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Too old to be wild?
There's a crisis on the roads and it's of the mid-life variety.
Nicholas Pyke reports on an issue that has even put Hell's
Angels on the side of the sober and sedate
The days of the bearded warrior have largely passed. There
are no knives or chains on view, let alone shotguns, and this
time round, the villains of the piece are clean-shaven. But
the biker wars are back, and there is blood on the roads.
Lots of it.
A new generation of born-again riders, forty-something thrill-seekers
dressed like the late Barry Sheene, have been blamed for a
shocking 36 per cent increase in fatal accidents. Nationally,
28,000 bikers were killed or injured last year.
Egged on by celebrity motorcycle fans such as Ewan McGregor,
Jeremy Irons and George Clooney, middle-aged Britons are spending
£10,000 and more on machines capable of 150mph. When
the weekend comes round, they dress up in expensive, one-piece
racing suits and speed from the suburbs of London and Manchester
for the roads of rural Britain, with frequently disastrous
From the Association of Chief Police Officers to the Royal
Society for the Prevention of Accidents, the message is the
same: the balding funsters are out of control.
Now the country's traditional bikers, the sort with a preference
for facial hair and large "back patches" on tatty
leather jackets, are revving up for battle. It is not just
that they resent the spending power of the souped-up accountants
and assorted middle managers. They fear the antics of the
crazy gang will provoke a legal clampdown. Ministers have
already voiced concern at the scale of destruction and are
considering new safety measures.
The Motorcycle Action Group, Britain's largest bike club
with 53,000 members, has launched a broadside at the speed
merchants, condemning the "desperate situation with crazy,
sports-bike riders". The MAG, which made its name campaigning
against crash helmets and is still associated with a 1970s
world of heavy rock and beer, has taken the step, which once
would have seemed extraordinary, of writing to the Government
because fellow-bikers are going too fast.
The MAG wants compulsory training for the owners of 800cc
and 1,000cc machines, complaining that riders are still entitled
to a licence even if they last owned a bike 30 years before.
It also wants measures to tone down a bike press which glamourises
speed and, the MAG president, Ian Mutch, said, has "blood
on its hands".
The MAG said in its recent submission to Whitehall: "To
ride a modern sports bike after only 10 to 20 hours of instruction
seems to be a recipe for disaster. It seems that a majority
of sports-bike riders use leather suits, EU-approved body
armour etc. The eager adoption of this race-track equipment
betrays an attitude that the road is simply an extension of
the race track.
"Too much reliance is placed on 'protective clothing'
which works well on a race-track, where riders can slide without
encountering obstacles, unlike the public road. The problem
is a cultural one rather than one resulting simply from the
potential of modern machines."
Five million people now have motorcycle licences, some 1.5
million of them regular riders. The number of new bikers under
25 has dropped, but the number over that age has doubled.
DVLA statistics show that motorcycle ownership among men of
45 is more than 20 times higher than it is among 25-year-olds.
More than 21,500 men aged 45 have a motorbike licence compared
with just 10,200 of 25-year-olds.
There is an easy explanation for this. It is only those with
a great deal of disposable income who can afford the £7,000-plus
for a performance bike, as well as the hundreds of pounds
for helmets, gloves and leathers. Andy Downes, the editor
of Motor Cycle News, confirms that the new breed are mostly
men in their forties and fifities with well-paying jobs who,
when they are not showing off on the roads, are probably playing
golf. Up-market bike firms such s BMW, Harley Davidson and
Yamaha have benefited from the sales boom after they redirected
their marketing to the older crowd.
Some psychologists say, as you might expect, that middle-aged
return to biking is an attempt to regain a sense of danger
and passion. Others see the signs of a mid-life crisis.
Certainly, the power of the modern machine is awesome, a
different proposition from the bikes of the 1970s. The Yamaha
YZF-R1, launched this year, has 180 brake horse power and
was described by one motoring reviewer as "faster than
a Ferrari for the price of a Fiesta", the equivalent
of a stripped-down Vauxhall Vectra with two Formula One engines.
And this, unfortunately, is much of the problem. The technology
has changed so radically since the Jeremy Irons wannabes last
donned leathers, that they barely know how to work the controls.
As Ian Mutch puts it: "When they learned to ride, bikes
were powered by the equivalent of a hairdryer."
Celebrities are no more immune than their more obviously
mortal fans. Mark Knopfler, the 51-year-old front man for
Dire Straits, and Liam Neeson, the film star, have both suffered
dangerous bike smashes, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, 55, fractured
several ribs in an accident three years ago.
Even modern braking systems take careful handling. Inexperienced
riders, frightened at their new-found speed, are tempted to
squeeze hard approaching bends, and they can easily find themselves
flying over the handlebars. Excess speed is a problem across
the country, with Paisley in Scotland, Cumbria, North Wales
(where 18 bikers died last year) and Shropshire all listed
You get a glimpse of the mentality on specialist biker websites,
where riders talk of "kick-ass roads", "straight-line
sprints" and "mad-bastard cornering". Noise
pollution has increased too. One of the sports bikers' favourite
tricks is removing the legal silencer and replacing it with
a lightweight, illegal "racing can", which produces
a window-rattling noise.
On the North Yorkshire moors, with their open roads and wild,
spectacular scenery, there has been a huge increase in the
number of accidents. Bike deaths in the region doubled last
year to 28 (out of fewer than 100 total road deaths) with
180 seriously injured.
More than a third of the bike fatalities involved the driver
simply leaving the road or hitting trees and walls. The county
has a policy of using mobile rather than fixed-speed cameras,
and this seems to have encouraged biking magazines and websites
to advertise the area as a place for reckless fun.
Pete Walker, from the Beverley branch of the MAG, and a regular
on the roads around Helmsley, knows exactly who to blame.
"These people have bought a cycle for nothing more than
to get their rocks off. It's nothing to do with the biking
lifestyle. If and when they get motorcycling banned altogether,
they'll go off and do hang-gliding, abseiling or some other
Things have come to a head in the North York Moors National
Park, where a coalition of local celebrities is demanding
police action and the imposition of a 50mph limit.
Fred Trueman, Patrick Stewart, the Star Trek actor, the former
Conservative leader, William Hague and the local landowner
Lord Feversham have signed an open letter attacking the sports
bikers, claiming that packs of riders are racing at speeds
of up to 180 miles per hour.
The campaign has been joined by a powerful Yorkshire diaspora
including Sir Bernard Ingham, Lady Thatcher's former press
secretary, the television gardener, Alan Titchmarsh and former
cricket star Geoffrey Boycott.
Kilmeny Fane-Saunders, editor of the Radio Times Guide to
Films lives on the B1527, a scenic road which runs through
the western edge of the national park. It ought to be idyllic:
instead it is known as the Yorkshire TT.
She is fed up with ministering to injured bikers who travel
so fast she refuses to let her children cross the road. The
bikers are, she says, old enough to know better. "These
men, when you take their helmets off, there's grey hair, if
there's any hair at all." They are the sort of people
who buy Bike magazine, the news editor Rich Beach says. It
pains him to admit it, but he feels that people such as Ms
Fane-Saunders probably have a point.
"We do a lot of photography on those roads. We were
up there recently and the amount of broken bits of motorcycle
plastic and fairing was unbelievable, demonstrating the number
of accidents they must have up there."
The mainstream bike magazines are another target for the
MAG. Packed with pictures of race-style riding, one knee on
the ground, and wheelies, they rely on adverts for powerful
machines and stylish accessories. (In fairness, it should
be said that the MAG's Ian Mutch edits Streetbiker magazine).
No one from the popular Performance Bike, published by Emap,
was willing to comment. But Alan Dowds, deputy editor of Superbike
magazine said: "We take the view that they are big enough
to decide what they do with their own time, their own money
and their own machines. People listen to gangsta rap albums.
Does that make them go out and kill people? No. We're interested
in making exciting, entertaining magazines for people to buy.
And what's wrong with that?
Even Bike magazine, which attempts to place itself at the
responsible end of the sports market, has offered features
on "secret motorcycling playgrounds" and the best
way to beat speed traps.
It faces a dilemma, of course. "We have to make the
bikes look exciting," Mr Beach says. "You can't
get away from the fact that these are performance machines
that we're writing about, so you can't have people sitting
upright. That's not going to sell bikes or magazines."
But, he adds, many of the most spectacular pictures are taken
with riders going very slowly.