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Half crazy

Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time... Andrew English joined the National Autocycle and Cyclemotor Club on its annual Coast-to-Coast Run

It started with a drink.  Quite a lot of drink, actually.  In fact, I seem to remember that the bottle of Laphroaig was empty, the hearth was cool and the dog had gone to bed by the time we had laughingly decided on what was bound to be Britain's most boring club magazine (although we had never seen it).  Which did the organ of the National Autocycle and Cyclemotor Club, Buzzing, something of an injustice.  As I was to find out...

Several months later, my brother William, fellow imbiber and magazine traducer, sent me my birthday present: membership of, er, the National Autocycle and Cyclemotor Club (NACC), together with a couple of copies of Buzzing.  Gotcha!

But far from the desperate tome we had envisaged, Buzzing was gripping stuff, filled with long-lost mechanical details, diary notes from Les Amis du Vélosolex and, in the first issue I read, details of the annual Coast-to-Coast Run.

In Danté-esque tones, the correspondent described participants on tiny machines, whipped by cruel winds as they ascended the formidable Hartside bank.  Joseph Conrad would have been proud of the evocation of water spuming off the top of dry-stone walls, threatening primitive ignition electrics and the very being of these intrepid heroes.

And before you snigger and laugh (as I once did) at a club that exists to preserve the fabric and legend of long-forgotten motorised bicycles such as the BSA Winged Wheel, the Mini-Motor and the Cyclemaster, it's perhaps worth recalling that it was with machines such as these that most of today's motorcycle makers came into being.

The very first Ducati was just such a contraption, the Cucciolo, and if you can find a 48cc Maserati Il Rospo machine from the 1950s it will set you back about £5,000.  We might all be familiar with the onion-draped French Vélosolex or Sir Clive Sinclair's Zike, but what about the Excelsior Autobyk, the ABG, the Buzy Bee clip-on, the Cyclaid or the catchily titled Cyc-Auto?  As NACC machine registrar (and Coast-to-Coast organiser) David Casper says, "When we last counted, we had well over 350 marques and more than 1,000 different machines on our books; many of them were one-offs."

These tiny machines come from all over Europe, Japan and America, with no particular defining historical period. They were born out of austerity, before and after the Second World War, but they were also the product of engineers' dreams of the simplest possible motorised machine and cyclists' hatred of hills.

Nor should you write off their riders.  As Telegraph Motoring contributor Simon Relph said, "You'll probably find they'll have a monster 180mph Rickman Metisse in the garage, but at weekends all they want to do is ride their Cyclemasters."

As for the inclusion of mopeds and even small motorcycles such as BSA Bantams, Coventry Eagles and Jameses into the NACC, club chairman Andrew Roddham has a refreshingly unpolitical qualification: "As long as they're gutless, we'll accept them."

So, after several years' membership of the NACC and some great reading, William and I resolved to do its blue riband event, the Coast-to-Coast Run - all 142 miles and two days of it.  Andrew Roddham provided our steed.  It was an unused loft find, a 49cc, one horsepower, one cylinder, two-stroke Mini-Motor from the early 1950s, designed by Piaggio in Italy, produced under licence by Trojan in Britain and fitted to the back wheel of an an Indian-made Pashley tandem.  Plus Fours from Old Hat in the Fulham Road, helmets from Davida, aviator goggles from Holdens and stout lace-ups completed our painstaking preparation.  "Have you ever ridden a tandem?" asked Will, casually, the day before the off.  I shook my head.  "Neither have I," he said.

David Casper's acceptance letter for our entry had been masterfully understated: "When first viewed, the route may seem quite daunting for riders of low-powered machines, however, no real problems exist and the route can be covered quite comfortably with only occasional resort to pedal assistance - the secret is to start pedalling well before the need arises."  The term Light Pedal Assistance, or LPA, is used in NACC circles with heavy irony.

The route, we learnt, was one of two well-cycled, cross-country courses, although most cyclists go the opposite way, from west to east, to make use of the prevailing winds.  Doing things the hard way, as Will and I were to find out, is something of an NACC trait.

At 10am on a Saturday in June, we tentatively lined up for the start on the sand dunes at Blackhall Rocks near Hartlepool.

"'Ere, do you remember that time you broke down 50 yards after the start?" joked Steve Cobb (Puch MS50V) to fellow participant Dave Evans (on a similar Puch).

"Har! Har! Do I ever - that'd be a bit of a record!" laughed Dave.

Just yards from the start and still in the car park, Will and I shattered Dave's record, twice.  We trod manfully on the pedals, hoping to raise enough speed to start the Mini-Motor, and promptly lost the drive chain.  We started again and this time lost the drive chain and three teeth from first gear.  By the time we wobbled out on to the main road, the rest of the field had disappeared.

"Which way?" shouted Will, on the front.  Back in the engine room, I quickly learnt the art of pedalling with no hands on the bars, while reading the somewhat confusing route book.

As we pedalled downhill against a stiff headwind, the mighty Mini-Motor finally burbled into life.  It's worth remembering here that a reasonably fit person can give a fairly consistent 0.6 horsepower when pedalling, so Will and I were putting out at least one horsepower.  The Mini-Motor should match that, but only if it is in peak condition and only when its tiny crank is spinning at a sufficient speed.  In other words, the faster you go, the more power the motor gives.

However, when you really need it, going up steep hills, the motor gives far less power.  This trait wasn't helped by Roddham's "super-speed advanced ignition timing", which meant that uphill it was as effective as a boat anchor and downhill it would go beserk, pushing the unstable tandem to dizzying speeds.  It was also spectacularly unreliable, still using its 50-year-old ignition system with a condenser that needed a breather every 10 miles, with rust in the tank that periodically blocked the tiny carburettor and what Casper wryly called "a self-whiskering spark plug".  "These are machines that only just work," commented Will, himself an engineer.

Then there was the tandem itself.  With a five-speed Derailleur gear system seemingly made of Bakelite, we'd completely lost the use of fifth and first gears within the first five miles.

On the rare occasions people followed us, they reported alarming amounts of frame twisting as we pedalled.  The seat/handlebar/pedal geometry meant that the front rider could hardly get a purchase on the pedals and minimal front fork rake gave scarily direct steering.

By the tenth mile of steady climbing from the beach, I was panting, with a steady drip of sweat from the rim of my helmet.  Similarly lathered, Will puffed encouragement from the front, but as we later jointly confessed, we were thinking: "What in hell's name possessed us to do this?"

Then the motor stopped...

In these circumstances, you can, of course, stop and disengage the Mini-Motor, but that loses precious momentum and negates the possibility that the machine might choose to rejoin the proceedings.  So we pedalled up the considerable slope of Shildon High Street, turning the engine against compression.  Not since leaving the Forces have I worked so hard for so long.

Every turn of the pedals was a struggle and, at times, the tandem threatened to topple over.  I could feel my strength sloughing off and my breath came hoarsely through a grotesquely twisted mouth, but I couldn't give in until Will did; he is my younger brother, after all.

At least Casper managed keep a grin off his face when he found us at the top of the hill.  "Are you sure a Mini-Motor has done this route before?" we croaked, when we'd regained the will to live.  "Er, I think one bloke did it on a Mini-Motor in a day, a few years ago," said David.  "He was going to retrace his route the following day, but he just collapsed in his tent in Whitehaven; no one saw him again."  It's nice to know these things.

Of course, we dropped farther and farther behind the pack.  The pedal broke, the motor stopped again, then the motor overheated, then the chain fell off, twice.  Under the circumstances, our fellows were extraordinarily patient.

On arrival at each checkpoint, they would ask in sotto voce: "Where's the tandem?" When we arrived they would break into spontaneous applause and through the tears of laughter, I'm sure I could sense their concern.

It got better, of course.  By the afternoon, with about 50 miles under our wheels, Will and I were in the foothills of the Pennines ("Don't worry, the valleys run east-west in these parts," joked Roddham) and starting to get into the groove.  We'd learnt not to hurry the gear-change, to accelerate the machine up to a pace where the motor was giving of its best and fraternal telepathy allowed us to stop and start pedalling at the same time.  We were even enjoying the beauty of the North Lakes, discussing, between gasps, which house we would buy when we sold Roddham into white slavery.

Then the motor stopped...

This time it looked terminal, even to commander Roddham.  Acutely conscious of our fellow riders waiting for us, we stuffed Will and the tandem into the back of Casper's purpose-built VW camper and I rode Roddham's Coventry Eagle for the last 20 miles into Alston, along with Telegraph contributor and team van driver Dave Selby, who had taken to Casper's Puch Maxi.

As Dave said afterwards: "These machines are too fast.  You can't see anything at 25mph, you need to be doing 15; that's the right speed."

Will and I had acquired a strange gait on Alston's hilly cobbles that night and it was nothing to do with the beer.  We jealously examined the splendid 1930s tandem in the Hub Vintage Transport Exhibition, especially its sturdy half-inch drive chain and twin steering.  No chance of swapping, however; tomorrow it was the big bank at Hartside, all 1,903ft of it.  After our experiences so far, neither neither of us felt up to this formidable climb.

The following day, commander Roddham was up with the larks to fix our bike.  After mending a puncture, stripping the carb, checking the timing and fiddling with indescribably fiddly things, he appeared at breakfast claiming to have been up and down Hartside.  "In my opinion it's working as well as you would expect of a standard Mini-Motor," he announced before settling down to bacon and eggs.

Will and I took no chances, setting out on aching legs 10 minutes before the pack.  The tiny motor blared into life, taking the edge off the pedalling as we approached the cloud base on the lower slopes.  Perhaps it was the cool temperatures, perhaps sheer bloody-minded determination, but we just kept on pedalling, calling the stroke to each other like Boat Race coxes, determined to get to the summit first.  It was never easy, but we both felt right on top of it, never letting the engine labour or exhausting our legs, sucking greedily at the moisture-laden air.  As we neared the summit, commander Roddham appeared, his noisy Coventry Eagle fussing like a hen; a couple of the Puchs also came past, but we could see the cafe and with a final burst of speed we turned in.

"Twenty-six minutes from Alston; that's impressive," said the commander, rather too grudgingly in my opinion.

From there to lunch was easy.  Well, when I say easy, there was the descent, juggling the light-switch throttle, ephemeral brakes and terrifying steering.  There was the breakdown in Penrith when the exhaust came loose and, after its exemplary performance on Hartside, the Mini-Motor had adopted an Italian footballer's sulk and was never as strong again.

Nevertheless, we made the Bassenthwaite stop in time for lunch, where the fantastic spreads at the Sun Inn merit a very special commendation.  Then Selby announced that he would be partnering me on the tandem for the 25-mile run to the sea at Whitehaven.  My heart sank.

With 18 hours less tandem experience than Will and I, Dave never got to grips with the principles of pedalling before it was needed (in fact he wasn't much cop at pedalling at all), missing potholes, changing gear or nursing the engine, which became grumpier and more intermittent.  True, there were high points, like the beautiful scenery and the gorgeous, scantily-clad triathlon girls pedalling the other way round Bassenthwaite Lake, but eventually, and almost inevitably, the motor died some 10 miles short of Whitehaven.

Dave flopped down like a beached tanker, while I sweatily stripped the carburettor.  Just when I thought we might be able to get going again, Dave got up, marched into a nearby house to get a drink of water and returned with a charming old bloke who wanted to talk about the tandem.  "No time for that, we've got to get going," I protested.  But Dave was more than happy to be off the iron horse and there was talk of tea and possibly even cakes.

"I think I remember one like that when I was young" the old bloke started saying.  Dave beamed like William Brown locked in a Mr Kipling factory.

We had broken down just below the crest of a hill and from far away I could hear what sounded like a electrified beehive approaching.  "I'd get off the road if I were you," I said sharply to Dave, who had sunk into a reverie of ham and turkey sandwiches, Victoria sponge and bottles of pop.

The sinister noise grew sharper and louder.  "Get off the road, NOW!" I yelled.  Dave ambled onto the verge just as a Honda FireBlade wheelied over the crest of the hill doing well over 100mph and making a noise like all the Furies in hell.

It was followed by a Suzuki GSX-R and something else on race exhausts, both with their front wheels at least two feet off the deck.  I boggled at the sheer foolhardiness of the three riders, but the old chap just saw the funny side.

"I bet your bike won't go like that," he said, grinning from ear to ear.

Addled by the mad bikers from hell, hot and exasperated, I lost it.  "WE'RE LATE, PEOPLE ARE WAITING FOR US AND I DON'T WANT TO HEAR ANYTHING MORE ABOUT TEA!  NOW GET ON THAT BLOODY TANDEM AND GET PEDALLING!" I shouted.

I must have presented a terrible sight, red in face and helmet, grimy, dripping with sweat and smelling like a petrol pump.  Dave and the old bloke stepped back and exchanged a meaningful glance, then Dave climbed back on the tandem.

Of course our arrival in Whitehaven was something of an anti-climax.  David Casper and fellow participants Andrew Pattle (an intrepid ride on a 35cc Bianchi Aquilotto), Sharon and Martin Wikner (Puch Maxi, taking in the Coast-to-Coast while doing John o'Groats to Land's End) and Sheila Brown (Mobylette) applauded.

My legs felt like Play Doh.  I wearily apologised to Selby and Will and made as if to throw the tandem into the harbour.  Commander Roddham didn't bat an eyelid.  "Doing this run will have put value on his machine," whispered Casper.  "At least 35p."

No publicity machine invited us on this run; we barged our way in pure and simple.  And while I might be a member of the NACC, Casper and his organising team must have realised that a national newspaper journalist would find this tiny club event an almost irresistible opportunity to sharpen his wit and find a million new ways of saying "sad anoraks".  But they welcomed me, William, Dave Selby and photographer Jeff Gilbert just the same and looked after us just as they did the rest of the field, perhaps even better.

And do you know, these people have more than a secret existence; they have another and altogether more charming world of their own.  Mounted on their gastropodic machines they see things we ordinary mortals barely glimpse as we flash by in our motorised cocoons.  With their painstaking restorations and curatorship of a long forgotten means of transport, they concern themselves with things of which we have only a dim understanding.

What's more, they have fun doing it.

So what more do you want?  A new pair of legs, maybe?

First published in the Daily Telegraph Motoring Supplement, 6 July 2002

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