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The smoke that lit the fire

(Photo by Zarko Zaharov)

Blog |   27. Aug 2019

Zarko Zaharov

My first experience of riding a motorcycle was when I sneaked away at dawn to steal my dad’s Sunny Bajaj. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s a good reason why. It’s a very cheaply produced Indian copy of the infamous Vespa. You know the one with the round headlight, the round sidemirrors, the long seat the Italian broads used to sit at the back off with both legs over one side so wind wouldn’t blow up their red skirts, racing through the hills of Tuscany or Rome. Pretty charming sight, but my experience was nothing like that.

Not that I paid much attention to girls and their dresses at the age of eight anyway. What I was more concerned with how this lump of metal could move, how it could stop and how it could steer. One day my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided the only way to find out was to find out.

It stood in the corner of the garage, covered in dust since the old man didn’t use it much. But it never stood with the sense of feeling sorry for itself. It always had this ‘happy go lucky’ expression about it, urging you to fire it into life. I copied my dad’s procedure.

I switched on the ignition and turned on the ‘choke’ that would limit the intake of air, and thus making the mixture ‘richer’ with petrol, necessary for cold starts. Very simple yet effective engineering.

The 2-stroke cheap motoring has done more to mobilize the masses than almost any other form of transport. At that point all that was left to do, was the most satisfying part. Throwing my leg over the kick-starter and kicking it into life. One determined kick and with it comes the characteristic 2-stroke rattle and delightfully toxic white cloud of smoke which fills the garage and in an instant; the culprit of my obsession with bikes and automobilia to this day.

Its tires were some unbranded cheaply produced ones, that suspiciously never showed any signs of wear. I’m sure a good percentage of them consisted of plastic or a tire compound so hard it certainly wasn’t suitable for road use since they provided zero grip. A point that manifested itself countless times as every one of my friends that rode it, eventually crashed. Including me. Numerous times. Its brakes would either not stop you or throw you off. Not much in between.

Its suspension rattled showing signs off blown bushings and I’m sure the rear shock was collapsed looking at it in retrospect. The front headlight, albeit very charming to look at, certainly couldn’t be spotted much in the dark since it produced light  no brighter than a candle in the wind. No Princess Diana reference here sadly, just a shitty old light.

It’s tiny 50 cc engine produced a whopping 2.8 horsepower. When it was new that was. There’s a rule of thumb in the automotive world, that an engine loses about 1 horsepower per year. Applying that somewhat generic yet widely accepted rule would mean that it had around minus thirty horsepower. Yet it could move my boyish overly excited figure at a brisk pace of around 40 km/h. 47 km/h with the wind at my back.

The only way it would break the town speed limit is if you threw it off a cliff. Or found a steep enough hill and switched off the engine. Although I have considered the former on the few occasions it would leave me stranded by the side of the road, in this case I did the latter.

The reason of course being that its’ one-speed gearbox by sheer final drive ratio limiting factor decided how fast I could go. With it out the way I was at the welcoming arms of gravity, propelling me into a new top speed and bragging rights to my peers.

This was uncharted territory. This was like asking a submarine captain how deep his submarine could go. “We don’t know till we try”. With the tires pumped up to a point of exploding and head tucked in against the wind, staring at my crotch area with only an occasional look-see at where I’m going, it was clear that I was in for a record. 51. 52. 53. 54 km/h!

What I didn’t know was the speed and bumps would overwhelm the little centrifugal clutch and at some point it would kick in, bump-starting the engine, which caused the aforementioned gearbox to be overwhelmed by the rate of travel, blocking the rear wheel and causing me to skid and slide halfway down the hill leaving huge black marks on the bumpy asphalt… and my underpants.

Bear in mind all of this was done wearing no protective gear whatsoever, but these were different times ladies and gentlemen. Kids weren’t wrapped in bubble wrap back then, certainly when their parents had little idea of their mischiefs. Although I did find myself wrapped around a tree or a bush many times, I didn’t on this occasion. I left the hill with a big smile on my face and a new record in the bag.

Looking back on these times I am frankly surprised I lived to tell the tale. But I’m not surprised I fell in love with riding. For all intents and purposes the bike was a deathtrap, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care because when it stood there, ticking itself cool from the hard run it had just done, the sunbeams reflecting on its deep black color, it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I loved it as much as a boy knew how to love anything.

It’s still parked in the garage of my childhood home, many hills and miles from Copenhagen. I haven’t seen it in years let alone ridden it. Maybe with a slight complaint of neglect, but I bet it would still start right away. I bet it would bring a boyish smile to my face again.

(Photo by Zarko Zaharov)


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