Born To Be Mild?

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My wife insists I’m having a mid-life crisis. Her evidence for this is the arrival of a beard and my preference to dress, as she would have it, “like a crazed redneck on the run from the FBI”.

What she can’t assign as evidence of a search for lost youth are my motorcycles, seeing as they’ve been there, variously, for enough years that even she has been forced to grudgingly admit I may just like bikes.

However, whilst I laugh outwardly at these barbs and brickbats, something is happening within which I fear may give her accusations credence.

I’ve developed an unhealthy interest in cruisers.

There. I said it. It’s out there now.

In the last two weeks I’ve ridden a number of Victorys and a number of…and I can hardly believe I’m typing this…Harley Davidsons. For a biker, this is definitely mid-life crisis territory.

Now, the analogy with the mid-life crisis car driver who trades in the Mondeo for an MX5 isn’t quite right because our motorcycling example is likely to be getting off something a lot faster than the cruiser he’s getting on. In some ways a better, but more alarming, analogy is the man who trades in his V6 coupe for the diesel estate, requiring nothing more than comfort and a less fussed drive.

Surely that’s not me?

My issue with cruisers in the UK has always been this: it’s not California, it’s Slough; you are not a Hells Angel, you’re an accountant from Droitwich and that’s not a badass chopper it’s a pile of cheaply made nonsense with all the performance of a paddling pool and you’ve paid £16,000 for it on credit at 11% and a balloon payment at the end.

In other words, you’re no more “free”, despite all the advertising, than you were before you bought it; no more of a rule-breaker and no more of an outsider.

For me, cruisers in the UK, outside of those run by genuine back-patch bike gang/club members, have always screamed “desperate not to look like I conform, despite the fact that I do”.

HOG1Nowhere is this better demonstrated than the ridiculous “Harley Owners’ Group” or, in its laughable acronym, HOG. These are, quite simply, ordinary men who dress up as Hells Angels and ride about trying to look like they’re going to do something more dangerous than check the progress of their ISA on their Blackberrys. Which they’re not.

So; the bikes are rubbish in terms of performance, build quality and value, and the image which surrounds them is knuckle-chewingly embarrassing. Why, then, have I loved my test rides and why can’t I shake the memories of those rides?

First up I rode a couple of Victorys. Vastly better built and better-performing than Harley-Davidsons, and far better priced. Victory is partly responsible for the recent improvements in HD build-quality and performance (as well as a renewed push by HD in to European markets where the old level of quality was generally unacceptable to a customer base which has always known Japanese and German bikes).

The huge Victory Cross, a “bagger”, was fun. Feet way forward, like steering an armchair with two poles. The 1731cc (or, in the Americanised language of cruisers, “106 cubic inch”) motor pulled nicely and whilst the bike didn’t stop like my sports-tourer, it did actually stop in the same county I’d initially asked it to. Handling, when I’d got used to the oddities of the riding position, was a pleasant surprise too, it simply went where you put it without all that tedious rearrangement of body weight.

VV1It was too big though, and too shiny and full of chrome which would need endless cleaning. Next I took out a much (comparatively) lighter Vegas. Longer rake, 21” front wheel, semi-ape bars. This was a lot more skittish thanks to that front end than the bagger but was, to me, a revelation. The riding position was comfort itself, the noise magnificent thanks to the stage one pipes which delivered just the sense of theatre a bike like this needs, and whilst it wasn’t quick in bike terms it was plenty quick enough for blatting cars.

I found myself travelling perhaps 20% slower than usual, not minding sitting in the traffic flow occasionally and generally just not feeling like I needed to rush anywhere. It was a pleasure ride: unstressed, easy and, another shock this, fun. At one point I almost sparked up a fag queuing at a roundabout.

A few days later it was Harleys. Now: let’s get something out of the way. When my mate and I visited the HD dealer for a look, a few days before I went back to ride, it was everything you imagine. Lots of middle-aged, overweight men in tasselled leather trousers and wrap-around sunnies drinking coffee amid a vast array of HD merchandise (most of which they were also wearing). One was even wearing a Stars and Stripes bandana. In rural Oxfordshire. I kid you fucking not.

I almost turned tail and ran on my return but, steeling myself, I went in as arranged and took out two bikes, one after the other.

The first was a 2014 Softail Slim, effectively a 1940s bobber-styled single seat bike with beach bars. It looks, and let’s not mess about here, magnificent. Mine had black stage pipes, slashed shotguns, and sounded great too.

How was it? Honestly? I still grin thinking about it. It thudded along, suspending me 20” or so off the Tarmac, in the most bizarre way. It wasn’t like any other sort of motorcycling I’d done, except on that Vegas.

I knew I looked like a wanker on a Harley. I particularly knew that because my usual nodding rule (nod at everyone, bikes are bikes man) led not to the usual hatful of nods back but to almost none at all. Did I care? Nope. It was a ball from start to finish.

Performance? Throttle response comes by post, the brakes are made from a mix of Marmite and stale toast and you only know you’re steering it because the horizon moves, so little feedback is there from anything.

A problem? No. It just did what it said on the tin really. I’ll tell you what else it did too – it made me grin, and sing. That’s my ultimate Litmus test for bikes. However practicable a bike is it surely needs, first and foremost, to be fun? Otherwise why put up with the cold and wet and danger?

I took a “Street Bob” out next, another fake bobber but with ape-hangers. Didn’t like it as much as the Softail, perhaps because I felt a little more of a pillock with that ape riding position, but it also had that infectious “thud along happily” thing going on.

Now. What’s going on in my head? I have an XR600R inbound, which will slate my dirt-bike thirst (been without one for too long) and provide a great commuting tool, especially in the winter. Am I, therefore, really going to be the kind of idiot who not only owns a cruiser but generally only takes it out as a fun ride not as a daily tool? Am I about to become a twat?

Probably not. At least not yet; but I’m missing the easy progress of at least two of the bikes I’ve ridden recently. Yes, getting back on a 1050cc sports-tourer felt great in terms of performance, and I chucked it in to corners at lean angles beyond my norm just for the pleasure of feeling it go over and carry the speed in again, but…but…buggeration.

The only thing I know is that if I did it I’d be hankering after a BMW S1000RR-Sport within a month. It may be my bike buying idiocy will save me, then, from my bike buying idiocy.

The beard stays though.

It’s Moto GP on the telly Jim, but not as we know it.

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What to make of the grumblings, complaints and downright fury about MotoGP moving to PPV on BT Sport?

Well first, it’s not a zero sum game. Let’s remember that the BBC often treated its coverage with distain last year, chucking it off the main channel and on to the red button in favour of snooker, horse racing and lots more. Qualifying was only sporadically available and FP not at all. There was nothing outside race coverage itself either.

Secondly, the argument that it was free but is no longer doesn’t hold up.

BT Sport is available free if one buys BT Broadband, or for a fee via Sky TV. The BBC coverage was paid for by the licence fee. BT need to make their offerings attractive enough to make you part with your money, the BBC get your money regardless and you go to jail if you refuse to cough up. Yes, your licence fee pays for lots more than MotoGP, but then so does your broadband fee to BT. Both cost you money to watch.

The key point for me is that where the BBC (of which I”m a huge fan outside MotoGP by the way) is concerned, we’re not talking about losing great coverage here. We’ve lost a channel doing the bare minimum and, towards the end, not even that.

BT appear to have been sensitive about this. The allegation it faced in 2013 was that it snapped up MotoGP from 2014 because of the huge spike in the sport’s wider popularity (“Move Over F1!” was the front page headline I saw on a British Airways magazine on one flight last year), and as part of a sporting spending spree designed to generate headlines. But would it take its custodianship of the sport seriously?

To address this BT has undoubtedly pushed the boat out. Live coverage of all FP, qualifying and racing of all classes at every race. In the UK no channel has ever offered this. There is also a Tuesday night magazine show in the weeks which follow a race. For the opening race in Qatar there is more than 20 hours of live coverage.

BT can’t be faulted on scale of coverage then.

How they do it is open to question. We’ll have to see.

The criticism of model/presenter Melanie Sykes as the anchor has been vitriolic and, in my view, misogynistic. The BBC equivalent was Matt Roberts. He may have owned a motorcycle but he was no more qualified to judge racers than Sykes is (although unlike the self-aware Sykes, he seemed to think he was). He was very blokey though, which seemed to be enough for most male viewers.

The rest of the BT team includes a broad group of ex-racers, a bike obsessed former hurdler and some long-established commentators/paddock watchers.
They’ll need time to bed in, and they’ll learn (as will the tech guys and the producers) in time.

Whether BTSport will be good guardians of MotoGP, and whether Dorna’s choice to take it off “free” to view in the UK (although ITV have a highlights package) will have an affect on wider popularity we must wait to see, but I reckon they deserve a chance.

However you watch it though, there are few more exhilarating sporting spectacles on the planet, so if you’re struggling with the F1 and its faceless, corporate racers, court battles and processional racing, give some real racing a go in 2014.

Vladimir: losing the Twitter war, winning the real one.

The Ukrainian crisis, if that’s what it is, is quite instructive. Not, though, in the obvious way. I fear it tells us something about our politicians which might be quite alarming.

Increasingly Western politicians’ success comes not as a result of their intelligence, strategic brilliance or even ideas. It comes as a result of their ability to communicate.

Soundbites on TV, the ability to fire out sharp and witty Tweets decrying their opponents, being able to deliver the key messages their advisors have crafted for a 23 second slot on the news. All vital skills. Combine this with the ability to use social media to raise money, as well as the skills required to work your way up the greasy pole in the first place and stay on the right side of the 24-hour media, and you have the ideal modern, western politico. Doesn’t put their foot in it, looks good on whatever their country’s version of Question Time is, capable of scoring a point off the other lot.

Barack Obama is the alpha male of these politicians; the one leaders of other countries try to emulate. His jokes are funny, his soundbites effective and his ability to raise cash without relying entirely on corporations unsurpassed.

Vladimir Putin is not. Whilst Obama was working his way up from city to State legislature with an eye on funding a Senate run if he could afford the TV spots, Putin was a senior KGB officer, working amid the collapse of Europe as we knew it and dealing every day with the deployment of power and influence.

Of course the reason Putin hasn’t had to develop Obama’s skill set in so many of those areas in which the US President excels is that Russia wasn’t even pretending to be a democracy when Putin entered politics, and now that it does pretend to be he really only has to pay lip service to it.

Obama, who was described by one US Senator this week as “playing marbles whilst President Putin plays chess”, is often praised as a “digital politician”. Modern, they mean, up to speed.

Vladimir Putin isn’t a digital politician. He doesn’t need to be. But I can’t shake the feeling that the fact he has spent the last 30 years learning how to take and then wield power on a complex geo-political stage rather than Tweet pictures of his dog may be standing him in rather better stead this week than his more celebrated opposite number in Washington.

Sure, Presidents are advised by legions of experts, but where the balance of power in Europe is concerned, in in terms of judging how players will react, you get the impression that this has been a week when analogue has won the day. 

Much is being made this year of the anniversary of the start of WWI. Looking back at the events which led to that I’m not sure any of the key political players spent any time using focus group data to decide which colour tie to wear. On all sides, rightly or wrongly, they considered the future of a continent, indeed a world. Huge ideas, shaping and breaking nations. Ideas, responsibilities and decisions which extended behind a headline.

Are modern, Western politicians capable of doing much more than winning elections these days? Given their performance in foreign policy since 2001, you wonder, don’t you?

Va-va vroom, with less va-va vroom.

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For men, the politics of sexism are often difficult. Not, I should add, for those terribly conflicted and oh-so-right-on men who worry constantly about these things – for them it’s easy: they’re sexist by dint of being men and have 4,000 years of misogyny to make up for.

No, I mean for us normal blokes who are bright enough to think about the issue morally and intellectually but aren’t obsessed by it. Our start point is not to apologise for our gender but to want to do the right thing.

The example we hear most often amongst male friends, especially once the beer is flowing (window on the male world here girls), is about dress; and it goes like this: “If a girl wears a tiny skirt and high heels, it is wrong to look?”. For liberal men this is a bit of a complex. Showing off your body and wearing impracticable and (one presumes?) uncomfortable footwear to make your legs look longer would appear to be a simple way of making yourself more attractive to men in terms of body shape. Yet many of us are un-dense enough to recognise that this is not an invitation to ogle and, moreover, may just as well, psychologically speaking, be about feeling great because you look great rather than showing off.

It’s a mine-field, and lots of us don’t quite know where we stand.

Anyway, this is slightly on my mind today thanks to motorcycles, where such issues are less of a mine-field than a mine-continent.

Let me introduce you to Red Spade.

RedSpade1

(c) Red Spade Racing

Okay, things to get out of the way:

She’s clearly stunning. She’s dressed from head to toe in leather and PVC. This is clearly a photograph designed to titillate, to use an old-fashioned word.

So what you have here, then, is another beautiful size six or below model with a great body on a bike. Move on, yeah?

Well no, because here are some other facts about Red Spade:

She’s not a model, she’s a sports bike rider, and a proper sports bike rider at that. She’s married to a guy who loves the same thing. She’s fast. Proper fast, and wants to get technically and psychologically better to be even faster. The girl lives to ride.

She’s a photographer, and a bloody good one. You’ll see her at Moto GP races and she makes a living from it.

She’s sharp as a tack, is absolutely aware of how she looks, and is happy to use it to help promote her brand (redspaderacing.com). She’s in control entirely. She wants to work and live bikes, and is prepared to take the financial risk to do so. Which is fucking cool, in my book.

Now, I take the piss out of her re these glamour shots because, as much as one can via social media, I like and respect her. I suspect she’d be a lot of fun to have a beer or two with, or go for a ride-out with (if I could keep up). But the fact remains that an element of her image is about the way she looks.

In the world of bikes – and I appreciate many of you won’t know this –  this is a bit of a issue. And it’s complex. Our world still has lycra-clad grid-girls at races, models draped over new machines at launches and magazines where it’s still normal for a feature on a particular bike to include a leggy model in a miniskirt and killer heels sitting on it, despite not knowing how to put the key in, much less ride it. This is “biking normal”.

rilzla1

Hang on, are you real police officers?

I don’t have a problem with it at all and in fact the two grid girls I’ve spent beer time with in my life were both bright, funny, self-aware and took no prisoners at all, they were great company and would still have been had they weighed in at 16, rather than seven stone – but the fact remained they were both Rizla Suzuki girls (see above) dressed as police officers only with PVC hot-pants instead of trousers, which was tough to get past in conversation, encumbered, as I am, with with a male brain.

I was reading entries on a great website the other day - http://everydaysexism.com/ – which aims to highlight the difficulties women face in the professional environment. There are some horror stories which could have resulted in jail time for the men involved, but the real eye-opener was the constant background hum of, well, everyday, sexism women face constantly at work.

These examples are easy to see as what they are – wrong. But at the same time what are we, men, supposed to initially think about a woman who makes her career as a model and drapes herself across a magazine for a photoshoot. If I’m honest my usual initial reaction is “PHWOOR!”, which would appear to be the desired reaction, right?. I guess not, perhaps, but then I think of one of those grid girls I met who was, then, a single mum, loved motorbikes, loved the scene and loved being a part of race weekends. She wasn’t a victim (although I guess the income was welcome), but a confident young women, proud of her looks, and making her own choices.

Jenny_Tinmouth_BSB_2012

Jenny Tinmouth – faster than you.

Yet our world is also full of female racers with huge talent and, for want of a better phrase, massive balls, desperate to be taken as seriously as the men they race (and often beat): I’m thinking of Jenny Tinmouth and Maria Costello off the top of my head. For them a leather-clad modelling shoot is 87th on their list of ways to be noticed. They’re racers, not models, however attractive the may be, and I suspect they face a daily battle to prove it.

Yet here’s an odd thing. When you mention these two female racers to any bike racing fan, the response will be about wins, placements, events competed in, lap times and so on. They are absolutely accepted and respected as bike racers, regardless of gender, by people who read those magazines with the aforementioned skimpily-clad models in.

There’s a respect for risk and skill among bikers which crosses the Rubicon of sexism. I’m not sure, ironically, that’s there in the world of car racing. Beverly Turner, ex ITV F1 pit lane reporter and undeniably beautiful woman (no stranger to risque photo-shoots in men’s magazines herself), wrote a book when she left F1 exposing the true horror of that world for women – painting a picture of hostility and assumption with regard to sexual favours among drivers, team bosses and even the media. Turner, who has a first class degree in English, was unrepentant on publication of The Pits: The Real World of Formula One, and has argued the case with panache ever since.

I guess what it all comes down to is learning to look beyond first impressions. Red Spade may be beautiful, but she could ride the arse off me (although, and I want to be absolutely clear here if she’s reading this, not in the dirt, where I’d leave her standing – I have some macho pride).

I think biking does that better than most sports or pastimes. We occasionally get a bad press on this stuff, but all of us who ride know that riding is the great leveler, whatever you look like.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and female riders and racers might disagree.

I can’t know for sure, but I can, and do, know what my favourite ever picture of Red Spade is. It’s one of my favourite bike pictures of all time, and whilst there’s not much of her in it, there’s enough to make the rider’s heart in me sing far more loudly than the man’s.

(c) Red Spade Racing

(c) Red Spade Racing

In which my six-year-old takes me to the football…

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He couldn’t see, because everyone had leapt to their feet and he’s only about three feet tall, but he could feel. Both fists clenched, both hands in the air, a high-pitched wail of “Yeeeaaaahhhhhh!” with the head thrown back.

My six-year-old son was celebrating what would turn out to be the winning goal at his first professional match, in this case Oxford United v AFC Wimbledon, a Sky Bet League Two encounter at the Kassam Stadium.

Afterwards (the U’s won 2-1 by the way, with a debut goal from last minute transfer window loanee David Connolly), he didn’t want to head for the car but wanted to be by the rail beside the pitch, and the tunnel, to see Oxford off.

A right of passage for fathers was complete: our first match together. However, things are not quite what they seem.

My boy plays football for his village side, but probably just because that’s what is expected at school. He doesn’t watch it on the TV with me, has little interest in fact, and rarely raises it in conversation. On paper he’s chosen to become a Liverpool fan, like his dad, but it’s not a burning obsession – he’d rather read a book about forensic science than watch Luis Suarez. All of which meant that I knew he’d agreed to come to the game partly, or perhaps even mostly, because he wanted to do some dad/son stuff.

All the way there he insisted he didn’t mind who won, “just so long as it’s a good game”. In five layers of clothing, two thirds of the way through a fairly dire first half with the scores at 0-0 in a bitter wind, I could see he was wilting – fidgeting, rocking about on his seat, looking anywhere but at the pitch. “Do you want to go?”, I’d asked. “It’s okay if you do. It’s your day and we don’t have to stay.”

No dad, he said, I’m fine. Let’s stay. He was saying this for me mostly, bless him.

But Oxford’s first goal, somewhat against the run of play, excited him. The Don’s rapid reply depressed him. Suddenly he started to care what happened.

By the end of the game I knew it had been a long stretch for him, and with every blow of referee Andy D’Urso’s whistle he would ask “Is it the end dad?”, but he cheered the win.

On the way back to the car we stopped at the club shop. He was angling for a home shirt but settled for a snow-shaker. He said he “might” like to come again and asked if our day out meant he couldn’t have his evening hour on the computer. I thought he’d done well and that would be that.

The next day, though, he said slightly slyly: “Dad…I think Oxford United are a really good team.” The snow shaker is by his bed. I sense he might, for the first time in his life, be thinking about how it feels to be part of something, to really support a team.

Me, I don’t care who he supports in the end – I hope he makes up his own mind. So long as it’s not Chelsea, of course. But I harbour secret hopes about Oxford for the most selfish and cruel of reasons. I loved taking him, but I also loved being back at a game, a lower league game, close to the action, a cheese dog and a cuppa at half time, the conversations in the stand, the cheering abuse of Andy D’Urso (even the nipper shouted “Rubbish – absolute rubbish!” at him at one point, and he was right).

My days of going to Anfield with any regularity are long gone. I’m as passionate a Red as I’ve ever been, but kids, work, family and the fact that it would wipe out the entire day make such trips it impossible. It would be nice…in fact better than nice…to have a local side to follow, to read the back page of the local paper again, to look forward to home games, to read the programme notes again and stalk about the back of the stand hoping to get a hot dog in before the second half – and all on a smaller, more manageable scale than those big days out in Liverpool.

To achieve this I may have to see my son become a U’s fan, forever (or at least for many years) not having the glory of the Premiership, not being able to  watch his team on Match of the Day and of having to endure playground conversations with his mates as they discuss which £40m Spanish international superstar their team has signed most recently whilst he thinks of something nice to say about Dave Kitson.

I must let him decide, it would be unfair to influence him, but I notice it’s Mansfield at home on the 15th and club training shirts in kids’ sizes are in the sale at the club shop…

Three conversations from modern life, 28th, 29th and 30th Jan 2014.

Three conversations from the modern world – 28, 29 and 30th Jan, 2014:

1 – On the phone:

The thing is, you see, that you’ve put my car insurance up but I haven’t made a claim this year, or indeed any year. I don’t understand why I’m suddenly more of a risk.

You’re not more of a risk. This is just what happens.

It’s ‘just what happens’? You mean the reason you’ve put my insurance up is you’ve put my insurance up?

Yes. That’s right. That’s just the way we do it.

Has anyone ever suggested sales isn’t your strong suit?

No.

 

2 – At the hotel:

That’s all paid for Sir. Can I just have your credit card please?

I thought it was all paid for?

It is, your company paid for it. I just need your credit card.

I don’t have a credit card.

[Pause]

You don’t have a credit card?

No.

Why?

Well because I’d have to be an idiot to carry around a small piece of plastic which would allow me to spend money I didn’t have in the form of a loan I haven’t taken out on the basis of the best the market can offer and which charges me an obscene amount of money for the privilege. I’m not an idiot, so I don’t.

[Pause]

Okay Sir, have a nice night. Do you need an alarm call?

 

3. At a dinner:

So they call the street where I live ‘Millionaire’s Row.’

Do they? Why do they do that?

Well, because you have to be a millionaire to live there. Houses are very expensive.

I imagine people richer than you live on Billionaire’s Row do they?

I don’t know.

Book review: “That Near-Death Thing – Inside the TT: the World’s Most Dangerous Race” by Rick Broadbent.

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Review:

That Near-Death Thing – Inside the TT: The World’s Most Dangerous Race, by Rick Broadbent. Orion Publishing, £8.99 (paperback).

The issue with reviewing this is perspective. A biker who loves road racing will read the book very differently to a non-biker who hasn’t a clue. The triumph of the book is that it works for both, but that doesn’t help me decide how to go about a review. In the end I’ve settled on the latter, everyman approach, so fellow riders should forgive me being a little broad-brush. As is the way with many sports books these days, the publisher is looking to produce a cross-genre read which lifts the lid on a closed world to the general reader and it seems fairest to review it like that.

For most people the isle of Man Tourist Trophy races (or the TT for short) are a news story which crops up each summer. It’s a simple story, involving death and tragedy, followed by calls for a ban on the event. Since the event began in 1904 more than 240 riders have lost their lives. The book’s subtitle is no hollow claim.

The issue is the conflagration of two things. Firstly speed. A top end TT bike will hit almost 210 miles per hour on parts of the course – faster than a Forumula One car. Secondly, the course. A F1 race track might have 12 or so corners, wide, baby-smooth tarmac, huge run off areas and no obstacles. The TT course, run on public roads, is 37 miles long, has 263 corners and is packed with kerbs, telegraph poles, walls, phone boxes and rabbits. Most races are six laps. To put the way these two come together in to perspective, top riders achieve an average speed around the 17 minute course of more than 130mph. Average.

Broadbent sets out to do two things. Firstly he wants ordinary people to understand what makes young men (and women) take such stratospheric risks for little, if any, money, and no fame whatsoever. Many, even at the higher levels, work two or more jobs all year just to be able to afford to race and are, consequently, penniless and have no idea what they will do when the racing is over (not just financially, but emotionally and in terms of feeling fulfilled).

What do they have that we lack, he asks; or what do we have that they don’t, perhaps. Secondly he tries to paint a picture of a metaphorical as well as literal island, a place of immense danger in a world obsessed by recognising and controlling risk. He tries to explain why the TT is special.

The book focuses on four riders.

Connor Cummins is a young Manxman of real promise. Michael Dunlop, nephew of the great Joey Dunlop and son of the equally famous if less successful Robert (both killed racing), is fast but seems consumed by his demons and the weight of (with his brother William) continuing to carry the Dunlop name. John McGuinness is a working-class hero who became the “King of the Mountain”, the most successful TT racer of the last two generations, but now faces a battle against age and the dying of the light. And finally Guy Martin, eccentric TV personality, lorry mechanic and the people’s champion, but a man full of contradictions and often shunned by fellow racers as his fame and fortune have grown. Constantly on the podium, Martin has never managed a TT win. Is he a fame-hungry chancer or simply misunderstood?

Set against the background of the 2010 and 2011 TT races, Broadbent follows the four both on and off the island, trying to get to the heart of what makes a road racer. It’s not easy. Martin: “I was driving down the duel carriageway and saw a guy about my age, in a people carrier, bonnet up, kids in the back, steam coming out of the engine, wife at his side giving him all that. What does he do at the weekend? Mow the grass? Wash the car? I mean, how can I explain something like this to someone like that? It’s just not in his DNA.”

Pretty much everyone is a man of fewer words than Guy Martin, whose machine-gun delivery betrays a mind which hops from subject to subject dozens of times a minute. Dunlop, though, is a man of fewer words than just about anyone. “People think I’m one of them arseholes. They’re right; I am one of them arseholes.”

The central contradiction is danger. TT riders are quick to reject as frivolous allegations that they are adrenaline junkies akin to base jumpers or big wave surfers, yet as Broadbent befriends them they begin to let slip, perhaps to themselves as much as him, that there may be truth in the accusation. Yet all, with varying degrees of success, talk more movingly of a place. Not a physical place, but a place in the mind, the body and the soul. A place that can only be found wrestling a motorcycle from corner to corner at 180mph for minute after minute. One suggests that this is a quiet place, despite the screaming engine, the squeal of tires and the cheering of crowds. It’s a place they feel most at home, most alive.

In fact one of the most eloquent, and moving, explanations of the risks and rewards of the TT comes not from a TT rider, but the widow of one. Bridget Dobbs, mother of two young children, was married to Kiwi Paul Dobbs, killed in a huge crash in 2010. She was at the course that day.

She explains why so many riders seem to take the death of their peers in their stride, open to accusations of insensitivity and callousness. It’s not that they don’t grieve, says Dobbs, actually they feel the hurt more than almost anyone, it’s just that you can’t race whilst grieving. They save it for off the island, she says, back, with her children,  at the TT course which killed her husband the previous year.

As Broadbent says of her: “It is curiously uplifting to listen to a bereaved woman speak in such a way about her worst nightmare, but whilst critics point to the deaths as conclusive proof that racing on the course was unjustifiable, Dobbs regarded it differently. To her it is a loss, not a waste. The alternative was a longer life, half-lived.”

In part of a statement put out in the hours after “Dobsy’s” death, his wife said: “Dobsy’s daughters, Eadlin and Hillberry, are two very special people. They have lived an honest and unsheltered life and I know they both understand exactly what this means. They will miss their dad terribly and there will be some hard times over the coming weeks, months and years. But I also know they have been shaped by having Dobsy in their lives and they are all the stronger, smarter and braver for that.”

The bright light of the trills is constantly enmeshed with the darkness of tragedy throughout the book. Perhaps this is most famously summed by what must be one of the most emotional and moving moments in sporting, never mind motorcycle racing, history.

Robert Dunlop was killed in a crash at the North West 200, in Northern Ireland, in May 2008. His bike is thought to have seized at 160mph, hurling him over the handlebars. His two sons, Michael and William, were racing in the same event. The next day both insisted on taking part. Organisers said they were in no fit state, and to be fair neither looked it; hollowed out by grief and in one case unsteady on his feet. They were barred from the race. Both Dunlop boys lined up on the grid anyway. If they were to be stopped, they would have to be dragged off the bikes.

William’s bike broke down early. Michael raced on and, after a titanic struggle for the lead, crossed the line to win his first ever major race before collapsing in a mix of exhaustion, grief and elation on to the front of his motorcycle. He was surrounded by hundreds, most in floods of tears. He was 20 years old at the time.

All of this is anathema to most people, and whilst this is certainly a book which aims to explain the extraordinary to the ordinary, it also cleverly sets the record straight about road racers (and the fans who watch them), giving the lie to the ill-informed accusation that they come for the danger. They come for the racing, says Broadbent, the danger simply makes the racing better.

Finally, and accidentally, the book is also a window on the controversial figure of Guy Martin, who became vastly more well-known to the general public as it was written. He does not help himself. “Them others hate me because I’m only doing it for a laugh” is his constant refrain. Yet Broadbent discovers a genuine man who dislikes fame and the attention which goes with his celebrity status but has a deep love of, and respect for, road racing and those within it. In moments at Martin’s rented flat the two talk for hours and Broadbent’s verdict is that Martin genuinely cares not a jot what is said about him, but secretly enjoys stirring up the rows. He’s basically just a bit odd, and there’s not a great deal more to it than that.

Of all the central characters, McGuiness remains the most impressive. Honest, hard-working (he is an ex cockle picker in his beloved home town of Morcombe, where he still lives), he is an earthy straight talker who is unapologetic about how his road racing prize money is his children’s’ nest egg.

Dunlop remains an aggressive and impressive enigma and Cummins…well you need to read the book to know what happens to Cummins.

What you have here then is two things. Firstly a window on a select and insane world for the man on the 7.29…a world of risk and glory and camaraderie. Second a more in depth look at the personalities behind the race numbers for the regular fan.

I can absolutely see why it was nominated for the William Hill sports book of the year. I think it’s something anyone with hopes and ambitions, or anyone who feels trapped, needs to read. You don’t need to know, ride or understand bikes to enjoy this. You need to have dreams.

 

Hegemony, choice, chocolate and knobbly tires.

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There is a theory among behavioral scientists called “The hegemony of choice”. It’s most often explained by chocolate.

Years ago, they say, a child would walk in to a shop with a few pence in its pocket and the desire for a chocolate bar. There would maybe five or six options and the child would choose its favoured option and then step outside and eat it. The child would be happy.

Today the child walks in and is faced with a choice of perhaps 60 chocolate bars and products. It agonises for a long time, worries, finally chooses, steps outside and eats its choice but remains faintly unsatisfied because it can’t shake the notion that its choice was bad. It is not happy.

This issue, they say, affects tens of millions of us every day. We bought a car, but of the 300 available, did we really make the right choice? We bought a house, but is it really right? Despite the fallout of the last recession levels of financial well being are sky high in historic terms, but levels of satisfaction are through the floor.

This is ironic, given that one of the ideological drivers of the political Right in Britain is “choice”. Choice in hospitals, choice in schools, choice in doctors. Everywhere we look we are being offered the chance to contrast and compare and then make our selection. I suspect that, like that old shop selling six chocolate bars, most people would actually prefer to have a very limited choice of hospitals or schools or doctors, but a limited choice in which none of them were awful. Choice, it seems to me, is only empowering in an environment where some of what’s on offer is so bad one is grateful for the opportunity to avoid it. Make everything reasonably okay and we’d be fine, as well as less worried that we’d made a bad decision.

Anyway, I’m now going to get where this is going; which is to take what I flatter myself is probably quite an interesting and well-made point and reduce it to talking about motorbikes. If you don’t like motorbikes, please stop here and regard this as a political post making an intelligent and important wider point about the free market in British political discourse.

Still with me? Excellent.

Here’s the thing: I have a reputation among biking friends as a magpie, a man who can’t settle on anything, a man intoxicated with a particular kind of bike one day and then distracted by something else the next. I can be a bit of a dick when it comes to buying bikes. As an example, here is a list of my bikes (with an asterisk for those I still have) over the last four years:

-          Aprilia Dorsoduro 750 supermoto

-          Moto Guzzi Stelvio 1200

-          BMW K1200S

-          BMW GS Adventure

-          1983 Honda VT500 Ascot (customised to a street tracker by Spirit of the Seventies)*

-          Triumph Sprint ST 1050*

-          1983 Moto Guzzi V50 (being turned in to a cafe racer by me)*

See? No pattern. I love dirt bikes, I love big trailies, I love long-wheelbase ‘Busa style rockets, I love new skool customs. But when I’m in the mood, and the problem is my moods change. I desperately miss my GSA for blatting distance and carrying kit, I miss the supermoto for lunacy and eating traffic. I also miss my old RD350 YPVS and the 250 dirt bike I used to love. It gets worse too. I miss the Victory 8-Ball I’ve never owned. Presently I’m really missing the BMWS1000RR-Sport I’ve never owned either.

Different bikes for different moments. Like playing music. Some days it’s bluegrass, others it’s Motorhead, others it’s folksy singer-songwriters.

I need an iPod full of bikes, but I’m not a multi-millionaire. It’s why I can’t settle. In my favour, a tiny bit of this is necessity – I live in the sticks and I ride all year around so by definition I need something which is comfy, quick, reliable, weatherproof(ish) and stops and goes whatever the weather. But, basically, I’m a dick distracted by the thought of bike “types”.

By definition any bike is a compromise. Of everything I’ve owned the K1200S was probably the best of the lot in that regard – blisteringly quick, comfy, sounded lovely. But it didn’t have knobbies and it couldn’t go in the dirt. You couldn’t ride it standing on the pegs and, when all’s said and done, I’m a dirt fiend. So it became a GSA, which could do most things and which I used to solo off-road a lot, but lugging 300+kg of bike through the traffic on my 140 mile commute became exhausting.

So, I have come to accept that I’m a three bike man, and it looks like this:

-          All-weather, modern, fast, ABS-equipped, reliable, big-fairinged distance eater which’ll take large panniers.

-          Stupid dirt bike which goes “braaaaaaaaaaaap”.

-          Smaller custom for hanging out, local rides and generally posing.

I think the Triumph is probably the first, although I am test riding that S1000 on Saturday…(which, before you point it out, isn’t really the same thing at all).

The VT or the V50 will be the third, and which ever isn’t gets sold to pay for the dirt bike.

I can manage on three. Polygamy. A harem. I think I’m being very grown up.

Anyway, the point of this post is to ask…it’s not just me is it? Tell me it’s not just me…

 

BT – a warning from the front line

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Nobody enjoys a moaner, so most of us don’t broadcast our terrible customer service experiences; but mine with BT has been so spectacularly incompetent I felt the need to share it as an example of how a company can get so big it clearly couldn’t care less about individual customers. If they ran a shop they way they run BT, they’d go bust.

So, briefly:

We were moving house on December 20th. We’d had BT for phone, broadband and TV for a year and they had been awful. Totally messed up when we moved in to our rented house in December 2012, service patchy, customer service sheer hell.

Nightmare though – at the new house which we’d bought only BT could provide unlimited broadband so, reluctantly, we went with them again, adding their flagship BT Sport package but only on a one year deal because we feared the worst.

Sure enough, they cocked all this up too and I ended up, after endless phone calls, endless listening to Beethoven and endless being put on hold getting to a customer service rep in the department for customers who’ve suffered massive cock ups. She said she’d sort it all out and it would all happen in Dec 20th. She was sorry enough to refund me the £35 charge for the box required to watch “free” BT Sport and the £10 charge for the viewing card.

To be fair to her, our broadband and phone switched over faultlessly on the day but there was no Vision box to watch TV. Well, I thought, it’ll arrive.

It didn’t. So, on the 23rd, I called them. “Oh yeah”, said a guy after another 15 minutes of infuriating voice-command systems and Beethoven, “we tried to deliver it but you rejected the package.”

Ten minutes later it emerges they’d tried to deliver it to the wrong address (also our Sport viewing card but this got to us, unlike the box, because it came via normal post not Parcelforce and the postie recognised the error). Did it not occur to you, I asked, that it would be odd for a customer to reject his own Vision box? Did you not think to call? No, was the answer.

So they then tell me they can get me a box for December 27th. That means no TV of any kind over Christmas. Imagine my joy in having to break that to the kids. No end of Beethoven, being on hold (the record being 14 minutes on hold to the call centre in India before being cut off) and arguing could persuade them to atone for their error and get us a box by another courier. Nobody cared.

Exhausted after, according to my phone, 18 calls, I agreed to a delivery on December 28th. Not, I made clear, the 27th, as we wouldn’t be there. The Indian call centre said, testily, they’d got that thank you.

So we arrive home on the 27th to find…yep…a “sorry we missed you” card from the 27th. Next day I drive all the way to the Parcelforce depot (about a quarter of a tank of diesel in the old Landy), pick it up, bring it home, and go about setting it up.

So, eight days late and having had no TV over Christmas I can at least look forward to the evening Premiership game. Instructions say to insert the card in to the slot on the front of the viewing box. There isn’t a slot on the front of the viewing box. This is because they’ve sent the wrong viewing box.

Seven more phone calls, much shouting, and they say they can get me another one on New Years Eve, three days later, so long as we all (including my six year old) stay in all day awaiting it between 7am and 6pm. They cannot and will not use a specialised courier this time either. So still no TV, and now one of my precious days off with the family is ruined.

As I type this I have no idea if it will turn up, or if it will be the right one, but I do know this – as soon as Sky have unlimited broadband around here I’m gone.

Why a little thought can part the waves…

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Weather like this week’s storms gently lifts the lid on the way a number of factors of modern life collide to cause misery.

Amid all the news stories of cars stuck in floods there is an under-story, which the media don’t mention. If they did the headline would be: “Marketing proved evil, people proved very stupid.”

Example: a couple of years ago a gardener friend of mine and his mate in Land Rover 110 with a full wading kit and snorkel came across a flood a mile or two from here. It was a good two feet deep in the middle. Not being an idiot, he stopped to have a look at it before tackling it.

As he waited an Audi RS4 roared up. A quick conversation revealed the guy was trying to get to The White Horse at Woolstone for a beer. Well, said my mate, you won’t get through there. If you park up by the farm there we’ll take you through and drop you off if you like.

No, no, say matey, this is four wheel drive!

My friend tries to explain why that won’t matter but matey will not be told. So, my chum drives through and then parks up and waits. Off goes the £70,000 Audi, lights growing dimmer as the front becomes more and more submerged. Sure enough, in the middle, it stops.

30 minutes later, having rescued matey from his window, they drag the Audi out. Two pistons have actually left the block. It is, basically, a write-off. Matey is distraught (although, to his credit, he then asks for the previously offered lift to the pub, and goes for a pint).

This week there will be dozens, literally dozens, of cars similarly buggered at all the areas around here which flood up.

I pass one such place on my way to work each day and come sustained heavy rain like this I usually see between four and six cars left abandoned there.

Part of the reason for this is the way we’ve become more and more detached from the machines which help us in our lives. Anyone with a basic understanding of how an internal combustion engine works is not going to try to drive it under-water, but people don’t know. Moreover, the car is a thing which just works, right? Drivers never have to open the bonnet or think about how and why it works so they presume “they” will have designed it to cope with things like floods.

Then there’s marketing. These people have often paid fortunes for rugged-looking cars which were advertised to them as capable of crossing the Mojave one day and Greenland the next. They’re determined this should be true. In fact what they’ve got is an average family hatchback on stilts with some big bumpers. No raised air-intake, no axle bungs, no wading blanket, little ground clearance and no silicone sealing of key engine bay areas. All of which goes in to making proper off-road cars able to wade – but even those, and mine is one, will only do so much.

Observe air intake six feet four in air, not four inches from ground.

Observe air intake six feet four in air, not four inches from ground.

Usually this collision of machismo, stupidity, insulation from anything mechanical and marketing leads to nothing more than ruined cars and expense, but once in a while it also takes lives, as people try to ford deep, running water and the worst happens.

Last year I waded my Landy through the road at Hanney, near here, which floods to a depth of three feet when the drainage ditches burst. On my way through I passed a half-submerged BMW 3 Series. The owner was stood, sodden, on the other side. I gave her a lift home to Wantage. She was crying, fearing what her husband would say when he saw the car. Why, I asked, did you try to drive through in that?

I didn’t think it would leak, she said.

Darwin’s central theory looks shakier and shakier to me with each passing year.

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