Opinion: Speed is my need

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.

The first year of the Suzuki Hayabusa created the fastest street-legal production bike ever made. Suzuki agreed to electronically limit the speed in subsequent years.

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.

Mark Richardson gets hauled away by the cops from the Suzuki Hayabusa. This was just for the camera though, to show what would happen if a speeder is caught speeding.


  1. I believe speed is mainly a matter of time and place. Speeding in towns or cities is wrong, you could hurt a child or a pet (or an adult but there are too many of us anyway, lol). Speeding in the middle of nowhere is a personal decision. I ride mainly in central BC and the roads are very quiet. The reality for me is that I attack the corners and chill on the straights most of the time but if I am riding my R1200RT from Fairmont to Cranbrook and then Cranbrook to Creston, I will make haste. Boring straight roads with very low traffic volume. These are roads where the RCMP say, if you need us, call us, and we will get there eventually. Basically you are on your own. I ride 9-5 to minimize kamikaze deer risk, do not drink or do drugs, eat and sleep well, focus 100% on my riding. As Emily Haines says, “Of all the good and all the stupid shit I’ve done, the worst was all on me, not hurting anyone”. C

  2. Couldn’t finish it. Search motorcycle documentary in the YouTube’s search window and you will find better. TT closer to the edge. Long way round. Episodes of Henry Cole’s the motorbike show is on YouTube.

  3. The worst part of this whole editorial is Mark’s driving on the Autobahn and remaining in the passing lane the whole time. The Autobahn, of all roads on earth, is one place where the rule is to keep right, pass left. This applies to whatever speed you are travelling. You’re not alone as a journalist doing this, I pulled Motortrend up on this years ago while most tv commercials highlight the new car or truck alone in the passing lane. I sense I’m becoming an army of one in utilizing proper road etiquette yet nothing frustrates a driver more than someone parked in the passing lane which leads to road rage. Such an easy fix but not even the police will do anything about it.

      • So you can confirm that you, with your hand on the bible, went right after the passes? If true, I’d only wish the camera could prove this so as to send a message. I know, the effect was to show how you have a need for speed, only wish this could also become a teaching moment, likely not top of mind at the time. One can wish…

  4. I’ve been riding for decades and have had too many close calls. I too love the rush from speed and like the author, every once in awhile gamble my life. So now, no more litre bikes, I’m down to a 650. Sure it will still go really fast, but it takes longer to get there and I’ve found that’s just fine, because now I’m focusing and enjoying other aspects of riding; freedom, scenery, cornering (at a reduced speed), etc. Yeah, I know I sound old, I guess because I am now lucky to be old (alive and walking). Like the saying says, there are old riders and there are bold riders, but there aren’t many bold, old riders.

    • Agree, you got that right. We say exactly the same in aviation “there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but, there are no old bold pilots”

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