Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Crazy things I do: Get puppy-dog eyes for every bike that passes

I hear ya comin'.
Remember when you were a kid and you'd hear a fire engine? Your ears would perk up and you'd run to the window to see the enormous red machine zip past – whose house was it going to? What exciting thing was that siren speeding toward? If you were out playing with friends, almost instinctively a siren would cause the group of you to jump on your bicycles and pedal, hell for leather, toward the sound. This is how I now behave when I hear a motorcycle engine.

I have become surprisingly good at picking out a motorcycle's engine from a distance. Those of you playing along in the United States may not think it an impressive a skill, but in the UK people drive tiny-engined cars. None of my friends drive cars with larger than a 1.4-litre. A BMW in this country offers only 1.6. And on these minuscule cars the chavs install noise-enhancing exhausts. From the right distance, a person could get confused.

But I can hear the difference. A motorcycle's engine sounds more authentic. It carries in a certain way. When I hear this noise I find myself walking to the window, waiting to see what passes by. With the bikes that pass regularly I've gotten to the point I can identify exactly who it is on sound alone.

"Dyke on a Bike," I say, nodding to the window from across the room.

My wife is sitting at the table, next to the window. She looks down at the street right as a portly woman on a Yamaha Diversion passes by.

"What's she carrying today?" I ask, not getting up from the sofa.

"Flowers," Jenn says. "Balanced on her lap. You pay way too much attention to traffic that you can guess who it is."

Along with Dyke on a Bike, there is No-Good Monster (a Ducati Monster owner who refuses to fix his regulator-rectifier), Studious Boy (a kid on an L-plated scrambler who triple checks all directions before moving through the roundabout), Stunt Scooter Boy (who knew you could do wheelies on a scooter?!), Wish-I-Was On a Triumph Guy (all Triumph clothing but riding a loud Chinese bike), and a handful of others.

On the street, I'll turn my head 180 degrees to look at every. single. bike. I find myself studying them as if trying to memorise them. Perhaps I'm hoping it will come up in a pub quiz: "OK, picture round. You'll see on your sheets several pictures of motorcycle fairing – name the bikes with which they are associated."

As I've mentioned before, I often stop and stare at bikes so long the owners come out to see what I'm doing. They hear the American accent and calm down. No doubt they can see the newbie enthusiasm in my eyes, and many will take a moment or two to tell me about the bike – how it runs, whether they're happy with it and so on.

It's a disease, this tendency. I can't make it stop. I'm not sure I'd want to, though.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

What I Want: Suzuki GW250 Inazuma

It's not the coolest-looking thing, I'll admit. With its headlight reminiscent of Cobra Commander's helmet and oversized mud guards, the Suzuki GW250 Inazuma has a look that reminds me of Johnny Cash's song "One Piece at a Time" – as if the bike were made from bits they had lying around the factory. Its 250cc engine is equally unlikely to inspire envy in a great many people.

Nonetheless, this, amigos, is the bike I presently have my heart set on. This is the bike I would like to be my first. A commuter bike to its core, I imagine it to be the ideal machine on which to gain full confidence before moving up to something sexier and more powerful.

The riding style is upright, which appeals most to me. Sport bikes just aren't my thing and I can't imagine being able to physically tolerate being bent forward for long stretches of time. Well, I could tolerate it – I'm not that old – but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy it.

The Inazuma's 250cc engine, meanwhile, sips fuel. Suzuki claims more than 85 mpg. Reviewers have suggested the actual number is about 10 mpg less, but that's still impressive. It is a bike that is cheap to run, and cheap to buy.

I don't know if money will allow such a thing (probably not), but if possible I'd like to buy my first bike new. Yes, that means I'll be triply stressed about dropping it, but I feel it would be worth it for all the advantages that buying new entails – in terms of reliability, warranty, etc. I don't want to have to be learning how to make major repairs to a bike at the same time as I'm trying to just get comfortable riding one.

The Inazuma comes with a two-year warranty and one year of roadside assistance (1). Most appealingly, it costs £3,408 (US $5,370), which makes it the second-cheapest 250 I've found – the Hyosung GV250 is listed as costing £9 less.

And, all importantly, the Inazuma is thin enough to fit through my garden gate.

When I imagine my first year or so of riding, I picture a series of short trips – many through city congestion – with the occasional jaunt to a spot no more than 50 miles away. It seems to me the Inazuma is built for purpose in such a scenario and will instill in me the confidence and experience to move on to bigger and better things.

What do you think? What would you choose as your first bike?

–––––

(1) For those of you living outside the UK, we have several companies that are like AAA but they aren't shit – they actually fix your car on the roadside rather than simply towing you to a garage where you can get financially raped.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Solidifying

It's happening. A few days ago, I signed up to do a CBT course. For those of you playing along at home, CBT stands for Compulsory Basic Training (the British love acronyms), and it is the first step in the very long process of becoming a fully licensed motorcyclist in the UK.

Next Saturday I'll be in the northern fringes of Cardiff at 8 a.m. for a full day of learning stuff and riding around cones. At the end of it, if I've managed to do it all to an accepted standard, I'll get a wee piece of paper (1) that says I can ride a 125cc motorcycle – under certain conditions – for two years. At least, this is my understanding of the situation.

The aforementioned certain conditions are that I will be restricted to a 125cc motorcycle, I will not be allowed to ride on the motorway (who would want to on a 125?), I will not be allowed to carry a passenger, and I will have to display L plates (plastic signs on the front and back of the motorcycle with a large letter L, for "Learner" – or a D here in Wales, for the Welsh word "Dysgwr").

If you go back to that London intersection I mentioned in my lane-splitting post a while back, you'll notice a fair few L plates. It's my guess that many UK motorcyclists, and especially those within cities, never get past the CBT stage. Why pay to have several days of training when one day will get you on the road? But I'm inclined to go through the whole process – to get my full license so I can (eventually) ride bigger bikes and take my wife along every once in a while (if she wants).

Jenn's reaction was the dictionary definition of a poker face; I don't think she's particularly pleased. But I think, too, she can see this is something I've put my mind to, something that makes me happy.

Whereas I did tell her about the CBT (it would have been difficult to otherwise explain my disappearing for a full day), I conveniently left out the bit about buying a helmet. Yesterday, I walked to Riders Cardiff, my hands shaking with excitement, and bought a BMW Sport helmet, thanks to the fact they had reduced its price substantially.

I'm sitting here now, wearing the helmet as I write this post. I've had it on for at least an hour now and it has remained relatively comfortable. The only issue I've really encountered is the question of how to get water. I may need to invest in some sort of water bottle with a straw.

I am so excited. My goal of getting onto the road is still a ways off, with a number of obstacles in between, but it's starting to solidify. It's starting to become real.

–––––

(1) Actually, it will probably be normal-sized.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

What I want: Hyosung GV250

One of the things you'll see from British motorcyclists on various internet forums is the belief that no one would or should want a 250cc bike. The space between a learner-level 125 and a 500 is no man's land, they claim. But they claim all kinds of things, which is the modus operandi of internet forums, I suppose.

A fair few manufacturers offer 250s in the UK. Honda has the CBR, Kawasaki has the Ninja (actually a 300, but close enough), Suzuki has the Inazuma, and KTM has the Duke. Meanwhile, Yamaha may bring the YZF-R250 to the UK and there is talk of Suzuki reviving its Hustler name for something in the 200-300 range, as well as introducing the Z250.

On top of this, you have 250s (or close) from lesser-known manufacturers like AJS (who offer several 350s: the Stellar, the EOS and SPT), Daelim (who offer the unexciting VJF) and Hyosung, who offer the GV250, the GT250 and the GT250R. No doubt, there are one or two others I failed to mention (1). 

With so many bikes of this size on the market, I don't think you can claim no one wants them. Certainly I do. And among the aforementioned blur of seemingly incongruous letters and numbers are several bike models I'd like to have. In terms of visual appeal, the Hyosung GV250 leads the pack for me.

I'm a cruiser guy.

I think.

I don't actually know because I've never been on a cruiser. But I definitely like their look and the not-worried-about-getting-there-first attitude they exude. I don't want to take corners at butt-clenching speed. The appeal of motorcycling to me is the freedom to wander, and as Howlin' Wolf sang: I'm built for comfort, not for speed.

The only cruisers I can find in the below-500cc range are those provided by AJS and Hyosung. I only just found out about AJS this weekend and have had little success in finding reviews of their bikes beyond the usual racist/pointless laments that they are manufactured in China.

More information can be found about South Korean manufacturer Hyosung – most of it positive or neutral. And I've found forums in both the United States and Australia singing the praises of the GV250 (also known as the Aquila or Mirage). It's the right look, the right size and the right price. I want it.

Maybe.

What causes concern for me is Hyosung's poor UK infrastructure. Go to its (substandard) website, do a search for dealers, and you get a list featuring some dealers who have gone bust or whose websites make no mention of Hyosung. I sent a query about dealers more than a month ago and still have not heard back. The closest Hyosung dealer I can find is GV Bikes (2) in Taunton – some 84 miles away.

All this makes me nervous. I worry I'd find myself in the wilderness in terms of servicing and repair. So, although I love the look I'd probably choose something else.

–––––

(1) It's a shame that Cleveland CycleWerks bikes are not available in the UK.
(2) Nice website from 1999, fellas.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

What I want(ed): Yamaha YBR125 Custom

Not long into the motorcycle-obsession journey a person starts mentally cataloging which bike he or she wants. No doubt I'm quite common in this: when I run through those daydreams I find myself with a list of motorcycles. Indeed, part of the fun is constantly rearranging a particular bike's place on that list.

I like organising things. Yeah, ladies: I know how to party.

You get what I mean. In the throes of motorcycle excitement you're not going to set your mind on just one bike. Especially if, like me, you're keen to take a staggered approach to motorcycling proficiency. Like a high school kid rating girls (1), I have my eye on machines of all sizes and styles. One of the first bikes to catch my fancy was a Yamaha YBR125 Custom.

I'm a practical fella. I didn't always used to be. But one day, in my late 20s, I found myself driving the speed limit and realising that an honest assessment of limitations can actually help me accomplish goals. As such, I'm honest enough with myself to know I am not going to be awesome first time I get on a motorcycle. Sure, I may like the look and sound of an Exile Bar Hopper (2) but getting on one at this stage would almost certainly result in death, serious injury and/or unceasing ridicule from friends. Better to start small.

It doesn't get much smaller than a 125. That's the bike on which people are first trained in the UK (and in the US, if I'm not mistaken). Manageable and forgiving, a 125 is ideal for learning but has, too, all the power one really needs for getting around a European city.

"That's what I'll do," I told myself. "I'll get a 125, ride it until I'm totally confident, then move up."

Because of the way UK licensing works, the 125 is a popular class, and there are a number of super-cheap options. But with low price comes questionable quality, and I'm not exactly renown for my mechanical ability. So, I found myself gravitating toward the Japanese big four. Price ruled out some bikes, and looks some others. Eventually, I settled on the YBR125 Custom.

Yamaha's website says it's got a "genuine American cruiser look." That's ambitious. To me, it's got the neutral feel of a bike that doesn't really say anything about the rider. It's not a statement, which is exactly what I want from a utilitarian machine.

The bike is relatively affordable, has good reviews and is known to be reliable – probably all I'd need for getting around in Cardiff.

But I've decided I don't want it. A 125 may be a tad small. In those reviews I've read, there is acknowledgment the bike doesn't like hills. So, any attempt to take it beyond city limits might be less than enjoyable. I worry, too, that even within city confines it might not be happy on occasions I have a passenger.

I don't know, though. Maybe I'm buying too much into the idea that big engines are always good. Maybe I don't need anything bigger. And maybe, just maybe, if the price is right, I'll end up getting one anyway.

–––––

(1) When I was in high school I would make complicated charts to help me determine which girl I wanted to ask to dances. I scored the girls based on body type, facial attractiveness, personality, and likelihood of saying yes. It should come as no surprise that none of my high school relationships lasted more than a month.

(2) I don't really. All the Exile bikes look terribly silly and impractical to me. But I have a friend who drools over them.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Crazy things I do: Quit drinking

My financial woes are an inherent (and endemic) part of this whole motorcycle journey. Lack of money is greatest of my frustrations because it is so difficult to resolve. Unlike other life obstacles, money cannot be cajoled into being.

That's a view that no doubt reflects a certain amount of arrogance: I have a tendency to feel I can will things into being. With ego and bull-headedness, I feel, I can get my way. I really do believe that most things are achievable if you're willing to keep banging your head against the wall, and able to keep hold in that concussed mind a focus and desire to eventually break through.

It's a very American mindset, I suppose, and one I don't see as often from people here. In Wales – the UK region in which I live – nothing has happened entrepreneurially or culturally since the late 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher shut down coal mines. People here got knocked down; they still have not picked themselves up because they lack self-belief.

I'm digressing from the theme here, but one of the (myriad) reasons I've given up on the Welsh-language community is the fact that any new idea is met with a resigned shrug of the shoulders and a comment along the lines of: "Oh, that would be nice but we're too small/too poor/too oppressed by the English," or some other weak excuse. The Welsh possess infinite ability to identify their own flaws but no willingness to correct them.

Having lived here 6.5 years, I'll admit some of that thinking has infected my own. On the whole, however, I still believe you can overcome any challenge if you really put your mind to it. And when I look at the things standing between me and getting on a bike I think: "I can do this. Maybe."

The "maybe" is because of money. I can go through the licensing process, I can get my wife to warm to the idea of motorcycles, but money – that's a harder thing. I'm trying, though. And lately I've taken to tightening my belt in any way I can. For example, recently I decided I would start taking my bicycle to work. But the most drastic thing I've done is quit drinking.

Think about how much money you spend on booze. In my case, I wasn't a heavy drinker but I was shelling out at least £10 (US $15.84) a week. Add that up over a month and you've got enough to pay for bike insurance and a little bit of petrol.

My wife says a motorcycle is a luxury. Maybe. But so, too, is alcohol. And if I'm going to be forced to choose, you can expect to see me at the pub drinking water.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Slow and steady

Remember the film Wild Hogs?
Yeah, no one else does, either.
I'm part of a demographic, apparently. I suppose that's always true – one is always a member of some demographic or another. But there's a tiny sense of disappointment upon learning such a thing, learning I'm not the only one, and, in fact, there are quite a lot of people like me. I'm not unique; I'm cliché enough to be quantifiable.

In this particular case, the demographic of which I am a member is: dudes aged 36 and older who are keen to get back into riding motorcycles. I was reading an article about my type the other day, which said we are prone to get ourselves all worked up then go out, get a massive bike we can't control and shortly thereafter kill ourselves in a collision with something large and unforgiving (e.g. a tree, a mountain, linebacker Ray Lewis, etc.). I am a part of the demographic that produces Boss Hoss owners and people who wear Harley-Davidson socks. I hate my demographic.

I am very pleased to say, then, that in all my daydreams about riding the thought of getting a massive cruiser remains far away. Maybe. Some day. But in the immediate and not-too-distant future, I am keen to ensure I first know what I'm doing. That's the most consistent advice I've gleaned from the articles, blogs and motovlogs I see: learn to walk before you run.

It's a philosophy built into the UK's licensing system, which limits a bike's engine size according to the rider's age. At first, a rider is only allowed a 125cc. Still enough power to fatally hurtle oneself into an inanimate object, but small enough to be forgiving on a fair few mistakes. And when I was first thinking about getting my UK license, I told myself that even though my age allows me to bypass many of the restrictions I would follow the same route.

After a while, though, I realised I would need something just a tiny bit more powerful were I ever to go to Bristol, which is the nearest properly cosmopolitan city. Cardiff is nice enough but it is parochially small in culture terms. Unless you are a chav, there is little to do.  Bristol is a short 45 miles away, with much of the route possible on smaller roads. But eventually one has to get on the motorway (freeway) to cross the River Severn. Any alternate route would require driving to Gloucester and tacking an additional 50 miles onto the journey.

A 250cc bike would, I think, provide the necessary power to make the short jaunt over the bridge. Additionally, that extra engine capacity would make it less chaotic an adventure should I be able to convince my wife to join me on short trips in the immediate area. So, a 250 is where I think I'll start.

After an undetermined space of time (randomly, I imagine this to be two years) I'll move up to something in the 700cc range. After another undetermined space of time – if I feel like it – I'll move up to something even larger. One of the things that appeals most to me about motorcycling is the promise of relating more to my environment – not just the world around me, but also the machine that's moving me through that world. Making sure I'm comfortable with the machine is vital in attaining that zen.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

You, sir, look ridiculous

Dude, you are a tool.
I'm green. I have no shame in admitting that. Everyone has to be green at some point, and right now is that point for me. And in as much, I recognise that I don't really have much a leg to stand on when it comes to assessing other people's choices of bike, i.e. the type of bike they choose to spend their money on.

At the moment, I personally lean more toward the look and attitude of cruisers. When I picture myself riding, I don't pine to be hitting curves at bum-clenching speed. The idea of calmly exploring open space is far more appealing to me. I don't see motorcycling as a sport but a way of being free, and of getting to where I want to go. And to that end, I frequently find myself considering practical bikes such as Honda's NC700X or a Suzuki Inazuma. At the right price, I'd consider any number of other bikes regardless of their look or the inferred personality that comes with owning one.

My point is: I'm not the sort of person to criticise what bike a person rides, nor do I really have any right to do so. If you want to ride an efficiency scooter or an overpriced shitpile of ridiculous, that is your right. But great googly moogly do I think Boss Hoss bikes are stupid.

Paying upward of $100,000 for an impossible-to-control monstrosity that only gets about 18 mpg from its 8-gallon tank is just so mind-bogglingly ignorant I find it hard to believe. Especially considering that the bikes do not even look cool and are possessed of the strange ability to make anyone who stands near one look like a desperate tool who is trying to compensate for the total lack of something – manhood, personality, scruples, good taste...

The only human being whom I can imagine might look even remotely cool on a Boss Hoss is Andre the Giant*. Sadly, he is dead. So, there is no reason for these bikes to exist. The fact that they do points to the dark heart of America, the thing that keeps us at arm's length from our true greatness.

What kind of person would you have to be to pay money for such a thing? What sort of absolute soulless jackass would look at such a joke of a machine and think: "Hmm, I could buy this shining piece of shit, or I could buy a house. Yeah, I think I'll choose the shining piece of shit, the abominable hunk of prematurely ejaculated novelty patriotism that is this... thing."

You make me weep, Boss Hoss. You make me weep for motorcycling. You make me weep for my country.

-----

*And that is entirely due to the inherent coolness of Andre the Giant.

Friday, 8 February 2013

Crazy things I do: Measuring the door

Prince never has trouble parking.
He uses his sexiness to create space.
A few years ago I saw a short film produced for U.S. soldiers stationed in Britain during World War II. The short was a light-hearted look at the British "teammates" (the film used the analogy of a football team to describe Allied forces) and life on this island of rain. In it, Britons were described as "living in a sardine can" due to their affinity for building living spaces closely packed together. 

In 1940, the UK population was about 48 million. Now, it is just shy of 63 million. That's roughly double the population of Canada squeezed into a space smaller than Oregon. This is a cosy island, y'all. And what that means in practical terms is that far fewer of us have a garage or driveway in which to park a motor vehicle. This is especially true in the cities and – as in my case – areas that were built up before WWII. I live in a house built in 1895; no one was really worrying about where to put their car or motorcycle back then.

As such, the vast majority of us have to park our vehicles in the (very narrow) roads and hope they don't get hit or stolen. This is a situation that can be particularly unnerving for motorcyclists, whose mode of transport can often be physically lifted into a van by two or three strong blokes. From my fascination with bikes I've learned that if you linger too long near one that is parked in the road its owner will shortly be stepping out of a nearby house with a head full of steam.

Fortunately people here see Americans as being universally friendly, so once they hear my accent they always relax into happy conversations about their bikes and the fact that they've visited Florida (I think it may be law that in order to claim yourself as truly British you have to have visited Florida at least once).

The parking solution for many motorcyclists then is to store their bikes in the "garden" – the gated space outside a house, which Americans might call a front yard or back yard but for the fact it is generally too small to be awarded such distinction. We have such a space at my house, with a wooden door that leads out to the street.

As my motorcycle obsession was first starting to take hold I found myself measuring the width of this door with a mind to the size of bike I might could push through it. 80 centimetres. Armed with that knowledge, any time I now look at a bike, one of the first things I check in the specs is its width.

Frustratingly, this is a criteria that eliminates most cruisers, which is my favoured type of bike. That may again be a case of the universe doing things for my own good, ensuring that I will get a smaller, more manageable bike when I start out. But I can't help thinking that perhaps I should just move to a new house. One with a garage.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Love for Cleveland CycleWerks

If I were still in the United States and in the position I'm in now of wanting to get back into motorcycling*, I think one of the bikes - if not the bike - I'd have my eye on at the moment would be a Misfit from Cleveland CycleWerks. OK, technically the bike's name is Tha Misfit, but that's just silly. Who's going to say: "I ride a Tha Misfit."? The word "misfit" is questionable enough, as far as I'm concerned. It brings to mind thoughts of Spike from Degrassi Junior High.

But just because I don't like the name doesn't mean I don't want one. I really like the look of the bike and I love the philosophy behind it. The other day I watched this piece about CCW and felt kind of inspired by what Scott Colosimo and his company are trying to do, which is provide cool, affordable motorcycles. That's something no one else seems to be willing to try in the United States - a fact that was part of the reason I never bought a bike when I lived there.

Yes, CCW bikes are built in China and with a good number of Chinese parts, which the company is upfront about. The China aspect seems to be a sticking point for some people and I can't help sensing a bit of racism/xenophobia in their criticism. As I said in my last post, the motorcycling community is like any other in that it has its accepted truths - things people "know" to be true simply because they are oft repeated. The poor quality of Chinese products seems to be one of those accepted truths.

iPhones are also made in China, my friends. As is just about everything else you own. A Chinese product is good or bad not because of where it is made but because of the steps taken to assure its quality. What I get from CCW is a strong desire to provide a quality product

"It's all about finding the right partners, people who understand quality," Colosimo said in an interview a few years ago. "Our manufacturing partners build under ISO standards and know how to trace a defect back to its source. We are extremely serious about producing high quality, extremely affordable bikes and strive every day for improvements."

"The U.S. was built on people dreaming," says Colosimo in the video I linked to.

And I think that's what makes the bikes American. The spirit of having an idea and making it happen by working really hard is American, and that seems to run through what CCW does. Plus, they design cool-looking bikes that aren't trying to be something they're not.

I just wish these things were sold in the UK.

-----

*OK, let's be honest. Just because I have a motorcycle endorsement on my Minnesota license doesn't mean I'm wanting to "get back into" motorcycling. I'm wanting to start.

Monday, 4 February 2013

They call me Lane Splitter: Why filtering is a good thing, except (maybe) in the United States

I'm pretty green to the motorcycling community, the internet face of it especially. But what I'm quickly learning is that, like every community, it has its own set of mores and accepted truths. And it has its own issues that get members of the community yelling over one another, proving that old theory that the less important something is the more passionately and personally it will be argued. One of the most contentious of those issues, it seems, is lane splitting – or, as it is known in the United Kingdom: "filtering."

It is also sometimes referred to as "lane sharing" or "white lining." By whatever name you choose, it is, of course, the act of driving one's motorcycle between two cars. There are any number of internet discussions on its merit, or lack thereof; some people have even set up blogs solely dedicated to discussing this one aspect of motorcycling. The arguments get very heated very quickly and it usually doesn't take much more than three comments before the whole thing degrades into insults and internet shit-talking (i.e., making claims, assertions or threats that the person would never make nor act upon were he or she not speaking from the anonymous safety of a far-away computer).

The arguments for and against filtering can often be rooted in the loose soil of personal feelings, but by and large I am in favour of it, assuming certain conditions. But I can also see how it might not be such a great idea in the United States.

Here's my take:

Visit London, my friends. Hop on the Tube and travel to King's Cross Station, then park yourself at the spot where York Way, Caledonia Road, Pentonville Road, Euston Road, Grays Inn Road and Birkenhead Street all more or less intersect at once. Or go to just about any other intersection in London. Or go to just about any intersection in any major European city. Once you have found your intersection of choice, stand there for 10 minutes and watch the traffic go by.

You will quickly notice dozens upon dozens of motorcycles, scooters and bicycles filtering through the cars. The argument for getting out of one's car and onto such a mode of transportation becomes pretty clear. It is an efficient way of manoeuvring through the crowded city scene. It saves time and space, and thereby reduces stress and contributes to an overall better living environment.

I frequently travel through the Cardiff area on bicycle, and most certainly filtering is standard operating procedure in such a situation. Filtering just makes sense, and I don't think it's worth investing a great deal of time worrying whether my ability to get places quickly makes other people jealous.

That's frequently part of the arguments that I'll see against filtering: that cutting in line (or "jumping the queue," as they say in the UK) will make car drivers upset. That's silly. Perhaps the quality of my jacket will also make them jealous, or my sexy physique, or my general coolness; whether another person has a child-like sense of entitlement can't really be a legitimate concern when motoring.

Almost always this criticism, and, indeed all anti-filtering criticism, comes from my fellow Americans. Many of them argue with a vitriol that makes you think they suffered some kind of life trauma - that perhaps they were bullied by a lane splitter at some point and thereafter swore an oath of vengeance. Very, very confusingly, this is the same country where many people argue vehemently against helmet laws.

I don't get that. It seems to me there's a breakdown in the libertarian philosophy. Freedom is freedom. If you think you should have the freedom to risk splattering your un-helmeted skull all over the road, why would you not also demand the freedom to participate in the "dangerous" activity of not being stuck in traffic?

But, all that said, I can think of one reason why filtering might not be a great idea in the United States. Strangely, it's a reason I've not seen argued by any of filtering's opponents.

If you go back to that European intersection, you'll see lots of motorcyclists happily moving along and not clogging up the roads, but you'll notice that many, if not most, are on bikes lower than 250 cc. You'll notice, too, that cruisers (i.e. Harley-type bikes, to anyone who doesn't know a lot about motorcycles) are almost entirely absent. Those European motorcyclists are generally using narrower, more manoeuvrable bikes.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, according to an article I read recently, more than 50 percent of riders are on "feet-forward" bikes like cruisers and tourers. A Honda CBR250 - a "sport" bike - is 27 inches wide, whereas a Honda Fury - a cruiser - is 36 inches wide. Add the bags and massive handlebars that are so commonly seen on the big American bikes and it's not hard to imagine that many US riders would need a gap of almost 5 feet to safely filter between two cars. Keep in mind, too, that these kind of bikes are not renown for their cornering.

So, because so many Americans choose to ride bikes that are ill-suited to filtering one might argue it's a good idea to prevent any of them from even trying.

I disagree with this line of thinking and feel it's a good practice when - like any aspect of motorcycling - it is done intelligently. Filtering is legal in California and the California Highway Patrol even offers a guide on how to do it safely. I agree with all of these guidelines, but I think perhaps the maximum speed at which one can filter should be set at 30 mph.

If done intelligently and respectfully, I think filtering can be a great asset toward assuring everyone gets to where they want to go with the least amount of stress. Car drivers would get used to it after a time and it might even help to make motorcycling more appealing, which, I think can only help motorcyclists in the long run.

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(My apologies for completely running over my self-imposed limit of 500 words in this post. I thought it best to just put all my thoughts down at once, rather than breaking them into multiple posts.)

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The fantasy scenario

I can't remember when the open road first gripped me. In high school I used to take long drives in my beat-up old Ford F250. I'd open a map of the state, point to a random spot and drive there. 

I remember once spotting that Young America is in Minnesota, the place to which I had, as a child, sent off countless proofs of purchase and hard-earned allowance money for the various things offered on the backs of cereal boxes. I jumped in my pickup and sped there full of excitement. I'm not really sure what I was expecting to find, but whatever I was imagining wasn't there. Young America was home to a General Mills factory and a whole lot of flatness.

I fell more in love with travelling the United States after reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac. When I was 19, my girlfriend and I read it as we drove from upstate New York to Minnesota. I took any number of long journeys thereafter – North Dakota to Massachusetts, Minnesota to Texas, Minnesota to Wyoming, Minnesota to Nevada, Northern Nevada to Southern California, Southern California to Minnesota, and so on. I love the road. I love seeing the landscape slowly change. I love being free.

In 2009, I got a little money from a book I had written and decided to blow it all on a three-month road trip. I rented a car in Boston and drove: Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, a flat tire in Idaho, Seattle, getting stalked by a wolf in Mount Rainier National Park, Portland, Sacramento, Reno, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Santa Fe, Houston, Austin, back up to Minnesota and back out to Boston with my best friend riding shotgun.

That trip changed my life. It changed who I am. And I am perpetually trying to figure a way that I could carry on a trip like that for a full year: 365 days of freedom. Of course, out of that now comes the desire to travel such distances on a motorcycle: I picture a saddlebag-laden Victory Judge. I would just ride and ride and ride, wandering all 49 continental states and Canada.

But in my motorcycle fantasy there would be no end to the journey. I'd just keep going for as long as I had strength to keep the bike upright. I'm a writer, and I daydream that I could somehow make enough money to sustain such a lifestyle. I'd carry a sleeping bag and tent for camping but would also make use of friends' hospitality – sleeping on their couches and repaying them by entertaining their kids with motorcycle rides. It would be an easy, wonderful life.

Of course, I'm conveniently forgetting bad weather, and, more importantly, my wife. It's a fantasy that will never fully come true. But perhaps I can still one day get that bike.