There’s a natural evolution in motorcycle racing. Almost all racers have families and friends who race. Most amateur racers are their own mechanics; they start early, by borrowing their dads’ tools. Whether they should be mechanics is debatable (I suspect that my inability with tools may have improved my results; at least I never hurt my bikes’ performance.)
Over time, the typical clique of racing friends shrinks, as guys get tired of being injured or broke or backmarkers or some permutation of those three. Those left gradually coalesce into two groups: riders and mechanics. Sometimes, the mechanics are the handful of guys who are honest with themselves and ready to admit they don’t have the speed to get to the next level. Sometimes they run out of money to race, but can’t give up the scene. More rarely, they have a gift for it. The French have a great expression for this: they call it having “les doigts de fee,” which literally means “a fairy’s fingers”. The first mechanic I ever knew went a long way towards making me believe that a mechanic’s skill with tools was almost a magic power.
When I was a kid, my dad worked for a big international company. The company moved our family from Canada to Switzerland, so he could run their Geneva office. Our home was in Tannay, an agricultural village that looked down over orchards and vineyards to a big lake. Under Swiss law, at 14 I was allowed to ride a 50cc moped. In surrounding countries, mopeds had three-speed transmissions, but in Switzerland, models sold to teenagers had the top gear removed from the box. Thus, in theory, they were limited to 30 kilometers an hour. Trust the Swiss to take the fun out of everything.
I counted the days down to my fourteenth birthday anyway. My parents bought me the Cadillac of mopeds: a Puch Condor. To start it, I pedaled it like a bicycle. The pedals came in handy for assisting the motor on steep hills, or when we were racing out of slow turns (though digging the inside pedal into the pavement at maximum lean was definitely to be avoided!)
All the kids I knew had similarly restricted bikes, and we endlessly attempted to eke out a little more power. Since every single time any other kid went faster was a serious personal insult, our own neighborhood ‘arms race’ made the U.S.-Soviet debacle seem like an episode of Chip and Dale.
One night, mulling over the possibilities of increased compression, we decided to skim our cylinder heads. Unencumbered by knowledge of milling machines, we cast about for a suitable tool. We found it in a neighbor’s basement: a belt sander. Not one of us waited to see if it worked for anyone else first. We’d have got better results skimming our own stupid heads. Over the next few nights, quite a few local mopeds (which were often left parked outside front gates, in the convenient shadows of stone walls and overgrown hedges) lost their heads.
At every gas station; there was always a special premix pump for motorbikes only. We’d decide how much fuel we were going to buy, which was never much. We told the attendant how much fuel – and what percentage of premix oil – we wanted.
Knobs were set, and a handle was pulled down, sort of like the handle on an expresso machine. The customer was reassured to see a little spurt of oil sprayed onto the inner wall of the glass ‘fishbowl’ on top of the pump. Then a second handle released the gasoline, which swirled in after the oil, dissolving it. It was a special mixture – different than buying gas for a car – that may as well have been a magic potion. All of us idiots concluded that by reducing the percentage of oil to 2% from the recommended 3%, we could get 1% more gasoline, with a concomitant increase in horsepower.
Of course, nothing we did had any impact on performance at all, except to occasionally make it much worse. The top speed of every bike was pretty much determined by the luck of the draw, though since I was the smallest rider, I could pull taller gearing
While the bikes were simple and generally pretty rugged, we were awfully hard on them. We rode without helmets, so it’s amazing we didn’t find ways to kill ourselves, even at sorely restricted speeds. Low-siding on cow shit was a common excuse; once, I took to the ditch at full speed when a tractor and trailer laden with 200 bushels of apples emerged from a hedgerow in front of me. Damage from such wipeouts had to be repaired at the local shop. If my bike would still roll, it was an easy push; just up the street from my house.
The mechanic’s shop was basically a two-bay garage, which along with a tiny beauty salon, made up the ground floor of a two-story house. He worked on bicycles and mopeds, while his wife was the beautician. In general, his customers were not spoiled foreign children, they were real Swiss; farmers, cops, shopkeepers and like, who relied on motorbikes for day-to-day transportation. The wives and girlfriends of those guys were the customers for the mechanic’s wife. All of them were xenophobes, and their treatment of foreigners usually ranged from outright scorn to something resembling the Amish concept of ‘shunning’, unless money was changing hands.
If I was pushing in the bike, or walking in to pick it up, I’d always make a little noise, sort of like throat clearing, to warn him of my arrival. He was an intimidating character for a 14-year-old to deal with. He was old. 60 or 70. Tall and gaunt. Shaking his hand was like grabbing a bunch of walnuts. When he talked to me, he’d walk up to the sound of my voice, but stare straight out over my head. That was because cataracts had, long since rendered him completely blind. Hiscorneas were as opaque as a boiled trout’s.
He did everything by feel. Routine maintenance, stuff like fitting a new inner tube and tire, was absolutely no problem; sighted mechanics could do that with their eyes closed too, maybe. But he rebuilt top ends, replaced brake shoes; stuff that utterly baffled me. A few hours a week, he had a sighted assistant that came in, but usually he was alone. When I went there, there was always some little thing he’d borrow my eyes for, like having me read the tiny numbers on a carb jet.
Occasionally, I’d stop by his shop just to fill up my tires. (The Condor actually came with a bicycle pump for the purpose, but you had to pump like a madman to overcome leakage in the pump itself. He had a pump powered by a foot treadle that allowed me to run the rock-hard tires I preferred for minimal rolling resistance.) When I asked if I could borrow his pump, he always sternly warned me to replace it exactly – exactly – where I’d found it.
Luckily for him, the bikes he worked on were simple. They were all piston-port two-strokes, whose basic design hadn’t changed since the introduction of the NSU ‘Quickly’ in about 1947. When my bike arrived at his shop for the first time, though, he was fascinated. Until then, most Swiss-market mopeds were sold with rigid front forks, like a bicycle. Mine had an inch or two of suspension travel, thanks to a bogus leading-link arrangement in which a little block of rubber served as both spring and damper. He spent a long time ‘looking’ at it, stroking and probing the workings with his fingers, memorizing the arrangement of the parts. It was not long before he got the chance to repair those forks.
He had a name of course, but we just called him ‘the blind man’. By the time I was old enough to get a moped, my family had lived in Switzerland for several years, and I spoke fluent French. Other foreign families came and went every year or two, so I occasionally introduced new customers to the blind man, and acted as a translator. Since his ability was so extraordinary, I sort of ‘showed him off’, I guess. He always took the work. He and his wife were making their living about five bucks at a time, so there was no turning away paying jobs.
After Switzerland, my family moved back to Canada, to Calgary. Out west. Cowboy country. It seemed good, for me, because I could have a bigger bike. I ended up getting a finicky, disc-valve Kawasaki. While it ran, it was just fast enough to illustrate the fact that despite my intense desire, I was incapable of intuiting just how people rode motorcycles really quickly. My inability to keep it going was one of the reasons I ended up giving up motorcycles for a long time.