From the moment eight-year-old Henry Cole was welcomed into his great-great-uncle’s shed and ran his fingers through the dust on the tanks of the assembled old BSAs and Triumphs, he had a mission.
As he pauses between the latest round of filming for one of the trio of television programmes hosted in his unobtrusive ‘guy next door’ style, he can still smell the musty cocktail of grease, oil and sweat.
“It was very evocative, and to this day still makes me quiver at the memory of anticipation at what that stable of half-built British bikes might one day become when they were fully restored,” he says.
The bolt-hole shed was old Uncle Dick Redbeard’s laboratory, a mystical place where magic happened. But with Henry’s father being far less enamoured by the lure of two wheels, motorcycles were put on the back burner.
In his rebellious teens, when not confronting authority at English public school Eton, the self-confessed ‘black sheep of the family’ professed his love for bikes. The rest is well-documented and increasingly popular television history.
Now a writer, adventurer and presenter of World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides (Travel Channel Worldwide) and The Motorbike Show (ITV4), he takes a schoolboy-type thrill in the fact that his mission born that day in the dusty shed has been achieved.
“I wanted to tell as many people as possible that motorcycling is NOT a subculture, that people who ride aren’t going to come round your house and burn it down, that we’re actually pretty decent guys and girls… hopefully, like me,” he says.
“I’m a really lucky chap doing what I do, but it took me a long time to convince the TV companies to take a chance on making motorcycling shows back in 1994. Last week, three of my shows were in one of the channel’s top three rated outputs.”
Cole, who owns his own bespoke custom business in Gladstone Motorcycles, as well as media production company HCA Entertainment, is about as affable and easy-going a celebrity as you could find.
And it’s that self-effacing manner, passion for riding and, above all, appeal to riders and non-riders alike that has seen viewer figures surge towards the million mark in the 21st series of World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides.
“At the age of 52 I’m bored by this teenage way of doing things where everything has to be perfect to maintain this image that television tries to create. I desperately yearn to be a person who is passionately enthusiastic, but also someone who doesn’t always get it right,” he says.
“We tell it like it is on our programmes and, hopefully, that resonates with people.”
The trauma of working as a cameraman in the Bosnian War, global adventures on a multitude of bikes and countless interviews with celebrity and ‘rider next door’ collectors have helped develop Cole’s love of world bikes, but his affection for British motorcycles remains undimmed.
“There’s something about British bikes and Triumph in particular, the way they’re designed, the way they ride. Bottom line is they just fit me and everything slots into place, from the performance to the history to their lineage.”
He adds: “Bike designers like Val Page and Ed Turner knew what riders wanted, and that connection continues to this day at Hinckley.”
Cole’s 15th season of World’s Greatest Motorcycle Rides focuses on some of the adventures to be had in his own backyard, riding out in the notoriously flat surroundings of England’s East Anglia.
“Adventure starts the second you turn the key and sometimes in the most unexpected places. I’ve been privileged enough to ride around the whole world many times, but there are pockets in every country that are simply spectacular and motorcycling makes them so accessible.”
His latest adventure on a new Triumph Street Twin around Ireland epitomised the potential for even the most atrocious conditions to leave indelible memories: “We had the best and worst of both worlds; beautiful sunshine but some of the worst rain I have ever ridden in.
“You’d think the Street Twin would be most at home dashing to the cafe for a latte, but I put it through a lot and at around the speed limit, it was fantastic, even in the torrential downpour. It was light and nimble but had enough stability to deal with the bad roads.”
He adds: “The most amazing thing was that everywhere I stopped, people wanted to talk about the bike and Triumph. Both of us were welcomed with open arms.”
Cole, a former musician and Bosnian War news photographer, found the spark for his new career back in 2003 when he hosted a Top Gear-style chat show called Stars and Cars.
Viewers liked the cut of his jib. So much so that his catalogue has grown incrementally each year, with, as he puts it, “some of the motorcycle shows giving me the opportunity to go on some spectacular rides… see, told you I was a lucky chap”.
Fuelled by his methanol-supercharged T100 quarter-mile experience at Elvington this year, he’s planning a record-breaking 106mph run on a Triumph-powered 350 (3HW) vintage land speed bike at El Mirage, north-west of Los Angeles, next May.
We try to find the amazing things lying abandoned in Britain’s sheds and if that means motorcycles, then so be it. It’s the best of all worlds for me. I guess you could say it’s a comfort thing, as I’m transported back to being that eight-year-old boy again.Henry Cole
The bid will be filmed as a special feature for The Motorbike Show, as will some more high-speed antics at Santa Pod’s Dragstalgia on a blown T100 methanol-burning classic drag racer next July.
“That’s another aspect of riding that I love. The fact that there are different kinds of riding for the more mature right through to the adrenaline-seeking kids and then people like me who want to be in both camps.”
Despite all his speed shenanigans, he admits his newer programmes, such as Shed and Buried and Find It, Fix It, Flog It, are one of his greatest achievements yet, combining as they do his love of motorcycles with an undying passion for ‘rummaging around’.
He says: “We try to find the amazing things lying abandoned in Britain’s sheds and if that means motorcycles, then so be it. It’s the best of all worlds for me. I guess you could say it’s a comfort thing, as I’m transported back to being that eight-year-old boy again.”