Off-Roading with The Awesome Players

Awesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trail and Bike

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

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

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

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

picnic table

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

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

Green Mountains

Lookout on Highway 9 to The Green Mountains

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

Starting Out

Starting out in Greenfield, MA.

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

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

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

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

Nigel

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

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

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

 

Mass

Following the Stream

Picturesque views on the PDR

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

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

Campsite

Silver Lake State Park

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

Remise en Forme

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

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

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

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

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

The take-aways for me:

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

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

 

The Lumberjack Trail

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Voyageur Days. Mattawa, ON

What’s your ideal ride? For some, it’s a winding road like Tail of the Dragon; for others, it’s a single-track or ATV trail cutting through dense forest. Mine is some combination of both—a winding dirt road with some technical sections that challenge, like hill-climbs, mud, even the occasional water crossing. That’s what I was looking for when I decided to do some off-roading in Northern Ontario this summer.

I enjoyed looping Georgian Bay with my wife, and I enjoyed the rest stop in Kipawa, Quebec, at a cottage. I enjoyed the ride up to Moonbeam, albeit in the rain. But what I had really been looking forward to is a full day in the dirt, and this was the day I could finally do it.

The violent rainstorm of the night before had subsided by the time I crawled out of my tent. After my breakfast of champions, porridge, I geared up and headed to the park gate. I figured the attendant would be familiar with the area and able to direct me to the trailhead of The Lumberjack Trail, a 26 km. loop from Moonbeam to Kapuskasing I’d found online at an interactive trip planner.

Lumberjack Trail

Lumberjack Kapuskasing-Moonbeam Loop

I rode down to the gate, pulled a U-turn and parked. When I entered the kiosk, the young lady was staring into her phone. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “Good morning. Do you know where I could pick up The Lumberjack Trail?”

Teenaged attendant: (looks up from phone) “The what?”

Me: “The Lumberjack Trail. It’s an off-road trail that goes from here to Kapuskasing. I saw it online.”

Teenaged attendant: (goes back to phone) “Ok Google, what’s The Lumberjack Trail?”

Me: “You don’t know it?”

Attendant: “There’s a lot of trails around here. Basically it’s the only thing to do. Me and my friends go on them on the weekends.”

Me: “Oh, so you ride off-road too?”

Attendant: “No we go in cars. Anything.”

Me: “Well, it’s supposed to go right past here.”

Attendant: “There’s a really pretty one. It’s a . . . a pépinière. Oh, how do you call it in English? Ok Google . . .”

Me: “A nursery.”

Attendant: “Yes. There are a lot of pine trees. But I don’t know how to find it. Try the Tourist Information.”

So off I rode, back to the flying saucer, pondering whether I should ask for directions to the Lumberjack Trail, the Pépinière Trail, the Nursery Trail, or a pine grove?

Once there, I was quickly directed to the trailhead. It turns out that you follow Nursery Road and it takes you straight there.

Nursury Trailhead

This looked promising

A short ways in, the trail became sandy and I found the pine trees.

Pepiniere Trail_web

The Nursery Trail

It was open and easy, but with sand and some small hills to make it a Goldilocks level of difficulty. Unfortunately, it ended too soon. I arrived at a T-junction to a gravel road. Knowing that left leads back to the main road, I turned right and found myself on an open, flat, fairly straight dirt road. Silt Road

The surroundings were pretty enough, but the riding was not very challenging. I was a bit disappointed. It was too easy. It’s actually hard to find a trail with just the right amount of challenge for your particular skill level, and where the Nursery Trail had at least some sand, this road was dry and hard-packed. I was bombing along in third gear, not even standing, thinking “This is too easy” when I hit a section still wet from the rainstorm the previous night. Everything suddenly went sideways—literally. A truck or larger vehicle of some kind had come through before me and left tire grooves. I started to lose the back end, went sideways, got cross-rutted, whiskey throttled towards the trees, and went down high-side, hard. It was my hardest fall yet.

My first thought as I lay on the ground was, “Well, the gear worked.” I had invested earlier in the season in some excellent protection specifically for off-roading. My Knox Venture Shirt, Forcefield Limb Tubes, and Klim D30 hip pads all did their job. I got up without even a bruise. My second thought was for the bike. If there was something broken, it was going to be difficult to get it out. I noticed that the folding levers I had also invested in had done their job. The clutch lever was folded up, saving the lever from breaking off. I lifted the bike and took a look. Nothing was broken or cracked; the crash bars had done their job too. There were some new scratches on the windscreen and front cowling near the headlamp, but nothing more. Oh well, new honour badges, I thought.

My concern now was getting the bike back on the road. I was lucky: if I’d gone a few feet further I might have lost it into a ditch and then would have needed a winch to get it out.

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Once I lifted the bike, I realized it was going to be difficult to get it back onto the road.

The front end was partially into the ditch and it would take some rocking and cursing to get it back a few feet to where I could carefully walk it back onto the road, making sure the front tire didn’t slide down.

I looked back at my skid marks and played amateur accident inspector.

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You can see where it all went wrong.

I tried to ride on but the silty dirt, when wet, is like glue and gums up the tires instantly. It was like riding on ball bearings, or rather, trying to ride on ball bearings.

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Slow-going in the wet silt

The ride now certainly wasn’t too easy. I basically had to do the Harley waddle, foot by foot, hoping it would get drier. I tried riding along the edge of the road in the long grass, thinking the grass would provide some grip, but the problem then was that I couldn’t see what I was riding over or where the ditch was. I dropped the bike a second time and began to wonder how I was going to get out of there. Would it be like this all the way to Kapuskasing?!

Then I had an idea: I knew that in sand you put your weight to the back to unweight the front tire. This helps prevent the front from washing out, which is when you go down. Maybe the same technique applied to all low-traction terrain, including mud. I tried and it worked! The front tire didn’t wash out as easily, even, to my surprise, climbed up out of some small ruts when needed. I had stumbled upon a new off-road skill.

When the road dried out, I was able to sit down, but kept my butt well back, over the rear tire. It all suddenly made sense why those Dakar riders always sit so far back. Now I was able to go at a better pace. The rest of the road wasn’t as wet as that section and, although open and straight, turned out to be just challenging enough. I stopped a few times when I saw some interesting paw prints.

Bear Prints_web

Bear prints. I also saw wolf and hare tracks.

When I felt I was past the worst of it, I stopped for lunch and took in the surrounding wetlands.

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Wetlands north of René Brunelle Provincial Park

I popped out in Kapuskasing next to the Shell station on Highway 11. Although there was a sense of incompletion in only doing one half of the loop, I decided that was enough excitement for one day and headed into town to find the LCBO and something to enjoy back at camp. I wanted to explore the town a bit and was glad I did. Kapuskasing has an iconic ring of Canadiana to it.

I had the impression that it was bigger than it is, but there isn’t much in these parts that is big. These one-industry towns in the north are built on mining or forestry and are pretty remote. I rode through the town centre, which is a roundabout, and landed at the train station, the heart of all Canadian towns.

P1030264Surrounding the station were archival photos of the town and area, and I discovered that Kapuskasing had been the site of an internment camp during WWI. Primarily Ukrainian immigrants were shamefully sent there to work in a government-run experimental farm studying the viability of farming on clay. Later in the war it was a POW camp.

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A plaque outside the train station commemorates the Kapuskasing Internment Camp, 1914-1920

I love Canada and am a proud Canadian, but every nation has its dirty little secrets hidden in untaught history classes. Currently in Quebec, some teachers have expressed serious concern that the role of minorities is overlooked in the current history curriculum. I believe that a little less Upper and Lower Canada and the harmonious relationship with Indigenous Peoples, and a little more on the Indian Residential Schools (IRS), the internment camps of law-abiding citizens during both world wars, and the not-so-quiet actions of the FLQ in the 70’s would go a long way toward real truth and reconciliation among its diverse peoples.

I left the station and rode to the City Hall, then parked and walked out to a gazebo overlooking the river and mill. I came across this plaque about the Garden City and Model Town, and it occurred to me how much promise and hope there must have been in Kapuskasing at one time.

Garden City

Maybe Kapuskasing is iconic. It could be symbolic of how the country seemed when Europeans began settling here—pristine, pure, wild—like the blank page awaiting our best intentions. But intentions are just a start. The real work happens after the first draft, when we see all our mistakes and how we can make it so much better.

Blemishes or Character Marks?

“I want a poem I can grow old in,” writes Eavan Boland at the start of her essay “The Politics of Eroticism.” She goes on to explain that she wants a poetry in which she is subjected to the effects of time, not an object frozen in time. You might not think that’s very erotic, but that’s not her point. Her point is that she wants poetry that celebrates real women, creatures of time, not illusory women, sprung from the imaginations of male writers.

Why am I thinking of this now? Because my mistress has a wrinkle and I’m not sure whether I want her to get cosmetic surgery. I’m speaking of my bike, of course. Last year, as a result of a few offs in mud, one of the side panels got scratched. This was before I bought my upper crash bars. Now that I’m about to install them, I thought maybe I’d do a little bodywork first to make her good as new. I posted a query on my forum requesting tips. I’ve done bodywork on an old car with aluminum panels before but never worked with plastic. Someone replied with a lot of information for me, but someone else wrote “I kind of like my ‘character marks’  . . . makes it look like I actually use my bike in places other than Tim’s or Buckie’s.” That got me thinking. Are scratches blemishes or “character marks?”

I know a club member who sold his bike because it had a scratch and got a new one. Why he didn’t just get the scratch fixed I don’t know. Perhaps he was ready for a change anyway. But for some riders, the bike’s pristine appearance is an important part of the experience of riding. They spend hours polishing it on weekends, prepping for the club ride. I’m thinking also of the Americade parade I witnessed en route to an off-road rally last June, when all the Harley’s were lined up at the side of the road on display. I get it: the aesthetics of machines. I’ll be one of the first to admit that each bike has a personality, and a good engineer will take into consideration form and function.

On the other hand, aside from “character marks,” I’ve heard scratches referred to as “honour badges.” What’s so honourable about dropping your bike, you ask? I guess, the theory goes, that if you aren’t dropping it once in a while, you aren’t riding it hard enough. You aren’t pushing your limits. There’s growing derision for folks who buy a big 1200GS with luggage, maybe spend $2,000 on a Klim Badlands suit, but never venture off the asphalt. Posers. I’m not knocking anyone who doesn’t want to ride off-road, just those who don’t but buy an off-road bike and gear. And if you’re going to go off road, you’re going to drop the bike. Maybe not if you’re only doing dirt roads, but once you get into mud or trail riding, sooner or later, some rut or rock or lapse of concentration is going to get the better of you. And your bike. There’s just no avoiding it indefinitely.

So why not embrace it? If you ride around fearing a little mishap that might blemish your Precious, you’re not going to have much fun. And you did buy the bike to have fun, right? To ride it, take it places you can’t take other bikes, challenge yourself with a rocky hill climb or water crossing, try some single-track, where tree branches or underbrush might jut out onto the trail, slide the back end around a corner, and yes, show off your mud-splatter and scratches at the local coffee shop.

It’s the first beautiful day of the year here in Montreal. Hard to believe we had freezing rain a week ago. It feels like the unofficial start of the season. Enjoy your ride, whatever kind of ride you do.

 

The BMW f650GS. It’s not just a starter bike.

P1000195

I’ve been reluctant to do a bike review of Bigby. For one, I still consider myself a novice. In fact, aside from a few bikes at my training school, Bigby is the only bike I’ve ever ridden, so I don’t have much to compare it to. Doing a review, I thought, would inevitably lead to the faulty comparison, a logical fallacy I warn my students to avoid. (i.e. “Gets your clothes cleaner!” Ugh, cleaner than what?) Second, I’m still learning about the bike. Although I’ve owned it for almost three years, I’m still finding my way around the engine and mechanics and still discovering its potential. Passing judgment now would be like bailing out of a relationship after the second date. It would be, in the literal sense of the word, prejudice.

So why have I decided to do it? Well, after watching a lot of reviews online, I’ve come to realize that most are not very good, so the bar is set pretty low. They are usually more product descriptions than reviews, and Ryan at Fort Nine has blown the whistle on the nepotism of corporate reviews, how they are always positive because the big bike companies offer a lot of treats to the reviewers, like paid vacations in exotic locations. And those reviewers ride the bike for, what, a day, a couple of days, max, so at least I can say that after three years with Bigby, I know more about this bike than they ever will. So with my concerns made explicit, let’s jump in.

* * *

The three things I like the most about the f650GS are three things I noticed within the first five minutes of riding it: ergonomics, suspension, and balance. Okay maybe you don’t need to have ridden a bike for long before you discover its essence. Let’s look at each in turn and then move on to other stuff.

Ergonomics: At the school, we’d learnt on cruisers—Suzuki Boulevards and Honda Shadows. The ergonomics of the GS are very different. Being a dual-sport bike, it’s capable of going off road, and you need the pegs beneath you in order to stand. This placement also results in your weight being distributed evenly between the seat and pegs, with knees bent at roughly 90 degrees. It’s the ideal sitting position and how every office chair should be set up, thus making the GS also a very capable touring bike. The dual-sport, according to its name, involves compromise, but there’s no compromise when it comes to ergonomics: the GS provides the perfect sitting position, and the capability to stand when you leave the asphalt.

The other thing I like about the ergonomics is that you can flat foot this bike. The standard seat height is 30.9 inches, so super low. This is confidence inspiring once you take it off road; I know I can easily dab a foot if needed. In fact, since I am rather long-legged, the seat was a bit too low; my knees were bent more than 90 degrees and I felt a bit cramped after several hours in the saddle. So when I upgraded my seat (more on this later), I went for the high version to allow a bit more room, and that has made all the difference. If you are long-limbed, you might want to look at the Dakar version, which has a 34.3 inch seat height, or swap the saddle for a taller one. Despite these issues in my lower half, I haven’t had to add bar risers, and when I stand, the grips fall perfectly to where I need them, maintaining my standing posture.

Suspension: As I rode off on my first ride, the second thing I noticed was the suspension. This bike is smoooth, at least compared to those cruisers. And what better place to test a bike’s suspension than Montreal roads! Of course it makes sense that a dual-sport bike would have very capable suspension; it’s designed to be able to handle some pretty bumpy terrain. But just before I went for my riding test, I hired a private instructor for a class. He rode behind me and commented on things he saw. Now here is someone who has a lot of experience with bikes and has seen a wide variety from behind. Ironically, the first thing he remarked when we first stopped had nothing to do with my riding but how impressed he was with the rear suspension of my bike. “I wish you could see what I see from behind,” he said. “It’s amazing!”

In fact, I’ve wondered if the suspension is a little mushy. I’ve only bottomed out a few times while off-roading, and the front end dives a bit under hard braking. I’ve considered upgrading the suspension, but frankly, at only 140 lbs, I’m actually underweight for this bike. Front suspension travel is 170 mm and rear is 165 mm.  Since ideal SAG is roughly 30% of total travel, SAG for the 650GS is 49.5 mm.. Even with the pre-load completely backed off, all of my 140 lbs is putting a little more than 45 mm on the suspension. Which brings me to another plus of this bike: the pre-load adjuster. Okay, it’s not electronically controlled like the new Beemer’s, but the ability to adjust with the turn of a knob when you are two-up or have gear on the back is a nice feature.

Balance: The thing I like most about the 650GS is its balance. This is accomplished mainly due to the gas tank being under the seat instead of high on the bike where it normally is. Where this is most noticeable is in how the bike corners. At the school, we were taught to countersteer to initiate a turn and to accelerate at the end to straighten up, and this was necessary with those cruisers. But I quickly discovered that on the GS you can manage an entire sweeping curve simply by leaning in and out. It’s hard to describe, but the bike feels like it straightens up itself with the subtlest weight shift.

The balance also shows when riding at slow speed, like in parking lots or technical sections off road. I’ll challenge anyone to a slow race any day! The bike is easy to move around by hand and to turn in tight spaces. With a little practice, I was riding figure-eights full lock. You can add all the accessories you like to a bike, but getting the balance right is something that happens at the design stage. BMW got it right on this one, which is why I was surprised to hear that they’ve moved the tank to the traditional location in the hump on the 2018 750s and 850s.

* * *

The engine is a Rotax, 652 cc single-cylinder, water-cooled, DOHC with twin spark plugs and four valves. It provides 50 HP @ 6,500 rpm and 44 lb/ft torque @ 5000 rpm. What these numbers mean is that it’s not the gutsiest engine. I’m up for a slow race but I won’t be challenging anyone to a drag soon. When I did my research, I kept hearing how this bike is a good beginner bike. There’s not a lot of power to manage, and you don’t have to worry about losing the back end by getting on the throttle too hard. On the other hand, it’s got lots of torque down low in the first two gears for hill climbs off road, and still some roll on in 5th gear at 120 km/hr. I’ve never maxed it out, but I’ve had it up to 140 km/hr and that’s fast enough for my purposes. And since we’re talking about gearing, 3rd and 4th are wide enough to enable me to navigate a twisty piece of road pretty much in one gear, depending on the type of road: roll off going into a corner, roll on coming out.

Single-cylinder engines have their advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is this wide gearing. My dad often talks about how he loved this aspect of his 350 Matchless. In heavy traffic, you can stay in 2nd and just ease the clutch back out when traffic picks up again. He once road his brother’s parallel twin and said it was horrible in stop-and-go traffic; you had to work twice as hard to prevent the engine from bogging. I suspect it’s this same quality that allows you to maintain your gear through a twisty section of road with slight variations in speed.

Another advantage of singles, I’ve recently discovered in this article in Cycle World, is that they offer a kind of traction control. As Kevin Cameron argues, “no other design produces such forgiving power delivery under conditions of compromised traction without elaborate software.” This is due to the millisecond duration of the exhaust stroke with big-bore engines, when there is relatively little power delivered to the tire, allowing it to regain traction if it begins to break loose. It’s like anti-lock brakes, the theory goes, but in reverse. Compare that to the constant power delivery of multi-cylinder engines, which makes managing power and traction more challenging.

A disadvantage of single-cylinders is the vibration. The Rotax engine is about a smooth as a single comes, I’ve heard, but it can still make your throttle hand go numb, especially if it’s cold, so you might want to invest in a throttle assist or throttle lock. I have the Kaoko and it works great. Unfortunately, the Rox Anti-Vibration Risers don’t fit my particular bike due to the configuration of the triple-clamp, but then I’ve heard those can make the steering mushy, which can be unnerving when riding off road. And it might be my imagination, but it seems that there are less vibrations when using the BMW oil. It certainly seems that the engine runs quieter and smoother, perhaps not surprising given that BMW design and test the oil specifically for their engines. Speaking of oil, the Rotax engines do not burn oil. Ever. Don’t believe me, go ask the inmates at The Chain Gang, a user forum devoted to the BMW 650s.

On the other hand, it’s a major pain in the ass to do an oil change on this bike. Because the engine uses a dry sump system, there’s an oil tank on the left side of the hump where a gas tank normally would be (an airbox is on the right side), so draining the oil involves removing the left body panel and draining that holding tank, plus draining the pan by removing the sump plug at the very bottom of the engine. If you have a bash plate, as I do, you have to remove that too, which, if it’s attached to the crash cage . . . and so on, until you’ve stripped the bike halfway down. Or you can drill a hole in your bash plate as I did, which makes that job a lot easier. You’re still going to get some oil on the plate, and you’re going to get some on the engine when you remove the oil filter due to its recessed placement, so just have plenty of shop towels on hand.

My 2006 650GS does not have rider modes and sophisticated electronics. It doesn’t even have anti-lock brakes. At first I was concerned about this and it was almost a deal-breaker for this newbie. But I spoke to a few experienced riders and they all agreed: better to learn how to control traction and perform emergency braking using proper technique than rely on electronics. Since I’m rather a purist in most things, I understand that. If you learn to emergency brake by grabbing a handful of brake lever and letting ABS do its thing, you aren’t going to develop the feel needed to control sliding in off-road situations. And not having all that sophisticated electronics makes the bike easier to maintain.

The 650GS is fuel-injected so there is an ECU. A 911 diagnostic code reader is available to help you troubleshoot the electronics, but it’s expensive. One advantage of fuel injected bikes is that there is no choke to deal with, and the ECU adjusts the fuel-air mixture according to altitude, meaning you can literally scale any mountain without having to change the jets of a carburetor or risk running your engine hot. The downside is that the throttle can be a little choppy so easy on the roll-off.

Two areas where the 650GS is lacking are the saddle and the windscreen. The saddle is hard and slopes downward, so you always feel like the boys are jammed up against the airbox. If you plan on using your GS for long day trips, you’ll want to upgrade the saddle. There are many aftermarket models available, including BMW’s own Comfort Seat, but I decided to go with Seat Concepts which, for about $250 CAF, they will send you the foam and cover and you reupholster it yourself using your original seat pan. I’ve done a blog on this job so won’t repeat myself here.

One issue with this era GS is the windscreen. The OEM screen is so small it barely covers the instrument dash. There are many aftermarket screens available, but finding the right one is a difficult matter of trial and error. The windscreen issues on this bike are well documented, and if you have sadistic leanings, just search at f650.com for aftermarket windscreens, sit back, and enjoy. The reading is almost as entertaining as a good oil thread. In my own experience, the bike came with a 19″ National Cycle touring windscreen, which was a bit high for off roading and was directing loud air buffeting directly onto my helmet. I swapped it for a 15″ but that too was loud, so I added a wind deflector and that solved the buffeting but I thought ruined the bike’s aesthetic, so I ultimately landed on a 12″ sport screen by National Cycle that protects my torso but keeps my helmet in clean air. The problem is the shape of the front cowling that the screen screws into. It angles the screen too much directly toward the rider’s helmet, instead of the recent bikes that have the screen more upright. The quietest screen on the aftermarket is the Madstad screen. It has an adjustable bracket that attaches to the cowling, allowing you to adjust the angle of the screen. It also has that crucial gap at the bottom of the screen, preventing a low pressure area that causes the buffeting developing behind the screen. Unfortunately, it’s a little pricey, but the real deal-breaker for me is that Madstad use acrylic, and acrylic screens don’t stand up to the abuse of off-road riding. National Cycle screens are polycarbonate.

Aesthetics: I love the aesthetics of this bike! Even ugly babies are adored by their parents, but sometimes I’ll look at a more modern luxury touring bike with the engine completely covered in plastic and I’m glad my bike has its guts hanging out like a proper bike. And I like that it has spoked wheels, which are stronger for off roading and have a more traditional look. Someone once said to me, “I love your old-fashioned bike.” Hmm . . . I hadn’t thought of it as old-fashioned but didn’t mind the comment. There definitely is a raw, real motorcycle quality to the bike, yet has refinements like heated grips and the quality control and reliability you’d expect from BMW. It is the ultimate hybrid dual-sport: part dirt bike, part luxury tourer.

In conclusion: The f650GS is a confidence-inspiring little bike that is perfect for not only beginners but also anyone who prefers a smaller, lighter bike. There’s a movement these days toward smaller bikes, with many people looking at the big adventure bikes with derision for their impracticality off road. I say it really depends on the type of riding you want to do and where you plan to take the bike. Due to its size and weight, the 650GS can go some places that the larger bikes can’t, but the cost is in vibration and rpms at speed on a highway. If you’ve got large areas to traverse but want the capacity to go on dirt roads when needed, then yeah, go for the big 1200GS that is so popular. But if you’ve got time and want to explore deeper into those remote areas, then the 650GS is an excellent choice. I plan on keeping mine as long as possible.

* * *

Pros:

Ergonomics for dirt and touring; smooth suspension; very well balanced; reliable Rotax engine; sufficient hp and torque for light off-roading; fuel injected intake has automatic temperature and altitude adjustment; classic aesthetics

Cons:

Cost (upfront and maintenance; even parts are expensive for DIYs); saddle is hard and uncomfortable; windscreen is useless, hard to find a good aftermarket replacement; engine can be vibey; only 5 gears

 

How’d I do with my first review? Please comment and click the Follow button if you liked this blog.

Setting Goals

GOAL-SETTING

It’s that time of the year again, when the bike goes under the cover for the winter. For me, this moment is like New Year’s Eve,  the end of one period of time and the start of another. I’m talking about the motorcycling season here in Canada but it’s comparable to, perhaps for bikers more significant than, the calendar year. And so I find myself reflecting back on the season, assessing whether I achieved my goals, and setting new ones for 2018.

Do you set goals for your riding? For some, it might be simply to get out more. For others (or the delusional), it might be to win the Men’s Senior TT, the Paris-Dakar rally, or MotoGP. A goal can be a particular destination or the decision to be a better rider, correcting some bad habits that have crept into your riding. If you ride recreationally in a club, a successful season might be determined by the number of new friends you have, or how much money you’ve raised for certain charities. And sometimes the goals can be physical, like trading up your bike or getting some needed gear or accessories.

I’m a very goal-oriented person, not just with my riding but with pretty much everything I do. I’m not obsessed with achieving my goals to the point of taking the fun out of recreation, and I’d hate to be judged as taking myself too seriously. But I hate doing things half-assed, and I like to have a clear idea of where I’m going. Goals help me with both. They push me to do a particular skill to the best of my ability and they help prevent me from directing my time and energy aimlessly.

Much of what I’ve learned about goal-setting comes from the field of sports psychology, but it’s applicable to any activity, including career goals. If you’re new to goal setting, here’s a primer on setting effective goals. We use the acronym SMART.

Specific: Make sure your goals are clearly defined. Don’t just say “I’d like to get out on the bike more,” but “I’d like to ride at least once a week.” While “I’d like to improve my riding” is an admirable goal, “I’m going to complete this specific advanced skills course” is a more effective one. Make your destination specific and you’ll avoid aimless riding.

Measurable: How will you know if you’ve achieved your goal? If you can’t measure your success, you’ll never know if you’ve achieved it. This goes hand-in-hand with having specific rather than vague goals. You need a clear target to know if you’ve hit it. More importantly, you need to know how close you are to achieving it. Some people say the M stands for Motivational because having a measurable goal helps you stay motivated. Improving my fitness is not a measurable goal; running 5 K in under 25 minutes is.

Achievable: You want your goals to challenge you but be within your reach. You’re not going to go from beginner to expert in one year, from a learner’s permit to the Paris-Dakar in one season. If your goals are too easy, you’ll get an inflated ego and over-confident, and if they’re too hard, you’ll lose your motivation. This is perhaps the most difficult part of goal-setting because it requires you to be honest with yourself about your current abilities and your potential.

Reasonable: Even if a goal is achievable, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it’s reasonable. I could quit my job tomorrow and ride to Tierra del Fuego if I wanted to, but it wouldn’t be the best thing for my finances or my marriage. Setting reasonable goals means considering not only capability but also common sense. My wife is very understanding and supportive of my endeavours, but finances and summer vacation time are limited, so I have to be reasonable about the commitments I make. A reasonable goal is one that fits in nicely with the rest of your life.

Time-Related: You have to set deadlines for when you’re supposed to have achieved your goals. As with defining your goals, be clear and specific—not “sometime in the near future” but “by the end of next season.” And you should have long-term, midterm, and short-term goals. For your long-term goals, think big. (Hey, dreaming is free!) You’ve got lots of time to achieve them. Midterm goals should be directly related to achieving the long-term goals, and similarly with short-term goals. You’re creating the stepping stones that will get you to your ultimate dream, breaking what seems now like an overwhelming goal down into manageable and achievable ones. Midterm goals keep you on course and motivated; short-term goals help you act today toward that ultimate prize. And while all this might seem a bit fixated on that final destination, keep in mind that, like riding, it’s the journey that matters most, not the arrival. Enjoy the process, or should I say progress?

Some books also talk about the importance of making your goals public. “The more people who are aware of your goals, the more people who will be there to support you and hold you accountable along the way” (Sports Psychology for Dummies 11). So . . . here are my goals for the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

In 2017, I decided to focus on developing off-road skills that would enable me to ride to some places not accessible otherwise. Toward that end, I had gear to buy, accessories to add, and courses to complete.

Here were my goals for 2017:

  • To buy off-road gear. This meant boots, pants, jacket, and helmet. I achieved this goal, and thank God it’s done because my pocketbook and marriage would not survive another season of expenses like this one.
  • To make my bike off-road ready. I added some crash bars, lowered the windscreen, added off-road pegs, and changed to a 50/50 tire when the back tire was finished.
  • To take a full-day class at S.M.A.R.T. Riding Adventures in Barrie. I accomplished that. I also took a 2-hour beginner class with Jimmy Lewis as bonus. These two activities did more toward improving my riding than anything else I did this summer.
  • To do a long solo tour. As you know if you’ve been following these blogs, I accomplished this with my ride to Cape Breton. My original goal of Blanc-Sablon was not reasonable, and I’m glad I changed it to something where the predominant surface is asphalt and help is relatively near in case of an emergency.
  • To do a lot of off-roading practice. I did some, but I broke my radiator and cut my season short by about a month. I’d say that goal was not accomplished but, overall, I had a successful season.

My goals for 2018:

  • To finish making my bike off-road ready. I have some upper crash bars (currently in the mail from Poland) to add and will swap the Tourance front tire with a matching K60 Scout.
  • To join an off-road club named Moto Trail Aventure, the largest off-road club in Quebec, and participate in as many of their rallies as possible. (This will have the added benefit of improving my French since it seems this club, unlike the WIMC, is predominantly French.)
  • To buy an annual membership to FQMHR (Fédération Québécoise des Motos Hors Route), which gains me access to a large network of trails. I’ll be doing most of my riding on these trails to gain the practice missed this summer. The idea is to reinforce what I learned this summer and develop muscle memory.
  • To participate in the 2018 La Classique, an off-road rally held each spring here in Quebec. I’ll probably start with the beginner rally.
  • To return to DirtDaze Adventure Bike Rally at Lake Luzerne, NY.
  • To lead at least one or two rides again with my street club. I already have one destination in mind—a large collection of vintage bikes in Maine.
  • And another solo tour. I’ve discovered I love solo touring. I loved every minute of my tour through NS this summer and would love to repeat again next summer. But somewhere new. I very well may be going back to the Maritimes in a car with my wife next summer, so I’m not sure what I’ll be able to afford to do on the bike, but I can’t imagine a summer without some kind of a trip. It really depends on how things shape up. Like I said, most of my riding next summer will be on Quebec trails, so whatever trip I take will be a bonus. Stay tuned.

My long-term goals? Okay, since we’re on the topic, I have a few big ones, all tours.

  • To ride across Canada. This has been a goal of mine since I was a teenager. Once I hit the west coast, I could go north to Deadhorse or south down the Pacific Coast Highway to Baja, then across to New Orleans and up through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
  • Another destination is South America. I’m not sure if I’d ride through Mexico because I’ve heard it’s very dangerous or ship my bike partway.
  • Okay, and since we’re dreaming big, I’d love to do some riding in Africa. These big trips might have to wait for my retirement, but all the off-road riding I’m doing now is toward being able to handle these terrains.

So what are your goals for next year? Make them public and bring yourself a step closer to realizing them.

I’ll be going into my usual winter hiatus with the blogs, but will post when inspiration strikes.