Sunday 16 April 2017

Trophy Wives, Velocoraptors and Riding North of the Wall

Every once in a while events conspire to drop you out of the world's daily routine.  As everyone else is scurrying to work with worry lines on their faces I was disappearing into the countryside on two wheels, unfortunately the Weathernetwork had gotten the forecast wrong and my day of George was going to be more like Scott to the antarctic.

I knew it was going to be cold in the morning, but it was supposed to warm up to double digits later in the day.  Anything over 5°C and I can go all day, but under that core temperature eventually gets to me.  I got over to the Forks of the Credit before 9:30am and it was still only just above freezing.  Higher Ground on a weekday morning is a magical place full of millionaire retirees and trophy wives; I like to soak up the vibe.

"I'm sorry, we're running out of change.  Everyone keeps paying with hundreds," the girl at the counter apologized as an elven woman with a lovely Mandarin accent who had just gotten out of her Range Rover tried to pay for a coffee.

As I warmed my hands on a coffee (the heated gloves were warding off frostbite but not keeping them warm), a group of conservative retirees sitting on fat piles of cash (they all arrived in German SUVs or touring sedans) were lamenting the lack of gumption in their millennial children, all of whom were described as directionless and unwilling to make the kind of money their parents did.  "By the time I was that age I already had kids and owned my own house!" one outspoken gentleman declared, "and we worked hard for every penny!"  Of course, back then the pennies weren't all being held by a generation that proceeded them.  The other favourite topic was 'those damned liberals'.  Man, do those people ever hate Justin Trudeau.  If you ever have a chance to spend an hour on a weekday morning in Belfountain, you'll enjoy the 1% watching, just try not to gag on their sense of entitlement.

Warmed up on excellent coffee and with sensation in my extremities again, I headed back out into a one degree warmer day.  At this point we'd already missed the forecast by a couple of degrees, and it wasn't going to get better.  I rode up and down a completely empty Forks of the Credit, enjoying the curves without worrying about any four wheeled chicanes.  On my way back I pulled off on the side road to Brimstone.  The Credit River was spring runoff swollen and looked spectacular.  A kingfisher was working the river further up but never came close enough to catch on the camera.

I eventually wound my way up the single track road to where it ends. As I sat there with the engine off a dozen wild turkeys crossed the path a couple of hundred yards ahead of me up the closed trail; I dropped the kick stand and grabbed the camera.

These things were enormous! They picked their way through the forest looking very prehistoric.  After ten minutes of turkey watching I walked back to the Tiger and packed up the camera.  Before I got on the road again I needed let that coffee go, so I stepped off the trail into the woods.  Have you ever had that feeling that you're being watched?  
Standing there rather exposed, I felt that prickle and looked around to see the massive lead turkey not five feet away watching me intently - I almost jumped out of my skin.  He looked at me.  I looked at him.  I finished up and he just stood there watching me climb out of the ditch.  He then turned around majestically and walked back up the path where his crew where waiting for him before leading them away up the hill.  My advice is do not mess with that turkey.

After my close encounter of the turkey kind I headed north, following the escarpment's winding roads. Spring runoff was a theme of this trip with all of the streams and rivers swollen with melted snow. Up in Hockley Valley I fought the urge to keep riding the roller coaster and stopped to grab some images of the exposed red clay.

When I got back on the road it was behind a pile of traffic backed up behind a pensioner on their daily Tim Horton's coffee run. Rather than fight the demographic I took a right hand turn up Hurontario Street
Down where I grew up Hurontario is the main drag through a city of half a million people.  Up in Hockley it's a single lane, twisty dirt road that winds its way up the escarpment.  The three older guys following the line of traffic on the paved road on massive Harleys got to keep enjoying the parade, but I was able to turn onto that dirt trail on my Swiss Army knife-like multi-purpose bike and enjoy some solitude.

I rounded a corner to find a Dufferin road works van on the side of the road. He waved me through as he was just removing the road closed sign from the winter. The gravel track coming out of the river crossing is very steep and untended. Getting up it in the winter would be a challenge for anything on wheels. He told me I was the first one on the road this year, which felt a lot more special than the tarmac parade I'd left behind.

I'd originally intended to bomb up Highway 10 for a stop and then ride back down through Mono Centre where I still wish we'd bought a house; this back route up Hurontario was better in every way.  The Tiger is such a capable road bike that I keep thinking about going with purely road biased tires next time around, but unexpected turnoffs like this are why you keep a multipurpose tire on the thing; the Metzelers handled the soft gravel and mud with ease, even on the unpassable hill.  Lightness is the goal off road, but these big adventure bikes are surprisingly capable if you're conscious of their size and don't try and ride them like a mountain bike.

It's only about a hundred and twenty miles, but in freezing temperatures it's an adventure!

Winding my way north through the Hockley Highlands put further lie to the weather forecast.  Rather than warming up to ten degrees it instead dropped back down to three degrees above zero, and the wind was picking up.  Up and down the rollercoaster that is Airport Road across the Niagara Escarpment, I eventually found my way to Side Road 20 and the backdoor to River Road.

With blue, icicle fingers I unbuckled my helmet and cracked my frozen knees as I ungracefully dismounted in the Terra Nova Public House parking lot. The sky had gotten darker and what had been sporadic, light rain on my visor earlier now looked distinctly flurry like. I staggered inside with my nose running and a wild look in my eye.  They quickly got me sorted out with soup and what may be the best roast beef sandwich I've ever had. The TNPH is one of those places that are common where I'm from (Norfolk, England) but rare in Ontario - a pub with character that looks like it grew out of the ground and has always been there. As the heat worked its way back into me and my blood started pumping again, I could feel the zombification recede.

My vague plan was to work my way up the escarpment, perhaps all the way to the southern shore of Georgian Bay, but my photo/warm-up stops and the general misery of the weather made me aware of the fact that I'd reached the apex of my journey in Terra Nova. As I was looking over Google Maps the day before I'd worked out twenty one of the least boring kilometres you could ride in Southern Ontario, so the new plan after lunch was to do the loop both ways and then head back home.

Using TNPH as the start/end point, the idea was to hit the windiest parts of River Road and then come back around on the most interesting roads available.  It takes about fifteen leisurely minutes to make the loop, but when you're not in a corner you're enjoying elevation changes and some beautiful escarpment scenery.

Reinvigorated from my roast beef sandwich I did the loop backwards to scope it out and then forwards before following River Road one last time back out of the valley and onto a long and windy ride home.

You seldom spend much time on the crown of your tire.  Riding a motorcycle feels like flying most of the time, but bending one into a corner has a multiplying effect on that goodness.  When you aren't leaning into corners you're enjoying some whoopdeedoo elevation changes and the scenery is about as good as it gets, even on a winter-like early spring day.  You'd do a lot worse than making the ride up to Terra Nova for this bit of pavement.

After a couple of loops all the warmth from lunch was long blown away and I was dreading coming back out of the sheltered valley I'd been enjoying.  A last ride down River Road to Horning's Mills (another place I wish we'd bought a house) had me ignoring the swollen streams because I didn't want to stop the roller coaster ride.  What did finally bring me to a stop was the overflowing waterfall out of the mill pond in Horning's Mills.

After this last stop I made my way through the quiet village and up onto the Shelburne Highlands where fields of wind turbines do their business.  Up on the heights sixty kilometre per hour gusts were knocking me around in addition to the plunging temperature wind chill.  The partially sunny high of ten had turned into a cloudy and windy high of three.  The windmills were spinning fiercely as I passed through them, and that's when the snow started.  A few flakes suddenly turned into reduced viability as snow snakes eddied across the pavement.  I clung to the heated grips but the blasting northern winds hitting me in the side meant double the wind chill.  I couldn't go much further like this.

I ducked behind the windshield when I could, grimly soldering on as the sky turned metallic and the wind gusts increased to over seventy kilometres per hour.  I usually make the sixty-six kilometre push back home from Horning's Mills to Elora in about an hour, but not this time.  Riding into Grand Valley I knew there was a coffee shop on the main street and for the second time that day I staggered into a warm shop with a running nose and a wild look in my eye, this time with snow on me.

Half an hour later, and while snow swirled around the trusty Tiger outside, I'd restored feeling to my fingers and caffeinated myself for the final leg of what had turned into a much shorter and more difficult ride than I'd planned.  As I walked outside an old guy coming in looked me up and down and said, "nice day to be out on a bike..."
"All I can say is that The Weather Network lied to me!" I replied.  He laughed.

South of Grand Valley I was in the Grand River valley and off the Shelburne Highlands, which meant a break from the chronic wind and snow.  Heading south also meant the wind was at my back instead of trying to dismount me.  I finally got my frozen carcass home and stood in front of the fireplace forever, trying to get heat back in me.

After feeling returned I discovered my wedding ring had fallen off my senseless fingers at some point when I pulled my gloves off.  We're nineteen years married this summer and I've never lost the ring before.  I couldn't find it in the obvious places so emailed my various stops hoping it had showed up.  It took a second search the next morning when my brain had warmed up to find the ring in the bottom of my bag where it had obviously fallen out of my gloves at some point; good save there.

As painful as it was, I still feel like this trip cleared away the cobwebs of a long Canadian, caged winter and let me look upon the world in a way that any car trip wouldn't.  I didn't just go for a drive, I did something genuine and difficult and have a tale of trophy wives, dinosaurs and snow snakes to tell from it.

If it was easy everyone would do it.

Some other pictures from the trip:
Over the Credit River watching kingfishers

Hockley Valley Road.

At The Terra Nova Public House ready for another lap.

Harleys are great on the road, but that's the only place you'll ever use one.  Right after this I turned onto gravel and avoided the pensioners parade.

Winter runoff in Hockley River.

Horning's Mills Run Off.

If you like the twisties, the loop out of Terra Nova is a keeper.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Any Motorcycle Trip's A Good Trip

A short ride up and down the banks of the Grand River near Elora, Ontario.  

We headed over to Pilkington Overlook, then up to the West Montrose Covered Bridge and then back down the north side of the Grand River to The Breadalbane in Fergus for dinner on a sunny, warm, Sunday afternoon.

Sunday 9 April 2017

Todd Blubaugh's Too Far Gone

It took me almost a month to slowly work my way through this complex piece of media.  I originally came across an excerpt from it in Bike Magazine and it was so moving that I immediately purchased it.  I'm generally not a fan of coffee table books.  I've always thought of them as flash over substance and a decoration for yuppies to strategically place in their perfect living rooms to impress guests.  It took some powerful writing in that excerpt to overpower my prejudice about this format, and I'm glad it did.

Writing is only a small part of this 'book', and calling it a book isn't really fair to it.  This is a piece of art; it feels more like you're walking through an emotionally powerful art exhibit.  The author, Todd Blubaugh, was a photographer by trade, so this all starts to make sense as you fall into his aesthetic.  Between the pages of powerful and technically complex photography you find short pieces of narrative text that pin down the corners of Todd's six month quest for meaning after his parent's unexpected death in a car accident.

If you've lost a parent in unexpected circumstances with things left unsaid, Todd's meditative ride around the continental U.S. will raise a lot of your own ghosts.  This was one of the reasons I savoured it so slowly.  After reading each emotional upper cut, you're immersed in several pages of photography of life on the road.  Working in black and white on a film camera, Todd's images tend toward startlingly frank personal portraits of the people that he meets on his travels.  Todd must be a particularly disarming fellow as he's able to catch people with almost animal like honesty - were I able to do this, I'd be much more interested in human portraiture.  As it is, it's a joy to see a master like this at work.

As you travel with Todd further into his trajectory away from the things that anchor most people to their lives (job, family), he surprises you with artifacts from his parent's lives.  At moments like this the book feels more like a scrapbook or family album, with news articles about his Dad's tour in Vietnam and his mother's paintings offering you further insight into the scope of his loss.  The letter from his Dad at the end of the book had me in tears.

Todd tells two entwined and complex stories in Too Far Gone.  His disassociation from the habitual, stationary life that most people live reaches a climax in a conversation with an old sailor that will leave you, along with Todd himself, staring into the abyss.  Free from the responsibilities most of us labour under, Todd is able to focus on his loss with such a startling clarity that it will shake you.

This book pressed a lot of buttons for me.  As a photographer I greatly enjoyed Todd's eye, even (and especially because?) it is so different from my own.  Todd's relationship with motorcycling (old Harleys and biker culture) is also about as different from mine as can be, yet the sense of brotherhood still felt strong because Todd is never once preachy or superior about his infatuation.  Instead, his honest love of motorbikes comes across loudly, and that is something we share.

As someone who lost a parent and experienced that same phone call out of the blue, Todd's experience is something that cuts me deep.  In coming to understand Todd's relationship with his dad I can't help but reflect on my own difficult and distant relationship with my father.  I lost the parent that I most identified with and have a challenging relationship with the other one, but Todd's parent's were still together and he lost both at once.  It's the things left unsaid that gnaw at you afterwards, and losing both parents together while they are still paragons in your life is something I can only imagine.

We all lose our parents eventually.  If you haven't yet, this book will give you an emotionally powerful idea of how it feels, and how someone has worked through the scars of that experience.  If they're already gone, your sympathy will create powerful echoes.

There are a few motorcycling themed books that plumb philosophical depths.  Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Shop Class As Soulcraft in particular have spoken intelligently and deeply about the meditative nature of motorcycling.  Too Far Gone is a multi-media, large format book that takes you to the same place through different mediums, but it does it while also offering an emotional intelligence that is hard to find anywhere else.  Immerse yourself in this book, you won't be disappointed.

What you need and nothing else.  After six months on the road Todd looks as homeless as he is, and has to make a decision...

Saturday 8 April 2017

Motorcycle Insurance Money Grabs and a Lean Motorbike Stable

The greatest single downward pressure on the infamous motorcycle equation is the way you're worked over by insurance for them, especially in Ontario.  If you own one bike you're likely to be paying about $700 a year if you're an experienced rider.  If you're new you can pretty much double that.  

If you buy a second bike, against all logic you're basically doubling your insurance.  Even though two bikes mean you're only spending half as much time on each, you get nothing back for that.

If the motorcycle industry wanted to sell more bikes, pressuring the Ontario government to make fair insurance premiums would be a good way to do it.  If you're paying $700 a year to ride a bike, it should be less than half that to insure a second bike, not double that.  Since you can't be on both bikes at once your chances of needing insurance drop dramatically.  What would be fair would be only applying the stationary insurance (theft, fire, etc) to a second bike, and perhaps a small fee for the paperwork.  Owning two bikes does not mean double the liability, which is the lion's share of an insurance premium.

I'd happily budget $1000 a year instead of the $600 I pay for insurance and triple the number of bikes I've got licensed.  That's three times as many vehicles paying road and license plate tax - which helps out the government, and the insurance company themselves would be making more with no increase in liability.  If only they could get past the short term money-grab philosophy they currently run with.  As it stands the ROI on a $2000 a year insurance bill makes it not worth pursuing.

What would that expanded motorcycle stable look like?  Canada's short riding season means you need to have machine turn-key ready for the few days you can get out and enjoy the weather without it trying to kill you.  I'm currently riding a fourteen year old Triumph Tiger as my go-to bike.  It has been great, but depending on a bike that old isn't really fair to it.  At The Forks of the Credit last weekend we had the oldest bike there by a decade.  I get a great deal of pride out of that, but I don't want to start hating on the Triumph if it suddenly develops a fault.  That happened with the KLX and it was gone shortly thereafter.

A new bike would definitely be in the cards.  I've long had a crush on Honda VFRs, and they make a great all rounder.  A sporty bike that can also cover distances, and when I sat on one they felt quality, almost jewel like.  As an it'll-always-be-ready-to-run, dependable bike, it's a solid choice.  The website is saying this is a $15,000 proposition, but I'm sure I just saw them on sale for a touch over $10,000.

On a naked choice for a new bike I still tend toward the Kawasaki Z bikes.  The Z1000 with its cat like robotic stance has long scratched an anime aesthetic itch for me, but the new Z900 does too.  With the taller comfort seat it would fit me well.  The bike is under $10k and looks fantastic.  A new Kawasaki, like a new Honda, would be bullet proof and a good choice for an always-ready dependable motorbike.  Both the Honda & the Z could also handle track days.

The Tiger does a good job of two up riding (it's a big bike), but sometimes I miss the road focused athleticism of the Concours.  The new one looks spectacular in Candy Imperial Blue.  As a two up tourer it approaches the Goldwing and other dedicated touring machines, but it retains its sports bike heritage, evaporating weight and feeling more like a Ninja in the corners.  It's a big bike, but I'm a big guy and I look like I fit on it.  With a dedicated long distance road tool like this, perhaps the Tiger would become more adventury in purpose.

With the Tiger and one of the above on hand, in a more insurance friendly situation I'd also have a third bike that would let me focus on the off-road aspects of riding.  

I learned that a 240lb guy on a KLX250 does not add up, so I'd be looking for a 300+cc off roader so that I could keep up with traffic when on the road.  

The DRZ-400 Suzuki has long looked like the bike of choice.  They come up occasionally online.  If insurance weren't killing it, I'd already own one.  With some frame guards and good sump protection, this would be the bike I'd trail ride and explore farm tracks on without worrying about a traffic line up behind me when I'm on the road.

The Tiger is dependable and a good two up ride, so I suspect I'd pass on the Concours.  Today the three bike stable would be the Tiger, the VFR and the DR-Z 400; a Triumph, a Honda and a Suzuki, but in other circumstances it could be a Kawasaki heavy garage.  If the Tiger weren't the brick house that it is, I'd have a Concours, a Z900 and maybe even a KTM in the stable... if only I could pay fair insurance rates on them.

We lose tax and hurt many industries that support motorcycle sales, repair and accessories.
Only one industry benefits from how we do this.
Why Ontario drivers pay the highest insurance rates
Insurance profits in the billions
Ten most expensive cities to get insurance in Ontario
Baffled Americans talk frankly about Ontario insurance

Friday 7 April 2017

The Virtual Motorcycle

The sedendary gamerz don't do well in VR - it demands some athleticism.
Our highest scorer on Space Pirate Trainer is a black belt.
I teach computer and software engineering when I'm not motorbiking.  This year I'm also doing a Ministry of Education grant on virtual reality research with some other teachers in my school board and it has left me wondering about how immersive simulation might work with motorcycles.

We have an Oculus Rift and an HTC Vive in our lab at school, so we can look into software development on two of the largest immersive virtual reality platforms.  VR has split into a couple of different camps.  You've got the cheap viewmaster style of VR like Google Cardboard that uses your smartphone to produce quick and easy 3d visual experiences.  At the other end of the spectrum you've got the fully immersive systems like our Vive, Oculus and Sony's PlaystationVR.  These systems are still pretty expensive, but they work surprisingly well for first generation devices - I often have students come out of them as though they are waking up surprised to find themselves back at school.  VR, whether it's a simple smartphone enabled device or the fully immersive kind, has a great deal of emotional impact.

Chris Milk, a music video director, gives you some deep, professional insights into immersive video; it isn't the next medium, it's the last medium.

How could VR be used in the motorcycle industry?  If you want to see a new bike in 3D to get a sense of what it looks like in the flesh, looking at it on a 2D monitor won't do a good job.  Google cardboard and a smartphone are all you need to see in 3D.  If that isn't a cheap and obvious tool for dealers looking to advertise motorcycles, I don't know what is - Jaguar is already doing it.  I suspect you're going to start seeing simple VR viewing kits included in smartphone packages in the future as the advertising power of immersive medium becomes more apparent.

I got this on email from Telus six hours after posting this story - am I good or what?

The immersive simulation served up in VR has real emotional impact on customers looking to make a decision.  You wouldn't be limited to a bike model either.  Taking a 360° video of a walk through of your showroom would allow customers to virtually see many bikes in 3d along with having a sales presence at their beck and call with no threat of pressure.  Virtually checking out a showroom before you make the trip over there is going to be a key sales hook in the future.

Virtually experiencing the factory where your favorite manufacturer produces your dream machine?  Can you imagine the brand loyalty generated?  VR is an intensely personal experience - your fans would feel like they had been on a VIP tour after that.  This kind of intimacy in marketing has a powerful effect.

Beyond the 3d imaging offered by basic VR, fully immersive systems offer a level of experiential training that is otherwise cost prohibitive.  The thousand dollar headsets might seem expensive, but last year at the Skills Canada National Competition I was talking to a company that makes tree harvesting systems for the forestry industry.  These mechanized systems cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Up until the past couple of years a new operator had to learn by sitting in the real deal.  When they broke blades or damaged robotic arms it cost big money in both equipment and lost harvesting time.  At last year's Skills Competition they had one of their new VR training systems - an operator's chair surrounded by an accurate recreation of the physical controls hooked up to a VR headset.  Suddenly you're in a forest grabbing trees with a million dollar tool and learning how to best operate the machine.  They could simulate failures and varying conditions as well.  These $10,000 a seat systems saved millions in their first year of use.  New operators could spend many hours learning the system before ever setting foot in the real thing, and poor operators could be selected out before ever doing any damage.

Riders seldom get a chance to ride a bike before they buy them.  VR could change all that.  A system of wireless sensors could be attached to any motorcycle in the showroom.  With the bike wheel locked onto a simple pitch/yaw/roll mechanism, you could experience the ergonomics of your specific machine without ever turning over the engine.  Specs could then be loaded into the VR simulator and then you go for a ride, virtually.  You would get a personalized, immersive audio and visual experience while feeling how you fit on the machine without using any gas or depreciating any new model.  This kind of experience is very engaging.  I suspect the sales rate after such a VRride would be exceptional - it would also be a draw to get customers into the showroom.

Specialized simulators for racing are another obvious training tool.  Riding and racing schools, teams and other specialists could offer VR as a first, less expensive step into everything from working out the basic controls of the machine for a beginner to Jorge Lorenzo trying various lines around a track while experiencing suspension and engine setting changes before doing it in the flesh.

Even the first generation immersive VR systems we have now would be capable of offering this level of training.  They've only been out for a year or so (we ordered our Vive last April), but the possibilities around this emerging technology make my glad I have early adopter experience with it.  A couple of students dropped by the lab the other day wanting to try it out (it generates buzz even in students not taking computer tech).  After half an hour trying out Tiltbrush, Google Earth and our new Oculus handsets one of the girls took the headset off with stars in her eyes and said, "wow!  This is the future!"

In five years it is entirely possible that tens of thousands of people will have a much more intimate idea of what it feels like to be Valentino Rossi on a perfectly tuned Yamaha M1.  Pretty cool, eh?