Friday 21 July 2017

British Driving Culture

We've been in the UK for almost a week and yesterday spent the day skulking about London.  Like the rest of England, London makes demands on a vehicle operator's attention that many North Americans would find onerous.  The small lanes, lack of shoulder and volume of traffic conspire to create a very intense and focused driving environment.  Efficiency of motion isn't an option, it's an expectation.

A few years ago they set up a roundabout in our small town in Southern Ontario.  The locals used to bring out lawn chairs and sit and watch the circus as Canadian drivers tried to negotiate an intersection that didn't have lights telling them what to do.  At a roundabout in the UK you tend to accelerate into an opening.  If you slow down (or stop as many Canadian drivers do) before entering it, you're going to create a chorus of honks behind you.  You can expect others to see you coming and make space, but you need to be attentive and collegial in your approach.  Ignoring others by cutting them off doesn't fly here.  Being a waffling idiot and not taking an opening won't make you any friends either.  A demanding kind of efficiency and cooperation that is foreign to many North American drivers is the expectation.

London traffic is that kind of urgent efficiency turned up to eleven.  Oddly, British drivers are still very polite, waving thanks and making eye contact when they are facing a problem, like cars parked on an otherwise busy road blocking an entire lane of traffic, which seems to happen constantly.  If the obstruction is on your side of the road you're supposed to wait for traffic in the clear lane to pass, but people often pull over to let through cars that are stuck if it improves the flow of traffic and doesn't slow them inordinately.  This kind of consideration is another aspect of North American driving that is vanishingly rare, especially in the Greater Toronto Area where drivers tend to take on more of a 'get yours and screw everyone else' mindset.

Based on what I've seen, even a hesitant, relatively slow British driver would be considered near the pinnacle of driving talent in Canada, which is one of the reasons I find driving a car there tedious.  Given a choice, Canadian drivers are content to give over about half of their attention to driving effectively, mainly because the massive roads with constant shoulders, signalling that tells you what to do rather than take initiative and minimal traffic volume encourage it.  When things do get busy, as in Toronto, asshole is the default rather than let's all work together to make this go more smoothly.

Even with steep congestion taxes London is a constant flow of traffic, but it's all moving, and usually quickly.  Into this maelstrom, thanks to demands of space and emissions requirements, motorcycles thrive.  My first view when we got above ground and out of The Tube was a blood delivery bike effortlessly cutting through traffic on a busy Thursday morning.  An older guy on a Suzuki Vstrom, he handled his machine with the kind of effortless grace you see of people who have a lot of miles under them.  He seemed to see everything at once and disappeared through the delivery vans and cars in a flash of effortless speed.

Two wheeled delivery vehicles thrive in London, with couriers of all shapes and sizes on everything from 50cc scooters to big BMWs making the rounds.  As we were walking toward Camden Market a rideere pulled into one of the few unused pieces of tarmac in London (the small triangle a car wouldn't fit in before a curb) and carried out an animated conversation over bluetooth head piece with his dispatcher.

The efficiency of small vehicles like motorbikes isn't ignored in England like it is in Canada.  Bikes can squeeze through gaps that would cause a queue otherwise and split lanes.  Parking is more efficient for bikes, so half a dozen commuters can and do park in the space taken up by one SUV.

Being a dispatch rider in London is considered a badge of distinction by motorcyclists here.  If you can survive that you're a good rider with exceptional awareness and control.  If you weren't, you wouldn't last.

We're now on a train to Norwich (my dad's hometown) where we're picking up a cousin's car and driving in the UK for the first time.  I always look forward to it because it's engaging and challenging.  You can't eat or drink and drive here like you can in Canada, but you wouldn't want to.  You seldom stop due to a lack of traffic lights and a plethora of roundabouts and the roads are tight, twisty and require your attention.  To top it all off everything is backwards.  For the first couple of days I chant that like a mantra inside my head when I'm driving here.  It keeps me on the right side of the road and gets me used to indicators and wipers being on opposite sides more quickly.  Within a day or two I'm acclimatized and accidentally cleaning my windows way less.

I might try and find a motorbike rental while I'm home and see if I can find out where my Granddad Bill took that picture on his Coventry Eagle and get a photo of myself on something similarly English and iconoclastic, perhaps an Ariel Ace?

The other night I was in the car back to my cousin's house and we were intent on making time.  With the twisty, tight roads it felt like navigating a rally stage  As we thrashed down the highway a Porsche 911 blew past us like we were going backwards.  I love UK driving culture.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Icelandic Wishlist: A ferry from St Johns to Reykjavik please!

Iceland is at the intersection of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, so in essence it's part of North America and Europe. Unfortunately, only Europe is making an effort to connect to the place.

You can take a ferry from Denmark to Iceland with your own bike and tour this spectacular island for just over 1000 Euro (personal cabin - half that if you share) in the summer and for less than 400 Euro in the off season. If an enterprising ferry operator would start sailing from St John's Newfoundland to Reykjavik, not only would we North American types be able to explore this beautiful and relatively empty piece of the world, but we'd also have a land line to Europe since we could explore Iceland and then ferry to Denmark if means and time permitted.

I'm just a couple of days past a 9 day odyssey around Iceland in a rental car, and all I could think of was how brilliant it would have been on my Triumph Tiger that is sitting in a garage in Canada.

The ferry wouldn't have to run all the time, but four sailings a year would allow a number of adventurous North American motorcyclists to discover the magic of Iceland, and maybe wander on to Europe itself on their own two wheels.

Ride Iceland on your own motorcycle:  Live in Europe?  You can do it now!  Live in North America?  Keep dreaming.

St John's Newfoundland to Prins Christiansson in Greenland to Reykjavik, Iceland. A regular ferry to these places also means another regular ground based means of importing and exporting people and cargo.  The existing ferry from Denmark to Seyðisfjørður on Iceland's east coast could take you on to Europe and Asia.
Costs to get to the European leg of your ride.  With a St John's to Iceland ferry you'd be able to surface travel without special cargo headaches from Los Angeles to Tokyo across Eurasia.

Icelandic Motorcycle Culture

I'm sitting in England thinking about our 9 days in Iceland.  We covered over two thousand kilometres in the land of fire and ice, alas, none of it on two wheels, but I was always on the lookout for motorcycle culture and there is no shortage of it on Iceland.  In a future post I'm going to hammer out all the advice I've garnered from our Icelandic reconnaissance.

You see a lot of BMW GSes on Iceland.  Viking Biking rents them out of Reykjavik and a ferry delivers them from mainland Europe on the east coast.  The adventure bike is the perfect motorcycle genre for Iceland as the roads vary from smooth tarmac to potholed hard dirt, and everything in between.

On our second day I discovered another side of Icelandic motorcycling culture.  The big-twin cruiser rider can also be found here, albeit in much reduced numbers.  The Norse Riders Iceland Chapter are a mashup of your North American patch club with viking imagery.  Like every other biker I've talked to, they look rough but are the nicest people when you chat with them.

Later that day we were making tracks back to Keflavik Airport to return the rental car when we came across some massive lava fields in the south west of the island.  We'd been driving 20 minutes at a time without seeing traffic either way, and this was during the height of tourist season when a number of people had asked me if we should be going there then.  If you like empty roads, you'll love Iceland.  Through the lava fields eventually came two GSes making time on the empty, winding roads.  I can only imagine the smiles on those riders' faces.

Even in the capital of Reykjavik you're looking at something the size of a small North American town.  Traffic moves all the time and there are seldom any backups.  Out in the country you're making tracks all the time with sporadic traffic at worst.

You're driving on the right, so you've got none of the headaches involved in riding in the UK or Australia/NZ, and the drivers themselves are polite and efficient.  If you pull up behind a slower moving vehicle they'll turn on their right indicator when it's safe for you to pass.  We made good time in a hatchback and then a mini-van with six people and luggage; on a bike it'd be heaven.

This left me wondering what I'd most enjoy riding in Iceland.  The Tiger I've got sitting in a garage back home would be the ideal weapon - able to make good use of tarmac but able to manage gravel and packed dirt/potholes.  Iceland is adventure bike nirvana.

A couple of days later we were out near Lake Myvatn and came across a couple of Germans on KTMs.  With their light weight soft panniers and nimble bikes capable of handing any rough stuff, these enduros would be another good choice for riding Iceland.

Those KTMs slice down the valley of the Krefla Geo-thermal power plant (Iceland's main source of electricity and heating is green/geo-thermal energy).  
On our first day with two families, 3 kids and a minivan, we did what all Canadians do and covered a lot of miles, all while repeatedly ignoring the satnav.

The vast majority of this drive was on tarmac, but the satnav kept telling us to turn back on the north shore of the peninsula and we soon found out why.  There were over 100kms of gravel roads that soon devolved into hard parked pot-holed earth roads.  While battling those roads you're also wrapping around fjords and experiencing blind corners at fifteen degree inclines.  It's beautiful, but it's a tough road, especially if you're still hundreds of kilometres from where you're going to lay your head that night.  We saw a number of campers just pull up in a fjiord for the night to enjoy the quiet and the view.

It'd be a challenging ride on an adventure bike, but you'd never forget the scenery.  Based on how exhausting the car ride was, I'd suggest 2 full riding days to do this on a bike, and be ready for some technically challenging roads on day two.

Snaesfellsyokel: a stratovolcano in a land of rift built shield volcanoes.  There is a road across the back of it, if you dare. Rental cars are restricted from using F roads, and considering how rough some of the 'main' roads where, F roads must be quite technical.

Your typical busy Icelandic summer road - if you like the view you'll get a new one like this every ten minutes.

Lava fields

1st day in Iceland: driving Canadian style (huge distances, various road surfaces)...

Taken five minutes past midnight - that's pretty much as dark as it gets - dusky.
Riding in Iceland isn't an oddity.  You'll meet people from all across Europe exploring the continent's last real frontier.  Whether you're a cruiser, a sport or an adventure rider, you'll find your people here on two wheels enjoying some Jurassic Park quality landscapes and empty, sinuous roads.

If you're into exploration of any kind, Iceland delivers.

A 4x4 off-road ready camper van?  Yep, saw that (parked on black lava sand at the base of a cinder volcano!)
This couple were pros.  Their packing was exceptionally organized and the next morning they were up in a light rain in full waterproofs and gone before 8am.

Thursday 6 July 2017

Three Wheeled Dreams

Once again I'm thinking about a Morgan3.  I found out that Ontario is offering a ten year pilot program for three wheeled vehicles, meaning you can drive one here now.  The federal requirements for three wheeled vehicles are just borrowed from other jurisdictions where they are already allowed, so the Morgan should be good to go.

It's probably the Polaris Slingshot and the like that have forced this to finally happen, but what I really want is that Morgan3.  With a big air cooled twin out front and a super wide stance, the Morgan3 is a silly amount of fun to drive and looks like an instant classic rather than the offspring of the USS Enterprise and a TIE fighter.  If you want to go fast, get an even number of wheels, but if you want something with character, go odd, and the Morgan3 is nothing if not full of character.

Of course Ontario can't do anything without making it pointlessly political and difficult, so anyone driving a three wheeled vehicle has to act like it's a motorcycle and is required to wear a helmet.  Like I said, pointlessly officious, it's the Ontario way.  

At least there are some stylish (though probably illegal) options for piloting the Morgan3.  A couple of World War 2 inspired fighter helmets along with aviator jackets and we'd be ready to roll.

As it happens, the Morgan factory is but one hundred miles north of us when we're on holiday in the UK and offers rentals.  That might warrant a day trip!  There is another option even closer to where we're staying.  Berrybrook is in Exeter, just down the road from the cottage we're at.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

Trying to understand UK PCP deals on motorcycles from a Canadian perspective

I've been trying to understand this since reading the
advertising, um, I mean buyer's guide in BIKE last year.
I'm trying to get a handle on PCP financing that seems to be popular in the UK right now. If you're going to buy a Kawasaki Z1000 with ABS in the UK, you're looking at a price of £10,389 ($17,453CAN). The on the road price in Canada is about $16,000, so you're already almost $1500 ahead, but cost of borrowing is where I get really confused.

If you PCP (personal contract purchase) you're paying a £2500 ($4200CAN) downpayment and then £147 ($247CAN) per month for 36 months. At the end of that time you've got nothing, all while paying 5.9% interest and having to ride the bike under mileage and keep it pristine to keep your investment intact.  You're also hit up for financing paperwork fees.  If you go over mileage or the bike is in any way less than mint when you return it you suffer additional costs. I imagine the same goes with any farkling you might want to do - don't. When you hand it back you've paid $13,092 Canadian dollars in interest and what basically resolves itself as rental costs; you own nothing. That's when they ask you if you want to do it again with another bike or now pay a balloon payment equal to the current value of the bike (assuming it's in perfect shape).

If you buy the same bike in Canada and put the same amount down, you're looking at a monthly payment of $348 Canadian (£207), and at the end of the 36 months you own the thing. There are no mileage restrictions, no worries about keeping it stock and perfect and if it is in good shape you'll have spent about $550 in interest and have a vehicle that UK Kawasaki says is worth £3628 ($6095CAN).

The pure costs of borrowing in the UK would be the down payment plus the monthly interest costs. That'll be £2500 down payment + £465 in monthly interest, all for the favour of giving you this great deal. The pure costs of interest on the PCP deal is £2965 ($4981CAN). The amount of interest you're paying to own (rather than borrow) the same bike in Canada is $460.

The context of borrowing in the two countries is quite different. The UK happily followed the US down the rabbit hole that caused the 2008 financial crisis by deregulating banks. That never happened in Canada where interest rates and the cost of borrowing has always been held to reasonable standards. Canadian banks still make huge profits (they now own a number of US banks that crashed in 2008), but they don't break the financial system in the process and people who live here aren't subject to the ridiculous costs of borrowing that British people seem to think reasonable.  I frequently see ads on UK TV for credit cards with interest rates that would be illegal in Canada.

With that in mind, maybe throwing away nearly five grand Canadian to borrow a bike for three years (that's $139 a month just in borrowing and rental costs!) makes sense, but it sure doesn't from this side of the Atlantic.

I'm also left wondering what a flood of lightly used bikes will do to the marketplace in the next few years.  In classic short term financial thinking it looks like PCP will flood the market place with short term ownership and then flood the market again with bikes people couldn't afford in the first place.  Won't this eventually hurt new bike sales as dealers become swamped in returned PCP bikes?  Maybe the idea is to return the bike and the go looking to get a massive discount on it when you show up a week later and they don't have enough room on their lot to hold all the PCP returns.

I'm starting to see why the UK found keeping up with the EU too difficult to continue.  They seem to have a very loose grasp on how marketplaces work and seem determined to ignore anything like sustainability.  I'm heading over there in a couple of weeks and enjoying a great Canada/UK exchange rate thanks to their wobbly economic choices.  I'm curious to see if I can get a first hand look at what this approach to bike selling is doing.

UK Kawasaki's PCP calculator

Canadian Kawasaki's offer on the same bike...

Cost of borrowing on Canada Kawasaki's 36 month financing offer...

Last Grasps: A Well Timed Post Canada Day Ride

I've only got about a week left before we're off on airplanes, so I'm trying to find reasons to exercise the Tiger before five weeks of motorcycling abstinence.  After a couple of days of crowded rooms and even more crowded Canada Day festivals I needed some quality alone time.  Nothing does that like a motorcycle ride does.

It wasn't an inspired ride, and it took me to my usual haunts, but it was a lucky ride.  With thunderstorms passing through the area, they were where ever I wasn't, which was good because I was travelling light.

The idea was to get to Higher Ground at the Forks of the Credit before it got long-weekend crazy.  I managed to get a coffee, look at some Italian exotica and then get out of there before it got really full.  

With the ice cream shop owner moving bikes that were parking out of the way anyway and signs all down the rest of the building stating no motorcycle parking, I'm starting to wonder if Belfountain is getting fed up with its place as a summer time ride stop.  It's a boon to the local economy, but some people seem intent on stopping it rather than embracing it.  Every rider I saw there was considerate and cautious in entering the parking lot without revving loud pipes or blocking others, but I guess the locals have had enough.  I'm not sure how much longer Higher Ground can be the sole reason to stop there if everyone else in the town is telling us to go elsewhere.

I had Lee Park's Total Control on my mind as I navigated The Forks, and damned if I wasn't more stable and smooth through the hairpin corner by looking over my shoulder into the corner.  You'd think looking away from your direction of travel would be counter intuitive, and I don't get much opportunity to practice it on arrow straight SW Ontario roads, but with some practice it's definitely the way to go.

After a ride up and down The Forks I aimed north past the Caledon Ski Club and toward Hockley Valley.  It was a lovely, relatively empty ride up to the Terra Nova Public House.

The TNPH had a summer salad with fresh rainbow trout on it that was pretty much perfect, and it let me duck inside and watch the tarmac dry off from the downpour that had passed through ten minutes before I got there.

After a quick lunch I did the TNPH loop before heading down River Road to Horning's Mills.  Mr Lee's Total Control habits were still playing though my head and I was focused on late apex entries and clean lines while looking through the corners.  It's funny how you feel like you're going slower when you're going faster on a motorbike.

River Road was generally empty and I got a clean run all the way to Horning's Mills.  It was time to head home, so I cut south west through the wind fields of Shelburne before stopping in Grand Valley for a coffee.  A GS650 rider and his wife were sitting in the cafe and we got into a good bike chat.  As a fellow rider intent on making miles rather than a scene, we had a meeting of minds on what a motorbike should be for, it was a good talk.

The final ride home was, again, relatively empty and I pulled into the driveway mid-afternoon.  I'm still hoping to get down to the full eclipse over the Tail of the Dragon when I get back from and Iceland/UK foray.  Perhaps a motorcycling opportunity will appear while away, but if not, I'll get in some miles this week to make sure my riding battery is topped up.