Mackenzie dreams of Sheene

Our Niall's teenage dreams come true when he gets to ride two ex-Barry Sheene machines - a Suzuki XR45 and a Walmsley Manx Norton

Princess Diana's death, The Twin Towers collapsing or one's first sexual disease, these are all events that you can probably recall your exact whereabouts when you received the sad news.

Back in the summer of 1980 and without a care in the world, I was driving down the Spine Road in Denny in my Electricity Board Leyland Sherpa Van when Newsbeat came on Radio One just after Peter Powell's afternoon show.

The top story was Barry Sheene had crashed at the French GP and may have a finger amputated. Being a race fan I had been following his turbulent season as a privateer on an Akai Yamaha, so consequently the news immediately stuck in my memory. Looking back it was almost as newsworthy as the David Beckham broken foot before the last World Cup. As a youth I was beginning to realise just how big the name Barry Sheene really was, so recently I felt especially privileged to ride two of the last race bikes that the late Bazza rode. As it turned out he kept the finger and attempted to unsuccessfully race at the next GP in Assen.

The Suzuki XR 45 is currently owned by George Beale and, on the day, looked after by Colin Davies, the ex GP mechanic who amongst many others has spannered for Kevin Schwantz at Lucky Strike Suzuki, Noriyuki Haga at Red Bull Yamaha and even during one lean year for a certain Mackenzie at Giacomo Agostini's Marlboro Yamaha Team.

Times have changed and four-cylinder two-strokes are now all but in the annals of history, but being part of that great era I still get a lump in my throat on the rare occasions that I hear one nowadays.

My very first impression of the Suzuki is that it's petite. It sits really low on its 16in wheels and obsolete tyres. Its weight is in proportion to its size. When sitting on it, it feels engineless and at 115kg you could almost carry it under your arm to the grid!

Jumping on board I was pleased to find the riding position - which is similar to the new Honda CBR 600RR with a short tank - fitted me perfectly, although you are more in the XR45 than on top of it.

After burbling off down the Donington pit lane and completing a few laps of the circuit the Suzuki reminded me of the last two stroke race bike I rode, which was a 2000 TZM 250 Yamaha that weighed around 102kg and made 86bhp. To have any decent power the Suzuki's revs have to be over 10,000 and a high corner speed has to be maintained as there is no torque to punch you out of turns with low revs. The brakes felt comparable to most modern bikes, which surprised me as this bike is almost 20 years old. The front forks worked well although the rear shock needed a trip to the nearest Kayaba dealer for a quick service and gas recharge.

I found the carburation quite rich all the way through the rev range, which is understandable as parts are scarce and expensive - so seizures could not be an option. I also must confess this is the first time I have tested a bike and not pushed it hard. There are seventy five thousand reasons for this, it's also a one off so I don't want to be living in my car. At the end of my sessions she developed a mis-fire due to an oiled plug which didn't upset me too much as it was nice to finisn with everything in one piece.

This was a truly nostalgic trip for me to ride the last GP bike raced by the biggest ever name in British biking. As a teenager this would have been an impossible dream for me but it came true. Now normally I'm totally against beautiful bikes being locked up in glass cases but I think it's much more satisfying given its cost and age just to admire this immaculate machine's clean lines and good looks and reminisce that legendary combination with BS in full flight back in 1984.

Warmsley Manx Norton

My very last conversation with Barry was at Donington in 2002 just before his first Classic practice on the Walmsley Manx Norton. His enthusiasm for Classic racing always baffled me as I thought he seemed definite that he would never race again when he quit in 1984. Aye see... never say never.

While chatting he insisted I get on board his bike and as I tried it for size he was trying hard to convince me I needed to come out of retirement and start racing Classics. In his cockney best he advised me; "Niall, you have to get your arse on one of these, you'll faaacking love it".

No racing yet but I took the first step at Donington and rode the very bike Barry plonked me astride last year.

I've actually known the owner Fred Walmsley since 1983 when I lived in Blackburn with ex 250cc racer Geoff Fowler. 'Kentucky Fred' owned a chain of the well known chicken restaurants and sponsored us with delicious Colonel Sanders. Ah, the happy finger lickin' 80's indeed!

After asking Fred if I needed to know anything before I set off he replied " Niall, just poke it hard as you can through Craner and hang on!" Confident, brave words but I chose to build up at my pace none the less.

Barry wasn't wrong, this bike was fun to ride. It has a six speed gear box with a left hand shift that felt better than most modern Ducatis.  The engine was smooth and revved freely to 8500rpm but unsurprisingly there were big vibes through the handlebars at high revs. My only real concern were the brakes. It didn't have any or not very much, which I'm told is normal.

Basically you have to time things so you pull everything on as hard as you can, back shift, say a short prayer and you may make the corner. Exciting stuff but in a race there would be no room for error.  It just brings it home how awesome modern race brakes really are. The rear suspension was fine but the front hopped around while trying to push it hard through slower corners.  Fred was right - I could 'poke it' through Craner as hard as I liked but I had to build up to that one.

I have always wanted to know what it felt like to be Hailwood or McIntyre back in the fifties and sixties so I've now had the experience and I liked it.

Still astride the Manx in the Donington Pit Lane I took my helmet off and imagined myself in one of these black and white TT pictures where the race had just finished and the rostrum finishers are sitting having the crack. All I was missing was a Woodbine. Wonderful.