#317 Seemed like a good idea…

A moment of long-ago pleasure led to a lifetime of pain and ultimately a question about the sport touring class. Where has it gone?

Seemed like a good idea…

Prevented by poor eyesight from getting a private pilot’s licence, my buddy Dave is determined to fly—one way or another. So it is that we fetch up at Halfpenny Green airfield outside Birmingham, England on a bright Friday afternoon in June 1971. We’re planning to step out of a perfectly good aeroplane at 7,000 feet. Our initial training requires we repeatedly jump off a vaulting horse and roll on the ground. Next…equipment.
There’s a rule among jumpers that you pack your own ‘chute. So we learn to straighten and fold the vast, unruly expanse of silk that constitutes a war surplus “Double L” parachute, and feed it correctly into its pack. Sunday, the day of our first drop, arrives with a blustery breeze. We’re grounded until it moderates.
It’s important to know that most parachutes, left to themselves, fly forward (driven in our case by two L-shaped vents in the back). That’s why we learn to roll when we land, to dissipate that forward momentum. At around five knots, though, our LLs are slow compared with modern sport canopies, which “fly” at many times that speed.
By afternoon, the wind has dropped, and our group files into an aircraft even older than our ‘chutes: a 1930s Dragon Rapide biplane. The rest is a blur. We take off and climb for 15 minutes or so. Then, in turn, we clamber onto the wing, gripping the struts—and let go. My chute, deployed automatically by a line attached to the Rapide, billows above me, and I drift downward.
I’m doing everything as instructed. I steer to the “DZ” (drop zone) and turn the canopy into the wind. What I don’t know—the wind has picked up to about 15 knots, so I hit the ground going backward at 10 knots. We haven’t been trained for this; inevitably, my butt hits the deck hard, and I’m soundly winded.
I don’t sleep that night: the pain in my back is excruciating. I cadge a lift to nearby Bridgnorth hospital and check into emergency. No one tells me what the X-ray reveals, but I sneak a look: “comp frac T7. PoP corset.” Standing naked, I’m told to hang on to a bar above my head while the technician winds yards of wet plaster bandage around me from my armpits to my butt. I wear that corset for six weeks.
The point of this protracted preamble is, since then I’ve had a bad back. Not the ubiquitous lower backache that most people get, but a needling twinge that grows into a searing pain—if I sit or stand too long in the wrong position. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like riding cruisers. That folded, foot-forward posture guarantees I’ll be popping painkillers like M&Ms within an hour. I’ve discovered that the most comfortable riding position for me, and one I can hold for many hours without a twinge from my seventh thoracic vertebra, is on sport touring motorcycles. In the late 1990s, I worked as a tour guide with Rocky Mountain Motorcycle Holidays. Our fleet was all-Triumph, including touring Trophy 900s, Thunderbirds, Speed Triples, and the then-new Sprint ST. The ST worked perfectly for me. So I bought one.
Then came Ewan, Charley, and their Long Way Round. The default sport-touring motorcycle is now a big dually with its upright riding position and weight split between butt and feet, but almost none on the hands. I’ve ridden most of them: BMW 1200 and 800GS, Triumph Tigers, Multistradas, etc., and my Sprint ST has idled in the garage while I toured around on a Cagiva Elefant. But the back pain would always grow until I had to take a break.
Then in early October, I pulled out the ST, insured it and spent five days riding to and around BC’s Okanagan Valley. It was like putting on a favourite old sweater; familiar, comfortable, and no pain. Then I got to thinking about all the great sport touring motorcycles that have disappeared from the catalogues: the ST, of course; Ducati’s sweet-handling ST3; BMW’s F800 ST; and (though never sold in Canada) Aprilia’s fast and lively Futura. When the adventure bike boom inevitably busts, will sport-touring bikes make a comeback? I guess for my back and me, they never really went away.

Okay, Rich Burgess: here’s my application for Geezers MC (Read, ‘The C-Note’ June 2015).
I sometimes have to convince myself it wasn’t a dream. But it really happened. Before London’s M4 Motorway and a housing estate carved up Heston Farm, it was a favourite hangout for us 15-year-old miscreants, where we smoked, told lies and perpetrated endless mischief. But on this one blessed summer day, a miracle. Lying on its side, half hidden in a hedge was a motorcycle. Not one of the sad auto-cycles our dads and uncles rode, but a real motorcycle: a 350cc AJS single.
Although we’d “borrowed” (and usually crashed) mopeds from several unsuspecting of our elders, none of us had ridden a proper bike with gears and a clutch. And how to start it? Tales of broken legs and novices hurled over handlebars by a backfire were legion. One slightly less tentative pal swung on the kickstarter and was rewarded by a steady boom from the exhaust. It was alive! We took turns stalling it, restarting it and eventually bouncing along a dirt path through the fields. What’s burned in my memory is that eager, throbbing four-stroke-single torque so different from the anemic pull of the wheezing strokers I’d ridden before. It was sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll all at once.
One slightly less ignorant lad suggested we check the oil. The tank was empty. We sent one of our crew for some lube and restarted the Ajay, which instantly disappeared in a cloud of blue smoke. We spent the rest of the afternoon fumigating the hedgerows until the gas ran out. We hid the bike back in the hedge (no one dared take it home) and resolved to return tomorrow with more fuel. Next day, of course, it was gone. I’d sampled Nirvana and had it taken away…”
Geezers MC: Do I get to join?