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

OEMRearShock

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.

740HR1

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.

20200624_183239

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.

20200624_183333

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.

Scotch_BW_web

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.

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

How to Survive the Off-Season

20200207_150331

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.

IMG_5313

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.

Top Tips for Moto Camping

Baddeck CampThe first time I went moto camping, I pulled into Camden Hills Campground in NH and started gathering firewood. A lady from a neighbouring campsite wandered over and, in the process of telling me that I’m supposed to buy the firewood, not gather it, she said something that struck me at the time: “My husband is so jealous!” Okay, normally you don’t want anyone’s wife saying that to you, but in this case I was safe; the jealousy was all for my freedom.

Moto camping is the most liberating experience I can think of. You have all your essential needs in one place—on your motorcycle—and your ADV motorcycle can go pretty much anywhere you point it. The possibilities are infinite; the journey, endless. There is economic freedom, too. I extend my budget by doing all (or most) of my cooking; my bike gets about 25 km/L, so the gas is cheap; and by camping, I avoid paying hundreds of dollars a night for accommodations. And while I haven’t yet tried wild camping (camping on crown land for free), that’s my next step.

But all this freedom comes at a cost. You can be caught in bad weather. You sometimes have to sacrifice comfort. There are animals and other risks to consider. And let’s face it, camping is sometimes a lot of work!

Before I did moto camping, I did quite a lot of canoe camping. These camping tips come from over a decade of canoe camping and four seasons of moto camping. Some are pretty obvious to the experienced camper, but I include them here too for those just starting out.

Dedicate one pannier for food

I like to dedicate generally one pannier for food, one for cooking equipment, and my top wet/dry bag for clothing and other dry items. Dedicating one pannier for food means I can string it from a tree and know that no animals are going to get at it. With moto camping, you don’t have a car to store your food for the night, so you really should string it. Tie a heavy stick onto the end of your rope and throw it over a sturdy horizontal branch, then re-tie to your pannier, hoist, and wrap the rope around the tree. (See photo below.) I’d hate to be in my tent in the middle of the night and have to listen to a bear trying to get inside a pannier that’s still mounted on my bike! I put one of those insulated grocery bags inside my hard pannier. It’s not as efficient as a cooler but will preserve fresh foods a little longer than otherwise.

RB Campsite_web

Nothing smelly in the tent

This one may not be obvious to the newbie, but you shouldn’t have anything in the tent that is smelly and might attract animals. No gum, or toothpaste, or candy, or food of any kind (doh!), or perfume, or suntan lotion, or mint flavoured dental floss. Bears have very good noses. I put all that stuff in the food pannier and string it from a branch. It helps me sleep better knowing it’s all stored safely away.

Set up your tent ASAP

You never know when it’s going to rain, so I suggest setting up your tent ASAP upon arriving at site. That’s your shelter, so you should set it up, just in case. It’s also a lot easier in the daylight than waiting until after dinner when the light is fading. I like to do this even before gathering firewood (or purchasing) and getting food on.

A shot of inspirationBowmore12

There is one thing I like to do even before setting up my tent. As soon as I arrive at site, I have a shot of something to warm the belly. Sometimes it’s scotch; sometimes it’s bourbon; sometimes it’s port. It doesn’t really matter, but after a cold ride, some liquid heat will lubricate the work ahead and add a little glow to the mundane.

Merino Wool

Packing minimalist? Try merino wool. I spend the entire day in merino wool. I sleep in it. I ride in it. I work in it. It breathes in the heat and insulates in the cold. It has anti-bacterial properties, and is super comfortable. I would not suggest 100% merino because it’s not durable enough. Most companies today weave about 5-10% nylon in to the wool to strengthen it. A thin merino wool base layer is sometimes all I need beneath my jacket and compression suit. Merino sheep

Woolen hat and socks

Here in Canada, it can get quite cold at night even in spring and fall, so I always pack smart wool socks and a wool toque. Wool keeps you warm wet or dry, and smart wool has some added properties that help it dry quicker when it does get wet. If it’s cold at night, wearing a toque and socks to bed can make all the difference. As a last resort, pull the sleeping bag over your head and let your breath heat the bag. No, you will not suffocate; there’s plenty of ventilation through the bag to give you sufficient fresh air.

Park your bike facing out from the campground

The first time I moto camped, I pulled in to the site, parked, then the next morning went to do that U-turn to get me out and dropped the bike. The site was on a slight slope which I didn’t notice and my head just wasn’t into it yet. You don’t want that first turn of the day to be a U-turn with the bike fully loaded, so instead, pull the U-turn at the end of the previous day and then the next morning all you have to do is load and ride. Save the U-turns for after the second coffee.

Fallen Bigbea

Use your sweater as a pillow

You don’t need to pack a small camping pillow for the tent. Just use your sweater. I travel with a Sherpa polar fleece sweater that is perfect for around camp in the evening. (It has the cinder burns to show for it.) Then when it’s time to turn in, I just fold it to make a perfect pillow. As a bonus, if it’s unexpectedly cold that night, my sweater is at hand pull on. I’ll do without a pillow if I have to, but I hate being cold.

Get a good headlamp

How did I ever do without? A headlamp is an essential. It may appear nerdy, but then when you’re camping in the middle of nowhere (or have a 3-day camper’s helmet head on), who cares? A headlamp leaves your hands free to cook, gather and chop wood, or pour another wee dram. I recently discovered the benefit of getting a good one. My current one has a red light, which does not attract bugs, and the ability to adjust the brightness of the white light in both intensity and breadth. When you are away from all artificial sources of light and the sun goes down, you’ll be thankful for the best headlamp money can buy. Don’t forget to pack extra batteries.

Use non-perfumed soapBronnerSoap

Get a good biodegradable non-perfumed soap for the dishes, your body, and your hair. Aside from going easy on the environment, a non-perfumed soap will not attract mosquitos and other bugs, not to mention animals. I like Dr. Bronner’s pure-castile soap. I don’t know what castile is and neither does WordPress, apparently, which flags it as a spelling mistake, but this soap kicks butt! A few drops in your scorched pot and it cleans right up (the pot, that is). The label is pretty entertaining too. Also, do not use any product in your hair as this too will attract bugs. You can’t be vain when camping! And going without hair product means your helmet liner will not get greasy and grimy.

Buy fresh food when you can

Maybe because I did so much canoe camping before moto camping, I discovered this one only well into my first long tour. When canoe camping, you plan each meal for every day and take exactly what you need. It never occurred to me that I could simply pick up something fresh at the local grocer while passing through. Yeah, I pack a lot of porridge, pasta, peanut butter, packaged curries, and rice for most of my meals, but one of my best camping meals ever was some fresh fish I bought in Moncton, New Brunswick, bagged salad, and a veggie. I even bought some garlic butter for the fish, something I knew wouldn’t last more than a day but made the meal, since I cooked the fish in it. So don’t forget; even though you’re roughing it, you are riding through civilization often during the day and can pick up fresh food at the supermarket for that night’s dinner.

Fundy Meal

Moto camping requires some planning, courage, and a little extra work, but the rewards well outweigh the costs. There’s nothing like kicking back beside a campfire at the end of a long day of riding, being in a tent during a thunderstorm at night, or crawling out of a tent in the early morning, with mist still hanging on the lake and hearing loons calling through the fog. If you love nature and riding, then moto camping is for you.

Share your favourite camping tips by leaving a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

Where has the summer gone?

20190810_190809

Last February, when the snowbanks in front of my house were still 9′ high, my motorcycle club went to the Montreal Moto Show. It’s always a fun event, a way to get over that February hump and into late winter, which is almost spring. But I remember coming back a bit deflated this year. To be honest, looking at all those amazing new bikes, and watching some of my friends buying some of those amazing new bikes, made me a little envious.

I decided then and there to put my limited motorcycle budget into riding the bike I have—touring and training. It’s now end of August and I’ve already put over 10,000 kilometres on the bike, as much as I’ve ever done in an entire season, and we still have the autumn before this season is done. I’ve been riding so much, 650thumper has sat rather dormant, so I thought I’d do a quick update before heading off on my next adventure. And when I have managed to do some writing between trips, it’s been for my paying gig with Northern Ontario Tourism, so I’ll include links to those articles below.

My season began with two articles for Northern Ontario Travel. One was on planning a multi-day group ride, thanks to club members Robin Whyte and Wolf Raaen, who have a lot more experience than me in putting these rides together. Then I was asked to do an article on destinations in the Ottawa area. I already had some ideas for destinations, but one of my earliest rides of the season—sometime in early April—was across the provincial border to get photos for this piece.

PerthCanal_web

Perth, Ontario

Once I was finished with my work for the semester and had visited my dad to celebrate his 90th birthday, I headed off to Vermont for two nights of solitude. In fact, my only post so far this season has been on that ride of The Puppy Dog Route. I went back at the end of July with two riding buddies to do it again.

20190727_073456

Camping at Silver Lake State Park

Another ride early in the season was through the Ontario Highlands. I didn’t even know there were such a thing as highlands in Ontario, but they are kind of north west of Ottawa, up to Bancroft and around Kaladar. It was my first ever overnight club ride, and I became a convert.

20190629_142812

Burnstown, Ontario

That little tour was warm-up to the big club tour for me of the season, along the lower Saint Lawrence River and north shore up to the Manicouagan region. We spent a night in Kamouraska before crossing on the ferry from Rivière du Loup to Baie-Comeau. We did a day ride to Sept-Îsle, and another to the Manic-5 Power Dam, before heading home along the north shore through Tadoussac.

20190709_123724

Near Tadoussac on the Saint-Laurent north shore

Other rides? Less spectacular, but I did visit my dad in Guelph, Ontario, on the bike late summer, and I rode out to Cornwall to write an article on the flat track races there in early August.

Turn3_web

Turn 3, Cornwall Motor Speedway

This weekend I’m heading to Bowmanville to cover the Vintage Road Racing Association races at The Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

I have a few more rides planned for the fall. I’m thinking of participating in the Cromag Campout this year at Silver Lake State Park in Vermont, and I’ll be spending two nights camping in Algonquin Park in search of Tom Thomson and the most spectacular fall leaf viewing in Ontario.

So it’s not because I’ve been idle that 650thumper has been inactive. Oh yeah, and I spent nine days in Nova Scotia with my wife, but not on the bike. 20190718_134813

It’s been a very full summer. I’m ready to sit my butt down and write about it all, but I’ll wring the last of the season out first. Once the snow flies, I’ll have plenty of time to share my adventures.

I wish you all safe and happy autumn riding.

The Puppy Dog Route: Part 2, Silver Lake to Derby, VT

Knowing it was a long way home, I started earlier on my second morning. I was off my site by 9 and soon onto another dirt road that crosses beneath Interstate 89 before hooking north. I popped out in Chelsea and found this quaint cafe to have a coffee and second breakfast.

Chelsea Cafe

North Common Arts Collective and Cafe in Chelsea, VT

I struck up a conversation with the owner, Carrie. She taught special needs students for years and so we had a lot to share about the state of teaching today. She also said her husband has a GS. I have to admit that my first thought was rather cynical, that he is probably one of the umpteen 1200GS owners whose bikes never leave the asphalt. Then she told me about a trip she took on the back of the bike through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama, and I knew my prejudice was wrong.

“Your husband must be no slouch as a rider,” I said, “since it’s hard enough to ride that terrain with gear let alone a pillion.” When she heard I’m Canadian, she said he also races vintage motorcycles and normally would be heading to Calabogie (just west of Ottawa) the next weekend for the race there. So I was doubly wrong.

“You should stop by and meet him,” she said. “He loves to talk about motorcycles. He’ll be in the barn working on one of his bikes,” and she gave me directions.

The conversation continued and somehow, I can’t remember how, her son’s work came up. He and a friend have a YouTube show called On Two Wheels.

“I love On Two Wheels!” I exclaimed. Turns out her son is Zack Courts, and Zack grew up riding the roads around Chelsea, Vermont. I’m a big fan of Zack and Ari’s work. I’ve watched pretty much every episode of On Two Wheels and Zack’s MC Commute, and learnt a lot from Ari’s MC Garage. I enjoyed Zack’s article in Cycle World last fall on touring to Deadhorse, a bucket list destination of mine. There was great lamenting amongst the online community when they announced their final episode, but fortunately their new show, Throttle Out, is available on motortrendondemand.com. Okay, so we have to pay for it (after the free trial), but I’m of the mind that you get what you pay for, and the creators of good work ought to be compensated.

So now I was intimidated. Riding is definitely in their family, and I felt out of my league.

I have one New Year’s Resolution this year. I’m not a big fan of resolutions, finding them more restrictive than liberating, but this year I did come up with one simple goal that has served me well. It’s to not decline opportunities when they present themselves. I am conservative by nature, perhaps a bit shy, and so I tend to decline invitations that take me out of my comfort zone. But life is for living and I’ve found that it’s the times when I push past that initial inhibition that the real memorable moments in life occur. So when I had settled my bill and headed out to my bike, and Carrie came out and said she was going home, I decided to follow her to the house to meet her husband, Tim Courts.

Tim came out of the barn and introduced himself. I could immediately see the resemblance to Zack. He invited me back into the workshop where he had some classic BMWs. After chatting for a while, he said he has been thinking of getting a smaller bike and expressed an interest in my little 650.

“Take it for a spin,” I offered. Then when he seemed reluctant, I made the gaff of suggesting removing some of the luggage on the tailplate and seat.

“Oh, that’s not going to bother me,” he replied. We chatted some more and Tim seemed interested in this Puppy Dog Route I was riding. He suggested we ride the next section together, he on my bike and me on his. So we did.

It was easily 30 degrees celsius (90F) and I watched him pull on a one-piece Aerostitch riding suit that reminded me of what my dad used to wear to snowblow the driveway. I’d been riding with my compression shirt armour under only an off-road shirt, and while he got his bike out to the road from the barn, I sheepishly pulled on my jacket.

I’d been wrong about his bike too. It wasn’t a modern 1200GS with all the rider aids but the original GS, a 1983 R80 with a Dakar tank. I have to admit that the prospect of riding off-road with an experienced rider on a bike twice the size of mine was a bit intimidating. When I started it up, it rattled and shook. If I released the throttle, it sounded like it was going to stall. Before I could locate the choke, we were off, Tim leading the way.

We headed through town, turned left, and were on dirt. And to my surprise, I kept up. Maybe he was going easy on me. We road for a while, Tim following the printed directions on my tank bag, me trying to get used to the rear drum brake. After a while we stopped and switched back and continued on. I’m glad we switched when we did because it so happened that the next section was what the route organizers call a “hero section.” We turned off some connecting asphalt onto a Class 4 single lane road and started a hill climb that got steeper and steeper. It was muddy, with washout ruts, large rocks, and ledges! I got hung up on one of the ledges and stalled. Tim cruised past with a smile, or was it a giggle? When we got to a plateau we stopped and he said, “I didn’t expect it to be this technical,” to which I replied, “Neither did I!” It had been pretty tame so far all the way from the Massachusetts border, so I was surprised. At any rate, it was a lot of fun, and riding a technical section of trail with such an experienced and expert rider was the highlight of the trip for me. My only regret is that I was enjoying the riding so much I forgot to get a photo of Tim on his old airhead before we parted. We exchanged contact info so there will be a next time. I’m officially in love with Vermont dirt roads so will be back ASAP.

I continued on toward the border. The roads from Silver Lake to Derby are not as heavily forested as at the beginning in Massachusetts, but there are still some dreams homes on manicured properties. This one made me stop, pull a U-turn, and take a photo.

House

Dream homes, if you’re into that.

At times the route opens up, cutting through farmland and rolling hills.

Yellow Hills

Picture postcard views on the PDR

It was getting late and I was tempted to jump onto the asphalt, but I can be stubborn about my goals, and I’d set one to ride the entire route. I was only a few kilometres from the border now but the GPS took me on a circuitous route that eventually led to a view back over the state I had just traversed. I stopped and took a photo and said goodbye to Vermont, for now.

Leaving Vermont

Saying goodbye to Vermont, just kilometres from the border.

I’d like to thank the BMW Motorcycle Club of Vermont for putting the route together and making the GPX files available to the public. Vermont roads are not gravel but hard-packed dirt, making them easy for anyone with even an 80/20 tire. There are surprisingly few potholes and washboard. There are a few challenging sections, but nothing a little bravado can’t get you through. Of course weather conditions will change the terrain considerably, but if you’re looking for a quiet ride through picturesque farmland accompanied by all the farm smells and quaint rural life, the PDR is one way to explore without the risk of getting lost. Unless, of course, you want to get lost. Vermont would be a good place to do so.

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

Trail and Bike

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

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

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

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

picnic table

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

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

Green Mountains

Lookout on Highway 9 to The Green Mountains

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

Starting Out

Starting out in Greenfield, MA.

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

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

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

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

Nigel

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

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

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

 

Mass

Following the Stream

Picturesque views on the PDR

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

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

Campsite

Silver Lake State Park

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