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Heavy Metal: Motorcycling in the 21st Century by Keith Evans - Tuesday 15 October 2013

Keith Evans with his motorcycle on a European journey.d

Keith Evans with his motorcycle on a European journey.

© Keith Evans, 2013

Easy Rider defined a generation of motorcyclists for whom Barry Sheene's rapid recovery from an accident in 1975 to win the 500cc world championship in the next two years was an inspiration. More recently Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman in their television travels have popularised adventure bikes, and a host of celebrities now proudly ride on two wheels, including Pink, Justin Tumberlake, Alanis Morissette, Angelina & Brad and Tom Cruise.

All motorcycles are not the same. There are modern classic motorcycles like the Royal Enfield - the oldest manufacturer in the world, cruisers like the Harley Davidson range, roadsters like Triumph's iconic Street Triple and Speed Triple, supersport fast road bikes like BMW's HP4, off-road for rallying, sports-tourers for mile-munching speed and comfort and customised bikes like those in Easy Rider. Similarly, motorcyclists are not all the same. Until very recently, Oxford Dictionaries defined biker as: "A motorcyclist, especially one who is a member of a gang: a long-haired biker in dirty denims."

However, figures show that far from the "long-haired and dirty denim" stereotype, fewer than one in 10 male bikers now has long hair (9 per cent). Furthermore, almost half of British bikers (42 per cent) are totally free of tattoos, piercings, facial hair or gang markings. Almost three quarters believe the old definition was inaccurate, with 21 per cent saying they are "outraged and offended" by it. And 65 per cent of motorcyclists spend the majority of their time riding alone - and not as a "member of a gang", a study by insurance firm Bennetts found. Just 2 per cent say it was "correct and accurate".

Bennetts Insurance survey shows today's biker is most likely to be aged over 35, middle class, working in IT or telecoms and likely to ride a Honda. Given those facts, it is questionable as to whether the new definition offered by OUP - "A motorcyclist, especially one who is a member of a gang or group: a biker was involved in a collision with a car." - is much better or that much more accurate.

The UK has only 1.3M registered motor-cycle owners compared with 31M car-owners. Motor-cyclists don't have a co-ordinated and mass protest voice like cyclists do, despite the fact that whilst powered two-wheelers account for 1% of passenger transport the passenger-km travelled are the same as for cyclists. Seperately, there is current £1bn ear-marked for both tram and cycle projects UK-wide but almost nothing goes into motor-cycling despite it being a serious, more environmentally-friendly alternative to cars - as a prominent motorcycle lobbyist, Dr Leon Manning, points out, up to 15% of journeys could be made by motorbike or scooter - but changes in policy need to be made so that motorcycles are not deliberately or inadvertently excluded from any part of the public roads.

Road safety approaches to moptorcycles could be a great deal more positive. For example, filtering in traffic is legal in the UK, but it is illegal for motor-cyclists to use Edinburgh's bus lanes unlike some other council areas - despite this having been proven to reduce collisions and reduce peak time congestion, and in Bedford, the Motorcycle Action Group showed there was no consideration of motor-cycle safety in the design of Dutch or turbo-roundabouts, where no entry control plans and the use of traversable plastic lane dividers for "encouraging" vehicles showed no consideration for PTW visibility in dark / wet conditions.

Even some of the 1.2% cyclists the scheme was aimed at were opposed to it on safety grounds. Likewise, Hi-viz clothing is an excellent safety aid, but while compulsory helmets is a sensible legislative measure to reduce fatalities, forcing motor-cyclists to wear hi-vis - or more importantly, making the motorcyclists legally responsible for being "seen" - is simple discrimination - with the potential that the motorcyclists becomes legally responsible for his / her own injury because because other road-users. Road Safety GB motorcycling expert Dave Glanville - West Yorkshire's specialist PTW RSO - warned against hi-vis jackets becoming compulsory for motorcyclists in the UK, arguing that hi-vis clothing will not improve viability on bright days and lead to other road users becoming complacent (on the basis that if everyone wears hi-viz, it's no longer a strong enough visual differentiator - along the lines of psychological research into "look but not see" accidents). Mr Glanville did, however, stress that wearing it is always advised in poor light.

Attitudes towards motorcyclists in modern discourse are also of concern; for example, Transport for London produced a summer safety message that suggested an injured motorcyclist was to blame for his accident with its strapline "a silly place to overtake", ignoring that half of all Killed or Seriously Injured accidents involving motor-cyclists are the fault of other road-users. Recently, the London Borough of Brent has banned all motor-cyclists from the road near the iconic Ace Cafe because of the senseless behaviour of a few; this is a further example of discrimination - are all kids given a curfew because a few cause trouble in a park? But motorcyclists reflect the whole of the society they belong to - as demonstrated by the recent ride out in Edinburgh of 250 motorcycles in support of War Torn Troops Remembered ( - an organisation formed by serving and retired military personnel to acknowledge the significant sacrifice of Britain's armed forces.

And in motorcycle racing, women can compete directly with men, in the same races, as demonstrated by Jenny Tinmouth an English motorcycle racer who is the current female Isle of Man TT lap record holder, breaking the record during her first ever TT in 2009 and gaining a Guinness World Record for this achievement, and re-braking the record during her second TT in 2010 taking the record to an average lap speed of 119.945 mph. She currently competes alongside the male competitors in the British Superbike Championship, where she is the first and only female competitor. In our cities and towns, motor-bikes are a part of the economy, enabling couriers to convey items ranging from pizzas to prescriptions, as well as the life-saving abilities of the emergency services to attend accidents and medical emergencies much quicker than their four-wheeled colleagues.

Technological advances in motorcycles over the last 20 years reflect the general societal leaps and bounds. Modern motorcycles across the range benefit from a variety of engineering solutions derived and developed from motorcycle racing. Examples include the more well-known anti-lock braking system (ABS) allows the wheels on a motor vehicle to maintain tractive contact with the road surface according to driver inputs while braking, preventing the wheels from locking up (ceasing rotation) and avoiding uncontrolled skidding.

It is an automated system that uses the principles of threshold braking and cadence braking which were practiced by skilful drivers with previous generation braking systems, as well as traction control that electronically controls wheel-spin differentials to keep the rear wheel in contact with the ground, and dynamic damping control (DDC) - a system developed by BMW that automatically adjusted suspension that reads the road - in advance! Technology like this, along with advances in tyre technology, has allowed lean angles of up to 62 degrees to be achieved by riders in cornering of racing motorcycles - where there is literally nowhere else for the rider to go as elbow and knee are in contact with the ground.

Although motorcyclists are all individual, there is something special about being a "biker", whether it's in the mindfulness required to ride, akin to the spirituality inspired by Zen Buddhism, or just the camaraderie of the acknowledgment that bikers give each other on the open road; being a biker allows an automatic ability to come into relationship with other like-minded individuals on the basis of a chosen mode of transport that is fun, adventurous and always interesting.

Report by John Yellowlees and Keith Evans.


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