How to Survive the Off-Season

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As I write this, 40 cm of snow is descending on my home city of Montreal, Canada. My place of work is closed. In these parts, we call this phenomenon a Snow Day, and while you know in the back of your mind you’ll have to make up this missed work at a later time, for the moment it doesn’t matter. You have an unexpected day off!

Now what to do with your “free day”? Snow days for motorcyclists, however enjoyable, seem to accentuate what is already a painful time of the year. The bike is in storage for four months, leaving you counting the days toward spring and The Big Melt. You’ve got four months to fill and now you can’t even use work as a distraction. Well, here are some of my favourite ways to get through a snow day and the winter months.

Window Shop Online for Gear

My son likes to make fun of me because I’m always researching my next gear purchase. Gotta Get the Gear! I could walk into a store in the spring and buy everything I need for the new season, but what fun would there be in that? Half the fun is researching, and the other half is prowling for the too-good-to-be-true discontinued clearance-sale last-item deal in your size! (Fringe benefits of being abnormally slim is that the Small is often the last to go.)

Follow Someone Around the World

Can’t take the bike out for a spin? No problem. You can follow someone around the world online or in print. Currently I’m following Itchy Boots as Noraly makes her way solo up through South America towards Alaska. I’ve also recently discovered Ewen and Charlie’s YouTube channel where you can re-watch Long Way Round, Long Way Down, Race to Dakar, and By Any Means—all free. Thanks guys! But my favourite series is Races to Places with Lyndon Poskitt. Lyndon and Basil Bike tour around the world—but here’s the catch—they race in an international cross-country race on every continent. Hence Races to Places. Lyndon races in the Mongolian Rally, the Dakar, Roof of Africa, Baja 1000, and others, filming everything himself. It’s a huge commitment but he’s developed a huge online following. After 9 seasons and some 230,000 kilometres, the series has just wrapped up. You don’t have to watch all 9. Jump in anywhere; they’re all good. There are many, many more adventure riders spanning the globe and through the power of GoPro and YouTube, we can vicariously ride along. Martin Heidegger never anticipated this when he was so critical of technology. 

If old technology is more your thing, how about the book that started the adventure riding industry, Jupiter’s Travels? Or Lone Rider: the First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World by Elspeth Beard? Also on my reading list is Motorcycle Messengers: Tales From the Road By Writers Who Ride, edited by Jeremy Kroeker. As more people today are travelling the world by motorcycle and then writing about it, a genre called motorcycle journalism is emerging. If you are shut in, a good book about riding can help pass the time.

Watch the Dakar (Again)

January means the Dakar, a 10,000 kilometre race over 12 days, the equivalent of riding from Alaska to Florida in two weeks. It’s the most difficult, gruelling, and therefore prestigious off-road race in the world. This year the race moved to Saudi Arabia and there was some criticism about that, but the racing is always good no matter where it is. Watch race summaries of each of the 12 stages or just sit back and watch the Best of Bikes compilation.

Watch Team Races to Places in the Eco Africa 2020 Rally.

One series I especially enjoyed this winter was Lyndon Poskitt’s team Races to Places compete in the Africa Eco Rally Race 2020. The race covers the same terrain as the original Paris-Dakar race, across northern Africa, ending on the west coast in Dakar. This was Lyndon’s next brain child after completing his round-the-world adventure in Races to Places. He put together a team of five riders for the race and brought along his dad and others as mechanics and support crew and a media crew as well, liberating him from doing all the filming and editing. In the first few episodes, we watch Lyndon build the bikes from the frame up (KTM 450 Rallys), introduce the team, organize the gear, and ship everything over to Africa. Then the racing begins. Every episode includes both race footage and life at the bivouac, and I find this series provides a better, more complete idea of rally racing than the professional Dakar footage. Well done Lyndon! Oh yeah, and there’s a dramatic conclusion. If you’re into rally racing, you can’t miss this 17-part series.

Learn New Skills

Sports psychologists claim that visualizing technique has the same physiological effects as actually doing it. That’s all the excuse I need to spend more time online watching motorcycle videos. But unlike the above, there are plenty of schools willing to offer rider tips and technical training for free. Clinton Smout of SMART Riding Adventures has an excellent series of instructional videos, as does Bret Tkacs at Mototrek. I also really like Brake Magazine’s Mini Tip Monday, where you can learn frivolous but impressive skills like how to do a donut, or spin turn, or get on and off your bike like pro. If those still leave you craving more instruction, why not get it from The Man himself, Graham Jarvis? Here are 5 Techniques to Improve Your Hard Enduro Skills. Even if you ride a big adventure bike like me or any other bike, these techniques will improve your riding.

Plan Your Next Adventure

Okay, leaving aside YouTube for the moment, another thing you can do during the winter months is plan your next adventure or tour. I plan to travel across Canada this summer, coming back through The United States. That’s a minimum of 10,000 kilometres, so I’d better get planning! I’m actually a pretty minimal planner, choosing to keep an open schedule and camp where convenient, but I don’t want to be riding past historic landmarks unawares. So I bought National Geographic’s National Historic Sites of Canada and am perusing it. I also have to decide if I’m going to do any of the Trans Canada Adventure Trail, Trans America Trail, or any Backcountry Discovery Routes while travelling. I’d like to, but because I’ll be solo, I need to get a sense of the difficulty of specific sections and routes. Fortunately, there is a lot of information online about these dirt options. But all trip planning begins and ends with GoogleMaps and Tripadvisor. So start getting excited about your next big trip by scouting your route, finding accommodations, restaurants, and not-to-be-missed landmarks. And if you’re not going on a big tour, you can at least scout your local area for those hidden gems.

Peruse Bike Forums

Speaking of trip planning, perhaps no better resource for adventure riders is ADVRider, including its hugely popular forum. I went looking for info on how many inmates (i.e. registered users) are on that forum and found nothing. But a list of registered users is 9342 pages long and each page contains 40 users, so that means there are 373,680 users! Wow! No doubt this reflects the popularity of the site and the ADV market. There’s a lot of good info there including forums on trip planning, ride reports, GPS & navigation, bike-specific maintenance forums, something titled Face Plant (I can only imagine what that’s about), and a personal favourite of mine, the Toolkit Thread. Everyone’s searching for that must-have, elusive tool, and it seems a matter of personal pride to many that they can whittle their entire toolkit down to fit inside a used pack of chewing gum. The other forum I practically live on during winter is f650.com. You may recognize the similarity in the name of that forum and this blog and that is not a coincidence. The Chain Gang, as it’s affectionately known, is a forum dedicated to owners of the BMW 650 bikes in their many iterations—Classic, Funduro, Dakar, and mine, the GS. Any mechanical issue I have, I go there first. Heck, sometimes I read about other people’s problems so I’m prepared for when that happens to me. Finding and reading a bike-specific forum devoted to your bike will alert you to the weaknesses of your machine and help prepare you for when you need to do that roadside repair.

Listen to Motorcycle Podcasts

Like YouTube and user forums, there’s a variety of motorcycle podcasts and you can find one that fits the kind of riding you like to do. One of my favourites is Adventure Rider Radio. Host Jim Martin and producer Elizabeth Martin do an excellent job putting together a weekly show that covers adventure stories, technical tips, industry developments, and more. But you don’t have to wait for a snow day to listen to a podcast. I use a podcast app on my phone that allows me to download the episode to my SD card and listen to it anywhere. I’ve found I can’t read on the bus after a day at work so a podcast is just the thing to zone out during my commute. 

Work on Your Bike

Of course, if you have a heated garage, you can always do some work on your bike. Heck, I don’t have a heated garage and still do work on the bike. Last weekend I spent some time in the shed removing the rear shock, replacing an engine mount, replacing the starter motor O-ring, and torquing my crankcase bolts. The temperature had risen to a balmy -8 Celsius (18 Fahrenheit) so I took the opportunity to do this work and be ready to ride come spring. I’ll be back out there as soon as my new shock is ready to install. A riding buddy repainted his entire bike last year, and another had the engine rebored and did other major mods, including repainting. If you are one of the lucky ones to have a heated garage, now is the time to do that maintenance and thumb your nose at the rest of us.

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Stay warm and carry on.

Write a Blog

Yes, you knew this was coming. Another way you can spend a snow day is by writing a blog post. 650thumper gives me the opportunity to revisit my motorcycle adventures, and when I heard that the college is closed, my first thought was that I’d like to spend my “free day” thinking and writing about the freedom of motorcycling.

How do you survive the off season? Let us know in the comments section below.

How to Spot a Biker in Wintertime

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Photo Credit: Mikey Angels

We all know how to spot a biker during the riding season. For one, the gear—leather jacket, riding boots, neckerchief, helmet tucked under one arm—are dead giveaways. If you miss those signs, there are some more subtle ones: bugs splattered over said jacket, the distinctive smell of grease and exhaust, and a certain spring in the step upon leaving for the office. But where I live, the riding season is only eight months long. We still pay registration and insurance for the full twelve months, mind you, and it’s a lot more than our southern riding friends too. But don’t get me started! That is a topic for another post. This one is about how to spot a biker once the snow flies and the motorcycles are safely stored away for the winter.

So with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek and a nod to twotiretirade, here in no particular order are ten signs that you are in the presence of a motorcyclist.

1. When driving a manual car, they rev match when slowing.

Don’t know what rev matching is? You obviously aren’t a biker. Rev matching is used to slow the vehicle smoothly using the engine rather than the brakes, and it’s the common method of slowing a motorcycle. Yeah, you can push in the clutch, downshift, then let the clutch out, but that will result in the car lurching and putting a strain on the engine components. Not cool. The proper way to engine brake is to disengage the engine using the clutch, then, while downshifting, blip the accelerator to bring the revs up a bit, then gradually let out the clutch. Matching the revs to the corresponding speed of the desired gear ensures smooth deceleration, puts no unnecessary strain on the engine, and makes you sound like an F1 driver. Cool. 

2. They refer to highways using the definite article. 

Because bikers are more concerned with the route than the destination, they talk a lot about routes, which they don’t call routes but “rides.” Nobody knows your local network of highways better than a biker. And because they are always talking about roads, they adopt a kind of shorthand in referring to them. You’ll never hear a biker say “Highway 148”; rather, it’s “the 148.” Or maybe that’s “The 148.”

A typical discussion about a proposed ride goes something like this: “So I was thinking we could take the 40 and pick up the 342 in Hudson, then left onto the 10 in Rigaud to the 14, then the 4 all the way to . . .” You get the idea.

3. They prefer secondary highways.

There are two types of travellers: those who want to get there, and those who want eventually to get there. It should be evident which bikers are from Number 2 above. If you are driving with someone and they suggest taking “the scenic route,” chances are you are in the presence of a biker, or a biker at heart.

4. They shoulder check when driving.

When I was learning to drive, my dad taught me how to set up my side mirrors so I wouldn’t have to shoulder check. Most people have them set to view down the sides of the car, which is useless. You want to angle them further out into your blind spots so a glance is sufficient to check. That fraction of a second to turn your head may be crucial if traffic in front suddenly slows.

That said, I had to learn to shoulder check when I started motorcycling. With a helmet on, you feel like a horse with blinders, so you have to make a quick glance over your shoulder before changing lanes, just in case. And because the stakes are a lot higher on a bike than in a car, I always shoulder check. In the back of my mind is Murphy’s Law that states the first time I don’t is when there will be some idiot driving happily in my blind spot. Now that it’s a habit, I continue to shoulder check well into the winter months of driving. I can’t help it.

5. They sometimes mistakenly refer to the windshield as the windscreen.

Windshield, windscreen: what’s the difference? They are synonyms, you say. They are, but there’s a world of difference in biker parlance.

6. They are a bit obsessive about tire pressure. 

Most people check their car’s tire pressure once or twice a decade, if at all. In fact, if you are required by law or good sense to have winter tires during the winter months, you might just leave this essential bit of maintenance to your mechanic twice a year when he or she swaps them over. Bikers, on the other hand, check them before driving to the corner store to pick up milk. It’s just something that is so crucial on the motorcycle that, again, it becomes second nature.

7. They carry tools in the trunk.

Okay, not everyone who carries tools in the trunk is a biker, but most bikers will carry tools. For the same reason as above, bikers feel naked on the road without tools. Did your car come with a set of tools? Probably not. But most bikes do. Maintenance on these temperamental beasts is part of the cost of riding, so a smart biker is always prepared. In the winter months, I just thrown the tool roll I use with my bike into the trunk of my car. If there’s a socket set, a pair of channel lock pliers, and some safety wire and zip ties in the trunk, you are in good company and the company of a good travel partner.

8. They have a radar app on their phone.

You probably have a weather app on your phone, probably one with click-bait and forecasts into the next fortnight. That weather app might even have a radar component that you never use because you don’t know how to make heads or tails of that mass of coloured pixels moving across the black screen. But just as bikers are amateur mechanics, they are also amateur meteorologists. Again, the stakes are so much higher on a bike. Sudden rainstorm? You can run to the car, but a biker has to ride in it all the way home, arriving soaked to the skin, with hypothermia.

The radar app is an essential tool for ride planning, not just to choose your gear but also your route. Knowing where the precipitation is and where it will likely be at any given time of the day means that with a little planning and a lot of luck, you might just be able to skirt it.

9. They think motor oil is an appropriate topic for dinner-table conversation.

There are motorcycle forum threads on motor oil that, if compiled, would rival War and Peace in length. Motorcyclists are a little crazy about their oil, and I mean “their” oil. Everyone has a preferred brand and is willing to duel or flame the idiot who puts a far inferior brand into his or her machine. Synthetic or mineral? Asking online which you should put in your bike is like throwing a french fry to the lurking seagulls at a food truck. Motorcyclists may have only a high school understanding of Chemistry, but can pull out of their arse such arcane information about motor oil that you’d think they were short-listed for a Nobel Prize.

10. They know that a wet clutch is not a form of sexual assault.

It may sound creepy, but a wet clutch is something most motorcyclists have. It’s a clutch bathed in motor oil, often the same oil that lubricates the engine. Because we ride the clutch so much as an essential way to regulate speed, a wet clutch ensures we don’t burn it out. Most cars, on the other hand, have dry clutches, which are known simply as clutches, or just “the clutch.”

* * *

Why should you care, you ask? Well, bikers tend to get a little down in the wintertime when they are not able to ride. So if that acquaintance beside you exhibits any of these signs of motorcycle culture but weather does not permit them to exercise this passion, cut them some slack. Once spring comes round, they will transform from grumpy cager (i.e. driver) to cool biker, able to withstand all that the cruel world throws at them like the superheroes they secretly are.

The Puppy Dog Trail, 2.0

Rest Stop

The first time I did The Puppy Dog Route, I enjoyed it so much my recurring thought was that I should be sharing it with someone. “I should lead a ride down through here,” I kept thinking. “I should show others how amazing this is!” And so, when plans to tour northern Ontario with a couple of riding buddies fell through, I suggested we change the route to the beautiful dirt roads of Vermont.

Originally, the plan was to do a section of The Puppy Dog in Vermont and a section of The Hamster Ride in New Hampshire, working our way back toward the Canadian border. We also had plans to ride Bayley-Hazen, a military road that dates back to the American War of Independence. But we soon realized that our plans were a tad ambitious. Riding dirt all day in the heat of high summer is hard, so in the end we ended up doing sections of Puppy Dog with some asphalt mixed in to cool off and save time.

My riding buddies were Danny and Mike, whom I met at the 2018 Dirt Daze Rally in Lake Luzerne, NY. In truth, I only met Danny, who unfortunately had suffered an injury early in the weekend, as had my bike, so we were laid up together, so to speak. He and Mike had come down from Montreal, and while I never actually met Mike at the rally, the contact was made, and we ended up riding together later in the season.

I was happy to meet some off-roaders from the Montreal area. You shouldn’t really be riding off-road alone, partly because doing so is dangerous, but more importantly, because it’s a lot easier to lift your bike with the help of a buddy. Those who have been following my blog know about the trouble I’ve gotten myself into riding alone in remote areas. Mike works in the construction industry, so at the end of last July, during the constructor’s holiday, as it’s known here in Quebec, the three of us headed off for three nights of moto-camping in Vermont—Mike on his Honda Africa Twin, Danny on his new Triumph Scrambler 1200XE, and me, with half the power, on my BMW f650GS.

I had downloaded the GPS file for Bayley-Hazen into my phone and we picked it up soon after crossing the Canada-US border. We rode it for several kilometres and it was pretty amazing, but soon my GPS got confused and took us out to a highway. “This doesn’t look like an 18th-Century road,” I thought, so I pulled off to consult with the boys. My phone showed the snaking route for what we had just done, then suddenly a line straight as the crow flies to the destination. It was my first time using a GPS track downloaded from the internet, and I concluded that tracks only work in one direction. They are a series of turn-by-turn directions that take you from Point A to Point B but not Point B to Point A. And since the track I got was south to north, it didn’t work. If anyone knows a link to the north-south route of Bayley-Hazen, please drop me a line either in the comments section below or via the Contact page.

It was swelteringly hot—so hot that you really can’t stop moving—so a quick decision was made to abandon Bayley-Hazen and jump onto the Puppy Dog, which wasn’t far away. Soon we were back in the shade of those Vermont dirt roads. Now that we knew where we were going, we stopped for a break and to water the old growth trees lining the road. Danny noticed a vine as thick as a rope hanging from one of them. A little pruning off the end with a hatchet and we had a swing.

Vine Swing

Boys will be boys.

I don’t have the premium version of WordPress that supports embedded videos, so go here to see how this turned out.

The ride is hard-parked dirt with a variety of forested rural roads, open valleys, switchbacks through dense forest, covered bridges, with some river and lake views as well. If that sounds pretty ideal, it is. You don’t really need an adventure bike to do this ride, but it helps. It’s nice to be able to stand up for some of the hill climbs, and there are some more technical sections that require the clearance of an ADV bike. But generally the ride is easy and undemanding. Danny and I rode it with 85/15 tires.

3 Bridges

The PDR takes you through four covered bridges, including this one in Guilford.

We love Vermont’s state parks almost as much as its dirt roads. They are well maintained, and the sites have lots of privacy, as you can see from the photo below. They are also not expensive compared to what I’ve paid in Ontario. Despite all this, we didn’t have much trouble finding a site even without a reservation on the weekend. Either they are the best kept secret or Vermont has more campgrounds per capita than Ontario and Quebec. The second night we made it down to Fort Drummer State Park near the southern border of Vermont and near the end of the route. For our third night, we stayed at Silver Lake State Park, which is about halfway up the state in Barnard. As a bonus, it is located on . . . you guessed it, Silver Lake, and it’s nice to go for a swim after a hot day of riding.

Mt Ascutney

Mount Ascutney State Park

Mike had said at outset that he likes general country stores, as do I, so as we passed one while riding Highway 100 in Weston, we pulled in. Little did we know what we were getting into. Walking into The Vermont Country Store is like walking into another century. This family-run business prides itself on stocking items dating back to when it first opened in 1946. Where else is checkers the game of the week and there’s a section labelled Apothecary? But the real fun is in the toy department. I saw games there that I did not think were still available, like Etch-a-Sketch, Kerplunk, Lite-Brite, and Operation. There were paddle-balls, which I had to try, and fail at, miserably, and Slinkys, and other hand toys too. The entire store is like a department store from the mid-20th-Century with clothing, candy, soaps, and “sundry items,” to borrow a phrase from that era. It was a blast from the past. I walked out with a “nightshirt,” a term I’ve only ever heard my dad say and Alistair Sim wear as Scrooge.

Apothecary

Apothecary section of The Vermont Country Store. Photo credit: Getty Images

Another fun rest stop was in Chelsea, just north of Silver Lake on the PDR. Okay, it doesn’t have The Vermont Country Store but it does have Will’s General Store, where you can pet the cat sleeping on top the fridge, rent a movie on something called a DVD, buy marbles and firecrackers, and then set off said firecrackers outside until the locals start peering through their front windows at you.

Wills Store

Will’s General Store in Chelsea, Vermont.

While we were disturbing the peace, another group of ADV riders came along. When they saw us they decided to take a break and introduce themselves. It turned out that they are Canadian too, from the Ottawa area, and were doing the PDR the other direction with the plan to complete it by the end of the day. And we thought we were being ambitious!

Chelsea Bikes

Lots of mighty KLRs in this group, and fellow blogger ADV Joe.

One of them flooded his KLR upon restarting, and while the motorcyclist’s code of honour is never to leave a motorcyclist stranded, we had to get going up toward the border; it was our last day and we wanted to get home before dark. He wasn’t alone, however, and Danny, who had a KLR for years, was confident that it would be running in no time. Those things are unbreakable. We decided, in the interests of time, to leave the PDR soon afterwards and ride up through Smuggler’s Notch, which is always nice and had been closed through the early season for maintenance.

Riding solo has its advantages, but so does group riding. The tricky part of group riding is finding the right fellow riders. You have to be compatible not only in riding but also in personality, which is not easy. Mike and Danny have been riding together for a while, so I was a little apprehensive going into this since I was the new kid on the block. There’s also that saying about two being company and three a crowd. Of course I can only speak for myself, but I think we are a good fit. I hope this is the first of many trips together.

GreenMtn View

View of the Green Mountains from the PDR south of Chelsea.

The PDR is luxury adventure touring. The riding provides a taste of dirt but is relatively easy. You are never far from amenities or asphalt, and can pop out anytime to refuel the bike or the body, or to cool off by riding Vermont’s equally enjoyable secondary highways and backroads. The campgrounds are great, and Americans are always friendly and helpful. The only thing it’s lacking is some more sustained technical terrain, and by the end of the weekend we were hankering for a rocky hill climb or water crossing. Perhaps next summer we will do that planned trip to northern Ontario or a section of The Trans-Canada Adventure Trail. With the mid-winter holiday over, it’s almost time to start planning for next season.

Silver Lake Camp

L to R at Silver Lake State Park: Mike and Danny.

The Wish List, 2020

Biker Santa

It’s that time of the year again, when we reflect on the year that’s been and plan for the year ahead. This year I upgraded my training by attending two remise en formes, discovered Vermont’s wonderful dirt roads, travelled up the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence almost into Labrador, and wrote a handful of articles for northernontario.travel. I was so busy travelling, I didn’t do a lot of club riding, although I did lead two day rides: one to Ottawa for the Tulip Festival, and one to Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont.

Next year I want to start to introduce what I’m calling hybrid rides to our club. Those are rides where a group splits off from the main group and rides some dirt and then meets up with the gang later for lunch. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now but just have to figure out the logistics. I know there are some club members with ADV or ADV-style bikes who are interested in riding some easy dirt roads.

I want to do more challenging trail riding to improve my off-road skills, and it might finally be time to head across the country, completing that teenage dream of seeing Canada from a motorcycle. But more on that later. Right now I’m thinking of the goodies I’m asking Santa for to make my riding next year safer and more enjoyable. Here is the Wish List, 2020.

Stadium Suspensions PR1 Rear Shock

My rear shock now has over 90,000 kilometres on it and has never been serviced.  Imagine, that oil in there is 13 years old! Also, the stock shock on my bike is okay for road riding, but it’s too soft for any serious off-roading. The spring is also too soft; when I’m fully loaded, I’m sitting 2 cm under the recommended sag. I could try to have it serviced and replace the spring, but the combined cost would be almost as much as a new shock. I think it’s time to upgrade.

I’ve been talking with Stadium Suspensions in Beloeil, Quebec, just south of Montreal, where I live. They specialize in ATV, MX, and off-road suspensions. The nice thing about going with a company like this is that they can customize the shock to your weight and riding style. They have three models, and since I’m neither a beginner nor a pro, I’m going to buy the mid-priced unit, the PR1.

Stadium

You can see that this shock is an upgrade from my stock one because the PR1 has a remote nitrogen reservoir. On mine, the nitrogen is in the same compartment as the oil, which is fine for street riding, but once you get off road and the shock is working hard for extended periods of time, the oil heats up and mixes with the gas and froths and you start to lose your compression. Separating it is the answer; the best shocks are designed with a remote reservoir.

Other features of the shock include:

  • Spring preload adjustable
  • Rebound damping adjustable
  • Compression damping adjustable
  • Thermostatic system
  • Velocity Reaction Damping System (VRDS)
  • Bladder system reservoir
  • Length adjustable (+/- 10 mm)
  • Piggyback Reservoir, 360 degree angle adjustable
  • Magnum reservoir optional
  • Tool free compression knobs optional
  • Individually custom build for rider/application
  • Fully serviceable/repairable/convertible
  • Gold, red or blue, anodised reservoir
  • Progressive or linear springs

The other nice thing about Stadium is that they can build into the new shock my existing preload adjuster. I really like the ability to adjust the preload with the turn of a knob—no tools necessary—so I’m sold. With my new Ricor Intiminator fork valves in the front and this baby at the back, I’m going to be flying!

Protection

Speaking of which, I’m getting up to speeds now off-roading at which I really should be wearing a neck protector. A neck protector prevents your head from rotating beyond a certain degree, saving your neck in a fall. I don’t want to end up a quadriplegic, thank you very much. I don’t have a specific one chosen yet, but Leatt are a major manufacturer. Again, I don’t need the pro version (5.5) so I’ll probably go for the 3.5.

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In fact, I believe these are kind of a custom fit item since they are semi-restrictive, so I’ll probably just try a number of them on at a store with my helmet on and see which feels best.

The other piece of protective gear I’ll pick up is a new back protector. I love my Knox Venture Shirt but the pack protector is cheap EPS and prevents air-flow. On those really hot days, it results in an uncomfortable wet back and has led me to not wanting to wear my protective gear. Knox have a better one which, as you can see, allows air circulation. It’s D30 so will provide better protection too. Neither do I want to be a paraplegic.

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Auxiliary Lighting

I’ve been thinking of getting aux lighting for years, ever since I had a run-in with some roadkill coming home late one night from New Hampshire. Sure, you can get the cheapo made-in-China generic knockoff version at Amazon for $40, but they break easily and don’t stand up to the beating of off-roading. Everyone I know who’s bought cheap has had issues soon after. There’s also the quality of the LED light; it’s apparently not just a question of the number of lumens but the optics technology involved to reflect those lumens where you want them. If I’m going across the country, some auxiliary lighting will help get me there.

I’m pretty sure I’ve had Denali D4s on a previous wish list, but I think I’m going to go with the Cyclops Long Range Auxiliary Lights. I’m very happy with the Cyclops LED lamp I put in my headlight. In fact, it’s been one of the best upgrades I’ve ever done on the bike. It occurred to me the other day that Cyclops also make auxiliary lighting, so I’ll stay with the tried and true. Cyclops lights might be a little cheaper than Denalis and have a number of features that make them a compelling choice. I like also the smaller size on my little bike.

Cyclops

The Long Range lights stand up to their name by projecting a whopping 883 feet down the trail. They come in either a 10˚ or 20˚ arc, and a popular set-up is to put a 20˚ unit on the right and a 10˚ unit on the left. This arrangement will give good illumination of the side of the road while still penetrating those 883 down the road.

But of course it’s not just about seeing things but also being seen. Studies have shown that oncoming drivers sometimes mistake that single headlight for a double in the distance and turn in front of you. Having that triangle configuration makes you a lot more visible day and night.

One very nice feature of these lights is the ability to wire them directly into your headlight switch and program them. You set the intensity you want for low-beam driving lights so you aren’t blinding oncoming drivers. Then, when you flick on your high beams, you get full intensity. The plug-and-play wiring harness makes installation easy.

Got you curious about how good these are? Here’s a sequence of comparative photos provided by ADVPulse.

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Cardo Packtalk

Cardo

I’ve been of two-minds about communications systems. One of the things I like about riding is the solitude. Even when you are riding in a group, you are alone with your thoughts, as Ted Bishop aptly describes in Riding With Rilke:

When I first put on a full-face helmet, I have a moment of claustrophobia. I can hear only my own breathing and I feel like one of those old-time deep-sea divers. . . . When you hit the starter, your breath merges with the sound of the bike, and once you’re on the highway, the sound moves behind you, becoming a dull roar that merges with the wind noise, finally disappearing from consciousness altogether.

Even if you ride without a helmet, you ride in a cocoon of white noise. You get smells from the roadside, and you feel the coolness in the dips and the heat off a rock face, but you don’t get sound. On a bike, you feel both exposed and insulated. Try putting in earplugs: the world changes, you feel like a spacewalker. What I like best about motorcycle touring is that even if you have companions you can’t talk to them until the rest stop, when you’ll compare highlights of the ride. You may be right beside them, but you’re alone. It is an inward experience. Like reading.

Riding a motorcycle is one of the few occasions in my life to be in the moment. It’s just me and the sensations of the bike and the beauty of the surrounding environment. Why would I want to pollute that silence with people nattering in my ear?

Maybe I’m just anti-social. Maybe I’m a purist, or a rebel, or all three at different times. I’ve heard the argument about comm systems increasing safety, but my response is if you need to rely on others to stay safe, you shouldn’t be riding. On the big club tour I did last summer, I was the only rider without a comm device. Did I feel left out? Not really, except when I went to talk to someone at a rest or gas stop and that person gestured to say “I can’t hear you because someone else is talking to me in my helmet.” Yeah, ironically, comm systems can alienate people too.

But I’ve decided to join the club, so to speak, and get one, and I have to say it’s mostly for the ability to hear voice commands from my GPS, to hear incoming texts and send out voice-activated replies, and to answer and initiate phone calls while riding. But I’ll admit it will occasionally be nice to communicate with others in a group, especially if I’m leading. And of course there is always the option to mute the nattering when desired.

Club members are very happy with the Cardo Packtalk, mostly for its mesh technology which makes connecting (and reconnecting) large numbers of riders fairly easy. I had the opportunity to try one during a club ride and found the sound quality good. And while I didn’t have the opportunity to test the connectivity to my phone, other club members have said that the person you are talking to on the phone cannot tell you are riding a motorcycle, so the mic must work very well at cutting out ambient noise. My feeling is that this purchase is going to be the most significant change in my riding experience.

Pearly’s Possum Socks

Pearlys

Last but not least, I’m asking Santa for socks in my stocking. I heard about Pearly’s Possum Socks on Adventure Rider Radio. The host Jim Martin raves about them. Socks, you say? You want Santa to bring you socks? Well these are not just any kind of socks. They are a blend of merino wool, which I’ve raved about elsewhere, and possum fibres, which are hollow and therefore super warm since each fibre has a built-in dead-air space. (I wonder how vegan motorcyclists manage?) They are apparently also very soft. A little nylon to strengthen everything up and you have a premium sock that is warm, breathable, comfortable, durable, and anti-bacterial in a compression fit to aid circulation and to help avoid muscle fatigue.

At a premium price. With extra S&H to Canada and the currency conversion, these socks come to over $100 a pair! Gulp. I’ve balked a click away from purchasing them a few times, which is why I’m asking Santa to bring me some instead.

* * *

I always feel very First World, or is that now Developed World?, in making these lists. I’ve worked hard my entire life to achieve a certain level of material comfort, but I’m also aware of the opportunity I have here in Canada and the lack of opportunity less fortunate have elsewhere. And being year-end, I always end these lists by expressing gratitude for what can’t be bought: my health, my wife, and my son. I’m also pretty fortunate to have so many friends, a community of riders and others who help give life meaning and value.

We don’t have to look far to see those who are alone and without basic material comforts. And neither did Saint Nicholas, who gave his inheritance to the poor and became the patron saint of sailors, repentant thieves, prostitutes, children, and students, among others. His charity lives on amid the advertising and commercial hype of Christmas as long as we continue to look.

Happy holidays, and safe riding in 2020.

Kamouraska, Manicouagan, Manic 5

Manic5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

foin de mer

Auberge Foin de Mer; Kamouraska, Quebec

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

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

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

Backdeck

My new host family

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

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

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

lighthouse

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

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

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

On the dam

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

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

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

Dinner Stop

Heading west on the 138

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

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

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

Manicouagan

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

A Bike is a Body

creepshow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Tips for Moto Camping

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

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

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

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

Dedicate one pannier for food

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

RB Campsite_web

Nothing smelly in the tent

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

Set up your tent ASAP

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

A shot of inspirationBowmore12

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

Merino Wool

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

Woolen hat and socks

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

Park your bike facing out from the campground

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

Fallen Bigbea

Use your sweater as a pillow

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

Get a good headlamp

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

Use non-perfumed soapBronnerSoap

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

Buy fresh food when you can

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

Fundy Meal

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

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

Dude, where’s my bike?!

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

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

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

20190908_110842

Rear suspension linkage

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

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

 

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

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

20190908_141352

A picture’s worth a thousand whacks!

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

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

 

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

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Out with the old, in with the new

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

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

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Using a floor jack to position the swingarm

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

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

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

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Ready for more adventures

Where has the summer gone?

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

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

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

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Perth, Ontario

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

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Camping at Silver Lake State Park

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

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Burnstown, Ontario

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

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Near Tadoussac on the Saint-Laurent north shore

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

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Turn 3, Cornwall Motor Speedway

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

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

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

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

I wish you all safe and happy autumn riding.

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

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

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North Common Arts Collective and Cafe in Chelsea, VT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dream homes, if you’re into that.

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

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Picture postcard views on the PDR

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

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Saying goodbye to Vermont, just kilometres from the border.

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