Manawatū motocross legend’s trials behind the iron curtain

The story fits snugly into a spy thriller. It concerns a champion motorcycle rider, a Czech national and the KGB.The rider’s competing behind the iron curtain and agrees to sell a pair of RAF goggles to a local. The transaction takes place in the lobby of a hotel. As the goggles are handed over, money is pressed into the rider’s hand.
Tim Gibbes with his restored 1925 New Imperial 300cc bike.

No-one seems to be watching but, later that night, he’s summonsed to a meeting. In a small, cold room lit by only one bulb, the rider is interrogated by two KGB agents for an hour. They accuse him of black market activities and both threaten him with loaded revolvers.

Eventually he’s released and returns to racing but, from then on, the KGB presence is never more than a few metres away.

Two years later he’s back and sees the Czech local walking towards him, but looking the other way. The rider thinks he’s been snubbed, however, minutes later, a note is slipped through his fingers.

The man is just back from the salt mines, punished for purchasing the goggles. He can’t associate with the rider anymore. Accusing eyes are everywhere.

Remarkably the story is true. On another occasion when he’s competing in a motorcycle event in Czechoslovakia, he hears shots fired. Three people in the crowd are killed by a lone soldier. No-one blinks or reacts, they can’t.

The stories are told by legendary motocross rider Tim Gibbes from Palmerston North.

Gibbes, who two years ago was inducted into motorcycling’s New Zealand Hall of Fame, recalls that visiting communist satellite countries was more dangerous than competing in them.

But when motocross and enduro racing took him behind the iron curtain, he knew he brought pleasure to the tens of thousands who watched him compete.

Tim Gibbes' restored 1925 New Imperial 300cc
Tim Gibbes’ restored 1925 New Imperial 300cc

Gibbes was everything in motorcycling. He was a grand prix motocross racer in the 1960s and, between 1955 and 1963, he won six gold medals and one bronze at six-day enduro events.

He was a factory bike tester and works rider for just about every English-made bike, he managed international race teams and founded the New Zealand Motocross Grant Prix in Woodville in 1961. It’s New Zealand’s longest running and largest standalone motocross event.

Gibbes won many other medals at events around the globe and rode competitively until the age of 60.

“I loved the lifestyle and fellowship and was totally dedicated to the job,” he says.

Amazingly he never broke a bone or received concussion in 60 years of racing.

“I never drank, smoked or went out with wild women,” he says, laughing.

One incident made him famous with movie buffs, although Gibbes claims it was just another week at work. When the movie The Great Escape required a further stunt rider, he was called in by great friend Bud Ekins.

Gibbes was a stunt rider for the movie The Great Escape. He says Steve McQueen was a big showoff, but a nice guy all the same.

For several days he was engaged to do some of the riding. He met Hollywood A-listers Steve McQueen, James Garner and James Coburn, and British actor and director, Dickie Attenborough.

Gibbes didn’t know them from his chrome plated steel handlebars and treated them just the same as anyone he met on the street.

He rode with McQueen every day and called him a “big show off who loved to attract attention, but a competent motorcyclist and great guy”.

Tim Gibbes picks up rubbish in parks and from around the railway station on his daily walks with his dogs.

While Gibbes was born in Australia, he met his Kiwi wife, Joan of 57 years, when riding overseas with her brother Ken Cleghorn, and settled in Palmerston North. For 20 years he ran Tim Gibbes Motorcycles.

Today, at 85, he’s administrator of the Kelvin Grove Community Centre and the man who cleans up the city.

Every day, when Gibbes takes his two dogs for a walk, he picks up rubbish and dog faeces. If anyone drops litter or doesn’t have a pooper scooper, they have Tim to contend with.

He picks up two litres of litter and dog poo a day. Gibbes is so well known to the city council that they’ve given him a litter pick up stick.

Gibbes has been practical all his life and is an advocate with answers. He says dog poo can be an asset to the city and he has a bona-fido solution.

If the council provided incinerators it could be heated and then used as compost for shrubs and trees.