FOR several years back in the 1970s and 1980s, I used to report on the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy races. In doing so, I got to know many of the top motorbike racers who would spend their days doing 180 mph on two wheels within a foot or two of drystone walls - and their evenings in the pub.
They were a pretty likeably bunch - the past tense being appropriate because a lot of them are dead, victims of their obsession - but I never changed my opinion that they were all stark staring mad. But little did I think that, years later, I would be entering the Yorkshire Dales TT - along with thousands of assorted cars, quarry wagons, tractors and caravans.
This thought came to mind this week as I drove out of Hawes on the lovely but treacherous road to Ingleton. It is one of the most picturesque drives in Britain, taking you past the world-famous Ribblehead railway viaduct as you approach Ingleborough's rugged backside.
They have just erected a huge traffic sign on the Hawes exit to the B6255 imploring motorcyclists to drive with care because 36 of their members were injured on these 17 miles of soaring, twisting miles snakeback last year alone. They were lucky to escape with mere injuries.
Anyone who makes a living in the Yorkshire Dales has to learn to be a pretty skilful driver. When my wife and I first moved here 20 years ago, we lost two wing mirrors to drystone walls in as many weeks. These days, that would have cost us well over £100 apiece, so we learned our lesson the hard way.
On that drive this week, I had to emergency brake four times to avoid sheep and lambs rushing across the road - that's roughly once every three miles - and with that ominous road sign still in mind, I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened had I in those precarious moments been overtaken by a gang of motorcyclists "doing the ton" - i.e., 100 mph.
Two or three years ago, this very same stretch of road was featured in one of the more irresponsible motorcycle magazines as one of the best in Britain for a "burn up." It actually gave lap times which, if achieved by readers, would have meant that they would never have been below the 60 mph speed limit.
Police and politicians were furious and the subject became national news. This, in turn, led to a psychological study of such speedsters which revealed a strange phenomenon: by and large, they were not 'teenage tearaways but mainly middle-aged men who were trying to regain some of the thrills of youth - and we rich enough to pay for 180 mph bikes which cost as much as a family car.
If you think this is an exaggeration, a middle aged biker was recently timed at 160 mph on the Settle bypass. I travel the A65 like a yoyo and, any time now, I expect to see yet another sad pile of flowers by the roadside, another home-made memorials to a biker who have killed himself - and perhaps some else too.
And, sadly, the peak season for such deaths is approaching as the school holidays start. These already crowded roads will be awash with tourists admiring the scenery at 30 mph, caravans swaying as much as two feet from side the side in the slightest wind, plus the every present mix of quarry wagons and tractors. Add ton-up bikers and you have a truly lethal cocktail.
Now I don't want to be a spoilsport. Many of my friends have what I consider to be crazy hobbies, like rock climbing, potholing and hand gliding. But if things go wrong, they tend to kill only themselves (although, admittedly, putting our superb voluntary rescue teams to a lot of bother).
Middle-aged ton up bikers can kill other people, apart from ripping the peace of the countryside to shreds with their noise and scaring half to death hundreds of other road users. The police do their best to crack down but, sadly, modern magistrates tend to be capable only of giving any miscreant a gentle slap on the wrist and a fiver from the Poor Box.
We all know that the courts can no longer send people to prison - they're all full and Gordon Brown is too tight-fisted to build any more - but in the case of mad motor-cyclists the judiciary have a cheap and effective weapon: the driving (or riding) ban.
How about a month's ban for every 1 mph over the speed limit? That would take a ton-up merchant off the road for over three years. And we would not see our 160 mph character in the saddle for eight, by which time he might have learned a little more sense. Or it this just too simple?