I traveled to London in the late '60s and bought a motorcycle with the money my mother had given me to keep for an emergency. It was a BSA 650 Lightning Rocket, one of the last of its kind, and though plagued with vibrations, it could go as fast as I wanted to take it. Two carburetors, chrome fenders and a bulbous fuel tank that was chrome on top and fire-engine red on the sides distinguished the Lightning Rocket. Gold starbursts, one on each side of the tank, were on all BSA motorcycles; lightning bolts shot forward from the starbursts, gold flames spurted out behind. I drove it at 140 mph once, something over 6,000 rpms, I would guess.
The sensation of speed, of limitless acceleration, commenced just over 50 and ceased somewhere between 90 and 100. Near 100 you know that helmets don't matter. The predominant feeling is fear—for me the unforgettable image of star-bursts and flesh melted into bent steel, like a lumpy fondue.
As the rpms rise, so does the engine noise, until the overwhelming rush of air at 100 mph makes the experience somehow, perversely, quieter. At that speed, the driver must crouch as low as possible into the fuel tank to avoid creating an air scoop. At 120 the air tingles; at 140 God speaks, or so it seems, and deceleration takes as much careful thought, as much effort, as reaching top speed.
The road from London to Dover passes the castle at Canterbury and the white cliffs, with sea gulls screaming, before reaching the terminal of the Ostend ferry. From Ostend to Paris, trees line the road like sentries. Paris, I discovered, is not a motorcyclist's city.
From Paris to Bordeaux, the countryside is again pastoral, peopled with farmers, truck drivers and barkeeps who know all about coming off the road for a cigarette and a glass of wine to ease the knots at the base of the neck. South of Bordeaux, I saw two men sitting at roadside next to a motorcycle, and I stopped to offer help. "Just resting," the younger one said. He was an American, riding an old Triumph 650 Thunderbird, the only touring motorcycle Triumph built. Big and black, its fender cowlings curled into running boards, it had saddlebag mounts, a roll bar and a ride like a Cadillac's.
John was from Los Angeles; his older companion, Bruno, was from Rome. "Picked him up hitching," John said.
"Hitch," Bruno said, showing his thumb as he smiled and nodded.
"He doesn't speak English too good," John said, "but he's got French and Spanish." Bruno smiled and nodded again. "We're hauling out of France," John said. "Too expensive." He was right; a dollar changed to five francs then, and five francs bought half a cheese sandwich—except they weren't sold in halves. Roadside wine was less, but still ran two francs a glass. We agreed to ride together to Spain.
"In Spain, everything is cheaper," Bruno promised, so we all rode fast, long hours. Bruno drove both cycles to spell John and me, and betrayed his secret belief in magic Americans, who are rich in any other man's country even if poor in their own. We laughed when Bruno complained of mos-kweetos. He stammered when asked which moto he liked best, shrugged and fidgeted and promised to decide. He said he knew he could go two weeks on nothing but bread and milk, had done it and could again. He spoke little English and had little to say otherwise, except to negotiate for the three of us. His hand waved if pleased with the terms offered, his face scowled if he was angry or insulted. Then he came to John and me to tell us how we had fared, what the price would be for gas, for food, for a place to sleep.
In the south of France sits the town of Biarritz, next to San Sebastian, its little Spanish sister. After two days' hard riding and little eating, we could almost taste the herrings in oil, the horsemeat sandwiches, goat cheese and cheap wine that awaited us across the border. Light headed, we cat-and-moused, throttled down and speeded up, ran figure eights until, 10 miles from Biarritz, my clutch cable broke near the lever. Coasting and kicking into neutral, our little party stopped.