Monday 28 September 2020

Long Way Up & Valentino: Rage Against The Dying Of The Light

My escape is usually to find some motorcycle media to get lost in but a theme this week in it was 'getting old', which is a tricky one to navigate.  I've started watching Long Way Up and seeing two of my favourite adventure motorcyclists getting old is difficult.  I got into Long Way Round and Long Way Down early on in my motorcycling career and they've saved me from many a long Canadian winter.  I'm up to episode four now and they've hit their stride and are coming close to their earlier trips, but watching everyone looking for their reading glasses and groaning as they saddle up has been difficult to watch.

Many moons ago I read Melissa Holbrook Pierson's The Man Who Would Stop At Nothing.  In it she makes the startling observation that one day everyone realizes they're probably having their last ever motorcycle ride.  It's a terrifying thought that has come up in TMD before in For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Long Way Up happened because Charlie almost killed himself and it prompted Ewan to reconnect with him again after they'd drifted apart when Ewan moved to the US.  Maintaining friendships among men as they age seems to be exceptionally difficult these days.  I recently worked on a charity program for The Distinguished Gentleman's Ride that considered ways to keep men socially connected as they age.  Speaking from personal experience, getting older is a lonely experience.  Men seem uniquely suited to doing it poorly in the modern world.  As I watch the boys figure out their new fangled electric bikes and work their way out of deepest, darkest Patagonia it's nice to see the power of travel and challenge bring back some sense of their former selves, we should all be so lucky.

Harley Davidson's involvement in the program has been fascinating.  I can hand on heart say that I've never once had the remotest interest in owning one of their tractors.  I don't like the brand or the image, but what they did with Long Way Up was daring in a way that KTM was incapable of being way back when they did the first one in the early naughties.  I admire that kind of bravery, especially when it's with such untested technology.  Harley's willingness to chuck an prototype electric bike at Long Way Up is even braver than BMW's has been in previous trips where they provided the measure of long distance adventure travel that had been evolved and refined over decades.  Even with all that evolution those BMWs sure did seem to break down a lot.  That the Livewires the boys are riding appear to be doing so well managing freezing temperatures and doing long distance adventure travel when our battery technology is so medieval makes me wonder why The Motor Company clings so tightly to its conservative cruiser image, they could be so much more than big wheels for red necks.  If I had the means I'd drop forty large on a Livewire tomorrow (I'm a school teacher, there ain't no forty grand bikes in my future).

Between acclimatizing myself to the reading glasses and stiff joints of the Long Way Up I also watched the Barcelona MotoGP raceValentino Rossi is an astonishing 41 years old and still a regular top ten finisher in this young man's sport.  He managed his 199th podium earlier this year and looked like he was on track to hit 200 podiums in the top class this weekend when his bike fell out from under him while in a safe second place.  It was tough to watch that opportunity fall away from him after he lined everything up so well, but old muscles don't react as quickly, though Vale was hardly the only one to crash out of the race.  I'm hoping he can make that 200th podium happen, but it's just a number and if he doesn't, who really cares?  He's still the GOAT and will be until someone else wins championships on multiple manufactures across multiple decades through radical evolutions in technology.  He managed wins on everything from insane 500cc two strokes through massive evolutionary changes to the latest digital four stroke machines.  Winning year after year on the top manufacturer on a similar bike just ain't gonna cut it if you want to be GOAT.

Valentino just signed a contract for another year with one of the top teams (Petronas) in the top class of MotoGP.  He has battled against generations of riders who have come up, peaked and been beaten to a pulp by this relentless sport, and yet he still seems able to summon the drive and discipline to compete at the highest level.  If that isn't Greatest Of All Time inspirational I don't know what is.  I suspect Charlie Boorman might empathize with him.  Charlie's another one who doesn't know when to stop, even when he probably should.  Watching him bend his broken body onto his bike in Long Way Up is also inspirational though it took me a few tries to see it that way.

This all reminds me of a poem...

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
                                                                  Dylan Thomas

Fucken 'eh.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Ontario Motorcycle Mortality Statistics

What kills you on a motorcycle:

The only reason the 25 and unders are represented is because Ontario has made it so expensive and inaccessible for them to ride that many simply don't.  This is a self selecting statistic. The people who can afford it are doing it.

Anyone who rides while impaired should automatically waive their insurance and health care coverage.  A sell off of their possessions would go a long way toward recovering damages for victims .  If we left drunk drivers to die on the side of the road and liquidated their assets to pay for their idiocy we'd see drunk driving all but end.  Riding a bike while drunk is just shear idiocy.  Operating a motor vehicle is a social contract, not a right, and your freedom to do it ends the moment you risk damage to someone else.  If we aligned laws with this more tightly there would be less idiocy in our vehicular operation.

SMART Adventures: What Trials Bikes Can Teach You About Motorcycle Control

I'm still thinking over our day this past July, 2020 at SMART Adventures Off-Road Training.  This was our third year taking off-road training with this fantastic program that runs out of Horseshoe Resort just north of Barrie in Ontario, Canada.  If you're interested in expanding your bike-craft, this program will do just that, and they're open during the summer of COVID with all appropriate safety in place (masks, social distancing, temperature testing of all people prior to starting, etc).

Last year Clinton Smout, the owner and head instructor at SMART, had us all try balancing on a stationary trials bike, and that got me thinking about doing a session with them this time.  I'd watched Ross Noble take a run at the Scottish Six Days Trial on TV which was gruelling and battering to his ego and always wondered just how different trials bike are from dirt bikes, so here was my chance!

What is 90 minutes of trials riding like?  Very difficult.  Just to get going you have to give it a bit of gas and let out the clutch and then lift your foot up as you start moving.  Screw it up and you're hoping along on one foot trying to keep the bike upright as it tries to jump out from under you.  Starting to move on these bikes is harder than any other bike you're ridden, and that's just the beginning.

I was on a GasGas 250cc two stroke trials bike, and it was like trying to hang on to a wild horse (I presume, I've never tried to ride a wild horse because I'm not crazy).  It weighs about half what I do, has way too many horsepower and tries to squirt out from under you at every opportunity.  I got Clinton as an instructor this time and he made a point of highlighting just how mad these things are.  The brakes have thrown people over the handlebars and the acceleration has had people wheelie the machine on top of themselves, so if you're going to touch the gas or brakes expect it to respond way more suddenly than any other bike you've ridden.

How do you handle this madness?  The clutch!  A finger on the clutch and a finger on the front brake will reduce the arm pump you're going to experience (Clinton was right, I've gotten good at dirt bikes and can stay loose, but on this crazy thing my forearms were throbbing after an hour).  Without supreme clutch control you're going to launch yourself into the sky on a trials bike.  If you crack the throttle to make it go it'll try and throw you, if you hit the brakes too slow down it'll try and throw you.  You need to modulate the clutch to manage these inputs with any kind of finesse.

I like to think I picked this up pretty quickly.  The GasGas never threw me and I handed it back in the same condition I got it.  Like everything else I've ridden my long body meant my back was what was taking the brunt as I had to bend over the machine.  If I were ever to get my own trials bike it'd have risers or modified handlebars so I can stand straight up on it.  Were I to go after trials riding (and a part of me is very trials-curious), I'd enjoy the violent focus it puts on your control inputs the most.  Once you catch up to what the bike expects, it raises your clutch control to god-like levels.

In the afternoon I took out a Yamaha 250cc dirt bike and couldn't believe what that intensive morning on the GasGas had done to my clutch hand.  Instead of too much gear changing or braking I was modulating the clutch constantly to ride smoother than I ever had before.

It takes a trials bike to make dirt biking seem easy.

Suddenly situations that might have made me stop and adjust my gearing didn't matter.  Between clutch and throttle I could manage deep sand, mud, 30° inclines (in deep sand) and axle deep puddles without hesitation.  I couldn't believe the difference.  When we stopped my son's ATV instructor said, "ok, you know what you're doing", which was a fantastic thing to hear.

If you have access to SMART Adventures (you can get yourself to Ontario, Canada in the summer of COVID), go.  It'll improve your bike-craft even if you're a pavement focused rider.  After you've got the off-road basics down take a swing at trials riding.  It'll give you an appreciation of clutch control and drill you so aggressively in it that your left hand will come out of it with the twice the IQ it came in with.

I even notice it while riding on the road.  I was out on the Honda Fireblade the other day and noticed that my clutch hand was modulating the bike in new and interesting ways.  In mid-corner as I'm winding out power my left hand is helping the bike deliver drive smoothly without me realizing it.

I'm a strong advocate of life long learning and applying it to your bike-craft should be every motorcyclist's main purpose.  If you want to keep enjoying the thrills of riding you should be looking for ways to better understand the complexities of operating these machines.  A couple of hours working with trials bikes did that for me.  I wish I had the means to chase down an ongoing relationship with these visceral, demanding and ultimately enlightening machines.

On Going Historical Motorbike Research: 1930s Off road riding
1930 Scottish Six Day Trial bike and the enigmatic Ms E Sturt

previous S6DT winners

Beer, and war!
"British breweries set up a “beer for troops” committee in July 1942. “It is a national duty that every brewer should do his utmost to supply beer for troops in their messes, many of which are a long distance from the nearest licensed premises”"

Labour Day Weekend Ride: Georgian Bay

 A 300km round trip up to Georgian Bay and back:

I aimed to get out of the boring straight lines of South West Ontario and over to the Niagara Escarpment as quickly as I could.  I was going to head up Highway 6 but it was packed full of GTA types escaping their pandemic ridden cities, so I angled off in Fergus and took 16 up, which was completely empty.  That would become a theme of the ride.

It took me about an hour to get up to Flesherton, where I made a stop at Highland Grounds for an Americano.  I usually enjoy sitting in there sipping my coffee while sitting on their 70's retro disco red glitter vinyl chairs, but it being the summer of COVID, I ended up drinking my fine coffee by the Tiger on Highway 10 (also packed full of citiots all doing the same thing at the same time, as they do).

While I was standing there I noted the new bicycle shop that had opened up a few doors down.  Ryan Carter, the owner of the new Ryan's Repairs, had some interesting kit out front, including a seventies banana seat bike with a single cylinder engine mounted to it.  I ended up chatting with him for a bit and had a look in his shop.  He'd only been up in Flesherton for a couple of weeks.  If you're up that way and you're interested in bicycles or even just some interesting mechanical engineering, drop in with your Higher Ground coffee and see what's what at Ryan's Repairs.

It was a longer than planned stop in Flesherton, but I eventually finished my americano and then I was off to Beaver Valley.  Highway 10 was bumper to bumper, but I dodged through town and only had a to do a few hundred yards with the sheeple before turning off onto empty country roads again.

Beaver Valley has a fantastic road (Grey County Road 30) that weaves down into it with epic views.  If you hang a right at the bottom and go on the dirt, the ride back up Graham's Hill is intense, particularly so this time as all the recent rain had washed it out leaving a stream cut down the middle of it that was tricky to navigate.  I ended up on the wrong side of it as it cut across the road, but even on my 'it's time for a change but no one has them in stock' Michelin Anakees, I was still able to 

The view out from Graham's Hill lookout was also worth a stop.  I went through there last year in the middle of autumn colours and it burned itself into my memory.  This time around everything was super green, but it's still some interesting geography to ride in our otherwise tedious flatness.

I looped back around to Grey 30 and came back down the hill without a slow mover in front this time before hanging a left and following the road out to Beaver Valley Road and the trek up to Thornbury.  I was there in the early spring but the harbour was closed in the early days of COVID.  I was hoping this time I'd be able to get myself right down to the water's edge.

I guess Beaver Valley Road isn't on everyone's GPS because it was fairly empty.  With a few big, high speed sweepers, it's a nice way up to the bay.  Ontario 26, the road that follows the shore, is evidently on everyone's radar because it was bumper to bumper.  After a brief stop to look at the bay...

... I stopped for gas in Thornbury, but the traffic on 26 was nuts.  Rather than sit in a line to get through
the light for half an hour, I zipped up the side and took a right back inland.  South out through Thornbury and Clarksburg (no traffic), I hung a left on 40 (also empty) and rode directly to Grey County Road 2, which would bring me back over Blue Mountain and into the Grey Highlands.  I'm still at a loss to explain why, when left to their own devices, most people just imitate each other.  I'm not sure what happens in their heads that makes sitting in traffic when they are surrounded by empty road make sense.

The roads south were also pretty empty, though I'm able to dispatch traffic with alacrity on the big 'ol Tiger.  Singhampton arrived in no time.  124 northbound had construction and what looked like a half an hour wait to get through it.  I was heading south then east and bypassed it.  I wouldn't have sat in it in any case.  A better way around would be to zip down Crazy River Road toward Creemore then wind through the hills of Glen Huron, which is exactly what I did.

 The big skies in the hills were getting dark as I headed south.  It was cloudy when I left, but driving north to the bay meant avoiding that rain, now I was riding back into it.  The clouds were ragged as I flew south on 124.

By this point I'd been on the road for about four hours and hadn't stopped since Flesherton, so I figured I'd give River Road from Horning's Mills to Terra Nova a go.  It was closed for construction when I tried it in the spring, so this would be my first ride on it in 2020.  Like everything else in Ontario these days, they've managed to fuck it up.  After construction the entire road is now a 50km/hr zone with community fines doubled signs everywhere.  I really need to move somewhere else.  I get that no one wants idiots ripping up and down the road in front of where they live, but a 50/community safety zone for the entire length of a road that has maybe ten driveways on it over 12 kms?  There must be money in the area.

Fortunately, Terra Nova Public House was open and could squeeze me in for a socially distanced soup between their lunch and dinner service.  The rain finally hit while I was sitting out back.  Big, fat drops splashing into my soup, but it was still fantastic (maple carrot homemade!).  It was a brief shower and it blew over quickly.  I was in and out of TNPH in about 20 minutes, and by the time I came out the road was dry again.  I puttered back along River Road, frustrated at the iron grip of government and then started the burn south west back home.

Blustery winds and ragged clouds north of Shelbourne, then it was down through Grand Valley, following the Grand River home to Elora...

The Tiger ran like a top.  The idle/stall issue seems to be a thing of the past.  It was a nice ride through some changeable weather.  It was also cool enough that I wasn't cooking on the seat, so I felt like I still had a lot in me when I got back.  The trip knocked the Tiger up to only 600kms away from hitting 80k.  It turns twenty years old in 2023, and I like the symmetry of it hitting 100k by then, so that's the goal.  This winter it'll get new shoes (if anyone ever gets Michelin Anakees back in stock again), and a complete service including all bearings and suspension.  It'll get an oil change too if anyone ever has Mobil 1 motorcycle oil back in stock again (finding parts during COVID is an ongoing headache).

I should get well into the 80s before the riding season's done, and then it'll be spa time.