A wet motorcycle. And an even wetter me. I enter the Ace Cafe with the sort of slow-motion veneration normally reserved for cathedrals and the like. I catch a glimpse of a Triton, leaning on its stand in a far corner, but I’m late for my appointment with Mark Wilsmore, owner of the Cafe, so I stumble up a flight of stairs, sheepishly leaving a trail of water in my wake. As we meet, I extend a dripping gloved hand and ask, ‘How are you?’. He looks me up and down while shaking water off his hand and replies, ‘Dry!’. They forgot to put the stiff upper lip on this guy.
Café racers: a breed of motorcycles that has been giving coffee a bad name since they were invented.
Or at least that’s what was ascribed to these elemental machines when they were born. And the Ace Cafe’s played such a big role in the birth and rapid proliferation of the café racer, they might as well call them ace cafe racers. Or maybe acers.
The Thruxton, suitably, pushes all the right buttons in my freezing brain. Think ‘motorcycle’ and isn’t that shape what comes to mind? Lovely curves, a round headlamp and a motor that is reminiscent of the old Triumphs. Add to that the white stripes running down the middle and the evocative Triumph badge on the tank and I’m ready to ignore all the coffee in the world. However, the Thruxton looks... a bit too complete. Being built in a factory deprives it of the special stripped-down home-made feel that is intrinsic to café racers. Nonetheless, the Thruxton looks right at home at the Ace – more so than any motorcycle that’s parked there, really... until an old Meridan-made Bonneville rolls in. So much for that.
Mark loves the Meridan motors. And it’s all too apparent as he sits down next to it gazes at the Bonnie’s motor, probably reliving some madness from the past.
What’s in a place?
Rarely does a place become as synonymous with a type of motorcycle as the Ace has. And I’d say it has earned that right after what it’s been through. During WWII, it was blown up by some stupid Nazi pilot. A few years ago, when I was in high school, a giant 90-year old water main running under the car park erupted, engulfing cars, bikes, the cafe and a part of the adjoining North Circular road under 25 feet of water. Heck, it even survived being the favourite haunt of caffeine-charged teenagers until 1969 when it was shut down. Being a hippie became the sudden rage, you see.
However, the place is a survivor, and being that, it stands as hope that the golden age of motorcycling might be all but gone, but it still lingers at the Ace. And Mark is the one who brought the Cafe back to life in 1997, and by doing so, resurrected a glorious piece of motorcycling history and an important part of British motorcycling culture.
Many years ago, after the Cafe shut down, Mark and his mates used to sit across the road looking at the structure which had turned into a tyre shop and say, ‘Wish they’d open it again’. The wheels of time completed a few rotations helped along by super unleaded and Mark found himself as the ‘they’, and did what needed to be done.
Now, he is a busy man, though today, not many people have shown up due to the weather. However, sooner than we can say ‘record racing’, the sun comes out and just like that, the bikes start trickling in. An RSV Mille here and a Moto Guzzi V7 Racer (ridden from Spain) there. A Jap inline-four that is unrecognisable because the owner has brutally hacked away everything – everything – but the seat, tank and handlebars. A kit car banged together by some chap from Holland and driven to London. And many, many more. The Ace is a vibrant kaleidoscope made up of wheels and I can’t get enough of it.
However, sometimes Mark does get worried – ‘The sheer variety of motorcycles and cars and the demographic of people mean there is a lot to worry about for me on crowded days.’ But where there are wheels, there are ways to get past differences. And I can’t help but smile as a bright blue two-up ZX6-R wheelies right past the Cafe. And right on cue, a young chap on a scooter wheelies the other way. The road outside the Ace bears more burnt rubber than most racing tracks, I imagine.
What I do share with the Rockers of yore though, is a congenital dislike for speed limits – ‘What, they think they can tell me what I can do? – especially when I’m in London on my way to the Ace Cafe on a café racer, no less. So, with the weight of history resting on my CE-armoured shoulders and the Thruxton’s 68 bhp engine, I had to give speed limits what they deserved – the ton-up salute.
Hitting the ton on the Thruxton isn’t a meaningless, two-gear (sometimes even one) affair as on a 1000cc inline-four. The litre-bike doesn’t understand the significance of hitting the ton. On the British parallel twin, it takes on a different meaning – you’re following tradition, one full of heady wildness and mad machines. Of flat-out top-gear rushes fuelled by adrenaline with coffee as the catalyst.
Coming down a flyover, I boot the gearbox into third, crouch over that beautiful red tank and plug the throttle. The 865cc motor which was humming and purring at the speed limit all this while, suddenly charges forward with all the urgency of a superhero leaping into action – minus the inverted wardrobe, of course. The rain smashes threateningly against my visor, but doesn’t manage to swindle the tyres out of grip. The wind wants to carry me off the bike, but it’s nowhere as strong as the regret I’d feel if I didn’t do this. I needn’t have worried.
The Thruxton pulls strongly and doesn’t take long to strangle the gearbox’s tall-ish ratios, getting to the ton with more speed to come – it does about 190 kph tops. The needle calmly moves upwards, oblivious to the fury and motion around me. I do it once. Then again. And again. Thanks to the rear-sets, you grip mostly air with your knees, just like Valentinik, my RX135 cafe mod. And unlike my Bullet 350, which is living, breathing proof that left-foot braking is possible on a motorcycle, the Thruxton’s got the brake on the right (wrong) side. Drive a herd of cattle in the Thruxton’s way, and you will stop in time. Scaring them away with your exhaust note won’t work, though.
The Thruxton makes the right amount of power, but not the right amount of noise – most unlike a cafe racer. Nothing beats the sound of an old British bike... provided it runs. This new one runs, but doesn’t make music – go figure. However, Ace Cafe themselves have a cure for this in the form of the Ace 904S Thruxton Special – uprated suspension, louder pipes and a sprinkling of trick parts bring out the dormant hooligan in the Thruxton. And yes, in true cafe racer tradition, the motor’s souped up as well. Beautiful.
So, after a small gang’s worth of ton-up moments, and turning a 14-mile ride to the Ace into a 55-mile one (mostly because I’m hopelessly lost), I turn to asking for directions. I want to get there, get off the bike and stare at it now. It does the ton, looks like a million pounds and I want it.
What is it about them?
Those people, those machines and the Ace, that is? Sorry to sound like a romantic sop, but I do miss the old days, even though I wasn’t born then. I feel deprived for having missed them, though visiting the Ace today and talking to Mark tells me that the spirit is far from gone. ‘It’s all about motorcycles, making friends and having a good time... and all that comes with doing these things!’ he laughs. ‘Yesterday, we had the sun out and by evening, there were 2000 motorcycles swamping the place. And tomorrow, I’m off to Yankee-land – Brough Superior is back and they’re having a go at Bonneville. I have nothing to give, so they asked me to come along as tea boy and fly the flag!’ A tea boy. Yes. That pretty much sums up what the Ace is all about.
And what about café racers? Is it the foetal position as you crouch and hang on at 100 mph? Two things come to mind, as I stand in the Ace’s rained-out parking lot – first, these days the café racer phenomenon is all about drowning in nostalgia, an instant ticket to coolness for most people. This is the reason for the Triumph Thruxton’s existence, and a big part of the charm of motorcycling, even for people who’ve not completed a week on their shiny new Thruxtons. Secondly, and more importantly, for those who love and appreciate bikes, it’s simply the best motorcycle format that exists – a tank, a seat, wheels and a motor. What else do you need?
As I mill about, tagging along with Mark and talking to people, I see no barriers that motorcycles cannot transcend – one couple’s come all the way from Brazil to meet Mark and see the Ace. Then, MCN’s Ian Jubb shows up on his Diavel and Mark introduces us with suspicious eagerness. As soon as we’ve shaken hands and taken photos, Mark vanishes inside the Cafe – I think I might’ve pestered him a bit too much all day! Ian shows off his Diavel (it’s his long-termer! Damn!) and points out the rear cowl that he personally got signed by Troy Bayliss. People come up and ask about the bike, sparking off conversations.
Amazing how a place like the Ace can put things into perspective. As I wave Mark and the Ace goodbye and rumble into the cold evening, I am charged, my love for motorcycles reinforced in a way it never has. Needless to say, the needle sees the magic number a few more times. And all those times, I feel the bygone era whispering into my helmet. People in cars pass by when I slow down; they seem to be wondering about my sanity. I pity theirs.
Two eyes, two ears, two hands and two legs – how can four wheels ever make sense? I realise that just riding a motorcycle doesn’t make you a motorcyclist. It is a state of mind acquired through years of madness that ripens into oneness with the machine and like-minded people. But sometimes, it’s not all that complicated – as I got onto London Bridge, I thought it might be cool to be the only guy in the world to wheelie on the famous landmark at that point in time and space. After I got back to India, I realised that it was the Tower Bridge (the equally famous bridge downstream) the Triumph had saluted – the echoes of my facepalm are still ringing. Nonetheless, as I dived off an off-ramp for the last time into a sea of red lights, I smiled, thinking of the Ace. Now, as I type this, thinking of BSM, I smile again – what a way to end a fantastic run.