Monday, 16 July 2018

Kawartha Highlands Loop

On Friday, July 13th, while thousands of people lined up to get into Port Dover, I left the cottage early (just before 7am) and headed out on my planned circumnavigation of the Kawartha Highlands Park.  It was already well into the twenties Celsius and humid when I left.  The fire roads into the cottage are a roller coaster rally stage of gravel over muskeg and Canadian Shield with tough, weedy firs and birch trees growing in the cracks.  It's fun in a car but a bit nerve wracking on a bike.

It's tourist season in the Haliburton Highlands and on the weekends the roads actually have some traffic (like, a few vehicles: Canadian country traffic), but on this Friday morning it was quiet.  I was lucky to see another vehicle pass me in any five minute span when I set out and the cottage road was just me and the bears.

I was out to Lovesick Lake Restaurant just before 8am for breakfast, only to discover it doesn't open until 9am... for breakfast... in the middle of the summer.  Having not eaten and already on the road for an hour, I was disinclined to hang around for seventy odd minutes.  Fortunately, a couple of years ago we did a family Thanksgiving at the Viamede Resort just across Upper Stony Lake so I figured I'd give them a try.  

I pulled in just as the breakfast buffet was underway.  It was twenty bucks for breakfast all in, but it was all you can drink quality coffee and real juices along with a buffet all you can eat hot breakfast with fruit and all the other odds and ends you'd expect from a high end resort.  If you've got the time and you're up that way, Viamede is a nice way to start a day of riding, and you're looked after by a fantastic staff while eating a great breakfast in a beautiful environment.  It's probably cheaper than a lousy hot dog at Port Dover and no line up.

When I came back outside it was heating up but I was full of beans (literally and figuratively) and percolating on that freshly pressed coffee.  Northeys Bay Road east out of Viamede was a roller coaster, weaving through outcroppings of rocky Shield as it worked its way around the end of Upper Stoney Lake.  At one point I came down into a valley only to discover a rafter of wild turkeys the size of sheep standing on a rock outcropping eying me as I went by; it was like riding through a herd of dinosaurs.  Northeys Bay turned onto County Road Six, which took a less sinuous and more  severe route through the woods.  From Six I was onto Forty-Four and the twists were back on again until I got to 46, but even the bigger roads were still constantly weaving, just with fewer gear changes.

With the slower, technical roads around Stoney Lake behind me, I struck north, deeper into the Shield.  46 and the 504 were both full of fast sweepers that seldom had me on the crown of my tires.  I pulled into Coe Hill Cafe about 10:30am.  After three hours on the bike my knees needed a rest, so it was coffee time.  It was me and four tables of retirees all talking politics and telling 'in my day' stories (they'd all owned bikes at some point).

A couple of cups of coffee and I was ready to tackle Lower Faraday Road.  This little road out of Coe Hill is twisty, turny thing.  Last time on it two years ago I was disappointed at just how rough it was, but sections of it have been resurfaced since my last attempt and this time I could exercise the sides of the tires a bit.  The top end of it was still rough, but that's one of the many benefits of riding a 'big trailee' adventure bike:  they can handle Ontario's terrible pavement when it gets rough.

Out the top of Faraday I pushed on up to the 648 'Loop" road through Highland Grove, Pusey and Wilberforce.  I was initially thinking about extending the loop through Bird's Creek and Maynooth, but it was touching forty degrees with the humidity and a swim in the lake that afternoon held more appeal.

I wasn't on the 118 for long, but once again I was reminded what a lovely thing it is.  If you like fast, sweeping corners through beautiful scenery on well finished roads, the 118 won't disappoint.  I think I prefer that kind of road to the super tight, technical, twisty roads that get all the attention and usually have lousy surfaces.

From Tory Hill I was dropping south along the western side of The Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park, once again on near empty roads.  The Tiger had burned off most of a tank of gas and was light and eager, and after six hot hours in the saddle, I was looking forward to a swim in the lake.  Like that post breakfast section around the end of Upper Stoney Lake, this road felt weightless and easy.  I get to the end of sections of road like that and realize I'd forgotten where I end and the bike begins.

I was back at Nogie's Creek before I knew it and riding the seventeen odd kilometres down increasingly small and twisty gravel fire roads into the lake...

I did the SMART off road training course a couple of weeks ago and was looking forward to seeing how my usually white knuckle approach to riding on gravel had changed.  I was in and out of the cottage a total of six times over the four days there and never once got a hand cramp.  In most cases I was resting my open hands on the bars and letting the throttle sort out any wobbles.  If you're anxious about riding on loose surfaces something like the SMART program is a great way to acclimate yourself to it and lose your fear of it.

I was back at the cottage by 2pm and in the lake shortly thereafter.  Once again the Haliburton Highlands had impressed, offering an assortment of interesting roads that are vanishingly rare in the table-top flat South West where I live.  The Tiger was once again a rock star, prompting discussions wherever we went and starting at the touch of a button.  It carried me and two panniers full of tools and rain gear around the Kawartha Highlands while soaking up bumps on some truly awful pavement and feeling like an eager sports bike when the going got smooth and twisty.  Best of all, we managed it on near empty roads with no delays and some spectacular scenery.

Best Friday the thirteenth ride yet!  About three hundred kilometres on near empty roads through picture postcard scenery and not a crowd or line up in sight.  That's what riding is about for me.

Early morning map check after my first breakfast destination proved unserviceable...

Here are some full 360° images from the ride:
The cottage fire road out of Bass Lake. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The twists and turns of the Haliburton Highlands. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Lakes, woods and Canadian Shield. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

The on-bike 360 footage was captured by a Ricoh Theta set to auto shoot every 30 seconds, so you can set and forget it.  The images are screen grabs from out of the 360 panoramas.  You can lean how to do this yourself (it's easy!) here.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Escarpment Murals

A hot and sunny Sunday ride up and around the Niagara Escarpment looking for murals, though the twisty roads were the main focus...

Part 1:
Part 2:

The PTTR Grand Tour is going on all summer through Lobo Loco RalliesPaint the town red 2018 Grand Tour   That one is closed now, but there are many other weekend rallies going on if you're interested in exploring long distance motorcycle rallying.  

Murals Discovered:
Grand Valley 43.898875, -80.315307

Creemore 44.326060, -80.106099

Ravenna Country Market 44.469285, -80.417343

Clarksburg  44.546531, -80.461742

Some other 360 imaging from the ride.  Made using the Ricoh Theta camera on a flexible tripod attached to the bike:

The twisty bits on River Road

In Thornbury on the shore of Georgian Bay - the temperature was easily ten degrees cooler.

Beaver Valley

A busy Sunday in Creemore.

Through the wind fields outside of Shelburne

You can learn how to get shots like this HERE.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Kawartha Highlands Circumnavigation

A July ride in the Haliburton Highlands:  the plan is to take a few days at the end of next week and head up to the in-law's cottage.  It's just outside Bobcaygeon, Ontario and makes a great base for riding into the Canadian Shield in Haliburton.

The way into the lake is a fire road. all gravel and twisty like a rally stage.  I'm actually looking forward to it now that I've done the SMART training; time to see if I can apply some of those off road skills so that the whole way in isn't a nervous ride on a loose surface.

The next day I'll take the Tiger out for a lap around the Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park.  I did the Haliburton Highlands last spring on a birthday ride.  Weaving through Canadian Shield lakes, woods and massive rock outcroppings is never a bad thing.  Because of all those geographical features, Haliburton is one of the few places in Ontario where the roads have some character; you spend very little time on the crown of your tire.

If I'm finding the ride going by quickly there are a lot of alternative routes built in.  The 504 looks like it would be fun to ride both ways.

10 North off the 648 up by Tory Hill also looks like it would be a good two way ride.  It'd be easy to add some additional pieces on the day if time permits.

One thing's for sure, that night around the campfire at the cottage is going to feel good...

The short route - 261kms. The longer route (318kms below) also covers the twisty 10 north of Highland Grove...

With that done and after a couple of days in the woods, it's off to the Atlak Tour meeting in Torrance, Ontario at the Clear Water Brewery.  It's only a couple of hours along more twisty Haliburton Highlands roads before a 2pm start, so I even get to sleep in.

I'll bring my fifteen year old/seventy-thousand kilometre old Tiger up there and see what the new ones have to offer.  One thing I think they're missing are the striking style of my '03 model.  At some point Triumph went BMW GS with their adventure bikes and started chasing the military look.  My whimsical Tiger strikes up all sorts of conversations wherever I go, I'm not sure that the newer models have the same curb-side appeal, but I'll find out soon enough.

It's two hours out to the Triumph event and then two and a half hours home afterwards, but on a Saturday evening on a summer weekend it'll be an empty highway that meets me; I can get home in less than two and a half hours.

It's a busy few days, but on these kinds of roads they'll be anything but dull.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

It's Inbetween Them

I just spent a hot Saturday on two very different bikes, though they claim much of the same riding intent.  The Yamaha TT-R230 trail bike is a 250lb lightweight that gets you through the gnarliest trails with nary a mark on the trail.  There is barely anything to it and it isn't road legal, but that simplicity is also its strongest suit when you're deep in the woods.  With almost nothing to break and being so light, the TT-R230 is also not a worry if you drop it.  It won't bend under its own weight and there is virtually nothing there to snap off.

The BMW F800GS I rode later in the day tips the scales at just over twice the weight of the Yamaha.  At just over 500lbs, it is a road ready adventure bike that you don't need to trailer to a trail, but it's a heavy thing, so you're never going to even think about taking it where the Yamaha went.  For fire roads and simple trails, the BMW is fine, but all that weight also means lots of pieces to break off.

After riding both bikes, I really enjoyed the athletic nature and singular intent of the Yamaha, but I also enjoyed the road ready nature of the BMW.  What I'd really like is something in between them.  Fortunately, Yamaha has something in mind.

A few years ago they came out with the T7 concept bike - a lightweight, off road ready, dual sport machine that can make use of the roads and still handle off road in more than a gravel track way that you see all the adventure bikes doing in photoshoots.  The T7 has since morphed into the Ténéré 700 World Raid Prototype.  It's taken years to get to this point, but I hope that's because Yamaha aren't just rolling out another porky, 'lightweight' (but not really) adventure bike.  What I'm looking for is something in between the trail bike and an adventure bike.  Something that I don't need to trailer to trails and can keep up with traffic on the road, but also something that can let me exercise some of my new off road skills without worrying about pieces falling off or getting stuck in the woods.

For the Ténéré 700 to hit the mark, I need it to roll in fully fueled and ready to go at less than 400lbs/180kgs.  A Dakar Rally bike (which the Ténéré 700 is obviously designed from) with the big navigation tower and over engineered for strength and endurance comes in at 320lbs/145kgs - so a 180 kilo weight goal isn't out to lunch.

I also need it to be robust, with lights that won't snap off the first time it's laid down and plastic bits built to flex, not snap.  An exhaust that up high and not likely to take a hit when it's laid down is also an obvious ask.  That sticky outy Akrapovic in the photo is making me think they've lost the plot.  I want it tucked up close to the seat and protected.

I'm willing to give up some of the BMW's road bike plushness for a lightweight, modern, dual sport bike that is truly capable of off roading.  I hope that T7/Ténéré 700 is that bike.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Get S.M.A.R.T.

My birthday and Father's Day are within a month of each other, so I made a combined ask and got a day at S.M.A.R.T. Adventures in Horseshoe Valley.  My previous off road experience was limited to a couple of hours on a dirt bike at a farm many years ago and a short and frustrating go with a KLX250.  My goal in taking the S.M.A.R.T. (Snowmobile, Motorcycle, ATV, Rider Training) course was to explore those aspects of motorcycle dynamics that are beyond the range of typical road riding - unless you're in the middle of a crash.

There are a lot of people who try motorcycling then retire early.  They often have a lot of advice.  Many of these short-term motorcyclists liked to warn me earnestly and repeatedly about how dangerous it was to ride to early or late in the season when there was a chance of sand being on the road.  Anything that wasn't table top smooth, grit free tarmacadam meant zero traction and an imminent crash for these earnest scare mongers.

I've always ridden on loose material with caution, but after watching a riding buddy with many years of experience step his heavy Super Ténéré out sideways on gravel roads, I've thought that there is more to gravel and sand than just being cautious.  Between that and my Dakar fixation, it was time to learn something new.  That same guy was the one who suggested the SMART program (he'd been on it previously).  Here was an opportunity to treat loose material as something other than an imminent crash.

That anxiety about traction on a motorbike runs deep in the limited experience motorcycle crowd, and that crowd contains a lot of people who have only ever done a single type of riding on a single type of bike.  If you're going to call yourself a motorcyclist you owe it to your craft to experience as many different types of riding as you can.  The SMART program is an accessible opportunity to do that in the trail riding/off road community in a controlled environment on someone else's equipment (they even provide all the gear).

You owe it to yourself to experience motorcycling in unfamiliar ways...
We started an already nuclear hot day before Canada Day with the affable Clinton Smout going over basic control and balance with a GasGas trials bike.  In no time he had everyone from old guys like me to nine year olds balancing on two wheels while stationary.  I wouldn't have thought that was possible prior - but I was able to stand on the pegs on the stationary bike until my legs got tired.

Getting my Ross Noble on!  Can the
Scottish Six Day Trial be far off?
Clinton also gave the dry stick demonstration, showing how an old, brittle stick snaps easily compared to a young, supple one.  He then went on to say that SMART is about to have its hundred-thousandth customer in the next few weeks and in the decades it has been running they've only had twenty-two ambulances, all of them for old, dry sticks over thirty-five years old.  This forty-nine year old stick paid close attention to this talk.

Within minutes we'd been set up with Joe, the advanced instructor who has over thirty years of experience off road.  I was worried about being put in the advanced group with so little off road experience but they're more worried about whether or not you know how to ride a bike; if you know the controls, you're advanced.  There were larger groups of beginners and intermediate riders learning the basics, but we were just three: Joe, me and a German fellow with motocross experience who has ridden every pass in the Alps.  I was still feeling a bit out of my depth and didn't want to slow anyone down.

We spent some time by the main centre going up and down the hills under the watchful eye of Joe.  I suspect this had more to do with assessing our riding skills than it did anything else.  We did some hill climbs, but on a dirt-specific bike with knobbly tires this was an easy thing to do.  We were on Yamaha TT-R230cc bikes, which might seem a bit on the small side, but the characteristics of this bike were very forgiving; it would pull hard out of any gear.  Joe described them as tractors, and they were.  If it stalled, the electric start fired it right up again, and the massive suspension travel and tires made easy work of every obstacle.

Soon enough we were off into the woods.  We'd stop under the trees out of the blinding sun and 40+°C humidity and practice skills such as clutch control on walking speed turns, rear wheel lockups and eventually crossing large logs.  As my confidence improved so did my speed on the trails, which we'd go and ride to make some wind and cool down between slow speed work.  I was able to keep up with Joe on all but a steep, washed out hill covered in big rocks where I ended up pulling off to the side for a moment to collect myself.  That had more to do with sewing machine legs than it did with bad technique.  If you think off road motorcycling isn't physically demanding, you've never done it before.  In forty plus degree temperatures, we were necking a bottle of water every time we went back to base.

On our next run we focused on standing on the pegs and working the bike with body position and weighting the side we wanted to move to.  This involved going over improbably deep ruts while soaking up the vertical movements with the suspension and our legs while also making micro-adjustments to clutch, throttle and brakes to keep things moving smoothly.  If you think riding a motorcycle is dexterous, trying to operate controls with all four appendages while dropping into foot deep ruts ups the ante again.

At one point we were purring through the forest (the little Yamahas are remarkably quiet for one cylinder thumpers) when Joe held a hand up and made the kill the engine sign.  We all rolled to a stop and not fifteen feet away was a fully grown doe (a deer, a female deer).  She stood there munching her grass while watching us from a sunny glade, looking like a scene out of Bambi.  After a minute or so she ambled off into the brush.  My son took the ATV course in the afternoon and they came across wild turkeys - you're likely to see some wildlife when out in the woods.

As lunch approached our experienced German went and rode with his son and Joe and I went deeper into the woods, now on trails that would barely qualify as a walking path.  The SMART program is based in Beaver Valley, which is part of the Niagara Escarpment.  The Beaver River has cut the valley through the escarpment, which is also scattered with post glacial erratics (big rocks).  You're working big elevation changes through thick forest including stumps and downed logs along with some very rocky sections; it's a challenging mix.  Now that I was getting the hang of it, I was spending half my attention watching Joe's thirty plus years of trail riding experience as he picked out lines through this spaghetti.  We'd stop every once in a while and have a quick chat about what was going on, with Joe giving gems like, "you'll see me going for the hard pack on the side of the trail, especially when you see all that loose stuff in the middle.  The loose stuff falls into the gulley in the middle and can get pretty deep."

We had a quick lunch, but it was so hot I forced myself to eat something even though I had no appetite.  More importantly was getting water into me.  By now we were well into the forties Celsius with the humidity, and everyone was drooping.  My son had arrived for the ATV training and soon enough he was off and doing loops in the compound, getting a handle on the thing.

As the dust got kicked up in the in-field we disappeared into the woods onto even tighter trails.  I stalled going up a hill so steep that I had to roll it backwards down it to get the carb to feed again and restart it.  Joe then showed me how to roll it backwards on the clutch while powered off and in gear in a controlled manner to get out of a tight spot on a hill.  By this point I was keeping up with Joe as he was making tracks.  It was then that he asked if I'd be interested in going out on a BMW F800GS for the last part of the day.  We'd wrung the necks of the Yamaha dirt bikes doing over fifty kilometres, so I said, 'absolutely!'.  It'd be a chance to try a different bike, which I never say no to.

I'd ridden a BMW once before while riding the south end of Vancouver Island a few years ago.  It was an F800ST - the sports touring version of the adventure bike I was going to ride now.  The F800GS is a nice, tall bike which fits me well.  The controls feel quality, as do the suspension and tires, which cornered so well I forgot they were knobblies.

Joe took us out onto the road and we disappeared into the Copeland Forest for a couple of hours, skipping our water break and riding everything from pavement to fire roads, to dual tracks and, finally, single track trails.  The BMW was obviously much bigger than the Yamaha we'd been on earlier (114kgs for the Yamaha, 229kgs for the BMW), but it's amazing how off-road capable it is considering that weight difference.  It feels balanced and nimble.  The only thing stopping you from trying the really gnarly trails would be if you got stuck (and what it would cost to fix it).  Getting this out of a hedge wouldn't be anything like as easy or cheap as the simple, little dirt bike.

Riding the BMW reminded me of the limitations I experienced with the KLX250 I purchased a couple of years ago.  It was off road capable (I forded rivers with it), but as a dual purpose bike it couldn't carry me at what I considered a safe speed on the road (it would barely touch 100km/hr, which is what most traffic is doing on Canadian back roads).  The BMW was quick and capable on the road, and when we went off road (though on nothing as gnarly as we did on the Yamaha), it did the job without any surprises.  Like the F800ST I rode a few years ago, the twin engine felt agricultural and uninspiring, though it was certainly quiet and efficient.  Compared to the exhaust popping and snarling, induction howling Tiger, the engine felt rather characterless which is a shame considering what a lovely thing the rest of the bike is.  The suspension was so good it made me wonder if the wooden shocks on my Tiger are in need of some attention.

We rolled back in at the end of the day just a few minutes before the other classes returned, and drank a lot of water.  I'd covered well over 100 off and on road kilometres over the day on two very different bikes.  Joe was approachable and willing to answer any questions, but better than that he used decades of experience to quickly assess where I was at and then lay down a series of increasingly challenging lessons that kept me on the edge of my learning curve all day.

I'd been sweating for hours and was ready to get out of the armour and go and wash the caked on dirt away.  My wonderfully wise wife who did all the photography you see here had also arranged a room at the Horseshoe Resort next door, so within twenty minutes I was flat out in a pool thinking about the day.  I'd managed not to dry-stick my way into anything I couldn't handle and was in good, but muscle sore shape.

My son has always been a cautious fellow and reluctant to ride or drive, but he spent a very intensive two hours with Adam on the ATVs and rolled back in looking like he was ten feet tall.  It's amazing what an accessible, patient instructor can do for your confidence.  By the end of the day he was talking about driving the ATVs up at the cottage, which had never been a consideration before.

I can't recommend S.M.A.R.T. highly enough.  If you're an experienced road rider you own it to your craft to spend some time learning these skills, they might save your bacon one day.  If you've never tried offroad powersports before and are looking for an accessible and relatively inexpensive (it's about $200 for a half day and $300 for a full day - all in including all gear and equipment) way to get into it, this'll do that too.  We'll be back again.

With amusement park tickets north of a hundred bucks, you're close to the cost of a day at SMART to park, eat, stand in lines and sit on roller coasters at Wonderland.  Why on earth would you line up to passively experience fake thrills when you could get learn real world skills and experience real world thrills at SMART?  The same could be said for increasingly expensive professional sports spectating.  No line ups, no crowds, (though deer and turkey on occasion) and a great day becoming genuinely accomplished in the great Canadian outdoors.  How could you say no to that?

The 230cc Yamaha I rode typically lasts 6-8 years.  They do a lot of on-site maintenance.  One of the instructors said that they don't wear out engine wise as they aren't ridden that hard, but the transmissions suffer from a hard life with many people new to bikes learning how to clutch and gear on them.

S.M.A.R.T. Adventures: