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In search of a motorbike that will drive across America


The day began with a hunt for a bike suitable for Roz. It didn’t take long to exhaust the slim pickings off the Washington Beltway and move on to the hot-house streets of Baltimore. We were both jet-lagged after a classic departure from Britain – four hours’ sleep, a delayed fl ight and aggravation in the luggage queue – so morale was easily eroded. Buying a motorcycle might not sound a major challenge for a woman in good shape who has battled gales off Greenland and fronted up to drunken dockers in Leningrad, but we’d found nothing in two sweltering days and I could tell that the latest used-bike joint shook her confi dence.

From the outside, it was a squat, oblong box set 10 yards from a shouting street corner where brakes squealed and vehicles poured out their heat at the traffi c lights. Inside, the racket was hardly muted by the thin walls and there was no air-conditioning to ease our pain, but at least we were sheltered from the sun.

Tossing the local newspaper advertisements page on to a pile of rubbish behind the door, I glanced around. Dead machines of indeterminate ancestry lay against the walls; rat-bikes still carried the dust of the plains in the spent oil beneath their crank cases; in a greasy corner a man with a nasty scar was ripping the skin off his knuckles trying to coax life into a Japanese no-hoper, while up front stood a ‘full-dress’ Harley-Davidson sporting the most tasteless, mock zebra seat cover ever devised. The motorcycles were demoralising, but it was the character slinking out of a door labelled ‘Sales’ that seemed to be creeping under Roz’s skin.

She wore white stiletto slingbacks, a heavy chain on her right ankle and a long red dress slit to the knickers with a couple of buttons for modesty, which weren’t done up. The higher reaches of the creation were equally revealing and a colourful tattoo of a murder weapon leered out from its left side just north of the cleavage.

How can I help you?’ Voice low and breathy. She ignored Roz and planted herself in front of me, looking directly up through the mascara.

At six and a half feet tall, I enjoy a splendid view of women in low-cut dresses who stand too close. I benefited from this now, but tore my gaze from the dripping dagger.

‘My wife,’ I said, ‘wants a used Harley-Davidson that’ll make it to the West Coast and back.’

She tossed her frizzed blonde mane and countered by asking if I was Australian. Lucky for her she wasn’t accusing an Aussie of being a Brit, I thought. He might take offence. Not me though. I began to tell her that I was from Lancashire, but she had already clambered away through the heaps to an elderly blue Harley with an $8,000 price tag. For an awful moment I feared she might throw a leg over it, but she invited Roz to give it a go instead. The seat had been fashionably lowered in some former life, so at least the bike was the right height from the ground. The first we’d seen.

Gingerly, Roz wormed her way into the sagging saddle to reassure herself that with the ‘chopped’ custom styling her feet easily reached the grimy floor. This was at least a beginning, because if a girl can’t reach God’s firm earth and has to support 600 pounds of iron from a standing start, she’s backing a loser.

Despite evidence on the tank and handlebars of a slide down some highway, this bike was the first to be chalked up for the trial squad, but it only took a couple of seconds to conclude that it wasn’t going to make the final selection.

‘Never mind the state of it,’ Roz hissed in my ear, ‘check out the starter button.’

There wasn’t one. The bike was so ancient it had a kick-start.

A week earlier, on her forty-fifth birthday, Roz had passed her motorcycle test rather than risk sitting behind me for the entire trip. Paddling her own canoe has always been her style, but the sixth-hand, lightweight Suzuki that had satisfied the Minister of Transport’s legal representative on the breezy heathlands of southern England, cut no ice with the massive reality of the all-American road-burner. The only similarities between ‘Suzie’ and this two-wheeled monster were a lack of electric starting and a readiness for the bone yard. Booting a tiny, worn down twostroke into life might just be acceptable, Roz’s look implied, but jumping up and down on an ill-tuned lump of rust more than ten times its mass was not on her list of ‘things I must do’.

I didn’t blame her. I remembered walking with a limp for weeks after spraining an ankle starting my Matchless, easy meat compared with this wild animal. That had been thirty years earlier back in Liverpool when I was a law student. I fancy I’m smarter now and didn’t relish kicking the Harley either, so making lame excuses about blue being the wrong colour, we made for the door.

‘What shade d’you want then?’ The dragon came back fighting, armed with a closing question cunningly sheathed in compliance as her victims slipped the trap.

‘It would have to be red,’ replied Roz, marching on to sure ground. There wasn’t a red Harley in the shop.

‘Red’s easy,’ retorted the lady. I looked at her outfit and agreed. ‘We can have it painted in a couple of days. You wanna take her for a blow down the road, Honey, while the big feller’s sorting out the money?’

Having just been nailed by the hoariest selling trick in the book, we escaped by deploying the toughest chestnut in the unwilling buyer’s manual.

‘Great bike,’ I lied. ‘We’ll think about it and let you know.’

More about this author’s motorbike ride across America in his book.

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