As he plans another motorcycle ride into Africa Anthony Wood reflects on what it takes to keep on motorcycling into the Third Age. – A subject that has been addressed in two seminars held by FIM Europe. Whether riding to another continent or staying nearer home experience helps.
We are an ageing population and motorcycle ownership has reflected changing demographics, with the average age of bikers steadily increasing over the last decade, and ownership switching from powerful sports bikes to more touring and adventure oriented machines.
Motorcycle ownership in the UK began in the early part of the 20th century as a purely functional means of transport, but by the late 1950s was shifting towards a more leisure oriented pursuit. UK youth culture from the late 1950s through the 1960s was reflected in the choice of two wheels. Mods favoured scooters Rockers motorbikes, each customising their machine by adorning the fronts of scooters with a dozen non-working headlights and acres of chrome, or by tweaking motorbikes to extract a few extra mph, adding low clip-on handlebars and rear set footrests to resemble the look of their racing heroes John Surtees and Mike Hailwood.
My two wheeled story started in the mid 1960s with a Lambretta SX 200 scooter, but I had no interest in being part of the tribe: the scooter was a cheap and convenient means of transporting me from the family home in Kent to London to listen to my favourite R & B groups.
After six years with the scooter I felt the pull of motorcycles, a neighbour had a Triumph T120 Bonneville which always caused my heart to race every time he kicked it into life. So, in 1972 I bought a brand new BSA A65 Thunderbolt for the then low price of £399. BSA was on its last legs and the company had stocks of unsold machines which were offloaded to motorcycle dealers at knockdown prices. Although capable of doing the magic ‘ton’ (100 mph) I was more interested in its touring capabilities than hanging out at the ACE Café. The following year I embarked on my first overseas adventure, to Spain, complete with a set of Craven panniers and top box loaded down with camping gear, food and other assorted supplies.
This was to be the start of a forty five year love affair with biking and a wanderlust for world exploration both of which continue to this day. It also represented a steep learning curve in understanding the mysteries of the internal combustion engine to enable me to carry out modest repairs.
Four decades and seven bikes later, reaching the age of seventy and after a four year break I am making plans to visit parts of the world not yet reached and that hold a special interest, such as Iran, India and much of Africa and South America.
I felt destined to travel the world by motorbike after reading a book a friend gave me called Jupiter’s Travels by Ted Simon. Ted was a journalist with no previous biking experience who in 1972 embarked on a four year global adventure on a 500cc Triumph. Clearly my friend saw in me something of the same adventurous spirit. The book which has remained in print also inspired many other would be two wheeled explorers including the actor Ewan McGregor, who with his friend Charlie Boorman featured in the television documentary, ‘Long Way Round’ and which energised the, “Adventure bike” market and propelled it to the marketing success it is today. At the same time, it altered the public perception of bikers as leather clad speed rebels. There were follow up documentaries by Mc Gregor and Boorman to places such as Siberia and Africa, all of which encouraged others to explore in their wake leading to a whole new market based around escorted tours to different parts of the world.
My own explorations in comparison have to date been modest in scope – Western and Eastern Europe as far as Turkey and Georgia, West Africa to Timbuktu in Mali and coast to coast across the USA. Since selling the BSA in 1976 all my subsequent bikes have been air cooled BMW twins. My current bike is a 1986 R80RT up rated to 1000cc with a host of modifications and upgrades reflecting my riding requirements and increased knowledge of motorcycle maintenance. I am confident enough to carry out servicing and modest repairs. Owning six bikes with the same basic engine design, which is relatively easy to work on, has certainly helped.
Unlike many of my contemporaries who got the biking bug out of their system by either falling off too many times, getting married and raising a family or buying a car, I have done none of these apart from falling off, which has included three serious accidents. Having never learnt to drive a car the bike has remained my sole means of personal transport. Living in London and at my age having access to free public transport, motorcycling is reserved for trips over fifty miles, whatever the weather.
Many former bikers after settling into late middle age with their children grown up, have returned to two wheels, the so called ‘born again bikers’- forgoing the car for weekend ride outs or track days. There are also those who having survived their speed- filled youth relatively unscathed are still pursuing their two wheeled dreams, swapping their Triumph Speed Twins, BSA Gold Stars and Norton Dominators for more relaxed and practical rides, from middleweight twins and adventurers to full dress tourers. Though in their sixties and seventies like me, they still get the same emotional and physical kick watching the road winding ahead, unencumbered by the confines of a cosseted airconditioned and heated box.
When in 2001 Ted Simon decided to revisit the world, he had experienced thirty years before he was, like me, turning seventy. His book ‘Dreaming of Jupiter’ referenced not only the places and people he had previously encountered but also the added physical and mental strains brought on by old age.
Ted is not the only septuagenarian to have travelled the worlds highways. Seventy three year old Simon Gandolfi, who by his own admission was overweight, and had suffered two minor heart attacks, in 2006 bought a 125cc pizza delivery bike in Mexico and rode the length of Latin America. When asked whether he would make it, Gandolfi replied that he had doubts but, “what else should I do with the last years of my life? Sit at home and watch TV?” He did make it and wrote a book about his adventures titled, appropriately “Old Man on A Bike.”
Although fit, with no known medical conditions, I’m conscious my body is ageing and how ever alert my mind and reflexes - my physical strength is not what is was. Somebody asked recently when I would give up biking, “when I can no longer pick it up unaided after it’s fallen over” was my instinctive response, (that is assuming the huge 32 litre petrol tank is no more than half full).
Although the biking community is ageing like the population at large we are staying healthier and fitter for longer, so embarking on long trips into our sixties: the “Third Age,” is not necessarily a daunting proposition. Next year I will resume my globetrotting, riding the length of Africa.
I could quite happily spend the next few years returning to the familiar places I’ve grown to love, like Spain and Italy. I could spend a year road-tripping across the USA without tiring of the diversity of its scenery and people, but that would mean missing out on even more diverse cultures elsewhere in the world. I will continue to visit the familiar but there is still the urge to experience the unknown.
I have learnt much from previous riding experiences. I’m not confident off road. In 2009 I was part of an organised group which reached the legendary town of Timbuktu in Mali, the last sixty miles being across the sand of the Sahara. I had two major falls, which coupled with a road accident in Morocco forced me to leave the group and fly home. Plenty of internal bruising but luckily no broken bones. When I return to Africa I can expect unmade roads and dirt or mud trails so will come off – hopefully at low speeds with minimum damage to me or machine. We are aware as we age that our bones become brittle and more inclined to break and not fully recover to their previous state. Continuing to ride into the ‘Third Age’ imposes its own rules & disciplines, speed, judgement and awareness become of greater importance. Body protection though a vital factor for all bikers, takes on even greater significance. The weight of both the machine and its load also become crucial.
Many older bikers are forced to hang up their crash helmets, blaming the apparent weight increase and complexity of modern bikes, and whilst the modern Triumph Bonneville weighs fifty kilos more than the 1965 version, such is the diversity of the current market that it is easy to find a bike with comparable performance and weight, yet more reliable than its older counterparts.
My current BMW though thirty years old and with a mileage in six figures has over time been transformed from a modestly powered fully faired tourer into something more appropriate for my needs. Apart from a capacity increase to 1000cc the cylinder heads have been twin plugged and gas flowed for greater efficiency and fuel economy. A different camshaft delivers more power at low speed. A higher output alternator provides adequate capacity to power additional lighting, heated clothing etc. A handlebar fairing has replaced the heavier more vulnerable full touring version. A solo seat means the large top box can be moved forward for better weight distribution, and the seat height lowered meaning that at five foot seven inches, I can easily plant both feet on the ground. Replacing the original cast wheels with spoked items including a one inch smaller diameter rear wheel gives more flexibility over rough terrain and make them easier to repair. Lighting has been upgraded with a HID unit shining through a projector lens, plus the addition of LED spotlights. Heavy duty crash bars have been added to protect the vulnerable engine parts. Ever conscious of the bike’s weight the centre stand has been shortened to ease lifting on and off, the side stand extended and strengthened, I can now get on and off without bearing the bike’s weight. Although the thirty two litre tank is a heavy item, especially when full, the weight has been offset by the removal of one of the silencers and heavy side panniers. All my travelling needs will be contained in a forty eight litre top box, throw over soft bags and a tank bag. I carry only what is absolutely necessary.
The bike is no picture of elegance and with an all white paint job it stands out, but it is function over form, a bike that suits my riding style and spirit of adventure.
I could buy a newer, smaller and more modern mount which could equally fulfil the role, but after forty years of riding similar bikes and having already travelled on it across America and down the West coast of Africa I know my bikes capabilities and limitations just as well as I know my own. Maybe if still globetrotting when I’m eighty I will be riding a solar powered trike.
Whilst most of my contemporaries may have no inclination to travel beyond mainland Europe their continued use of motorcycles demonstrates that age is no barrier to enjoying the two wheeled experience. We Third Age bikers continue to ride because as the saying goes. “Four wheels moves the body; two wheels moves the soul” (even an old one).