When Harley-Davidson fanatic Paul Major lost most of his eyesight in 2014, it looked like his days as a biker were over.
Within months, the couple were setting off on the near 900-mile trip to Saint-Tropez to carry on the dream they thought had died.
We spoke to them as part of Bikesure’s Ride On campaign, which aims to get people on the road, whether they’re getting back into biking after a break or taking up two (or three) wheels for the first time.
Eye trouble on Route 66
Paul was in California, riding along Route 66 with Gill on the back of a hired Harley, when he knew something was wrong.
“My eyes started to bother me, but I didn’t say anything to Gill at the time,” he says. “At one point, my eyes closed down for about 20 seconds. I completely lost sight so I pulled into a garage and I thought ‘this is something bad’, but it recovered immediately.
“I know now I shouldn’t have been riding at all.”
There was one final ride to the Reading Harley dealership’s Halloween party in October 2014, after which Paul knew enough was enough.
“I started to not be able to see on the left hand side, and I knew I was not OK,” he says, hanging up his crash helmet and heading to the doctor, who sent him for an MRI scan.
“They saw this thing that was like an alien growing through my head. As soon as the surgeon saw it he said ‘we’ve got to take this out immediately’.”
The ‘alien’ was a tumour, a pituitary adenoma that had grown and wrapped itself around the optic chiasm, where the two optic nerves cross over, interfering with Paul’s vision.
“It was a benign tumour, but it was strangling the nerve, and if they hadn’t operated I would have gone completely blind,” he says.
His temporary total blindness on Route 66 was unrelated – doctors discovered he had suffered two mini strokes in the 40C heat of the Californian desert, “just something else that decided to interrupt my riding”.
Before his operation in February 2015, about six weeks after diagnosis, Paul was in the day room at John Radcliffe Hospital when a fellow biker walked in.
“I told him about how I enjoyed riding and talked about the mini strokes, and he said ‘you know you will lose your licence for that’ and I actually thought ‘what does he know?’” he remembers.
“But the reality is, he was right. I thought my eyesight would recover and I now know it was unreasonable for me to think that, but my brain had told me there’s a possibility of recovering.”
After surgery, he woke up unable to see anything at all, but was told it was the trauma of the operation. Worse was to follow – a bout of pneumonia and a bleed on the brain rendering him not only sightless, but also unable to move or speak.
He recovered from these ailments and, eventually, the sight in his right eye did return, but without any peripheral vision. Nonetheless, for a while he still clung to the belief that his full sight would one day return.
Paul’s riding days were over
“We had two bikes in the garage – a Fat Boy and an Electra-Glide – but there came a realisation at some point that I wasn’t going to be able to ride again,” he says. “We sold one bike, but I was going to keep the Fat Boy. Why? What am I going to do? Sit on it and go ‘broom broom’?”
It was tough to take for a couple who, since Paul’s first ride on a Harley-Davidson in Florida in 2008, had built a lifestyle around the big American bikes.
They were in the Sunshine State on holiday when Gill decided to hire a Fat Boy as a treat for their son-in-law, who usually rode sports bikes.
“He said ‘it’s great, if you want to go in straight lines – if you want to turn it’s not very good’,” says Paul, who was 54 at the time. “It was an absolutely incredible looking bike. I said to him ‘let me have a go’, and I was bitten by the bug.”
As a teenager, Paul was forbidden from buying a motorbike by his policeman father, who told him: “No way, I’ve seen too many deaths.”
After joining the RAF, he did ride a scooter for a while, bought in 1973 in response to the global fuel crisis, but there were no further bikes until they returned from that trip to Florida.
“Within 24 hours he’d booked his test and taken time off work,” says Gill, who smiles when remembering Paul’s previous disdain for motorbikes.
“Before we went on this holiday, if a bike went past, Paul would be ‘oh for goodness sake, the noise’. It was a total 180 degree about turn.”
“We were in Florida in April, and by June I’d passed my test and went with a piece of paper to the Harley dealership,” says Paul, placing an order for a brand new Fat Boy.
“It was so massive in comparison to the Honda I learned on, which was so manoeuvrable, easy to ride and the power was controllable.
Fat Boy “a brute of a thing”
“This Fat Boy was just such a brute of a thing, but the thing I love about Harleys is the look, the sound, the feel of it, the comfort, but at that point I thought it was ungainly.
“I can remember riding down the road with a mixture of adrenaline and fear, and just being elated that I’d managed to ride the thing home.
“I took two weeks off and rode every day for about 10 hours. It had to have its 1,000 mile service after a week. I took it back and he said ‘have you not been off this?’ I said ‘basically, no’. It was so much fun.”
As for Gill, she hadn’t regularly been on the back of a bike for about 30 years, so one evening they headed out on the bike to a pub.
“We parked up and loved the look of the bike while we sat and ate supper,” she says. “It was good, I enjoyed it, but I realised later how tense I was, my arms really hurt from all the gripping. I slowly learned there’s a way of sitting on the back of a bike, not like a potato, but to relax a bit and concentrate enough that you go with it.”
It would soon become second nature to both of them, with first Paul, and then the pair of them riding further afield with fellow members of the Thames Valley HOG.
“My first ride out was on St George’s Day and the thing I liked about it was not only the riding, but also the noise of the convoy was quite something and it just reminded me of Easy Rider, which sounds daft,” says Paul. “It was the power and presence of this convoy. We stopped for something to eat, and talking to the guys and girls, they were the same as me, although all different, from postmen to people who owned their own companies and wealthy people.”
From ride outs to the Brecon Beacons and the Lake District, things moved up a gear once they had both retired in 2013 – by now on an Electra Glide Ultra Classic bought for its cruising capabilities.
Harley grand tours
That April, they made their first of many trips to Saint-Tropez, followed by journeys to Rome, Croatia, Prague, and Thunder in the Glens at Aviemore.
Riding through the seven-mile long Mont Blanc tunnel on a Stage One tuned Harley was “absolutely incredible”, says Paul.
“It was snowing when we entered the tunnel, so we had all our wet gear on and we were bundled up,” he says. “What we didn’t know is it gets to 30C in the tunnel, and you’re not allowed to stop, so we were sweating like mad.
“I was almost passing out from the heat and when we got to the other side, we stripped all the wet gear off to cool down, then went through the Aosta Valley, with about 75km of tunnels that were not as hot as the Mont Blanc tunnel, so we were freezing.
“The noise of the bike was almost overpowering and once we got to the end of those tunnels, my head was ringing.”
For six years, the couple, who met in November 1989 and married the following April, had immersed themselves in Harley life.
“We’d had so much fun,” says Paul. “Like any bike it’s the freedom of being outside and not constrained by a car – it’s being in the elements, and the fact that you’re competing against the elements. When it’s hot you get hot, when it’s cold you get cold.”
But all that had come to an untimely end.
Until, one day, Paul and Gill went along as pillions on a ride out with Harley trike-owning friends from the Thames Valley HOG chapter.
“I just couldn’t stop crying”
“We jumped on the back of their trikes and almost immediately the floodgates opened, I just couldn’t stop crying,” says Gill. “I realised it meant that much, and it took me by surprise.
“While Paul was recovering, and realising the chances are his eyes aren’t going to get better, I did sit and think ‘could I? I wonder’.
“I was on the back of Sue Knight’s trike, and she said ‘what’s wrong, why are you crying?’ I just said ‘I’ve just realised I’ve missed this and I’m going to have to give it a go’, and she said ‘I knew you would!’”
The couple had already been in the car to a biker cafe at Berinsfield, “just to feel part of something”, but it was a trip to a Harley meeting at Hickstead a few weeks after that pillion ride that cemented the plan for Gill to take over at the handlebars.
“Sue was one of the few female riders in the chapter at that point and she was a very proud trike rider,” says Gill. “At Hickstead, she said ‘have a go’. We found a quiet corner that had a cinder track and I just sat on it and realised ‘good grief, this thing is enormous’.
“I’d never ridden a motorbike and never had any interest in doing so – I was very happy just being on the back. She had to tell me how it works, and I did a couple of circuits of this loop.
No going back
“I pulled up outside the tents, with people around, and I almost felt once they’ve seen me there’s no going back.”
Paul hit the internet and, after a couple of false dawns, found a 2015 Tri Glide with 458 miles on the clock, which was delivered to their home.
Having passed her car test prior to 2013, Gill could ride the trike without any further qualifications.
“What could go wrong?” she laughs.
“It sat on the driveway and I thought ‘if I don’t get on it now, I’m never going to’. We put all our gear on and went to the bottom of the road, turned right into the cul-de-sac, and eventually went to a nearby garage forecourt, finally getting it into second. We did that every day for a week.”
That was the end of October 2015, and the couple were soon invited to join friends on a trip to Saint-Tropez the following April.
“We thought ‘great’, not thinking ‘hang on a minute, you’re in second gear within half a mile of the house’,” says Gill, now 61.
“I realised if we’re going to do this I’ve got to just go for it. It surprised me how going back to being a complete learner, everything comes as a separate conscious thought. That process was so difficult. After about a week I decided I had to get off the estate. I laid awake at night!
“Over about 10 days I finally got up to third, and then on to the dual carriageway. We did a lot of practice that winter, every day we could. The bikers cafe was my aim, about an hour’s ride away and a 70-mile round trip. After about three or four weeks, we did it.”
On the day they were due to set off for the south of France, they loaded up the trike, got their passports and documents together, and Gill went outside to move the car out of the way.
“I had a panic attack”
“It suddenly hit me, ‘what are you thinking of? Saint-Tropez!’ I had a panic attack,” she says, with Paul admitting weeks later he had his doubts she would be able to follow through with it.
But, just over four months after sitting on the trike for the first time, she calmed herself down, fired it up and set off for the meeting place.
“All I could think of that morning was getting to Cobham services then everything will be fine, I’ll be in the middle of our convoy, between Sue and Dave Knight, and they’ll show me what to do,” she adds, “and it was exactly like that.”
Since that momentous first foray abroad, Gill has again ridden to southern France, as well as to Scotland, Wales, Portugal, Austria, Prague, and Berlin, and riding a hired trike through a Florida thunderstorm.
Paul, 68, is astonished at the progress made by his wife of more than 30 years.
“I can’t believe she’s gone from being so timid in cars to actually riding this trike,” he says. “When we used to go to Florida Gill would never drive the hire car. She had an aversion to driving on the right hand side of the road.
“But now she’s ridden there, and there was this downpour. I was on the back, and could see well enough to know I was scared because of the rain. You could barely see anything and she took it in her stride.
“Another time, we were riding the 2,000 miles from our house to Lisbon, and in Bordeaux it was hammering down, someone pulled in front of Gill at the toll and she put on the brakes. Gill doesn’t swear, but she was swearing and I said ‘what’s up?’ She said ‘nothing’, but she’d been aquaplaning. She was very calm.
“It’s part of the reason we upgraded to this new, 2020 Tri Glide, which has a defensive rider system.”
For Gill, it’s transformed her approach to riding, and driving.
“Jumping on the trike for the first time was a big thing, and that we managed to do it safely was a big confidence boost,” she says. “I can do this!”
With pillion Paul standing at 6ft 2in, and rider Gill a whole foot shorter, the couple often confound assumptions when out and about.
“When we roll up somewhere on the trike, very often people will come over and look at it and will immediately say to Paul ‘what’s it like to ride?’” says Gill, “and he always says ‘I don’t know, you’ll have to ask my wife, it’s hers’. Sometimes they’ll carry on talking to Paul and ignore me, other times they say ‘good on you’.
“We’ve drawn up at traffic lights and people have wound the window down and said ‘can we take a picture?’”
“A lot of women will give her the thumbs up,” adds Paul. “Other times, they’ll look at us, and when I get on the back you can see women doing double takes and waving at Gill, being very impressed.”
We’re coming to the end of our chat, and Paul is reflecting on what Gill has done to help keep their Harley lifestyle alive.
She must be something of a hero to him?
“I think I can turn around and say…” he starts, but no more words will come, smothered by emotion.
“That’s how much it means,” Gill fills the silence. “It’s a partnership. Paul always loved doing the planning, spending a lot of time looking at routes and hotels, that’s what he put into the trips. It’s about continuing the Harley life we’d established.”
Paul, after a few deep breaths, adds: “It’s actually saved my life. Without Gill, my life would have no meaning.”
Where are you on your Bikesure journey?
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