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.

Life is an Adventure

The meaning of life in four simple words.

Recently I had one of those incidents of reflexive karma in which you go to help someone, only to have it come around and help you. It began when I wandered into my college’s bookstore co-op last spring. This is one of my favourite pastimes between classes, usually right before or after picking up a coffee. A book on display jumped out at me.

My son is a pretty good procrastinator and his birthday was coming up, so the book caught my eye. Not suffering particularly from this ailment myself, I bought the book then and there.

Then the Covid lockdown hit and so I ended up having the book longer than expected. Naturally, I started reading it, and I have to say, it’s an excellent book! It presents this complex and deep affliction in clear language and clever illustrations, using Buddhist metaphors and practical exercises to help readers stop procrastinating and start living life to the fullest. One such exercise is to make a Personal Vision Statement.

The authors claim that goal-setting does not work very well in motivating people and avoiding procrastination. That’s because the goal-posts are always moving. What happens when you achieve your goal? There may be a moment of elation, but then . . . what now? Another goal is set, and on it goes. You live in a perpetual state of striving, with very little celebration—not enough to keep you motivated. A better method is to find meaning or purpose to your life. This will fuel your efforts every day, not just at the milestones.

But coming up with a Personal Vision Statement is not easy! Try capturing your idea of The Meaning of Life in a few sentences. The book of course helps with this exercise and suggests a series of drafts. You can find the worksheets here but you’re better off just buying the book. Suffice to say that a good vision statement encapsulates your values. The authors also suggest you think a bit about what your legacy might be and to include what they call Ego 2.0 activities—contributions to others or society, since that’s where we find deeper meaning than in strictly self-serving acts.

Here is my first draft. It’s pretty lame: “Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.”

Like I said, pretty lame. Kind of reads like Desiderata on valium with a dollop of schmaltz on top. There were a few more drafts—something added about listening to the opinion of others but trusting mine—and then, almost as an afterthought, “Keep in mind that life is an adventure not a destination.”

Live each day as if it’s my last, but confident that I still have years ahead to experience my dreams. Those dreams are realized in small acts today, just as a marathon is run in thousands of sequential steps. Direct my efforts to giving to others, but don’t forget to give to myself. Enjoy all that the moment offers.

I wrote all this in my journal, and when I recently finished that journal, I flipped back through the pages before putting it away for posterity. This is one of the things I like about journaling: you can see in those pages all you have been thinking and feeling in recent months. And when I came to the section where I was writing those drafts, it came to me—the perfect vision statement: simply, life is an adventure.

The authors say that a personal vision statement need not be long and complex, in fact can be one sentence, but you might be wondering how I could possibly capture the meaning of life in four words. Let me explain.

The first motorcycle tour I took was in 2017. I’d just gotten my full license the year before and, naturally, had to ride The Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia. I scheduled myself 10 days. I packed up my tent and camping gear, an assortment of tools and spare parts, an old car GPS, and lots of peanut butter and pasta. I had a general plan with reservations at a few campgrounds, but between those fixed points was a lot of room for flexibility. The idea was to explore.

Those were the fullest 10 days of my adult life. I remember sometime around Day 6, I texted my wife that I’d be heading home the next day to be there in two days. She said, “Don’t you have another four days planned?” It’s not that she wanted me to stay away longer, she was just genuinely confused; I’d said my trip would be ten days. Now I was confused too. I’d completely lost track of time and was two days ahead of myself.

“Wow, I’ve got an extra two days!” I texted back. Then I thought back to the beginning of the trip, a mere six days earlier. It seemed like weeks ago. My days were so full and yet I was so present in each moment, they were the longest days of my life.

It’s not that it had all been easy and good. On Day 2 the bike wouldn’t start after one of my rest stops, and there was an ugly hour of anxiety trying to figure it out. Later I discovered that the ferry I had planned to take to Deer Island, NB, was permanently closed, leaving me to find another way to get there in the fading light or change my accommodation plans. There was driving rain, and stifling heat, dehydration headaches, a bee up the sleeve, phone charging issues, navigation problems, and an unexpected oil change. Oh yeah and I dropped the bike. Twice.

But there was also crossing the Penboscot Narrows Bridge, take-out fish & chips on the ferry to Deer Island, going down into the Springhill coal mine, off-roading in the Cape Breton interior, the switchbacks of The Cabot Trail, swimming in the North Atlantic Ocean at Port Shoreham Provincial Park, and Peggy’s Cove at dawn. There were the people I met along the way, from the guy who helped me when the bike wouldn’t start, the Quebecois cyclist on his own adventure through Maine, my ex-colleague Guy at Seascape Kayak Tours, Yannick my off-road buddy in Baddeck, and Walter, who wandered over to my campsite and offered me a cold beer after a wicked hot day of riding, not to forget the staff at Adrianne’s Cycle Service in Moncton.

Seal Island Bridge. Cape Breton Island, NS

But there is one moment in particular that stands out for me when I think back on that trip. It was at the end of Day 7, just when I was starting to get comfortable and confident with this adventure touring thing. I’d left Baddeck in the morning and ridden over the Seal Island Bridge into Sydney to buy a new phone cord at the Best Buy there. Then I picked up Old Highway 4 that took me along the shoreline and out to Port Hawkesbury and over the causeway, where I turned left onto the 344, the beginning of the spectacular Marine Drive that hugs the Atlantic shoreline.

He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.

Sometime in the afternoon, I saw a sign for a provincial park and decided to stop for lunch. It was a sandy beach, and I went for a swim to cool off in the heat. When I returned to the bike, I asked a woman in the parking lot if she knew of a campground nearby. She directed me not only to “the most beautiful campground in Nova Scotia” but also to “the best fish & chips” at a local microbrewery not much further down the highway. So I followed her advice and set up at Boyston Provincial Park, then rode into Guysborough to The Rare Bird pub. I sat out on the terrace that looked out onto the wharf, and as I waited for my dinner to arrive, I enjoyed the amber ale and the sound of a local musician singing and playing a guitar. He was singing Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” and it occurred to me that I was—having the time of my life.

I was in my element, living in the moment and exploring, seeing things I’d never seen before, meeting new people, enjoying my bike, trusting myself, and discovering what life presents me literally around each corner, whether good or bad. I have only experienced this feeling of freedom once before, when I backpacked through Europe for a month in my 20s. Similarly, I was exploring the world, and life was an adventure. If only life could always be like this, I thought.

And it is.

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.

Suspension Upgrade

Life Cycle

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

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

Front Suspension

Iniminators

Ricor Intiminator Valves

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

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

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

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

Intiminator Instructions

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

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

Rear Suspension

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OEM rear shock

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

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Stadium Suspensions HR1

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

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

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

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

Dialling In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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photo credit: Ray Bourgeois

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.

The Church of Club Riding

 

 

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

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

Safety

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

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

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Community Outreach

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

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

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Discover New Places

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

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Friendship

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

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

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How to Survive the Off-Season

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

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

Window Shop Online for Gear

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

Follow Someone Around the World

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

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

Watch the Dakar (Again)

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

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

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

Learn New Skills

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

Plan Your Next Adventure

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

Peruse Bike Forums

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

Listen to Motorcycle Podcasts

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

Work on Your Bike

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

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Stay warm and carry on.

Write a Blog

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

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

The Puppy Dog Trail, 2.0

Rest Stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vine Swing

Boys will be boys.

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

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

3 Bridges

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

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

Mt Ascutney

Mount Ascutney State Park

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

Apothecary

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

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

Wills Store

Will’s General Store in Chelsea, Vermont.

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

Chelsea Bikes

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

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

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

GreenMtn View

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

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

Silver Lake Camp

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

The Wish List, 2020

Biker Santa

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

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

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

Stadium Suspensions PR1 Rear Shock

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

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

Stadium

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

Other features of the shock include:

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

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

Protection

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

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.