Zac recommended Netflix’s latest motorcycle documentary this week and I stopped everything to watch it. I’m home sick with the ’flu, and it was an excuse to crank up the TV and get out of my own stuffed-up head for a while.
It’s not very good, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it. Speed is my Need sort-of follows the 2018 British Superbike season for Leon Haslam (son of Rocket Ron), and breaks away to look at the TT races that year, but its main raison d’etre is to try to explain why racers race, and why they like to ride so fast. To do this, it quotes psychologists and former racers, including Colin Edwards and Fast Freddie Spencer; in doing so, there’s lots of footage of riders falling off motorcycles at speed, cartwheeling into hay bales.
I’d like to quote something memorable, but there wasn’t really anything that struck home, except for right at the beginning.
“The fascinating thing is how the human brain and body can operate at such high speed,” says former rally driver Penny Mallory. “Speed creates chemicals in your body, and the chemicals become addictive.”
She’s right, and on a motorcycle, the sensation of speed is amplified far more so than in a car. When you can reach out and touch the fast-moving ground with a boot or a knee or a hand, it’s a whole different sensation to watching it pass by a car window.
I’m not a motorcycle racer – too chicken – but I’ve had at least my fair share of close shaves thanks to riding too fast. Probably the closest I ever came was when I was just 17, riding my Honda 250 home from my girlfriend’s house late one night after an argument. I was angry and took it out on the throttle. There was a humpback bridge and both wheels left the ground at about 130 km/h, but on the other side, a car was pulling out from a side street. At the last moment, the driver braked and I shot past, close enough to feel the front bumper brush my jeans. Just 17. How different my life would have been if the car had braked a millisecond later.
A few years later, I rode north through Pennsylvania on I-81 from Harrisburg to Wilkes-Barre on my Kawasaki GPZ750 with my friend Julian on the pillion. For some reason, my speed crept up and up and I found myself riding flat out. The speed limit was 55 mph, or 90 km/h, and I was at least double that. I knew that if I was pulled over by the police, I’d be arrested and the bike impounded, but even so, every time I passed a centre pullout and there was no cruiser there, it was like firing a blank in Russian Roulette. It took an hour to cover the 170 km and my hands were shaking at the end – I’ve never experienced anything like that rush.
And then, 20 years ago, riding 400 km to my parents’ home after learning my dad had died. I was on a Suzuki Hayabusa, of all bikes, and I pegged it, justifying to myself that this was an exceptional circumstance. Coming off the main highway and onto the side road toward the house, I misjudged the one S-bend and hit it at far too high a speed; I still don’t know how I kept that bike out of the gravel. The huge shot of adrenaline helped me realize my stupidity, and I’ve never ridden like that again.
Which doesn’t mean I’ve not ridden or driven fast. Go onto YouTube and you can see me on the Autobahn in Germany, almost rear-ending another vehicle at around 240 km/h. Take a look through the comments: some of them think I’m a hero for such clear-headed driving, many call me an idiot for getting into the situation in the first place. Both sides make valid points.
This is one reason why I generally avoid riding sport bikes on public roads. I get as much pleasure from riding a slow bike fast as I do from riding a fast bike really fast, but I get to keep my licence and don’t endanger anyone else on the road. I’ve been lucky to learn this lesson through near escapes – too many of us don’t get that second chance.
If you feel the same way, and you’re looking for that rush of adrenaline or that shot of dopamine, by all means check out Speed is my Need if you have a Netflix account. There’s plenty of exciting on-bike footage as Leon Haslam skims the asphalt, chasing the championship from Shakey Byrne. But make sure to listen to what Byrne has to say, almost an hour in; that’s a medical halo he’s wearing, bolted into his skull to keep his head in place, after he rode head-first into a tire wall. “It’s a bit of an occupational hazard,” he explains. “It’s one of them things.”
Speed, in itself, is not unsafe, but it does need faster reactions and increases the effect of impact. It’s supremely selfish to abuse it on public roads. Now that winter is giving us a couple of months of forced reflection, let’s agree now to learn from our past mistakes and ride more responsibly this coming season. And if we can’t, there’s always TV.