Meanderings and musing by fellow motorcycle travelers.
A little later this year, I will be embarking on another cross country trip this time off-road along the Trans Am Trail. This is something completely new for me and, at first glance, seems like a difficult and treacherous fools errand. As is the case with most efforts involving the great unknown filled with unnamed risks, I have no way of knowing what I'm getting myself into. How doable is it? How dangerous? What should I prepare for? Will I sink up to the frame in mud? What that I fear typically doesn't happen? How bad are the river crossings and mountain passes? Is the mud in Oklahoma after a good rain as bad as I fear? What about the people I'm likely to encounter? What about critters?
To try to get my head around these and countless other questions, I've been trying to read as many road reports and other material as I can find about the trail. Not unlike the great Deadhorse Alaska Trip of 2010, much of what I've read is contradictory. It seems like every other ride report about the Trail involves some bike falling down the mountain resulting in a nasty trip to the hospital to deal with bones that are sticking out in the most unnatural ways. How do you ride 50 miles in the dirt with a compound facture anyway? I keep thinking I should bring a winch along.
For every horror story, there's another one that makes it seem like a cakewalk that doesn't require much in the way of preparation.
There may be some wisdom in not doing any research and just going to see what happens. "Step One - Get Map. Step Two - Leave."Andrew Pain would say.
But when embarking in a new direction, I like to prepare myself at least mentally. I see it as being something different than planning. Once I leave, there is no real plan, it's more of an "intention". But I would like to be reasonably prepared, so I read what I can find.
Some time ago, I came across this blog article written by a man named Michael Murray about his experiencesriding the Trans Am Trail while filming a documentary. It was one of the more complete and upbeat descriptions of the trail I've read. That led me to a How-To DVD he produced called:
Adventure Motorcycling on the Trans America Trail
At $24.95, it was an impulse purchase. I was hoping to get a better sense for what I was getting myself into beyond what I had already read online. The DVD is in an interview format where three riders who've done the length of the trail answer questions about their experiences and provide suggestions for others who are interested in riding the trail. I was hoping for something a bit more detailed but it turned out to be a relatively basic overview. It would have made a great starting point and I wish I had come across it before slogging my way through all those ride reports. Much of what I read in those ride reports now makes more sense having seen the DVD.
I do, however, find something about the interview format compelling. Hearing someone conversationally describe their experiences over photos and video seems to make it more engaging, more infectious somehow, than just reading a ride report. Even though it's a basic overview, it did contain some valuable insights for even this relatively late stage in my preparations. They make a number of good suggestions and I'll watch it again with a notepad in hand. For instance, while I'm not much of a hiker, after hearing them describe an incredible waterfall, I think there's going to be some real hiking to do. There are other places to stop along the way as well. Did you know Morgan Freeman owns a blues club? Neither did I, but it's now on my list of places to go see.
Strangely, listening to these guys talk about their trip was the first time I've looked forward to the trail. I hadn't been conscious of the fact that there's a big part of me that's been dreading this adventure. If there's no dread, then it's not an adventure. If it's not an adventure, then there's little chance of a story. I find myself wondering what stories will unfold for me Out There, if any.
If you're pondering the Trans America Trailand don't want to read endless disjointed ride reports or watch countless youtube videos but still want to get a feel for what you're in for, theAdventure Motorcycling on the Trans America TrailDVD is a solid starting point.
Michael reached out to me on Facebook and kindly offered to answer any questions I had about the trail. Very cool. As Josh once said, "There's something about motorcycle people ..." and he's right.
And so it came to pass that we embarked on another trip to ride that famous road in the Smokey Mountains as we have now done as a group four times and I have done at least 12 times. In many ways. it was a trip similar to the previous ones but there were also stark contrasts.
There was the pre-trip preparation. Each time it's a mad dash to get everything done. I left plenty of time but I began to feel rather poorly and tasks that should have taken part of a day took days on end. Oil needed to be changed, tires needed to be replaced, brake fluid needed to be flushed and there were a host of other tasks needed to get both bikes ready. I take this very seriously as friends of mine would be riding these machines.
It took me forever to get this work done. It was as if the bottom had dropped out from under me and I was moving through molassas.
But if you can't go fast, you go slowly. Being sick for the duration of my time on this hapless rock, I've learned not to hold my goals too tightly and keep my expectations flexible. But now, with this flaky restrictive diet of mine, it's so much better than it used to be but I do still have bad days. Back in the day, it was much worse. I rarely planned anything because I could never rely on how I would feel the next day. I never got to the frustration phase as this was all I had ever known. As I get older, lessons learned from those times are serving me well. With great sadness I watch as my friends, who have been rock solid healthy their entire lives, are now facing similar challenges but without the perspective to let their expectations go. It's a very difficult thing to feel your way through. I would not have thought a lifetime of illness would have an upside but it does. I sometimes wonder if the the Buddha had been ill his entire life. It would explain a great deal.
There was the day of leaving.
This year would be slightly different. Instead of rolling down in one big group we went in separate smaller groups. It's easier. So Duncan, Bruce and I reprised our roles and rode down together. There's a peace that comes from riding with brothers you've been riding with for decades.
There were surprises! At a Starbucks in Front Royal, Duncan noticed a bike but failed to notice the sticker.
Joel and his dad John, it turns out, booked a room at Deal's Gap for the same week we were to be down there. They kept is a secret as a surprise. We all had such a great time two years ago when we met these two and have stayed in touch via Facebook and on this site since then.
So now we were four. Riding with Joel is a pleasure. He had already ridden a couple hundred miles so it turned into a pretty long day for him.
We met up with Joel's dad, John, along with Rob and Josh in Wytheville. And, to our surprise, Sean, who we met last year, rode down from Maine and joined us the next morning. He did 1011 miles in the rain to make it down in time. Mad man.
Now we were 8 bikes which represented the largest gathering of Miles By Motorcycle bikes to date.
For the rest of the ride down we broke up into three groups. Bruce, Duncan and I would go as one group. Rob, Josh and Sean decided to do a longer loop through the Blue Ridge Parkway which added some significant mileage. Joel and John went to meet up with a friend and would be joining us at the Gap a couple of days later.
We arrived at the Gap earlier than we usually do and the week continued as it usually does.
My beloved Blue K100RS "oil burner" had a shock issue that could not be repaired before the trip. Bobs loaned me a new but much less capable and shorter shock which would let me take the bike on the trip. It unfortunately severely affected the handling and I was finding it quite challenging to go through the Gap on it. Bruce, who was doing more of the scenic day rides, offered to let me use the guest bike which is a turning beast in the Gap. It was very kind.
There were day rides.
There were beatiful vistas under sunny skies.
There were touching moments. Not only had Joel and John come down to surprise us but it turned out that Wednesday was Joels birthday.
Two years previously, I had taken both of them through the Gap and helped them with their riding. It's something I really enjoy doing. I figured we would probably do more of this. I wanted to do something nice for them, so for Joel's birthday I ordered a pair of Sena SMH10 helmet communicators. Yun is responsible for getting me into these things. The last thing I thought I wanted was to have some more voices in my head, but, it turns out, they completely change riding for the better. And for training, coaching or "consulting", they are invaluable. When Joel and John first arrived, the first thing Joel said to me was "You're an expensive friend." Thinking exactly the same thing I had been , he and John had picked up a set on their way down! "Damn, I was afraid you guys might do that. Bummer!".
Rob kindly bought the two units off of me so it worked out in the end.
There was lounging around in front of our prison cell, bad coffee in hand.
I still get a kick out of the license plate on the Ninja.
There was the Tree of Shame which waits ever patiently.
This year we all managed to disappoint her.
There were strange contraptions to be seen.
There were stark reminders of what can happen when you ride beyond your skill.
(She's not flipping me off. She's holding up her injured finger.) Initially, I thought she had taken the thing off-road but then I noticed the damage and realized she had crashed pretty badly. Her injuries were minor but it could have been much worse.
There was disappointment handled with grace.
Joel had bought the bike the week before so he could make it on this trip. It's an older machine and suffered an intermittent ABS fault. I ended up riding this bike pretty often as a result so Joel could ride the 'S.
There were storms. Wicked wicked storms.
During one of these we got pelted by the worst hail I have ever ridden in. 1/4"+ sized hail. Even through my Transit Suit it hurt. The poor guys in textiles had it worse.
The most beautiful moments at the Gap are always right after a storm.
There was swag. "So Yermo, when are you going to have some swag like baseball caps for M-BY-MC?" Sean had asked some many months earlier. So i put in some effort and got some M-BY-MC swag.
Want swag? It's available here.
There were group dinners at Fontana Lodge. I, as usual, look completely deranged.
And there were bikes. On this trip, I got to ride a KTM Motard, a Ninja 1000, a Triumph Speed Triple, a BMW R1150R, and a BMW R1150RS in addition to riding my own two bikes.
James, the Mississippi pushboat captain, had also made arrangements to be at the Gap at the same time we were. He let me ride his Motard, which is essentially the motorcycle equivalent of a go-cart. These super light dirt-bike like road machines are by far the fastest through the Gap. I had never ridden one before. "If I total it, I'll replace it." I told him. I should probably have asked how much the bike cost before making that offer. The thing was a blast but took a while to "get".
Riding all these different bikes in such a short timeframe enabled me to learn a few things I don't think I would have otherwise. "To see, you need contrast." I always say. More on that later.
There were moments of silliness. As always the Harleys would show up but they were in significantly smaller numbers this year. I noticed one bike, which turned out to be a customized Suzuki, that had a diamond plate (i.e. steel) seat. "That can't be comfortable." I said to the guy. "It's not bad." he replied. I had to find out for myself.
No front brake. Effect lighting. Metal seat. There's no way to take this seriously. No, I didn't ride the thing.
There were UFOs.
There was waiting. "Delays are proportional to the square of the riders involved."
Seeing Rob suited up and ready to go patiently waiting for the rest of us was a common sight.
In an apparent attempt to see what it felt like, Duncan would, on occasion, be the one waiting.
There were birds. They were angry.
Then they were friendly.
There were interesting very knowledgeable people to meet. This included humbling moments where I learned that I know very little about things I know a great deal about from building fires to riding.
Doug, the crazy goldwing guy, and his wife rode out on our last night there. I had talked to Doug a couple nights before and had wanted to follow him through the Gap. He only rides it at night and is the owner of the UFO bike above. The way he is able to ride that beast of a bike is truly impressive and I sincerely doubt that I have much of a chance of keeping up with him. I had hoped to learn something but the scheduling didn't work out.
Just because someone rides a super sport bike and is dressed in full race leathers does not mean they are fast.
Just because someone rides a Goldwing, or even a Harley, does not mean they are slow.
Books. Covers. This theme would repeat itself a few times.
Duncan, who is a big fan of old two strokes, had been talking to a guy who seemed like he knew what he was doing. I made some comment about wanting to follow him figuring I'd have an easy time keeping up with someone on an antique two stroke.
It turns out he was an old 250 GP racer and may very well have been the fastest most competent rider I've talked to down there. We walked over to the guest bike and he looked at the tires and was able to accurately tell me about the bike and the riding style of the rider. I did not konw that tires could communicate so much. I have much to learn.
There were sunsets, beautiful sunsets.
While the others went on longer riders, I typically stayed at the Gap. For the first few days, I was quite miserable. Whatever had been bothering me the week before came back with a vengeance. By Wednesday it started to clear up and I began to feel better. So instead of venturing far or pushing myself, I mostly helped a few people with their riding. Because Joel's bike was giving him fits and he wouldn't be able to come back to the Gap for a couple of years at least, I spent most of my time with him riding his bike while he rode the 'S.
The Gap is such an incredible place for training. From a practical perspective, motorcycling is all about cornering. There is no place that I know of where one can practice cornering more effectively than at the Gap. It's the reason I go. To practice.
Racers will tell you to practice on a track. But cornering on a track doesn't translate well to cornering on the street. The Gap has some of the most challenging technical corners anywhere. Because it's not a major thoroughfare commuter traffic is very light. Because there are so many motorcyclists, people clean the corners so there's almost no gravel or dirt anywhere.
What I find some compelling about the Gap is that the corners there are much like the kind of cornering you might have to do in an emergency situation. It lets you explore, in a street context, the limits of what you can comfortably do on a motorcycle. I have learned more by practicing at the Gap than anywhere else.
It is also a great place to teach someone how to become a vastly better motorcyclist.
"Yermo has an interesting approach to coaching. Instead of focusing just on what a rider is supposed to do, he focuses on the feeling of the man machine interface and how the rider is feeling internally." Doug had explained to his wife. His memory is clearly much better than mine.
I worked with a number of riders during the week. Slowly, a picture began to evolve. Each rider knew roughly what they needed to do. They knew to grab the tank with their legs, to remain loose on the handlebars and to look through the corners. Each rider could do this flawlessly some of the time. But each rider would lock up at different points.
The Sena's allowed me to ask questions like "How are you feeling?" as they worked through the 318 turns that make up the Gap.
The whole point to a motorcycle suspension is to keep the tires in contact with the pavement. But as the motorcycle leans over it starts to ride up on the side of the tires where the suspension, since it's an up and down thing, is less involved and the flex of the motorcycle, a side to side thing, becomes more important. If the motorcycle doesn't flex in response to the road, the tire will have the tendency to skip or "chatter".
A big part of that flex comes from the fact that the front wheel can turn side to side. Now imagine grabbing onto the handlebars with a death grip and your elbow locked. For one thing, if you try to turn the bike you fight yourself since your attempt to push on one side of the bar will be met by the resisistance of your other arm. It's absolutely classic, "Suddenly the bike didn't want to turn. It felt so heavy." is what a rider will say when they deathgrip. Additionally, by deathgripping the bars in a corner, the ability of the bike to keep the tire in contact with the road surface is reduced. You can force even a sticky tire to skip if you deathgrip enough.
Now consider a rider who can corner comfortably in some circumstances and not others. There are a variety of different corners in the Gap. Some are easy. Many are not.
Joel could do most right corners easily but not lefts. Duncan could do sweepers easily but not the super tight corners. "My bike is best for sweepers, not this tight technical stuff." he would often say.
I would follow riders through or I would lead. I'd ask questions like "What do your hands feel like?". I'd use the analogy that even when the bike is leaned all the way over, you should never have more pressure on the bars than you would have holding eggshells. I would ask them to pay attention to the feel of their hands. "My hands hurt." is a classic sign that someone is deathgripping even when they know they are no supposed to.
And then it hit me. We tighten up our hands and arms to express our tension, our fear. You come into a corner too hot, or maybe there's some obstacle, it doesn't feel right and you become afraid. You immediately grip the bars tightly completely unsettling the bike and making it so much harder to turn. You run wide in the corner or worse, you crash.
Fear expressed as tension makes people crash. Fear expressed as tension is probably the biggest impediment to riding a motorcycle effectively.
"Learn to express your fear, your tension, through your legs." I would say. It's a truly amazing feeling to be able to lean a motorcycle over into a corner and grip the tank with your legs to the point your muscles are screaming and to feel the bike glide through the most challenging corners near effortlessly.
But there is a problem. From an evolutionary psychology point of view, human beings begin to freak when leaned over more than 20 degrees. This is why, when a rider first learns to lean a bike, they always feel like they are leaning so much further than they actually are. To this day, I always feel like the bike is leaned further than it is.
"I have no feeling for how far this bike can lean." John had said. Duncan had said the same thing.
If you fear that the tires won't stick or that you're near the furthest lean angle you can handle, you will experience fear. This fear will get translated into tension. The tension will be expressed through your arms and hands and suddenly the inability of the bike to go around the corner becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy confirming your fears that the bike can't do it.
But, as long as you have a good suspension and good tires, bikes can generally lean much further than one would think. In general, if you aren't hearing hard parts scraping the ground the bike can lean further.
Audrey, when I was working with her, had said she was comfortable leaning a bike because she had ridden with me so often. That gave me an idea.
Words are merely a starting point. When instructing, we focus of what we do, not how we feel. Communicating the internal feeling is the hard part. In motorcycling, in my humble opinion, the feeling is far more important than the what we do. You can learn to ride a motorcycle very quickly as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation courses prove. But, what you cannot learn so easily, is how to avoid letting your fear turn into a crash. If you see gravel in a corner from the middle of the lane to the outside can you comfortably turn tighter even though you are startled? What does it feel like to be startled? What does the bike feel like when you are startled to communicate to you that you are upsetting it's balance?
Rob rode Josh's Speed Triple. This thing is beast, as Yun would say. It has a super tight suspension and is wickedly responsive. Coming back Rob used a brilliant and very insightful analogy that would occupy my thoughts for the rest of the trip. "That front end is so awesome it's like a chatty little girl telling you about every little thing that's going on in it's day non-stop. It communicates so much about every little thing, a fire-hose of information."
Josh let me ride it. Josh had just bought the bike a couple weeks earlier. It was quite the compliment to be trusted to go through the Gap on it. Thinking about Rob's words I paid attention to my own reaction to the bike. It didn't feel right to me. "It feels like the front tire is low." I would think. I had ridden Rob's Ninja 1000 earlier and felt the same thing. Rob proved to me it wasn't the tire pressure. The bike felt unlike anything I had ridden. Communication. It took me quite some time, maybe 200 corners, before I began to understand that I was misinterpreting the feel. What the bars were communicating to me about the road surface, about the position of the bike, about it's handling ability, were causing me to be afraid. That fear, even though I knew better, was getting translated into tension. I could feel it in my shoulders and arms. Because I was misunderstanding what the bike was telling me, I was causing it not to handle well.
The right words were communicating the wrong emotion to me.
It took a while but eventually I was able to force myself to release that tension and express it through my legs and suddenly I got it. The bike started to flow through corners effortlessly chatting at me the whole way.
I've been riding long enough that I know how to do this for myself, but how do you talk someone through that fear point? How do you show someone that it's not the bike but that it's something they are feeling that's causing tension?
It seems to me the only way to do this is to put them on the back of their own bike and show them, two up, going through the Gap.
I took Joel, Duncan and Bruce through.
"I had no idea this bike could lean this far." everyone would say. It takes a great deal of trust and some practice since both pilot and passenger have to work together smoothly to negotiate these corners. I don't understand the mechanism but tension in a passenger seems to also affect handling in corners. Maybe it's just empathy, me being able to feel their tension and becoming tense myself.
After a run through on the back of his bike, Duncan got on the 'S and suddenly he got it. Duncan was riding with a confidence and smoothness through the Gap I had never seen. "Damn that was fun." he would later say. Joel had a similar breakthrough after passengering.
I rode back to the resort with Bruce on the back of the bike.
Coming back there are some really challenging downhill corners. Duncan's bike doesn't decellerate on it's own like the 'S does. In one corner, I got startled as I was about 1/6 of a lane further out than I wanted to be. The bike shook and became a bit unstable for a split second.
"Was that you hitting the brakes?" Bruce asked over the intercom.
"Nope, that's just what it feels like when I get startled and grab the bars. The bike becomes unsettled.".
Communication, feel and fear. The shake, that lack of confidence, is not the machine telling you that it can't do it (in this context, there are certainly others), but instead it's telling you that you are doing something to unsettle it.
We got back to the Gap Resort and Duncan had the biggest smile on his face.
We decided to go out again, this time with Duncan on his own bike. I was saddened when he started to report that it didn't feel right to him. "On the 'S, I could do these corners easily but on this it just doesn't feel right." he would say implying that it was a limitation of his bike. "But remember we did these corners easily two up." I would remind him. The 'S is actually a less competent machine when compared to the K1300S. The 1300 is "sport mode" is communicative while the 'S actually masks more of the road surface. So the 'S feels more planted but is actually less planted than the K1300. "The K13 is such a fantastic bike." I would tell him. Honestly, I have ridden it several times before but it wasn't until this trip that I really understood how to ride it well. Such a great machine.
We went out and back but he still wasn't getting it on his own bike. At the resort, I looked at him. He was tired and normally I would not recommend it but I said, "Let's do a half run, out to the Gravity Cavity and back". I had a feeling.
We went out and it was clear he was still struggling. My heart sank. We talked a bit at the Cavity and made our final run on the final day back. Looking back I made some suggestions about his body position to get him to unweight the bars. I noticed the corners were getting but a bit tight and I was leaving him in every corner. The K13 is the most powerful bike in the group by a wide margin. It's easy to become afraid of the throttle since you can, with easy, break the rear wheel free. But that is mitigated by the traction control system on it. Could his fear be of the throttle. "Try this." I said as I was leading, "The tires will stick. Roll on the throttle a bit quicker."
There was silence and then a "This is starting to feel better."
"Roll on the throttle a bit quicker as you start standing the bike up." I told him.
"If I do that I'll run into you." he said as we were both leaned into a long left hander. I looked in the mirror and to my shock there was Duncan's HID headlight filling the mirror. "Holy shit" I thought as the bike got wobbly because I was startled demonstrating what I've been talking about. We picked up the pace and ran at what Rob and I would call a typical fun pace when we ride on our own.
"Oh this is fun" I hear over the intercom. We had the best run of the day. "Smooth is fast." Joel had said and he was right. When you get it, there's a rythmn, a flow to the road, which almost feels like a dance. It's a wonderful feeling. It's not the speed that matters. It's the flow, the smoothness. When you do it right fast becomes very very slow.
We rolled into the parking lot and you could just see that man and machine had learned to communicate. Duncans smile was infectious.
Of all the trips to the Gap, that was by far the best moment, seeing my friend get it and just clearly having a blast like I have never seen before. I can't wait to go back down to the Gap with him.
Bruce and I would talk about the day later. "So many things from the motorcycle seem to apply to a wider range of things in life." Bruce had said at one point and he's right as I've seen.
When I was a little kid, the old man, a physicist, once explained to me some intractable problem he had worked on as part of this Phd thesis. I was single digit years old and no longer remember the details. But what I do remember is the general idea of mapping physical systems onto imaginary spaces and back again to produce useful results. As a programmer who builds great abstractions as part of writing software, I have made a career out of this.
For me, given the wreckage of my past that I attempt to come to grips with as I navigate the wider world, the motorcycle is in some ways my imaginary space. It is a place where I can by analogy without all the emotional baggage and scarring safely contemplate my being in motorcycle terms and then, later, map that onto my relationship to the world. It is where I mediate. It forces me, just through the sheer desire to survive, to get out of my own head and to contemplate how I interfere with my own being.
And so it was on this trip. So many different bikes. So many feelings mis-communicated which are scary, cause tension and interfere with the fun you want to be having. The same can be said for words in human relationships. So often the feelings understood through words aren't what are intended. Similarly to the way we tend to suspect the machine and not our understanding, when the feelings produced by words cause tension, we suspect the speaker instead of our own emotional reaction. Fear causes tension.
And tension makes you crash on motorcycles just as in human relationships.
I am guilty of this both on the motorcycle and with people, but I'm working on it.
As is the case with any week long trip involving a dozen or so people, there are countless stories and if I tried to tell them all I'd end up writing quite a tome. There were times that were gut wrenchingly funny. There were times that were uncomfortable. There was a clash of cultures of the type I have always feared. There were moments of beauty. There were breakthroughs. There were moments that made me ponder what it would be like if this thing that I do here becomes more popular and whether or not I really want that. There were storms. There was sunshine.
It's not that I was disappointed, but I found it amusing that for all the people I lead through the Gap using the Sena SMH10's, all the while saying "That looks good ... go deeper into the corner ... more throttle ... the bike will lean ... " etc. etc. not a single person asked the question I was waiting for the whole time:
"Yermo, how can you see what I'm doing?"
I had a breakthrough in my own riding on this trip as well and can't wait to go back to practice some more.
And then that sad moment came that we always hate ... the 570 mile ride back home.
Here's looking forward to next year. It is such a pleasure and privilege to ride with you all.
If you like this article, please 'like' the Miles By Motorcycle Facebook page.
If you know someone who might like this writing, please forward it.
And, of course, if you'd like to join the discussions and/or trip planning that goes on on this site, please sign up for an account. (Link in the upper right corner.)
Rob posted into the forum that he wanted to do a weekend off-road riding and camping trip at the Peters Mill Run and Taskers Gap trail system in the George Washington National Forest. We've been street riding through that area a number of times and it's simply beautiful so I was imagining a peaceful and entertaining weekend of riding along wooded hilly trails maybe involving some mud since it had been raining so much.
Peters Mill Run Trail near Edinburgh,Va. It's 6 miles between points 1 and 2.
(This is an example of the GPS track support I've been for the maps system I'm working on for the site, now with waypoint markers. Soon you'll be able to create your own maps of rides. More on that later.)
The coming Trans Am Trail trip involves so many new things for me. It's a new bike, completely new gear and new equipment. I'm forcing myself to be humble and approach it all with the eyes of a beginner. It seems silly, but when you've been riding as long as I have, habits form and even minor changes in your routine can lead to mistakes you wouldn't normally make.You become distracted by the unfamiliarity of it all and nothing is smooth. For instance, over the weekend, I would forget to zip the tankbag closed half a dozen times. I never make that kind of mistake. But it's all new and your attention is dominated by this newness. You have to be humble and give yourself the time it takes to let the feeling of unfamiliarity wear off. The only way I know to do this is actually use everything. I certainly don't want to be leaving on a big trip with unproven and unfamiliar gear.
I was talking to a friend, Robert, last night about this very topic. As we get older we get more set in ways of doing things. It's not that things become harder to learn but we get more used to the expectation that we are good at something. That causes us to hold on to what we know with a tighter grip and prevents us from venturing out to something new and uncomfortable where we may not know what we are doing or worse may seem like we're an idiot. "Embrace this feeling." I suggested. "You will have to learn new things constantly so get used to this feeling of not knowing what you're doing and embrace it. Get used to it. Learn to be in this place so that when change happens you can adapt more fluidly." I am practicing what I preach because I seriously do not know what I am doing with this off-road stuff.
There's also the fact that I, as an off-road rider, am completely unproven. I'm concerned that I simply don't have the experience I need to react correctly when the surprises and Bad Things happen. If I have a nasty off somewhere Out There far away from help, it could be bad. So I know, being humble, that I need lot's of practice with everything. So when Rob suggested a weekend of camping and trail riding, I thought it'd be an excellent time to do a trial run of the big trip. I decided to pack the bike as if I were going cross country. On my beloved Blue Bike, I know where everything goes, but here, on this new bike, with it's limited space and completely different luggage system, I had no clue. I would have to come up with a new way of packing and organizing things. I also knew, going away for a weekend, that things I had overlooked would be highlighted. For instance, riding off-road, you tend to ride with the face shield up which exposes your face to the sun. I've never had sunburned lips before. Unpleasant.
So I said I was in. It's been a while since I've been camping. Rob suggested, since this was the first significant off-road ride, that we take the bikes in his truck. If we break either bike, we'd have a way of bringing them back. This made sense to me since I figured things were more likely to go wrong on our first outing. He also offered to pack a bunch of food, tools and supplies. It was very kind.
So I set about getting the last gear I thought I'd need and started the task of figuring out how to pack it all. I knew space would be more of a premium than it is on my Beloved Blue Bike, but I didn't realize how much of a premium that was.
The Beloved Blue bike has lockable hard luggage which I love. I once swore I would never travel with soft luggage again. Soft luggage sucks. You can't lock anything on the bike so when you stop someplace you have to haul it all in with you. But, when going significantly off-road, weight is a real problem. All the hard luggage systems I could find for the DR650SE were pretty heavy, not to mention very expensive. So I opted to go with a highly regarded soft luggage system made by a company called Wolfman. It's completely waterproof but ends up being nothing more than some stuff sacks you can mount to the bike. They seemed much larger than they actually are. I found getting even a subset of what I would normally take into the bags a real challenge. But I'm pretty good at packing light, so I managed. Saturday April 27th, 2013 came and lugged all the gear out to the bike. All in all it wasn't too bad.
The resulting setup seemed pretty solid although I was concerned about the amount of stress on the yellow bags. It became clear that for the big trip I would definitely need a top bag if I was going to carry clothes and food. This was also going to be the first test of my new adventure riding suit. I hadn't had a chance to replace the foam hip pads in the pants with more substantial armor but the rest had been upgraded.
So off I went on this little bike and rode the 50 some odd miles to Robs house. It was a very windy day. I've been considering using the DR as a trainer but after one significant gust hit me broad side and unsettled the bike significantly at highway speeds I'm reconsidering whether that's a good idea. On slower back roads, the bike is actually a joy to ride, but it does not like highway.
I arrived at Rob's within minutes of my projected arrival time. He already had his DR, Yang, in the truck and ready to go.
I had briefly considered suggesting that I just ride down to the campground but I talking to Rob is always enjoyable so I opted not to mention anything and we, with the help of his son Kevin, loaded my DR onto the truck. This was the first time we had done this kind of setup and there were a few small mishaps but after some futzing we got the bikes secure. Next time, I'll remove the luggage from my bike.
Marking the moment of departure, Kevin took a photo of the two of us. Note the M-BY-MC baseball cap. (You can get one off the stuff page)
In order to make it here on time, I had to get up wickedly early, by my standards. I was already pretty tired. The ride on the highway had taken it out of me. Luckily Rob had already decided a Starbucks stop was in order. We think alike in many ways.
Rob has this ridiculously comfortable huge truck with a huge amount of space to carry stuff. It worked well as a Mother Ship. We stopped in Edinburgh, Va, which is just down the mountain from the trails, to grab lunch and get the necessary permits. It's a beautiful quaint little town. There's a very nice Italian Bistro there that's quite nice.
We headed up into the hills to go look for the campground. The scenery in this area is just beautiful. Route 675 out of Edinburgh which winds it's way over the mountain to Lurray is a recommended street bike run. It's a twisty gorgeous mountain road.
We went into where we thought the campground might be but after some ways decided is was unlikely that trucks with trailers would be going this way. It turns out that we had gotten onto one of the so-called OHV, for Off-Highway-Vehicle, trails. It looked like it'd be fun to ride.
We reviewed the map and realized we were in the wrong area. The campground was on the north side of Peters Mill Run instead of being at the north side of Taskers Gap. It was about an 8 miles drive which took us down into the valley we've ridden on street bikes a number of times now, but this time I was actually able to take some pictures.
We wound our way up this twisty little mountain pass road that eventually turned to gravel and found the campground. To our surprise, the campground was not nearly as "unimproved" as we had expected. The spots were arranged as is typical of National Forest campground and the privvy was imaculate. There was no shower nor running water. I find not having a shower in the morning highly unpleasant but I also realize when we're camping in the wilds that's going to happen fairly often on the TAT trip so I better man up and get used to it. We got camp set up pretty quickly because we wanted to go ride. We had seen the entrance to the trail system nearby and were itching to get going.
The trails here were marked OHV-EASY, ATV-EASY, ATV-DIFFICULT and ATV-VERY-DIFFICULT. I wasn't really sure what this meant but I thought, quite reasonably, that we should start out on the easy trails. Again, I wasn't confident about my riding ability offroad and the bits we had seen from the truck were already starting to look a bit challenging, but clearly fun.
I had considered, for a moment, taking the bike with all the gear on it but decided, in part based on Robs suggestion, not to do that. It turned out to be a fortunate decision.
So off we went. It took all of about a quarter mile to realize I wasn't in Kansas anymore. The trail, which was just wide enough for a jeep in places, was wavy with moguls. Seemingly after each mogul there was a mud puddle.There was loose dirt in places.Some puddles were a good size, many many feet long..
There were even places where water run-off was traveling down the length of the trail removing any sense of traction. These always seemed to occur in the most inopportune places, such as next to steep dropoffs.
All this I expected and, as it turned out, was doing fine on. I was firmly within my comfort zone but I was getting tired very quickly. I had not slept much the few nights before and it was showing. It was also clear that riding in these conditions was wickedly physically demanding. Off-road you stand up on the pegs so as not to get bounced around too much. You use your legs as shock absorbers allowing the bike to move beneath you. But it's hard on the legs and I was gripping the handlebars too tightly.
After a while as I was starting to get really tired, we stopped for a break.
We joked about the relative condition of our bikes and gear. Rob had been in the lead and charged into mud puddles. His bike and suit were covered in mud.
"This is what an Irishman looks like off-road.", he joked. Then looking at me, my suit largely untouched he said, "Now that's what a German looks like. You could eat off that suit." Fortunately, for Robs state of mind, this did not last long.
Rob had been watching me ride for a bit and said, "Now I get to return the favor of the coaching tips you gave me on street riding.". It turns out that Rob has vastly more experience in this kind of off-road riding than I do. He suggested that while standing up I grip the frame of the bike with my legs. That allows you to free the stress on the handlebars and lets the bike do whatever it's going to without your interference. It was good advice. It took me a while, as I say to many people, to translate the words into the feelings one experiences on the bike. I kept trying to grab the bike with the upper part of my leg like I would on the street bike but it just wasn't working. Then I figured out that I could get some pressure on my ankle and calves. Basically, I would grab the bike with the lower part of my leg and suddenly, despite the increasingly difficult terrain, it became easier.
At one point, I caught up to Rob just as he entered a puddle and I got showered in mud. It took me two or three more time, because I'm a genius, to figure out he was doing it intentionally to even things out. So much for my clean suit.
What I was not prepared for, as the terrain became more difficult. was the rocks. These were not little rocks. Imagine a fury brought down on a granite landscape breaking it into razor sharp blocks of sizes ranging from pebbles to boulders and then leave them strewn in piles all over the path of travel . You can't ride over this stuff. I know you can't. But we did anyway.
This was hard and left to my own devices I would likely not have attempted it. At one point we came up this steep hill simply covered in loose mini-boulders and large rocks separated by ruts all conspiring to wreck my sorry self. Once around the corner and starting to head up the hill there was no stopping. I tried my best to find a way up but hit one of the rocks, my feet flying off the pegs the bike pitching violently to the left. I put a foot down pushed the bike a bit and got deflected and headed straight for the boulders on the left. I managed to recover and start careerning to the boulders on the right. Somehow I managed to keep the bike upright while the rear end did a bouncy jig all the way up this crazy hill. NUTS. How I didn't fall down I don't know.
At the top of the hill, which Rob had done with ease, he said, "I turned around and saw you weren't there and thought, 'This isn't good. I broke Yermo!'". We both laughed. It was at this point I told him, "You know, I've never done anything close to this difficult before. Not even as a kid." He was surprised. It turns out that when he thinks of off-road riding, this is what he was imagining and had thought I had done this before because I had used the word off-road. I told him I had been imagining nice little trails in the sunshine like what I did as a kid. I think he felt a bit bad at that moment realizing that this, for me, had been a complete beyond my comfort zone and possibily ability trial by fire. "You're not the kind of person to point the sled downhill and see what happens, are you?" he joked.
Nope. Even as a little kid, when I came up on an obstacle, even if I had watched someone else do it, I would get off my bike and walk it. I would plan my route. I would ponder. I would come up with places I could bail if I needed to. And then I would do it. Carefully. The idea that I raced into these blind corners, got surprised by this incredibly difficult terrain and did it successfully anyway made an impression. I wasn't terribly scared but I was feeling a bit out of my element. But I've been in this headspace before and I know what it feels like. At this moment, I felt exactly as I had at the Superbike School. I guess I've made some progress because I was able to stay out of my own head and do it all despite the fact that if I stopped and thought about it I would think it impossible.
We both agreed we must've made an error and that this must've been the Difficult Level trail. We looked at the map again and in my shock I exclaimed, "You've got to be kidding me!" It turns out we had been on the easiest level of the easiest kind of trail.
I was dumbfounded, I couldn't imagine what a "difficult" trail might look like.
Regardless, we continued to traverse this challenging terrain for a number more hours and I became more and more comfortable as this unfamiliar terrain became more familiar. I hardly noticed when we headed back down the hill that had nearly taken me out.
It was fun the way a good workout can be fun, but I was working because I was here to learn. I had not expected these lessons but they were very valuable. Rob was having a blast. If I had had a better understanding of what I was in for, which neither one of us really knew, I may have opted not to go, which would have been tragic.
There were some truly beautiful spots along the way.
I even remembered to ask Rob to take a photo of me to prove I was there.
We took a longer break. The white gallon water jug that Rob suggested I get, which you can see mounted to the bike in the photo above, turned out to be a life saver. "I don't want to ride these trails at night." Rob said. That makes sense, this terrain with all these boulders, would be terribly difficult in low visibility. It was difficult enough in daylight. So we headed back to the campsite. On the way we encountered a truck that had gotten itself stuck. We stopped and looked to see if there was anything we could do, but there was nothing. They assured us they could get help to come out so we headed back to the campsite.
Rob had brought a grill and a bunch of food which included huge steaks. He offered to cook dinner. I suggested that I should build the fire. I tried to find some wood but the woods had been picked clean. Next time we'll bring firewood. There was one small stump so I took my machete and proceeded to chop a good section off of it. It was really tough wood and it took forever. "I'm playing." I said looking up at Rob who was looking at me quizzically. He cooked dinner. I gathered more twigs and branches.
We ate a meal fit for kings.
We then tried to build a fire. This was reminiscient of camping with Ian in Idaho. Nothing would burn. Even with pretrochemicals nothing would burn for quite some time, but eventually we managed to get the fire started and began talking about the day.
We revisited the topic that I had never ridden anything like these trails before. "This is at least an order of magnitude harder than anything I've ever done on a motorcycle. I mean I hit rocks and the skidplate hit before the front wheel could reach ground on the other side. I didn't know that this could even be done and left to my own devices I don't think I would have done this." I said. He talked about the off-road riding he did. The topic moved to risks. He talked about his times as a kid taking risks, jumping off rooftops, ridnig beyond the limit and injuring himself, sometimes badly. He doesn't seem to fear pain and often said he has a very high pain tolerance. His stories also involve tales of many other people. That contrasted with mine that were mostly alone. It's interesting, when talking to Rob you get the feeling you are talking to someone who is not alone, his mind occupied with stories of so many other people. Despite the incredible differences in our backgrounds, there were dozens upon dozens of times over the weekend where we would end up thinking the exact same thing at the exact same time, but in this one areas key differences between us came to light.
I've often said, in order to see something, you have to have contrast. To know yourself is not what's important. What's important is to know how you are different from others around you and be able to articulate it. We talked a while longer. During the day Rob had often said we should invite the other guys out here. I kept replying that I couldn't recommend anyone to come out here. It's just too difficult. People would hurt themselves. This dynamic played out in our conversations quite often. Then it hit me.
"You're a tempered, 'what could possibly go wrong' kind of guy, right?" I asked. "Yea, that seems about right." he replied. "Well, I think I now see that I can be described as a 'How could this possibly go right?' kind of guy." He laughed. The more I thought about it the more it makes sense and dominates my thinking. I look at a task, like going cross country and I immediately see all the ways it could go horribly horribly wrong. I look for one path in which it has the best chance of going right. Rob on the other hand, if I were to venture a guess, sees all the ways that things can go right and if they go wrong he knows he can deal with it. It's a different perspective and leads to radically different conclusions based on the same information. Contrast. I'm not implying the Rob is wreckless. Far from it. I wouldn't travel with him if he were. He wears top gear. He's careful. He values rider education and is a constant student.
But his risk/reward calculation is different than mine. I suspect this may be part of why, when asked to describe him to a friend once, I replied, "He's what I would have been if I were successful." I see too many ways things can go wrong. This dominates my thinking and my life and I still think it holds me back. "I'm not afraid of falling." Rob said many times during the day. I am afraid of falling. I take riding as seriously as I do because I'm afraid of falling because I can't imagine falling without hurting myself irreparably. For me there is only one outcome to falling and that's being left in a wheelchair, or so I feel. This is in stark contrast to the others who I've seen fall many times. They get up, brush themselves off and go on.
So Rob when describing the weekend, focuses on everything that went right, how much fun he had, and how he would do it again immediately. I focus on how treacherous it was and how easily it could have been for it to go wrong. I mean you should have seen these rocks! Razor sharp edges on a field of pain far as the eye could see and we were riding over it on two wheeled vehicles at a good clip. Many times we wondered how the tires had not been shredded. But we rode the same ride at the same speed. And by the end of the day it's not that I was uncomfortable, it was just that I was constantly aware of how much falling down would hurt. Sitting at the campground the Fear set in as it often does when I exceed a limit. I guess you could say, Rob seeks the positive and I seek to avoid the negative. But this probably makes us good travelling companions as we offset each other.
It's interesting to see how subtle differences in a persons experience become a basis for how they form. I sometimes wonder how I would have grown up differently had I not be so sickly and weak as a kid. Maybe I would more like Rob, not fearing the fall. But I was sick and weak and when things went wrong they went wrong for days and sometimes weeks. It's why I never did drugs. I didn't want to take the risk. I was too broken as it is. This fear still dominates my thinking, but to a lesser degree. At least I don't let it stop me completely. Well, at least not when it comes to motorcycling.
We tended to the fire. The log that I had so carefully chopped refused to burn. We did everything but it would not burn. It even prevented things close to it from burning. It provided us hours of entertainment as we attempted every conceivable way to get this damned log to burn but it was to no avail. "We should patent this." I joked since clearly we were in an unburnable forest.
Rob headed to sleep and I stood by the fire contemplating my day looking skyward to see if I could see any shooting stars from the predicted meteor shower. It was a bright moonlit, clear and piercingly cold evening. I pondered my day and thought more about my relationship to risk and how, despite my best efforts, it still dominates so much of my life. Today was a good day. I did things on a motorcycle I never thought I could do. I also now have a first hand understanding of why off-road riders make the choices they do. This terrain was tough but I was looking forward to the Taskers Gap trail system the next day where we hoped the trails would be easier. Certainly, they wouldn't be harder than what we experienced today. I don't know if I could ride a harder trail.
I went to my little tent and crawled into what, to my shock and horror, was a damp and largely frozen sleeping bag. It was COLD, but warmed up eventually.
Once I managed to fall asleep, images of the trail and the sounds of the Mighty DR Yin dominated my dreams.
Written by Yermo.
For the last many months, I've been spending the majority of my time developing software for the site. It's been an all-encompassing effort, which is why I haven't been writing. I have this naive wish to turn Miles By Motorcycle into something cool that we can all use to plan trips, organize rides and tell the inevitable tall tales that come up along the way. It's turned out to be so much more work than I ever imagined. It's almost May and I've been at this since last July. It's coming along, albeit slowly. I've installed portions of what I've built on the site and it sort of works. There are still too many bugs and missing features. The site runs way too slowly which I'll have to address soon. At the present rate, I wonder if I'll get it all to be "good enough" before I run out of money later this year. When that happens, I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I'd really like to be able to continue this effort, but I'll need to find a way for it to generate some money or maybe get investors.
As far as software projects go, I've enjoyed this one more than I've enjoyed any other, but it's challenging me in ways that I'm ill-prepared for. My achilles heel is that I'm not visual, I'm conceptual. I can do the abstract data models and backend software and protocols and all the rest of the stuff under the hood that people typically think is technical and difficult. But I can't make it look sexy to save my sorry life. At least, if this thing ever takes off, I've got things set up so that if someone who knows how to do sexy better than I can comes along, they would be able to help with the visual work. In the meantime, I'll try my best on all these fronts and continue to make slow progress.
Despite all the shortcomings on the site, I've been getting lots of encouragement and most riders I talk to seem to like the idea of the site. I'm close to having most of the features built that I want. For the last few weeks, I've been building the mapping system that I've been talking about for ages. My hope is to get everything built and basically working, including the road-tagging mobile app, before August when I intended to use it.
Because in August, I'm leaving on another big trip.
It was many years ago on our very first trip down to Deal's Gap that Ian and I met Francios. He rode a Suzuki DR650SE, which for the uninitiated is a so called 'Dual Sport' motorcycle designed to be a 50/50 compromise between riding on pavement and playing in the dirt. It does both competently but like most compromises does not excel at either. He had modified it extensively and mostly I remember the big gas tank he had on it. Towards the end of our trip, so many years ago, he invited us to a nice a nice dinner in Knoxville, I think it was. I remember thinking that he, like so many crazy Canadians we've met, could ride like nobody's business and on the way to dinner he had to slow down repeatedly for us to catch up. After all, our premium European sport touring machines were no match for a piss-ant little dual-sport on knobby tires. That made an impression. At dinner, topics ranged across the spectrum of motorcycling. At one point he started talking about the Trans Am Trail. I don't remember if this was the first time that i had heard about this trail, but it was the first time that I can remember thinking, ominously, "I may have to do that some day." It's an off-road route from Western North Carolina across the continental United States to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. It goes across the Smokies, into the Great Plains, through deep Canyons, across deserts and over the Rocky Mountains, all off-road. There are photos of the trail that are simply stunning. But, I confess, it sounds like a ridiculously difficult and treacherous trip. There are countless obstacles and hazards along the way including rocky river crossings, small paths along steep hills, mud, endless fields of mud and other threats. Most of the road reports I've read about the trip involve serious injury and riders falling down mountain sides.
But it's one of the "Big Trips". Deadhorse, Alaska is one. Patagonia in Argentina is another. The TransAmTrail is one of these trips.
Francios suggested a small bike was definitely best suited for such an adventure. He had done some sections of the Trail, but not all of it. The conversation moved to other topics and thoughts of the trail faded. I had always wanted to come back and take them out to dinner, but the years ticked by and the opportunity never arose.
The thought about the trail recurred some many years later, before my soul snapped and I left for Alaska. I even went so far as to get some of the maps to study, but I dropped the idea and it faded from my mind once again.
I don't remember who it was, but back in Septemeber, someone, I think it was probably Duncan, posted a photo to Facebook of a rider on the Trans Am Trail and he captioned it, "So who wants to do this?". I thought little of it until friends started chiming in, "Sure, I'm in!".
It was one of those pivotal moments where the decision is made before you're even aware of it. As if it were past tense, I knew I was going to go. In a way it makes sense to do it this year. I still have the funds and the flexibility. Once I have to start making money again, it's unlikely I'll be able to do anything like this. So if I don't do it this year, I probably won't get to do it unless my fortunes change, which is unlikely.
So I announced, boldly but unconvincingly, that I would do the trip this year.
Yun talked about going. He's a good friend who's gotten heavily into riding in the last year. Unfortunately, his schedule doesn't work as he would only be able to go through the middle of the summer which, based on what I've read, is really not the time to go.
Unexpectedly, Rob, who went with us to Deal's Gap last year, said he was up for the trip. It was clear he was very serious. Life is conspiring to give him just enough time, during the right part of the season, to do it. In the last year, we've ridden together quite a bit and I have the feeling that of the new people I've met, I could do the trip with him, which is saying quite a lot. It's a tall order to travel far by motorcycle together. It's an even taller order to do it off-road through the hard parts with someone you haven't known extremely well for decades. Both he and I have had difficult trips that didn't go as well as hoped and don't want to repeat them. Personalities matter. Attitudes matters. Perspective matters. Risk tolerance and a whole host of other factors, matters. Most of all, getting out of your own head matters. If you go and do something difficult, something you've never done before, you have to let go of ego. You have to do the trip at the trips pace.
"If we do this thing, I don't want to be on a schedule. The trip takes what it takes." I would say as we discussed the trip. "Absolutely. I want to stop and look at things. If we make it only half way and run out of time, so be it. No goals." That was key for me. Being the CTO of a relatively large networking company, at least larger than any I've been involved with, Rob has lived deadlines, obligations and stress. He knows what it's like to be where the buck stops. He knows what it's like to be in that place where choices are made for you by outside forces and you have to respond not at a time of your own choosing. He's done the mega-long days week-in and week-out. Do this for enough years and it shapes you. I've often wondered if I'm really "entreprenuerial". I've helped found companies. I've helped build businesses. I've created and launched products, but, because nothing I've ever done has been all that successful, "two-bit loser entrepreneur" I sometimes joke, and because I'm singularly averse to promotion, I've always felt like somewhat of an imposter, a fraud. Interestingly, talking to Rob has changed that. After many conversations and so many valuable insights that he's shared, I've come to realize, "If you have the scars of an entreprenuer, then you are an entreprenuer." Valuable lesson learned. I think this concept can be applied elsewhere as well. He did a hell ride to Alaska as a younger man, just like I did, except that he made it and I didn't. He doesn't want a hell ride. If you have the scars of the long distance rider, then you are a long distance rider.
Another key thing about Rob, despite being one of those annoyingly rock solidly healthy balanced and well socialized individuals, he understands how to interact with those of us who are more broken. Like Duncan and Bruce, he's not the kind of person to push you when your health or psyche are failing you. Unlike many others out there who are in it for themselves and value their own enjoyment above the people around them, he believes in team. If I get sick, and I will, we'll stop and wait. That is Good.
The decision was made. We will do this trip. It will be long and likely the hardest travel by motorcycle that I've ever done. Because I'm sick, it'll be even more challenging with all of my flakey dietary restrictions and unpredictability. We're going to try to camp in the wilds two out of three nights which presents it's own challenges. There will be rain, wind, hail, mud, river crossings, treacherous passes, insects, wildlife and likely angry farmers. There will be mechanical failures. The possibility of injury looms large. But we are going. And we will be leaving sometime late August or early September.
We will travel off-road for approximately 4500 miles across the Continental United States.
(note very cool map. Note that it is created with my in-development mapping code. Now say "ooooooh. aaaaaaah". I feel better. Thanks.)
I will likely travel back across country after meeting up with Ian. I'll visit Bruce either on the way out or the way back or both.
This trip has some added complexities. First, I don't have a motorcycle nor any gear appropriate for off-road travel. This means I'll have to buy a bike, equipment and a full seat of riding gear for off-road use. Secondly, it's been over 20 years since I've done any real off-road trail riding. I'm not entirely confident that I have the skills anymore. I may be a modestly accomplished motorcyclist, but this is all a completely new context and I must approach it all with the eyes of a beginner, otherwise mistakes can be made and Trouble(tm) can happen. The most dangerous motorcyclist is someone who rode years and years ago and comes back into it thinking they know what they are doing. Be humble. Take it slowly. Re-learn.
So in the intervening months, there was much agonizing about what kind of bike to get. I absolutely wanted to get something fuel injected with heated grips. This implied a BMW. I read up on everything under the sun. I thought what I would need for a trip like this was an "Adventure" bike. These are machines designed for world touring. Technical machines. I thought fuel injection was a necesssity since we'll be going over passes that reach 12,500 feet. Carburators, being mechanical devices, can't compensate for the change in altitude and bog down at higher elevations. In addition, I hate carburators like the plague. Evil devices designed to inflict frustration and pain.
So I test rode every bike I could think of. We all went to the International Motorcycle Show and sat on every kind of adventure bike there. We pondered. Rob liked the Triumph or the Yamaha Tenere. At one point, we both thought the BMW Sertao was the right bike. But it was crazy heavy.
Sometimes to figure out what you want you need to contrast it again what you know you don't want. So, on a whim, I sought out a very low cost "dual-sport" bike to sit on. The one I chose, because it happened to be close and I had read was highly regarded, was Francios's bike, the Suzuki DR650SE. It was a non-starter for me. No fuel injection. "It has a carburator? In this day and age? You've got to be kidding me!" I said aloud. No heated grips. Puny alternator. Yet it was very inexpensive and there was something to it. It was tall, but not too tall. It was light and narrow. I could flat foot it, which in my mind was a key requirement. "To solve a problem, sometimes you have to decide what wants you need to let go." I've said I hold on to my wants loosely. Could I live without fuel injection? Could I do the trip on this bike? I had really wanted a BMW partially because I thought I have so many good contacts of incredibly knowledgeable people in the BMW world that I could get lots of help. Maybe I could even get Bob's BMW to allow me to host a post-trip event. If I do the trip on a non-BMW, that option is unlikely.
So for the next several weeks, I tried to find a suitable BMW. There's a bike called the X-Challenge which is very similar to the DR in size. It's heavier but equally off-road capable. It's a dual-sport bike, not an adventure bike. Milner, another friend who's in the forum, got one and had it shipped across country. A decent machine that I thought would fit the bill, but I couldn't find one. I considered the F650GS which is more street oriented and I thought I could use it as a trainer.
I also considered that if Rob and I got the same bike it would offer an advantage. We could share knowledge and parts. In my mind, it just made sense. Rob seemed to think it was largely irrelevant and suggested I get whatever bike I was happy with. Still, I think riding the same bike offers more advantages than disadvantages especially when things go wrong.
I looked for a while longer and finally relented. I could not find a BMW that I thought I could reliably do the trip on. Either they were not dirt oriented enough or they were just too big and heavy. There's a big difference between riding a fire road and trail riding, and I would find out later that there's an even bigger difference in "true-off-road" riding, but that's a story for another time.
I read a lot more and finally settled on the idea of at least trying the DR650SE. I think it was Yun, or maybe Milner, who forwarded me the link to a 2009 DR650SE up in New Hampshire. It was clean with low miles. I forwarded the link to Rob because we had been talking about it. A few days later, as I was still agonizing, he told me he had ordered it and it would be shipped down in a couple of weeks. That settled it for me. DR650SE it was whether I liked it or not. A short while later, Yun or Milner, forwarded me a link to one for sale locally. It was also a 2009 and it had only 419 miles on it. "Done." I thought. No shipping. No having to get it through inspection. 30 day warranty.
Audrey gave me a ride up to Frederick where I picked the bike up. She was busting my chops a bit as I was mentioning that I had some reservations about Japanese dealers. I could hear her think, "BMW snob." But the Japanese vendors I've tried to work with have left me feeling like there's something missing. It always seems to me that they are not there to support you. They just want to move product and take your money. And that's exactly what it turned out to be. Even Audrey saw it as they were unable to answer even the most basic questions about any of the bikes they were selling. The dealer knew virtually nothing about the DR at all. "It's made by Suzuki. It's a DR650. That means the engine is a 650." Yea, thanks. Every time I've had a question about a BMW over a Bob's regardless of the vintage of bike they could tell me what it excels at, what it's deficiencies are, exactly what recalls were needed and done, what types of issues I might encounter during my intended use, things to watch for, history of other riders who had the same bike and what issues they ran into, suggested modifications, third party vendors they have relationships with that can do custom work, etc. Mattigan at the parts desk is an incredible wealth of knowledge. There's a certain pleasure I gain from working with people who really know what they are doing and take an interest in it beyond it just being a job. Do something you want to do, something you want to be good at. Don't just cash a paycheck. If you are there to help me for the long haul, I will pay more. It's only fair. For these people, selling this Suzuki, it was just a job, so many dollars. BMW snob? Honestly, not really. But the bike I ride is about more than just the bike. I rely on the people behind it. That's why I've been able to keep my beloved Blue Oil Burner running for the last 21 years. With a Suzuki, I know I would be on my own.
Since it was a used bike, they did at least let me take it on a test ride. That changed everything. It took me all of a quarter mile to realize this was the bike for the trip. Of all the single cylinder bikes I've tried, even the BMW's, it was by far and away the smoothest. It's crazy light. It's dirt simple. That latter point made feel ok with the fact that I knew I was on my own with it. There's nothing on this bike I would not be able to do myself. The bike has been made the same way since 1996 so there's a ton of serviceable, if not superbly engineered, after market parts for it. Rob had the exact same make model and year of bike. It was crazy inexpensive but I confess it feels remarkably solid. I was very surprised how much I liked it despite having virtually none of the key features I thought I needed.
So I bought the beast.
There's a series of videos by some crazy Canadians documenting their offroad excursions. Amongst the bunch is one DR650. They named their DR the Mighty DR because it was quite capable.
Shortly after I got my DR, Rob got his and came by for a visit.
His is white, mine if black. The bikes named themselves. Meet the Mighty DR's Yin and Yang.
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the bike as is is not ready for the trip. As you can see there's no place to store anything. Also, the gas tank is very small at only 3.5 gallons. The headlight is not very bright and there's no plug for charging electronics. Fortunately, mine already had the skid plate. I thought these plates were a bit of an affectation, but my opinion on that subject would be violently changed for me. The bike is fairly tall and I had considered lowering it so that I could use it as a trainer. I know quite a few people who want to learn how to ride and if the bike were a bit lower it could serve that purpose. I would also learn that a lowered suspension is a serious liaibility. Rob kept saying that he was going to raise the suspension on his. I didn't understand why.
So I did a bunch more research. One thing that I understood all too well is that I know virtually nothing. I also know there is a tendency when you know nothing and you're going to embark on something difficult, to make the attempt to guard against too many eventualities. Since you have no experience, there's no way to know what kinds of things might happen. I've seen guys carry spare tires but never use them. How likely is a tire to get shredded? Guys put guards over the headlight. How likely is a headlight to get smashed? From personal experience, I know levers break in even the smallest falls so have spare levers to bolt on is key. There are engine guards available? How likely is that? So I just don't know. I decided to take a middle ground. I imagined trail riding on dirt, mud, gravel and sand. I imagined the kind of riding I did as a kid. So I decided to prepare the bike for that.
I would need to carry equipment so I ordered a rear rack, side racks for soft luggage. I opted for soft luggage instead of hard luggage to keep the weight down. I got a tank bag. I got a guard for the headlight in addition to some driving lights. I got a tool tube which goes under the seat on the left to put tools in. I got a BMW style power outlet for it so I can plug in the electronics I already have. I got a used motorcycle GPS. It's waterproof and mounts nicely to the handlebars. And I got a thermometer. Misery is usually less miseralbe when you can put a number to it. I also got a huge gastank for it in addition to a center stand. I figure changing tires and oiling the chain is easier with a centerstand. I also picked up a slightly lower seat made by Sargeant.
A couple of days of wrenching and forcing parts that don't quite fit together to fit and it was done.
I confess I like the way the bolted on parts make the beast look a bit meaner than it did stock.
The next task was to figure out what kind of gear to get. As anyone who's spoken to me knows, I am a big believer in protective gear. Since I had nothing suitable for a hot off-road adventure, I needed to get a complete new set of gear. This meant an off-road helmet, gloves, jacket, pants and boots. This turned into another round of agonizing and I explored every vendors offerings I could find. I even attended a special event up at Bob's to look at all the latest gear coming out. The M-BY-MC crew made a special trip up to Revzilla in Philladelphia, PA. Revzilla is another company filled with people that live and breathe motorcycling. You go there and you can just feel that the people that work there want to be there. It's not just a job to them. We are big fans of Revzilla. They rock. They are also greatly technical. Their website is simply fantastic and the product videos they put together are great.
I considered every suit under the sun. I don't do heat well, so I know, riding in August and September, heat was going to be a bigger problem than cold. After much more agonizing, I settled on the Alpenstar Cape Town jacket. A nice woman working for Revzilla pointed out they do not offer matching pants but that a wide range of pants from other vendors can be made to match. I picked up a pair of Olympia mesh pants. Audrey kindly sewed the zipper so that the Alpenstar jacket now matches up nicely with the pants. I settled on the Alpenstar Scout II boots. A pair of Revvit off-road gloves and the Arai XD-4 helmet.
The Alpenstar jacket came with foam pads instead of real armor so I upgraded the armor to their latest offering. It included chest plates which I would learn is key. The boots have serious shin guards and as Rob pointed out, after he posted some gruesome photos of shin injuries, they are a requirement. Apparently a common injury in off road riding is having your feet some off the pegs and shattering your legbone. Ouch.
Not having any experience with any of this gear, I didn't really know if it was going to work out. I made my best guess and was going to have to live with it.
So the time came to take the Mighty DR Yin for a test ride. My intention had been just to take it for a 30 mile or so street ride. I got on it and immediately felt like I had been transported back to an earlier time in my life riding trails. It took just a few turns and an instinctive, "I wonder what's at the end of this promising looking no outlet road." for me to find a system of trails. I spent the next few hours getting the DR quite dirty. These trails were far more technical and difficult than anything I had done as a kid. I overcame obstacles on this bike that I would never have considered even as a little kid. "You live your life backwards." Duncan would always say.
Interestingly, within about 10 minutes of going offroad, a branch hit me square in the chest on one of the chest plates. It was a very slow impact so even without the protector it would not have hurt, but I found myself wondering if this might be foreshadowing.
The cliche "It's like riding a bicycle." came to mind. I had no trouble handling the bike. I had no trouble climbing hills. In this stretch of time I intentionally found and overcame every obstacle that I could imagine I might find on the trip except a deep water crossing, or so I thought.
I would learn the error of my ways and come to understand a new context I had not considered.
Some time after I declared that I was confident in my offroad abilities having done more technical riding than anything I did as a kid, Rob suggested that we do a weekend camping trip in Taskers Gap in the George Washington National Forest. It's a series of OHV and ATV trails. "OK, sure. No problem. I'm up for some trail riding. It'll make for a good shake down run and let me get some experience travelling with this new bike and gear."
This is a guest post by M-BY-MC member Andrew Pain.
Andrew isa writer, motorcyclist, and paramedic currently living in Milwaukee,WI. He is the author of:
You can find him on twitter @painonpatrol,www.Facebook.com/Andrewcpain,and www.traveling250.com.
BMWR1200GSA.For many riders this is the premier adventure motorcycle. The GoldStandard. The Bike You Need if you want to Go Somewhere. Other markshave strove to copy this Ultimate Adventure Machine - The Explorer,the Super Tenere.
Youcan go on an adventure rides on any motorcycle. In fact, when peoplego off onto hard single track or to play on dunes for a few hours,most of them choose a smaller, lighter machine. Why, then, when theytake off on a long overland adventure, where rough roads or no roadsare not only a possibility but likely, do they grab the biggest bikethey can find?
Thereis another way.
Motorcyclemanufactures - some of them anyway - have recently released smallerbikes that are just as capable as any of the big adventure tourers.Some of them are more so. Im going to talk about some of theadvantages of choosing a smaller, lighter, and less expensive bike.
Ihave gone to, and given, talks on saving weight packing a motorcyclefor trips. Since I often ride around on a little bike, I am prettygood at keeping what I bring under control. Rarely, if ever, have Iheard anyone (other than me) discuss the single heaviest thing we allbring along - the motorcycle.
Afully loaded GSA can weigh 600lbs. Thats almost twice the weightof my bike, weight which has to be kept upright in sand or liftedwhen dropped. All those "how do you pick up your motorcycle"videos on YouTube are there because people need leverage or techniquetricks to get their sleepy bikes back on their wheels.
Pickingup a smaller bike is much easier, obviously, and they are easier tokeep upright on rough terrain, which is why single track racers areusually on little machines instead of big ones. Of course, big bikescan do it, but it's not rocket science to see which is easier. And ifyou need to throw it into the back of a truck to get to the next townfor repairs, it's a lot easier when the bike is light.
Aneven more obvious advantage of little bikes is the cost savings. Most250cc machines are around $5,000 new. And if you are willing to workthe used market you can find one for far less (mine was $65). It istrue that you can find used adventure bikes for far less than MRSP,but you will (almost) always find smaller bikes cost less than largerones. The money that you save can be used to actually travelsomewhere, which should be the whole idea.
Ahidden advantage of smaller bike is repair and maintenance. They areusually simpler machines, more suited to shade tree mechanics. Also,if you find yourself in a developing country with a serious failureyou are more likely to find local mechanics can get you back on theroad than if you are on one of the more advanced big adventure bikes.Reduced costs on oil changes (smaller engine needs less oil) andincreased MPG mean you save more money over the long term. And savingmoney means more time on the road.
Okay,you might be saying, I get it. Smaller bikes are cheaper to buy andrun, lighter and easier to deal with on poor roads, and simpler tofix when they break. But I want to go fast or travel on theinterstate, or travel with someone on the back. You can't do thosethings on your little bike.
Iwill admit, for two-up travel, smaller bikes are more of a challenge.Two people on one bike is one of the few valid reasons I know to usea larger bike, and the increased spare GVWR of something like theGS1200A which can carry an extra 500 pounds, more than a Goldwing(about 400lbs) is useful. You might even save money over two bikes,especially if you are shipping. If the bike falls over someone thereto help pick it up.
However,the big bike advantage ends there. My sr250 will do better than 80unloaded, and managed better than 70 with all my stuff. And that waswith stock gearing, so I could have gotten it faster if I'd tried.This is a common complaint about travel with a small dual-sport - thelow top speed. The engines usually have the power to manage higherspeeds, but the bikes are geared to allow more low-end power. Simplesprocket changes will address this problem - something easy enoughyou can carry different sprockets and change them at need.
Asfor being on the interstate, I've done that and will admit it's lessfun on a smaller bike. But the interstate isn't much fun anyway and Ican't really recommend it where it can be avoided.
Whatabout the mid-sized bikes? The KLR and DR650? The Wee-Strom? They doseem to offer a compromise between the big adventure bike and thelittle guys. And they do, but compromises are always dangerous andshould be approached with care.
Letsconsider the KLR650 and its small, more off-roady sibling, theKLX250. The 650 is only $1500-$2000 more. Not bad and still way lessexpensive than a big bike. It gets fewer MPG, which is expected. Butthe KLX actually has a larger spare carrying capacity, 330lbs betweencurb weight and GVWR, than the KLR (just over 300lbs). And, if youload the bike to its limit, the KLX is over 100lbs lighter.
I'mnot saying don't buy a KLR, to be honest I'm not even saying don'tbuy a GSA. I am saying think about what you are buying and decide ifit's what you need for what you want to do. Consider the costs andwhere else you can spend that money. And remember the words fromAustin Vince, film maker behind Mondo Enduro and Terra Circa, "Youwill never wish your motorcycle was bigger and heavier."
I am feeling the pressure to get all this code I'm writing done ... it's always a question of how much is enough and whether or not a given shortcut I take now, to get something done faster, will cause me great pain in the future.
However,I'm still on target to have a first version of the social maps code built and integrated before the end of January. I've made a huge amount of progress on the foundation code that everything else will be built on top of.Once that's done, adding new features becomes much easier. The design I've chosen has proven to be quite flexible and it looks like it'll allow me to do everything I want to. Doing the actual maps layer on top of this will be quite easy by comparison.
As I've mentioned before, the new foundation really won't be all that different from what's up here right now, but it will allow me to start testing the codebase in a live use situation and start sorting out the inevitable bugs that will come up. Updates to the site after that will happen more often.
The mobile app itself will be done differently. It will get built from scratch but I'm not going to have to build a huge foundation framework for it. So I'll do that one iteratively hopefully releasing many small updates as features become ready.
I hope to be looking for alpha testers by March if not earlier.
Ian had moved away. Each year he would say, "I'll ship my bike out and we'll do our trip to the Gap again." Each year it wouldn't happen. So, eventually, I decided to guilt him into it by buying a guest bike which we affectionately called "Ian's bike'.
I picked up a relatively inexpensive '99 R1100S with less than 10,000 miles on it, but I had made a serious error. I failed to notice that the bike had been badly wrecked and not put back together correctly. It was a stupid out of character mistake. Instead of doing the sane thing and walking away from it, I decided to take this mistake and make it right no matter how much effort it might take. I am not afraid of work but sometiimes I wonder if that's not such a good thing as I tend not to make things easy on myself. Laziness can be a virtue, especially in programmers.
The front frame was broken so much of the bike needed to be disassembled. The further I got into it, the more problems I found. The project ended up being so much larger than I could possibly have imagined. Somehow giving up was not an option. With some significant help, I managed to get it all done just in time for Ian to fly out and ride it down to the Gap in 2006. It's been a phenomenally reliable guest bike ever since. I was out on it day before yesterday coaching Yun how to ride with passengers.
One would think things are going well for me.
I don't know why, but this has been a very rough year for me. There's no war to fight. There have been no huge battles. I'm not spending days on end trying to figure out how to avert another asymmetrical disaster. The "drop everything there's another life threatening event" calls have largely subsided. It's been a long time since I've stood at the edge of the abyss wondering how I was going to save the day.
But it's been a very dark year. Maybe there have been too many endings. The huge things all resolved in 2009. The big things have been resolving since then. The very last vestiges of a wrecked past have been resolved. My business partner and I finally accepted that our little business had failed after 14 years. He went off and got full time employment. I guess after that happened I've felt a little lost. What do I do now? There were no big problems for me to solve. I would feel, "If I'm not solving a big problem for someone, what's the point?" I've never been any good at living for myself, I guess. I spun my wheels for a few months taking the largest break from writing software that I probably ever have. I had talked about writing a book and tried a few times. I had talked about working on the website or taking another big trip. I feared having to get a regular job. I have a lot of health problems so regular "jobs" with fixed schedules are hard. Even trips down to Deal's Gap did less for me than they had in previous years.
There were a few precious fleeting moments of bliss along the way; glimpses into a life without the need of sacifice and service. But mostly it's been pretty dark. I suffer the white knight badly and like a soldier in peacetime who seeks war because it's the only thing he knows, I keep looking for ways to be good for others as if it somehow justifies my own existence, or maybe excuses it. Having spent the majority of my life as a slave to other peoples problems, I'm finding it extremely challenging to live without that sense of obligation and duty. And when the stressful moments happen, we all tend to run back to the familiar even if we are entirely aware that it's happening, slaves to our own psychology. I see it in myself and I am growing to hate it. It's been powerful seeing it in others.
As is the case with so many, I keep asking myself what I would like to do. The money I've accumulated over the years is draining quickly. I feel the pressure to go join a startup, build a new business or maybe even go back to doing military contracting, a prospect that just terrifies me. It's such a miserable existence. At some point, I'll need to earn a living again and this dark moment of relative freedom will be over.
But these are all toxic beliefs. There are so many more options available to me if only I can get out of my head long enough to see them.
Over the summer, I went on a few rides. Miles By Motorcycle is getting slighly more popular. The group of riders who get together has been growing. There have been times where we've even had 7 peope on 5 bikes. Scheduling rides like that takes effort. Getting everyone to the same place at the same time is challenging. Someone is always late, Duncan, unless he's not. Someone else always says they can't make it until they can, Josh. It's been striking how often I, or even someone else, would say, "If only we had that thing I/Yermo was talking about this XYZ things would have been so much better." It's gotten to be a thing and is mentioned on every ride now.
So in late July something changed. One day I just got up, sat down at the computer, and started designing, in earnest, the software I had been talking about since before I got back from my trip. I have been working on it like a madman ever since. It's not likely to ever make me any money and it's a huge amount of work, but for the first time in ages I'm motivated. I can't wait to get this stuff done and get my friends to use it. If I can get others to use it that would be even better.
I wonder why this appeals to me so much. I suspect it has to do with the fact that I've found something I can do for myself that is "for others". If it's just me, I never get excited about it. If it's some faceless corporation, I'm even less enthused. But if it's for people I know or better yet care about, then I can get motivated. I get a real kick out of the idea that people I value might use what I'm building. I keep thinking of everyone I know, especially the non-motorcyclists. Can I build something that motorcyclists and non-motorcyclists will find interesting in the way so many people found the blog interesting?
"So Yermo, what are you building?" you might ask.
I am building:
A social network for the lucky few who travel by motorcycle and the ones left behind who care about them.
Or as we've been joking, "a social network for us few lucky bastards who get to ride and you poor fuckers we've left behind."
The conversations always go the same way:
"Dude, do you know any good roads?"
"Why yes, route 25 North, Falls Road, North of Baltimore, take it North about 15 miles to Gunpowder Road, and take a right. Awesome road. There's a neat old mill up there too."
Wouldn't it be cool if I could say, "Yea, Falls Roads. If you don't remember, find me on Miles-By-Motorcycle. There's a map of it and other great roads around here in my profile."
So you go and you look at the road and you decide.
"Dude! Let's go for a ride!"
"Ok, so where do you want to go?"
"On that road, you know, the one we were talking about. What was it again?"
"When, where do we meet, where will be go, will anyone meet us along the way?"
Wouldn't it be cool if you could go on Miles-By-Motorcycle and create a "Group Ride", a.k.a. an event. You get a map. You can draw out the route. Places to stop. Where and when we'll meet. The area we're likely to be in for lunch. Etc. It would be cool if you could then invite people to join you.
Then, on the day of the ride, you'll have an app on your smartphone that you as ride organizer can use to alert everyone when you've arrived at the meeting point. If someone is late, Josh or Duncan, you'll be able to mark a point on the map where we can meet up. That way everyone who is on time can get to riding but everyone who's late can stil participate.
As you go on your ride and you decide an hour out, we'll stop for coffee at this Starbucks, you'll be able to tag it with an ETA so anyone else in the group who's running late or maybe, if it's a public ride, others who might only be able to join up for part of it, can know to meet you there.
"Yun, can you send me those photos or videos you never will?"
As the day progresses, people take photos. The shoot video. Wouldn't it be cool if all the photos, check ins, geo-tags, and status updates, were put in a central place on the same page where the group ride was created? These would be visible on a map or as a news feed. Those we leave behind and even those who might want to join up with us can follow along.
I figure with a system like this and everyone's busy schedules, we'd get more people in on more rides with less stress and less time commitment.
As we come on great roads, like the ones Yun, Rob, Milner and I have been riding lately, we can tag them. Davis Mill Road out near Gaitherburg, a wicked road.
So you're out on a ride.
"Dude, where should we go next!"
If you happen to be up near Thurmont, you might like Cold Spring Road over the border in PA. Wouldn't it be cool if you could do a search on your smartphone, "Within 50 miles of this location, what are the places/roads/stops/etc that Yermo really likes? Or maybe that any of my friends like? Or that anyone in this group likes?" You'll get a list of previous group rides, points of interest, routes, etc so we can all share the great roads and places. This would have the effect that we can all spend less time on roads that suck.
Now imagine you're scheduling a tour across the country and how many more interesting things you might be able to get in on ... it was a huge problem on my tour. "Dude, you should've gone to XYZ awesome thing 200 miles ago." Wouldn't it be extremely cool if you poor fuckers left behind could tag suggestions on the map /BEFORE/ someone gets there?
I have a huge number of other ideas too numerous to go into here, but I wanted to share a little bit about what I'm working on.
The whole motivation behind what I'm building is to get us together riding more. I hope I can get it done. It's a huge amount of work, much more than I was expecting.
I should have the foundation work ready to show in December. The first versions of the maps on the website sometime in January. It'll take me another two months probably to get a basic smart phone app done. There will be compromises and, as is typical of these kinds of things, it'll never be done.
As I make progress, I hope to write more technical articles over at my new blogA Software Guy.
Obviously, all this work could be applied to other domains outside of the motorcycling world. When I'm finished it'll be a competent mobile/geo-aware social network platform that will integrate with Facebook, Twitter and others. I've even built a plugin system for it and have a web API. Yea, nuts. I'm not afraid of work.
I even have a few ideas on how to make some money with this, but if I do I want to be extremely careful to do it in such a way that's cool and helpful. More on that another time.
I'm hoping that I can bring the tenacity I demonstrated with the R1100S project to this one. How cool would it be to use a Miles-By-Motorcycle app while out on a ride on the 'S?
As everyone knows, I'm a big believer in motorcycle training.
The Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic is a motorcycle riding course, taught in locations around the country, that takes techniques developed by motorcycle racers and applies them to street riding for the purpose of increasing your control of the motorcycle, and thereby options, when Bad Things happen.Consider coming into a blind corner and there's a deer in the middle of the street. Do you go wide into oncoming traffic or do you have the confidence to push the inside bar and lean your bike over farther than you thought you can to go to the inside?
Total Controlfills the void for those that have taken the MSF courses but who are not interested in going to a full-on track school like the Keith Code California Superbike school. It is not a race school by any means. It's a school that narrowly focuses on making you a better street rider. It doesn't matter what kind of bike you ride whether sport bike or full dress Harley, the techniques and insights they share will help you improve.
"But I have no interest in leaning a bike till the pegs scrape or braking so hard my rear wheel lifts." you might say. This may be true but the road is uncertain. When Bad Things happen you want to have the most tools, the most skills, at your disposal, when you need them. It can save you from a nasty crash. Total Control gives you the tools.
The course targets riders who have at least a year of riding experience. You bring your own bike. There are classroom sessions followed by parking lot exercises. We took it at a community college. It's neither scary nor intimidating. The students tend to be older and from a wider range of backgrounds. They do a very good job of making every kind of rider feel welcomed and each student gets individual attention.
Level I delivers the biggest improvements. Level II feels more incremental which makes sense since the further you progress the harder additional gains become to realize.
The courses do have some room for improvement. Some sections feel disjointed leaving you with a feeling of "where and how does this fit in?". Some points are just not brought home but after thinking about it more often than not you realize "oh, that's what they were trying to say." I was also left with the feeling that both Level's I and II should each be two day courses. It's a long single day and by the end you are pretty much toast. A second day, or maybe half day, of just practice would be a welcome addition.
I have also only taken the sessions taught by Tracy Martin. I do not know if there is a substantive difference with other instructors. (If anyone has experience with other instructors please share your experiences.)
Minor issues aside, the courses are extremely valuable and I tell every rider I meet about them. Nothing I have done has improved my riding more dramatically than taking Total Control. For a taste of the material taught in the course there is a book available on Amazon (affiliate link):
For information on the class visit: Total Control Advanced Riding Clinic.
Duncan and I took Level I back in 2010 prior to Duncan's first run down to Deal's Gap. This was just a few weeks before I left to go on the Big Trip to Deadhorse. I remember vividly looking forward to the Gap and wondering how much what I had learned would help me. Our improvement was dramatic. Mostly it humbled me. I had been riding for 35 years and thought that I knew what I was doing. Total Control set me on a path to learn more about riding in the last two and a half years than I have learned in the 35 previous. This humility has found it's way into other aspects of my life as I look to learn even when I'm teaching.
Total Control is a long one day course. It starts at 8 AM and runs until about 5PM. This, of course, implies having to confront a personal horror called Odark30:
I think they call this "Morning" as we met up at the IHop for an early breakfast at 06:30. Duncan showed up a few minutes late but we were all able to eat and get on the road by 07:15. I don't know why this is the case, but I once again had an entire week of epic lack of sleep. So, once again, I was zombie ashes and that would affect my abilities all day.
We made really good time up to Howard Community College. The instructions said to meet in Lot F. We saw a line of bikes and knew we were in the right place.
Tracy Martin, the instructor, gave us the standard release forms to fill out and sign. Once the necessary "we're not responsible for your untimely demise" clauses were signed, off into the classroom we went. Sessions are divided into classroom time where new techniques are introduced and parking lot time when those techniques are then demonstrated and practiced.
It was less so in Level I than Level II, but sometimes the point behind a particular section is not really made as clearly as it could have been. The first classroom session focused on the psychology of riding. It started with a round of introductions followed by a question and answer session of "why we ride". My feeling was the point behind this was merely to get the students to interact and tell anecdotes so they could get to know one another a bit. That is one of the side benefits of these courses. They do tend to attract a very interesting people. Duncan and I met Josh here two years ago and we still ride with him t this day.
I learned that two of the guys in the room were actually Total Control instructors from other areas. One was on a full-dress Harley.
The discussion moved on to psychological aspects of riding. As I've mused before, I suspect that there's some evolutionary psychology going on when it comes to being on a motorcycle. Maybe it evokes the horse or some other aspect of our primeval past much in the way looking at fish lowers blood pressure presumably because we're adapted to sit quietly to hunt fish for long periods of time. There are also countless stories similar to my own on the healing aspects of miles on a motorcycle.
In one particularly poignant moment one of the students, a military motorcycle instructor named Pat, told us about the constant pain he is in. I forget the name of the condition, but his right leg is in constant pain that not even pain medications help. He didn't say it, but I suspect it's because of a war time injury. Interestingly, he reports the pain is reduced when he rides. They have even connected sensors to him to see if the effect could be measured and he reported that it could be. Interesting. I am certainly no stranger to turning to the motorcycle when I'm in pain, but the pain the motorcycle helps me with has never been physical.
The session moved on to the philosophy of riding. Tracy quoted passages from Zen and the Art of Archery, a favorite book of mine from my teenage years, and one from I believe Sun Tzu. The Archery passage was of a Zen master demonstrating hitting a bulls-eye and then splitting the shaft of the first arrow with a second. The master says not that it is not something he did, it is something that happens. The Sun Tzu passage had a similar message. He then tried to tie it back to riding with the comment "It rides". The point was lost and, given that I imagine few motorcyclists have ever read any of these works, were probably thinking "WTF"?
He shared an anecdote of following a line of MSF instructors down the Blue Ridge Parkway and meeting up with them. "You guys are MSF instructors, aren't you?" he asked them. "How did you know?" they had asked. "I could tell by how you ride." Tracy responded. Tracy went on to talk about the mechanical process oriented style the MSF teaches. He then went on to talk about the Total Control approach just being a vessel used to get you to becoming a better rider and that at some point you have to let the vessel go.
Disjointed, but it got me to thinking. The point he was trying to make was that motorcycling, as Yun and I have often discussed, it's analogous to a martial art. It is primarily a mental exercise that involves muscle memory. You must practice the basics over and over again in a directed fashion. You must practice them until they become second nature. You must practice them to grow new connections in your brain until the activity no longer requires active thought. To get there, you must be humble. You must start at step one. You have to get out of your own head to let go the stresses of your life that distract you from the task at hand. You must put in the effort, the focus and you have to give yourself the time to grow.
At breakfast, Josh had said, "I was talking to Rob and realized no matter how hard I try I'll never be as good a rider as Yermo. I've simply not grown up with it they way he has." I used to think the same way, but these days, inspired by some incredible people I've met along the way, I disagree. We humans, even at my advanced age, still have the ability to "become". There are ways to "become" something new, even a better rider than you can imagine.
I have often asked myself what does it mean to "be" something. Am I a "motorcyclist"? I mean really. What does it mean to "be". Am I merely someone who rides. Someone who codes. Someone who writes? I have never felt like I "am" anything at all.
However, now, from a certain limited perspective, I believe maybe there is such a thing as "being". I suspect to "be" a motorcyclist one has to have ridden long enough with enough directed practice that there's no longer any real thought. We use the analogy of the brain being a muscle. I suspect you "being" is just a matter of building up a physical section of your brain. Maybe some day we'll be able to scan your brain to see if you are a motorcyclist.
Rumor has it that the so called "math" center of Einsteins brain was 30% larger than normal, or some such. We always thought the message from that little anecdote was that he was born that way and that's why he was such a genius. Or was it that he took a slight gift he had and practiced until he became?
There's a very interesting blog on the subject of excellence and directed practice. It's called the Study Hacks Blog Decoding the Pattens of Success and takes a look at the differences between exceptional people and everyone else and asks the question, "Is it what they 'are' that makes them great or is it, maybe, what they 'do'?". Very very interesting reading.
So I believe the point they were trying to make during the first section was that in order to become a motorcyclist, first you must get out of your own head and let go ego. There are no accolades, no one to impress. If you try to impress, focus attention on the onlookers, focus on trying to do "well", focus on anything that takes away your attention from what you are doing you will not do as well. You are here to learn. To make mistakes. To improve so that you can solely focus on "becoming" at what ever pace you can without any expectations. You then have to practice the steps, the process that is the Total Control to build the mental muscle, to address your fears, your doubts. And then, after enough practice, you have to let it all go, because as is the case with any mental framework you reach a point where holding on to it just holds you back. Combine what you learn here with other things you learn so that you can "become" the motorcyclist you want to be.
I imagine the same is true of becoming anything. A motorcyclist. A martial artist. A writer. A musician.
Then, abruptly, we jumped straight into topic of speed shifting. Speed shifting is where you accelerate without using the clutch. I actually did not know that you can shift a motorcycle transmission into a higher gear without the clutch smoother than with it because of the design of motorcycle transmissions. Out onto the pavement we went to practice this.
It's interesting. I guess because I was so tired and was filled with thoughts of my week I didn't do well in the exercises at all. I kept missing shifts and making mistakes. That would go on for the rest of the day. I did, however, manage to do the speed shift correctly a few times and I can report that you can in fact up-shift a motorcycle smoother without using the clutch than an automatic transmission. Very interesting. Who knew?
We went on to discuss rev matching on downshifts. This uses the clutch but allows to be much smoother on decelleration. Both speed upshifting and matched rev downshifting enable you to be smoother. Smooth is good as it prevents you from disturbing the suspension.
There were two instructors so often students would be divided into two groups.
For each technique, the instructor would first describe the technique.
Then an instructor would demonstrate the technique done incorrectly and then correctly. We would practice the technique repeatedly each time having an instructor observe us and offer critiques. One of the big challenges in learning to ride a motorcycle is translating what one has been told into what it feels like. To be smooth rev matching on decelleration, what does it feel like when you've done it correctly? How do I know I'm doing it correctly? If I'm not doing it correctly, what do I need to change? That's where having an instructor or coach there to point things out is extremely valuable. Coming up with the words to convey muscle actions is a real challenge.
Personally, I found the sections on trail braking through decreasing radius turns and doing quick stops the most valuable. I'm a bit nervous about grabbing more front brake in a corner but it turns out that, to a degree, you can tighten up your line in a corner by applying the brake. This is used to avoid obstacles that surprise you. It's also a technique that requires a lot of practice.
Quick braking was interesting. I typically only use the front brake mostly because I've been trying to ween myself from the terrible habit of stomping on the rear brake when I get scared. Stomping on the rear brake in a corner when you're scared is a great way of crashing. However, for maximum braking, the rear brake does allow you to stop 10% or more quicker than using the front brake alone. It also stabilizes the bike. And, as a result of that exercise, I now know I can stop the bike much quicker than I thought I could.
"Ok, Yermo, now as you come to a stop squeeze the brake harder to lift the rear wheel." Tracy instructed. "Gulp" I thought. "Yermo's do not lift the rear wheel." I regret that there's no video of it but I actually did manage to stop the R1100S quickly enough to lift the rear wheel off the ground a few inches despite having completely loaded bags on the bike. Damn. I never thought that would be something I could do.
We took a break for lunch and aside from a new fear I've developed for stop signs, the rest of the day went smoothly.
There was a classroom session that talked about "chassis setup" which I found significantly less useful than the suspension setup section in Level I. It wasn't really so much about chassis setup rather more about accessories you can put on a bike to customize it for ergonimics. Again, I didn't see the point but I was also stupid passing out tired by this point so maybe I missed something.
At the end of the day, they set up an auto-cross style course in the parking lot where we were to combine everything we had learned in Level I and II. This was a blastand surprisingly difficult.
We ran the course one at a time getting critiques from the instructors. Frankly, a second half day of just running that course with an instructor or coach would be something I'd pay for.
The class came to an end. Tracy said that anyone who wanted to stay later could run the course. Everyone except the Miles By Motorcycle guys left. We ran the thing so many times we started to feel self conscious about keeping the instructors. But it was so much fun.
I even tried my hand at putting together a little video.
So in conclusion, I found Level I to be the more influential course in that it had the greater effect on my riding. Level II felt like an incremental gain which is as one would expect given that the further you go along the harder incremental gains become.
My points on presentation are not meant as a criticism, more as pointing out where things could be improved.The same thing can be said for my riding.Even as is it is an incredibly valuable course and will go a very long way to making you a much safer rider. After taking the MSF course and having about a year of riding under your belt, I strongly suggest you take a look at Total Control.
As a final note, Total Control is putting together a Track Day class. They are currently looking at offering it at VIR or Summit Point. I asked Tracy if we get a number of riders to say "Yes, I'm interested" could we influence the decision. I hear VIR is a great track but Summit is so much closer for most of us ... something to consider.
If you know anyone who's been riding for a while, maybe you can forward them this article.
If you know someone who is thinking about getting into riding please point them to this article On Riding Well: So You Want to Learn How to Ride a Motorcycle.
And, of course, don't forget to like Miles by Motorcycle on Facebook (you can use the little facebook button at the top). Thanks!
10 years ago last month, Ian and I took a fateful motorcycle trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway, one of the most beautiful compelling roads in the entire country. We visited Tom in Ashville. Ian had heard about some water falls in the area he wanted to see. Ian likes pretty waterfalls. Over drinks, Tom happened to mention that a place called "Deal's Gap" was not that far away. My mind instantly reached back into the dark distant past to an era before Starbucks. In this godless age, my only access to the 'Net was through 1200 baud dialup sessions to a timeshare machine, located in Virginia, called Grebyn which ran the DEC Ultrix flavor of Unix. There I could reach other minds in the ether through a global store and forward messaging system called Usenet news. This was where one could find alt.rec.motorcycles.dod, the home of the only motorcycle anti-club I have ever belonged to, the Denizens of Doom. I am member #326 although I haven't actually looked at it in many years.
It was here that I had first heard tell of a legendary road that they called "The Dragon". The superlatives used to describe this road and the areas surrounding had to be myth. Nothing could be that good. Convinced my cynicism was warranted, I dismissed these accounts as being akin to tall tales of BigFoot, Yeti and the Staypuff Marshmellow Man. As decades passed and Starbucks slowly arose from the West to spread civilization to the poor undercaffeinated souls of the East, the tall tales of this road faded into obscurity. "Let sleeping Dragons lie." they say.
"Deal's Gap you say?" I asked inquisitively. Tom patiently described how to get there. It was only 120 miles away. "It can't be that good. Ian wants to see water falls. Pretty pretty water falls. But I think I'd like to risk it. Some unknown force compells me ..." I thought. I do not hold on to my wants tightly and will almost always defer to the wants of others. But this was different, so much so that even all these years later I remember the moment clearly.Completely out of character, I suggested to Ian, "I think we should check out this road. It is legend." Ian objected firmly. He really likes his waterfalls. But, again even more out of character, as some one possessed, I said, "Dude, I know it's weird but I'd really like to go check it out." He thought it was going to be a tourist trap. I didn't know what I thought, just that I really wanted to go. Ian relented probably confused by my sudden change of character. There was something in the deep dark wood that was calling me.
The next morning we rode like the wind along the Smoky Mountain Expressway. I became more and more nervous about my insistance because as we approached the area where this road was supposed to be, the conditions became worse. Gravel, potholes, police, oncoming traffic. It sucked. I was just about to sheepishly suggest we turn around and admit defeat when we passed a weird looking cinderblock motel with a gas station attached. There were dozens of bikes in the parking lot. Could this be it? We rode passed it up the hill and came upon some truly sharp corners. The first few were pitted with loose gravel. There were maybe a dozen more on better pavement after that and then the road straightened out and I could see the double yellow line fade in the distance. "Is that it?!?" I remember thinking. Disappointed and a bit embarrassed at having been suckered into believing the tall tales, I punched it. What I failed to notice was that the double yellow lines disappeared into the tops of trees. I realized the error of my ways almost too late. I hit the brakes like crazy and leaned the bike over into a descending decreasing radius right hander and had the road drop out from under me as it wound it's way down the side of a cliff at impossible angles. I was already screaming in my helmet at the top of my lungs like some maniac. A relentless onslaught of the most difficult corners I have ever experienced assaulted every sense. A few minutes later I was already screaming, "MAKE IT STOP!!!!" By the time we had made it to the end of the 318 corners, I was sweating buckets and nearly out of breath. Ian rolled up next to me and said, "Now we've seen it all. We don't need to go anyplace else."
Photos from that road have been the background for my desktop machine for ages now. The next year we went back specifically to ride that road. We stayed at the motel, called the Deals Gap Resort. It's called a "resort" because it's located in a dry, i.e. alcohol free, county and the only way they are allowed to serve any alcohol is to be called a "resort" which means they have to have tennis courts, which they do, up a hill in the woods. We had a blast.
Unfortunately, Ian eventually moved out of the country to go live in amongst the civilized tribes up north, i.e. Canada. As he left he said, "I'll ship my bike out. We'll still do the trip." But as is often the case with the best laid plans of mice and men, it did not come to pass. The road remained unvisited for these few years. Eventually, frustrated by the thought that I might not get to go back to those incredible roads with my friend, I secured myself "Ian's bike" a.k.a. the guest bike to guilt him into flying out and joining me on a trip.
Unfortunately, it was a disaster. The bike had been wrecked and I didn't notice too caught up in the bigger plans I had surrounding the machine. I spent the early part of 2005 largely rebuilding the machine up to the day before we had to leave. It was a ridiculous amount of work and this was in the middle of my Nightmare back then. The distraction at the time did me good and having something to look forward to during all that darkness, in part, kept me going.
But from the jaws of defeat success was pulled. Ian flew out and joined me for the trip. The bike performed admirably. Again, we had a blast. For the next or several years, Ian would fly out, take the guest bike and we would ride to this legendary road known as "The Dragon".
Over the years, I attempted to explain what we had found. I used increasingly superlative language to try to describe to Bruce and Duncan just how incredible this area and road were. Unconvinced, they seemed to think they were listening to the ramblings of a mad-man. It came to pass one year a few years ago that life got in the way and Ian could not go. With some heavy marketing, coersion, and deceit, I convinced Bruce and Duncan to go. This was in 2010, a trial run before the Big Trip. Bruce rode the guest bike and Duncan rode is K1300S.
After only 50 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway they began to get it. "I might have to do this again in 5 years." Bruce said early on. We got down to the Gap. "Hmmm. Maybe I'll do it again in 3." He mused. We spent a couple of days there. And they got it. "No amount of description. No quantity of superlatives can relate the nature of this experience. You just have to come out here and ride this road."
A similar story played out with Josh in the fall of 2010.
By the time the first Deal's Gap Trip was done with Bruce and Duncan, they were already planning the next one. It's now a foregone conclusion that these trips will continue to happen. Last year, we set the date for our 2012 trip to be the week after Mother's Day in deference to all the married types with children. Josh had invited his friend Rob to go. "He keeps saying he might not even ride the Dragon much. He doesn't get it." Josh would say knowingly.
Riding many miles by motorcycle is a big deal. It's difficult. Style and attitude matters. As a general rule, I don't like to travel far with anyone that I haven't done a lot of miles with already. I was a little more than a little apprehensive about adding a new rider to the mix. A bad trip can be a really bad experience. Duncan, Bruce and I have been riding together for decades. We click like nobody's business. Honestly, it sets the bar unreasonably high for anyone else. No one has friends like I do. I've done a couple of trips with Josh and know that we travel well together. The four of us had a good time last year down at the Gap. I had been pleased to see that everyone got along. I've not been one to mix worlds being far too risk averse, but it worked out. Maybe this would work out. It's just that Rob was an unknown to me and I didn't really know what to expect, so being me I feared the worst. I was concerned for Bruce and Duncan. It's a huge deal for those guys to take a trip like this. It's not just them. Their wives are heavily involved in making this happen as well. They take care of the kids and homestead while their husbands are away on some fool adventure. Without them, this trip couldn't happen and I am eternally grateful to them. I don't get to see my friends very often at all anymore. But what would happen if we didn't get along? If our riding styles didn't match? The trip could suck and maybe Bruce and Duncan would be less motivated to go in the future, which would be a personal disaster for me. I so look forward to this time with them. Too many questions. Travelling by motorcycle far is a big deal and I was a bit concerned about it.
I made reservations at the Deal's Gap Resort many months in advance. They have two "apartment suites" that can house 6 guys. I got one of these for the first four days but the room had already been booked for the last two days we were to be down there. So I reserved a normal room for those days.
Last summer, I taught Yun to ride. He has a way of finding things in excellent condition at unbelievably good prices. So it was with the absolutely pristine R1100S he bought. The seller even drove the thing down here from Conneticut I think it was.
This just further made the point that I had been had with the purchase of the guest bike. Even after all the work and money I had put into it, it wasn't nearly as good as this bike. What further distressed me was the fact that this bike had an Ohlins suspension on it which made it handle so much more confidently than my guest bike. As a matter of fact, it didn't handle like any R1100S I had ever ridden. Crazy! I hemmed and hawwed for months about what to do. I didn't really want to spend $2100 just to get a set of Ohlins shocks for the bike when entire bikes already equipped with an upgraded suspension could be had for around $6K.. I asked Yun to keep an eye out for a good R1100S with Ohlins. I thought it might make sense just to replace the guest bike with a newer better model.
Eventually, Yun did find a nice example of an R1100S for only $5000. It had Ohlins on it. It had a good expensive seat. It was cared for. I just couldn't get past the color. So, somewhat half-jokingly since Josh had enjoyed riding Yun's bike so much, I forwarded the ad to Josh.
To my surprise, some weeks later Josh picked up the bike.
In retrospect, I probably should have gotten it. It has ABS and is just all around a much nicer example. After that find, we didn't see any other R1100S's for sale for a while. Josh went on to get a tire changer and introduced me to how sticky and awesome the Michelin Pilot Power 2CT tires were. That put me over the top.
I ended up getting the tire changer, balancer, a set of tires and I even went for broke and ordered a set of Ohlins. Too much money for improvements to such an old bike but by the time I was done with it, the R1100S guest bike was as good as I could make it. It was now a cornering beast. I was really excited by the idea of Bruce riding this thing down at the Gap. Josh even loaned me one of the spare seats he got with his bike. Bruce was going to have a blast and I was looking forward to taking the guest bike through a few times myself, although I would be spending the majority of time on my heavy Beloved Blue Bike. As is usually the case, of the group, I would have the most underpowered and heaviest bike there.
As the months dragged on, increasingly excited posts found their way to the Miles By Motorcycle Forum as the date of departure neared.
Josh was putting in more work on his R1100S. The brake rotors on his 'S had warped a bit and he wanted to replace them. He bought a set of EBC rotors and bolted them on. I went down there a few days before our trip to help him adjust the valves. The next day I got a text from him saying that a brake line had failed after he put the bike back together.
"If Rob weren't going I'd bail on the trip." he said. I felt really bad for Josh. He had been looking forward to riding his 'S down there so much and his disappointment was palapable. 'Listen, you can ride the guest bike. Bruce can ride the Blue Bike and I'll be willing to ride the Angry Chicken down." I told him knowing full well that if I rode Chicken I'd pretty much be sacrificing my participation in the trip. I knew Bruce wouldn't mind the Blue Bike. The Chicken down there would be laughable. I would have done it though. Like I said, I don't hold on to my wants very tightly at all and tend to be willing to sacrifice just about anything. I guess I always do things like that, maybe a bit too much. His FJR 1300 is a great bike. In retrospect I should have offered to ride his FJR. That would have made more sense. He was just wicked bummed but I guess the thought of me riding the Angry Chicken snapped him out of it enough to realize he could ride his FJR and have a good time. After all, the the Yamaha FJR is a much more capable bike than my Beloved Blue Bike is. But everything on Earth, even your basic tricycle, is more capable than the Chicken.
It was a viable backup plan. He still wanted to try to get the 'S fixed but there wasn't enough time to get a new line and install it. He took it to a local dealer, one that I don't have a high opinion of, who said they'd be able to get a set of lines installed for him. It sounded like he might be able to ride his 'S after all.
The day finally arrived and I drove up through just unbelievable traffic to BWI to pick up Bruce. I was over half an hour late which I hate but all roads north had been at a standstill. As luck would have it, we didn't need to give his mother a lift home after all, so we had enough time to start packing and get everything in order for the morning departure.
Each time we do this, it goes a bit more smoothly. Last year, I was the cause of the late start because I hadn't been able to sleep for several nights before. Luckily this time around, I was able to sleep more or less ok and managed to get up on time. We grabbed breakfast at the IHop and then made our way over to collect Duncan. We had been working on him to get packed and ready in advance but we were still anticipating delays. It is Duncan after all. To his credit, Duncan was sort of kind of close to ready.
After some last minute futzing with a new special anti-fog faceshield he had bought in addition to a huge jumble of extra electronics so he could listen to music and take phone calls on the bike, we finally got underway. "Phone calls? Talking? In my helmet? Hell no!" I said shuddering at the thought that the peace I experience on the bike might be interrupted by the outside world. There's just something offensive about it. But Duncan was happy and was really looking forward to trying out his new gadgets. He would eventually be able to take calls from Yun, who had also gotten similar helmet set up. So Yun was able to vicariously live through Duncan on this trip a bit.
We were originally supposed to meet Josh and Rob at the Shoney's in Stuanton. Unfortunately, when Josh got the 'S back from the dealer they returned it to him without working brakes. Incredibly bummed Josh texted me, "Do you want a parts bike?" Poor guy.
So Josh still had a bunch of work left to do to get his sport touring Yamaha FJR 1300 ready. It would take him at least another hour. So instead of heading to Staunton we headed to Woodbridge in part to see if maybe we could lend a hand.
As we arrived, Patty, Joshs' wife, greeted us. "Yermo, do you want some coffee?" she asked. "Coffee!? Why yes, I would love some coffee!" I replied. Poor woman. Little does she realize she has now been imprinted on my brain as a source of coffee. Poor poor woman. I guess I now exist for Patty. For the longest time I didn't think that I did. It's strange. I meet new people and generally I don't exist to them for some period of time then all of a sudden one day I do. They acknowledge my presence and everything.
Owing to my terrible memory, as many know I now seem to suffer from a terminal case of Can't Remember Shit, I had actually met Rob before a couple of times but completely forgot. He and Josh had come down to the boat one day while I was working on it. Maybe I thought it was a different Rob that Josh had been talking about. I just didn't put it together. Re-introduced to Rob I started feeling a bit more comfortable about it.
We all hung out around the kitchen while Josh got ready. Duncan and Rob hit it off immediately and were discussing some technical issue or another. As the unofficial ride planner, I wanted to get a feel for what kind of rider Rob was since I had never ridden with him. "Hey Rob, since we haven't ridden together before, I'd like to touch base and get a feel for what kind of rider you are." I asked.
Riding styles matter. Expectations matter. Some guys are all about miles and anything less than iron-butt distances filled with unending misery cause them to get angry and impatient. Other guys like to go really fast. Others have an every man for himself attitude. Others are team player and work well in groups.
"We like to go about 90 miles and then stop. We ride in a staggered formation. The leader picks the route and is responsible for those behind him. The leader makes sure there's enough room to pass. If someone in the group gets cut off at a light we all stop and wait. We don't like to go too much over the speed limit. We try to watch out for each other. We're all rusty so I like to take the extra time which is why I like to do the first 500 miles in two days instead of all at once. It gives us a margin for error." He nodded in agreement with the clear demeanor that this was all familiar territory. He clarified that he was, indeed, one of us. In a moment of sheer brilliance, he made me completely comfortable and I knew we would get along fabulously when he said,"Don't worry. I too am a Starbucks Stopper." It turns out he had read this blog from beginning to end. I was humbled once again.
'nuff said. Instant buddy, just add Starbucks. Robb and I would go on to hit it off better than I have with any "new person" in as long as I can remember. Apprehension changed into "Ok, this is going to be extremely cool." He's one of us. They are very rare. Everyone agreed, good guy and a great addition to the trip. I felt a little self conscious about having doubted Josh about the addition. Sorry, Dude.
Rob rode a Ninja 1000. It's a deceptively fast and agile bike that is, contrary to what I would have thought, quite good at touring.
I posted on Facebook, "Delays are proportional to the square of the people involved." Each person you add to a trip just makes things go slower especially on the first day. It's just the way things work out. There's no point in getting stressed out about it. We'll get there when we get there. This is why, early in a trip, I like to give us extra time. This is also why I don't like to add in any extra stops along the way. Things always take so much longer in the beginning of a trip than one thinks. After quite some time longer than even the longer time I expected, we were finally lined up and ready to go. Target departure time 9AM. Actual departure time, 1PM or so. Sounds about right.
I confess I don't like the Woodbridge area very much. It just takes too long to get anywhere. Josh led us out of town and towards route 64 where we could make our way to Staunton and 81 South. Unfortunately, we came upon a ridiculous number of progress halting obstacles. A town with a major thoroughfare had decided to close itself down for some silly festival. This required us to try to find a way around said town. "Sorry, you can't get there from here." This eventually lead us to a long wait at a one lane bridge. Apparently, every one else trying to get out of Dodge had the same idea while everyone else was trying to get into the silly little town with it's silly little traffic inducing festival.
One car would go across. Then we would have to wait for like 10 cars to come in this direction. So we waited.
And we waited. And we cooked in the heat of our engines. And we waited some more. Then finally we were able to make it across said one lane wooden rickety little bridge. We would go on to encounter mail trucks blocking traffic. There was the traffic jam at the left hand turn that took forever to get through. We simply couldn't make forward progress to save our lives.
Having made no progress, we stopped for a late lunch. Josh guided us to this bar and grill he knew, I forget the name. They were between lunch and dinner shifts so there wasn't much on the menu available. But we were happy to be sitting inside in air conditioning away from the heat.
As we looked over the menu and got glasses of water, the other four in our little fellowship found themselves in an extended conversation about how awesome their wives are. I am certainly very grateful to all the wives in question for making this trip possible. I know it's a big deal and I think it's awesome. But I had little, actually nothing, to contribute. I sat quietly occassionally attempting to interject something to turn the conversation to more motorcycling related topics to no avail. I was vastly out numbered.
At this point, I have forgotten all the various ways in which these super-wives are awesome. There were many. I think Rob said his wife could dead-lift 300 lbs while sipping a latte. Then the conversation turned away from how awesome their wives were. I looked up from my phone, naively. "Can we talk about motorcycling now?" I almost said aloud but my hopes were dashed against the cold rocks of nuclear family bliss. The conversations moved to stories of how awesome all of their kids were.
There are more kids than wives. As a result, the telling of the awesome kid tales took longer than the telling of the awesome wives tales. I continued to sit quietly while re-evaluating how I elect to spend my free time.
Lunch arrived after some time and the conversation finally turned the roads we had just been on, the closed down town and that ridiculous little bridge. "It was hotter 'n hell out there cooking in that traffic." I think I said as I reflected on the Beloved Blue Bike's fatal flaw, an excessively hot radiator that, when the fan kicks on, bathes the rider in truly hot air. It's not usual to see my little thermometer go over 120 degF when the radiator kicks on while sitting in traffic. "They don't like the world 'hell' down here." Duncan said knowingly. Really? "They're not going to like me at all." I thought as I looked around. The message was clear. We were in gods country. People down here are easily offended and if there's one thing we don't want to do is offend the god fearing with our godless free-thinking ways.
I don't like to offend people. I tend to be courteous and polite almost to a fault. Then again, some would say well beyond the level of a fault.
I thought about the various god fearing folk I had met on previous trips down here. There are even Christian biker gangs down here. The conversations alway start out the same way, as a disingenuous pretext of being friendly. They approach you. They start a friendly conversation. Then after a while, they spring their little trap by handing you a bible, an advertisement for some church or some get out of hell free card. You end up feeling used.
That offends me.
I'm always polite and say, "No thank you." Maybe I should tell them I have no use for their imaginary super friend.
"Why should my offense be worth any less than theirs?" I asked not even considering what I was saying.
"I can't believe you just said that so openly." Rob said visibly surprised.
"Did I tell you these were the right guys or what?" Josh said.
"I might get a just little weepy now." Rob joked.
As we left, I asked a guy standing outside to take a group photo of us. He wanted his truck in the photo. "Sure, no problem." I said.
We rolled on through increasingly traffic laden but larger roads and eventually, finally, found our way onto route 64. I took over the lead and we started our 90 mile sprints. Of course, we are Starbucks Stoppers and after some hours it was time for another Starbucks stop. We were all pretty tired. The GPS, that lying bitch that she is, told me there was a Starbucks not too far away. A 6 mile rather lively detour later we found ourselves in a parking lot at some mall no Starbucks to be seen. Josh pointed out a Panerra bread and said they have good coffee. "But, but, but it's not Starbucks." I thought but didn't say anything. Then Rob pointed to the Barnes and Noble.
"THERE ARE STARBUCKS IN BARNES AND NOBLE!"
We waved to Josh and soon we found ourselves sitting contently in a bookstore coffee in hand.
I was pretty tired and staring into the blackness of my coffee lost in thought of the trip ahead when Rob and Josh commented on how out of place some of the clientele seemed. I looked up. Scattered throughout the bookstore were quite a few young women seemingly too well dressed for the occasion as if they were competing in some unspoken, yet oddly tasteful, fashion show. You couldn't point to any one thing. It's not that they were wearing extravagant dresses. Quite the contrary. "I imagine it takes a lot of prep-work to put yourself together like that." I thought looking around. I wondered who they were doing it for. Certainly not some bug guts covering motorcyclist. "Each other, maybe?" I thought. I guess it's some cultural thing in gods country. Appearance seemed to really matter to them. Do they not feel right if they don't go through some OCD ritual of excess preparation before heading out into the world? Maybe it's a matter of identity and self-perception much the way I don't feel right if I don't have my ring and my watch on. Regardless of what it is, I enjoy seeing people who are good at what they do. I could certainly appreciate the work these women put into presenting themselves so well but I couldn't help but think that it seemed like a huge waste of effort, time and expense that could be put to much better use in some other activity. I guess the same could be said for motorcycling.
The last time we had come down this way there was some kind of graduation event going on and we had some trouble securing a hotel. Rob jumped into action. Wythesville was just the right range away and before we knew it Rob had, through his smartphone, secured us two hotel rooms.
We gathered up our gear and dragged our sorry carcasses back out into the heat away from the air conditioning and Hollywood-esque clientele. A quick 90 mile or so sprint down 81 and we found ourselves in Wythesville. It seems that all roads lead to Wythesville. We checked into the hotel. A tallish angry looking readheaded woman was working at the counter. Some comment was made, but I now forget what, something about gods country or church or somesuch to which she replied, "Tell hell with that, I used to be a Baptist but now I'm an athiest.."
The sunset outside was beautiful.
We stowed our gear in the rooms and then headed over the Applebees where they sat us in the back corner. A waittress clearly suffering from withdrawal for lack of polysyllabic conversation monopolized Rob for a little while. I ordered a Cabernet. Rob followed suit.
Towards the end of dinner the waittress asked, "Would you like another glass of Cabernet?" "Why sure." I replied as I glanced over at Rob. "I'll have another as well." Rob said. Thus it began.
We headed back to the hotel over gravel which I hardly noticed. Bruce produced the largest bottle of Tequila anyone had ever seen.
I had decided that on this trip I would go to sleep early. The best laid plans of mice and men go to hell when faced with the worlds largest bottle of tequila.
We stayed up very late talking about an endless array of topics. Rob had read the blog so knew vastly more about me than I do about him. "It's amazing you've turned out how you have given what you've been through." he said.
As the evening progressed conversations degraded a bit. Being the only single guy in the group, the married contingent had much "constructive" advice to give and this would be a recurring theme for the rest of the trip.
The next morning, I did say morning, I asked everyone how they were doing. Duncan seemed to be doing ok. Bruce was his normal rock-like self. Josh and I seemed a bit worse for wear. Rob said he was fine and that it was a good morning although the world seemed so much brighter and louder than he remembered it. Later he would say, "I'm grateful that my helmet kept my head from exploding."
Later Rob would say it was that second Cabernet that was responsible for starting his down fall.
I had chosen a spot in the shade to load up my bike. There was clearly wisdom in this. It was getting hot.
We had done a pretty good amount of mileage the day before so we were in no rush to get the Gap. Because we were all a bit worse for wear from the previous night, we took it fairly slowly and, when the opportunity arose, stopped at Starbucks, of course.
We stayed at this Starbucks longer than normal. There was shaded seating outside. I drank a lot of water and had a bunch of coffee. I was pretty tired and it was just too hot outside. We were now on our 90 miles forced schedule. We got back on the bikes and did another 90 miles or so. I had us stop at a rest stop for water and a break. I didn't want to push it. We found another spot in the shade to park and everyone got water. Bruce, as is always the case when an old school muscle car rolls up, had to talk to the owner. The others eventually walked over and a long conversation ensued. I don't know what kind of car it was but I'm sure Bruce could tell you in exacting detail every specification of said machine.
The driver was kindly willing to take a photo of all of us with our machines.
We were getting close now but the heat was just oppressive. My Transit Suit would have been simpliy too hot to wear in this weather.
Prior to this trip based on Yun's experience with a new suit he got, I picked up a Rev'It Ignition 2 jacket and matching pants. These are a light weight leather textile mesh combination that flow a great deal of air. I was much less happy with this purchase than I had wanted to be. Rev'It is a stylish brand that I have not had much respect for but it seemed with their latest revisions that they were upping their game. I really wanted some kind of hot weather mesh gear and I thought this was going to be an suitable answer but unfortunately the fit, finish and craftmanship of the suit just isn't anywhere close to on-par with what I'm used to. Buyers remorse, given how bloody expensive this thing was, was a recurring theme for me.
But at least I wasn't as hot as I would have been in the Transit Suit.
We decided to try to make Maryville, TN which is just about 40 miles from the Gap, for dinner which we made with ease. On our approach to Knoxville on the highway, I failed to notice the 55mph sign and continued on at speed. Feeling that the mountains were near, I guess I enthusiastically took the off ramp a little faster than usual. I'm not a fast rider. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
After dinner Josh and Rob wanted to stop at Target for some last minute supplies. Duncan followed them for some bit of electronics I think. Bruce and I hung out outside in the waning heat.
Josh and Rob seemed to be in a contest to see who could do the best minivan impersonation with their motorcycles. Soccer moms everywhere would be proud.
I guess I should have mentioned to them that the well water up at the Gap was entirely drinkable. After some time and a little "here's how to pack" consulting advice from yours truly, we were riding on the final leg of our journey towards the promised land.
The road goes from 6 lanes down to two opposing and starts winding it's way around a large reservoir and up into the mountains. "Rob has no idea what he's in for." I thought as we drove into the dark green forest that marks the beginning of the Gap as the sun set over the horizon. My mood always improves as I cross that threshold from the outside brightness to the muted greens that surround the Road as it ascends the mountain. Add to to that a waning light and you're bathed in a surreal effect. You're transported to a different place with different rules. I truly love this road like no other.
And I could, even after this long day on this fully loaded bike, tell a huge difference. I had not returned to this magical place since I took the Keith Code school which had changed everything. I had been looking forward to practicing what I had learned here and even on this first run through I could tell that nothing was the same. I didn't notice how far I had pulled ahead of the others. The rule up here is if someone pulls away don't try to chase them. Never ride beyond your ability.
I rolled into the parking lot, pulled off my helmet and got the key to the room. It was dark now. The others arrived. We pulled the gear off our bikes and made our way to the fire pit where we had to struggle for quite some time to get a fire going, but through a sense of teamwork Rob and I were able to get one going.
We had arrived. Life was good.
The road reports for the recent trip to Deal's Gap are coming, but in the meantime ...
I've been told that in the good 'ol days the only way you could ride on a race track was to be in a race. Now a days, there's this thing called a "Track Day". The idea of a track day is you get to take your regular street bike and ride it around on a track at whatever speed you happen to feel comfortable. There are no speed limits. Literally.
The thought of a track day had scared me for some time. I would imagine a mess of bikes with riders of varying skill levels careening down a straight getting bunched up haphazardly in a corner. I would imagine the mess of broken metal and body parts that could result. I was especially concerned about riding a much slower bike in a field of super bikes and getting rear-ended at speed.
Thanks to a skillful hand played by Sonia, Ryan's wife, last year in September, I found myself on a track learning how to improve my riding in ways I never imagined possible at Keith Code's California Superbike School. Since then I've wanted to practice what I had learned.
So it came to pass one day, that Bob's BMW in cooperation with Motorcycle Xcitement hosted a Track Day event up at Summit Point Raceway. What I didn't realize is that it would be a more controlled environment than I had imagined. Given that it was Bob's and the average age of their clientele is probably a bit older than myself, I figured it would probably not be "too fast". After all, I'm not a fast rider. It's my story and I'm sticking to it.
I decided to take the guest bike since it's a more capable machine and I had just redone the suspension with a set of premium Ohlins shocks which Bob's service department had set up for me. I had ordered a set of Michelin Pilot Power 2CT tires as soon as I got back from Deal's Gap. My friend Audrey came over two nights before to help me prep the bike. Through a couple of recent tire changes she had learned to use the No Mar Tire Changer. She mounted the tires while I focused on trying to get the front end to align. Do I have good friends or what? Without her help I doubt everything would have gotten done. There had been a little slow speed mishap a Deal's Gap the week before and the bike had been in a minor get-off that left the front suspension tweaked. No, I wasn't riding it at the time. I did the best I could to line things up but I'm afraid the forks are probably irreparably bent. It seemed to do ok but I wasn't sure if I would notice any issues going at break-neck track speed. After quite a bit of soul searching and over 100 miles of test rides, I decided it was probably still better to take the guest bike tweaked front suspension and all rather than risk my less capable Beloved Blue Bike.
Summit Point Raceway is a little over 80 miles from my house. The paperwork for the event said the riders orientation meeting was to be at 8:30. Considering the possibility of traffic, I decided to get up at 5:30 and leave by 6:15. The last thing I wanted was to be rushed and overwhelmed.
5:30 is a harsh mistress. Why 45 minutes you say? Well, without coffee there is no life.
I had done pretty well the night before to prep everything so there wasn't much to do but drink enough coffee to stay awake and hit the road. Unfortunately, there was more traffic than I was expecting. I arrived at Summit Point Raceway at 7:55AM.
I went through and found the Bob's BMW area. Lex, Darryl and Charlie who work at Bob's were there along with a few customers. I would later come to understand what a benefit it is to have someone there with a canopy, chairs, and snacks. They had grapes, apples, bananas, junk food and water. It was also very helpful to have some friendly faces there to guide me through the registration and tech inspection processes.
Charlie instructed me to rush and see if I could get through registration and have my bike inspected before the riders meeting which was scheduled to start at 8:15.
"8:15!?! But the paperwork said 8:30." I said. So the rushing and stress began. This is much the way I felt at Track School. There's a bustle of activity. You have to constantly watch out for bikes coming and going. People are everywhere. "Go to the red roofed building to get your registration card." Charlie said. I had to ask three times because there were several red roofed buildings. I could feel myself getting unsettled and my vision narrowing.
But I remembered this feeling and knew it would pass.
So if you ever want to do a track day, it's important to note that registration happens first. They give you a little card. You take the little card, your bike and your helmet over to the tech inspection stand where a tech will give it a quick 30 second once over. He'll check the tires, the brakes and the levers. If it's a street bike you need to tape up not only the mirrors but all the lights. I did not know this. Electrical tape is not good to use because it's hard to remove and leaves a residue. It's apparently best to use the blue painters tape. Bob's had tape there and showed me what to tape up. The tech will also look at your helmet to make sure it does not have any major defects. You need to have good gloves, boots, and a jacket/pants combination that zips together or a one piece race suite. The paperwork makes it sound like the tech inspection is a big deal but it's apparently just a quick once over.
I did notice that most people seemed to be wearing full race gear. This should have been a Sign(tm).
The riders meeting was starting just as I got through inspection. I hate being rushed. I truly despise it.
There were a disturbingly large number of people here. Roger Lyle, the man behind the Motorcycle Xcitement organization, gave a briefing. He has an unusual presentation style that seemed a bit out of place for a Track Day orientation. He invokes "God", the "Bible" and other Christian imagery quite often. Just as I began to fear this was going to turn into a sermon, he turned the briefing to the topic at hand and started the introduction to the track rules.
Riders are divided up into a bunch of different groups. The noobs are put in the beginners group. Everyone starts there. There are also intermediate, advanced and race school groups. Most of the Bob's guys were in the intermediate group. Only one group of riders are on the track at any given time. Each track session lasts about 15 minutes. The beginners have additional rules placed on them. As a beginner you are not allowed to pass in corners. This would prove to be a noticable limitation for me given that I have a slow bike. It was also made clear that there would be coaches on the track with us and that they would be available to answer questions.
The first session on the track was to be a slow speed orientation session to let riders get to know the track. I was starting to feel much more comfortable about the whole thing. They stressed repeatedly that this is not a race. Do not ride at the limit of your capability. Leave some room for error. This further built my comfort level.
He went on to talk about "finding a buddy". "Find someone out there that rides at about your level and follow him or her. That'll be your buddy and you'll have a better time."
All good things come to an end as was the case with my feelings of comfort.
An EMT service was there with ambulances at the ready. The main guy whose name I forget said, "Now this is really important. If you have an accident we'll come up and we'll ask you your name. If you don't respond or you're too busy moaning, we'll call for the bird. So it's really important. Stop moaning and answer with your name. Got it?" he said matter of factly.
"Remember, when asked, stop moaning in agony. Say my name. Resume moaning in agony. Check." I would remind myself tentatively. Safe they said. Exactly how fast would we be going?
After the riders meeting I headed back over to the Bob's tent to store my bags and get ready to ride. The advanced riders went out first. The intermediate went second. So I had at least half an hour before my first track session.
Lex, on the left, is the Bob's contact for the event. Darryl, on the right, works in the service department. I don't know Lex very well having only spoken to him a few times over the many years he's worked at Bob's. Darryl and I have spoken more often. He's a really good guy and has always been kind to me. I was looking forward to riding on the track with him. He's got a Miles-By-Motorcycle sticker on his black R1100S bike. Pretty cool.
Announcements would come over the loudspeaker indicating which group was to be up next. They would announce 10 minutes or so ahead. It was time for the intermediate group to ride. They lined up waiting for the signal to go.
I watched for a little while. To my surprise they were certainly going much faster than we had been at the Keith Code school. I was not sure what to expect. The first session for the beginners group was called sooner than I expected so it was yet another rush to put my gear back on, get my bike and line up. I was surprised to see how many of the so called "Beginners" had full race leathers. Many seemed to have dedicated track bikes with numbers on them. I'm pretty sure my 1999 R1100S was by far the slowest bike in the group. Once again I felt a bit intimidated and was afraid I was going to be holding things up.
Onto the track we went slowly. A group of 10 of us putted around the track. To my surprise, it was almost too slow. The riders ahead of me, even the ones in full race gear on dedicated race bikes, were more tentative negotiating these long sweeping corners than I would have expected. Once again, I have to remind myself not to judge a book, positively or negatively, based on it's cover. It did, however, give me a chance to get a pretty good look at the track but I would have liked to have gone a little faster in that first session so I could have gotten a better sense of it.
In the second session, I was able to pick up the pace a bit but found that I kept getting behind riders that would bolt from corner to corner much faster than I could only to slow down painfully in corners. "No passing in corners." was the rule even if they are crawling. This was stressing me out because I really wanted to practice cornering. A coach started following me around and would occasionally lead. But inevitably we would get caught behind a bunch of very slow riders. Once we came around to the straights everyone would get on the gas and leave me behind. There was no catching up. And the story would repeat itself at the next corner where I would catch up and have to slow way down. This really was no fun at all. So I attempted to hold back a little bit and bolt out of a corner in some of the slower sections to get ahead of people. It felt really rude and I was trying very hard to pass without unsettling anyone.
After the session, the coach, a pleasant enthusiastic guy named Greg, came over and talked to me. "You pass very politely. You're not unsettling anyone. You're doing well." I mentioned I was having trouble passing in the straights because compared to these 150+hp monstrosities out there my little 85hp bike just can't keep up in the straights. "Out brake them. They'll hit the brakes earlier. You can get by them right before going into the turns." he suggested.
During the next session things started to become fun. I did as Greg suggested and in the main straight where I could reach maybe 132 mph I would simply wait a bit longer to brake. As the others hit the brakes early to tentatively go around turn 1, I would rush past, waiting to brake at the last moment I felt comfortable. The first two or three times I did this it was a little scary because I misjudged where to brake and damn near had to do a panic stop. The rear of the bike got light and started wiggling and I wasn't sure if I could make the turn but I did manage to save it with some margin for error. Slowing down from 130 to 30 in a hurry is challenging and isn't something I've done before. It's a good skill to have but hard to practice when you're surrounded by other bikes you're trying to get past.
I noticed I wasn't being passed very much. At one point I came upon a guy on a Yamaha R6 who was moving along at a really good pace. I started following him and stayed with him for the rest of the session. "This is my buddy." I thought. It was a blast. As I rolled up, I saw he was talking to Greg. I waited patiently. Greg said to me, "You and this other guy, Nathan, are the two fastest riders in the beginners group by far. You're lapping many of the others. I think you should get bumped up to the intermediate group. At your pace, you're a solid mid-level intermediate rider. But it takes two coaches to sign off so let's go find one to follow you."
We chatted for a bit. He used to race motocross but said that as he's gotten older he no longer has that win-at-all-costs mentality that's necessary for racing. "I prefer coaching now. It's relaxing." he said. He seemed to really enjoy sharing knowledge.
We talked to a coach, Lucas, who agreed to follow me for an evaluation. I went back to the Bob's tent to get some water and take a break.
I found myself thinking, as I sat there sipping on the water that Bob's provided, that on the one hand having a little canopy, some chairs and water doesn't seem like much but man would I miss it if it weren't there. Because of the work the Bob's BMW stuff does and all the stuff they bring, someone can just ride up on their street bike and take it on the track. They make it so much easier for someone to do this than it would be otherwise. Without them there, I'd likely be baking in the sun not having any place in the shade, which on this day wasn't too bad as the weather was absolutely beautiful. A cool breeze was ever present. If I do a future track day event where the Bob's crew aren't there I'll have to figure something out. I must admit if you've never done a track day and would like to get a taste of it, joining the Bob's BMW track day event is about as trouble free an introduction as one could get.
Most other riders had trailers and cars and their own canopies to sit under. There's just all this additional stuff you need to do these things on your own.
I was hoping to ride with Darryl on the next session, but unfortunately, he had some bad news. He had mentioned before track day that his bike was making some unusual noises and it looks like it self destructed on the track with just under 90,000 miles on the clock. He was visibly bummed about this.
I think this is his bike. if it isn't it's very similar to his bike. Since I was still in the beginners group and he was in the intermediate group, I offered to let him ride the guest bike but unfortunately he wasn't interested. I did have good coffee with me, of course, so I offered him some. Bummer, I had really been looking forward to riding with him.
Down at Deal's Gap I had noticed that there were many more female riders than I had ever seen before. I noticed the same phenomenon here. There were far more female riders than I would have expected and all of the women riders I saw were on full sport bikes wearing full race leathers. My thoughts turned to Tara, the Canadian who handed me my ass and set me on this course to become a better rider than I thought possible.
This woman was in the beginners group as well and was probably somewhere around my age. I forget what she rode. It was some kind of superbike. GSXR? CBR? R1? Ducati? I don't remember. In the last session of the day, practicing something the coach Lucas had suggested I try, I was attempting to pass her in a short straight when she got on the gas. Her bike was much more powerful than mine and launched forward faster than I expected. Lucas said I made the pass cleanly but it was a little closer than he would have liked. It was certainly much closer than I had intended or was comfortable with. I tried to find the woman afterwards to apologize but I wasn't able to find her. I hate when that kind of thing happens.
Nevertheless, there were far more women riders than I was expecting. The times are changing and it's a good thing.
There were, however, a number of women around who looked pretty bored. I assumed they were the girlfriends of racers. I guess it's possible they were support staff. Who knows?
I found myself thinking I probably wouldn't invite a non-rider up to an event like this. Even then, I probably wouldn't want to go with someone who wasn't participating in the event.There wouldn't be anything for them to experience, I don't think. It would be a day of sitting in the sunshine listening to the roar of fast moving machines go by while having largely nothing to do. This woman spent most of her time reading a book. I felt bad for these women who were just hanging around.
It turns out Nathan, the other fast beginner rider, was set up just across the way from the Bob's BMW canopy. Every now and then I meet someone who I just hit it off with. It happens very rarely, but Nathan is just a great guy. He's got a calmness and lack of arrogance to him and he's a damn good rider.
While I was supposed to be evaluated for a bump up to the intermediate level, the coaches bumped him up to the I level immediately. They were impressed with his riding. Unfortunately, on the very first turn of the very first intermediate level session he participated in his rear wheel came out in turn one and he went down. His gear worked. He was completely fine and his bike was undamaged other than being covered in dirt. He wasn't sure what he had done wrong. Too much throttle? It's not clear. But he was very reasonable about it and kept an even head.
It shook his confidence quite a bit and it tooks a couple of sessions before he got his groove back. I was impressed with how quickly he recovered and how he didn't let his off and subsequent demotion back to the beginner group dampen his spirits. He still had a blast and it meant we got to ride at the same time. Unfortunately, as fate would have it I didn't see much of him on the track as we constantly got separated at the start, me being in one group of 10 and him in another.
The racer, Jeremy Cook that Bob's BMW sponsors, was there with an assistant. He was riding as a coach in a few of the session. At one point he needed to add some air to his tires but was running short on time. "I have a mini-compressor." I mentioned to him. We used my mini-compressor to add some pressure to a tank of his. They got a kick out of the little gadget. "I've got to get one of these." he said. "I should have brought the espresso maker." I replied.
They called up the last beginner session before lunch and out I went with Lucas. I ran around the track at a pretty good pace focusing on my body positioning and cornering. At the end of the session, Lucas found me and we spoke. He said that Keith Code school had clearly worked for me and that I was doing everything correctly except my line through the corners wasn't what people would expect and it would likely not play well at the intermediate level. So he denied me the bump up. He seemed ready for a negative reaction from me but he got none. "The last thing I want to do is something that's going to spook someone." I replied. "I have no ego in this. I'm just here to learn."
"Tone down your speed and practice your lines. Then I'll follow you again and if you improve I'll agree to bump you up." Cool.
It was time for lunch. There wasn't much for me to eat but I managed. I sat down with Darryl and a few others.
I was talking about how I'd rather be passed that have to pass. Getting around slow people when they bolt from corner to corner was getting a bit old. The conversation moved to the kinds of bikes out there and how fast the S1000RR, BMW's 190hp technological superbike wonder, was. "I think there are a couple S1000RR's in the beginners group." someone said.
"I didn't notice." I replied "My mirrors are taped over."
After finishing lunch, I walked back over to the Bob's tent. Jeremy was there telling stories about drifting his rear wheel around corners. Advanced racers can actually slide the rear wheel free to force the front of the bike to point sharper into the corner improving their times. "How the hell do you learn to do that?" I asked incredulously. "How do you develop that feel?"
I didn't think he would take as much time to talk about his progression in riding. Strangely, I've done many of the things he has. I did Total Control. I did the Superbike school. He learned things and pushed himself in ways I can't imagine doing. It's amazing how two people can be exposed to the same things, the same ideas, and one will jump forward in ability to become something extraordinary and the other, me, will just gradually progress. He went on to talk about trust. "You have to learn to trust the machine. You have to learn to trust the engineers and the mechanics. You have to learn to trust that the tires will stick and that the bike will corner better than you can. Once you can build that trust, then the only thing you have to work on is inside your own head." he explained. "It's a chain of trust." I commented. "Yea." he replied.
And it suddenly made sense. Sometimes you will hear motorcyclists say you simply have to "believe" that the bike will do what you need it to. It's obviously more nuanced than this, context being key. You have a finite quantity of attention you can spend at any given moment. Worry is a kind of attention. If you worry about the tires, if you worry about the bike, if you worry about the brakes, if you worry that the mechanic made a mistake or that you'll have some catastrophic failure, you'll have significantly less attention for the task at hand. "You have to have a chain of trust." not because tires can't fail or machines can't break, but that these things have gotten so good that these days the much bigger danger is that you're moving so fast that you have a lapse in attention. Anything, any doubt, any fear, that takes away your attention is likely to lead to problems.
And then, if you have this chain of trust built, if something does go wrong with one thing or the other you'll likely be in a better headspace to recognize it and deal with it calmly because you have excess attention to spend on it. It's like how your attention to driving is drained by a child that constantly asks, "Are we there yet?". "Has the tire failed yet? The brakes? The steering? Do I have traction?" over and over and over. It's tiring and robs you of critical attention and counter-intuitively makes it more likely you'll have an issue.
"And remember, no matter how fast you are going, there's someone else here who has gone faster, one handed sipping a latte." one coach said. "The bike can make it around the corner. You are the limiting factor." I remembered these words as I was pondering what Jeremy was saying.
We are on a track to go fast. When you go fast you have to eliminate doubt so that you can free yourself to be situationally aware of your surroundings and where you are headed.
As incredibly improbable and counterintuitive as it is, you can in fact take corner 10 at more than 85mph despite the fact you can think of 1000 reasons in the blink of an eye why it could and should go horribly wrong. Then you realize that 85mph for corner 10 is probably 20 or more miles an hour slower than is possible by someone with skill.
After thinking about it, I realized the corrolary to "chain of trust" is that in order to build a "chain of trust" you have to give up the illusion of control. Being completely self-reliant is an ideal many of us hold on to. It's like being the rider who worries about every last detail of the bike, the tires, etc. It's safe to be self-reliant. It's safe to feel like we have control over every last little aspect. It is, however, an illusion and it makes us slow and likely more dangerous. To ride a motorcycle well, to ride a motorcycle fast, means giving up the control over your own life and placing it into the hands of potentially thousands of other people who built everything that's made it possible for you to go fast at that particular moment.
Of course we have to choose wisely who or what we give that control up for, but after some time, with some experience it seems to be a skill that can be honed. I suspect, given that the motorcycle seems to be a mirror for my own pychological limitations, these concepts probably apply in many other areas. Entrepreneurship is clearly one.
After lunch, the sessions continued. I attempted to follow the advice Jeremy had given me, not blindly, but to simply assume the bike would make it around whatever corner I wanted it to as long as I did what i needed, namely smooth throttle control, body position, vision, etc. In other words, I narrowed my attention just down to what I was doing and let the bike take care of itself. I also focused on controlling my fear. It's scary going around those corners that fast. You get scared, you tense up, suddenly the bike doesn't handle as well as it did before because you grip the bars too tightly. Unlike Deal's Gap, however, these corners are long sweepers. There's one where you lean the bike over and it seems like you're in that position forever.
I had learned to be first in line when the beginners group was called up. This made all the difference in the world. I would typically get the track to myself allowing me to go as fast as I wanted. I would usually have several minutes before I came up on another rider. I got more comfortable diving deep into corners to pass riders who had much faster bikes. I practiced my lines.
Lucas followed me. Doing as I had been told, I reduced my speed and demonstrated I could hit the lines he had suggested. In the post session de-brief he told me, "Now I want to see that you can follow your lines but go back to the same speed you had before." "But you said I should slow down." I replied. "Yea, I know I said that. But now I need to see you demonstrate speed."
And so it continued. On the very last session of the day it seemed like all the beginner riders were going faster. I was flying and after some point I got passed by Nathan on his R6. Given equivalent riders, there's no catching an R6 on an R1100S. To be honest, Nathan is a better more fearless rider than I am. He says he got video of me on the track from his bike. I'm hoping to get a copy.
At one point, Nathan was talking to one of the female riders. I don't think she was in the beginners group. "What do you ride?" she asked me. I pointed at the R1100S and said "The slowest bike in the group. That R11S". "There's nothing wrong with being slow. We're just out here to have fun." she replied. Nathan explained, "Oh, his bike is slow but he isn't."
The day was over. Lucas rolled up next to me and asked me what I thought. I gave him my assessment. "My lines are better but not as consistent as yours. I passed that one woman out of turn 2 closer than I wanted." He agreed and after some discussion told the organizer Roger that I should be bumped up to the intermediate level. Roger replied, "We don't bump people up after the last session." So if and when I go back for another track day, I'll have to spend the first half of the day at the beginner level. No problem.
It was time to pack things up. Luckily for Darryl, there was room in the Bob's tailer for his bike. Unfortunately for him, there wasn't room for him. So he had to return home on the back of Lex's bike.
It was all very funny.
It was over. I was incredibly tired. It was an exhausting day of going much faster than I thought I would. I rolled out of the parking lot and onto the small country roads barely moving already missing the feeling of ever so slightly lifting the front wheel while accelerating out of turn 10. I suspect I may have to do something like this again.
The scenery out near Harper's Ferry is beautiful especially as the sun starts to set.
So tired, I rode many miles on my guest motorcycle to find a Starbucks, of course, because as everyone knows, I'm a Starbucks Stopper.
I reflected on my day. The Bob's BMW guys made the experience much more pleasant and easier to try as a first timer than it would have been otherwise. I'm pretty sure the next time they schedule a track day I'll participate.
The skill levels in the beginners group were all over the place. There are clearly street riders who had never taken any riding courses. There were riders who had been on the track before. And then there were Nathan and I. I think, to get more first time people to participate in a Bob's Track Day it might be good for the Bob's folks to arrange something with the Total Control folks. I would strongly recommend that anyone considering a track day to at least take the Total Control Advanced Rider Clinic before going out on a track. You'll have so much more fun and you'll be safer out there.
Is a track day "safer" than a day down at Deal's Gap or anywhere else on the road? I guess the answer depends on who you are. As I mentioned to Rob the other day, higher performance in both ability and machinery is vastly safer given a disciplined rider. From my experiences on a track witnessing what I did I suspect the track is not safer for a disciplined rider, it's just more controlled with better and closer services. The "illusion" of safety on a track allows you to ride much closer to your own limits, which is inherently not safe. However, again context being key, if you are a reckless rider regardless of where you ride, then yes, I suspect the track is vastly safer. But I do agree, the track is the only place to go truly fast even if all you're doing is riding a very slow bike.
Interestingly, I thought the Keith Code school made me a much better rider in all conditions. This Track Day event was more specialized and what I learned here doesn't seem, at first glance, to translate much to road riding. It was, however, a completely enthralling blast of a time.
As the sun set over the horizon, I rode the lonely cool road back home.