Rescue Riders

Last updated 12:00 12/12/2012
LEADER OF THE PACK: Reporter Lucy Townend, red helmet, rides pillion with Ron Mabey through the Manawatu Gorge on this year’s Woodville Lions Suzuki Coast to Coast ride.

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For 20 years, motorcycle enthusiasts from around New Zealand have been cruising from coast to coast for the Woodville Lions' annual Palmerston North rescue helicopter fundraiser.

First-time pillion rider and reporter Lucy Townend joined in the anniversary ride and caught up with four motorcyclists who haven't missed a trip.

I once rode my friend's scooter when I was 16.

I skidded out on a corner and broke off a protective skirting panel attached to the front.

No-one has trusted me with a two-wheeled motorised vehicle since and there ends the extent of my motorbiking experiences.

So, when the organiser of the Woodville Lions Suzuki Coast to Coast ride, Clive Boyden, asked if I'd be keen to come for a cruise to join in the ride's 20th anniversary celebrations, I couldn't help but feel apprehensive.

The memory of sliding sideways towards the gutter on that silver 50cc scooter still seemed a bit raw, and the anxiety was heightened by the spate of motorbike accidents on New Zealand roads recently.

Just last week, two Taranaki men who were taking part in a motorcycle charity run were killed in a road accident.

To fuel my fears, everything that could go wrong with my motorcycle excursion was discussed in detail among my work colleagues, friends, and family - from minor catastrophes, like having a sore tailbone after an hour on the bike, to more concerning ones, like being splattered on a state highway by a big rig on its way to Woodville.

Judging the ride on rumoured risks seemed unfair and I refused to wuss out, so I joined more than 400 motorcyclists at Himatangi Beach on Saturday morning to sign up for the 200-kilometre journey across the Manawatu and Tararua countryside.

The start line was scattered with men and women wearing an array of leathers and black denim, as well as the fairly recent addition, according to riding veteran Lynn Southee, of fluoro vests.

The Feilding motorcyclist has ridden in all 20 Coast to Coast rides and says it's best to be seen these days.

When he's out on the highways riding his Honda Gold Wing,he wears a bright vest and, looking out across the sea of motorcyclists milling around before the ride, most had followed suit and were adorned with a splash of fluoro somewhere.

I looked the part in a full set of borrowed leathers, including my own vest, and was teamed with Palmerston North man and experienced rider Ron Mabey.

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Perched on the back of his red Suzuki Boulevard 800, you could tell I was a first-timer.

As soon as we roared out of Himatangi, I found myself clinging to Ron like a baby koala.

I headbutted his helmet at every gear change, acceleration or slight tap of the brakes and my grip was vice-like.

Probably to Ron's relief more than mine, the nervous energy eased before we hit State Highway 1 and I had the pillion-riding down pat.

As the rumble of the engine emanated beneath me, buzzing up through my feet, I began to feel in tune with Ron and the motorbike's movements.

He'd lead us left around a corner, leaning into the turn and I'd copy. He'd lead us right around a corner, leaning into the turn and I'd copy.

When a big gust of wind came rattling off a truck travelling the other way, Ron would hunker down under the perspex protector on the front of the Boulevard and I'd do the same.

By the time we hit the end of the straight towards Sanson my baby-koala death grip had loosened and I started to relax into the ride.

We were at the front of the motorcycle group and taking a quick glimpse back revealed a mass of silver metal snaking up the road behind us. Ron and I were merely two among hundreds and I felt insignificant.

Palmerston North riding veteran Grant McRae described the feeling as "together alone".

He has an array of brightly-coloured race badges on his hat boasting his 20-year track history of riding every Coast to Coast fundraiser since its 1992 inception.

Mounting his BMW R1150, he says motorcycle riding is solitary experience void of distraction, but the joy is at the end when you all come together and share your stories.

There's something comforting about riding in a pack but special in the sense that everyone's experience of the trip is a little different, he says.

After being only a passenger in the four-wheeled vehicle variety, being on the back of a bike was not what I expected.

For starters you felt every hump, bump and lump in the road, and every sight, sound and smell seemed more vivid and more real.

As we passed fields filled with livestock, the stench of pungent cowpats clung to my nostrils. Trees, mountainsides and river valleys blurred into smudges of green and brown. Low swooping sparrows and splattered roadkill was within reaching distance.

I have driven the ride's route before but the journey was more exhilarating on the bike and Palmerston North riding veteran Trevor Ward can vouch for that.

He says riding a motorbike is addictive, and once you start you'll never want to stop.

For the 20 years he's being doing the Coast to Coast ride, he's done it on the same bike, a 1969 Triumph TR6P.

Half the fun is getting there, he says, and patting his Triumph on the petrol tank and saying, "hey, job well done".

Back in Trevor's heyday he was part of a motorcycle club with another Coast to Coast veteran rider, Bruce Hancock.

Bruce - who drives a Harley-Davidson Superglide Custom - went to Central Normal School with Trevor, and the two have been saddling up together ever since.

It's a terrible thing to say, but I had always pegged motorcyclists with gang members or big burly men covered in tattoos and, although in some instances this may be true, the crowd at the Coast to Coast was much different.

They described themselves as "grey heads" and the four veterans told me that over the years the face of motorcycling has changed.

There's a noticeable generation gap now, with riders tending to be more experienced, with a sensible head on their shoulders.

With the price of motorbikes, riding levies and insurance constantly increasing, not everyone can afford to saddle up, they say.

When the ride started, it was filled with young "milk bar bandits", including them, who would stop off at every pub on the way for a drink, or two, before getting back on their bikes and racing off again.

But this isn't the case any more, the ride stands for friendship, camaraderie and having a good time with guys, and girls, who share the same passion as you.

It's no longer a race and safety is always at the forefront of riders' minds.

So, with my first motorbike-riding experience ticked off, I walked away from the ride unscathed, apart from the aching tailbone I was warned about, and wanting more.

The reason why these men and women regularly ride motorbikes seems clear to me; it's not the death-defying dangerous experience my 16-year-old self had imagined after falling off that silver scooter.

The ride was filled with banter, laughter and people from all walks of life who love their motorbikes and the freedom of a good ride.

At the end of the day, it is the longest-running continuous fundraiser for the Palmerston North rescue helicopter.

The ride is for a good cause, and brings together good people.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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