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.

Group_ride_1web

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.

stx_front_web_zoom_1

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.

Bike2020

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.

Group_ride_4web

 

 

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.

Group_ride_3web

 

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.

lighthouse

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.

Group_web

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.

First Ride

Lakeshore

What’s your first ride? I mean the first one of the year? Do you have a favourite go to ride you do when the bike first comes out of storage? I do.

My first road ride ever—when my group at the school finally left the lot and headed out onto the road—was down 55th Avenue in Lachine to Lakeshore Blvd. We’d been warned about the right turn onto Lakeshore and had been practising for it with counterbalancing turns winding through cones. But once on Lakeshore Blvd., it was a perfectly slow, easy ride, with lots of stops signs along the way to practice braking and gearing. It also happens to be pretty scenic too with a view out over Lac Saint Louis. At some point we headed up to the highway and zoomed back to the lot, but Lakeshore, with its signs that read “If you’re in a hurry, take the highway,” was a safe beginning.

Even before I had my road licence and was supposed to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, I snuck out with my new bike. I headed down to Lakeshore Blvd. and took that all the way around the western tip of the Island of Montreal, going through Pointe-Claire, Beaconsfield, Beaurepaire, Baie D’Urfe, Sainte-Anne’s, through swanky Senneville and along Gouin a little. Then I went across the bridge to Ile Bizard and looped it before making my way back home.

It’s an easy, easy ride, and that’s what you want the first time out, when muscle memory is weak and you have to refamiliarize yourself with the controls. It doesn’t take long for it all to come back, but if you’re going to make a mistake, you want to make it at low speed, in second gear. I lost the last two months of last season waiting for parts, so last week, when I got the bike out of storage, I actually hadn’t ridden for six months. I’d just installed new brake lines so, before pulling out of the driveway, I pulled the front brake lever and tried to move the bike. It’s a simple test they make you do at the licensing bureau before you do the road test to ensure your brakes are working. The bike should nose-dive, but this time it didn’t. It rolled. “Damn, the brakes aren’t working!” I thought, “Why aren’t they working?” Then I realized I was pulling the clutch lever, not the brake. That’s why you want an easy, slow-speed ride for your first. 

There’s another reason you want a slow ride. Usually for me, getting the bike out of storage means doing some work on it. There’s already some work that I do to put it into storage, like change the oil and take out the battery; but getting it out of storage almost inevitably means adding something to it that I’ve bought over the winter. This year, like I said, it was some steel-braided brake lines, but also new pads, and some Rox handlebar risers. These are pretty easy mods, but there’s a chance I’ve overlooked something—a nut not completely tightened, or the controls affected by the risers (yes, I tested at idle full-lock both ways, but you can’t be too safe)—and you don’t want to discover at highway speeds that you forgot to tighten the wheel lug nut, now do you? I give my bike a good look over before I head off, but still . . . A friend recently forgot to tighten her oil cap completely after doing an oil change, so oil was dripping down onto her exhaust pipe and smoking. It’s simple mistake, but oil on the tires could be dangerous. Your easy first ride reduces the risk of those innocuous mistakes becoming disastrous.

Sticking close to home also helps should you encounter a problem with the bike. I’ve limped home from a short distance with my temperature light flicking on and off. As my confidence in the bike grows, so does my distance from home and my speeds. After I did my Lakeshore route last week, I headed off to Ontario on Sunday with a small group. Yeah, there’s safety in numbers too. Although my first ride has always been solo, it’s not a bad idea for it to be in a group.

It feels so good to be back on the road. Six months! It puts a sparkle in the eye and a spring in the step of every rider. As I write this from Montreal, Canada, a snowstorm has blown in, but it’s the last of the winter, I’m sure. The forecast for the next few weeks is above freezing so the riding season officially begins tomorrow. Have a safe season, and if you have a favourite first ride, tell me about it.

 

Flying Solo

Moonbeam Saucer_web

The first time I travelled alone I was 21. The year was 1984. At that time, it was a thing, after finishing high school, to backpack across Europe with a Eurorail pass and international hostel membership card, “finding yourself” along the way. After spending some time with family in England, my uncle drove me to the docks at Portsmouth and I caught a ferry across the channel to start my month-long trek of the continent.

I hadn’t slept much the night before. Although this had been a plan for most of the preceding year, I was apprehensive about setting off on my own for the first time in my life, and my aunt, in the usual succinct manner of that side of my family, said “Your mind must have been active.” In reality, I was shitting bricks.

It was a night crossing and we docked the next morning in Le Havre. After getting some breakfast, I managed to figure out, without knowing a word of French, the correct train to Paris. Once in Paris, I started looking for my planned hostel. Even on that first day, I knew intuitively, as any animal does, that safety at night is the top priority. My anxiety grew through the afternoon as I failed to find not only the hostel but also a decent crapper. Armed only with my copy of Let’s Go Europe, I wandered the streets of Paris, asking passerby in English, to no avail. Parisians, I was discovering, have no time for tourists. I was getting worried. If I couldn’t find this hostel, how could I possibly find myself?

It was at that point that the guardian angel of travel, Saint Christopher, smiled on me in the form of a mute. He was a young man, barely a teenager, unable to speak a word of French or English, and the only Parisian with the patience to help me. In a series of completely intelligible gestures and grunts, he communicated that I had to get on not the metro, as I had mistakenly thought, but the commuter train and go three stops before getting off. What I had failed to understand was that the hostel was not in Paris at all but the suburbs on its outskirts. I think he even took me to the correct platform and indicated again the number three with his hand before waving goodbye. That was the only time during that month I felt in trouble, but I’ve never forgotten that young man nor the feeling of being in a bit of a fix while travelling alone.

There’s something unique about travelling solo. Of course there are practical advantages like being able to travel at your own pace, your own route, in your own company, especially if you’re an introvert. Locals are more likely to approach you and strike up a conversation. But the real advantage of travelling solo is that extra edge of danger in having no one to rely on but yourself. Problems with the bike? You’re on your own. Problems navigating? You’re on your own. Personal security? You’re on your own. That may not sound like very much fun, but as Claire Fisher in the pilot episode of Six Feet Under says about crystal meth, the risk of travelling solo makes everything “burn a little brighter.” It’s a drug one can get hooked on. And with the added risk and reward of motorcycle travel, it’s no wonder that today the thing is to find yourself selling everything and travelling solo around the world by bike. The ADV world is filled with folks doing exactly this, or dreaming about it.

There’s little chance of me packing up anytime soon. I love my little cottage-home in Quebec, my job, my wife, and my son. The solo tour for me this year was five days in Northern Ontario doing The Great Legends Tour, a loop from Mattawa to Kapuscasing via Tamiskaming Shores, then back down through Timmons, Sudbury, and North Bay. After a few days at a cottage in Kipawa, I loaded up the bike, said good-bye to my wife, sister, and a friend, and headed north up the 101.

It was a wet ride but the rain didn’t dampen my spirits; I was finally on my own and heading for adventure. The 101 is a two-lane highway that cuts through boreal forest on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. Without any fencing at the sides, you have to stay alert. 101N Forest_webIt climbs as it heads north, opening up into farmland and views of the distant mountains.

101N Farm_web

After riding for a few hours, I took my first break at a rest stop in Ville-Marie.

P1030202

Shortly after lunch, just north of Saint-Bruno-de-Guigues, I spotted a sign indicating a covered bridge. I knew my destination was all the way up in Moonbeam, but the adventure bug was itching so I decided to venture off my planned route. A gravel road took me to Pont Dénommee—not the most picturesque covered bridge I’d seen, but not knowing what you’re going to get, like a handful of Bits And Bites, is part of the adventure.

Covered Bridge_web

After riding through, I went to pull a U-turn, but I swung too far right to set up, the road crumbled at the edge, and the front tire washed out. After a week of asphalt, I was out of practice off road. With the panniers on, the bike didn’t tip completely over and it was easy to lift again, even still loaded. But it would be a reminder to stay alert always when off roading and a harbinger of things to come.

With my excursion fulfilled, I returned to the 101 and soon crossed back into Ontario on the 65. The rain started and never really let up for the rest of the day. My Klim Dakar pants are not waterproof and sometime that afternoon I decided, before my next tour, I would invest in some waterproof Gore-Tex pants. I also decided I needed a proper motorcycle GPS. My Samsung S5 is water resistant and works okay with GoogleMaps as a crude GPS, but it does not charge whenever the port detects moisture, and a fully charged phone can deplete in a matter of hours when running a GPS app. The phone and the status of its battery would be a thorn in my side the entire trip and lead to a breakdown on my final day. (More on that later.) I’ve been such a good boy this year that Santa owes me, and if a Garmin Montana isn’t under the tree this Christmas, I’m breaking bad.

At Temiskaming Shores I filled up, then turned onto Highway 11N from the 65. There’s a Tim Horton’s there and it was a welcome stop to warm up if not dry off. From there, I headed north, but instead of angling north-west on the 11, the Great Legends Tour suggests continuing straight north on the 569, then the 624 just before Englehart, then the 672, north and north and north, so that when you finally catch up with the 101, this time on the Ontario side of the border, you’re way up near Matheson and the deciduous trees have disappeared. After a short stint west on 101, soon I was heading north again on the Transcanada Highway 11, but by this time I was happy to be on a major well-maintained highway to crack the throttle. I was keeping my eye out for wildlife, and while I wasn’t sure of the cops situation in these parts, I was watching out for them too. What I wasn’t expecting as I rounded a corner in driving rain was to find a car backing up on the highway! It just goes to show how you can never, ever be complacent on a motorcycle.

Many beginner riders, fearing front-end wash-out, get into the bad habit of using only the rear brake, which accounts for only 10% of stopping power. And many riders with ABS brakes never learn how to modulate the front using two fingers and a gentle initial squeeze until the load is transferred to the contact patch and sufficient friction prevents the tire from washing out. Without the benefit of ABS, I’ve always forced myself to brake properly, emergency or no emergency, to develop muscle memory specifically for the situation I now suddenly found myself in: an unexpected emergency stop on a wet surface at speed. It all might have gone horribly wrong if I hadn’t forced myself to be diligent and demanding with this skill in those early days. This was the payoff. The bike squatted and I quickly slowed without even a skid, then proceeded to gesticulate to the idiot driver in front, not so much a “Fuck you!” but a “What the fuck?” It appeared a construction vehicle had dropped some of its load in the oncoming lane, but to this day, I don’t know why the car in mine had stopped and was backing up. What I do know is I’m glad I learnt emergency braking technique. A lot of people say that motorcycles are dangerous and I won’t deny they are. But learning proper technique, whether with braking, accelerating, cornering, or just viewing the road, will keep you as safe as possible. Bad things happen to newbies who are unprepared.

It was getting on in the day and I still had to get through Cochrane, Driftwood, and Smooth Rock Falls to Moonbeam, angling northwest and now as far north as I’d ever been in my life. There’s not much up in these parts and I’d passed up the opportunity earlier in the day to pick up a little Northern Comfort at the liquor store to warm my belly upon arrival at camp. I regretted that decision now that I was cold and wet. The liquor store in Moonbeam would be closed by the time I arrive, so I chalked that one up as a lesson in poor forethought.

The local council in Moonbeam know how to exploit their name to attract tourism. I’m imagining the council meeting when someone suggests building a flying saucer and placing it at the side of Transcanada Highway to attract tourists. I wonder how that idea first went over? But build they did, and the saucer above is now a local landmark. I, for one, was grateful because Moonbeam is so small you can miss it if you blink. My destination was René Brunelle Provincial Campground just north of Moonbeam. My GPS didn’t say turn right at the flying saucer but it could have. Right on the 581 and soon I was on dirt and soon after at the park gate. The young lady at the gate said my site was one of the good ones, right on the water, and it was! I pitched the tent, had a little supper, then strung the food pannier because there was apparently a bear in the area.

RB Campsite_web

By now the rain had subsided but I still had a chill from the ride. Without any liquid warmth, I lit a pipe and took a walk through the campground. I didn’t have many good words to say about provincial campgrounds in my last post, but now I’m going to say you just have to get far enough away from Toronto and its resident douchebags for all that to change. The campground was lovely. Here are the unofficial rules, posted by one of the regulars.

RBrules

I looped around and as I came back along the lake side of the park I saw between the trees flashes of light in the night sky. Once back at my site, I climbed down to the water and looked across Remi Lake. Every few seconds the sky would light up a diffuse amber, and at first I thought I might be seeing the aurora borealis, or northern lights. It’s not uncommon to see them this far north. But then a bolt of lightening jabbed out from beneath the bank of clouds and I knew it was rather a lightening storm. Nevertheless, the light show was spectacular, and at times like these I don’t want to be alone but sharing the experience with my wife.

I knew what it meant though: more rain was coming. I climbed into my tent and into my sleeping bag, rolled up my sweater and placed it behind my head. As I lay in the dark, I heard the wind pick up and begin to rustle through the upper branches of the huge pines that surrounded me. The rustling grew louder and soon it was a roar and I wasn’t sure if I was hearing wind in the trees or rain on the lake. It was rain, and the storm was a big one, moving toward me. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any louder, the first few drops began to hit the tent.

Review of Total Control: High Performance Street Riding Techniques, by Lee Parks

TotalControl

Can you improve your riding from reading a book? No, but if you practice and apply some of the information presented in Parks’ book, you will. This book is less about road safety than riding technique, so if you’re looking to avoid a collision, see my review of David Hough’s Proficient Motorcycling, which deals with this subject. In fact, Hough cites Parks’ book, and the two have collaborated in the past. Where Hough leaves off, Parks picks up and takes you a step further.

Looking at the cover image, you’d think this book is for sport bike riders. It is, and it isn’t. Most of the techniques presented are definitely meant for the track but can be applied to any type of riding to improve safety and proficiency. It’s not all about safety. If you want to stay safe, stay at home. Sometimes you just want to get around a corner faster, or ride with more advanced riders. There are photos here showing guys dragging a knee on a Gold Wing or a V-Strom, getting air on a GS. It doesn’t matter what your ride is or what type of riding you do, Total Control will have something for you.

The book is nicely organized into sections on Chassis Dynamics, Mental Dynamics, Body Dynamics, Machine Setup, and Rider Setup, with chapters within those sections. I’d say the heart of the book is the section on Body Dynamics, which contains chapters on vision, line selection, throttle control, shifting, braking, body positioning, low-speed turns, and riding two up. Now before you say, “Yeah, we learnt all that in my training course,” let me say we are talking here about advanced techniques, so very subtle and technical aspects of those skills.

We all know about target fixation, but do you know it’s related to us being predators? We know about straightening a curve, but what about premature initiation? (No, this is not a sexual gaff.) How to handle a double apex curve? In the chapter on shifting, I learnt how to preload the shifter, and in my next ride I was shifting quicker and smoother. Another technique I found interesting is trail braking, a technique in which at a point in the corner you are braking and accelerating at the same time! The idea is essentially that since braking makes the bike nose-dive and accelerating lifts the front end, you can use these opposing forces to cancel each other out and stabilize the bike through the corner: “The technique has us simultaneously rolling off the throttle while applying the brakes going into a corner. Once in the corner we start to slowly roll on the throttle as we slowly trail off the brakes,” hence the term “trail braking.” Now before you scoff and dismiss, Parks says that “virtually every MotoGP and World Superbike racer—as well as every motor cop—now uses this technique: so try it before judging it.” And Parks would know. He was 2nd overall in the 1994 AMA Superbike Championship (125GP class) and won the 2001 WERA National Endurance Series Championship. He’s an accomplished rider and knows of what he speaks.

Another interesting bit of information I found in this book is the suggestion to try cornering with one hand. You’d think he was being foolhardy, but in fact he claims that often our two arms are fighting each other through a corner, and allowing one hand (presumably the throttle hand) to take full control actually improves steering. But be careful! Parks says the first time most people try this they oversteer. The book is filled with other such tidbits of useful information. I won’t give all the goods away.

Chapters at the back deal with riding gear and fitness. I’m excited to try a 6-10 minute high-intensity training program designed specifically for bikers by strength trainer Timothy Parravano. It involves only 4 exercises and the only equipment needed is a chin-up bar. In just 6 minutes, you get core strengthening and an anaerobic cardio workout.

The book is extremely technical but is well illustrated with diagrams and graphs. Still, I found some material more theoretical than my needs. For example, there’s an entire chapter on how suspension works from an engineering standpoint. Do I need to know this? I’m really only interested in setting up my suspension for the best ride possible, which comes in a separate chapter. And the chapter on aerodynamics? I’m not going to be tucking behind a tiny windscreen on any of my rides. This is where the book’s leaning toward sport bike racing shows. If you’re like me, you can skim those sections.

The book is now in its second edition and has become a classic. Anyone interested in improving their skills should pick it up. I liked the pep talk by Parks in the epilogue as he waxes philosophic, drawing on his interest in Buddhism. (Illustrative Buddhist aphorisms and parables are smattered throughout the book.) “In a special sense, the reason you are reading this is because your riding is a little bit “sick.” When you are sick, the doctor prescribes medicine. The problem is we get addicted to the medicine. But medicine is not food for a motorcyclist. Brilliant riding is food. The purpose of medicine is so that you don’t need the medicine. The purpose of a teacher is so that you don’t need a teacher. The purpose of method is so you ultimately don’t need a method. In Japan, if you have spent too much time with a particular master you are said to “stink” of Zen. You can think of Total Control as the medicine you need to overcome your sickness.”

Most people may not have the humility to think of their riding as “sick,” but if you’re like me—always interested in improving whatever you do—this book is for you.

The Wish List

santa_moto

My wife and I have a difference of opinion on gift-giving. In her family, it’s common to send out gift suggestions around birthdays and Christmastime. They come over the phone or via email from distant family, or they are dropped—maybe not an entire list but a single suggestion—into a conversation on a completely unrelated topic, seemingly innocuously, as if accidentally, usually with one’s back turned. I get it: you’re trying to help the other person out, who legitimately might have no idea of what you want. If this is a distant family member, that makes sense. But if it’s your spouse, well, you have to wonder how well your soulmate knows you.

I, on the other hand, love the element of surprise, and am willing to gamble my gift receiving in the hope of being pleasantly surprised. I also like giving gifts. I like the challenge of trying to think of that very thing someone has always wanted although he or she doesn’t realize it until the epiphany of opening my gift. My sister says I have gifting issues, but I say I’m just a kid at heart. The best part of Christmas is not the turkey dinner, the family visits, the work parties, the chocolates, sweets, egg nog, the smell of pine in the living room, the decorative lighting . . . no! It’s opening gifts, damnit! It’s getting to be both a kid again and Santa at the same time, if only for a morning.

It is therefore completely against my gifting policy to write this blog, which is a composite wish list of my most desired motorcycle gear. These are the things I would buy tomorrow if I happened upon about $4,000 and had my debts and mortgage paid and about three times what I actually have in my RRSP and child poverty worldwide was a thing of the past. It’s not meant so much as a wish list to my spouse or anyone else but a dream list to myself. Fortunately, I don’t need any of this stuff to fulfill my plans for next season, but they sure would make my journeys more enjoyable.

First up is a new seat. The BMW’s Rotax engine is the best thumper going, but their saddle sure does suck! I noticed it immediately upon going for my first ride. Well, what I noticed immediately is that the seat is sloped forward so it feels like the boyz are constantly crushed against the airbox. What took about another five or six hours on the seat to notice is that it’s not just the boyz that have complaint. After that first tour, when I put 800 kms. on the final day, I had a new tactile understanding of the term “saddle sores.” So if there’s one item I am somehow going to purchase at the beginning of next season, even if I have to sell body parts to get it, it’s the Touratech Comfort Seat, Extra High.

ttsaddle

Yeah, BMW has a comfort seat, but why reward them for putting a cheap seat on an otherwise excellent bike? I’m really happy with my Touratech panniers and I have a lot of confidence in this German company, which seems cut from the same cloth as BMW itself. I’m going to go with the extra high because I can easily afford another 2 inches on the height (my mom’s nickname for me is Longshanks), and it will change the ergonomics and make me less cramped. I would go with the FreshTouch version, which is covered in some technical material that somehow doesn’t retain heat as much as regular vinyl.

I plan to start some off-roading and I saw at the Simon Pavey school that motocross boots are mandatory for their courses, so a pair is on my list—not that I’m going to Pavey’s school in Wales, but I understand why he thinks they are necessary. The body parts most likely to be injured in a fall are your feet and lower legs, and when you are off-roading, especially learning to off-road, I imagine you fall a lot. The bike can fall on your leg or you can clip something like a trunk or rock when you plant a foot to corner. Now I don’t need a premium boot, not even an intermediate boot; an entry-level should do just fine and from the research I’ve done, Alpinestars is the brand. So on my wish list is a pair of Tech 1 AT’s.

tech1

If I were going higher end, I would probably get a pair of Sidi’s, but these are the only boots under $200 with a hinge/blade system for increased flexibility. I also like that they have a sewn sole, so you can have it replaced by your local cobbler when it wears out. The buckles are plastic but you can swap them out for the metal buckles found on the more expensive Tech 7’s if desired.

My next purchase will be an off-road helmet. I love my Arai Signet-Q touring helmet. It’s light, comfortable, really well ventilated, has the Pinlock anti-fog system, and SNELL certification, but . . . it was $800! I simply can’t afford another Aria helmet, even though the XD-4 is an amazing helmet. I went looking for something less expensive that wouldn’t be a huge sacrifice in quality and found a company named LS2 which makes quality lids at a fraction of the price of the big boys. The one I’ve got my eye on is the 436 Pioneer. It’s got a polycarbonate shell so it’s light, has a tonne of venting, an optically correct, fog-, UV- and scratch-resistant visor, a drop-down sun visor (great for touring), and is ECE rated. Best of all, it’s built for long-oval head shapes, which is what I have and right in line with the Signet-Q. I was so stoked about finding this helmet I almost bought one last summer but held back, hoping (praying?) they would release one in 2017 in a blue and white graphic to match my jacket. In writing this blog, I went to their site and lo and behold:

ls2_436

I’m a happy man.

Next up would be some auxilary lighting. That first tour to New Hampshire taught me that it’s not always possible to get to where you are going before sundown. Also that there are animals crossing the road at night. That road-kill incident sent me looking for secondary lighting and the Denali D4’s are on my wish list.

denali_d4s

These babies will send a beam almost 700 metres down the road in front of you. Better still, the combo beam and wide-angle lights also illuminate the surrounding roadside like it’s daytime. Because they are LED’s, they pull only 3 amps per pair. Wiring is easy, and you can wire them either into your high-beam switch or, as I might, a separate switch; I have an empty switch next to my four-ways that I could use or save for some fog lights. There is bike-specific mounting hardware so these will tuck in nicely at the top of my forks.

denali-mount

Okay, now we get into the practical stuff. Sleeping. If I’m going to camp while en route across the continent, I’m going to put the money I’m saving on motel costs toward the best inflatable mattress money can buy. My ultralight Thermarest is okay for 5 nights of canoe-camping, but for anything longer, especially when daytime concentration is essential to staying alive, I want a better mattress. I remember seeing one at La Cordée a few summers ago when I was buying a new mattress. It had a built-in pump, inflated I believe to about 4″ thick, was puncture resistant, and packed up smaller than a sleeping bag. Why, oh why, didn’t I buy it then? On my list is something like it. Suggestions, anyone?

Even more practical are tools for fixing a flat. So far I’ve been flirting with disaster. Anyone touring in remote areas has to carry sufficient tools to patch a puncture. Unfortunately, my bike uses tubed tires. The tubeless kind are so easy to fix with those plugs, but on a tubed tire you have to be able to remove the wheel, remove the tire, patch the hole, replace the tire, and re-inflate. The patching is the least of my worries. I’ve been patching bicycle tires practically since I was pre-verbal; it’s the other stuff that concerns me. I want to be able to break that bead and get the tire off and on without damaging the rim. On Adventure Rider Radio, I heard about BeadBrakR by BestRest Products. beadbrakrIt’s a series of tire irons that fit together to create a tool to leverage the tire off the rim. So you have your bead breaker and tire irons in one convenient pack. BestRest also produce the CyclePump to re-inflate the tire. Yes, you can use CO2 cartridges, but you only get one shot with them. The CyclePump is small enough to pack easily and runs on your 12V port, so if your patch isn’t perfect, or if for some reason you can’t patch the hole, you can use the pump repeatedly to get you to the nearest service centre or, if you’re really in the sticks, to phone service.

Speaking of safety, another little tool that I think would bring my wife peace of mind is the Spot Gen3. gen3_productIt’s a small, clip-on device that works with satellite technology to do a number of things. It can track your movement, so your wife will always know exactly where you are. Hmm . . . Okay, so don’t take it to your high school reunion then. Press another button and you can check-in with family to let them know you’re okay when out of cellphone range; it will send an email with GPS coordinates or a link to your location on GoogleMaps. This will be handy even on group rides to The States to avoid texting charges. Press another button to alert them you need help in non-life-theatening situations, and still another to hail the helicopter ambulance.  So if you’re planning a solo trip up to Deadhorse, AK, on the coast of the Beaufort Sea, as I am, this should be in your stocking.

Finally, we come to the most important items and the ones that, at about a thousand dollars apiece, will probably be on my list next Christmas too. I love my Joe Rocket leather jacket. I bought it as a starter jacket off eBay for a song and it’s been my one and only jacket so far. I zip the quilted liner in and out as needed, sometimes several times a day as temperature fluctuates, and throw a cheap rain jacket and pants over everything if the skies open up. But what I’d love, eventually, hopefully in this lifetime, is a Klim adventure jacket and matching pants.

Badlands.jpgKlim are the undisputed leaders in riding apparel and for good reason. They spend a lot of money on research and development, and all their products are premium quality. For example, the armour in their jackets is D30, which feels like soft, pliable rubber but molecularly stiffens upon impact; you can wrap this stuff like silly putty around your finger and then take a hammer and whack away to your heart’s content. And they’ve developed something called SuperFabric which is five times more abrasion resistant than leather with only half the weight. Gore-Tex means no need for an exterior waterproof jacket or zip-in liner. Warm in cold, wicking with vents in heat, this bad-boy is a one-jacket, climate control centre for four-season riding, and when the only thing separating you from the elements or the asphalt is your clothing, your jacket is the most important investment next to the bike itself. A Klim jacket will take me from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in comfort and safety. I haven’t decided yet whether I want the Induction or, for a few hundred dollars more, the Badlands, but one thing I am sure of is that whichever model I eventually get, it will be in the hi-viz colour. When Marilyn and I drove the Cabot Trail a few summers ago, we definitely found the hi-viz jackets caught our eye at a distance. I don’t even think hi-viz comes at a coolness cost these days; rather, as I’ve claimed in a previous post, I think hi-viz is the new cool.

Most of these items are to set me up for the adventure riding I’m longing to try. Now I’ve got the bike and the licence, but if feels like those things are just a start. I remember during my first theory class in my licensing course, the instructor warned us that “this sport will latch onto your wallet worse than your ex-wife.” Having experienced the financial cost of one divorce, I almost fled the building. Now I see what he was talking about. But he continued by suggesting to pace ourselves, to “not go crazy” but slowly build up our gear. And to avoid a second divorce, that is what I’m going to do. In the meantime, a wish list is a fun way to dream and plan, research, and select, without the messy consequences of actually buying. Like window shopping.

No doubt your wish list is different from mine. What do you hope Santa leaves under the tree? Merry Christmas, and happy and safe travels in 2017.

The 11-Month Itch

'How sweet, he's smiling.  He must be dreaming about me.' (Man is dreaming about a motorbike).

It’s been 11 days, 12 hours, and 13 minutes since I last rode my bike. It sits in the shed, and once in a while I take it out and poke about with it, then put it back. Yesterday I got as far as putting my biking pants on and fetching my helmet before prudence caught up to me at the front door. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather, and there was nothing wrong with my bike. Why, you ask? Because here in Quebec, for the first 11 months after obtaining a learner’s licence, you have to ride accompanied by someone with a full licence, and the few people I know who ride have been busy. I’m in biker purgatory, limbo-land, the 11-month itch.

Obtaining your motorcycle licence here in Quebec is a complicated and expensive process. There are three separate exams—theory, closed circuit, and road—and you must take a course with a certified training school. There are theory classes, closed circuit practice, road practice with an instructor, accompanied riding—the whole process takes at least 12 months before you catch sight of the holy grail. It looks something like this:

motorycleprogram2015-2

I’ve got no problem with the theory test or taking a course. Such courses have been around for some time but are usually optional. Apparently they give you the equivalent of two years of experience, and as a teacher, I’m all for learning from more experienced people. I found the course extremely helpful in developing both the skills and road awareness necessary to stay safe, and I believe it foolhardy for anyone to ride a motorcycle without taking such a course.

Motorcycles are powerful, dangerous machines. Search YouTube for “newbie motorcycle fail” and you’ll see videos of people climbing on sport bikes before they barely know how to change gears and heading off on the road. You just know that’s not going to end well. Having an instructor take you through that learning curve will save you a lot of road rash. But the 11 months of accompanied riding does not make sense and here’s why.

I understand the rationale. According to statistics, a rider is almost twice as likely to have an accident in the first six months of riding as someone with over four years of experience. And many fatal accidents result from someone coming into a corner too hot and swinging wide into oncoming traffic. An experienced rider knows how fast to take a corner and has a better awareness of road hazards. He or she rides in front and can alert the newbie to potential dangers, as best as one can from the seat of another bike.

But there are several problems with this aspect of Quebec’s motorcycle licensing law. For one, it assumes that your escort is responsible, which is not always the case. A newbie could be peer-pressured into keeping up with a group of canyon carvers, which could actually cause a crash, and often does. What if, like me, you don’t have any (or many) friends that ride? Then the bike sits in the garage and you don’t get in much practice while muscle memory deteriorates. Then when you do get on the bike you are even more at risk until you regain familiarity with the controls. And what about after the 11 month period? According to the same statistics, a rider with 2-3 years of experience is even more likely to crash than someone who’s been riding for less than 6 months. Who’s going to save the “newbie” then?

The law groups all motorcyclists into one camp, but I’m not an 18-year-old with little or no experience with defensive driving. I’ve been driving a car for 35 years without even a fender-bender. Sure, I did some joy-riding in my youth; who hasn’t driven country highways at 100 mph with ski goggles on? But that was a long time ago, before that thing called “the internet” existed and smoking was fashionable. I think that clean driving record of 35 years should count for something. Surely it shows I can anticipate potential accidents and avoid the risks of sharing the road with unaware and aggressive idiots.

My dad was self-taught. When he went to buy the bike, the owner basically showed him how to change gears and brake. He said he drove home practically the entire way in 2nd gear. Then in the evenings, when traffic on his road dropped off, he’d drive up and down practicing. For his test, he had to drive around the block. When he returned, the evaluator stepped off the curb in front of him to test his emergency braking. And that was that. The next day he and my mom set off for Cornwall.

He only came off once, when a boy ran out from between parked cars in front of him. While I wouldn’t recommend this method of learning as the norm, it shows I think that, after you master the technical aspect of riding—an aspect I don’t mean to belittle—the rest is a matter of maturity and attitude. The same could be said for learning to drive a car; the only difference is that on a bike, the consequences are higher.

As for the technical aspect, what makes most sense to me is the stepped system used in the EU, where licensing is restricted by age, experience, and engine size. Roughly speaking, 16-18 year-olds can ride mopeds and 125cc bikes; 18-20 year-olds 250-400cc bikes (technically speaking, it’s restricted by horse power and power-to-weight ratio); then after 2 years of experience, one can get a full-power bike. As I understand it, if you start riding over 20, you still have to ride the smaller bike for two years before you can graduate up to a full-power bike.

This makes sense since the real technical difficulty of riding is a factor of power and weight. You shouldn’t be allowed to have all that power at your fingertips until you’ve mastered how to control it. It’s not just a matter of speed but controlling the throttle on turns so you don’t slide out the back end, and weight of course affects stopping distance. I couldn’t believe my ears when one of my fellow students at the course said he was going to buy a 1,700 cc bike upon graduating. He’d just finished swinging his leg over the school’s Honda CB125. “Dude,” I thought, “all 1700cc’s?” That’s a bigger engine than my son’s Toyota Echo!

I’m glad to read that the SAAQ recommended back in 2013 that the 11-month probation period be scrapped. It’s not working. It’s not enforceable and not effective. There has been considerable interest in the news lately about motorcycle fatalities. Let’s hope the Couillard government acts quickly to bring Quebec’s motorcycle licensing up to date with most other jurisdictions. Such changes would not only save others like me this excruciating waiting period but, more importantly, also save lives.

Safe vs. Cool. Where do you fall on the spectrum?

FoolCool

The first night of my rider training course, the instructor asked the class: “What colour helmet are you going to buy?” Three-quarters of the class said black. Then he said that’s the worst colour possible because it’s the same colour as asphalt. The most common thing a driver says to a motorcyclist lying on the road after being wiped out is “Sorry, man. I didn’t see you!” When the trick to staying alive is being visible, it would seem a no-brainer, so to speak, to get a colourful helmet.

What colour is the instructor’s helmet? Black, he admitted. What colour is mine? Black.

Yeah, it’s the Cool Factor that draws us to making stupid decisions, like smoking when we were teenagers, or donning no helmet at all when we hop on a bicycle. Something weird happens in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls judgment, when we are presented with a safe vs. cool decision. It’s like the neuropathways short-circuit to cool, by-passing all the good reasons for choosing safe.

Let’s admit something. Motorcycles are cool. They’re fun, sure, but they are also pretty cool and part of the attraction of riding is that extra attention we get on the road. Drivers stare, pedestrians turn, dudes nod, kids wave. Suddenly we’re special, and all we had to do was buy and ride this dangerous machine. Now why would we want to pull the red carpet out from underneath our boots by sporting a hi-viz helmet?

But it’s not just about the helmet. On one of my first rides in road practice I saw cruise through my peripheral vision at 120 clicks what appeared to be two naked obese people on a Harley. I did a double-take and it turns out they were wearing swimwear, she rockin’ a string bikini. My imagination flashed to what all that flesh would look like if they ever went down. Don’t they know that the implement for removing gravel from under flesh is a wire brush? Not cool.

Or there are the guys on sport bikes with their T-shirts blowing half up their backs, riders with no gloves (even a tip-over at parking lot speed will take flesh down to the bone), passengers in flip-flops, bare arms, legs, etc. etc. Like being in the Canadian bush in June, any exposed skin is potential disaster. Why do we take such risks in the interests of being cool?

Why did I choose a black helmet? Honestly, because it was 30% off and all the store had in stock, and 30% of $800 is not nothing. I used the store credit to buy kevlar jeans which completed my gear (I already had jacket, gloves and boots) from fingertips to toes, so I know if I do go down I’m at least protected to some degree from road rash. Then I went looking online for hi-viz stickers I could add to the helmet. Not all reflective stickers are the same, I discovered, and the ones I bought comply with NFPA requirements; if they’re good enough to reflect in a dark and smokey building, they’re good enough to illuminate me in a dark tunnel. And being fluorescent yellow-green, they are pretty eye-catching even in daylight. No one is going to have the excuse they didn’t see me.

“You won’t find any stickers on my helmet,” one of the younger riders in my club said. Maybe you have to be over 40, already resigned to the loss of a good portion your coolness, before safety starts to make sense. Maybe it’s because you start to value the years you have left all the more that you want all of them and are willing to trade a little coolness to shift the odds that you will. Maybe it’s how you define “cool” that shifts.

When I see riders in shorts and T-shirts, I can’t help thinking “Amateur Hour”; serious riders wear ATGATT (All the Gear All the Time). Besides, my Joe Rocket leather jacket with its CE approved shoulder pads makes me look like the football player I never was, and the knuckle armour of my Five gloves turns me into James Caan in Rollerball. Now that’s cool!