An old hand injury woke me up again the other night, gnawing away with that dull, toothache pain that’s always worse when the weather turns cold. The pain reminded me that it’s important to get enough sleep. And yeah, I get the irony in the fact that it always wakes me up to do that. Pain serves an important purpose, though, cutting in and waving a red flag to say “stop doing that” or, in this case, “don’t do that again.”
It was more than ten years ago now that Nick and I decided on an impromptu ride from Adelaide to The Grampians, then down the Great Ocean Road and back again over a handful of days. There wasn’t much of a budget, the bikes we had were all wrong, but with a rare windfall of time to take advantage of, we weren’t too fussed. I would take my 1996 Suzuki GSX-R750 SRAD, Nick would take his Kawi ZX/10R. Not exactly touring bikes, but we weren’t too bothered and, at the time, we were very much sports riders, after all. Scratchers. So touring was a matter of ‘run what you brung’.
The slog from Adelaide to Bordertown was exactly what you’d expect – boring as batshit. When you head out of South Australia’s capital and towards the border, that first run of featureless country and arrow-straight roads is a pain. Life begins again when you turn off the highway and head out to the lonely town of Frances, with its great little pub and welcoming people. We scoffed burgers, stretched our legs and then headed towards Horsham through Victoria’s Wimmera. The rocky outcrops of The Arapiles are the only real stand-out feature on this section, but the tiny towns along the way are beautiful and the roads are virtually empty. As the SRAD strained at the leash, I silently cursed Nick’s law-abiding attitude and staunch resolution to stick to the speed limit.
Horsham is a great rural oasis with plenty of spots always offering good food. Yes, food again. Riding is hungry work, right? The time off the bike in this town lasted a bit longer, snacks topped off by a cold beer, before we hit the highway again to get to our overnight stop, Ararat.
The weather had been kind to us for the whole ride, although Ararat promised a cold evening as we pulled into the caravan park where we’d booked a cabin. We unloaded our kit, grabbed some takeaway and sat in the little cabin washing it down with a couple more beers as that special fatigue you get from a day on the bike started to set in. We planned an early start in the morning to have breakfast at the foot of The Grampians, before riding the roads of the range and stepping down towards the coast and the Great Ocean Road. Eyelids heavy, we turned in before 10pm.
And, as it happens, Nick snores. Not gentle snoring, not intermittent snoring, but constant, industrial noise snoring. From his bunk across the other side of the room the din was almost rattling the windows. Desperate to shut the bugger up so that I could get some much-needed sleep, I tried yelling, then throwing things, then both, and finally walking over and shaking Nick awake. It took everything short of a cattle prod to rouse the bastard, and the result was a mumbled apology followed by the chorus beginning again at full noise 30 seconds later, sometimes supplemented by a truly startling fart at startup. Maybe I shouldn’t have shaken him. At 3am I went for a walk out in the cold just to get a break. Dawn found Nick still fast asleep, buried under a pile of boots and other kit that I’d flung at him during the night. I stood at the window with eyes that felt like they’d been rolled in sand, watching the sun come up, having slept not a wink. Just what you need before another big day’s ride.
Breakfast was a spectacular fry-up served by a café at the foot of the Grampians. Nick was ravenous, animated and annoyingly chirpy. I was an irritable, listless zombie. Nick made jokes about how amusing and melodic his snoring is. I was way past seeing the funny side.
We headed up into the beautiful roads of The Grampians, again blessed by perfect weather and only light traffic. The bike felt good, freed of the highway drudgery and able to sing up and down the gearbox, waking me up a bit. I was relishing the feeling of riding at a decent pace on unfamiliar roads, something I really enjoy. But behind me, I could see Nick wandering close to the white line, squaring off his turns and generally looking well off his form, not ideal on twisties where oncoming drivers regularly decide to borrow part of your share of the blacktop. We stopped at Zummsteins, and Nick cheerfully admitted that he was finding the unfamiliar roads a challenge, messing up corners, going in too hot, having to tighten his lines and generally not reading the road. We all have our off days, I mused. Maybe he had just overslept. But a safe ride is a good ride, and as a former riding instructor, I promised to slow down a bit so that he could tuck in behind me, watch my lines and just ease in to a comfortable pace. Truth be told I was really too tired to be riding myself, and in the back of my mind I was starting to cook up a plan for a short day and an early night. In my own bloody cabin, as far as possible from Nick.
When we got back on the road, even at a gentle pace Nick was still struggling to stay in place behind me. By any standards I was riding slowly, but it seemed the unfamiliar twisties really weren’t working for him. His lines were a mess and he was falling further behind all the time. Meanwhile, tired and strung out, I was spending far too much time watching my mirrors.
Then Nick disappeared.
I slowed, almost to walking pace. No Nick. More waiting as I trickled along. Still no Nick. My mind quickly created a picture of Nick lying under his bike in a Grampians gully, hurt, and possibly snoring. (I told you I was tired…) I had to turn around and go looking. On the narrow road, to do that safely, I’d have to pull onto the narrow shoulder to use more width than was offered by the tarmac alone, get the bike turned and get going quickly to avoid unseen oncoming cars that could appear around the corner. An awkward to-and-fro turn in the middle of the road could get me killed.
So, at a snail’s pace, I pulled off the tar onto the slim strip of gravel that formed the shoulder. A strip of gravel that turned out to be about a foot deep. My front wheel disappeared up to the brake disc, slewing like the town drunk, and the bike slowly started to topple. Like any self-respecting rider, I threw myself under it while hanging onto the handlebars, twisting awkwardly, hoping to prevent gravel rash on the GSX-R’s fairings by getting my nice soft body between the bike and Mother Earth. And it sort of worked. Sort of.
I wound up on my arse under the bike. The bike only touched down in a couple of spots. Pleased with this, I started to get up, but found that my right hand had ceased functioning. Holding the offending paw up in front of my face, I saw to my horror that the tip of my thumb was touching…my wrist. Try doing that right now if you like, and you’ll see that’s not how a healthy human hand should look. Without thinking, I grabbed the offending thumb and gave it an almighty yank. There was a noise like a fresh carrot being snapped in half, and my hitchhiking digit returned to its rightful place.
Pain started to shine through the adrenalin. A nice couple towing a caravan stopped in the middle of the road and offered their assistance. Cars started backing up. We got the bike back on its wheels, I offered my sincere thanks. The cars started clearing off as I stood there, drivers gawking. I assessed the damage to man and machine. At first glance the machine seemed pretty good. The man needed a new throttle hand. And some sleep.
Nick showed up a moment later. “Hey, lots of cars all stacked up coming towards me a moment ago. I thought there must have been an accident or something. Why’d you stop?”
I explained to Nick that I’d been watching him as we agreed I would, that he had disappeared, that I was worried, tried to turn around and had dropped the bike. “Eh? Nah, I just pulled over for a sec to look at the view and then I decided to have a smoke. Your bike okay?”
I lost my shit. I don’t often misplace anything, let alone my shit, but I lost it for a minute or two on that roadside in The Grampians, called Nick every name under the sun, swore about his snoring, cursed his chipper, well-slept visage and generally went off. Nick was genuinely surprised by all this ranting. “Mate, hey, take it easy! Why so cranky?” Needless to say there followed a fresh outburst and some more choice swears. Big, grown-up swears.
The rest of the ride was a salvage job at best. My thumb looked like a chicken drumstick and my whole hand blew up and throbbed like crazy. The GSX-R didn’t want to start, and ran like a dog for the rest of the ride. I’d find out after I got home – when my hand had healed enough that I could dismantle the bike - – that engine oil had run into the airbox and then the carbs. Weeks later, I did a full rebuild of the oily carbs and the problem was solved.
I didn’t really have the cash, but in the towns we stayed following our night in Ararat, I booked a cabin of my own. Nick seemed genuinely taken aback. We spent some time riding the Great Ocean Road, but the gloss was taken off it a bit by how poorly my bike was running and how badly my hand was throbbing. The GSX-R didn’t want to run at all below about 7,000rpm, something that made it both anti-social and a liability in most speed zones. We took some decent photos, so I guess that’s something.
After returning home and seeing the Doc about my hand (dislocated thumb, permanent damage to tendons and ligaments) I reflected on how the whole ride had gone downhill fast after one sleepless night and a couple of bad decisions that followed it. When I was in my twenties a wise old owl I worked with told me that the tough trips are always worth it, because any hardship you suffer burns the memories in extra deep. She was right. Turns out rides where you’re up against it can teach you lasting lessons, too.
I’m not really a person who lives by statutes, but nowadays I have about five hard and fast commandments that I apply to my riding. Reminders to myself that can help save my skin. There’s mundane stuff that predictably applies to the bike, like checking tyre pressures, but first and foremost for every ride is ‘get enough sleep’.
It’s not so much law. More a rule of thumb. And of course, there’s a story behind it…