I traveled to London in the late '60s and bought a motorcycle with the money my mother had given me to keep for an emergency. It was a BSA 650 Lightning Rocket, one of the last of its kind, and though plagued with vibrations, it could go as fast as I wanted to take it. Two carburetors, chrome fenders and a bulbous fuel tank that was chrome on top and fire-engine red on the sides distinguished the Lightning Rocket. Gold starbursts, one on each side of the tank, were on all BSA motorcycles; lightning bolts shot forward from the starbursts, gold flames spurted out behind. I drove it at 140 mph once, something over 6,000 rpms, I would guess.
The sensation of speed, of limitless acceleration, commenced just over 50 and ceased somewhere between 90 and 100. Near 100 you know that helmets don't matter. The predominant feeling is fear—for me the unforgettable image of star-bursts and flesh melted into bent steel, like a lumpy fondue.
As the rpms rise, so does the engine noise, until the overwhelming rush of air at 100 mph makes the experience somehow, perversely, quieter. At that speed, the driver must crouch as low as possible into the fuel tank to avoid creating an air scoop. At 120 the air tingles; at 140 God speaks, or so it seems, and deceleration takes as much careful thought, as much effort, as reaching top speed.
The road from London to Dover passes the castle at Canterbury and the white cliffs, with sea gulls screaming, before reaching the terminal of the Ostend ferry. From Ostend to Paris, trees line the road like sentries. Paris, I discovered, is not a motorcyclist's city.
April 16, 1979
From Paris to Bordeaux, the countryside is again pastoral, peopled with farmers, truck drivers and barkeeps who know all about coming off the road for a cigarette and a glass of wine to ease the knots at the base of the neck. South of Bordeaux, I saw two men sitting at roadside next to a motorcycle, and I stopped to offer help. "Just resting," the younger one said. He was an American, riding an old Triumph 650 Thunderbird, the only touring motorcycle Triumph built. Big and black, its fender cowlings curled into running boards, it had saddlebag mounts, a roll bar and a ride like a Cadillac's.
John was from Los Angeles; his older companion, Bruno, was from Rome. "Picked him up hitching," John said.
"Hitch," Bruno said, showing his thumb as he smiled and nodded.
"He doesn't speak English too good," John said, "but he's got French and Spanish." Bruno smiled and nodded again. "We're hauling out of France," John said. "Too expensive." He was right; a dollar changed to five francs then, and five francs bought half a cheese sandwich—except they weren't sold in halves. Roadside wine was less, but still ran two francs a glass. We agreed to ride together to Spain.
"In Spain, everything is cheaper," Bruno promised, so we all rode fast, long hours. Bruno drove both cycles to spell John and me, and betrayed his secret belief in magic Americans, who are rich in any other man's country even if poor in their own. We laughed when Bruno complained of mos-kweetos. He stammered when asked which moto he liked best, shrugged and fidgeted and promised to decide. He said he knew he could go two weeks on nothing but bread and milk, had done it and could again. He spoke little English and had little to say otherwise, except to negotiate for the three of us. His hand waved if pleased with the terms offered, his face scowled if he was angry or insulted. Then he came to John and me to tell us how we had fared, what the price would be for gas, for food, for a place to sleep.
In the south of France sits the town of Biarritz, next to San Sebastian, its little Spanish sister. After two days' hard riding and little eating, we could almost taste the herrings in oil, the horsemeat sandwiches, goat cheese and cheap wine that awaited us across the border. Light headed, we cat-and-moused, throttled down and speeded up, ran figure eights until, 10 miles from Biarritz, my clutch cable broke near the lever. Coasting and kicking into neutral, our little party stopped.
A motorcycle can be driven clutchless if the driver is sensitive to engine sound and can hear when the engine and transmission are ready to take a shift. Even so, shifting is not smooth but must be muscled up and down with an unavoidable crunch of gears. The cable had to be fixed. So we limped into Biarritz, John driving the BSA since he was the far more experienced driver. I drove the Triumph.
We soon discovered that no word in provincial France translates to motorcycle. The word moto encompasses anything with two wheels and an engine, from mopeds to Lightning Rockets. Our best prospect, we were told, was a moped fix-it shop somewhere in the back alleys of the town. We found the shop. Its door opened directly onto the street and mopeds poured out like hatchling mantises. Tired and hungry, we saw little indication of hope, only dozens of 50-cc. mopeds.
But an old man—old but not aged—came to the door inquisitively, nose up to the sound of big motorcycles like a hound scenting game. He was over six feet tall with yellow-white hair and a flushed red face, in the center of which was a great French nose. He wore a once-white jump suit, and his hands looked like cypress knees, gnarled and weatherworn. As he watched us, urchins tumbled out of the shop and swarmed around us and the old man, tittering and touching the big motos. Bruno spoke to the old man, and we showed him the limp clutch lever, the broken cable. His brow wrinkled. He scratched, then spoke to Bruno. We heard the word "London" and were prepared when Bruno gave us the news: the clutch cable was a one-piece part, from the lever to the clutch. The old man had none to fit, but if he called that day to London, a new one would arrive within three weeks.
We hung our heads, mumbled maledictions and paced in circles. The old man watched, then raised both hands and conveyed to us that we should leave the moto with him overnight, go find a place to sleep. We asked him where we might unroll our sleeping bags, and he directed us to a bluff off a secondary road that overlooked a beach partially sheltered by half-grown bushes and small trees.
"Allez!" the old man laughed. "Vite! Vite!" shooing us back from all the urchins who howled when we three mounted the old Thunderbird, burdening her shocks springless, and rode off around the corner. We stopped and bought a big can that was labeled SAUERKRAUT in small letters under a large picture of sauerkraut and sausage. That's for us, we agreed, and bought mustard and bread and two bottles of wine but drank one on the curb for fortitude before mounting up again.
We made camp and discovered no sausage in the can, so we ate sauerkraut and mustard sandwiches on fresh French bread, drank wine and smoked Gauloises. The sandwiches were memorable, and we drank and smoked ourselves quite free of broken clutch cables and the high cost of France. We awoke in morning mist to find snails sliming across our sleeping bags like cartographers. More sandwiches and wine and cigarettes for breakfast, then into town for coffee.
At nine we arrived at the shop. The BSA still sat out front exactly as it had been left. The old man, bright-eyed, ruddy-faced, came out on hearing us and raised both hands as though we were all the best of friends, finally united again. He and Bruno spoke and walked together toward the BSA, hands waving in communication. One hand squeezed the clutch lever to show us it was repaired. Incredulous, I squeezed it, too, then saw what he had done. Each thread of the cable, maybe 20 strands, had been welded back onto the metal plug from which it had been severed. Delicate as clockwork, the threads were attached so the cable and splice could slide through the eighth-inch cable guide as smoothly as before.
John and I examined and reexamined it. The old man would not look at his work again but walked back into the shop with Bruno. When Bruno called us in, the old man led us to the back of the garage, then even farther back to a part of the shop that was not a garage but rooms for quiet after-hours. The walls were covered with photographs of a man over six feet tall with dark hair and a big nose, wearing a jump suit and standing in front of one motorcycle or another with a trophy in his hands. There were 100 motorcycles in 100 different pictures. Then the old man showed us his trophies, or the few that were left, bent, dented and tarnished.
We walked out front again and asked to settle up. "Combien?" I asked.
"Cinq francs," he said.
"Oui, oui, oui, oui, oui. Cinq francs." A dollar. I paid the five francs.
"Merci. Merci beaucoup...."
"Rien!" It is nothing, he insisted. We lashed our gear, and I mounted the BSA, turned the key and kicked it over. As the engine revved, the old man tilted an ear down as though to hear what it had to tell him.
The old head was tilted like an unsure but curious pup's. I revved again, dismounted and held a hand up to the old man until he saw me nod. "Oui" he said, nodded and smiled. He stood there watching, listening. "Oui, oui." He mounted, revved and revved, to learn the time between himself and the machine.
He squeezed the clutch lever, not looking at it, found first gear and eased the lever out and the cycle moved slowly up the street. When the engine began to roar, the old man did not hesitate but shifted up to second, roared again and double-clutched into third. He was doing nearly 60 approaching the corner, when he double-clutched back down to second, leaned for the corner until the footpeg scraped the pavement and threw up sparks. Then we could not see him but heard him come out of the turn winding up, shifting, winding up, shifting, winding up and away.