A lost generation? What is it really like for young motorcyclists?
Danny is 16 years old, but when he opens his mouth what comes out is, perhaps surprisingly, quite perceptive: “We get police officers talking to us because there are a lot of 16-year-olds that give us a bad name. But the majority of 16-year-olds are quite sensible” – a statement that reflects a common problem in the biking community, no matter what your age.
When Brian Simpson MEP labelled motorcycles “death carriers”, he provoked understandable outrage from the majority of safe motorcyclists on the road, who felt misrepresented and stereotyped.
But one of the things that comes across from just a short time with this group of young bikers is that they feel exactly the same way – the ‘biking yoofs’ are demanding the same benefit of the doubt that adult bikers are also striving for.
So what are the issues that young motorcyclists are facing? How does their subsection of the biking community feel? Rider spoke to Danny, Charly, Jordan and Lewis, who – though they cannot claim to speak for all young bikers – are fairly typical of youngsters on two wheels these days, and asked them to answer our questions.
Here comes trouble?
“When you go past people on a bike, they just don’t like you at all. It doesn’t matter who you are,” explains Jordan, epitomising the timeless biker look in his jeans and leather jacket.
Danny, probably correctly, assumes this comes from the select few who misbehave: “I think people have a set opinion about bikers, especially young bikers. Irresponsible bikers build a name for the whole lot."
Jordan continues: “I think it’s the L-plates. Just because we’re learners they think we don’t know anything. I’ve been followed quite a bit by police too.”
Run-ins with police seem to be quite frequent among the four, but often for no apparent reason. Lewis tells me about being followed and pulled over by an undercover Jaguar, who just wanted to ‘have a word’. “It makes me feel angry because when you ask why, it’s just because they want to really,” Danny protests. “If I’ve done something wrong, that’s fair enough, but I haven’t.”
And it’s not just non-bikers who are quick to judge the youngsters either. “I feel like big bikes look down at us because we’re only little bikes, but we can’t have anything bigger yet,” says Jordan.
Don’t be mistaken, though; these are not cocky lads keen to rule the road. They are fully aware of their lack of experience and want to get better on the road before progressing. “A 16-year-old on a big bike for the first time would probably hurt themselves. It’s better to have more experience on the road and gradually build up. It helps me really,” says Danny, ever the voice of reason. “People take the mick out of the speed you can do, but I don’t take it personally – I have a laugh and take the mick out of myself sometimes!”
Charly, whose typical teenage monotones are mismatched with his somewhat bouncy, jokerish personality, agrees: “I think it’s safer to only be allowed to ride a certain cc at this age and get used to it so you can ride a bigger bike later. When you’re going round urban areas, there aren’t really any speed limits above 50 anyway,” he shrugs.
Two wheels vs four wheels
So why would any 16-year-old own a bike and choose to put themselves under such scrutiny? The answer is probably the same one that any biker from any walk of life would give: “I own a bike because it’s a very fun thing to ride and I enjoy going out with my friends,” explains Danny.
“We use it for transport and fun,” says Jordan. “We’re always out with mates socialising and it’s cheaper than a car.”
“Plus, most of our friends have got bikes anyway, so we don’t need to be able to give people a lift,” Lewis reflects.
When you look at the numbers, the cost of owning a bike is substantially cheaper than a car will be when these four turn 17 shortly.
Charly rides an Aprilia RS50 that he bought for £650 and insures for £480 per year, Danny rides a Peugeot Jet Force that cost him £550 and he insures it for £180 per year, Lewis rides a Peugeot XR6 that he bought for £300 and insures for £350 per year and Jordan rides a Derby Senda costing £700 with insurance at £300 per year.
But, far from seeing their bikes as an interim before taking on the expense of car ownership in adulthood, they all say they intend to own bikes for life. Lewis draws on experience: “My brother’s got a bigger bike now he’s in his mid 20s and he started when he was 16 too. He’s got a car and a bike. I’ll get a car and use both like he does.”
Contrary to Lewis’ statement, there is concern in the biking community that younger people aren’t taking up licences in favour of getting a car, meaning the loss of a whole generation of bikers. Stevie Muir from the Motorcycle Industry Association (MCIA) addressed the issue: “It’s still a little early to say if 3DLD will affect young people taking licensing in the long term and what new patterns, if any for young riders, will emerge. There’s been a lot of negative press about 3DLD because people tried to explain all the changes at once, when all you need to know is what affects you. From the age of 19 onwards you can access some pretty exciting bikes with an A2 licence and we really need to get that message out. For people 24 and over, nothing has changed. There is also a great choice of 125cc bikes, many of which are replicas of bigger bikes. Regardless of the size of bike you are riding, if you enjoy it, that will stay with you for life.”
And our quartet agrees. Though the numbers and ages of those taking up and passing CBTs is not recorded, those licensed to teach the course buy a book of certificates and the number of CBT certificates sold each year gives you a rough idea of the numbers.
“There is a consistent demand for CBT certificates, so that tells you that a large number of people are taking CBTs – about 186,000 last year,” says Stevie.
The CBT process certainly seems to suit the group we spoke to. “When you do your CBT they won’t let you on the road unless you pass the test around the cones,” says Lewis.
This practice beforehand is seen as vital to all four of them and they readily admit that getting on the road for the first time is daunting: “I was quite nervous. As the instructor talked me through it, I felt better about it, so that helps for your first experience. It’s important tests are taken on the road so instructors know how people ride,” says Danny.
Bike sales figures are also not necessarily a reliable gauge of how many young people are taking up motorcycling, as nobody publishes records of the ages of people buying bikes. “When the economy was bad and petrol prices went up, we saw a big surge in 125ccs and under, which may have been mostly commuters saving money by replacing their car with a bike,” explains Stevie.
“We’re still seeing steady sales in this sector, which we think is down to people using small bikes to beat congestion. Though a lot of sweeping assertions are made about young riders, it’s actually very difficult to make reliable statements about them as a group. The majority ride second-hand bikes and so if they are not buying them from dealers and they don’t yet have a full licence then they are under the industry radar.”
As different insurance companies target different audiences, one useful indicator is insurance comparison sites, which tell a hopeful story for the next generation of bikers: “From looking at these sites, there’s a lot of interest in insuring bikes among the under 25s – more so than in any other age group. There’s a definite demand there,” assures Stevie.
Making it your own
Having spent just an afternoon with this group of young bikers, it is clear they have extremely definite opinions on many issues the BMF confronts; they know their stuff.
One of the issues they are most vocal about is modification and what they feel are the unfair restrictions placed upon them. Once they have proven their competence on the road, they want access to bigger, better machines.
Another group of young bikers we spoke to, who had modified their bikes, explained their reasons for doing so: “A friend of mine used to have a different 50cc and that used to struggle to carry him because he’s quite big – it would only go 20mph up hills – so he’s made his bike a 70cc instead of a 50cc. It makes it better and quicker. They’re meant to be bringing out a rule where you’re supposed to get certification that the modification is safe for your bike, but that’s more time wasting and more money.”
Despite common perceptions, young bikers’ approach to modification is often not about turning the bike into a speed machine; it’s about actually improving the functionality of it and making it your own. “You’re not supposed to do it, but everybody does. You want to make it yours. You can look at it and know you’ve made it like that and there’s not another one of them around.”
Plus, there’s a social element to the process: “You have a go yourself, but if you get stuck you can call your friends who can give you a hand.”
And, for the most part, they can get away with it: “Nobody knows if it’s modified unless they pull you over. Even then, my mate got pulled over by police for speeding a little while ago and they didn’t notice anything about his, and it’s a 70cc.”
Modifications aside, when Charly, Jordan, Danny and Lewis were asked what their dream machine would be, both Charly and Jordan plump for a KTM 450, Danny goes for a Bantam 12, but Lewis rather touchingly explains he wouldn’t replace his bike as he’s spent so much time building it up from a write off to a functioning bike. Clearly there is some interest among young bikers in really getting down to the inner workings of their bikes and, for some, modifying them.
It certainly may become a more worrying trend if young bikers use modification to bypass the new 3DLD system. Why would they pay to take another test if they can just tune up their old bike? For Stevie, it’s the hope that most will err on the side of caution as altering your bike illegally makes any insurance invalid. “If you have an accident and insurance investigators start looking at the bike and you’ve modified it, your insurance company can refuse to pay up. Why take that risk?”
Even though they are restricted to their 50cc machines, Danny, Charly, Lewis and Jordan have managed to ingratiate themselves in a community of bikers called On Two Wheels.
“There’s quite a lot of us in On Two Wheels, ranging from 50cc to 1200cc bikes. You get some specific groups of bikers, like Harley groups, but in ours any bikes are welcome,” says Charly. “If we’re all out on a long ride, the larger bikes don’t go off on their own, they stick with you. They’ve all experienced it, so they don’t like leaving you behind.”
It’s both refreshing and reassuring to hear that the community spirit among bikers continues to thrive in the upcoming generations. Their core reason for getting on two wheels is because they enjoy doing so with their friends, and hasn’t this always been at the root of so-called ‘biker gangs’?
“I think our On Two Wheels group is sort of like the Mods and Rockers, but we’re not violent! I think that’s why older people are scared of us now – because of what they experienced back then,” muses Danny. “I like getting together because we’re all bikers, we all have a laugh and we’re all friends. It beats sitting at home being bored.”
What would they do?
Though they are not active members, all four have heard of the BMF and Lewis has been to a BMF Show. This is not to say they don’t care about what the BMF does, especially when it concerns something they have direct experience of, such as the rising cost of fuel.
“It’s good to have that voice in government,” says Lewis. “Running my bike costs quite a lot in petrol and oil. I have to mix 125ml of oil with five litres of petrol and I’ll fill it up three or four times a week.”
Danny adds: “As far as representation of younger bikers, it depends how you ride really.”
It is interesting that, in this group’s case anyway, the BMF is seen as an organisation that does speak for all bikers, but only the ones that ride right. They seem to be aware that those who don’t play by the rules are damaging public perception and the BMF’s work towards change.
So what if they were in charge of making change happen? If they could, what would they change tomorrow? Danny doesn’t miss a beat before answering: “I think the law on modifying bikes should be more relaxed. It depends what you do, but as long as it’s safe it should be okay” – a sentiment with which Lewis agrees.
“I think that if you’re 16 and you’ve ridden a 50cc, there should be a test for you to go on a bigger bike to see if you can handle it,” says Jordan. “If you can handle the bigger bike, you can ride it.”
All in all, the underlying theme of what young bikers are saying is that they would like to be given a chance. If we can do it safely, let us modify our bikes. If we can do it safely, let us ride bigger bikes. If we can do it safely, let us ride around without assuming we’re up to no good.