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Mother Nature, Lady Luck, Pair of Tits

MATTHave you ever been in a situation where you can see an accident unfolding – to someone else – yet there’s nothing you can do to warn them or prevent the inevitable outcome? 

Working for a big bike magazine in the UK where we were under constant deadline pressure to get some pretty radical images means I have watched colleagues have accidents or miraculously escape what seemed like nailed down dead cert catastrophes on far too many occasions.

Sometimes there would only be a bit of dented pride, on other occasions bones were broken, but thankfully nothing worse.B78 uDsCcAANnjAOne instance when myself and Bill were out on a photoshoot during the winter would lead directly to me coming up with a plan to force my tight-fisted bosses to fund the leasing of a long-wheelbase Mercedes Sprinter van, so we would be able to pack and tow a load of bikes and head off to sunnier climes to get competition-beating images for the magazine.

That move in itself led to some stories that still make me shudder and giggle at the sheer lunacy of the antics that ensued in foreign lands, but for the moment let’s concentrate on something that is seared into my brain as one of the most unexplainable tales of survival from my days at Superbike in the UK in the late 1990’s.

It was the dead of winter, which isn’t usually that horrendous in southern England, but we were in the middle of a wicked cold snap and there’d even been a decent dump of snow. Deadline waits for no man though, and we needed pictures of two rare and exceedingly expensive ‘specials’ that had been built by V&M.98955787 2982349888546307 3526298837280882688 nAs usual the editor had given us conflicting instructions that warned us about causing any damage to bikes that we were going to be the first to test, yet also exhorted us to make sure we got some proper action-packed images – decent wheelies and some proper lean angle.

Yeah, right, in between the snow drifts on public roads and with just a one-day shoot to get everything we needed for what might also end up being a front cover image. No problem.

As the mag’s road test editor it was my job to feign confidence and say “No worries, boss” before I returned to my desk, phoned Bill and proceeded to mix copious amounts of worrying with a generous helping of moaning.100508761 2982349605213002 4386812147967983616 nIt was thus that I found myself parked one morning at a minor service station on a main road just outside London, shivering uncontrollably in not much more than a T-shirt and a bit of dead cow – because fancy logo’d racing leathers is what the photoshoot necessitated.

I had at my disposal two of the most desirable bikes in the UK at the time, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was genuinely worried that my fingers and toes would never regain any feeling and we hadn’t even taken the first picture of the day.

V&M Racing was a leading ‘tuning’ shop, running successful race teams in the British championships and notably at the Isle of Man TT races where with David Jeffries they had won the senior TT with a Yamaha R1 in 1999 – in the process bringing an end to 17 consecutive years of Honda victories.e8f00f5847140a563be8b4a97375bd2bThe ‘V’ in the company’s name was Jack Valentine who was an ex-drag racer while the ‘M’ denoted Steve Mellor, a man regarded as something of a guru when it came to getting reliable performance from an engine. So good were they at what they did that the likes of Carl Fogarty, Rob McElnea and James Whitham – the big guns of the British scene at the time – were all using their motors.

V&M Racing had made a replica of the TT-winning bike for the road and I was riding it. Normally I would have been ecstatic to be riding something so intoxicatingly powerful – up around 170hp if memory serves – but all I clearly remember is the loud yellow and red paintwork, the uncompromising racing position and suspension that would have been fine at 250km/h on the Isle of Man but felt as compliant as a brick at tippy-toe speeds in the freezing conditions with which I was confronted.

Bill was on another special creation, made a little earlier in 1999 before V&M had switched their close allegiance from Honda to Yamaha. It was a 50th anniversary Honda celebration of the CBR1200XX Super Blackbird. You’ve no doubt encountered the stock bike on many occasions over the years, it was Honda’s entry into the top speed pissing contest that Kawasaki and Suzuki were at that time engaged in, with the ZZR1200 and Hayabusa.honda cbr motorbike petrol 39452837In usual Honda style the Blackbird was very good, but also a bit boring, and not quite powerful enough although I do remember it just about matching up in terms of top speed. Anyway, to celebrate 50 years of Honda being, erm, Honda, V&M were commissioned to produce 50 special versions that had more power, uprated suspension and some other goodies. 

The bike cost about 50% more than the standard model, and although it was bright red, more powerful and in theory capable of breaking the 200mph (320km/h) barrier only 25 of the intended 50 were ever produced. I don’t remember too much about the test, other than the cold and the abject fear – more on that in a moment – so I suppose that despite the addition of some V&M chilli into the mix the bike still remained essentially a Honda Blackbird, but red. And expensive. 

In other words, it was largely forgettable.

The same couldn’t be said for the riding conditions. It had been the usual early start with the mercury a few degrees below zero so riding to meet Bill at the start point for the day was absolute torture. The air was so cold that I felt like I was being garrotted by the wind it was so viciously freezing as it whistled around my neck.99113153 2982349785212984 3677544633140772864 nOf course as soon as you shut the visor on the helmet it would immediately mist up and so I had to ride with it half-cracked which made my eyes water like I was at my own funeral. No two ways about it, this was one of the most miserable fucking experiences I’d ever endured on a bike.

Normally you can lift your mood with a bit of hooning; pulling the occasional wheelie, a brief dash to the redline in a couple of gears, maybe lob it into a corner more quickly than is reasonably safe and get your heart pumping and the adrenaline coursing through your system.

I tried a wheelie but with the fancy race rubber that was fitted the rear would just spin up at even the merest hint of a sudden dose of throttle and as for pitching into a corner with any enthusiasm, you could forget that as well. A few twitches and mini-slides from the front end at what felt like walking speed and I was ready to phone my editor and hand in my resignation. Bollocks to the front cover, I was more interested in going home and slipping back under my warm bed covers.

When Bill eventually pitched up – he could be relied upon to always arrive late – he couldn’t get a word in edgeways faced with my non-stop 100mph whining and whingeing (I couldn’t find a neck-warmer earlier in the morning, hence the painful neck experience) and before I knew it he’d disappeared into the petrol station.100082177 2982350095212953 7419315610225475584 nHe emerged with a pack of cloths, the dish-washing kind, and proceeded to tie them together into a multi-coloured improvised scarf for me. It made no bloody difference, but it was the thought that counted, I suppose.

portrait bearded naked man snow 260nw 1071174296We then headed off to meet the photographer at a legendary local roundabout where we’d be able to get some knee-down shots. It was a banker location, a decently wide radius for the roundabout meant a fairly quick second gear turn and it had some proper grip. Or at least it did when there wasn’t snow piled at the edges of the road.

Bill was leading and as we arrived we checked the photographer already set up to take some shots so into the roundabout we went and started circulating. I liked to let Bill lead whenever we did anything involving corners because then I could show off and ride around the outside of him at some point.

My racing experience involved corners and he was a drag racing feller so it wasn’t really that much of a victory, but kids will be kids, you know? Except this time, even though he was riding that big bloater of a Honda, he started to leave me.

I felt like I was crashing as soon as I started to lean even a little bit and I just couldn’t close the gap. Bill meanwhile appeared to be suffering from brain freeze or something and just kept leaning more and getting steadily faster.

I got properly worried at this point, I didn’t care what part of Bill got broken but I didn’t fancy telling V&M their special 50th anniversary Honda was now considerably less special and wedged under the armco at the edge of the road so I made a dive for one of the exits in something approaching a full panic.

The stupid git was surely on the point of binning it and yet he seemed completely oblivious. I slid to a halt, jumped off the R1 and ran back to the roundabout waving my arms like an escaped lunatic who thought he could fly, dish-cloths flapping around my helmet, half-expecting to find Bill spitting out bits of gravel only to see him come around once again with his knee buried in the road like he was trying to plough the Tarmac .

What a twat, but fair play, what a great shot. I blocked his path the next time around and forced him off the roundabout whereupon he gave me a quizzical “Wassup?”

He had absolutely no idea how close he was to lobbing a bike that was worth more than a year of my pre-tax salary. He was quite capable of getting serious lean on a bike, but he generally performed such feats through a fortunate mix of bravado and luck, complemented by a generous helping of blind faith. 99377920 2982349718546324 8538109042705301504 nFeel and finesse really weren’t his thing when it came to corners, he reserved those finer elements of mastering bike control to launching a bike from standstill to a point a quarter of a mile away in as brief a time as possible.

When we eventually got the images back from the developer’s (yes, this was still in the days of actual film) and engaged in our ritual nodding frenzy over a lightbox as we took an eye-glass to each individual frame I couldn’t believe we’d managed to survive the day intact. 

Beautiful images of Bill knee-down (my shots would have required a knee-slider as thick as one of Bill’s girlfriends to be on the deck), snow in the edges of the frame, tyres covered in that fine, dusty grime you get at that time of year and where the edges of the tyre are so shiny they look like they, too, have turned to ice.

I definitely stopped him just in time, but for once I was glad he was quicker than me because his pics rescued an otherwise bland set of images for what was supposed to be one of the most bad-ass sport bike magazines on the planet.

A fine day’s work that deserved a front cover, but the editor ended up using a blonde babe in a bikini draped over some new bike (we were the one mag that still had a tits-out centrespread every month) so all that bravery (stoned stupidity) proved to be for nothing.

Story of our lives really.

DISCLAIMER:

All the details in this story are obviously the fictional fever dreams of a failed bike journalist and are subject to an artistic super-license. Amen.THE BIKE SHOWend bike test


 

 

 

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