Friday 21 August 2020

Motorcycle Riding in Ontario: It Was The Worst of Times, It Was The Best of Times

I managed an 800+ kilometre loop through Southwestern and Central Ontario over the weekend.  The ride out and the ride back four days later were distinctly different, though they did have one thing in common:  gravel companies with little regard for public safety.

I began early on Thursday morning hoping to beat the heat, but even a 9am departure had me sweating in humidity fuelled mid-thirties temperatures.  On Fergus/Orangeville Road heading into Orangeville a gravel truck decided to drive into oncoming traffic so he could have a chat with his buddy pulling up on a side road.  He cut it so close the old couple in the Cadillac at the front of our group left ABS intermittent skid marks on the road and almost got rear ended by the guy behind them in an F150 who was too busy texting to notice events unfolding.  This is the second time an employee of Greenwood Aggregates/Construction has been a pain in the ass for us.  Last time it was a fist sized lump of gravel that cost us a $500 deductible to get the windshield replaced in my wife's car.  This time around I was in full-biking-radar-paranoia-mode, so I saw the whole thing unfolding and made myself some space by moving to the shoulder so the guy behind me didn't run me down in the heavy braking.  It'd be nice if the OPP spent a little time observing misdemeanours by Greenwood Aggregate drivers on the Orangeville/Fergus Regional Road 3.  If they can't take other road users' safety into consideration, perhaps they should have their licence revoked.

Rather than continue to enjoy the chaos of the busy-for-a-Thursday-morning regional road, I ducked onto a gravel side road (a benefit of riding the Tiger) and took the back route around to the bypass.  Being clear of traffic, even on loose, recently graded gravel always feels so much better than riding with jumpy, unpredictable pillocks in their boxes.  Bigger the box, bigger the pillock, and these days everyone drives the largest possible thing they can find.

I've been working on the Tiger's recent stalling issue, and thought I had it licked, but it stalled on me after getting gas in Mono Mills in the middle of a highway intersection, so I was on edge.  It did it again while making a left turn off Highway 9.  The key to my survival as a motorcyclist is my ability to respond to traffic quickly with awareness and agility.  A bike dying on me in the middle of an intersection feels the exact opposite as it suddenly makes me vulnerable and immobile; it feels like betrayal.  Some people online have suggested just riding around the issue, but I think that's absurd.  If you're riding something that can leave you dead in the middle of a turn, that's not something to ride around, it's something to fix.

Now truly fraught and soaking in sweat, I pulled over to get my shit together on a tiny side road before getting onto the 400 Highway.  My new COVID normal is to find a shady spot and have a stretch, a comfort break and a drink.  I pulled over onto Side-road 4 which had zero traffic and re-centred myself.  It was a lovely stop in a quiet farming area.  No sound of traffic and only the breeze stirring the trees and corn.  It was a Zen ten minutes that let me get my head on straight again.

The 400 north was surprisingly busy for a late Thursday morning, but was moving at warp speed anyway.  The inside lane was averaging 120km/hr.  I dropped into the flow after passing a cruiser parked under the overpass I used.  I guess he was only looking for people doing 160+.  By now the air temperature was well into the high thirties and the oppressive humidity had it feeling in the forties.  Even at speed on the highway I was always sweating.  I got to Barrie in next to no time only to discover that a single lane reduction at the Essa Road exit meant that the me-first GTA crowd had backed up traffic for 20 minutes because they all have to be first.  Massive trucks and SUVs (few people drive cars in Canada any more) were pulling out onto on ramps and burning to the end before trying to butt in ahead of where they were.  Being Ontario, I couldn't filter through and ended up sitting on sixty degree tarmac for the better part of twenty minutes in stop and go traffic under a relentless sun surrounded by air conditioned cagers who were making it even hotter, with a bike that stalled if I let go of the throttle.

I finally got clear of Barrie and things were once again moving at warp speed, with trucks towing boats passing me at 40km/hr over the limit.  Ontario highways are truly something special; a hybrid of Mad Max and a never ending grocery store line up of the biggest jackasses you've ever met.  But I was now clear of Barrie and Orillia and only had the wide open spaces of the north to look forward to.  I was evaporating sweat so much a cloud was probably forming above me, but at least I was in motion, until I wasn't.

Ten kilometres outside of Gravenhurst traffic came to a sudden stop again.  Why?  Ontario refuses to widen the bypass around Gravenhurst onto Highway 11, and we all know how GTA traffic likes to merge with grace and efficiency, so things had come to a stop, again.  At this point I was deep into fuck-it territory.  My plan to get up to the lovely 118 and cross over the Haliburton Highlands and down to my wife's family's cottage near Bobcaygeon was starting to smolder in a dumpster.  After sitting next to a Shell station for a couple of minutes on baking asphalt, I pulled in and looked at the map.  Oddly, the Tiger was now holding idle.  The ECU learns how to set idle when you reset it with a new fuel map, so maybe the Tiger had learned how to solve its own stalling?  I should be so lucky.

Gravenhurst Traffic
Early Thursday afternoon GTA traffic into Gravenhurst where all the citiots have to all go to the same place at the same time, all the time.  The old fella at the gas station told me it'd be a 40 minute stop and go to get through it on fifty degree tarmac.  Bigger is always better in the cager crowd.  See many cars in there?  Trucks and SUVs, all the better to hit you with while ensuring your own safety!

I had a look at the map and thought that Washago and south around Lake Simcoe and over to Kinmount would at least get me out of attempting a route that thousands of people in giant vehicles from the GTA were plying.  Highway 11 has lots of turnarounds to go south, which I've always found odd until today.  I was quickly able to get on the empty highway south and found myself back in Washago and heading down an empty 169 and then east on an equally empty 45.  The temptation is to say Ontario is under-funding infrastructure, and it is to a degree, but the real issue is the group think in the most overpopulated area of Canada, which I have the misfortune of living near.

Changing my mind on where I was going changed the ride.  I'd been aiming for unfamiliar roads, but that's not something easy to find in summer of pandemic.  The Tiger seemed to have changed its mind too.  At the odd stops at lights it was suddenly idling steadily and the pickup on throttle and vibes at speed felt better than they used to.  I guess the ECU had finally worked out the new fuel map.  I was still dehydrated and cooked, but I was on winding roads with almost no traffic.  Unfortunately, these were the same winding roads I'd taken last month to the cottage.  
I stopped in Kinmount because I'd done that last time and knew they had a public washroom in the park.  After another comfort break and as much water as I could neck, I sorted out the 360 camera and headed toward Gooderham on the 503 for a roller-coaster ride down the 507 and then into the cottage; this was the good bit coming up.

The sun was getting low behind me and I early evening was upon us.  I got to Gooderham just past 5pm and headed south on the 507, the Tiger feeling better than it had in months.  Just south of town I saw the inevitable sign:  CONSTRUCTION.  Unreal.  I'd just busted my hump for hundreds of kilometres of Ontario tedium and the highlight is dug up.

Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

After some kilometres of gravel, some of it ankle deep because they're in the middle of resurfacing, I
got back onto the pockmarked but paved 507 and proceeded south.  The long shadows meant the worst of the heat was off me and I soon found myself in Noogies Creek, working my way into some of Ontario's prettiest wilderness.

The 14kms up Bass Lake road goes from two lane gravel fire road to a winding, single lane gravel fire road quickly before ending at the lake.  Ten minutes later I was neck deep in it washing off a day of sweat and frustration.



Four days later I was saddling up just past 11am for the return trip.  My cunning wife suggesting doing the 118 route backwards on the way home since no one from the GTA would be going that way.  To make it even better, it was a humidity free 22°C on a Monday morning.  The Tiger still had almost half a tank, so I skipped cutting back to Bobcaygeon and headed east toward the 507 on Peterborough Regional Road 36.

I was approaching the turn north on to the 507. Quarry Bay Stone was just up the road and a gravel truck had just pulled out fully loaded and was ramming it up through the gears heading westbound towards the group of traffic I was in.  Bucketfuls of gravel were pouring out of this piece of shit truck as it approached us, bouncing down the road at 150km/hr closing speed.  Remember the Millenium Falcon in the asteroid storm in Empire?   Now I know how the ship felt.  I was lucky to be able to duck behind the truck and car ahead of me.  I imagine both vehicles are looking at body damage and broken windshields.  I got whacked on the shin hard enough to knock my leg off the peg.  That's another win for my awesome, armoured Macna motorcycle trousers.  Not only are they cooler than any other pant I've tried, but they also prevented me from getting a broken shin and/or severe lacerations on my leg.

When I realized how many rocks were coming at me and at such a high speed I put my head down and my new-this-year Roof Desmo RO32 took the impact for me right on the crown.  The rock was big enough to ring my bell, but had I not ducked it would have hit me at neck level, which might have been fatal.  Other sharp bits of gravel clattered off my road side pannier and I got a big scuff on my front fender, but otherwise the Tiger dodged the rocks.  I glanced back to see more bucketfuls of gravel skipping down the road, bouncing off the vehicles behind me.  The road was covered in it.  The next day at home I thought about what happened and came to the conclusion: fuck those guys.  It's their responsibility to operate safely on public roads, and they aren't doing that.  That this happened with two aggregate companies suggests that industry has a real fuck-you attitude to the rest of the citizenry who are using public roads.  It made me angry enough to make an online report with the OPP.  It's two days later and I haven't heard anything, but I'm not holding my breath  They're probably too busy trying to figure out what to do with all their pay raises.

This is one of those things you don't think about so much at the time.  I wasn't bleeding too much and the bike was ok, so I kept going.  I wasn't about to chase the truck down and I was too shocked to pull into the gravel yard.  I would have just flipped out on someone in any case.  Biking requires a sense of inevitability and fate.  You control what you can and live with what you can't.  Glad I did the report though; fuck those guys.

The 507 was virtually empty and cool as I made my way north.  Being a week day I suspected they'd be working on the road and soon enough I came to the edge of the construction.  I had a nice chat with the girl doing traffic control and was soon off.  Since they were laying tarmac they'd just put down a thick layer of sand and gravel, so thick my front tire disappeared into it and the Tiger bucked.  Thanks to recent SMART training my wrist did what it was supposed to do instead of involuntarily grabbing the brakes, which would have been bad.  The Tiger leaned back on its haunches and the Michelin Anakees bit into the loose material and launched us through the wave of loose material.  My feet never even left the pegs and I like to think I looked like I knew what I was doing.  The guy behind me on a Harley wasn't so lucky.  Legs all over the place before he ploughed it to a stop.  He then cut across the road to the tire tracks and then continued slowly up the verge.

The construction was soon behind me and then so was Gooderham.  I'd taken Haliburton County Road 3 to Haliburton a few years ago when I did a birthday ride through Algonquin Park, and knew it was a good one.  It's not as long as the 507, but at least as twisty and in much better shape; it was a thoroughly enjoyable ride through cool, noon-time air with thermoclines down by the lakes that I could both smell and feel.

I got to Haliburton still reading above empty.  This new fuel map was richer and smoother than the stock map, so I'd expected worse mileage, but because I'm not asking for more throttle and what I did use was smooth and effective, my mileage was actually better.  I figured there would be a gas station in Haliburton on the 118, but I passed through and found nothing.  I was far enough out of town that riding back didn't appeal, so I pushed on to Carnarvon figuring there had to be a gas station there as it's at the intersection of two major highways, but there was no gas in Carnarvon either, so I ended up ducking down the 35 to Mindin to get gas as the gauge fell into the red.  I was able to put 19 litres in, so I still had the better part of 5 litres in the tank when I filled up.  I'd have tried for Bracebridge if I'd have had a jerry can with me just to see what the run-to-empty is on the new and improved Tiger.  As it was I was over 400kms into that tank and think I still had another hundred in it (the Tiger has a big 24 litre tank).  That had us rocking a 4.22 L per 100 km / 55.71 mpg consumption figure, which means I'm beating a Prius, and that's without riding for mileage.

Brimming with gas I rode back north to 118 with more vigour than I'd come south.  The Tiger was idling so well I'd forgotten to keep checking on it, and the new fuel map was giving it a spring it had been missing.  Passing a cement truck (front wheel getting light as I wound it up through third) onto the 118, we found ourselves rolling through muskeg and ancient stone as the road took fast sweepers left and right around the Canadian Shield.  At one point a couple had pulled over and were slowing traffic (which was just me) because a snapping turtle was making its way across the highway.  He was a dinosaur amongst dinosaurs.  Easily a forty pounder with a giant, spikey tail.  I'm not sure how old they get (the interwebs say they can approach fifty years old); this was an apex predator snapping turtles.

Having circumnavigated the turtle safely, the Tiger burst off down the road with a snarl.  I saw no traffic until I was within twenty kilometres of Bracebridge.  The 118 twists and turns so much there are few places to pass, so soon enough a pile of us were behind a lovely old couple enjoying their leisurely motoring afternoon in a large American automobile.  I managed to squeeze out a pass on the only broken line and then enjoyed clear sailing all the way in to Bracebridge, which is much bigger than I remember it, looking more like a Toronto suburb with big box stores than the remote Ontario town it used to be.  Maybe it's all our fates to one day be living in identical subdivisions all doing the same things at the same time while staring at the same box stores.

Bracebridge was a bit of a faff, with more lights and traffic than any other part of the trip, then I was clear of it and off to Port Carling.  One of my first long rides on the Tiger was with my son across Ontario when we first got it in the summer of 2016.  Back then we had a great stop at a lovely coffee shop and had chats with lots of people at the local tourism office.  Port Carling is a lovely little town, but COVID has taken its toll.  The coffee shop was gone, and the rest of the place was mostly closed, though this might have been a Monday thing as much as a COVID thing.

I ended up skipping town and stopping COVID-style at an empty side road in the shade for a comfort break and a granola bar and as much water as I could take on.  I'd been hoping for a hot lunch, but hot lunches are few and far between in 2020.

The ride south to Bala was trafficky but moved well.  I'd never taken the 38 west to the 400 out of Bala and was surprised to learn it passes through Mohawk land.  It was a nice ride on interesting roads which I spent mostly behind a couple of native one-percenters (badged vests and all) on Harleys.  They gave me a wave when they pulled over to their clubhouse which was nice, a lot of the too-cool-for-school cruiser types don't bother with the biker wave.

The 400 was what every highway should be:  lite traffic moving like it means it.  Traffic was cruising at 120 in the slow lane.  I flashed south to Horseshoe Valley Road in a matter of minutes.  It was 80kms of quick moving but with zero headaches because I bailed before Barrie.  Horseshoe Valley Road was doing culvert repair (a lot of government COVID support has been going into needed infrastructure updates, which is no bad thing).  It was only about a ten minute wait and I was off again.  I remembered the Strongville bypass and took back roads to Creemore where I made my last stop by the Mad River where it gets its name tumbling down the Niagara Escarpment for the last of my water, then it was the final hour and a bit home, but now I was back in the Tiger's natural hunting range on familiar roads.

Other than being pelted by another anti-social gravel company, it was a lovely ride back.  Mostly empty roads and in much more humane temperatures.  The Tiger ran like a top, not a single stall, and feels like a new thing with its software update.  I'd been having anxiety about it on this trip, but it's a multi-dimensional thing that can do everything from single lane tracks in the woods to superhighways.

I'm back home again for a few days for work conferences (all remote), before we're forced back into classrooms by a government that seems to have no idea what it's doing.  In the meantime though, I have two working bikes in the garage and the rest of the short Canadian riding season to enjoy them.  Life is good.



I've got vegvisir (viking runic compass) to prevent getting lost (and survive storms, perhaps including gravel ones), and a modern binding rune for good fortune in travel (the top one).  Online suggested that the modern binding rune doesn't have any real magic in it because it's a modern thing, which I find funny (magic?  really?).

Here's some perverse atheist logic for you: I don't have to believe in these things for them to work.  If they do work and they are why a hail of gravel missed killing me, then I'm annoyed because my technique should have been what saved me, not a rune.  One of the reasons I don't like religious thinking is because it takes success away from you.  I'd rather own my wins and losses directly.

Why would an atheist put runes on their motorbike?  (these are on my hand guards).  I like honouring my norse heritage with the first one, and the fact that I spent a cold winter day hand painting these on there is a form of mindfulness.  Even when I'm not riding, I'm thinking about what's important when out on two wheels:  knowing where I'm going and getting there safely.  These aren't examples of magical thinking, they're examples of psychological discipline... and I didn't get maimed by gravel because of situational awareness and defensive riding techniques.  Unseen magical forces had no more to do with that than they did cause the gravel in the first place.  That kind of thinking is turtles all the way down.