Off-Roading with The Awesome Players

Awesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suspension Upgrade

Life Cycle

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

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

Front Suspension

Iniminators

Ricor Intiminator Valves

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

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

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

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

Intiminator Instructions

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

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

Rear Suspension

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OEM rear shock

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

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Stadium Suspensions HR1

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

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

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

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

Dialling In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo credit: Ray Bourgeois

The Oil Leak

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“You have an oil leak,” my friend Mike remarked last July, looking down at my engine. The bike was on its sidestand, so you could get a good angled view into the skid plate, where a glistening smear foretold almost a year of diagnostic troubleshooting.

I quickly localized it to the front lower portion of the engine. It would drip down the front and collect in the skid plate at the bottom. Seeing the oil wasn’t the problem; determining its source was.

Oil can travel a great distance on a dirty engine. The dirt soaks up the oil and transports it across the bike so that diagnosis is like a shell game. Is it soaking up from the bottom or dripping down from the top? All you’ve got to go on is a blow pattern like a gruesome crime scene.

I decided to approach this like Hercule Poirot.

The suspects:

  • Sump plug sealing washer
  • Crankcase gasket
  • Starter motor O-ring
  • Base gasket

 

Sump plug sealing washer

Following the principle of Occam’s Razor, I started with the simplest explanation. I had just changed the oil and cheated and re-used the sump plug washer, so that was my first guess. You can re-use those copper washers a few times, especially if you braze them between uses, but it’s a crapshoot. Yes, there’s oil up the front of the engine, but like I said above, oil can defy gravity on a dirty engine.

I replaced the washer at the next oil change, but the leak persisted. It wasn’t the sump plug washer.

Crankcase gasket

Someone on a forum said the crankcase on these bikes is prone to leaking. This theory was supported by the fact that the leak only occurs at high revs under pressure. So last autumn, while doing some other maintenance on the bike, I torqued all the crankcase bolts. Lo and behold! A few in the front of the engine were under-torqued. Surely I’d found the source this time.

I hit the highway the following weekend and at my first rest stop I took a look in the skidplate: that familiar smear of liquid gold. It wasn’t the crankcase gasket.

The starter motor O-ring.

This is when things got interesting. The leak seemed to be coming from somewhere under the starter motor. There’s a single O-ring that prevents oil in the crankcase escaping at the interface with the starter. Again, I’d had the starter off for another job and didn’t replace the O-ring, which my shop manual recommends. Since the starter connects with the crankcase, the pressure at high revs could blow the oil past the the O-ring.

I replaced the O-ring, waiting the requisite two weeks for this $5.14 part to arrive from Germany. The leak persisted. I decided to get serious.

The best way to source an oil leak is to clean up the engine, take the bike for a short ride, then look. In theory, you should see a trickle coming from the source. So that’s what I did. When I got home, I took the starter off and this is what I saw.

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Is it coming from the starter, the crankcase, or the base gasket?

I said in theory. There’s definitely a trickle coming from that front corner of the engine, but there’re also drops near the front??? Could it be getting past the O-ring, dripping along the underside of the starter motor, and dropping onto the crankcase?

I was down to two suspects—the starter motor O-ring and the base gasket. I was nervous about torquing the gasket. Maybe it’s not a big deal, but those big, crucial gaskets scare me. Mess that up and over-tighten and you are pulling the engine. And in all my research, I had come across only two instances of a weeping base gasket. I decided to stick to the O-ring theory a little longer before interrogating the big boy.

27037-PX-OPTIMUM-BLACK

I picked up some Optimum Black gasket maker. The packaging said it resists vibration (important on a thumper) and is “one of the most advanced, maximum flex, maximum oil resistant RTV silicone gasket makers available.” I added a smear on the O-ring, let it cure 24 hours, and tried again.

Still no luck. I added a bead around the neck of the starter next to the O-ring. No luck.

I put some Optimum Black in the channel for the O-ring, let it cure, added the O-ring, and added a bead at the neck for good measure. Nyet! I found a slightly bigger O-ring in plumbing and tried that. Nope.

I was beginning to think it wasn’t the O-ring.

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Starter with O-ring and gasket maker

I asked on my bike forum and somebody suggested the oil could be coming from inside the starter. I hadn’t thought of that. There’s an oil seal and bearing inside. If the seal is finished, oil could be getting inside and then dripping out of the starter. If the bearing is worn, it could be causing vibration that is preventing the external O-ring from completely sealing. I had noticed slight pitting on the underside of the starter neck, which supported the theory of a worn bearing.

So the starter came apart. I pulled the old bearing using a valve puller and tapped a new one on, adding a new, greased oil seal. I was hopeful this time. There were a few symptoms supporting this theory, not the least that my bike now has over 90K on it, and with the crank revving at 5K rpm, I’d be surprised if that bearing weren’t worn.

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Starter motor disassembled. Note bearing on the armature. The little wires sticking out of the brushplate assembly is a trick I saw on YouTube to hold the brushes in place for reassembly. It was still a right royal PITA to get it back together!

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Pulling the bearing. I wrapped the armature in a rag to protect the wiring and clamped it in my workmate. Since there isn’t much clearance under the bearing, I had to be creative and use a valve puller. The feet of a bearing puller were too big.

Once all back together, I took Bigby for another short test ride. The bike was still leaking. Now I know why people say fixing an oil leak is hard.

This is when my cursing and ruminating and otherwise surly or downcast behaviour elicits from my wife the question, “Why don’t you take it to a professional mechanic?” Actually, others were beginning to say the same, including a club member. My response: “What can he do that I can’t?” (And yes, it’s almost always a “he.”) And the amount of time spent diagnosing this kind of problem would cost a fortune. It was time to concede the inevitable: I’d have to tighten the base gasket.

Base gasket

The base gasket is Item 4 in the diagram below. Tightening it sounds easy—and probably would be on any other bike—but it isn’t on a BMW. The little M6 bolts on the left side of the bike (Item 3) are nested into cutouts in the corners of the engine block, so accessible only with a torx key. I’d have to buy a set of keys and torque those bolts by hand. They are 10 Nm and I think my feel is getting pretty good, so that was the easy part. I nudged them, that’s all.

diag_y8

The other side has two M10 x 223mm bolts that go all the way through the head, the block, and into the base (see Item 1 above), and they are only accessible beneath the rocker (valve) cover. I’d have to open up my engine.

So off came the plastics, the battery, the airbox, the oil tank, the battery tray, the starter relay, the electrical box cover, the heat shield, the intake manifold, the throttle cable, the spark plug coils, the coils holder and, finally, the valve cover.

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Bigby splayed open to access the valve cover.

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The bolts to be tightened are far right, next to the cams, and partially submerged in oil.

With the rocker cover off, I could now tighten those long bolts. I was nervous about tightening those babies! While the little M6 bolts were only 10 Nm, these were 60. I’d need my big 1/2″ torque wrench. Someone on the forum had suggested I back off the bolts a bit first, just in case they are seized, then retighten. I decided to aim for 62 Nm.

The one at the back went smoothly enough; I got an accurate reading from the wrench so moved on to the crucial front one. I could not get an accurate read with the wrench on this one but I did move it a few times, as much as I dared. My experience told me that I’d better stop there or risk over-tightening if I continued. Sometimes you just can’t trust a torque wrench; you have to trust your gut first. I hoped I’d moved it enough or I’d be taking the top end of the bike off again.

That was the tough part done. I took a break, made a tea, and slowly reassembled the bike.

The test

When I replaced the starter, I added another smear of Optimum Black on it for good measure. I also torqued all the crankcase bolts again, replaced the oil filter and added a smear of gasket to the cover sealing ring, and torqued all the engine mountings. Basically I torqued every bolt on the right side of the bike! Desperate times call for desperate measures.

I was so worried about this test I actually didn’t ride for another whole day. I was out of leads, and if the leak were still there, I’d be at a dead end.

The next day, my wife and I headed off for an afternoon excursion into Ontario. We packed a picnic lunch and headed west along the St. Lawrence River. After about an hour and a half of riding, my wife spotted a church overlooking the river where we could stop. I pulled in, turned off the bike, climbed off, and with God and my wife present for emotional support, I looked into the skid plate.

No oil. I looked under the starter motor. No oil.

I’m not a superstitious man, but I dared not celebrate just yet. I didn’t want to jinx myself. But on the way home I intentionally kept the revs up into the 5K+ range to stress the engine. Once back on the driveway, I looked again: no oil!

Now we did celebrate. We poured two beers and toasted the end of the oil leak. This was one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever done. It took me almost a year off and on to diagnose the problem and over a week of full time work to get to the bottom of it. A big thank you to the guys at The Chain Gang for their help. Bigby is now finally ready for the 2020 season.

The finishing touch is a new custom decal designed by my friend Brian Chu at Brian Chu Design and Illustration, Inc. in Calgary. Thanks, Brian.

650THUMPER 2005A

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20-20

 

Kevin_cropHindsight may be 20-20 but nobody can predict the future. This Covid-19 has thrown us all for a loop, and we still don’t know how the story will end. It’s hard to make plans for the summer when everything is so up in the air, but I am a Gen-Xer. We grew up with the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads and still managed to make it to school each day, even hold a few tentative plans for the near future. A little pandemic isn’t going to stop me planning the riding season set to begin.

mushroom

Obviously, much of this is pending how the pandemic plays out, so I’ve made some educated guesses. The regions are starting to open now and the stores and schools will be in a few weeks. It looks like we will be starting to loosen social distancing restrictions in the near future, although I think everyone is going to be wary of close proximity in confined spaces for some time to come.

For that reason, I think most of my riding this summer will be either solo or with a few riding buddies, cognizant of minimizing contact and risk. I’m okay with that. Riding is already a pretty solitary activity even when shared. I love solo touring, but as I said in my last post, I love club riding too. Here are my tentative plans for this summer amid this weird year so far.

Touring

The first little tour I’m going to do is down into Vermont and New Hampshire for a few nights once the border re-opens. Last year I rode the Puppy Dog Route on my own in June and it was just the thing to recenter after being stretched out of shape by 100 students, each wanting a piece of me. This year I will try the Hamster Ride, which is the same sort of thing as Puppy Dog but in New Hampshire instead of Vermont. It’s a series of dirt roads traversing a good part of the state up to the Canadian Border. I love dirt roads, state parks, the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the secondary highways of the northeastern states. I think Bigby and I will attempt Mount Washington while passing nearby, but I won’t be putting any “This bike climbed Mount Washington” sticker on my pannier. That’s boasting. Besides, it makes you question the reliability of any vehicle that feels the need to advertise the accomplishment.

MtWashington

Photo Credit: Ted Dillard

I don’t have any other small tours planned, but Marilyn and I will be doing some day trips together. To beat cabin fever, we’ve done a few rides along the river these past few weeks. We go in the late afternoon and it’s a slow, easy ride west as the sun sparkles off the water. Marilyn says she thinks she’s caught the motorcycle bug. The other day while doing some routine maintenance on the bike, I noticed my rear brake pads were finished, so I’m waiting on new pads to arrive in the mail. Now she’s asking, “When are those pads arriving because I want to go for another ride?” Finally, she might be getting the appeal, and as long as we don’t get caught in a rainstorm, I think I’ll be able to cultivate that interest into a simmering passion. We will pack day lunches and head off on our own small adventures.

But The Big One, the tour I’m most looking forward to, is the cross-country one I’ve wanted to do since I was 19. I thought it might be this summer, but then our dog got sick, so it was put on hold; then sadly our dog died, so the possibility was back on; but then Covid hit, so now I’m not sure. But all going well, I’ll be heading across Canada sometime in July. I’ll head up toward Ottawa on Highway 417 which turns into the 17 after Ottawa, then I’ll just keep going, westward, through Chalk River, Mattawa, North Bay, Sudbury, Thunder Bay, and just keep going, as far as Bigby will take me. I’ve never driven across the country, so this is going to be a real discovery for me of the country I grew up in and call home.

Priest Carving copy

Mattawa, ON., Gateway to the West

The plan is to meet Marilyn somewhere out west (she will fly) and we’ll visit her sister-in-law in Washington State. I may be tempted to ride a portion of Highway 101, the Pacific Coast Highway, while I’m close, and that’s why I want to do this in July, although the heat will be worst then; I want to have the flexibility that no fixed deadline provides, and I have to be back to work in August. Then I’m going to come back through The United States, checking out their national parks. I’ve never seen the midwest, or The Grand Canyon, or Yosemite, or much of The States to be honest. So I’ll be discovering that country too, camping all along the way.

I’m considering doing some of this on dirt, either some BDR sections (Backcountry Discovery Routes) or a part of the TAT (Trans America Trail). There’s a lot to plan, but now that my work is done, I have the time to start.

Club Riding

I won’t be going on any tours with the club like I did last year, but I’ll do some day rides in the Montreal area. These are easy rides of 350 km/day or so into the surrounding regions with a few forays across the border. See my last post on the benefits of club riding. This year will be muted by social distancing, but motorcyclists are used to managing risk.

I’ve decided to lead a couple of dirt rides for the club. We are primarily an asphalt club but there are now a few members with ADV or ADV-styled bikes and even some cruisers who aren’t afraid of dirt. Often on club rides, I’d see an interesting dirt road leading off into the woods and I’d be dying to go exploring. I’m betting there are a few others who feel the same. Ideally, I’d like to offer these as an optional portion of a larger club ride, with a plan to meet the group for lunch. I’m going to call these 50/50 rides (50% road, 50% dirt). With my new Cardo PacTalk comm unit, club riding will be a whole new experience for me this year.

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Off-Roading

I cannot tell a lie. What I am most looking forward to this season is developing my off-road skills. It’s been a few years now since I took some beginner courses to get me started and I’m ready to take my skills to the next level. I’ve purchased Chris Birch’s Say No to Slow set of instructional videos on Vimeo and have been watching them while I wait for the brake pads to arrive. I can’t wait to get out there and try some of what Chris is saying.

Why pay for something that is free on YouTube, you ask? In a previous post, I listed some of my favourite online teaching channels, and I still think those are excellent resources. But Chris goes into a lot more detail than most of those, and more importantly, he covers the boring fundamentals that those channels can’t afford or choose not to cover, and that’s what I need. Yeah, everybody wants to learn how to wheelie and drift (but not at the same time!), but I’m more interested in things like bike set-up, foot placement, body positioning, and cornering in the dirt, which are covered in the video series. I was surprised that the entire set of 12 videos is under $50 Canadian. I don’t have any affiliation with the production team. I just know good pedagogy when I see it and what I need now most is guided self-practice.

There is a sandpit just over the border in Ontario I practice at, and a network of trails and Class 4 roads not much further starting in Hawkesbury. My bike has a new rear shock—one capable of some serious dirt—and Ricor Intiminator valves in the front forks,  so the suspension has just been upgraded to dirt-worthy. It’s got good crash protection, as do I with my new Leatt STX neck brace. We’re ready.

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The STX is for street and adventure riding. The wider scapula wings do not conflict with your back protector and you do not need integrated body armour.

Are you ready? It’s been a crappy spring for weather but the double-digits are just around the corner. Is your bike ready? I’ll be writing an article for my new paying gig, Riders Plus, on how to get started maintaining your bike. So get your tools out and let’s change the coolant, the brake fluid, the oil, check your tire pressures, and get ready for a new season. It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Riding makes everything a whole lot better, especially when shared in the company of friends. If you want to escape the bad news for a day or more, there’s nothing quite like a fast motorcycle to help you do it.

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Bigby, ready for the 2020 season.

The Church of Club Riding

 

 

Lookout2A few years ago, one of the editors of a major motorcycle magazine made the mistake in an op-ed piece of mildly criticizing club riding. I think he took issue with all the club patches at the motorcycle show and said he didn’t get the appeal. The next month there was the expected outrage in the Letters to the Editor section, with folks claiming they were cancelling their subscriptions. This was before the era of cancel culture, but he had stepped on the hoof of a sacred cow. Clubs are the backbone of a lot of riding in North America.

I love solo riding, whether it’s a day ride or a long tour. But I’ll always be a member of a club because it offers much that solo riding cannot.

Safety

When I started riding in 2015, we had this stupid law in Quebec that you had to ride with an “escort”—someone who’s had a licence for at least two years—for an 11-month probation period. The idea was that the experienced rider would help ensure the newbie takes corners at an appropriate speed, leaves appropriate distance, and avoids the myriad of pitfalls to which an inexperienced rider can fall victim. I didn’t know any escorts but was lucky to find a club that accepts learners. In fact, it was one of the few, if not the only, club in the area that admitted learners. This club was literally a life-saver for me and others.

That law is now thankfully gone, but I would still recommend learners ride with a club those first years on the road. Studies show that the most dangerous period of time for new riders is the first year and the third year. Some of the people leading our rides have been riding their entire adult lives and have lived to show others how it’s safely done. Beyond that, there is safety in numbers, not only if you have a mechanical problem, but more importantly to be visible. Cagers can miss a single headlight and turn in front of you, but they can’t very well miss ten headlights coming at them. You are safely tucked into a mass of motorcycles as long as a semi. There’s some informal mentoring that happens off the bikes too. If motorcycle riding is a skill, club riding is like an apprenticeship.

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Community Outreach

Many clubs organize rides to raise funds for various causes. I like to tease the Harley folks here from time to time, but one thing I really admire about them is their strong community involvement. Look at the leather vests of some of these riders and you will see embroidered patches for all the fund-raising events to which they have devoted their time and energy over the years, humbling even the most ardent Facebook virtue signaller. Our club has participated for the last few years in the Ride for Dad, which raises money for prostate cancer research. As a nice touch, our lead organizer named our team after a club member who passed away from cancer. There are rides to raise money for breast cancer research too, the SPCA, and other local charities.

When clubs aren’t raising money for a good cause, they are escorting a bullied kid to school or pitching in for other social causes. The irony is that bikers are often fighting social stigma and prejudice of their own, but beneath the leather of every biker I’ve ever know is a heart of gold.

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Discover New Places

When I started riding with the club, I discovered places I’d never been to before. I’d been living in this province for 25 years but found myself, not a few hours from home, beside a beautiful waterfall, covered bridge, quaint town, or lookout at one of the rest stops. “Where the hell am I, and why haven’t I know about this place before?” I found myself asking. Those early club rides took me for the first time through pockets of the Laurentian Mountains, the Eastern Townships, Smuggler’s Notch, Parc de la Mauricie. Some of these spots were so pretty that I found myself wanting to return with my wife in the car just to show her too. (She rides a bit with me, but her preferred mode is automobile.) In a club ride, you are lead off your beaten path, following someone else’s into as yet uncharted geography for you. And if you are leading, you get to show your hidden gems, whether they are roads or views or restaurants.

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Friendship

I’ve saved the best for last. The social aspect is the main benefit of club riding, and it’s something that obviously can’t be found in solo riding. Okay, you can find a couple of riding buddies, but there’s still a sense of community in a club that isn’t the same as riding with a buddy. Ironically, where this is most apparent is away from the bikes. Our club organizes a Christmakkuh party, a brunch in January, a motorcycle film night in February to get us through those winter months when the bikes are stored away. Some of these club members have become friends to me, a self-described introvert and someone who doesn’t make friends easily. And when we can’t meet in person, we connect via social media to share an article, video, or laugh over a meme.

I’m thinking of these friends now as we enter our fifth week of social isolation during the Covid-19 crisis, and it’s these friends who will be the first I’ll see when we get the green light to gather again. Last weekend I was discussing with my wife the benefits of Church-going. I’m not a Church-goer, but I recognize the value of community a regular religious practice offers. Yes, you can be a spiritual person on your own, but a community offers a sense of shared purpose and meaning that, in my opinion, is essential to being human. I feel sorry for those who are divorced from any sense of community, and I feel sorry for the editor who didn’t understand what a motorcycle club can offer. If there’s one silver lining to this crisis, it’s to highlight for all just how poignant the absence of community can be. Perhaps it will make us more compassionate to those amongst us who are truly alone.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

gpx_neckbraces_35__0000_leatt_neckbrace_gpx_3.5_wht_front_1020003950

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.

knox_microlock_back_protector_upgrade_part114_750x750

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.

distance-sequence

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.