There’s a photo on my cellphone, a selfie of me and new riding pal Davis Aites. We’re both smiling, a motorcycle just visible in the background. We’re at the side of a road somewhere, and from the look on our faces, we’re having a great time. And we were. It’s just that we were broken down, somewhere south of Birmingham, England, on the A40, Davis’ bike struggling to get enough fuel to run on two cylinders.
It’s a memorable photo on a number of levels, a reminder of my recent trip to the Isle of Man for the 2016 Classic TT races. Fourteen Motorcycle Classics readers and I had met up outside London, England, before riding across England’s midsection, stopping in Birmingham and then Liverpool before riding to Heysham to board the Ben-my-Chree (“girl of my heart” in the Manx language) ferry for the 3-1/2-hour crossing to the Isle.
The selfie was taken on our return to London, eight days after we’d started. In between, we had experiences for a lifetime, riding through places we could hardly believe for their beauty. We’d also run out of gas, gotten lost and ridden through the rain at night with no headlamp. And here we were, broken down and smiling.
It’s a truism in my travelling that the most memorable trips are the ones punctuated by the unexpected. Touring — especially on two wheels — is ripe for exposure to the unexpected. Factors beyond our control including weather, people and luck — both good and bad — play a heightened role in the experience because we’re so much more exposed, physically and socially, when we ride. Over the years, my perspective has evolved to the point where I view a road trip devoid of unexpected deviations as almost forgettable.
Fortunately, that almost never happens, and precisely because we’re exposed, although I find keeping to the back roads helps. The super slab is a corridor, a broad path packing us together to funnel us from Point A to Point B. But the back roads, the little two-lane highways that string together towns large and small across the country, are connectors, intimate avenues that give us the opportunity to see what’s on the other side of the highway and peer, literally, into the backyard of wherever we are.
I prefer to ride old bikes when I tour, which potentially exposes me to a higher risk of breakdown on the road, the logic being that new stuff breaks less than old. That’s mostly true, but I’ve found you can ride a 40-year-old bike anywhere you want, you just have to take a little more time getting ready.
Yet when I do hit a snag, it almost invariably brings with it an unexpected bonus, an experience I never forget, like the time I broke down in western Arizona riding my Norton Commando. I’d been pounding some pretty rough roads since dropping down into New Mexico from Colorado when my left muffler gave loose at the weld. As luck would have it, not 10 miles later I rolled past a small repair shop. I pulled in, and the two guys working there pulled their heads out from under the hood of an old IHC pickup. “Sure, we can weld that up,” one of them said, directing me to roll my Norton over to the right side of their service pit.
Their shop, a survivor of simpler — and harder — times, was ancient, a relic from an era when mechanics climbed down ladders into holes to work on the underside of cars. Lifts were expensive — holes not. I started to get off the Norton, but the lead guy, now with a welding torch in hand, directed me to stay put; he needed me to hold the bike at the right angle while he welded. I did, and he quickly tacked my muffler back together before running a bead as far around it as he could to hold it together. Finished, he climbed out of the pit and said, “$5 be OK?” I smiled and gave him $10, amazed at my good fortune. Just as Davis and I were, even if we were broken down on the side of the road.