The Café Racer Cup Mixes Vintage Motorcycle Style With Dragging Knees And High Speed
Photography by Will Broadhead
Oh, to be a motorcycle racer! The glitz, the glamor, the thrill, it’s a dream that to many of us is by and large out of reach, either through a gulf in skill or the fact that racing—any racing—is just so damned expensive. It’s a sure-fire guarantee of a permanently light wallet and an endless love affair with late nights in the workshop.
Of course, there are always track days for the occasional taste of part of this life, but for those of us that ride classic machinery, the thought of being buzzed by a plethora of power rangers astride modern one-liter-plus sport bikes is about as appealing as a swimming lesson in a crocodile park. So, what if there was a track day aimed at those of us that ride a more classically-styled motorcycle? Even better, what if the day was designed to get builders of café racers, the original race rep, out on their machines rather than looking at them in the garage?
Not only that, but after a solid day’s practice in groups of similar ability, why not offer the chance to have some light competitive fun at the end of the day, with trophies and prizes to boot? It sounds a little too good to be true for café enthusiasts, but the team at Bike Shed Motorcycle Club may have cracked this nut with the inaugural Café Racer Cup.
Those familiar with the cult of the café racer won’t have failed to see the rise in popularity of these bikes over recent years (or more accurately, the recent decade or more, with even mainstream manufacturers now getting in on the action and trying to conjure the aesthetic), and at the vanguard of this re-energized scene has been the Bike Shed Motorcycle Club—certainly in England in any case.
The Bike Shed Expo is now an annual fixture for those of us who appreciate a well-built café or tracker, or any number of the other style of build that’s been buoyed by this surge in popularity. The swell in creative spirit has been great to see, with better machines emerging by the year and social media full of inspiration. The thing is though, whilst it is all well and good adorning these motorcycles with admiring stares and nods of appreciation under the fluorescent lighting of a static show, that isn’t really what they were designed for.
Bikes should be ridden, engines should be filled with oil and fed with fuel and beautifully welded exhausts ought to play the music of the motorcycle they’re attached to, preferably in an environment where they can be ridden in anger and at speed.
Such is the beauty and complexity of some of these bikes though that I can understand the owner’s reluctance to release them upon the crowded and pot-holed roads that plague the British Isles. Riding through these green and pleasant-looking lands doesn’t always equate to a pleasant-feeling experience, and even the lesser trodden paths are starting to bulge with heavy goods vehicles that tear the surfaces of the asphalt into a lunar surface unfit for cars, never mind motorcycles.
This is perhaps one of the reasons the Café Racer Cup was first dreamt up some five years ago by the team at the Bike Shed, or perhaps it was just the lack of suitable track opportunities, let alone a race series for those that might actually want to compete. But like any scene that has a do-it-yourself attitude, creating your own event seems almost obvious or requisite, but of course there is a lot more to it than that, in the cotton wool-wrapped age we live in there is no end of red tape to get through for an event like this to exist.
Half a decade after the idea was formed, I find myself stood in the holding area at the Lydden Hill circuit, just a stone’s throw from the coast in the southeast of England. On either side of me the most diverse grid of motorcycles I have ever seen on a racetrack are sitting in columns, line astern, ready to take to the kidney-shaped and undulating circuit at Lydden. There are BMWs, Ducatis, Hondas, Royal Enfields, Kawasakis, and all manner of other machinery from the great and obscure manufacturers alike, their magnificent paint jobs glinting in the sun on this gorgeous summer morning.
Some have fairings, some have taped-over lights, and the level of customization varies from one bike to the next. You’ll find that all who have the café bug are welcome here, whether pro-builder or your average Joe with a megaphone exhaust and clip-on bars. All that really matters is that you want to get out on track. As the Ford GT40 pace car leaves to do a lap, the engines around me are fired up with a healthy mix of kick starts and pressed ignition buttons. The noise is fabulous. A disjointed, discordant assortment of different engine notes somehow synthesizing in a pleasing cadence makes for an exciting lead-up to the action, with the beautiful din painting a broad grin on my face—as I look around me, I can see that the same can be said for everyone else too—though the helmeted faces were a bit more serious.
Like the degree of modification on the bikes themselves, the on-track riding is varied in its intensity. It would be fair and succinct to say that there is a real mix of abilities here. You have to remember though, this isn’t MotoGP, it’s a track day with a competitive slant and while you won’t be seeing any Marc Marquez drifts, there are still some handy riders and plenty of knee-down action and overtaking.
As the day continues everyone gets faster, pipes sing louder, burns grow increasingly crimson while the smiles grow wider, and you can see the bikes starting to make some more outlandish shapes as speeds get to the point where setups need tweaking. There is a sizable crowd here to see these custom bikes strut their stuff, and it’s wrapped in a family atmosphere that reminds me of the best real road races I have been lucky enough to cover over the years.
All in all, it has been a tremendous event that has succeeded in giving the builders and owners of this niche genre of bikes a benign environment in which to test and race their creations on a circuit, as well as a platform for fans of custom motorcycles to see them outside of a row of kickstands. There will be those that say it is just a track day like any other, but in my opinion anything that facilitates this kind of environment—one in which those who may not be so keen to ride actually get out and do so in a controlled environment—is a very special thing, and I hope this is the first step on the road to more events like this in the future. Perhaps even a full race series? I would certainly be a keen fan.