Interview: Charley Boorman talks bikes, business and adventure
The Long Way Round changed the face of motorcycling television. Now Charley Boorman is facing a new challenge…
At first sight Charley Boorman looks fit and healthy, tanned from a recent holiday in Kenya with his wife and family. Yet a slight but noticeable limp as he rises to greet BMF's Motorcycle Rider magazine at the door of his home in Barnes is a sign of the recent events which turned his life upside down.
Having spent the most part of his life on motorcycles, Charley’s world came crashing down when, on a press launch in Portugal last year, he was knocked off his Triumph Adventurer by a car driver, shattering his left leg and breaking his hand and ankle. It was unclear if he would ever walk again, let alone resume his life and career as a motorcycling adventurer.
Since that fateful day in February 2016, Charley has been recuperating and using the time to write his autobiography, Long Way Back – the story of his recovery back to health and a reminiscence of his life as a professional adventurer and fanatical brand ambassador for motorcycling.
Behind the camera
Although best known from his ground-breaking Long Way Round series filmed with long-time friend Ewan McGregor, Charley has had a long motorcycle-related career. The phenomenally successful Long Way Round was followed by riding from John O’Groats to Cape Town in Long Way Down, competing in the Dakar Rally, then further world travel in By Any Means and Right to the Edge.
Between those projects have been TV series on the World’s Most Dangerous Roads and Extreme Frontiers including the infamous Dalton Highway in Alaska, acting as brand ambassador for BMW and latterly Triumph motorcycles, running motorcycle tours in Africa and touring the UK as an in-demand live speaker.
By anyone’s standards that is a lot to pack in to a relatively youthful 51 years. Yet it has not all been plain sailing for Charley. Diagnosed early in life with dyslexia and a severe stutter and later overcoming testicular cancer, how did an early career as a jobbing actor and a lengthy spell as a painter and decorator lead into a successful career riding motorcycles to the far corners of the earth?
“I’ve been obsessed with motorbikes from an early age,” recounts Charley. “My father, the film director John Boorman, bought a house in County Wicklow, Ireland at auction in 1969 in a surreal out-of-body moment and the place was ideal for off-road biking. I had an old Honda monkey bike that I would ride around, and one of my earliest memories is of riding out of control across the lawn – my dad was standing right where I passed and as I came screaming past he reached down and grabbed me by the hair, lifting me clear like a rag doll as the bike crashed into a barbed wire fence.”
That little monkey bike soon gave way to Yamaha DT100, bought with money earned at age 11 as an extra in the film The Great Train Robbery. Like many kids of that era, Charley spent countless hours practising slides and jumps, pulling wheelies and cultivating off road skills that would stand him in good stead in his later career. Charley still has the little DT and used it to teach his two young daughters to ride.
The DT was replaced by a YZ250 then – when this proved too big – a YZ125. The first ‘proper’ road bike was a Kawasaki Zephyr 750 which he kept for a long time until tempted by the charms of the Suzuki GSXR750, which became an excuse for track day mayhem in the company of close friend Ewan McGregor. In the 1990s, the two even ran the ‘Generace’ team in the British Superstock series. After that came more GSXRs, an R1, then Ewan McGregor’s Ducati 748SP – an encounter which led to the The Long Way Round.
That project turned into a huge undertaking, but the massive success of the programme undeniably led to a huge increase in interest in adventure motorcycling, with sales in the sector attributed to the phenomenally successful TV series increasing by more than 60% worldwide.
Closely followed by The Long Way Down, Charley then took part in the infamous Dakar Rally in 2006, an undertaking that left him with two broken hands after a serious crash on day five of the 16-day event. With both hands in casts he turned from riding to managing the remaining riders in the team, ensuring one rider in their team finishing the notoriously difficult event.
Fast forward to the present day and Charley is once again recuperating. A car turning across his path and forcing him into a wall on the Triumph launch left him with serious injuries – the fibula and tibia of one leg were severely broken and, to make matters worse, the ankle of the other leg was shattered and one hand broken.
“I’ve had broken bones before, but this was worse because with two broken legs crutches become an impossibility,” says Charley. “Luckily my family have always understood that riding bikes is important to me, it is the one thing I love doing the most so giving up motorcycling never came up. It’s been particularly tough for my wife Olly, she bore the brunt of looking after me as well as taking care of the family and she never once complained.”
Now back on a bike again, Charley is already planning his rides for the summer and longer term, the next steps in his motorcycling career. “The freedom of being back on a bike again is exhilarating,” he says. “I’ve got my Triumph Thruxton R and ’59 Triumph bobber to ride and a couple of dirt bikes waiting, as well as a Kawasaki W650 chop and a T120 custom bike being built. Now that the summer is here, I can’t wait to get back out on a bike again.”
The enforced career break also provided the opportunity to write his autobiography Long Way Back, outlining his recovery and providing the framework for reminiscences of his life on two wheels; and the time to plan a series of ambitious future projects.
Men and their sheds
“Plans for the future? Well, I’m looking forward to getting back to Africa with the ‘Ride with Charley Boorman’ tours. Ewan and I had such a great time in Africa we wanted to show it to others – in the last few years we have set that up to change people’s perceptions and show what a fantastic place Africa is. Then there is the Bike Shed project, which has taken off better than we ever expected.”
To those unaware, the Bike Shed is a motorcycle hangout in Shoreditch capitalising on the current mania for custom bike culture, complete with bike displays, restaurant and barbershop, inspired by a similar project launched in Australia by custom bike pioneers Deus Ex Machina.
Charley and his partners – ‘Dutch’, who was running an early version in Tobacco Dock, and Nick Cowell, brother of Simon – are heavily invested in the project. “A bunch of us put money and effort into the concept to get it going and it has taken off better than we ever expected,” says Charley. “We have plans now to take it to Los Angeles and other cities.
“I’ve also got plans to do more work with Triumph as a brand ambassador, and some TV projects that should come to fruition soon. I’m planning a motorcycle assault on the Darien Gap in Nicaragua for early 2018, a project that has long been in the planning but had to be put on hold. I’d like to do another Dakar, maybe a Baja Run in California….oh, and I’m planning on taking a motorcycle to the South Pole. Plus there’s a couple of other stupid things on bikes that I can’t talk about yet. And did I mention the Bike Shed?”
That is without including the charity projects Charley is involved with – most prominently Unicef, dyslexia awareness and the Movember testicular cancer charity, as well as a series of speaking engagements firing up the enthusiasm of audiences for motorcycling adventure.
Not bad for a dyslexic jobbing actor and ex-painter and decorator. With his past record for pulling off seemingly impossible motorcycle projects, we’ll be watching Charley’s progress closely to see what he comes up with next…
Charley’s autobiography, Long Way Back, is available now.
This feature ran in the Summer 2017 issue of Motorcycle Rider - the BMF members' magazine.
You can join the BMF and help us protect the rights of motorcyclists for just £28 a year. Find out more here.