Ignoring warnings of family and friends, Tim Luckhurst tried something he had waited 23 years to do. It was a delight

My edition of Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance carries on its front cover a very big claim. It says: "This book will change the way you think and feel about your life." In the summer of 1981, when I stuffed it into the tank bag of my battered Honda CB200, personal growth was not on my agenda. I just wanted the pretty young woman from the English faculty who had agreed to ride with me from Cambridge to Milan to think I was the sensitive type.

My edition of Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance carries on its front cover a very big claim. It says: "This book will change the way you think and feel about your life." In the summer of 1981, when I stuffed it into the tank bag of my battered Honda CB200, personal growth was not on my agenda. I just wanted the pretty young woman from the English faculty who had agreed to ride with me from Cambridge to Milan to think I was the sensitive type.

When she abandoned the trip at Dover, convinced that motorcycling was less glamorous than sewage disposal, my plans changed. With nothing more fulfilling to do in my tent during the night, I was forced to read the book.

If it really was "one of the most profoundly important bestsellers" of that time, what Polly Toynbee called "a work of great, perhaps urgent importance", then I was a philistine. Perhaps I was too concerned about the puny Honda's slipping chain or the fact that it could not maintain the minimum speed required on a French autoroute.

But Pirsig's book did leave one thought firmly implanted in my mind. It was that one day it would be very nice to go touring with a son. Enthusiasts will recall that the narrator of the novel undertakes his physical journey with his 11-year-old son, Chris, as his pillion passenger. Aged 18, and with no immediate plans for fatherhood, that just struck me as a kind and wonderful thing to do for a small boy, though certainly not to be undertaken on a 17bhp Japanese commuter bike.

It took 23 years and the purchase of my current bike, a Harley Davidson XL883 Sportster to turn dream into reality. My son, Toby, is 11. And, even after he had been soaked to the skin on a preliminary excursion from Glasgow to Gloucestershire, it was clear that motorcycling retained glamour status in his mind. We had the bike customised with a full-length touring saddle, back rest and panniers. Toby was frantic to hit the continent.

At this stage I became aware that friends and neighbours rated the plan on a scale between depravity and criminal irresponsibility. In a world of child restraints, air bags and electronic brake-force distribution many were adamant that the trip must be illegal. Even a policeman friend, who probably did know better, suggested that I might be contravening the Road Traffic Act. The existence of tailored waterproofs, helmets and boots for children persuaded nobody. There had to be a law against exposing a pre-teenage boy to the dangers of motorway travel on two wheels.

There isn't, of course. Beyond the obvious criteria, like me possessing my full motorcycle licence, the only formal requirements are that Toby can reach the passenger footrests comfortably, which he can with ease.

I was briefly tempted to buy a more sophisticated bike. The Harley Sportster is a design classic, and though lazy by Japanese, Italian or German standards, will cruise all day at speeds above the British legal limit, even without the electronic sophistication of less retro designs. But Toby was adamant. In his opinion my Harley Davidson is the only cool thing about me. The excuse to spend twice as much on a BMW was denied.

So far we have ridden from Scotland to Brittany twice and made a series of assorted trips within the UK. This summer we will head across the Swiss/Italian border to recreate a trip I made as a student (after I had sold the Honda).

On our travels we have met a handful of father/son combinations. After the usual discussion of machine performance and weather, the conversation always turns to the outrage, often extending to blunt hostility, provoked by our willingness to let our children travel by motorbike. Sometimes it almost succeeds in making me feel guilty. One sensation prevents that. I have never concentrated on safety as hard as when my son is riding behind me. It is no longer a case of being careful. I want to be absolutely certain.

Now I leave large gaps between us and the vehicle in front, check tyres, brakes and lights and polish my visor before collecting him from a school rugby match. My cargo has eliminated risk-taking.

I believe it will make Toby a better driver. He adores travelling by bike and urges me to ride faster than anything else. But 70mph on a motorbike still feels very fast and he can't see the speedometer with me in front of him. But he is aware that safety is our responsibility. He has learned how to check tyres and knows what brake pads and discs are for. Above all, he knows that accidents do not just happen. Someone has to make a mistake and it is possible to reduce the risk of it being you.

Toby has also learned the sense of being in touch with your surroundings that travel by motorbike brings. If 11-year-olds can experience aesthetic delight, then Toby came close on a ride beside Hadrian's Wall.

The genuine pleasure of bonding with my son while touring took me back to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I remain sceptical about the claim that it is "full of insights into our most perplexing contemporary ills" but Pirsig is right about one thing. We do not need anyone to tell us what is good and what is not. Our senses can do that. Motorcycling is good for children and I will not let anyone tell me otherwise.

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