Mount Gambier, SA. 22nd February 2016.
While I’d been in Adelaide, conversations with my son had led to the offer of a free pass for the World Super Bike Race meeting at Phillip Island, south of Melbourne. His girlfriend’s Dad is a mechanic with Crescent Racing, who have teamed up with Pata Yamaha and will run their WSB programme this year. They’ve had a five year lay off and have returned with their all new YZF-R1. A full weekend paddock pass, for free, was too good an opportunity to resist. I didn’t even have to divert from my journey as Melbourne was my next destination anyway.
Phillip Island is a motorcycle Mecca. Although they run car races there too, the biggest events are WSB and Moto GP, making the car races almost incidental. Even some of the bends are named after famous Aussie bike racers. To be fair to the four wheelers, V8 Supercar racing is pretty big there too. Bike racers describe it as one of the best tracks in the world to race on. The best thing for me was that I now had a personal interest in the results. Despite riding a Suzuki, I now support Yamaha!
First though, I had to get there. At this point I have to declare that Doris is a little unwell. She’s had a hard life, after all. 90,000 kms total distance, 78,000 on this journey at time of these events. The timing chain is long overdue for renewal and some piston wear has definitely taken up residence inside. Oil consumption is now a constant factor. The poor old girl needs a top end tear down and some TLC. But, as long as I keep the oil topped up, she just keeps on going and I have no fears of imminent failure just yet. Anyway, with my earplugs in and music turned up loud, all seems good.
The journey took me south of the city, up over Mount Barker and down towards the coast. And it wasn’t plain sailing. There’s something very odd going on with my petrol tank. Let me explain. I bought an Acerbis off-road style plastic tank, with a capacity of sixteen litres. Much more practical than the original nine. It has a tap on each side and I run with just the RH one switched on. When I get low on fuel I turn the LH tap from Off through to Reserve. I think of this as ‘first reserve. When that runs low I turn the RH tap from On to Reserve, ‘second reserve’ if you like. Depending on consumption, this normally begins to happen at around 260 to 280kms. This day it began at 180kms. I was either suffering appallingly bad consumption or something was wrong. I went on to ‘second reserve’ soon after. The same scenario was with me throughout the day. With an average fuel consumption of 20kms per litre, it should have been getting up into the mid to high 200s before needing reserve. Very, very peculiar. I could only think of two reasons. Vacuuming of the fuel tank or some kind of blockage of the taps or their filters. Whichever, it didn’t really make sense.
When I got to my overnight stop in Mount Gambier, I went to gaol. No, no, not for thrashing Doris mercilessly. I’m allowed to do that even though I don’t. The old Gaol House had been converted into a hostel. It’s quite a funky place, with dorms set up in the former cells. First opened in 1866, it was ‘active’ until 1995. In 2010 the current owners bought it and converted it into a backpacker hostel and function centre. They hold music events there and people can hire small or larger areas, along with accommodation if required. All the original features are still there and it makes a unique place to stay.
Before I left I took a ride up to see the Blue Lake, on a hill above the town. It was formed in an old caldera and is famous for its deep blue colour. Sadly, the effect was somewhat spoiled as the sky was overcast, but it still looked impressive. It also supplies the town with water and I was equally impressed by the systems used to supply the water while keeping the lake full, but not overflowing.
South of Mount Gambier, at Portland, the Eyre Highway begins its wanderings. It’s otherwise know as the Great Ocean Road and is one of Australia’s iconic routes. Its appeal is the natural beauty of the coastline, which it follows closely. There are many viewpoints to stop at, take photos and generally enjoy the view. There is something special about a nice shoreline, isn’t there?
Two of the noted views are of the Bay of Islands and the Twelve Apostles, a series of large island rock stacks close to the shore. Eroded by the constant pounding of the Southern Ocean, they are of layered limestone rock now separated from the main cliffs. The Twelve Apostles used to be called the Sow and Piglets but the need to attract tourists force a name change in 1922. There’s only ten left now, the ocean having eaten the other two. The only way to see them all is from the air so I satisfied myself with joining the tourist hordes and taking photos of those in view from the lookout point on the cliff.
I stopped at a hostel in Apollo Bay, with plans to reach Phillip Island next day and take a look around. In the morning it was chucking it down with rain so I adopted plan B and stayed right where I was. At least it gave me a chance to sort out some issues with my credit card. Did you know that if you set up a Direct Debit, but then don’t use it, your bank will cancel it after thirteen months? No, me neither. And when mine did just that they didn’t even have the courtesy to write and tell me. Which meant when I used my spare credit card the DD was no longer there to pay it off. I got it all sorted out eventually. The CC company cancelled the penalty charge and my bank compensated me with a small payment, so all was OK. Very annoying though, and very arrogant of my bank, I thought.
Next morning was dry and I set off once more. There were several sets of roadworks and the route was busy with cars. So although bend swinging would normally have been the order of the day, I took it easy and enjoyed the views instead. I was heading for a ferry which runs from Queenscliff, near Geelong, across the mouth of Port Phillip Bay. It cost $35 but saved close on 150kms by avoiding the ride around the bay and also the roads close to Melbourne. When I pulled up on the ferry the rattling from the engine caused a guy in a small truck to ask if it was a diesel. Oh dear! We chatted and he said he lived not far from the bridge over to the island and invited me to come and stay while I took a look at it, if I wanted to. A very kind offer and one I would consider.
On the island I found the circuit and made my way to the Accreditation Centre, where I’d been told my pass would be. But it wasn’t! The woman there said it would probably arrive in the morning. Meanwhile, I needed to get into the circuit campsite, which could only be done if I had a ticket. Impasse. The solution was to pay for a ticket, the ticket office promising they’d refund the cost once I could show them my pass. Good enough, and they did.
Phillip Island is renowned for its wind and I was struggling to put my tent up while it lived down to its reputation. I’d just got finished when someone pulled up beside me and said hello. It was Barry, the guy I knew from Byron Bay. A nice surprise. I last saw him back in May. He’d been planning a Russian trip so we chatted about that. He and his friends had a great time there and two of them made it down to Turkey before heading home. I told him about the noisy bike and he said I should head to his place and do the work on it there. Unless I get a better (or closer) offer, I’ll do just that. Barry has plenty of equipment and is a good mechanic too. I just hope Doris will get there.
Once I’d set up I managed to contact Crescent Racing and talk my way into the paddock area where I collected my pass. Practice started next day (Friday) and I was all set to enjoy it.
I had a fabulous weekend. I won’t go into every detail. The weather was generally good, so was the racing. The Pata Yamaha riders are Alex Lowes and Sylvain Guintoli. Sylvain is a former WSB champion and is new into the team; Alex is a former Britsh SB champion who has worked with crescent racing for several seasons. They had mixed results over the weekend. The Yamaha can keep with the leaders through the bends but lacks enough pace on the straights. In the first round Sylvain came in sixth and Alex was in seventh until he lost the front end on a bend. On Sunday Sylvain finished fifth but Alex didn’t do as well.. The bike had an oil leak and he missed a gear, running wide on a bend. He fought back from nineteenth to finish fourteenth. Both races were won by Jonathan Rea, from Northern Island, so although Yamaha didn’t do so well, it was good to see a Brit scooping the points.
The circuit has some great viewing pints and spectators are allowed to ride their bikes around the perimeter track to reach them. The attitude of track security seemed very relaxed. Spectators were allowed into the paddock area and tours were given, although I’m not sure exactly of what. I spent practice day wandering around the circuit and generally soaking up the atmosphere. I’m told it’s very different when the Moto GP is on. There were several other races in the programme, including national superbike races and some classes for 80s and 90s bikes. It was great to see these big old beasts blasting round the track and to see them looking mean and moody in the pits. There’s something quite magnificent about a Honda CBX Six parked in its pit garage, stripped down to the essentials and ready for its rider to hurl it down the straight before muscling it round Gardner Bend.
I had spoken to Mel, my ‘sponsor’, when I collected my pass on Thursday. After the racing on Saturday I went over to the pit and chatted to him while he and his colleagues cleaned and stripped Alex’s bike ready for repair. Fortunately only superficial damage so no all night repair sessions for the mechanics. Mel showed me round the garage. There’s a specialist tyre bay; a suspension bay staffed by Ohlins Suspension; an area with several computers where they analyse the telemetric feedback from the bike’s engine and suspension; the general mechanic’s area where Mel and a couple of others work. He said they were generally happy with the performance of the bike, considering how new it is, but recognised a slight lack of top end performance. I asked if this meant some engine rebuilding but Mel said not as the engines are sealed at the factory, as per WSB regulations. So that only leaves the engine management software as an opportunity for tuning-in more performance. Very much the way of things these days when it comes to making engines run better. Just ask Volkswagen.
Mel owns a motocross shop out in the West Midlands, where he lives. He became a WSB mechanic after being asked to help local superbike racers and it grew from there. He flies home as soon as they’ve cleared up and packed away after the Sunday race, then he has about ten days before he heads off to the next race circuit, in Thailand in this case. Fortunately he has a very understanding wife. He enjoys the life though, and is clearly good at it, having been with Crescent Racing for several years. For my part I was very grateful to him for getting the pass and enabling me to do something I would never have considered otherwise.
The circuit is smooth and fast, with some full throttle corners and some really tricky ones too. There’s a viewing point called Siberia Corner and is famed for the wind that blows in off the ocean on certain days. It also overlooks a series of left/right, bends were the bikes have to be ridden with skill and determination. I noted that the prices at the food bars weren’t too expensive and on the Sunday, having cooked for myself for three nights, I happily tried a couple of them for quality. No complaints. The circuit is, however, very determined to prevent any alchohol being brought in. All vehicles are searched as they enter the circuit and the campsite. I was amazed to discover that you can’t even take drinks from the outer to the inner part of the circuit. I’m guessing it’s a case of who the profits go to and the inner circuit bars don’t want to lose out.
While walking round the circuit I came across a huge, orange helicopter. It looked massive. I had a chat with one of the engineers who was there to greet the public. It’s based on the design that was first used in Vietnam, for flying in armoured vehicles to the battlefield. It can carry up to 20,000 pounds. It was fitted with a 20,000 (US) gallon water tank, with two huge hoses slung underneath. It seems they are used to scoop up water from a lake and enable the tank to be filled in about forty seconds. Well, I was impressed!
When I left Monday morning I had to get the bike jump started because I’d been charging my phone of its battery all weekend. It’s not a very happy starter at the moment anyway and a nearly flat battery gave it no chance. I tried to use the kickstarter but once I’d kicked it down it stuck there.I managed to force it back up but it was something else that needed looking at. I headed up towards Melbourne but quickly turned off up into the hills and a little place called Dalyston, where Ewan lives He’s the guy I met on the ferry and I’d decided to take up his offer. It took me a while to find his address on the GPS because he pronounces it Darlston. He has a house with a huge shed attached, which he uses as a workshop. He repairs pretty much anything that comes along and when I arrived was fixing up an old lawnmower. It belongs to a guy who was going to do some plastering for him, so it seems the barter system is alive and well out there.
Ewan was very welcoming and I made it clear to him I just wanted to take the cam cover off and check all was well. In the end I decided against going even that deep into the engine, worried that I might getting far more involved than I needed to. By tacit agreement, Ewan and I knew I was only staying overnight. I’d got there before lunchtime and I got stuck in to the various jobs. A crack had appeared in one of the mounting lugs for the luggage rack. Rwan has a welder, so no problem. I checked the valve clearances, all OK. I took off the clutch cover, not OK. When I’d kicked the bike over I had somehow broken the return spring and an aluminium collar that sits inside it, and helps locate the spring, had broken in too. I wasn’t too worried about either of them as they weren’t essential. That was until we worked out that the collar also acted as a spacer between the kickstart shaft and the casing. Without it the shaft was likely to move around inside the case and cause damage. So Ewan simply found a spare piece of brass bar, cut a piece off and drilled and trimmed it on his lathe until it was good enough to act as a spacer. Fantastic! We puzzled over why it had all gone wrong in the first place and eventually worked out that I had probably failed to assemble it properly after I’d worked on the clutch. Ewan rang up a local Suzuki dealer and we were very lucky in that he had a new collar in stock, although not the spring. He could get the spring in a couple of days but the collar is now on ‘back order from Japan’, which is dealer speak for ‘unobtainable’. I decided I could leave the spring until I got to Melbourne, but said I’d call in for the spring.
Ewan offered to weld up the rack for me and also to strengthen some of the lugs. While he did that I made a start on a job that would be coming up in the future. Both of my brake discs are getting worn and I have some spares back at base camp. I would bring them back with me after my next visit home but I knew I was going to have trouble removing the fixing bolts. On the basis of ‘making hay while the sun shone’, I borrowed Ewans impact screwdriver and allen bolt socket and set to. It remarkable how simple jobs are when you have the right tools. I had those bolts out in short order. That left me feeling good.
I’m very impressed by Ewan’s workshop. He’s built a separate storage area, with a mezzanine and a hoist, so he couls lock all his equipment away and, if he chooses to, rent out the main area.. He has a nice lathe, good welding gear and even a plasma cutter. He’ll turn his hand to any repair that comes his way – truly a man after my own heart. Over dinner we had a great chat about his previous job as a truckie and how he got to be where he is now. His house is a bit of a classic, having walls made of patterned metal and a particular style from the early part of the century. He’s slowly doing it up. He used to have a Harley but now he’s got a woman instead. She wasn’t around as she had flu. He’s got cousins over in Luton so visits England from time to time, although his family originally came from Scotland. He’s a terrific bloke and really helped me out. In so many ways, a typical Aussie.
In the morning I took a very nice ride out to Warragul, to the Suzuki dealer. I bought the collar of course, as well as a couple of other parts I needed for the rear brake. He very helpfully checked up on the availability of some other parts I needed. They’re in stock at the Suzuki warehouse in Melbourne, so I’ll order them when I get there. On the way back to Ewans I stopped for some lunch in a town called Poowong, where they breed 8ft long earthworms. Why? I’m afraid I have no idea!
I left Ewan once I’d loaded up the bike. The noise level now was within the range called ‘acceptable’, even though I hadn’t really done anything. So I pushed on up to Melbourne. The traffic, as Ewan had predicted, was very heavy, even going into the city. I headed to a hostel recommended by Ewan but it was full. I had to hunt around and eventually found one at St Kilda, where I booked in for couple of nights. I had to park the bike round the corner, cover it up and keep my fingers crossed. I’ve never felt at risk from theft in Aussie towns but big cities march to a different drumbeat. I chatted to another rider in a servo and he told me there were biker gangs in the city who loved to steal bikes. All I could do was hope they didn’t spot mine before I moved on.
Next day I booked myself onto the Spirit of Tasmania, 07.30 sailing, leaving the following morning. I’d heard a lot about Tasmania and was looking forward to exploring the island. Gilda had given me a list of ‘must see’ places to visit and I’d heard it was a very biker friendly place. At that point, I didn’t know the half of it.