The best decade for motorcycling is... this one

Forget the 70s, 80s and 90s, today is the heyday of motorcycling

The term ‘nostalgia’ comes from Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (ache), and was coined in the 17th century by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer to describe the apparent sickness he observed in Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Back then, before air travel, high speed internet and global consciousness, being away from familiar surroundings was a stressful business and created genuine symptoms: “A lasting sadness, incessant thoughts of the native land, restless sleep or lingering wakefulness, a decline in strength, decreased sensations of hunger and thirst, feelings of anxiety or even intense heart palpitations, frequent sweats, and a mental lethargy able to muster an interest in almost nothing beyond thoughts of home,” said Hofer. He thought of nostalgia as a disease treatable by returning the sufferer to their home.

The Victorians romanticised nostalgia into a wistful melancholia for the past, rather than homesickness. But it took 20th century greed to turn it into big business, cashing-in on each generation’s rose-tinted comfort blanket by feeding them their memories, repackaged and recycled, almost before they had time to cease being the present.

The evolutionary benefit of nostalgia is unclear. It may be that, in the daily struggle to survive tens of thousands of years ago, an ability to relive positive feelings from the past gave early, proto-sentient humans a reason to keep struggling. When you’re faced with starvation, a harsh winter and a sabre-toothed tiger trying to eat your loved ones, recalling the halcyon days of childhood played out in lush, fertile meadows kept you going. 

Nostalgia is everywhere and the older we get, the more everywhere it is. It’s the shadow of our lives; shortest at noon but growing longer by the minute as we count down toward sunset.

But enough of that. If anyone tells you the 00s, 90s, 80s, 70s etc were the best years to be a biker, they’re entitled to their opinion... but they’re talking bollocks. They’re confusing the pleasure of owning, maintaining and riding older bikes today – which is all good – with actually being a biker back then – not so good, comparatively. Because the best time to be a biker is right now. How can it be anything but? Consider this: 

Choice: today we have more of it. Lots more. A range of manufacturers build a wide range of models and there’s not just something for everyone, there are lots of things for everyone. If you were buying a new bike in a given price range and of a given style in the 1990s, you’d face a choice between four bikes, max. Today, you’d be choosing between eight, ten, maybe more. That’s better, right? And you can have almost anything you can imagine – a grand touring Triumph, a budget BMW, a Moto Guzzi adventure bike, a Ducati cruiser.

And, 20 years ago, if you wanted a bike that handled, had a decent turn of speed and some grip and brakes to go with it, you probably had to buy a sportsbike because everything else was either an overweight, ill-handling tourer or a cheap-as-chips naked bike. No wonder they sold so many race reps. There was nothing else worth having.

But today, say, you can buy one of several adventure bikes that have enough performance, grip, handling, brakes and sophisticated electronics to comfortably exceed our capacity to exploit them, yet come with luggage, heated grips and a suitably sensible riding position. Even the modern full-on tourer, or so-called budget bike, has staggering reserves of handling and performance. Or, of course, you can still buy your bonkers sportsbike.

And for all you 1990s nuts out there, the modern day is what lets you ride about on your vintage GSX-Rs and Blades. You can’t have nostalgia without the present to be nostalgic from. If it wasn’t for 2014, you wouldn’t be able to indulge your fondness for 1994. 

Performance: the way bikes go, stop, handle and (to a lesser extent) use fuel has been taken to levels we could scarcely have imagined 20 years ago. Remember when 110bhp was a lot, or when 150mph was fast, or when knee-down was a fantasy? Remember when power delivery was lumpy, when suspension was rock-hard, when tyres didn’t stick and brakes didn’t work in the wet? You know, the ‘good’ old days? 

Technology: heated grips, ergonomic fairing screens, comfy seats, clocks that tell you everything but the FTSE 100 prices, electronic suspension, engine modes, traction control and ABS that lets you brake mid corner and not fall off. Speaking of which...

Safety: fewer accidents per mile travelled means biking is safer than ever before. Plus we have helmets that are stronger and more comfortable, warmer, drier jackets, thicker body armour, and stronger boots and gloves.

Cost: biking is no more expensive now than it’s ever been. You might have less money to spend on it now because of your position in life, but that’s not the same thing.

Racing: racing is always awesome, but if you want an argument about it: Doohan’s 500GP dominance was magnificent, but a crushing bore. That’s partly why we started watching WSB instead. And last season – the one with loads of traction control and electronics? A classic. What with World Superbike and BSB backing up the action, plus a vintage TT, 2013 was possibly the best racing season for bikers since records began.

There are a few things that aren’t as good now as they were at some indeterminate point in the past: there’s more traffic on the roads, which is a nuisance but partially mitigated by much of it being softer to hit than it used to be. It’s harder and more expensive to become a biker than it’s ever been. There’s more traffic enforcement, and our CCTV culture means it’s harder for rebels to fly under the radar. Emissions legislation has made engines harsher and less pleasant to use, and made bikes heavier, and that won’t be getting better soon. And are the summers shorter, cooler and wetter?

Of course, the truth about nostalgia is this: you don’t yearn for yesterday because things were better then. You yearn for it because you were younger and the future was unmapped, potential unexploited, paths unchosen. And, ultimately, the thing about nostalgia is it says more about you, now, than it does about you, then.