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Thrill ride through a magic era for biking in new book

A sumptuous new book relives the golden age of motorcycling here in the 1970s. Richard Young takes a nostalgic stroll down the pit lane.

Published 04/08/2015

Some of the monochrome images from the book, which is littered with anecdotes and memories of the golden age of motorcycling in Ulster
Some of the monochrome images from the book, which is littered with anecdotes and memories of the golden age of motorcycling in Ulster
Some of the monochrome images from the book, which is littered with anecdotes and memories of the golden age of motorcycling in Ulster

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

So wrote L P Hartley in his 1953 novel The Go Between. And it's perfectly true. Looking back some four-and-a-half decades reveals a very different world in almost every respect. But are things really better today, as some folk might insist?

I have a feeling that, like me, Roy Harris remains unconvinced on this point. And in particular, when it comes to his beloved motorcycle sport, which is why Just for the Thrill is such an absorbing read.

Not that Roy has taken to viewing the past through rose-tinted spectacles, but this portrayal of the Northern Ireland two-wheeled scene in the 1970s paints an accurate picture of a decade in which the sport in its several forms rode the crest of a wave of popularity - boosted by a growing array of homegrown talent in racing, scrambling (now motocross) and trials.

And we should remind ourselves, all set against a backdrop of civil unrest which had an unsettling effect on many sports. It is to the credit of all involved that motorsport, on two wheels and four (not forgetting three), managed to remain free of the sectarian tensions which affected many other activities.

Bikers then and now were essentially a band of brothers - plus the occasional sister - taking part in a sport where the difficulties of everyday life paled into insignificance beside the challenges they faced on road, track and dirt for a few hours every weekend.

Unlike many of the sport's followers today, Roy Harris has never "specialised" - following all three disciplines, arguably four, since pure road racing and its short circuit counterpart are very different - with equal enthusiasm.

And as a lifelong follower, he knows a lot of people, many of whom have contributed chapters on various aspects of the sport during that decade.

People like Ray McCullough, whose achievements during the period were legendary.

The 'Dromara Destroyer' was for several years the most successful rider on both roads and short circuits and writes as well as he rides.

I particularly liked his account of working with a certain Hector Neill in the early days.

And everywhere there are names, some almost forgotten, others which will remain imprinted on memories for many years to come.

The much-loved Tom Herron, for example, who had already "made it" when the decade started is mentioned and quoted extensively, while other legends who make an appearance include Ralph Bryans and Tommy Robb.

The clubs also get space. The Enkalon Motor Cycle Club, for many years a major force in the sport, is featured as is the Lightweight Club, whose main interest has always been in off-road activities.

Much-respected commentator Harold Crooks also gets a chapter to himself on the commentating scene during those years, while Richard Agnew contributes a section on timekeeping and how he became involved in the sport.

This, of course, has changed vastly over the years, but back in the 1970s involved "real" watches, lots of little strips of paper and runners (of whom Richard was one) scampering between the timekeeper's office, the commentators and the Press (electronic timekeeping was strictly for world-class events and transponders had yet to be invented).

It was a period of change in other ways, too.

The decade saw the arrival in quantity of Japanese two-stroke machinery to replace European four-strokes at the top of all branches of the sport and this is duly covered in a number of chapters - as, too, are races at venues which have since passed into history.

Lurgan Park, for example, Maghaberry and Aghadowey and the road circuits at Temple and Carrowdore and the "long" course(s) at Cookstown, which in those days was run on Wednesdays.

And then there are the sections on scrambles, dominated in the period by names like Winston Norwood and Dennis McBride (who also gets a chapter to himself on various adventures at the Trophee des Nations) and the trials scene where Benny Crawford was in his pomp.

And then there are the photographs... loads of them covering the whole spectrum, with plenty of period action shots in addition to the - often more interesting - ones of the kings and commoners of the sport, many of whom look impossibly young.

All are monochrome, but then the past did happen in black and white, didn't it? And while it might have been nice had some colour been included, these things cost money and colour photography was not as common then as it is now.

The individual chapters are interspersed by summaries of each year from 1970 to 1979, sprinkled with anecdotes and potted race reports, each year being tagged with headlines from the outside world to give a sense of time and place to the motorcycling memories.

It's nicely done and comes as a reminder of a different era, when health and safety were separate words and there was more sheer enthusiasm at all levels than there seems to be today.

It is also interesting to note the number of people mentioned and pictured, who competed on two wheels back in the Seventies, who are now to be found, looking a little more mature, but still involved - organising events, doing the donkey work and helping to keep their sport flourishing.

It makes me wonder how many of today's stars will turn out to help run events in the future. Perhaps they will... just for the thrill.

Just for the Thrill: Competitive motorcycling in Ulster in the Seventies written and compiled by Roy Harris is published by Ballyhay Books at £14.99

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