The Prairies

I blast through Manitoba but savour Saskatchewan.

Many thanks to my talented and skilled wife, Marilyn Gillespie, for the retouching of all images used.

Of all the geographical regions in Canada, I was most excited to experience the Prairies. That probably sounds strange to many. Before leaving on this trip, I’d heard others say that prairie roads are flat and straight and mind-numbingly boring. But the Prairies were not only the one Canadian region I hadn’t yet visited in my lifetime, but they are also Big Sky Country, and I’m a Gemini, an air sign, so I like the sky. No wonder I’m also a flight enthusiast.

Provincial Covid restrictions meant I couldn’t stop in Manitoba except for food and gas, and with that in mind, I didn’t even stop in Kenora on my way out for the requisite photo-op with Husky the Muskie. That would have to wait for the return leg of my tour. I hit the highway, brought the bike up to 120 km/hr, activated my Kaoko throttle lock, and didn’t stop for hours on end. It’s not the Prairies that are mind-numbing, but the super-slab highway.

I discovered a few favourite positions on the bike to cover these miles. My favourite and go-to position was right hand on the throttle and left elbow on the tank bag. This “lean-in” look not only made me look distinguished on the bike but also saved my back as well as cut down on wind noise. There was also left hand on the left grip and right arm anywhere but on the throttle, usually dangling down by my side. Even with my throttle lock, I developed tingling in my right hand from the hours of vibration transmitted up through the handlebars, and this position gave it some relief. It’s not just the mind that goes numb on a big thumper with adventure tires. And when my legs needed a stretch, there was the Harley cruiser position. I would lift my legs up and rest them on the little Giant Loop Possibles Pouches strapped horizontally to my crash bars. Those bags became my highway pegs. 6 hours of 5000-rpm riding is not really touring but moving the bike from Point A to Point B, which was exactly the intent of Manitoba’s Covid restrictions.

Halfway to my destination.

The only relief came at Winnipeg on the ring-road, Highway 101. For some reason, my GPS decided that, enough was enough, and it would mercifully divert me, 3/4-way through the ring, off onto Highway 221 and then the 26. What a difference the secondary highway makes! It meant a few stretches of gravel road, but the tank-slapper I received on one section (a result of my bent rim, I would discover later) was preferable to another kilometre of the Trans Canada. I was closer to the land and passing through small towns with history. On one “roadside break,” I discovered this old caboose and wandered back through a field to find more quintessential prairie artifacts.

Shortly before Poplar Point, I noticed a sign stating something like “Celebrating 100 Years of Hockey” and then a historical marker. I naturally had to go explore and arrived at this historic hockey rink.

Soon I was routed back onto the Trans Canada and the rest of the day was more of the same. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing there would be a TV and bed waiting for me just over the Saskatchewan border; I had decided to take a hotel room in Moosomin—a rare luxury when I travel. After a long hot day of highway riding, a cool shower, hamburger, and more mind-numbing TV in bed would be just the thing.

En route to the beer store.

The only time my bike burns oil is at high revs, so after the kind of day of riding it had been, I thought I should check it. Unfortunately, checking the oil level on this bike is not as simple as letting it settle in the sump and pulling the dipstick. That’s because the crafty German engineers gave it a dry sump system, so oil level is a product of a) amount of oil in the bike [duh!], b) temperature of oil, c) ambient temperature, d) temperature of engine, e) altitude, f) lunar cycle, and g) bike’s direction relative to True North. It was hot, and the engine was hot, and so was the oil, so I let the bike sit for a bit while I checked in at the hotel. That only took a few minutes, but when I checked the level, it was missing about 3/4 of a quart! Yipes! I thought that was a lot, and a bit concerning, but I added it nonetheless from the quart I was carrying.

The next morning at my first rest stop I checked it again and now it was high—really high. Damn! I guess the bike did not burn as much oil as I’d thought, or perhaps I waited too long before checking it at the hotel. Guessing aside, I knew I had to get oil out of it now or risk damaging the seals. What was there to do but parking-lot maintenance. Out came the tools and off came the body panels. I was at a gas station with adjoining convenience store, so I ransacked the washroom for paper towels and dug an empty windshield washer fluid container out of a garbage bin, then drained some oil out of the upper holding tank. I did my best guess and took out about half a quart. The level was now within range and I put everything back on the bike and rode on in search of somewhere to deposit the used oil. Fortunately, in these parts, the ubiquitous Co-op gas stations have oil drop-off containers.

Now I was ready to ride, and what a ride it was! I was headed to Grasslands National Park (East Block entrance) and my GPS routed me along Highway 13, which is a different world from the Trans Canada. What a joy finally to be seeing some of Saskatchewan. While passing through Ogema along the 13 I saw a sign for Deep South Pioneer Museum. Always curious to learn something about the history of the places I’m riding through, I decided to take a look. Of course it was closed for the usual reason, but I was able to walk through the grounds and check out some pretty old machines.

Further west along the 13 I saw a sign for Horizon, and from the little bit of research I’d done, I knew there were some dilapidated grain elevators there so decided to make a detour. When driving back out to the 13, I passed this quaint little chapel. They are everywhere in Saskatchewan—spartan clapboard churches that are very different from the heavy stone exteriors and ornate architecture of Quebec churches. I could suggest that’s indicative of the difference between prairie folk and Quebecers . . . but won’t.

So tempted to give this a nudge.

The riding got better once I turned south onto 36 and even better on the 18. By now it was the golden hour, and the twisty road rose and dipped over the amber, grassy hills. Who says Saskatchewan is flat? It seemed like I had the road to myself except for mule deer that scurried away across the barren fields and a coyote that froze and glared as I passed. Was I in heaven? No, actually just in southwest Saskatchewan. I fell in love with this region. It was one of the discoveries of the entire tour and I’m looking forward to going back as soon as I have the chance.

The only thing I didn’t like about Saskatchewan was the gravel used on their secondary roads. They use small brown stones similar in shape, size, and rolling behaviour as marbles. It’s fine as long as you stay in the tire tracks, but if you get into the deeper stuff that collects between those tracks, you are in for a treat. I didn’t have the best tires for this stuff, and it didn’t help that my front wheel had a wobble, so there were a few times when I thought I was going down. In such cases, the old adage “If in doubt, throttle out” was not going to help me. And with the bike fully loaded, getting my weight back did not lighten the front end one bit. I found I just had to clutch in, coast, let the bike go where it wants to go, and hope for the best.

When I arrived at the park, I mentioned my dislike of those stones to the young lady at registration.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. “When I first moved here, I ended up in the ditch.”

“Oh, you ride too?” I asked.

“No, it was in my car.”

Riding down to the campground in the valley.

But don’t let me put you off visiting the park. It is very remote, as you can see from the photo above, and you get the sensation of what it must have felt like to travel by wagon across the prairies. You are completely exposed, and I could hear the coyotes yelping in the distance at night. The wind is fierce and relentless, so cooking is a challenge, but the badlands are spectacular, especially at sunset. There is a 20 kilometre single-lane loop along the top and I was lucky enough to do it at sunset. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The Badlands at sunset.

The next morning I decided to head on over to the other side of the park. I’d heard that the west entrance at Val Marie is very different so worth a stop. Now what do you do when road signs point one way and Google Maps tells you another? It’s not that I have an abiding faith in modern technology, but I decided to follow my GPS because it showed a route through the park, and I thought it would be much more interesting than going back out to the 13 and riding asphalt.

Crossing the park by dirt. It looks easy enough.

The road looked pretty doable at first and I enjoyed the true adventure riding. Four stags crossed the road in front of me and, one by one, in what seemed slow-motion, leapt the bordering fence and headed majestically across the open countryside. That kind of sighting was the reward, but the cost was more of the infamous gravel and, then worse, sand—deep sand. It’s not fun riding a fully loaded bike through sand, but I was committed now, and to make matters worse, my fuel light was on and I didn’t think I had enough gas to get me back out the other way, even if I wanted to bail. I pursued on and the sand in the valleys turned to two-track dirt on the hills. The road deteriorated further, I was told to turn off that “road,” and I found myself facing a gate. Like I said, adventure riding is about facing each challenge as you encounter it. Now I was in the middle of a vast, remote park; I hadn’t seen a soul in about an hour of riding; I was almost out of gas; and I was facing a closed gate.

I got off the bike and untied the gate, which thankfully wasn’t locked. I swung it open, rode through, stopped, closed and tied it again, then rode on. But as I pulled away, I heard a terrible grating, scratching sound like metal on metal. I’d ridden through barbed wire! Someone had strung barbed wire across the road on the other side of the gate! Clearly I was not where I was supposed to be but had no choice now but to continue. I untangled myself and the bike from the wire and rode on, half expecting to hear gunshots. It was lucky I hadn’t received a puncture from the barbs.

Just when things couldn’t have looked worse, my GPS announced, “In 8 kilometres, turn left.” Ugh! But it’s always darkest before the dawn, and just when I thought I was riding myself into serious trouble, there was another chapel in the middle of nowhere—a good sign—and then the road got better and resembled more a road, and before I knew it I was back out on the 18 again. It was asphalt from here on.

I popped out at McCord and filled up at the local gas station there. Across the street were these old pumps next to a local museum which was . . . well, you know.

There is a Visitor Information Centre at the West Block and I learned some interesting information about the region. For example, I discovered that they get an average annual rainfall of only 30-35 cm, half of it in the summer in thunderstorms in June and July, and about a third in snowfall. This really is a desert climate! I also discovered that rattlesnakes are common and that you can hike up the nearby Eagle Butte. Normally those two clauses would be incompatible but I had adventure riding boots on so decided to do it, just for the view. A sign at the trailhead said the buzzing sound you often hear along the trail are rattlesnakes, but the grasshoppers in this region make a similar buzzing sound by slapping their wings together in flight, just to mess with you. The whole experience—climbing a desert mountain mid-summer wearing adventure boots amid rattlesnakes and flying, buzzing insects—is highly recommended. Once at the top, the view was worth it all, but not captured very well by the camera.

From the summit of Eagle Butte, looking west.

By now it was mid-morning. I wanted to stay and explore this fascinating geography some more but still had seven hours of riding to get to my destination, Calgary. Marilyn had reserved an AirBNB for us and I was looking forward to seeing her and sleeping in a bed. I hit the highway again and before long I was at the provincial border.

Goodbye Prairies. Hello Rockies.

Now I had a few days to rest the body, do laundry, eat and drink well, and socialize with friends and family before we would hit the road together on the next leg of the trip.

Northwest Ontario

I leave Chutes Provincial Park and ride along the north shore of Lake Superior into Lake of the Woods.

You don’t realize how big Ontario is until you have to drive it. The people I know who’ve driven across Canada say getting through Ontario feels like half the journey. It’s made long in part by having to circumnavigate Lake Superior, but seriously, what better obstacle could there be? I’ve written about my love for the geography north of gichi-gami, aka The Great Sea, and in that article I said “you could drive from Sault Ste. Marie to Thunder Bay in eight hours, but why would you?” Well, if you had to be in Calgary in five days, that’s why.

I’ve driven in the car Highway 17 to Thunder Bay with my wife, and I’ve ridden on the bike Highway 11 as far as Kapuskasing, but this would be my first time riding the beautiful 17 on the bike. That was a large part of the reason for my smile upon waking at Chutes Provincial Park that morning: I knew the ride that lay ahead of me for the day.

Whether you have time to stop and savour the landscape or are on a tight timeline, the ride is amazing. The weather was cooperating and the bike was running great so I put on the miles and made it all the way to Pukaskwa National Park in time to set up camp, eat, and stroll the shoreline before losing the light.

Looking at views once painted by The Group of Seven

Upon leaving the park the next morning, I saw a sign indicating that there was a National Historic Site nearby, so naturally I followed the signs to The Pic, an important Aboriginal meeting place for thousands of years and the site of an important trading post during the height of the fur trade.

Today there is little evidence, aside from this marker, of the historical importance of this place.

I continued west, but was soon diverted by another sign marking Ausable Falls and Gorge.

Pretty spectacular view just off Highway 17 west of Terrace Bay at the head of Lake Superior

There’s a convenient parking lot right off the highway, and the short little hike down to the lookout makes a good rest stop. Best of all, there is no charge to get a view worth a million bucks.

Looking south out to the Slate Islands on the horizon

Okay, now it was time to avoid the distractions and pound out the miles. There are a number of spectacular lookouts along the north shore but I sadly had to blow past most of them or I’d never get to my destination just west of Thunder Bay by evening. It was hot, like 30+C (~90 F), and I was glad I’d purchased the Klim Marrakesh jacket specifically for the tour and days like this. It vents a ton of air, and my fuel pack meant I had plenty of water to keep me hydrated.

Still, I pulled off on one of the lookouts just to take a break in the heat and ran into two other riders, about my age, it seemed, maybe a little older, heading east on sport tourers. They had travelled from Victoria and said the heat bubble followed them for the first several days of their trip and was pretty unbearable. Their red, puffy faces showed the aftereffects, and I was glad I missed the worst of that. I experienced it on TV newscasts from the comfort of my air-conditioned living room. I would ride in heat the entire trip, but nothing like they experienced.

The heat got worse, and the stretch from Nipigon to Thunder Bay seemed endless! All I had on my mind was finding the first Tim Horton’s and getting a large Ice Cap, which I did. As I was standing outside savouring it (the A/C dining area still closed due to Covid), a Harley pulled in riding two-up. He was struggling in the heat to back his bike into a parking spot, so asked his wife to dismount first to make it easier. I thought, “He’s tired.” Turns out he’d been on the road since 4:30 a.m. and this was his first stop since leaving Sudbury. And I thought I was in a hurry.

“That was some heat coming down through those hills,” he said. And then, before I had slurped the last of my drink, they were back on the road again, apparently to Regina.

I thankfully had another small errand to run, happy to be in A/C for a little longer. I stopped in to the local grocery store to pick up something for my hosts that night who live in the Shebandowan area just west of Thunder Bay on Highway 11. This is a lovely cottage area with its own network of lakes. Marilyn and I stayed with her cousin last summer and did some water skiing there, which left me stiff for days but was exhilarating. This time there was none of that; I was happy to relax, see familiar faces, and meet more extended family.

The next morning I continued west along Highway 11 toward International Falls. The evening before, in conversation with a fellow biker, I was told that “the road is straight and remote, and you might be tempted to see what your bike can do, but be careful because OPP are along there.” I now saw what he meant so “sped responsibly.” I really couldn’t afford a whopping fine let alone having my licence suspended.

Somebody has a warped sense of humour

I was excited to experience Lake of the Woods, which I had never visited before but had only read about in researching an article on The Northwest Loop. But first I decided to explore Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung, or Manitou Mounds, another ancient Aboriginal meeting place of national significance that contains “the records of 8000+ years of recurring use or habitation” and “the largest group of burial mounds and associated village sites in Canada” (https://manitoumounds.com/history-culture/). It was about forty minutes out of my way but I decided to pay the price to learn first-hand about ancient Indigenous history and culture. Only once I had paid the price, not only in time but kilometres of dirt road, the only thing I learned was that it was . . . you guessed it, closed due to Covid. Nothing on the website indicated that, which would have been nice. (I could hear my wife’s voice in my head saying “You should have phoned first,” which is probably true and would have saved me the frustration.)

Now I was in the mood to see what my bike can do. I’ve never had it pinned and have always wondered. Okay, the bike was fully loaded, but it still hit 160 km/hr in a tuck, which is pretty good for a 650 that is 16 years old with over 100,000 kilometres. As luck would have it, soon after that little test, I passed an OPP sitting at the side of the road. Sometimes you get lucky.

Highway 71 lived up to its reputation, winding up through a mixture of forest and wetlands as it skirts the eastern border of Lake of the Woods. My wife who grew up in Winnipeg has talked about this region using similar tones that Torontonians use to talk about the Muskokas. It’s beautiful cottage country, for sure, and its remote location has saved it from the more obnoxious development that has altered the Muskoka region during my lifetime. The road north of Nestor Falls is twisty and hilly with views of lakes and wetland. I stopped at The Narrows Gift Shop and took a browse (I’m always on the prowl for pannier stickers). Beside is The Lazy Loon Restaurant. Okay, there’s some kitsch development here too, with fake inuksuks, fake totem poles, and mini-putt, but I forgave it all because THEY HAD ICE CREAM!

The final leg of the day and my ride across Ontario took me into Anicinabe RV Park and Campground in Kenora just as a thunderstorm broke. It had been a long, hot day, and the cooling rain was welcome relief. As it would turn out, it was one of only three showers I would experience in my six weeks on the road.

One of the last spots at Anicinabe Campground near the Manitoba border.

Have you been to any of these places? Drop a comment below. I love to hear from my readers.

Next up: Prevented from stopping in Manitoba due to Covid restrictions, I ride across in one day and spend the night in Moosomin, SK.

Guelph to Chutes Provincial Park

After a few days visiting family in Guelph, I start out on July 1, Canada Day.

With my sisters and brother-in-law. //Photo credit: Sue Bushell

After the stressful days of preparing the bike and packing, I was happy to have a few days to unwind with family before setting off. As the day of departure approached, so did the expected trepidation of leaving my comfort zone. The main thing that I was concerned about was finding accommodations as I headed across the country. In order to keep my schedule flexible, I don’t like making reservations, and I’d heard that campgrounds were full as people flock to the great outdoors post-lockdown. I had visions of struggling in the fading light to find a safe and affordable spot to stop each night.

Final tinkering, delaying, before leaving Guelph. //photo credit: Sue Bushell

There were other concerns too, but here’s the thing I’ve discovered from doing these trips: once I’m on the road, all anxiety and concern dissolve as I face each challenge in turn. A trip of almost 20,000 kilometres breaks down into a series of distinct tasks in the moment: “Okay, now I have to get to that road . . . now I have to find gas . . . now I have to solve this mechanical issue . . . now find a campground,” etc. You deal with one thing at a time, and it’s not actually all that stressful.

The immediate concern as I left Guelph was a bounce in my front wheel. I’d had the balancing double-checked by BMW before leaving Montreal and they said it was fine, but I could still feel vibration at 110-120 km/hr—annoyingly right in my cruising speed. I pulled into Two Wheel Motorsport off Highway 6 to see if they had any ideas.

“What tire pressure are you running?” someone there asked.

“About 31 psi,” I replied. The normal pressure on the front is 28.5 but I was fully loaded. He thought it was a little high and to drop it a pound or two. Unfortunately, that didn’t fix the problem which, I would find out much later in the trip, was actually a bent rim. [Note to self: don’t attempt any rocky hill climbs just before leaving on a major tour.]

I continued north on Highway 6 and started zig-zagging my way toward the 400. It was warm and sunny, the countryside north of Guelph is beautiful, and aside from the wheel issue, the bike was running great. It was sinking in that I was finally doing this—what I had been thinking of doing for years.

As I was passing along Highway 26, I spotted a MiG 17 mounted at the side of the road. I pulled a U-turn—the first of many on the tour—and turned into the Edenvale Aerodrome. There, I saw not only the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 but a Canadair CT-114 Tutor used by the RCAF Snowbirds. It was July 1st, Canada Day, and the museum was closed, but little did I know that the only replica Avro Arrow is now housed at Edenvale. A return visit and tour is definitely in the near future.

MiG 17 and CT-144 Tutor at Edenvale Aerodrome in Stayner, Ontario.

Yes, I’m an aviation as well as motorcycle enthusiast. It seems I’m not alone in being passionate about both. I figure that’s because riding is about as close to flying as you can get without actually leaving the ground. When riding, you get the sensation of wind and speed and the pull of all three planes in each sweeping turn. In fact, I’m so crazy about flight that I’ve written a collection of poems about it, due to be published by DC Books next spring. Invisible Sea is a collection on the theme of flight, especially early human flight, with the title poem a long serial poem examining aerodynamics. Details on the launch and availability to follow.

After stretching my legs and having a snack, I pressed on, up the 400, through Sudbury, and over the top of Georgian Bay. Now I was in familiar territory from my Northern Ontario adventures. I would have loved to detour down the 6 from Espanola to Manitoulin Island, one of my favourite places to visit, but with 3,000 kilometres still to cover in 6 days, I had to keep heading west. (I was supposed to meet my wife in Calgary on the 7th, and I know better than to keep her waiting.)

As I was passing through Massey, about 30K west of Espanola, I spotted a sign for Chutes Provincial Park. It was about the right time of day to start looking for a campsite, and I was pleased with the distance I’d covered. I pulled in late afternoon, hoping they had a site. This was my first real test and what I had been most stressed about.

“I’m hoping you have a campsite for tonight,” I said to the young lady in the kiosk. “I don’t have a reservation.”

“We’re full,” she replied, and then, “Let me check with the Warden.”

In a minute he showed up, and it turned out there was a spot for me. This would not be the last time on the tour that I would literally get the last spot in the campground.

I set up camp, had a quick dinner, then went for a walk around the campground. I figured with a name like Chutes Prov. Park, there had to be some waterfalls somewhere. The park contains the Seven Sisters Rapids and a hiking trail that follows the river.

Seven Sisters Rapids at Chutes Provincial Park

I followed the trail and it led me to a lookout at the base of the falls just as the sun was beginning to drop below the trees in the west.

That night I slept in my tent like a king, and in the morning, when I woke, I had that uncanny experience whereby for a moment or two you don’t know where you are and what you are doing. When the answers to those questions finally came to me, lying in my sleeping bag, I just smiled.

Route Day 1

Starting Out

The most difficult part of any trip is leaving.

Imagine a trip across Canada by motorcycle. Imagine the problems you could face: dangerous wildlife, inclement weather, mechanical problems, security issues, fatigue . . . I faced all of these, but I can honestly say that the hardest part of the entire trip was leaving. Specifically, the biggest challenge came the weekend before my departure.

I had decided to change my clutch plates and water pump. The plates were the originals, with over 100,000K on them, and the water pump, which on my bike fails every 40,000-60,000K, had about 35,000 on it, so I didn’t want to risk it. I ordered all the parts at the beginning of June. I didn’t expect them to be in stock—they rarely are for my old bike—but two weeks to ship from Germany still left me plenty of time to do the required work before my July 1st departure.

I waited . . . and waited . . . and started bugging BMW sometime around mid-June. And waited . . . Perhaps because of Covid and the resulting supply change issues, or perhaps the shipping was slower than usual, but I actually got the new clutch springs and gaskets on the Friday before my Monday departure.

My wife, Marilyn, was stressed; I, concerned. Marilyn’s flight was booked so I was committed to getting to Calgary on the 7th for our leg of the trip together. I’ve had the clutch cover off this bike a few times, and knowing how to do a job is 3/4 of the job. It’s not difficult when you know what you’re doing. Everything was going pretty smoothly, which is something because there is almost inevitably a snag, until I went to put the clutch cover back on.

This is the most difficult part of the job. You have to turn the actuator so the splines are facing backwards to engage with the splines of the rod inside the cover, then carefully maneuver the cover on without either moving the actuator, which is on a bearing, or damaging the paper gasket, which has to line up on all the tabs on the crankcase. Since it would take at least two weeks to get anything new from Germany, there was no room for error.

Note what he says at 10:19

There’s a certain amount of tapping, knocking, shoving, wiggling, rocking, and general coercion that is required to get the cover on. It was not cooperating but one final thump with the heel of my hand and it snapped into place. I was home free! Then I noticed that the actuator was loose. It was more than loose: it wobbled. It was f’d! I’d f’d the bearing and it was an uncommon one that would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in Montreal.

There’s little that can overwhelm me, but this did. It put me flat on my back, literally. I’d been working on the bike in the backyard outside the shed and I lay back on the grass and gazed up into the sky, either to admonish or to plea to whichever god was messing with me. It was one of those moments when you can’t even think of your next move. You just have to breathe for a bit and let your emotions settle. The only other time I’ve been incapacitated like this in recent memory was when I broke a bolt trying to get a starter motor out from our old car. It was in the most inaccessible place on the engine and I knew, as I thought now, that I’d be set back weeks. I thought I’d ruined the entire holiday.

I’d been thinking of this trip since my teens, preparing for it since I bought the bike in 2015, and waiting an entire year when Covid kiboshed it last summer. Now everything hinged on whether I could get the bike running again, and I had 24 hours to do it.

What could I do but take the cover off and have a look. I managed to do that without damaging the paper gasket and saw that the bearing was okay; it had just been pushed out of the casing. I took everything up to my little workshop and drove the bearing back in. It was easy, actually. It must be a pretty loose fit, perhaps for hack mechanics like me; instead of damaging the splines, which clearly hadn’t lined up, it pushes out of the casing. I was back in business but still on a tight deadline.

More wrangling and I got the cover back on, this time with the splines aligned. I attached the clutch cable but a pull of the lever indicated now another problem. There was a ton of play! The clutch was not disengaging. Had I missed a clutch plate? Bought the wrong plates, which were not OEM? Was the clutch cable rerouted incorrectly? I put out an SOS on my user forum and went to bed. I had a pretty fitful sleep that night.

In the light of morning with a cooler head, I saw that I could tighten up all that free play with the adjuster on the lever. I had to back it out a lot, but there were still enough threads holding it firm. I was surprised that there was so much difference in height between the OEM stack and the aftermarket plates. If any adjustment were needed, I was expecting it to be tighter, not looser, as the old plates were worn. At any rate, the clutch seemed to be working now, and at 9 p.m., on the night before my departure, I took the bike for a test ride. To my great relief, everything was working well. I’d done a lot of other work leading up to this job, so maybe I’m not such a hack after all.

With the bike finally ready, “all” I had to do is pack. Marilyn was trying to stay out of it but couldn’t believe that I’d left packing for a six-week trip to the last minute. Fortunately, I’ve done this several times and pretty much know what I’m taking and how it all goes on the bike. The only snag was when I went to pack my top bag. I’d wanted to take my Mosko Scout 25L Duffle Bag but quickly discovered that my sleeping bag takes up about 1/2 of it, so I’d have to use my big Firstgear Torrent 70L Duffle. Damn! It extends out over my panniers and partially blocks me from opening them with the bag on. I think either a smaller down-filled sleeping bag or a midsize duffle or both is on my Christmas wish list this year. In the end, the only things I forgot were a wool toque and my down vest, which Marilyn was able to bring on the plane with her.

Final adjustments

It was a late night to bed and a late start in the morning, but at around noon, my wife and son met me on the driveway to see me off. As the bike was warming up, I cranked up the preload on my rear shock and tightened a few straps. I took out my pocket digital recorder and noted the mileage on the odometer. After final hugs and photos, I pulled out of the driveway and was off. The dream was becoming a reality.

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The Epic Adventure: a preview

20,000 kilometres by motorcycle from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean, up to Yukon Territory, and back.

I’ve been home now for almost a month and I’m still feeling unsettled. Part of me is still in Dawson City, lying in my hammock next to the Yukon River. Part of me is still north of the Arctic Circle, washing my cookware in the Rocky River, just south of the Northwest Territories. Part of me is still in Northern British Columbia, lying in my tent at night listening to wolves howling in the distance.

My right thumb still has a slight tingle from some sort of neurological damage from the vibrations over thousands of kilometres, although I used my Kaoko throttle lock as much as possible. The bike hasn’t gone anywhere since I pulled into the driveway mid-August after riding 1,000 kilometres on the final day from Sault-Ste Marie to get home. After 19,500 kilometres, some of that in dirt up The Dempster Highway, it was a mess and in need of a lot of service and a thorough cleaning. Although I had the correct amount of oil in the bike, the heat and hours of riding at high-revs led to oil ending up in the airbox and, ultimately, down the side of the bike where it baked onto the engine. I’ve also changed the oil pressure switch that was acting up and changed the rear tire that was finished. But the big obstacle has been a frayed wire leading to an ignition coil that has left me waiting for OEM parts to arrive from Germany.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing about these memories and more. Here is a visual preview of what’s to come. If you want to follow along, click the Follow button and you’ll be notified of new posts. Join me as I relive this bucket-list tour across Canada and up into the Far North.

Trip Planning: Final Prep

I’m down to just a few days before departure and not feeling very prepared. By the time I was free and clear of work, I had only two weeks to prepare the bike. That’s a lot, but not when parts take two weeks to arrive from Germany. So I’ve done what I can, as you can see from the list above. Today I remove the clutch cover to change the water pump and clutch plates. I actually have the pump—I’ve had it for a few years because you never know when it will fail on this bike—and I have the cork replacement plates for the clutch. What I don’t yet have are clutch springs and, if required, a replacement clutch cover gasket—that large paper one. These items and a few more were supposed to arrive last week, but it seems Covid is trying its best to sabotage the tour this year as well as last. Today is a holiday in Quebec so if the parts don’t arrive on Friday, I’ll have to make do. That might mean re-using old clutch springs or shimming them if they are out of spec. And hopefully I can get that clutch cover off without damaging the existing gasket. I only ordered a new one in case I can’t.

The good news is that the bike has all new wheel bearings, including the cush drive bearings, and new rubber. I did end up going with the Anakee Adventures in the end, mostly for their smoothness on asphalt. I don’t anticipate doing much off-roading on this tour, and they will be really nice through the twisties in The Rocky Mountains. I tried my best to balance the wheels using jack stands but I think I will get them checked professionally. The pros have computerized equipment that is more precise, and I thought I felt a bounce in the front. I also changed the front sprocket back to the stock 16-tooth, among other mods. My son helped me shoot a few videos of the mods I’ve made on the bike both for dirt and converting it back to street.

My wife, Marilyn, and I did a test ride last Saturday and the bike is running great. I remember now how that stock gearing is so much better on the highway; you have roll on at 120 km/hr.! And at 110 km/hr, which is a comfortable cruising speed for me on the highway, the revs sit right on the sweet spot of this bike at 4600 rpm. Even at 120 km/hr the revs aren’t over 5000. I’m glad I made that change, even though I know you’re not supposed to change a sprocket without changing the chain. Well, the chain has only 7K on it so it will be fine, and I’ll change everything when I’m back.

With all the attention on the bike, I have only just started laying out items to pack. Marilyn is having kittens about this because she can’t imagine starting so late for such a big trip, but I’ve done it before many times and I pretty much know what I’m taking. The only difference this time is that I have to consider two set-ups: one for when I’m solo, and one for when Marilyn is riding pillion. This means that I’ll have an empty pannier when alone. I will fill it with booze and tobacco until she joins me in Calgary.

The only tricky part of packing actually is deciding what spare parts to bring. I’ve done everything possible to prevent an issue on the road and I don’t have room to carry spare engine parts, but I’ll take an assortment of hardware, spare clutch cable and perhaps levers, gasket maker, JB Weld, self-fusing tape—that sort of thing. I’ll try to anticipate any issue that I might have, within reason.

I haven’t been able to research as well as I’d like, unfortunately. The book on Canadian geography I took out from the library sits unopened on my coffee table. I’ll have to do my research on the fly, so to speak. I’m pretty familiar with Ontario from previous travels and from writing a few articles for northernontario.travel, and I found a great video of tourist destinations in southwestern Saskatchewan, so I’m good for the first two provinces, I think. Marilyn is pretty familiar with Alberta, having lived there for 20 years, and we will explore BC together, so I’m not going to beat myself up for not getting more reading done. It’s not like I’ve been idle.

We have a few reservations booked on Vancouver Island and will stay with different friends as we make our way through the BC mainland. I am mostly concerned about when I’m alone and camping, since I’ve heard that campgrounds are all full. I’ll be using iOverlander to find wild camping spots and will have to wing it. This will be a first for me and I anticipate a few nights of searching for a suitable safe spot, but having watched Lyndon Poskitt wing it all over the world, I know it can be done.

The Yukon has dropped the requirement for travelers to self-isolate upon entering, but only if you are fully vaccinated, so I’ll be looking to get my second dose on the road somewhere so my planned trip up north is still on. Unfortunately, since I got the fist one after May 1st, I’m not eligible for the second until after I leave. Like so much about this tour, I will figure that out on route.

It hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m finally doing this. Perhaps I will grow into it, or it will hit me once I leave my first destination in Ontario. I’ll be staying with my sister for a few days and visiting my dad, so the trip proper begins July 1st, Canada Day, which seems appropriate. I won’t be posting while on the road so don’t expect any action on the blog until I’m back. I wish you all a safe and enjoyable summer!

Planned full trip. Am I crazy?

Trip Planning: Secondary Decisions

Talus Lake, Tombstone National Park. Photo credit: Travel Yukon

In my first post on planning my big trip this summer, I discussed the essence of the route, some preliminary considerations regarding how much dirt to ride, and got some gear to help with navigation and heat. In this one, I make a significant change in the route, start getting fit for long days in the saddle, and prep the bike for the start of season.

Change of Plans

The initial plan was to ride from Montreal to Calgary, where I’d meet up with my wife, and then we’d ride together through southern BC, including Vancouver Island. After that, I was going to head off south solo down the west coast to California and make my way back through The United States. However, after watching Covid-19 numbers in The United States climb through the winter and political tensions cause rioting on both sides of the country, I decided that perhaps now is not the best time to be travelling in The States. As it turns out, our American friends are doing better now with their vaccination program than we are, and the political tensions have calmed, but I still have concerns about the sharp rise in violent crime rates in the US. The causes of that increase are currently being debated, but no one can deny the alarming spike.

I don’t like to get political here, but there’s nothing more political than personal safety. The Grand Canyon is not going anywhere soon, and besides, I keep hearing on Adventure Rider Radio that you don’t need to leave your home country to have an adventure, especially a country as big as Canada. So while our American friends are sorting out a few things, I’ll take the opportunity to explore and discover fully the country I’ve proudly called home my entire life. When I hit the Pacific Ocean, instead of turning south, I’m heading north. The Far North.

With the US no longer in the picture, the technical riding of the BDRs and TAT was out of the equation. Most of my trip would be on the pavement, so I went looking for a new goal to challenge myself and decided to try to make it up to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, as my final destination. A solo trip up to the Arctic Ocean seems like a worthy goal.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so important to me to have that kind of a crazy goal, as if crossing the country is not enough of a challenge. It’s hard to explain to my wife and others what would motivate me to ride solo into that remote wilderness. I didn’t even understand it myself, until I read recently something by Jordan Peterson that provided an answer. In his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, in the chapter on Rule 11, Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding, Peterson makes a case for allowing our children to risk pushing their limits, whether it’s athletically in play or otherwise. Early in the chapter, he writes:

“When untrammeled—and encouraged—we prefer to live on the edge. There, we can still be both confident in our experience and confronting the chaos that helps us develop. We’re hard-wired, for that reason, to enjoy risk (some of us more than others). We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimize our future performance, while playing in the present. Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will” (287).

In other words, I like a challenge! Yes, there is risk involved, and I often find myself strangely reluctant to leave on one of these adventures because I am literally leaving the comfort of my home and increasing my stress level. There’s a mild anxiety that descends on me, and part of that stems from going solo. But anxiety is just another shade of excitement if you frame it differently, and once I’m on the road, that’s how it appears to me. (I’m referring to mild anxiety, to be clear, not the debilitating kind that afflicts some people.) It’s akin to the performance anxiety of a big game or a race; once the game or race has started, it’s all fun, even the tough bits. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the rewards of the ride, which in this case will include seeing the tundra, the northern lights, and the Yukon Mountain Ranges—all firsts for me. Who knows what else the trip will bring? 

Anxiety is just another shade of excitement if you frame it differently.

I have to add that this is not foolhardy behaviour. I’ve been preparing for this kind of trip since I started riding in 2015—developing technical riding skills, learning about my bike, and getting the right gear (which in this case includes bear spray). Heck, I’ve even been teaching myself this winter the 5 best knots to add to my bushcraft. Maybe Peterson could have simply said: the antidote to chaos is preparation.

Now I’m just waiting to see if the territorial borders will open. Currently, anyone crossing into the Yukon and the Northwest Territories has to self-isolate for two weeks. I haven’t had my first vaccination yet, but at 57 years old, I’m next in line, and our fair Prime Minister has promised that all Canadians will be vaccinated by July 1st, so I’m betting that they will open. This might be a game-time decision near the end of July, but I’ll ride up to northern British Columbia and see how far I can get.

Getting Fit

Sitting on a motorcycle all day is like sitting on a stool all day, unless you have a backrest (which my bike doesn’t) or have loaded the pillion seat with bags (which I can’t, leaving room for my wife when she joins me). Usually this time of year I’d be swimming and running and playing indoor soccer, but Covid has killed all that, leaving me pretty sedentary. I realized I had to get going again, so on March 1st my wife and I made a mutual pledge to do 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week. So far it’s been working out (ha ha, bad pun) and we are starting to feel the effects.

For me, the key to exercising regularly is finding the right activity at the right time of day. Those two elements are the combination that unlocks the door to fitness. We decided that 10:30 a.m. was the best time for us. We’ve had our coffees and have done a little work at the computer and are ready for a break, especially one that involves moving. And since I’m mostly interested in core strength and cardio fitness, I’m alternating between Pilates and running every other day. This way, each muscle group gets a recovery day between workouts.

My wife alternates between Pilates and her stationary bike, so every other day we do Pilates together. There’s a saying in the Pilates world: do 10 workouts and you’ll feel better, 20 and you’ll look better, and 30 to have a completely new body. I’m not sure that last one is possible at our age but we certainly are feeling better after our first 10. We do a very simple routine using only a yoga mat. If you want to improve your core strength and flexibility, check out Pilates. It has cured my lower back issues and gives me better overall body awareness and posture.

I’ve had some foot issues so the running has been difficult, but a new, wider, pair of running shoes has fixed that and I’m literally on the road to improved cardio. Come April, I’ll move on to some strength training, particularly upper body, and I’m working hard to rehabilitate my thumb that was injured last fall in a little off.

Prepping the Bike

Our riding season here in Quebec officially kicked off on March 15th. I wasn’t on the road that day, but some unseasonably warm weather has allowed me to get out to the shed a little early and do what I needed to do to get the bike road-ready. This is the first year I haven’t done something major, like change my shock, chain, sprockets, brake lines, or even fluids, and it’s been nice! For once, a few little jobs and Bigby is ready to ride.

itcontroller

I mounted the Carpe Iter Controller. There wasn’t room on my handlebar for it so I had to make a little bracket that mounts on the mirror stem. I also upgraded my navigation software (OsmAnd, Locus Maps, Kurviger) to the pro versions and updated my maps. I added a little guard for my rear brake master cylinder (thanks Rick / Kildala), and flipped my auxiliary lights on the mounting bracket to get them a little lower and add separation from the main headlamp—all easy stuff and I went for my first ride last Tuesday. I even figured out a workaround for my tank bag harness that was damaging the plastics, and I’m really happy to have my Wolfman Explorer Lite tankbag back.

Also in that other post, I mentioned the product AT-205 Re-Seal I was going to add to my oil to recondition the engine seals. I’m always nervous about adding anything to the engine oil so thought I’d contact the company first, just to be sure. Good thing I did! Turns out they do not recommend it in applications that involve a wet clutch. I’ll have to make do with the bike as is, keeping an eye on the oil level throughout the tour, and switching to a 20W/50 once we get into the warmer weather.

Good to Go

I haven’t done much specific route planning yet, but with my departure date roughly three months away that is about to kick into high gear. I’m reading ride reports on ADVRider, but if you have recommendations, please let me know. In particular, I’m looking for good campgrounds, must-see attractions, must-ride roads, and good restaurants and accommodations through southern BC and Vancouver Island, since my wife and I will not be camping much while on the road. Feel free to drop them in the comments section below or send me an email through the Contact page.

Enjoy the spring riding.

My Top 10 Motorcycle Movies

Last Sunday we got our first +0 Celsius day here in Montreal. Right on cue, our front porch started leaking. No matter how hard I try to keep the snow off the roof to prevent an ice dam from forming, we inevitably get some leaking in The Big Melt each spring. I know that our Canadian winter still has at least one big snowstorm and several sub-zero days left in her, but it’s starting to feel a bit like spring.

For Canadians, spring comes to us as a sixth sense, weeks before it actually arrives, and it has little to do with the calendar. It’s in the particular quality of sunlight, the texture of the air, and a certain . . . ah hem . . . boost in libido. It won’t be long—three weeks to be exact—before we are legally allowed back on the road!

Next weekend would have been The Montreal Moto Show, our unofficial start of the season. But it has been cancelled, of course, leaving motorcyclists in these parts feeling like the dog running after the absent ball from a fake throw. If you are excited about the start of the season but have nowhere to direct that energy, try watching a good motorcycle movie. Here are my top ten, in no particular order.

One Week (Michael McGowan, director)

I love this movie for the concept—man rides motorcycle across Canada. That happens to be a lifelong dream of mine, so no wonder I love it. You see him pass through iconic places, like Mattawa with its roadside wood carvings, the giant goose at Wawa, and across the prairies. This is pure Canadiana. Gord Downie even makes a cameo sharing a doob at a roadside motel. What’s not to like? Well, the plot is a bit contrived, and of course he has to be riding a classic Norton and wearing goggles. What era are we in again? Oh yeah, the 21st Century. Never mind, it’s a touching story and my beautiful country is the main character in this film.

Road (Michael Hewitt & Dermot Lavery, co-directors)

Have you heard of the Tourist Trophy, better knows as the TT? Duh! Well, I hadn’t before I started riding, so I’ll forgive you if you haven’t. It’s the oldest and most famous road race in the world, sort of the Indy 500 for road racers. It takes place on the Isle of Man in Ireland because that was (perhaps still is) the only place in Great Britain without legal speed limits on the roads. This movie is about one family in particular, The Dunlops, and their storied history with the race. If you like sport bikes and racing and death-defying speed, you will enjoy this film. The only downside is that inevitably death cannot be defied.

The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, director)

This biopic is based on the book of the same name. It chronicles Ernesto (better known later as Che) Guevara’s travels through Argentina in 1952 with his friend Alberto Granado on La Ponderosa (The Mighty One), a Norton 500. I wrote a review of the book and the movie is one of the better adaptations from print to film. In many ways, it’s a coming-of-age story in which the young Che is exposed for the first time to the exploitation and oppression of Argentina’s peasants and other marginalized groups, like the country’s lepers, and is radicalized. Whether you are Left-leaning or just wear Che’s image on your T-shirt as fashion, you will enjoy this film. The only downside as a motorcycle movie is that—spoiler alert—despite the title of the movie, they are forced to abandon La Ponderosa earlier than we or I’m sure they would like.

The Fastest Indian (Roger Donaldson, director)

This movie stars Anthony Hopkins. Say no more. If you’re having a hard time imagining him as a grease monkey, well, after watching him play a fuddy-duddy tight-ass in Howard’s End, I had a pretty hard time imagining him as a psychopathic cannibal in Silence of the Lambs. But he pulled it off, and he pulls this off too. He plays Burt Munro, a New Zealander who heavily modifies his 1920 Indian Scout and goes for the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats. So he not only has to build a machine capable of going that fast but also get it halfway around the world to the salt flats in Utah. Oh yeah, and then actually ride it over 200 mph. There’s really no downside to this film; it brings Hollywood-level production quality, acting, and direction to a great story.

On Any Sunday (Bruce Brown) & On Any Sunday, The Next Chapter (Dana Brown)

I include On Any Sunday somewhat reluctantly. It’s getting a little old, as far as documentaries go, but I recognize its importance in its day for bringing to Americans the sport and lifestyle of motorcycling when previously their assumptions were based on films like the over-rated Easy Rider. Director Bruce Brown showed a popular audience that motorcycling was more than sex, drugs, and sticking it to The Man, although Harley has nurtured that image pretty successfully into a marketing strategy. Some of Brown’s footage predates the GoPro camera as he literally taped a clunky 1970’s camera onto the helmet of flat track racers to get the rider’s perspective. His son, Dana Brown, took up the reins and produced On Any Sunday, the Next Chapter (2014), which brings us up to speed, so to speak, with what’s happening in the motorcycling world today. The good thing about these films is that they are a smorgasbord of the different types of riding; the downside is that we can’t gorge on any one kind.

Dust To Glory (Dana Brown, director)

Speaking of Dana Brown, in Dust To Glory, he steps out of his father footsteps and takes on a subject of his own: the Baja 1000. Think Dakar Lite. Perhaps the organizers won’t appreciate me referring to their race in those terms, or maybe they will. It’s a dirt race like the Dakar but instead of being 10,000 kilometers long and ending in Dakar, it’s between 650 to 900 miles long (depending on the particular route) and takes place down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. It must be incredibly difficult to get good footage of a race like this, but Brown does it with the help of a team of photographers, some bike-mounted cameras, and a hired helicopter. There are different categories, and a few brave souls attempt the whole thing on their own. Dust to Glory in part follows one such contestant, Chad McQueen—Steve McQueen’s son. Charles Atlas said only losers get sand in their face. I guess he never raced dirt bikes.

Dream Racer (Simon Lee, director)

There is no shortage of movies about the Dakar Rally. Perhaps that’s because it is the most grueling, challenging, and dangerous off-road race in the world, and just completing it often produces a story worthy of a feature-length documentary. Dream Racer is about Christophe Barriere-Varju’s attempt to complete the race in 2011. He doesn’t have a team of mechanics and support crew behind him, just one filmmaker, Simon Lee, to document his Herculean effort. Just getting the money together to buy the bike and pay the entrance fee, a mere $80,000, is a feat unto itself, then he has to ship everything over to South America, all while trying to train for the two-week race. Some reviews say there should be more race footage, but they miss the point. The film really is about the power of the human spirit as we watch Christophe single-handedly face the various obstacles standing in his way, including grief. If you are feeling a little low mid-February, mid-pandemic, and just getting outside has become a challenge, watch this film and imagine your biggest dream, whatever it may be. You will be inspired.

The Greasy Hands Preachers (Clément Beauvais, director)

If you could be a bike, what kind of bike would you be? Probably one that is similar to the one you ride. That’s because, like our pets, we see our bikes as a reflection of ourselves. And since each of us is unique, the best bike is one that does not come off the end of the factory line but is custom built. A custom bike is one that goes beyond mere modification but is designed, manufactured, and built from the frame up. Greasy Hands Preachers celebrates the mechanical aspect of riding. If you like getting your hands greasy, as the title suggests, you will enjoy this film. Even if you don’t but have been arrested mid-stride by a bike on the showroom floor, as I have, you will enjoy it. The film is about bike culture, how it gets under your skin in a symbiotic dance which very well may leave you wondering whether you or the bike is leading. It’s also got the coolest trailer I know.

Riding Solo to the Top of the World (Gaurav Jani, director)

You may have noticed that, aside from the cross-Canada One Week, none of these movies so far are about adventure riding. So the last two I dedicate to my favourite type of riding. Does adventure riding have to contain risk, challenge, and hardship? No, I definitely believe it does not, but if it does, it makes for a better story. In 2006, Gaurav Jani loaded up his 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet and headed off alone from Mumbai to the Changthang Plateau in Ladakh, bordering China. You’d think that, knowing he was going to those altitudes, he would have invested in a fuel-injected bike, but he trusts his carbureted Bullet, which conks out at 16,000 feet, so he has to push. If that were not enough, he has to film himself pushing, since he is his own film crew. This is no trip to Starbucks. Many sections of this challenging terrain have to be ridden twice: once to set up the camera, and once to film. The reward, however, is a remarkable piece of cinematography that documents his journey to the top of the world and, more importantly, the depths of himself.

Somewhere Else Tomorrow (Daniel Rintz, director)

Okay, maybe I have saved the best for last. This movie starts off simply and slowly enough, documenting two blokes who decide to ride around the world after completing their degrees. Ho hum. But soon our filmmaker loses his riding companion and goes it alone. This is where the movie begins to get really interesting so make sure you stick with it. I have found that travelling solo adds another whole dimension to the journey, and so does Rintz. There is something about the vulnerability of being alone that adds an edge, and in Rintz’s case, he happens to break down in one of the most dangerous places on earth, about 15 miles from the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Rintz is forced to surrender to faith, not in God but humanity, and comes out of the experience a changed man. Or perhaps I should say he starts out a boy and becomes a man. I watched this the other night with my wife who is not a motorcyclist but a photographer, and I know the filming is good when even she is captivated by some of the footage. It really is astounding and a great story. If you like travel of any kind, you will enjoy this film. It is the perfect antidote to 11 months of Covid confinement and will definitely inspire you to “get out there and ride,” as Jim Martin says at the end of every episode of Adventure Rider Radio.

I haven’t bothered to cite the awards and accolades of each of these films because they are all worth watching, trust me. And sorry, I haven’t bothered to list where you can find each because that would have taken a lot of work, and services differ depending on where you are. Here in Canada, I found a surprising number of them on Prime, so if you are a citizen of the Great White North, start there. For others, you’ll have to do a little sleuthing.

Did I miss one of your favourites? I’ve watched all these so am looking for something to get me through the next month. Do post your favourites in the comments section below, and stay safe—not so much on the bike as from Covid. We are into the home-stretch folks, and hopefully this past year will soon be just an unpleasant memory.

Ride Safe

Don’t believe everything you hear: there’s a way you can ride safely.

If there’s one motorcycle expression I hate it’s “ride safe,” and not because I’m an English teacher. I know the sentiment expressed is of concern, just as I know the expression is grammatically incorrect, but I also know the risks every time I pull on my helmet and throw a leg over the saddle. Saying “ride safe” to a motorcyclist is like saying “Hey, you know you’re working on a no-hitter?” to a pitcher sometime around the bottom of the seventh. Don’t think he or she isn’t aware of it, and drawing attention to this fact is not really helping.

I delayed my dream of riding a motorcycle for decades because someone told me it’s irresponsible to ride if you’re a parent of young children. When I started riding, in my first year, I overheard a club member say, “It’s not a matter of when but how bad.” He was recounting an accident of another club member and it scared the s**t out of me. I resisted watching YouTube crashes for as long as my curiosity would let me. And when I politely tried explaining to a colleague who had expressed a similar dream of riding how he might be able to do it safely, he wrote me later, half-jokingly, “My wife says I’m not allowed to talk to you anymore about getting a motorcycle.”

Riding is not as dangerous you might think, provided you follow a few basic principles.

Trust me: we are aware of the risks. We face them in one form or another, whether in personal experience (“Phew! That was close.”) or public perception (“donorcycle,” and in Quebec, “mortocycle, ha ha). But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that riding is not as dangerous you might think, provided you follow a few basic principles. I’m not going to argue that it’s as safe as driving a car, because it clearly isn’t, and stats don’t lie, despite what Mark Twain says. But if you do it the right way, you can minimize the risk significantly, lowering it to a reasonable probable return on investment instead of willed denial of your mortality.

As I see it, there are five key factors to staying alive.

1. Start the right way: do a good training course.

Riding is a skill, and like any skill, you can learn it either through trial and error or through some guided instruction. I say this is one you probably want to learn using the latter. I wish I’d taken a few classes at a pro shop before I took up golfing in my early teens; it would have saved me a lot of frustration and some fairways a few nasty divots. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, Quebec is the exception in Canada by making a certified skills course mandatory. I haven’t researched the licensing requirements of the various U.S. states, but if I know anything about the founding principles of that country, I suspect the term “mandatory” does not appear very often in their licensing documentation. This is such a shame because I learnt a ton from my skills course. It consisted of 6 hours of theory and 26 hours of practice, including 16 hours closed track and 10 hours guided road practice.

Doing a skills course apparently gains you the equivalent of about two years of riding experience.

We learnt everything from the correct way to get on and off the bike to throttle control, clutch control, counter-balancing, counter-steering, target fixation, emergency avoidance, emergency braking . . . everything except for how to wheelie, unless you forgot to lean forward when practicing emergency accelerating. And yes, we learnt, inevitably, how to pick up the bike correctly without damaging your back. By the time I did my road test, I was a pretty confident rider with a solid foundation in the basic skills with some developing muscle memory. Doing a course like this apparently gains you the equivalent of about two years of riding experience and, more importantly, gets you safely through that critical newbie period when the majority of accidents occur. It should be mandatory everywhere, and not taking one voluntarily is just stupid.

The 2021 Ducati Panigale

2. Choose the right bike

If you look at the mortality statistics, most deaths are young men. And if you are a young man and look at a Ducati Panigale and don’t feel a tingle of excitement in your nether-regions, see your doctor. Young men are looking for power these days and will find it in action movies, guns, games, or engines. Now imagine it’s 150 years ago, before the invention of automobiles, and Junior is about to learn how to drive the family wagon. He nervously climbs up onto the platform and takes the reins in trembling hands. Ahead of him are 214 horses harnessed together stretching up over the hill into the neighbouring farm. Does that make sense? The Panigale’s V4 delivers 214 hp at 13,000 rpm and 12.6 kgm of torque. That’s a lot of power to control your first time out.

I suggest starting on a bike no bigger than 650cc in size. Smaller is even better. There’s nothing wrong with a fun little 250 for your first few years of riding.

In Europe and some provinces in Canada, you have to start on a small bike and work up to a big one. For example, in the EU, if you are under 18 years old, you must start with an A1 license that allows you to ride a bike with up to 14.75 ponies. That’s a scooter, moped, or a “real” motorcycle up to approximately 125cc in size, so basically a sewing machine on wheels. (The size of the engine is less crucial than the power to weight ratio, but we’ll stick with cc numbers for simplicity’s sake.) If you are 18, you can start with an A2 Restricted license and a bike in the 250 to 500cc range. After two years, you can graduate to a full A1 license with no power restrictions. It’s a little more complicated than how I’ve summarized, but the essential idea is that you start on a small bike and after a certain amount of experience can ride a more powerful bike. This makes a lot of sense to me since it’s the weight and power that you have to learn how to control.

So if you are shopping for your first bike, despite the licensing in your region, do you really want to start on a litre bike? Don’t listen to the argument that you will “outgrow” a smaller bike. That’s the point: don’t die. I suggest starting on a bike no bigger than 650cc in size. Smaller is even better. There’s nothing wrong with a fun little 250 for your first few years of riding. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie finally gets his Red Ryder BB gun, but we suspect the story would have a different ending if it were an automatic rifle under the tree.

3. Ride with a club, at least for your first year

I’ve written about the benefits of club riding already. A key one is that you will be riding with experienced riders who know how fast to take a corner, how to adjust their riding in rain or after dark, when to take a break, and generally how to stay safe. It’s Darwin’s theory of natural selection in practice, only what is passed on here is not DNA but sound advice gained from lived experience. Again, here in Quebec, for your first 11 months of riding under a probationary license, you have to go out with “an escort.” (Pro Tip: if you are a married man, be sure to explain to your wife than an escort in this context is someone who has had a full license for at least two years.) A few years ago, the Quebec government scrapped this requirement, changing instead to the stipulation that beginners can ride only between sunrise and sunset. I guess that experiment didn’t go well because they’ve brought it back, much to the chagrin of newbies.

If you are starting to ride, go find a club to ride with. If you are a club that doesn’t accept newbies, shame on you.

When I started riding at the ripe old age of 52, I didn’t have any friends who rode, but I was fortunate to find a local club that accepts learners. It allowed me to ride that first season, putting in over 10,000 kilometers and gaining crucial muscle memory. According to the Hurt Report, the most comprehensive study yet on motorcycle fatalities, over half of accidents that occur happen within the first five months of riding, so my club got me through the most critical period of learning. Club riding is safe also because group riding is more visible to drivers than a solo motorcyclist. The most common type of accident is a car turning left in front of a bike at an intersection because the driver didn’t see the motorcycle. Ryan F9 has done an interesting video explaining the physiological reasons for this blindness. One can forgive the oversight of a single headlamp, but if you missed the dozen motorcycles coming at you through the intersection, put your phone away when driving.

There is some informal coaching that occurs off the bikes too, and as an added benefit, you develop friendships that last well beyond the probationary period (of your license, that is). So if you are starting to ride, go find a club to ride with. If you are a club that doesn’t accept newbies, shame on you.

At the Manic-5 dam on a club ride

4. Get the gear

Quick quiz: of the riders pictured above, which catch your eye first? Duh! I like what Clinton Smout says about this: it’s not loud pipes that save lives but loud colours. Don’t want to appear nerdy? I get it. It doesn’t take much to catch the eye. That’s why I’m wearing that single armband over my black jacket (far right, so to speak). You don’t need your jacket to be the equivalent of leaning on the horn when a little “beep-beep” will do to get attention.

Want to wear that classic black leather jacket? Go ahead, but consider some colour in your helmet. Want to wear a black helmet too? Get some auxiliary lighting to increase your visibility. A single headlight can get lost amid the many lights on the road today, but if you can arrange your aux lighting to form a triangle with your headlight, that will significantly increase your chances of being seen. Don’t want to get aux lighting because it cramps your style? At least flash your high-beam as you approach an intersection if you are not sure that driver turning left has seen you. When the majority of multi-vehicle accidents are caused by not being seen, anything you can do to increase your visibility will help.

According to data collected by Dietmar Otte and cited in Proficient Motorcycling (Hough 38), as much as one-third of impacts on the helmet are on the chin bar, so a full-face helmet provides significantly more protection than an open-face helmet, and significantly more protection than, uh, no helmet at all. New Hampshire is one of three states without a motorcycle helmet law, which might explain why their license plates read “Live Free or Die.” Perhaps they should say “Live Free and Die.” Seriously, I don’t want to sound preachy about any of this. What you wear on the bike is entirely your decision, but if you want to ride as safely as possible, get a good helmet, preferably a full-face with a Snell rating, which is the highest rating for safety.

When the majority of multi-vehicle accidents are caused by not being seen, anything you can do to increase your visibility will help.

Now that you’ve protected your head, you might consider protecting the next most vulnerable part of your body—your neck. Last year I started wearing a neck brace. It sits on my shoulders and obstructs the helmet on impact from being pushed beyond the limits of my neck. An independent study found that a neck brace significantly reduces the probability of serious neck trauma. It’s comfortable and once I put it on, I forget that it’s there. I’m confident that, in time, neck braces will become as common and perhaps even as required as helmets. If you want the ultimate protection, consider an air vest. This technology is developing rapidly today in terms of improved algorithms, ease of use, and cost. I suspect that they, too, will become the norm, as air bags have become required in all automobiles since 1998.

This is a big topic and I don’t want to loose sight of the forest for the trees. Let’s just say that there is a lot of excellent protective gear available today, incredible stuff like D30 that wasn’t around even a decade ago. A jacket and pants with good abrasion resistance, CE2 rated armor, a back protector, boots, and gloves complete your kit and are an important part of minimizing risk.

5. Have the right attitude

I’ve been driving a car for close to 40 years and have never had even a fender-bender. There’s more to this boast than skill. It’s mostly a product of awareness of my environment and the ability to anticipate problems before they occur. It’s also not pushing my limits in any dangerous way; you have to save a little buffer, say 15%, for the unexpected. Sometimes it’s listening to my body when it gets tired, and sometimes it’s listening to my gut when it knows I’m heading into danger. My dad used to say that his stomach tells him when he’s speeding before his eyes and the speedometer do. And sometimes it’s a faculty that can only be called intuition if not luck. Once he raced off towards Portsmouth, enjoying the speed, when some voice inside told him to take it easy, so he checked his speed. A little further down the road around a blind corner a pile of dirt had been dropped on the road, probably from a farmer’s cart. That would have been real trouble. Mulder and Scully never investigated any of this paranormal phenomena, but they would have made pretty safe motorcyclists, I imagine.

I know a guy who uses a mantra to get in the right frame of mind as he gets ready to ride. As he pulls on his helmet, he thinks to himself, “Everyone wants to kill me.” That’s pretty good, albeit a bit negative. I like to think of my helmet as an invisibility cloak, like Harry Potter’s. And that makes me think of my son.

My wife did a little riding with me this past summer. I don’t push it with her on the back, not only because of the, eh hem, extra weight that affects the bike’s dynamics, but also because I figure a pillion is already nervous; there’s no need to ride like an idiot to impress. And after one such easy ride, she said—referring to the whole safety thing—”I get it,” by which she meant it’s only as dangerous as you want to make it. You are in complete control of your risk. I’m not saying you can eliminate all risk—there’s always bad luck—but how much risk you want to take on a given day is literally in the palm of your (right) hand.

I know a guy who uses a mantra to get in the right frame of mind as he gets ready to ride. As he pulls on his helmet, he thinks to himself, “Everyone wants to kill me.”

There are books written on motorcycle safety, and websites and YouTube channels devoted to the technical details of the subject. But to simplify it all, there’s a clear pathway to entering the sport safely: do a course, get the right bike, join a club, buy the gear, and adopt the right attitude. I no longer believe that a crash is inevitable, although risk is certainly a part of riding that we have to manage.

Ironically, I’ve never written a post about safety, although it’s the first thing that comes to most people’s minds when you say you ride. “Isn’t that dangerous?” they ask. Yes, but then so is taking a dump. Think of Elvis. I was really good when I was young at postponing immediate gratification. I was a good boy and buckled down to put myself through university, then I postponed responsibly to raise a child. I oriented my life toward the big golden pot of retirement at the center of the cartoon maze. But when you get into your 50s, you begin to see friends, neighbours, acquaintances, perhaps even family who sadly never make it to the golden years. There’s risk in not doing what your heart desires too, whatever that may be.

So if you’ve always wanted to ride, don’t let your mind talk you out of what your heart is saying. Go ahead and get a bike, but do it right. Ride safe, yes, but more importantly, ride smart. I mean, smartly.

Have I missed something essential to staying safe? Please comment, follow, and share (not because I get any more money—the site is not monetized—but because I like an audience).

Trip Planning: Early Decisions

Photo credit: Amazon.ca

I’m between semesters of my teaching work so have been taking this extra time to do some initial planning for the big tour next summer. I’ll be sharing a series of posts about this process. Here’s the first one on some of the initial decisions I’ve made.

The Route

My wife, Marilyn, will be joining me for some of this trip but how much is yet to be determined. The initial plan is that I will ride out to Calgary, Alberta, where we have some friends and family, and meet Marilyn there. We have some friends in southern British Columbia, the next stop, and then we’ll end up on Vancouver Island. After exploring the island, we will cross the US border to more family in Washington State. I’d love to visit Yellowstone National Park, which is fairly close, and to ride Beartooth Pass, one of the top roads in the U.S. I also want to ride the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur down to San Francisco.

Part of my reason for heading south is so that when I head back east across The United States, I’ll be riding through Yosemite National Park, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and will be able to see the Sierras as well as those iconic southwestern states and mountain passes. If I keep a fairly straight trajectory, I’ll end up close to The Tail of the Dragon and The Blue Ridge Parkway, iconic rides and bucket list items of mine. Time permitting, I’d like to get out all the way out to the east coast to the Outer Banks, NC, where I have fond childhood memories of family vacations. It’s all rather sketchy at this point, but that’s it, in a nutshell: west across Canada, south down the Pacific coast, and east across The United States before heading north back up to Montreal. A rough and dirty GoogleMaps calculation puts the entire trip at around 12,000 kilometers, or 7,500 miles. It will likely be considerably longer, though, as I plan to explore attractions along the way that will pull me off a direct route.

While I will have some fixed destinations, I want to keep my itinerary flexible and spontaneous. For accommodations, I’ll be camping, and wild camping when possible, which allows for this flexibility. I will cook as much of my own food as I can, extending my budget. It will be a challenge but also part of the fun. This is what adventure riding is all about.

Dirt or Pavement?

One big early decision is how much dirt to ride? I’m thinking this will be primarily on pavement, simply because of the miles to cover, sticking to secondary highways because, well, the super slab is not much fun. But I feel I must get off the pavement through those iconic southwestern states like Nevada, Utah!, and Colorado, even though I’ll be riding solo and am just an intermediate rider. In fact, although I’ll be pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I’d love to put in a few weeks of more technical riding and come back a lot more proficient and confident in the dirt. I just have to do it safely, or as safely as one can.

I’ve been watching YouTube videos of guys doing BDRs (Backcountry Discovery Routes) and the TAT (Trans America Trail) through those states, trying to access how technical these routes are. Bigby is designed for curving secondary highways and light off-roading, and I have to respect the limitations of my bike as well as my abilities. These are big decisions with a lot at stake, and I can’t let ego or bravado get the better of me. On the other hand . . . how can I cross Utah without riding sections of the Moab desert? And I’d be a fool to not get off the asphalt into the wilderness for some of those Colorado mountain passes.

Photo credit: lizhoffmaster

I’m going to order Butler maps for NV, UT, and CO. They show the BDR routes and contain a lot of good information about which sections are easy. I’m also reading ride reports on the ADVRider forum, an excellent resource for exactly this sort of thing. Why not learn from others who have already done it? What I suspect will end up happening is I’ll ride the easier sections of dirt and jump out onto the asphalt as needed.

Tire Choice

How do you have a smooth, comfortable tire for those thousands of kilometers of pavement and still be able to ride the sand and mud that I will encounter off road? Well, you don’t. There really isn’t any unicorn tire that can do it all. Initially, I was sure I would do this trip on the Michelin Anakee Adventure tire. Its smooth profile, dual compound structure (i.e. hard rubber down the middle for longevity, soft rubber on the sidewalls for grip in the corners), and tread pattern would make it a perfect tire for 80% of this trip. But I’ll need something more aggressive for that planned off-roading. I could swap the tire early (I calculate I’ll hit dirt at around 7,000 K on the Anakees), or I could go with a 50/50 tire for the whole trip and suffer some comfort on pavement. Another option is swap out the Anakees for an aggressive off-road knobby, which will mean another switch unless I want to ride Tail of the Dragon and the Blue Ridge Parkway on knobbies, which I don’t. Currently, I’m leaning toward the reliable Heidenau K60 Scouts, a 50/50 tire that should be able to do the entire 12,000 kilometers with some manageable sacrifices on both pavement and dirt. Another option I’m considering is switching to Shinko 804/805 tires, a 60/40 that is pretty beefy for off-roading and surprisingly smooth on the road. They are only good for about 6,000 K but that should be enough to get me home. I’m open to suggestions, so feel free to leave a comment.

Navigation

In the limited amount of touring I’ve done so far on the bike, I’ve learned that navigation is huge. I struggled in the past with charging issues and roaming charges, even just safely navigating the phone while riding. I think I’ve solved these issues. I followed a thread on ADVRider and bought a Kyocera military grade phone cheap off eBay. It’s locked, but that doesn’t matter because I’ll be using this phone exclusively offline (no SIM card installed) for navigation using maps downloaded to the SD card. This also avoids roaming charges while I’m in The States.

I’ve solved the charging issue by using a magnetic phone cable and gluing the adapter into the port with silicone, making a waterproof seal. (The phone is waterproof but won’t charge if the port detects moisture.) I’ve also purchased the Carpe-Iter Controller, a great little device that mounts on the handlebar and can be operated with my thumb. It works using Bluetooth and has a toggle switch for navigating and selecting apps, and two push-buttons for zooming in and out in maps. It was a little pricey, but will avoid that dangerous dicking around with the phone while one-handed riding. I use OsmAnd primarily and run Drive Mode Dashboard to turn my phone into a dashboard. Drive Mode with the controller is a very nice combination which I hope will make navigation a lot easier and safer.

The only other issue I’ve been having with navigation is that my Ram X-Grip phone holder presses on the buttons on the sides of the Kyocera phone. I think I’ve solved that one by getting the Ram Quick Grip phone holder, which allows you to position the retaining clips to avoid pressing on those buttons.

Gear

One concern I have about this trip is that I’ll be riding in extreme temperatures, from 40C deserts to snowy mountain passes. It’s not like I can turn on A/C or heat in the cabin, so I have to be prepared with the right gear since comfort is part of riding safety. And of course I need my gear to be waterproof.

So far, my go-to touring jacket has been the Klim Traverse. It’s a Gore-Tex shell which I layer with a Knox Venture Shirt underneath. The problem with the Traverse is that it’s hot! Yeah, it’s waterproof, which is great; I don’t have to stop and put on a rain jacket but can just keep riding all day long rain or shine. But Gore-Tex does not flow much air, and the jacket is also black. I imagined dying in some of those really hot days mid-summer in the southwest.

The Klim Marrakesh Jacket. Photo credit: Fort Nine

I decided to buy a Klim Marrakesh jacket. It’s a mesh jacket so will vent a ton of air, but it’s also 1000D Cordura, so unlike most mesh jackets, will hold up in a slide. It has 4-way stretch so is, without argument, the most comfortable jacket on the market. Anyone who puts one on—I dare you—will not want to wear another motorcycle jacket again. I’m going to be wearing this for two months straight, so comfort is important. It’s not waterproof but water resistant, so I bought a Scott Ergonomic Pro DP rain jacket, and I’ll add a down-filled vest underneath and even my fleece sweater if necessary. In other words, I’ve decided to go the layering route, instead of one-jacket-does-all. I’ll be using my Klim Carlsbag pants, which are great. I don’t care that they are Gore-Tex because your legs don’t get a lot of air-flow anyways. And no one likes pulling rain paints on over your boots by the side of the road.

Bike Prep

I’ve had to break the piggy bank for this stuff and my marriage stock is a little low at the moment. But I’m riding an older bike, so what I save on the bike I spend on gear. (That’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it.) I’ve been a little concerned about the amount of oil the engine is losing lately and pondering what I can do about it. As far as I can figure, it’s either losing the oil through the seals or burning it in the cylinder.

It’s a 2006, so it’s possible the seals are worn. My buddy Phil has the same bike but a little older, and he says his engine “sweats” oil at high revs. Yeah, the pressure in the crankcase at high revs might be forcing some oil past those old seals. A little research has uncovered an oil additive called AT-205. It contains a polymer that will restore the plasticity to aged seals that are dried, shrunken, or just worn out. Of course I want to be sure it’s safe for the engine, but user reviews are good and it’s endorsed by Scotty Kilmer. I don’t want to keep this in my engine for long and don’t need to. It apparently works in about 5 hours of driving/riding, so I’ve bought some and will add it sometime in the spring and change my oil soon afterwards. I’m hoping this quick fix will bring my engine back to good health.

If the oil is getting past the rings and being burnt in the cylinder, I’ll just use a cheap heavier weight oil, one that is readily available at Canadian Tire since I’ll literally be burning through a lot of it over the 12,000 kilometers. Castrol 20W/50 motorcycle oil sells for $6.99 at Canadian Tire. My old bike runs better on a dino oil anyways, and it was when I switched to a semi-synthetic 10W/40 that I started losing oil. Coincidence?

So that is the prep so far: a rough sketch of the route, some gear purchases, and some problem-solving of an old engine. Now I just need Covid to go away.

I’ll be posting a walk-around of the bike soon, showing the modifications I’ve made over the years to customize it for my riding, so watch for that. My son is helping me with a video, which I will post to YouTube and write a short post containing the link.

Please Like, Comment, and Follow if you are interested in following me on this adventure.