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Stump speech for 'freedom'

Date

Andrew Tate

RIDING a motorbike is about the freedom, not just the speed says ''Bertie'', a 46-year-old father of three who has long since lost his hair but retains the mischievous grin that drew people to him from the time he was a lad.

This country boy turned city professional also has a fat, fleshy stump where his left middle finger used to be - the legacy of a spill in close proximity to a bike chain on a dusty motocross track. Bertie also struggles with a fused vertebrae in his back, partly the result of years of madly hitting jumps and deep puddles at speed. For even the casual competitor, it seems, these are the perils of taking motorbikes to the edge.

As a solid citizen Bertie's derring-do is strictly off-road, on the dirt tracks and state forests where it is only his flesh and bones at risk. But this weekend, he'll don the leathers and eschew hearth and home for the relatively sedate, but liberating, trek to the Australian MotoGP at Phillip Island. It's the freedom thing again.

The farewell to local hero and reigning world champion Casey Stoner will be the catalyst for thousands of MotoGP fans to do likewise - a reality no doubt prompting this week's high-rotation broadcast of TAC road safety ads featuring irresponsible motorcycle riders coming unstuck.

It is motor sport's blessing and curse that it's participants and fans enjoy life on the edge. The nexus between the sport and road safety is one that will forever taint the views of those who don't see the attraction in competitive speed and is one reason why most top-line participants see it as their duty to promote road safety.

Ultimately MotoGP is a bet on your own skills and abilities saving you from annihilation. Given the dangers even the most responsible of motorcyclists face on our crowded roads, the same could also be said for the casual rider. This is not freedom without cost or responsibility.

My own unrequited love for motorbikes never quite translated from the cow trails to road or track. Several visits to the Austin spinal ward to visit a friend undid any romantic notions of an ongoing need for two-wheeled speed. The ward was full of tattooed bikers - blokes far more experienced and in tune with the bike than I could ever hope to be.

Indeed, having since lost another friend to the vagaries of a Vespa, the increasing number of middle-aged motorcyclists coming to grief on our roads is a reminder that honing ones skills when young can be everything in sport and life. Australia could do worse than to ensure every young rider gets time on a motor-racing circuit to get speed out of their system and learn the stamina and smarts required to stay out of trouble.

On track, MotoGP is one of the scariest sports and there should be nothing but admiration for the bravery and strength of the men at the top.

All of Australia's great modern champions, Wayne Gardner, Daryl Beattie, Mick Doohan, and Casey Stoner have suffered serious injuries in their distinguished careers. Sometimes even the best don't make it through- like US rider Wayne Rainey, who was paralysed in a 1993 accident while seeking a fourth consecutive title.

It's a reminder that it's a fine edge, not just a powerful machine, that these men are riding. Said Bertie of his love of riding bikes competitively, ''it is about the merging of man and machine - fitness, skill, mind and body all coming together.''

In the wake of the Lance Armstrong cycling scandal, it's worth remembering that in MotoGP the engineering relates only to the bike and not the human body. The motorcyclist needs sharp reflexes and the ability to think quickly, or disaster awaits. Doping would never be an option.

Perhaps, given the zealotry with which our MotoGP stars pursue their sport, the biggest danger is not knowing when to quit while you are ahead. Gardner, the 1987 world champion turned road safety campaigner, all but breathes a sigh of relief when he ponders the deeds of his younger self.

''I didn't want to get seriously hurt and I walked away from 500s in one piece,'' the Australian says on his website waynegardner.com. ''Bikes had been good to me, and I'd won everything I'd wanted to, but when you've had a few injuries you start asking yourself what life will be like after racing.''

This is obviously the tipping point at which Stoner finds himself, and today - busted ankle and all - he'll race in his last Australian MotoGP.

Having achieved two world championships he'll put aside the international travel, the demands on his time and the toll on his body and turn full attention to his young family. Some say he'll move to a career in V8 Supercars, although the notoriously media-shy Stoner may well find that small pond even more stifling than the demands of MotoGP.

And while former world champions are rarely just a face in the crowd, it's not too hard to imagine Stoner in contented middle age taking a leaf out of Bertie's book and quietly slipping away from home for a gentle ride to the Island. After all, it may be the best way to find the freedom that he craves.

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