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From the earliest times that human thought was recorded (that was about six months before Buzzing was started) the idea of a journey that tested the endurance and skill of the traveller and from which one returned a better and a wiser man or woman has been important. It was Homer's poem about the imaginary wanderings of Odysseus on his way back from the war in Troy that gave us the English word for such a journey. The Mediaeval pilgrims believed that the intensified sufferings of their travels to the holy shrines shortened their time in Purgatory and were a symbol of their journeys through life. (It has always amazed me that people in the Middle Ages felt it necessary to increase the pain of living at such a miserable time.) From Columbus right through to Darwin's trip on the Beagle the great voyages of discovery lived out this metaphor in its most literal form - real pain, real discoveries. In our own age, this idea has been one of the formative influences on post-war Youth Culture. And the strongest image of this sort of odyssey has to be the film Easy Rider about a journey across America by two Harley Davidson riders that fittingly ends in revelation (in part through mind-expanding drugs) and their joint deaths - real pain, real discovering.
Which brings us, of course, to the NACC, for who amongst you has not felt the urge to do The Long Ride, testing yourself and your mount to the limits of mechanical and physical endurance?
"Well, not me," I hear you cry, hurriedly stuffing the road map of Outer Mongolia and the bicycle clips into the saddle bag of the Teagle, which we can't help noticing has been fitted with fourteen water bottle carriers and a sump bash plate.
Being the heavily domesticated wimp that I am, my version of The Great Journey is my annual pilgrimage to the British Two Stroke Club's Chiltern 100 Run, always by bike and always camping. It's about 130 miles there. The run is usually between 55 and 75 miles and then of course there's the journey home. That's about 310 - 350 miles in three days. I started in 1987 with the Bown autocycle that now pulls the chair. All was well until the run home. About half way it got sick and by 40 miles out was crying out for extreme unction. The last rites and some pretty heavy Light Pedal Assistance were administered. We made it, but it was a damn close run thing as to which of us would expire first. The next year I took a scooter and sidecar we had rebuilt and then my old MZ 150. Next I hit on the brilliant idea of taking the mopeds down by putting a frame on the A10 sidecar chassis - bags of street cred, loadsa horsepower. In 1993 I took the autocycle and sidecar down in this way but last year the BSA was off the road so I copped out completely and went on my 500 Honda. Not a real challenge, not even a bloody two stroke! 1995 definitely called for some sort of penance.
Sheila's evil Mobylette Bronzewing has not distinguished itself by its reliability. In fact it failed to complete three of the last five runs in which it participated. Eddie had however supplied me with some second-hand electrical components with which to renew the electrics and with these I was able to identify that it was the external coil that was failing. With the supreme confidence of the complete imbecile I decided to go by Mobylette. Eddie found me some second-hand engine mounting bushes in better condition than those on the bike, a spare coil, and a new exhaust port sealing ring. All this went on pretty easily. I put the spare coil and one of Eddie's condensers in the toolbox. The day before the run I found a second-hand Oxford windscreen in a local bike shop for ten quid, so I fitted that too. Piled on the luggage and we were off.
The first mind-expanding experience I tried on my journey was sheep droving by Mobylette. Uphill it was perfect. The Moby was too slow to overtake the sheep and the sheep were too stupid to pause and let the terrifying rattle pass by. For a hundred yards the three escaped sheep processed at a smart pace all over the road - mutton looking for mint sauce. Happily nothing had actually run into them by the time the road levelled off and the Moby accelerated past. My second mind-expanding experience happened almost immediately. Some young nerd whose genitals have been surgically removed and replaced by a rusting hatchback (or would have been if the Mobylette had been fast enough to catch him) pulled out straight in front of me, swerving about all over the road.
Two, thankfully uneventful, hours later I pulled in the car park of the Royal Oak at Great Dalby. As the bike stopped and the centrifugal clutch let go I heard the most awful terminal rattle. The big end had gone! I decide to have lunch before calling the RAC. Then a thought occurred. The last maintenance but one was on the flywheel. The cover came off and sure enough the flywheel was loose to the touch. Luckily I had packed the sump plug tool that fits the square hole in the cap. Fats Domino's 'On Blueberry Hill' was playing as a lad and two young girls on the next table discussed themselves in terms of hushed reverence. Why do such overheard conversations always make me feel so old? I buried my head under the salad garnish of a Stilton ploughman's lunch.
The countryside was ochre, looking tired under the strain of the great heat of the last month. There were almost no green fields. Acres upon acres of dull yellow stubble were parted by thin lines of dark dusty hedges. Quite a number of the trees had been thrust rudely into autumn colours by the drought. My route took me to the east of the M1 in a long curve around the towns of Mansfield, Nottingham and Leicester. I went through Melton Mowbray and then down the delightfully twisting and rolling B6047 to Market Harborough. There, while I was taking a short stroll to ease my sore posterior, the heavily laden Moby dug a stand leg into the tarmac and fell over against a lamppost. When I got back there was a strong odour of petroil and a small rip in the cherished white saddle. Wailing and gnashing of teeth was followed by the philosophical thought that this is an honourable scar - a physical reminder of the pains of The Great Journey. Another physical reminder of the pains of The Great Journey occurred as I gingerly settled my behind on the plank-like surface of the said seat.
After Northampton the clutch began to sound very dry when disengaged and I searched unsuccessfully for someone or something to put a little grease into its central nipple. At a car spares shop I bought an anti-drumming sheet to try and stop a most annoying reverberation between the pulley cover and a side panel that was slowly but surely driving me insane. By 6pm I arrived at the camp site behind the Cross Keys in the aptly named village of Pilloxhill, six miles north of Luton.
It's a good run is the Chiltern 100. There are a number of NACC regulars, Andy Day and Bev Crook for instance, though not usually on NACC eligible machines. It's a hilly route and anything two-stroke is welcome. The run attracts a few regular overnighters. This year there were eleven campers and two more in a local B+B. One of the attractions of the run is two long evenings in the pub without any need to worry about driving home. Round about 45 bikes and a Trabant turned out. There were two routes: 68 or 29 miles. It always seems to me that after all that riding it would be an insult to do the short route, so 68 miles it was. A certain amount of pedalling was called for and the so-called 1-in-8 Church Road Only had me standing on the pedals as the engine dropped out of its power band. Trying to keep up with bigger bikes was interesting. For a while, every time a group of riders on larger Villiers singles (one or two with pillions) stopped at traffic lights or junctions I caught them up, only to be lost again in a cloud of blue smoke at the next incline. Eventually they and I stopped at the bottom of a hill to turn over the route sheet and I never saw them again. Somehow though, they arrived back at the rally field after I did. It was reassuring to find that map reading skills in the BTSC are no better than those in the NACC. At the prize giving the Moby was judged to have won Best Pedal Assisted (for which read "Only Pedal Assisted") and Furthest Travelled. I had also promised Sheila that if the Moby made it I would buy it a BTSC machine badge. McCupid is now more bedecked with campaign medals than your average Chelsea pensioner.
That evening a cold wind sprang up so that Dave Brain and I had to build ourselves a kitchen out of some old pallets. The day of the return dawned fine and sunny but with the wind unabated. I left at 10am and the old Moby struggled gallantly back. We paused at the village of Naseby to lunch and pay a lonely visit to the battle site of 1645. I can't claim to have heard the clash of Cavalier and Roundhead swords reverberating over the parched stubble of that shallow depression where the battle took place but the last sentence of the commemorative plaque finishes with the chilling words "by nightfall the road to Leicester was lined with bodies". As the Mobylette chugged gently northwards up the now peaceful lane towards Sibbertoft it was difficult not to see the bloody dead sprawled heedlessly on the long brown verges.
With the wind against us the 'delightful' B6047 turned out to be something of a trial. The clutch area began to sound even more rattly with the noise now continuing after take up. As I opened the throttle for a grateful blast down into Melton Mowbray the only involuntary stop occurred when a presumably overheated engine would not tick-over or restart at the traffic lights. I took out the plug, which was as clean as a whistle, and finding nothing wrong put it back again. Thankfully the old Moby pedalled back into life and we were off again. At Ollerton, with only about 25 miles to go, I banged the handlebar with my hand chanting "Yes, yes, yes" to the receding backs of the unheeding cars. It was 5pm. Another hour and I would be home.
The next morning the Moby restarted with one turn of its tired pedals. 330 miles in three days with rider and camping gear had not defeated it. The 'terminal' clutch noises turned out to be, at least in part, a pulley cover that had fractured in one place and cracked in four others. The new exhaust port O-ring had provided a better seal but the engine was still covered in burnt two stroke oil. Still, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It wasn't really a Great Journey, nor even perhaps a significant achievement, but getting that derelict wreck bought in Scotland for £45 to carry me such a distance in so short a time has left me with a lingering satisfaction. A sense of self-reliance that we can all do with from time to time. If you like being outdoors, three days on the byways of England isn't so hard a penance. There wasn't any real pain and if I didn't actually discover anything, the experience remains enduringly vivid. If you haven't already done so, seek out your own Long Ride and try it.
First published - February 1996
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