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?