Extract: Charley Boorman’s new book, Long Way Back
Motorcycling TV star Charley Boorman’s world crashed around him when a motorcycle accident in 2016 led to not just the shattering of his leg but potentially the loss of his career. Long Way Back tells the story of his recovery, along the way recounting his friendship with Ewan McGregor, his motorcycles over the years and his love of everything motorcycling has been able to offer him.
In these extracts, Charley reveals what happened when, during the launch of a new Triumph, a car turned into his path and how the incident took him back to his childhood and memories of how a film star ignited his passion for bikes.
I was in Portugal for the launch of the all-new Tiger Explorer XC in my new role as a Triumph ambassador. I’d worked with BMW for more than ten years and rode around the world then raced the Dakar Rally on their motorbikes. I had been thinking I needed a change when Triumph approached Russ Malkin my friend and the producer of the Long Way series. They wanted me and I wanted them and when that’s how it is a deal is generally made.
That was in the autumn of 2015, Christmas came and went, the new year settled into February and I was with a bunch of journalists from all over the world, looking forward to four glorious days of testing the all-new Explorer. First out were a dozen guys from the UK including Marc Potter and Neevsey from MCN.
Things happen fast on a motorbike. In an instant, something can go down that might change your life forever. The same can be said of a car, but on a bike, you’re more exposed so the dangers are that much greater. As I was about to learn to my cost, the massive advancement in treating leg injuries over the past few years is largely down to the victims of motorcycle accidents.
It all started so perfectly. Flying into Faro, we took a car out to a beautiful hotel and unpacked our gear. Hospitality was great and I co-chaired a power-point presentation given by the marketing guys where the various facets of the new bike were outlined to the gathered journalists. A little rain had fallen over the weekend and that washed out an off-road section that Triumph had planned to use for both the Brits and the American contingent. It didn’t matter because that first day was excellent. I hadn’t ridden the new Tiger before and I was amazed at how planted and balanced it felt on the road. It steered superbly and the suspension was incredible, able to sense the weight of the rider and react accordingly and that was a first for me.
By the time we got back to the hotel that night I was buzzing from the exhilaration of the ride and thinking just how good this new role with Triumph was going to be. The following morning dawned cold and crisp, the clouds that had hung around yesterday were gone and the sky the brilliant blue that we’d been hoping for.
Having had their turn on the bikes the British journalists were heading home and it was the turn of the Americans now. I was still on a high, seriously impressed with the way the bike had handled and looking forward to riding again. The electronics were second to none and the front wheel hoisted with ease. I know I’m bound to be a little biased, but I’ve always rated the Hinckley outfit and I reckon I’m pretty analytical when it comes to what’s good or not as regards motorbikes. For a beefy looking, all round adventurer, the Tiger was great on the sweeping bends and in the tighter, more technical corners. There were moments when I was clicking through the gears with the bike cranked over with every inch of feel I wanted from the front wheel and perfect balance at the rear.
The way the new Triumph felt that morning reminded me of the day I showed up at Nurburgring in Germany a dozen years before. Back then I was riding a BMW GS1150 Adventure on my way around the world and the route took us so close to the iconic track we couldn’t let the moment go by. It’s the ultimate mecca for petrol heads, fourteen miles of twisting tarmac where Niki Lauda slammed his Ferrari into a bank during the German Grand Prix. Racing for the championship with James Hunt in 1976, he was pulled from the burning wreckage and almost died from his injuries in hospital.
That day I was on the first lap of an epic trip so I didn’t stop for anything more than a coffee. A few years before however, I had ridden the track on a GSXR 750 Suzuki where I tried to follow an English guy who was slick in the tight stuff and smooth in the really fast sections. The Ring is out there, a track like no other, and I’d been struggling to learn its nuances. I was miles behind. The English guy could see my difficulty so he slowed down and let me come alongside. Lifting his visor, he suggested I follow his lines and pick up what I could. I thought that was pretty cool so I did that for the rest of the lap and gradually got faster and faster. In the end I was keeping up and when we stopped after one final circuit, he took his helmet off and I had a double-take. The guy had to be sixty-five years old and he was quicker than anyone that day.
My mind’s wandering, it does that sometimes, I’m sorry but you’ll have to forgive me. Where was I? Oh, yeah, Portugal on a brand-new Tiger Explorer, I was lagging behind a dozen members of the American press corps and needed to play a little catch up. Concentrating fully again, I negotiated a twisty section of the EN125 that led through town. Two lanes of black top I’d left the commercial area behind and was in amongst some spacious looking houses.
I was wondering what the American journalists would think about the new bike and if they’d be as positive as the Brits. If I didn’t catch up to them I wouldn’t find out so I rode on at a reasonable clip. The sun was still low in the sky and that was awkward, but the traffic was much lighter now that I’d left the more built up area. I passed a bus and a couple of cars then came up behind a Mercedes. I noticed a couple of large villa style properties on my right with another on the left behind a solid looking stone wall. That house was at the junction of the main road and a left-hand turn. I was alongside the Mercedes, having pulled out to overtake when the driver started to drift. My heart was in my mouth, the wing of the car swinging sharply now, she was making the turn and she hadn’t seen me. Desperately, I tried to scrub off speed. My mouth was dry, no trace of saliva. Hard on the brakes. She hadn’t seen me. Nowhere to go. Jesus Christ, that wall!
That’s how my twin sister Daisy made her entrance into this world after forcing me out a few moments before. I swear she shuffled around in the womb to breach on purpose because nine months is a long time to be stuck with no one to talk to but me.
Actually, my dad says we started speaking late and that was largely because we had our own language. I can’t tell you what that was, it’s been fifty years, but we had this way of communicating with each other without really talking and that might’ve started in the womb.
Mum and Dad were amazed at the way we both seemed to know what was going on and during those early years it was as if we were the only two children in the world. We were inseparable even when we were fighting, though that wasn’t very often. We’d play games with each other, try and outdo one another even though we were the best of friends. I remember one-time Daisy was pushing me in a wheelbarrow along this ridge of earth at the back of our house with a patch of stinging nettles growing below. I had no idea what was coming till I was rolling down the bank into the nettles. I couldn’t believe it. My sister tipped me out of the barrow and I was stung so badly my mum plastered me with dock leaves for weeks.
You know what though? Now I think about what I’m writing I might have got it wrong. Memories can be like that, what you think happened and what actually did happen can alter by the repeated telling of the story. Sort of like Chinese whispers, the truth gets blurred, and though I think it was me in the wheelbarrow – it could well have been the other way around. Whichever it was, I write this forty-some years later and both Daisy and I are fifty. I can’t believe. I never thought I’d make it this far. Daisy never thought I would, and, after the events in Portugal, I’m lucky to be here at all.
We spilled into the world in Wimbledon on August 23rd 1966 not long after England won the world cup, though that didn’t mean anything to either of us back then. We were born into a family that people describe as larger than life though not the way you might think. Everything we experienced as children was normal to us of course, and, like everyone else, we were shaped by the people around us. I had no concept of it being anything but ordinary. Looking back now, I can see it was unconventional, a family led by a maverick movie maker who took on the established order of things and carved a place in history by making two of the most iconic “American” movies of all time. It’s quite a feat for an Englishman to take on Hollywood at their own game.
In 1966 Dad made “Point Blank” with Lee Marvin and later in 1972 he filmed “Deliverance” where John Voigt and Burt Reynolds canoe an old river in rural Georgia before the valley is flooded. Appalachia, hillbillies, people living on the very fringes of modern America: “Deliverance” has an official place in American cultural history. The movie is remembered for a young inbred kid playing the banjo and a male rape scene that was unprecedented at the time. In “Point Blank” Dad showed the kind of brutal violence associated with Tarantino when Quentin was still just a kid. That was his first film with Lee Marvin, a WWII Vet who was wounded in action and knew what real violence was. He knew how to handle a gun and came to prominence with Marlon Brando, riding motorbikes in “The Wild One”. When I spoke to Dad about it recently, he told me that Lee told him The Beatles took the name for their band from one of the biker gangs in that film. They were “The Beetles” and whether that’s the case or not, I guess you’d have to ask Paul McCartney.
I’ve seen that film more times than I care to remember. The first real biker movie ever made, it was based on real events that took place during the 4th of July weekend in 1947. A small town (much like the one portrayed in the movie) called Hollister, where an American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) rally turned into a drunken brawl. The events were so sensationalised by the media the AMA was forced to put out a statement assuring the public that those involved represented less than 1% of American motorcyclists and no one had anything to fear. The comment backfired badly though, because the 1% moniker was adopted by the “Hells Angels” and later other bike gangs such as “The Bandidos”, “Outlaws” and “Vagos”.
I don’t know if the fact that Lee Marvin was around so much during my childhood influenced the way I got into bikes or not, but I did know he’d ridden one in that movie. Whatever it was something spawned a love of motorbikes that’s brought me a life I could never have imagined. It’s a life where I’ve taken both reasonable and unreasonable risks and I came through them pretty unscathed. Right now, however, I’m in the kind of battle I never thought I’d ever face, never mind ride a motorbike, I’m not sure if I’ll walk properly again.
More from Charley Boorman:
Charley Boorman is a modern-day adventurer, travel writer and entertainer. His charismatic “let’s just do it” approach to challenges has won him over to a massive TV and literary audience. Charley is also one of the founders of the We Ride London campaign.
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