“I guarantee that someone here will be leaving in an ambulance today.” These inspiring words were part of the rider briefing for Dirtquake, the alternative motorcycling scene’s answer to the Wacky Races. The event was developed and is still run by Sideburn, the world’s most original motorcycling magazine. Basically it’s a ‘run what you brung’ race event, featuring bikes which were not designed for Dirt Track racing. In a synthetic world our motorcycles are a lifeline, an exciting escape from living in a box. Bikes are freedom and freedom is dangerous.
Freedom can also be bloody frustrating. My race bike for the weekend was a 1948 Nimbus which has been slowly built up over more years and with more cash than I care to share. The only motorcycle to come from Denmark it was technically advanced for it’s time.
It still fascinates people today with it’s inline four cylinder engine, overhead camshaft, shaft drive to the rear wheel, telescopic fork and electric lights. Having spent the last 30 years rusting in boxes though, this one was not feeling particularly dangerous. The rebuild has been a group effort and we had got it running. However the coils that make the sparks that fire the engine are 69 years old, and on this hot day at Kings Llynn speedway track, they were breaking down and the sparks when they did come were not strong enough.
We got the bike started after a lot of kickstarter kicking and made it on to the track for practice. Despite a good twist on the ‘gas handle’ I couldn’t get above walking speed. The rest of the racers had done all four laps before I even finished one. Carl Fogarty, the most successful World Superbike racer of all time, was in my group and had lapped the Nimbus before we got to turn two. He did leave the track that day in an ambulance though, with in his own words, “two broken ribs a punctured lung and a broken shoulder blade. Nothing really too bad.” Well they did warn you Foggy.
After the failure of practice the new goal was just to get the bike going enough to make the rider’s parade lap. Kicking was easy in my tough, stiff soled Moto Boots, but even with this advantage the Nimbus would not fire up. At the last moment, with the mass of riders setting off from the pits, the old Danish girl roared into life. The parade lap was the final glory though as when it was time for racing there was nothing and the Nimbus was retired and put away in the van.
In addition to the race failure, I’d also forgotten to pack my sleeping bag and my camping mat had punctured. Just call me lucky. It wasn’t all bad though. My riding buddy Patrick raced well on his lovely hopped up Yamaha XT street tracker and made it into the finals. He didn’t go home in an ambulance. I got to wear my genuine corduroy breeches, made in Hebden Bridge during the Second World War, for the Women’s Land Army. We met a nice French man who shared a delicious bottle of red and some Pernod with us, and we all enjoyed the musical spectacle of Saturday’s live band, complete with a hula hooping, trumpet playing lead singer.
As Robert Pirsig reminds us in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “it’s peace of mind you’re after and not just a fixed machine.” After I’ve put the pieces of my mind back together and can stand to look at the Nimbus, the work will start again. We will be back next year to finish the job.
There is a TV programme featuring the people, bikes and racing on ITV 4 on Wednesday 12th July at 8pm.