Getting Dirty

Dirt_Daze

With the growing popularity of adventure biking, it was only a matter of time before someone organized a rally for adventure bikers. June 7-10 was the second annual Dirt Daze rally, held in Lake Luzerne, NY. I heard about it through a club friend and decided to head down from Montreal.

Dirt Daze is actually the off-road component of the big Americade rally held the same weekend in nearby Lake George, and my ride down on Highway 9 took me right through that other rally in the late afternoon. I felt a little out of place as I rode through on my GS with Touratech panniers. All the Harleys were lined up gleaming on both sides of the street, and it seemed to me that it was more about the bike than the riding. Guys were sitting shirtless on plastic chairs outside their motel rooms drinking beer out of the can. It didn’t seem much fun. I scooted through apologetically for ruining their parade and was soon at “my” rally in Lake Luzerne.

No sooner was I off the bike when an organizer said to me, “Welcome. Slow race in five minutes.” Now this is more like it! I was pretty pooched from my 5 1/2 hour ride down, but he was so enthusiastic and convincing it would be fun I decided to drop my big tail bag and participate. There were ten of us, and we were paired in heats of two. The course was a straight 50 feet, lined with cones. Last over the finish line wins and moves on, the other eliminated. In watching the first couple of heats, I saw that the start was crucial; if you get ahead over the first few feet, it’s difficult to make that distance up. When it was my turn, I was pretty nervous with everyone watching and a little too tentative off the start and stalled the bike. Doh! Damn! I was mad at myself but it was all for fun.

Then I rode back to the camping area with my tailpipe between my legs and chose a spot to pitch for three nights. We were pretty packed in, but it was nice to be able to camp on site and keep costs down.

camping

The rally is held at The Painted Pony ranch. It’s a great location with food and drink available at the saloon, showers, and lots of space for vendors and the four obstacle courses. And since it’s a ranch, there is livestock.

Cows

If you’re a light sleeper, you might want to camp at the nearby KOA campground. Between the lowing and the snoring and the 2-strokes firing up at 6 a.m. (all of which become indistinguishable after a while), you’re not going to get much sleep.

I’ve never had any off-road training, so I signed up for a two-hour beginner class on Friday morning with Jimmy Lewis. Jimmy and his wife, Heather, run an off-road school in Nevada and offer at Dirt Daze compressed versions of their full-day courses. Jimmy is an amazing rider. He was a podium finisher for the Dakar and overall winner of the Baja and Dubai rallies, among other accolades. His curriculum focuses on balance and traction. In all the exercises we did, we never got out of first gear. His exercises develop muscle memory for finding and maintaining that neutral point when the bike is in balance. He says if you come to an obstacle and you’re off balance, you’re going to get into trouble. As for traction, he says it doesn’t matter what they call your tire—60/40, 70/30, or 85/15, like mine—if you run your hand along the side of the tire and don’t feel sharp edges, you’re going to go down in the mud. More on this later. In fact, in their school in Nevada, they make 50/50 tires mandatory.

One of the nice things about Dirt Daze is the people you meet. I came alone but was never alone. A couple of us who did the morning class went for lunch together and then decided to do one of the self-guided rides in the afternoon. They had done a guided ride the day before, and when we got lost on our self-guided ride, we decided to return to a network of trails they knew of from their previous ride. I’ve never done single track trail riding, so I quickly got in over my head, especially with my “street tires,” as everyone kept referring to them. I actually did pretty well with the slow turns and descents, even the sandy hill climbs—the back end sliding all over the place—but when it came to mud, my skills and tires let me down—literally! I and the bike ended up in a deep mud puddle at the bottom of a hill, but I managed to get the bike back up and out using some of what I’d learnt in the morning class; Jimmy had showed us how to start in low-traction terrain without digging in. When I re-emerged from the woods and met up with the other guys, I must have been a sight. Someone said “I’ve got to get a photo of this.” When we got back to camp, I headed for the bike wash. “Why bother?” someone asked. “It’s just going to get dirty again.”

The next day was my planned “big ride”—a guided full-day ride through the Adirondacks with about 50% off road. It was led by veteran rider Bill Dutcher, founder of Americade (then Aspencade East) in 1983.BillI’d been warned about Bill: the “old man” hauls ass. There were twelve of us, and I decided to tuck in behind him so I could watch and learn. Soon after we pulled out of the ranch I found myself going 70 km/hr on a dirt road with a smattering of gravel. Shit, is it going to be like this all day? I was riding over my head but didn’t want to hold the group up. All was good for a few kilometres until we headed down a sweeping descent. Halfway down I knew I was in trouble. I knew if I braked and turned I would lowside, but fortunately I didn’t panic. I dropped my line and headed straight, gently squeezing the brake. For the first time in my short riding experience the thought that I might crash flashed through my mind, but fortunately I eased to a stop before I ran out of road. Someone behind slowed and gave me the thumbs up as a question. I nodded and looked back. No one was behind me, just empty road. I realized I needn’t have worried about holding the group up because they were all well behind. I had made the classic mistake of trying to keep up with a rider who had 49 years of riding experience on me.

I took that little incident as my warning and decided to drop back. As the day continued, the group settled into two groups, with three fast riders up front with Bill and the rest of us behind at a slower pace. They waited for us at each turn. It worked. I was still a little out of my comfort zone, but in a good way. I was able to practice the peg-weighting I’d learnt with Jimmy as we weaved through the Adirondack backroads. There were a few times when I hit sand and almost lost the bike (again, the street tires!) but at a much lower speed. At one point we hit deep gravel, what looked like 3/4 crushed stone, and that was interesting. Again, I had enough good sense or gods’ blessings to not panic but let the bike go where it wants to go and ride it out. When we got to the next rest stop, Bill asked if anyone had had trouble with that gravel, and reminded us that the technique for dealing with it is to get your weight back and, counter to what your intuition is telling you, get on the gas. It lifts the front end and the bike rides over the gravel instead of digging down in, which would be trouble. I was learning a lot.

We lunched at a classic mountain lodge with a beautiful view of the surrounding Adirondack mountains. Lunch

Other parts of the ride brought us to picturesque vistas.vista

We ended up again at that network of trails and I fell victim again to mud at a small water crossing. I crossed the stream okay, but once on the other side I was so focused, quite literally, on the mud under my tires I forgot to look beyond the obstacle further down the trail. Perhaps I tightened up too. Perhaps I got too much weight over the front tire. Before I could say “another classic mistake” the bike was on its side halfway up the bank. Despite the spills, the ride was exhilarating and I told Bill afterwards that it was so far the ride of my life.

Back at camp, we were treated to a demonstration by World Freestyle Champion Chris “Teach” McNeil. His nickname is Teach because he is a Latin teacher at a private school. Now as an English teacher at a CEGEP in Montreal, I thought I had the cool factor when I pull onto campus on my bike, but I’m pretty sure this guy is more popular with his students. Freestyle or stunt riding is not my thing, and I’ve seen videos online of guys doing nose-wheelies on litre bikes. But seeing it live is another whole experience. It’s pretty damn impressive to see the way the power and weight of his BMW S1000XR is a plaything in his hands.

After such a full day, I was ready to retreat to my tent. I lit a pipe and wandered through the camping area checking out the other bikes, then struck up a conversation with the guy next to me. I was lamenting a few scratches on my bike from the falls that day when he said, “Ah, you can’t worry about that shit. It’s a bike.” It reminded me of the comment earlier about not bothering to wash it, and I thought again about the gleaming Harleys just up the highway and just how different adventure biking is from that kind of riding. Adventure biking is about the adventure of not knowing what’s going to happen in the woods. It’s about helping others lift and fix their bikes on the trail, like when Bill helped me fix my engine guard with a zip tie and duct tape. It’s about escape, and risk, and skill—a lot of skill! What impressed me the most from the rally was not any particular bike but the skill-level of many of the participants.

It seemed à propos that one of the final events of the rally was the Ugliest Bike Contest. The bike that won was the one Jimmy Lewis borrowed to win the slow race.

Seat Concepts: 650GS Dakar Install

What’s the most important contact area in biking? Some say it’s the two patches of rubber, one on the front tire, one on the back, that touch the road. Some say it’s the four contact areas of control—two hands on the handle-grips, two feet on the pegs. I say the most important contact area is your butt on the saddle. I come to this conclusion after a season of riding with an OEM BMW seat. The Bavarian Motor Works, as the name suggests, are renown for their engines, not so much for their upholstery. The guys in my club know that after around 200 kilometres I start to squirm. By 300 I can’t take it any longer and stand up, even if we’re at highway speed. After my 800 km day last year, I had a new understanding of the term “saddle sores.”

There’s nothing worse than ruining a day’s ride by being uncomfortable on your bike. For that reason, on my Wish List last Christmas was a new seat. My old seat was not only uncomfortable but the vinyl had cracked with age. It was due to be changed. cracksThe only problem is that both BMW’s and Touratech’s comfort seats are about $700 CAN. My butt was telling me to spend with abandon, but my mind (and my wife) was reminding me of our budget. Then I heard about Seat Concepts, a company that ships you the foam and cover and you re-upholster the seat pan yourself at a fraction of the cost. For my bike, it was about $250, or close to 1/3 the price of the other comfort seat options.

Seat Concepts is an American company, so I ordered through MX1Canada in BC and let them handle all the cross-border issues. The standard foam is for people 160 lbs. and up, and since I’m 145 soaking wet, I custom ordered the foam to my weight. There are four options for the cover: gripper top/carbon sides, all carbon, embossed top/vinyl sides, and all vinyl. There’s also a swede option but that’s not practical in geographical areas that rain, which is pretty much everywhere except the desert. I was interested in the gripper top, but it’s not recommended for people who sometimes ride in jeans, including me, so I opted for the all carbon option, which is their second-most popular covering. I also decided to choose the Dakar height since I was feeling a little cramped on the bike. It all arrived in the mail this past spring and all I needed was a warm day to do the work, since they recommend placing the cover in warm sunlight to heat it up. That day finally came last Sunday, so I got to work. Here are the tools I used.

There are some excellent video tutorials offered by the folks at Seat Concepts, but here is how my install went.

I started by removing the staples in the old seat. I used a flat-head screwdriver and dug them out. stapler_remove1

Don’t worry if only one side of the staple comes out . . .

staple_remove2

. . . because you are going to grab the staple and pull it out with blunt-nosed pliers.

pliers

Once all the staples are removed, you just peel back the old cover and separate the foam from the seat pan. On mine, it came off easily. Apparently on others, you have to coerce it a bit.

seat_pan

You will have a bunch of holes in your seat pan from the old staples. They have to be sanded down with a medium sandpaper or they might puncture your new seat cover.

sanding

Now you’e ready to glue your new foam to the pan. I used 3M’s Super 77 aerosol spray and it worked great—so great, I asked my wife to assist by separating the sides at the front while I positioned the back. The glue is tacky at this point, so you want to get one section straight and right before another touches. A second set of hands helps at this crucial stage. Note that I laid the foam upside-down on my workspace and placed the pan onto it; it was easier that way.

This is what the seat looks like before covering.

new_foam

Meanwhile, like I said, your cover has been basking in the hot sun and is pliable. Heating it first also helps because when it cools it will shrink and tighten up. Seat Concepts provides some thin plastic to waterproof the foam. It’s recommended you use it under the cover. So I began by wrapping the seat and taping the plastic to the underside of the pan. (The tape is temporary and will be removed later after all the staples are in.) There were some small wrinkles in the plastic but it is impossible to not have any and I figured the plastic is so thin I’d never feel them under the cover.

Then I started the part that gives most people some stress. It actually was not hard at all. I started by putting two stables at the back and one or two in each corner at the front. Make sure the cover is centred by examining the seams closely. Then I just started wrapping and stapling the cover from the middle outward toward the front and back. I pulled the cover over the lip and stretched it just a little more and put in a staple. I worked both sides at the same time, ensuring the cover stayed centred and taut. cover_beginning

I borrowed an electric stapler from a friend, but as it turned out, my hand one was just as effective and I used it for tight spots in combination with the power stapler. I used 1/4 in. T50 staples. As with any stapling of this kind, it’s important to stabilize both the item being stapled and the stapler from recoil or the staples will not go in all the way. Any that did not, I tapped in fully later with a hammer. Yeah, a second set of hands is helpful at this stage too, but it doesn’t take long. cover_end

Then I just used an Olfa knife to trim the excess cover and plastic. The finished product looks great!done

Finally, I reinstalled the seat. It needed some coaxing because the Dakar seat is a little wider at the back than the standard, but well worth it if you can afford the extra height. I took measurements before and after and the Dakar is about 1.5 inches higher than the standard. It also has a flatter front shape with less sloping into the tank. Here are the two seats side-by-side, before and after pictures for comparison.

height_old

height_new

It’s surprising what that 1 1/2 inches does. Everything feels different. I feel more upright on the bike, seated on it rather than sliding into it. Controls feel different too. And while I can still flat-foot, I feel that extra height at each stop. Most importantly, my knees are now bent at 90 degrees, which is the best ergonomically, according to technician at my work who helped me set up my new office chair.

I haven’t done any long rides yet with the new seat, but I’ll follow up here with a comment once I do. Next weekend I’m going to a rally in NY State where I’ll be going on some day-long rides, but my early indication is that the seat is very comfortable. I’m also happy with the money I saved by doing it myself.

Adventurero Heroico: a review of The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Guevara

chehigh

We’ve all seen it, the iconic photo of Che Guevara, silkscreened on the T-shirt of a slouching teenager as a sign of a budding ideology or subtle form of protest against The World as he or she has come to inherit it. It was snapped in 1960 by Alberto Korda while Guevara listened to Castro’s oration at the funeral service of 136 people killed in an act of naval sabotage. Even converted to duotone, the implacable and determined expression is remarkable, the eyes gazing off toward a distant point of revenge and justice.

I’d heard that Ernesto (Che) Guevara was radicalized while riding a motorcycle around South America, visiting up close, in a way that only a motorcycle can do, the poverty, hardship, and exploitation of its proletariat. His eight-month journey on a Norton 500 (affectionately named La Ponderosa II—The Powerful One) with Alberto Granado, a doctor and specialist in leprosy, is captured in The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey Around South America, now turned into a major motion picture starring Gael García Bernal.

Guevara’s radicalization cannot be found in any specific moment but occurs over the trajectory of his journey. What is evident at outset is that he comes from a privileged life. At first, the two seem more interested in drinking and carousing than visiting leper colonies or talking to the working poor about their plight. In a typical scene, they get into trouble after drinking copious amounts of wine:

Chilean wine is very good and I was downing it at an amazing rate, so by the time we went on to the village dance I felt ready for anything. It was a very cosy evening and we kept filling our bellies and minds with wine. One of the mechanics from the garage, a particularly nice guy, asked me to dance with his wife because he’d been mixing his drinks and was the worse for wear. His wife was pretty randy and obviously in the mood, and I, full of Chilean wine, took her by the hand to lead her outside. She followed me docilely but then realized her husband was watching and changed her mind. I was in no state to listen to reason and we had a bit of a barney in the middle of the dance floor, resulting in me pulling her towards one of the doors with everybody watching. She tried to kick me and as I was pulling her she lost her balance and went crashing to the floor. As we were running towards the village, pursued by a swam of enraged dancers, Alberto lamented all the wine her husband might have bought us.

There are, however, moments when an innate sensitivity and political empathy toward the poor come through in the writing. Soon after that escapade, they meet and are invited to stay with a married couple, Chilean workers who are Communists, and Ernesto hears the man’s tragic story:

In the light of the candle, drinking maté and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features struck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife who followed him with exemplary loyalty, his children left in the care of a kindly neighbour, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to be somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

The experience leaves a deep impression on the young man. That night he gives a blanket to the couple and he and Alberto wrap themselves in their remaining blanket: “It was one of the coldest nights I’ve ever spent but also one which made me feel a little closer to this strange, for me anyway, human species.” Writing later about the couple, Ernesto makes clear his own budding political ideology:

It’s really upsetting to think they use repressive measures against people like these. Leaving aside the question of whether or not ‘Communist vermin’ are dangerous for a society’s health, what had burgeoned in him was nothing more than the natural desire for a better life, a protest against persistent hunger transformed into a love for this strange doctrine, whose real meaning he could never grasp but, translated into ‘bread for the poor,’ was something he understood and, more importantly, that filled him with hope.

Guevara is a good writer. I read the book in translation (trans. Ann Wright) but the strength of Guevara’s voice rings through. He is articulate, possessing a broad vocabulary, funny, and perceptive. His powers of observation—essential for any writer of travelogue—extend to the landscape as well as the people he meets. At times, the sentences are lyrical and poetic, such as in this passage, where is personifies the Chuquicamata mountain that has been industrialized into a copper mine:

The mountains, devoid of a single blade of grass in the nitrate soil, defenceless against the attack of wind and water, display their grey backbone, prematurely aged in the battle with the elements, their wrinkles belying their real geological age. And how many of the mountains surrounding their famous brother hide similar riches deep in their bowels, awaiting the arid arms of the mechanical shovels to devour their entrails, spiced with the inevitable human lives—the lives of the poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths in one of the thousand traps nature sets to defend its treasures, when all they want is to earn their daily bread.

Guevara’s critique of the exploitative power of Capitalism is expressed in the language of war and personal suffering, both of Nature and humans, in a telling indication of the major themes that would later occupy his political life. He sees Capitalism as a plague on Nature and human society, a force that devours if left unchecked.

His critical eye does not stop with economics. In another passage, he shows distain toward the Church that dominates Latin American society:

In a moment of boredom we went to the church to watch a local ceremony. The poor priest was trying to produce the three-hour sermon but by then—about ninety minutes into it—he had run out of platitudes. He gazed at his congregation with imploring eyes while he waved a shaking hand at some spot in the church. ‘Look, look, the Lord hath come, the Lord is with us, His spirit is guiding us.’ After a moment’s pause, the priest set off on his load of nonsense again and, just when he seemed about to dry up again, in a moment of high drama, he launched into a similar phrase. The fifth or sixth time poor Christ was announced, we got a fit of giggles and left in a hurry.

Always there is a tone of understatement, a dry irony that runs the risk of appearing sanctimonious, but I would rather have a strong, personal voice in a travelogue than a weak, objective one. He does not hold anything back, even when describing the hygiene habits of the Native Chileans:

The somewhat primitive idea the indians have of modesty and hygiene means that, regardless of sex or age, they do their business by the side of the road, the women wiping themselves with their skirts, the men not at all, and carry on as before. The petticoats of indian women with children are veritable warehouses of excrement, since they wipe the kids with them whenever they have a bowel movement.

As shocking as this is, the most surprising aspect of The Motorcycle Diaries is that they don’t travel by motorcycle for much of it. The bike dies a dramatic death on page 44 of my edition, and they spend the rest of the journey bumming rides from truckers, travelling by foot, raft, and boat when necessary. In this way, the book is like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which documents Orwell’s self-induced months of hunger and poverty while squatting in Paris and tramping across England. And perhaps like Orwell, there might have been a desire in Guevara to purge himself of the privileged lifestyle in which he was raised, or at least open his eyes to another strata of society of which he had had only a passing familiarity and a superficial understanding.

They do visit leper colonies and are regarded there as heroes, more for their humane treatment than their medical treatment of the lepers. Where others fear and shun these people, Alberto and Ernesto mingle amongst them for several days, drinking and playing music together, and when they leave they shake the lepers’ hands, a gesture that in itself is more healing than any medicine the doctors can offer.

This is the picture of Ernesto that we get by the end of their adventure—a caring and principled young man ready to take the hippocratic oath, not the Guerrillero Heroico of the later portrait, the fighter who was ready to kill to incite revolution. For that, he would have to meet and travel with another man, not the affable Alberto but the militant Fidel.

The Motorcycle Diaries is a fun and easy read at just over 150 pages. There’s a lot of local history woven into the storyline, including a political history of the Incas, and anyone who’s interested in the history of South America would get something from this book. Readers who are interested in the biography of Che Guevara or the germination of South American and Cuban Communism would also enjoy it. But the star of the book is South America itself, the land and its people. Readers will get a strong sense of the majesty of the mountains, the rugged terrain, the Latin American architecture, the friendly and welcoming people. My edition provides a map with the route of their journey, and chapters are titled after the places they visit. My ultimate ride is down into South America and this book has only piqued my interest all the more for that adventure.

Off Road, On Course

offroad

Photo Credit: Red Sky Adventures

When I was a kid, I would go to police auctions to buy my bikes and bike parts. These were auctions of the stolen, then recovered but unclaimed bikes. You could enter a large area before the auction where all the bikes were ticketed with a number and on display to inspect them before the auction began. Then noting the number of the bike you were interested in, you’d wait until it came up for auction. My outbidding with my paper route money some father always elicited some snickers in the crowd.

I always looked for a certain type of bike. Basic. Didn’t matter the colour, because I’d paint it later, always black. Didn’t matter the condition, because I’d strip it down to the ball bearings, clean and re-grease everything before putting it back together. A little steel wool and elbow grease removed any rust from the rims. Didn’t matter the handlebars or the tires because I would change them, putting on wide handlebars and knobby tires. I was making my own motocross bike.

Then we would go to the little forested park near my house and race them. We built berms and jumps. We also dug up a few suburban front lawns with our terrorizing of the neighbourhood. I learnt how to wheelie and we had competitions with that too. I could wheelie the entire street if I got a good one going. When Evel Kneivel attempted to jump the Snake Canyon in 1974, I was eleven. It didn’t matter that the jump itself was a disappointment. All the hype leading up to the jump led us to start jumping our bikes—really jumping. We built ramps by turning a municipal steel garbage can on its side, wedging rocks behind it to stop it rolling, and laying scavenged wood on top. I bent a few back wheels doing those jumps, but never broke a bone. No one ever wore a helmet in those days, but the Gods smiled on us. The worst of it was some serious road rash.

Eventually I gave up the custom 3-speeds and bought a 12-speed Supercycle mountain bike from Canadian Tire. I must have put half a million miles on that bike, especially the summer I was a bike courier in London, Ontario. That bike still lives, repainted black, of course, with red pin-striping from Canadian Tire down the side.

So when I went to buy a motorcycle, I knew I wanted a dual sport. Yes, I want to tour, but I also want to play. And it had to be black.

On Friday, going in to the long weekend, I decided to get my ya-yas out and go for a ride, my first full day ride since getting the bike out of storage. I headed toward Ontario, taking my favourite route out, which puts me in Lancaster. There’s a short story I know by Hugh Hood called “Getting to Williamstown” in which the narrator describes in detail a drive to Williamstown, ON, just north-west of Lancaster. The story was written in the 70’s. Would the road he describes still exist? The one-lane bridge? The gas station with ice-cream? I was curious.

What does any of this have to do with off-roading? By going to Williamstown, I stumbled into my first off-road ride. While exploring those concession roads, I saw a dirt road leading off of the main road. I turned around and studied the sign at the entrance. No cars, but to my surprise, snowmobiles, ATVs, and motorbikes allowed! It didn’t look that hard.

It wasn’t . . . for the first 100 metres. No sooner had I started when I came to a section completely washed out, a huge puddle of muddy water spanning the width of the trail. I knew enough from watching YouTube that you don’t try to skirt the puddle by sneaking around the side; that only leads to the tire sliding out sideways and you and the bike going down. You have to go through the centre, hoping it’s not too deep and that there are no big rocks or logs down there. I stopped and pondered. Turn back or risk forward? The trail looked clear ahead except for this puddle. I did the imprudent thing and went for it.

It’s hard to estimate how deep it was. In the moment, I was concentrating so hard I didn’t take note. But it’s an unnerving feeling heading into the centre of a puddle the depth of which you do not know. (If I had had my adventure boots on, I might have waded in to find out first.) I knew that if I’m going for it, there are no halfways and I didn’t want to be tentative. So I gave it some throttle and saw water plough up around the fairing—probably easy stuff for an experienced rider but not so easy for a newbie. Safely across, I whooped into my helmet.

The trail beyond was a mixture of dirt, gravel, with sections of larger rocks that were tricky. I found it difficult to operate the throttle smoothly from a standing position and shifting was awkward. This would take some getting used to. After a brief foray into 2nd gear, I decided to keep it in first. This was, after all, my first time off road. At one point, I passed a father and son going the other way on ATVs.

There were other sections washed out—not one big puddle as before but several muddy puddles to navigate through. I thought of shooting rapids and skiing moguls, how you have to look up ahead and select your best line through. I could feel the bike sliding around beneath me but kept my cool, my weight over the bike, and my hand off the brake. I was nervous but tried not to grip the handlebars tightly, letting them and the bike move around. And I understood why you’re supposed to steer the bike by weighting the pedals rather than turning the handlebars, because even at that speed, when it’s that slippery, turning the bars can lead to the front wheel washing out. It was exhilarating!

I’m convinced that during those sections when the bike was sliding around under me, I was drawing on muscle memory from those early years on my bicycle. It’s the same principles, just a lot more weight involved. I’m hoping this might be something I take to easily, even at this “advanced” age.

I probably shouldn’t have been doing that alone. When I spoke to my dad later in the day, he said the same. Even at that speed, anything can happen. If the bike lands on you, you could break a leg and then you’d be hooped. So I messaged my off-road partner and suggested we go back together. I also looked up on Google Maps the trail and discovered I only rode a small section of it; it continues in the other direction all the way into Quebec and ends near Saint Polycarpe. In June, I’m going to the DirtDaze Adventure Rally in Lake Luzerne, NY, where I’ll get some beginner’s instruction and go on some guided rides down there. I also plan to do the full day adult course at SMART Riding Adventures.

It’s going to be a fun summer.

Review of Total Control: High Performance Street Riding Techniques, by Lee Parks

TotalControl

Can you improve your riding from reading a book? No, but if you practice and apply some of the information presented in Parks’ book, you will. This book is less about road safety than riding technique, so if you’re looking to avoid a collision, see my review of David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling, which deals with this subject. In fact, Hough cites Parks’ book, and the two have collaborated in the past. Where Hough leaves off, Parks picks up and takes you a step further.

Looking at the cover image, you’d think this book is for sport bike riders. It is, and it isn’t. Most of the techniques presented are definitely meant for the track but can be applied to any type of riding to improve safety and proficiency. It’s not all about safety. If you want to stay safe, stay at home. Sometimes you just want to get around a corner faster, or ride with more advanced riders. There are photos here showing guys dragging a knee on a Gold Wing or a V-Strom, getting air on a GS. It doesn’t matter what your ride is or what type of riding you do, Total Control will have something for you.

The book is nicely organized into sections on Chassis Dynamics, Mental Dynamics, Body Dynamics, Machine Setup, and Rider Setup, with chapters within those sections. I’d say the heart of the book is the section on Body Dynamics, which contains chapters on vision, line selection, throttle control, shifting, braking, body positioning, low-speed turns, and riding two up. Now before you say, “Yeah, we learnt all that in my training course,” let me say we are talking here about advanced techniques, so very subtle and technical aspects of those skills.

We all know about target fixation, but do you know it’s related to us being predators? We know about straightening a curve, but what about premature initiation? (No, this is not a sexual gaff.) How to handle a double apex curve? In the chapter on shifting, I learnt how to preload the shifter, and in my next ride I was shifting quicker and smoother. Another technique I found interesting is trail braking, a technique in which at a point in the corner you are braking and accelerating at the same time! The idea is essentially that since braking makes the bike nose-dive and accelerating lifts the front end, you can use these opposing forces to cancel each other out and stabilize the bike through the corner: “The technique has us simultaneously rolling off the throttle while applying the brakes going into a corner. Once in the corner we start to slowly roll on the throttle as we slowly trail off the brakes,” hence the term “trail braking.” Now before you scoff and dismiss, Parks says that “virtually every MotoGP and World Superbike racer—as well as every motor cop—now uses this technique: so try it before judging it.” And Parks would know. He was 2nd overall in the 1994 AMA Superbike Championship (125GP class) and won the 2001 WERA National Endurance Series Championship. He’s an accomplished rider and knows of what he speaks.

Another interesting bit of information I found in this book is the suggestion to try cornering with one hand. You’d think he was being foolhardy, but in fact he claims that often our two arms are fighting each other through a corner, and allowing one hand (presumably the throttle hand) to take full control actually improves steering. But be careful! Parks says the first time most people try this they oversteer. The book is filled with other such tidbits of useful information. I won’t give all the goods away.

Chapters at the back deal with riding gear and fitness. I’m excited to try a 6-10 minute high-intensity training program designed specifically for bikers by strength trainer Timothy Parravano. It involves only 4 exercises and the only equipment needed is a chin-up bar. In just 6 minutes, you get core strengthening and an anaerobic cardio workout.

The book is extremely technical but is well illustrated with diagrams and graphs. Still, I found some material more theoretical than my needs. For example, there’s an entire chapter on how suspension works from an engineering standpoint. Do I need to know this? I’m really only interested in setting up my suspension for the best ride possible, which comes in a separate chapter. And the chapter on aerodynamics? I’m not going to be tucking behind a tiny windscreen on any of my rides. This is where the book’s leaning toward sport bike racing shows. If you’re like me, you can skim those sections.

The book is now in its second edition and has become a classic. Anyone interested in improving their skills should pick it up. I liked the pep talk by Parks in the epilogue as he waxes philosophic, drawing on his interest in Buddhism. (Illustrative Buddhist aphorisms and parables are smattered throughout the book.) “In a special sense, the reason you are reading this is because your riding is a little bit “sick.” When you are sick, the doctor prescribes medicine. The problem is we get addicted to the medicine. But medicine is not food for a motorcyclist. Brilliant riding is food. The purpose of medicine is so that you don’t need the medicine. The purpose of a teacher is so that you don’t need a teacher. The purpose of method is so you ultimately don’t need a method. In Japan, if you have spent too much time with a particular master you are said to “stink” of Zen. You can think of Total Control as the medicine you need to overcome your sickness.”

Most people may not have the humility to think of their riding as “sick,” but if you’re like me—always interested in improving whatever you do—this book is for you.

Motorcycle Fitness

'It's not an actual motorcycle. It's an exercise bike. I made it look like one so my husband would actually use it.'

How fit do you need to be to ride a motorcycle? You are, after all, just sitting on it and twisting a throttle, right? It’s not like you actually have to do any work, like pedal.

Competitive motocross and MotoGP riders are among the fittest athletes in any sport. That’s one extreme. Most of us are not competitive riders, and there is a large range of types of biking, from the physical demands of off roading to cruising on your Harley, each with its own set of fitness demands. You might be “just” a commuter, or a recreational, weekend rider, or someone who likes to tour. The answer to my question above is this: if you are physically unable to do what you’d like to do on a bike, then you have to up your fitness. It’s an easy test. If you find yourself unable to lift your bike, or push it out of mud; if you are nervous about committing to a long club ride in summer heat; or if you’re having trouble even getting on and off your bike, then it’s time to think about your fitness.

I’m no expert but, shall we say, an avid fitness enthusiast, more from my love of playing soccer than riding. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years. But before I get started, since we are dealing with health, I feel the need to do the usual legal disclaimer and say you should check with your doctor or a medical professional before starting any fitness program. In other words, don’t blame me if you have a heart attack!

I believe there are three aspects of fitness and I’ll talk about each in turn: cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and strength training.

Cardio

The foundation of fitness is cardio. That’s why I’m going to start with it. I annoy my son when we get talking about soccer training (I used to be his coach) because he says I’m fixated on cardio. Maybe I am. Here’s why.

Many people think of energy in economic terms, like a commodity. “I’ve only got so much energy to get me through the day and I’ve got to do x, y, and z today, so I’d better skip my workout.” That’s economic thinking. What those people don’t realize is that you get more energy by working out. Maybe not initially, but in the long run, so to speak. When your heart and lungs are strong, you will find yourself more productive in the evenings with energy to spare. Using the economic model, a cardio workout, then, is like advertising; you have to spend a little to get back a lot.

The other big benefit of boosting your cardio is that it’s calorie-burning, not just during the workout but between workouts! As you get more fit, you are actually changing your metabolic rate. This is, in part, where that extra energy comes from, aside from the fact that it’s easier for you to climb those five flights of stairs to your office several times a day. So if weight loss is one of your fitness goals, improving your cardio is key. Oh, and did I already say you’ll feel a whole lot better?

Probably most of you are already thinking, Yeah, I’ve tried to exercise but I just don’t have the time or discipline to keep at it. Here is the key: you have to find a time and an activity that works for you. I didn’t always work out. In fact, for years I abused my health until it caught up to me with lower back problems, something I still struggle with from time to time (I’ll come back to this later). But at about the age of 42 I started going to the gym. Let me say that again, at about the age of 42 I started going to the gym. I’d tried and failed earlier; the difference this time was that I discovered I could do my workout during lunch hour and eat my lunch at my desk. I’m not a morning person, so that time didn’t work for me; and I just couldn’t heave myself off the couch and out to the gym after dinner, despite my best intentions. But the lunch-hour workout stuck. For others, maybe early morning, before the demands of family and work enter, is the best time, or after the kids are put to sleep, at the end of the day. Experiment and see what works for you.

I also rediscovered my love of soccer, something I’d given up in my teens, and so I had a reason for going to the gym. Soccer is a pretty demanding sport, even at the recreational level, and I know it’s either pay now in the gym or pay later on the field. I also felt a certain commitment to my teammates. The connection between my training and my soccer is so strong that often when I’m running I’m imagining (or visualizing) soccer plays past or future. My wife doesn’t like running but loves biking. Some people like the social aspect of cross-fit; others like the solitary aspect of distance running. Contact vs non-contact, a racquet sport, swimming—it’s really a personal preference, but you have to find something that makes your soul sing. It will be a lot easier to stay motivated.

If you haven’t done much exercise in recent years, you probably should start with walking. (See disclaimer above.) Start with a normal walk for several weeks, then graduate to a brisk walk and build up to a light run. The goal is just to elevate your heart rate to the aerobic zone for 20 minutes, 3-4 times per week, according to most experts. You know you’re in the aerobic zone if you can still have a conversation comfortably but are exerting yourself enough to break a sweat. Worried about burning calories? You’re in luck. It takes the same amount of calories to walk a kilometre as it does to run a kilometre. When my dad once went for his company physical, the nurse thought he was a runner. In fact, the only exercise he did was walking around the industrial park for 45 minutes during his lunch hour.

Flexibility

I’ve always been really inflexible. Once when I went for a massage (back when my insurance paid for it), the masseuse was shocked at how stiff my legs were. “Are your legs always this stiff!?” she exclaimed, holding onto my ankle and shaking the leg back and forth to test its tightness. “Ugh, yeah. That’s pretty much how they always are.”

I’ve never been into yoga, although I know it would be excellent for me. There’s something about yoga types that rubs me the wrong way. There’s a certain sanctimonious, holier-than-thou “I’ve-got-my-life-completely-sorted-out-and-am-at-complete-inner-peace” sort of thing about them that makes me want to knock their seaweed salad all over them to prove them wrong. But maybe I’m being unfair.

Here’s what I do to help my flexibility. Each morning, preferably before my coffee, I do three sun salutations. That’s it. That’s all. Done. But it seems to do the trick. It stretches all the major muscles, gets my heart and lungs working, and clears the sinuses. If you don’t know what a sun salutation is, check this out.

I also do some static stretches after a game, run, or strength workout. The muscles I focus on are the quads, the hamstrings, the glutes, and the lower back. There are lots of stretching exercises available online so I won’t go into specifics here. These stretches take 10 minutes and ensure my back doesn’t get pulled out of alignment. One issue with soccer players is that they develop very strong quads that can pull the back out, so I’m sure to do at least this one after pretty much every workout.

Person doing quad stretch exercise standing.

If you don’t have a wall handy, here’s a tip: holding the opposite ear-lobe from the leg being stretched will help you maintain your balance. Don’t ask me why.

Finally, I also use one of those foam rollers from time to time, as needed, to keep my legs loose. The woman in the link above seems to be having a good time but it actually hurts like hell. The more it hurts, the more you needed it. After a few days of regular use, though, it hurts a lot less, so I know it works. It’s basically a self-massage. I roll my quads, my hamstrings, my IT band (i.e. the outer side of the thigh), my calves, and my lower back.

Despite being naturally inclined toward tight muscles, I’ve actually never had a major pull, so I must be doing something right. I hope I’m not jinxing myself.

 

Strength Training

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If you remember this ad, you are of my generation. It’s actually a brilliant piece that plays on most guys’ body insecurity and sexual desire. It also messed up my head for 30 years, making me think there was something wrong with me for being an ectomorph. Yes, I too was “a skinny 97-pound weakling” and desperately wanted to wear a leopard skin Speedo. Today, a lot of guys are turning to steroids to get “ripped,” sacrificing their fertility for looks, which seems like a pretty good trade-off until they actually bed the babe they’ve literally been busting their balls for and discover they can’t. In my Men & Masculinity course, we talk about this as a kind of reverse anorexia for boys, the social pressure to be “big,” which is really just a synonym for “powerful” in the broadest sense of the word.

I’m going to lay my cards on the table here and say if changing your body image is why you want to work out, that’s the wrong reason. Rather, if it’s to be healthy and strong, that’s the right reason. In terms of motorcycling, as I’ve said, it should be to allow you to do what you want to do on the bike. You don’t have to be physically big to do that. In fact, none of the MotoGP riders look like Charles Atlas. Last year’s MotoGP champion Marc Márquez weighs 59 kilograms, or 130 pounds. That said, the improved toning and shape you get from strength training is an additional reason to feel good about yourself for doing it.

As cardio is the foundation of fitness, I believe core strength is the foundation of strength training. There’s no point in bulking up if you can’t stand up. Core strength keeps you in alignment and prevents back problems. It also allows you sit in the saddle for long periods without slouching. (Remember, most of us don’t have a back-rest.) And nothing I know strengthens the core better than Pilates. I know a guy who developed back problems and his doctor sent him to a Pilates course. He worked out regularly at the gym and was built but lacked core strength. So when I developed back problems, I found a good Intro to Pilates DVD at my local library and did it religiously 3-4 times a week. It actually only took about 3 workouts until I felt a difference. They say you’ll feel better after 10 Pilates workouts, look better after 20, and have a completely different body after 30. Then you can go buy some leopard skin swimwear as a reward.

Once you have your core strength, you can move on to weight training. When I started weight training, someone set up a workout routine for me involving about 10 machines and exercising all the major muscles. That works. More recently, I came across Mark Ripptoe’s Practical Programming for Strength Training that makes the case that you really only need four exercises: deadlift, squat, bench press, and press. Those four cover everything, including core strengthening and areas you wouldn’t think they would, like abdominals. I’m still learning about weight training, but I’ve heard that more weight with less reps bulks you up, whereas less weight with more reps is better for endurance strength. So for motorcycling and soccer, I aim for 10-12 reps.

So how do you fit it all in? Cardio, Pilates, weights—while leaving time for the body to recover, which, at my age, is longer and longer. Something I’m just starting to look into is periodization. That’s where you break the year down into periods that focus on one area. It’s not like you don’t do the others, but the emphasis shifts. This year, coming off a bad ankle sprain that took me out for six months, I started with cardio and stretching, then core strengthening, and now am moving on to strength training. Just before the soccer season I’ll shift again to interval training and plyometrics.

If this sounds overwhelming, keep in mind that a regular program of cardio, stretching, and core strengthening should be sufficient for most types of motorcycling. That’s what the professional fitness trainer put Ewan and Charlie through in preparation for their Long Way Round adventure.

I’m still learning about all this so if I’ve written anything that is factually wrong, please let me know. If you disagree with something I’ve said or have advice I’ve missed, please leave a comment. Like I said, I’m an enthusiast, not an expert, so would be interested in hearing it, as I’m sure others would too.

 

The Moto Show!

motoshowbig

There are a few signs here in Montreal that signal for me that the end of winter is nearing. They are like the conditioned stimuli that get me salivating for spring. I’m referring to the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, the return of Canadian geese, and the Montreal Moto Show, or as it’s called here, the Salon de Moto. So far there have been no geese sightings, and the St. Patty’s Day parade is still three weeks away, but last weekend was the Moto Show, the first sign that things are about to change. People come out of hibernation, and if you’re a biker, your first stop is the Palais des congres.

Last year was my first time going to the show. I went with my son and after some initial apprehension we got into the spirit of it and started climbing on bikes. This year we went with some members of my club, so it was even more fun, but thank God we had phones because it’s really easy to get separated from a group in a crowded showroom! You get stuck staring at a bike and when you turn around five people have disappeared into thin air as if beamed onto another planet. “Where are you guys?” was the common text sent about every half an hour. Then bike manufacturers become place names: “We’re at Honda,” or “We’re heading toward Harley,” and you have to decide whether to catch up or go it alone for a while.

I didn’t have any particular agenda this year except to look for a deal on that LS2 Pioneer helmet on my wish list. As it turned out, I could get it at the show for a little cheaper, shipped to my door, than online at the big superstore, so took advantage of the opportunity. I was also interested in the new BMW G310 and some 250 enduro bikes because now my son is talking about taking a course and starting to ride. As a parent, I have mixed feelings about this: I know riding is dangerous, but I also know it’s really fun, and the time to learn riding skills is when you are young and the brain is still plastic.

I thought maybe we could start by doing some off-roading, which would develop those skills better than any other kind of riding and is a lot safer than road riding, but while he says he could get into rally racing (the navigational aspect appeals to him), he’s more interested in using a bike to get around town. My second choice is for him to start on a small bike. As I’ve written in a previous post, I’m a strong believer in the European stepping-stones regulation system in which beginners start with a bike restricted to 20 hp, then after two years graduate to a bike with up to about 47 hp, and finally after another two years have no restrictions. It’s a little more complicated than that (okay, a lot more complicated) because age and power-to-weight ratio are also factors, but generally the idea is to start small and work your way up to heavier and more powerful machines.

So I was steering him toward smaller displacement bikes. He seems to have a fancy for naked bikes, so I suggested he sit on this Honda CB300.

cb300

You can tell a lot about a bike just by sitting on it. Climb on a sport bike and reach down for the grips, you’re almost lying on the tank. You’re tucked in behind a tiny windscreen, your knees are bent 120 degrees and you just know that a few hours in this position is not going to be good for your back or sex life. But you are one with the machine, your knees tucked into the hollows of the tank and you are ready for speed. By contrast, throw a leg over a touring bike and you’re weight is evenly distributed between your bum and your feet, you are upright, staring down the horizon, and the handlebars reach for you instead of the other way around. Oh yeah, and there’s a cup holder. Each bike is designed for a specific purpose, and you feel it right away.

Then there are more subtle aspects of design. I don’t like a huge tank dominating the cockpit, and some bikes feel like there’s a wall of plastic in front of you. Others have a seat that slopes down into the tank, making you feel crowded. Wide handlebars or narrow, digital or analog instrumentation, the width of the faring, position of pipes, etc. are all aspects of a bike’s design and comfort, any one of which can be a deal-breaker. Once in a while you come across a Goldilocks bike. You sit on it and everything feels just right, like when you find your soulmate and know after the first night that this relationship is a biggie. One bike that did that for me this year was the Triumph Street Scrambler.

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It not only feels great but also looks really cool. Triumph have done a great job with their direction of putting out the modern classic bike, taking essentially the classic Bonneville design of the 60’s and building modern technology into it. Okay, the Bobber goes too far and is to my taste a bit pretentious, but this Scrambler looks like the quintessential motorcycle yet, according to reviews, for all intents and purposes rides like a modern bike. And with the rack on the back, you could tour with this, even do some light off-roading. I’m really happy with my 650GS, but if money were no object, I’d be heading to Triumph tomorrow.

There are some bikes that are clearly built to get attention, and others where practicality is predominant. On one end of the scale is this Victory Mello Yello, which is anything but mellow in its appearance.

victory-mello-yellow1

Then there’s the Kawasaki H2, the most powerful motorcycle ever produced—and looks it.

h2

This beast has 998 cc of supercharged power, and I’m not using that term euphemistically. It actually has a supercharger with an impeller that turns at up to 130,000 rpm and compresses air 2.4x atmospheric pressure. It’s also got something called “the planetary gear.” If you think that sounds like something from outer space, you wouldn’t be far wrong. This gear system was designed by KHI’s aerospace division and is incredibly efficient at transferring power. Yes, we humans are amazing tool makers, and we’ve come a long way from that opening scene in 2001 Space Odyssey where a tibia bone becomes the first tool when used as a club. One look at this thing and you have a pretty clear picture of our incredible tool-making ability. Unfortunately, for all that ingenuity, we haven’t figured out how to stop killing each other and share power and wealth. Maybe we aren’t that far from the bone-as-weapon mentality? We are in essence still children in a sandbox, unwilling to share a bucket and spade, even when those toys have evolved to harness 326 hp.

But back to my dilemma about what bike I would feel comfortable my son riding. Not the H2, that’s for sure. The bike I was most interested in him seeing was the brand new BMW G310. It’s taken five years of development to get this bike off the line. Apparently, the biggest hurdle was getting the manufacturing, which is done in a new plant in India, up to BMW’s standards. The result is an entry-level bike that is under $5,000, has all the advantages of the German engineering we’ve come to expect from BMW and, according to initial reviews, is super fun to ride! It’s light and nimble, and despite being only 313cc (35 hp) in size, can keep up on the freeway thanks to a sixth gear, which even my 650GS does not have. Did I mention she’s a beaut? BMW are going to sell a lot of these. Apparently the plan is to bump their annual sales from 150,000 to 200,000 worldwide with this machine and introduce the BMW brand to a new generation of riders.

bmw-g310

It’s a single-cylinder, of course, liquid cooled, with ABS. Above is the R version, but an adventure GS model is coming in about six months. It would be fun to do some touring together and BMW says the 310GS is okay for light off-roading, so pretty much the same as my 650GS and would mean we would not be restricted to asphalt. They didn’t have the GS available at the show but here’s a photo of it grabbed off of Cycle World.

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It’s got the distinctive BMW beak, an extra couple of inches suspension clearance front and back over the R model, adjustable rear suspension preload, and ABS can be turned off when you leave the pavement. That’s a lot of bike for a little over $5,000! Cycle World is calling it a legitimate contender for the mini-ADV crown. It will take Gabriel a year or more to get his licence if he decides to go ahead with this, and hopefully by that time there will be some aftermarket accessories, like a more comfortable seat (are you hearing this, Seat Concepts?) because I know from personal experience that BMW do not put money into the seat.

In the end, I’m in the uncanny position I put my wife in when I announced I wanted to ride. To her credit, she didn’t freak out and threaten to divorce me, as some wives would do. She has told me she didn’t because she trusts me, trusts that I’m going to do everything right to minimize the risk, and I guess I’m going to have to do the same with my only child. He’s 23 this month, so there’s not much I can do about it anyway.

 

All Roads Lead to Pirsig: a review of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

pirsig

There’s a strange phenomenon that happens when you let on in conversation that you ride. Soon after you casually drop a reference to “the bike,” the conversation starts to steer toward Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s like how all roads lead to Rome; all conversations eventually lead to Pirsig.

First published in 1974, Zen has become a classic, selling over 5 million copies. It possesses that rare quality of being both popular and academic. It’s the one book everyone has heard of that contains the word “motorcycle” in its title, so naturally, once it’s known that you ride, you will have to give your opinion of it. Ironically, the book isn’t about motorcycling at all. It’s about technology and mental illness and the Cartesian Duality and the Romantic and Classical traditions of Western thought and fatherhood and a host of other things but not motorcycling. The riding is really just a trope, the frame narrative to contain the philosophical musings in the Eastern tradition Pirsig calls “Chautauquas.” It’s these Chautauquas that are the real journey in the book, a deepening exploration of the Metaphysics of Quality. They occur during a 17-day road trip from Minnesota to Northern California with Robert Pirsig’s 12-year-old son, Chris, riding pillion.

Much of the book is highly abstract, and when I want to torture my wife, I read a passage from the book’s middle section:

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is , they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

“Stop, stop!” she screams, and I do, before Public Security shows up at my door.

I had been warned inadvertently about the middle section. I happened to overhear a conversation involving a colleague who had decided to teach the book for the first time. He was lamenting that middle section, wondering how he was going to keep 18-year-olds, whose attention span is limited to 500 words of celebrity gossip, to keep wading through that philosophical muck. So when I got to it, I started to skim the abstract stuff, which isn’t really necessary to understand the discoveries at the end. It helps to have some context, but you don’t have to touch every stone on the Yellow Brick Road to get to the Emerald City. And in the end, when Pirsig finally comes to the much anticipated answers to his questions, he does so in a paragraph that doesn’t require all the contextual trappings for us to understand. This is a major flaw in the book. Despite it being a classic, it very much needs some serious editing. No wonder it was rejected by 121 publishers before being picked up, more than any other best-selling book, according to the Guiness Book of Records.

Fortunately, there are some passages that bring us back to the concrete world, literally: “We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles. . . . There’s a red-winged blackbird.” And at other times, Pirsig provides another level of abstraction with insights about the concrete world and our experience of it. Here he describes, better than anyone I’ve read, why we ride:

“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”

This is Pirsig at his best, when he gets outside his mind and provides description of physical detail and insights glimpsed during the ride. I found myself invested more in the frame narrative and the lives of these “characters,” and became annoyed each time I was dragged away from this narrative to the philosophical musings.

At the heart of this book is the relationship between Pirsig and his son Chris, a relationship strained by some violent rupture in its past, and one gets the sense that the bike trip is in part an attempt to heal this wound. Pirsig’s relationship with his son is very different from mine with my son, and  I longed for Pirsig to find a way to speak more openly to his son about his feelings and fears. He never does, and this is another disappointment in the book. The most touching moment of writing comes in the afterword, if you have the Harper edition.

With so much going against it, what, you must be asking, makes this book so popular? Well, it was one of the first popular books to examine our relationship with technology. I remember a roommate in first year undergrad talking about it excitedly, mentioning the contrast between Pirsig and John and Sylvia Sutherland, the couple they ride with through the first 9 days of the trip. Pirsig is able to repair his bike when things go wrong; John and Sylvia cannot, but rather fear and avoid maintenance on the bike, a relationship that extends to technology in general. In an era dominated by technology, Zen is an opportunity to reflect on our own feelings about the world as we’ve made it. Pirsig’s position is clear: we must embrace technology or risk becoming enslaved by it, victims of third-rate motorcycle mechanics and their inflated costs. There’s a moral obligation, according to Pirsig, to learn how to fix your bike.

And while I’m not a philosopher, I think Zen was one of the first philosophical treatises to bring Eastern thought into the stream of the Western dialectic. Pirsig’s goal is ambitious: nothing less than to bridge the Cartesian subject/object divide that underlies Western thought. It was probably also ahead of its time in casting a spotlight on mental illness, a subject that only now, over 40 years later, we as a society are starting to acknowledge and discuss more openly.

Yes, the bike is you, and you must work on yourself like the bike. I’m a strong believer that everyone has to do some serious personal work at some time in his or her life; otherwise your shit catches up to you, like the skunk stripe of mud that gets flicked up your back. It can be a divorce, a series of failed relationships, or a deep depression. I spent the bulk of my 20’s reading Carl Jung and Robert Bly, journaling, and doing dream analysis. Pirsig has opened a conversation about mental illness as much as presented an inquiry into values. He folds Buddhist spirituality into social critique, and I believe it’s this combination of personal and social inquiry that has given the book its wide appeal through the decades. Despite my misgivings, I believe it’s an important read. Just skim the middle sections.

The Wish List

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My wife and I have a difference of opinion on gift-giving. In her family, it’s common to send out gift suggestions around birthdays and Christmastime. They come over the phone or via email from distant family, or they are dropped—maybe not an entire list but a single suggestion—into a conversation on a completely unrelated topic, seemingly innocuously, as if accidentally, usually with one’s back turned. I get it: you’re trying to help the other person out, who legitimately might have no idea of what you want. If this is a distant family member, that makes sense. But if it’s your spouse, well, you have to wonder how well your soulmate knows you.

I, on the other hand, love the element of surprise, and am willing to gamble my gift receiving in the hope of being pleasantly surprised. I also like giving gifts. I like the challenge of trying to think of that very thing someone has always wanted although he or she doesn’t realize it until the epiphany of opening my gift. My sister says I have gifting issues, but I say I’m just a kid at heart. The best part of Christmas is not the turkey dinner, the family visits, the work parties, the chocolates, sweets, egg nog, the smell of pine in the living room, the decorative lighting . . . no! It’s opening gifts, damnit! It’s getting to be both a kid again and Santa at the same time, if only for a morning.

It is therefore completely against my gifting policy to write this blog, which is a composite wish list of my most desired motorcycle gear. These are the things I would buy tomorrow if I happened upon about $4,000 and had my debts and mortgage paid and about three times what I actually have in my RRSP and child poverty worldwide was a thing of the past. It’s not meant so much as a wish list to my spouse or anyone else but a dream list to myself. Fortunately, I don’t need any of this stuff to fulfill my plans for next season, but they sure would make my journeys more enjoyable.

First up is a new seat. The BMW’s Rotax engine is the best thumper going, but their saddle sure does suck! I noticed it immediately upon going for my first ride. Well, what I noticed immediately is that the seat is sloped forward so it feels like the boyz are constantly crushed against the airbox. What took about another five or six hours on the seat to notice is that it’s not just the boyz that have complaint. After that first tour, when I put 800 kms. on the final day, I had a new tactile understanding of the term “saddle sores.” So if there’s one item I am somehow going to purchase at the beginning of next season, even if I have to sell body parts to get it, it’s the Touratech Comfort Seat, Extra High.

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Yeah, BMW has a comfort seat, but why reward them for putting a cheap seat on an otherwise excellent bike? I’m really happy with my Touratech panniers and I have a lot of confidence in this German company, which seems cut from the same cloth as BMW itself. I’m going to go with the extra high because I can easily afford another 2 inches on the height (my mom’s nickname for me is Longshanks), and it will change the ergonomics and make me less cramped. I would go with the FreshTouch version, which is covered in some technical material that somehow doesn’t retain heat as much as regular vinyl.

I plan to start some off-roading and I saw at the Simon Pavey school that motocross boots are mandatory for their courses, so a pair is on my list—not that I’m going to Pavey’s school in Wales, but I understand why he thinks they are necessary. The body parts most likely to be injured in a fall are your feet and lower legs, and when you are off-roading, especially learning to off-road, I imagine you fall a lot. The bike can fall on your leg or you can clip something like a trunk or rock when you plant a foot to corner. Now I don’t need a premium boot, not even an intermediate boot; an entry-level should do just fine and from the research I’ve done, Alpinestars is the brand. So on my wish list is a pair of Tech 1 AT’s.

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If I were going higher end, I would probably get a pair of Sidi’s, but these are the only boots under $200 with a hinge/blade system for increased flexibility. I also like that they have a sewn sole, so you can have it replaced by your local cobbler when it wears out. The buckles are plastic but you can swap them out for the metal buckles found on the more expensive Tech 7’s if desired.

My next purchase will be an off-road helmet. I love my Arai Signet-Q touring helmet. It’s light, comfortable, really well ventilated, has the Pinlock anti-fog system, and SNELL certification, but . . . it was $800! I simply can’t afford another Aria helmet, even though the XD-4 is an amazing helmet. I went looking for something less expensive that wouldn’t be a huge sacrifice in quality and found a company named LS2 which makes quality lids at a fraction of the price of the big boys. The one I’ve got my eye on is the 436 Pioneer. It’s got a polycarbonate shell so it’s light, has a tonne of venting, an optically correct, fog-, UV- and scratch-resistant visor, a drop-down sun visor (great for touring), and is ECE rated. Best of all, it’s built for long-oval head shapes, which is what I have and right in line with the Signet-Q. I was so stoked about finding this helmet I almost bought one last summer but held back, hoping (praying?) they would release one in 2017 in a blue and white graphic to match my jacket. In writing this blog, I went to their site and lo and behold:

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I’m a happy man.

Next up would be some auxilary lighting. That first tour to New Hampshire taught me that it’s not always possible to get to where you are going before sundown. Also that there are animals crossing the road at night. That road-kill incident sent me looking for secondary lighting and the Denali D4’s are on my wish list.

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These babies will send a beam almost 700 metres down the road in front of you. Better still, the combo beam and wide-angle lights also illuminate the surrounding roadside like it’s daytime. Because they are LED’s, they pull only 3 amps per pair. Wiring is easy, and you can wire them either into your high-beam switch or, as I might, a separate switch; I have an empty switch next to my four-ways that I could use or save for some fog lights. There is bike-specific mounting hardware so these will tuck in nicely at the top of my forks.

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Okay, now we get into the practical stuff. Sleeping. If I’m going to camp while en route across the continent, I’m going to put the money I’m saving on motel costs toward the best inflatable mattress money can buy. My ultralight Thermarest is okay for 5 nights of canoe-camping, but for anything longer, especially when daytime concentration is essential to staying alive, I want a better mattress. I remember seeing one at La Cordée a few summers ago when I was buying a new mattress. It had a built-in pump, inflated I believe to about 4″ thick, was puncture resistant, and packed up smaller than a sleeping bag. Why, oh why, didn’t I buy it then? On my list is something like it. Suggestions, anyone?

Even more practical are tools for fixing a flat. So far I’ve been flirting with disaster. Anyone touring in remote areas has to carry sufficient tools to patch a puncture. Unfortunately, my bike uses tubed tires. The tubeless kind are so easy to fix with those plugs, but on a tubed tire you have to be able to remove the wheel, remove the tire, patch the hole, replace the tire, and re-inflate. The patching is the least of my worries. I’ve been patching bicycle tires practically since I was pre-verbal; it’s the other stuff that concerns me. I want to be able to break that bead and get the tire off and on without damaging the rim. On Adventure Rider Radio, I heard about BeadBrakR by BestRest Products. beadbrakrIt’s a series of tire irons that fit together to create a tool to leverage the tire off the rim. So you have your bead breaker and tire irons in one convenient pack. BestRest also produce the CyclePump to re-inflate the tire. Yes, you can use CO2 cartridges, but you only get one shot with them. The CyclePump is small enough to pack easily and runs on your 12V port, so if your patch isn’t perfect, or if for some reason you can’t patch the hole, you can use the pump repeatedly to get you to the nearest service centre or, if you’re really in the sticks, to phone service.

Speaking of safety, another little tool that I think would bring my wife peace of mind is the Spot Gen3. gen3_productIt’s a small, clip-on device that works with satellite technology to do a number of things. It can track your movement, so your wife will always know exactly where you are. Hmm . . . Okay, so don’t take it to your high school reunion then. Press another button and you can check-in with family to let them know you’re okay when out of cellphone range; it will send an email with GPS coordinates or a link to your location on GoogleMaps. This will be handy even on group rides to The States to avoid texting charges. Press another button to alert them you need help in non-life-theatening situations, and still another to hail the helicopter ambulance.  So if you’re planning a solo trip up to Deadhorse, AK, on the coast of the Beaufort Sea, as I am, this should be in your stocking.

Finally, we come to the most important items and the ones that, at about a thousand dollars apiece, will probably be on my list next Christmas too. I love my Joe Rocket leather jacket. I bought it as a starter jacket off eBay for a song and it’s been my one and only jacket so far. I zip the quilted liner in and out as needed, sometimes several times a day as temperature fluctuates, and throw a cheap rain jacket and pants over everything if the skies open up. But what I’d love, eventually, hopefully in this lifetime, is a Klim adventure jacket and matching pants.

Badlands.jpgKlim are the undisputed leaders in riding apparel and for good reason. They spend a lot of money on research and development, and all their products are premium quality. For example, the armour in their jackets is D30, which feels like soft, pliable rubber but molecularly stiffens upon impact; you can wrap this stuff like silly putty around your finger and then take a hammer and whack away to your heart’s content. And they’ve developed something called SuperFabric which is five times more abrasion resistant than leather with only half the weight. Gore-Tex means no need for an exterior waterproof jacket or zip-in liner. Warm in cold, wicking with vents in heat, this bad-boy is a one-jacket, climate control centre for four-season riding, and when the only thing separating you from the elements or the asphalt is your clothing, your jacket is the most important investment next to the bike itself. A Klim jacket will take me from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in comfort and safety. I haven’t decided yet whether I want the Induction or, for a few hundred dollars more, the Badlands, but one thing I am sure of is that whichever model I eventually get, it will be in the hi-viz colour. When Marilyn and I drove the Cabot Trail a few summers ago, we definitely found the hi-viz jackets caught our eye at a distance. I don’t even think hi-viz comes at a coolness cost these days; rather, as I’ve claimed in a previous post, I think hi-viz is the new cool.

Most of these items are to set me up for the adventure riding I’m longing to try. Now I’ve got the bike and the licence, but if feels like those things are just a start. I remember during my first theory class in my licensing course, the instructor warned us that “this sport will latch onto your wallet worse than your ex-wife.” Having experienced the financial cost of one divorce, I almost fled the building. Now I see what he was talking about. But he continued by suggesting to pace ourselves, to “not go crazy” but slowly build up our gear. And to avoid a second divorce, that is what I’m going to do. In the meantime, a wish list is a fun way to dream and plan, research, and select, without the messy consequences of actually buying. Like window shopping.

No doubt your wish list is different from mine. What do you hope Santa leaves under the tree? Merry Christmas, and happy and safe travels in 2017.

Screw You!

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You’d think that my biggest frustration last week would have been when I accidentally broke my gas cap. It was the final fill-up before putting the bike into storage, more final than the fill-up which is part of my winterizing for storage. You see, I usually add the fuel stabilizer, then fill the tank, then go for a little ride to mix the stabilizer into the gas and work it down into the injectors, as well as heat the chain wax and oil. Then I top up again. It was on this final top up that I broke the cap. Jung would have something to say about this but I don’t, not about the breaking anyway. I’m going to write about the fixing.

Or you might think my biggest frustration would have been when I heard how much a replacement cap was going to cost. It’s a gas cap, right? How much can it cost? Okay, this is a BMW, so whatever figure you have in mind, triple it. Then triple it again. You’ll be pretty close. I wasn’t that surprised when the nice parts guy at BMW told me the amount and I said so. He missed the irony, but then maybe it was a language thing. Then he said, “You’re not surprised? Oh, then, actually it’s $ __________!” (tripled again). Big joke. (Laughing.) This time I missed the irony. Did I say he was a nice parts guy?

No, the biggest frustration of the week was in trying to remove one screw to replace this gas cap. After I had ordered it, received the call that it was in, gone and held my nose and paid for it, I figured the worst was over. But I was wrong.

The gas cap is all one unit, which is why it costs so much: the cap, the hinge, and the flange are all one piece, so while I just broke the hinge, I had to buy the whole shebang. The upside, or so I thought, was that swapping the old one out would be easy. Six screws. You undo the screws, you take the old unit off, you put the new unit on, you replace the screws. This is Motorcycle Mechanics 101. But what they don’t teach you in MM101 is that nothing, no job, never, ever, is simple.

Five screws came out like a charm. The sixth did not. At first I thought the screw must be stripped, so tried pulling up as I turned. Sometimes you can skip over the stripped thread and get the next one to catch and you are out of the woods. But I soon discovered that what the screw screws into was also spinning. Now normally when this happens, you simply get hold of the nut on the other side with another socket or wrench or, if necessary, vise-grips—whatever it takes—but you can usually stabilize one side and turn the other and, again, get out of the woods.

But what do you do when the fitting that the screw screws into is embedded in the side of your plastic gas tank and covered with a metal flange? You can’t get at what is spinning, not with a socket or a wrench or vise-grips or even pointed-nose pliers, not with a screwdriver (trying to jam it down and wedge it somehow enough for the screw to release), not with a pick, not with the bent-nose pliers you just bought hoping they might do, not with a chisel to cut off the damn thing since you are replacing it anyway, nope—not even the miracle tool advertised on late-night infomercials is going to get you out of these woods. “Are you fucking kidding me!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs, and since I was in my shed, the acoustics were such that the preschoolers across the park must have heard me. For sure my wife did, for she soon arrived, presenting herself and the dog as Cheering Party, offering tea and biscuits, and helpful advice like “Why don’t you phone Nice Parts Guy and ask if he has any ideas?” But I happen to know why Nice Parts Guy works in Parts and not Service. And I know that Service doesn’t give free advice; they say “Bring the bike in,” which in this case was not an option.

But then she said something brilliant, so brilliant that my grease-monkey brain had overlooked it. “Why don’t you take a break and look online?” Now it’s not like Siri is going to know how to remove a slipping screw from the side of the gas tank on an f650GS, but one of the “inmates” of The Chain Gang probably does! The Chain Gang—so-called because the 650 was the first chain-driven bike BMW made—is a user forum consisting of 11,493 members, all of whom own my bike or a close cousin. It is a veritable fount of knowledge on all things relating to my specific motorcycle. Whatever issue you might be having, someone else has already had it and solved it. What did people in my situation do before the internet? Oh yeah, they belonged to real user groups.

So I posted my problem and before the day was out another user replied, not with an answer but to say he’d encountered the same problem. Since his cap was merely rusted, not broken, he simply replaced the other five screws and lived with it. He said he was curious too if anyone had an answer. Then someone did. He suggested drilling off the head of the screw. My concern with this plan is that I’d still be left with now a head-less screw seized inside a still-spinning fitting, so it wouldn’t solve the problem. A little back-and-forth and soon we, yes now “we” because that’s the nature of a bike forum, had another plan: I could use a drill, not to drill the head off but burn the fitting out of its socket. With the other five screws out, I knew there was enough play to get my fingers under the ring and pull as I spun the screw and fitting. With time and patience, eventually the plastic would give and the fitting would release. Then I could grip the fitting with some pliers (or my teeth, perhaps, by that point might be preferable) and unscrew the screw, then glue the fitting back into the empty socket. That was the plan.

But first I needed this tool. All new jobs require one new tool.

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This allowed me to put any of my 3/8″ sockets on my cordless drill. I put the torx socket on, drilled (counter-clockwise) and pulled and in no time the fitting was out. Here is what it looks like out, next to the screws.

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It’s brass and the rounded end goes down into the plastic. It is “gripped” by surrounding plastic which had deteriorated and given way. The top is squared.

Here is a photo of the emptied cavity with the remaining five fittings.

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Yes, that is gasoline sloshing around inside.

The next part of the job was glueing the fitting back in. I decided to use epoxy glue since I’ve had good luck with it on plastic before. This is where I get to play artist, mixing the epoxy and hardener on my palette.

I’m sure others have their own methods for mixing epoxy but I use waxed paper and a nail. This particular brand fortunately ended up the exact shade of grey I needed.

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The first time I tried, I made the mistake of putting glue in the cavity and then trying to press the fitting back in, thinking the glue would squirt up into the vacant space at the sides and surround the fitting. But it didn’t, perhaps it was because it was 1 degree Celsius out and the epoxy was stiff, but the fitting sat too high. So I quickly cleaned the fitting and cavity before anything set and started again. The second time I put epoxy just around the “neck” of the fitting and none in the cavity. I guessed the quantity just right. The fitting bottomed out and the epoxy came just flush. I had just a little excess to clean away. Then since it was cold, I used a hairdryer to help it set. All in all, it looked pretty good.

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After that, it was just a “simple” matter of replacing the rubber seal, the metal flange, the new gas cap unit, and all six screws. I did not tighten the new one but will wait until the spring when I’m confident everything has set hard before completely tightening it. I’m now thinking I might put some anti-seize grease on it, just in case I have to remove it again in the future. That particular fitting seems to be especially tight.

I’m no expert but I’ve done quite a lot of mechanical work, including changing a clutch on my car this past summer. But this single screw sure had me stumped! It’s funny how sometimes the seemingly simplest jobs can be the hardest. Most jobs involve approximately 25% familiarity with tools, 25% understanding of basic mechanics, and 50% problem-solving. It’s one unforeseen snag after another, some bigger than others. You have to keep your cool, take your time, seek advice where you can, and persist. It also helps to have a partner who injects a little something foreign into the mix when needed.

Thanks to my wife Marilyn, and Phil (aka backonthesaddle) at The Chain Gang for getting me over some hurdles to the finish. The bike is now ready to ride first warm weather next spring.

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