Restoule to Providence Bay


Heading west on the 522

You know those days when nothing goes well and you are out of sorts and feel the world is your enemy? Of course you do. We’ve all had them, thankfully not very often. When I had one of those days growing up, my dad used to advise me just to go to bed and “it would all be different in the morning.” That simple advice has proven true several times over the years, no less in the difference between Day 1 and Day 2 of our holiday.

We started the day with coffees at the beach, which is about as fine a way to start your day as I can imagine. (I managed to get the stove to work sufficiently to heat some water for the coffee.) So while I missed the sunset the night before, I caught the morning light in my collapsable lawn chair.


Morning coffee and journaling at Restoule Prov. Park

When the camp was packed and we’d had a light breakfast, we headed back to the 534 where I bought some gas at the general store. I love general stores! and not just because they sell gas and my gas light was on. They seem to harken back to a simpler time with their hardwood floors, deli counters, rows of tools and hardware next to rows of food items, the postcard racks, ice-cream freezers, and the friendly service, all to local a.m. radio. But even at the general store you cannot avoid the seniors buying their Scratch & Lose cards, so paying for my gas took a little longer than I wanted.

Once back on the road, we headed east on the 534 to the 524 South which brought us to the 522. The 522 is a beautiful stretch of road and, not surprisingly, we passed a few bikers going the other way. It curves through wetlands and forested areas with impressive rock formations lining the road. The sky is huge!


Big sky over the 522

Once we hit Highway 69, we headed north into Sudbury in search of a new stove. I’d looked up Ramakkos the night before and it had good reviews. It was conveniently located just off the Trans-Canada Highway so not out of our way. I don’t know what I was hoping for, but I took my existing stove in to show them, hoping they could somehow fix it. And to their credit, they actually did try. Their stove expert, Brad, took it apart and made sure the needle and lines were clear, which I suspect is the issue 95% of the time. Unfortunately, I was the 5% whose stove could not be fixed with a hearty blow. After some deliberation, I bought the MSR Dragonfly, the classic liquid fuel stove that Ewan and Charlie took from London to New York. Yeah, it sounds like a jet taking off, but so does the person snoring at your neighbouring campsite, so even Steven, I say. The valve system is much better made and more precise than the Optimus. The simmer capability of this stove is legendary, and Brad from Ramakkos says he actually does baking in the bush with it! At the time of this writing, I’ve been using it pretty steadily for the two weeks on the bike and another four-night canoe camp and it is amazing. Never again the hassles of the stove that have plagued my trips in the past.

I was tempted to look around Ramakkos a little longer—it was such an amazing store—but the budget was already busted with the new stove so it was back to the Trans-Canada Highway and west out of Sudbury. They were building a parallel highway, or expanding the existing, and for a long stretch it looked like a mining operation. No wonder since there is so much rock up there they have to dig through to build a freeway. That stretch of construction was the only blip in an otherwise perfect day. It was a dusty, slow drive until we hit McKerrow and headed south on Highway 6. Highway 6 has a perfect surface and large sweeping curves that cut through different types of rock, and as you descend, it’s like you’re riding down through the eons, travelling back into deep time when the earth’s surface was forming and glaciers covered much of it. I saw at the sides of the road shale, slate, and granite, and later on Manitoulin Island the unusual alvars, with its pock marks, as if someone had pressed their fingers into it while still forming. If you’re into rocks, the Canadian Shield is waiting for you.

I’d read about a lookout on Highway 6 just north of Little Current. I couldn’t find the lookout but we stopped on Birch Island at this small boat launch for a break and to take in the view.


Rest stop at Birch Island

When you come onto Manitoulin Island from the north, it’s not apparent that you are coming onto an island. Yes, there are a few small bridges, and apparently the swing bridge at Little Current is the one that separates Manitoulin from the northern mainland. But there’s no Confederation Bridge or anything like that, and the next thing you know you’re on the island amid farmland and glowing canola fields.


Canola fields on Manitoulin Island

The destination for today was Providence Bay Tent & Trailer Park, a privately owned campground that’s right across the street from Lake Huron. My wife had not had a good night’s sleep the night before with racoons sniffing around the tent so was already wary of another night of camping, but the proprietor said the waves would lull her to sleep and she was right! She gave us the best site in the park, right next to the water, close enough that later that night we crawled out of the tent and made our way down to the water for some star gazing.


Campsite at Providence Bay Tent & Trailer Park

But first it was dinner, and my wife had found Lake Huron Fish & Chips during her research for the holiday. There are few things I like more than good quality fish & chips, and Lake Huron gets two thumbs up from me. There’s a sundeck to eat outside, and the young staff there have a pretty cool playlist going. When we are travelling, my wife and I try to do much of our own cooking to save money, but this place was so good we went back the next night and tried the other type of fish, a local whitefish.

Fully sated, there was nothing more to do in our perfect day except go for a stroll along the shoreline at dusk.


Providence Bay, Lake Huron

There’s a long boardwalk that takes you into a community centre where you can buy ice cream or a souvenir. I saw a T-shirt there that read “I’m on island time.” There’s definitely a slower pace to life on Manitoulin Island; it’s the perfect antidote to the rat race. Earlier in the day, we had passed Twin Peaks B & B, and as we lay in the tent listening to the waves and recollecting the day, we joked about how this day was the parallel universe day to the evil previous one. (You’ll only get this joke if you’re familiar with the David Lynch series.) Yes, camping can sometimes be hard. It’s a lifestyle of extreme highs and lows, but I figure the lows are the price you have to pay for the highs, and in the end, as Manitoulin Island had so far proven, the highs far outweigh the lows.

Next up, a day on the island.

David Percival’s BMW Museum


Knowing that I ride a BMW, a colleague said to me last year, “I should put you in touch with a friend of mine. He knows someone who has a collection of BMW bikes.” My colleague is from Maine, where David Percival lives and stores his collection. David discovered BMW bikes while serving in the US Army and stationed in Germany in the late 1950’s. Prior to that time, he had thought motorcycles were dirty, always dripping oil. Then he saw a BMW and his mind changed. Here was a bike that not only didn’t drip oil but also was beautifully designed and engineered. He was taken.

He began riding BMWs with German riders and even started racing as the “monkey” (i.e. passenger) in a sidecar outfit. He started collecting BMW motorcycles in the 1970s. The result to date is a collection of over 100 bikes, the second largest private collection in the world. He has every model from the first BMW motorcycle, the R-32, built in 1923, to the R-90S, built in 1976. He is only missing two bikes, the R-37 and R-16. But let’s not focus on the negative. It’s an impressive collection, and last Saturday I led a small group of riders from my club down to meet David, look at his bikes, and hear their stories.

David lives in Andover, Maine, a few hours south of Sherbrooke. It’s a four-hour ride from Montreal so we left early and took the freeway down into the Eastern Townships. Once we crossed the border, we found ourselves on Highway 26, a twisting road that snakes through northern Maine. A deer crossed in front of me to remind me to take it easy and keep a close eye out at the sides of the road. We arrived in Andover at 1:00, starving, and decided to eat lunch before visiting David. But he found us first. He’d seen (or heard) us pass by his place and found us at the local park, eating the sandwiches we’d prepared to save time.

The first thing David showed us was his workshop. I was drooling. Since I don’t have a wide-angle lens on my phone, it takes three photos to capture the entire workshop. Here’s one, alongside a photo of my workshop, for comparative purposes.

Guess which one is David’s?

I won’t try to provide an exposé here of David’s collection. For that, see this issue of BMW Magazine and this article and photos by bfbrawn. I’ll just show you a few of my highlights, hopefully to whet your interest in visiting David. He loves to tell the stories of these bikes and is very generous with his time!


One of the highlights of the collection, the R-32, the first BMW motorcycle (1923). 


David with one of his prized bikes. 


Wikipedia says the first GS, which refers to either Gelände/Straße (German: off-road/road) or Gelände Sport, is the R-80, first built in 1980. But here is a GS built in 1974! Obviously it was an experimental model. It’s 1000cc and has 109 HP. You can see the characteristic GS look from its inception: tank shape, telescopic forks with gaiters, wide saddle. Note the handle on the left for putting the bike on its centre-stand.





When Germany was split after WWII, the BMW factories in East Germany still made BMW bikes. A copyright lawsuit put an end to that, so they were rebranded under Eisenacher Motorenwerk. Here is a rare bike from that company behind the iron curtain. As you can see, the logo has a striking similarity to the original BMW logo. The company, however, could not keep up and continued to use pre-war technology in their bikes.



This is a very small sample of David’s bikes. I didn’t take a lot of photos because I was too busy admiring them and listening to David. But it’s a very impressive collection, all lovingly restored. If you are interested in organizing a visit with your club or organization, shoot me a line and I’ll send you David’s email address. He books up early for the summer, so you are probably looking at next season for a visit. I feel privileged to have seen these rare machines and to have relived, through David’s stories, a part of motorsport history.


DirtDaze 2018


There’s a particular look my wife has when I’ve been talking about bikes too long (i.e. about 5 minutes). It’s the same sort of look I suspect one has when looking at the boss’s baby photos, or when listening to the minutia of someone’s genealogy: a look of polite indifference. Then I know it’s time to change the topic. One thing among many that I like about DirtDaze is that it’s bikes! bikes! bikes! all weekend long. You talk about bikes at breakfast. You ride bikes during the day. You talk about bikes at dinner. You ride bikes again in the evening. And you talk about bikes at the bonfire. If you’ve got the jones for bikes, you can get your fix at DirtDaze.

This year was my second time down at Lake Luzerne. You can read about my first experience here. This year I was going with a lowered windscreen and, more importantly, knobby tires, so Bigby was more off-road ready. I had also since done an off road course and been practising my skills, so I was especially looking forward to the weekend. I had the bike packed and literally left from the college when the last essay was graded. DirtDaze is my conditioned stimulus for the beginning of summer and time to relax and have fun. I whooped into my helmet as I headed down the 15 Thursday evening toward the border.

That morning, with the bike fully loaded, I had looked at my headlight as the bike warmed up. That doesn’t look right, I thought. It was very dim. But I was already late for work so climbed on and rode away. Thinking about it later that morning, I realized the headlamp was burnt out. Oh well, I thought, all my riding is during the day . . . I thought. In fact, taking the 9 instead of the interstate resulted in me riding the final 45 minutes or so in the dark. Fortunately, I had a high beam or I never would have made it into camp. The Painted Pony Ranch, which hosts the rally, is on a back road with no streetlights, and even if I’d managed to find the ranch I surely would have run over somebody’s tent while finding a spot to pitch my own. My apologies to all those drivers I blinded with high beams. It was an auspicious start to the weekend.

After my tent was up and prepped, I wandered up to the bonfire and sat down beside some folks from the Rochester area. They invited me to ride with them the next day, and since DirtDaze is all about community and group rides, I took them up on their offer. If someone’s willing to lead, I’ll surely follow. So the next morning, James, Cody, Nick, Carlos, and I headed off on a ride with James leading; he had some rides from previous years saved on his GPS. Our first stop was a trail that had a mix of sand and mud leading to a challenging rocky hill climb. Almost all of us made it to the top. Or some of us almost made it to the top. Let me say that all of us made it . . . almost to the top. Little did I know this hill climb would be literally and figuratively the high point of my weekend.

Shortly after we descended and started riding on asphalt again, disaster struck in the worst possible way. No, I didn’t crash and die. Worse: my temperature light came on and the bike overheated. If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know that I’ve been having a lot of trouble with my cooling system. I feared the worst, but we started with the simplest and easiest. We tightened all the hoses and started the bike again. The temp light came on. We bled the system and started the bike. The temp light came on. We took the thermostat out and started the bike. The temp light came on. Finally, we took the water pump cover off and I spun the impeller freely with my finger; the impeller was not engaged with the drive gear. I couldn’t believe my eyes: it was another stripped gear, and in the worst possible place!

Carlos got on his phone. MaxBMW in New Hampshire could ship the part overnight to the Painted Pony Ranch. James gave me a tow back to camp. By dinner, I already had two offers for a lift back to Burlington and one to Plattsburgh. Marilyn could get a trailer down there to bring me and Bigby across the border. There was hope and help, but I was pretty discouraged.

That evening I phoned my wife. She said afterwards that she’d never heard me so down. In truth, I was considering selling Bigby, but don’t tell her that. It would have broken my heart, but if she’s not reliable, I can’t trust her to take me where I plan to go. I wandered through the campsite, looking at the different bikes, thinking of what my next one might be. I was considering the Kawasaki KLR, the ubiquitous adventure bike that’s built like a tank and hasn’t changed in over 30 years. In fact, Christian Dutcher, the DirtDaze Director, lent me his KLR Friday afternoon when he heard mine was out for the count. I liked it a lot. If I couldn’t afford an Africa Twin (and who am I kidding . . . I can’t afford one), then a used KLR would definitely be an option. Someone at the bonfire was singing the praises of Suzuki. Any Japanese bike, for that matter, would be more reliable and cheaper to run and maintain than a BMW. I went to bed dreading the next day. If I got the bike running again, I would cut my weekend short and limp home, then take the bike into BMW and pay through the nose for them to figure out why the pump keeps failing.

The next morning, James, Nick and I started taking the bike apart. We laid it on its side to minimize how much oil we would lose. Here, my previous experience with the job was helpful and we had the clutch cover off in no time. I expected to find a stripped gear, was surprised to find it intact but spinning freely on the spindle. The cross-pin that engages the gear had come out! It seems that I had never completely seated the gear when I installed it in May. It had engaged sufficiently to ride to work several times and even do some light off roading in Quebec, but that rocky hill climb must have dislodged things. I was relieved to know that the failure was all mine, not a design flaw or chronic problem with the bike. In the parlance of my students, “My bad!”


James in foreground, Nick and Cody, Danny in back. The clutch is covered with paper towel to prevent milkweed falling into it.

The rest of the day was spent mostly waiting for my shipment with the new gear. I struck up a conversation with Danny from Montreal. Danny had injured his ankle unfortunately early in the weekend and was laid up. We made plans to do some off roading in Quebec once his ankle heals. I also wandered over to the Beta tent and tried a trials bike, which was very interesting. But my mind was really only on one thing: fixing my bike and getting back to Montreal.

Finally, at 3 o’clock, the part arrived. This time we took the new gear and, rather than tap it onto the cross-pin using a hammer and socket, as I had done, James pressed it on with his thumbs. (The bike being on its side facilitated this.) There was an audible snap as it clicked into place, and we were all confident it was on properly this time. Then it was just a matter of putting the bike back together and refilling the fluids. MaxBMW had shipped a litre of oil and I filled the rad with water. I ran the bike and the temperature light did NOT come on. I gave it a ride around the area to be sure. A few adjustments to the clutch cable and shifter and Bigby was good as new. What a relief!

I asked the boys what their favourite beer is, then bought 3 6s which we proceeded to kill at the bonfire on the final night. Sometime into my fourth, or was it my fifth, beer it occurred to me the gear came out not in the worst possible place but the best. If you’re going to suffer a breakdown, it’s best to do it on a ride with two mechanical engineers and within a community of riders who have each other’s back. I know I kind of ruined the morning for these people who had invited a stranger onto their ride, but they stuck with me to the end, even helping with the repairs. I have to thank Carlos for finding the part, James and Nick for their mechanical help, Cody for her patience and understanding, Christian for lending me his bike so I didn’t lose a day, Ken for his offer of a lift back to the border, and the lady at the gate the entire weekend (I didn’t even catch her name, to my embarrassment), who watched all day for the FedEx truck and even reimbursed me for the guided ride I missed.

And that’s really what DirtDaze is all about. It’s an off-road rally, but at its heart is a community of riders that could serve as a model for all communities: good people, having fun, helping those in need. The riding is pretty good too.


Blemishes or Character Marks?

“I want a poem I can grow old in,” writes Eavan Boland at the start of her essay “The Politics of Eroticism.” She goes on to explain that she wants a poetry in which she is subjected to the effects of time, not an object frozen in time. You might not think that’s very erotic, but that’s not her point. Her point is that she wants poetry that celebrates real women, creatures of time, not illusory women, sprung from the imaginations of male writers.

Why am I thinking of this now? Because my mistress has a wrinkle and I’m not sure whether I want her to get cosmetic surgery. I’m speaking of my bike, of course. Last year, as a result of a few offs in mud, one of the side panels got scratched. This was before I bought my upper crash bars. Now that I’m about to install them, I thought maybe I’d do a little bodywork first to make her good as new. I posted a query on my forum requesting tips. I’ve done bodywork on an old car with aluminum panels before but never worked with plastic. Someone replied with a lot of information for me, but someone else wrote “I kind of like my ‘character marks’  . . . makes it look like I actually use my bike in places other than Tim’s or Buckie’s.” That got me thinking. Are scratches blemishes or “character marks?”

I know a club member who sold his bike because it had a scratch and got a new one. Why he didn’t just get the scratch fixed I don’t know. Perhaps he was ready for a change anyway. But for some riders, the bike’s pristine appearance is an important part of the experience of riding. They spend hours polishing it on weekends, prepping for the club ride. I’m thinking also of the Americade parade I witnessed en route to an off-road rally last June, when all the Harley’s were lined up at the side of the road on display. I get it: the aesthetics of machines. I’ll be one of the first to admit that each bike has a personality, and a good engineer will take into consideration form and function.

On the other hand, aside from “character marks,” I’ve heard scratches referred to as “honour badges.” What’s so honourable about dropping your bike, you ask? I guess, the theory goes, that if you aren’t dropping it once in a while, you aren’t riding it hard enough. You aren’t pushing your limits. There’s growing derision for folks who buy a big 1200GS with luggage, maybe spend $2,000 on a Klim Badlands suit, but never venture off the asphalt. Posers. I’m not knocking anyone who doesn’t want to ride off-road, just those who don’t but buy an off-road bike and gear. And if you’re going to go off road, you’re going to drop the bike. Maybe not if you’re only doing dirt roads, but once you get into mud or trail riding, sooner or later, some rut or rock or lapse of concentration is going to get the better of you. And your bike. There’s just no avoiding it indefinitely.

So why not embrace it? If you ride around fearing a little mishap that might blemish your Precious, you’re not going to have much fun. And you did buy the bike to have fun, right? To ride it, take it places you can’t take other bikes, challenge yourself with a rocky hill climb or water crossing, try some single-track, where tree branches or underbrush might jut out onto the trail, slide the back end around a corner, and yes, show off your mud-splatter and scratches at the local coffee shop.

It’s the first beautiful day of the year here in Montreal. Hard to believe we had freezing rain a week ago. It feels like the unofficial start of the season. Enjoy your ride, whatever kind of ride you do.


The BMW f650GS. It’s not just a starter bike.


2006 BMW f650 GS twin spark. 

I’ve been reluctant to do a bike review of Bigby. For one, I still consider myself a novice. In fact, aside from a few bikes at my training school, Bigby is the only bike I’ve ever ridden, so I don’t have much to compare it to. Doing a review, I thought, would inevitably lead to the faulty comparison, a logical fallacy I warn my students to avoid. (i.e. “Gets your clothes cleaner!” Ugh, cleaner than what?) Second, I’m still learning about the bike. Although I’ve owned it for almost three years, I’m still finding my way around the engine and mechanics and still discovering its potential. Passing judgment now would be like bailing out of a relationship after the second date. It would be, in the literal sense of the word, prejudice.

So why have I decided to do it? Well, after watching a lot of reviews online, I’ve come to realize that most are not very good, so the bar is set pretty low. They are usually more product descriptions than reviews, and Ryan at Fort Nine has blown the whistle on the nepotism of corporate reviews, how they are always positive because the big bike companies offer a lot of treats to the reviewers, like paid vacations in exotic locations. And those reviewers ride the bike for, what, a day, a couple of days, max, so at least I can say that after three years with Bigby, I know more about this bike than they ever will. So with my concerns made explicit, let’s jump in.

* * *

The three things I like the most about the f650GS are three things I noticed within the first five minutes of riding it: ergonomics, suspension, and balance. Okay maybe you don’t need to have ridden a bike for long before you discover its essence. Let’s look at each in turn and then move on to other stuff.

Ergonomics: At the school, we’d learnt on cruisers—Suzuki Boulevards and Honda Shadows. The ergonomics of the GS are very different. Being a dual-sport bike, it’s capable of going off road, and you need the pegs beneath you in order to stand. This placement also results in your weight being distributed evenly between the seat and pegs, with knees bent at roughly 90 degrees. It’s the ideal sitting position and how every office chair should be set up, thus making the GS also a very capable touring bike. The dual-sport, according to its name, involves compromise, but there’s no compromise when it comes to ergonomics: the GS provides the perfect sitting position, and the capability to stand when you leave the asphalt.

The other thing I like about the ergonomics is that you can flat foot this bike. The standard seat height is 30.9 inches, so super low. This is confidence inspiring once you take it off road; I know I can easily dab a foot if needed. In fact, since I am rather long-legged, the seat was a bit too low; my knees were bent more than 90 degrees and I felt a bit cramped after several hours in the saddle. So when I upgraded my seat (more on this later), I went for the high version to allow a bit more room, and that has made all the difference. If you are long-limbed, you might want to look at the Dakar version, which has a 34.3 inch seat height, or swap the saddle for a taller one. Despite these issues in my lower half, I haven’t had to add bar risers, and when I stand, the grips fall perfectly to where I need them, maintaining my standing posture.

Suspension: As I rode off on my first ride, the second thing I noticed was the suspension. This bike is smoooth, at least compared to those cruisers. And what better place to test a bike’s suspension than Montreal roads! Of course it makes sense that a dual-sport bike would have very capable suspension; it’s designed to be able to handle some pretty bumpy terrain. But just before I went for my riding test, I hired a private instructor for a class. He rode behind me and commented on things he saw. Now here is someone who has a lot of experience with bikes and has seen a wide variety from behind. Ironically, the first thing he remarked when we first stopped had nothing to do with my riding but how impressed he was with the rear suspension of my bike. “I wish you could see what I see from behind,” he said. “It’s amazing!”

In fact, I’ve wondered if the suspension is a little mushy. I’ve only bottomed out a few times while off-roading, and the front end dives a bit under hard braking. I’ve considered upgrading the suspension, but frankly, at only 140 lbs, I’m actually underweight for this bike. Front suspension travel is 170 mm and rear is 165 mm.  Since ideal SAG is roughly 30% of total travel, SAG for the 650GS is 49.5 mm.. Even with the pre-load completely backed off, all of my 140 lbs is putting a little more than 45 mm on the suspension. Which brings me to another plus of this bike: the pre-load adjuster. Okay, it’s not electronically controlled like the new Beemer’s, but the ability to adjust with the turn of a knob when you are two-up or have gear on the back is a nice feature.

Balance: The thing I like most about the 650GS is its balance. This is accomplished mainly due to the gas tank being under the seat instead of high on the bike where it normally is. Where this is most noticeable is in how the bike corners. At the school, we were taught to countersteer to initiate a turn and to accelerate at the end to straighten up, and this was necessary with those cruisers. But I quickly discovered that on the GS you can manage an entire sweeping curve simply by leaning in and out. It’s hard to describe, but the bike feels like it straightens up itself with the subtlest weight shift.

The balance also shows when riding at slow speed, like in parking lots or technical sections off road. I’ll challenge anyone to a slow race any day! The bike is easy to move around by hand and to turn in tight spaces. With a little practice, I was riding figure-eights full lock. You can add all the accessories you like to a bike, but getting the balance right is something that happens at the design stage. BMW got it right on this one, which is why I was surprised to hear that they’ve moved the tank to the traditional location in the hump on the 2018 750s and 850s.

* * *

The engine is a Rotax, 652 cc single-cylinder, water-cooled, DOHC with twin spark plugs and four valves. It provides 50 HP @ 6,500 rpm and 44 lb/ft torque @ 5000 rpm. What these numbers mean is that it’s not the gutsiest engine. I’m up for a slow race but I won’t be challenging anyone to a drag soon. When I did my research, I kept hearing how this bike is a good beginner bike. There’s not a lot of power to manage, and you don’t have to worry about losing the back end by getting on the throttle too hard. On the other hand, it’s got lots of torque down low in the first two gears for hill climbs off road, and still some roll on in 5th gear at 120 km/hr. I’ve never maxed it out, but I’ve had it up to 140 km/hr and that’s fast enough for my purposes. And since we’re talking about gearing, 3rd and 4th are wide enough to enable me to navigate a twisty piece of road pretty much in one gear, depending on the type of road: roll off going into a corner, roll on coming out.

Single-cylinder engines have their advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is this wide gearing. My dad often talks about how he loved this aspect of his 350 Matchless. In heavy traffic, you can stay in 2nd and just ease the clutch back out when traffic picks up again. He once road his brother’s parallel twin and said it was horrible in stop-and-go traffic; you had to work twice as hard to prevent the engine from bogging. I suspect it’s this same quality that allows you to maintain your gear through a twisty section of road with slight variations in speed.

Another advantage of singles, I’ve recently discovered in this article in Cycle World, is that they offer a kind of traction control. As Kevin Cameron argues, “no other design produces such forgiving power delivery under conditions of compromised traction without elaborate software.” This is due to the millisecond duration of the exhaust stroke with big-bore engines, when there is relatively little power delivered to the tire, allowing it to regain traction if it begins to break loose. It’s like anti-lock brakes, the theory goes, but in reverse. Compare that to the constant power delivery of multi-cylinder engines, which makes managing power and traction more challenging.

A disadvantage of single-cylinders is the vibration. The Rotax engine is about a smooth as a single comes, I’ve heard, but it can still make your throttle hand go numb, especially if it’s cold, so you might want to invest in a throttle assist or throttle lock. I have the Kaoko and it works great. Unfortunately, the Rox Anti-Vibration Risers don’t fit my particular bike due to the configuration of the triple-clamp, but then I’ve heard those can make the steering mushy, which can be unnerving when riding off road. And it might be my imagination, but it seems that there are less vibrations when using the BMW oil. It certainly seems that the engine runs quieter and smoother, perhaps not surprising given that BMW design and test the oil specifically for their engines. Speaking of oil, the Rotax engines do not burn oil. Ever. Don’t believe me, go ask the inmates at The Chain Gang, a user forum devoted to the BMW 650s.

On the other hand, it’s a major pain in the ass to do an oil change on this bike. Because the engine uses a dry sump system, there’s an oil tank on the left side of the hump where a gas tank normally would be (an airbox is on the right side), so draining the oil involves removing the left body panel and draining that holding tank, plus draining the pan by removing the sump plug at the very bottom of the engine. If you have a bash plate, as I do, you have to remove that too, which, if it’s attached to the crash cage . . . and so on, until you’ve stripped the bike halfway down. Or you can drill a hole in your bash plate as I did, which makes that job a lot easier. You’re still going to get some oil on the plate, and you’re going to get some on the engine when you remove the oil filter due to its recessed placement, so just have plenty of shop towels on hand.

My 2006 650GS does not have rider modes and sophisticated electronics. It doesn’t even have anti-lock brakes. At first I was concerned about this and it was almost a deal-breaker for this newbie. But I spoke to a few experienced riders and they all agreed: better to learn how to control traction and perform emergency braking using proper technique than rely on electronics. Since I’m rather a purist in most things, I understand that. If you learn to emergency brake by grabbing a handful of brake lever and letting ABS do its thing, you aren’t going to develop the feel needed to control sliding in off-road situations. And not having all that sophisticated electronics makes the bike easier to maintain.

The 650GS is fuel-injected so there is an ECU. A 911 diagnostic code reader is available to help you troubleshoot the electronics, but it’s expensive. One advantage of fuel injected bikes is that there is no choke to deal with, and the ECU adjusts the fuel-air mixture according to altitude, meaning you can literally scale any mountain without having to change the jets of a carburetor or risk running your engine hot. The downside is that the throttle can be a little choppy so easy on the roll-off.

Two areas where the 650GS is lacking are the saddle and the windscreen. The saddle is hard and slopes downward, so you always feel like the boys are jammed up against the airbox. If you plan on using your GS for long day trips, you’ll want to upgrade the saddle. There are many aftermarket models available, including BMW’s own Comfort Seat, but I decided to go with Seat Concepts which, for about $250 CAF, they will send you the foam and cover and you reupholster it yourself using your original seat pan. I’ve done a blog on this job so won’t repeat myself here.

One issue with this era GS is the windscreen. The OEM screen is so small it barely covers the instrument dash. There are many aftermarket screens available, but finding the right one is a difficult matter of trial and error. The windscreen issues on this bike are well documented, and if you have sadistic leanings, just search at for aftermarket windscreens, sit back, and enjoy. The reading is almost as entertaining as a good oil thread. In my own experience, the bike came with a 19″ National Cycle touring windscreen, which was a bit high for off roading and was directing loud air buffeting directly onto my helmet. I swapped it for a 15″ but that too was loud, so I added a wind deflector and that solved the buffeting but I thought ruined the bike’s aesthetic, so I ultimately landed on a 12″ sport screen by National Cycle that protects my torso but keeps my helmet in clean air. The problem is the shape of the front cowling that the screen screws into. It angles the screen too much directly toward the rider’s helmet, instead of the recent bikes that have the screen more upright. The quietest screen on the aftermarket is the Madstad screen. It has an adjustable bracket that attaches to the cowling, allowing you to adjust the angle of the screen. It also has that crucial gap at the bottom of the screen, preventing a low pressure area that causes the buffeting developing behind the screen. Unfortunately, it’s a little pricey, but the real deal-breaker for me is that Madstad use acrylic, and acrylic screens don’t stand up to the abuse of off-road riding. National Cycle screens are polycarbonate.

Aesthetics: I love the aesthetics of this bike! Even ugly babies are adored by their parents, but sometimes I’ll look at a more modern luxury touring bike with the engine completely covered in plastic and I’m glad my bike has its guts hanging out like a proper bike. And I like that it has spoked wheels, which are stronger for off roading and have a more traditional look. Someone once said to me, “I love your old-fashioned bike.” Hmm . . . I hadn’t thought of it as old-fashioned but didn’t mind the comment. There definitely is a raw, real motorcycle quality to the bike, yet has refinements like heated grips and the quality control and reliability you’d expect from BMW. It is the ultimate hybrid dual-sport: part dirt bike, part luxury tourer.

In conclusion: The f650GS is a confidence-inspiring little bike that is perfect for not only beginners but also anyone who prefers a smaller, lighter bike. There’s a movement these days toward smaller bikes, with many people looking at the big adventure bikes with derision for their impracticality off road. I say it really depends on the type of riding you want to do and where you plan to take the bike. Due to its size and weight, the 650GS can go some places that the larger bikes can’t, but the cost is in vibration and rpms at speed on a highway. If you’ve got large areas to traverse but want the capacity to go on dirt roads when needed, then yeah, go for the big 1200GS that is so popular. But if you’ve got time and want to explore deeper into those remote areas, then the 650GS is an excellent choice. I plan on keeping mine as long as possible.

* * *


Ergonomics for dirt and touring; smooth suspension; very well balanced; reliable Rotax engine; sufficient hp and torque for light off-roading; fuel injected intake has automatic temperature and altitude adjustment; classic aesthetics


Cost (upfront and maintenance; even parts are expensive for DIYs); saddle is hard and uncomfortable; windscreen is useless, hard to find a good aftermarket replacement; engine can be vibey; only 5 gears


If you’d like to see the modifications I’ve done on the bike to make it more dirt-ready, follow the link below.

Dirt Walkaround

If you’d like to see the modifications I’ve done to return it to street riding, click below.

Street Walkaround

How’d I do with my first review? Please comment and click the Follow button if you liked this post.

The Mother of Invention

Last fall while practising some off road skills, I broke my radiator. I was working on power slides using two cones and riding hard in a figure eight. In a power slide, you brake slide into the corner, then at the apex crack the throttle, break the rear end loose, and slide the back end around as you accelerate out of the corner. In one attempt, I must have angled the bike too much or not cracked the throttle enough (you’re aiming for the right combination of both) because the bike just plopped down on its side. It was already at a steep angle and didn’t fall far, and onto sand, no less, so I didn’t think much of it. But a few minutes later the temperature light came on and the bike overheated. At over $600 for a new radiator and no used ones available on eBay, I decided to put the bike into storage early and deal with it in the spring.

This gave me a whole winter to think about what happened. Was it just bad luck? I decided to buy some upper crash bars to protect the faring and radiator in the future. I have lower crash bars and even some makeshift ones that I’ve had welded onto those, extending out past the pegs and which I thought would be wide enough to protect the upper part of the bike in a fall. But this happened on sand, not asphalt, so they simply sunk into the sand and didn’t stop the impact on the radiator. Ironically, if the bike had fallen on asphalt, I’d be $600 richer. So yeah, bad luck. But I also got to thinking about the Dakar riders and how they dump their bikes all the time on sand and don’t end up with busted radiators. What saves their rads on impact and not mine?

Two winters ago, I was considering a trip to Blanc Sablan, QC, which would have required riding the Trans-Labrador Highway. It’s 1,500 kilometres of gravel road, and without cell service (only satellite phones placed periodically along the highway) and logging trucks barreling past you, it’s imprudent to be without a radiator guard. One errant stone thrown or kicked up into the fragile fins of the rad and you are stranded in the middle of . . . not nowhere, but Labrador, and that’s not good. So I  installed a radiator guard.

From the beginning, I wasn’t entirely happy with it. For one, it required removal of the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) shrouds to install. One look at the shrouds and you can see they’re designed to funnel air into the radiator as well as offer some protection from flying stones. In addition to concerns about adequate cooling, the guards (there are two, one for each side) are also a little flimsy. They are thin aluminum, designed to be light, but because the body panels snap into grommets on the guards (or, originally, the shrouds), they serve another important purpose in supporting the structural integrity of the bike.

Looking at the guard that came off my bike, I could see that it had buckled upon impact.

And this is after some initial straightening. My guess is that the body panel bent the guard and the weight of the bike torqued the radiator. (The leak is in a bottom corner.) It might even be that the guard was shoved into the radiator upon impact because some of the fins are damaged. The OEM shrouds, although plastic, are stronger and might have prevented the damage. Ironically, it’s quite possible that my radiator guard led to my radiator breaking! The lesson here is beware of altering OEM parts on your bike. Sometimes those German engineers know what they are doing. And these bikes, all bikes today, are thoroughly tested before going on the market. Swap out OEM parts for aftermarket ones with prudence!

So I decided to go back to using the OEM shrouds. I wasn’t completely happy because my new radiator would still be vulnerable. The only other major manufacturer of guards for my bike also requires that you remove the shrouds. I therefore had no choice but to try making my own, some that would fit inside the openings of the shrouds.

When I was a kid and was working on my bicycle (or some other project) and needed something very specific, I’d just walk around in my parents’ basement until I found it. I’d have a vague idea in mind of what I needed, and since my parents’ basement was filled with stuff of all kinds, it was just a matter of time before something that would do just the trick presented itself. Walking through a home renovation warehouse is a similar experience. You don’t know exactly where to find what you envisage or even what section it might be in, but keep walking. In my case, I found my new radiator guards in the eavestroughing section.

I started with some aluminium grill that goes in your gutters to keep leaves out. It was cheap and perfect width and even pre-painted black. Most importantly, the openings were the right size—not so big as to let small stones through but big enough to allow sufficient airflow. It was also strong enough to withstand the shake, rattle, and (unfortunately) roll of off-roading. stretched aluminum

Then I carefully measured the openings of the shrouds. MeasuringI used some cardboard and created templates that I could fit into the openings. They were basically squares but with the edges folded about 1/4″. I would use those edges to fix the grill to the shroud, but more on that later. I had to cut the corners so when folded they became like a box (or half a box). One opening on each side was a little tricky because one side of the square is not straight but has a jog. Carefully measuring and fiddling is necessary, but better to do this with cardboard before cutting into your grill.templates

When I had the four templates, I held each up to the grill and cut using tin-snips. CuttingThis is a little messy and you have to vacuum carefully afterwards to collect all the sharp bits of discarded metal. I then held the template against the cut metal and used my Workmate, my vice, and some blunt-nosed pliers to fold and shape the guards.Folding I offered each into its opening and tweaked. FittingThis requires patience, but if you follow your templates as a guide, which you know fit well, you’ll eventually get there. Use the tin-snips or pointed-nose pliers to trim off or bend in sharp edges that can scrape the plastic as you fit them. If you do scratch the plastic a bit, use some Back to Black or Armour All to lessen the visibility of the scratch.

Finally, I wrapped each edge with electrical tape to give it a finished look and prevent the sharp edges from scratching with vibration. TapingFortunately, those clever German engineers had the foresight to drill two holes in the opposite side from the mounting points, probably with something like this in mind. When the guards are done, you can fix them into the shrouds using the mounting screws on the inside and either zip ties or 1/2″ 10-24 machine screws and washers on the outside. I decided to go with the screws just to be sure everything stays put.

Here’s the finished product. I’m happy that I’ll get the cooling effect of the OEM shrouds plus protection for my new (expensive!) rad.Finished covers

These guards are particular to my bike and unless you have a 650GS you’re going to be facing a different situation. Maybe there is a good guard or any other add-on for your bike on the market. But if there isn’t, or if you’re not entirely happy with the product or the price, don’t overlook the option of making it yourself. With a little ingenuity, time, and patience, you can sometimes do better and save yourself some money in the process.

My Favourite Motovlogs

I didn’t know what a vlog was before I started riding. As a writer, I was more interested in blogs, and YouTube was a place where you could see your dear friend’s child act in the school play, a compilation of the sexiest ice-bucket challenges, or the footy game you missed last weekend (if you were willing to follow the sketchy link). Then GoPro entered the market and it changed everything. Suddenly you could get a rider’s-eye view in HD with sound that didn’t seem like the guy was riding underwater, or through Hurricane Katrina, or both. Companies also woke up to the idea of advertising for free under the guise of providing product reviews, and a generation of unemployed video editors found work. The video blog, or vlog, was born.

Perhaps I’m already thinking of those long winter months when the bike is up on a jack in the shed with a 40 watt bulb pointed at it. If you’re like me, product reviews midwinter is like a balm to a wind-chapped itch to ride, and a helmet-cam is the closest thing there is to throwing a leg over said motorcycle stored in the shed. I spend a lot of time during the winter on YouTube, learning stuff, buying stuff, or planning on buying stuff once spring hits. In prep for those regrettably not too distant months ahead, here are my favourite motorcycle vlogs and YouTube channels. Enjoy!

Because I subscribe to the free (i.e. cheap) version of WordPress, I can’t embed videos. You’ll have to click on each hyperlink to have a sample vlog open in a separate tab.

Weekly Rides With Rueben was my entrance into not only vlogging but also motorcyling in general. Before I even had my full licence, I went searching one day for tips for newbies, and after a few scattered hits, I stumbled upon Reuben’s vlogs. Reuben (I don’t know his last name) worked for Competition Accessories in North Carolina, and they decided his vlogs would be a good way to generate traffic to the store, I guess. A new video was uploaded every Wednesday and together they were, as he says at the beginning of each video, “a random collection of motorcycle adventures, life on two wheels, and product reviews.” If that sounds eerily familiar, I guess Reuben’s videos heavily influenced my thinking about this blog. Topics covered included riding in the rain, riding at night, avoiding obstacles, and preparing for fall riding, for examples. Then his store started partnering with a nearby dealership and he started doing bike reviews. Reuben also did product reviews from the store in front of the camera, but I think he was more comfortable behind the camera. He never seemed at a loss for words, and was articulate and knowledgeable. I learnt a lot from Reuben over his 74 posts. The posts abruptly stopped without notice because, as rumour has it, the store was bought out. A new guy from another location took over, but it was never the same. Hope you’re doing well, Reuben!

The ancient Roman poet Horace wrote that poetry should both “delight and instruct.” The same could be said for a good vlog, so while I might find it “delightful” to watch Rosie Gabrielle ride through Oman or Ottawa, if I want to learn how to ride, I go where the experienced riders are. Sorry Rosie! Zack and Ari, co-editors at Motorcyclist Magazine, have been riding together for a long time! (Like, since childhood.) They are good riders. In fact, I’ve watched Ari break a track record on a KTM 390, and Zack is no slouch either. Just watch his MC Commute, where he rides a different bike to work each day and gives a review en route. Their show On Two Wheels (again, a rip off from yours truly) is a lot of fun with their humour keeping things light but rarely stupid, and always the bikes are front and centre. One of my favourite episodes is the one on the BMW GS, yeah, the bike that opened up the adventure touring market and spawned my f650GS. But even more than On Two Wheels, I love MC Garage, where Ari walks us through some simple maintenance of our bikes. I have a lot of respect for people who are both good riders and good mechanics. I’ve used some of Ari’s tips to fix not only my bike but also my car. I think Horace would agree that instruction for a hungry audience is also a delight.

If Ari and Zack are good riders, Lyndon Poskitt is a great rider! How great? Dakar great. Podium finisher in Baja great. And he knows his way around a bike too. In fact, he built his bike from the frame up. In Races to Places, Lyndon travels around the world, stopping at various rally races like the Mongolian Rally, The Baja Rally, and of course the Dakar, to try his luck and skill. His key sponsor, Adventure Spec, put together the vlogs of his adventures. Production quality is high, which is especially impressive since Lyndon does all his own filming. I’ve done enough adventure riding to know that when times get tough, the last thing you want to do is stop for a photo (or cutaway, or take 20 minutes to set up a 20 second shot), but Lyndon is committed loyally to his project and followers. I’ve also learnt a lot about different countries vicariously from Lyndon. I’ve followed him across eastern Europe, down into Asia, and now over to Australia. I’ve really been enjoying this series, now starting its 7th season. I’m trying to savour them because I’m almost entirely caught up and will soon have to wait for each new episode.

If you are more into street riding, or rather street racing, you want to check out Lockk9 TT Racing’s channel. Nobody does video editing as well as this guy. I can’t get enough of this video: great editing, great music, not bad riding. It’s a shot of adrenaline on a cold mid-winter morning to get you out the door and to your job.

For product reviews, I go to two sources: Fort Nine and Revzilla. I love Fort Nine because the reviews are thorough and I know that whatever RyanF9 talks about I can get from this Canadian-based online store without the hassle of cross-border issues. I bought my 50/50 tire based on his rave review of the K60 Scout (i.e. “I’m not even going to say this is my favourite pick of the video because the K60 is my favourite tire on the motorcycling market right now”). He’s knowledgeable and funny, and tells it like he sees it, which is not always the case with product reviews. Usually they end up being positive, pointing out only the merits of a certain product. In fact, many so-called “reviews” are really just product descriptions, with very little if any evaluative comments thrown in. Ryan also does pretty good vlogs. In his vlog about how to legally ride off road in Canada (his split infinitive, not mine), I found out about Chemin Scotch north of Hawksbury, and checked it out, and had a blast. In a recent vlog, he talks about having a degree in Art History (Art History!) which really is evidence that what you study in school doesn’t have to be what you do in life. And no one does bike reviews like Fort Nine. They are creative works of art. Apparently Ryan writes the scripts and some guy named Steve handles the editing. Just check out this review for example, in rhyme, of the new BMW 310R. I’m so old I can’t say exactly what he’s parodying, but I think it’s hip hop videos. In another, he says he’s heading back west to BC to start a new chapter with Fort Nine. I hope that includes more vlogs.

For more in-depth product reviews, I go to Revzilla. I don’t know what Anthony drinks in the mornings but I know I want some. A 19′ review of the Klim Badlands jacket? Really? He strips that bad boy down inside and out. Meanwhile, world population has increased by 4,750 by the time he’s done. It’s thorough! How much do Klim pay him to represent their product? How long does it take him to learn all the details of that jacket? Because of the currency conversion and cross border brokerage (motorcycle gear is duty-free, however), Revzilla is not always the cheapest option for me, but I never buy a product without checking out the Revzilla review and user reviews there. Thanks guys! And just to show my appreciation, sometimes I do buy there and have it shipped to Burlington and ride down to pick it up. I especially like their Gear Guides, where they compare a number of select products in the same review. You can salivate all winter long, and drop Christmas hints to loved ones by sharing, or create a wish list of your own for when you’re stinking rich.

I’ve saved the best for last, but I’m going to cheat because it’s not even a vlog. It’s a podcast, but I’m including it because I’ve probably learnt more about the adventure touring experience from Adventure Rider Radio than from any other single source. Yeah, the show caters to adventure riders, but host Jim Martin is always careful not to exclude other types of riders and riding, and much of the information is relevant to motorcycling in general. I’ve learnt everything from the esoteric (e.g. the nitty gritty of motorcycle chains) to the mundane (how to prepare tasty meals in camp, or first aid). One of my favourite things to do during the winter is run a hot bath and listen to ARR on my iPad while I soak away the chills. I’m always keen to learn new skills, especially if it’s from the comfort of a hot bath, and one of my favourite segments is the rider skills segment with Bret Tkacs of PSSOR. The show functions on a donation and sponsor basis and it’s pretty impressive that Jim and his wife churn out a show every week. I’ve been meaning to send a token of my appreciation, and will, because while the show is obviously a labour of love, these kinds of shows don’t survive if not supported by those who enjoy and profit from them.

There are a few others I cruise past from time to time, but I’ll stop there. Drop a comment about your favourite motovlog or channel and I’ll check it out. Or let me know what you think of some of these. Happy fall riding, while it lasts.


The Comfort Zone

Do you remember when you learned how to ride? I do. It wasn’t that long ago. I remember there was a lot of nervous excitement. Mostly there were a lot of nerves. I remember how worried I was when all we had to do was roll out in first gear a few feet then stop using the rear brake.Comfort_zone I don’t know what I thought might happen, but in a worst case scenario it was something like accidentally hitting the clutch instead of the brake, then popping the clutch, popping a wheelie, flipping the bike, and landing on my back, the bike crashing down on top of me to the laughter and applause of all the other students and even a few instructors. But that didn’t happen, and I survived. Then we had to actually ride in 1st gear [gasp!] in a circle, stopping at each of four cones, and that was outside my comfort zone. Eventually we were changing gears, counter-balancing, countering-steering, and emergency braking. Then we left the lot and headed onto the road. Then we went on the highway. Each time we completed a new exercise or ventured into unfamiliar territory our comfort zones expanded ever so little. Before we knew it, the course was over. Now what do you do?

Without the pressure of an outside source pushing you out of your comfort zone, you have to push yourself. For me this year that has meant developing off-road skills, and every time I pull on my Klim Dakar pants and Sidi boots (as opposed to my Dainese jeans and Tourmaster touring boots), I feel it in the pit of my gut: that nervous anxiety in anticipation of possible danger. I’ve been going over to a small undeveloped area near the airport; it’s a space only a few hundred feet across and contains a mixture of dirt, loose gravel, and sand. I warm up with some slow-speed stuff to develop balance, then set up a few cones and practice brakesliding and powersliding. There isn’t much chance of getting hurt doing this—not seriously—but I still get a little nervous while riding over. I’m heading out of my comfort zone.

What’s the worst that can happen there, seriously? I drop the bike, maybe damage it in some way, or get a foot caught under it when it falls. It’s all pretty low-speed stuff. But that doesn’t seem to matter. It’s the perception of danger that brings those feelings on, and that happens any time we are doing something new. Perhaps it’s evolutionary. Ever wonder why students always sit in the same spot every class, even if they come early and have so many more to choose from? The theory goes that we are animals and our first concern is survival. We sat in a particular spot last class and nothing bad happened to us; we’ll trust that spot again. Change, however innocuous, is scary.

This should be distinguished from real danger. I’m not suggesting pushing yourself into The Foolhardy Zone, when you ask yourself to do something well outside your skill set. The Comfort Zone is like a muscle: stretch it a little and you’re fine; stretch it too much and something bad is going to happen. The instructors at my school didn’t stick us on bikes after introductions and take us on the road. It was a slow, incremental development of skills from the most fundamental, like how to get on and off the bike, to what we needed to pass the closed circuit test.

I’m thinking of this now because, after having a fear of the water my entire life, I’ve decided to take a swim class and finally get over it. The class is Thursdays at noon and by Wednesday evening I’m already thinking of skipping the class. As I drive in Thursday morning I’m thinking of getting a mouthful of water mid-stroke and choking, gasping, suffocating, and as I walk in from the parking lot I feel like I’m walking to the gallows. I have to steel myself, psych myself up, reassure myself, promise myself it’s all worth it in the end. And on Tuesdays, when there is the free swim time, I have to push myself even harder without the commitment of a class to get over to the pool. So these past few weeks I have had very concrete awareness of the need to push myself out of my comfort zone. But so far I haven’t skipped a class and have gone to the free swim the past three weeks. Each time I enter the change room and smell that distinctive urinous chlorine smell, it gets a little easier. Just a little. Nothing bad happened to me last time.

The motorcycling, or any other skill, for that matter, can be a metaphor for life. It’s only outside your comfort zone that growth happens, and it’s up to each of us to push ourselves into uncomfortable situations. I remember a guy I knew years ago who admitted that, if he had the resources, he would stay inside his bedroom and live his entire life there! Apparently his comfort zone extended only as far as the bedroom door. (It’s not clear how he would meet women, but maybe that’s covered in the “resources” part of his fantasy.) I have a different fantasy: one in which I’m swimming laps, the kind of complete-body, zero impact training I’ve wanted to do for many years, and another where I’m powersliding out of a corner on a dirt road somewhere far from Montreal. There are others, one for each of my “hobbies,” and I use these to get me over to the pool, my sandbox, off the couch in the evenings and pounding the pavement. Instead of imagining the worst, I’m imagining the best, even if a part of me knows I might never get there. But if I never get close, I’m closer than if I never pushed myself at all.

Pursue your dreams; life is too short.

Going Home


I left Katahdin Shadows Campground in central Maine after breakfast. I was looking forward to my ride along Highway 2 and to getting home and seeing my wife and dog. The trip had been full and exciting, but also exhausting, and I was ready to sleep in a bed.

I came out on the 157 and headed down to Highway 2. I can’t remember what signage was at that T-junction but somehow I turned the wrong way. Looking at it on a map now, I can only imagine that the options were 2 North and 2 South, and I, naturally, took north. Only I was supposed to take south, which is counter-intuitive since I live in Canada and was south of the border. But because the 157 intersects the 2 at an odd angle, I think that must have been what deceived me.

After riding happily for an hour, I came to a split in the road, with 2 and 2A as the options. This doesn’t look right, I thought, and checking my GPS, discovered I was further from home than in the morning. Yes, I’d been going the wrong way; I had to go south first before I could go west. I’d lost the morning and my GPS was saying I was 12 hours from home! Damn!

Knowing I was now in a fix, I changed the settings on my GPS from “Avoid Highways” to “Fastest Route.” It promptly took me to the I95 and I bombed south for what seemed like an hour and a half until I came to Augusta, which I recognized from my ride down. I knew I was now near the section of Highway 2 that I wanted, but getting through Augusta to that road was not easy. If I hadn’t had that GPS, packed almost as an afterthought (thinking I could “easily” navigate by paper map in the US), I would have been in a bigger fix. Maine’s road system resembles a spider’s web, and getting from Point A to Point B involves passing through Points R, M, X, and C first. Clearly, the Romans did not make it out to Maine.

Now finally on a road that looked familiar, I stopped for lunch at a roadside general store that also contained a diner. Knowing I had a long way to go, I powered up with a cheeseburger and fries. Then it was the long ride back along Highway 2 west out of Maine, across New Hampshire, and into Vermont.

Riding for me is like running. When I ride or run, I’m very meditative. Perhaps some people would say I should give the road my full attention, but I’m still concentrating on the road even if part of my mind is wandering, reflecting, processing, purging. I’ve had some of my best ideas while running or riding. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never worn ear buds or installed a radio in my helmet; for me, that meditative quality, that state of mental calm and presence is part of what I find therapeutic in both activities.

And similarly to when I ride, when I pass by a section of road that I’ve run recently, because my thought was so present in the moment, I can remember exactly what I was thinking at a given place. It’s like each particular of that geography has a thought attached to it, like the mnemonic to remember a poem by heart in which you think of a very familiar place, say, a local park, and as you walk though that park in your imagination, you associate a line of poetry with a particular object, a specific tree or lamppost, for examples, so remembering the poem later becomes merely a walk in the park, so to speak.

I’m mentioning this now because, as I rode west along Highway 2, I was remembering my thoughts and feelings vividly from when I rode east that section of road 12 days prior. All the feelings of expectation and promise and adventure came back to me even though my trip was almost over. And I remember feeling, I admit, a little apprehensive as I ventured out on my first long trip, not knowing exactly how it would go, what kind of problems I would encounter, and if I’d be able to solve them. But it had gone well and I’d managed; in fact, I’d done better than managed. I had ridden over 5,000 kilometres and met some wonderful people, seen some beautiful places, and learnt some new skills on the bike. What had I been so apprehensive about? Rather than a sense of sadness for my trip coming to an end, I had an urge to get back on the road again as soon as possible. Realistically, that won’t be until next summer, but I was already starting to think of where I might visit next year.

I turned north on the I91 that took me to the border at Stanstead, then I was on the familiar bumpy, pot-holed roads of Quebec. The 55 took me to the 10. The light was fading, and as I approached the Champlain Bridge the Montreal skyline rose up on the horizon. It was Saturday evening so the traffic was heavy, everyone driving in to town from the south shore. And then something else familiar: the winding tunnel of construction pylons lining the makeshift highway, lane-closures, douche-bags cutting in at the last moment at those lane closures, the ramp to the 20 Ouest unexpectedly closed, forcing me up the Decarie Expressway to loop around at Queen Mary (or was it higher?), then more lane closures on Decarie south, heavier, aggressive traffic, someone angrily leaning on a horn. It was all sadly too familiar.

I was pretty exhausted and now did have to devote all my attention to the chronically disrepaired and clogged roads of Montreal to get these last 20 kilometres home. I found it ironic that in the over 5000 kilometres I’d ridden the past two weeks, I never felt as unsafe as on those familiar roads so close to home. Once I was finally on the 20 Ouest after my detour and breathed a sigh of relief, some idiot cut across three lanes in front of me, passing a few feet from my front tire, his buddy close behind doing the same, getting off at the 13 probably to go to Laval. There are some things I love about this city, and some that I hate.

I always remind myself at the end of a long ride to concentrate right to the very end; I know it’s easy to lose your concentration and that’s when an accident can happen. But even knowing this and reminding myself in that final stretch of highway did not prevent a near accident on one of the last turns of the trip. As I came down the Des Sources ramp in 3rd, I went to shift into 2nd for the curve at the bottom of the ramp as I have done a hundred times, only when I shifted into 2nd, for some inexplicable reason, I forgot to pull in the clutch! What the hell?! The bike lurched and I immediately pulled the clutch and coasted. I found the bike in neutral and upshifted to 2nd, then took the curve, apologizing profusely to Bigbea. I can only think that these kinds of slips happen because you are already thinking of what you’re going to do when you get home. Another lesson learned: concentrate to the very end means to the very end. I think in the future I will associate the end with kickstand down, the signal that my brain can shut off now, or turn its attention elsewhere. Like my wife and dog that greeted me on the driveway. 😊

Day 12

The Cabot Trail

Cabot Trail

Imagine the perfect motorcycling road. What would it look like? It would have lots of twisties, of course, and probably some hills too. Curving hills, climbs and descents, to make it extra challenging. It might even have some switchbacks. And for scenery, it might have mountains, or some water, like an ocean. Well, the Cabot Trail has all of these, which is why it’s on every rider’s bucket list. 360 kilometres of climbing, snaking twisties with mountains on one side and spectacular ocean views on the other. It was my destination for this trip and worth every one of the 1,739 kilometres it took to get there.

But I didn’t want to put all my eggs into one bucket, so to speak, so getting to the Cabot Trail was part of the fun. I left Deer Island at Lord’s Cove on the free ferry run by the New Brunswick provincial government and landed in L’Etete, NB. From there, I bombed through the drive-through province on the Transcanada and into Nova Scotia. I’d been reading Alistair MacLeod’s Island to get a sense of Cape Breton culture, and since almost every story has some reference to mining in it, I thought I should visit a mine. So my first stop in Nova Scotia was at Springhill, about 20 minutes past the border.

Springhill. The name is synonymous with disaster. There have been three major accidents at the mine: an explosion in 1891, another in 1956, and a bump in 1958. A bump is an earthquake that causes not the roofs of tunnels to collapse but the floors to rise up to the roofs. It results in overturned railway cars and crushed or trapped men. 75 men died in that last accident; 99 were rescued, including some who managed to stay alive for 8 1/2 days by drinking their urine before a rescue team broke through. The mine is now a museum; you can walk 400 feet into the shaft on a guided tour.

I found the tour moving, the place solemn, even sacred, and I didn’t take any photographs while underground; it just didn’t seem like something I ought to do. Besides, in this instance, a photo does not come close to reproducing the feeling of being down there. If you’re interested, there is always Wikipedia, which covers the three disasters well, with photos of the mine.

In a regular 8 1/2 hour shift, each miner had to extract and load 10 tonnes of coal. The coal is extracted largely by hand, with hand tools like a manual auger. The miner would press a steel plate strapped onto his sternum against the butt of the auger and turn, boring into the wall of stone in front of him. I’ve used a power auger to dig down into earth, and it’s hard enough, even with the advantage of leaning your weight into a softer substance. But to have to press into a wall of stone in front of you and turn by hand is almost unimaginable, and to do that for 8 1/2 hours is inhuman. Each miner has a lunch bucket and flask of water, both steel to prevent rats from eating the lunch, although they would still chew through the cork, dip their tail into the neck of the water jug, and get water that way. (Obviously no concern about double-dipping for them.) Despite these threats, the rats were appreciated by the men, and in fact were helpful in warning of disaster. On the day of the bump, the rats vacated the mine. Many of the experienced miners did not show up for work that day, but many younger ones did.

Given these working conditions, it’s not surprising that the first legalized trade union in Canada was formed in Springhill. I did take photos of the memorial in the centre of town, and a plaque commemorating the surreptitious meeting that established the union.



Miners Memorial

Those four tall memorials behind contain the names of “others who have lost their lives in individual accidents.” So while so much attention is placed on the three disasters, there were hundreds of other men who died in single incidents during a workday. Many men lost their lives from runaway railway cars; you’d have to jump out of the way or be crushed, and it was extremely dark down there. In fact, the guide turned out the lights for a few moments and it was unnerving. To be trapped down there in the dark would be horrific. He also showed the actual lighting conditions of the miners (the museum had added extra lighting for tourists), pre- and post-20th Century. Pre-century lighting was so poor you basically could only see the small section of wall in front of you on which you were working, nothing more. I’m glad I did this tour; it’s ironic that the most surprising and memorable moment of my trip was off the bike, down in that mine.

After that experience, the sensation of being on the bike was all the more liberating. Up in the sunshine, I sped to my next destination, which was 5 Islands RV and Campground. I say sped but, thanks to Googlemaps, which does not discern between a dirt or paved road, 16 kilometres of Highway 2 taking me there was gravel. But the view, once there, was worth every one of them.

5Islands Camp

If you look closely at the people beside me (in the centre of the photo), you’ll see a motorcycle parked behind that boat. I struck up a conversation with these nice people, a young couple travelling with their son. They live the other side of the bay, directly across that body of water, and told me of a nice route to get to Cape Breton. You go into Truro, then head to Bible Hill, where you can pick up Highway 4 (aka Old Highway 4) which snakes back and forth across the Transcanada Highway and is a lovely ride! I split off at the 245 instead of going through Antigonish and rode a section of the Sunrise Trail up to Cape George.

Cape GeorgeI’m not sure why it’s called the Sunrise Trail since it faces northwest, not east, but it’s pretty nonetheless. At one point, just west of Arisaig, I saw a dirt road leading off from the 245 and decided to go exploring. This is what I love about adventure riding and my bike—the ability to get off the asphalt when curiosity beckons. A short ride in led to a perfect lunch spot overlooking the ocean, complete with a picnic table to prepare my sandwich. Sunshine Coast Lunchspot

Like I said, with motorcycling, it’s not the destination but getting there that is the fun. But finally, I did cross the causeway and found my way to Baddeck Cabot Trail Campgound.

Baddeck CampI love this campground! My wife and I stayed here when we vacationed in Cape Breton two years ago, and she found it, so I can’t take any credit. It’s a very well run campground with wooded sites, clean washrooms, friendly service, a heated pool (nice after a long day of riding), free showers and, a personal favourite of mine, a campers’ lounge. I have to admit, I didn’t take to the lounge right away; it has a TV and seemed like what one tries to escape by camping. But this time round I was forced to sit there to charge my phone, and found it a pleasant place to write or read, especially on the evening it rained. I decided to stay an extra night at Baddeck.

The next day was it, the Cabot Trail. Now whether to ride it clockwise or counter-clockwise is a matter of some online debate, but to me it’s a no-brainer: doing it counter-clockwise means you have the ocean views, and hence the lookouts, on your right side. Doing it the other way would involve crossing traffic every time you want to pull off or continue. And there are some spectacular lookouts you don’t want to miss.CT Lookout

CT Lookout2

But I have to admit, I didn’t stop at many. To me, they seemed like a distraction to why I had come all that way, and stopping every 15 minutes would prevent me from finding a rhythm on the road. So I rode. Yes, it’s only 360 kilometres and will take you only an afternoon, but it’s pretty intense riding, requiring your full concentration if you are, like me, not interested in cruising. For me, part of the fun is challenging myself to really ride a road properly—not dangerously, I always leave 20% buffer—but on a piece of road like this, you don’t want to be poking along like on a Sunday drive. So yes, that involved some passing too on this two-lane road.

It’s a clinic in riding, and by the end of the day I felt a lot more adept at cornering and passing. Do any repetitive skill for a day and you will get it down. I remember learning to canoe properly. One day in the stern and you learn the J-stroke and the Power-stroke. One day in the bow and you are a pretty good navigator of nautical maps. The same for riding. Now I know why it’s so important to fully brake before a sharp turn. If you go into it at the speed you think you can take it, you don’t have any buffer should you have misjudged. But by braking into a corner, you can determine your speed through the turn using the throttle, not the brake, which might have disastrous consequences. And by accelerating through the turn, the torque of the bike is pressing the rear tire into the road, increasing traction and preventing lowsides.

I also discovered that my little pony really pulls! There were of course other bikes on the road and it kept up with anything out there. Okay, it doesn’t have the acceleration of a bigger bike, but its smaller weight more than compensates on a piece of twisty road like this. It climbed those switchbacks effortlessly, had no heating issues despite, I later discovered, being half a quart low on coolant, and gripped the road through those corners. I always knew my bike was easy to ride; the Cabot Trail showed me it’s also very capable.

Finally through Chéticamp, I decided it was time to give both of us a rest. I pulled off at a rest site with a huge mountain lurking over us. The photo does not convey the dimensions and perspective. CT Lunchspot

As you can see, I left the panniers and top bags at camp. This is another reason why I decided to stay an extra night at Baddeck, so I could ride unencumbered. With the switchbacks and challenging section of road behind me, I took a slower pace to complete the loop and returned to camp mid-afternoon. The pool was just the thing after a such an intense, hot ride.

The Cabot Trail was everything I thought it would be. I’m glad I was riding alone and could do it at my pace. I have to add that there was a fair bit of road work happening across the top section, but thankfully it was a section of relatively straight road so was more of an annoyance than a major detraction from the ride. And I guess such an important road for Nova Scotia’s tourism does need to be well maintained. But if you’re not comfortable riding in those grooves or at all on gravel, check highway conditions before you decide to go. But just make sure you do go sometime because it’s a ride not to be missed.

Next up, off-roading in Cape Breton.

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6