Klondike Days

Continuing north, I explore Dawson City, then venture up The Dempster Highway.

When I was at Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, a neighbouring camper wandered over to examine the stickers on my panniers. He had a box on the back of his camper and also collected stickers, so we struck up a conversation about the places we’d been. He told me that he and his wife had been all over Canada and their two favourite places were Newfoundland and Yukon. I’d never been north, as in North, and I had a bucket list item to see Canadian tundra, so I was especially excited about entering Yukon. The trip so far had been amazing, but in many ways this felt like the climax of the tour.

I left Boya Provincial Park and soon entered Yukon. I was expecting the 3rd degree but in the end didn’t even need to show my vaccination passport. There was a roadside check and I had to fill out some paperwork but was soon on my way.

Nisutlin Bay Bridge

The Klondike Highway (2) is long and under considerable construction, so there were delays and some tricky deep dirt and mud in the bypasses that was warm-up for The Dempster later. Apparently they’ve been working on this road for longer than Transport Quebec has been rebuilding the Turcot Interchange, but I suspect the mafia aren’t behind these delays. It led to a long hot day in the saddle. The heat was following me all the way north and it was 32 degrees Celsius in Dawson City when I arrived late afternoon.

Fortunately, there was ice cream.

The first thing you notice about Dawson City are the colours. I suspect it has something to do with there being little light for major portions of the year, like putting up Christmas lights midwinter. Or perhaps residents know that tourism is a major part of their economy so why not make the buildings look nice. Lord Elgin High School, built in the 70s in my hometown of Burlington, Ontario, with its purple and orange colour scheme has nothing on this school in Dawson City.

Robert Service School in Dawson City

I crossed the mighty Yukon River on the free 24-hour ferry and set up camp right on the river at Yukon River Campground. I love the Territorial campgrounds! They are $12/night including firewood. Like the recreation sites in BC, they work on an honour system, with envelopes and a secure deposit box at the gate.

The forecast was clear so I decided to try sleeping in my hammock. That would turn out to be not a good idea. My sleeping bag is good down to 7 degrees Celsius plus I have a silk liner, but I was still cold. The relentless heat that had been following me across the country was finally abated at night in the Yukon. I also found it very difficult to get in and out of both bags (liner inside of bag) in the pitch dark for those nighttime bathroom breaks. I wish I had a video of me trying to climb back in. I tried climbing into the hammock and then inserting legs; I tried standing and pulling the sleeping bag up first and then climbing in. Both were comical, and I felt like I was in a Charlie Chaplin movie. The next night I slept comfortably in my little warm tent.

The next day I took a guided tour of Dawson City. Yukon Tourism provides tours with a guide in period garb and you get access to buildings that are normally locked to the public. We went into the local bank (one of the first in the region), the post office, the saloon, but for some reason not the brothel. I was surprised to find the same BC fir on the ceiling of the post office that is in my 1934-era home in Quebec. I guess that wood was freighted right across this country.

After the tour, I wandered up to Writers Lane, which contains the homes of three major Canadian writers—poet Robert Service, Pierre Berton, and Jack London—all a stone’s throw from each other.

I don’t know what is in the water in these parts, but there is some major literary talent up here. In fact, Maria Rainer Rilke and other writers like Robert Bly have written that the main ingredient for good writing is solitude, and there’s certainly plenty of that up here. There is also some pretty dramatic history that makes for good fiction.

The next day I pulled up stakes and headed up The Dempster Highway. I write that casually but in fact the decision of whether to try any of The Dempster had been on my mind the entire tour as I was traversing the country. My original plan, as anyone who has been following this blog knows, was to reach the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk. I knew I didn’t have the right tires (Michelin Anakee Adventures) but thought I’d be okay at least for the bottom 70K into Tombstone Territorial Park if it was dry. Only once I was on The Dempster, all that was on my mind was “This isn’t so bad . . . I can do this . . . I wonder if it’s all like this? . . . I don’t want to have regrets that I didn’t try . . . you won’t be here again for some time . . . don’t be a wuss,” etc., looping through my brain like the daredevil “friend” who always gets you into trouble.

So when I got to Tombstone, the first thing I did was ask at the the Interpretive Centre if The Dempster is like this all the way up. The nice young ladies at the centre replied, “Have you received permission to enter Northwest Territories?” What now? I had been following the Covid restrictions on the Yukon border all winter because it was closed for much of it, but hadn’t checked NWT! Turns out strictly residents and people doing business were allowed in. The staff did encourage me, however, to go to Eagle Plains, about halfway, and from there I could ride another 45 minutes for the photo-op at the Arctic Circle sign.

Hmm . . . I had the rest of the day to mull that over, looking closely at the forecast. (If there were any rain, I’d be stuck and would have to wait for the highway to dry out, which could be days.) In the meantime, I decided to do a hike just north of the Interpretive Centre on Golden Sides Mountain. A short ride got me to a horse trail that leads to this spectacular view of four valleys—three in front, and one behind.

Feeling like I’m on top of the world.

That night in my tent I did the mileage calculations over and over again in my head. You need to have a range of at least 370 kilometres to get to Eagle Plains. Although I had not planned to go up The Dempster, I fortunately filled up at the base of it first. (One gets gas when one can in these parts.) My bike has a 17-litre tank and I have another couple of litres in bottles on the back, only one of those bottles was half full because I use it for my stove. So I had about 18.5 L and my bike gets 20-25 K/L, depending on the riding, so I calculated my worst case scenario and concluded it would be tight but I had enough to get me there. And in the end, I did. I cruised at 80 K/hr. and my fuel light came on about 60 K from Eagle Plains but I made it.

Click on any image to enlarge.

Once there, I treated myself to a steak at the restaurant at the lodge. I guess dining etiquette is a little relaxed in these parts because you can apparently play ball with your dog in the dining room here, and why not? I think you should be able to play ball with your dog in any dining room!

Eagle Plains Lodge. I like how the server casually steps over the rope toy.

There I met Mountain Man Mike. Mike is an avid outdoorsman with his own YouTube channel about his adventures in his truck-top camper. He told me about Rock River Campground just south of the NWT border so I decided I’d follow him up there for the night.

I headed up to the Arctic Circle sign. Mike was already there doing some filming and took the requisite photo. Thanks Mike!

I set up camp next to Mike and we had a nice campfire through the evening. At one point, about 10 o’clock at night, he was chopping wood and it was LOUD! I asked, “Isn’t it a bit late to be chopping wood?” He paused for a second, thought about it, then said simply, “It’s expected.” Well, it’s not like Security is going to come tell you it’s quiet time.

Washing my cookware the next morning in the turquoise Rock River. Strange to see the water flowing north.

Now there are a few places on Earth where you especially don’t want your bike not to start, and halfway up The Dempster is one of them. I had put 20W/50 oil in this bike in North Van when the heat had been relentless, but now it was about 2 degrees Celsius and my bike wouldn’t start. It doesn’t like 20W/50 in cold weather; the flywheel is just too big to crank over fast enough.

Mike could hear what was going on and wasn’t surprised when I slunk over to ask him for a push. He’s fortunately over 200 lbs. and very fit, but it even took him a few tries to get me going. Thanks again, Mike. You were a Godsend!

It was drizzling as I pulled out of Rock River so I high-tailed it down into lower climate where there was sun. A quick gas stop in Eagle Plains and I was on my way again.

I saw Mike only one more time, somewhere down The Dempster. He’d stopped to take some drone footage. After saying our good-byes, I pushed on and was soon back at Yukon River Campground for one night, exhausted but happy that I’d made it as far as legally possible. I didn’t make it to the Arctic Ocean, but it’s not going anywhere soon, and I’ll return to complete The Dempster when the time is right.

I’m glad I risked it. The geography up there is nothing like I’d ever experienced. The area is vast, remote, and pristine, untouched and unblemished by humans. And in that rawness is a natural beauty that is unparalleled by any park or nature reserve I’ve visited. There are very few places on Earth like it, and those are quickly dwindling. I hope that when I return, it will be as I remember it.

This marked the turnaround point of my tour and now I started heading back home. I had to be in Montreal in a little over a week for work. But first Bigby needed an oil change, so I went to Whitehorse, where I knew there is a Canadian Tire. Unfortunately, the large and excellent Robert Service Campground was closed so I ended up at High Country RV Park.

Note scavenged box underneath with plastic liner to catch the oil. You gotta do what ya gotta do. The dirty oil did end up back in containers and dropped off at the local Can Tire.

I found a private corner of the crowded camp and did an oil change. Now Bigby was ready to make the big sprint home across the country.

Restoration

Making an old motorcycle look good as new.

The first time I took my bike to a rally, I dropped it three times. It was my first time off-roading and I had street tires on. That’s not a good combination. Back at camp, I was lamenting a scratch I’d put in one of the body panels when another rider set me straight: “Ah, you can’t worry about that. It’s a bike.” Obviously, his conception of a motorcycle is different from many others who keep their bikes spit clean and polished to a gleam. I know one rider who scratched his bike in a tip-over at a red light so he sold it and bought a new one.

My f650GS is my learner’s bike. That’s the one you make all your mistakes on, so it shows all the wear and tear of your learning curve. It’s seen plenty of tip-overs and a few crashes—thankfully none on asphalt—and has plenty of “honour badges” to show for it. It’s also now 15 years old. So after completing my cross Canada tour last year, which included an excursion up The Dempster Destroyer, I decided to restore it and retire it from trail riding. It’s a great adventure bike and I’ll continue to use it for that, but I’ll no longer try to push it where it ought not to go. I hope to get a different bike eventually for more technical riding.

My friend Mike painted his Africa Twin a few years ago and did a great job. His company, Renomac Renovations, specializes in quality home improvements, but he’s just really experienced in all things mechanical and technical and knows paint. So I asked him to give me a hand restoring the panels of my bike.

I used a bumper repair kit to fix a chip in the beak, and bondo to fill some deep scratches. Lots of sanding with 320 and 400 wet-dry sandpaper and then we primed, painted, and clear-coated the panels. I had found on eBay a centre panel to replace the original that had been cracked by the buckle of my tank bag harness, so all panels are looking pretty good. I even had OEM look-alike stickers printed.

You have to have a loving wife to tolerate this use of the front porch.

While those are hardening in my front porch, I also cleaned up my exhaust using hydrochloric acid in toilet bowl cleaner. It works like a charm and eats through the rust pretty quickly. It even did a pretty good job on the staining of my chrome exhaust that happens through heat cycles. Just use a toothbrush and plenty of water to rinse afterwards or the acid will continue to eat the metal. I actually mixed up a mild solution of baking soda and water to be sure to neutralize the acid, then rinsed. A little Blue Job (no typo here) afterwards had them gleaming like new again.

Last fall, I replaced my cracked and scratched windscreen with a new one. I had the 12″ National Cycle VStream screen on before, but I decided to go slightly taller this time with the 15″. The shorter screen was best for off-roading, but this one, with the Puig wind deflector on top, should be best for touring at speed.

The Michelin Anakee Adventure Tires I used last year were great for touring. I put 20,000K on them and there’s still tread left, but with the bike looking this good, I guess it’s time for a new set of shoes. I thought I’d try those new Dunlop Trailmax Mission tires everyone has been raving about. They are listed as a 50/50 tire, which is the kind of riding I do, but they look like street tires. Dunlop claim that they give “knobby-like performance” in the dirt while having a round profile for smooth asphalt riding and cornering. We’ll see about that. They were a full two years in development and have some new technology built into them, including sidewall ribbing and a stepped tread. And if that were not enough, you are supposed to get 8,000 miles (or 13,000 K) from a set, so they apparently wear really well.

A new set of tires and tubes to complete the bike. Let’s see how these bad boys are.

I’ve got a set of Kenda Big Blocks with a lot of tread left on them sitting in the shed, but I think I’ll save those for my next rally. I was looking for a long-life 50/50 tire for adventure touring. I’ve tried Heidenau K60 Scouts on this bike and while the front was great, the back flattened pretty quickly. I’ll post later how these are. In fact, I think a tire review of what I’ve tried so far is in order.

The only thing I’m still waiting on before getting back on the road is the circuit board from my dash assembly. Last fall, the clock started showing nonsense and partial numbers. According to Wayne’s excellent website crossroadz, the plastic cover of the display can wear away the copper in the circuit board and disrupt the signal. Thankfully, there is an electronics technician at the bottom of my road who does excellent work at a fair price because I don’t have the confidence to practice The Dark Arts myself. He’s going to take off the display and rebuild the pathways, whatever that means. It’s a relatively small thing, but I actually use that clock a lot when riding, and the bike will otherwise be good as new, despite the 130,000 kilometres on it. The engine still has good compression and is not burning oil.

These restoration projects have been taking some time, but the real reason this blog has been so quiet lately is that I’ve been organizing a reading tour for my recent collection of poems, Invisible Sea, published by DC Books here in Montreal. So aside from proofreading and doing final edits on the manuscript, I’ve also been contacting bookstores and other possible venues to organize reading events. The collection explores the theme of flight and, in particular, early human flight.

I wanted to write something positive as a kind of antidote to the state of the world today, and decided to reach back to my childhood heroes, The Wright Brothers, for inspiration. So the opening section is in the voice of Wilbur Wright as he solves “the problem of flight,” as it was then known. The second section tells the stories of other early aeronauts, both legendary and real, from Icarus to Brother Eilmer of Malmsbury, The Flying Monk, to Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and John Glenn, orbiting Earth. The third section is an exploration of aerodynamics, musing on the major discoveries of air, beginning with Leonardo da Vinci’s study of streams, to something called The Compressibility Burble that happens at transonic flight. The final section is a celebration of birds, bats, boomerangs, Frisbees and all things that fly into our everyday lives.

So if you are an aviation enthusiast, you will enjoy this book. I’m marketing it to a popular audience since many of these poems are narrative and accessible to any reader, not just those who read poetry. I was inspired by the stories of these courageous men and women who risked their lives in leaps of faith, and if you ride a motorcycle, the closest thing to flight while remaining on the ground, you will connect with these poems. The collection is all of $20 and available through Amazon, Indigo, directly from my publisher, and elsewhere.

So if the blog has been a little quiet lately, it’s because I’ve been busy both with my paid work and in organizing reading events. I’m trying to put together a tour down through The United States to Kitty Hawk on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. As most of you probably know, that’s where the Wrights first flew, and I’d like to visit The Wright Brothers National Memorial there. That would allow me to ride The Blue Ridge Parkway—a bucket list ride of mine—as well as Tail of the Dragon. Then I will head over to Dayton, where the Wrights grew up, to the Dayton Aviation Heritage Museum, and back through Dearborn, Michigan, where Henry Ford has moved the Wright family home and bicycle shop as spectacles in his historical park. If all goes to plans, I’ll be able to combine in a short tour my love of riding with my love of aviation history.

Other than that, it will be a quiet summer in and around Montreal. I have to postpone my plans to tour the East Coast of Canada, including Newfoundland and Labrador, because our new dog, a rescue, still suffers from some vestigial anxiety and doesn’t travel well. He’ll need another year to settle in, so the bookend tour to the west coast one last year will have to wait another year.

What are your plans for the season? April is always an exciting time to be a biker in Canada. And are you doing any mods or restoration work to your bike? Let me know in the comment section below. I’ll be finishing writing up the remainder of last summer’s tour in the coming days, then looking only forward to another exciting season of riding on a bike that, if not new, looks good as new.

Muncho Lake, BC. I’ll be writing up the final segments of last year’s tour in the coming days.

The Prairies

I blast through Manitoba but savour Saskatchewan.

Many thanks to my talented and skilled wife, Marilyn Gillespie, for the retouching of all images used.

Of all the geographical regions in Canada, I was most excited to experience the Prairies. That probably sounds strange to many. Before leaving on this trip, I’d heard others say that prairie roads are flat and straight and mind-numbingly boring. But the Prairies were not only the one Canadian region I hadn’t yet visited in my lifetime, but they are also Big Sky Country, and I’m a Gemini, an air sign, so I like the sky. No wonder I’m also a flight enthusiast.

Provincial Covid restrictions meant I couldn’t stop in Manitoba except for food and gas, and with that in mind, I didn’t even stop in Kenora on my way out for the requisite photo-op with Husky the Muskie. That would have to wait for the return leg of my tour. I hit the highway, brought the bike up to 120 km/hr, activated my Kaoko throttle lock, and didn’t stop for hours on end. It’s not the Prairies that are mind-numbing, but the super-slab highway.

I discovered a few favourite positions on the bike to cover these miles. My favourite and go-to position was right hand on the throttle and left elbow on the tank bag. This “lean-in” look not only made me look distinguished on the bike but also saved my back as well as cut down on wind noise. There was also left hand on the left grip and right arm anywhere but on the throttle, usually dangling down by my side. Even with my throttle lock, I developed tingling in my right hand from the hours of vibration transmitted up through the handlebars, and this position gave it some relief. It’s not just the mind that goes numb on a big thumper with adventure tires. And when my legs needed a stretch, there was the Harley cruiser position. I would lift my legs up and rest them on the little Giant Loop Possibles Pouches strapped horizontally to my crash bars. Those bags became my highway pegs. 6 hours of 5000-rpm riding is not really touring but moving the bike from Point A to Point B, which was exactly the intent of Manitoba’s Covid restrictions.

Halfway to my destination.

The only relief came at Winnipeg on the ring-road, Highway 101. For some reason, my GPS decided that, enough was enough, and it would mercifully divert me, 3/4-way through the ring, off onto Highway 221 and then the 26. What a difference the secondary highway makes! It meant a few stretches of gravel road, but the tank-slapper I received on one section (a result of my bent rim, I would discover later) was preferable to another kilometre of the Trans Canada. I was closer to the land and passing through small towns with history. On one “roadside break,” I discovered this old caboose and wandered back through a field to find more quintessential prairie artifacts.

Shortly before Poplar Point, I noticed a sign stating something like “Celebrating 100 Years of Hockey” and then a historical marker. I naturally had to go explore and arrived at this historic hockey rink.

Soon I was routed back onto the Trans Canada and the rest of the day was more of the same. The only thing that made it bearable was knowing there would be a TV and bed waiting for me just over the Saskatchewan border; I had decided to take a hotel room in Moosomin—a rare luxury when I travel. After a long hot day of highway riding, a cool shower, hamburger, and more mind-numbing TV in bed would be just the thing.

En route to the beer store.

The only time my bike burns oil is at high revs, so after the kind of day of riding it had been, I thought I should check it. Unfortunately, checking the oil level on this bike is not as simple as letting it settle in the sump and pulling the dipstick. That’s because the crafty German engineers gave it a dry sump system, so oil level is a product of a) amount of oil in the bike [duh!], b) temperature of oil, c) ambient temperature, d) temperature of engine, e) altitude, f) lunar cycle, and g) bike’s direction relative to True North. It was hot, and the engine was hot, and so was the oil, so I let the bike sit for a bit while I checked in at the hotel. That only took a few minutes, but when I checked the level, it was missing about 3/4 of a quart! Yipes! I thought that was a lot, and a bit concerning, but I added it nonetheless from the quart I was carrying.

The next morning at my first rest stop I checked it again and now it was high—really high. Damn! I guess the bike did not burn as much oil as I’d thought, or perhaps I waited too long before checking it at the hotel. Guessing aside, I knew I had to get oil out of it now or risk damaging the seals. What was there to do but parking-lot maintenance. Out came the tools and off came the body panels. I was at a gas station with adjoining convenience store, so I ransacked the washroom for paper towels and dug an empty windshield washer fluid container out of a garbage bin, then drained some oil out of the upper holding tank. I did my best guess and took out about half a quart. The level was now within range and I put everything back on the bike and rode on in search of somewhere to deposit the used oil. Fortunately, in these parts, the ubiquitous Co-op gas stations have oil drop-off containers.

Now I was ready to ride, and what a ride it was! I was headed to Grasslands National Park (East Block entrance) and my GPS routed me along Highway 13, which is a different world from the Trans Canada. What a joy finally to be seeing some of Saskatchewan. While passing through Ogema along the 13 I saw a sign for Deep South Pioneer Museum. Always curious to learn something about the history of the places I’m riding through, I decided to take a look. Of course it was closed for the usual reason, but I was able to walk through the grounds and check out some pretty old machines.

Further west along the 13 I saw a sign for Horizon, and from the little bit of research I’d done, I knew there were some dilapidated grain elevators there so decided to make a detour. When driving back out to the 13, I passed this quaint little chapel. They are everywhere in Saskatchewan—spartan clapboard churches that are very different from the heavy stone exteriors and ornate architecture of Quebec churches. I could suggest that’s indicative of the difference between prairie folk and Quebecers . . . but won’t.

So tempted to give this a nudge.

The riding got better once I turned south onto 36 and even better on the 18. By now it was the golden hour, and the twisty road rose and dipped over the amber, grassy hills. Who says Saskatchewan is flat? It seemed like I had the road to myself except for mule deer that scurried away across the barren fields and a coyote that froze and glared as I passed. Was I in heaven? No, actually just in southwest Saskatchewan. I fell in love with this region. It was one of the discoveries of the entire tour and I’m looking forward to going back as soon as I have the chance.

The only thing I didn’t like about Saskatchewan was the gravel used on their secondary roads. They use small brown stones similar in shape, size, and rolling behaviour as marbles. It’s fine as long as you stay in the tire tracks, but if you get into the deeper stuff that collects between those tracks, you are in for a treat. I didn’t have the best tires for this stuff, and it didn’t help that my front wheel had a wobble, so there were a few times when I thought I was going down. In such cases, the old adage “If in doubt, throttle out” was not going to help me. And with the bike fully loaded, getting my weight back did not lighten the front end one bit. I found I just had to clutch in, coast, let the bike go where it wants to go, and hope for the best.

When I arrived at the park, I mentioned my dislike of those stones to the young lady at registration.

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said. “When I first moved here, I ended up in the ditch.”

“Oh, you ride too?” I asked.

“No, it was in my car.”

Riding down to the campground in the valley.

But don’t let me put you off visiting the park. It is very remote, as you can see from the photo above, and you get the sensation of what it must have felt like to travel by wagon across the prairies. You are completely exposed, and I could hear the coyotes yelping in the distance at night. The wind is fierce and relentless, so cooking is a challenge, but the badlands are spectacular, especially at sunset. There is a 20 kilometre single-lane loop along the top and I was lucky enough to do it at sunset. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The Badlands at sunset.

The next morning I decided to head on over to the other side of the park. I’d heard that the west entrance at Val Marie is very different so worth a stop. Now what do you do when road signs point one way and Google Maps tells you another? It’s not that I have an abiding faith in modern technology, but I decided to follow my GPS because it showed a route through the park, and I thought it would be much more interesting than going back out to the 13 and riding asphalt.

Crossing the park by dirt. It looks easy enough.

The road looked pretty doable at first and I enjoyed the true adventure riding. Four stags crossed the road in front of me and, one by one, in what seemed slow-motion, leapt the bordering fence and headed majestically across the open countryside. That kind of sighting was the reward, but the cost was more of the infamous gravel and, then worse, sand—deep sand. It’s not fun riding a fully loaded bike through sand, but I was committed now, and to make matters worse, my fuel light was on and I didn’t think I had enough gas to get me back out the other way, even if I wanted to bail. I pursued on and the sand in the valleys turned to two-track dirt on the hills. The road deteriorated further, I was told to turn off that “road,” and I found myself facing a gate. Like I said, adventure riding is about facing each challenge as you encounter it. Now I was in the middle of a vast, remote park; I hadn’t seen a soul in about an hour of riding; I was almost out of gas; and I was facing a closed gate.

I got off the bike and untied the gate, which thankfully wasn’t locked. I swung it open, rode through, stopped, closed and tied it again, then rode on. But as I pulled away, I heard a terrible grating, scratching sound like metal on metal. I’d ridden through barbed wire! Someone had strung barbed wire across the road on the other side of the gate! Clearly I was not where I was supposed to be but had no choice now but to continue. I untangled myself and the bike from the wire and rode on, half expecting to hear gunshots. It was lucky I hadn’t received a puncture from the barbs.

Just when things couldn’t have looked worse, my GPS announced, “In 8 kilometres, turn left.” Ugh! But it’s always darkest before the dawn, and just when I thought I was riding myself into serious trouble, there was another chapel in the middle of nowhere—a good sign—and then the road got better and resembled more a road, and before I knew it I was back out on the 18 again. It was asphalt from here on.

I popped out at McCord and filled up at the local gas station there. Across the street were these old pumps next to a local museum which was . . . well, you know.

There is a Visitor Information Centre at the West Block and I learned some interesting information about the region. For example, I discovered that they get an average annual rainfall of only 30-35 cm, half of it in the summer in thunderstorms in June and July, and about a third in snowfall. This really is a desert climate! I also discovered that rattlesnakes are common and that you can hike up the nearby Eagle Butte. Normally those two clauses would be incompatible but I had adventure riding boots on so decided to do it, just for the view. A sign at the trailhead said the buzzing sound you often hear along the trail are rattlesnakes, but the grasshoppers in this region make a similar buzzing sound by slapping their wings together in flight, just to mess with you. The whole experience—climbing a desert mountain mid-summer wearing adventure boots amid rattlesnakes and flying, buzzing insects—is highly recommended. Once at the top, the view was worth it all, but not captured very well by the camera.

From the summit of Eagle Butte, looking west.

By now it was mid-morning. I wanted to stay and explore this fascinating geography some more but still had seven hours of riding to get to my destination, Calgary. Marilyn had reserved an AirBNB for us and I was looking forward to seeing her and sleeping in a bed. I hit the highway again and before long I was at the provincial border.

Goodbye Prairies. Hello Rockies.

Now I had a few days to rest the body, do laundry, eat and drink well, and socialize with friends and family before we would hit the road together on the next leg of the trip.

Trip Planning: Final Prep

I’m down to just a few days before departure and not feeling very prepared. By the time I was free and clear of work, I had only two weeks to prepare the bike. That’s a lot, but not when parts take two weeks to arrive from Germany. So I’ve done what I can, as you can see from the list above. Today I remove the clutch cover to change the water pump and clutch plates. I actually have the pump—I’ve had it for a few years because you never know when it will fail on this bike—and I have the cork replacement plates for the clutch. What I don’t yet have are clutch springs and, if required, a replacement clutch cover gasket—that large paper one. These items and a few more were supposed to arrive last week, but it seems Covid is trying its best to sabotage the tour this year as well as last. Today is a holiday in Quebec so if the parts don’t arrive on Friday, I’ll have to make do. That might mean re-using old clutch springs or shimming them if they are out of spec. And hopefully I can get that clutch cover off without damaging the existing gasket. I only ordered a new one in case I can’t.

The good news is that the bike has all new wheel bearings, including the cush drive bearings, and new rubber. I did end up going with the Anakee Adventures in the end, mostly for their smoothness on asphalt. I don’t anticipate doing much off-roading on this tour, and they will be really nice through the twisties in The Rocky Mountains. I tried my best to balance the wheels using jack stands but I think I will get them checked professionally. The pros have computerized equipment that is more precise, and I thought I felt a bounce in the front. I also changed the front sprocket back to the stock 16-tooth, among other mods. My son helped me shoot a few videos of the mods I’ve made on the bike both for dirt and converting it back to street.

My wife, Marilyn, and I did a test ride last Saturday and the bike is running great. I remember now how that stock gearing is so much better on the highway; you have roll on at 120 km/hr.! And at 110 km/hr, which is a comfortable cruising speed for me on the highway, the revs sit right on the sweet spot of this bike at 4600 rpm. Even at 120 km/hr the revs aren’t over 5000. I’m glad I made that change, even though I know you’re not supposed to change a sprocket without changing the chain. Well, the chain has only 7K on it so it will be fine, and I’ll change everything when I’m back.

With all the attention on the bike, I have only just started laying out items to pack. Marilyn is having kittens about this because she can’t imagine starting so late for such a big trip, but I’ve done it before many times and I pretty much know what I’m taking. The only difference this time is that I have to consider two set-ups: one for when I’m solo, and one for when Marilyn is riding pillion. This means that I’ll have an empty pannier when alone. I will fill it with booze and tobacco until she joins me in Calgary.

The only tricky part of packing actually is deciding what spare parts to bring. I’ve done everything possible to prevent an issue on the road and I don’t have room to carry spare engine parts, but I’ll take an assortment of hardware, spare clutch cable and perhaps levers, gasket maker, JB Weld, self-fusing tape—that sort of thing. I’ll try to anticipate any issue that I might have, within reason.

I haven’t been able to research as well as I’d like, unfortunately. The book on Canadian geography I took out from the library sits unopened on my coffee table. I’ll have to do my research on the fly, so to speak. I’m pretty familiar with Ontario from previous travels and from writing a few articles for northernontario.travel, and I found a great video of tourist destinations in southwestern Saskatchewan, so I’m good for the first two provinces, I think. Marilyn is pretty familiar with Alberta, having lived there for 20 years, and we will explore BC together, so I’m not going to beat myself up for not getting more reading done. It’s not like I’ve been idle.

We have a few reservations booked on Vancouver Island and will stay with different friends as we make our way through the BC mainland. I am mostly concerned about when I’m alone and camping, since I’ve heard that campgrounds are all full. I’ll be using iOverlander to find wild camping spots and will have to wing it. This will be a first for me and I anticipate a few nights of searching for a suitable safe spot, but having watched Lyndon Poskitt wing it all over the world, I know it can be done.

The Yukon has dropped the requirement for travelers to self-isolate upon entering, but only if you are fully vaccinated, so I’ll be looking to get my second dose on the road somewhere so my planned trip up north is still on. Unfortunately, since I got the fist one after May 1st, I’m not eligible for the second until after I leave. Like so much about this tour, I will figure that out on route.

It hasn’t sunk in yet that I’m finally doing this. Perhaps I will grow into it, or it will hit me once I leave my first destination in Ontario. I’ll be staying with my sister for a few days and visiting my dad, so the trip proper begins July 1st, Canada Day, which seems appropriate. I won’t be posting while on the road so don’t expect any action on the blog until I’m back. I wish you all a safe and enjoyable summer!

Planned full trip. Am I crazy?

Trip Planning: Early Decisions

Photo credit: Amazon.ca

I’m between semesters of my teaching work so have been taking this extra time to do some initial planning for the big tour next summer. I’ll be sharing a series of posts about this process. Here’s the first one on some of the initial decisions I’ve made.

The Route

My wife, Marilyn, will be joining me for some of this trip but how much is yet to be determined. The initial plan is that I will ride out to Calgary, Alberta, where we have some friends and family, and meet Marilyn there. We have some friends in southern British Columbia, the next stop, and then we’ll end up on Vancouver Island. After exploring the island, we will cross the US border to more family in Washington State. I’d love to visit Yellowstone National Park, which is fairly close, and to ride Beartooth Pass, one of the top roads in the U.S. I also want to ride the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur down to San Francisco.

Part of my reason for heading south is so that when I head back east across The United States, I’ll be riding through Yosemite National Park, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado, and will be able to see the Sierras as well as those iconic southwestern states and mountain passes. If I keep a fairly straight trajectory, I’ll end up close to The Tail of the Dragon and The Blue Ridge Parkway, iconic rides and bucket list items of mine. Time permitting, I’d like to get out all the way out to the east coast to the Outer Banks, NC, where I have fond childhood memories of family vacations. It’s all rather sketchy at this point, but that’s it, in a nutshell: west across Canada, south down the Pacific coast, and east across The United States before heading north back up to Montreal. A rough and dirty GoogleMaps calculation puts the entire trip at around 12,000 kilometers, or 7,500 miles. It will likely be considerably longer, though, as I plan to explore attractions along the way that will pull me off a direct route.

While I will have some fixed destinations, I want to keep my itinerary flexible and spontaneous. For accommodations, I’ll be camping, and wild camping when possible, which allows for this flexibility. I will cook as much of my own food as I can, extending my budget. It will be a challenge but also part of the fun. This is what adventure riding is all about.

Dirt or Pavement?

One big early decision is how much dirt to ride? I’m thinking this will be primarily on pavement, simply because of the miles to cover, sticking to secondary highways because, well, the super slab is not much fun. But I feel I must get off the pavement through those iconic southwestern states like Nevada, Utah!, and Colorado, even though I’ll be riding solo and am just an intermediate rider. In fact, although I’ll be pushing myself out of my comfort zone, I’d love to put in a few weeks of more technical riding and come back a lot more proficient and confident in the dirt. I just have to do it safely, or as safely as one can.

I’ve been watching YouTube videos of guys doing BDRs (Backcountry Discovery Routes) and the TAT (Trans America Trail) through those states, trying to access how technical these routes are. Bigby is designed for curving secondary highways and light off-roading, and I have to respect the limitations of my bike as well as my abilities. These are big decisions with a lot at stake, and I can’t let ego or bravado get the better of me. On the other hand . . . how can I cross Utah without riding sections of the Moab desert? And I’d be a fool to not get off the asphalt into the wilderness for some of those Colorado mountain passes.

Photo credit: lizhoffmaster

I’m going to order Butler maps for NV, UT, and CO. They show the BDR routes and contain a lot of good information about which sections are easy. I’m also reading ride reports on the ADVRider forum, an excellent resource for exactly this sort of thing. Why not learn from others who have already done it? What I suspect will end up happening is I’ll ride the easier sections of dirt and jump out onto the asphalt as needed.

Tire Choice

How do you have a smooth, comfortable tire for those thousands of kilometers of pavement and still be able to ride the sand and mud that I will encounter off road? Well, you don’t. There really isn’t any unicorn tire that can do it all. Initially, I was sure I would do this trip on the Michelin Anakee Adventure tire. Its smooth profile, dual compound structure (i.e. hard rubber down the middle for longevity, soft rubber on the sidewalls for grip in the corners), and tread pattern would make it a perfect tire for 80% of this trip. But I’ll need something more aggressive for that planned off-roading. I could swap the tire early (I calculate I’ll hit dirt at around 7,000 K on the Anakees), or I could go with a 50/50 tire for the whole trip and suffer some comfort on pavement. Another option is swap out the Anakees for an aggressive off-road knobby, which will mean another switch unless I want to ride Tail of the Dragon and the Blue Ridge Parkway on knobbies, which I don’t. Currently, I’m leaning toward the reliable Heidenau K60 Scouts, a 50/50 tire that should be able to do the entire 12,000 kilometers with some manageable sacrifices on both pavement and dirt. Another option I’m considering is switching to Shinko 804/805 tires, a 60/40 that is pretty beefy for off-roading and surprisingly smooth on the road. They are only good for about 6,000 K but that should be enough to get me home. I’m open to suggestions, so feel free to leave a comment.

Navigation

In the limited amount of touring I’ve done so far on the bike, I’ve learned that navigation is huge. I struggled in the past with charging issues and roaming charges, even just safely navigating the phone while riding. I think I’ve solved these issues. I followed a thread on ADVRider and bought a Kyocera military grade phone cheap off eBay. It’s locked, but that doesn’t matter because I’ll be using this phone exclusively offline (no SIM card installed) for navigation using maps downloaded to the SD card. This also avoids roaming charges while I’m in The States.

I’ve solved the charging issue by using a magnetic phone cable and gluing the adapter into the port with silicone, making a waterproof seal. (The phone is waterproof but won’t charge if the port detects moisture.) I’ve also purchased the Carpe-Iter Controller, a great little device that mounts on the handlebar and can be operated with my thumb. It works using Bluetooth and has a toggle switch for navigating and selecting apps, and two push-buttons for zooming in and out in maps. It was a little pricey, but will avoid that dangerous dicking around with the phone while one-handed riding. I use OsmAnd primarily and run Drive Mode Dashboard to turn my phone into a dashboard. Drive Mode with the controller is a very nice combination which I hope will make navigation a lot easier and safer.

The only other issue I’ve been having with navigation is that my Ram X-Grip phone holder presses on the buttons on the sides of the Kyocera phone. I think I’ve solved that one by getting the Ram Quick Grip phone holder, which allows you to position the retaining clips to avoid pressing on those buttons.

Gear

One concern I have about this trip is that I’ll be riding in extreme temperatures, from 40C deserts to snowy mountain passes. It’s not like I can turn on A/C or heat in the cabin, so I have to be prepared with the right gear since comfort is part of riding safety. And of course I need my gear to be waterproof.

So far, my go-to touring jacket has been the Klim Traverse. It’s a Gore-Tex shell which I layer with a Knox Venture Shirt underneath. The problem with the Traverse is that it’s hot! Yeah, it’s waterproof, which is great; I don’t have to stop and put on a rain jacket but can just keep riding all day long rain or shine. But Gore-Tex does not flow much air, and the jacket is also black. I imagined dying in some of those really hot days mid-summer in the southwest.

The Klim Marrakesh Jacket. Photo credit: Fort Nine

I decided to buy a Klim Marrakesh jacket. It’s a mesh jacket so will vent a ton of air, but it’s also 1000D Cordura, so unlike most mesh jackets, will hold up in a slide. It has 4-way stretch so is, without argument, the most comfortable jacket on the market. Anyone who puts one on—I dare you—will not want to wear another motorcycle jacket again. I’m going to be wearing this for two months straight, so comfort is important. It’s not waterproof but water resistant, so I bought a Scott Ergonomic Pro DP rain jacket, and I’ll add a down-filled vest underneath and even my fleece sweater if necessary. In other words, I’ve decided to go the layering route, instead of one-jacket-does-all. I’ll be using my Klim Carlsbag pants, which are great. I don’t care that they are Gore-Tex because your legs don’t get a lot of air-flow anyways. And no one likes pulling rain paints on over your boots by the side of the road.

Bike Prep

I’ve had to break the piggy bank for this stuff and my marriage stock is a little low at the moment. But I’m riding an older bike, so what I save on the bike I spend on gear. (That’s my argument, and I’m sticking to it.) I’ve been a little concerned about the amount of oil the engine is losing lately and pondering what I can do about it. As far as I can figure, it’s either losing the oil through the seals or burning it in the cylinder.

It’s a 2006, so it’s possible the seals are worn. My buddy Phil has the same bike but a little older, and he says his engine “sweats” oil at high revs. Yeah, the pressure in the crankcase at high revs might be forcing some oil past those old seals. A little research has uncovered an oil additive called AT-205. It contains a polymer that will restore the plasticity to aged seals that are dried, shrunken, or just worn out. Of course I want to be sure it’s safe for the engine, but user reviews are good and it’s endorsed by Scotty Kilmer. I don’t want to keep this in my engine for long and don’t need to. It apparently works in about 5 hours of driving/riding, so I’ve bought some and will add it sometime in the spring and change my oil soon afterwards. I’m hoping this quick fix will bring my engine back to good health.

If the oil is getting past the rings and being burnt in the cylinder, I’ll just use a cheap heavier weight oil, one that is readily available at Canadian Tire since I’ll literally be burning through a lot of it over the 12,000 kilometers. Castrol 20W/50 motorcycle oil sells for $6.99 at Canadian Tire. My old bike runs better on a dino oil anyways, and it was when I switched to a semi-synthetic 10W/40 that I started losing oil. Coincidence?

So that is the prep so far: a rough sketch of the route, some gear purchases, and some problem-solving of an old engine. Now I just need Covid to go away.

I’ll be posting a walk-around of the bike soon, showing the modifications I’ve made over the years to customize it for my riding, so watch for that. My son is helping me with a video, which I will post to YouTube and write a short post containing the link.

Please Like, Comment, and Follow if you are interested in following me on this adventure.

One Bike or Two?

Has the adventure bike seen its heyday?

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

“It’s an adventure bike, dad.”

“What’s that?”

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

“Why not get a dirt bike?”

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

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

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

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

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

The adventure bike is the Swiss Army Knife of motorcycles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shawn Thomas

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

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

The End of Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off-Roading with The Awesome Players

Awesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suspension Upgrade

Life Cycle

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

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

Front Suspension

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.