Kamouraska, Manicouagan, Manic 5

Manic5

I grew up in southwestern Ontario, in a very conservative suburban city. You’d see the neighbours leave in the morning and pull in the same evening, but rarely beyond those chance encounters. When I outgrew Burlington, I soon grew tired of Toronto. A defining moment of my youth for me occurred at the intersection of a single-lane road in Yorkville, Toronto. Two well-dressed gentlemen, one in a Beamer and the other in a Jaguar, were both trying to get down the same single-lane stretch of road at the same time. Neither would give. Finally the guy “in the back” rolled down his window and screamed, “You wanna get out and die?!” He was extremely red-faced.

I realized then that Toronto wasn’t really my cup of tea.

Soon after, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in Quebec for an immersion course. It was basically summer camp, but in French. I had my dog with me and stayed with a lovely host family a stones-throw from the Saint Laurent. La Pocatière is located on the south shore about an hour and half east of Quebec City. It borders the very touristy Kamouraska region, renowned for its summer resorts.

You can stop by the bakery each day for a pastry. You can bring your dog into a bar, unleashed. You can climb the staircase behind the school to the top of the mountain and then the observation platform and look out at sunset across the gulf of the Saint Laurent to Isle-aux-Coudres. You can rent a bike and cycle to the neighbouring region to skinny dip at la plage secret. I read Camus and wrote tentative, imagistic poems in French. I saw my host family laughing with friends over a bottle of wine in the back yard, or taking off to Quebec City for the weekend on a lark. Quebec just seemed a whole lot more interesting than Ontario to live in at that time.

So naturally, when I decided to do graduate work, I came to Quebec. With all I owned packed into a van, including the dog, I made my way into Verdun for my first night in Montreal. Only I missed the turn to Verdun because, naturally, there was construction on the bridge and the next thing I knew I was heading over the Saint Lawrence River to the south shore.

That was over 30 years ago. And I’m sorry to say, that the province I fell in love with at the age of 25 is now hard to see at 56 amid the corruption and construction pylons that plague my daily life. I always knew that many Quebecers had a hidden xenophobic tendency, but with the passing of Bill 21, which bans public employees from wearing religious symbols, that tendency is no longer hidden. Many of Quebec’s core values no longer match my own, and when I travel out west, I’m struck by the stark contrast in work ethic, infrastructure, health care, and personal prosperity in the western provinces. The truth is, by the time I was asked this past summer to join a club ride that would take me through Kamouraska, the charming region of Quebec I’d fallen in love with those many years ago, I had fallen out of love with Quebec.

The plan was to travel the south shore of the Saint Lawerence, stopping in Kamouraska the first night. Then we would cross the river at Rivière-du-Loup, landing in Saint-Siméon, where we would head along the north shore to Baie-Comeau. We had an AirBNB for three nights there for three days of riding in Manicouagan: one to Sept.-Îsles, one to the Manic 5 dam, and one back along the shore via Tadoussac.

The first day was hot and it was a long ride. After putting some miles behind us, we dropped down from the Trans Canada Highway to Rte. 132 at Rivière Ouelles. The 132 is one of my favourite roads in Quebec. My wife is usually a “Let’s Get There” type of traveller, but when I returned with her the following month as we headed out to Nova Scotia, I was able to convince her to take the scenic route this time. She thanked me for it. The road is lined in quaint little cottages, many with ornamental faciaboard and painted in pastel colours. The river at this point is briny and you can smell the salt in the air. Finally we pulled onto Rivière LeBlanc and stopped at our accommodations, right on the shoreline.

foin de mer

Auberge Foin de Mer; Kamouraska, Quebec

Naturally, after such a long, hot ride, I had to cool off in the river. Fellow rider Ray and I walked across the street and swam out. It was cold but refreshing.

The next day we had a short ride to the ferry in Rivière-du-Loup. While waiting in line at the ferry, I noticed a crack in one of my rear view mirrors. It is OEM and the plastic had weakened with age, and I’m notorious for posting my helmet on my mirrors, which I guess caught up to me. Thankfully, I had thrown in with my gear, literally at the last minute, a tube of JBWeld Plastic Bonder. It has a 15 minute set time and 30 minutes to cure, so after getting the bike on board and settled, I quickly mixed up some and made the repair. It would have been a pain, let alone illegal, to ride the rest of the tour with only one mirror. In the future, I’m going to trust my gut on those last-minute additions to the kit list; they have proved life-savers in the past as well.

Our accommodations in Baie-Comeau were incredible! The team leader had really scored on this for us. It had a huge kitchen and adjoining sitting room, with a large backyard leading down to the water. The booze started flowing and soon I remembered why I had moved to Quebec.

Backdeck

My new host family

The riding out of Baie-Comeau is the most interesting as you head west toward Sept-Isles. The road is still hilly if not mountainous, and the curves lead to spectacular lookouts to the right over the water. But soon it levels out and then it’s just a few hundred kilometres of straight, boring freeway at speed. And when you get there, Sept Isles is nothing to write home or on a blog about. It’s kind of a dive, truth be told. We struggled even to find a caisse-croute. (By the end of the tour, by the way, we were all longing for something not fried.) That evening, one of the riders announced that he’d decided to make his way back because he didn’t feel comfortable riding at speed.

Now what do you do when faced with this dilemma? No matter how good the planning, there will always be unexpected incidents, and the sign of a healthy group is its ability to work through them. We decided to split into two groups. One, aptly named Legal, were to ride at the speed limit. The other—you can guess its name—would ride at their preferred speed, which was around 20 km/hr. over the speed limit—nothing to call attention to ourselves, but enough to have some fun on those otherwise boring stretches.

We stopped at this famous lighthouse, which is a nice break along that stretch between Sept-Îsles and Baie-Comeau.

lighthouse

The next day, we headed off in this configuration to the Daniel-Johnson Power Dam and Manic 5 Generating Station, the Legals leaving about a half an hour ahead of the Illegals. What we didn’t plan for was Googleness, when GoogleMaps and Garmin both take one group off the desired route to the dam, so they arrive 30 minutes after the tour has started. But we solved that one too.

The road up to the Daniel Johnson dam, the 389, is arguably the most challenging piece of road I’ve ever ridden. I’ve done The Cabot Trail and off-roading in Cape Breton too, but this road was more challenging due to its road surface, its length, and the mountainous terrain. It required every bit of concentration to stay safe.

After we managed to reconnoitre, we donned our hardhats and safety goggles and caught up with the tour. The best was yet to come. We were shown the generators and inner machinery, were bussed to under the highest arch, and deposited at the top for the requisite photo op.

On the dam

By the way, anyone who says that hydroelectric power is clean needs to look out over the swamped region upstream to see some ecological devastation. It’s not so simple. Or read Don McKay’s long poem “Long Sault Parkway,” which eulogizes the Long Sault Rapids that were drowned by the dam in Cornwall. To this day, entire villages lay beneath the manmade lake and are a hot destination for exploratory scuba divers. There is no clean energy; it’s just a matter of which source causes the least ecological damage.

Soon we were happy to be back at Party Central, and Mike brought out his scotch; I, my port. Pierre’s playlist had me singing aloud to Oasis.

Some bad news from home that evening led me to cut my tour short a day to be with my wife. The next day, as they headed north, I’d continue west back to Montreal. But first I rode with the gang back through Tadoussac and across on the ferry, then further along the 138 that leads to the magnificent Rte. 381 from Malbaie to Baie-Saint-Paul. It was sunset and this section was about as perfect as any ride can be and the highlight of the tour-riding for me. I said my good-byes as they headed in for dinner, then I pointed west toward Quebec City. I’d stop for dinner in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, just outside of Quebec, naturally on the water.

Dinner Stop

Heading west on the 138

I’ve written quite a bit about my preference for solo touring. I won’t dispute its many benefits, or that this was a bit of a departure for me. But I have to say that group riding does have its benefits too. For one, you don’t have to do much planning, and when you already have planning for two other trips to do, you might be happy to piggy-back on this one. Robin and Maria and others had done an excellent job of planning, right down to the details like meals en route. Accommodations—the tricky bit—were perfect!

The other, of course, is the camaraderie. The reason Quebec is so different is that Quebecers are different. We are an eclectic mix that somehow manages to get along, and my riding club is no exception. My riding these days is more often dirt than asphalt, more solo than group, but I continue to ride in this club because of its members. They are all good, safe-riders, are agreeable by nature or need, are super-coordinated, and have excellent taste in liquors and spirits. I’ll ride with them anytime, anywhere.

It felt like I had voyaged back in time to when I was 25. Not much had changed to the landscape and people there, and I was happy to see it. Now I know that when I get tired of the mess that is Montreal, the other Quebec is only a few hours ride away. Just follow the river.

Manicouagan

MRC Manicouagan Project Chrono. The circular body of water is the Manicouagan Reservoir upstream from the dam.

A Bike is a Body

creepshow

There comes a time in your life when you know you can no longer take your health for granted. Sometimes it’s not so much a revelation as a creeping recognition, but in my case, it was a specific moment. I was in my 40’s, in good health, when I walked to the curb to retrieve the recycling blue box. I bent over, picked it up, and bam! Back spasm that sent me to the ground.

“What the hell was that?” I wondered. A back massage helped work out the stiffness, but it would take five osteopath appointments and a regular routine of Pilates to put me back to health, so to speak. Since then, when I get away from doing the Pilates on a regular basis, like when I’m especially busy at work, I have a relapse. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to do Pilates regularly for the rest of my life to keep my back healthy.

But it’s not just the back. I play soccer recreationally, and I have to keep training in the off season and between games to maintain my fitness and speed. As soon as I stop, even just for a few weeks, the muscles atrophy, including the most important one—the heart—and I struggle through that next run or game. At a certain point (I’m now in my 50’s), you have to do this training just to maintain what you’ve got! It’s diminishing returns with longer recovery times, but what’s the alternative? If you stop altogether, well . . . we won’t talk about that.

When we were young, we abused our bodies. We put chemicals through them, burnt the cilia from our windpipes with one puff of smoke, stayed up all night partying or studying, lay out unprotected in the direct sunlight for hours. We might have been involved in athletics, but few ever did any training. I ran a 16K road race when I was in my teens on the minimal preparation of a few runs in the weeks leading up to the race. I know someone who stayed up all night partying before a marathon. (Yes, he finished, but collapsed unconscious over his celebratory meal afterwards.)

I’m thinking of this now as I try to ramp up my training after a month or so hiatus. I’d like to carry a little momentum into the snowy winter months here in Montreal so I arrive in the spring fit for a new season of soccer and riding. And I’m thinking of it in relation to my motorcycle, which I’ve just winterized and stored away at the end of another riding season. Come to think of it, a bike is not unlike a body. It arrives on the showroom floor pristine and perfect. Then with age and use, a few things start to break, or wear out, and you have to work to get it back to health. It’s a constant struggle with diminishing returns to keep it in good working order.

Almost all the people I ride with have new motorcycles. They require very little maintenance beyond an oil change and a fresh coat of wax. My bike, on the other hand, is a 2006, and on a recent multi-day club tour, the running joke was that every time we stopped, I had to fix something. It’s true that on the five-day tour I fixed a helmet lock that had vibrated loose, a rear-view mirror that had cracked, and a persistent slow oil leak at the front of the engine.

I keep a pretty close eye on my bike. I have to. And not just an eye but an ear. I hear every new sound—every rattle, buzz, clunk, or ticking. I can tell when my oil is old from the sound of the engine. It’s just part of riding an older bike. You get used to doing a walk-around pretty regularly, and I’ve spotted on them a burnt taillight bulb, a cracked mudguard, missing hardware. Recently I learnt how to weld plastic using a soldering iron and zip tie to repair a cracked body panel and said mudguard. With age and UV rays, plastics atrophy and become brittle, fragile. And because I do some light off-roading with my ADV bike, there’s a lot of wear and tear, vibration from the single cylinder and from the terrain, drops, crashes. Every once in a while I’ll notice something else broken, and then I’ll have to either fix it or replace it to bring the bike back to 100%.

Fortunately, I can still obtain replacement parts. Okay, sometimes I have to wait two weeks for them to arrive from Germany, but when I recently lamented this to customer service of a large online parts distributor, the person replied, “Well, at least you can still get them. Good luck trying to get parts for a bike this old from one of those Japanese manufacturers.” I didn’t know, but apparently some companies just stop making the parts for older models. When Polaris bought Victory, they promised to support Victory bikes for ten years. When GM restructured and Saturn was killed, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have difficulty getting parts for my L100.

With a body it’s not so easy. You can’t easily swap out a broken part, which is why I’m a strong proponent of preventive health practices and signing my donor card. Keeping your organs after death is the epitome of selfishness. (Yeah, I know the joke about “donorcycles.”) But even with my bike, I know there will come a time when I won’t be able to get a part, and then I’ll have to make it. I was this past autumn at a vintage motorcycle race, and as I walked through the pits, I marvelled at the beautifully restored classic bikes. Many of these guys must have to make their own parts. That’s another whole level of skills beyond regular bike maintenance.

When I retire, I’m going to buy not only a house with a heated garage or workshop but also machining tools so I can make my own parts. The dream is to restore an old classic bike, something that tugs on my heart-strings like an old Triumph or Norton, thinking of my British ancestry. As my body begins to fail in ways I won’t be able to stop or fix, I’ll bring an old, rusty machine beautifully back to life. “Time and tide wait for no man,” Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales. But then, he hadn’t met a motorcycle mechanic.

Top Tips for Moto Camping

Baddeck CampThe first time I went moto camping, I pulled into Camden Hills Campground in NH and started gathering firewood. A lady from a neighbouring campsite wandered over and, in the process of telling me that I’m supposed to buy the firewood, not gather it, she said something that struck me at the time: “My husband is so jealous!” Okay, normally you don’t want anyone’s wife saying that to you, but in this case I was safe; the jealousy was all for my freedom.

Moto camping is the most liberating experience I can think of. You have all your essential needs in one place—on your motorcycle—and your ADV motorcycle can go pretty much anywhere you point it. The possibilities are infinite; the journey, endless. There is economic freedom, too. I extend my budget by doing all (or most) of my cooking; my bike gets about 25 km/L, so the gas is cheap; and by camping, I avoid paying hundreds of dollars a night for accommodations. And while I haven’t yet tried wild camping (camping on crown land for free), that’s my next step.

But all this freedom comes at a cost. You can be caught in bad weather. You sometimes have to sacrifice comfort. There are animals and other risks to consider. And let’s face it, camping is sometimes a lot of work!

Before I did moto camping, I did quite a lot of canoe camping. These camping tips come from over a decade of canoe camping and four seasons of moto camping. Some are pretty obvious to the experienced camper, but I include them here too for those just starting out.

Dedicate one pannier for food

I like to dedicate generally one pannier for food, one for cooking equipment, and my top wet/dry bag for clothing and other dry items. Dedicating one pannier for food means I can string it from a tree and know that no animals are going to get at it. With moto camping, you don’t have a car to store your food for the night, so you really should string it. Tie a heavy stick onto the end of your rope and throw it over a sturdy horizontal branch, then re-tie to your pannier, hoist, and wrap the rope around the tree. (See photo below.) I’d hate to be in my tent in the middle of the night and have to listen to a bear trying to get inside a pannier that’s still mounted on my bike! I put one of those insulated grocery bags inside my hard pannier. It’s not as efficient as a cooler but will preserve fresh foods a little longer than otherwise.

RB Campsite_web

Nothing smelly in the tent

This one may not be obvious to the newbie, but you shouldn’t have anything in the tent that is smelly and might attract animals. No gum, or toothpaste, or candy, or food of any kind (doh!), or perfume, or suntan lotion, or mint flavoured dental floss. Bears have very good noses. I put all that stuff in the food pannier and string it from a branch. It helps me sleep better knowing it’s all stored safely away.

Set up your tent ASAP

You never know when it’s going to rain, so I suggest setting up your tent ASAP upon arriving at site. That’s your shelter, so you should set it up, just in case. It’s also a lot easier in the daylight than waiting until after dinner when the light is fading. I like to do this even before gathering firewood (or purchasing) and getting food on.

A shot of inspirationBowmore12

There is one thing I like to do even before setting up my tent. As soon as I arrive at site, I have a shot of something to warm the belly. Sometimes it’s scotch; sometimes it’s bourbon; sometimes it’s port. It doesn’t really matter, but after a cold ride, some liquid heat will lubricate the work ahead and add a little glow to the mundane.

Merino Wool

Packing minimalist? Try merino wool. I spend the entire day in merino wool. I sleep in it. I ride in it. I work in it. It breathes in the heat and insulates in the cold. It has anti-bacterial properties, and is super comfortable. I would not suggest 100% merino because it’s not durable enough. Most companies today weave about 5-10% nylon in to the wool to strengthen it. A thin merino wool base layer is sometimes all I need beneath my jacket and compression suit. Merino sheep

Woolen hat and socks

Here in Canada, it can get quite cold at night even in spring and fall, so I always pack smart wool socks and a wool toque. Wool keeps you warm wet or dry, and smart wool has some added properties that help it dry quicker when it does get wet. If it’s cold at night, wearing a toque and socks to bed can make all the difference. As a last resort, pull the sleeping bag over your head and let your breath heat the bag. No, you will not suffocate; there’s plenty of ventilation through the bag to give you sufficient fresh air.

Park your bike facing out from the campground

The first time I moto camped, I pulled in to the site, parked, then the next morning went to do that U-turn to get me out and dropped the bike. The site was on a slight slope which I didn’t notice and my head just wasn’t into it yet. You don’t want that first turn of the day to be a U-turn with the bike fully loaded, so instead, pull the U-turn at the end of the previous day and then the next morning all you have to do is load and ride. Save the U-turns for after the second coffee.

Fallen Bigbea

Use your sweater as a pillow

You don’t need to pack a small camping pillow for the tent. Just use your sweater. I travel with a Sherpa polar fleece sweater that is perfect for around camp in the evening. (It has the cinder burns to show for it.) Then when it’s time to turn in, I just fold it to make a perfect pillow. As a bonus, if it’s unexpectedly cold that night, my sweater is at hand pull on. I’ll do without a pillow if I have to, but I hate being cold.

Get a good headlamp

How did I ever do without? A headlamp is an essential. It may appear nerdy, but then when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere (or have a 3-day camper’s helmet head on), who cares? A headlamp leaves your hands free to cook, gather and chop wood, or pour another wee dram. I recently discovered the benefit of getting a good one. My current one has a red light, which does not attract bugs, and the ability to adjust the brightness of the white light in both intensity and breadth. When you are away from all artificial sources of light and the sun goes down, you’ll be thankful for the best headlamp money can buy. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries.

Use non-perfumed soapBronnerSoap

Get a good biodegradable non-perfumed soap for the dishes, your body, and your hair. Aside from going easy on the environment, a non-perfumed soap will not attract mosquitos and other bugs, not to mention animals. I like Dr. Bronner’s pure-castile soap. I don’t know what castile is and neither does WordPress, apparently, which flags it as a spelling mistake, but this soap kicks butt! A few drops in your scorched pot and it cleans right up (the pot, that is). The label is pretty entertaining too. Also, do not use any product in your hair as this too will attract bugs. You can’t be vain when camping! And going without hair product means your helmet liner will not get greasy and grimy.

Buy fresh food when you can

Maybe because I did so much canoe camping before moto camping, I discovered this one only well into my first long tour. When canoe camping, you plan each meal for every day and take exactly what you need. It never occurred to me that I could simply pick up something fresh at the local grocer while passing through. Yeah, I pack a lot of porridge, pasta, peanut butter, packaged curries, and rice for most of my meals, but one of my best camping meals ever was some fresh fish I bought in Moncton, New Brunswick, bagged salad, and a veggie. I even bought some garlic butter for the fish, something I knew wouldn’t last more than a day but made the meal, since I cooked the fish in it. So don’t forget; even though you’re roughing it, you are riding through civilization often during the day and can pick up fresh food at the supermarket for that night’s dinner.

Fundy Meal

Moto camping requires some planning, courage, and a little extra work, but the rewards well outweigh the costs. There’s nothing like kicking back beside a campfire at the end of a long day of riding, being in a tent during a thunderstorm at night, or crawling out of a tent in the early morning, with mist still hanging on the lake and hearing loons calling through the fog. If you love nature and riding, then moto camping is for you.

Share your favourite camping tips by leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Dude, where’s my bike?!

20190908_140759I’ve been putting the kilometres on Bigby this summer. I’m now over 88,000 K and, to my knowledge (I’m 3rd owner), the rear suspension has never been serviced. I also had a small oil leak coming from the front of the engine, and I wanted to check that all the engine mounting bolts were torqued to spec. I hate doing maintenance during the riding season because I’ve lost the last month of the last two seasons waiting for parts, but I felt in this case, with three jobs needing to be done, I’d dive in.

This was the biggest job I’d ever done, as you can see from the photo above. The entire back half was removed. I mistakenly took off the fuel tank because I’d read you need to in order to reach one of the engine mounting bolts. Ha! As it turned out, that advice was referring to the 650 Classic, I believe, and in the end, it wasn’t necessary. But it also wasn’t that hard. I’d had the subframe lifted before, to get my shock off; the difference was just that all wiring had to be disconnected and the subframe bolts removed. I’d run the bike down to just a few litres of fuel, so my wife helped me lift the tank off. On this bike, the subframe remains attached and both are removed together.

With the tank off, I was able to access the suspension linkage easier. The deflection lever and tension struts (“dog bones”) came off easily enough.

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Rear suspension linkage

As usual, I took photos to ensure it all went back together the same way. But now the fun began. The pivot bolt that connects the swingarm to the frame was corroded inside and would not come out. It’s a big 12″ bolt that goes all the way through the bike from one side to the other. I checked the photo in my service manual; the guy is pulling it out with his fingers! Meanwhile, I whacked away with a hammer and drift but it wouldn’t budge.

I tried to get a bar clamp or C-clamp positioned to press it out, but could not get purchase with either; there was too much in the way. Finally I decided I had to lay the bike on its side, pour penetrating oil in the top end, and hope that it worked its way down to where the corrosion was.

 

No luck. I was beginning to feel like this guy who, after losing days trying to get his pivot bolt out, eventually cut the damn swingarm off! But I was not entirely out of options yet. I brought out the big boys: my dad’s old big ball-peen hammer and my sledgehammer. I flipped the ball-peen around to place the round end on the bolt, then, using it as a punch, hit the flat face with the sledge hammer. Slowly, slowly, the bolt surrendered, not to a higher intelligence, but a BFH!

With the swingarm off, I could see what the problem was. One of the bearings was seized. I guess this job was overdue.

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A picture’s worth a thousand whacks!

Of course my local BMW dealership didn’t have any of the needed parts in stock, so it was off to Vermont to pick up an order from MaxBMW. I love those guys! The parts took a week including shipping and came with their signature package of M&M’s included.

I’d never pressed bearings before and didn’t have a bearing press, but a YouTube video showed how you can use a common vice to do the job. You use two or three sockets on each end: one the same size as the bearing to press it out, and a bigger one on the receiving side to press the bearing into. You might need to add a socket on the press side to get the bearing fully out. With a little heat from a blow torch and a bar-clamp pipe as a cheater bar, it was easy. For some, I didn’t even use the heat. Just be sure to centre your press socket carefully to avoid damaging the wall of the swingarm or linkage.

 

I’d put the new bearings in the freezer overnight, so they had contracted and were easy to press in. A little heat helped but wasn’t necessary. Then I greased the whole thing up really well with the best waterproof grease I could find. My manual called for EP2 grease (Extreme Pressure).

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Out with the old, in with the new

With the new bearings in, I turned my attention to the other jobs.  A close inspection of the front of the engine indicated that the oil leak was not coming from either the starter motor O-ring or the clutch cover, as I had suspected, but the crankcase gasket. That’s the seam that runs the entire circumference of the crankcase front to back, holding the two halves together like a clamshell. My service manual indicated that the crankcase bolts are supposed to be 12 Nm, and two at the front were significantly below that spec. While I haven’t yet had the bike up to high revs, when the oil leak happens, I’m confident I’ve found the source. There were also a few other crankcase bolts further back in the engine that needed tightening.

Finally, the third job: the engine mounts. And here is where it became interesting again. I was missing one of the five bolts! Did I remove it earlier and lose it? I remember reading the specific instructions in my manual on where it is located and how it threads into the rear brake line bracket on the opposite side of the bike, but it’s not the kind of bolt one can lose; it’s M10 x 95mm. That’s a 9.5 cm long big bolt! Did I accidentally use it for one of the front engine mount bolts, which I removed to remove part of the frame? I searched the shed. I searched the workshop. I searched the grass in front of the shed. I searched my pockets, my tool bag, my car. I lost a day looking for that bolt, which had now become The Bolt and my wife was sick of hearing about it. To this day, I don’t know what happened to the 5th engine mount bolt. Fortunately, Canadian Tire had an M10 x 110 so I put that in. It’s a little long but will do the job until I get the proper one. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the bike seems less vibey, so perhaps one was missing all along??? Perhaps one day I’ll be cutting the grass and . . . gling! At any rate, I’m glad that all five engine mount bolts are in and torqued to the spec 41 Nm.

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Using a floor jack to position the swingarm

Finally it was time to put the bike back together: the swingarm and linkage went on nicely, including the infamous pivot bolt, which I’d cleaned up and given a liberal amount of grease, including some anti-seize on the nut. Then the rear wheel and then . . . uh! I forgot the chain, so it was either break the chain or remove the swingarm again. I felt like an idiot over that one. That’s a mistake you only make once.

So I removed the swingarm, looped the chain over it, installed it again, plus the rear wheel, the mudguard, chain guide, rear rack, etc. until Bigby was looking himself again. And just in time. I have a reservation for two nights at Mew Lake Campground in Algonquin Park this weekend. I’ll be photographing the fall foliage and writing an article for Ontario Tourism on Highway 60 that winds through the park.

Mechanical work is hard! It’s not just the physical exertion but all the troubleshooting and decision-making involved. Two nights at a campfire with my pipe and some scotch is just what I need to unwind and close the touring season.

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Ready for more adventures

Where has the summer gone?

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Last February, when the snowbanks in front of my house were still 9′ high, my motorcycle club went to the Montreal Moto Show. It’s always a fun event, a way to get over that February hump and into late winter, which is almost spring. But I remember coming back a bit deflated this year. To be honest, looking at all those amazing new bikes, and watching some of my friends buying some of those amazing new bikes, made me a little envious.

I decided then and there to put my limited motorcycle budget into riding the bike I have—touring and training. It’s now end of August and I’ve already put over 10,000 kilometres on the bike, as much as I’ve ever done in an entire season, and we still have the autumn before this season is done. I’ve been riding so much, 650thumper has sat rather dormant, so I thought I’d do a quick update before heading off on my next adventure. And when I have managed to do some writing between trips, it’s been for my paying gig with Northern Ontario Tourism, so I’ll include links to those articles below.

My season began with two articles for Northern Ontario Travel. One was on planning a multi-day group ride, thanks to club members Robin Whyte and Wolf Raaen, who have a lot more experience than me in putting these rides together. Then I was asked to do an article on destinations in the Ottawa area. I already had some ideas for destinations, but one of my earliest rides of the season—sometime in early April—was across the provincial border to get photos for this piece.

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Perth, Ontario

Once I was finished with my work for the semester and had visited my dad to celebrate his 90th birthday, I headed off to Vermont for two nights of solitude. In fact, my only post so far this season has been on that ride of The Puppy Dog Route. I went back at the end of July with two riding buddies to do it again.

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Camping at Silver Lake State Park

Another ride early in the season was through the Ontario Highlands. I didn’t even know there were such a thing as highlands in Ontario, but they are kind of north west of Ottawa, up to Bancroft and around Kaladar. It was my first ever overnight club ride, and I became a convert.

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Burnstown, Ontario

That little tour was warm-up to the big club tour for me of the season, along the lower Saint Lawrence River and north shore up to the Manicouagan region. We spent a night in Kamouraska before crossing on the ferry from Rivière du Loup to Baie-Comeau. We did a day ride to Sept-Îsle, and another to the Manic-5 Power Dam, before heading home along the north shore through Tadoussac.

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Near Tadoussac on the Saint-Laurent north shore

Other rides? Less spectacular, but I did visit my dad in Guelph, Ontario, on the bike late summer, and I rode out to Cornwall to write an article on the flat track races there in early August.

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Turn 3, Cornwall Motor Speedway

This weekend I’m heading to Bowmanville to cover the Vintage Road Racing Association races at The Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

I have a few more rides planned for the fall. I’m thinking of participating in the Cromag Campout this year at Silver Lake State Park in Vermont, and I’ll be spending two nights camping in Algonquin Park in search of Tom Thomson and the most spectacular fall leaf viewing in Ontario.

So it’s not because I’ve been idle that 650thumper has been inactive. Oh yeah, and I spent nine days in Nova Scotia with my wife, but not on the bike. 20190718_134813

It’s been a very full summer. I’m ready to sit my butt down and write about it all, but I’ll wring the last of the season out first. Once the snow flies, I’ll have plenty of time to share my adventures.

I wish you all safe and happy autumn riding.

The Puppy Dog Route: Part 2, Silver Lake to Derby, VT

Knowing it was a long way home, I started earlier on my second morning. I was off my site by 9 and soon onto another dirt road that crosses beneath Interstate 89 before hooking north. I popped out in Chelsea and found this quaint cafe to have a coffee and second breakfast.

Chelsea Cafe

North Common Arts Collective and Cafe in Chelsea, VT

I struck up a conversation with the owner, Carrie. She taught special needs students for years and so we had a lot to share about the state of teaching today. She also said her husband has a GS. I have to admit that my first thought was rather cynical, that he is probably one of the umpteen 1200GS owners whose bikes never leave the asphalt. Then she told me about a trip she took on the back of the bike through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and I knew my prejudice was wrong.

“Your husband must be no slouch as a rider,” I said, “since it’s hard enough to ride that terrain with gear let alone a pillion.” When she heard I’m Canadian, she said he also races vintage motorcycles and normally would be heading to Calabogie (just west of Ottawa) the next weekend for the race there. So I was doubly wrong.

“You should stop by and meet him,” she said. “He loves to talk about motorcycles. He’ll be in the barn working on one of his bikes,” and she gave me directions.

The conversation continued and somehow, I can’t remember how, her son’s work came up. He and a friend have a YouTube show called On Two Wheels.

“I love On Two Wheels!” I exclaimed. Turns out her son is Zack Courts, and Zack grew up riding the roads around Chelsea, Vermont. I’m a big fan of Zack and Ari’s work. I’ve watched pretty much every episode of On Two Wheels and Zack’s MC Commute, and learnt a lot from Ari’s MC Garage. I enjoyed Zack’s article in Cycle World last fall on touring to Deadhorse, a bucket list destination of mine. There was great lamenting amongst the online community when they announced their final episode, but fortunately their new show, Throttle Out, is available on motortrendondemand.com. Okay, so we have to pay for it (after the free trial), but I’m of the mind that you get what you pay for, and the creators of good work ought to be compensated.

So now I was intimidated. Riding is definitely in their family, and I felt out of my league.

I have one New Year’s Resolution this year. I’m not a big fan of resolutions, finding them more restrictive than liberating, but this year I did come up with one simple goal that has served me well. It’s to not decline opportunities when they present themselves. I am conservative by nature, perhaps a bit shy, and so I tend to decline invitations that take me out of my comfort zone. But life is for living and I’ve found that it’s the times when I push past that initial inhibition that the real memorable moments in life occur. So when I had settled my bill and headed out to my bike, and Carrie came out and said she was going home, I decided to follow her to the house to meet her husband, Tim Courts.

Tim came out of the barn and introduced himself. I could immediately see the resemblance to Zack. He invited me back into the workshop where he had some classic BMWs. After chatting for a while, he said he has been thinking of getting a smaller bike and expressed an interest in my little 650.

“Take it for a spin,” I offered. Then when he seemed reluctant, I made the gaff of suggesting removing some of the luggage on the tailplate and seat.

“Oh, that’s not going to bother me,” he replied. We chatted some more and Tim seemed interested in this Puppy Dog Route I was riding. He suggested we ride the next section together, he on my bike and me on his. So we did.

It was easily 30 degrees celsius (90F) and I watched him pull on a one-piece Aerostitch riding suit that reminded me of what my dad used to wear to snowblow the driveway. I’d been riding with my compression shirt armour under only an off-road shirt, and while he got his bike out to the road from the barn, I sheepishly pulled on my jacket.

I’d been wrong about his bike too. It wasn’t a modern 1200GS with all the rider aids but the original GS, a 1983 R80 with a Dakar tank. I have to admit that the prospect of riding off-road with an experienced rider on a bike twice the size of mine was a bit intimidating. When I started it up, it rattled and shook. If I released the throttle, it sounded like it was going to stall. Before I could locate the choke, we were off, Tim leading the way.

We headed through town, turned left, and were on dirt. And to my surprise, I kept up. Maybe he was going easy on me. We road for a while, Tim following the printed directions on my tank bag, me trying to get used to the rear drum brake. After a while we stopped and switched back and continued on. I’m glad we switched when we did because it so happened that the next section was what the route organizers call a “hero section.” We turned off some connecting asphalt onto a Class 4 single lane road and started a hill climb that got steeper and steeper. It was muddy, with washout ruts, large rocks, and ledges! I got hung up on one of the ledges and stalled. Tim cruised past with a smile, or was it a giggle? When we got to a plateau we stopped and he said, “I didn’t expect it to be this technical,” to which I replied, “Neither did I!” It had been pretty tame so far all the way from the Massachusetts border, so I was surprised. At any rate, it was a lot of fun, and riding a technical section of trail with such an experienced and expert rider was the highlight of the trip for me. My only regret is that I was enjoying the riding so much I forgot to get a photo of Tim on his old airhead before we parted. We exchanged contact info so there will be a next time. I’m officially in love with Vermont dirt roads so will be back ASAP.

I continued on toward the border. The roads from Silver Lake to Derby are not as heavily forested as at the beginning in Massachusetts, but there are still some dreams homes on manicured properties. This one made me stop, pull a U-turn, and take a photo.

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Dream homes, if you’re into that.

At times the route opens up, cutting through farmland and rolling hills.

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Picture postcard views on the PDR

It was getting late and I was tempted to jump onto the asphalt, but I can be stubborn about my goals, and I’d set one to ride the entire route. I was only a few kilometres from the border now but the GPS took me on a circuitous route that eventually led to a view back over the state I had just traversed. I stopped and took a photo and said goodbye to Vermont, for now.

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Saying goodbye to Vermont, just kilometres from the border.

I’d like to thank the BMW Motorcycle Club of Vermont for putting the route together and making the GPX files available to the public. Vermont roads are not gravel but hard-packed dirt, making them easy for anyone with even an 80/20 tire. There are surprisingly few potholes and washboard. There are a few challenging sections, but nothing a little bravado can’t get you through. Of course weather conditions will change the terrain considerably, but if you’re looking for a quiet ride through picturesque farmland accompanied by all the farm smells and quaint rural life, the PDR is one way to explore without the risk of getting lost. Unless, of course, you want to get lost. Vermont would be a good place to do so.

The Puppy Dog Route: Part 1, Greenfield, MA to Silver Lake, VT

Trail and Bike

I’m a teacher, and toward the end of term, when stress levels reached their peak, I remember saying to myself, “When this term is over, I’m going to take off on my own for two nights.” I enjoy my work and I like giving to my students, but I also need once in a while to retreat and recenter. I imagined sitting by a fire at a campground and smoking my pipe and decompressing. I decided to try to ride the complete Puppy Dog Route.

The Puppy Dog Route is a series of connected dirt roads that take you from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border, the entire length of the state of Vermont. I don’t know why it’s called the Puppy Dog Route. It was put together by the good folks of the BMW Motorcycle Owners of Vermont and revised and updated as recently as 2018. It’s about 90% dirt with just enough asphalt to connect the dirt roads. GPX files and turn-by-turn directions are available here.

After a few delays in early June, I finally headed off and rode down to Woodford State Park on Highway 9. It’s a quiet campground—so quiet it’s self-administered on an honour system; you put your $20 in an envelope and deposit it at the front gate. Nice!

It was hot ride down, so when I arrived the first thing I did was go for a glorious swim in the lake. Those swim classes through the winter paid off. Then I walked back to my site and sat and had a glass of the local porter I’d just bought at the general store in Bennington. I could hear some kids from a camp across the lake playing in the water, some small birds in the surrounding trees, a distant woodpecker, and then some geese flew into the lake, making a racket upon landing, as they do. I wrote in my journal at the picnic table and was blissfully happy for one, perfect moment. For an introverted nature lover, it doesn’t get any better than this.

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(Almost) all of a man’s needs on one picnic table.

The next morning I packed up camp and rode the rest of Highway 9 east out to Interstate 91. Highway 9 is a fantastic road that takes you through the Green Mountain National Forest, with some breathtaking views.

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Lookout on Highway 9 to The Green Mountains

The PDR begins in Greenfield, MA. You turn off a main road onto a residential road and in about one kilometre is turns into dirt and the fun begins.

Starting Out

Starting out in Greenfield, MA.

At the beginning, I was so enamoured I was stopping every few kilometres to take a photo. Then I realized at this pace I’d never make it back to my native country and had to be more selective. But it was beautiful! The surface was hard-packed and easy to ride on. Trees line the road with sunlight streaking through. The road follows a stream, and every once in a while there is a quintessential cedar shingle Colonial home. In my helmet, I exclaimed aloud “Oh my God,” then rounded a corner to a more beautiful view and said “OHH my God,” then rounded another corner and “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!”

I think I’ve found my ideal ride, at least at this time in my life. I like the twisties as much as the next rider, don’t get me wrong. And yeah, I like speed. I also like the challenge of a technical section of a trail, the pull of torque as you crack the throttle, feel the rear tire grab, and power up a steep hill. But I’m beginning to see the limitations of my bike for both technical terrain and speed. It doesn’t have the clearance or the suspension for serious off-roading, and it starts to buzz like its namesake (Bigby) over 110 km/hr, at 5,500 rpm.. What it seems best designed for is enjoying dirt roads where a Harley or Indian or crotch rocket fears to tread. It’s at home in either the Bavarian or Green Mountain forests.

I came to a covered bridge and decided that was a good place to take a break.

Covered BridgeSoon some more riders caught up to me with the same idea. I met Nigel and his dad and a few friends on their classic BMWs. Nigel has a 1977 R100 RS, and his dad has a 1980’s era BMW. Someone else in the group has the new Royal Enfield Himalayan.

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Nigel and his R100 RS. Just when I was beginning to think that my bike is old!

One of the things I like about riding solo is that people talk to you. Nigel is from Connecticut and this opening section of the PDR is part of their regular loop over from that state. I expressed my appreciation for these dirt roads and he said, “the state is full of them.” I wondered if I’d died back on Highway 9 and this was heaven.

I wasn’t even into Vermont yet so pressed on. Soon I was getting pretty familiar with cornering on dirt and was sliding out the back end. A whole day of riding on dirt and you understand the importance of getting your weight out over the contact patch so you don’t low-side. So when seated, that means leaning toward the opposite handle-grip of the corner (i.e. turning right? lean toward the left grip). The route just kept getting prettier.

 

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Following the Stream

Picturesque views on the PDR

My destination for tonight was Silver Lake State Park. This is the midway point of the route and home of Cromag Campout each September. If you are doing the route over two days, as I was, I would advise to set off earlier than my 11:00 a.m. start in Greenfield because it’s a long ride. You are rarely out of 2nd gear, so although the distance isn’t far, it takes a good 8 hours. This is where perhaps the route itinerary is a bit off; I think it says 6+ hours to get to Silver Lake, but I was riding pretty hard all day with few breaks and pulled in around 8 p.m.. I had just enough time to pitch tent before the light faded. A nice neighbouring camper came over with some kindling to help me start my fire. I love campers, and I’ve never met an American who isn’t friendly.

I think the international perception of Americans is very different from the in-person reality. You have to visit to see what I mean. I pause, looking at my GPS, and an American is there, offering directions. The young sales clerk at the general store sees me staring into the beer fridge a little long and comes over to suggest his favourite local porter. I stop to eat an apple and a kid comes by on his pit bike to see if I’m okay. Even the state trooper bids me a good morning at the gas station.

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Silver Lake State Park

This belief would be confirmed in the most exciting way the next day with a chance encounter.

Remise en Forme

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Google translates it as “fitness.” Literally, it might be “put back in shape.” I’ve seen it translated more liberally as “Spring Refresher.” The Remise en Forme is a day of exercises to regain muscle memory of the technical elements of riding. Watching street riders, you may not easily see that riding a motorcycle is a skill, let alone athletic, but off-road riding involves a whole set of skills as well as a certain level of physical fitness. After a winter of watching Dakar reruns on the couch, it’s a good idea to remind the body by targeting specific skills with specific exercises of what it knew how to do last fall.

I belong to two clubs that offer a Remise, so I had the pleasure of refreshing myself twice, so to speak, in May—once with MotoTrail Aventure, and once with the BMW Moto Club of Quebec. I had the same BMW-certified instructor for both, and he was incredible. He has represented Canada twice in the GS Trophy contest. Say no more. He demonstrated all the exercises flawlessly without even a dab (i.e. touching a foot down), and he did it on Michelin Anakee (street) tires when we were all struggling on knobbies.

Here are some of the exercises we did, roughly in the order done:

  1. The Walk-Around. (Engines off.) Have a partner assist you by being ready to catch your bike should it begin to fall. Start by standing beside your bike and find its balance point. Now let go and move to another part of the bike. At no time should you hold the bike with more than the fingers of one hand. Move entirely around the bike, 360 degrees, releasing and catching different parts (windscreen, tail-rack, etc.), ending up back beside the bike where you started. This exercise helps remind you that all of those 500 lbs can be zero when the bike is perfectly balanced. Also to breathe when you are nervous.
  2. The Friction Point. Sit with your bike idling in first gear, clutch in. Gently ease out the lever until the bike inches slowly forward. Now stop using the rear brake while pulling in the clutch lever no more than 1/8″. Ease out again and repeat. This exercise helps you discover the friction point. Much of off-road riding occurs at the friction point with the clutch lever moving no more than 1/8″. If you pull the clutch lever in all the way when you want to slow down, you will not be ready to recover quickly enough if you need to accelerate.
  3. Circus Riding. Okay, he didn’t call this one that, but that’s what it reminded me of. We played follow the leader in a wide circle, doing what the lead rider, the instructor, did. All riding was done standing up except where indicated. He rode with one hand (throttle hand, obviously); he rode with one foot on the peg, then the other foot. Then he sat down, swung his right leg over the bike and put the right foot on the left peg and stood up again. Then he sat down, swung his legs over the seat, and stood up with his left foot on the right peg. Then he sat down and swung his left leg over the seat to straddle the bike again. Then he hopped off the bike and walked beside it a few paces. Then he hopped back on, Roy Rodgers style, like mounting a horse. All this was done at slow speed without stopping, the bikes in 1st gear. This exercise teaches you that you and the bike are independent but together you have to remain in balance. I was reminded of this exercise later in the day when we got into slippery terrain and I had to allow the bike to move around beneath me. It’s all about balance, balance, balance!
  4. Peg-Weighting. A lot of turning in off-roading is done “with the boots,” not the handlebars. You weight the peg on the side of the direction you want to turn. You have to bend your knees and stick your butt to the outside of the corner to counterbalance the bike. We slalomed through a series of cones, then looped around to start again. I was doing this okay but the assistant instructor told me to brace my outside knee against the bike and to use the knee to straighten the bike if needed. This little tip was ground-breaking for me. It gave me more control over the balance of the bike when hanging off it in tight low-speed turns. This exercise reminded us that you don’t steer in low-traction zones with the handlebars but the pegs, and you keep your weight out over the contact patch or the bike might low-side on you.
  5. Parallel Lines. A variation of the above exercise is to add a straight section where you have to ride between two lines (straps or string) about 6″ apart. This is to simulate when you have to ride between two fallen logs, or across a bridge with only 2 x 6’s running lengthwise, or along a ledge. Vision is everything. You look at your entry point but once you enter you look up at your destination. Don’t look down! Look straight ahead. This exercise teaches you how to ride along a narrow path. 
  6. The Full-Lock Turn. Place four cones about 10 meters apart in a square. You have to ride into the square and turn full lock within the cones one full circle before exiting. Again, body positioning and vision here are the keys. You have to stand up, brace your outside knee against the bike for leverage, get your butt well out to the side, and swivel your head and especially look where you want to turn. You should be looking toward the centre of your riding circle at all times except for the very end when you look toward the exit before leaving. Practice clockwise and counter-clockwise turns. It’s pretty obvious, but this exercise practices sharp turns on the trail or U-turns on single-lane gravel roads.
  7. Hill climbs and descents. The secret to both is body positioning. In one version, we had to move our weight back because it was a sandy hill and the bike needed traction to get up. In the other, it was a grassy hill and we were told to lean forward or the bike might flip going up. So it really depends on the type of terrain. For both, you coast to the top because you don’t know what is over the crest. It could be your fallen buddy or, as was the case with me in Cape Breton, a cliff! A variation is to stop halfway up the hill if your buddy in front has fallen before cresting. Then you stall the bike using the rear brake, release the clutch, let the engine hold the bike on the hill and, bit-by-bit, roll the bike back down by feathering the clutch. Don’t panic and pull in the clutch or you’ll end up on your back! Don’t forget to look behind you in case there are trees or logs to avoid. For descents, weight is always at the back and we were advised to use the rear brake.
  8. Water Crossings. Our instructor said water crossings are mostly psychological because you can’t see what you are riding over. The same principles of riding apply: look up toward your destination, feather the clutch at the friction point, and don’t squeeze the bike with your knees. The latter is important because if you hit a hidden rock the bike might be thrown sideways and you have to be ready to counterbalance.
  9. Emergency Braking. Ride about 40 km/hr into a small square of cones and brake as quickly as possible. It’s all about body positioning. Weight and butt back, arms outstretched, then stomp on rear brake, and gently squeeze the front brake lever. Contrary to what I had been taught elsewhere, this instructor said to pull in the front brake lever fully, not all at once, but gradually. Yes, the front might lock up, but with your butt back and your arms outstretched, you can “wrestle” the front end to keep the bike up and you modulate braking as needed (back off slightly when it locks). You want to be right at the point of static friction, when the tire begins to skid. Because most braking occurs with the front brake, this technique will result in faster stopping.

Finally it was time to put all these skills together on some trail riding. We played follow the leader and there was a mixture of sand, mud, rocky terrain, some rock ledges, ruts from rainfall runoff, water crossings, and single-track. It was a ton of fun! By the end of the day we were tired but ready for the season.

The take-aways for me:

  • Vision is everything. He said vision is 90% of riding. Always look to where you want to go. It sounds so obvious but when you come upon an obstacle, like even some rocky terrain, your natural reaction will be to look down at the front wheel. You must resist the urge, trust the bike will roll over anything, and look up, further down the trail.
  • Contrary to dirt-bike riding, don’t squeeze the bike with your knees. With these big bikes, you aren’t going to hold them up with your knees. Instead, bow your legs and create space between the inside of your thighs and the bike. This space allows the bike to move around beneath you as it slips and slides over low-traction terrain or is bounced over rocky terrain. Thinking of the circus act balancing practice, you will be fine if you and the bike together remain balanced over the centre-line of gravity.
  • On the same topic, body positioning is crucial. Contrary to street riding, in which you squeeze the tank with your knees and remain fairly static on the bike, off-roading requires a lot of movement on the bike. The first remise I was still feeling the effects of a pulled back and had difficulty reacting quickly enough to changing circumstances. The second I was fully mobile and did much better. Don’t be afraid to get up there on the pegs and move around—back, forth, to the sides.
  • Breathe and relax when you come to a challenging obstacle. As in all sport, tensing up is counterproductive, and breathing is the simplest way to get the body to relax.

One of the reasons I like off-roading is that it involves the development of skills and so has become yet another ambition to pursue. I love pushing myself, especially physically these days, and the Remise is a great way to brush up those skills at the start of a new season. A big thank you to Moto Trail Aventure and the BMW Club Québec, and especially the instructors who have volunteered their time and expertise.

 

First Ride

Lakeshore

What’s your first ride? I mean the first one of the year? Do you have a favourite go to ride you do when the bike first comes out of storage? I do.

My first road ride ever—when my group at the school finally left the lot and headed out onto the road—was down 55th Avenue in Lachine to Lakeshore Blvd. We’d been warned about the right turn onto Lakeshore and had been practising for it with counterbalancing turns winding through cones. But once on Lakeshore Blvd., it was a perfectly slow, easy ride, with lots of stops signs along the way to practice braking and gearing. It also happens to be pretty scenic too with a view out over Lac Saint Louis. At some point we headed up to the highway and zoomed back to the lot, but Lakeshore, with its signs that read “If you’re in a hurry, take the highway,” was a safe beginning.

Even before I had my road licence and was supposed to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, I snuck out with my new bike. I headed down to Lakeshore Blvd. and took that all the way around the western tip of the Island of Montreal, going through Pointe-Claire, Beaconsfield, Beaurepaire, Baie D’Urfe, Sainte-Anne’s, through swanky Senneville and along Gouin a little. Then I went across the bridge to Ile Bizard and looped it before making my way back home.

It’s an easy, easy ride, and that’s what you want the first time out, when muscle memory is weak and you have to refamiliarize yourself with the controls. It doesn’t take long for it all to come back, but if you’re going to make a mistake, you want to make it at low speed, in second gear. I lost the last two months of last season waiting for parts, so last week, when I got the bike out of storage, I actually hadn’t ridden for six months. I’d just installed new brake lines so, before pulling out of the driveway, I pulled the front brake lever and tried to move the bike. It’s a simple test they make you do at the licensing bureau before you do the road test to ensure your brakes are working. The bike should nose-dive, but this time it didn’t. It rolled. “Damn, the brakes aren’t working!” I thought, “Why aren’t they working?” Then I realized I was pulling the clutch lever, not the brake. That’s why you want an easy, slow-speed ride for your first. 

There’s another reason you want a slow ride. Usually for me, getting the bike out of storage means doing some work on it. There’s already some work that I do to put it into storage, like change the oil and take out the battery; but getting it out of storage almost inevitably means adding something to it that I’ve bought over the winter. This year, like I said, it was some steel-braided brake lines, but also new pads, and some Rox handlebar risers. These are pretty easy mods, but there’s a chance I’ve overlooked something—a nut not completely tightened, or the controls affected by the risers (yes, I tested at idle full-lock both ways, but you can’t be too safe)—and you don’t want to discover at highway speeds that you forgot to tighten the wheel lug nut, now do you? I give my bike a good look over before I head off, but still . . . A friend recently forgot to tighten her oil cap completely after doing an oil change, so oil was dripping down onto her exhaust pipe and smoking. It’s simple mistake, but oil on the tires could be dangerous. Your easy first ride reduces the risk of those innocuous mistakes becoming disastrous.

Sticking close to home also helps should you encounter a problem with the bike. I’ve limped home from a short distance with my temperature light flicking on and off. As my confidence in the bike grows, so does my distance from home and my speeds. After I did my Lakeshore route last week, I headed off to Ontario on Sunday with a small group. Yeah, there’s safety in numbers too. Although my first ride has always been solo, it’s not a bad idea for it to be in a group.

It feels so good to be back on the road. Six months! It puts a sparkle in the eye and a spring in the step of every rider. As I write this from Montreal, Canada, a snowstorm has blown in, but it’s the last of the winter, I’m sure. The forecast for the next few weeks is above freezing so the riding season officially begins tomorrow. Have a safe season, and if you have a favourite first ride, tell me about it.

 

Make Your Own Heated Jacket For Under $50

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The riding season is just around the corner, and remembering those cold early- and late-season rides last year, I decided to get some heated gear during the off season. But a heated jacket can easily run over $200, so I decided to try making my own.

I started by buying the heating pads on eBay for a grand total of $7.39 (all amounts mentioned are Canadian), including shipping and handling. I don’t know how a company can make something, anything, and ship it halfway around the world for that cost, and I probably don’t want to know. The shipping is slow, by boat, so allow several weeks. Still, at that price, I’m not going to hold it against the seller.

You can get them in configurations of 7 small pads or 3 large pads. For the sake of simplicity, I went with the latter. 20190322_100526I figured I’d place one pad horizontally across my upper back to heat my lungs (similar to a chamois in quality winter coats), and two lower, vertically over my kidneys. I’m no biologist, but I remember my Grade 6 teacher saying that if you protect the essential organs, the extremities will be fine.

These pads are 5V and draw 8.5 W—enough to keep me warm but not so much as to tax my electrical system. (I can power this from a battery pack in the inner pocket or plug into my bike using an Optimate USB adapter.) Optimate

This plugs directly into an SAE lead from the battery (for my battery tender) and will handle the conversion from 12V to 5. I’m not including this in the cost of the jacket because I already had it to charge my phone.

I then bought an inexpensive jacket from Mark’s Work Sweatshop (here in Quebec, called L’Équipeur). I was fortunate to find the one pictured above on the liquidation rack for $35. You want it fairly snug since it’s going under your riding jacket and close to your body without dead air space—a known insulator (Grade 6 Physics). Wallfart and Wieners are other good places to try for a cheap vest or jacket. If you get one with a quilted back, your sewing won’t show as much.

The final item was some material to cover the pads once sewn in. I didn’t want to open up the jacket and sew the pads inside the lining for two reasons. First, that would have been a lot of work, and second, I wanted all the quilted insulating material on the “outside” of the pads. So I decided to sew them on the inside of the jacket and cover them with material, and the cheapest material I could think of is a section of a thin, athletic T-shirt I bought from Goodwill for $5.

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I started by pinning the pads in the jacket where I want them.

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I then dug out the sewing machine my mother gave me (God rest her soul) and threaded it with black thread. I can’t help you with the sewing part of this job except to say two contradictory things: a) it’s not as difficult as you may think, and b) read the manual and struggle through your first project; it gets easier. I think of sewing like typing: an essential skill that will pay dividends many times over in the future.

Anyway, you have to be careful when sewing because you don’t want to hit any of the thin wire in or connecting the pads and break it, ruining your pads. Fortunately, the company provides a good inch of sewing material as border.

Once the pads were sewn in, I cut the shirt, pinned it over top, and chalked my sewing line so, again, I wouldn’t accidentally hit any wires. Make sure all wires are tucked inside. You have to leave a gap in sewing the new lining for the cord to exit the lining.

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You can see on the right where I’ve placed two pins horizontally. That’s my marker to stop sewing, and where the cord exits. All was going well until I sewed one of the sleeves to the jacket (Doh!). How to use a stitch-ripper is another essential skill.

After sewing all the way around (minus the port), I cut the excess material away. This is the finished product.

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My jacket has the added feature of an inside pocket with a headphone port. I threaded the USB plug through so I can use a battery pack in the pocket when I’m off the bike. The pads have three settings: high, medium, and low. There’s also a timer setting to shut off automatically after 30 minutes.

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I’ve tested the jacket using a battery pack and it works great! I might not be quite ready to mass produce these, but I’m ready for those cold April rides.

Total cost: Jacket $35 + pads $7 + T-shirt $5 = $47