Built Road Trip: Chasing blue sky in a box of rain

The West Country is chock full of artisans. Bulit seeks them out while dodging storms on a pair of Harleys


Rain is bouncing off the road. It’s the first time I’ve swung a leg over the all-new Harley 1200 Roadster but despite rivers running across the Tarmac, I instantly feel at ease with the familiar steady thud of the aircooled V-twin. The plan seemed like a simple one: idyllic ride along back roads down to Land’s End and back, stopping off along the way to see local bike builders, cool cafes and old mates. I was going to ride my 2001 Bonneville rather than my 1995 Sportster which I’d only just got back on the road and was still ironing out those little glitches that make older Harleys such endearing/infuriating machines.

Built’s chief photographer Gary Margerum had his 2005 Sportster – his daily ride with 20,000 miles on it. But when I was chatting with Harley PR guru Trevor Franklin at the Tobacco Dock Bike Shed show and mentioned our road trip, he ventured: “why not take one of the new Harleys?” Which is how come I’ve got a shiny new Roadster to play with – the perfect foil to Gary’s 883R. But we hadn’t counted on the bloody-minded British weather.

Now it’s time for me to ride it for the first time, from Stamford to Devizes in Wiltshire, and it’s biblical. If I’d been on my own bike with no commitments I’d have postponed the ride for another time. Instead I mutter ‘fuck it’, suit up and head south.

WEDNESDAY: the new harley impresses

Piles of dirt and debris litter the crowns of the lanes, puddles collect in the bottom lip of cambers and hide potholes. And me on this brand new bike that I’ve not even sat on until a few miles ago. No worries. The Roadster is a forgiving beast, quite happy to trundle. As I hit the Fosse Way at Brinklow, the rain stops and there’s a welcome sight of steam rising from the road. I’m riding along in perfect sunshine, sweating inside a leather jacket cloaked in a rainsuit. Such is the duality of our ludicrous British weather. Today the Fosse appears as a spine of black ribbon reaching into blue sky with dark clouds engulfing each side as the Harley and I carve southbound. The Roadster has come alive. It might have its roots in the Sportster going back to 1984 but this latest incarnation is so suited to modern demands. In the shitty wet or heavy traffic it just thuds gently as you thread the needle. But on the open road the rubber mountings giving you the smoothest ride as you watch the needle swing frantically on the analogue rev-counter with the V-twin motor thudding gently to remind you that this is a bike with soul. Acceleration is strong and it’s deceptively fast too. Don’t ask me how fast – I can’t see the digital speedo in the glare. I’d prefer an old skool speedo. Who needs a rev-counter on a Harley for christsake? The mid-mount pegs coupled with the ‘slammed’ bars means my hips start to smart after a while and I need a break from the cramped riding position.

It’s not really a valid criticism as styling is everything for this Roadster – Harley describe the look as: ‘garage custom’. It’s weird riding a Sportster with such a high Piles of dirt and debris litter the crowns of the lanes, puddles collect in the bottom lip of cambers and hide potholes. And me on this brand new bike that I’ve not even sat on until a few miles ago. No worries. The Roadster is a forgiving beast, quite happy to trundle. As I hit the Fosse Way at Brinklow, the rain stops and there’s a welcome sight of steam rising from the road. I’m riding along in perfect sunshine, sweating inside a leather jacket cloaked in a rainsuit. Such is the duality of our ludicrous British weather. Today the Fosse appears as a spine of black ribbon reaching into blue sky with dark clouds engulfing each side as the Harley and I carve southbound. The Roadster has come alive. It might have its roots in the Sportster going back to 1984 but this latest incarnation is so suited to modern demands. In the shitty wet or heavy traffic it just thuds gently as you thread the needle.

But on the open road the rubber mountings giving you the smoothest ride as you watch the needle swing frantically on the analogue rev-counter with the V-twin motor thudding gently to remind you that this is a bike with soul. Acceleration is strong and it’s deceptively fast too. Don’t ask me how fast – I can’t see the digital speedo in the glare. I’d prefer an old skool speedo. Who needs a rev-counter on a Harley for christsake? The mid-mount pegs coupled with the ‘slammed’ bars means my hips start to smart after a while and I need a break from the cramped riding position. It’s not really a valid criticism as styling is everything for this Roadster – Harley describe the look as: ‘garage custom’. It’s weird riding a Sportster with such a highmount tank. My 1991 bike is old skool and Gary’s raised the front of his 883R to give it a Frisco chopper look. The Roadster is more café-inspired, with its truncated rear fender (which Gary hates). If it was my bike I’d get some dogbones, raise them two inches and fit loud pipes. Everything else is spot-on. I decide to stop for gas on the outskirts of Moreton-in-the- Marsh and just as I roll into the petrol station, the yellow fuel light blinks on: 88.2 miles. I’ve no idea how much is in reserve. I need a break.


When I rejoin the Fosse black clouds are gathering. I skirt Cirencester and should turn off for Malmesbury if I want the quickest route to my mate’s place in Devizes but signs for Tetbury and Bath – and the alluring thud of the Harley – tempt me to take a detour and prolong the ride. Stupid idea. No more than five miles later the clouds break and it pisses down again – and will continue to do so until I reach my destination. That’s 165 miles done. Tonight I’m stopping with my old biking buddy Paul, an old skool eco freak who grows his own, bakes his own, and recycles. About his only non-eco trip is burning fossil fuels – but even then his frugal old bikes probably emit fewer hydrocarbons than the majority of modern save-the-planet vehicles. He used to be a rally fanatic, clocking thousands of miles each year with a tent strapped his cissy bar, and while he’s calmed down a bit since hitting the big 5-oh, he still rides more than most.

In his garage these days are two Indianmade Bullets and three complete Guzzis and what looks like enough stuff to make several more. Maybe I exaggerate – but there are plenty of spares knocking around. I down a welcoming cuppa, catch up on gossip, including tales of the Bullet that died. “I stripped it, found nothing wrong, re-assembled it and the damn thing now runs like clockwork. It’s my daily rider,” says Paul as we jump in his motor and dash off in search of food. Or so I hope. I’m starving and think we’re going to The Raven at Poulshot but Paul drives straight past explaining there may be an event on the village green. Sure enough its annual Vintage Vehicle Gathering is in full swing: bikes, cars, lorries, tractors, traction engines, you name it. I’d like to say it’s all planned but it’s a stroke of luck there’s this charming old-timer event going on when I’m in town. Great way to spend a couple of hours looking at wonderful old vehicles and the meal in the Raven that followed is top notch. Pays to hang out with the locals.

‘I stripped it, found nothing wrong, re-assembled it and the thing now runs like clockwork.’

THURSDAY: workshop heaven

Paul has to start work early so I hit the road and head to the yellow arches for breakfast. Then I’m off to see Andy and Ian – who share a well-kitted workshop on an industrial unit with several other mates and build Triumphs mostly for fun. My own 1976 Triumph TR7 has been lovingly recommissioned by the guys and, if I ever moved back to my hometown of Devizes, this workshop is the kind of utopia I’d like to live in. The guys also do some private resto work and Ian, a former racer, has just race-prepped the Ace Classics Triumph that Kev Rushforth will race at the Goodwood Revival. In fact the boys have only just come back from France where they tested some updated mods Ian’s done to the 500cc twin. It’s here that I’m also meeting up with Gary. He’s riding his 883 across from Kent this morning and then we’ll head south on our road trip. Ian’s had to do some private work for a mate so it’s just Andy at the workshop. He’s still jet-lagged from a trip to the States to ride Route 66 on one of those organized tours.

Andy’s very much into Triumphs. He’s got yet another Adventurer restoration on the go – he’s already done a handful of them – and when this one’s finished it’ll be way better than the originals ever came out of the factory. But on Route 66 he rode a new Indian Chief on a tour that predominantly rented Harleys. “Mine broke a gearbox,” he says, “but then so did one of the Harleys. My bike was replaced immediately so it was no hassle. And we had such a good trip. I’d recommend it to anyone.” Gary turns up on time and after a reviving cuppa we’re just about to leave when he spots some scratches on the matt black rear fender and discovers it’s been caused by his seat moving from side to side. The single bolt fixing has sheared off. It’s no easy fix; riding gear back off. The shocks have to come off and the bike jacked up to get a bolt up inside the full depth fender. By the time we’re good to go, the rain clouds are looming but we manage to reach Bruton before shards of hail smack us in the face.

Luckily it doesn’t last too long and we cruise on to Totnes on the A303 because we lost too much time earlier to hit the back roads. In Totnes we lunch at the utterly charming Curator Café, right in the centre of town. The coffee and food is supplied by Italian food specialist Matteo Lamaro and the styling done by Nick Clements, founder of Mens File magazine. We can vouch for the
BLTs on ciabatta and coffee in a perfect backdrop of surfer, biker, and cyclist fashion props. We’re in Totnes to meet up with another of my old mates, Paul Hobbs, so I call him: “You’re at the Curator? I’ve just driven by there and saw a couple of Harleys. I wondered if it was you…” We wait for another sharp shower to pass before heading off to Paul’s, down some single track lanes that he seems to love so much yet scare me witless thanks to the closing speed of Range Rovers that just about fit between the green banks. I’ve known Paul for years.

We both worked in the motorsport paddocks in our former lives, Paul supplying a lot of the racing teams with hoses, fittings, coolers, rads. He rode fast bikes, drove fast cars and had OCD when it came to preparation. In the 1990s we drifted our separate ways but got re-acquainted some five or six years ago, each surprised to find we had rediscovered our original petrolhead roots. For Paul that means Harleys and hot rods. For me it’s Harleys and Triumphs. His Harley is the coolest WLA flathead you could imagine. Initial impressions shout military 45 but closer inspection reveals lots of custom touches. He built it from a basket case, and now is on the hunt for something marginally newer – like a Panhead or Shovel. One of his hot rod Fords is built from bits collected in various trips to the States. “It’s a Model A rolling chassis, 1932 Model B four-banger engine, 1927 Roadster pick-up body,” he says, stroking his glorious gold prospector’s beard. “No, that’s not quite correct. Oh fuck it, it’s near enough.” Good to see him fighting his OCD tendencies for perfection. Paul has just come back from the fourth annual Vintage Hot Rod Association meeting at Pendine and that dominates the banter when he joins us for dinner at our hotel at Tuckenhay. It’s a delightful 18th century inn called The Malsters Arms, ‘the fish pub on the Dart’ and formerly owned by the late TV chef, Keith Floyd. Not only is the food awesome, the gorgeous room offers views across Bow Creek on the Dart estuary. Pauls’ not the most competitive person on the planet, in fact he’s got more laid-back hippy genes than the entire cast of the Beat Generation. But something in him clicked at Pendine this year – all kicked off by his kids out-performing him on day one.

‘It was the best meet yet. You wonder if can actually get any better’

“I’ve got a great pic of Polly (his daughter) in my car with her race face on – and a great start line shot of Stacey (another daughter) driving Pat’s (son) car – a ‘27 T on Model A running gear - built in under five weeks and not driven until the Friday night at Pendine. Stacey went on to beat Pat by 0.4 mph, and clocked 70.2mph, which is amazing for a pretty much stock A engine.” There was more: “I ran high 60s on the first day and suddenly thought, ‘I’ve got to do 70mph’ so I ripped off the fly screen that night in the hope of improving the aerodynamics. Pat thought I’d gone mad, but then said he was taking off his car’s headlights. I ran 72.8mph. I was so pleased with that – but I should have gone even faster! “It was the best meet yet… You wonder if can actually get any better. You should go next year. When you get there, you’ll kick yourself you’ve not been before.”

FRIDAY

Friday morning we drop by to see the Von Zeti family. I leave the Harley behind at Paul’s and jump in the passenger seat of the hot rod for a hell-raising ride through the single tracks. The rasp of the four-banger announces our imminent arrival at each corner but it doesn’t stop us nearly head on-ing into a van. But what a hoot and I can totally see the attraction, especially when Paul throws it into a broadside on the damp road in the boatyard where the Von Zetis hang out. For those who don’t know, the Von Zetis are well know for making seats and sub-frames for café racers, street trackers and scramblers, predominantly for BMW boxer twins. They’re selling 150 sets worldwide each month and now plan to out-source the sub-frames to double production to service a growing demand. Where do they all go?! Thing is, they’re not really called Von Zeti – and they’re not as Italian as the trade name sounds. They’re Dutch and the loveable trait of the Von Zetis is their madness. The four of them went to Pendine in a pair of American RVs and paid £500 in petrol… Eldest son Niek has just bought a Willys body to build his own period hot rod. And his brother Riekus is restoring an old Land Rover to form his University video narrative assignment. That’s not to mention the numerous motorcycle projects that litter the expansive workshop. Outside stands the latest family project: a streamliner they are building for land speed runs at Pendine. The rules insist on pre- 1949 running kit so they’ve found two WWII drop tanks to base the bodywork on then plan to build their own rolling chassis and power it by a Cadillac V8.

We have to make tracks. We’ve already spent a couple hours longer than we had planned and to hit Land’s End and get the shots we’re hoping for at sunset means more main road miles. We deliberately kept daily mileages down to enjoy lazy ride along quiet back roads but keep forcing ourselves onto the busy A-roads. The weather threatens but holds and we stop off in the late Georgian port of Charlestown, near St Austell for pasties. Back on the road I continually chuckle at Gary’s antics that inject the Whitewalls’ soundtrack of the Choppertown movie into my head. It’s busy around St Austell and it’s impressive how he filters and then parks at a 45-degree angle at the front of every red traffic light. You can tell he spends most of his time battling the London traffic.

But on the open road it’s like being part of the movie, getting the on-bike view of this low slung Sportster (two inches lower at the rear and skinny La Pera seat, stock front end and Z-bars) being flicked from side to side on the swooping Cornish roads. We finally arrive at Land’s End – still having evaded the threatening rain – and scout around Sennen for our hostelry before realizing that our hotel is actually nestling behind the visitors centre. And what a joy it is. My room looks out onto the craggy coastal landscape that was formed some 270 million years ago. And no, I’m not looking in the mirror. The sun is dipping away but we’ve still time to eat dinner before Gary sets up a sunset shot with the Roadster. “We’ve got to wait till the moment when the suns dips out of sight then you’ll get a lovely pink-coloured sunburst,” he assures me. But he wasn’t counting on a bank of cloud rolling onto the horizon to effectively blot out the sunset completely. If nothing else we’ve met plenty of people while setting up the shot. It’s amazing how much interest the Roadster attracts, no matter where you park it.

‘When Mark set off on his first run he was suddenly engulfed in a fireball’

SATURDAY: exploding Broughs

Red (well, pink) sky at night, bikers delight? Today starts with sunshine as we head for Redruth to hook up with Sam Lovegrove. You might know his name from the ‘Shed And Buried’ TV show he stars in with Henry Cole but he’s also the guy who builds Brough Superior’s land speed record-breaking bikes that race at Bonneville. He’s a 100 percent old skool engineer who loves building vintage motorcycles from scratch and playing with old American cars. Sam’s just come back from an eventful weekend and Wheels and Waves in Biarritz. He’d recently finished building a Bert Le Vack replica Brough specifically to race on Punks Peak at W&W. But when Brough owner Mark Upham set off on its first run, he was suddenly engulfed in a fireball. “It looks like the petrol tap sheared off. We’ve no idea why, but the fuel ignited on the hot engine. Luckily, the start marshal emptied a dry powder extinguisher onto the bike and saved it from any serious damage and we’ll just polish the bike back up and leave any marks to remind us of the incident!” Sam always has interesting projects lying around. He’d just finished his Motosacoche – featuring one of the Swiss company’s MAG engines built to fit on the front of a Morgan Grand Prix three wheeler. “I think that last time we met was at the National Motorcycle Museum when I went to size up the frames of some vintage machines. It’s a 1924 1100cc overhead inlet valve with the side exhaust,” says Sam matter-of-factly.

“It’s in a 1928 Triumph NSD frame with a 1922 Triumph gearbox, 1940’s Matchless rear hub and 1926 KTT Velocette front hub.” Living proof that a vintage motorcycles can be as customized as a modern café racer or tracker. “It’s all road legal. I even did an engineer’s report to DVLA to notify them of the engine change!” The next project on the bench is another replica for Mark Upham’s Brough company – this time based on a 350cc JAP V-twin engine raced by Eric Fernihough. “We’ve got provenance from this engine. It’s a really early overhead valve, racing engine. The porting and crankshaft work is some of the finest I’ve ever seen in a vintage engine. Not just the polishing but the interesting shapes. When we got this, it inspired us to manufacture another replica. “I’m building my own frame for it from 4130 chromemoly steel and the reason we’re building it is so that Mark’s daughter Victoria can race it at Bonneville. She’s only 12 but we are planning to have the bike ready for her to race on the Salt next year,” he says. With that, Gary and I saddle up and chase the sunshine along the Atlantic Highway (so much more romantic than the A39) and stop off at Strong Adolfos near Wadebridge.

What a place – no wonder it’s won piles of awards for its food, coffee and atmosphere. Why aren’t there more roadside diners like this? For starters it’s steeped in biker and surfer culture. The staff are so pleasant and the food is to die for. My beef curry is stunning in presentation and flavour but there’s so much of it that it’s a challenge to raid the cake stand. I do my best and consume a huge wedge of Victoria sponge, which is delightful but tips me over the edge. I need sleep. The road seems to improve with every mile and for the first time I can enjoy the way the Roadster handles and stops. Harley’s PR blurb bangs on about the bike having loads of ‘stoplight-to-stoplight muscle’ , which it has, but I reckon they underplay the delight of its handling. It’s the only Sportster with these new 43mm inverted front forks, plus there’s revised geometry that makes it a cinch to turn in and change direction. And it stops so well thanks to dual discs. I’d love to spend more time and exploit more of its capabilities. We’re heading for Bideford for our next stop and take time out at Westward Ho! to take pictures. Well, I thought it was Bideford. Turns out I didn’t read my emails properly and the hotel we needed was the Red Lion Harbour Inn, Clovelly, Bideford Bay. That meant ten miles back, which was fine by us because it’s a great road.

But by the time we get to the top of Clovelly, it’s dusk. Now, Clovelly is a fishing village and has steep, pedestrianised cobbled streets – way too steep for motorised vehicles – except if you are staying in the Red Lion, which has a special access road. So Gary decides to ride down to the hotel car park. As we round the final hairpin it’s like dropping off the edge of a cliff. From what’s still visible in the fading light, the road is full of potholes, loose gravel, moss and is wet – and I’m stood on the rear brake, in first gear at stall speed but the bike gradually picks up momentum. I can honestly say I’ve never been so scared on a motorcycle in my life as the hotel wall seems to speed towards me. At the last moment, I grab some front brake on what I pray is dry road and the bike comes to a halt next to Gary’s. “That was a bit sketchy,” he laughs. “Imagine what it’ll be like tomorrow trying to ride up it if it rains.” I just shake my head in disbelief. I wonder if the ABS has kicked in. I’ve no idea. All I know is that the bike tracked straight and true and stopped at the end. Gary’s laughing: “It’ll be like riding up the Widowmaker. You’ll be like old Hawkeye Hillbilly ‘The Bouncer’ in On Any Sunday! Plenty of revs and dump the clutch. You’ll be okay.”

‘It’ll be like riding up the Widowmaker. You’ll be like old Hawkeye Hillbilly in On Any Sunday'

SUNDAY: up the widowmaker

I wake up to pissing rain, get dressed and wander across from my seafront hotel room to the harbour and watch a lone fisherman set out against a backdrop of mist clinging to the cliffs. Gary’s up too, busy snapping away. All I can think about is the hill. Stupid really – I overlooked the fact we’re riding torquey V-twins which can find grip almost anywhere. Our Harleys conquer the Clovelly Widowmaker. I take a dab when I cross-rut before the first hairpin but we both leave our tyre tracks at the top of the hill. Gary has to park up and clean the inside of his Bell bubble visor. “I rode it blind,” he says proudly. I rode it in blind panic. The weather is the worst and we ride steadily in the lashing rain back long the A39. I’m buzzing. There’s some weird selfsatisfaction in this. The rain is heavy enough to keep the visorclear and I’m loving the Harley so much even this shit weather’s not going to spoil it for me. Our original plan was to stop over at another old mate’s on the north Devon coast to check out his latest Triumph build. But he’s off delivering a bike to a customer so we splash on. I was also going to stop over in Devizes again but with the Met Office issuing yellow weather warnings for much of the country on Monday, I decide to head home. Gary and I part company along the A303 at Sparkford when I take the road to Bruton while he carries on towards London. I thread back through Devizes to Swindon, Oxford, Northampton and home to Stamford in perfect dry weather relishing the Harley. I get home and park up with 854 miles on the speedo – 275 miles on this final day. It’s no big deal. But what a brilliant weekend. Brilliant bike. We didn’t get to ride the back roads but that was out fault for hanging out with friends too long. Shame it’s going back to Harley on Tuesday…