Strap on the crash helmet, slip on your gloves and rev up for a short – but exhilarating – ride through the rough magic of the motorcycle.
Guiding us through the wet, the cold and the danger of biking is Richard Hammond, former Top Gear
presenter, current The Grand Tour presenter and everyone’s favourite adrenalin junkie.
For a man whose heroes are Sir Stirling Moss and Evel Knievel, and who shares his garage with a vast
and ever-changing collection of motorcycles, writing this witty, informative and entertaining history
must have been both a busman’s holiday and a labour of love.
Brimming with fascinating and lavish illustrations – some new and some harking back to the age of
board racing and the early TT riders – Hammond attempts to explain to the uninitiated what it is
about bikes and biking that makes it so irresistible to people like himself.
A motorcycle, he declares, is a great way to show off. ‘They represent power and the mastery of it,
the ability to travel fast… or, better still, to be at the door of your lover before anyone else.’
But this motorcycle magical mystery tour is so much more than a personal love-fest for Hammond.
The history of the bike, from its origins as a cheap and modest means of transport for the masses to
its modern incarnations as a terrifying symbol of menace and rebellion, a high-tech racing machine
and the rich kid’s plaything, comes under his eagle-eyed scrutiny.
We look at the very earliest motorbikes – including the amazing Michaux-Perreaux steam velocipede
which some experts claim was made way back in 1867 – and remarkable machines that have
propelled people across the world, to work, to school… and to their doom.
As for the bikers, we learn that Edwardian ladies did it, though not in large numbers, military
despatch riders did it, mostly because they had to, and young bucks desperate to prove their
manhood did it because it was the cheapest speed available.
Hammond examines bikers of every type, from the happy farmers trundling through fields on their
Honda Cub to the Hell’s Angels terrorising Californian towns on their ‘hogs’ (a word derived from the
Harley Owners Group).
Film stars, politicians, heroes and villains rode bikes too and daredevils just loved them. Eddie Kidd,
Evel Knievel and a thousand others have roared and soared in front of admiring crowds of onlookers
keen to experience their death-defying thrills.
And for a final flourish, Hammond looks at biking in close detail, examining the sensations, the thrill
of a late-night dash across dark, rain-slashed hills, the awareness that being reckless can lead to
crashes and potential tragedy, as well as the practicalities and the costs.
There are contributions from famous bikers of today and potted histories of celebrated past bikers
but in the end, far beyond any philosophising or thinking, is the sheer, unmatchable experience of
riding a motorbike because, says Hammond, ‘that’s where it’s at, right there.’
(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hardback, £16.99)