rather than detracts from my enjoyment.

    • Not to worry – your comment triggered a train of thought.

      Actually, I am happy to pay the dealer to service my machine. I’ve not done any home maintenance since I started owing the new generation of boxers. Partly because you need a computer system to do it and partly because I hate spannering with a vengeance. The last time I did any serious maintenance was when I replaced the cam chains on my TR1. As you say, Japanese engines tend to be logical and fairly straightforward, although this one was complicated by being a stressed member so was a two handed job getting it onto the bench before I could even start work. But what I recall, more than anything was the sinking feeling I got knowing I was going to be spending a couple of days in the garage when I would have rather been anywhere else.

      So, yeah, I would sooner work at what I do well to earn the money to pay someone else to do what they do well. I pay around £50 per hour for a BMW mechanic, so don’t consider that out of the way.

  5. Without wishing to sit on the fence (and promptly proceeding to do just that), bikes are like computers, cameras and a multitude of other items, inasmuch as they develop a stream of fans, and of haters who often take more pleasure in spitting bile at each other, than celebrating the areas where they agree!

    Now I (unlike LR) am a great fan of Macs & Apple’s OSX: I do not feel at ease with MS Windows, but I accept that there are those whose views, experiences or even perceived experiences might well be diametrically opposed to mine. I feel no need to denigrate them, or mock them; I respect their views and the fact that they are free to differ from me.

    Similarly with bikes:- if Best Beloved were ever to relent (and if the funds were available) my choice would most definitely be for the most civilised modern machine possible, on the grounds it would almost certainly be extremely reliable, and on top of its inherent designed-in safety, would add to my safety by freeing my mind from constantly having to be aware of its handling/braking quirks etc.

    Sure, I’s like to get an old Black Shadow, or a Superior, or even a Square Four as a hobby to tinker with in my future semi-retirement, and even to pop out for the occasional spin on it, but for virtually all everyday and pleasure riding, I’d take a modern machine any time.

    Now your views might differ, either slightly or totally, but I am not going to criticise you for it, or evangelise my platform. You have every right to be different to me after all, One man’s meat is another man’s poison as they say.

    I’m sure the things we all have in common re bikes are greater than the things that (appear to) divide us.

Comments are closed.