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Michael & Last Hurrah | Yamaha XSR 900 | Bike & Rider Project

“For me it’s a lust… on a par with great sex…but better because you can make it last, and last and last.”

-Michael Gye

MY MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (Sorry Mum!)

No, this has nothing to do with sex. Seventy years ago when I was a lad, sex was unavailable…unless you were married.  This obsession was (and still is) with motorbikes.           

At fourteen I began to lust after motorcycles. I collected catalogues from British motorcycle manufacturers and slobbered over the images of their beautiful machines. By the time I was sixteen I knew that I could no longer live without a bike. I just had to own one! The two major problems facing me seemed insurmountable. One: WW2 was in progress and gas was unavailable to the general public. Two: my savings account would have difficulty stretching to a bicycle, never mind a motorbike. So I abandoned the motorcycle catalogues in favour of the “Used Motorcycles for Sale” columns in the local paper. I finally located a 1915 – 350 cc sidevalve AJS going for a song in Leamington, a town about seven miles away. I set off early one morning with money in my pocket and a Bradshaw Train Time Table in my hand. I walked the mile and a half from our house to the station, and rode the train to Leamington, then walked another mile or so to where the bike was residing. I paid for the bike, stuffed the papers in my pocket and started pushing my prize back to the station. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of effort to keep it rolling until I realized there was very little air in the tyres…Idiot! 

1915 AJS 300cc
1915 AJS 300cc

I got help getting the bike into the guard’s van at the station and out again at the other end. The last leg of the journey, which was mostly up hill, took hours and reduced me to a state of total physical incompetence. At home yet another problem faced me. We lived in a tiny 300 year old cottage that was held up by the cottages glued to each side of it.  So, other than through the house, there was no access to the back garden where the bike would reside,. I had to squeeze the machine through the front door, past the dining room furniture, through the kitchen and then out through the back door into the back yard.

The back garden was long and narrow, defined by the two high brick walls which ran down a slope to the far end of the property. There we had a chicken run. My bike riding would be confined to a pathway running down the length of the garden to the chicken run and back up to the house again.

There was no gas to be had. The only available fuel was methylated spirits (methyl hydrate). Here I ran into another technical problem (by now I had air in the tyres)…the bike wouldn’t start on alcohol. So at enormous expense, I bought bottles and bottles of lighter fluid which was still for sale in the stores.  This I used to get the engine started. On top of the cylinder head the manufacturer had installed a small tap and funnel. Starting procedure was decidedly tricky. With the bike on the rear stand, I would first stuff a handkerchief in the carburetor air intake (my home-made conversion kit for running on alcohol). Then I would open the tap on the cylinder head and pour in about an ounce of lighter fluid, close the tap and very quickly hit the kick starter. The bike would fire and usually stop. After repeating this procedure a few times I could get the engine to run continuously though somewhat erratically. As soon as it warmed up enough I would quickly mount up, throw it in gear and roar down the hill and back again until the alcohol ran out. This didn’t take long because I could never afford to put more than a pint or two in the tank.  But I sure had a riot while it lasted… and next week there was usually more money to buy more fuel.

I was so grateful for my mother’s help in overcoming my father’s vigorous objections to the whole project that I offered her a ride on the luggage grid. I was astonished when she turned down the offer. She owned that the prospect of the ride filled her with grave misgivings. I was dismayed at first but confident that I could change her mind. Two weeks later I caught her in a weak moment (she’d had a couple of martinis). I put a cushion on the luggage rack and tenderly helped her mount.  I had warmed the engine so I was able to make an impressive take off …and down the pathway we went – full bore! My Mother was a big woman, and stupidly, I had neglected to add her weight, the pitch of the slope, the bike’s limited braking ability, and my novice riding skills into the equation.  So when I clapped on the anchors at my usual braking mark, nothing much happened. We hit at about 20 knots. There was loud splintering noise as the chicken run door disintegrated; followed by a cacophony of squawks as twenty or so chickens scrambled to get airborne and avoid oblivion. As the dust and feathers settled, the bike lay on its side, my mother had done a face plant and was lying in the six inch deep layer of mud and chicken poop that covered the run… and I was hoping the earth would open up and swallow me.  My mother allowed me to help her to her feet in absolute silence. She said not a word, turned on her heel and limped her way painfully up to the house. It took my father a day to repair the damage to the chicken run. It took me two days to find and retrieve the chickens and clip their wings because now they knew that they could fly their way out of prison. 

“Oh well, we all make mistakes” as the hedgehog said as he climbed regretfully off the hairbrush.

Story by Michael Gye
February 7, 2010

Vitals

First Name: Michael
Last Name: Gye
Bike Year: 2018
Make: Yamaha
Model: XSR 900
Current Job: Retired consulting arborist
Home Town: Sidney BC

Thoughts

When did you get your first bike and what was it?
I got my first bike when I was 16 years old, it was a 1915 AJS 300cc. (I’ve included a story Michael wrote about his first bike after the photos for anyone interested

Why do you ride?
For me it’s a lust… on a par with great sex…but better because you can make it last, and last and last.

What motorbike related book, movie or show would you recommend to a friend?
The movie, The World’s Fastest Indian.

What does your dream bike look like?
The one I’m currently riding.

What’s your favourite route to ride these days?
Duffy Lake Road.

Earbuds in or out?
What are they?

Worst accident?
I was T boned at 80 km/h on the Pat Bay Hwy. 3 months in Victoria General hospital recovering from multiple pelvic fractures and sundry other injuries.

What place/route do you dream of riding?
Isle of Man TT course.

What’s something unique to the motorcycling community?
We’re all different.

What’s the most memorable thing another motorcyclist has done for/to you?
My friend, a licensed racer, loaded my bike alongside of his and took me to a track day at Mission.

Hattie Root Asks: What do you never leave home without?
My wallet.

What question would you like me to ask the next rider?
What’s your safety margin % when you’re riding the twisties?

Post Shoot Analysis

When my riding buddy Jamie started following my Bike & Rider Project, he immediately suggested I profile a vibrant 94 year old nicknamed “The Baron”.

The Baron, aka Michael Gye, and I got to know each other first on the phone, and later in person when I visited his home in Sidney BC prior to our photoshoot.

Michael was a chipper and cheerful man brimming with wild stories and lots of laughter. When he opened his garage to reveal his Yamaha XSR 900 to me you could see the passion in his eyes.

As we chatted away I took in the surroundings looking for details I could capture to tell his story. Michael’s garage was filled with everything you would imagine in a near century-old man’s work space – jars filled with used nails, screws and miscellaneous fasters; dusty shelves with tins of paint, tubes of grease and spray bottles collected over decades.

Michael called his home a “Living Museum”. It was like stepping into a set from what I imagined the 1960s to look like. The furniture, knickknacks, drapery, lighting and smell all reminded me of childhood visits to my grandparent’s home.

Inside I learned more about Michel through his bookshelf, well equipped kitchen and a room filled with teddybears which I discovered his late wife made and were sought after around the world.

While Michael had the wit, vibrance and alertness of a young man he spoke very candidly of physical limitations his current age was imposing on him and joked on more than one occasion about the end.

Michael had stopped riding only because his physical reactions were no longer quite up to the task – especially when dealing with out here! I recall a story he shared where he was piloting a glider and his teacher alerted him to some danger and how to correct for it. The teacher became increasingly worried and took over the controls and Michael explained that his brain was well aware of the situation and what to do – the signal just wasn’t traveling from his head to his hands fast enough.

The day we shot, I invited Michael to move his walker aside and throw a leg over his bike. He looked immediately at ease on his machine. I asked if he’d be up for riding down his driveway for a few more photos. He lit up. Michael was in total control, more comfortable and confident balanced on two wheels than his own two feet.

Over the course of our shoot I captured the bits of his personality and story that had stood out to me in our previous visits, his love of cooking, especially with fire, the lemon tree he cared for, his time in the British armoured as a tank commander and of course, his love of riding.

Thank you:
Michael
– For inviting me into his world for a day, sharing his stories and showing me being 94 years young can still be a ton of fun.

Jamie – For introducing us and being a helpful and supportive friend who always shows up.

Meet the other riders…

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