Top 10 Biking Smells

But there are many more; please add your own olfactory orgasms below the line

YOU might think vision and touch are the two most important senses for riding a bike and clearly, at a practical level, you’d be right. But our sense of smell contributes greatly to the emotional pleasure of riding, in ways that might not be immediately obvious.

We’re all familiar with the idea smell has practical biking value – a whiff of dung before you come round a corner to find the road full of either horses or cows is valuable, as is sniffing out a diesel spill before you arrive at it. Or indeed, smelling the bullshit on a website.

But while a healthy nose for niffs might keep you alive in a literal sense, there’s nothing quite like the heady fragrances of biking to make you feel alive. From the honk of fresh tarmac to the sweet smell of oilseed rape, the morning glory of a roadside breakfast bap to the tang of hot metal and oil, biking, basically, smells like heaven.

But why? What is it about the smells of motorcycling that makes us feel so good?

It’s because our perception of odours is closely linked to our emotions. When the volatilised molecules of a particular scent bind to receptors in our nasal cavity they trigger an electrical signal in our olfactory bulb, located at the base of the brain. The olfactory bulb is part of the limbic system; the part of our brain that deals with memory, behaviour and emotion. We have a memory of smell, and smell evokes memories.

There’s a solid evolutionary reason for connecting smell to memory: prior to developing the capacity to reason, it would be useful to remember what food smells like in order to tell the difference between edible and inedible. Smell can also stimulate sexual arousal, familiarity with surroundings, and is a key in connecting a new-born baby with its mother; a provider of food, comfort and protection.

So it’s natural for a particular biking-related pong to elicit a powerful emotional response from a motorcyclist, stimulating excitement or elation, or linking us to an earlier memory connected to a positive experience – the oily, woody tones of your dad’s garage, the natural high of Castrol R, the delightfully bovine funk of a brand new set of Crowtree leathers etc.

Here are ten of the most obvious biking smells we love.


10) Victory

I’ve won one motorcycle race in my entire life. It was a Hornet Cup race at Cadwell a few years ago. I won by default, because a) it was the last race of the weekend, b) the race was restarted because there was a spectacular pile-up which took out half the field, c) the other half subsequently went home which left d) a really fast young kid who broke the Cadwell Hornet Cup lap record before e) falling off at Mansfield which left f) yours truly to bring it home for a maiden and, as it turned out, last-ever race win.

On the last lap, my (lovely) Arai was full of a strange whiff I’d never encountered before. I hadn’t crapped myself – at least not in my lid (I believe Chris Walker once pissed in Neil Hodgson’s helmet... or did I just make that up?). Anyway, the smell was perfumed, like... roses. I may have imagined it. I like to think it was the smell of victory but it was probably psychosomatic.

I got a tin cup and hat. Smell my victory!

9) Petrol

Some people don’t like the smell of petrol. But then some people like the X Factor so there’s no accounting for peculiarities. I fail to understand how petrol smells anything other than like the life-affirming, thill-delivering, life-saving essence of being human that it is. It smells like speed. What’s not to like about that? Bonkers, some folk, absolutely bonkers. 

8) New Arai

Unboxing a new lid is a special thrill, especially if, like me, you haven’t paid for it. At least not in money. Paid for it in sweat, tears and failed marriages, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the pleasure of unboxing a new lid is one thing, but unboxing a new Arai is a special moment. It demands a period of quiet contemplation before untabbing the box, a silent prayer of thanks to the great god of brain buckets, a solemn ritual of removing the polystyrene blocks, withdrawing the blue, or grey, helmet bag and peeking in at the unparalleled gorgeousness of the item within. And then you stick your nose in and breathe long and deep – get the full tang of Japanese plastics, paint and packaging. There’s nothing like the smell of a new Arai. 

7) Leather

We’re not talking about the perfumed pong of cosmetic leather, or the relatively odourless anonymity of mass-produced suits. The smell we’re after is 100% genuine UK hand-made leather, produced from cows with thick skins and smelling just a teeny bit like a farmyard. Crowtree, BKS, Manx, Hideout, Scott... they’re built like tank armour, will last you a lifetime (hopefully in the four score years and ten sense, not just till next year), and they smell like you mean it.

For everyone else, just click here.

6) Hot rubber

The average tyre contains up to four litres of oil. As a recently thrashed hoop sits, cooling, it’s giving some of that volatile content back, straight into your nostrils. If you smelled something similar on your girlfriend’s breath, or after she’d used the loo, you might, literally, turn up your nose. But when it’s coming from a ragged tyre, it’s the smell of success.

Unfortunately, it also smells a bit like the hot tyre-wall you’re leaning against nursing a broken collar bone, which isn’t so nice and is often followed by the smell of an ambulance and, if you’re particularly unlucky, the smell of a rubber glove. 

5) Box fresh bike

Not a common experience (for me, anyway) but, once you’ve tried it, there’s no going back. New bikes are packed up in wooden crates and there’s something about the subtle niff of cheap foreign pinewood that impregnates the machine as it stands, and clings on long after it’s been PDI’d and readied for use. You can sometimes catch a whiff of something similar if you ride through a recently logged forest – and you’re immediately transported back to that magical moment when you had a) enough disposable income to buy a new bike and b) a new bike. Those were the days. Well, that was the day, to be honest.

4) Fry-up

We love a fry-up. You can smell ’em coming a mile off: an army of white snack wagons the length and breadth of Britain’s trunk road network are a high-carb, high-fat, trouser-busting blessing for the famished. It’s a pretty straightforward smell: tea, hot grease, sizzling bacon; the smell of the first stop on a Sunday ride, the paddock canteen on race day, the call-to-arms before setting out on tour. I’ll have a sausage and egg bap with a tea please, luv.

3) Castrol R

You haven’t lived until you’ve had a noseful of Castrol R post-combustion. The smell is impossible to describe: sort of... sweet, intoxicating, thrilling... it smells like racing... like the whole reason we ride bikes in the first place. And it will be instantly familiar to anyone of a certain age raised on a diet of two-strokes and racing paddocks.

Most of us are familiar with common synthetic, semi-synthetic and mineral multigrade oils. Synthetics are man-made and engineered for particular properties, mineral oil is made from refining natural oil, and semi-synthetics are a bit of both.

Castrol R is a vegetable oil – the castor bean gave Castrol its name. It can be used as a four-stroke oil or in a two-stroke. The oil has pros and cons: on the downside, it’s a one-use oil – it’s unstable and gums up easily, needing regular engine rebuilds. Anything with a powervalve is especially vulnerable. On a road engine you’d be swapping it at least every 1000 miles so it’s clearly impractical. And it can’t be mixed with any other type of oil to the extent the engine will need flushing out before its use. It breaks down over time too; you wouldn’t want it standing in an engine over winter.

So Castrol R is a competition oil, for racing use where engines are regularly pulled down anyway, and here’s where it scores: it provides remarkable performance, clinging to metal and resisting heat to the extent there are plenty of stories about how engines have run for miles at race pace with a missing sump plug, being lubricated by the oil film alone. In two-strokes, it resists seizures.

But of course the best thing about Castrol R is that smell. Even Castrol recognise it, adding a line to their blurb for the oil: “The use of Castrol R grades usually results in a distinct and very pleasant exhaust odour.”

Fans will be pleased to note it’s perfectly safe to add a few drops of Castrol R to your fuel to get that “very pleasant exhaust odour”; somewhere in the region of 20-50ml per 20 litre tank. 

2) Pollen

With apologies to hayfever victims: the cloying-sweet smell of oilseed rape in late March, when Britain’s fields become a patchwork quilt of burning yellow and deep green, is the smell of springtime. The scent speaks to our inner reptile of the onset of hot weather and sunshine. It’s the smell of hope, of the future, of anticipation; of the annual renaissance of motorcycling.

Or there’s the summer fragrance of your average British hedgerow, laced with hawthorn and tree pollen. Or the pungent heather on a Scottish mountain moor, or the sugary late evening scent of honeysuckle as you arrive at the pub for a 0% pint and a packet of cheese and onion.

Any of these flowering scents will be deeply evocative; much more so for us than for car drivers because we’re out there, in it, immersed in our environment. Breathe deep and enjoy. And don’t forget to pack some tissues.

1) Hot bike

This is the smell of a ride well ridden. You’ve been for a blast – maybe a Sunday afternoon quickie, maybe a motorway haul, a 20-minute commute or a run up and down your favourite trail. Maybe you’ve just won a race. Either way you pull up, get off the bike, recover from your exertions.

Your bike pings and tings as heated metal cools and contracts. A complex blend of aromas emanate from within: warm plastics, boiled polish, hot engine oil, superheated WD40, tonked clutch plates, smouldering brake pads and the honk of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons in exhaust gas. Individually they don’t sound particularly pleasant, but put them all together and you have a powerful combination that every rider alive recognises. 

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