Field bikes mean different things to different people. For some, they were a defining point in their young lives. That first-ever ride of a motorbike, often at single-figure ages, and the realisation that bikes were something amazing and very special. Niall Mackenzie’s first ever bike was a Honda C90, and he went on to race for his country at the very highest level. For many others, especially in these DAS days, field bikes are what scooter scum ride illegally, often on a stolen Gilera 180 on a common near your house. To these people, field bikes mean absolutely nothing.
For me, they were an instrumental part of my motorcycling life from an early age. It was 1991 and I was 11 years-old. A gang of older kids were riding around a field near Perham Down, and I used to hang around for hours watching them tear about, slack-jawed with envy. Eventually one of them took pity and stuck me on the back, and after an hour of hanging on and loving every minute, they parked up to talk about bras and boobs while I was thrown a key to a real motorbike for the first time ever. I’ll never forget when I twisted a throttle and heard the engine roar, instantly warping my tiny, innocent mind. All the power in the world was immediately mine.
Three months later I aquired a Honda Melody for £1. It ran well even though it lived in the woods for the whole time I owned it. My parents would have killed me if they knew I owned such a rip-snorting monster. But I spent every spare moment during the summer riding, crashing and racing that thing. In one weekend you could learn how to control a powerslide, how to rewire a headlight and how to ride a bike without brakes. I would fall asleep planning paintjobs and wake up itching to ride again. A knackered field bike may make 5bhp and have a frame spot-welded together by the local ironmonger, but a motorbike is a motorbike and a 20 year-old Honda Melody reacts in exactly the same way as Nicky Hayden’s RC212V. Just a bit slower and with a smaller bill when you hit the dirt.
So we decided to celebrate the days of when the field bike ruled the earth. When life was simpler, and when a crash into a barbed-wire fence meant nothing more than crying to mum and a clipped ear. A brief was sent out to all the staffers: buy a shitter with a maximum price of £200. No dirt-bikes or knobbly tyres allowed. MOTs not necessary, road legalality not required. We would then compete head-to-head in an endurance race for the sheer, teenage joy of it.
Qualifying for the 30-minute race consisted of a hot lap against the clock. Predictably Whit and Mackenzie set the pace, with Cantlie running third. Designer Barry surprised everyone with his interpretation of a hot lap by covering his jeans in unleaded fuel, which was pumping from his carburretor more quickly than we could put fuel in. Somehow we managed to start the bloody thing and Barry didn’t engulf himself in flames. Urry couldn’t have looked any more uncomfortable if he’d tried, fixing his vision on the front mudguard and flailing his arms and legs wildly everytime his NSR even approached its tiny powerband. Hogan’s Kawasaki actually ran okay for a short while, even if he sat bolt upright and looked like your dad’s best mate on a Brough Superior, until the chain came off. And continued coming off.
As the flag dropped Hogan claims he got the holeshot, but was promptly nerfed straight off the track by the (marginally) more experienced Whitham. Cantlie and Mackenzie were locked in a battle on their C70 and C90 that would continue for the whole race, with some excellent full-contact tactics and outright cheating being employed by both. Meanwhile Jon Urry was having a battle against his own shadow, with neither gaining an edge, with both Urry (and his shadow) staring straight ahead with arms locked in terror. Barry, meanwhile, was the DNS of the race with his shit trike. Not having so much as checked whether it started after handing over his money (“it’s got a race-tuned engine, mate!” he was told) it transpired that the Honda ATC worked for about two minutes at a time.
Whitham was taking the whole thing far too seriously and just disappeared into the distance on his written-off Spanish crapper. Mackenzie matched him through the corners, but had to give in on the straights to Whit’s sky-rocket 11bhp. Hogan’s efforts had been reduced to fixing his chain and exhaust every half-lap and getting in peoples way until they fell off again. Niall and Whit pulled away from the crash-hungry Cantlie, whose prediction that C90s were indestructible came true. In the end, Mackenzie pipped Whit with 17 laps, Cantlie cranked 15 laps out of his crashathon, Urry somehow managed 11 laps and Hogan with his KH pushed by the flag for six. Barry was nowhere but hey, he did look good in his Brad Lackey face-mask.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN!
First, you will need a field or a rich chum with a big garden and an understanding wife. She can work on the barbeque while you race. Set a realistic budget of £200 for bike and fettling, and start searching. Scrap yards are full of shit so don’t go into one thinking you will find a gem. Think outside the box, think newspaper shop windows, think council pounds, think your mate’s old dad. eBay is always a goldmine and always make a cash offer before the auction has closed. Don’t get carried away, 250cc is the absoloute max we would reccommend. We banned any off-road bikes as too easy to ride. A can of fuel, tyre-weld and some tools are essential in the pits. Dig out your filthiest riding clobber and off you go.
We set a superpole system to determine grid position, then did a motocross start which confused matters. After that it was a 30 minute race with all the drama, crashes, overtakes and shouting that MotoGP has. Except now you’re the star, and it costs the same as your council tax bill.
Bike: 1993 Honda C90
Price paid: £200
Where from: eBay
Unlike all the other fools here I knew from the outset which was the right bike to have: the immortal C90. With a field-perfect 7bhp put down to the ground through a semi-automatic gearbox with power-pulses about 20 minutes apart, and a chassis that is cleared for 30ft tabletop jumps (I’ve witnessed this) I knew the C90 was the cream of the crop. Unfortunately, Niall knew this too, although he ended up with a prehistoric C70 which snapped in half. Whitham took the whole thing far too seriously, didn’t talk to anyone all day and stormed into an unassailable lead on his hand-cut tyres. But my C90 was so solid and dependable that it was the bike we used for the timed oval section and the gratuitous jump-off. Most amazingly of all, two weeks later the C90 was booked in for its MOT and passed without a hitch. Best bike ever made.
Bike: 1992 Honda NS125R
Price paid: £150
Where from: Ebay
Looks aren’t everything. If they were I’d still be a virgin, so while everyone else laughed at the state of my bike I was quietly confident. Until I saw the course. What I needed for a field like ours was decent tread, wide bars and long suspension. What did I have? A peaky bald-tyred race rep that looked like it had been dragged out of a canal. Combined with my total lack of off-road ability I was knackered from the start. On the flat it was a rocket, but despite Niall proving how fast it could be cornered in the mud I failed miserably to get to grips with it, and resorted to cutting corners when no-one was looking. I thought that my power advantage would count, but it didn’t. 11 laps was okay and I didn’t finish last. But only because Hogan and Barry’s bikes didn’t bloody work.
Bike: 1992 Kawasaki KH125
Price paid: £150
Where from: D&K
Condition: Not bad
It started first kick when I dragged it out of the van. The lads were impressed: I had bagged a real contender, complete with Renthal bars. The Marlboro paintjob was dreamt up on the front of a fag packet. If you squinted at it and blinked a bit it looked like a mini flat-tracker. I binned everything that I could get away with, including the front brake, and got to work gloating about how quick I was going to be. There is a reason that bikes like this are called shitters, though. In my case it was the chain tensioner, or lack thereof. Every lap involved stopping to put the chain back on and lube it with a bit more blood from my freezing fingers. I got the holeshot though, and perhaps most importantly had the biggest laugh on a bike I have had since I was about 14.
Bike: 1981 Honda C70
Price paid: £200
Where from: local bike shop
Condition: Snapped in half
My approach came from my club racing days, when with no money one had to take the psychological offensive. This involved applying stickers of performance products to your machine. The opposition then believed you were fully sponsored, so were quite often beat before they started. Hence my C70 sported Rizla and Yoshimura logos lulling the opposition into thinking I was a factory rider. Obviously, I am now a retired old man but none of them realised this. On the day my 72cc provided the least power and speed on the longer straights and bottomed out in the deep ruts. However, I’m still convinced my mind games and ‘slowly, slowly catchy monkey’ approach was what brought home the bacon. And did I have fun on the day. This is what bikes are about!
Bike: 1984 Honda ATC 70
Price paid: £120
Where from: eBay
It was love at first sight when the little trike popped on my browser and I was allowed to have a third wheel purely for comedy value and the fact that it allowed the others to have someone to aim for. I’m not a die-hard racer by any means and my choice of ride was down to the fact I didn’t have this experience 23 years previously in 1984 when I wanted it. So £120 had got me a bastardized child’s toy that wheelied like a banshee courtesy of the 110cc pit bike engine it now sported. Sadly I possess all the mechanical aptitude of a ferret, and the carb pissed fuel, the throttle was jammed open most of the time and it had no brakes. As a result I put in a few laps at the end after everyone had gone home. I am convinced that had I done any preparation, I would have won the race...
Bike: 2005 Rieju 125
Price paid: £150
Where from: Local bike shop
Condition: Crashed to shit
I bagged a fairly new but very written-off Reiju 125 four stroke. Once I’d got rid of the smashed fairing, welded the left handle-bar and foot rest back on and sorted the broken gear lever I was good to go. I thought my trump card was going to be the fact that I have a tyre cutter and spent 3 hours fashioning the stock road rubber into hand cut knobblies but in the event I ended up not getting as much traction as I’d hoped. On reflection the bike I had was too front heavy and the seating position too sports-like to be any good on a water-logged field. At least the thing ran like a charm all day though, which is more than can be said for some of the other shitters on the grid. Accusations of me taking this day too seriously are completely false. I was having fun, I just didn’t smile much.