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My Limited Experience with Motorbikes
My Latest Bike
15th March 1999
I'm now here in Virginia Beach, Virginia, USA. It's cold. It's apparently too cold and wet and icy to ride a bike in winter, so I have to wait till summertime, probably around April, before I can consider riding a bike. Luckily, there are several large military sites round here, so there always lots of second-hand bikes for sale. I have already bought a bike, but it's not ridable yet. It's an old battered black Honda 500cc. It's missing the key, two footpegs, brake cover, and it doesn't run. And it needs new mufflers. My bikes always need new mufflers. I got it for only $250, in a special deal. I need to spend some money on it, and do a bit of work on it. As I am mechanically useless, I'll be getting some help from Mike The Engineer, who found the bike for me. He also found my car for me. Later, I would like to buy a large burgundy coloured BMW, but this Honda will do for now. It can be a trade-in for the BMW of my dreams.
The Bike Is Gone
20th January 1999
I have moved to the USA.
In the two weeks before I flew out, I finally pulled my finger out and made an effort to sell the bike. I had already surrendered the plates to the RTA, and it was way out of rego. I didn't want much for the bike because it didn't owe me anything. It cost $2,400 in the late 1980s, so I had a very good, long run with it. I advertised it in an Australian for-sale newsgroup for $50. I told the complete truth in the ad, said it looked like shit but was mechanically sound. I got one taker from Western Sydney, who came over with a trailer. He checked it out, picked it up and took it away. He also bought a few other things like an ancient bike jacket I bought in Korea, plus some bookcases. I felt a bit sad when the bike went. I rode it for more than 10 years, and it was part of my life.
Just before I left, I noticed someone else was inquiring about the old ad in Usenet, asking if it had been sold. The purchaser jumped in and said "it is and it is the best buy I have ever got from the net as it does run really good he was telling the truth about that but as for the looks i was impressed as they are a lot better than I ever thought they would be". I was quite pleased with this response. Truth in advertising. I hope the bike gets plenty of use before it gets put down.
A Temporary End to Biking
22nd September 1998
The bike is sitting in the garage and doesn't ride anymore. I let the rego expire and didn't renew it. As soon as I can make the effort, I'll sell the bike for $50 or even give it away.
Why? Because it's time was up. It needed a new engine, it needed new forks, new suspension, new tyres, and rego and third party insurance on top of all that. It was no longer worth maintaining it.
Now I travel to work by bus and I am heartily sick of it. But things are changing, and when circumstances have settled down, I will get a new bike and start enjoying myself again.
Bike Service In Sydney
Since I came to Sydney, I've had the bike serviced at four different places. I won't name them for obvious reasons.
The first bike shop, and let's call them AHS, looked after the bike for two years. They did an adequate job, neither poor nor great. No real problems.
Then I started working in another suburb, so I switched to SAT to look after the bike. No real problem there, except that I always felt that they would take as much money as was offering. I would say "No more than $400, okay?" and the bill would come in at $420. I felt like I was saying "Take me for as much as $400." But if I didn't tell them my limits, then a bill would come along which I couldn't pay.
Work changed suburbs again, and I shifted back to AHS, but this time it was under new management. And the problems started. Battery died, replaced the battery. Battery died again, replaced the alternator. Battery still dying, fix something else. I kept getting the bike back, and having it die on me at work. I really got the shits with this. The battery saga went on for about eight months, and caused me to be late for work, cost me heaps of money attempting the public transport, and generally stuffed me round. I really blew my top when they did a service, but forget to do up the carburettor. Got to work on it, but couldn't get home. It wouldn't start. I had enough with AHS. I've never been back, and I'll never go back.
The undone carburettor was when I discovered the next service centre. AMC. They found and fixed that problem and they kept the bike going sweetly for a couple of years, until they stuffed up too. It appears that they were going through service personnel changes when this happened. I had the bike serviced and got a pink slip. Rode it away, and the oil light was on. Got home, checked the oil, no oil. They had drained it and not filled it. Luckily they hadn't drained it too thoroughly as there was enough oil (barely) to prevent a seizure. Two weeks later, the back brake started to stick, and then one morning it went twang. They had forgotten to tighten up some bolts when they replaced the back brake pads, and so bolts had sheared off and all sorts of shit had happened. They fixed it for nothing, but I was a bit dubious about this.
Being a glutton for punishment, I phoned them up again when time came for a new service. Thankfully, they took matters out of my hands. "What sort of bike is it?" I was asked. Suzuki GR650, I said. "How old is that?" I was asked. This puzzled me. 1983 or thereabouts, I replied. "Sorry mate" I was told "We've got a new service manager and we don't touch bikes before 1990 any more." My reply was "That's the best news I've had from you yet." and I hung up.
That meant I had to find someone new to look after the bike. Up till now, I'd been going to service centres that were attached to retail sales. And the service guys moved around a lot. This time, I hunted down a guy who did nothing but service bikes. Lloyd Penn in Artarmon. And that was pretty close to Crows Nest where I was working at the time. So I booked the bike in, and had the first service done. What a delight. The guy knew his stuff, he did a great job on the bike, and it didn't cost the earth. I'm really happy with his work. Best of all, he agreed with me that the bike looked pretty crappy, but he said it was very mechanically sound. Which means I'll keep the damn thing. It goes well, it's comfortable, but it looks like shit so it doesn't matter if it gets scraped or scarred, and no-one will ever bother trying to steal it.
29th July 1997
The bike's in pretty good condition still. It passed pink slip inspection with flying colours, which is most unusual. I put it all down to the excellent work down by Lloyd Penn who looks after the bike now. However, the bike is near the end of its life, I fear. It's swallowing oil, and will probably need an engine overhaul soon. The back suspension has given way. The overall feel is of a bike that has suddenly got very old. Anyway, Michael at work has bought a new bike and I am jealous and now I want a new bike. Maybe early next year will see a new beast in the stable.
15th July 1996
I ride an old 1985 Suzuki GR650. That's one of the old style of bikes where you sit up on it. I'm a bit dubious about these newer bikes where you lie down on them to ride them. Given the size of my belly, that is going to be a bit difficult. My bike is battered, banged up, ugly, and it's missing bits. But it's completely mechanically sound, and it starts every time, and when I twist the throttle it jumps ahead. No-one is going to want to steal it, no-one is going to want to vandalise it (it looks like it's already been done). So I ride it quite happily, and while it still goes, I'll continue to ride it.
I've thought about getting a new bike, but for the time being I'm happy with what I've got. There's only problem with it, and that's the cost of keeping the damn thing on the road. That's not the fault of the bike, but lying politicians (a tautology) and greedy insurance companies (another tautology).
Registration Costs - A Brief NSW History
Let me state first of all, it's bloody expensive to keep a bike on the road in New South Wales. Running costs aren't the problem because a bike is fairly cheap to run pretty much anywhere. It's the yearly bust of keeping the bike legal that's the problem. When I first moved to Sydney in 1988, I thought the legal costs in NSW were outrageous compared to Queensland, and I wanted to keep my registration in Queensland. I did for a short while, until a very knowledgeable motorcycle policeman pulled me over and explained the facts of life to me. I shortly thereafter became completely legal in NSW.
In 1989 and 1990, I stayed with the Queensland Main Roads Department because of the cost. Those two years cost me $206 and $219. That price included registration and third party insurance. I was informed by the nice motorcycle policeman who pulled me up one day, that there was a problem with living in NSW and keeping the bike registered in Queensland and having a Queensland licence. That was if I had lived in NSW for more than three months, then I was an unregistered rider on an unregistered vehicle. If I was in an accident and the police or insurance company could prove that I had been in NSW for more than three months (rental records or a listing in the White Pages), then I would be charged for everything they could charge me for, and the insurance companies would refuse to protect me, and I would be sued out of existence for any damages. After checking this advice and confirming its veracity, I changed to the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority. What a bastard that was.
The costs immediately rose to $414 for 1991. That was broken into $106 for rego and $308 for compulsory third party insurance. And if that wasn't bad enough, NSW made you obtain a Pink Slip every year for registration. You had to get the bike roadworthy every year. What a change from Queensland, where you could ride or drive a vehicle into rust without ever having it checked (something I did several times, as Tony can confirm after buying a battered Toyota Corolla from me). I had to get brakes fixed, mufflers attached, rusted holes covered up, lights working, that sort of thing.
In 1992, things eased a little bit. Up till then, third party insurance had been limited to a few insurance companies and the cost of the compulsory third party insurance was kept fairly low. High by Queensland standards, but low given what was to come. The Liberal State Government decided to throw open the compulsory third party insurance racket to all the insurance companies and let market forces decide the costs. "Prices would fall with competition" the government spruikers said. "Everyone will be happier" they said.
And so it was for the first year. In 1992 my costs dropped to $361, which was $108 for registration (a modest increase of $2), and $253 for the third party insurance (an almost unbelievable drop of $55). All us suckers who vote for the lying bastards of politicians must have thought that they were telling the truth for once. Insurance costs were lower.
Next year was similar. In 1993, registration again increased by a modest $2, but third party insurance fell again to $218 (another drop of $45), making a total cost of $318. This was pretty good, I thought. From $414 to $318 in two years. Hey, another two years and it might be as cheap as Queensland.
But those two years had been the sweetener. A couple of drops in prices to get us all to accept the situation. For the insurance companies, two poor years in return for massive profits from then on, must have seemed a pretty good bargain. For then, market forces came into sway and the savage competitiveness of the insurance industry meant that the major players were within a dollar of each other's prices, and those who didn't want motor bike business were $50-100 dearer. Every price rise was uniform. Competition, hah!!!
1994 was a shock to all of us. The third party cost jumped back to $318, and registration jumped a little to $114. $432 for the year. A $100 jump. That hurt.
1995 hurt even more when the compulsory third party insurance went up by another $63 to $381. And now in 1996, the third party has increased again by a massive $123 to $504. Total registration this year is $624. How's that for an increase? $414 in 1991, to $624 in 1996.
And it's not just the motorbikes. Car registration is only a little more expensive than a bike. Those of you who live in Queensland must be laughing. What does it still cost up there? $150 a year? $200? And you don't need a pink slip every year.
So every year, I fork out my hard-earned money to the State Government and to the insurance companies, and I curse the bastards, every last one of them. I curse the lying politicians, and I curse the opportunistic insurance companies.
Riding A Bike in Sydney
17th July 1996
Apart from the cost of keeping the bike on the road, riding the bike in Sydney is fun. When I moved here from Townsville, I was a bit awed by the traffic and a bit hesitant about trying it. When my bike arrived in Sydney, it was stuffed inside a giant coil of copper wire on a pallet. Thanks to Bill Moline for this novel and cheap manner of transport. I went by public transport way out west to the depot, and rode the bike back. On the way back, I fulfilled an old ambition: I rode over the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Today, after taking the same trip hundreds of times, there is no novelty. But that first time was a moment of exultation.
I was once told a story about a bike rider crossing the Harbour Bridge. I'm sure it's just another urban myth, but you often find that these urban myths spawn reality, and very occasionally you find that reality spawns the urban myth. This one concerned a large stereotyped bikie on a stereotyped Harley-Davidson; boots, jeans, Jackie Howe singlet, leaning back in that comfortable armchair pose that the Harleys insist upon. His bikie moll was perched behind him, and had leaned forward and unzipped him and was massaging his over-sized gearstick all the way across the Harbour Bridge at a time of heavy traffic. Visions of that scene crossed my mind when I came across the Harbour Bridge that very first time, but alas, I was missing practically every ingredient: Harley, girl and oversized gear stick.
There are areas of Sydney that I don't like visiting by bike, like around Newtown, or wherever Sydney is really old, and the streets are really narrow. I don't like that. Drivers get irritable and I get irritable, and mistakes get made. But elsewhere it's great. In general, Sydney drivers are pretty good. They are more courteous and attentive than anywhere else I have driven or ridden. Tony lived in Sydney for a while, and rode his bike around, but he says he never liked it. When discussing my riding today, he usually gives a shudder and says that he won't do it, but he admires me for riding around Sydney. I suspect that deep down he's saying that he considers himself sane and that I have a deathwish and he's not willing to say that face to face in case I pull out an automatic weapon and start waving it round. What happened was that when he went to live in Sydney, he stayed in one of the older areas where the streets are really pokey and narrow and the riding experience leaves a lot to be desired. So he's prejudiced by his experiences. If he had lived in the more salubrious parts of Sydney (anywhere north of the bridge and near the coast) then his experiences would have been much better. If you live south of the bridge, then you get what you deserve. I mean, who lives there? Riff-raff, that's what. (There's no snobbery and class condescension in Australia, is there, mate?)
Parking is pretty good with a bike. No matter where you go, you always find that cars have been parked so that there gaps between them that are too small for a car. When Anne drives me round and we spot this, she curses and complains that if they had parked more considerately and compactly, there would be room for the car. This is no doubt true, but I don't join in the cursing, because I know that if I came past on the bike and saw all those wonderful gaps, that I could park quite easily. And inevitably, it would be no more than a block or two from where I wanted to get to. Yep. Parking is good with a bike. And if by chance you find that everyone has parked compactly and there are no gaps, then I just go up on the footpath and park in a nook or cranny under the building. Not quite legal, but you can get away with it on weekends and nights.
Running costs for the bike are pretty small. If I take public transport, it will cost me about $10 a day to get to and from work. If I go by bike, it costs about $7 a week. This is a considerable saving, and when you're on a limited budget like I am, then this can affect your conspicuous consumption. I get a small weekly stipend which is supposed to cover lunch and transport. So when transport costs $10 a day, I don't get much lunch and I don't get to buy any books or magazines or CDs. Which is why I prefer to travel by bike at any opportunity. Except when it rains. I just hate walking in to the office and looking neat and professional except for my trouser legs which are sodden and my shoes which squelch. Several hours at work will dry the trousers, but the shoes take several days to dry out.
One of the nice things about Sydney is that they have transit lanes and bus lanes. Transit lanes are designed to reduce traffic by only allowing vehicles that carry three or more passengers, such as buses and loaded cars. As a sop, taxis and motorcycles are also allowed to use the lane. One of the delights of travelling by bus in peak hour, is watching the police pulling over and booking cars with insufficient passengers who use the transit lanes. There have been newspaper reports of cunning car owners who don't have the necessary three passengers, and who instead fill the car with blow-up sex dolls dressed in business outfits. The newspaper reports are usually of the times when they are stopped and caught and fined. Bus lanes are a bit more subtle. The only one I know leads from the north onto the Harbour Bridge, and all the way across the Harbour Bridge. This is for buses only. And taxis and hire cars and, of course, motorcycles. Regular cars, regardless of how many passengers, should beware. In morning peak hour, the police sit at the far end of the Harbour Bridge and pluck the sneaky cars out and fine them. I think the fine is over $100. There is a wonderful virtuous feeling that comes from travelling across the Bridge and seeing police ahead of you pulling cars over, and you know that you have done no wrong and you are not going to get pulled over. It feels great.
The bus lane on the Bridge is pretty good. The rest of the Bridge can be clogged with cars, all travelling at a snail's pace, and I can hare across the Bridge at 100kph with no obstructions. Wonderful. There might be a 60kph speed limit over the Bridge, but if you lock speed with most of the buses, you will see that they travel across at about 100kph whenever they can. It's pretty safe, because other traffic simply cannot move into the bus lane once you're on the Bridge. Not physically possible, so speed is a distinct possibility.
That's something I should mention about Sydney. When I lived in Townsville, I was booked for speeding or parking or something several times a year. Every few years I would lose my licence. There were traffic police everywhere, radar traps everywhere. There was a police presence. I come to Sydney and there's been nothing. I haven't been done for speeding at all, and only two parking fines. In eight years. I've been random breath tested once. There isn't a traffic police presence here. It's wonderful. I've been pulled over by one motorcycle policeman, but that was because I was riding the bike with no number plates. Some arsehole had stolen my plate, and I was waiting for the replacement plate to arrive from Queensland. So it was odds on that someone was going to notice this and pull me over and check if I had papers (which I did). But apart from that, Sydney is great for police. They don't hound you in the traffic, and if you play the game sensibly, then you don't get into trouble. And when real trouble comes along, like you get burgled and you phone for the police, they are there within minutes and they do all the right things. I like Sydney for this.
Back to biking. There are drawbacks to riding a bike, of course. I've already mentioned rain. You get wet when it rains. I discovered several interesting features about riding in the rain, after I moved to Sydney. Firstly, you attract a lot more water when you ride. You collect it. The rain comes down and is collected by your chest, and is channelled down and concentrated so it rushes down and passes between your thighs and hence between your buttocks. It's like sitting on a large cold snake that is worming its way between your buttocks. It's a most unpleasant sensation unless you are that way inclined.
The other drawback is that it is very easy to be killed or maimed. Anne regularly draws my attention to bike riders who are killed or maimed in our area. We'll be driving somewhere and she'll say "A bike rider was killed just there yesterday." or "Over there is where that girl bike rider got hit and injured". This of course does great things for my confidence.
I don't know what it's like for other bike riders, but I'll briefly describe what a bike ride to work is like for me. I might be tired, irritable, relaxed, happy, whatever, but when I pull the helmet on, fire up the bike and release the clutch, all thoughts and feelings are submerged under a pall of terror. I am alert, I am cautious, I am a coward, I think about death and maiming, I am charged with adrenaline, and I stay super alert for the duration of the trip. I get off the bike, pull off the helmet, and the memory of the trip fades instantly. When you're not on it and riding, it's hard to conjure up the memories of how mentally active you have to be. When I'm on the bike is when I feel most alive.
When I take public transport to work, usually when it rains, I find that when I get home, I need time to unwind and distance myself from work. Not so when I ride. That terror-trip has the ultimate effect in distancing me from work. Work feels like a million years ago. I wonder what the constant application of adrenaline does to the system?
Another benefit of riding a bike is that you develop very strong wrists on both hands. Every trip, you're constantly squeezing the brake lever and the clutch lever. Your wrists get very, very strong. And when you meet someone new who happens to be a six foot six gorilla who thinks that the height of entertainment is to shake hands with a computer nerd and crush his hand, then there is immense satisfaction in being able to match the animal grip, and then squeeze just that little bit harder to let him know he should bugger off. I hate Neanderthals who do that, so I take great pleasure in spoiling their little game.
A Late Start to Motorbikes
15th November 1996
I was a late starter when it came to bikes. I was 31 when I decided I wanted to learn. I knew several people who rode, Tony and Peter, so there was a vague interest in it, but it wasn't until I started getting interested in Peter's sister that I took action. Her previous boyfriend was a bikie; a real bikie - jeans, blue Jackie Howe singlet, beard, tattoos, you know the type. If he could ride, then so could I.
Unfortunately for him, Tony offered to teach me. Step number one was to find me a bike, and this is where Tony made his first big mistake. He bought the bike, an ancient Yamaha 500cc, and offered to let me pay it off. Now in the bad old days when I lived in Townsville, I wasn't earning a great deal of money, and I had unfortunate attititudes to loans. I had the goods, and the concept of a repayment was a little foreign. Of course, this is all changed now that I live in Sydney and earn a comfortable living. But this was back in the bad old days and Tony was the unfortunate bunny. He did get reimbursed eventually, with a trade in computer goods, but I suspect that he is not altogether happy with the way things worked out. And yes, I feel guilty about it, and I keep trying to make amends to this very day. But the bike was very good for our purposes. It was cheap, and very strong, and if I dropped it a few times as a learner, then it wasn't going to do all that much damage to it, and it certainly wouldn't affect the cosmetic appeal of the bike as there was none.
So there I was, 31 years old, on an old ratty Yamaha 500cc, with Tony ready to instruct me. I had a helmet and gloves, although I can't remember how I managed to afford them. Maybe Tony contributed to that too. But anyway, I'm glad I had them as they saved me from a fair bit of damage. Tony took me to the carpark at Westside Plaza on a quiet Sunday afternoon for my lessons. He stood in the centre of the car park, and I rode slowly around and around, learning how to stop and start, travelling no more than about 2 km/h, doing big lazy circles and figures of eight. After an hour of this, the 12-year-old daughter of a friend of mine appeared unexpectedly when I had stopped and was talking to Tony. I gave Megan a wave, and decided to show off a bit, always being a sucker for women of any age. With pride, I started the bike up, going a bit faster than I had done before. The bike jerked forward, my right hand jerked back, causing the throttle to open right up, and the bike and I took off at a great rate, me sitting on it paralysed with fright. We ploughed forward into the building, striking a security door to a Hades Hot Bread shop, demolishing it. The bike stopped, I shot forward and struck my head a great whack on the edge of a row of concrete blocks. The bike and I slowly toppled over. Inside a bike helmet is great peace and quiet. I lay there feeling terribly calm, not wanting to know about any damage, but Tony dragged me up.
My damage was minor: a deep slice on my little finger, shock and humiliation. If I hadn't been wearing the helmet, I wouldn't be here. My skull would have been crushed like a soggy tomato being whacked with a hammer. The bike needed some repair work, but as it was ancient and designed to help a learner get over the first few falls and prangs, this wasn't a great problem. The door to the Hades Hot Bread shop was ripped apart.
We departed quickly. I wheeled the bike back to my place, then Tony drove me to hospital to have my hand stitched. The bike got repaired in due course. Tony still loves to tell this story today, delighting in the punchline that he always knew I would find some way to go to Hades.
Several weeks later, the bike was ready to go again, and so was I. Or so I thought. This time, we tried another shopping centre carpark at Nathan Plaza. Tony stood there for about three quarters of an hour while I sat on the bike trying to get up the courage to let the clutch out. I had lost my nerve. I was gutless. Chicken. Scared. But finally, when Tony started to swear at me, and the clutch was starting to smoke, I let it out and continued riding in slow circles. A major breakthrough. After this, it was all pretty easy. I learnt all the usual things you have to learn, and Tony learnt that he was never again going to teach someone to ride.