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.

10 Good Things About 2020

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions. I saw a Facebook post this morning that said they are merely items on a To Do list for the first week of January. Cynicism aside, I do use the opportunity of New Year’s Eve to reflect on the year that’s been and make some plans for the year to come. And lately, out of that process of reflection and intention in my journal, I arrive at one central resolution, or as I prefer to call it, a personal goal.

This goal is not in the traditional sense of weight loss or exercise gain, but a slight shift in the way I want to look at the world, or behave. For example, one year the goal was to say Yes more often to opportunities that present themselves in my life. In another, it was to pay more attention to my posture. And this year, for 2021, I know already, my personal goal is to be more positive.

It’s been a trying year, to say the least. The Covid-19 pandemic has cost us all dearly, both personally and professionally, some more than others. We’ve had political and racial unrest in The United States, which inevitably spills over the border to here in Canada, and devastating forest fires in Australia and the US southwest. I’ve largely stopped watching news on TV because it’s all so negative and depressing, and snoozed a few Facebook friends who feel the need to remind us all of what is wrong in the world today.

This year, for 2021, my personal goal is to be more positive.

There’s certainly no shortage of negativity, if one wants to go there. I figure what is missing is positivity, and I’m going to do my best to add what is needed, not what is in oversupply. It’s not a denial of our problems—there’s no escaping them—but a conscientious attempt to view the glass as 1/3 full, instead of 2/3 empty. It is so easy to fall into cynicism and despair and become part of the problem, yet another source of darkness afflicting those around us. I know my wife is tired of my snide remarks while watching TV, which is really just a coping strategy, but not helpful nonetheless.

And with that shift in mindset as the goal, here are 10 things that were good about 2020, in no particular order. Most of these are not directly related to adventure motorcycling, and some are quite personal, so this will be a bit of a departure for the blog before we get back to discussing oil and tire choices and such.

1. The election is over!

I’m not going to say that the Good Guys won, because that would not be a positive thing to say to the 70M Americans who voted Republican. And I don’t think the political problems in America are going to be solved by an election, or in an election cycle. No, the good news here is simply that there is some peace, for now, relatively speaking. There have not been any major protests by the losing side, not at least of the violent kind, and whatever remains to be settled will thankfully be done in the courts and not the streets. Let’s hope the inauguration goes smoothly and President-Elect Biden makes good on his stated wishes to try to unite the country.

2. We survived online teaching

Many of my colleagues and I were looking toward the autumn semester with considerable trepidation. When Covid hit in March, we already had half a semester done and had established good relationships with our students. But starting from scratch in an online environment was another whole order. How do you remember names when your students don’t turn on their cameras? How do you engage students when there is a screen separating you? How do you do a pop quiz when that quiz can be shared online during the writing? How do you even raise your hand in a Zoom meeting? I’ve been teaching for 20+ years and am constantly revising my pedagogy, but this was re-inventing. I think some teachers, myself included, felt like it was the first day of kindergarten for us all over again. Well, the good news is, we survived. In fact, I think I nailed one of my standard courses better online than I ever have in person.

3. My dad survived major surgery at 91

I got the news during a club ride in the form of a text from my sister: my dad had cancer and would undergo emergency surgery that night. This was in August. It’s been a tough several months for him and my sisters, who have been at his side almost daily, nursing him back to health through companionship and gentle encouragement. The good news is that it seems he’s turned the corner and will be with us a little longer. His tenacity and the dedication of his healthcare workers are an inspiration to all.

4. Covid has brought my wife and me closer together

For some, Covid has wrecked havoc on their relationships, even in some cases, resulting in separation. For others, my wife and I included, it has brought people closer together. Lockdown and confinement stresses a relationship, and we’ve had our snippy moments, for sure, but generally we are extremely appreciative of our compatibility and the mutual support we offer. It’s easy to lose sight of these fundamentals of relationship. Covid and its resulting effects have reminded me of the ice storm of 1998 here, when Quebecers were forced to slow down and spend some time together away from electronic devices, reminding them of the benefits of staring into a fire. Similarly, Covid reminds us, whether through absence or omnipresence, that the real value and meaning in life is in our relationships.

5. Renovations instead of vacations

So my cross-country tour was put on hold another year, but I used that extra time and money to do some much-needed renovations on my house. I weatherproofed the garden fence and painted the exterior of our house. We finally lifted some old disgusting carpet up from the stairs and had a runner made to replace it. I painted the kitchen cabinets, only once I’d done that the countertop looked really shabby, so we had that replaced and I installed a new kitchen sink and faucet, giving the kitchen a face-lift if not a complete redo. Slowly, slowly, our little cabin on the bay is coming together nicely.

6. An epic road trip to Thunder Bay

Instead of The Big Tour, my wife and I vacationed along the north shore of Lake Superior. This was in July and the country was partially open, so we had the choice of drive-through Tim’s or drive-through Tim’s while on the road. But we camped the whole way and had an electric cooler, so we didn’t suffer much for the closures. Our destination was just west of Thunder Bay with some relatives at “camp,” as they call it there, where we ate and slept like a king and queen and I waterskied for the first time. I sold an article to Ontario Tourism about it, concluding that it was the best vacation I’d had in years.

7. Our Saturn survives another year

There wasn’t a lot of driving this year, permitting our old car to survive another year. It’s a 2002 and has now close to 250,000 kilometers on it. The back end has some noise from worn spindles, and while our mechanic says it’s safe, we figured we’d be in to a new car this year with the accompanying payments. The only big driving we did, aside from to the grocery store and back, was the trip to Thunder Bay, and once we were out of Montreal’s terrible roads, the back end was quiet. Somewhere between Wawa and Pukaskwa National Park, we hit some construction on Highway 17.

“How much further is this construction?” I asked the young flagman.

“Not much further,” he answered, and then, “How difficult is it to get parts for a Saturn?”

Covid has helped us avoid car payments another year.

8. The environment gets a respite

Speaking of which, Covid has had a number of environmental benefits, including a drastic reduction in CO2 and NO2. According to a recent article published in Heliyon, GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions were down as much as 50-70% over specific times during the lockdown, with an overall reduction of 17% annually and a resulting reduction in pulmonary diseases such as asthma. Water pollution, noise pollution, ecological devastation, all reduced. Dolphins have returned to the canals of Venice and the Bay of Bengal (Bangladesh), and the sea has changed colour due to a break in human activity.

9. Still healthy at 57

When many people our age are developing mobility issues, I’m all the more appreciative that my wife and I are still healthy. I don’t know if there’s another soccer season left in me, but I’m still able to run 5-8K a few times a week. When my dad fell ill in August, I spent some time in a ward surrounded by people with various body parts and organs cut out of them. Watching them and my dad struggle to get around afterwards, I decided to do a deep cell cleanse through a diet of intermittent fasting, restricted eating upon returning to Montreal, and my wife and I have been on that since, taking a hiatus only for the holidays. It really isn’t that hard—not as hard as it may seem. At any rate, I believe good health is never something to take for granted, especially as you get older, so I’m adding it to my list of things to be thankful for in 2020, or any other year for that matter.

Life is a story, and we construct our own reading based on what we choose to emphasize and deemphasize.

10. The vaccine arrives!

Perhaps the best thing about 2020 is that a vaccine was successfully developed for Covid-19. In fact, a few vaccines have been developed and approved in record time, with remarkable probability of success. So there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can begin to start planning how we are going to spend our renewed freedom. I’m perusing the National Geographic Guides to the National Parks of Canada and The United States, and its Guide to Scenic Highways & Byways. I’ve got a big map of North America hanging in the upstairs hallway with sticky dots marking the places I will visit. I’m watching YouTube videos of BDR and TAT rides, trying to determine if I will attempt any sections of dirt solo. It seems I’d be stupid to not attempt some off-roading in Utah and Colorado, although I’ll be fully loaded. All going well, I’ll be spending the better part of next summer on the road with the bike. And when I won’t be touring, I’ll be riding with my club mates and playing in the dirt with the boys. I’ll be posting some blogs on my trip planning and prep in the coming months.

The power of positive thinking is more than a catchphrase for mystical delusion. Life is a story, and we construct our own reading based on what we choose to emphasize and deemphasize. If there’s one thing English Studies has taught me, it’s that the same text can be read any number of different ways, depending on your perspective. For 2021 and perhaps beyond, for as long as its needed, I’ll be looking at the world through rose-coloured glasses.

What was good about 2020 for you? I know it may be tough, but consider it an academic exercise, like when you were required to debate in school that dress codes should be mandatory. And like any mental muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. So state in the comment section below the best thing that happened to you in 2020. Positive thinking is contagious, and we could all use a little of that virus now.

Happy new year to you and yours. Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021.

Life is an Adventure

The meaning of life in four simple words.

Recently I had one of those incidents of reflexive karma in which you go to help someone, only to have it come around and help you. It began when I wandered into my college’s bookstore co-op last spring. This is one of my favourite pastimes between classes, usually right before or after picking up a coffee. A book on display jumped out at me.

My son is a pretty good procrastinator and his birthday was coming up, so the book caught my eye. Not suffering particularly from this ailment myself, I bought the book then and there.

Then the Covid lockdown hit and so I ended up having the book longer than expected. Naturally, I started reading it, and I have to say, it’s an excellent book! It presents this complex and deep affliction in clear language and clever illustrations, using Buddhist metaphors and practical exercises to help readers stop procrastinating and start living life to the fullest. One such exercise is to make a Personal Vision Statement.

The authors claim that goal-setting does not work very well in motivating people and avoiding procrastination. That’s because the goal-posts are always moving. What happens when you achieve your goal? There may be a moment of elation, but then . . . what now? Another goal is set, and on it goes. You live in a perpetual state of striving, with very little celebration—not enough to keep you motivated. A better method is to find meaning or purpose to your life. This will fuel your efforts every day, not just at the milestones.

But coming up with a Personal Vision Statement is not easy! Try capturing your idea of The Meaning of Life in a few sentences. The book of course helps with this exercise and suggests a series of drafts. You can find the worksheets here but you’re better off just buying the book. Suffice to say that a good vision statement encapsulates your values. The authors also suggest you think a bit about what your legacy might be and to include what they call Ego 2.0 activities—contributions to others or society, since that’s where we find deeper meaning than in strictly self-serving acts.

Here is my first draft. It’s pretty lame: “Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.”

Like I said, pretty lame. Kind of reads like Desiderata on valium with a dollop of schmaltz on top. There were a few more drafts—something added about listening to the opinion of others but trusting mine—and then, almost as an afterthought, “Keep in mind that life is an adventure not a destination.”

Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.

I wrote all this in my journal, and when I recently finished that journal, I flipped back through the pages before putting it away for posterity. This is one of the things I like about journaling: you can see in those pages all you have been thinking and feeling in recent months. And when I came to the section where I was writing those drafts, it came to me—the perfect vision statement: simply, life is an adventure.

The authors say that a personal vision statement need not be long and complex, in fact can be one sentence, but you might be wondering how I could possibly capture the meaning of life in four words. Let me explain.

The first motorcycle tour I took was in 2017. I’d just gotten my full license the year before and, naturally, had to ride The Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia. I scheduled myself 10 days. I packed up my tent and camping gear, an assortment of tools and spare parts, an old car GPS, and lots of peanut butter and pasta. I had a general plan with reservations at a few campgrounds, but between those fixed points was a lot of room for flexibility. The idea was to explore.

Those were the fullest 10 days of my adult life. I remember sometime around Day 6, I texted my wife that I’d be heading home the next day to be there in two days. She said, “Don’t you have another four days planned?” It’s not that she wanted me to stay away longer, she was just genuinely confused; I’d said my trip would be ten days. Now I was confused too. I’d completely lost track of time and was two days ahead of myself.

“Wow, I’ve got an extra two days!” I texted back. Then I thought back to the beginning of the trip, a mere six days earlier. It seemed like weeks ago. My days were so full and yet I was so present in each moment, they were the longest days of my life.

It’s not that it had all been easy and good. On Day 2 the bike wouldn’t start after one of my rest stops, and there was an ugly hour of anxiety trying to figure it out. Later I discovered that the ferry I had planned to take to Deer Island, NB, was permanently closed, leaving me to find another way to get there in the fading light or change my accommodation plans. There was driving rain, and stifling heat, dehydration headaches, a bee up the sleeve, phone charging issues, navigation problems, and an unexpected oil change. Oh yeah and I dropped the bike. Twice.

But there was also crossing the Penboscot Narrows Bridge, take-out fish & chips on the ferry to Deer Island, going down into the Springhill coal mine, off-roading in the Cape Breton interior, the switchbacks of The Cabot Trail, swimming in the North Atlantic Ocean at Port Shoreham Provincial Park, and Peggy’s Cove at dawn. There were the people I met along the way, from the guy who helped me when the bike wouldn’t start, the Quebecois cyclist on his own adventure through Maine, my ex-colleague Guy at Seascape Kayak Tours, Yannick my off-road buddy in Baddeck, and Walter, who wandered over to my campsite and offered me a cold beer after a wicked hot day of riding, not to forget the staff at Adrianne’s Cycle Service in Moncton.

Seal Island Bridge. Cape Breton Island, NS

But there is one moment in particular that stands out for me when I think back on that trip. It was at the end of Day 7, just when I was starting to get comfortable and confident with this adventure touring thing. I’d left Baddeck in the morning and ridden over the Seal Island Bridge into Sydney to buy a new phone cord at the Best Buy there. Then I picked up Old Highway 4 that took me along the shoreline and out to Port Hawkesbury and over the causeway, where I turned left onto the 344, the beginning of the spectacular Marine Drive that hugs the Atlantic shoreline.

He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.

Sometime in the afternoon, I saw a sign for a provincial park and decided to stop for lunch. It was a sandy beach, and I went for a swim to cool off in the heat. When I returned to the bike, I asked a woman in the parking lot if she knew of a campground nearby. She directed me not only to “the most beautiful campground in Nova Scotia” but also to “the best fish & chips” at a local microbrewery not much further down the highway. So I followed her advice and set up at Boyston Provincial Park, then rode into Guysborough to The Rare Bird pub. I sat out on the terrace that looked out onto the wharf, and as I waited for my dinner to arrive, I enjoyed the amber ale and the sound of a local musician singing and playing a guitar. He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.

I was in my element, living in the moment and exploring, seeing things I’d never seen before, meeting new people, enjoying my bike, trusting myself, and discovering what life presents me literally around each corner, whether good or bad. I have only experienced this feeling of freedom once before, when I backpacked through Europe for a month in my 20s. Similarly, I was exploring the world, and life was an adventure. If only life could always be like this, I thought.

And it is.

One Bike or Two?

Has the adventure bike seen its heyday?

My dad has never understood the adventure bike. He rode in England through his youth and of course took an interest when I announced that I was getting a bike.

“It’s an adventure bike, dad.”

“What’s that?”

“One that can go anywhere, on-road or off. I can take this bike on dirt trails if I want.”

“Why not get a dirt bike?”

Aye, there’s the rub. Recently I’ve been riding with some real off-roaders, and I’m beginning to see the limitations of my bike.

It’s small by street standards. At 650cc, it’s one third the size of some bikes in my street club. But by dirt standards, it’s a pig—a 430 lb. street bike with crappy clearance. Does it really belong on an ATV trail? A snowmobile trail?

On both excursions, both I and the bike came back broken in body and spirit. (Literally, I broke my thumb in a little tip-over at the top of a hill I couldn’t quite conquer.) I seriously began to consider getting a dirt bike, or at least a smaller dual sport, like the Yamaha WR 250R or a Honda 250 Rally. Then I would get a proper touring bike for the long distances, something like the BMW 1250RT (although, in my case, it would more likely be a used 1200RT).

This would be the perfect set-up: one bike with the weight, clearance, and durability (not to mention tires) for going where no adventure bike ought to go, and one with the power, rider modes, dynamic braking, and creature comforts for touring. Maybe my dad was right all along when he said that with an adventure bike you end up with a lousy dirt bike and a lousy touring bike.

This is the direction some of my riding buddies are going. One owns an Africa Twin, another a Triumph Scrambler XC. And recently they’ve decided to get little 250s. And they ride with others who have little 250s as second bikes.

The adventure bike is the Swiss Army Knife of motorcycles.

Adventure motorcycling is the only segment of the market still growing. It’s been growing since 2004, when Ewan and Charlie showed us in Long Way Round what can be done on the BMW GS. Since then, every major manufacturer has come out with an adventure bike, including Harley-Davidson. Yes, hell froze over. In fact, most manufacturers now offer two: a large- and a middle-weight ADV bike. There are riding schools and programs to help street riders adapt to the dirt, ADV clubs, ADV rallies, ADV touring companies that lead guided tours, and organizations like Horizons Unlimited that help you plan your own. The ADV market is alive and strong, but I can’t help wondering—reflecting on my own immediate experience— if we are beginning to see a shift. Has the pendulum reached its zenith?

The ADV market has changed in recent years. There was a lot of criticism directed at Ewan and Charlie for their choice of motorcycle, with many saying they should have gone with a smaller bike. There’s a scene in the original Long Way Round when their cameraman Claudio’s bike is damaged I believe in Mongolia, and they buy a small bike locally for him to use while the GS is shipped off to be fixed. The next time they stop, he’s praising the smaller bike, saying how easy it is to ride through the tough, muddy terrain of Mongolia. Meanwhile, we watch Ewan and Charlie roost each other as they push laboriously through the Mongolian wetlands. There’s been a shift in the ADV market toward smaller displacement bikes. The recent introduction and popularity of the KTM 790 and Yamaha Ténéré 700 reflect this change, not to mention the BMW 310GS Adventure. Is the shift toward a smaller bike recognition that, unless you are Chris Birch, you really shouldn’t be taking a big adventure bike on trails?

Maybe my dad was right all along when he said that with an adventure bike you end up with a lousy dirt bike and a lousy touring bike.

While I was contemplating these questions, so were Jim Martin and Shawn Thomas in a recent episode of Adventure Rider Radio. The subject was the GS Trophy—an international off-road competition using either the BMW 850 or 1250 GS—and inevitably the conversation came round to the criticism of taking the big bikes off road.

At the 32′ mark, host Jim Martin asks Shawn, “What is it about riding the adventure bike that makes it so appealing to you . . . because we all know that we can get rid of the adventure bike and get a dual sport or a smaller bike that is going to be a lot easier to handle?”

The short answer by Shawn: “I guess it depends on where you’re riding it.”

He explains that on a recent trip to Moab, he road 65 miles an hour on the highway and then did some “intense” off-road riding “without taking [his] feet off the pegs,” the bike seamlessly taking him to places most people can’t get to except perhaps in a jeep. And it occurred to me that the answer to this dilemma is in the name. An adventure bike takes you on an adventure.

That doesn’t have to be around the world or even off the asphalt, but if it is, the ADV bike will get you there as well as anything on the market. You can ride for hours in relative comfort on the highway, and when that highway turns to dirt, and the dirt to mud, or sand, or snow, you can keep going, as far as your skills and nerve will take you.

The adventure bike is the Swiss Army Knife of motorcycles. Okay, if I had to skin a rabbit, I’d rather use my hunting knife. If I had to open a tin of tuna, I’d rather use a can-opener. And when I have to loosen or tighten a screw on my bike, I reach for the appropriate driver and not a Swiss Army Knife. But if I had to take only one tool into the bush, hundreds of miles from anyone or anything, I know what I’d take.

I don’t think I’ll be selling my 650GS anytime soon. It’s a great little reliable bike that I plan to use to take me around this continent at least, and hopefully others, once this damn Covid thing is over. I can lift it when I drop it, and I can fix it when something breaks. It doesn’t have ABS or rider modes, but I know how to brake safely in an emergency, and I’m working on my throttle control. The only thing stopping me from doing more with this bike are my skills, and that is part of the appeal of adventure riding. There’s always a steeper hill to conquer, a more challenging technical section of trail to ride. The challenge and learning are endless, if you’re into that, as I am. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’ve only been riding five years.

“I guess it depends on where you’re riding it.”

Shawn Thomas

I have a dream of one day loading the bike and heading west, nothing but country and time ahead of me, work and responsibilities behind. I’ll have a general idea of where I’m going and I might have a specific destination in mind, but the rest I’ll decide along the way. I’ll ride as far as I want in a given day and then turn off the asphalt and look for a place to pitch my tent, open a bottle, and maybe light a fire. I’ll be in the moment with everything to discover, but one thing I’ll know for sure is that I’d rather be on no other bike than Bigby.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Let us know in the comment section below. I always like to hear from my readers.

Biker Blood

1954 Matchless G3L

My dad had a bike—never one in Canada but in England—before he and my mom immigrated. It was a 350 Matchless, and later, an AJS which, according to him, was essentially the same bike. You couldn’t tell them apart, and they were probably made by the same manufacturer. I don’t know why he would buy virtually the same bike twice, but I guess the options were pretty limited in England in the early 1950s.

A 350 single is pretty small by today’s standards, but he and my mom went across Europe to Venice on it for their honeymoon, including traversing the Alps. But before they did, he took the engine out and apart, had it rebored, changed the piston rings, and put it all back together again. He must have had a lot of confidence in his mechanical skills to do that and then ride off with his prized possession on the back.

Sometimes my mom would fall asleep on the bike. He said it scared the bejesus out of him so he made her keep her arms around his waist so he could tell if she was drifting and give her a nudge. When I got my bike in 2015, he didn’t want to go for a ride but my mom did. Only by that time she was well into her 80s and now it was me who was worried she’d fall off, so we never did that ride.

Triumph Speed Twin

His brother, Keith, also had a bike. I think it was a Triumph Speed Twin, a twin cylinder, and when he cracked the throttle he could make my dad look like he was going backwards. But my dad always claimed that the big flywheel of his single was better in slow-moving traffic. If you were easy on the clutch, you could coax it back up to speed without having to gear up and down in the stop-and-go.

When I visited my uncle in England, he told me a story about a time when he and my dad crashed. Okay, it wasn’t a crash, but a slow-speed lowside. My dad needed to catch my mom—I think at the bus station, if I have it correct—for some reason. Maybe she’d forgotten something? My dad’s bike wasn’t around so he asked his brother to quick, give him a lift. They raced off down the driveway and as they pulled out onto the road there were some wet leaves and down they went. An older couple passing by asked if they were okay but were waved away as the only concern was for the bike. I don’t know if they ever caught my mom at the station in time.

My dad only came off once. A young boy ran out between parked cars and kind of fell over the front wheel, striking and breaking the headlamp as he did. My dad was thrown over the handlebars. Both were okay, but my dad had a concussion and rode for another 45 minutes blind into Portsmouth before realizing he was going the wrong way. He remembers sitting at a stop light and it was like a curtain started to lift and he could see the feet and ankles of the all people passing on the crosswalk in front on him.

1935 BSA Blue Star

And my dad’s dad also had a bike, or bikes, through the years—a BSA, one of the first Honda 100s in England at the time (1967), and later a Triumph Thunderbird 650. He was still riding when I visited him in 1985. He took me out to the garage to show me his bike and told me how when my sister had visited a few years earlier she had in mind that she would borrow it to tour Europe. No training, no experience. She hopped on and said, “Okay, so show me how it works,” or something like that. “What’s this pedal for?” Thankfully for everyone, including her future children, that plan never materialized.

Grandad rode well into his 80s and was only pulled off the road by his doctor when he was spotted going the wrong way through a roundabout. Of course he was incredulous and angry, but we all have to face that decision sooner or later.

1982 BMW R65 LS

Photos above are not of actual bikes mentioned.

I started riding in 2015, prompted by my cousin, Mark, who also rides. If you are making a family tree in your head as you read this, Mark is the son of my dad’s brother, Keith. We were texting one morning (evening for him) and he said something like, “Rode through The New Forest today to visit the folks,” accompanied by a photo of his BMW R65 LS, parked roadside presumably somewhere in The New Forest. I was stabbed with a pang of envy and replied, “I’ve always wanted to ride,” to which he said, “You should.” And then a door of opportunity that had stood closed through my early adult life, which was filled with education and family responsibilities, suddenly opened. Why not? Within a week I had registered for a training course and had started researching possible bikes.

I’m thinking of these stories now as my dad lies in bed recovering from major surgery. He has long since given up riding, and more recently driving, but it seems that his last months with us will be largely confined to a bed. I’m thinking of all he has given me, including some of that mechanical know-how, but especially this passion for motorcycles, something that will always be associated with him. It’s in my blood. And as much as it scares the bejesus out of me to imagine my own son riding, I suppose it’s somewhat inevitable, when the time is right for him. When I’m long gone from this world, maybe his future son, or daughter, will remember me once in a while when they throw a leg over the saddle and fire the engine to life.

My dad in England with his Matchless G3L, circa 1954.

The End of Summer

It’s Labour Day weekend, the unofficial end of summer here in Canada. I haven’t heard any geese migrating south yet, but it won’t be long before I do. Patches of yellow leaves have started to appear, and the temperature rarely climbs above the low-twenties. I’ve zipped the quilted liner into my riding jacket.

For me, fall is usually a bit melancholy, but this year it is especially so since my major summer riding plans remained unfulfilled. In my post 20-20 last May, filled with optimism and promise, I outlined my three major plans: to ride the Hamster Trail in New Hampshire, to ride across Canada and back through The United States, and to improve my off-road skills.

As I write this, the Canada-US border is still closed, so the Hamster Trail didn’t happen. There was no club riding in The States, no DirtDaze Rally in August (at least for Canadians), and there will be no Cromag Campout in September. I miss the beautiful dirt roads of Vermont, the state parks, and the good company of our American friends.

By early July, I knew the cross-country tour wasn’t going to happen either. It’s not that it would have been impossible—at least the Canadian leg—but it would have been tainted by the restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. My wife and I did some travelling north of Lake Superior in early July and found Tim Horton’s drive through open, but not much else in the way of food on the road. (Not that I have anything against Tim’s! Their employees are heroes, as far as I’m concerned.) The country was still opening up and some things were open, others not, and I had plans to do research toward some travel writing. All things considered, I decided to postpone that dream another year. I’ve had it since I was a teen, so what’s another year, right?

As for the off-road skills, well, there’s still some time for that. Covid can’t stop me taking my bike outside of Montreal and hitting the trails. I did a ride with The Awesome Players in June, but broke my new shock in the process (doh!) and it took a couple of redesigns by Stadium Suspensions to get that fixed. Then my preload adjuster broke, but thanks to my buddy Phil in Ottawa (aka backonthesaddle), that was fixed. Finally the bike is riding well! It’s sitting higher than I ever remember it, even with the preload at base level, and tracking well over bumps and potholes. In fact, it feels better than ever.

My wife says, “Don’t do anything to it. Just ride it!” and I get her point. So I’ve been doing that, going easy on it with some street riding. I’ve been doing day rides with my street club, The West Island Motorcycle Club, including the Telus Ride for Dad, which raises funds for prostate cancer research. This weekend, riding buddy Ray and I scouted a light ADV club ride in the Eastern Townships, ending up at the summit of Mont Orford.

The summer hasn’t been a complete blow out. I’ve kept busy by doing quite a bit of home reno, including painting the exterior of the house and doing odd jobs not done in previous years because I was too busy riding.

If I’ve been quiet on the blog here it’s because there hasn’t been a whole lot to write about except frustration in trying to get the bike fixed and toward Covid. It’s hard, though, to sound off when my wife and I are safe and have stable income.

I’m tempted to take off for a little solo trip somewhere now that I can. I like to get at least one solo trip in each summer. It’s getting cold for camping, but last year I was brave and did a weekend at the end of September in Algonquin Park. We’ll see. For now, I’ve got a set of Kenda Big Blocks sitting in the shed ready to go on as soon as my wheel weights arrive, and I’ve just ordered a new chain and sprockets. My current set has an unbelievable 35,500 kilometres on it and looks like it could do more, so I’m sticking with the same set-up: a gold DID VX2 chain (which is now upgraded to VX3) and JT Sprockets front and back in 15/47 ratio, which provides more torque and higher revs in the low gears than the stock gearing.

Here in Montreal, we are on the road until December, unless we get early snow like last year. The fall presents some of the most pleasant, beautiful riding as the temperatures drop and the trees turn colour. I’ve never had 60/40 knobbies on this bike front and back, so it will be interesting to hit the trails with the new shock and tires and see how the bike handles. Let’s hope I don’t break anything! While the summer was a bit of a bust, the fall still contains some promise.

Off-Roading with The Awesome Players

Awesome

There hasn’t been a lot to write about this summer. Covid-19 has gutted two of my major plans: to ride across Canada, and to do the Hamster Trail in New Hampshire. The most exciting thing of the season so far has been a ride with The Awesome Players.

I started watching their YouTube videos years ago. I have to admit I didn’t get it at first. Why are these guys taking their huge bikes where they’re clearly not meant to go and bashing the hell out of them? Why are they riding beyond their skill set? Then I started doing it myself. It starts with riding dirt roads and easy trails, but soon enough you arrive at a section or a hill climb that is clearly beyond your or your bike’s abilities. Do you turn around? Hell no! The challenge is too alluring and the next thing you know you’re bashing the hell out of your bike too.

I started emailing with Riley, one of The Players, a few years ago. He graciously sent me the location of their famous sandpit. Okay, it’s not “their” pit, but I would understand if he preferred to keep it a secret. These off-road spaces are becoming increasingly rare, and the more activity there is around a site, the more chance the company who owns it will close it off. So I appreciated the tip. He added, “Let me know if you’re going out there sometime and maybe I’ll tag along.” Well it has taken a few years for me to act on that invitation, but we finally rode together a few weeks ago, only it was me tagging along.

I met Riley, Marc, and Frédéric at the A & W in Hawkesbury, where most of their videos begin. We decided to head up Scotch Road and I was doing fine until we got to the water crossing. It was here that I discovered that there is very little traction left in my rear Shinko 805. I got halfway across, hit a rock, lost all momentum, and couldn’t get started again, even after hopping off the bike. With a little help from Marc, I got across and up the far bank. That was only an indication of worse to come!

These guys have been riding that area a lot longer than me and I found myself on trails I would never attempt on my own. I was up for the challenge, but was dropping my bike a lot! Fortunately, it was all captured on camera so I will eat my humble pie when that video comes out. What I was quickly discovering was that my bike really isn’t cut out for this kind of riding. In my street club, I have the little bike, but here Bigby was the heaviest at 400 lbs. (The others were on CRF 250 Rallies and a Husky 701, both about 100 lbs lighter.) The clearance on my bike is crappy at about 6 inches, partly because of the BMW engine cage that loses me an inch. But mostly it was that rear tire and my skills that were letting me down, literally. I don’t know how many times I dropped the bike.

But it wasn’t all bad. As the day progressed, we rode some easier trails and I wasn’t struggling as much. I also did a couple of pretty good rocky hill climbs to get to those trails and was proud of that. Riley gave me a little coaching on clutch control that helped. The day ended as it began, with us blasting down Scotch Road, only this time something weird was happening with the handling of the bike. When we arrived back in Hawkesbury, I saw oil under my bike and discovered that my new shock had sprung a leak. To make matters worse, my mudguard was also flopping around because it had cracked during the day.

I limped home and am in the process of repairing the bike. Stadium Suspensions have redesigned the shock, and I’ve glued the mudguard using the superglue bicarb method. I’ll be back on the road soon, and I probably mean literally the road. I’ve come to the conclusion that this old bike just isn’t cut out for hard off-roading. It’s an excellent adventure bike with light off-road capability. I love it for all the same reasons I bought it in the first place; it is a reliable bike that can take me (almost) anywhere, yet small enough to lift on my own should I drop it out in the middle of nowhere. I love how it is balanced and how it handles. It’s an excellent small adventure bike.

But if I’m serious about doing off-roading, I’m going to have to get a smaller bike and save Bigby for what he’s designed for. I guess this is the normal trajectory of an Awesome Player, since most started on big bikes and have gravitated toward smaller ones over the years. Learning skills on a small bike is easier and safer, with less damage to bike or body when things go wrong. Hopefully I’ll soon be back out with The Awesome Players but with a bike more suited for the terrain.

Suspension Upgrade

Life Cycle

If wheels are your legs, then suspension is your joints. Anyone with bad knees or hips will tell you how important healthy joint function is. If you want to make the single-most significant upgrade to your bike, consider looking at the suspension. An upgrade is not cheap, but it’s often well worth the investment.

In my review of the f650GS, I reserved glowing praise for its suspension. It’s good for street riding, but not for much more, and not even for Montreal streets. Since I’ve been doing adventure riding that takes me off-road, I’ve noticed its limitations. I’d often bottom out and bash the skidplate or engine guard, the kickstand, the centre-stand. The underside of the bike was taking a beating. I also found the front to brake-dive on the street and jumping rather than riding over large rocks on the trail. Knowing new suspension is much cheaper than a new bike, I recently decided to upgrade the front and rear suspension.

Front Suspension

Iniminators

Ricor Intiminator Valves

The front suspension on this bike is traditional (i.e. non-inverted) damper rod forks. There’s no adjustment other than changing the weight of the oil, and I’d tried thinner and heavier oils and was underwhelmed with both. Still, if you’re looking for a cheap mod, try a heavier oil. (Stock is 10W.) I guess you could also try playing around with preload by creating new spacers, but preload wasn’t the issue with the front end for me. (I’m only 145 lbs./65 kg.)

The other option is to change the springs to either a heavier spring or a progressive spring. Someone I know who installed progressive springs was also underwhelmed with the results and is now looking into other options. I think progressive springs are a bit like handlebar risers: modifications made popular by word-of-mouth and DIY ease than by the results. (After listening to GS instructors and Chris Birch, I decided to take my risers off.)

From what I’d read, the only way to improve the front significantly on this bike is to change to a valve system using either Race Tech Emulators or Ricor Intiminators. These valves essentially replace the damping rods, converting the suspension to something akin to cartridges. I say akin, because unlike cartridges, there isn’t any compression adjustment at the triple-T. Still, I was hoping to alleviate some of the brake dive and firm up the front end over potholes and rocks.

I decided to go with the Ricor Intiminators, mainly for the ease of installation. From what I’ve read, the technology is very similar. Ricor were unfortunately undergoing some restructuring and I had to wait months for my order to arrive, but it finally did last fall. (The company now has a new owner and is shipping again.) Installation was as easy as draining the oil, opening the forks, pulling out the springs, dropping the valves in, and replacing everything. Ricor suggest 5W oil, and strongly suggest Amsoil 5W oil. Little did I know that not all 5W oils have the same viscosity. Unfortunately, Amsoil is not easy to obtain in Canada, so I went with Bel-Ray.

Intiminator Instructions

At first, I was again underwhelmed. Ricor claims that the Intiminators can determine the difference between chassis movement (i.e. brake dive) and wheel movement (i.e. bumps and holes in the road). I imagine the former is much slower than the latter, so it seems possible from an engineering standpoint, but I still had some dive. To be fair, it might have had something to do with my braking. I basically went out on the street and hit the front brake a few times. Proper braking involves shifting your weight backwards and coordinating with the rear brake to get the bike to squat. I’ve since come to notice a difference in braking and an improvement in, if not the elimination of, brake dive.

But that is not the main reason for the upgrade. Once I got the bike up onto dirt roads, I noticed a huge difference in its handling. For once, I was taking corners in the dirt at speed, weighting the outside peg with the front end feeling planted. It’s almost like the valves work better at speed. I wonder also if the oil gets thinner as it heats, which is why Ricor suggests the thinner Amsoil. I decided from this one ride that it was time to buy a neck brace since I was now not poking along on dirt in 2nd gear.

Rear Suspension

OEMRearShock

OEM rear shock

My stock rear shock had over 92K on it and had never been serviced! You can’t service the OEM shock on this bike easily. That’s because there isn’t a valve to re-pressurize it. I found someone who could tap a valve, but that plus regular service would be $450. I also needed a stiffer spring since, with all my gear, I’m under recommended SAG by about 2 centimetres, even with the preload fully wound. A new spring is $230. All totalled, I was up close to the price of a new shock, and one that is much better.

740HR1

Stadium Suspensions HR1

I decided to go with Stadium Suspensions, a local manufacturer in Quebec that specializes in off-road suspensions. Going with a service instead of mail-order from one of the big manufacturers meant I could get the shock custom built. Thierry at Stadium was super helpful. He asked for me to weigh my gear, which I found was 70 lbs.! I guess that’s a lot compared to the minimalists, but that included one pannier full mostly of food and another with cooking gear, since that’s how I tour. A third large wet-dry duffle on the back and all my riding gear meant a lot of preload. One nice feature of Stadium is that they were able to incorporate my OEM preload adjuster into the new shock, which is a nice touch. No messing around under the bike with a wrench!

I went with their mid-level shock, the 740HR1. The big advantage of the HR1 over their base model (and my OEM) is the remote reservoir for the nitrogen gas. In a conventional shock with oil and nitrogen in the same compartment, when the shock is working hard all day, such as with off-roading, the oil can heat up to the point where it starts to mix with the gas and froths, creating compression fade. And because my bike shares the same frame with the Dakar version, which has a remote reservoir, there was already a cradle on my frame for easy installation.

20200624_183239

Reservoir with compression adjustment knob and, just above, the OEM preload adjuster knob.

Yes, I have to loosen those ring clamps to change my oil filter, but that’s the price I will pay every 7,000 kilometres. It’s actually a pretty neat set-up. Tierry at Stadium had owned a 650GS so already had the designs for this shock on file.

Dialling In

I had three adjustments with this shock: preload, rebound, and compression.

Preload: There are a ton of videos online on how to set rider sag. Basically, you want to unweight the rear (using a centre-stand or pulling the bike onto its sidestand) and measure from the axle up to a fixed point. Then sit on the bike with your feet on the pegs (you might need to balance against a wall or, as I did, a fence) and measure again. Don’t forget to wear all your gear. The difference between your first and second measurement should be about 1/3 of the stroke. My bike has a 165mm stroke, so I was aiming for about 55mm. Stadium had chosen the perfect spring rate and it was exactly on the mark. Nice!

I generally leave the preload at Base unless my wife decides to come for a ride. I haven’t toured with the new shock, but I’ll be setting SAG again with all gear loaded before I head off.

Rebound & Compression: The way Stadium explain it, rebound is how easy or hard it is for the shock to extend; compression is how easy or hard it is for the shock to—duh!—compress. To my surprise, when I started playing around with these settings, I found rebound more significant.

20200624_183333

Rebound damping adjustment on Stadium’s shocks. CW=faster; CCW=slower

Crank up the compression setting on the remote reservoir and you feel the bumps, for sure, but crank up the rebound to its hardest setting and you feel like you have no suspension. Perhaps that’s why Stadium suggests starting with the softest setting and adjusting upwards to preference. I found that at the easiest setting, the bike was bouncy. For Montreal roads and off-roading (pretty much one and the same), I’ve landed somewhere in the mid-range.

For compression, that’s a little easier. I keep it in the mid-range except for when I go off-roading. Then I make it harder (to compress), which saves some damage to my stands and engine guard and prevents the shock from bottoming.

I still had some adjustment to do on the front too. I found the shocks still a bit stiff for rocky terrain, so I mail-ordered some Amsoil 5W oil, and based on this advice from suspension guru Dave Moss, I measured using height rather than volume. I also put a little less oil in to, as he says, ease up the middle part of the stroke to adjust for my weight. Recommended height is 120mm and I went with 130. I’ve only done one day of off-roading with this set-up but the front end is getting better and better. I might try even less oil next oil change.

The season is young and there is plenty of off-roading still to come. In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll be tweaking the suspension more, including tire pressure, which is another important setting. Do I adjust every time I go off-road or, as Jimmy Lewis does, just keep it at 28 psi for road and dirt? Of course, no expense or type of suspension can make up for crappy skills, so I’ll be tweaking them too. At least now I have a bike that I feel confident to do some serious dirt riding on.

Have you ever played around with your suspension settings? Do you know what your recommended rider SAG is? If not, the RaceTech database has the info you need. Just use the Product Search feature; you’ll be surprised at how much comes up! Before you upgrade, just make sure you are getting the most out of your current system. Devoting a little time to this will result in many hours of more enjoyable and safer riding.

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photo credit: Ray Bourgeois