Saturday, October 31, 2009

Eildon and Friends

I usually ride alone because it's good for the soul, but today rode with friends. Because it's good for the heart. Rosy, Shaun and Luke. We did the Black Spur behind a caravan at funeral pace, which in the Spring warmth felt like the funeral of Winter. Like a mourner in a web of ambition who's glad of the death. I enjoyed it: in top gear at 40kph, 2000rpm, lulled into a dream by the gentle rocking of the corners.

At Taggerty we were swamped by a speeding club of outlaws. I couldn't see their patch clearly - I don't know if they were that hardcore, or just hoped to appear so. But I looked the copper in the eye as he sat with a useless speed camera in his hand, all of them speeding past, and the look he gave me made me fear that he would be after my little group as a compensation for his momentary impotence.

We lunched at Eildon. Later we went separate ways as I like to spend the whole day out. I made to Mansfield for a look, then Euroa, then down via Terip Terip where I took these shots.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A motorcycle Spurned

Some bikes are the definition of faithful. But are we in return? Were I to describe the Suzuki GR650 I'd call her that. Our relationship started casually but became ongoing when the SR500 got too much, making me late for work so often, and refusing to start as I kicked furiously. The GR has an electric start and has never let me down. Commuting every day, long rides on the weekend. Absolutely, faithfully reliable.

I thought about this on the day of our last commute. So reliable, so faithful, like a friend and lover. Not that I am faithful. I have just replaced her with a younger bike, a 600cc Hornet (or “Whorenet!” as the GR squealed).

So at 2am I finished work, mounted “Old Faithful” to ride her one last time, perhaps with tears in our eyes. I pulled onto the road...and she stalled! Then wouldn't start. I changed the plugs, push-started her. Nothing! And now a flat battery added to the problem.

So on the last night this 100% trouble-free commuter, this lady whose faithfulness I did not reward in kind, made clear to me that it was more than impersonal mechanics that made her so good in the past. She left me stranded at 2am and I had to walk home! Back to my cheap Whorenet! She hopes it makes me happy!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

In Praise of the Suzuki GR650 - a review

Fee and my ownership of the Suzuki GR650 is coming to an end. So it's time to write a review, or perhaps it's an elegy, because I'm sad to see the bike leave.

The GR is actually Fee's bike. When she was riding more than she does now, her Yamaha SR185 began to frustrate her for lack of power. I encouraged her to buy something before new learner laws came into effect allowing bigger bikes, which would raise their prices. Fee wanted a Yamaha XS750 because of a rather beautiful example she found on the net, without realising how big and heavy they are. I also know just how painful a 30 year old three or four cylinder bike can be. If you want to buy an old bike, buy a single or twin because something will need servicing or replacing at some point, and two carburettur rebuilds are cheaper than four. One cylinder hone is cheaper than three. So I encouraged Fee to look at this GR650 which I found for sale, advertised in the wrong section in eBay.

At the inspection Fee loved the bike, as did I. It blew a puff of smoke on start-up but none thereafter. It had power, but not too much - it was essentially sedate and comfortable, but would give you an adrenalin hit if you twisted the throttle accordingly. At which point it had a fiery sports rev, like an old Bonneville. Before it was registered (or insured), and before she had an open license for it, Fee would ride it late at night, burning off other bikes, and shouting as she did, "I love this bike!"

Some people criticise its looks, but I've always loved GR650s. They remind me of a Triumph Hurricane.

I fitted high cruiser bars and the bike looked and felt great. Frankly, given that it was the 80s and Suzuki were trying to sell the bike to contemporary tastes, I reckon they got things pretty right.

Our GR's after-market Staintune exhausts sound great. I once went to pick it up from Peter Stevens, in their boomey concrete workshop, and the mechanic started it out of view. I thought somebody else had started up a Harley, and was very pleased to see it was my own bike making that sound. It has got an off-beat low rumble. Riding this bike again after buying the Hornet I feel a little sad - it feels so comfortable at the speed limit, it feels good to hear and feel the engine combustion rather than that four cylinder hum. The riding position is upright and arm-chair like. It makes you cruise, and feel cruisie.

The GR650 has a dual-mass flywheel. Centrifugal forces disengage the heavier part at 3000rpm. On a warm engine you can idle in first and, with no hand on the throttle, smoothly release the clutch and not only will the bike not stall, it will smoothly pull you along down the road! With not the slightest throttle, snatch, or hint of stalling!

The fellow we bought the bike off included a history of it written by Derek, the previous owner. Then I joined the SR500 Club and met Derek! He recognised the bike straight off. Derek's an ex-mechanic and had the engine apart, simply for the sake of being a mechanical perfectionist. He said it was perfect and would see many more miles. The only problem was that he used the old valve seals, which meant they now leaked slightly, meaning smoke on start up in the morning. I was already aware of this, and suspected the cause which he confirmed, but it was good to hear that it was nothing more and that the GR would run for years. I had taken it on as my daily commuter - the SR just became too hard - and as a touring bike. Fee was riding it less and less and I was loving it! I was intending to buy a touring bike but we agreed we'd just share the GR.

The bike does highways well. At first I thought it strained, but I got used to it; it revs at about 4000rpm, and I think a bike should rev at 3500rpm on the highway (almost no bikes do! The Hornet does 5000rpm!). It could do with a sixth gear though Derek fitted a bigger front sprocket which lowers the revs a sufficiently. I've ridden the GR on some very long days in the last six months. It is a great bike. I find the seat a bit small, too far forward - or rather, on a long ride I like to slide back now and then. Also the foam is couch-like around town, but to soft for a ten hour day - you need something stiff for good muscle support on long rides. I was going to rebuild the seat but that's un-necessary now. Fee found it fine, except that she wanted a lower seat, so we bought another off eBay which has the foam scooped out as low as possible, and she was very happy with that. This seat purchase was preceded by her parking the bike badly in the city, so that she had to mount it and pull it backwards, which was too much for her. She had the bike running, with its tough growl and rumble, and each time she pulled backwards she unintentionally pulled the throttle, so that a crowd stared at the revving bikey and, with heads full of bikey stereotypes, heard her rev again and cry out: "This bike's too big for me! THIS BIKE'S TOO BIG FOR ME!" The seat fixed the bike problem, but I suspect their stereotyping was shattered!

In the last few months I've taken to riding the bike on dirt roads. Not muddy scrambling, just gentle meandering such as you see on this blog. The bike does this really well, because it is so sure of itself at very slow speed, and because of its big front wheel, and because of its upright riding position. This is probably why the army bought up most of these - it's a great all-rounder. I had thought of buying a dual-purpose bike, a KLR650 or KLE500, but decided the GR is a bike with as much capability and much better looks.

The bike has been trouble-free until. It needs some skillful choke on cold winter mornings as it's tuned lean from the factory (for fuel-efficiency; and yes, it's very efficient). When I say trouble-free, I am referring to daily commuting (my only transport for two years, besides the SR500) and big rides on the weekend. Like every bike I've ever owned it leaks some oil but it's not at all serious - if you're going to buy an old air-cooled bike then expect, and ignore, oil leaks, just so long as they're not from the head gasket or extreme in some way. The only trouble from this bike is lean running on a recent tour into the Mallee, and stalling on my last commute. I found the vacuum hose at the carb was cracked, fixed it, and the bike has run fine on my odd joyrides and summer night freeway cruises since.

The plan was to keep this bike for another two years (paying off another loan) and then get a Harley Sportster, but if you've read my "New Bike" post, you'll know that I was made an offer I couldn't refuse! So I bought a Honda Hornet and the GR has to go, to fund about a third of the wedding of Fee and I. But I'm turned on now to in-line-twin cruisers. The GR was a great all-rounder bike and, as you can see from other posts on here, I'll miss it. If we could afford it, I'd certainly keep it.

Here are some reviews from the day

Friday, October 23, 2009

Sea Lake

I slept in and left after 11am, but did 750km yesterday on the Hornet. The first half of the day was a ride up the Calder freeway and highway, from Melbourne via Marong, Charlton (lunch) all the way to Sea Lake, my intended destination. Melbourne was overcast but the Wimmera and Mallee were blue, sunny and hot.  It felt good to be a motorcyclist in a world of other people. At the servo a bloke called out "How ya goin?", others sometimes waved, kids in a bus had a coronary joy-attack as I flew past, and it was easy to smile.

In Seal Lake I enjoyed a coke, while listening to old ladies whose gossiping seemed so habitual they no longer sensed how cruel it was, and then headed south for Birchip.

Just out of town I saw water to my right and doubled-back to find a brilliant lake! Green Lake. I had a look and there's great camping facilities, including hot showers.

All along these roads are historic markers. If they knew what a sucker I am for them, they could charge a dollar at each one, and fleece me in a single day. At one marker, a 1938 memorial to pioneer women erected beside a tree marking the grave of a woman and child from 1872 was this collection of twisted old Mallee gums, a tree which I love. So lean, lanky and twisting. They remind me of those early European paintings of Australia where the indigenous people and the landscape twist and curl in the artist's honest attempt to capture this different world.

Outside Birchip I found another lake.

I grew up around Lake Boga, going swimming on summer days, attending sea scouts on its shore. There's photos of me as at a very young child, at family barbecues under the soothing peppercorn shade amidst summer heat, and out in the brown water with my mother or father. Everybody is dressed in the tight shorts and singlets of the late 70s and early 80s.

There's talk of filling Lake Boga again. Letting the lakes drain because of the drought has meant draining the area of the equally important income in tourism.

At Wycheproof I rode up the lookout. I was in a hurry, for dusk was settling in meaning that wildlife would be on the move, and I was still 150km from Bendigo and risked colliding with a roo. It would be nice to take some time here again.

Outside Boort I stopped beside some salt lakes in the evening light.

I went on to Durham Ox and down the Loddon Valley Hwy reaching Bendigo just on dark. Dinner at McDonald's and home down the Calder, tailing cars for their extra light and as a buffer against roos. I arrived home at 10.45pm. I was sore! This is a great bike, but it is too cramped and leant over for me. As soon as I can I will fit higher handlebars and highway pegs. For I am planning a 1000km day ride soon just for the fun of it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

St Arnaud, Donald, Charlton, Wycheproof...

On Sunday last I visited some new towns. With the Hornet I can do distance-riding. I discovered on reflection that I had not fully entered the distance-riding headpace, because I tried to make big distances on the most backward roads available. That's SR country, where you spend a whole day out but don't do great miles. Hornet country means highways, as I now realise.

I went to Ballan, Daylesford, Newstead, Maldon, which were wonderful roads for plodding along on a big single. They were rather rushed and spoilt on the Hornet. I had some miles to consume which meant I had to keep to a pace, which would have been pleasant on the highway but not so much here. Sports enthusiasts would have enjoyed it, but for me the twisties are for gently meandering.

Between Hepburn and Newstead I rounded a corner to find this pair on the grass:

Then I cruised out to Newbridge, and attempted a less travelled route to Logan, except that my Hema map was, once again, wrong about the back roads! Eventually I arrived in St Arnaud for a late lunch. Afterwards I rode to Donald where I found a steam train, Wycheproof where I found another steam train, then Charlton for a coffee.

I had dinner in Bendigo and cruised the Calder home. With this bike I can spend the first hour of the morning jumping north quite a distance, and so extending the possibilities of the day's ride, and for safety can settle into a cruise on the freeway all the way home with much less threat of meeting wildlife.

Whereas my challenge on the SR is to find roads that allow for slow riding, my newest challenge is not speeding!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lawrence: The Road

Here is The Road, from Thomas Edward Lawrence's memoir The Mint, written in the 1920s about his experiences in the RAF. This chapter is about his love of riding his Brough Superior motor cycle which he calls 'Boanerges', Hebrew for 'Son of Thunder'.

T.E.Lawrence is better known as Lawrence of Arabia. A revisionist history is popular today which debunks his accounts of his part in events in Arabia. The historians are probably right, but there is more to Lawrence and his pained experience of these events. He had to serve two masters: England and her imperialist ends, and his own profound sense of equality and justice with others. Living like a brother among the Arabs, these two naturally conflicted. Revisionist commentators usually miss this spirit of justice in Lawrence which is what is so good about the man.

 Lawrence had such a natural power over men that Churchill compared him to Napoleon, and it lead him to success in England's aims, which amounted to betrayal of the Arabs. More generally it meant an unequal relationship with others. This tormented Lawrence because of his rare capacity to see others with that just spirit of equality. Most of us value and extoll the idea, but it is rarely lived with the purity of Larwence. This is why Simone Weil admired him so much. Churchill, a man who understood power better than most, said "Lawrence might have realised Napoleon's young dream of conquering the East; he might have arrived in Constantinople in 1919 or 1920 with most of the tribes and races of Asia Minor and Arabia at his back." Instead, he hid his identity and lived alongside younger men, entering the RAF as an anonymous cadet and apprentice mechanic. One of his greatest passions during this last period of his life was motor cycling. He died at speed doing what he loved.

The Road

The extravagance in which my surplus emotion expressed itself lay on the road. So long as roads were tarred blue and straight; not hedged; and empty and dry, so long I was rich. Nightly I'd run up from the hangar, upon the last stroke of work, spurring my tired feet to be nimble. The very movement refreshed them, after the day-long restraint of service. In five minutes my bed would be down, ready for the night: in four more I was in breeches and puttees, pulling on my gauntlets as I walked over to my bike, which lived in a garage-hut, opposite. Its tyres never wanted air, its engine had a habit of starting at second kick: a good habit, for only by frantic plunges upon the starting pedal could my puny weight force the engine over the seven atmospheres of its compression.

Boanerges' first glad roar at being alive again nightly jarred the huts of Cadet College into life. 'There he goes, the noisy bugger,' someone would say enviously in every flight. It is part of an airman's profession to be knowing with engines: and a thoroughbred engine is our undying satisfaction. The camp wore the virtue of my Brough like a flower in its cap. Tonight Tug and Dusty came to the step of our hut to see me off. 'Running down to Smoke, perhaps?' jeered Dusty; hitting at my regular game of London and back for tea on fine Wednesday afternoons.

Boa is a top-gear machine, as sweet in that as most single-cylinders in middle. I chug lordlily past the guard-room and through the speed limit at no more than sixteen. Round the bend, past the farm, and the way straightens. Now for it. The engine's final development is fifty-two horse-power. A miracle that all this docile strength waits behind one tiny lever for the pleasure of my hand.

Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England' straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air's coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar's gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boanerges is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop flying across the dip, and up-down up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whirr of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.

Once we so fled across the evening light, with the yellow sun on my left, when a huge shadow roared just overhead. A Bristol Fighter, from Whitewash Villas, our neighbour aerodrome, was banking sharply round. I checked speed an instant to wave: and the slip-stream of my impetus snapped my arm and elbow astern, like a raised flail. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln. I sat hard in the saddle, folded back my ears and went away after him, like a dog after a hare. Quickly we drew abreast, as the impulse of his dive to my level exhausted itself.

The next mile of road was rough. I braced my feet into the rests, thrust with my arms, and clenched my knees on the tank till its rubber grips goggled under my thighs. Over the first pot-hole Boanerges screamed in surprise, its mud-guard bottoming with a yawp upon the tyre. Through the plunges of the next ten seconds I clung on, wedging my gloved hand in the throttle lever so that no bump should close it and spoil our speed. Then the bicycle wrenched sideways into three long ruts: it swayed dizzily, wagging its tail for thirty awful yards. Out came the clutch, the engine raced freely: Boa checked and straightened his head with a shake, as a Brough should.

The bad ground was passed and on the new road our flight became birdlike. My head was blown out with air so that my ears had failed and we seemed to whirl soundlessly between the sun-gilt stubble fields. I dared, on a rise, to slow imperceptibly and glance sideways into the sky. There the Bif was, two hundred yards and more back. Play with the fellow? Why not? I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to overtake. Slowed ten more: sat up. Over he rattled. His passenger, a helmeted and goggled grin, hung out of the cock-pit to pass me the 'Up yer' Raf randy greeting.

They were hoping I was a flash in the pan, giving them best. Open went my throttle again. Boa crept level, fifty feet below: held them: sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country. An approaching car pulled nearly into its ditch at the sight of our race. The Bif was zooming among the trees and telegraph poles, with my scurrying spot only eighty yards ahead. I gained though, gained steadily: was perhaps five miles an hour the faster. Down went my left hand to give the engine two extra dollops of oil, for fear that something was running hot: but an overhead Jap twin, super-tuned like this one, would carry on to the moon and back, unfaltering.

We drew near the settlement. A long mile before the first houses I closed down and coasted to the cross-roads by the hospital. Bif caught up, banked, climbed and turned for home, waving to me as long as he was in sight. Fourteen miles from camp, we are, here: and fifteen minutes since I left Tug and Dusty at the hut door.

I let in the clutch again, and eased Boanerges down the hill along the tram-lines through the dirty streets and up-hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous God: and man's very best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness, in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.

Remigius, earthy old Remigius, looks with more charity on and Boanerges. I stabled the steel magnificence of strength and speed at his west door and went in: to find the organist practising something slow and rhythmical, like a multiplication table in notes on the organ. The fretted, unsatisfying and unsatisfied lace-work of choir screen and spandrels drank in the main sound. Its surplus spilled thoughtfully into my ears.

By then my belly had forgotten its lunch, my eyes smarted and streamed. Out again, to sluice my head under the White Hart's yard-pump. A cup of real chocolate and a muffin at the teashop: and Boa and I took the Newark road for the last hour of daylight. He ambles at forty-five and when roaring his utmost, surpasses the hundred. A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.

At Nottingham I added sausages from my wholesaler to the bacon which I'd bought at Lincoln: bacon so nicely sliced that each rasher meant a penny. The solid pannier-bags behind the saddle took all this and at my next stop a (farm) took also a felt-hammocked box of fifteen eggs. Home by Sleaford, our squalid, purse-proud, local village. Its butcher had six penn'orth of dripping ready for me. For months have I been making my evening round a marketing, twice a week, riding a hundred miles for the joy of it and picking up the best food cheapest, over half the country side.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Bike!

No, I’ve not sold the SR500.

That one’s a sickness. Just like Tucker’s daughter that time, “She wanna build me up, just to tear me down."  When she’s running well she’s fantastic, the best bike to come out of Japan, and when she’s running badly she’s hell on wheels. And even when good, she's just plain uncomfortable on the highway and makes you feel guilty for it.

It's a big country and I need some touring power.

So this week I bought a second bike. I never would have chosen something like this, but with the SR in my life I need something reliable which can do many miles, at speed, for a good while to come. I thought I had that in the GR650, even though it's 25 years old, but then a mate decided to give up bikes. As a parting shot he offered his to me for the great price of $4k.  That did not tempt me, so I thanked him but declined, thinking that would be an end of it.  Then he said, “Seriously, just make an offer – I’d rather see a mate get a bargain!” So I said $3k, worried that I'd offend, but really I could only be persuaded if the price were really nice. He went quiet, then said “The rego’s due” and “so how about we make it $2750?”!

Here she is today on my first run.

Honda Hornet 600, excellent condition, just had $1000 major service, 40,000 km which is low to me, 1998 which to me is a new bike. I was around the day my mate bought it and know it better than anybody after him – so no risks. For RWC needed new fluid in front brake. Comprehensive insurance at market value is $195 per year.

It’s my first bike, in almost a decade of riding, which isn’t from the late 70s or early 80s, and which is made for highway miles. So I did my first ride today on it, taking back roads from Melbourne until I ended up Moama, then north to Barham and back down to Shepperton, Strathbogie etc. It ate the miles happily. My riding style is sedate and it proved it can suit that even if most owners buy it for other (sporty) reasons. I just cruised along and it is so chilled. I re-fueled frequently to gauge economy, which was consistently at 19 or 20km per Litre.

My SR500 produces 27hp.  The Hornet 98hp.

I’m not a inline-4 sports guy, but try finding me a good big cruiser for $2.7k! Anyway, I figure I can make an unusual cruiser out of this (they’re all the same these days, as though imitating some ‘one true’ Platonic form of the cruiser) inspired by the stuff done in that direction to big Jap inline 4s in the 70s: when I can get longer cables made I’ll put on the bars from the GR (see pic below), a tall windscreen,and Fee (who likes the pillion set-up otherwise) wants a generous sissy-bar, which I think will be unecessary for as soon as I’ve got more dosh, the sidecar chassis will be hooked up and a well-sprung Mad Max-style boat made for it, at which point this will be a go-anywhere touring bike, where ‘anywhere’ means especially dirt highways – I’ll see if indeed there is an inland sea on the continent.

Alas for the GR650, a good and faithful servant who I assumed would continue to serve, but will now be placed on eBay. Goodbye GR!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The day the nineteenth century ended

Centuries are better measured by significant events than by dates.

The day the nineteenth century truly ended was not quiet. It did not begin like any other day. Casting our eye over it we would be disappointed if we expected some ignorant and sleepy backdrop. And yet what changed everything was a small thing. A motorcycle came roaring down a country lane.

It was a roar that clanked and chattered and yet, being new to the earth, was no less impressive. It was something which made you gape or whistle through your teeth. Something which excited those for whom the future was not merely another place in time, but a value, a promise which the spirit of the universe was driving us toward. Driving at speed; accelerating.

From then on, even sitting quietly in its shed, this machine gave off echoes of speed and achievement. With a man on its back it was a mythical god, resurrected from his ancient grave when the Spirit of Progress passed over, begotten in a new form this second birth. Steel, chrome. A warrior’s armour for a warrior whose weapon and purpose is speed, and whose beauty is not the hairy muscle and sweat of the ancients, but a form and function of polished perfect metal. A gleaming thing.

In the belly of this god an atmosphere exploded every second. His being was a forge of the future, fire and steel working and hammering to thrust itself forward. Sucking in wind and liquid mineral by force, crushing them and stealing fire by its own science and, while bellowing from its bowls the sound of the achievement, thrusting at the earth with a circular muscle. Not pulled by lowly animal strength, nor pushed like a beggar by the elements, the man-machine dictated his own motion. God was dead, nature enslaved; a new god rose, and the twentieth century began. Its symbol and sword was a motor cycle, coming down a country lane.