The Sunshine Coast

We tour the Sunshine Coast from Powell River to Gibsons, then do a day trip on the Sea to Sky to Whistler before Marilyn flies back.

It’s been a busy semester so far, but I am on my March Break now so have a chance to complete our journey before the new season opens. In my last post, my wife and I crossed the Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island and spent a few days in Victoria and a few days in Tofino. Now we were heading back across the island to Comox, where we were going to catch the ferry over to Powell River. This plan was decided in Calgary in consultation with some friends who know the area better than we do. They said the ferries offer great sightseeing, motorcyclists get priority loading and are cheap, and the Sunshine Coast is lovely.

We arrived at Comox in good time but was surprised to find a single lane leading to the ticket kiosk. It was stop and go, literally, in the heat as we crept forward; the line was moving so slowly, I killed the engine and restarted a few times before we reached the kiosk. It was a bit stressful but we ended up buying our tickets with time to spare, then were directed over to the motorcycle lane where we pulled in behind a couple of grizzled ADV riders on KTMs. Yes, there’s a kind of competitiveness even among ADV riders, and their bikes, aside from being KTMs, had more mud than ours, knobbies, and soft luggage. You don’t want to stall your bike in front of them, I thought. Turns out that would not be possible because when we were signalled to board, the bike wouldn’t start.

The lithium battery was over-heating again. I guess all that idling in the heat, combined with the hot bath upon shutting off the bike once we were in position, had led to the overheating. The bikes behind me filed past, so when I turned around, I had a clear lane back for a push start. Marilyn knew the routine by now. Unfortunately, the loading area was flat and she couldn’t get me enough speed. We tried a few times, and just when I thought we would miss the ferry, a guy jumped out of his truck, and another even climbed over the high chainlink fence that separates the foot passenger area, and they helped Marilyn push. We began in 2nd gear, which is the standard practice. Several unsuccessful attempts left me crawling at the end of the lane, where I did a Hail Mary and kicked the bike into first and tried one last time. It fired!

Now I had to be careful to keep the revs up so the bike wouldn’t stall; I knew from experience that this bike doesn’t idle with a dead (or non-functioning) battery. I managed to do the U-turn, get back to the front of the lane where Marilyn remounted, gesture thanks to my helpers, then sneak onto the back of the ferry just as the ramp was lifted. It was like the James Bond movie chase scene with the lifting drawbridge, except we didn’t have to jump across any open water. Once on board, Marilyn was beside herself. A BC Ferries staff member took one look at her, doubled-over, red-faced, and gasping for air, and asked, “Are you okay?” “It’s just a hot-flash,” I replied, which didn’t earn me any points. I was red-faced too, but for different reasons.

Heading from Comox to Powell River

Now comes the big wait during the crossing when the only thing on your mind is whether the bike will start on the other side or if you’ll be the subject of more dramatic theatre there. You try not to think about it, and there’s no shortage of spectacular scenery to distract you, but your mind always pulls back to the bike sitting alone behind all the cars and trucks onboard, and the thought of pushing it up the ramp if necessary. By the time we shored an hour and half later, I’d located a glass mat (AGM) battery in stock at High Road Vancouver and planned to swap out the lithium before I headed north. Better still, it was under $100. I’d ship the lithium back to Anti-Gravity and sort out the warranty claim later.

The bike did start, thankfully, after cooling on the ferry, and the hotel where we stayed had a bar that was open with a courtyard. There was a whack of Harley riders staying there as well and yucking it up at another table, and soon all the stress from the ferry incident was washed away with Guiness.

The next day we had a short ride along the coast to Saltery Bay and another ferry crossing. There, we met our KTM friends again, and they asked what had happened to us. They hadn’t realized that our bike didn’t start. Serj and I struck up a long conversation during the crossing because they went to Tuktoyaktuk when the ice road first opened, and he had a lot of good advice for me, including not to try The Dempster on my current tires (Anakee Adventures). He said I’d be okay as long as it was dry, but if it rained, I’d be “all over the road” and would have to wait for the road to dry, which could be days. We landed before he could impart all his wisdom on the subject so we spoke on the phone later. He was really helpful, providing advice on specific routes and campgrounds up through northern BC and Yukon.

We followed them off the ferry from Earle’s Cove all the way down to Roberts Creek. Marilyn had a few rest stops in mind along the coast through that stretch but we were enjoying the ride so much that neither of us wanted to stop. The next thing we knew, we were in Roberts Creek, where we were staying for the night.

I’ve never understood the appeal of McMansions. So much house to clean, and so much stuff to manage! When I first started teaching, I used to use a short documentary in class on Voluntary Simplicity, a movement during the late 1990s and early 2000s when people were downsizing and realizing that they’d rather spend more time with family and friends and less time at work to subsidize a certain lifestyle. I think I was more interested in the concept than my students, but I hope I planted a bug in their ears.

Of all my early rental days, I was never happier than when I had what’s called here in Quebec a 1 1/2 apartment—one room plus a bathroom. I remember carrying box after box of stuff on my bicycle handlebars to the Salvation Army store as I downsized. I had a large Williamsburg faux colonial pottery mug that contained all my cutlery, no oven but just a hotplate, a kitchen table with fold-down leaves, and a wardrobe for all my clothes. I knew the precise location of every single item in my possession. Once when I loaned the apartment to some friends, they phoned me to inquire where something was. “Yeah, if you look under the sink to the right in a plastic container . . . ” Life was simple; I didn’t even have a TV then. So I get the appeal of a tiny house. My current house is not tiny but small, and my next house will be small too. As Ennis of Brokeback Mountain says, “If you got nothing, you don’t need nothing.” It was a joy to spend a night in a tiny house at Roberts Creek.

After we had settled and met our host, we walked down to the waterfront to the famous Gumboot Restaurant. I don’t know where the name comes from, but the owners clearly have a thing about getting something stuck on the bottom of your boot.

There we had a lovely vegetarian dinner in the garden, tempered only by a loud-talker at another table who was enjoying announcing his private issues to the entire restaurant. If only they had a sign about that: “If you talk loud enough about your personal life in a public space, do strangers give a shit about your divorce?” His mom forgot to teach him about indoor voice and outdoor voice. Okay, so we were outdoors, but his poop was casting a smell over my dinner. We then wandered down to the pier and watched the magnificent full Buck Moon rise out of the UBC campus on the horizon across the Strait.

The next day we had a very short ride into Gibsons to meet some family for lunch. The ride was so short, I was getting the Jones for more, but there would be plenty more to come in the weeks ahead. Marilyn’s niece Savannah and beau happened to be there visiting Brendan’s family, so we met them at Tapworks.

The terraces in Place Jacques Cartier in Old Montreal don’t have anything on this place.

Gibsons is known as the setting of the popular show The Beachcombers, which ran from 1972 to 1990 on CBC. I was never a big fan of the show, but felt obliged to stick my head in Molly’s Reach nevertheless. I don’t remember any plot-lines of the show, but knowing CBC, it was probably about how local working class folk solve crimes the police and local authorities are unable to solve themselves. I will give it credit for being among the first to have an indigenous character on cast.

Gibsons has a charm, but if you blink you’ll miss it. After lunch we rode the three blocks, then turned around and rode it again in case we missed something. The appeal of this show is the setting, no doubt, so we spent the afternoon at the shore having one long final drink of it before we had to leave. We were coming to the end of our west coast tour and we hadn’t yet managed to make it into the ocean, so the perfect way to cap this amazing tour was to go for a swim at Georgia Beach.

The ferry crossing from Langdale to Horsehoe Bay was thankfully uneventful, but I’ll remember to my dying day exiting the ferry with the 50-odd bikes that were with us. There were a lot of Harleys and the noise was deafening as we rode through the belly of the boat and up the ramp and though the network of terminal tunnels to Highway 1, which turns into 99. It felt like the first lap of MotoGP.

We had one final day left before Marilyn had to fly back to Montreal and decided to spend it riding the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler with Savannah on her Honda 400. As far as motorcycle roads go, the 99 out of North Vancouver is about as good as it gets. Marilyn had bonded with the bike and motorcycle touring. It was the start of more adventures to come, but now I had to get used to riding solo again for the remaining three weeks. I loved having Marilyn riding pillion, but it seemed like the pinnacle of the tour—at least in terms of riding—was yet to come.

Starting Out

The most difficult part of any trip is leaving.

Imagine a trip across Canada by motorcycle. Imagine the problems you could face: dangerous wildlife, inclement weather, mechanical problems, security issues, fatigue . . . I faced all of these, but I can honestly say that the hardest part of the entire trip was leaving. Specifically, the biggest challenge came the weekend before my departure.

I had decided to change my clutch plates and water pump. The plates were the originals, with over 100,000K on them, and the water pump, which on my bike fails every 40,000-60,000K, had about 35,000 on it, so I didn’t want to risk it. I ordered all the parts at the beginning of June. I didn’t expect them to be in stock—they rarely are for my old bike—but two weeks to ship from Germany still left me plenty of time to do the required work before my July 1st departure.

I waited . . . and waited . . . and started bugging BMW sometime around mid-June. And waited . . . Perhaps because of Covid and the resulting supply change issues, or perhaps the shipping was slower than usual, but I actually got the new clutch springs and gaskets on the Friday before my Monday departure.

My wife, Marilyn, was stressed; I, concerned. Marilyn’s flight was booked so I was committed to getting to Calgary on the 7th for our leg of the trip together. I’ve had the clutch cover off this bike a few times, and knowing how to do a job is 3/4 of the job. It’s not difficult when you know what you’re doing. Everything was going pretty smoothly, which is something because there is almost inevitably a snag, until I went to put the clutch cover back on.

This is the most difficult part of the job. You have to turn the actuator so the splines are facing backwards to engage with the splines of the rod inside the cover, then carefully maneuver the cover on without either moving the actuator, which is on a bearing, or damaging the paper gasket, which has to line up on all the tabs on the crankcase. Since it would take at least two weeks to get anything new from Germany, there was no room for error.

Note what he says at 10:19

There’s a certain amount of tapping, knocking, shoving, wiggling, rocking, and general coercion that is required to get the cover on. It was not cooperating but one final thump with the heel of my hand and it snapped into place. I was home free! Then I noticed that the actuator was loose. It was more than loose: it wobbled. It was f’d! I’d f’d the bearing and it was an uncommon one that would be difficult, if not impossible, to find in Montreal.

There’s little that can overwhelm me, but this did. It put me flat on my back, literally. I’d been working on the bike in the backyard outside the shed and I lay back on the grass and gazed up into the sky, either to admonish or to plea to whichever god was messing with me. It was one of those moments when you can’t even think of your next move. You just have to breathe for a bit and let your emotions settle. The only other time I’ve been incapacitated like this in recent memory was when I broke a bolt trying to get a starter motor out from our old car. It was in the most inaccessible place on the engine and I knew, as I thought now, that I’d be set back weeks. I thought I’d ruined the entire holiday.

I’d been thinking of this trip since my teens, preparing for it since I bought the bike in 2015, and waiting an entire year when Covid kiboshed it last summer. Now everything hinged on whether I could get the bike running again, and I had 24 hours to do it.

What could I do but take the cover off and have a look. I managed to do that without damaging the paper gasket and saw that the bearing was okay; it had just been pushed out of the casing. I took everything up to my little workshop and drove the bearing back in. It was easy, actually. It must be a pretty loose fit, perhaps for hack mechanics like me; instead of damaging the splines, which clearly hadn’t lined up, it pushes out of the casing. I was back in business but still on a tight deadline.

More wrangling and I got the cover back on, this time with the splines aligned. I attached the clutch cable but a pull of the lever indicated now another problem. There was a ton of play! The clutch was not disengaging. Had I missed a clutch plate? Bought the wrong plates, which were not OEM? Was the clutch cable rerouted incorrectly? I put out an SOS on my user forum and went to bed. I had a pretty fitful sleep that night.

In the light of morning with a cooler head, I saw that I could tighten up all that free play with the adjuster on the lever. I had to back it out a lot, but there were still enough threads holding it firm. I was surprised that there was so much difference in height between the OEM stack and the aftermarket plates. If any adjustment were needed, I was expecting it to be tighter, not looser, as the old plates were worn. At any rate, the clutch seemed to be working now, and at 9 p.m., on the night before my departure, I took the bike for a test ride. To my great relief, everything was working well. I’d done a lot of other work leading up to this job, so maybe I’m not such a hack after all.

With the bike finally ready, “all” I had to do is pack. Marilyn was trying to stay out of it but couldn’t believe that I’d left packing for a six-week trip to the last minute. Fortunately, I’ve done this several times and pretty much know what I’m taking and how it all goes on the bike. The only snag was when I went to pack my top bag. I’d wanted to take my Mosko Scout 25L Duffle Bag but quickly discovered that my sleeping bag takes up about 1/2 of it, so I’d have to use my big Firstgear Torrent 70L Duffle. Damn! It extends out over my panniers and partially blocks me from opening them with the bag on. I think either a smaller down-filled sleeping bag or a midsize duffle or both is on my Christmas wish list this year. In the end, the only things I forgot were a wool toque and my down vest, which Marilyn was able to bring on the plane with her.

Final adjustments

It was a late night to bed and a late start in the morning, but at around noon, my wife and son met me on the driveway to see me off. As the bike was warming up, I cranked up the preload on my rear shock and tightened a few straps. I took out my pocket digital recorder and noted the mileage on the odometer. After final hugs and photos, I pulled out of the driveway and was off. The dream was becoming a reality.

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The Epic Adventure: a preview

20,000 kilometres by motorcycle from Montreal to the Pacific Ocean, up to Yukon Territory, and back.

I’ve been home now for almost a month and I’m still feeling unsettled. Part of me is still in Dawson City, lying in my hammock next to the Yukon River. Part of me is still north of the Arctic Circle, washing my cookware in the Rocky River, just south of the Northwest Territories. Part of me is still in Northern British Columbia, lying in my tent at night listening to wolves howling in the distance.

My right thumb still has a slight tingle from some sort of neurological damage from the vibrations over thousands of kilometres, although I used my Kaoko throttle lock as much as possible. The bike hasn’t gone anywhere since I pulled into the driveway mid-August after riding 1,000 kilometres on the final day from Sault-Ste Marie to get home. After 19,500 kilometres, some of that in dirt up The Dempster Highway, it was a mess and in need of a lot of service and a thorough cleaning. Although I had the correct amount of oil in the bike, the heat and hours of riding at high-revs led to oil ending up in the airbox and, ultimately, down the side of the bike where it baked onto the engine. I’ve also changed the oil pressure switch that was acting up and changed the rear tire that was finished. But the big obstacle has been a frayed wire leading to an ignition coil that has left me waiting for OEM parts to arrive from Germany.

In the coming months, I’ll be writing about these memories and more. Here is a visual preview of what’s to come. If you want to follow along, click the Follow button and you’ll be notified of new posts. Join me as I relive this bucket-list tour across Canada and up into the Far North.

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.

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

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

Dialling In

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

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

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

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

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

Learning the S.M.A.R.T. Way

There are two ways to learn how to do something: trial and error, and getting some instruction. When it comes to motorcycling, I’m in for the latter. I’ve seen vids on YouTube of guys heading out onto the trails with their adventure bikes without any training. They seem to spend more time picking up their bikes and getting them unstuck from mud puddles than they do riding. It doesn’t look that fun. Then I stumbled upon Clinton Smout’s instructional videos and knew I would visit his school as soon as I got my licence.

Horseshoe Riding Adventures is located in Barrie, Ontario. I recognized the location from my teen years of skiing at Horseshoe Valley. Since I now live in Quebec (and start time is 8:30 a.m.), I decided to ride out the day before and camp nearby. I looked up the KOA in Barrie and gulped when I saw they want over $50 for the privilege of sleeping on a patch of their ground. Then I saw Heidi’s Campground at $18.50 and booked for the night before my class.

I was blessed with good weather and had a glorious ride out—once I got going. Two minutes into my ride I discovered a crack in my windscreen radiating from one of the mounting holes, the byproduct of a close encounter with some mud at the Dirt Daze Rally the previous month. I decided to turn around and fortify it with some super glue and add a rubber washer to allow some movement of the screen. This required a stop at the Rona in Vaudreuil for longer hardware. When I finally hit the highway I also hit the mandatory lane closure, this one at Coteau-du-Lac because, well, this is Quebec, and that’s the law! I lost another 45 minutes there and couldn’t get out of Quebec fast enough. My gas light was on for the final 40 kilometres before I limped into the MacEwan in Lancaster. (I knew I was cutting it close but had extra fuel on the back of the bike. I put 13.4 litres in the bike and the tank is 13.6, so I was close!)

Finally with these stresses behind me, I settled in for an amazing ride up Highway 34 from Lancaster to Alexandria, then west along the 43 which turns into Highway 7 and takes you all the way to the shores of Lake Simcoe, where I turned north up 12 and over the top of the lake. This ride took me through the farmland, scrubgrass, and vacation area of SE Ontario (in that order). I noticed that the driving gets more aggressive as you approach Toronto, with people forcing their way past a line of vehicles on a two-lane road, only to encounter the same people in beachwear and flip-flops at the next gas station. I was several hours behind schedule so kept my breaks short, arriving at Heidi’s just in time to pitch in the last of the light.

But all this is precursor to the raison-d’être of my trip: the full day class of dual-sport instruction. Since I’m on teachers’ summer schedule (groans please), I was able to visit the school on a Tuesday so had a smaller class than what I expect they have on Saturdays. I was in a group with two other people: Cheryl, who wanted to get more comfortable on her 800GS, and Bruno, who rides a Harley but felt he needed a little something extra; yes, dirt riding makes you a better and safer rider on the road too. Our instructor for the morning was Graham, one of Clinton’s sons and who, by virtue of his good genes, had the best summer job of any of his classmates, I’m sure. We would be on Yamaha 230s for the morning part of the class. He had us start by just riding a few laps of a course laid out in what staff refer to as “the pit.” It’s a large, open area of dirt and some sand with a few jumps, surrounded by a grassy hill with trails cut into the bank to practice hill climbs. After assessing our abilities and needs, Graham started with the instruction.

I had a burning question going into this day, one that stemmed from my experience at Dirt Daze, and Graham provided the answer early on. While riding the back roads of New York, I’d experienced the front end sometimes slide out while peg-weighting and wondered how you prevent that. Graham demonstrated that you actually hold the bike up with your thigh while counterbalancing. So if you want to turn right, yes, you weight the right peg—I knew that much—but you lean your body to the left (as the bike tips to the right) and prevent the bike from low-siding by pressing your inner right thigh into the tank. Later during a water break, Clinton came by and suggested we try standing pigeon-toed on the pegs; this position presses the thighs into the tank and stabilizes the bike. But where YouTube, reading books, and listening to instruction is helpful, the real learning happens when you get to practice specific skills in a controlled and relatively safe environment. The little dirt bikes allowed us to try things without all the weight (and potential expense!) of our own bikes to deal with. We did some slalom in the dirt, some hill climbs, and different types of descents. Then the real fun started: we headed out onto the trails.

There’s little that I’ve experienced that’s more fun than riding a dirt bike on forested trails. I won’t make comparisons with sex, flying, writing poetry, scoring, or music—my other passions—because such comparisons would be impolite to some and unfair to others. But it’s really, really, (really) fun, and that’s before you get to the mud ruts. I went down in the mud a few times at Dirt Daze so was under-confident and nervous about riding in the mud. Horseshoe Adventures provided some “deep-end” opportunity to get over this fear quickly, again, in a controlled environment, on a smaller bike, and with the guidance of an instructor. We were given three options for getting through a huge mud rut. One was to paddle with our boots on either side as we ride through the rut; the other was to ride seated but feet up, and the third was standing. I was going to do the easiest, but once into the rut I felt comfortable enough to ride it out and didn’t paddle. The second time through I stood and made it through without dabbing! Okay, it was better than sex, maybe like sex in a mud puddle while watching the World Cup and listening to Sex Pistols.

Graham also had us practice tight turns, throttle control, log crossings, and some pretty big hill climbs and descents in both rocks and sand. This is where the practice in the pit really helped and I could see the application of skills learned there in the real world of trail-riding. After a full morning, it was time for lunch.

In the afternoon, I headed out with a new instructor, Emily, on my own bike. I was a bit nervous because of my 85/15 tires, but was assured they’d be okay for what we were doing. A few times around the course and I immediately began to see how the skills I’d learned in the morning on the dirt bike were applicable to my 650GS; it’s just more weight to manage. Emily took me to another network of trails and we began bombing through them on our dual-sports (she was on an 800GS), that is, until I misjudged a turn, drew on asphalt muscle memory, hit the front brake, then the dirt! Umph! Lesson number one: you can get away with that shit on a 230 dirt bike with knobbie tires, but not an a 650 with street tires. The next lesson, then, was emergency braking in the dirt. We went to a dirt road and Emily had me lock up the back brake, getting used to the back end fish-tailing; then she added a little front brake.  Her first question to me when I’d picked myself up off the dirt after my fall (after “Are you okay?”) was “How many fingers did you have on the brake lever?” I couldn’t remember but probably all of them except the thumb. A hand-full. Two fingers only, she advised. Graham had said the same about the clutch hand in the morning.

We also did some rocky descents, 2nd gear, a little front brake. Then back to the trails where I found my redemption when Emily took me through the same infamous corner that had bested me before. We also did some pretty big whoops at speed, some of them muddy, and some more climbs and descents but this time on the trails, not the road; each context changes the skill slightly. It’s like how they say a dog has only learned a command if it can reproduce the desired behaviour in five different contexts. This was made more evident in my next exercise, which was throttle control, doing figure eights in a small grassy area with uneven terrain. I’d practiced this fairly successfully in the gravel parking lot back at the pit, but doing it on uneven ground with a slight grade made me realize I’m more confident with my right turns than my left. I needed to reproduce the body position I felt comfortable doing on my rights—hanging out with my right calf against the bike holding me up—but with my left. Emily also spotted that I needed to twist my body more; small, subtle changes made all the difference, and soon I was turning both ways full lock.

Back at the pit, my final exercise was recovering from an unsuccessful hill climb. This is a skill for when you’re partway up and realize you’re just not going to make it and want to bail. You use the back brake, stall the bike, but let the clutch out and the engine will hold the bike. Then you turn the handlebars, feather the clutch to let the bike roll back in an arc until it’s perpendicular to the hill, all the while leaning the bike uphill and keeping your uphill foot down. Then rock the handlebars back and forth until the bike is positioned where you can safely pull in the clutch and roll down the hill. You can see Clinton demonstrate it here. Emily showed me how it’s done and it looked so easy-peasy I was overconfident when trying it. It’s actually a lot harder than it looks! You have to keep concentrating the whole time because if you lose your balance and want to plant that downhill foot, you’re in trouble. That’s what I did, and then muscle memory kicked in and I did what I always do when riding and get into trouble: I pulled in the clutch. Doh! Next thing I knew the bike was on its side and I was on my back. We couldn’t rotate the bike because the crash bar had dug in, so we grunted it up, and I finished the manoeuvre. Then I tried it again, and a third time, until I was confident I could do it when needed in the field.

My experience at Horseshoe Adventures was everything I’d hoped it would be and more. As it turned out, Emily is from Cape Breton, where I plan to tour next week, and she gave me some recommendations on restaurants and trails. There’s one called Highland Drive (of course) that traverses Cape Breton from Wreck Cove to Chéticamp, and another from Meat Cove, where I plan to spend a night. Of course I’ll do The Cabot Trail with the Harley boys, but then I’ll cut back through the bush and do it all again. I have a bike that is not restricted to pavement but my skills were holding me up. Now I feel I have the skills to ride these roads safely, which is exactly why I went to Clinton’s school.

I can’t praise the instructors at S.M.A.R.T. riding adventures enough. At lunch, Clinton and I got talking pedagogy, and he said they spend a lot of time choosing and training their instructors. It’s evident. Yet what makes this place special is not just the level of instruction and professionalism of staff but how you immediately feel like family. That sounds cheesy, I know, but there’s definitely a personal touch to this school. Clinton is always around, flitting in and out, asking how the day went and making sure all his clients are happy.

With my bike re-loaded and my head filled with new skills, I headed off toward Guelph, where I planned to spend a few days with my parents. There’s some beautiful geography between Barrie and Guelph, and my GPS took me through Creemore, Orangeville, and Fergus along county roads. Halfway towards Guelph, with the sun low and glowing across the farmers’ fields and massive wind turbines rotating in slow motion, I realized I was riding with two fingers on the clutch, two fingers on the brake.