Slow Bikes, Old Watches and Soul
It had been quite a day. We’d only ridden just over 160 miles, but through winding, high-banked lanes, over moors and finally down a flaky, clacky shale track that would have given a mountain goat vertigo. And now we’d made it. Tintagel. I climbed off the bike, helped Pip out of the sidecar and leaned back to drink in the view from the clifftop over the Atlantic. The bike ticked and pinged as it cooled in the breeze off the sea.
As I usually do on a trip like this, riding done, I unrolled the Ural’s toolkit on the ground beside the bike, opened a beer and started checking the machine over, part by part. This is therapy and my favourite part of the day. Miles covered, supper and another beer earned and in view and a chance to tinker with the bike as the sun goes down over the sea.
The Ural – my bike and sidecar combination – rewards care. Without it, she’ll sulk, get upset, run badly. With it, she’s happy and runs with the same unstoppable precision as a vintage caliber 1560. She’s a high-maintenance girl. But she’s far from sophisticated. An antique horizontally-opposed 650 pushrod twin, barely making 40 horsepower. Carbs, not injectors. Cable brakes, no hydraulics. Plenty of milled steel and no plastic at all. She’s slow, needs fear-assistance to make the brakes work, struggles on hills and gets out-dragged by pizzaboys on mopeds, but she’s a proper motorcycle. A motorcycle with soul.
What on earth does that mean? What’s ‘soul’? How can an inanimate machine have ‘soul’? Plenty of people talk about it – in Watchland as well as Bikeland. A 1964 1016 Explorer has soul. A G-Shock doesn’t. A classic Laverda Jota has it, a new GSXR600 doesn’t. But perhaps soul is more about time and our relationship with something than the thing itself. For a start, we make the inanimate animate; petrol and a kickstart for a bike, our own movement for a mechanical watch. A watch that only ever needs a battery every five years doesn’t allow that interaction. A hyper-efficient Japanese superbike that is only ever serviced by a computer-wielding white coat is far more competent than its rider, but that very competence keeps him at a distance.
My most competent watch is easily my Breitling Aerospace. It’s gained just three seconds in six months, so it never needs setting unless I’m feeling more OCD than usual. It can wake me up, precisely measure my morning run (and subsequently accurately time my breakfast eggs), tell me the exact time in Tokyo and its titanium case keeps it waterproof to deeper depths than I’ll ever plumb. I hardly ever wear it.
Instead, I’ll pick up my old Explorer I, a Timefactors PRS3 or my favourite – my IWC Mk XII. They’re all less accurate. All they’ll tell me is the time-ish (although the Rolex is frighteningly accurate for a 40-year old watch) and that’s it. They’re heavier, clunkier, less accurate and much simpler. But they allow me a level of interaction that the Aero simply doesn’t. When the Aero dies, I have to buy a battery. When my mechanical watches stop, they need movement – mine – to make them live again. I need to interact with them to re-set them once the energy of the mainspring has lapsed. And I like that, because that interaction gives me a sense of relationship that the Brietling and its quartz cousins just doesn’t.
And maybe the very lack of precision and presence of faults is part of this relationship, this attribution of soul. We’re not precise animals. We don’t always do the same things in the same ways, react consistently and we change our minds. Something more organic, more flexible just fits us better than something with the hard edges of absolute accuracy. It’s why a Cotswold village’s higgledy architecture and meandering lanes is more comfortable than the ruler-edges of the town planner’s gleaming flats and open boulevards.
For me, there’s a lesson here. And that’s that human beings are best when they’re allowed and left to be human. Because we’re designed to harness our imprecise, organic, chaotic humanity and turn it into creativity. And the more precise, hard-edged and controlled we’re made to be, the worse we run. So I’m finishing this here so I can bugger off and do something irrationally human, like go and check the valve clearances on the Ural. After all, I haven’t done it for at least a week.