Steve Berry was 13 when he first saw the cult road movie Easy Rider.
It was a pivotal moment for a teenager awestruck by the Harley-Davidsons ridden across America by bikers Wyatt and Billy, played by Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
The counterculture classic was essentially about drug use, the hippie movement and communal living, but for Steve it was all about the bikes.
“It all goes back to Easy Rider – from that moment I always wanted a Harley,” he says, finally fulfilling his ambition 28 years later when he bought the 1993 Softail Fat Boy resting on the grass nearby.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but don’t try telling that to Steve, who has vowed never to sell a bike he’s ridden all over Europe and the Middle East in the past two decades.
“I don’t want any other bike”
“I don’t want any other bike – I want that particular bike,” he says. “And I’m not allowed to get rid of it anyway – my son is going to inherit it apparently. He’s already said to me ‘I’m having your bike when you are gone dad’.”
Steve, now 63, was training Arabian racehorses in Abu Dhabi when he bought the Harley in 1997, attending the first meeting of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) Arabian Gulf Abu Dhabi UAE Chapter.
When he returned to the UK three years later, the bike came with him, and he’s been a member of the HOG Fenlanders Chapter in Suffolk ever since.
“I’ve made some very good friends riding the bike,” he says. “I met people in Abu Dhabi from all over the world, some really nice people.”
Growing up in Melton Mowbray, Steve remembers his father and uncle riding motorbikes, and as a boy he would ride stripped down mopeds on the fields around his home.
“Somebody would have an old moped lying around, and we stripped them down so they were very basic,” he says. “They had no brakes and we just went round the fields having fun, until the farmer told us to get off his land.”
The first bike of his own was a BSA C15, followed by a C12, a Panther 500 with a sidecar, and an AJS/BSA hybrid chopper with bits of Triumph thrown in.
Having moved to Enfield in north London at the age of 18, Steve ended up in Newmarket via Hertfordshire, and it was there that he turned his other great love, horses, into a career.
“I got into horses through my first wife, and I always liked Arabs,” he says, buying a three-year-old Arabian thoroughbred called Ballerton’s Gem while living in Hertfordshire.
“Very big and very fast”
“He was very big and very fast, and I learned to ride on him. I owned him, trained him and rode him – I had to lose a hell of a lot of weight to do it!
“He was one of the top British-bred Arabian racehorses, winning £200 short of £25,000 in prize money, which when you consider the average prize money was £250…
“We took on the Russians and the French and beat them. I lost count of how many times he won.”
Once in Newmarket, Steve combined his first job as a painter and decorator with work-riding for renowned Arabian trainer Gill Duffield, who had a string of horses owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum.
His success with Ballerton’s Gem and his work with Duffield alerted connections in the Middle East, and he was asked if he fancied heading to Abu Dhabi to train.
“I jumped at it,” he says, initially splitting his time between east and west from 1993 before moving to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) full time in 1995.
For five years, he trained a string of 20 to 25 horses, “some not so good and most of them quite old”, for Mohamed Joaan Al Badi.
The costs of buying a house in Newmarket had seen Steve turn his back on motorbikes for several years but that all changed once in Abu Dhabi, with the weather, cheap bike prices and even cheaper petrol pulling him back to two wheels.
“Beautiful blue sky”
“There was beautiful blue sky all the time, and Harleys were cheaper over there than in the UK, so I just decided it was time I got another bike,” he says, paying just under £7,000 for the four-year-old, 1340cc Fat Boy in 1997.
“Since I was very, very young I had wanted a Harley, and there were Harley shops in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This one would have cost me about £10,000 in the UK – it came with a lot of extras, including a different seat, studded bags and a rare Terminator paint job.”
One of the 1991 Fat Boys ridden by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2: Judgement Day sold for half a million dollars in 2018, though clearly Steve’s will never hit those heights…and the bike now bears flaming skull paintwork.
Steve’s bike had made the journey from the States to Germany before being shipped to the UAE and bought by one of the Sheikhs.
Riding in the Emirates brought its own distinct challenges entirely alien to UK riders, not least the extreme heat and sudden sandstorms.
“I was out in the desert and it reached 58C,” says Steve. “You’ve got to be careful because you dehydrated very quickly, but being an ex jockey sitting in saunas all the time I was quite used to the heat, and riding horses you are outside all the time. A lot of people did dehydrate quite badly.
“There were plenty of service stations where you could get ice-cold water, and sometimes people would poor a bottle in your helmet when you weren’t looking. It does cool you down!”
Dangers of sandstorms
The sand can be both a very visible and a hidden problem, as Steve found out to his cost.
“I rode in a couple of sandstorms, it was horrible,” he remembers. “You really can’t see and the sand gets everywhere – it’s very uncomfortable.
“It also strips the paint, especially on the engine, and it can flatten the paint on the tank as well.
“At night, you can’t see the sand on the road, and if you hit it, it’s like ice or diesel – it’s quite deadly. I dropped it twice on roundabouts, once from sand and once from diesel.”
While most trainers were riding in horse boxes or 4x4s to the races, Steve would straddle his Harley for the 100-mile trip to Nad Al Sheba in Dubai.
“I just loved to go out on it, and go to work on it,” he says. “I had my own little parking space at Nad Al Sheba racecourse.
“I remember getting up early one morning and riding down the coast road in Oman. It was a beautiful winding road, through the mountains, then dropping down and finding a little cafe and having a cup of coffee. There was nobody else about; it was a great morning.”
Equally memorable, though for different reasons, was the first rally Steve attended with the newly-formed HOG chapter, a ride out to the Abu Dhabi Hilton.
“There were 450 bikes,” he says. “It was quite a sight coming down the road. We’d take over hotels out there, and they’d welcome us and do discounts.”
A peculiarity of the Abu Dhabi number plate system often saw Steve mistaken for a sheikh, at least until he took his helmet off.
Plates start at ‘1’ and continue up to five numbers, and the lower the number, the more important the person driving the car, or riding the bike.
Back in 2008, a young businessman from Abu Dhabi paid $14.5m at auction for the number ‘1’ plate.
“A friend of mine gave me the number 12, and I kept getting stopped by police, who thought I must be a sheikh,” he laughs.
After five years in the UAE, and with Steve about to become a father to son Jay, it was time to return to the UK, moving to the Suffolk countryside in November.
Rather than sell the Harley before he left Abu Dhabi, he had it shipped to the UK.
“I had plans for it when I came back, to change quite a lot,” he says, once again taking up his paintbrush on his return as a self-employed decorator.
“I had the tank painted, rebuilt the engine, put in new piston rings, and added a hypercharger. I spent a couple of years as a diesel fitter, which gave me the basic knowledge of stripping engines down and rebuilding them.
“It was a great help on a Harley because they are like trucks, or tractors as they call them.”
Daughter Rhiannon was born in 2003, and Steve has been taking her and Jay to Fenlanders HOG rallies and shows since they were very young.
“Both badly into bikes”
“They’re both badly into bikes, and have both been riding since they were five or six,” he says. “Jay wants a Sportster 883 but he wants me to build it as a bobber. My daughter has decided she wants a Harley and a sports bike. I said ‘now you’re being greedy’.”
As well as the annual Fenlanders rally to Fakenham, Steve has joined fellow Harley riders on tours of Ireland, Germany and Spain, plus fund-raising runs to Great Ormond Street Hospital.
“A few of us got together and said ‘right, we are going to go to Ireland’,” he says. “We met up with more people on the way and, in the end, we had at least 15 bikes in Ireland. It was a great time, with great people.
“In 2007, seven of us rode through France and down to Spain. It stopped raining just south of Paris and started raining when we got to Le Mans on the way back. It was like riding in a river. Even the waterproofs weren’t waterproof anymore.”
At other times, Steve would hop on the Harley and head to Melton Mowbray to visit family, or join up with friends – not just Harley riders – for cruises through the Suffolk countryside.
“I’m not a bike snob”
“I ride out with a friend with a Yamaha, and another has a Kawasaki, and we will just go out for a ride,” he says. “I’m not a bike snob, it doesn’t have to be people with Harleys.”
Things haven’t always gone smoothly, however, an alternator power surge causing an electrical fire on the A47 about eight years ago.
“It burned the battery out and all the electrics, melting a load of wires,” he says. “You sit on the top of the battery, and I thought it was getting a bit warm – suddenly there was smoke coming out of everywhere and it just died.
“The RAC picked me up – there was no chance of fixing that by the roadside! It needed a lot of work, which I did myself.”
In the coming months, Steve plans to tidy up the bike’s paintwork, and restyle it with a bobtail fender.
Selling the bike is definitely not on the agenda, Steve committing to “keep riding until I can’t ride any longer”.
His days as a jockey are long gone, with the horsepower beneath him now purely mechanical.
But which has given him the biggest thrill? The muscle and beating heart of a thoroughbred, or the thundering roar and throbbing metal pulse of a Harley-Davidson?
“That’s close,” he admits. “Winning a horse race, you get a real high. It was pretty close to that riding the Harley when I first got it. I can’t quite split the two on that.
“I’ll go out some days on the Harley and everything just flows – every corner, every bit of road, and they are special days.
“At least on the bike I do have brakes, they’re not great, but I have brakes. With the horse, it’s ‘please stop’!”
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