Setting Free the Bears, by John Irving
It is the 1960s, and Hannes and Siggy, fellow idealists and dropouts, set out on a picaresque tour of Austria on a 700cc Royal Enfield motorcycle. Siggy is killed in a motorcycle accident, but we get to read his journal, detailing his father’s involvement with a Wehrmacht motorcycle unit. And Hannes meets a gorgeous girl who wants to climb on to the back of his bike.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M Pirsig
Philosophical disquisition or autobiographical novel? However you define this once-cult classic, no literary motorbiking column could omit it. The narrator introduces you to the main schools of western philosophy via metaphors from motorcycle mechanics, while travelling across the US with his son on the back of his bike.
“On the Move”, by Thom Gunn
“Man, you gotta go.” Gunn’s poetic meditation on the California bikers he encountered in the 60s finds them exciting in a male way – “the distance throws them forth, their hum / Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh” – but existentially weird.
The Owl Service, by Alan Garner
In the odd acoustic bowl of the remote north Wales valley where they are spending their summer holiday, step-siblings Roger and Alison sometimes hear the noise of a motorbike in the distance. It seems incidental at first, but is an echo from the past. We begin to sense the truth about a fatal accident that happened many years earlier.
“A Motorbike”, by Ted Hughes
Men back from the war are bored and listless, with “England dwindled to the size of a dog-track”. But one of them acquires a motorbike, and life begins again down the open road. “A week later, astride it, before dawn, / A misty frosty morning, / He escaped // Into a telegraph pole / On the long straight west of Swinton.”
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by JK Rowling
The first chapter of the Potter oeuvre features the entrance of Hagrid at Privet Drive on a flying motorbike (with sidecar). In this vehicle (which belongs to Sirius Black) he rescues Harry from Voldemort. In the last book of the sequence Hagrid crashes and destroys the magical motorbike.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, by Louis de Bernières
A motorbike can be romantic. So it is for benign occupier Captain Antonio Corelli, who squires the beautiful Pelagia around the island of Cephalonia on a motorcycle (when not playing the mandolin). Years later, the elderly Corelli returns to woo her – on a motorbike.
The History Boys, by Alan Bennett
There was undoubtedly a frisson when Richard Griffiths (as schoolmaster Hector) roared on to the stage of the National Theatre on his trusty motorbike. His fondness for the machine is a sign of his bloody-minded individualism and his sexual proclivities: he is prone to offer his (male) students a lift home that includes a pillion fondle. He is destined to perish on his bike.
“Our Motorbike”, by Elfriede Jelinek
The poem starts as a weird celebration of the joys of biking – “a leek’s fat body / the red motorbike / our night fire / ravishment of chrome / steel” – but (as is Jelinek’s way) things seem to turn nasty: “the red night squats / pressed against our motorbike // we ride hunting little girls / in the wooden sky”.
Turbulence, by Giles Foden
Young meteorologist Henry Meadows, who has to find out how to forecast the weather for D-day, is sent up to the west of Scotland to enlist the help of a reclusive mathematical genius. He is given a motorbike, though he has never ridden one before, and for the first half of the novel he zooms round the hills and lochs, getting nowhere much with his researches but developing his skills.