Two wheels good, four wheels bad

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FIFTY bikers' heads were watching a video screen, on which a prat wearing L plates on his motorbike was doing wheelies in the rain. A roar of laughter went up. The prat had just seen the police car, complete with mounted video camera recording his misdeeds.

He zig-zagged off, through traffic lights, down narrow streets. The watching bikers grinned, shook their heads, took sharp intakes of breath. And then - 'Oh, my god]' said a woman - the bike shot out from the left of the screen, and crashed against the police car bonnet, the rider's white helmet bobbing in slow motion up and down the screen like a drowning man.

At the Road Racing and Superbike Show at Alexandra Palace, north London, there were vastly more crowds around the police stand, with its videos of real life chases, and its snaps of crashes than anything else in the show. For all the aggressive language of biking - the Dominator bikes, the Terminator helmets, the Gladiator boots - the essential experience is one of vulnerability. To mount a motorbike is to expose yourself to your own errors of judgement and the foolishness of others without a protective cage of metal.

Watching the video was Derek Sloan, a Suzuki 1100 owner from Cambridgeshire. 'Riding a motorbike is exciting. It's a thrill. It's freedom, really,' he said. 'It's real life risk-taking.'

Real life, real injury, real death. According to the Ministry of Transport, in 1989, for every 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled by motorcycles and cars, 182 two-wheel motor vehicle riders were killed or seriously injured in comparison to five car drivers. Over recent years the number of deaths has dropped, but the numbers are still too high: 5,784 died or were badly hurt in 1992. A large part of the improvement in undoubtedly due to the fact that standards now demanded of motorcyclists are higher than they have ever been: compulsory training, a two-part test. But the standard of training for car drivers remains, in many bikers' opinions, perilously low.

'There's no question a car licence is too easy to get,' said a traffic policeman by the stand. 'The trouble is, there's no votes in changing that.' Derek's friend Karl Cottage, 28, from Linton, Cambridgeshire, was also watching the video. Four-and-a-half years ago he lost his right arm and part of his knee while riding his Suzuki 1100. Now he spends his time rebuilding bikes. 'It hasn't put me off,' he said. 'The attraction is the unknown, the adrenalin.' His accident happened, he said, when he had gone round a bend in the middle of the road and met a car doing the same in the other direction. They were equally at fault, but Carl paid the physical price. According to the 1985 Booth report, which studied Metropolitan Police reports on motorbike accidents, 65 per cent were due not to the bikers, but to other road users.

Of course, some bikers take risks. A man in the crowd, watching another bike speed away on the police video from the pursuit of the law, smiled and said: 'I've done 105 over the Dartford flyover and I've reached 185 coming down the M11. I was in control though.' The majority are only too aware of how close their own thin skins are to the tearing roads. By another video machine, across the room, another crowd was gathered, faces still, intense. They were watching film of racing accidents, men spilling from machines, tumbling across the track in front of other racers.

In the main exhibition hall, Brian Coker, manager of the British team of 883 Redcar Redskin racers, shrugged. 'They're protected with the very best of equipment and body armour these days,' he said. 'You have crashes at 140 miles an hour and it's bruises and scrapes, not broken bones.' Then he pointed, sadly, to a still of a racer leaning into the road on his Harley Davidson. 'That was Chris Dabbs' last race.' Chris Dabbs came third in the British Championships in 1992, but the crash that broke the back of this rider came not at high speed on the track but on a normal road journey back from the office.

This weekend Chris Dabbs is coming out of Stoke Mandeville hospital - 'Knowing him,' said Brian Coker, 'first thing, he'll be right round here' - and within a few weeks he is due back at work at Motor Cycle News as road editor. Mr Dabbs' injuries have strengthened feelings among his colleagues on the need for urgent action to improve general road safety and to make young car drivers much more aware of motorbike users of the roads. 'We need to see compulsory training for car drivers. They don't have any at the moment. Unlike motorcyclists, you can go out with your old dad and then take your test,' said Adam Smallman, another reporter on Motor Cycle News.

Round the show the bikers went, straddling new machines, eyeing helmets and protective leathers which might give that edge if the worst came about. By the coffee stand was Jason Elstrop, from Braintree, Essex, in a customised wheelchair, its Union Jack discs taken from a speedway bike, an Isle of Man TT sticker attached. Six-and-a-half years ago, when he was 17, he pulled out to overtake a car going at about 20mph ahead of him. As he did so, he said, without any warning it turned right. 'I landed on a tree stump and broke my back,' he said. This event has not, apparently, dimmed his enthusiasm for bikes. He still goes to the Isle of Man to watch the TT races. The film of car chases only made him smile.

The 1994 Road Racing and Superbike Show is open 9am to 6pm at Alexandra Palace today and tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)