Jeez Iíd need two memories put end to end to get close to recalling any of the who, the where or the when of that first time (but I could probably have a good guess about the why of it). Cripes, at my age I can barely recall anything about the last time, so donít expect me to write about the first one.
No, the First Time that Iím talking about is the first real ride with a HOG group, or any other mob for that matter. The great occasion was the Darwin Dry Ride 97 organised by Mike starting on Easter Friday and ending a bit over 3 weeks later. This was to be the end of a 40 year dream. Iíd owned bikes on and off ever since I started work, but never a big touring bike on which I could do all those trips Iíd mentally planned over the years. I spent nearly the first two years after I retired test riding bikes trying to find the instrument that would make those dreams real.
I reckon I rode every bike on the market before I tried a Ď93 Road King. When I brought it back from the test ride I knew I was getting close but I wasnít ready to make a commitment right there and then so I complained that the handlebars werenít just right.
Now what sort of a p- weak excuse is that!
Now that salesman whipped me over to the handle bar rack to show me a set that would just match my needs. A moment of relief when he couldnít find the sort he was looking for, but it was only a moment when he remembered a pair on a bike out the back.
I should never have gone with him because at soon as Iíd turned the corner, there it was, in pieces and filthy dirty from itís last obviously country home, but never the less the embodiment of those 40 years of dreams, a Ď91 Ultra Classic. I was sold right then and there, and although I tried not to show it Iím sure the salesman knew it.
So the deal was done and while the bike was put back together and cleaned up for a test ride I went off to bring the money together, lots of money, which was why the dream had waited until the retirement bonus came along. On the 2nd of November 1996 she (he? - itís been named Harrison The Harley) was mine and the next weeks were an exercise in frustration as the little details which would lead to perfect condition were found and slowly put right.
Perhaps I should have read the signs better because even on the Thursday afternoon before the start of the ride she was back into the workshop to have a new seal put on the front wheel bearing and all of the leaked grease cleaned off the brake disc. But I wasnít put off, and with the last minute packing and stowing finished in the dark hours of Good Friday morning I reckoned I was ready to begin living the dream. She fired up first time and, with little time to warm up, we slipped under the roller door and eased off down the road trying to keep the revs at about 2000 to get oil up to the heads, but no quicker until the oil pressure gauge began to fall below 40 psi. I figured this gave a fair indication that she was warming up and ready to lift her skirts (cuffs?) and flash a bit of rim to the world. Pleased with my restraint when I knew I was running late I eventually gave her the gun through the fog around the wetlands and out to the first meeting point at the Service Station past the Old Spot Hotel.
Before I expected it there they were, a gaggle of Harleyís but at the wrong Station!
Hell! - Hop on the hooks and wheel around into the out lane (to the excitement of a couple of sleepy car drivers) and peel off onto the driveway. Yes, this was the Darwin Ride and yes, this is probably the wrong meeting place. Introductions all round and off up the road to the right meeting place. In formation for the first time on a real ride, sort of, not the common weekend jaunt this time!
Other exhausts besides mine barking at the trees, others in front of me leaning at the same crazy angle to the rest of the world, - I was touring - the dream was reality - the feeling was beyond description. Even now I canít tell my friends. Youíve got to have been there and done it - right?
Meet again at the right fuel station, off again, those exhausts rumbling, up through Gawler to the next meeting point at Tarlee. Although I didnít realise it at the time this fairly slow section gave me the first indications of the problems which were to have an increasing effect on me for the next few days. Slowly but surely if I lost concentration and enjoyed the sounds and sights, riders passed me and I dropped further behind, needing more and more right wrist exciter on the straights to catch up. I donít remember much about the ride through the Clare Valley or the mid north as the pace got a bit quicker, but I do remember the sinking feeling as I lost sight of everyone shortly after the start of Horrocks Pass.
There were no straights here to play catch up and to overcome the embarrassment I felt at being way behind even Tail End Charlie, and not wishing to slow down anyone who wanted to enjoy the obvious excitement of this tight road. As I came out of the last bend of the Pass and looked down the road descending across the flat slope towards the Pt Pirie-Pt Augusta highway I could see a few black specks just about to join up with the main body waiting to turn right towards the top of the Gulf. The right wrist exciter got wound all the way round and I hit speeds Iíd never been game to do before. That sinking feeling was beginning to surface and I wondered if Iíd made a mistake, if I was really up to this trip, if Iíd left it too late in life to manage a big bike. Had the reflexes gone that far without me realising it. Did the rest of my life mean so much that I had lost the courage to take more than a mild risk on the back of this wild bronco. Questions, questions, questions.
Lunch at Pt Augusta and on to Glendambo. No sharp bends, a few wide sweeping curves and long straights where I could more easily play catch up without things getting too hair raising. I guess I must have used up half of the water supply for all of Glendambo letting that hot shower cook my aching neck followed by 30 seconds for the rest of the sweaty little body. A meal and a few drinks at the motel in good company, a very short walk a l-o-n-g draught of medicinal tincture in case of snake attack in the sleeping bag and the world went by without me for over 10 hours.
The Road, with a station track to the left, through the Painted Desert, north of Glendambo.
Next morning was cool and clear and clean. A beautiful day made for riding. I felt good, the bike sounded good, the world of Glendambo was good as we rolled away into the coming day.
Ten minutes down the road and the sun was beginning to set on all this inner glow. I could feel the ache coming back into my neck and my shoulders were beginning to tighten up. Cornering became agony and I remember feeling grateful that there were so few of them. Slow downs became bliss and fuel stops became paradise. Every 50 or 60 km I dropped down a couple of gears to push the left hand grip back onto the bar. The constant fight to keep the bike from charging through the scrub to the left kept pulling it off and had me thinking about turning back before midday.
With the absolute stupidity that only comes from ignorance I continued after lunch, but the final straw came when first of all Dick (later to be known as Gabby - but thatís another story) came sneaking up along side to pass me a peppermint. Some wetness returned to my dry mouth and the sun peeked back over the horizon again. It didnít last however and the depression returned. Dick returned some time later to pass another mint and as he did I noticed that he transferred it from right hand to left, very casually and unhurriedly, but quite clearly for a short period he was riding no hands.
I was still considering this minor miracle some time later when Tex rode by, casually taking photos! This is not possible I said to myself. If all Harleys shake and veer to the left as Iíd been told when I expressed these concerns to the service guys, whatís their secret?
This kept me going to Kulgera where despite of, or perhaps because of, a rip off meal the guys talked enough to let me know that any aches and pains they felt were self inflicted and in no way connected with any bad habits of their bikes. I found out that all Harleys donít pull to the left or shake their heads like giant Black Marlin trying to shed the barbs of a hook. I found out that Harleys, mine excepted, could be driven around a corner at speeds above 80 k and hold the line without wandering in and out and without needing continual steering, lean or throttle corrections.
Sleep was deep that night after another long soaking shower and further long sucks on the bottle of medicinal tincture.
The next day at Ayres Rock I gladly accepted Dickís offer to ride my bike for a spell. Yesterday, he said, he had ridden 37 k on the stretch from Kulgera towards the turn off to The Rock without touching the handlebars! I was anxious to test the credibility of this almost unbelievable tale. At the same time Iíd get some perspective on the problems I now knew I had with my bike, despite being assured that it was in perfect order and could be confidently taken to Darwin and back.
After about 17 k from The Rock back to the camping ground at Uluru, Dick had had enough and thought the bike was un-ride able. His apparent admiration at what he described as my skill at getting the bike this far was warming but of little consolation. On the other hand I found his bike another kettle of fish altogether and am quite prepared to accept that he could ride for long distances controlling his track with only changes in body position and pressure on the foot boards. So where did that leave me and my piece of ironmongery? Texís observation that the present (and past) Harley dealers in Alice Springs were much closer than those in Adelaide was indeed accurate and made continuation with caution the preferred option.
High prices at Uluru did not encourage lingering so our stay here was shortened and we pressed on to the Alice. I had floods of mixed feelings on this part of the trip. What would tomorrow, Tuesday, reveal? Were there really serious problems with the bike? Could I continue on to Darwin? Could I recover the original dream and dispel the recent nightmare that resulted in agony and frustration? Would I ever really enjoy riding the bike and feel enough confidence in it to plan other trips?
Mike's photo of The Riders at Ayres Rock (Now known as Uluru).
Alice Springs, Tuesday, April first, not the best day perhaps.
Escentral Motor Cycles; Roger, The Man rolls in - "Gíday", I says, "Iíve got a problem with the bike - ". I wonder how many times heís heard that from a wandering biker?
The Man rolled out on the bike heading to the highway and we all rolled in to the workshop for coffee.
The water wasnít even boiling when The Man came back. Three corners and heís come to the conclusion that the bike is not roadworthy !
The Man pulls no punches with possible problems that include a broken frame. He also leaves open the gentle options of mis-matched tyres or wrong pressures in tyres or suspension, or other simple problems. But he doesnít leave you in the dirt for long. Give him an hour to clean up some stuff, and if youíre prepared to help pass the spanners, heís sure heíll have an answer, if not a cure, by the end of the day.
I found it fascinating to work along side someone who obviously has a wealth of experience to call on, and who so obviously has a deep love of bikes in general and Harleys in particular. Someone who really does listen to what youíre saying. Someone who really does care about your problem even if itís obvious that you donít have the experience or knowledge to exactly identify the problem yourself.
Identifying the problem was the first step, with much shaking of handlebars while running greasy hands over all the parts of the frame which were hidden behind fairings, panniers and anything else which could be moved. I began to see that the invitation to help was not just for my benefit. Although I have very little experience, just to provide an extra pair of hands to hold things, or shake things, or to undo the left side nuts while The Man did the right side was a help. It avoided the frustration so often found by even skilled operators when awkward work rather than skilled work has to be done. If youíre ever in a similar situation I suggest you accept the offer without hesitation.
The search for frame breaks proved negative and this was a relief as I believe there is only the expensive option of a full rebuild or the cheap alternative of selling the rest as spares if this is found. The next part of the search focused on the rear wheel bearings, followed by the swing arm bearing and the engine mounts. These searches proved fruitless also, but it was remarkable how much better I felt knowing that the search was thorough and that nothing I could think of was being overlooked.
Finally the front end came to the examination table. I had been adamant that this was OK because it had been a worry to me before and had been checked and declared in good order. Nevertheless when the front forks and wheel were unloaded it was immediately obvious that they were only loosely connected to the handlebars. Off came the front fairing, out came the radio/tape deck and the play in the head stem bearings became obvious. At least 1 1/2 turns on the nut was required to provide even the slightest drag on the bearings. Further examination revealed looseness in the bottom triple head pinch bolts that lock the forks to the triple head. This too created play in the system and allowed the front wheel to wander. Over 1/2 a turn on each side was required to restore rigidity here.
The oil in the front forks was also suspect, probably never changed and perhaps contaminated, giving hard spots in the travel. But it could wait. Finally the front wheel bearings were checked before things began to go back together. Iíd like to think that I was of real help here because Iíd seen it all come apart and remembered how to put it back together.
When The Man came back from an extended test ride he just smiled. The feeling of relief and gratitude which I felt were overwhelming. The $100 cost seemed cheap considering weíd been at it more than all of the afternoon.
Here endeth the story you think?
Not so brother and sisters. The persistent drag from all this sloppiness had helped to scrub the back tyre and bring it to an early demise so a new one was needed to get me back to Adelaide. All thoughts of continuing to Darwin were long gone. This time $190 and next day I was on the road again, heading back to home and mental relief. The bike rode beautifully towards Coober Pedy and I forgot about the fork oil as I realised that it was the first time in the 5 months that Iíd owned the bike that I was really enjoying the ride and felt comfortably relaxed.
And so here endeth the story you might think? Not so, again.
About 20 k from Coober Pedy I felt a new and different tiny knock which seemed to be in time with the wheels. Suspecting a stone wedged in the tread of that new tyre I stopped to pick it out before damage was done. This search proved fruitless as did the next two searches, by which time I realised that the tick was getting worse. It responded to the acceleration and deceleration of the bike but did not speed up or slow down when gears were changed. Nor did it go away with the clutch in. Eventually I began to suspect the final drive belt and made an inspection looking for sticks or stones jammed between the belt teeth there. Instead I found a gap in the belt teeth, perhaps about three missing. I started the bike and pushed it as fast as I could before gently letting out the clutch, followed by very gentle acceleration and tender gear changes.
Eventually Coober Pedy came into view and I fell into the compassionate hands of George, who has the restaurant at the Ampol Roadhouse (great food at good prices, I kid you not!) and Bob who is an old biker from way back. The bike is still in Coober Pedy as I write this, displayed in the dining room by Ampol Georgeís green and grey Heritage Softail. After two days trying to get both me and the bike back to Adelaide on a truck which never seemed to arrive I bailed out on the midnight bus - $90 cash thank you, no cheques, no plastic accepted.
Bob has a bike trailer and is coming to town next week sometime perhaps - or maybe the week after. He has offered to bring my bike back when he comes. The only other option was booking space on one of those regularly irregular semiís, but there was no assurance about when space would be available. Such is the good and the bad of the country. The good people are great humans, but country time and organisation is hard to come to grips with for a city lad.
So, what now for this little wood chuck with the big dream? I think Iíve still got the dream but the nightmare is there also - much too fresh and too strong to rush into my second ride at the moment. The dream bike will eventually be restored to itís proper state, which should be better than when I got it, but I donít think I can ever feel the same about Harrison again.
I really donít know. Iíve got to get over this one before I could make a rational decision about that. If I had to make the choice now Iíd have to get something else or abandon the dream. Writing this is part of getting over the nightmare I hope.
And what is the lesson in all this if there is one? For me Iíll follow my ignorant gut feelings a lot more in future. This is going to mean that Iíll be the biggest pain in the a - - e that a service department has ever come across. But if this is the only way to overcome the fright of finding that your bike, which has been put into "perfect running order" by someone whom you should be able to trust, is described as "un-ride able" and "un-roadworthy" by others who should also know, then so be it. After all itís my neck (or yours) thatís on the line - and that line is pretty narrow when youíre on two wheels and going fast after your mates.
ps. One of the ride guys talked me into sending this story to the editor of the local Hog Newsletter, to be published as part of the record of the ride.
Being an ignorant bum I did so Ė and shortly after found out that the local dealer printed the Newsletter!
Well, all of a sudden he believed my story!
I was invited to bring the bike in for a thorough inspection by those same mechanics out the back.
To cut a long story short Iím told by others, who know these things, that about 5 grands worth of work was done on the bike in the next 3 weeks. New belt, new front and back drive pulleys too, new fork oil, tests on the steering lag, new charger, new 5th gear, checks on all the running gear alignment, new front wheel bearing, full service Ė but no admission that anything wrong was found.
The Harleys gone now, and thatís another expensive story in itself.
Iím presently on a Yamaha XV750 thatís a dream to ride Ė and I have Ė all over the state and beyond. Itís so good to ride that the Honda 250 Custom, which was my town commuter, is also gone. The Yamaha does it all.
Best of all my confidence is back. I know that I can still ride a bike!
Another Harley in the future sometime and re-start that dream?
Maybe, when Hell freezes over and thereís another dealer in town.
Annie's Gap. East MacDonnell Ranges, Alice Springs.
Dawn near Marla Bore.
The approaching sunset adds to the natural colours of the West MacDonnell
Ranges near Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to Alice Springs.
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