I've reached the shores of London's urban heat island, still 12 miles from the iconic Ace Cafe. The six layers I put on back in Cardiff are suddenly too much. Temperatures in the UK's capitol city are almost always at least 5 °C (9 °F) warmer than where I live, roughly 150 miles to the west, and the unexpected presence of sunshine is only making things worse.
Feeling the heat build in my helmet, I awkwardly push my face shield up to try to cool off. The air is thick with car exhaust. My eyes burn. I can taste petroleum. I click the face shield back down and push on.
You've probably heard of the Ace Cafe. If you haven't, you've seen pictures of it. Arguably, it's the place that put "cafe" in "cafe racer," and when manufacturers want to tap into that market, the first thing they do is run to the Ace. Just last year, Triumph honoured the cafe through its special-edition Thruxton Ace.
These days, the Ace Cafe is a worldwide brand, expanding to Germany, Switzerland, Finland, China, Japan, and soon, the United States. It's a legacy the cafe's original owners probably couldn't have envisioned in 1937, when it first opened.
The Ace Cafe History
Britons struggle with the English language. They refer to cookies as "biscuits," cigarettes as "fags" and spell every other word incorrectly. So, the first thing to know about the original Ace Cafe is that it was not a cafe. It was a truck stop, a greasy spoon, set up to lure commercial traffic on the newly built North Circular Road.
The Nazis dropped a bomb on the cafe during World War II. Not necessarily because they disliked truck stops, you understand. They just liked dropping bombs on stuff. The Third Reich had a strange sense of humor. The Ace rebuilt almost immediately, and in the post-war years became an epicenter for motorcycling and cultural change. The reason for that is partially down to location and luck.
Rationing in Britain persisted in some cases for 12 years after the war—food, clothes, and fuel. As Dusty Rhodes would say: hard times, daddy. Fuel rations weren't really enough to fill a car, and anyone caught using more than his fair share would have his license revoked. Motorcycles became a thing of necessity. Especially for young people eager to reclaim some part of the childhoods they lost to living in fear that the aforementioned fun-loving Nazis might choose to obliterate them, or their home, or friends' home, or school, or a soccer field, etc.
Meanwhile, the North Circular Road was still, in those days, on the outskirts of London. Relatively wide, straight and uncrowded by British standards, it was a great place to see how fast your bike could go. The Ace was one of dozens of cafes that served as meeting points for these motorcyclists, who were known as ton-up boys, leather jackets, or rockers. The cafes were places to have a cup of tea, shake off the interminable British chill, or to try to put your bike back together well enough to make it to the next cafe.
Although we associate shining Triumphs, Nortons, and the like with cafe culture, most of the kids wouldn't have had the funds for such bikes. They rode whatever they could find—much of it unworthy of a scrap yard…CONTINUE READING (RIDEAPART)
And in this time of general austerity, one of the things that made the Ace Cafe unique, one of the reasons we remember it and not the other cafes, was the jukebox stocked with American rock 'n' roll records—something you couldn't get anywhere else. It wasn't played on the radio and you couldn't afford to buy it on your own. Kids flocked to the Ace to be a part of the scene.
The scene changed rapidly, of course. All youth-driven scenes do. By 1969, the culture that had grown up around the Ace was in decline and often ridiculed. Motorways (aka freeways) had pulled most of the commercial traffic away, and the cafe closed its doors.
Twenty-eight years later, in 1997, the Ace Cafe was resurrected. It's probably no coincidence this happened at a time when the born-again Triumph was finally hitting its stride, and the British were beginning to shake off the deeply self-hating nature they had carried through the '70s, '80s and early '90s (thank you Spice Girls for making everything better.) The Ace Cafe soon re-established itself as a mecca for motorcyclists. Though, some things had changed.
The Ace is no longer on London's outskirts. It's in the same location, but the city has swallowed it up. It's in London now, and if you've ever watched any Royal Jordanian videos on YouTube, you'll know London traffic is hell.
Making my way to the cafe, the riding is all about skill rather than speed. I'm filtering (aka "lane splitting") through mile after mile after mile of unmoving traffic on my wide-handlebar Suzuki V-Strom. British riders are still as speed-obsessed as they've always been (certainly more so than most American riders), but this is the more honest face of motorcycling in the UK. Especially in the cities, motorbikes are tools of necessity once again; if you want to get there today, use a motorcycle.
London riders are insane. I'm filtering too slowly for their liking. A girl on a Honda CBF125 behind me lays into her horn. I tuck into a little space where the filtering "lane" is wider and she shoots past.
Despite living in the UK for nine years, this is my first visit to the Ace. I'm expecting kitsch. Something like those 50s-themed diners that are ubiquitous in American shopping malls. You know, where the staff sings along every time the jukebox plays "Tutti Fruiti," which happens every half hour. Thankfully, though, this is not what the Ace is like.
I arrive just before lunch time. It's the middle of the week, so things are quiet. There are a few bikes parked out front and in positioning my own among them, I have the feeling of being on a movie set. I've seen this place used as a backdrop in so many advertising campaigns; now my bike is one of the props.
The decor is dominated by the checkered-flag motif that always makes me think of the 2 Tone ska movement, which is strange, perhaps because the Ace Cafe wasn't open during that time period. Appropriately though, a chalkboard sign behind the bar advertises an upcoming ska/rocksteady night.
Ignoring the checkered flags and Union Jack pennants, the interior of the Ace is sparse: concrete walls, fluorescent lights, industrial-strength wooden tables, high-school-cafeteria plastic chairs. By British cafe standards it's huge, but Americans would describe it as quaint. Large windows allow in natural light. At the far end of the cafe is a small stage. The Ace Cafe has become a destination venue and there are events held here almost every night, year-round. Some events make sense (Triumph and Royal-Enfield Night) and some don't (Smart Car Showdown).
Food is reasonably priced for London, but outrageous for Cardiff. The tables are pushed together to form long rows, so you end up sitting next to people you don't know. Very quickly, I find myself with the owner of a beautiful Twin Cam 96 Harley-Davidson Road King. He has meticulously good hair and I spend the first part of our conversation staring at his head, trying to work out how it is that he isn't as aesthetically affected by a motorcycle helmet as I am.
He rides to Spain a lot, which means he is effectively the personification of my personal aspirations: great hair, nice bike, holiday home in a hot country. As we chat I stare out the window and watch any number of bikes roll by. Some are hack commuters—London is where Kawasaki GPZ500s go to die—but most are the sort of thing I wish I had an hour or two to stare at.
A mint-condition Honda VFR750F. The first Moto Guzzi California I've seen in person. Several growling sportbikes I don't even know the names of. A rat bike. Two Honda CB400s converted into cafe racers. And any number of the classic brands you'd expect to see here: BSA, Norton, Triumph, Royal-Enfield. As it has always done, the Ace Cafe serves as a place for riders to gather. Some come in, some just meet up and head off with a group.
Eventually it's time for me to head off, too. There's 150 miles between me and home, and I'm hoping to make it back to ol' Caerdydd before dark. I say goodbye to my new Harley pal. Sadly, he doesn't offer to let me come hang out with him in Spain.
Traffic loosens up outside of Slough and by the time I make the other side of Reading (about 45 miles from London) I'm moving at a good clip. I crest a hill and find myself at the top of a wide valley—able to see a good 7-10 miles down the road. No police. I crack the throttle, tuck a little, and within a few seconds I'm flying at 100 mph.
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I push to 105 for good measure. Such a thing is a lot easier on a modern bike than it once was, but it's still fun. And, after all, no trip to the Ace is complete unless you do the ton.
*** Please note: If you are a member of British law enforcement, the last bit of the above story is a total lie. I never ride above the speed limit. Ever. I promise.