Andy Martin: But could Che fix his own pistons?

If you can repair a carburettor then you should have no trouble at all saving your own soul

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I should never have got rid of her. She needed a lot of stripping, but then she taught me everything I know about engines – the clutch, piston rings, and cylinder heads. Where is my old Francis-Barnett "Cruiser" (249cc) now? More rusty than trusty, she used to start at least 50 per cent of the time, and there is something about that unpredictability that made her so much more endearing than the gleaming and reliable beast of a Honda 1000 that displaced her.

The death of Alberto Granado – Che Guevara's sidekick of The Motorcycle Diaries fame – brought it all back to me: the enchantment of the old motorbike, that can fly you like an angel across a continent – or plunge you into the depths of despair before you even get to the bottom of the road.

Especially the British bike, of course. Che and Alberto rode a dysfunctional Norton 500, ironically nicknamed "La Poderosa" ("The mighty one"). My father was a Velocette nut. I still have a photograph on my wall, going back to the 1930s, of the two young good-looking people who would eventually become my parents riding a Velocette somewhere on the Sussex coast and grinning their heads off. The bike was the symbol of liberation, even then.

If you were brought up in the mean streets of Upton Park in east London, then a bike was your passport to the great world of sun and sand and the wind in your hair (my father always hated to wear a helmet). For me it was a less a mode of transport than a way of not quite making it to school ("Sorry, sir, it's that Francis-Barnett again!").

For Che and Alberto revs and revolution were all one. Not only did the bike provide a convincing feeling of liberation as they rode across the countries of Latin America, like speeded up gauchos, leaving troubles behind them, but it brought them into contact with the proletariat every time it broke down and they had to seek out another mechanic. Or, to put it the other way around, Che always thought the revolution ought to be like a good bike, with the entire proletariat on the pillion, whisking them out of poverty and oppression in the general direction of the good life.

If only Che had stayed on his bike! After he was gunned down in the Bolivian jungles, Robert M Pirsig pointed out, in his classic Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance, that you really ought to be able to fix your own bike. If you want to get from Minnesota to California, you shouldn't rely on mechanics, you have to get down and get dirty. If you can repair a carburettor then you should have no trouble at all saving your own soul. As Wittgenstein said, if you want to be philosopher, become a mechanic. Ultimately, you have to be the bike, as if you had Castrol running through your veins.

Obviously I was going to be a sucker for the Easy Rider style. The romance of the Harley choppers with the apehanger handle bars. The point about this bike was you had your legs stuck way out in front, like you were lying down. You were literally laid-back. It was always likely to end in tears, the journey across America. You could try to go coast to coast, but chances were you wouldn't make it, some vertical guys with pitchforks and shotguns living in Hicksville were bound to resent your freedom and try and drag you down. Let's face it, there is definitely an element of death-wish built into the motorbike. You have to enjoy the pain and the heartache. Better to go out with a bang than a phut.

Even though Alberto and Che and a whole generation of easy riders have gone up in exhaust smoke, the mystique of the long-distance biker lives on. A true nomad and wanderer on that endless ride into the sun, weaving in and out of lanes of gridlocked cars like a Brazilian winger going round plodding fullbacks. Two wheels good, four wheels bad.

Andy Martin is a lecturer in French at Cambridge University. His most recent book is 'Beware Invisible Cows: My Search For The Soul Of The Universe'

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