Opinion: Size doesn’t matter – it’s what you do with it

Monday was my birthday, and I realized with a shock that it marks exactly 40 years since I got my first driver’s licence. I became legal to ride on my 16th birthday, and my world expanded literally overnight.

I was living in the U.K., where you needed to be 16 to ride a 49 cc moped. Cars and motorcycles would take another year of underpowered purgatory, until at least 17 years old, but I didn’t care: I bought a Honda C50 Cub from a friend and set off to discover every road I could find.

In fact, I’d bought the bike at Easter and had been riding around my neighbourhood for several months. As I’ve written before, I fell off that bike frequently as I figured out how to ride it, and stayed on quiet, local country roads because of the complete illegality of it all. I applied for my Learner’s Permit and it arrived in the mail in plenty of time before my 16thbirthday, but didn’t actually become valid until the Big Day – and on that day, exactly 40 years ago, I set off for my first long ride. I just took off, to see where I could go.

The mid-’70s Honda C50 was quick and stylin’ – at least, Mark thought it was.

I remember most of that ride: It was a Sunday, and I went straight to Windsor, where the castle is and which was about 10 kilometres from my home, and bought a sausage roll for breakfast. Windsor was the farthest I’d ever ridden. I sat on a bench and looked at the castle (where Harry and Meghan were married this year), and ate the sausage roll and admired the motorcycle boots I was wearing, which my parents had given me that morning. I had thick white socks that I rolled over their top, on the outside of my jeans, just like Ogri the rocker. Somebody had also given me a white silk scarf that I wrapped around my neck, just like Ogri, and a black Belstaff jacket.

I felt completely, totally cool. I finished the sausage roll and sauntered over to my step-through moped, took it off the stand and kicked it into life, then just rode and rode and rode. That first day covered about 500 kilometres and took me all the way to Stonehenge; I couldn’t believe the freedom of just twisting the throttle and going wherever I wanted without having to pedal.

It was a good bike, too – capable of more than 80 km/h with a tail-wind. Most of my friends had mopeds and they’d tuned them for speed, but few could keep up with me. The most sought-after was the Yamaha FS1-E (the “Fizzy”), and it needed to be at least a year old because the government had legislated 50 km/h speed restrictions for mopeds in 1977. A decent tuned-up two-stroke Fizzy was good for double that before it would seize or blow up.

After a few months, I crashed my C50 into the side of a car that ran a red light, and replaced it with a Honda SS-50 – the Fizzy’s four-stroke competition. The SS-50 looked great, with five gears and a front disc brake, but mine had been horribly abused and would struggle to reach 40 km/h. No matter, though – I could still go anywhere I wanted without having to pedal, it just took longer.

Honda’s SS-50 had five gears and an attitude, but not a lot of power. Mark’s had a front disc brake, unlike this drum-brake version.

When I turned 17, I bought a real motorcycle – a Honda 250 – and my love of actually riding began properly, but for that first year, those two mopeds gave me a love of travel and exploration. They gave me independence. And that’s the thing: You don’t need a big bike or a sophisticated vehicle to get where you want to go, and you don’t have to impress anyone with your wheels to discover new things. You just need an open mind and an adventurous attitude, and who knows what you’ll find.

For me, that all began exactly 40 years ago this week. I’ve covered a lot of distance since then but no ride has ever been better, nor ever will. I’ve owned a lot of motorcycles too, and ridden plenty more, but the only picture of a bike that’s in my garage is of a Honda C50 Cub. A bike, whatever its size and ability, is what you make of it – don’t let anybody ever tell you otherwise.



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