Children of the revolution

Published: 18 March 2002

You’ve got a Blade, they’ve got youth. You might have the ability to unlock a front wheel skid at 80. You corner confidently in the wet and you’re probably blasé about 100bhp. No car has passed you in anger for years.

They live in a 30mph world of mechanical ineptitude, ridiculous excuses, spooking at the police and text-messaging. They buy petrol, they fall off, they laugh. And, like any group of primates, they pick on the one with the lowest status: " Oi, Ian, yer exhaust got shit all over it. "

They are biking’s newest and most precious enthusiasts. And they ride… scooters.

For the last 15 years, there has been a gaping hole in biking. What sales rises we’ve seen have been fuelled largely by " born-again " riders aged 30-plus, chasing big, nasty sports bikes. In 1996 and ’97, every one of the top 10 motorcycles did at least 130mph.

It was the same in 1998 – except for the Peugeot Speedfight 100 at number six. Now the unthinkable is happening. The best-selling two-wheeler in the UK, ahead of Honda’s CBR600, is now Piaggio’s Zip 50. And, for the first time in 20 years, gangs of kids on 50s are cropping up in rural towns, suburbs and city centres. It all sounds kind of familiar...

How it was then…

Twenty years ago, the streets of Britain crawled with teenage riders. I should know – I was one of them. And chances are you were, too. Wearing zero-protection nylon jackets, Doc Martens and holey jeans, we buzzed around traffic-free roads, listened to Led Zep, chased girls and tried to get served in pubs.

We knew we were special. Hell, we were the last generation to ride the banned 50mph superpeds: Suzuki’s AP50, Honda’s SS50 and Yamaha’s sensational FS-1E. And the only red tape was filling in a licence form in the Post Office for your 16th birthday. " Those bikes were all useless, but to us they were amazing, " remembers Carl Nunn, who owned all three between ’79 and ’81. " Just freedom – going where you want when you want, without having to pedal. "

Owning a restricted moped – one that only did 30mph – invited pity from your mates, mingled with contempt at your stupidity. Nunn explains: " There was this guy with a brand new FS-1E DX – the restricted one. He rode it very gently for about 400 miles to run it in. Afterwards he realised he’d been riding it flat-out anyway. There was no other way to ride it. "

But the newer " slopeds " did arouse some jealousy. They weren’t as clapped-out. Even without the crashing, a year in the hands of a teenager was like four years with an older rider. " When you’re that age you don’t have a clue about maintenance, " observes former Honda MT5 owner Andrew Taylor. He still remembers the day his moped went 5mph faster because he’d oiled the chain.

Reading the handbook was the last thing on the average 16-year-old’s mind. " We were convinced Yamaha had built the bike slower than it should be, " remembers one-time Fizzy owner David Metcalfe. " We did anything to try making it faster – different plugs, tights over the carb intake, Castrol R in the fuel. None of it worked. Most people couldn’t even screw a spark plug in straight. Everyone knew about re-bores and Helicoil inserts. "

All this ignorance and bodgery was giving us much more than mere transport. Owning a ped was a passport to a new life – a life that easily made up for riding everywhere in the gutter. For the next three to five years – until you outgrew it, basically – life would consist of bikes, girls, pubs, parties and showing off.

How it is now…

Ian Thompson, Ben Salmon, James Woodford and his twin brother Ian are getting to grips with the altogether harsher world of 21st century Peterborough.

The four friends are newly-hatched bikers. You might call them scooter riders; they can’t afford to be so choosy. Insurance for a 16-year-old riding an Aprilia RS50 is £1000.

Compared with 1981, their world is drowning in traffic and stress, but jobs are easier to find and the pleasures of life haven’t changed at all. " Drinking, clubbing, shagging, wacky baccy. Well, it’s cheap, innit? " The only thing an ’80s throwback wouldn’t recognise is Ben texting in a dull moment.

That and the crime. A fifth friend was due to arrive for our meeting, but his bike had been stolen. James was beaten up this summer and mentions no-go areas in the city: " I don’t keep my licence with me ’cos I might have it nicked. There’s a lot of people like to nick licences and mopeds. " Two of the group mention " local justice " as a tried and tested means of dealing with theft. They haul huge cable locks with them everywhere. Two wear them round their necks when they’re riding.

They each started riding within a couple of months of their 16th birthday, which gives them a year’s experience at most. Besides the theft, they’ve discovered snow, ice, crashing, aggressive cars and jaw-dropping insurance charges – and none of it’s put them off.

" You see a big bike blast past, or superbikes on the telly, and you think ‘I’ll have that,’ " says Ben. " Most guys our age like cars because you can take loads of people in ’em. But the difference is we can already go out. "

Ben Salmon is fiercely proud of his two-wheeled habit, financed by a £60 weekend job as a waiter at a Little Chef. " I had an eight-year battle with my parents just to get THAT, " he says, jabbing a thumb at his Honda Vision 50. " And I’ve been arguing with them for a year about getting a 125. It’s a new Yamaha DT and I’m just waiting for delivery now. It’ll cost me £80 a month. "

Thompson blows most of what he earns on his lime-yellow Derbi. Aside from the crippling £750 insurance bill, he’s bought a loud pipe for £200, new air intake and jets and a new clutch after he blew the old one at an alleged 60mph: " Straight up – it was off the clock! "

Oblivious to the noise, he blips the throttle continuously in traffic, " because the throttle cable needs tightening. "

It has to be said, traffic looks a lot bigger and faster from the seat of a 50cc scooter, and making your presence felt is understandable. Sports bike riders are used to more or less permanent overtaking. On a 50, you’re permanently being overtaken. I rode a Piaggio NRG50 to follow these guys and my two-and-a-half decades of riding instincts, built on acceleration and manoeuvrability, made me nervous in daylight and paranoid in the dark. Has that car seen me? What could I do if he hasn’t?

And I’m on a decent scooter. Theirs are falling apart. None more so that Woodford’s 1983 Tomos. Twice I find myself thinking it’s a miracle that it runs – and immediately it stops.

He suffers horribly for buying a Tomos. " I wanted a red one, " he insists, as if it would make any difference. " We didn’t want one at all, " the others chorus mercilessly. But Ian’s comedy shopper cost him less than a Blackbird’s mirror and it’s quick enough for him. " I wouldn’t go over 50cc. Not after what happened to my mate Mike – he went straight on into a car on a roundabout. 40 is fast enough. " You may jeer but, on Ian’s bike, 40mph is like 140 on a Blade. Maybe 240.

James Woodford is Ian’s twin and the only one of the four who’s bought new (from a catalogue!) and never heard of MCN.

" My only disagreement with bikes is riding in the rain. You’ve only got a front brake and it’s quite dangerous. " Er, why no rear brake, James? " Well, when it crashed the brake stopped working. I was going to see to it, but I’m going to America in four days. Anyway, I tried fixing the brake on my old bike but I naffed it up. "

No change from 1981 there, then.

On the subject of crashes, the guys admit to six. James slid off on a wet roundabout, while Ian hasn’t known anything worse than the odd bump.

Ben has approached the whole thing with a lot more gusto. " My first come-off was ’cos my mate cut me up and I slammed on the brake. The second was a few weeks ago when a mate slammed on his brakes and I went into the back of him. The third was just mud in the road on the way to work. I did a 180° spin and ended up going backwards. I got up covered in mud, thought **** it, and went home. "

After hearing this you might be thinking ABS and traction control should be fitted to kids’ bikes rather than stuff like ST1100s. But then maybe we old giffers need it more after all. As Thompson is about to reveal, 17-year-olds are almost indestructible.

" The first time I crashed it was hailing and the white line was iced-up. I slid and hit my head on the roundabout chevrons, got up and rode off. That hurt. The other time was at college. The throttle stuck on. I tried to pick the bike up but it wheelied in the air, so I shut the throttle hard and heard a cracking sound from the twistgrip. Ain’t touched it since. It’s all right. "

It’s easy to cringe, but hard not to feel sneaking admiration, too. We were no smarter and no more skilful. Like baby sea turtles, these guys have made it through their first year without getting eaten. So why do they do it?

All four seem genuinely surprised to hear that teenagers just didn’t ride scooters five years ago. They just know that bikes today are hilarious.

" We’re just on scooters ’cos they’re cheaper than bikes, " Ben points out.

" It’s a challenge, weaving in and out of cars, " adds James. " Motorbikes in the summer are the best thing, I reckon. "

" It’s enjoyable, " adds Derbi-riding Thompson. " Kids today want to go out and have a good time. I like the style of my bike and it’s only about £4 a week to keep on the road, though I’d prefer a motorbike now. "

Ian Woodford is more thoughtful. " It’s the feeling you know you’re mobile. And I’ve never fallen off. "

Of course, every scooter sold is two fingers up at congestion and the state of public transport. But urban gridlock is hardly new. What’s made the difference now?

Piaggio’s Benjy Straw, poised to gloat over selling more two-wheelers than Honda this year, has a theory. " When Honda and the others discovered sports bikes they ignored mopeds completely in the UK, so it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy of a dying market. Our promotions didn’t just plug our scooters, but tried to influence the rich and famous to show scooters as a useful and fashionable thing to ride. "

At the other end of the chain, Thompson supplies the proof that it’s worked. " Hell – it’s stylish. Scooters are aimed at younger kids. Can you imagine an old lady with a bwaaa exhaust, 80 piston and sports air intake? "

Is this the start of something big? It’s tempting to think that, if we can keep nippers like Ben, James, Ian and Ian away from Citroen Saxos, they’ll go on to buy 250s, 400s and bigger bikes. After all, they goof around exactly like we did 20 years ago. They’ve chosen life, they’ve chosen bikes.

So where do they think they’ll be in five years?

James: " I’ll be a fair-weather biker. "

Ben: " Riding, definitely. No doubt about it. I’m not getting a car until I get a family. I ain’t a pussy. "

Ian Woodford: " I’ll be on a 125 for work and I’ll have a car for going out. "

Ian Thompson: " I know I’ll still be riding. "

Seems the future is safe.