Hammond on: time travel and motorbikes | Top Gear
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Richard Hammond

Hammond on: time travel and motorbikes

Published: 31 Mar 2014

The sensible thing would be to take it off the road in winter, then recommission it in time for the balmy weeks of summer. Then again, the sensible thing would be to accept that a 38-year-old, 49cc moped is neither useful nor image-enhancing and throw the thing in a skip.

But no, every year, come January's bleak offensive, I drag my 1976 Yamaha FS1e out of the garage, coax the stubborn little two-stroke into life and brave the wintery onslaught to ride it down to the MOT station. It would be easy to register it as SORN and put it back on the road when the blizzards and gales have retreated. But, no, braving the weather is all part of the experience.

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I didn't have the option at 16 of putting the moped in the shed and dragging out the Discovery until the weather improved, so why should I now?

I'll not try to deny that owning a sixteener special moped from my youth is a shamelessly misty-eyed, rose-tinted piece of sentimental nostalgia: it is. I can't think of any other reason for running a vehicle that makes even me look like a clumsy elephant on a child's toy and has less pulling power (considerably less, in fact) than my lawnmower - in every sense of the phrase ‘pulling power'.

But, as I rode the four miles into Ross-on-Wye, braving sleet and a wind-chill factor, even at a paltry 30 miles an hour, of minus a million, it was genuinely and completely worth it.

I always thought the prize for ‘most evocative form of road transport' should go to vans. Every journey I make at the wheel of a van is immediately and directly connected to every other I have ever made. They might be separated by several decades, but one drive in a van flows seamlessly from the last, as though I had only stopped off for a newspaper.

It might be the upright driving position, the sense of purposefulness of it or the drone of the diesel reverberating through the metal carcass, but driving a van to move from one shabby bedsit to another as a careless, footloose 18-year-old feels exactly the same as driving one to transport a vintage motorcycle home as a 44-year-old with a mortgage and a wrinkled forehead. But the moped is, it turns out, an even more effective form of time travel.

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A mile into the voyage to Ross, the engine note's frantic shrieking fell away to a merely desperate buzz as the revs dropped, and I assumed I was at the start of a lengthy but determined breakdown. I wondered if I would die in the rain at the side of the road of hypothermia or shame first. And then I worked out the problem.

An uphill slope of perhaps two degrees from perfectly flat was too much for the little thing, and it couldn't find the power to drag us up it. Dropping a gear solved the problem, and the air was once again filled with the same desperate and hysterical two-stroke thrashings of Yamaha's finest, even though the speed had now dropped away to something best measured by timing the intervals between lamp-posts with a calendar.

I was seamlessly transported back nearly 30 years. The rain fell, the engine shrieked, the speed fell away, and then rose again majestically, and I ticked off the increments as it strained up to and just past 40mph in a crazy, headlong dash into town.

I dodged potholes that would swallow my skinny front wheel whole, I weaved around puddles that would bring me to a total stop, I smelled the thick, blue trail of two-stroke smoke streaming behind me and I was exactly the same guy I was at 16, right hand welded to the twist-grip that could send my teenage howl of rebellion shrieking into the grey sky.

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I watched for cars coming up behind me, accepting that even the dreariest of hatchbacks piloted by the most ancient of shoppers could easily pass me, and I felt a sting of indignation as they did so, but I responded with a snarl and a sneer, ducking my head a little further out of the slipstream and bracing my shoulders against the handlebars' writhing as the front wheel tramlined and skipped on the suddenly brutal road surface.

This was time travel, a perfect and flawless reconnection with a past me, thanks to just a few scraps of metal and a bottle of two-stroke oil.

Nurses are being asked to wear fat suits, the better to appreciate what life is like for their morbidly obese patients. A good thing, probably; empathy and sympathy being an important part of their noble jobs, and all that.

I think that motorists should be forced to ride a puny moped every now and then, the better to appreciate what life is like for the scooter-bound.

Far from taking the Yamaha off the road, I have found it a friend. A Honda SS50 of the same year as my Yamaha FS1e was dug out of a mate's shed where it had lain dormant for 15 years. It's in pieces now, as I begin stripping and rebuilding it.

And, best of all, my daughter Izzy is helping me, and, as we work, she talks excitedly about the day she gets to learn to ride it round the garden, and I picture her laying down the markers that she will one day reconnect with in the far, far future.

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