Speaking to fellow bikers, mine is not an unusual tale, but I hope it will bear telling all the same. My motorcycling journey, or almost non-journey, started back in 1930’s over a quarter of a century before I was even born. My mother lost a favourite uncle to a motorcycle accident.

My father’s distaste for motorised 2-wheelers came a bit later. Fresh back from Dunkirk, the army was setting up lookouts on major hills to warn of an invasion. Radios were in short supply, so pairs of soldiers were dispatched, each with a motorbike. My father’s plea that he didn’t know how to ride one was met with a simple “Well you bloody well better learn”. This was followed by him riding round the west country, identifying any open bit of land that could be used as a landing field and persuading the farmer to block it with old machinery or whatever was to hand.

His hatred of two wheels coupled with an engine became quite intense as he came off it several times after falling asleep. Most were while he was stationary and trying to cop some Z’s on the machine, but a couple were while moving and he ended up in the ditch.

So when I got to 16 it was obvious that hell would freeze over before I could have a moped. Several friends acquired knackered old mopeds and a couple even had Yamaha FS1’s or Gilera’s. I found out all about jealousy! At 17 I learnt to drive a car and may almost never have ventured out on two wheels if it hadn’t been for a schoolmate who got a Honda 125 and agreed to insure me on it. Good move, and his sister wasn’t bad either!

That morphed into a Honda 250 Superdream. Then he took his test, said he was going to get a 500 and if I didn’t take my test then that was the end of the deal. I didn’t, so it was. But his sister was still nice. No training back then and no safety gear. Ski mitts and ski jacket if it was a bit chilly. The first few rides were hair-raising as one fought with the clutch, gears and the traffic altogether without training. I’m glad that this phase of my motorbike career didn’t last long because I know that I wouldn’t have. A small taster of how utterly stupid I could be back then:-

I was in Nottingham and wanted to pop down to Birmingham and back. I borrowed the 250 as it would be quicker than my, then, 850 Mini. Mark warned me that it needed servicing and was not revving cleanly, missing a bit at the top of the rev range. I set off and I caught up with a Capri with a couple of lads in it. It was near No Man’s Heath in Warwickshire if my memory isn’t playing tricks, on what is now the B5493 but used to be the main road before the A42 dual carriageway. Normally the Superdream would have carried me effortlessly past them and on to better things but this time it was not going to play ball.

The Capri accelerated and I was stuck on the wrong side of the road with the engine missing. Of course I wasn’t really stuck at all, I only had to lift off and tuck back in. But I didn’t. The bend loomed up. The double white lines started. Still out there. A truck loomed round the corner, and braked. So did the Capri. I lived to tell the tale.

How stupid. I look back and my blood runs cold. Fate was smiling on me when it decided to remove my access to Mr Honda’s machinery. I wasn’t ready. The year’s rolled by. Rallying four wheels was replaced by marriage and mortgage, so motorbikes became a forgotten dream. In the late 1980’s there was an almost moment. I was commuting up to London and decided that a motorbike would cost about the same as a season ticket and be far more fun. But the job was far from fun, my boss was a pain so I moved companies.

More years passed, the hair grew thinner and I started to get an itch. A truly terrible itch for which there seemed to be no cure. Amongst several of our friends and work colleagues there were lots of motorcyclists. They had survived many years in the saddle, some with no incidents. The itch had started and was getting worse.

As I had never taken a test, I had to do the whole thing. CBT, Theory Test and then Direct access. While part of me said this was a pain, my sensible head told me it was not a bad idea as, after 40 years out of the saddle, it was best to start again. So I hatched a plan to cure the itch. If I did the CBT at the end of November, I would come back home cold, wet but with the itch cured. Epic fail. I came home with a grin from ear to ear. The itch was becoming an addiction.

Charles & Gerry at RoadTrip.

It was a bitterly cold day. An overnight frost meant the instructor advised that we might not be able to do the road part if it didn’t warm up. The morning round the cones etc was a good start and all the old skills started to come back. The lad who was on the course with me failed the eyesight test so he wasn’t going out on the road. So when we did go out we rode for ages, just the instructor and I eating up the miles with the cold seeping into my bones! Did I care? Not a bit, I knew I could crank up the heater driving home in the car.

So what next? I decided to get a 125 and get some miles in. I rode everywhere I could, regardless of the weather and about a year later decided to go for the direct access opting to do that in the outskirts of London so as to be more used to heavy traffic and less of the country bumpkin. The school allowed future pupils to visit early in the morning to do a couple of loops of their tarmac off-road area to assess how many days tuition they needed. I was told I could probably do it in a day but 2 days would be safer. I said that was great but signed up for the full 5-day course. Yes, I wanted the piece of paper but above all I wanted to feel happy to progress to a bigger bike.

What a great week that was! I got to go on some great rides and was rewarded with the two pieces of paper that gave me the new category on my licence. So the 125 had to go. Easy, sold to youngest daughter. Then the difficult bit, what to get? Like a lot of people who learn I leaned towards getting a bike that I had trained on. So a Suzuki V-Strom and a Kawasaki ER6 were top of the list. The Suzuki was quickly crossed off. Too expensive. My wife doesn’t like biking so I will always be buying at the cheap end of the market. But an ER6F was found that fitted the price tag and rode well.

Good choice. I had a lot of fun on it. I said that a 650 would be big enough for me forever but as my trips got longer and longer I found I wanted something more long-legged and more planted on the road. So, just shy of 2½ years later I acquired a Suzuki GSX1250 FA. Casual conversation with my cousin had led to him suggesting this as a replacement. A ride out one day with a mate led to a stop for coffee at a dealership where one was for sale. Conversation with a salesman led to a test ride. Hooked!

There have been a few comic moments. I went into the petrol station one day, got off the bike. Poor thing was obviously tired because it decided to have a lie down. So that’s what the side stand is for. Another day I popped over to see eldest daughter for lunch in the pub. Gravel car park so thought I would stop in the entrance to see if there was a useful bit of hardstanding for the stand (see, I had learnt from the petrol station incident). Put foot down but hadn’t twigged that I had stopped next to a pothole. By the time my foot was near the bottom it was only going to end one way. This time both the bike and I were obviously both tired.

I decided that more skills would not be a bad thing so joined TVAM and recently passed my advanced test. Thanks to John Stevenson for getting me through. I think he misses my after-ride emails where I make lots of observations and ask questions. I think that “you over think it” means “for goodness sake leave me alone”!

So what next on the journey? Long distance lunches are quite normal now. Bucks to Ashbourne, or Brecon, or Malvern/Ledbury. I’ve had a couple of overnight trips away. More longer trips are needed and being away for a few days at a time. I want to go to France. With TVAM I am getting into the back marking and run leading and I think the Observer route beckons.

I have also learnt that I should not have sold the 650. I understand that the secret of happy motorbiking is to never to get rid of the old one…

Charles Leigh-Dugmore

First published in Slipstream August 2022