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70 and still biking


Picture a golden-haired Adonis in Ibiza in the early 1960s: sailcloth trousers, grandpa T-shirt, tough Frye boots. Watch him swagger over to his 350cc Bultaco trail bike.

Every girl seated outside the Montesol café gives him the eye — so he believes — as he kicks the engine into life. And kicks and kicks to no avail. He goes from super-cool to super-sweaty embarrassment in a matter of moments. That’s what youthful self-delusion does for you.

Move on 40 years to an overweight, septuagenarian Blimp, a little nervous but, these days, comfortable in his skin. He is riding north from Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to New York on a 125cc Honda pizza-delivery bike. Aluminium crutches are sticking up behind the seat — not-so-fond mementoes of being hit by an Argentine lorry.

That was last year, during my 40,000-mile circumnavigation of the Americas. An orthopaedic surgeon set my leg in the kitchen of a small hotel in Rio Grande, Tierra del Fuego.

Next month I am off to explore India for six months, again by motorcycle, and hope to celebrate my 77th birthday in Goa, where I rented a primitive beach house nearly half a century ago. What changes will I discover, in Goa and in myself?

I travel by motorcycle for the freedom to go where I will and stop where I will, to absorb the scents and sounds of the land and be open to the people I find. I ride small and cheap, 120 miles to the gallon, spares at every corner, and try to keep within the British state pension — proof that travel is possible even for the impecunious. I cheat sometimes and will scrimp and save while in India for one sumptuous night in the Art Deco glory of the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur.

Plan too much on a trip and there is no surprise. I polish my shoes, and pack heart medication, warm underwear and a couple of history books. Middle-class matrons give reliable directions to clean beds with en suite bathrooms. The attached bathroom is important — old men don’t have time to stumble down unfamiliar corridors in the night.

As to good food, any eaterie containing big-bellied businessmen is sound — though I once asked a skinny cab driver in Punta Arenas where he would take a girlfriend the day before pay day and ate a wondrous fish stew for $1.50.

The rules for survival are simple. Ride slow. Never ride at night. Where possible, keep to secondary roads — main highways are racetracks for kamikazes. I recall a convoy of heavy lorries high in the mountains of Bolivia. Each driver bid me good day with a raised hand and a flash of headlights.

In Colombia, two motorcycle cops tooted a greeting as they sped past. As for Guatemala, I have memories of torrential rain and stopping at a two-table, tin-shack café, where I was served vegetable soup and played “roaring lions” with the children, only one of whom, a girl, attended school and spoke a little Spanish.

An ancient foreigner on a small motorcycle attracts immediate attention. Stop anywhere and the questioning begins. How old am I? Where have I come from? What does my family think of my travelling alone? So the doors open to gems of on-the-road life.

One such gem was a Chinese traveller’s magnificently elitist critique of pre- Colombian art: “Two thousand years of bad ceramics.” Then there was a suave and perfectly tailored Mexican diplomat who argued that those sacrificed in the days of the Maya and Aztecs thought themselves honoured, and fairly bounded up the pyramid for “heart surgery”.

Memories are the companions of old age. As I read this morning’s paper I recalled Afghan Mujahidin helpless with laughter as they panned a mountain stream for my dentures. In those days the Mujahidin fought Russians and were considered heroes.

When told of my travels, fellow oldies in the UK are often envious: “You’re lucky. My wife would never let me . . .”

I respond: “Try asking, you may be surprised.”

We husbands are acceptable when we go to the office five days a week and play golf half the weekend. But after retirement? All day every day? We take up too much space. We forget to put our dirty socks and pants in the laundry basket. We leave the top off the toothpaste tube and fail to return the milk to the refrigerator. And we snore and stumble on the way to the bathroom at 2am and 3am, and then at 4am and 5am.

So, yes, most wives will say “Go for it”, smile sweetly and raise the life insurance.

Old Man on a Bike by Simon Gandolfi is published by The Friday Project, £8.99. www.simongandolfi.com

Source: The Times

 

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