Over the Hill - Red Marley Hill Climb

They might be old but the bikes and riders at the Red Marley freak hill climb are still in their prime

Phil, Robby, Vincent and Will trickle their bikes up to the start gate. Over the clattering of valves and popping pistons I can hear Will giving Vincent a mouthful of smack talk, laughing at him for having a rubbish bike and letting him know in no uncertain terms he's going to beat him up the hill. Vincent plays it cool, he nods and laughs, flicks his fag into the dirt and hangs over the bars.

In an instant the four bikes tear out of the gate, all power wheelies and roosts of hillside being showered over the crowd behind. Thirty seconds and 500 metres later Will beats Vincent by just half asecond. Wow, this is cool.

Proper race bikes being ridden by hardmen is something you would expect to find on this here website, but take a closer look at the pictures. Everyone here is a bit, well, old really. The combined age of the four guys mentioned above is 218. Ridiculous in its own right until you calculate the age of the bikes they're riding. 264 years' worth of rust, racing and repairs on bikes that look like they should be on museum walls, or in skips depending on your point of view. Excellent.

The original plan was for me to race a bike up this hill. Things were looking good and I was determined my results would look better than last year's Weston beach race disaster. However, a couple of days before the event the bike I was supposed to ride fell through. Or apart, or something. Frantic calls led to nothing. These bikes aren't as easy to get hold of as you might think. Every single one of the 170-odd bikes entered was somebody's pride and joy.

Borrowing modern bikes is a fairly easy process - you promise to replace any parts that get damaged and away you go - but I'd struggle to replace a side panel on a '68 Mabsa 500 (whatever that may be). The connection these people had with their machines was so much stronger than I've seen with modern bike owners, and people unsurprisingly showed reluctance to let a journo with zero classic riding experience learn on theirs.

Bikeless and glum, walking round the paddock I started checking the bikes out. I was fairly certain that people only rode horses until about 1979, but I was wrong, they had bikes too. The most popular choices  were single cylinder four-stroke BSAs from the mid-60s. There were so many interesting bikes to check out I didn't really know where to start. The names on the petrol-tanks were bizarre: Walwin, Cheney Jawa, Luckhurst Jap, Tribsa. All of these were new to me and it felt great to not know everything about every bike like I'd expect myself to at a modern event.

I was fooling nobody in the pits in my plight to borrow another bike though and my patter led to nothing. I was wary of the fact that, like most old people, these boys liked to talk. Everyone I spoke to wanted to tell me everything about their bikes, which took some time. Eventually they'd pat me on the head, call me "boy" and send me on my way, minus a ride. I would be watching this one from the sideline. Arse.

After scanning the programme a couple of things became apparent. Firstly, I was one of the youngest riders down to compete. A couple of teenagers were on the list but the average age seemed to be about 56. One 74-year-old Bill Barley, on a Hagon 350, was the oldest on the day.

In a moment of vanity I was glad I wouldn't be competing. If he beat me (which was fairly inevitable) the office  would never let me live it down. The other thing I noticed was the atmosphere. There was a real buzz in the paddock while the riders and their teams unloaded bikes, rubbed away oil leaks and hung off kickstarters.

These old boys were more interested in replacing shocks than hips, which was inspiring.
After a while the novelty of seeing men nearly three times my age wheeling bikes around wore off and I realised age really didn't matter to them. They were here to race.

Each race consisted of a gated start, four at a time. Running in a straight line up a reasonably consistent gradient. At about quarter distance was a dirt track running across the width of the course. After jumping this, the gradient increased a little until about 50 metres from the end, where it became so steep you'd have to scale it on your hands and knees.

Most of the track was grassed apart from the last section which was hard packed and dusty all the way to the finish. The record was a scary 19.61 seconds, an average time would be low to mid 20s.

While I'd been feeling sorry for myself in the pits thousands of people had arrived and lined the sides of the track. The racing began so I perched myself on the side of the hill to see what I was missing.

These boys weren't messing around. Flat out off road on a 65-year-old bike with no suspension multiplied by four equals lots of noise and excitement. Over the final jump people struggled to make the top. Some just stopped and toppled off. Others landed facing the crowd on one wheel before crashing through the rope barriers and parking on top of a marshal. One unfortunate broke his wrist after a lengthy comedy tumble (for everyone else) down the hill.

Arthur Browning, 62 years young, from Birmingham, was showing strong form, riding at a pace that seemed unreal, attacking the jump and sailing through the air like a supercross rider on his '65 Jawa Metisse 500. Back in the pits he looked like the kind of guy you'd expect to have a pocket full of Werther's originals and a hanky stuffed up his sleeve.

Trackside the atmosphere was like a really dangerous village fete. Families were enjoying the racing and the sunshine while some fairly hardcore looking bikers swigged cider and smoked roll ups that smelt funny.

Everyone seemed to be having a good time though. Every now and then the whole crowd would cheer in unison at a particularly good race, or crash. Cheer of the day went to the 200cc Lambretta on knobblies that only just made it to the top after a day of trying.

After an hour or two the racing began to get a little one-dimensional for me. A start, a jump, the odd crash and a winner. I started willing people to spank in or blow up. But I was just feeling jealous; the rest of the crowd were loving it.

The day was a real treat. Fastest time of the day went to Arthur Browning (19.95). I got the feeling although most of these guys wanted to win, the reality was more a chance to get old bikes and kit out and plain old enjoy a good day's riding. Would I go back? Definitely, if I put a 2007 Honda CRF 450 in the shed now and sign up to compete in 2052 I'll fit in perfectly.