Icon: Che Guevara

A political icon from the Swinging 60s and owner of the second most famous beret in the world (after Frank Spencer's) it's little known that Che was a very keen motorcyclist and biking author. Good on him...

For one very short spell in history during the 1960s, that gay dandy of head-dress - the beret - was actually cool.

Before then it had been the national headgear of the French (bad) and after in the 1970s it was to be mocked by the likes of Frank Spencer, but you would not have screamed "oooh Betty" or taken the piss out of Che Guevara wearing his. After all, he was a biker - and he carried an AK47 assault rifle at all times.

During his short 39-year life, Guevara had acted as a doctor, teacher, journalist, photographer, banker, minister of industry, negotiator and skilled military leader.

And in 1952, he was a bike author, too, as the 23-year-old Guevara and a friend decided to take a year off their medical school studies to ride to South America on an old Norton 500 single, posing as leprosy missionaries. What followed were parties, fights, drinking and the birth of his revolutionary ideals. The pair depended entirely on the generous hospitality of strangers to survive, and on the way drank lots of spiced wine and had some colorful times.

Here's one excerpt: "During the night I had a bad case of the runs and, not wanting to leave a souvenir in the pot under my bed, I positioned myself at the window and delivered up the contents of my aching guts to the darkness beyond. The next morning I looked out and saw that the scene two meters below was impressive. We beat a speedy retreat."

Charming. Not much is said about the actual motorcycle other than a sorry tale of brutal punishment which included multiple crashes repaired with wire and any old rubbish they could patch the bike up with. Understandably the Norton doesn't survive the whole trip - it breaks down for good only 30 pages into the book - although this doesn't stop the adventure as the pair continue on foot. The Hollywood rumour-mill says that Robert Redford has bought the rights to the story and wants to turn it into a film.
Following his trip around South America on two-wheels, Guevara became convinced that revolution was the only solution to the poverty and social imbalance compared to neighbours like the USA. In 1954 he went to Mexico, where he joined exiled Cuban revolutionaries under Fidel Castro.

Che soon became Castro's right-hand man, merging roles of guerilla leader into that of Cuba's minister of industry in 1961-65 following Castro's take over of Cuba in 1959. Bored of Government, he left Cuba in 1965 to foster revolution abroad and came unstuck in the jungles of Bolivia in 1967, when he was wounded, captured and then executed by Government troops. Apparently, his last words to his executor were: "I know you've come to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man."

Since then images of Guevara have been emblazoned everywhere and in many cases without respect to his ideals. Recently, the Cuban Government bought up a huge inventory of Swatch "Revolucion" watches with Che's image to sell them to tourists. Meanwhile, rum-flavored 'Che' coffee is selling briskly at the Lenin Shop in Helsinki. One thing the great man may have appreciated was that in 1997, finally, one of the great American icons of motorcycling - Harley-Davidson - was allowed to set up shop in Havana. Maybe Che would have approved, after all, bikers everywhere know that there's no substitute for Cubas.

Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America by Ernesto Che Guevara and Ann Wright is published by Verso Books. ISBN: 1859849717

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