Another young bloke was cut down in his prime on the Putty Road the other day.. By all accounts , speed was involved. That, and that horrible bump at the South end of the Colo River bridge as you’re heading north. It was the day before Father’s Day and the image of a young boy’s Father’s Day gift, never to be opened by the person it was intended for keeps rolling around in my head.
I say ‘young’.. but young is relative isn’t it…? To the 19-year-old me, he’d have been an old fart. An old fart riding a bike suited to a younger, fitter superhero. But from a viewpoint gained by making it to being an ‘old’ motorcyclist… this bloke was still young. Young enough to have a gorgeous young wife and a gorgeous young family. I’m guessing he was probably late 30’s; maybe 40 or so.
His group had passed us as we made our way along Windsor road that Saturday morning. A big group of mostly Italian superbikes. You know, the red ones that sound wickedly fast when they’re idling; the ones that make you feel like a superhero when just tooling around in traffic. Beneath your right wrist lies a force that blur to insignificance anything in your rear-view mirrors; and in a heartbeat.
By the time we got to Wilberforce for fuel, they’d been there a few minutes already and I was able to get a better look at the group. The usual suspects… a couple of ‘regular’ Panigales; a few Monsters, a Streetfighter and even a couple of the new hyper-sport V4 Panigales – true exotica let loose on the streets of Sydney. These are bikes that’ll crack 300km/h out of the box. The riders were mostly the usual suspects also – most of them forty-something or a bit older, riding bikes that Valentino Rossi would be proud to ride… I struck up a conversation with one of them and we chatted a few minutes about the bikes, where they were headed to (Grey Gums of course) and I complimented him on his choice of weapon – a matte-black Streetfighter. 155 HP in a bike weighing about 170kg – basically a hyper-sport bike without the fairings. A true weapon in every sense of the word.
I pulled out of the servo just as they were pulling out too. A couple of the stragglers rounded me up within seconds, overtaking me to rejoin their group and disappear in a rush of vee-twin magnificence
The run from Wilberforce to Colo is only about 15 minutes or so and the last part features a steepish descent that finishes with a couple of tight corners that are popular with motorcycle photographers. Hard right, a short steep straight then hard left, before opening up for a quick dash to the bridge across the river. Its an exciting little rush. On the right bike, and If you’re quick enough and good enough, you can get knee down in the left hander.
As we bounded onto the bridge in Colo in my old & battered Hilux, it made its usual attempt to get airborne over that confounded bump at the South end. In a car, its bit of fun. On a bike it can be lethal if you’re not expecting it. As we came across the bridge we saw the group of bikers we’d seen just seen minutes before. Haphazardly parked up , all of them were sprinting back in the direction they’d just come, sporting the distressed looks on their faces that have just seen a mate come a cropper.
Its no use recounting the carnage. The bloke is just as dead and it was horrible. It was later that day I found out that the bloke who went down was the guy with Streetfighter I’d been chatting with minutes before. It’s weird to think i may have been the last person he spoke with. Doesn’t really ‘mean; anything.. neither of us knew it at the time… but it sits a little strangely with me…
And here’s why I think… There, but for the grace of God, goes me.
When I turned 40, I decided I wanted a little 2-wheeled excitement back in my life. I’d done as I was told.. I’d graduated, worked hard, built a business, married the successful career-girl, had 2 talented and smart kids and sent them to private schools. But I missed the old me. The me before all that that.. the me that just needed 2 wheels and a good road to be happy. I’d not had a bike for about 12 years and so of course, I went out and bought the reddest, fastest, most exotic Italian bike I could. I’d always wanted an MV Agusta since I was a kid and they’d just made a comeback with the F4. Agostini was the Valentino Rossi of my youth so of course I had to have Ago’s bike…
Coming back to riding after an extended hiatus comes with a certain amount of hubris. There’s complete disregard for the thickened waistline; the crappy eyesight and slower reflexes; the long stretch across the tank to grip drop-bars that once upon a time seemed so easy, but now hurt like a bastard. Nope, nobody was going to tell me that I was too old for this shit any more. A fast red bike, a set of flashy leathers, knee-sliders and suddenly I’m 25 again…
Then of course, the group rides came. Its one thing to have the bike, but you need like-minded lunatic mates to bullshit with . So of course I joined a few ride groups and took off on Sunday morning adventures. Looking back now, I could’ve so easily been somebody who came to grief on the Colo Bridge, or somewhere else equally panoramic. I lost a good mate on the road from Cessnock to Broke a long time ago. Too much bravado, too much pace and altogether not enough planning. Pete was 42 and we’d logged a few ride-schools and lots of track days together and by any standard, he was a pretty handy rider. But something happens on a group ride occasionally… the red-mist descends and reason-borne-of-age goes out the window. He was madly trying to overtake the group ride leader and claim bragging rights at the pub at lunch. An overloaded, under-powered and under-braked Bongo Van running wide on a blind corner never figured in his plans at all. Mercifully, Pete died quickly at the scene, his 996 SPS a mangled wreck. He was single with no kids, so only his mum to mourn him.
I guess I was lucky. I cant say I didn’t feel that urge to ride beyond my limits when riding in a group . I know I did…a few times I frightened myself and on one memorable occasion on the Oxley Highway went as close to binning the MV as I’d ever like to. I think my survival to this date has been a happy dose of good luck rather than any especially good management but thats a story for another time.
So there’s the thing… both were tragic losses; but one more so because there’s a young family involved. As riders, we all know that every time we throw a leg over a bike, we’re taking a risk with our life.. It’s a risk we’ve identified, assessed and tell ourselves we can manage. At some level, we tell ourselves that accidents only happen to others; but of course the Australian motorcycle media is littered with stories of forty-something riders who return to the sport, buy something exotic then have a horrible outcome. They’re sufficiently well-heeled to be able to buy the bike of their dreams and the bike retailers will gladly lighten their wallets then let them roll out the door on a machine that is so far beyond their skillset as to be lethal. But its not the shop that’s at fault. This one’s on us. The rider is the one making all the decisions. Problem is of course, it’s their families they’re risking also. The partner left behind that is forced to re-start their life; the kid(s) who lose a parent who just went for a ride and never came back, the unrealised career potential or end-of-career retirement that never comes.. its horrible beyond words.
I’m convinced that group rides are the culprit. Conceived with good intent they’re typically a group of people who only know each other because of the group ride and not much else – so there’s a mix of skills, bikes and attitudes. Often, they’ve never ridden together before and lack the kind of roadcraft shorthand that comes with riding in the same small group over an extended period. Typically, you’ll get a small group up front who think they’re the next Casey Stoner and run a pace that’s way-too-hot for the rest of the group. Up the back, there’s the novices who’ll be trying hard to keep up; and in the middle, you could have anyone from anywhere doing unpredictable things… In their heads, they’re all superstars of course. Add in a ride leader may or may not have had much experience in leading a group ride and you’ve a recipe for disaster. I do less group rides these days but when I do, I usually try to ride up near the front of the group, and behind the really quick riders…. it gives me a chance to see what’s ahead without having to ride like a dickhead, and keeps me clear of the new guys at the back trying too hard.. Sounds harsh.. but I’ve made it this far and intend to ride a while yet.
RIP to the young bloke lost at Colo. Ride well wherever you are mate.