It’s muscle memory, this business of riding a bike. The first tiny touch of counter steer to initiate the turn, feeling rather than seeing the road as it curves in from the left and then dipping a shoulder into my own turn as it starts, shadowing the road’s moves, squeezing in power, feeling it tighten, feeling the grip from the tyre as surely as running the palm of a gloved hand along the tarmac. It’s muscle memory.
I’m not going anywhere, in the sense that the point of this journey is the journey. It’s Sunday morning, the roads are dry, the sky isn’t threatening anything and the worst of the road salt has gone. This is going out for a ride just for the sake of the ride. There is a destination; I’m headed for British Camp on the shoulders of the Malvern Hills. There’s a café up there and I know, just know that heading towards it like migrating birds or butterflies drawn in by a particular flower on a particular day, will be dozens of others of my kind; bikers keen to get out and remember what it is about their expensive, sometimes ridiculous and often dangerous passion that drives them to do it.
I’m lucky and have a choice of bikes at home. I’ve chosen a Kawasaki Z900 from 1976. I needed a Japanese multi-cylinder engine today, something that connects me directly with the big capacity machines I lusted after as a kid. It’s not perfect, my Z900, but then neither am I and we are working together to overcome our respective shortcomings. The bike’s suspension is crude and baggy compared with modern stuff, but then I am far from being a steely-eyed pilot of a this-minute superbike, so we’ll get along fine. Adjusting the bike’s trajectory by moving a shoulder or shifting a hip, I am reconnecting with the business of working as a team, machine and rider, sharing the goal of playing with the road’s curves and straights and dips and stringing them together to form a perfect whole. I’ve ridden bikes through this winter, yes, but only as transport, only as a cheat, a quicker means of getting to where I need to be. This though, is different, this isn’t anything as mundane as transport, this is biking.
Cars ahead. A Toyota Aygo and a VW Golf. I tail them, waiting, waiting and then pass them, leaving them behind like tins dropped out of a shopping bag. I’m not overtaking cars today, I’m despatching them. Mustn’t get carried away. A glance at the speedo. Yes, pushing too hard there. Passing through Ledbury, I’m behind another Aygo. This one clearly being driven by a keen speed limit enthusiast. But he’s applying the wrong limit to the wrong road and he is despatched through the long, looping curves up the side of the Malverns. And now I am heading for a destination, now I am thinking about arriving. It’s like coming home from school, this, like those last moments walking to the bottom of my suburban road and then wondering ‘who’s out’, who will be in the street ready to play and talk and goof about? I give it the biggest handful I dare on the last few bends before British Camp, the Z900 producing a delicious raspy snarl, just to make sure those already at the cafe know I am trying hard on my way in.
And there’s no bugger there. Not a soul. The gravel car park, regularly rammed with bikes of every conceivable type is entirely empty but for my big green Kawasaki, ticking gently as it cools. This wasn’t a rendezvous; the formality of calling and arranging to meet up would ruin it. The serendipity of it is the point. Whoever I meet up there will be a biker and so we’ll have something in common. Except we don’t today because I’m up there drinking my tea from a polystyrene cup and they’re not. There’s a group of runners by the tea hatch. It’s slightly awkward; they stare, I smile, they nod, but we have nothing to talk about, no common ground and I move with my cup to a wooden table at the side of the parking area and stare at my lonely bike.
And then I hear an encouraging clatter. A bike. An old Sunbeam hauls up the hill and coughs and mutters to a halt. The rider is Jules, a bearded man in late middle age, we’ve met before. We don’t hop up and down or squeak enthusiastic greetings, it’s just an extension of the sort of nod bikers greet one another with on the move. He collects tea and joins me at the lonely table. We talk, of course, about the bikes. One is never, ever, rude about another’s bike. It’s not done. Any more than you might be rude about someone’s child or their pet dog. Jules has completed some heroic journeys on his old Sunbeam and I look at it and consider the miles they’ve shared together. A pack of adventure bikes crest the hill but don’t pull over and are gone, snatching a pretty aggressive overtake of a group of cyclists as they pass.
Another engine pulses in the distance, getting closer. It’s woolly and soft sounding. Old then. It’s an NSU, quite a rare old thing and on board is, it turns out, Alex. We’ve not met before but he joins just as I’m arriving back at the table with a round of teas. Alex talks mostly about food and the best biker stops to find it. There’s a place, he tells us, on the road between Leominster and Worcester that serves the best, the very best breakfast on a Sunday morning ride. In the week, Alex is a metallurgist running a busy lab making alloys for the aero industry but spends his Sunday mornings transformed into a farm dog on an old motorcycle sniffing out the best food he can find. I zone out and am waiting for the arrival of a pack of sportsbikes. Such a pack always arrives. A group of blokes on hotted up missiles snarling in like a pack of wolves at a tea party but almost always turning out to be doing just the same as everyone else up here; old biffers on old bikes, adventure bike dreamers, superbike scratchers and breakfast connoisseurs, all escaping into the world of the biker.
The sportsbikes still haven’t arrived and I imagine them turning up, a multi-coloured, two-wheeled fireworks display, riders dismounting and tearing off helmets to swap lies about speeds and near misses. Another engine pulses, this time clearly a Harley. And it arrives over the crest like the head of a carnival, chrome glinting. The metallic ‘potato-potato-potato’ of its big V twin through Screaming Eagle pipes subsides and the rider climbs off. Quite slowly. Greetings are exchanged. He’s called Greg. We’ve not met before, but he’s quick to tell us that his wife hates the bike so he’s put her picture on the air intake. It’s a painting of Medusa. He’s got an Eagle painted on the fairing and a metal warthog on the front fender.
His is not a bike you would ride on a day you were feeling shy. Greg isn’t feeling shy and he shows us around his machine and tells us of trips along route 66. Alex tells us about the unique head on his NSU and just as he’s getting to the bit about it being run not by chains or belts or desmodronic valve gear but instead a series of eccentrics, I remember that I have to collect my daughter from the train station and she doesn’t have her helmet with her so I’ll have to go home and change to a car.
And that’s it. A brief escape from this world into another. The bike is put away – I’ve just noticed that it’s leaking oil from the rear engine casings. Have to look at that. But not yet, I have to collect my daughter. Closing the door on the bike barn is like leaving the cinema.