Christchurch men and the art of motorcycle maintenance

The Quake City Rumblers are a group of Christchurch moped enthusiasts. 
Nathan Sharratt burns some rubber on his 1971 ...
KIRK HARGREAVES/FAIRFAX NZ

The Quake City Rumblers are a group of Christchurch moped enthusiasts. Nathan Sharratt burns some rubber on his 1971 Honda Dax 70cc beast.

The leather jacket offers a weighty embrace. Its hug is part of the necessary ritual. Jacket on. Boots on. Helmet on. Frantic movements upon the starting pedal. The motorcycle engine's first primal roar to life is jarring to all in the vicinity but the sound soothes the rider: freedom awaits.

Someone within earshot will tut-tut about the noise but still feel secretly envious for reasons they cannot articulate.

The buzzing hum of the exhaust punctuates the air long after sight of the motorcycle has gone. Beneath the helmet the rider hears only the lament of the wind and stares fiercely ahead at the road's undulations.

Paddy, on the left and Dr Kerry Swanson, aka Swannie, stand in a garden area with a couple of motorbikes, Paddy has a ...
JOSEPH JOHNSON/FAIRFAX NZ

Paddy, on the left and Dr Kerry Swanson, aka Swannie, stand in a garden area with a couple of motorbikes, Paddy has a big collection of old and interesting Indian motorcycles is hosting a motorbike show on his property in Linwood ave.

Hitting a pothole, the beast screams and veers sideways before being corrected. Swarms of sandflies land like vicious darts on the visor, kamikaze-style, but the rider cannot flinch. A larger body, possibly a fuzzy buzzy-bee, may propel itself into a patch of bare skin on the rider's neck as trees and telephone poles zip past as if on a carousel.

Drivers trapped in tin-cans on four wheels watch the motorcyclists as they flee from the day's cares, their flight bird-like in the 70s-tinged yellow sun of the evening light.

Christchurch motorcycle enthusiast Luke Wood, who co-edits boutique motorcycle magazine Head Full of Snakes, can easily articulate his love for a life spent on two wheels.

In Head Full of Snakes, the bikes take a backseat and the fascinating people who ride them are up front.

"A lot of them are old men who are really stoked you've come over to visit. They have amazing stories. Bikes are a gateway to interesting, reclusive people."

As well as music and graphic design, Wood is fond of old motorcycles.

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"The sound, the vibration, the smell of hot oil, combined with the not knowing if you'll actually get where you're going, are all part of the romance," says Wood.

"But, when you're actually riding, which is what I love the most, it almost doesn't matter what kind of bike you're on. Part of it is speed, that's undeniable. Because you feel so exposed on a motorcycle, as opposed to travelling at speed in a car. You feel exposed but also somehow very much more in control of things. Motorcycles are so much more responsive than cars. I mean, you just shift your weight slightly and everything can change, especially when it comes to cornering."

Corners are, he believes, what riding a motorcycle is all about.

"There is nothing quite like the feeling you get when you take a corner on a motorcycle and get it just right. Leaning it over, feeling the G force push the suspension down as you move deep into the bend, and then powering out of it like a slingshot."

It's "practical physics". But stuff up this moment, and it may not end well. It's addictive, that sense of danger.

"You end up braking in the corner, getting your line wrong, losing confidence, and it feels awful," he says.

"But, yeah, when you get it right it feels like the whole universe has aligned in that one moment."

When Wood was just two months old, his mother found herself in a life and death situation after a serious motorcycle accident.

"She only very narrowly survived," he says. "I used to hear stories about how lucky I was to have a mum and about how terrible motorcycles were. And then, you know, that sort of planted some kind of seed."

When he was 8 years old, he hunched over the handlebars of his trusty BMX and hooned around a park on Christchurch's Port Hills Road.

"Once or twice a day I would watch as the Devil's Henchmen, who had a pad up the road, would roar past in great big packs on Triumphs and Nortons and the occasional Harley... The noise, the speed, the disregard for the law, and their incredibly dirty and shambolic appearance all worked together to really move me somehow. I've never wanted to join a gang or anything, as I got older I learned more about what was going on behind that facade, but as a kid, yeah I was just totally enamoured with all that."

Like many other enthusiasts, Wood likes to take his bikes apart and put them back together again.

"As I've learned to work on my own bikes over the years, that becomes part of the love affair too. That's a real buzz. And something that seems so at odds with the general mindset these days."

Alongside Christchurch's only dedicated scooter gangs the Quake City Rumblers and their partners in life and oil changes, the Mad Maidens, Wood has been a regular at Thursday night bike nights at Christchurch venue Smash Palace since they started in a post-earthquake city.

The Quake City Rumblers were born to be mild and live life in the slow lane.

They ride Christchurch's broken streets – the wind barely ruffling their matching denim vests – as they reach a top speed of 50kmh.

The group of 1970s-era moped enthusiasts first got together in March 2011.

The name references both the earthquakes and the rumble from their tiny 50cc engines.

Rider Chris Morresey says it started off as just a group of close friends who are moped enthusiasts and it "just grew".

"Our partners started up their own group not that long ago," he says. "They call themselves the Mad Maidens."

One of his mates, a tattoo artist created the skull design for the Quake City Rumblers' logo and they all got matching denim vests.

"We were a bit worried about looking like a gang; sometimes people give us sideways looks when they see the vests."

Morresey says they like to live life at a slower speed.

A group day-ride, to Banks Peninsula, for example, might take all day travelling at "top speed" but will only cost $8 in petrol.

The only rule the club has is that bikes have to be modified.

They lower their scooters, paint them, add bigger tyres and change handlebars.

A passionate collector of vintage Indian motorcycles who insisted he be referred to only as Paddy, is putting the finishing touches to his Linwood garden when I visit.

"Those Quake City Rumblers are hard case," he says, pulling a rag from his pocket to polish one of his beloved Indian motorcycles.

The 4th annual Smash Palace Bike Show is being held on Saturday, November 5, at his lush garden property at 20-40 Linwood Ave.

While showing me some of the most beautiful rare bikes I've ever seen – including a flat tracker he'd recently bought sight unseen from an American enthusiast on EBay – Paddy tells me that today's event is "3/4 bike show, 1/4 garden show".

It's all about enthusiasts who get their hands dirty by building their own bikes and then continue to tinker with them for no apparent reason other than the fact they enjoy it.

"It's not a show about bling," Paddy says. "Bling is welcome but it's not about that."

He expects to have hundreds of bikes turn up at his house but it's a mystery as to who exactly who will turn up with them.

Motorcycles and gang culture are undoubtedly intertwined, but the relationship is not exclusive.

Paddy's heard whispers that members of the Hell's Angels and their foe, the Banditos, both have plans to show off their bikes at the show and Paddy's a little worried about his prized azaleas.

"It's all about the bikes – gold coin entry and the money goes to locals in need, including Christchurch East School," he says confidently. "It's on Guy Fawkes night but hopefully the only sparks are from the fireworks."

Saturday's show runs from 10am-3pm and categories include Harley v Indian, "Brit shit", pre-war, "Euro-trash", "Rice burners", Scoots, Chops and Bobs, Race Bikes, Monsters, People's Choice. It's followed by a prize-giving at Smash Palace from 5pm with Luke Wood's band The Shakin' Evil Limbo Party playing "motorcycle rock 'n roll".

The show is organised by two-wheeler fans Smash Palace's owner Johnny Moore and Canterbury University's Dr Kerry Swanson, aka Swannie.

"Those Quake City Rumblers rigged the people's choice section last time it was held here," Paddy roars, pushing his shades momentarily from his eyes. "We had all these beautiful British bikes and vintage bikes here and a bloody scooter with a goat's head on it won."

Beside him, Swannie, aka Canterbury University's Dr Kerry Swanson, laughs.

He's co-organiser of the bike show with Smash Palace's owner Johnny Moore.

Swanson is a geologist and an expert in ecology, evolutionary biology and microbiology.

A motorcycle enthusiast for more than four decades, he also writes for bike magazines. His new book: Mike Sinclair - King Kenny's Spanner-Man, is being launched at Smash Palace on November 10.

He's a man of science but when he talks about motorcycles, a passion he inherited from his father at a young age, it's not scientific at all.

"I like to ride alone," Swanson says. "Or with my brother-in-law. It's the speed, yes, but it's more than that. It's the smells..."

Paddy cuts Swannie off by jokingly calling him a wuss.

"Some people collect art and hang it on the wall," Paddy says, gesturing with his arm towards his gleaming motorcycles. "This is my art. It's all about having the wind in your face... being free."

 - Stuff

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