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The Typhoon.

Author: Brian Buchanan
Year: Adventure

My first motorbike ride was on the day I bought one. These days, thank God, shiny new riders can pay for instruction, but this was 1971 and there weren't many bike owners who'd say, "Oh sure, no problem mate - of course you can borrow my pride and joy. Just be sure to bring it back once you get the hang of it."

At seventeen I was due to start teacher training college and my parents had agreed to pay my academic expenses. This meant my grant could be used to acquire some essential personal transport. I'd never had a penny to my name so, surprised at their apparent generosity, I was heading off to buy my first bike.

Overnight an apparently off-course typhoon had settled over southwest Ayrshire, but undaunted by the horizontal rain and the fact that I'd never ridden a motorbike before we set off in my dad's Beetle accompanied by my nine year-old cousin Ian, who was bouncing around in the back seat like a coked-up bonobo.

The family budget didn't stretch to the cost of protective biking gear and the helmet law hadn't been introduced so I was suited and booted in what I had and I couldn't have looked less rock and roll if I'd worn a dress. I'll never forget that outfit. Fifty years later and I can still recall it from head to toe: an olive green felt fedora - the impact-resistant qualities of felt were more widely recognised in the seventies; an army greatcoat - a masterstroke in colour choice; Levi's and wellies with soles the exact green of the hat and coat, rendering me virtually undetectable in a country setting.

The bike was located at a remote cottage some ten miles away and reached by a rollercoaster B road which was basically a strip of tarmac running through hills, sheep fields and sparse woodland.

Although my motorcycling knowledge was theoretical I could ride a pushbike - I'd even had one till my mates and I discovered girls - so balancing and cornering weren't complete unknowns. Operating a throttle, clutch, gears and front and rear brakes while balancing and cornering in a hurricane in my insane getup however, were soon to test my coordination skills to their limits.

Mrs McPhail, who was selling the bike, couldn't have been more helpful, kindly donating a pair of (very large) Police gauntlets as she took in my riding apparel with a rueful smile. So my inaugural ride began, though it was more of a maiden voyage as the weather hadn't eased in the slightest.

A description of motorcycle controls might help the uninitiated reader to understand the task I now faced: the rider's right hand operates the throttle twistgrip and the front brake lever; the left hand pulls and releases the clutch lever. You work the gear lever by stamping down with your left foot for first gear and subsequent downshifting, having hooked up on the underside of this lever with your toe for higher gears. Your right foot presses the rear brake pedal. All of these operations must be carried out, some often simultaneously and with finesse. Simple, eh ?

With Mrs McPhail back indoors and my dad sheltering in the car, it was time to get underway, but releasing the clutch whilst gently twisting the throttle completely eluded me as I stalled again and again.

I'd been astride the bike for several minutes now and my fedora had lost all structural integrity, the brim hanging around my ears in a misshapen doughnut. The heavy, man-sized coat, which engulfed me when dry, now clung to my skinny frame in sodden slabs of wool, feeling like it had trebled in weight. The engine had stalled so many times that the first tendrils of hysteria were beginning to take hold of my mind and I began to fantasise about spannering the whole bike apart into manageable chunks which we'd store in Mrs McPhail's garage transporting them piece by piece back home to my dad's garage for rebuilding. This would involve so many journeys back and forth that I'd meet, fall in love with and marry Mrs McPhail's daughter and Dad would become so besotted with Mrs McP that he'd leave Mum !

Of course, I finally pulled away and wobbled off into a watery nightmare - a modern day Tam O'Shanter, my cousin Ian one of Satan's capering imps.

With the stinging rain blinding my unprotected eyes I squinted through the howling storm, panicking every time I lost sight of the car's tail lights. As I swept my hand over my frozen face for the umpteenth time the inevitable happened when a violent gust sideswiped the bike and it went down in a screeching slide of metal scraping tarmac. Wrapped in my ridiculous coat I managed to roll free, quickly regaining my feet and for some inexplicable reason lurching after my hat which was trundling off down the road like a little wheel.

We heaved the bike upright and after a cursory inspection decided it was rideable, the only obvious damage a bent footpeg and a knackered left hand grip. "Oh good," I thought, "What a relief." Yeah.

The bulletproof Honda engine roared back to life on the first kick and with a deep sense of foreboding I managed to get mobile, cheered not a jot that I wasn't even halfway home.

The rest of the journey was more of the same. At one village junction I remember lying draped across the petrol tank with my head on my arms, having stalled eleven or twelve times.

Numb and exhausted as I hauled the brute onto its centre stand opposite home I glimpsed my mum's wan face at the window as she took in my bizarre appearance. That bike didn't turn another wheel until she had purchased a proper biker outfit for her little boy that weekend. Dad said I looked like Geoff Duke. You can Google that one if you like.