I’d worked as a consultant to Harley-Davidson for a number of years and during that time had never felt the need to ride a one of their bikes or even hold a ‘heavy motorcycle’ licence – always arguing that as a non-rider I brought “objectivity” being able to put myself in the mind-set of a yet to be converted owner. That was all fine until I started working directly with William G Davidson. ‘Willie G’ was the ‘father’ of the company – at around 70 he was the oldest family employee and as his grand-father was one of the founders of the company he held great sway over both the business and more importantly Harley-Davidson owners and riders.
I’d seen the Willie G effect at a big European bike rally in Austria a couple of years earlier. As he walked around the gathering of over 10,000 big bike owners, the majority Harleys, always shadowed by his two security minders, Willie conversed with riders – complementing them on a fancy paint job or a perfect restoration of a old Harley he remembered as a boy. Willie ‘G’ had something that no other member of the company could call on – besides having his family name both ‘over the door’ and on the gas-tank of every Harley-Davidson that had rolled out of the factory for the past 110 years – he had ‘heritage’. He was a dyed in the wool rider and racer… in fact so “dyed in the wool” that when he was riding as a kid he, like most racers, eschewed the idea of leathers, preferring to ride in trade-mark H-D knitted track-wear and denims.
When Willie G was with Harley-Davidson riders it was like Jesus walking through the congregation at the Sermon on the Mount. Hardened bikers swearing they’d never wash the hand that ‘Willie G’ had just shaken; or a 250 pound mountain of muscle literally in tears because Willie G thought his restoration was ‘cool’.
At my first meeting with Willie G in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he had asked me if I was a rider? I rolled out my objectivity speech, which he half bought with a raised eye-brow. When we met again a few months later he asked me again – fixing me with a stare from under his trade-mark black beret… he didn’t buy it a second time.
“When we next meet I want you to tell me you can ride… go see my assistant and she’ll fix it for you… we’ll teach you how to ride the Harley-Davidson way”.
A month later I was standing in the car-park of the Harley-Davidson Riding Centre in deepest Wales with three other hopefuls – not quite as romantic as Route 66, but I needed a British license. Having passed the Theory part of my test the school had booked me in for the practical riding test 4 days later. Their method was three days of intensive riding tuition and then to take the official DVLA ‘heavy motorcycle’ test the morning of the fourth day. Standing there in borrowed leathers and helmet the whole idea seemed like madness.
I’d last ridden a motorcycle 30 years earlier, so had hired a 125cc runabout the previous week and taken my trainee test – which primarily involved proving to an instructor that you can steer in a straight line. Standing in front of me, and my three fellow pupils, were four 500cc Buell’s – a sports motorcycle also made by Harley, using half of a Harley-Davidson 1000cc V Twin as a power-plant. We spent the day riding round cones on a disused airfield getting the hang of a bike that Harley considered small but I seemed to remember 500cc being about the biggest bike you could buy when I was a teenager. It was in equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. By the end of Day One all I could focus on was the fact that my test was now only 3 days away.
At the end of that long, gruelling day the four of us were driven back to the hotel in the local town where we met later over dinner. By the end of three bottles of wine we’d all told our Harley story – and I realised how much baggage there was in each of our individual motivations for taking the course – which the three other guys had each invested over £1000 of their own money in attending.
Mike was a young thirty something car salesmen – he actually sold Italian sports-cars with an entry price at just under £75,000. He could have been a City trader with his crisp looks, gift for dealing and rather spiky upbringing. One of three brothers, his eldest brother had been the head of the family while his father was spending a few years away from home – I sensed involuntarily, but we didn’t ask. The eldest brother, who Mike clearly idolised, was a biker. Sadly he’d had a bad accident that had left him with a permanent limp and a mother that had forbidden any of the other boys even looking at a motor-cycle. Ten years later Mike had promised himself he’d get a bike license and had arranged to drop in to see his beloved brother on his way back from the test centre on the Monday. Nothing to prove there then.
Alan was in his late forties, a little dour faced man in his late forties bearing the complexion and midriff of a man who’d been eating too many pies for far too many years. He was an RAC patrol man who’d been ‘promoted’ to selling membership at motorway service stations – he hated the job but his wife had hated him working shifts. Ironically she’d left him the following Summer and he’d come out of an acrimonious divorce with no wife, a job he loathed, a small flat and a dull life. His friends had all clubbed together and bought him the Harley riding course as a birthday present. Or actually as an entry ticket to a new life – “learn to ride a Harley and discover the real you”… his Marianne Faithful in full leathers would be waiting just round the corner… or in Harley world that would be their pin-up girl Marisa Miller waiting for him at a gas station somewhere in the Mojave Desert…
Finally there was Gary, a beefy, laugh-a-line electrical engineer from Norfolk. In the car park that morning he didn’t need to borrow helmet, gloves, boots or leathers – he had them all. Brand spanking new black leathers – all replete with the logo from the Ace Café, a legendary biker haunt from the 50s where proper hairy bikers gathered for a greasy breakfast every Sunday before racing up the M1 motorway. But there was more – Gary had already bought his Harley. Sitting in his garage back in Norfolk was the best shiny piece of brand new Milwaukee engineering £18,000 could buy – a 1200cc Harley Fat Boy. To the chagrin of his clearly long suffering girl-friend he’d even tricked the Fat Boy out with Screaming Eagle custom exhaust pipes, a snip at £1000 a pair. Alan, a man experienced in what happens when relationships go wrong, wondered if his long-term, live-in girlfriend shared his new passion for Harley? With glee he replied “She hates it – in fact she said she’d leave me if I didn’t sell it immediately”. Oh how we laughed.
I thought I’d arrived with some weight of expectation – I was scheduled to return to Milwaukee in about two weeks and Willie G was expecting a result. But compared to these guys I was a lightweight on the emotional baggage front.
The next two days were a sweaty nightmare of twisty Welsh border roads; mastering the ridiculous practice of counter-steering; braking in swerving straight lines and being shouted at through the radio ear-piece by the ex-policeman who was teaching us.
We said goodbye to Gary late morning on Day Three.
A key part of learning to ride safely is learning to accelerate away from traffic and the potential danger that other road users, mainly cars and vans, present to motorcyclists. When the 30 mph zone becomes 50mph your aim, and something the tester is specifically looking for, is to get to 50 as quickly as possible, or ‘be busy on the throttle’ as nice Mr Policeman kept telling us. The same applied to all junctions – when it’s safe to move, “do it quickly and do it decisively”.
We’d been riding through the A and B roads of beautiful Llandrindod Wells, the location for tomorrow’s test, all morning on what were now the 900cc Harley Sportsters we were to take our tests on. It felt like driving my Dad’s old Hillman Husky, which had about the same sized engine, but by sitting on its roof in a deck chair.
Gary was always a little less ‘busy’ on the throttle than the rest of us and the instructor had put him at the head of the group and made him ‘team leader’, clearly a police riding school confidence building technique. We pulled up in line to a T Junction into a busy A road and in a line behind Gary waited for him to make a nice, neat, right turn.
We waited, and we waited. From the back of our neat little crocodile line of wannabe riders came the instructors voice over the radio – initially calm and encouraging but gradually moving to firm and insistent over time.
“Remember – see the gap, quick check that it’s still clear both ways, busy on the throttle, slip the clutch and off you go”.
Two more minutes passed and as second in line I’m sure I saw sweat dripping out of Gav’s ever so un-scuffed biker boots. Then I heard his throttle “get busy”, a couple of looks either way to check it was clear, even busier on the throttle, the clutch released and off Gary went. It was, looking back on it, the best pull away we’d seen him execute all day. Certainly it was the fastest and smoothest, and it must have taken a lot of focus to do it. Sadly the amount of focus on ‘busy throttle and clutch’ had deprived him of any focus on actually turning, resulting in a perfect but swift pull away and straight into the ditch at the other side of the A road. The whole scene made The Chuckle Brothers look like documentary film makers.
Mr Policeman called for the support truck to come and get Gary, and a rather bent bike, and the rest of us bikers rode back to the school for a well-deserved lunch. When we came out of the canteen Gary’s white van was nowhere to be seen.
Alan was a competent but questioning rider. From the outset he was always asking about the actual test – exactly how quickly should we accelerate from 30 to 50mph; what if we lost visual contact with the examiners bike; when and where will we actually do the emergency stop? On our final afternoon we had all been round the various routes that the examiners used, over a dozen times. Our instructor had warned us all that both Hestitant Maggie and Shouty Tom were ‘out and about’ in Llandrindod Wells.
‘Hestitant Maggie’ was about 70 and lived in the centre of town. She had a habit of hesitating on all zebra crossings. If we saw her we should stop well away from the crossing as the proximity of motorcycles only increased her tendency to hesitate. The local ‘testers’ knew her and would not hold an early stop at a zebra against us. ‘Shouty Tom’ was a local character, in his early thirties who had been released into the community from a home for the mentally bewildered. Completely harmless, his only threat was his desire to shout at all moving traffic – VERY LOUDLY. Our only action was in-action – “Just ignore the bugger – under no circumstances let him put you off, he is actually scared stiff of cars and bikes and despite appearances to the contrary will not jump out at you”.
Mike was the best rider. Clearly his various trips to Modena hurtling round the test track in 12 cylinder celebrations of Italian sporting prowess meant that being strapped onto 900cc of American V-Twin held no surprises or fear. On our final afternoon I believe he tried a wheelie while the instructor was explaining the emergency stop procedure to Alan for the tenth time.
On the Monday morning we all assembled in the school car park for a pep talk from Mr Policeman. Apparently we “all had what it took to pass”. Furthermore we “could have passed yesterday” (I assumed excluding Gary of the ditch incident) and we “were even better this morning”.
With those confidence building words ringing in our ears we were led off to a holding area – each to be accompanied the 5 miles into Llandrindod Wells for our individual appointments at the DVLA test centre. Alan was first, then Mike and then me at 12.00 (I hoped Maggie and Tom had their lunch early on Monday’s).
I saw neither of them again.
Alan was faultless other than executing an emergency stop so sedately that the examiner did jump out of the way at the last minute. Despite Alan’s protestations that he had stopped a full six inches ahead of where the man’s shoes had been, he was still failed. Alan wrote to the school asking for a refund arguing that at no point had the instructor specified that the ‘Controlled Stop’ had to be completed at any specific distance from the examiner.
Mike did everything perfectly, including managing to lose the examiner. To be fair the examiner did rather throw us when he announced that his motorcycle was still in the repair shop and that he would be conducting our tests from his car. Apparently this is quite normal as he still had one-way radio contact with us. Sadly the radios are fairly short range so when he lost sight of a no-doubt speedy Mike he couldn’t re-direct him to a mutual rendezvous point. I think at some point Mike, as an unaccompanied student would have been an illegal rider, but I’m not sure when they officially gave up on him. When I arrived at the Test Centre they told me Mike had finally returned some twenty minutes after the examiner; with the absence of instructions to turn right or left he’d just keep riding straight out of town and he’d had to ask directions on how to get back, not having the address of the Test Centre on him – well you wouldn’t would you .
I believe I only managed to pass out of pity and the kindness of the examiners heart – not wishing to fail all three of the schools pupils for that week.
Willie G wasn’t in Milwaukee when I went back for my other meetings later that month and I never saw him in person again. But I’m glad that thanks to him I have my ‘heavy motorcycle’ license.