Single Track Mind: A Memorable Autumn

December 6, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Being on an island surrounded by sea and wind, our weather is very variable in Britain. That’s why we’re obsessed with it. In fact, if you ever visit England and want to bond with the natives, simply mention the weather and you will be immediately treated as one of the family.

Following a non-existent summer this year in Britain  motorcycle sales were bolstered by a warmer autumn.
Professor Melling during climate research this fall aboard his Suzuki V-Strom. Thankfully, an atrocious English summer was followed by perfect autumn riding weather.

Meanwhile, the conversation with a Navajo lady in Monument Valley might well get a little constrained. “Well, Doli, what do you think of the weather today?”
“Well, Frank, it’s pretty damned hot and dusty – same as yesterday in fact…”
The same conversation in England can go on for hours since, during the first 10 minutes, the weather is very likely to have changed completely.

The practical implication of this situation is that it is equally easy to be either pro the Global Warming hypothesis – or anti Global Warming. If you’re the government of the day and want to raise taxes so a gallon of gas costs $9.50 (and no, that’s not a misprint) in order to protect penguins in the Antarctic, you can quote the abysmally cold, wet and miserable summer we had – explaining that the freezing days, and arctic nights, were a result of the aberrant weather patterns caused by Global Warming.

The great joy is that you can just as easily insist that the most wonderfully warm Autumn we have enjoyed was also the result of Global Warming.

I’m not a climatologist, but it does seem that the Global Warming advocates do want to have their cake and eat it – at least those bits of the cake they’re not selling to us at usurious prices because of the obscene levels of taxation.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
We enjoyed autumn here in the US too (riding Blue Ridge Mountains during V-Strom 650 press intro). But to hear Frank tell it, the good weather in England literally saved some dealers in the beleaguered British market from closing shop.

Regardless, the bike trade really took a big hit during the summer. Carol and I looked at the rain lashing our cottage windows, and the trees bent double in the howling winds, and simply didn’t feel like riding. It’s not that I can’t ride in the wet – in fact, I quite like the challenge of wet roads – or that we would have got soaked, which we wouldn’t in modern riding gear. Rather, it was as basic as going for a ride in full winter gear in the height of summer just didn’t hold any attraction.

It seems that we weren’t the only ones in this frame of mind. Showrooms were empty; accessory sales plummeted and profits dropped so hard that they caused earth tremors.

Then along came the most wonderful Autumn. Temperatures rose, the sun shone all day and suddenly we just had to ride. And what wonderful riding it was too. The warm weather caused the trees to hold on to their gold and brown leaves and we sat next to mountain lakes, having a sandwich and a coffee, realizing why motorcycling is such a wonderful experience.

There must have been many prayers of thanks throughout bike showrooms all over the country because, suddenly, they were full of customers buying riding gear, having bikes serviced and placing orders for 2012 offerings.
Whether motorcycle dealers have Global Warming, or the fact that we live on an island, to thank for this blessing is open to question, but what is for sure is that the six weeks of benign weather have quite literally kept a lot of bike shops in business. Had it been a harsh, and early, Autumn there would have been 20% fewer dealers by now than there were at the start of the 2011.

New Trails

It was pretty shocking – not to say a thing of wonder and sheer delight on my part – when I realized I had been riding for 50 years. In fact, my Mum confiscated my first bike – for alleged dangerous riding (I still maintain my innocence even to this day) when I was 10 years old and I’ve been with motorcycles ever since. But 50 years is a long time, so I decided to learn a new skill this summer: sailing a dinghy.

Turning to sailing for a new hobby  Frank Melling experienced the thrill of being a newbie again.
After a half century in the saddle, our vintage motorcycling expert becomes newbie again – this time on the water.

The first thing which struck me – maybe shocked would be a more apposite expression – was that I was entering a world which was completely new to me. I didn’t know the pointy end of a boat from the blunt bit and this got me to thinking how new potential motorcyclists feel when they first meet a bike.

My experience, as the most raw boating virgin, really got me thinking about how we treat beginners in the bike world – and I think that we can learn a lot from our aquatic friends.

The first thing was to learn to sail. In Britain, there are numerous courses – literally hundreds – run under the auspices of the Royal Yachting Association. You don’t need to take one of these lessons, as you do to gain a bike licence, but since drowning wasn’t high on my “must do” list for 2011, I paid up – and what a rewarding experience it was too.

After a very pleasant hour in the classroom – full of smiles and good humor – I was out on a lake with my instructor and sailing. I was allowed to “captain” the boat right from the moment we left shore and so the fun started immediately. That’s an important lesson for us in the bike industry to learn: let learners begin with a smile.

Every moment of the four day course was based on enjoyment. As Steve, my instructor, said: “You’re here to learn a new skill and enjoy yourself – not to spend a day at work.” Maybe there’s lesson two for us in the way we teach beginners.

Not that Steve was lax or tolerant of safety errors. In order to get my Level 2 certificate, effectively a “driving license” for boats which enables the holder to rent sail boats, I had to undertake my “man overboard” drill until my hands were red raw. As Steve said, picking someone up from the water could be a lifesaving exercise so I had to learn to the do the task perfectly.

With so many die-hard motorcycle enthusiasts out there  why isnt there more effort to recruit new riders
Riding motorcycles is inherently fun. But can the same be said of getting into motorcycling and learning to ride?

But there were some rather startling differences between mastering a motorcycle and a boat. At one stage, the wind picked up and things started to get rather frisky. We were fairly skimming along and a boat containing two teenagers cut right across us. I was far too slow reacting so we ran over them and one of the youths got spat into the water.

I was traumatized but Steve never batted an eyelid. “The water’s warm and it will teach them to learn their “right of way” rules.”

Which I’m sure was scant comfort to young man bobbing up and down in the water while his mate rolled around in the boat laughing at him. Somehow, I think that mowing down your fellow student – even if you did have right of way – would make the tyro motorcycle student rather unpopular.

Following my positive experiences Carol decided to join in the fun because she was so taken by the relaxed nature of the sport. Had I not enjoyed myself that would have been the end of sailing. Here’s yet another lesson for us. Get new riders hooked and then keep them with us by making them feel one of the motorcycling fraternity.

We then went on to hire a range of boats before we bought one of our own – which we haven’t yet – and there was another big shock awaiting us. Everyone we talked to was encouraging and friendly without a hint of the tribalism and, I have to say, snobbish attitude which one often finds in the bike world.

And before anyone says anything, yes I am as culpable as anyone else. I love lean, light, tightly focused race bikes, or functional AT motorcycles, and so tend to sneer quietly at V-Twin owners plodding round with fake German helmets on their heads or, worse still, a bandana for protection.

We just never found this tribalism in the sailing community. The only concern from the people we spoke to was that we should have a good time and sail safely. Even talking to an ex-World Champion sailor – who never even mentioned his success or status – we were treated with a courtesy and warmth which was quite a shock coming from the bike world.

Finally, the boat dealers were outstanding. Yes, we could test sail any of their boats which were within our competence. Yes, they would be pleased to help with more information, brochures and delivery. In fact, the true (waterproof) red carpet was laid down for two absolute beginners.

The Matchless G.50 Prophet  Frank calls upon all riders to do their part proselytizing the two-wheeled creedo.
The Matchless G.50 Prophet, Frank calls upon all riders to do their part proselytizing the two-wheeled creed.

Do we do the same thing for neophyte motorcyclists? I seriously doubt it.

Despite all its attractions, and the wonderful welcome we have been given, sailing isn’t 10% as good as riding a bike and this raises another major question for us to consider. We all know that riding a bike is the nearest thing to heaven on earth so why aren’t we out there recruiting?

For me, having the back tire of our G.50 scrabbling for grip as I balance the bike on the throttle at 100 mph is truly a spiritual experience with which nothing can compare.

For Bryan Harley, our Cruiser Editor, a great trip on a thumping V-Twin no doubt offers the same heights of ecstasy whilst MCUSA Boss of All Bosses, VP Ken Hutchison, will drop everything for the opportunity to ride the latest Superbike to the edge of its, and sometimes his, life.

So here is the question: If we, of the motorcycle fraternity, know that we have the best pastime/recreation/hobby/addiction in the world, why are we not more evangelical and recruiting new members every day? I really would like to know your answer.