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How I went hell for leather as a crazy biker chick

Inspired by her outing to see the latest Mad Max film Frances Burscough gets into her leathers and gears up to spend a fun day out with Fonzie and his NI

Published 24/07/2015

On her bike: Frances Burscough saddles up for the day with the Northern Ireland Rats
On her bike: Frances Burscough saddles up for the day with the Northern Ireland Rats
Frances trying out an Easy Trike with owner Eddie Armstrong from Mosside
Frances hitches a ride through Belfast with NI Rats founder Afonso Fonzi
Frances with NI Rats founder Afonso Fonzi

It's official - I'm growing old disgracefully. Not that there was ever much doubt about that, frankly, but I've just sealed the deal that officially certifies me as one genuine "bad-ass mother". And no, I didn't intentionally place a non-perishable item in the blue recycling bin, nor have I kept a library book a week past it's return date. It's far worse than that.

At the ripe old age of 50-odd I've just joined a biker gang.

Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit for dramatic effect. It was, after all, only for a day.

And I was cordially invited, rather than being forced to undergo a series of daring initiation rituals. Heck, I didn't even know how to ride a motorbike and I still don't.

But nevertheless, I did spend a day in the inner sanctum of Northern Ireland's most extraordinary leather-clad sub-culture and then rode into town at the head of its thunderous and jaw-dropping convoy.

If that doesn't qualify me for some incomparable street-cred, I don't know what does.

So what possessed me? Let's reverse the gears back to a certain film premiere earlier this year.

In my other capacity as a film critic I was invited to the preview of the new Mad Max film Fury Road a few days ahead of its official opening in May. As anyone who's ever seen a Mad Max film, knows, the most awe-inspiring characters aren't actually the actors, but the vehicles they drive and the gear they wear. Following on from a global nuclear holocaust, everything that remains in the feral world that Mad Max inhabits is dusty, torn, faded, aged, cracked and smashed.

So naturally, everything they own or wear is a cobbled-together mishmash of battered leather, faded suede, canvas, tarp, rubber and PVC accessorised with rusty metal zips and chains. There is certainly nothing new, shiny or remotely well preserved.

All of which not only describes the film itself, but almost every other person in the cinema that night (sorry lads), because it so happened that among the invited guests were members of a motorbike gang whose entire look had been specifically inspired by the Mad Max movies, and who were appearing there as special guests to promote the film.

As I arrived at the Moviehouse cinema in Belfast I was amazed to see parked outside on the pavement a line-up of some of the most incredible custom bikes I'd ever seen. Each one was completely different from the next - bizarre, extraordinary and utterly unique; their only common factor being that they looked like they'd survived (but only just) a devastating nuclear holocaust and had been ridden to Dublin Road cinema via a post-apocalyptic no-man's land.

In my other capacity as a nosey journo, I wanted to get to the bottom of this and so I eagerly sought out their owners. They weren't very difficult to spot.

This was my first encounter with the gang known as NI Rats and their beloved customised motorbikes known as rat bikes.

The leading member is Afonso Miguel Das Neves Afonso - nicknamed Fonzie - who's originally from Portugal, but moved to Belfast 15 years ago.

Fonzie explained that he had set up the gang in 2014 after having seen a similar movement taking off in America.

The definition of rat bikes - also known as "survival bikes" - are old motorcycles that have fallen apart over time, but been kept on the road and maintained for little or no cost by various methods of DIY customising. They are often sprayed matte black or in camouflage colours to hide the rust and, due to their ancient exhausts, they also make an absolute racket when being ridden.

Fonzie was eager to point out that NI Rats are not affiliated with any political movement or ethos. They are simply a group of fellow motorbike enthusiasts who come together for social events, communal rides and charity runs, and to compare and enjoy each others creativity and ingenuity in re-constructing their battered old vehicles.

It was then that I was invited to join them on their next big run, to the 10th Annual Custom Bike Rally which was being held at Custom House Square in July. Would I be interested he asked? Just try and stop me, I replied.

So that is how I found myself sitting in my respectable family saloon in the car park at Tesco Castlereagh Road last Saturday morning, waiting to hear the first sound of roaring engines approaching.

All I had been asked to do in preparation was to wear long leather boots and a leather jacket. "Do you own such things?" he'd asked.

Darling, that's what I wear practically every day. I replied.

Okay, I may not be an actual biker, per se, but I do love the so-called "biker-chick" look that has been around for some time, so my wardrobe is full of zipped, tasselled and studded jackets and boots. All that's really missing (apart from an actual motorcycle) is a helmet. Fonzie assured me he would bring one along.

Now, as I already explained, this group is relatively new. They formed last year just before the same bike show and, at that time, only 10 bikes had turned up. However, a lot had happened since then. Word had spread through social media and a few special appearances at strategic events, and now the numbers had grown, but even Fonzie didn't know how many to expect that day. I was dying to find out.

Suddenly, the thunderous sound of engines could be heard, getting louder and louder by the second, like the opening scenes of Sons of Anarchy. There was Fonzie, flanked by four other bikes, on his most beloved and striking rat bike Rata Pirata (the Pirate bike in Rat speak). This had overhead chopper handlebars like Peter Fonda's in Easy Rider, a black sheepskin rug for a seat and a menacing black skull and crossbones mask attached at the front. This was to be my ride for the day.

Five more bikes roared into view and parked up in a line, their owners all clad in black leathers, looking on admiringly at the competition. As more and more arrived, the noise got louder and louder until you could hardly hear yourself think, let alone speak.

Before long there were upward of 65 bikes, all fired up and raring to go. And as each one appeared they were introduced to me as their newest member. As well as each rider, each bike had a name, too.

There was John Robinson riding Do Rightly, Kieran Devlin on Donkey, Stevie Ming riding Skirmisher, Gary Ryan with Infidel, Franky Hodgen riding Tramp Pot, Jacob Walsh on Banshee ... and so they came, more and more, in their droves. Did I feel intimidated or even out of place? Not at all - I was loving every minute of it.

After a few photographs and a lot of banter, the time had come. I pulled on my helmet, climbed on behind The Fonze and prepared to take Belfast by storm.

Our route towards Custom House Square took us right down to the end of Castlereagh Road, then over the bridge and into the city centre past the City Hall and the Albert Clock. As you can imagine, the sight must have been truly awesome, but I couldn't see its entirety because I was at the very front of the convoy, leading the charge while clinging on for dear life to Fonzie's shoulders. Nevertheless, the looks of amazement and excitement on the faces of passers-by was enough to show what a total spectacle it was. Everyone just stopped what they were doing, and stared, their mouths agog. Children pointed, cars pulled over, bus passengers craned their necks to see.

There was even a complete hen party, on their way back from an all-nighter, all dressed in fluorescent pink, who waved their balloons and fairy wands at us in approval. The sound was truly deafening as more and more and more incredible bikes filed past.

If it had been me, watching them zoom by, I'd have been so envious. As it was, I was a ring-leader of an enormous and magnificent motorcade and it felt truly exhilarating.

And that was just the start of a day that was spent in the midst of a thousand amazing customised bikes and their amazing customised owners.

So yes, you could say I enjoyed my day as a genuine biker chick and now I've got the bug I'll have to see about learning to ride one myself next. But the great news for anyone who is interested in the concept is that next week the whole gang will be assembled in one place for a whole weekend at the brilliant Sunflowerfest in Hillsborough.

Fonzie and the gang at NI Rats are organising a competition called Weird and Wonderful on Wheels as one of the main events of the three-day music and camping festival.

Anyone who owns a customised vehicle of any sort is invited to go along and join in.

In all there will be seven different awards for seven categories which will be judged on Saturday, August 1, at 5pm. Judges will consider every vehicle (as long it has at least one wheel) within the Sunflowerfest premises including car parks, throughout the afternoon. There will also be an award for Best Costume awarded for the craziest outfit within the theme of 'Steampunk'.

So maybe I'll see you there. Look out for a crazy biker chick in leathers.

For more information about the competition, and of the line-up at Sunflowerfest, go to http://www.sunflowerfest.co.uk

Stars who love their mean machines on two wheels

  • Singer Pink (35) owns a Triumph Bonneville T100 and a Harley-Davidson Sportster XL Iron 883N. The Get This Party Started singer is well known for her love of motorbikes which she is frequently seen riding out and about
  • Charmed actress Alyssa Milano (42) is also a fan of two wheels and likes to take husband David Bugliari's Can-Am Spyder out for a spin around the Hollywood Hills
  • She is one of the most successful female music artists of all time, but Alanis Morissette (41) likes nothing better than taking one of her many motorcycles out for a ride. She owns Moto Guzzi bikes as well as having a classic British Triumph too, having discovered bikes after turning 30 and going on a road trip with a friend
  • In real life and in her movies, 44-year-old Angelina Jolie enjoys burning some rubber on her BMW bike

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