Imagine a trip across Canada by motorcycle. Imagine the problems you could face: dangerous wildlife, inclement weather, mechanical problems, security issues, fatigue . . . I faced all of these, but I can honestly say that the hardest part of the entire trip was leaving. Specifically, the biggest challenge came the weekend before my departure.
I had decided to change my clutch plates and water pump. The plates were the originals, with over 100,000K on them, and the water pump, which on my bike fails every 40,000-60,000K, had about 35,000 on it, so I didn’t want to risk it. I ordered all the parts at the beginning of June. I didn’t expect them to be in stock—they rarely are for my old bike—but two weeks to ship from Germany still left me plenty of time to do the required work before my July 1st departure.
I waited . . . and waited . . . and started bugging BMW sometime around mid-June. And waited . . . Perhaps because of Covid and the resulting supply change issues, or perhaps the shipping was slower than usual, but I actually got the new clutch springs and gaskets on the Friday before my Monday departure.
My wife, Marilyn, was stressed; I, concerned. Marilyn’s flight was booked so I was committed to getting to Calgary on the 7th for our leg of the trip together. I’ve had the clutch cover off this bike a few times, and knowing how to do a job is 3/4 of the job. It’s not difficult when you know what you’re doing. Everything was going pretty smoothly, which is something because there is almost inevitably a snag, until I went to put the clutch cover back on.
This is the most difficult part of the job. You have to turn the actuator so the splines are facing backwards to engage with the splines of the rod inside the cover, then carefully maneuver the cover on without either moving the actuator, which is on a bearing, or damaging the paper gasket, which has to line up on all the tabs on the crankcase. Since it would take at least two weeks to get anything new from Germany, there was no room for error.
There’s a certain amount of tapping, knocking, shoving, wiggling, rocking, and general coercion that is required to get the cover on. It was not cooperating but one final thump with the heel of my hand and it snapped into place. I was home free! Then I noticed that the actuator was loose. It was more than loose: it wobbled. It was f’d! I’d f’d the bearing and it was an uncommon one that would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in Montreal.
There’s little that can overwhelm me, but this did. It put me flat on my back, literally. I’d been working on the bike in the backyard outside the shed and I lay back on the grass and gazed up into the sky, either to admonish or to plea to whichever god was messing with me. It was one of those moments when you can’t even think of your next move. You just have to breathe for a bit and let your emotions settle. The only other time I’ve been incapacitated like this in recent memory was when I broke a bolt trying to get a starter motor out from our old car. It was in the most inaccessible place on the engine and I knew, as I thought now, that I’d be set back weeks. I thought I’d ruined the entire holiday.
I’d been thinking of this trip since my teens, preparing for it since I bought the bike in 2015, and waiting an entire year when Covid kiboshed it last summer. Now everything hinged on whether I could get the bike running again, and I had 24 hours to do it.
What could I do but take the cover off and have a look. I managed to do that without damaging the paper gasket and saw that the bearing was okay; it had just been pushed out of the casing. I took everything up to my little workshop and drove the bearing back in. It was easy, actually. It must be a pretty loose fit, perhaps for hack mechanics like me; instead of damaging the splines, which clearly hadn’t lined up, it pushes out of the casing. I was back in business but still on a tight deadline.
More wrangling and I got the cover back on, this time with the splines aligned. I attached the clutch cable but a pull of the lever indicated now another problem. There was a ton of play! The clutch was not disengaging. Had I missed a clutch plate? Bought the wrong plates, which were not OEM? Was the clutch cable rerouted incorrectly? I put out an SOS on my user forum and went to bed. I had a pretty fitful sleep that night.
In the light of morning with a cooler head, I saw that I could tighten up all that free play with the adjuster on the lever. I had to back it out a lot, but there were still enough threads holding it firm. I was surprised that there was so much difference in height between the OEM stack and the aftermarket plates. If any adjustment were needed, I was expecting it to be tighter, not looser, as the old plates were worn. At any rate, the clutch seemed to be working now, and at 9 p.m., on the night before my departure, I took the bike for a test ride. To my great relief, everything was working well. I’d done a lot of other work leading up to this job, so maybe I’m not such a hack after all.
With the bike finally ready, “all” I had to do is pack. Marilyn was trying to stay out of it but couldn’t believe that I’d left packing for a six-week trip to the last minute. Fortunately, I’ve done this several times and pretty much know what I’m taking and how it all goes on the bike. The only snag was when I went to pack my top bag. I’d wanted to take my Mosko Scout 25L Duffle Bag but quickly discovered that my sleeping bag takes up about 1/2 of it, so I’d have to use my big Firstgear Torrent 70L Duffle. Damn! It extends out over my panniers and partially blocks me from opening them with the bag on. I think either a smaller down-filled sleeping bag or a midsize duffle or both is on my Christmas wish list this year. In the end, the only things I forgot were a wool toque and my down vest, which Marilyn was able to bring on the plane with her.
It was a late night to bed and a late start in the morning, but at around noon, my wife and son met me on the driveway to see me off. As the bike was warming up, I cranked up the preload on my rear shock and tightened a few straps. I took out my pocket digital recorder and noted the mileage on the odometer. After final hugs and photos, I pulled out of the driveway and was off. The dream was becoming a reality.
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20,000 kilometres by motorcycle from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean, up to Yukon Territory, and back.
I’ve been home now for almost a month and I’m still feeling unsettled. Part of me is still in Dawson City, lying in my hammock next to the Yukon River. Part of me is still north of the Arctic Circle, washing my cookware in the Rocky River, just south of the Northwest Territories. Part of me is still in Northern British Columbia, lying in my tent at night listening to wolves howling in the distance.
My right thumb still has a slight tingle from some sort of neurological damage from the vibrations over thousands of kilometres, although I used my Kaoko throttle lock as much as possible. The bike hasn’t gone anywhere since I pulled into the driveway mid-August after riding 1,000 kilometres on the final day from Sault-Ste Marie to get home. After 19,500 kilometres, some of that in dirt up The Dempster Highway, it was a mess and in need of a lot of service and a thorough cleaning. Although I had the correct amount of oil in the bike, the heat and hours of riding at high-revs led to oil ending up in the airbox and, ultimately, down the side of the bike where it baked onto the engine. I’ve also changed the oil pressure switch that was acting up and changed the rear tire that was finished. But the big obstacle has been a frayed wire leading to an ignition coil that has left me waiting for OEM parts to arrive from Germany.
In the coming months, I’ll be writing about these memories and more. Here is a visual preview of what’s to come. If you want to follow along, click the Follow button and you’ll be notified of new posts. Join me as I relive this bucket-list tour across Canada and up into the Far North.
I’m down to just a few days before departure and not feeling very prepared. By the time I was free and clear of work, I had only two weeks to prepare the bike. That’s a lot, but not when parts take two weeks to arrive from Germany. So I’ve done what I can, as you can see from the list above. Today I remove the clutch cover to change the water pump and clutch plates. I actually have the pump—I’ve had it for a few years because you never know when it will fail on this bike—and I have the cork replacement plates for the clutch. What I don’t yet have are clutch springs and, if required, a replacement clutch cover gasket—that large paper one. These items and a few more were supposed to arrive last week, but it seems Covid is trying its best to sabotage the tour this year as well as last. Today is a holiday in Quebec so if the parts don’t arrive on Friday, I’ll have to make do. That might mean re-using old clutch springs or shimming them if they are out of spec. And hopefully I can get that clutch cover off without damaging the existing gasket. I only ordered a new one in case I can’t.
The good news is that the bike has all new wheel bearings, including the cush drive bearings, and new rubber. I did end up going with the Anakee Adventures in the end, mostly for their smoothness on asphalt. I don’t anticipate doing much off-roading on this tour, and they will be really nice through the twisties in The Rocky Mountains. I tried my best to balance the wheels using jack stands but I think I will get them checked professionally. The pros have computerized equipment that is more precise, and I thought I felt a bounce in the front. I also changed the front sprocket back to the stock 16-tooth, among other mods. My son helped me shoot a few videos of the mods I’ve made on the bike both for dirt and converting it back to street.
My wife, Marilyn, and I did a test ride last Saturday and the bike is running great. I remember now how that stock gearing is so much better on the highway; you have roll on at 120 km/hr.! And at 110 km/hr, which is a comfortable cruising speed for me on the highway, the revs sit right on the sweet spot of this bike at 4600 rpm. Even at 120 km/hr the revs aren’t over 5000. I’m glad I made that change, even though I know you’re not supposed to change a sprocket without changing the chain. Well, the chain has only 7K on it so it will be fine, and I’ll change everything when I’m back.
With all the attention on the bike, I have only just started laying out items to pack. Marilyn is having kittens about this because she can’t imagine starting so late for such a big trip, but I’ve done it before many times and I pretty much know what I’m taking. The only difference this time is that I have to consider two set-ups: one for when I’m solo, and one for when Marilyn is riding pillion. This means that I’ll have an empty pannier when alone. I will fill it with booze and tobacco until she joins me in Calgary.
The only tricky part of packing actually is deciding what spare parts to bring. I’ve done everything possible to prevent an issue on the road and I don’t have room to carry spare engine parts, but I’ll take an assortment of hardware, spare clutch cable and perhaps levers, gasket maker, JB Weld, self-fusing tape—that sort of thing. I’ll try to anticipate any issue that I might have, within reason.
I haven’t been able to research as well as I’d like, unfortunately. The book on Canadian geography I took out from the library sits unopened on my coffee table. I’ll have to do my research on the fly, so to speak. I’m pretty familiar with Ontario from previous travels and from writing a few articles for northernontario.travel, and I found a great video of tourist destinations in southwestern Saskatchewan, so I’m good for the first two provinces, I think. Marilyn is pretty familiar with Alberta, having lived there for 20 years, and we will explore BC together, so I’m not going to beat myself up for not getting more reading done. It’s not like I’ve been idle.
We have a few reservations booked on Vancouver Island and will stay with different friends as we make our way through the BC mainland. I am mostly concerned about when I’m alone and camping, since I’ve heard that campgrounds are all full. I’ll be using iOverlander to find wild camping spots and will have to wing it. This will be a first for me and I anticipate a few nights of searching for a suitable safe spot, but having watched Lyndon Poskitt wing it all over the world, I know it can be done.
The Yukon has dropped the requirement for travelers to self-isolate upon entering, but only if you are fully vaccinated, so I’ll be looking to get my second dose on the road somewhere so my planned trip up north is still on. Unfortunately, since I got the fist one after May 1st, I’m not eligible for the second until after I leave. Like so much about this tour, I will figure that out on route.
It hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m finally doing this. Perhaps I will grow into it, or it will hit me once I leave my first destination in Ontario. I’ll be staying with my sister for a few days and visiting my dad, so the trip proper begins July 1st, Canada Day, which seems appropriate. I won’t be posting while on the road so don’t expect any action on the blog until I’m back. I wish you all a safe and enjoyable summer!
In my first post on planning my big trip this summer, I discussed the essence of the route, some preliminary considerations regarding how much dirt to ride, and got some gear to help with navigation and heat. In this one, I make a significant change in the route, start getting fit for long days in the saddle, and prep the bike for the start of season.
Change of Plans
The initial plan was to ride from Montreal to Calgary, where I’d meet up with my wife, and then we’d ride together through southern BC, including Vancouver Island. After that, I was going to head off south solo down the west coast to California and make my way back through The United States. However, after watching Covid-19 numbers in The United States climb through the winter and political tensions cause rioting on both sides of the country, I decided that perhaps now is not the best time to be travelling in The States. As it turns out, our American friends are doing better now with their vaccination program than we are, and the political tensions have calmed, but I still have concerns about the sharp rise in violent crime rates in the US. The causes of that increase are currently being debated, but no one can deny the alarming spike.
I don’t like to get political here, but there’s nothing more political than personal safety. The Grand Canyon is not going anywhere soon, and besides, I keep hearing on Adventure Rider Radio that you don’t need to leave your home country to have an adventure, especially a country as big as Canada. So while our American friends are sorting out a few things, I’ll take the opportunity to explore and discover fully the country I’ve proudly called home my entire life. When I hit the Pacific Ocean, instead of turning south, I’m heading north. The Far North.
With the US no longer in the picture, the technical riding of the BDRs and TAT was out of the equation. Most of my trip would be on the pavement, so I went looking for a new goal to challenge myself and decided to try to make it up to Tuktoyaktuk, NWT, as my final destination. A solo trip up to the Arctic Ocean seems like a worthy goal.
I’ve been trying to figure out why it’s so important to me to have that kind of a crazy goal, as if crossing the country is not enough of a challenge. It’s hard to explain to my wife and others what would motivate me to ride solo into that remote wilderness. I didn’t even understand it myself, until I read recently something by Jordan Peterson that provided an answer. In his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, in the chapter on Rule 11, Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding, Peterson makes a case for allowing our children to risk pushing their limits, whether it’s athletically in play or otherwise. Early in the chapter, he writes:
“When untrammeled—and encouraged—we prefer to live on the edge. There, we can still be both confident in our experience and confronting the chaos that helps us develop. We’re hard-wired, for that reason, to enjoy risk (some of us more than others). We feel invigorated and excited when we work to optimize our future performance, while playing in the present. Otherwise we lumber around, sloth-like, unconscious, unformed and careless. Overprotected, we will fail when something dangerous, unexpected and full of opportunity suddenly makes its appearance, as it inevitably will” (287).
In other words, I like a challenge! Yes, there is risk involved, and I often find myself strangely reluctant to leave on one of these adventures because I am literally leaving the comfort of my home and increasing my stress level. There’s a mild anxiety that descends on me, and part of that stems from going solo. But anxiety is just another shade of excitement if you frame it differently, and once I’m on the road, that’s how it appears to me. (I’m referring to mild anxiety, to be clear, not the debilitating kind that afflicts some people.) It’s akin to the performance anxiety of a big game or a race; once the game or race has started, it’s all fun, even the tough bits. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the rewards of the ride, which in this case will include seeing the tundra, the northern lights, and the Yukon Mountain Ranges—all firsts for me. Who knows what else the trip will bring?
I have to add that this is not foolhardy behaviour. I’ve been preparing for this kind of trip since I started riding in 2015—developing technical riding skills, learning about my bike, and getting the right gear (which in this case includes bear spray). Heck, I’ve even been teaching myself this winter the 5 best knots to add to my bushcraft. Maybe Peterson could have simply said: the antidote to chaos is preparation.
Now I’m just waiting to see if the territorial borders will open. Currently, anyone crossing into the Yukon and the Northwest Territories has to self-isolate for two weeks. I haven’t had my first vaccination yet, but at 57 years old, I’m next in line, and our fair Prime Minister has promised that all Canadians will be vaccinated by July 1st, so I’m betting that they will open. This might be a game-time decision near the end of July, but I’ll ride up to northern British Columbia and see how far I can get.
Sitting on a motorcycle all day is like sitting on a stool all day, unless you have a backrest (which my bike doesn’t) or have loaded the pillion seat with bags (which I can’t, leaving room for my wife when she joins me). Usually this time of year I’d be swimming and running and playing indoor soccer, but Covid has killed all that, leaving me pretty sedentary. I realized I had to get going again, so on March 1st my wife and I made a mutual pledge to do 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week. So far it’s been working out (ha ha, bad pun) and we are starting to feel the effects.
For me, the key to exercising regularly is finding the right activity at the right time of day. Those two elements are the combination that unlocks the door to fitness. We decided that 10:30 a.m. was the best time for us. We’ve had our coffees and have done a little work at the computer and are ready for a break, especially one that involves moving. And since I’m mostly interested in core strength and cardio fitness, I’m alternating between Pilates and running every other day. This way, each muscle group gets a recovery day between workouts.
My wife alternates between Pilates and her stationary bike, so every other day we do Pilates together. There’s a saying in the Pilates world: do 10 workouts and you’ll feel better, 20 and you’ll look better, and 30 to have a completely new body. I’m not sure that last one is possible at our age but we certainly are feeling better after our first 10. We do a very simple routine using only a yoga mat. If you want to improve your core strength and flexibility, check out Pilates. It has cured my lower back issues and gives me better overall body awareness and posture.
I’ve had some foot issues so the running has been difficult, but a new, wider, pair of running shoes has fixed that and I’m literally on the road to improved cardio. Come April, I’ll move on to some strength training, particularly upper body, and I’m working hard to rehabilitate my thumb that was injured last fall in a little off.
Prepping the Bike
Our riding season here in Quebec officially kicked off on March 15th. I wasn’t on the road that day, but some unseasonably warm weather has allowed me to get out to the shed a little early and do what I needed to do to get the bike road-ready. This is the first year I haven’t done something major, like change my shock, chain, sprockets, brake lines, or even fluids, and it’s been nice! For once, a few little jobs and Bigby is ready to ride.
I mounted the Carpe Iter Controller. There wasn’t room on my handlebar for it so I had to make a little bracket that mounts on the mirror stem. I also upgraded my navigation software (OsmAnd, Locus Maps, Kurviger) to the pro versions and updated my maps. I added a little guard for my rear brake master cylinder (thanks Rick / Kildala), and flipped my auxiliary lights on the mounting bracket to get them a little lower and add separation from the main headlamp—all easy stuff and I went for my first ride last Tuesday. I even figured out a workaround for my tank bag harness that was damaging the plastics, and I’m really happy to have my Wolfman Explorer Lite tankbag back.
Also in that other post, I mentioned the product AT-205 Re-Seal I was going to add to my oil to recondition the engine seals. I’m always nervous about adding anything to the engine oil so thought I’d contact the company first, just to be sure. Good thing I did! Turns out they do not recommend it in applications that involve a wet clutch. I’ll have to make do with the bike as is, keeping an eye on the oil level throughout the tour, and switching to a 20W/50 once we get into the warmer weather.
Good to Go
I haven’t done much specific route planning yet, but with my departure date roughly three months away that is about to kick into high gear. I’m reading ride reports on ADVRider, but if you have recommendations, please let me know. In particular, I’m looking for good campgrounds, must-see attractions, must-ride roads, and good restaurants and accommodations through southern BC and Vancouver Island, since my wife and I will not be camping much while on the road. Feel free to drop them in the comments section below or send me an email through the Contact page.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Drive Mode Dashboard
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.
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?
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 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.