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Federation Motorcyclists Associations

FEMA Partners - FEMA

Bob Tomlins, FEMAs Assistant General Secretary - retired - gives us his view on FEMA and Europe.

Interview by Ralf Bretveld – Picture Wim Taal MAG NL

Original Picture Wim Taal

RB: Could you tell us a little about your history; what is your personal and professional background, how and when did you get involved in riders' rights?

BT: Well I've ridden bikes all my adult life. I'm a graphical worker by profession and my first bike was a Norman B.2, a typical British lightweight of the early fifties with a 197cc Villiers engine. With maintenance every weekend and quite frequent major repairs, the Norman got me to and from work for four years of my six year apprenticeship.

I have to admit to being in something of a time warp. As I got older I found myself increasingly attracted to older bikes. I've usually had a modern mount, a number of airhead BMWs and I've had a particular fondness for Guzzi twins. I've still ride my last one, an '83 Mark 3 Le Mans, although I'm finding the riding position increasingly painful. Does anyone want to swap an R.80 GS or G/S for it? In my time with FEMA I've been able to ride our "company bikes". To support our work both Triumph and Harley Davidson give us bikes on long-term loan so I've also ridden a selection of quite exotic modern machinery.

You ask how did I get involved with riders' rights? I've always been an active member of the motorcycle clubs to which I belong, particularly the Rudge Enthusiasts Club and the Vintage Motor Cycle Club and because I realised that both the elected and the self-appointed guardians of what is "right and acceptable" had motorcycles and those who rode them in their sights, I became a member of the British Motorcyclists' Federation and then, when I came to work in Brussels, I joined MAG Belgium.

When I was first working in Brussels I met and became friendly with Riccardo Forte, the President of the Italian riders' organisation Coordinamento Motociclisti. When Simon Milward moved the FEM Secretariat to Brussels from where it had originally been set up in Charleroi, Riccardo suggested that Simon should contact me. This he did and that was the start of a long and valued friendship.

We became workmates some three years later. My contact had ended and I was in the process of moving back to the UK. I had time on my hands and offered to help up for a couple of days a week in the office until I'd departed. The term office was a little grand as it was really space in a loft, with Simon sleeping in a small room in one corner and cooking and eating in another small room in another corner. After a few weeks I was approached by Erwin Renette, then president of MAG Belgium and Craig Clarey Clinch, then MAG UK's campaign's officer, and asked if I would like to work for FEM.

It was a prospect that was in many aspects very attractive, but I had to refuse because there was so little money available. I really couldn't have paid my mortgage and eaten! However after some thought a plan emerged. This involved cashing in a pension plan, selling my new BMW 3.25i and paying off my mortgage. So I did that and joined FEM. It was a decision that I never regretted.

RB: What was your main role in FEMA?

BT: Initially it was for financial matters. Simon was one of the best political operators I have ever met but he would willingly admit that he wasn't that good at managing. It just didn't come on Si's list of things that were important. Remember we were right in the middle of the 100 brake horse power battle and the Multi Directive had just been tabled by the Commission. Two of our three phone lines had been cut off because we couldn't pay the bills and what money we had was because MAG UK, then by far our largest affiliate, had agreed to pay their fees for the following year, eight months early!

My responsibilities broadened as we were able to establish proper financial planning and budgetary control and the FEM Committee agreed to Simon's proposal that I should become the Assistant General Secretary. Project work, the first being an investigation into rider training, which enabled us to tap into Commission budget lines, became an important area and I supported Simon in the political work by taking on some of the smaller dossiers.

When Si decided that he wanted a sabbatical for 18 months, to fulfill his ambition to ride around the world, I agreed to act as General Secretary until his return. The 18 months became more than three years, when we recruited Antonio Perlot following Si's decision not to come back to FEMA, as we had then become. For the last six years I have been primarily responsible for the work at the United Nations.

RB: What would you say were the most important successes you achieved during your time with FEMA?

BT: Working for FEMA has been for me been a very positive and rewarding experience but if I'm required to identify highlights there would be two. The first would be getting us onto a sound financial footing. We will never have enough money and we've become very adapt at managing changing situations, but for the past ten years we've not had to deal with our financial problems at the cost of not meeting the political challenges.

Secondly there has been our international role, particularly within the agencies of the United Nations. I remember Simon identifying that we had to become involved in what was happening at the UN back in 1996. He asked me to deal with the necessary processes to become recognised as a Non-Governmental Organisation and we were able to establish the second highest level of consultative status.

That however wasn't the real success. That came a couple of years later when we were able to convince the American Motorcyclists' Association and the Motorcycle Rider's Foundation of the United States and the FIM, the international motorcycle sport organisation, that this was work we should be doing, and paying for, together. Since then we have been remarkable successful in working together and have achieved a significant number of changes to global motorcycle regulations and road safety rules and policies.

RB: What is your most vivid recollection of a meeting with politicians or other Eurocrats?

BT: Undoubtedly the most vivid was the noise "demonstrations" we organised for the members of the European Parliament during the Multi-Directive campaign. We organised them on a car park in front of the Parliament and rode an 84 dBA bike (the then legal requirement) and an 80 dBA (the proposal from the Commission) past the assembled MEPs and asked them to identify which was which and, of course, they couldn't.

We then used a bike with an illegal race system on and made the point that the motorcycle noise problem was an in-use issue and could only be addressed by enforcement and that any further reduction in the construction limit values would only make the problem worse.

We really had won the argument and we would have been able to defeat the proposal in the Parliament had it not been for a letter put out by the manufacturers which said to the MEPs that they were already making many of their bikes to comply with the proposed 80 dBA limit. Talk about snatching defeat from the jaws of victory! Still one thing that did come from it was a realisation that we would have to work closer with the manufacturers in future.

There have also been a number of memorable experiences for me in the UN work. It has been nice to get into "corridors of power" as of right and confront the "technical experts" with common sense and arguments outside of their often narrow areas of expertise. The most memorable experience however was right at the very beginning, when we were applying for UN consultative status. At a full meeting of the UN's Economic and Social Commission at the UN headquarters in New York, our application was challenged by the Russian representative. What followed was a forthright exchange between him and I and, I'm pleased indeed proud to say, the outcome favoured us, not least of all because, in my opinion, he overplayed his hand.

RB: How did people respond to FEMA when it started and what has changed since then? Do they regard FEMA as a serious partner?

BT: In the beginning we were an "on the streets and in your face" organisation and it was much easier for riders to relate to what we were doing. It was all very black and white. We were also very effective and the consequences of that approach was that doors that had previously been closed to us were being opened. This enabled us to move up stream in the decision making process with the consequence that we were often influencing the proposals from the Commission before they were officially being made. The problem with that was that it has become increasingly difficult for the average rider to appreciate the work we were doing and the benefits we were securing for bikers. Whilst I believe that we have to be involved in the processes, the real trick is not to become part of the system and to convince our people that our involvement gets the best results. Some of the legislators and policy makers do see us as a serious partner, all see us as a serious player.

We've always been able to punch our weight and there a quiet a few with bruises to prove it. I believe that there will still be times when we should be on the street and in their faces. I also believe that as we are involved in the processes we would benefit by providing opportunities for the people we represent to play a part. I think we underestimate the benefit of ordinary citizens airing their concerns to senior Commission officials and Members of the European Parliament. I know there is a danger in expressions of concern could end up as hate mail and that could be very damaging. We are however a politically sophisticated movement and we should generally be able to avoid that.

RB: Should we regard 'Brussels' as a friend or an enemy when it comes to motorcycling?

BT: If only it were that simple. I know that within the institutions of the European Union, and indeed the United Nations, there are people that a very anti-motorcycling. People who, if they could, would simply ban us, on the grounds that we are too dangerous or too anti-social. There are other people who are generally open minded and there are those who are pro motorcycling, often because they are riders themselves. This situation requires FEMA to ensure that we are reasoned in our approach, for failing to be seen as such will only result in driving those that are open minded into the camp of the bigots and isolating those that do support us.

Most importantly we must recognise and work with our friends, where we can find them, in the Parliament and the Commission. Wherever possible we should also work with groups whose objectives are compatible with ours. Organisations representing the motorcycle manufacturers, the cyclists, accident victims and pedestrians and even car drivers. Again this isn't simple. Take the motorcycle manufactures as an example. I believe that at least 60% of what is in their best interests is also in our best interests. There is another 30% or so where our interests are similar and probably about 10% where our interests are in conflict. A similar evaluation, albeit with different numbers, can be done for the other interest groups I've mentioned.

What we must avoid is becoming fundamentalist. We should never label anyone as untouchable because they do not agree with everything we believe in.

This applies to riders' organisations as well. FEMA, in my opinion, has been very successful in bringing riders together. This has required all of our member organisations to recognise that not all of their core beliefs are universally shared. We have been remarkable successful so far. Sometimes, on issues such as daytime running lamps we've had to acknowledge that it is a measure that is supported by riders in certain countries and we have therefore to campaign against DRL as an issue for internationally harmonisation. Other times we've needed to recognise that we have to be very circumspect. Take compulsory helmet laws. We have some member organisations who were founded to fight compulsory helmet legislation and others who believe that helmets are such an important safety aid that riders should be required to wear them.

I have said that we been remarkably successful in unifying riders, in concentrating on our common interests and being tolerant and pragmatic about the occasional issues where we have different views. I have to say however that I have become a little concerned of late. It does seem to me that intolerance could be creeping into our deliberations. I sincerely hope that it will not develop into anything more serious because, as an old trade unionist, I really do believe that unity is strength. We must never squander our limited resources by fighting amongst ourselves.

RB: How do you see FEMA's role in Europe in say 10 years from now?

BT: Well I do believe FEMA's role will not have changed much because the issues will be the same or similar. One thing I've learned is that there is no such thing as a silver bullet. We face a threat and we defeat it, or at least neuter it, or at least minimise it, and then five or six or so years later, up it pops again.

What I do think will change however is that the arena will increasingly shift from a European one to a global one. Globalisation is a word that we often hear but it is one of those things that we really don't directly feel the impact of. That is changing and it will continue to change. Already many of the decisions that effected us and that had previously been taken at national or European Union level are now being made in global forums, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation. That trend is going to continue and in ten years time and the real trick will be for us to move with the change.

I have always been a supporter of the United Nations but one thing that it is not is a democratic organisation, particularly when it comes down to dealing with such things as, for example, how much noise a motorcycle should be allowed to make. The changes will require us to develop and refine how we work. Increasingly we will need to ensure at national and European level that the "technical experts" that our governments send to the global forums will be saying what we want to hear and consistent with what we will be saying in the same forums.

RB: And how about motorcycling; what will that look like in 10 years in your opinion?

BT: Different but still recognisably the same, that is if we are successful in our endeavours. I'm sure there will be more motorcyclists, but riders who are also enthusiasts will be a smaller proportion of that larger number. I think that we are going back to motorcycling as it was when I first rode. With urban congestion motorcycles are increasingly being seen as an efficient means of transport by many people. A way of avoiding spending up to a couple of hours of your day sitting in a tin box in a traffic jam.

This is already bringing about a new type of machine. Increasingly scooters are larger and tourers smaller and they are looking remarkably similar. Ten years on and I don't think we'll be able to see the difference and a new convenience commuting machine will have evolved. I think that we will still be able to buy interesting and exciting bike that will be fun to ride, but I do think that one thing the legislators will increasingly be focusing on is power to weight characteristics and anti tampering measures.

RB: Any words of advice for current or future FEMA-members?

BT: Yes, riding a motorcycle is still fun today because over the past thirty or forty years many riders have worked hard to keep legislative restrictions to a minimum. Never forget, as my friends of the Motorcycle Riders' Foundation said on one of their T-shirts a few years ago, "the price of freedom is eternal vigilance". So remember what we have in common must be defended and never forget, as I've previously said, unity is strength.

To a rider who is not a member of one of FEMA's member organisations I'd strongly advise them to join. They don't have to demonstrate or lobby (although they'd be most welcome if they wanted to). They just have to pay the price of two or three beers or half a tank of petrol each year to give the means to MAG and FEMA to continue to fight on their behalf.

RB: Now you've stopped working for FEMA, you'll probably have a lot of spare time. What's there to fill this void? Finally more time to ride a bike again instead of just talking about them?

BT: Yes I'll be riding and I'll be restoring. Twenty-five years ago I found the remains of a 1922 Ivy Three, a rare machine which had been converted to a generator in a garage at the start of the Second World. For ten years I searched for the missing parts, such as Brampton Bi-flex forks and an Enfield patent cush drive. Fifteen years ago I started the restoration and rebuilt the engine and the frame. Twelve years ago I started working for FEM and the work on my Ivy stopped!

So soon it will be restarted and I hope to be able to ride Ivy in a Belgian 9 Provinces rally in the not too distant future. I've also have a 1923 Amilcar CS, a lightweight French cyclecar which is part restored. There are also a number of other bikes to be repaired or restored, including a 1952 Norman B2S. Not exactly the same as the one I owned and rode as an apprentice compositor all those years ago. That had a rigid frame and this one has a very unique type of swinging arm rear suspension which will be better able to cope with the additional weight I've acquired in the intervening years.

So you can see I'm going to be quite busy and that's without the tasks my dear wife will undoubtedly find for me to do.


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