I’d just spent the afternoon cleaning and preparing my old 860GTS for its weekend away. I’d done a good job; the bike looked like a thousand dollars. Any moment, I figured, it would have to start to rain. Sure enough, within the hour it was pissing down like Grand Final Day.
Motorcycle rallying, so its fanatic adherents have it, is about tradition. Looking up at the relentless raincloud which covered Friday afternoon, I felt warmly confident that the traditional milieu of the annual Dead End Rally was moving to pattern.
Saturday morning broke no disappointment; it was wetter than ever. With both bike and rider loaded up, I gritted my teeth, pulled on my Belstaffs, and set off to the supermarket. By the time I stepped into the New World for space-efficient roadfood, the bike already sported a fresh coat of roadgrime and the Belstaffs were impressively wet.
Storming through busy aisles, a path miraculously parted ahead of me. I gathered ryebread, a hunk of cheese, a stick of garlic mettwurst and the cheapest possible cask of No Name red, then cut a quick line to the checkout of least visible resistance. There I found a woman with a truckload of gourmet health condiments ahead of me in the queue about to be served (just as soon as the checkout operator finished her inquisition into a pensioner’s handbag). The woman ahead was looking ropable, and every few moments had an eye on her watch.
She was a hard-faced sort, for want of a more literary description, with the lines of grimace already etched despite probably being only in her early 30s. From the clothing she displayed it was clear she lived in an eastern suburbs townhouse and drove a Volvo 264; from the groceries and face one could deduce she earned a huge salary as a Human Resources manager in a large, impersonal financial institution. She looked upon my dripping Belstaffs as a glaring affront.
“Excuse me,” I intruded, noticing her pile of goods against my handful and the sign above us flashing “8 Items Or Less”. “Seeing as I’ve only these, would you mind me squeezing through first?”
A look of disgust: "I waited ten minutes," she snaps, "now you wait ten minutes.”
With a discrete sputterance roughly corresponding to the thought “go choke on a tofu lentil burger, bean-brain”, I turn my rage into positive thoughts like kicking Volvos and spraying rude graffiti on eastern suburbs’ townhouse security fences. But I snap out of it directly under the abrasive ‘strine of checkout operator Shirlene.
“Price check, checkout three, Mario? Mario? How much are the Tampax?”
The PA system collapses into a raucous squeal. Shirlene responds by repeating the message even louder. “Price check on the Tampax, Mario please, checkout three?”
A gangly junior pokes his head out from one of the aisles and does a fine impression of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. Shirlene thrusts the article in question dispassionately above her head to murmurs of rising interest from adjacent queues. Ahead of me Lady Lentil-Muck resembles a beetroot, trying to avoid attention by faking interest in the counter display of razor blades.
After a pleasing delay, Mario reappears at the far side of the supermarket.
“What?” he shouts, rattling a box in the air. “You mean the push-in kind?”
“No, you idiot!” chastens Shirlene over the PA. “Not the Thumb Tacks, the Tampax!”
A roar of applause erupts above fits of laughter scattered throughout the supermarket. It is almost a surprise to trace this clapping to my own hands and to hear my own voice rise joyously as beetroot-face shuffles out the checkout, her eyes glued to her shins.
In the carpark, I stuff what I can in the tankbag, but as the other bags are full of tentstuff and the elaborate mobile workshop which seasoned 860 campaigners are want to carry, there is no choice but to ocky strap the cask to the top of the pile and hope it doesn’t prove an invitation to the breath-test brigade. There is still the garlic mettwurst, so I strap that to the top of the cask, fire up the bike, batten down the visor, and proceed to put the wet back into wet weather gear.
An hour down the track nothing at all has gone wrong with the bike and I am starting to worry. Surely something has fallen off or shaken itself to bits. Nothing visibly askew, however, which is a bit upsetting. What am I going to do? What the hell can I talk about with the Ducati club? I decide I better adjust the chain.
Suddenly a familiar group of bikes, mainly Dukes, crest the last hill and pull up beside me.
“Something wrong?” asks Dave on the Darmah.
“Afraid so,” I reply. “The bike hasn’t missed a beat.”
Turns out they are heading for the Dead End with the same story. The Pantahs in the group are tediously reliable, the Darmahs present are still too new to have notched up their first big big-end drama, the older 750s too recently restored to be showing any signs of potential interest, and Frank hadn’t got much mileage from his SS since centre-punching the back of a truck on the freeway. Their main hope is Eddy, who is somewhere back down the road. My eyes light up as I beg explanation. Turns out Eddy owns a painfully faultless 600SL but had elected to run his ailing FC Holden ute to make the trip more interesting and to cart all the grog and camping gear. But ailing FC Holdens, like the ratty Z-series Kawasakis which rounded off this contingent, have the annoying habit of taking forever to die, so I figure it will be up to me and the faithful 860 to restore the great mythology of Ducati Meccanica to the status of living legend. Perhaps the fuse box will catch fire! Or the wire in the ignition relay might rupture up an intermittent complaint which could intrigue us for hours on the roadside, bringing a wealth of stories that could well stretch on and on for hours around the campfire.
No such luck.
A total lack of mechanical failure, even after two hours on the road induces despair and desperation in us all. In fact it leaves no option but to ride harder and harder in the hope that something will break. At least it’s still raining. The S-bends over the railway tracks provide an occasional glimmer of interest to punctuate the long and dreary sentence, drudging along between 160 and 180, but these moments pass depressingly without incident. All I can say is that the Ducatis handle the rails as if on the road.
Passing Frank’s SS to lead this tragic throng, I manage – at least – to coax a severe wallow from the 860 in a style which, hours later, our very own defending World Champion would perfect aboard a works Honda. Looking back in the rearview mirror to taunt my vanquished prey with a smugly dismissive glance, I notice something odd flickering madly through the air. Huh? Looks like Frank has torn off a tear-off visor; well, well – we are getting serious!
I pump a lusty handful and glue myself to the tank. Next time I check the mirror, Frank is tucked close behind, gesticulating wildly. Yes, about time the old bastard was knocked back a peg or two – thinks he’s Mister Bigdick just because he’s got the fastest bike. Another look in the mirror. Another visor. I gas it up some more.
Suddenly Frank is pulled up alongside me, downhill 180 kmh, frantically gesturing to the side of the road. More than annoyed, I pull over, get off the bike. What’s the story?
“You can't ride like that, Faraway, it’s obscene!”
“What on earth are you talking about – I’m perfectly in control! If you can’t hack the pace, Frank, buy a BMW!”
“Not that, you dipstick. This!”
Frank points to the back of the bike with some revulsion. It seems the cardboard cask packaging has gotten so wet that bit by bit it has blown away. There, where the cask once had been, is the silver cask liner cleaved in two by the octopus straps, looking alarmingly like a giant metallic scrotum. Dangling between the bag hangs the stick of mettwurst, bruised but not beaten.
It dongs around a lot and over 170 it sort of . . . extends itself, explains Frank. “Every time I try to pass, Faraway, your bloody bike gets an erection! I just can’t concentrate. I want to look the other way.”
I reposition the offending articles and, agreeing never to discuss this ugly incident again, we continue. At least I make up for this in a small way when the 860’s selector box obligingly jams in fifth. There is a collective sigh of relief as I dismantle and reset the ill-designed unit – it is something to talk about at least, a small step in the right direction.
Soon after hitting dirt road we strike a group of BMW riders and try to engage them in a skirmish that will prove once again the superiority of the Ducati marque. Unfortunately, this is not to eventuate. The BMW riders, concerned as ever with appearances, are more interested in protecting their investments from stone chip damage than in picking up the gauntlet thrown at them.
Reaching the town nearest to the Dead End, the main street is alive with bike activity in its traditional forms – the burnout, the donut, the wheelstand, the massive consumption of all available intoxicants, the heady exchange of motorcycle lies. After a few rounds to commiserate our uneventful ride, we stock up on beers to last till the FC arrives and motors on to the rally site. On the tight dirt road in, the wondrous happens: in a fit of profound inspiration, Dave gasses up the Darmah to pass Frank just as the track tightens into a sharp left hand bend. Refusing to budge from his line, Dave charges like a blind rhinoceros straight ahead – his progress is curbed only by the back wheel of an oncoming Harley and an accommodating ditch. In one fell swoop Dave has saved the day: both bikes are damaged beyond being ridden – and all this only metres to go to the rally site. Terrific effort!
I put up the tent and start on the bladder of red. Theory is to down as much of it as quickly as possible so the bag can be blown up with air and used as a makeshift pillow for the night. In practice, however, after drinking four litres of poison the cask bag usually disappears, as does any need for a pillow until waking next day. Anyway, the night wears on without a sign of Eddy and increasingly blurry evidence of anything else. The troops get hungry so I donate the mettwurst (I’ve kind of lost my appetite) and after polishing off the red I’ve kind of lost my sight.
At the crack of dawn I awake in a puddle of mud (at least I think it is mud) near a creek bed to the sound of Frank’s SS about to go trail riding. I need four gallons of cold water immediately so I open someone’s esky and eat the ice. I notice Peter is eating breakfast sitting on his bike. I can’t work it out: Peter always eats sitting on his bike. I ask why.
“Because I’m bloody hungry!” he replies.
Seems I missed a big night. Eddy had turned up eventually – apparently the FC’s front end completely collapsed and he had to fix the whole thing with rusty fence wire on the side of the road in the dark. The troops were starving, but all the site barbecues are in use so Eddy improvised, ripping out the FC grille, sticking it over the fire with some rocks, and tossing on the steaks. This morning, the charred remains of a couple of chops on the front of the car seem to confirm the story.
Slowly, gently, packing my gear and hangover onto the bike, I ponder the unfathomable thought of what I might have done and who I might have insulted in those lost hours of stupor before finding the dignity to give up and go to sleep. At least my own personal Dead End tradition has been upheld, but this is little comfort as my headache throbs to the beat of V-twin idle and rings with the unreasonable question: “Why the hell do I do this?”
Oh, well, that’s another Dead End, I think, greeting the welcome sight of the road ahead. Maybe next time something will happen.