Thursday, July 10, 2008

Australia's First Vinduro

The first time my dad took me to see an enduro, the thing that immediately struck me was that there wasn’t much to see. Unlike the motocross (or scrambles as my dad called them) and road racing events I’d already seen, there was no hotly contested wheel to wheel action being played out in a noisy, colourful spectacle.

Instead, the mostly bearded men on trail and enduro bikes disappeared at high speed into the bush. Racing against the clock. They emerged later; dirty, dishevelled. Engines ticking and hissing; as water from mudguards, and sweat from tired faces dripped onto hot engines.

The idea of man and machine against the clock was something I found compelling then, and still do. As a teenager I would complete in a handful of enduros myself before moving away to university, and onto road bikes.

A few years ago I began rediscovering the dirt bikes of my youth. This was mostly via the VMX scene, which has been well established here for some time now. Unlike our European and American counterparts though, we Aussies have been a bit slower to get on the Vintage Enduro (Vinduro) bandwagon. That all changed in September 2007, and when I heard about the first ever Aussie Vinduro event, I just had to be there...

The organisers had done a magnificent job in putting together this first event. Around 70 riders made their way to a property northeast of Melbourne. When I arrived light drizzle was falling, and continued periodically throughout the day, keeping the dust down on the trail, and the grass slippery in the paddock sections.

The Parc Ferme was alive with the sound of crackling exhausts, creaking suspension and groaning joints. From the immaculately restored, to slightly worn out versions with an authentic patina of dirt and oil - and that was just the owners. It was great to see so many pre-1985 trail and enduro bikes in one place.

Enthusiasts from as far away as Adelaide had turned up with rare marques like SWM, Matchless and BSA alongside the more prosaic Japanese models. My IT250 looked right at home, instead of being the odd bike out when riding with modern counterparts.

Instead of “bling” and modern, water-cooled four strokes; there were Belstaffs and open face helmets. There were no race-faces either, but a lot of smiles and bonhomie.

It wasn’t a race meeting after all, and there were no prizes for first place. (Mind you, that didn’t stop some of these middle aged guys riding very fast. Or maybe it just seemed that way because I’m so slow).

In a juxtaposition of old and new technology, I was able to meet people face to face whom I’d previously talked with via the internet about our 20+ year old bikes!

Before we could ride there was the usual paperwork to complete. Then, after the rider's briefing, the first bikes were away at 10am.The riding was organised in a realistic enduro style, with riders released at one minute intervals.

As my minute approached I was a little jittery, I don’t ride much these days, and had no idea of what to expect. Getting lost trying to find the property and almost running the car out of fuel hadn’t done anything for my nerves either.

I was on the same minute as a guy on a DR600. He blasted off down the track while I was still fumbling around with my timecard. Not the most auspicious of starts, lucky it was a non-competitive event.

Setting off from the starting gate, there was a short blast through a paddock and then into some gently undulating single track. A hard right turn and I was onto the first of several hills. I caught the Suzuki rider and passed him in a series of sandy corners at the top of the hill.

This was followed by some fairly technical single track, and then into an open paddock with the course marked out with tape before it snaked its way back into the bush for more tight single track. A few logs to get over, and some sharp corners to keep you on your toes. Man, some of those trees are close together too. No barkbusters for me, but I still counted ten fingers at the end of the day.

The country was quite hilly, but I didn't find any of the hills too hard, despite the fact that none of the climbs seem to have any run-up at all! For me, some of the hardest parts were along the sides of these slopes, where my dodgy rear tyre wanted to slip sideways and send me into the trees.

At one stage I did become a little complacent, and in one of the few open sections excessive speed mixed with over-confidence saw me spearing off into the scrub. I narrowly missed several nasty looking trees. “Take it easy, it’s not a race,” I reminded myself as I extricate the Yamaha and continued.

The course breaks back into open country for some time with a series of corners set on the side of the hill. On a subsequent lap I manage a low speed face-plant on an off camber corner, getting a helmet full of dust as a reward for my carelessness.

Back into the bush and a long downhill had me certain that I was going to see some water. At the bottom the ground was a little moist, but no real mud or slop to be seen (that’s the drought for you). The relative dryness didn’t stop me falling off here on one lap though!

Some more single track, a little more paddock time, then a short ride through the bush to get to the finish gate.

Overall I found the loop to be challenging without being overly difficult, though some entrants struggled a bit. Some parts left me panting for breath, but overall the feeling was one of tired elation. A tricky, ‘expert’ section added a bit more spice too.

An impromptu prize draw was held in the early afternoon, with prizes donated by local motorcycle businesses. Following the presentation, a few diehards (myself included) beg to be allowed out for one more lap, and the organisers acquiesce…

For this enthusiast it’s the perfect day. When’s the next one?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Blue Light Ride 2004

Choking dust or impenetrable mud are regular features of the annual Blue Light Ride, an off road tradition here in Victoria. In 2004, I decided to enter my first BLR on a 1983 Yamaha IT250K…

When I arrived I learnt that the organizers had had to change the route five times in the previous week due to rain. On the way there I had seen a bearded guy herding animals into a large boat in his back yard. So I knew dust wouldn’t be a problem. With a whopping 1382 entries, it was always going to be interesting.

I checked the IT in with no problems. I was on one of the last rows to leave so I had plenty of time.
Might as well top up the tank, I thought. Kerplunk! An extender on the end of the funnel took the opportunity to drop off into the tank. It had never happened before, but hey, no problem. It didn’t matter. I took my place on row 80.

So this is what 1300+ dirt bikes assembled in the one place looks like. The line up was mostly modern, but there were a few older bikes around including a couple of other ITs. I spied a Yamaha YZ /WR with a 1976 XS650 motor shoehorned in, and a 70s era Triumph. There was even several XR Hondas from the 80s and a twin shock DR500 on the same row as me.

As I wheeled the bike closer up, I marveled at just how smoothly the throttle twist grip spins in my hand. The late night ‘clean & lube’ session (ahem) had done wonders. Wait a minute, that’s the LEFT grip spinning freely! The steady soaking rain must’ve worked it loose. My carefully packed tool kit is on the ground before I even leave the paddock. It takes a ridiculous amount of wire and cable ties etc to finally secure the recalcitrant grip.

Just in time, I grabbed my punch card and set off. I had already decided to err on the side of caution. I was nowhere near ‘race fit’ and had already witnessed one exuberant rider flip his machine on the start line; plus quite a few first corner mishaps. The rest of my row roared off, and I meekly follow behind. Within minutes I hit a series of whoops and could hear a crunching noise from behind me. It wasn’t the gnashing teeth of a frustrated rider trying to get past me (that’s an altogether different sound, which I know quite well).

I knew straight away that my rear mudguard repair has failed. Another crunch as it touched the back wheel confirmed my suspicions. Bugger. Out came the tool kit again, and I was left with a stubby fender that I knew was not going to keep me clean.

A few bikes slithered past while I was doing the modifications. By the time I get going again I figured I must be dead last. It doesn’t matter.

Amazingly, I caught up to and passed a couple of other riders. The ancient Kenda knobby on the back of the IT actually did a reasonable job of supplying forward motion.

The first real test soon arrived in the shape of a long, slimy hill. Followed by another one soon after. I adopted a strategy of creeping up in first or second gear with both feet paddling. It wasn’t glamorous, but it worked, and as I chugged pass several stuck bikes I was thankful for the Yamaha’s low down grunt. Not bad at all for a two stroke. A short while later I passed the DR500 from my row, parked by the side of the track. There was no sign of the rider.

Soon I reach the first checkpoint. There was a queue here as progress has been halted. Rumour had it that there was a killer hill ahead that no-one can get up, so the course was being re-routed. I took the opportunity to catch my breath, drink water and scrape some of the excess mud from the bike. Formed up into orderly rows, we were off again.

Another long slippery hill, and this time I did get stuck while dodging traffic. Luckily I managed to get myself going again fairly easily. That was the last time I would be so lucky… What followed was a seemingly endless struggle to keep my aging 250 upright. Downhills were almost worse than up, as the beast just kept sliding in the muck with both brakes fully on.

There were massive queues at particularly snotty hills, and at some of these I had encountered riders out on their second loop while I laboured to finish my first one. Rest stops were frequent.

I won’t bore readers with the details, but much later I emerged from the bush, filthy, tired and sore. I had completely lost track of time as I struggled in the slop. Although keen to keep going, the officials advised me that it was now too late to head out on a second loop.

I had the small satisfaction of not being the last one back, and was awarded a finishers medal as well. Despite the tough conditions, I’d had a ball and my ancient mount had lasted the distance. I resolved immediately that I would have another attempt.

This I would do in 2006. With better preparation, and riding the same bike, I would successfully complete both laps. But that’s another story…

Monday, June 23, 2008

Tankful Review

Seeing as I referred to this book in my previous post, here's a review I wrote back in 2000...

A Tankful of Time by Michael P Fong
(Raffles SNP Singapore, 2000)

When it comes to travelling around the world by motorcycle plenty of people dream, but few actually do it. Even fewer take the time to record their adventures, and have their memoirs published in book form.

In 1995 Michael Fong left his advertising job in Singapore, and together with his wife Sonya set off on a BMW R100 (nicknamed Baby Quek) on the trip of a lifetime. Over the next two years they covered 70,000 kms, three continents and 30 countries. As you’d expect with this kind of epic journey, Mike and Sonya visit some amazing places along the road less travelled.

The exotic countries visited pale in comparison to the colourful people they encounter along the way, both locals and fellow travellers. From an Iranian with a Vincent Black Shadow hidden in his garage, to flaming donuts performed by a Triumph riding German, to dodgy desert dealings with Triads... Michael and Sonya meet characters as varied as the countries they pass through. What never fails to impress is the friendliness and camaraderie they are shown by fellow bikers wherever they go.

If nothing else, this book is comprehensive. Not only are there biographies, photographs, map and technical details on setting up the BMW but there’s a glossary as well! The author’s attention to detail is incredible, and at times a little overdone, though he does inject a degree of personal reflection and also includes extracts from his wife’s diary as well. The book is in dire need of some careful editing and contains many spelling and grammatical mistakes, though this doesn’t detract from its readability.

For the bulk of us, who’ll never undertake a trip like this, A Tankful of Time is the next best thing, and for those who may be planning a similar trip it could serve as a valuable resource.
As far as I know this book isn’t available for general release in Australia. I bought my copy in Singapore, but I’m sure it could be sourced directly through the publisher.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Long Way Downer

Sadly, I’ll probably always be a dreamer when it comes to huge cross-continent motorcycling adventures. How fortunate then that I can live my dreams vicariously thanks to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman.

I avidly watched every episode of Long Way Round and Race to Dakar. When I heard that a new series Long Way Down had been made, travelling from Scotland to South Africa I was eager to see it. Was it worth the wait? Well, sort of…

I’m finding it a bit harder to get into it. This time around it’s harder to identify with the intrepid duo (well, trio actually if you count Claudio their ubiquitous cameraman/third rider), and their support crew and mountains of brand new gear. It’s still good, but…

They just have soooo much cash to do anything they like. Maybe I’m too harsh, but the garage they use to prepare for this trip is bigger than my house! It’s also packed with a gratuitous amount of bikes and tools.

One thing that really got to me in episode 1 was Ewan, sitting on his brand new BMW saying something to the effect of ‘this is me for the next three months’. This implied a simple, stripped down lifestyle; just man and machine.

The trouble was that in the moments preceding this statement the panning camera has captured the incredible collection of equipment that they’ll take with them!

I mean, it’s not all bad. Their off road riding skills have noticeably improved since LWD; which is apparent when they visit the BMW Off Road School again. They continue to do significant work for charity. Charley and Ewan are likable characters…

The second episode has already gone some way toward addressing my cynicism, as the travelling circus leaves the garage and hits the road. Motorbikes being ridden to exotic locales are always going to be a winner, right?

The fact is that people do this sort of stuff all the time, without a huge budget and satellite-phone toting entourage. Motorbike mags like Two Wheels, Trailrider, Trailzone, Bike (UK) & T.W.O. (UK) often feature articles about adventures had by ordinary folk. Check out the adventure rider website too.

If you’re looking for some more solid reading on this subject A Tankful of Time by Michael P Fong, and Two for the Road by Shirley Hardy-Rix and Brian Rix are two books about long cross country journeys undertaken on BMWs.

Charely and Ewan weren’t the first to set off on a motorcycle voyage across Europe, but they were the first ones to make a series with wide appeal and turn it into a franchise, and good on ‘em.

I’m the first to admit that I’m insanely jealous. It is good entertainment, and I shouldn’t be so self righteous. After all, I’ve never attempted anything as adventurous as any of these trips. I’m going to keep watching (and will watch any subsequent motorcycling series they release). Maybe I need to be less cynical, and just enjoy the ride…

Fuel on, choke on...

Musings, articles, thoughts and photographs of motorised bicycles to follow. Anytime now. I just can't get this thing started right now.

I don't know why, it's never given me any trouble before. Yeah, I've checked everything...

Hey, can you give me a push?