After 8 years and almost 100,000 kilometres, I pass Bigby on to new owners.
The first night of my motorcycle training class, the teacher asked: “Okay, what do we have here? Who wants a sport bike? A cruiser? A tourer? An adventure bike?” Students put up their hands accordingly. I didn’t even know what an adventure bike was yet, but I knew I wanted something that would allow me to explore, and I didn’t want to be limited by pavement. The places I wanted to explore likely wouldn’t have any pavement.
At the end of the evening, I approached the teacher to ask about helmets. What would he recommend, full face or modular? At some point, I must have mentioned that my dream was to travel across Canada by bike. “You’re going to get a BMW, aren’t you?” he said. I guess he knew enough about ADV culture to know that is the most popular ADV brand, thanks to Ewen and Charlie, and KTM’s big mistake in doubting them. And in the end, he was right. After a little research online, I zeroed in on the f650GS as a perfect starting bike—low seat height, not too much power, well balanced, reliable, and easy to ride and maintain.
A quick search on Kijiji turned up one for sale near me on the West Island. It even had hard luggage and a touring screen, all set for cross-country touring. It seemed destined to be mine, and within a few days, it was. Getting that bike has been one of the best decisions of my adult life. It has connected me to friends, to readers, to a country, and to aspects of myself I didn’t know existed.
It almost didn’t happen. The bike doesn’t have ABS, and I’ve grown accustomed to ABS in the car during winter when the roads are icy. I thought it would be essential for a new rider and not having ABS was almost a deal-breaker for me. But fortunately, the few people I consulted about my decision were not fans. One distinctly said, “You have to learn how to brake properly without it.”
So I did. I’ve heard of people who use only rear brake. Apparently, Honda mechanics discovered that the rear brake pads of Gold Wings were wearing out faster, much faster, than the front pads, which doesn’t make sense since most of the braking happens with the front. They concluded that Gold Wing riders weren’t using the front brakes, so they developed integrated braking—both front and rear come on, even if you only apply the rear. Smart. Honda engineers outsmarted the riders for their own safety.
My bike didn’t have integrated braking or ABS, so I had to learn how to brake properly. Mostly this meant squeezing the front lever, not grabbing, to load the front contact patch before pulling harder, and using just a little rear to stabilize the bike. I did this every time I stopped, even when cruising along the Lakeshore, at every stop sign and every light, front and rear in correct proportion, so it became muscle memory. Then in emergency situations, which I had, I didn’t have to think about it; the technique came “naturally” and I thankfully never tucked the front end, even once at speed in heavy rain on Heidenau tires in Northern Ontario when I rounded a corner to find someone backing up on the two lane Highway 101.
I knew I also needed to develop my off-road skills to become an ADV rider. I took a course at SMART Riding Adventures in Barrie, and another with Jimmy Lewis at the Dirt Daze adventure bike rally in New York. I joined Moto Trail Aventure mostly for the Rémise en Forme with a certified GS instructor, and the BMW Club of Québec for the same reason. (I actually planned to do rides with both clubs too but that never materialized.) This instruction set the perfect foundation for off-roading, and then it was just a matter of practice.
You don’t even need any dirt to practice off-road skills. I go up to my local church parking lot and do slow speed maneuvers. As Jimmy said, off-roading is all about balance and traction control, so I practiced the balance stuff on Bigby regularly. I also practiced the traction when I could, getting out of the city up onto the dirt roads and ATV trails in the Hawkesbury area. Bigby is a GS, which means Gelände/Straße (off-road/on-road), but I soon learned the limits of the bike. I never learned it street limits; I could lean that bike over and scrape the pedals, even with knobbies on, but I discovered its limits on the trails. The clearance was the biggest limitation, and the front suspension with the 19″ front wheel. It took some superficial damage for these lessons, but I also learnt not to lament the scratches. A fellow rider at my first Dirt Daze rally saw me brooding on my first scratch and said, “You can’t worry about that. It’s a bike.” The matter-of-fact way he put it set me straight.
I also had to learn my way around the engine. Knowing I would be riding into remote areas, I had to know the basics and how to fix problems. As I had with car mechanics, I started with an oil change, then coolant, brake pads, and brake fluid. I bought the bike with 35,000 kilometres on it, so it wasn’t long before I had to do the valves. That service was $1000 at the dealer, just to check them, so necessity was the mother of invention and with my trusty Haynes service manual, I did the valves myself in the shed. (I don’t have a garage, and my poor workspace has been the biggest obstacle to overcome. I’ve lost and found a lot of hardware on the driveway and in the grass!)
The Achilles heel on this bike is the water pump, and I’ve changed that a few times, including once at a rally because I hadn’t done it correctly the first time. (A plastic impeller gear wasn’t installed properly and rattled loose while off-roading.) That was the only time I considered selling the bike early, until I discovered the error was mine and not a fault of the bike. Once done correctly, the pump lasted another 40,000 K until I preemptively changed it before going across Canada.
The other big job was changing the swingarm bearings. That required removing the gas tank and subframe, so basically the entire back half of the bike. The pivot bolt was badly corroded and stuck, and it took two days of troubleshooting and, in the end, two hammers—a ball pane as punch, and a sledge hammer to drive—one on top the other, to get it out. But it eventually surrendered. Yes, I have cursed and praised this bike in equal measure over the years.
I changed those bearings as well as all wheel bearings, clutch plates, the shock, rebuilt the forks, re-lubed the steering head bearings (which were in surprisingly good shape so didn’t need to be changed), and have had the dash assembly apart. And in the end, I restored those scratched body panels to make the bike look good as new.
My first trip on this bike was back to Ontario to show it to my dad, who used to ride. I left the day after getting my full licence. The next month I did my first moto-camp down at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire for their highland games. The following year, my first year with full licence, I went to Nova Scotia to ride the Cabot Trail, passing through Maine, Deer Island, and New Brunswick en route. I’ve also toured Northern Ontario, and these tours have led to some paid writing for northernontario.travel. So the bike has become for me more than a past-time. It has taken my writing in a new direction, and that of course refers to this blog too. I’ve made connections and friendships with people online, and met some of them in person during my travels. I hope to meet more of you in the future.
I have also met new friends locally in club riding. When I began, learners couldn’t ride without an experienced rider accompanying them, so I joined The West Island Moto Club, and some of these members have become my closest friends. I’ve done some touring with the club, but mostly I do day rides with them, and it wasn’t long before, with the right mentorship, I was leading rides.
Some of my favourite riding on this bike has been in the northeastern states like Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire. I’ve ridden the Puppy Dog Ride on it a few times, and some of the Hamster Ride in New Hampshire, and Bayley-Hazen military road. The 650 GS is perfect for this type of light off-roading. I had a 15-tooth counter-sprocket on it for years, which gave it more low-end torque, and there’s nothing like feeling the pull of the big thumper as you climb a steep hill, or sliding out the back end as you round a corner.
Finally, after developing these riding and mechanical skills, modifying the bike to what was perfect for me, and waiting for Covid generally to be over, I completed my dream of crossing the country, and this bike, 15 years old and with over 100,000 kilometres on it, got me there and back. Ironically, the only issue I had was with a new battery I’d just installed for the trip. But the bike, fully loaded, pulled my wife and me over The Rocky Mountains, and took me up north of the Arctic Circle into some truly remote territory. The bike fulfilled its purpose for me—to learn about motorcycling, develop the skills necessary for adventure touring, and get me over the dangerous first few years of riding. It has been the best first bike I could have had, and now it’s time to pass it on to another new rider. Like me, the new owner has bought the bike before obtaining her licence. I’m sure it will be as good a beginner bike for her as it was for me. The engine is still strong, and I wish them both many safe and happy adventures in the future.
My new bike is a 2013 Triumph Tiger 800XC. The XC stands for cross country, so it’s also capable of light off-roading, and I’ll be taking it on BDRs and other adventure tours. It does has ABS, but being a 2013, it doesn’t have any rider aids, and as I read about the new bikes with throttle control, wheelie control, slipper clutches, and other traction aids, I can’t help thinking about what riders of those bikes aren’t learning. I’m happy to be learning how to control the power of this 94 HP engine properly, just as I learnt to brake properly on the GS. It’s going to take my riding skills to the next level. The blog will be keeping its URL and name in tribute to the bike that got me started and to which I owe so much.
Next season I will complete my cross-country tour by riding the East Coast. I plan to visit Gaspé, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, Newfoundland, Labrador, and the north shore of Quebec including the Saguenay. I might try to ride solo up to Fort George on James Bay “on my way home.” This would allow me at least to set foot in Nunavut. I also plan to ride the Mid-Atlantic and North-East BDRs next summer, if I can get it all to fit. So stay tuned, my friends. The journey continues.