With the increasing popularity of adventure bikes and an ever shrinking globe, it’s becoming more and more difficult for tales of momentous two wheel journeys to capture the public’s attention.
Especially when the rider doesn’t venture far from the highway, preferring paved routes to hazardously traversing of fast flowing rivers, or miles of ploughing through deep mud on a chunky behemoth.
Adventure journeys need a USP to make them stand out from the rest, whether it’s the risk element, the sheer foolhardiness of it all, or just that you can’t quite believe that somebody would have the cojones to set off on such an audacious expedition.
The latter is the case with Steve Taylor, an MS sufferer who was planning to ride from Canterbury to Andalucia on a step thru the last time I spoke to him.
I first met Steve at the International Long Track (Grass Track) Championships at Swingfield, near Dover last summer – see issue 183 – when organiser Graham Hurry told me I should talk to “a guy with MS who rode a scooter across the Arctic Circle”.
As a result of that meeting I later interviewed Steve at the base of one of his sponsors, The Bike Shop in Faversham and asked him how the trip came about.
Steve Taylor had been a bike mechanic specialising in suspension and working in British and World Supersport racing. He’d also worked in British and World Superbike but found Supersport more competitive. In 1999 he was working at a race meeting, when a colleague asked if he’d had a few too many beers the night before because as Steve himself says, “I was walking funny, my legs more or less stopped working”.
Steve had been playing rugby off-season and a scrum collapse had damaged his neck, initially his doctor suspected that this was what was causing the problem with his legs. However, after a number of MRI scans Steve was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
For the uninitiated, Multiple Sclerosis (or MS) is a chronic neurological disease that attacks the central nervous system. The symptoms are variable and unpredictable, sometimes causing a numbness and weakness in the limbs, but more severely causing paralysis or loss of vision.
Steve suffered a severe attack of the disease for the following two years but later went into remission for several years.
In 2007 Steve was in Jerez working on a Spanish team’s race bikes during the winter. To enable himself to walk properly he had become used to injecting himself with steroids. Unfortunately this is thought to have eventually caused an embolism, which travelled to his brain, wiping out his memory overnight. “I couldn’t speak, I didn’t know where I was, it was pretty bad.” Steve was forced to retire from racing.
He became interested in scooters when he wanted to continue riding but problems with numbness in the left side of his body made using the clutch and gear changing difficult on a conventional machine.
“I started riding the paddock bikes, which I’ve kept over the years, I’ve got 37, mainly Yamahas and Aprilias” – (Note to Ed – sound like another future feature to me!)
After leaving racing Steve felt it hard to stay away from the paddock and one weekend at Brands Hatch helped ‘dial in’ Sean Emmett’s Branson Honda. “I couldn’t speak very well, but I could still remember how to do a bike.”
Steve’s love of long distance scootering came from when he was working with the Aprilia team in 2004 at Circuit Paul Armagnac near Nogaro in southern France.
“There was an air traffic controllers strike” remembers Steve, “so no planes were taking off or landing in French airspace. I had to get home.” Steve suggested to the team boss that he would ride home on a paddock bike. The team boss told Steve that if he rode home on the 50cc Aprilia scooter he could keep it.
“So I rode the 700 odd miles home on the back roads, I didn’t use the motorways…”
“Then I went to India with Nikki Kennedy, the engine tuner. He’d tuned some 600s, which will handle brilliantly out of the crate, but as soon as you put more horse power through them the handling goes, so he called me to go and set these bikes up for them. We rode a couple of little bikes round India. That’s how it all started off.”
Steve attends the Kent Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre, based in an ageing building in the corner of Canterbury Rugby Club’s car park. The Centre has been running an appeal to raise £1,300,000 for a new building to house its facilities, which include a huge hyperbaric oxygen chamber, which as well as proving beneficial to some MS sufferers can also be used to treat divers suffering with decompressions sickness – the bends – and patients effected by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Steve was considering how he could use such trips to raise some money for the MS Society, when his nurse suggested that he raise much-needed funds for his local centre.
Steve’s initial journey was a ride to Casablanca, to raise funds for the centre as well as increasing awareness of MS. He made the trip on a Yamaha Aerox 50, a former paddock bike. With the help of scooter specialists PM Tuning, the 19-day 6,000 mile round trip was completed without the bike missing a beat.
“I stayed in hotels on the way down, as well as friends’ places, I dropped into every racetrack on the way and met up with Jeremy McWilliams and Randy Mamola at Almeria. I did a couple of race bikes en route.”
I asked Steve if setting off on a trip with several thousand unpredictable miles ahead of him was daunting. “Absolutely not” he smiled, “the worst part is when it finishes, after a few days it becomes a way of life.”
With an arrangement in place with sponsors DFDS Ferries, Steve is able to book crossings with just a phone call, which goes a long way towards removing the pressure posed by time constraints on the journey, so Steve doesn’t usually have any idea of how long each trip will take.
“I usually ride for about ten hours a day” he told me, “it’s all on ‘B’ roads, sometimes I don’t see people or pass a car for three or four hours.”
I wondered how he found his way over such great distance on largely unknown routes, satellite navigation perhaps? “No, definitely not. Satnavs are dangerous things, you’re not concentrating, they should ban them in cars. They’re worse than a mobile phone.”
“I’ve got a map, a map of France and a map of Spain, I know Spain very well from my racing years, I used to travel in the race lorries.”
Unfortunately Steve made the journey in April, which turned out to be a big mistake, it was the worst weather Spain had had for years. “I couldn’t get through Madrid, it was cut off due to the snow, so I had to zig zag all the way down though Spain.”
Steve crossed the Pyrenees and the Atlas Mountains in the snow, but some of his toughest challenges came when he entered Africa.
“I thought, what have I done? As soon as I got there everyone was trying to get money off me all the time, I was stopped by the police, it was all corrupt. This bloke came at me with a knife because I’d taken his photo, people threw stones at me if I took the wrong pictures.”
Steve’s faith was restored when he met the Berbers. “The Berber people were great. When I got down to Casablanca, it’s a totally different way (of life) they weren’t trying to rip me off all the time.”
Steve succeeded in raising a considerable sum of money for the centre, but was soon thinking of his next venture, a 5,500 mile trip across the Arctic Circle.
With sponsorship secured from major names such as Dunlop, Oxford Products, Coleman and RST, Steve sells a sticker spot on his scooter for £100. On speaking to Tony Dunderdale of The Bike Shop in Faversham, it was decided that a Yamaha BWS 125 four stroke would be a more suitable machine, which Tony then generously donated.
After the previous luxuries afforded by hotels and staying at friends’ houses Steve decided to that only way to keep costs down was to camp, either on official sites, or at the side of the road, taking packs of MX3 dehydrated food supplied by Tradewinds Outdoor of Faversham.
The journey began in June 2012 with a blessing for his bike from Canon Clare Edwards at Canterbury Cathedral, he was also given a script from the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams to take to Tromsø Cathedral in Norway, a round trip that took in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway during the following six weeks.
“When it was peeing down I camped in bus shelters. I didn’t put my tent up, I put my bike in and crashed out. In Germany I woke up and there were three people waiting to go to work. One of them gave me 10 Euros towards the trip!”
“About 20 people gave me money on the trip, because of the MS side of it, they wanted to hear about it. I camped in people’s gardens, in Denmark I stayed at a bloke’s house, I met him at a petrol station, he was into speedway, we got chatting and I asked him if there was a camp site nearby and he invited me back to his house.”
One of the reasons Steve decided to become self sufficient on the trip was the cost of living in Scandinavia. ‘I had burger and chips with a Coke once in Norway, it cost me £28!’
The unpredictability of Steve’s disease is always a factor that he has to keep in mind. In Tromsø he suffered a relapse and decided to take a break for a couple of days. Although he had recovered sufficiently to ride, an attendant in a petrol station noticed that his speech was still slurred and called the police, resulting in his being breathalysed.
Luckily a member of the police officer’s family was also an MS sufferer – Norway apparently has the highest number of MS sufferers, so he escaped a ban, a jail sentence and a huge fine.
On visiting the Arctic Raceway a Steve was once again able to put his suspension skills to good use on a GSXR 1000, helping the struggling rider to get pole position. He went on to win the race!
When I spoke to Steve he was busy preparing for his next adventure, leaving to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range in southern Spain in just a few days. I asked him what the bike had needed by way of preparation. It really was just a service and new tyres, “I took the brake pads out but they weren’t worn, I rely mostly on engine braking.”
I asked Steve if his MS was getting worse, and how he sees things being in ten years time.
“I might be as I am now, I might be in a wheelchair. Sometimes I am in a wheelchair, I can’t walk. I don’t look at that side of it. If I thought of what could go wrong I wouldn’t be going. If you think about it and work out the problems you’d never do it.”
“I’m not on the motorway, I’m on these little roads, and I just chill out in cafes on the way down. My arms work fine, so I can ride a scooter. I can hold weight on my right leg, all your weight’s on your arse, isn’t it? OK, if I leant over to the left I’d be in trouble, so I keep it upright if I pull up at a set of lights.”
“I don’t care if I raise £1 or £1,000 the awareness it brings to MS makes it worth it. A lot of people you talk to who have been diagnosed with MS say they’ve sold the house and bought a bungalow, an automatic car, I’ve already bought a wheelchair – they’ve given up before it’s even started.”
“I think you can talk yourself into being ill, but you can talk yourself out of being ill.”
“I’m going to ride round England on a 50, and I’m going to go to the Sahara when the political problems calm down. I will ride across America as well, I spoke to Randy Mamola about this.”
But first Steve needed to ride to southern Spain and back. As we met at the Kent Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre, the send off seemed remarkably low key. It was Steve making the tea and handing out the biscuits. Steve’s partner Denise, a fellow sufferer who helps organise the rides was there along with her daughter, as well as Tony Dunderdale, Steve’s modest but possibly most generous sponsor, from The Bike Shop.
As we waved him off on that sunny summer’s day few of us had any idea of the challenges he would face during the trip.
I’d arranged to interview him on his return, but such is the unpredictable nature of Steve’s condition that he hasn’t been well enough to meet up. He is currently struggling to walk and using crutches.
Next month: The Sierra Nevada and back.