Friday, 2 December 2016

The race that won't stop killing


Five* racers were killed in 2016’s Isle of Man TT races. That’s a few more than average, but nothing anyone's getting uptight about; ferry bookings to attend next year’s event have already sold out.

That people have died and will die –– lots of them –– is just the way of things. It’s an accepted truth. There will always be Tuesdays; oranges are orange; men and women will die in horrific crashes at the TT. And perhaps I’ve lived in these parts for too long that I hadn’t really considered how deadly the TT is until RideApart asked me to write a piece about it back in the summer.

By “these parts” I mean the British Isles: the archipelago that also includes the United Kingdom and Ireland. And, to a lesser extent, I mean the Isle of Man.


The Isle of Man, a tiny strip of land sitting in the Irish Sea –– only 14 miles across at its widest point –– holds the status of UK crown dependency. Which means that it can make most of its own laws but its Olympic athletes compete under the United Kingdom’s flag. It’s that element of self-governance that is at the heart of why the Isle of Man Tourist Trophy Race, to use its full name, even exists.

Back in 1907, clever local officials saw that the United Kingdom had a national speed limit of 20 mph (cars and motorcycles were newfangled contraptions and British roads ill-equipped to support them), so they scrapped their speed limit entirely in hopes of drawing wealthy thrillseekers. This year marked the 97th running of the TT, folks having taken a few years off here and there to fight each other in the world wars.

Over the TT’s history, some 146 competitors have died. That doesn’t count the spectators and race officials who have also lost their lives by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Add those in, along with amateurs outdone by the course when it’s been opened up to the public, and the death toll climbs closer to 270 (though, I can find no reliable figure for the exact number of total deaths that have occurred during the TT period). It is, as the man in this video says, “totally out of order.”



To put it into perspective, consider the closest thing the United States has to an equivalent: the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. In its 92-year history only six competitors have actually been killed. Just three of them were motorcyclists, but that’s been enough for the PPIHC to make rules about bikes’ handlebars and even consider banning two-wheeled machines from the event.

Part of what makes the TT so incredibly dangerous is the fact it’s run through quintessential British Isles-style towns and villages, on the same streets that Isle of Man residents use throughout the year. The course consists of nothing more than public roads blocked off for a few hours each day. It’s similar to when roads in the United States are blocked off for parades. But instead of the local belly dancing club and a high school marching band, it’s a motorcycle zipping past your house.

Actually, it’s a little more like having that motorcycle scream down your driveway. When American friends visit me in the UK they’re surprised at how narrow the roads are, how close houses are to those roads, how stone walls and hedgerows seem to creep in, and how generally unforgiving of mistakes is the whole set-up.


That officials allow motorcyclists to hurtle themselves themselves through all this is, as TT organizers readily admit, madness. It’s hard to imagine a race track being allowed to operate after it’s claimed 146 lives. Heck, it’s hard to imagine a sport being allowed to carry on with so many fatalities. For example, in the history of NASCAR –– across all race series in all venues –– with its long reputation for rag-tag reckless maniacs, only 83 drivers have died.

And yet the chances of the TT being called off grow less each year. Part of it, of course, is money. The Isle of Man is somewhat difficult to get to and sits in a part of the world that is more often than not cold and wet. It has no real industry to speak of, apart from being a tax haven for the wealthy. The TT brings tourists and money. Lots of tourists and lots of money.

But greater than money is tradition. “We’ve always done it that way” is a perfectly acceptable argument in the British Isles. Outside of the progressive metropolises like London, Dublin, Edinburgh, etc., folks prefer their change to come slow, if at all. That’s why people here don’t drive cars with automatic transmissions. It’s why you can find buildings that have stood derelict for 100 years. It’s why many pubs, restaurants, and hotels (far more than you’d ever imagine) still don’t accept credit cards. It’s why calling a woman you’ve never met “love” or “darlin’” is as socially acceptable as saying “hello.”


The TT has been run for a long time. Back in 1907, when motorcycles were little more than glorified bicycles, the course probably didn’t seem all that wild or insane. It was likely more a test of endurance than anything else. By the time technology had progressed enough to make the course truly dangerous the power of tradition had already grabbed hold.

In addition to all this is the great British Isles affection for those who do stupid/not sane stuff. People of this archipelago love a poorly conceived feat of derring-do. That’s always been the way of things, but has grown especially true in the post-war, post-industrial age.

In the 1970s and 80s motorcyclists here fell in love with the likes of Barry Sheene, but also Joey and Robert Dunlop: Northern Ireland racing brothers who both ended up being killed in crashes. Robert’s sons, William and Michael, are current racers. William helped Victory earn a podium spot at this year’s TT; whereas Michael set a new TT superbike lap record.

In the 1990s, British Isles culture celebrated guys who consumed ridiculous quantities of drugs. In the 2000s, the “Top Gear” mindset of a person placing himself in a doomed-to-fail situation became all the rage, along with watching Bear Grylls drink urine from a dead camel’s bladder.

These days, bike magazines are filled with tales of guys riding clunking, 30-year-old bikes to Africa. It all has the same theme: an appreciation for those who look a bad idea squarely in the face and think, “Yeah, I’ll have a go.”

Though, TT fans prefer to think of it as bravery: a willingness to push to the very limit of human capability.

There are occasional calls to ban the TT, usually after a better-known racer is killed, but they never carry much weight. The tradition is too strong, the fans’ desire too great. And we know that many of the racers also believe it’s worth the risk. Isle of Man TT Racer Allan David Jefferies was killed at the 2003 TT. Famously, this quote from him is written on his gravestone: “Those who risk nothing, do nothing, achieve nothing, become nothing.”

The TT is dangerous. Racers have died; racers will die. It seems, though, that people here are willing to accept that. It’s just the way of things.


––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

*NOTE: The figure of five deaths in this year's TT period comes from a report by the BBC. However, the folks over at Asphalt & Rubber take issue with this, pointing out that the death of racer Dean Martin took place at the Pre-TT Classic, which, they point out "is a different race, run on a different race course."

ALSO NOTE: At no point in this article do I suggest that the TT should be banned. When the article was originally published on RideApart I had kickback from a number of people who lack reading comprehension skills, getting their undies all twisted up over comments that were never made. If you're one of those people I suggest you chill the fuck out and sit the hell down.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Doing an Iron Butt ride was utterly pointless


Back in June I took part in my first-ever Iron Butt ride.

Ostensibly, I took part in the ride to help raise money for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal, a charity initiative that helps the UK’s military and veteran communities. The Poppy Appeal is a good cause (A special thanks to those of you who donated) and an Iron Butt is something I’d wanted to do for a while, so I jumped at the chance. 

 Now that I’ve done it, I’m pretty certain I will never do it again. 

Turns out I don’t actually enjoy riding 1,000 miles in less than 24 hours. It’s not my thing. It’s tedious, exhausting, and runs contrary to many of the things I love about motorcycling. Of course, I never would have known that unless I’d done it. So, while I’ll readily tell you an Iron Butt is a waste of time, I’ll also tell you that you may need to learn that for yourself. 

My ride started at 5 a.m. on the outskirts of the Northern England city of Leeds, at a place called Squires Cafe. I had ridden up from Cardiff the day before, about 250 miles away, and hit surprise heavy rain en route. I’d spent the night running up Holiday Inn’s electricity bill, holding a hair dryer to my clothes, and by the time I had to get geared up and go my stuff had almost but not quite dried out.

It was raining again –– lightly –– when I pulled up to the starting point, my Suzuki V-Strom 1000’s panniers full of spare gloves and extra layers. I was wearing a one-piece rainsuit. My heated grips were on low. To the bike’s rack I had strapped a 5-liter bottle of water. In the months before this ride I had intended to sit down and read the reams of advice offered by the Iron Butt Association UK, but… ah… I didn’t. The only nugget of wisdom I’d managed to pick up was that I should stay hydrated.

A Royal British Legion volunteer checked me in, wished me well, and I was off. I would not return until almost exactly 21 hours later. Of those 21 hours, I’d say roughly 20.5 were spent in rain or fog –– usually both.

As I approached Manchester, thick fog, illuminated white by my headlight, limited visibility to about 100 feet. I sped onward into the unknown, because “Making Progress.” Less than 50 miles into the ride, I had already stumbled upon an aspect of the Iron Butt experience that makes me never want to do it again. Throughout the day, “Make Progress” was my mantra. I had to keep going, had to keep pushing forward, because I was against the clock. And that mentality negatively altered my riding style; I took fewer breaks and greater chances.

The only real break I took during the Iron Butt ride was a stop for breakfast, shortly after crossing the Scottish border. Looking back, it was one of only a few enjoyable parts to the experience.

By the time I was 270 miles into the ride, I had abandoned my usual rules for filtering, aka lane splitting. Normally, I won’t filter above 30 mph, won’t take gaps between two moving semi trucks, won’t ride more than 10 mph faster than surrounding traffic. It’s a prudish technique, perhaps, but I’m relatively confident that if things go wrong under those conditions I’ll survive. That was all gone as I ripped through Glasgow.

Effortlessly, mindlessly, I slithered through the city’s traffic. Tearing through the chaotic wind tunnels between trucks, shooting within inches of cars’ mirrors. It was, as I say, stupid. Looking back, I’m disappointed in myself and embarrassed. You know those jackass riders whose idiot behavior spoils it for everyone else? That was me. I was that jackass. Somewhere in Glasgow right now there’s a motorcyclist getting all kinds of daggers from the eyes of drivers who think one of us is all of us, and it’s my fault.

North of Glasgow, through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and northward toward Inverness, the roads turned to two-lane winding routes that would have been fantastic on another day: a day when it wasn’t raining, a day when I didn’t feel pressed for time, a day when the road wasn’t clogged with tourists hauling camper trailers.

Make Progress. Make Progress. Make Progress. My mind was locked into this course of action now. On blind corners I passed four or five cars at a time. I swooped into too-tiny slots to narrowly avoid oncoming traffic, then dove back across the not-always-dotted lines. These actions blur together in my memory now: all one big fluid bad call.

The one moment that stands out came along the shores of Loch Ness. I leapt out from behind a motorhome without looking, right into the path of a BMW 4 Series. I tried to swing back into my lane but by this time had already come astride the motorhome. My pannier bumped against it. The BMW didn’t slow, didn’t swerve –– I’m not sure the driver ever saw me. Somehow I slipped through. I didn’t die.

I made Wick –– roughly the halfway point in the ride –– just before 5 p.m. At a grocery store where we had to check in I snapped one of only two pictures I took that day. Usually, what I love about motorcycling is that it connects me to the world, helps me take more of it in and appreciate it all. Not here. I was a drone, ignoring everything but the space in front of me and the miles I needed to cover.

Behold the glory of a Tesco in Wick, Scotland.

The other picture I took that day was of my breakfast (see above). By the time I hit Edinburgh, pushing back south toward Leeds, I had gone roughly 13 hours without eating. For a tiny moment I looked up, stepped out of my mental cocoon, and saw the new Queensferry Crossing bridge being built over the Firth of Forth. In the rainy early-dusk light it looked strangely beautiful and special. I felt lucky to be there in that moment. But once it was out of sight I slipped back into my idiot state.

Hunger, exhaustion, stress, and mindlessness caused a meltdown. We use the C word quite regularly here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and on this day my use of it –– in conjunction with words that start with A, B, D, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, and W –– was abundantly liberal. When a sudden increase in the rain’s intensity caused cars in front of me to slow I started screaming the C word with such ferocity that my brain locked and I could only spit the first syllable: “Cuh-Cuh-Cuh-Cuh…”

I found food at a 24-hour McDonalds in the middle of nowhere. Another personal rule broken. As I inhaled chicken nuggets and French fries I was overcome by the deep, hollow pointlessness of what I was doing: 1,000 miles alone in a big, dumb, wet circle. Why?

Heavy fog made the night darker. My rainsuit was giving up on me. Two of my four pairs of “waterproof” gloves had quit entirely. As had the pinlock visor in my helmet. Mist collected on the outside of the visor; I kept it open to prevent fog from building up inside. Droplets of water splashed against my face.

The external temperature display on my dash told me it was 10ºC (50ºF). The Suzuki has always been an optimist, so I know it was colder. My heated grips were on high but I couldn’t feel my hands. My teeth clacked from shivering.

The last 200 miles were like the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey: a tunnel of colors and my mind coming undone. Orange. Yellow. White. Red. Black. Any light spread out across the fog that surrounded me. Beyond it, darkness. I could not see the road. I was riding by GPS. If the map showed a curve, I leaned into it.

Credit to the Iron Butt Association and the Royal British Legion for their organization in putting together this event. They were the ones who had gone to the trouble to create the GPS file that guided me through the night. And they were the ones waiting for the riders when I arrived back at Squires Cafe. As I pulled into the parking lot, a woman came running up to me, grabbing my shoulder and looking me in the eyes: “Turn off your engine and set your side stand down. There’s food over there and tea. You can warm up and they’ll take your paperwork. If you want to get out of the rain, you can eat under the awning just over there.”

I looked at her. She repeated her spiel. I blinked. She repeated it again. In my head I thought: “Why does this woman have a Yorkshire accent?” 

Squires Cafe is in Yorkshire. 

When she repeated her spiel yet again, I thought: “I wonder who she’s talking to.”

I looked behind me. No one there. By now she had recruited a man to push down my side stand and help pull me off my bike. I recovered enough to thereafter ride 5 miles to my hotel, sleep for 9 hours straight, then ride the 250 miles back home to Cardiff –– stopping five times –– before falling into my bed and sleeping another 9 hours.

Really, probably, I should be dead. I did so many things wrong on this Iron Butt ride. It was an elephantine string of bad decisions. I suppose I’m glad I did it –– I had always wanted to –– but I am nothing short ashamed of how it went. It was a challenge that created a perfect storm of pressure and fatigue, and within that situation I let myself down. I was neither the rider nor person I want to be.

Right now I’m inclined to say my first Iron Butt ride was also my last.

Monday, 28 November 2016

2016 Honda CBR650F - Ride Review

Touring Sport: Scotland on a Honda CBR650F

Summer in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more a state of mind than meteorological phenomenon. It can be 50F and raining in December or June, March or September.


But as that time of year approaches, residents of this soggy archipelago pretend things will be different this time. We dig out straw fedoras and shorts, and we hope. Motorcyclists optimistically remove insulated lining from jackets and pore over maps looking for places to visit.

I sometimes allow myself to be suckered by the glitz of the Global Motorcycle Conspiracy (they're all out to get you, man), so when I daydream about touring I tend to daydream about bikes that are big, heavy, and tech-laden: the venerable BMW R 1200 RT, perhaps, or Triumph Tiger Explorer XRT, or the newly refreshed Yamaha FJR1300AS. The problem with all these bikes, though, is they are also really expensive. Meanwhile, ever since I spent some time travelling on the relatively affordable Indian Scout Sixty I've been questioning whether the go-to bikes of my daydreams are really necessary. 

Cue the Honda CBR650F. Receiving a subdued reception when first released in 2014, the bike has been given a refresh for 2016. By which I mean "new graphics." Honda places the CBR650F in its sport category, but that's because Big Red doesn't really want to call it what it is: an all-rounder.


Honda's U.S website describes the CBR650F as "in a class by itself;" that's pretty accurate. More comfortable, less powerful and easier to live with than the CBR600RR it is an everyday, all-the-time tool –– a fact I think some U.S. reviewers missed upon initial inspection. When RideApart's Bruce Speedman reviewed the bike two years ago, he described it as "an excellent midpoint platform for those on the CBR300RR-to-CBR600RR vector."

I'm not sure what he means, but my general feeling is that to focus on the CBR650F's track worthiness, or lack thereof, is to miss the point.


First Impressions

After several hours of map gazing, I decide I want to run Scotland's North Coast 500, which the country's tourism officials refer to as "the Route 66 of Scotland." But first I have to pick up the CBR650F from Honda's UK headquarters in the English Midlands. As is usually the case when I borrow a motorcycle, I ride my own bike –– a 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 –– to the location and leave it there for the duration of the loan. 

"We'll keep it safe, mate," says a Honda rep, nodding at my 'Strom. "We'll just leave her out in the street with the keys in; no one's going to want that ugly thing."

Honda employees are like this: confident in the superiority of their product. Arguably, they have a right to be. Every criticism I have of the CBR650F is something another rider would not notice or would be happy to overlook. The essence of the bike is sound; everything works.


Looking a little small for my 6-foot-1 frame, it is surprisingly comfortable and instantly familiar. Light enough for me to spin on the sidestand using one hand, it has a low center of gravity that gives the rider instant confidence. As a touring rig, it lacks in passenger accommodation –– the seat is reasonably sized but the passenger pegs are too high –– but offers plenty of places to strap/bungee luggage. Its tank is metal, which means it will take a magnetic tank bag.

Handlebars are clip-on, but above the triple tree. My ever-present TomTom Rider fits easily on the left 'bar.


Engine and Transmission

From the Midlands I face a 325-mile sprint to my friend Cam's house in Glasgow. I settle into an 80-mph cruising speed, with the Honda's 649cc inline four spinning at roughly 6,000 rpm. The bike's redline comes in north of 11,000 rpm, which is right about where it hits maximum power output: 86 hp. Maximum torque of 46.4 ft.-lbs. comes at 8,000 rpm.

At 80 mph, the CBR650F is smooth, with none of the buzzing that put me off inline fours a few years ago. It's smooth at slower speeds, too, and stays relaxed as you push toward a license ban. Honda claims a top speed of 140 mph, which aligns more or less with the straight-line 135 mph I was able to achieve. (Under closed-track conditions, of course...)

Power delivery is syrupy. How power can be like syrup, I'm not sure, but that's the word that comes to mind. Twisting the throttle, feeling the bike push forward without effort or hesitation, the image that comes to mind is of a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's pouring onto a stack of pancakes. My one complaint, which is not really a complaint at all, is that this syrup isn't hot.


Honda's damnably brilliant engineers have made an engine that doesn't really get warm under normal riding conditions –– unfortunate as I cross the border into Scotland. It starts raining. From Gretna Green to Glasgow I get drenched and my hands lose feeling from the cold; pressing them against the engine accomplishes nothing. 

The transmission, meanwhile, is totally Honda. It makes sense as soon as you get on the bike and it's so slick that above third gear it's almost like having a quickshifter. The engine pulls from low in the rpm range –– I'm able to leave it in sixth while lazing along with 30-mph traffic –– but in the coming days I will find I enjoy keeping revs high and slipping up and down the gears on Scotland's winding roads.


Ride Quality and Brakes

The CBR650F falls into the "reasonably affordable" category, so you get what you pay for in terms of suspension. For all-round road use, though, it is above average.

On the second day, Cam and I cut through Glencoe to Fort William, then push west to Inverness. It's a route that provides some good-quality high-speed bends. Cam, who likes to claim he's a riding novice (the man commutes 90 miles a day on a motorcycle) proves otherwise. His spirited pace allows me to really enjoy the Honda in its element. In Bruce Speedman's review he claimed pegs drag too easily, but for my tastes there is more than enough lean angle for anything you'd want to do amid the unpredictable nature and unreliable quality of public roadways.

Things only get unsettled once: when I suffer a brain fart and downshift two gears mid corner. My pride wants to place some of the blame for the resulting oh-my-god wobble on the suspension, but we all know that's unfair. 

The standard Dunlop tires do a good job of keeping me stuck to the road, even on the third day, when we spend several hours riding through unrelenting rain. During the deluge I am thankful, too, for the Honda's anti-lock brakes, which come standard in the European Union and are available as a $500 option in the United States. In dry or wet, the brakes offer plenty of bite without being overbearing.

Cam (right) and me before heading out on Scotland's North Coast 500 route. My clothes were still wet from riding up to Scotland the day before.

Comfort and Features

The bike's forward-leaning riding position means water dribbles into my gloves as we ride through the rain. I have ultra sensitive hands (I fell through the ice as a teenager and suffered nerve damage) but try to press on. My heart aches for the upright ergonomics, heated grips, and huge Givi AirFlow screen of my own bike.

The CBR650F is somewhat low-frills in that sense; it's a lovely motorcycle that goes fast, but don't expect bells and whistles. No slipper clutch (as I learned the hard way), no traction control, no rider modes. There is fairing to keep some of the weather off, but not much. The screen puts wind at my xiphoid process. The only way I can get completely out of it is to drop into a full belly-to-tank tuck, which feels silly at legal speeds.

When it's not raining, I'm happy to hang out in the wind, finding speeds above 60 mph to be preferable. The wind hits my chest and holds me up, taking the weight off my wrists. Lower speeds are tolerable. After four days on the road, I observe an overall lack of pain. No cramped legs, no aching back. My right wrist is just a teency bit tender but that has more to do with the fact this is not my usual riding position.


Cam and I are men who appreciate frequent stops for tea (such is the rock-n-roll lifestyle of married dudes, y'all), so I don't spend ultra-long stretches in the saddle, but there's never a point when my butt is wanting to quit. 

One of my two biggest complaints about the CBR650F is its dash. It looks too "built to budget." All the important information is there, though: speedometer, tachometer, trip meters, clock, fuel gauge, and so on. There is no gear indicator, though. The buttons to to use the dash functions are on the dash itself, rather than on the handlebar, which is annoying.

Mirrors offer a splendid view of forearms and elbows. Contortion is needed to spot what's actually behind, but when I find the right angle things are at least steady.


Practicality

The whole purpose of this exercise is to prove to myself the viability of the CBR650F as an everything machine. I suspected it would be, and –– shocker –– it is. Most everything you could want to do on paved road can be done aboard this (relatively) cheap and cheerful Honda.

Down in England and through the gridlock of Glasgow the bike had filtered through traffic with stunning ease. Riding the NC 500 it's handled every sweeping curve, every hairpin turn, every wide-open straight, every crawling village lane. On the fifth day, we hit the infamous Applecross pass. The bike is so steady I'm able to do a section no-handed. This has the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of calming Cam's nerves (he's following me down and feeling stressed) he panics about the both of us.


Cam's riding a Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, which has a 20-liter (5.2 U.S. gal.) tank. The Honda has a 17.3-liter (4.5 US gal.) tank but the two of us are needing to fill up at roughly the same time. Ridden prudishly, the CBR650F's fuel economy is mystical. Ridden like a goof by someone who loves the tight roar of its engine at high revs, it still delivers a solid 190 miles before the fuel light.

Lubing the chain without a center- or paddock stand is a pain in the caboose, but people with far more expensive motorcycles face the same challenge. Cleaning the bike is simple enough, though I'd worry about the fairing's stick-on graphics coming off over time. Checking tire pressure is relatively easy; access to valves is uncomplicated and the bike light enough I can muscle wheels into position.

Inverness Castle marks the official starting point of the North Coast 500.

Build Quality

On the sixth day, Cam and I stop for lunch north of Perth. From here we'll go our separate ways: he back to Glasgow, me taking a slow route south via Northumberland National Park.

"So, what's your assessment of the bike" he asks. "Sick of it yet?"

"No," I say. "I'm pleasantly surprised. That dash annoys me. And I feel the frame welds and fairing decals are tacky, but that's really about it as far as downsides."


The decals are my second biggest complaint. They're just stickers, looking like they've been slapped on as an afterthought. In "matte gunpowder black" with "candy rosy red," though, the bike is overall gorgeous. With only one more day in my possession, I'm feeling sad about not getting to stare at it much longer.

That night I stay in a hotel and can see the parking garage from my room. I go back down to the garage and move the bike to the top level so I can sit and look at it from afar. There's something about the CBR650F's look that says: "Someone cool rides this bike."

Beyond the decals, all the bits and bobs are up to the standard I'd expect from Honda. Which means you could ride this thing around the world six times before needing to adjust the chain. OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get my drift. Certain bits are plasticky –– this is an affordable bike, after all –– but it should all last a long time.


Final Verdict

My final hours with the CBR650F are spent covering 100 miles of motorway on an unusually cold morning. The bike is out-maneuvering everything else on the road and handily keeping pace with the Audis and BMWs that try to muscle their way down the A1. Zipping through traffic I'm able to hit gaps I wouldn't think of attempting on my own bike. The Honda has so much zing, fluidity, and ability to dance.

This bike really has done everything I've asked of it. I'll be honest: it hasn't cured me of my desire for technological and comfort whizzbangery, but I've really, really enjoyed my time on it. Meanwhile, the aftermarket offers all kinds of bike-specific accessories to help transform the CBR650F into something more tour-ready (add a set of Shad panniers and it will definitely look the part). No, two people wouldn't be happy crossing the continent on such a rig, but an individual may find it's everything he or she wants.

Cam (right) and me at John O'Groats – the furthest point north on mainland Britain.

I wish I could test this theory. I'd like to kit this bike out with hard panniers, a top box, heated grips, and a new screen, and ride it to Vladivostok. But too quickly I arrive at Honda HQ and am handing over the keys.

"I'll go fish your bike out of the [garbage] bin," the Honda rep says.


The Three Questions

1) Does the Honda CBR650F fit my current lifestyle?
For the most part, yes. If I had a version of this bike that was fully kitted out with all the aftermarket bells and whistles I could easily live with this thing as my everyday, all-the-time, go-everywhere bike. But it would fail completely to serve as transportation for both myself and my wife; our spontaneous trips to Devon would be no more.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Definitely. This thing has a fluidity and lightness that instantly feels right. It makes a great noise when revved hard but also provides effortless, genteel handling through urban situations.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
No. The Honda's a lot of fun, and if you hit it hard with an aftermarket-accessories hammer it could be damned useful, but it's simply not better than the 'Strom. That was instantly clear to me when I got back on my bike after riding through cold morning traffic. On the Honda I had been aching and losing feeling in my hands from the chill. On the 'Strom I was warm, comfortable, confident, felt I had power more readily accessible (the 'Strom hits peak torque at roughly 4500 rpm, after all), and, with the Givi AirFlow screen to protect me and my heated grips to warm me, I was much happier.






Monday, 3 October 2016

Mr Grumpy Pants

The ancient Celts used to refer to the space between October and April in Britain as "The Long Dark." It's a miserable time of year, and it's just starting.

 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Riding the 2017 Harley-Davidson Road Glide

I shot this video back in late August/early September when I was on the Harley-Davidson press ride in Washington state, then forgot all about it until today. It was shot with a Sena 10C (the same camera I used in this video), which appears to struggle when conditions are overcast. Probably not the best news for me, considering I live in Britain.

At least the audio is better than last time (thanks Nikos for telling me how to do that).


Ultimately, I rode three different bikes on the press ride. I'll put those reviews on this site one of these days, but in the meantime, here are the links to the articles I wrote for RideApart.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Low-speed thrills


I think I'm getting old. Earlier this summer I bought a one-piece rain suit to go over my riding gear. 

Yes, I live in the United Kingdom, so it will get heavy use, but there's no getting around the fact a one-piece rain suit is an old-man thing to buy. But I suppose it fits with other aspects of my motorcycling: the modular helmet, the high-vis vest, the never-gonna-take-it-off-road ADV bike... 

Harley-Davidson has a campaign at the moment encouraging parents to expose their children to motorcycling so they'll grow up and buy Harley-Davidson motorcycles (because, you know, every kid thinks their parents are cool). Based on my complete lack of badassitude, though, it's probably OK I don't have kids. I doubt anyone has ever looked at me on the road and thought: "Golly, I wish I looked like that guy."

Recently, to make things worse, I've been flirting with another old man facet to my motorcycling: riding below the speed limit. Actually, that may not really be an old-man thing. I've met dudes who were pushing twice my age who could make me look like an utter fool. It's more of a coolness thing — no one sings rock songs about obeying the speed limit.

In my defense, I usually ride at a "spirited" pace. There's a line of thinking in UK riding (and elsewhere) that the power of a motorcycle engine is a tool to be used in removing yourself from dangerous situations. This means that when it's safe and "reasonable" to do so, you twist the throttle and go, rather than hanging around in clumps of traffic waiting for someone to run you over.

But when I recently got to spend a week with the Indian Scout Sixty, its lack of screen naturally encouraged me to find quieter roads and adopt a more relaxed point of view. And to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.


I first started to dabble with slowness when I picked up the bike in London and rode 200 miles back to Cardiff.

Normally, my route home would have seen me stick to the M4, a six-lane motorway that stretches most of the breadth of southern Britain. And normally, I would be found in the fast lane (which is the right lane here in Bizarro World), only occasionally moving to the middle lane to make way for BMW and Audi drivers like my brother-in-law (who sees 120 mph as a comfortable cruising speed.) But this time I chose to hang out in the slow lane, intending to stay at or near the actual speed limit of 70 mph.

It's a lane into which I hadn't ventured often and I found it somewhat exotic. Firstly, there were the trucks. In the bureaucracy-loving European Union, large semi-trucks and some buses are fitted with speed limiters that keep them from exceeding 60 mph. That's 10 mph less than the speed limit. Similar rules apply for trucks in the UK.

I had known this was a thing, but never really paid any attention to it before. Now, though, keeping pace with the lugging beasts of the slow lane I found myself fascinated and baffled by this set up. Who thought this was a good idea? I mean, perhaps limiting the speed of enormous, monstrously heavy things makes sense, but letting them crawl along among vehicles that are regularly moving twice as fast?! It's a testament to the quality of British drivers that the country's motorways aren't perpetually bathed in flame.

Secondly, I discovered the peculiar thrill of drafting behind said semi-trucks. I had never bothered to try such a thing before because I generally lack the patience. Equally, it's a test of one's intestinal fortitude to ride so close. But I was delighted to discover that, yes, drafting actually works; it felt as if the Sixty's engine fell to idle.


Keeping my distance from the trucks, though, allowed an opportunity to check out other users of the slow lane: one or two white-knuckled kids who clearly had earned their licenses that week, a goodly portion of folk who have been driving since before the Suez Crisis, and, more delightfully, some old-school British cars that wouldn't stand a chance in any other lane. At one point I passed a Morris Minor 1000 — a car that famously can take more than 50 seconds to go from 0 to 60 mph. As I say, it was a unique and interesting experience.

As long as I was able to hold my patience I could sit back and enjoy a comfortable and incredibly fuel-efficient ride. I should note that the Sixty goes plenty fast, and I proved that to myself several times in the week or so that it was in my possession. But in the time since then, I've been experimenting here and there with über-slow riding on my own bike.

I'll admit that I struggle to keep it up for long. Eventually some part of me will snap and the idea of meandering along at speeds normally reserved for snowy days and Shriner parades becomes too much to bear.

But in those happy moments when riding slow seems novel and quaint, I find the whole thing to be downright relaxing. And as such, I've been pondering whether it's a technique I want to try to employ next month when I take part in my first Iron Butt ride (NOTE: I originally wrote this article in May; I have already done my Iron Butt ride). 

Hitherto, I had been planning on more or less locking in a speed that's just on the safe side of the lose-your-license cutoff in the UK, and hoping for the best. I had been assuming that getting to the various check-in points on the ride with a certain urgency would allow longer spells in which I could rest. And I know I will need rest because riding that far for that long is exhausting, especially at higher speeds. My beloved Suzuki V-Strom 1000 has a fancy aftermarket screen and heated grips, but it's still the case that noise, wind, engine vibrations, etc., take a greater physical toll as the speedometer climbs upward.



So, I've thought that riding slowly –– i.e., below the speed limit –– might actually turn out to be the better method of tackling this challenge. Yes, it will mean my rest breaks will have to be fewer and shorter, but perhaps by riding slowly it will mean I won't need them as much. Or maybe not.

Doing such a thing would no doubt spoil the joy of slow riding, and under the circumstances of needing to cover 1,000 miles in 24 hours I'd probably be able to remain patient for no more than 20 minutes. 

Perhaps instead, I'll just stick to my new habit of finding an abandoned road (extremely difficult in a country as densely populated as Her Majesty's United Kingdom) and riding at 20-30 mph below the posted limit. I know that sounds like a lame thing to do, but there really is a weird sort of joy in riding slow. I encourage you to try it –– if not simply so I won't feel like such an old man.

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(Portions of this article were originally published on RideApart)

Saturday, 23 July 2016

In the Brecons

I know it's been a stupid long time since I last posted on this blog. That's because I seem to get busier every day. Some day I'll post here again. In the meantime, here's a video I shot yesterday in Brecon Beacons National Park.