Kings of the middle of the road

There's a new breed of easy rider on the roads. Born-again bikers are hitting 40 and rediscovering a passion for speed, leathers and powerful motorcycles. So why does the biking community disapprove?
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The Independent Online

For Henry Marks, it was all about size. At 42, what Henry desired was a really big bike. He had seen an ad for a three-day motorbike course in a newspaper and decided to give it a go. Within weeks of passing his test on a little Honda barely capable of 60mph, he went out and bought a BMW 1100LT, with an engine the size of a small car.

For Henry Marks, it was all about size. At 42, what Henry desired was a really big bike. He had seen an ad for a three-day motorbike course in a newspaper and decided to give it a go. Within weeks of passing his test on a little Honda barely capable of 60mph, he went out and bought a BMW 1100LT, with an engine the size of a small car.

"I think it must have been the male menopause," he says. "I wanted a big bike that I wouldn't have to maintain. I could just put the fuel in, kick the tyre and go. So I bought one of those police bikes, as big as you could get. It did 180 miles an hour and 0-to-60 in three seconds, although I don't go really fast all the time because it wears out the tyres. But it's great being able to make progress through the traffic. Driving past a whole row of traffic gives you a real buzz."

Henry is one of the new breed known as Born Again Middle-aged Biker, or Bambis. These are typically men and women in their Thirties and Forties who have returned to motorcycling many years after learning to ride, but some, like Henry, have taken it up for the first time. They are often at the peak of their earning capacity, but with the children grown up and most of the mortgage paid off, they find themselves with spare cash and time on their hands. Some are getting over marriages or relationship break-ups and may be looking to reinvent themselves or make a new start. Bambis take to the roads for the thrill and new adventure. Seasoned bikers and the police see them as a potential danger on the roads.

Henry is unrepentant. To prove his commitment, he has sold his car, a Saab Turbo, and now has an £11,000 BMW R1100 GS. He has spent £1,000 on his black leather trousers, boots and a black and red leather jacket. His wife and friends disapprove, but he enjoys being part of the biking crowd. "Biking is classless," he says. "It's a real social leveller. It doesn't matter if you're a lord or a forklift truck driver, everyone has a common denominator. If you break down, generally another motorcyclist will stop and ask if you need help. That wouldn't happen in a car."

Karen Smith, 37, of Coventry, is a woman who reluctantly admits she fits into the Bambi category. She was a keen biker in her teens, but when she met her anti-biking husband at the age of 24, her Honda 125 was banished to the back of the garage and left to rust.

"The term Bambi is one that bikers don't really like, it makes you sound silly, but I guess I do fit the description," says Karen. "When I was younger I hung around with a big group of bikers in Coventry. I used to go everywhere on my bike and I worked in a bikers' pub. When I met my husband, he didn't ride a bike - he didn't like them and didn't like women riding bikes. He didn't actually say anything, but he made it almost impossible for me to carry on riding. Girls who rode bikes were not considered to be particularly nice, if you know what I mean. These days, it's more acceptable."

Ten years of marriage and two children later, Karen found that she was depressed and bored with her job as a childminder. She realised that her bike-free marriage wasn't working. So she got back in touch with the true love of her life - her motorbike. She even got a job with the Motorcycle Association.

"I'm not with my husband any more," she says. "I think it was the bike that came between us. I wouldn't recommend anyone to have a relationship with someone who doesn't share their interests. Once biking is in your blood, it's just there. I've got a new boyfriend now who does like bikes. Riding a bike gives you a great sense of freedom, it's the kind of feeling you don't get in a car."

Unlike Karen, Richard Wright, 42, is proud to be a Bambi. A financial controller from Kew, in London, he talks about Nancy, Fay and Daisy with fatherly admiration. Nancy was his first baby, a black Yamaha 250XS street racer that he had as a boy. Fay, another fast Yamaha and Daisy, a Triumph Daytona, are bikes he has bought since becoming a Bambi. He admits that he's a typical Bambi - he took up biking after having kids and then going through a divorce. "I wanted to have some fun and went back to my laddish behaviour. I love to ride; I love the freedom it gives you. I ride just about anywhere. I love going up North at weekends. The Yorkshire Dales are wonderful. If I told you how fast I go, I'd probably get arrested. You need a lot of straight road to go really fast. I prefer going round bends - taking a bend at 50 or 80 miles per hour is a great feeling."

But Richard is adamant that his love of biking is not a macho fixation. He says: "It fits a purpose, it's excellent for commuting because I can weave in and out of traffic. I look forward to going to work, each ride has a little adventure of its own. Those storms were great fun."

Such boyish enthusiasm is nothing but an irritant to the old biker hands. Veteran biker Philip Neale, director of public affairs for the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG), says that Bambis are easily spotted on the roads. "They only appear on sunny Sundays," he says. "They are middle aged and money is no object. They ride the biggest, brand new sports machines; wearing brightly coloured leather suits with matching gloves and boots. They have no end of enthusiasm and their bikes are always highly polished and fitted with the latest gadgets."

He calls them "weekend warriors" and adds: "I've known people to buy a £10,000 bike and only travel a mile-and-a-half a week.''

Geoffrey Crowther, of The University of Huddersfield, has carried out extensive research looking at motorcyclists, and in particular this new group. "People buy products that tell a story about their past," he says. "Bambis are the baby boomers, people born in the Fifties and Sixties. They were brought up with images of Brando in The Wild Ones and Easy Rider. Biking gives them a chance to revisit their youth. Some will choose to ride bikes with huge power potential so they can achieve mastery, sexuality and so on. It can be looked at as almost Freudian.''

But North Yorkshire Police take a less philosophical view of the phenomenon. They refer to the new group as "Road Rusty". They feel that Bambis can afford to buy and insure sports bikes with performances that vastly outstrip those of the machines they first learned on, but they don't necessarily have the skill to handle them. Their Bike Safe 2000 initiative has been launched to help deal with the rising number of motorcycle-related deaths. Bambis are being encouraged to take up the programme to help improve their bike handling and road-safety awareness.

Ron Johnson, of North Yorkshire Police, says: "Your typical born-again biker tends to be a man of 35 to 50, of reasonable income who drives a Ford Mondeo to work during the week and at weekends swaps his business suits for leathers and a high-powered motorbike. He heads to the Yorkshire Dales with the long, open roads and sweeping bends. Unfortunately, the reality is the bikes outperform the riders' skill and when the rider parts company with his bike and hits a stone wall or a tree, it's they who come off second best."

But Bambis say this is an exaggeration. There is no fun without risk.