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Ulysses Club

6 December, 2012


(Lock up your mothers – Ulysses is coming to town)

© David Astle

If I say ‘Gold Wing’ and you think ‘bird’, or ‘airline reward scheme’, then this story’s for you. Because if motorbikes don’t play a role in your life then the very same machines are guaranteed to seize the heart of someone close to you. Maybe a neighbour. Or a lover. Maybe your friendly local pharmacist. The odds are close to evens if you’re over 40.

I’m over 40 and drive a Commodore. In that sense I’m a stay-at-home, a round peg, a Harley Davidson obsessive who doesn’t know he’s a Harley Davidson obsessive…

Stats show that middle-aged men readily shell out their disposable when it comes to owning motorcycles. And middle-aged chicks seem equally happy to straddle down back, or learn to wrangle their own beasts.

Living proof lurks in Mudgee, a Tidy Town in the toe-hills of Sydney’s Blue Mountains. Five thousand senior bikers are converging there for a jamboree, an army of grey-mopped hell-raisers astride boss hogs and Honda Gold Wings. So come on baby, come ride in my Commodore. Let’s cruise to Mudgee and meet a few of these rollover rebels. Let’s see who they are, why they ride, and what’s really happening inside their XL helmets.

Flanking each kerb of Church Street is a domino line of chrome and lambskin. Harleys and Kwackers and Blackbirds and Shadows. A thousand bikes each side, with deep-welled sidecars, zebra trim, Eureka flags and goggled teddy-bears peeking from Naugahyde saddle bags. Yamaha Viragos and Yamaha Fazers. Immaculate Voyagers and spotless Valkyries. I hide my Commodore behind the supermarket.

Riders wander the town. They’re easy to pick. Either they creak with leather or just plain creak. Windburnt and buoyant, the bikers wear T-shirts saying HIGHWAY PAROLE or 51% SWEETHEART, 49% BITCH. Yet the badge I see everywhere, from Brando jacket to adjustable windscreen, says GROWING OLD DISGRACEFULLY, the motto of the Ulysses Club.

To join Ulysses, the largest motorcycle club in the southern hemisphere, you need to be 40 at least. Fifty in fact is the true yardstick, signaled by your badge’s golden trim. Twenty years ago, when the first general meeting descended on Tumut, in southern NSW, the membership nudged 100. Nowadays the count tops 22,000, with every member retaining their personal number, much like a soldier and his dogtag details. I’m chuffed to meet Stephen Dearnley, Member #1. This ex-pat submariner, with more wrinkles than badges, is the Che Guevara of this whole revolution.

‘Back in the early 80s,’ says Dearnley, ‘if an older guy went along for a run they woulda looked a bit weird, you know. Old farts were pretty much seen as mobile chicanes. In our own defence, I thought we should start something up for old farts. And that’s how Ulysses got started.’

Now the club meets en masse every year, from the Top End to the Far West of Australia, depending where the National Committee decrees. Next year (2004) is Geelong, then Canberra in 2005. As National President, Ric Bedford gets his chance to mimic Olympic honcho, Juan Antonio Samaranch this week, opening the envelope and saying ‘Ulverstone, Tasmania’ for 2006. The committee’s vote can translate into millions of dollars for a town. ‘But tell me, Rick, what’s the whole thing with motorbikes?’

The President puckers his brow. ‘You haven’t ridden before?’

‘Once,’ I say. ‘On a farm. It was bumpy.’

At 54, Ric is a Ulyssian pup. In his normal life he’s a Detective Sergeant in the Fraud Squad in Brisbane, and even now he knows how to interrogate a Commodore blow-in. ‘Do you have a friend who rides?’

‘Des,’ I say. ‘He’s camped on the showground somewhere.’

Ric opts for the Zen approach. ‘You know, the only way you can know is to ride yourself.’

Lord Alfred Tennyson, the old-fart poet from Lincolnshire, inspired the Ulysses name with a poem by the same title. According to the verse, the one-time adventurer Ulysses, stuck in his kingdom with ‘aged wife and barren crags’, gets seriously itchy feet. ‘How dull it is to pause,’ he moans in iambic pentameter, ‘to make an end, to rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!’ Much like the Gold Wings that glisten around me as I make my way to the showground.

Gold Wings are the Ritz of roadsters, a 6-cylinder car engine on two wheels. To sweeten the deal, Honda throws in heated handlebars, CD stacker, cruise control and reverse gear. (That’s right. Usually bikes rely on your biceps for reversing. You and I have a lot to learn.) Saddle bags and box trailers allow the elder rebel to pack his cab-sav and flannelette pyjamas.

Tents and burnish’d bikes clutter the showground, a retirement village gone feral. (‘A motorbike doesn’t leak oil,’ says a tax accountant called Rob. ‘It marks its territory.’) I find my mate Des amid the ruckus. His bedraggled igloo will be our maison for the night. At 62, Des is a retired school principal from Wodonga. Or that’s the orthodox description. For the entire week in Mudgee he’s better known as a BMW R100 RT Classic. After all, you are what you ride – or drive. We adjourn to the beer tent where stories of the road start to flow.

‘Sorry,’ says Meg, 48, a Microsoft manager who wraps her legs around a Triumph Thunderbird 900, ‘but lawn bowls doesn’t speak to me. We’re baby boomers who want to live a different life. Why sit at home and grow old? We want to get out there, be young and do something.’

Chris, 45, has a purple Priscilla plume pasted to his helmet. Usually his Mum, at 84, rides pillion with him, but she had to stay at home to mind the cat. ‘I hit 40, and that was it,’ he says. ‘I bought a motorbike. That’s when you’ve got enough money to do it, and what the hell, who gives a rats.’

Ken (Buzz) Fahy, 62, has a middle ear condition. That’s why he converted Erwin – his BMW 1150GS – to a trike. The Vietnam vet, and former ministerial driver, now flies a German Imperial flag off the tailpipe, after his hero, Erwin Rommel.

Chrissy, 60, says her boyfriend Ian still has her fingermarks from their first ride a few years ago. Now the two are traveling Oz, using Mudgee as a whistle stop, before the grand odyssey. ‘My grandson is 13. He thinks I’m the hottest granny in the world.’

Peter, 51, a public servant from Canberra, longs for his wife to catch the biking bug. ‘Last year I planned a nice easy ride, 25kms to a nearby town, but Maureen rejected that idea. So we ended up going 2kms to the local shops. I was riding totally gently, hardly leaned it over at all. We got a litre of milk and went home. She hasn’t ridden since.’

June on the other hand, at 72, has been riding with her husband for 50 years. The pair has never been booked. ‘We went close in 1996,’ laughs Andy, 75. ‘We were going 160 kays for nearly an hour, and we passed these canola fields outside Cowra. June tapped me on the helmet. We slowed down to look at all the pretty flowers, and over the hill was a bloody cop car sitting there with a camera. Thank God for the flowers.’

‘We’re not speed demons,’ says Gary, 47, a Hervey Bay sparkie, father of two. He’s in town with his two brothers, reuniting after their Dad’s funeral 2 years ago. ‘We’re tourers. In a car, you’re looking through a window, which is a frame. On a bike you’re part of the scenery. Your worries are blown away.’

Traff, 48, a bobcat operator, had his own worries getting here. He rode his Gold Wing from the Gold Coast, hitting a kangaroo in Tambor Springs. ‘The whole thing happened in 5 seconds. The roo just stops on the road. She spins and falls on the wet bitumen. And bang, I go clean over the top. Bang, the trailer too. But I’m still riding perfectly straight, and I’m upright and I’m breathing heavy and I’m thinking I made this.’

All in earshot turn to Traff for more. A central plank of the Ulysses Club is this on-road folklore as much as outrunning Father Time. ‘So I walk back to the carcass and there’s a little bundle of fur,’ continues Traff, the beer tent his oyster. ‘It’s a little joey sitting there. And I’m thinking, I’m lucky, so you’re lucky. That night I slept with the joey in my jacket. Yesterday, here in Mudgee, I took her to the wildlife people.’

More in-laws than outlaws, Ulyssians are as likely to show you grandkid snaps than variant spellings of LOVE or HATE inked on their knuckles. Research from the Road Traffic Authority in NSW labels the 40-plus mindset as commonly ‘risk-averse’, the softly-softly school of road touring. Rain, for most Ulyssians, is a turn-off. Just as turn-offs are a turn-off – the gravel or dirt variety. Bikers as opposed to bikies, the bulk of these people love to gander and meander al fresco, dressed in scarves and protective Kevlar.

Figures from the RTA underpin the beer-tent evidence. In NSW, motorbikes make up 2% of all registered vehicles yet account for 11% of all fatal crashes. While most of these accidents entail under-30s (aka as the Risk Lovers, Fatalists or Organ Donors), the biggest consumer group across the country belongs to the Ulyssian bracket. Recently in NSW, the number of 40-plus riders has climbed from 26,000 to some 50,000.

Typically, a late-age rider will have dabbled in bikes as a 20-something uni student, more because they’re affordable, versus any associated romance. Then come the kids, the mortgage, that bloody Commodore. The all-consuming work and the risk suppression. Bingo, at 40, or nearing 50, the nest is looking empty and so too the garage. Hmmm, thinks Ulysses. Imagine that sweet potato-potato-potato throbbing on the driveway”¦ Imagine my queen squeezing me around the ribcage again, just like the old days. Imagine the country roads (where most plus-40 accidents occur). Imagine the pageantry of Mudgee’s grand parade”¦.

I ride with Des. Slowly. A virgin in borrowed leather, I cling like death to a retired principal. Banners are flying and cylinders roaring. Faces I fancy to recognize (my dentist? my ex? my Mum?) beam from visors around me. We creep as a stream down Church Street where the population of Mudgee wave like keywork dolls or slap the hands of riders on the outer columns.

Close to the market square, where the grand parade sweeps left, Des goes straight ahead. I wonder what he’s doing. I rap his helmet but Mr BMW R100 RT Classic is deaf to questioning. Some couples ride with an intercom system and now I see why. Our Beamer picks up speed. We pass the town limits. The road is empty but for Des and Dave aboard their black beauty. I find my arms wrapping Des’ torso, feeling his heartbeat as we fly past the racecourse, the vineyards, the cemetery, the whole world a splendid blur to a one-time Commodore driver.

[Sunday Life, August 2003]

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