Interview: Peter Egan

Peter Egan of Cycle World
There are many good motorcycle columnists, but few great ones. And Peter Egan is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats. Like all the best writers, he knows how to tell a story—and his stories capture the almost indefinable magic of motorcycling better than anyone else. If you’ve read Leanings, the paperback collection of his best columns, you’ll know what I mean.

What was the first motorcycle you bought with your own money? It was a beat up old 1952 James-Villiers 150 2-stroke, bought for $50 with my lawn-mowing money when I was 14. The mixture screws were missing from the carburetor, so it barely ran. I quickly sold it to a guy who thought he could machine some mixture screws and I used the money for a down payment on a brand new 1964 Bridgestone Sport 50, bought from our local hardware store. I suppose that was my first real bike because it ran and you could go places on it. I have one now, exactly like it, in my workshop.

What do you think is the most beautiful production motorcycle ever built? I would have to pick the original duck-egg-green framed Ducati 750SS, and a close second is its successor, the bevel-drive 900SS [below]. I have a 1980 version in black & gold and it never fails to knock me out when I turn on the garage lights.

Ducati 900SS
What motorcycle do you despise? Gosh, I don’t think I despise any bike that runs and takes you down the road—they’re all fun, by definition. It’s like trying to despise one Golden Retriever puppy out of a large litter—can’t be done. This, of course is my basic financial and personality problem: I like too many kinds of motorcycles and don’t dislike enough of them. Back when I first learned to fly, I was renting a Cessna 150 and a friend of mine said, “Isn’t that kind of the Chevy Vega of airplanes?” And I said, “There is no Chevy Vega of airplanes; anything that flies is better than a Vega.” That’s more or less how I feel about bikes.

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Two things, I’d say. The first is the view over the Veglia instruments and fairing on my 900SS and the sound from the Conti mufflers when I’ve just shifted into top gear, and the second is taking off my helmet and walking into a motorcycle shop, a book store or a music store full of guitars. All the synapses are firing, for once.

Electric motorcycles: Yes or No? Sure, why not? I just drove a Mitsubishi i-MIEV electric car last month and thought that if people ever get used to this kind of smoothness and torque, internal combustion is in trouble. I haven’t ridden an electric motorcycle yet—and I don’t know how long it will take for battery technology to support the range we expect—but I imagine an electric bike could be a lot of fun. Of course, it still won’t sound like my Norton… I don’t see myself collecting electric bikes with any kind of passion, but there may be a place for one in a small stable.

What is your favorite journey? Hard to pick which one, but I would say one of my three or four off-road trips in Baja or northern Mexico around Copper Canyon [below]. You get a mixture of beautiful landscapes that are always changing, uncertainty, challenging roads, charming villages, nice people, great Mexican food and evening Margaritas, a combination that always burns itself into your memory in a way that few other trips do. It’s like riding through the Old West. Unfortunately, with all the drug violence near the border, some areas are getting to be a little more like the Old West than is healthy.

Copper Canyon, Mexico
Which ‘everyday’ modern bikes do you think will become future classics? The equivalent of the Honda CB750 or Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, if you like? While they aren’t exactly “modern” any more, I think the Ducatis of the Tamburini era in the Nineties—belt-drive 900SS, 916 [SPS variant below], 996, etc.—are among the most beautiful bikes made, and quite underappreciated at the moment. Beyond that, I don’t have the foresight to say. There are some bright exceptions, but I think we’re in a somewhat cluttered, industrial era of design right now, with too much styling for its own sake. But then I’m not 16 any more, and there may be 16 year-olds who are crazy about something whose appeal I’ve missed.

Ducati 916 SPS
Who are your real-life motorcycling heroes? John Surtees, Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, John Penton, Bill Baird, Bud Ekins, Dick Mann, Gary Nixon, Pat Hennen, Kenny Roberts, Barry Sheene, Peter Williams, Malcolm Smith, Freddie Spencer, Rich Schlachter, Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Carl Fogarty, Mick Doohan, Joey Dunlap, Miguel Duhamel, Valentino Rossi and anyone who ever turned a race lap at the Isle of Man. Also my friend Jim Haraughty, who’s been road racing and running a bike at Bonneville while fighting MS.

Are you optimistic for the future of motorcycling? Yes, because there’s a real romance to motorcycling, and this is always recognized by a certain type of individual who values adventure above security and comfort. Luckily, every generation seems to produce a surprising number of these people.

What is your current state of mind? Excellent, even though winter is coming along. I’ve got a heated workshop, a real hydraulic motorcycle lift, two bikes that need partial restoration, two fully assembled bikes that I enjoy looking at, a CD player and a small Japanese refrigerator full of dark beer and caffeine-laced soft drinks.

With thanks to David Edwards. Peter’s books Leanings and Leanings 2 are both highly recommended, and available from Amazon.