Sunday, August 29, 2010

Yay, a ride to Yea!

My riding seems to follow unintended patterns, each one persisting for a time before I move on to a different inclination. Last summer the dominant pattern was twelve hour riding days, exploring southern NSW or Victoria's Mallee, before riding home from Bendigo after dark. Last winter I would find myself continually riding home in rain and blinding headlights, wondering at my stupidity.

This winter I seem to be enjoying 'the short ride'. Five to six hours of pleasure which leaves me never far from Melbourne when dusk comes - I am usually home before dark. Today Marlon and I rode via Kinglake to Yea for lunch. Afterwards we rode to Whittlesea then south through apple orchards to Hurstbridge and home. We rode with a fellow we met in the street recently, Jason, who rides a beautiful 2009 Triumph Bonneville. I looked on with envy, and wondered why it is that I ride more than most people I know but have worse bikes than everybody else (that is, not the bikes I most desire). Of course, the reason I ride more and do so on lesser bikes is because I work less, and so have more time to ride and less money to buy things.  I am happy with my choice.  Give me my freedom and the cheap old SR500 any day!

I don't take photos of myself on my rides, so today I will post two photos only, both of me.

I think I might some day purchase a Triumph Bonneville. Here is Jason with his:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Background Thoughts for an (eventually more personal and poetic) Aesthetics of Motorcycling

I'm leaving these notes posted here, to motivate me to get back to them and do some conceptual and literary editing. But you might want to skep past this post for the time being....

An aesthetics of motorcycling concerns the sensual experience of motorcycling – motorcycling as experienced through the senses. More specifically, it is about pleasing or meaningful sensory experiences. The sights, sounds, the feel, smells, the touch; as well as the internal sensations drawing on imagination, emotion, and physiological sensations like the arousal of adrenalin.

Aesthetics usually focuses on understanding our experience of artworks – manufactured pieces created with the intention of pleasing us or conveying some meaningful experience. But its object can also be the world at large, the world in and through which we exist. This is not a particular object among others, but rather the very environment and outward conditions of our existence. This is an environment both constructed by humans and also natural and prior to them. Often it is a mix of both – for example the humanised landscape of wheat fields bordering bushland. And in both cases we are speaking, with regard to perception, of objects that are objective and prior to any individual, as well as constructed by them.

Artworks, as contrasted to the environmental aesthetic objects of motorcycling, are mostly discrete, self-contained, stable. And the frame of reference for viewing them is often likewise: whether it is a film or a sculpture, you stand or sit, or walk about the object from somewhat controlled distances and angles. If the artwork is music, it is a pre-recorded package – the same every time – or is rehearsed and carefully balanced and directed toward the ear in a carefully designed space by sound-desk mixers. In artworks one particular sense is engaged, or at most two – usually sight and / or hearing. The same is true to a degree with the stationary motorcycle as an aesthetic object. Manufacturers are aware of this, and so the design of a motorcycle is not purely functional, especial when it comes to this object as seen from a distance: in that case the machine is designed to be attractive in a way which elicits desire resulting in purchase. But I am concerned moreso with an aesthetics of motorcycling, than with motorcycles. It is an aesthetics of a verb, not a noun; it is about the act and experience of riding a motorcycle through space.

The experience of motorcycling is not, by contrast, stable, discrete, or self-contained. Instead the appreciator is immersed in the aesthetic object – the world through which he moves - surrounded in every way and moving in and through it. There are no pre-ordained and static distance or perspective, because the rider/appreciator is moving constantly and so these are changing constantly. All the senses are engaged: the vision of the road and bushland unfolding; the sound of the motorcycle engaging with and moving through the space; the smell and taste of the air; the feel of the sun, the motion-filled air, the wind and rain, the cold and heat, the pulsing motorcycling beneath oneself, and the forces of physics as you lean through the corners and slide on greasy bitumen. The experience is unlimited, open, unpredictable.

The aesthetic object of motorcycling is not something designed, not something created to instantiate an idea and a relatively fixed meaning, as is the case in artwork creation. We are not interested in the author’s intentions, because there is no intentional author. And so the motorcyclist’s appreciation must be achieved without the aid of interpretations of intention, without a tradition defining the creation of the object, without intentional frameworks. The world just is. As Camus said of the Algerian desert: there is nothing on which to hang an interpretation, philosophy, or religion; there is only wind and heat and stars. The creative task of finding words and giving meaning to the aesthetic experience is largely the responsibility of the motorcyclist, to a degree that never burdens the appreciator of an artwork.

Such appreciation, because it is grounded in a total, multi-sensory immersion in the object, requires a phenomenological spirit: there is no fundamental and basic split between subject and object; and the appreciator has the task of opening their awareness up and maintaining that awareness so as not to become deaf to their own experience.

But the appreciator must also be aware of the basic mood of their own being which informs their experience. This mood might be a feeling of being at home in that environment through which they ride, or at danger in that environment, and might find its source in a deeper mood of say, anxiety, or peace, within the person which permeates their life outside of motorcycling. The world becomes present to us in different ways depending on the basic mood out of which we live in and perceive the world. It is the mode of our engagement with the world. It is also influenced by the world – as when one feels unsafe on an isolated road at dusk, after almost hitting a kangaroo, and so perceives the landscape differently, more coldly.

All this is not to reduce the experience of motorcycling to the unintentional whim of the motorcyclist. Awareness of the world – or rather, aesthetic attention to the world of motorcycling experience – is a task involving something toward which we need to struggle and rise. Attention reveals things, and that revelation sets standards. For one thing it shows that we can fail to attend. It also shows that there is ‘something out there’ to see beyond what little might be seen in a trivial or lazy glance. There are also traditions of seeing that we can draw on – learning how to notice, learning to see.

For some people aesthetic appreciation when motorcycling is purely intuitive and sensory: a morning paddock stretches out to one’s side, a pleasant mix of green herb and brown earth. To another, the aesthetic experience is informed by a cognitive aspect also: the colour of the grass and the earth revealed by its patchiness point to a farm suffering the soil deficiencies of that area. That is not just information, it can inform the aesthetic experience, giving the vision poignancy, sadness, and a kind of beauty in the acknowledgement of the farmer’s hope and resilience, and in pity for a wounded environment. The aesthetic experience of the world in motorcycling is both sensory and cognitive, a matter both of feeling and understanding. Both sensation and meaning.

Monday, August 23, 2010


When I talk about aesthetic experience, I mean the ways in which we experience the world through our senses; and in particular meaningful or pleasurable experiences of the senses. In time I want to write an idiosyncratic aesthetics of motorcycling.

One dimension of motorcycle aesthetics centers on the machines themselves. A beautiful bike standing still; a bike that feels fantastic to ride. I am once again enjoying the pleasures of my SR500 - my vintage 500cc single-cylinder motor cycle. Cruising through the twisty rainforests at 50kph, I let the engine revolutions drop and pull me along at 3000rpm. And sometimes less. Thump! Thump! Thump! I can hear every explosion of fuel, every firing of the sparkplug. Smoothly, I can feel it in my stomach and through my whole body. At idle the front wheel almost bounces in time with the pulsating engine. And then I stand back in the rainforest, amidst blocks of snow and ice, and view the beautiful thing.

Yes, a motorcycle is a work of art. But look also at the other aesthetic object in these pictures: nature. My wife's forays into painting show talent beyond her realisation, and I enjoy looking at the results to which I have proudly given prominence on my lounge-room wall. It helps me to better understand what interests me in this post if I contrast that sort of aesthetic experience - the gallery sort - to the sort available to me through motorcycling. Fee's art is discrete, stable, self-contained; it is only to be enjoyed by one sense: sight. But in the everyday environments of my beloved riding, my experience is one of total sensory immersion in what I appreciate. The object of my appreciation is open, unlimited, flowing, uncontained.... All my senses are engaged, and often in unexpected ways. And my own frame of reference is itself dynamic, unexpected, changing.

But what sort of object - natural?, or man made? - is Maroondah Reservoir? Whatever it is, as I walked toward the place looking out over the great expanse of water, with a great sky above me, I felt vertigo; that sense of the uncanniness of things which turns people into philosophers. Gravity felt surprising. I sometimes get the same feeling when, at work, I speak to people on the telephone who are thousands of kilometers away and yet who are speaking intimately to me (as a counsellor). My mind will rush for a moment, as though seeing in succession all the space and all the objects in between us.

It is strange how you can find a sense of yourself, in that same moment that you feel overwhelmed by the greatness and impersonality of the natural world. But then, we can never perceive a completely inhuman experience; our shadow is cast over everything. Every perception is imprinted with our self.

Having beheld the sublime, there was nothing to do but ride home into the sun.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Kustom Lane Gallery

Because I have been feeling off-colour I decided not to ride this week. Instead I cruised across some suburbs with my friends Marlon and James, to Kustom Lane Gallery in Hawthorn to see their annual exhibition, Choppers n Bobbers.

Getting there involved some problems, because James rides a 1973 Czechoslovakian motorcycle. When we first pulled over, I pointed to a bolt sitting loose on top of the CZ175's engine, and James said it was nothing. But apparently if did in fact matter whether the carburretor was bolted together.

Marlon was cruel, and recorded the whole thing.

The bike show was a mix of nice and tasteful customs, gaudy christmas trees, and paintings and prints.

I had gastro earlier in the week and was unsure whether I should display this.

Some of the paintings and prints were very good.

From there we made our way home, James to football and beers, Marlon and I to a bottle of red.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Bowden Spur

I schedualed for 10am with Marlon. But misfortune struck and I did not leave until 1pm. And alone. This was the first time since May 2009, when I stripped my drive shaft, that we could ride our SRs together. I wonder if there is a curse which is activates when our two bikes are together. Before coming to my house Marlon picked up his SR from a mechanic's with a new set of tyres fitted. New tyres on motorcycles are very slippery - you have to 'scrub them in', which means to carefully wear off their protective coating in the first few minutes of riding. Because he was pressed for time, and because the Saturday morning traffic was dense, Marlon gave it a handful as he entered the road. His bike slid into a 180 degree turn, flipped, and landed on him. This saved the bike from damage. And broke a some of his ribs.

So we had a coffee together while he considered going to hospital. At least I could finally get a shot of the cursed bikes lined up together.

Thus I left for a short afternoon ride, deciding to seek some dirt roads near Kinglake.

I rode through the twisting asphalt to Strathewen amongst apple orchards and dappled sunlight, my big single thumping away smoothly with a rhythm that made pure motion itself an utter pleasure. I enjoy the Hornet more, now that I have the SR back, because I can take pleasure in the very different virtues of each bike. But the SR comes into its own on these roads, where the Hornet is hedged in and wants speed and higher revs.

My map pointed to a lookout from Mount Sugarloaf, so I rode along Chad Creek Road but was stopped at Pine Ridge Road.

This meant turning back the way I had come. Which was unfortunate, as I had ascended a hill at such a steep angle that I thought 'Thank god I won't have to return this way!' Going uphill, gravity is on your side: your grip, and your traction when braking, are proportionally increased. Going down hill the opposite is true. Which is fine on asphalt or even hard clay. But not so on loose, sliding gravel!

I survived that white-knuckle, nervously-sweating experience and took some photos.

I made for Bowden Spur Road, which would lead me to coffee at Kinglake. This turned out to be a fantastic choice for my kind of riding: a good easy surface of clay and light gravel, gentle hills, little traffic, wonderful flora and fantastic views.

Bowden Spur Road rose and rose, and at its peak I could look back on the snaking route I had climbed, but also across a great valley and even to the city.

At Kinglake I ran into some members of the SR500 Club.

I rode home via Kinglake National Park - the winding sealed 'Kinglake Heidelberg Road' where again the single cylinder came into its own. A gentle speed felt perfect, as I sat in one gear and merely rolled the throttle on and off, with minimal braking and a tuneful put-put-put from the exhaust.

The final part of the trip became very draining, and at home I barely had the strength to put the bike away. That night I became more ill than I have been in a long time. A state of pure, groaning, unrelieved nausea. In my fever my mind was filled with the image of riding, and it seemed such a harsh and dangerous experience that I resolved to give it up - indeed I couldn't understand what kept me at it, theorising that it was merely some stubborn means of creating an identity for myself. There was surely no enjoyment in it. Late the next day, as I improved, this reasoning vaporised like a strange weather and I could see things in the light of the sun again, and it became easy to see why I ride. Pure pleasure. Adventure. Freedom. Contemplation....

Monday, August 2, 2010

The SR500 Rides Again

It was this month a year ago that I shared with you the maiden voyage of my SR500 on her new engine. A year later, and today I took the bike on her second ride. Hopefully it is the first of many.

The SR had been off the road since May 2009, when the drive shaft (the axle, coming out of the gear box, that holds the front sprocket which turns the chain which turns the rear wheel) was stripped. I spent my Rudd Stimulus Package on a used SR400 engine which bolted and plugged straight in, meaning that the engine is now 400cc, and not 500. Marlon and I then went for a successful ride, but very quickly after that I found the carburettor grossly (and unsurprisingly) out of tune for the new engine. While I was scratching my head over fixing this, the registration became due but I could not afford to pay it. So the bike sat there unregistered from December till now. I offered it to a friend for sale, then came to my senses and withdrew the offer. So I slowly spent any spare money I had on getting the SR ready for a 'road worthy' inspection, and a few weeks ago I finally, after all this time, had enough money to go ahead and do that. After some hassles with Vic Roads, I got the bike registered on Friday, purchased roadside assistance , took it for a test run on Saturday, and today took it for its first country ride.

I did 'plug chops' throughout the day, to check the air/fuel mixture tuning at the spark plug, and I have never seen such a perfectly tanned tip. I am borrowing my friend Marlon's carburettor, which is tuned for the same free-breathing air filter that I am using, but for a more open pipe than mine, which means a slightly rich mixture - just right! 

Today's was a short ride. Out the Eastern Freeway to Kangaroo Ground, then on to a back roads through Christmas Hills, knowing the tar ends at a certain point and leads me onto dirt roads that weave past the large reservoir. These further roads are both winding and hilly - steep inclines and declines. With gravel and recent rain, the steep declines were the sort that find me invoking a multitude of deities as my knuckles turn white, but the SR handled them with ease. So much so that I rode through everything confidently, at ease, and with speed. The vintage-pattern Dunlop K70s (see the photo below) were an excellent choice for these surfaces.

My route took me from Kangaroo Ground to the outskirts of Yarra Glen, over which I looked from the hills.

At the moment my focus with the SR is technical - I am assessing how it runs, what it can do in the dirt, what improvements I ought to make. But I was joyed also to experience that sense of the bike which gives me so much pleasure: the thump of its big single cylinder and the classic and vintage look and feel - its beauty, its evocation. I feel that I am home again.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sandy Harbutt

Here is a photo from two and a half years ago. My friends Rosy, Damien, and Eddie and I rode with the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club (VVMC) on a 'Stone run'. Stone is an Australian bikie film made in 1974. It was written, directed, and starred in by Sandy Harbutt, and here we are with him at the club house.