Time Travel: A Biker’s Life in the 1970s

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Posted on Oct 26 2013 - 2:20pm by

Human nature likes to revere the past as a lost utopia by selectively erasing the bad bits. It’s like those weirdos who live their lives as if it’s 1950, decorating their houses and wearing the clothes of the era, but still enjoying double glazing and shopping in Waitrose.

fs1_e_broc

The entire classic bike movement is a version of this, and hang out at any bike meet for any length of time and you’re bound to hear someone going on about how much better the culture was back in the day – the stricter licencing laws are cited as the default example. It can’t possibly be unconditionally true though, can it? Trouble is, I don’t know what it was really like back then, because although I’m a child of the ‘80s, I came so late to the party (I didn’t learn to ride until I was 37), that my biker bio is more like a pamphlet than a dossier.

On the other hand, I was in the pub recently with my mate Andy, biker-since-the-70s and former backpatcher, and we got into a beer-fuelled discussion of the past, or more accurately his past, which turned into a history lesson: an insight into an era when all you had to do to get a licence was ride round the block a few times (note: you don’t have to be famous to have a story to tell in this game).

As it happened I had my cutting-edge digi-dictaphone on me:

TRD: “Download your brain.”

Andy: “I was a 1970s teenager. I had a CB175. There were an awful lot of CB175s around in those days; they were a popular bike at the time. It was probably the fifth bike I’d had, and God knows why I bought it, because I already had a 175 and the CB was supposed to be the quick version, but it was absolutely terrible and I’d have gladly dynamited it and had a lot of fun watching it explode.”

AndyPhoto2photoshopped

“Where was the group photo taken?”

“That photo was from 1977 when we went to Mullion in Cornwall. We were all about 19 or 20. We used to go down there to this tiny little village and take two or three days just cruising down, and we’d stop in Taunton ‘cos you get cider in Taunton. We’d end up in a drunken stupor somewhere.”

AndyPhoto1photoshopped

“You’d just go on the spur of the moment.”

“No, I mean we’d plan it a couple of weeks in advance, it wasn’t totally spontaneous, but you’d see if you could get some time off work – if you were working [this was 1977] – and we used to just go. You’d just put a bit of a roll on the back of your bike and that’s it. We were there about two or three weeks and we didn’t change out of our clothes the whole time. There were more of us than in that photo, I think we’d just come out of a café after breakfast.”

“What on earth is that ‘chopper’ in the picture?”

“That’ll be a Triumph, just hogged-up, just changed, you know, ‘cos in those days there was a real sort-of like Hollister-spirit with the bikes and you just mucked around with them and changed them almost literally on a daily basis, and they were unbelievably dangerous [laughs] – you’d kill yourself quite easily. But we’d just charge around on them everywhere – just noisy, oily bikes, very rarely kept clean or anything, and we just got on them and rode them.”

“It’s easy to think that doing road trips like that doesn’t happen anymore. Of course it does, but in a different form.”

“Absolutely.”

 1972-cb175

“Because now it seems like there are rules and regulations attached to everything.”

“We would set off, and sometimes we might only get 30 miles down the road. If we felt like stopping, we’d stop. There wasn’t this agenda – the spirit was you’d set off and go until you were fed up or you saw a pub you liked and you’d stop –“

“ – and get wasted.”

Absolutely rat-arsed – you know what I mean? Beer was cheap and there were no worries about drinking and driving. Nobody would come near us – the police were like “alright lads?” and that would be it. You’d just get back on the bikes and ride back to wherever you thought you were going to sleep. It was a simple sort of agenda-free type of existence. We’d camp in farmers’ fields – just knock on the door and ask. Set up camp and get wasted. Sometimes we wouldn’t even ask.

“It wasn’t only people like us that were around though, you still had your Heron Suzuki boys with the jackets; your Kawasaki 900 brigade, your GT380 brigade, and they’d look at us like we were complete idiots.”

21-suzuki-gt380m-1975

heron suzuki  1973kawasakiz1

“So it was just as factional as it is today?”

“Yeah, but my point is that there were a hell of a lot of bikes around in those days – far more than there are now. Everybody had a bike. You could stand at the roadside down here and see big groups of bikes, all with girls on the back. People were out there.”

“It’s a major criticism of today – the barriers to entry. It’s all about ‘you can’t do this unless…’, and it’s more expensive.”

“In the ‘70s you’d have started on a Fizzy, a Honda SS50, then you’d go straight on to a RD250 which for the day were bloody quick, which is where a lot of lads got killed, because they just didn’t go round corners. Tyres were rubbish.”

 Rd250a_73

“That’s something that has changed massively for the better. Bikes are safer and handle better. Tyres – those on mine are better than racing tyres from even a decade ago.”

“They didn’t handle at all back then. We did a bit of a night ride down to this bloke called Pinno’s place in Shropshire. He ran this bike breaker’s out of a large shed in a farmyard. We went down one Friday night at about half-ten – someone said “let’s go and see Pinno” – and this was after we’d already had a session in the pub in Bramhall [Cheshire], and we just went, half-cut, two-up, couldn’t give a monkey’s. It was about 40 or 50 miles.

“A bloke called Norman came with us on a Panther 600 single – an every-other-lamp-post-type bike. This Norman was basically blind, so he was two-up with someone else on the back who literally had to steer for him, and when you get into Shropshire it’s basically totally dark. They couldn’t see anything and they went through a hedge ‘cos this thing wouldn’t go round corners at all ‘cos it had sidecar tyres on it. It shouldn’t have been funny but we laughed our heads off. They were so drunk they didn’t notice it had happened until the next morning. This Pinno was having a party and that’s what we went for…”

“Totally spontaneous. You could do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. That’s an adventure – having a story to tell. You don’t need a BMW GS to have an adventure. It’s about who you are, whom you’re with and whom you meet along the way.”

“I think part of it was that we were right on the tail-end of all the hippy counter-culture thing that was dying out around then. That’s where our bikes came from. You could just buy bikes – my first was a BSA Bantam. I think I paid a tenner for it. You took the tank off and painted it with a spray can, you got a pudding basin lid on, you went out about half-seven at night, totally illegal – no MOT, no tax – but you went out on this bike and went charging round the countryside, and met up with other blokes who were all doing the same thing.”

BantamD7

“The culture encouraged you to do that – just change your bike, mess with it.”

“Yeah. I think at one point I put a megaphone on it just to see what it was like. You’d pay ten-bob for it or 50p or whatever, and just put it on. It would hardly run, but then if you got it right it would go really quick.”

“Homebrew two-stroke tuning.”

“Yeah. It was just a laugh, just try it and see what happens. That’s how you learn!”

“You can still do that now, but the EU have tried to stamp it out altogether and kill off an entire industry of modifiers through mindless bureaucracy. That’s what we’re up against now: zombie bureaucracy. It’s much more difficult to get away with it, and the consequences are always financial.”

“It’s partly commercialised tuning, and marketing. In those days you’d do your own Stage 1 tuning in your shed on your own. A drill, a grindstone, and off you go.”

“How old were you when you did this?”

“18, 19?”

“That’s what’s different. Today’s 18-year-olds are barely allowed anywhere near a bike at all. Today’s 18-year-olds are barely allowed to write their own name.”

“It wasn’t this utopia though, the biggest bugbear we had with tuning then was that the basic engineering was so rubbish – the surfaces on British bikes in those days were terrible. You got through gallons of ‘instant gasket’ – the orange stuff. It was all we knew at the time though, and we enjoyed doing it. The other thing with the British bikes was the oil leakage. You’d get it everywhere. All over yourself, all over the girls on the back. Girls were as dirty as us – in more ways than one…

“That unreliability just became part of the adventure. On one of those trips to Cornwall we had a guy with us on a Velocette LE 200. We used to have to keep waiting for him to catch up. He went through about two-dozen head gaskets on the way. He took a bag full of them because he knew it would happen.”

Velocette LE

“Today I could get on mine right now and ride it to Cornwall and know very well it wouldn’t miss a beat.”

“That’s no bad thing though. It’s progress. The technology has made it safer in so many ways. Back then it was much less safe, but we went and did it anyway, because it was all we knew.”

“Is that a post-WWII thing then? Acceptance of risk?”

“Now everybody wants to tell you what you can’t do. We live in a culture of “NO”. Everything was just so much more available then. When I got my Bantam, you could get a 500cc Norton for a tenner. Sometimes you’d get them given to you. You would quite literally run it into the ground and then dump it. A lad I knew called Charlie had a Brough Superior. He was always getting it to go faster and he’d ride the crap out of it. I found him one morning absolutely pissed out of his head, stuck in a hedge with a tyre mark across his head after coming off the bike. This was a Brough Superior!”

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“– when it was just a Brough Superior, before they became a “Brough Superior””

“There wasn’t the reverence for old bikes that there is now. People just rode them. Later on, I went down to Cornwall again with a bloke called Robbo and we basically lived in a bus shelter for two weeks, because we had no tents. Just the clothes we stood up in and a sleeping bag and two saddle bags on the bike full of tools because we fully expected to break down.”

“Now the industry wants to sell you aerospace aluminium panniers for a bike that won’t break down. It wants to control your adventure and sell you a bike. Buy this bike and you’ll have an adventure.”

“By the early 80s we were into the backpatch phase and we were all riding around with our “top rockers”. It was a statement. I remember we came across this bloke on a BSA who had broke down and was pushing his bike basically back to London. We stopped and asked him if he needed help – he must have been bricking it when he saw us with our top rockers – and we fixed his bike for him in a field, smoked a bit of draw afterwards and sent him on his way. We’d make a point of being nice to people like that.

“As a club we’d move into people’s houses and live there. We’d get infiltrated by the police – strange blokes would show up for a couple of days then disappear when they couldn’t find anything on us. We knew who they were because their bikes were too clean.

“Our group only carried a top rocker [you’re supposed to have both top and bottom ‘rocker’ patches on your jacket] so we’d get into trouble over it with the other clubs. But because we were always out on rides they could never find us – probably how we survived to be honest. But I quit after this thing happened where a load of us got arrested, then I got arrested again the next weekend and I almost went to prison over it. Right after that I walked away – I had an incompatible value system. I was into riding around the countryside as fast as I possibly could at any opportunity, and meeting girls and getting pissed. The others weren’t.”

“It’s a shame it took something like that to put you off bikes for a while.”

“Well yeah, but it just got a bit too heavy. People used to go missing…”

* * *

Things have changed. Everything changes. It’s too easy to think that biking is automatically worse today because of the kind of world we live in, but it’s just different. There’s no doubt though, you could get away with a lot more back then. It was more accessible but more dangerous. Now it’s less accessible but it’s safer, because the technology/architecture of bikes and the quality of rider protection is orders of magnitude better.

The message then, is that everything changes, except the ride. The ride is still the ride, and the ride is as good as it ever was if you decide to make it so. The difference is that today there’s someone who wants to control you digitally and someone else who wants to dictate your conduct by marketing at you. Of those two threats, the second one can be readily ignored; the first one is a bit more difficult to deal with and I haven’t got the answer.

But there is always the ride. It’s a universal constant.

Stuart Jewkes

 

 

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29 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. tim rogers November 3, 2013 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    Cracking read.

    • Paul November 5, 2013 at 9:56 am - Reply

      Yes it was just like that, Old bikes run on shoe strings everybody helping out. Going on mad runs on the spur of the minute never any money but everyone got wasted. Bike tyres had no grip in the rain they were lethal, Rock clubs were great Biker Pubs and Pubs with No Biker signs.
      Great read yes I passed my test in the rain on a Honda 25O with some chap running around the block with a clip board at 17 and next week bought a Kawasaki 55O amazing I didnt kill myself everywhere at 1OOmph no traffic on country roads ..What a life we had the best of it

  2. Geoff Kemp November 3, 2013 at 9:06 pm - Reply

    Like it. I did a round the block test complete with an emergency stop whilst still in first gear! Remember the “half pint hells angels”? Large groups on FS1E’s & SS50’s etc? Loved my RD200 – raced everywhere.

  3. Adi November 3, 2013 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a good read. I got on the road in 76 and remember those carefree days so well. Adi

  4. Simon Kewer November 4, 2013 at 6:08 pm - Reply

    I wonder if that Brough Superior is still in the hedge? Where was it again?
    Thanks for the great conversational article, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
    How anyone survived those days is beyond me! Fun though.

  5. Bob Rowland November 4, 2013 at 7:31 pm - Reply

    Awesome read…. Brought back a lot if memories… Happy days… And sad days… Lost a lot of friends through bad riding, or just stupid car drivers… But the life style lives on… As we get older, we enjoy arriving now, not keep breaking down every time…lol. But bikes an cars have come a long way since those glory days… And the good news is… More bikes are on the road than ever… But the big difference is the costs…. We used spend peanuts. Back then… Now… Can cost you fortune, if your not careful…. .. But biking lives on…

  6. gary watson November 4, 2013 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    Could be talking about me, especially breaking down being part of the adventure bikes now just dont break down and every where is to near for them

  7. chris martin November 4, 2013 at 8:39 pm - Reply

    I started in 77 on a garelli moped before the dark days of restriction they called us the moped mafia about 20 of us screaming round everywhere.after the old test we that kept to bikes became the great unwashed or smelly billys as the scooter boys called us.After joining the local bike club you made friends but hardly a week went by without hearing of 1 of them buying the farm but the memories of them still burn bright the runs the campouts and the rallies I would not change much only the broken bones

  8. DOUGIE Thom November 5, 2013 at 8:08 am - Reply

    I passed my test on a kwak z250
    but I owned a 250 dream .I had to ride round the block twice
    and bang I had a licence

  9. Jake Willis November 5, 2013 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    An article that appeared on my, now defunct, website Motorsickle, a sort of rose tinted view of my experiences in the 70’s.
    I miss those days……

    http://jakelazarus.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/bikes-birds-blurry-memories-article.html

  10. Alison November 5, 2013 at 6:30 pm - Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Many happy memories. I started out on an ss50 and spent many an evening taking it apart in my parents kitchen! Learnt a lot though. I love the bikes of the 80s and the camaraderie. Doesn’t seem quite the same now. Mind you that might be because I am no longer18!!!! Happy biking one and all

  11. Andy Webb November 6, 2013 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    when i did the impromptu interview with Stuart it brought a lot of memories flooding back but i think really this shows me and us how things have changed even the outlaws of today don’t really look, er like outlaws but that’s probably a whole new subject.
    Those days were Halcyon, never to be repeated certainly by today’s youth anyway, but don’t you just keep thinking that there is someone somewhere whose agenda it is to stop what’s going on now, just imagine that if by some miraculous reason 17,18, olds wanted to get back on bikes and doing the things we did, and does anyone know why Classic racers have to have the very soul silenced out of them how would it be if the same was done to Merlin engined aircraft ? i cant understand why the owners of these racers agreed to it.
    As Chris says i wouldn’t change a thing and i am sure the people who rode with us who are no longer around wouldn’t either, and the Brough isn’t in the hedge still but i can hear Charlie roaring down the road right now, i just feel sorry for all the people who cant.

  12. Maggie November 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    I had a little LE Velocette 200 in 1966 X ( noddy bike ) I was19 and haven’t had as much fun since, went to a Suzuki then Honda then Yamaha then sadly retired Father had a Brough Superior, Brother had a Guzzie and my other halfs had every thing under the sun HAPPY DAYS they were too.

  13. John November 20, 2013 at 7:45 pm - Reply

    I Started riding in the 1980’s on chicken chasers (Honda C50’s) passed a test in Bournemouth with the bloke and clip board..Ha passed even though I got lost in around the block LOL. Al the rest of Andy’s memoirs are similar.. riding two three six up back from the pub, no lids pissed or stoned, usually both. encounters with the odd hedge or two. Sleeping in bus stops on road trips , or under a tarp thrown over a bike.. waking up smoldering next to a fire at Cricket St Thomas
    Building chops out of bits we had knocking about in our sheds.. seriously dangerous contraptions. I once rode from Bournemouth to Dartmoor on evening with the lights running off a battery, made it to Bridport before they gave up.. M5 round Exeter was fun at 11pm LOL
    Carefree, pennyless days.. Apehangers and Bellends Rule \,,/ 😉

  14. Paul Blezard November 21, 2013 at 4:06 am - Reply

    As an exact contemporary of the man in the pub reminiscing, some of this rings absolutely true, while other parts remind me of the Monty Python ‘Luxury’ sketch. ‘Slept in a bus shelter? Luxury! A bus shelter would’ve been like the Ritz Hotel to us! We always slept in ‘t gutter!
    There’s a certain amount of nonsense here too. It’s true that some of the OE tyres were sh1te, but Avon Roadrunners and TT100s were pretty good, wet or dry. And a bike like the RD 250 could be made to handle very well too, with only the simplest mods such as decent tyres and rear shocks. You only have to look at how quickly club racers went on them. And the ultimate Yamaha twin rider was Jarno Saarinen, until his tragic death at Monza, with Renzo Pasoli in May 1973. And if I’m not mistaken, that looks very much like the late, great Jarno in the FSIE picture, possibly even with his wife Soeli. If it’s not Jarno, its someone chosen to look like him. Personally I started on a Garelli Rekord 16er special; it used to eat Fizzies for breakfast, until it ate another plug or condenser! Then I moved on to an old CB72 Honda 250 which never leaked oil and never broke down before moving up to an old CB450 which was equally reliable and as fast as all the unreliable British twins. Later I had both a CD175 and the far superior CB175 and had plenty of fun thashing the nuts off both them. The CD once snapped its camchain, the CB was totally reliable, stopped and went round corners better and faster. PNB

  15. Webmaster November 21, 2013 at 9:52 am - Reply

    Blez you are of course correct that certainly is Mr & Mrs Saarinen in the fizzie pic and you might be surprised to know that in spite of the editor’s thoroughly well-deserved reputation for knowing absolutely bugger-all about the who’s who of motorcycling past and present, he knows all about the Flying Finn courtesy of a fascinating article in a world renowned motorcycle magazine – perhaps you should read more of it.

    http://www.theridersdigest.co.uk/done-too-soon-remembering-jarno-saarinen/

  16. Alan Boulter February 17, 2014 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    Hehehe, Tyres? oh bless, how did we survive those awful lumps of rubber, I downsized from my Triton to an RD 250 so my then girlfriend could learn on her RD125 without feeling bad. We both toured Italy on 2 T120 bonnies later that same year.
    My older brother scrapped his Brough superior as a heap of old crap, bet he has regretted it a few times hahaha
    Still riding a 30yr old beemer, and soon to retire with it.

  17. Charlie Higgins February 17, 2014 at 8:47 pm - Reply

    Brilliant piece! Just wanted to say yes there are still 18, 19 year old lads out there doing this. I started out on a yam fizzy i worked on, passed my test and now ride a 20 year old 400 bandit. I have mates who strip thier bikes down on the weekend for fun, we take old two stroke scrambles bikes out across the fields, and yer we still ride the a roads as fast as we dare and do go off for rides for a weekend just for the fun of it. The only reason other teenagers my age don’t seem to be doing this stuff is just because they dont how fun it is- I learned from my dad- a triumph riding biker of the 70’s. So yer, tests a bit harder, it costs a bit more, bikes are usually more reliable. But were still out there enjoying ” the ride” and your only controlled digitally if you want to be! We are still out there- making new memories just as good as the ones the older guys had “back in the day”.

  18. Robin Eardley February 17, 2014 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    My first bike was an 1939 Ariel 500 Red Hunter which I bought for £9.00 in 1956. It had a two-tone colour scheme; black and rust. I Iearned to ride round Sheffield on a mix of greasy city streets and a maze of tramlines, passed my test in March 1957 being observed by an examiner with a clip-board. Am still riding now, but on classic BMWs which are utterly reliable and, with modern tyres, have excellent grip and road-holding. Also, they don`t leak oil, and I can maintain them myself. Passed my advanced test in May 2012, which further reduced my modest classic bike insurance premium. Enjoy group ride-outs with the advanced riders, the BMW club and the Royal British Legion Riders. Hope to keep riding for many years yet.

  19. peter smith March 1, 2014 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    i wonder if anyone out there can remember/knows what the bike test cost in around 1974? i’d love to know

  20. Denise Cologne March 7, 2014 at 12:56 am - Reply

    Lovely reading through all these happy reminiscences. Happy Days, shame things have to change.

  21. Robert April 18, 2014 at 9:20 am - Reply

    Bikes today are certainly better engineered, handle and brake better and are more reliable, but it isn’t the machinery that creates the true spirit of biking, as this article illustrates.

    My first bike was a Suzuki GT250 and, perhaps perversely, I loved it because it was such a dog and any long trip was an adventure – as in you never knew if you would get there before the bike spat a piston ring out of the exhaust.

    Moved ‘up’ to a GS750, read ‘Superbike’ in the Middlehust days, rode the ‘Ultimate Streetbike’ series, laughed at the articles in ‘The Used Motorcycle guide’. Then one day I looked around to find all that happened decades ago and those times seem to be of another place and time entirely. Ah, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be!

    • Editor April 19, 2014 at 9:11 am - Reply

      Well said and very nicely written too Robert. I would challenge you on just one point though; given that I now have the advantage of being able to look back across a considerable distance, I can confirm that nostalgia is (as I’m sure you know really) alive and well and every bit as rose tinted as it ever was.

  22. Greg October 13, 2016 at 11:36 pm - Reply

    Great job. Oh the memories! Passed test on CZ175 in 1975. Next week rode it from Sussex to the Lake District, mostly in pouring rain to go camping. Never been on a motorway before so was hair raising at times. In 1977 got a Kawasaki 350 that truly went like hell by the time I was finished with it (2 seized engines later). Magical days that the regulators will never let back again.
    Live in Central America now & ride a 73 Bonnie, not as fast as I used to, but free from folks who want to ruin the ride, with too many damn rules.

  23. David Kershaw November 21, 2016 at 10:22 pm - Reply

    I just stumbled across this article and nearly fell off my chair!
    In the group photo I recognise Duncan and Tina and Robbo, I went to school with them and rode bikes with them. I started on a Honda cb125 so rarely broke down! Once I had paid it off I sold it and bought a 1958 Triumph Thunderbird.
    Happy days indeed! Riding up to Darley Moor to watch the bike racing…drinking (lots) at the Vic in Bramhall then going off for a ‘burn’…
    Some sad days too…bikes were not as safe then and I lost some friends.
    I returned to motorcycling a couple of years ago and I love it, living in Australia (been here 30 years) makes it easy to ride all year.

    • Dave January 30, 2017 at 4:14 pm - Reply

      Didn’t you send us a message saying that you’d been in touch with your old friends David? Perhaps you could leave another comment here to tell us all how it went?

  24. Nick Spong February 22, 2017 at 12:05 am - Reply

    Hi to all
    I came across the site searching for info on
    ‘The Bermondsey Mens Institute MCC’ of which my dad was a member, along side his old pal Arthur Woods (Bermondsey Photographer), and couldn’t resist pitching in.
    My first bike was a 1957 Francis Barnett Falcon 74
    which i bought off of Lloyd French at Dacres road school.
    There was no money for me to have an import bike and so my brother Simon bought it for me at a cost of £5.
    I was 14-15 but managed to strip and rebuild it, thanks to guidence from old Alf Snell on the corner of Boundary road (Leytonstone??) and my old mum for running me over there.
    When i started work I saved enough for the Tax and insurance.
    On the 17th of Jan 1979, when i was 16 and a bit, Chris Spencer at Myres motors tested it, and i was up and running.. . .
    (No more cycling up Devonshire and Tyson Road and over Honoroak, although the ‘Coast’ down to Peckham Rye to work in Nunhead Lane was a ‘freewheelin hands-off the bars’ RUSH)
    There after Roger Hollingshead used to test it.
    Six years of all weather biking, and various misshapps slaughterd it.
    It was worthless when i finished with it, so i Knocked it down and stored most of it in a tea chest which i got from the Tea Importers at Brockley Cross.
    Still got the tea chest, and the last time i looked the FB was still in there, the frame and wheels are along side
    That will be 40yrs+ that ive owned it.
    I really hope i will get to ride it again
    I still ride with mates from the Foresthill area, but I no longer live in town.

    Buell 1125R for the last 4 years
    Big love to my pals who welcomed me back when i could afford to ride again
    And Frenchy, if you see this, Cheers buddy. When we uncovered that bike in your back yard, I knew it was a keeper.

    Nick Spong

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