Strap yourself in people...
SA, Golden Grove, Wednesday 14th November 2012
Distractions - by Kym Liebig
I’m cruising when I spot him. I’ve been keeping my eyes open like I always do, just enjoying the smooth agility of my machine and revelling in the clear space around me, when suddenly there he is.
I recognise the shape immediately – a Heinkel He 111. He’s straggling. Up ahead I can see the rest of his flight, but this particular pilot has fallen behind the group and today he’s most definitely in the wrong place at the wrong time as I come up on him fast in my Spitfire, a well-used Mark 1. My higher cruising speed means I’ll simply overshoot the German if I don’t wash off speed fast. With the sun behind me, I hurriedly chop back the throttle and caress the controls of the Spit, a little kick of rudder here, a touch of aileron there. I know it’s a matter of seconds before I’m spotted and I have to get my positioning perfect quickly. I’m aware that I’m sweating as I light up the deflector sight and toggle the arming switch on my guns.
My stealthy and considered approach goes to pieces as the Heinkel’s dorsal gunner wakes up and opens fire. A single line of tracer arcs back towards my plane, but the gunner, no doubt caught by surprise, is hosing madly instead of taking steady aim. I’ve stuffed this up, and now my hand has been forced. All I can do is answer back – this isn’t an ambush anymore, it’s a gunfight. I thumb the gun button and all hell breaks loose as eight Brownings come to life, violently shaking the Spit’s airframe, hammering my head with unearthly noise and filling the cockpit with the sharp stink of burned cordite. Ahead, lines of tracer fill my field of view and converge on the Heinkel.
My reactive snapshot was on target through nothing but dumb luck. Big silver dollars splash over the German’s airframe as bullets punch through alloy, exposing shiny aluminium under the drab green camo. I feel a bit ill as the dorsal gunner’s little Perspex glasshouse disappears like a puff of confetti. Sparks dance, and shards of debris fly back at me. Bullets walk up the spine of the aircraft, and I come to my senses in time to jink to port and splash hits into one of the engines before shutting the guns down. My ears are ringing.
In the absence of the bone-jarring vibration I can now see clearly again. The Heinkel is holding steady altitude but losing speed, the back of the plane chewed up badly, with pieces still coming away here and there. As I watch, a thin line of smoke issues from the port engine and the prop starts to windmill. It’s over, and it’s time for me to get out of here before I’m jumped by someone myself. I bank over to starboard, throttle on and draw alongside the stricken plane.
Inside the sun-dulled dark green Commodore station wagon, the kid is still clambering all over the back seat and waving his nerf gun at me. The woman at the wheel yells up at the rear view mirror, then looks behind and reaches back over her seat, trying to whack the kid in the ear. The car lurches over into my lane and I open the throttle to accelerate cleanly away, leaving the Commodore/Heinkel behind me, opening up some safe space.
This is how I amuse myself when I have to ride in traffic.
It probably looks like daydreaming, but it isn’t. It’s just an overlay – one of several different alternate realities I place over what’s actually going on around me. It still has me checking my mirrors, looking over my shoulder, scanning well ahead and generally looking out for myself; it’s just more fun sometimes to be flying a Spitfire over France than it is to be punting my bike up North East Road on my way to a meeting. Besides, I’ve never flown a Spitfire. (I flew in a Mustang once, but they’d taken the guns out…where’s the fun in that?).
I don’t find my World War 2 Fighter Ace game distracting at all – quite the opposite. But there are plenty of things I do
find distracting on a bike, things that I avoid whenever I can. The first of these is pillions.
Go on, get all angry at me and tell me what a joy it is to have a pillion on the back of the bike and to share the ride – I don’t care, I hate it. For me it ruins the handling of the bike, stuffs up braking distance, makes it less comfortable…I could go on. Yes, I could adapt my riding to all these factors, but I don’t want to. I ride bikes for their nimble handling and agile flickability. Even a lightweight, experienced pillion compromises that. Happily, most of the bikes I like best have ridiculous perches on the back that seem designed specifically to discourage
pillions. Perfect! Unless the pillion hangers also act as exhaust mounts, the first things I remove when a bike comes into my possession are the pillion hangers and pegs.
What else do I find distracting on a bike? Noise! I wear earplugs on the bike every single time I ride. I can still hear traffic, horns, all that important stuff, but earplugs block out the relentless wind noise. I find that all too quickly, wind noise becomes ‘top of mind’ for me, and starts to mess up my concentration. Of course another thing that ruins concentration is fatigue, and noise quickly leads to fatigue.
On one of my trips from Adelaide to Phillip Island a few years ago, I’d forgotten to put my earplugs in before I left home. I became aware of this right away, but told myself that I’d just put them in at my first fuel stop. It didn’t work out that way. The day was windy and the going was tough, and less than an hour into my trip I was already feeling worn down by the wind and the buffeting. I really started to doubt my ability to complete the ride. If I was feeling this awful already, would I be able to ride for the rest of the day? Maybe I was coming down with something…perhaps I should stop, turn around, go home and relax? I came to my senses, pulled over, fitted my earplugs, and half an hour later I was smiling as I rode along. No more noise, and suddenly the going seemed very easy. I made it to Phillip Island by late afternoon.
Next on my list of Things I can’t Handle While Riding a Bike is…music. Sorry, can’t do it. I’ve tried it several times and it drives me nuts. In fact it drives me nuts on several levels. The first problem is perhaps the most obvious – I can’t hear what’s going on over the music. Even if I turn the music down a bit, I find that my brain is trying to trace the beat and the lyrics without missing anything, and thus it’s ‘multi-tasking’, trying to focus on the music, and so not concentrating one hundred percent on the riding situation. It’s as though someone is tapping me on the shoulder, trying to carry on a conversation I don’t really want to be a part of.
Music also gets in the way of me hearing the bike’s engine, and I’ve decided that I love listening to bike engines. The noises they make become a familiar tune, and the moment something’s not quite right I focus on it. Really good mechanics often mention the various noises that give away engine troubles…the buzz of a loose cam chain, the tapping of valve clearances that are running too tight, the dull knocking of a bottom end that’s on the way out. I like to be listening for all these things, and not even Radiohead or The Black Keys are going to take my attention away from it.
Finally, and perhaps uniquely to saddos such as me, there’s roadside advertising. I do this sort of stuff for a living, so it’s in my best professional interest to keep an eye out for who’s doing what, but I have to be very careful that it doesn’t become a real distraction. Big billboards are no problem – if they’ve been done right, you ought to be able to get the message in just a glance. Bus shelter advertising is a real killer. Often it’s designed to be read only by the people who are waiting for buses, but of course it’s generally angled so that drivers or riders can see it, too. While I’m not interested in what the fast food chains have to say, it can be tempting to spend a moment too long trying to decipher clever concepts for many other products. And let’s not forget the ads for products that never fail to sucker in we dumb males with their wily charms;
“Yeah, I’m okay honey. I ran up the back of a truck because I was distracted by one of those bus shelter ads. Yeah, the Triumph one. Really? They make lingerie too? I could have sworn it was…um…a bike ad. Hey look, the ambo guys need to load me up now, I’ll talk to you later…”
Pillions, noise, music, roadside advertising. These are the things that distract me. Of course all but one of these I can easily exclude from my riding altogether. And as for that last one, seeing as I very seldom commute these days, it seems less and less likely that I’ll wind up going to my grave simply because Bras’n’Things are having a sale. Ahem.
I’ve heard of other riders coming to grief from distractions including itchy glove seams, bees and wasps caught inside jacket collars, even the infamous ‘annoying stray hair that keeps blowing around inside my helmet and making my face and eyes itch.’
You know the one? No matter how many times you flip your visor to try to tuck the damn thing out of the way, it comes back to haunt you the moment you’re moving again!
Of course different seasons and conditions have their own special problems. How’s that hayfever coming along? And how about visor fogging in winter, or a nose that drips like a tap on cold mornings? Nasty.
What do you face on the rides you make? Got a funny near miss/crash/survival story that’s the result of a particularly unusual distraction? And what does it take to get your attention…a plane falling out of the sky, or just a member of your preferred sex bending over to tie a shoelace? Click on our Facebook page
– let’s compare notes. The Motobuzz community is attracting more and more of biking’s real characters every day, and we love to hear what you have to say.
Yours in a fighter plane, or on a bike (depending on the day),