Sunday, 30 June 2013

High anxiety

There is still a sense of panic -- something that builds up in me before and during a ride. It is multifaceted, hard to explain, and especially hard to justify. By that, I mean it's not rational; it's not the kind of anxiety that would make sense for a new rider.

There needs to be more of this.
It would be rational for a new rider to worry about safety or technique. There are a great deal of intuitive unknowns for a newish rider to adapt to, things to think about that will not be thought about once experience is gained. Several months ago, for example, Road Pickle adventurer Sash was struggling with basic turns. I doubt she ever thinks about these things at all now; they just happen. So, if I were riding along overthinking every right turn or too cautiously crawling away from stops, that would make sense.

And certainly it is true that I have a bad habit of second-guessing my approach speed on bends. But I know that skill will come before too long. Indeed, how could it not? I live in Wales: land of bendy roads. I am willing to bet there is not one single place in the whole of this country where a person can find a 1-mile stretch of road that is straight. Those Sturgis boys and girls would lose their minds in a place like this (1).

By and large, I don't worry about this technical sort of stuff. I am aware that my lack of experience limits my abilities, I ride accordingly, and I don't give it much more thought than that. Indeed, sometimes I think I may be a little too nonchalant. Such as the other day when I decided to adjust my socks while travelling 80 mph on the M4.

What I experience is something else, something akin to and perhaps somewhat explained by the strange social anxiety I've developed since moving to the UK. It is a sense of needing to run away and hide, of not wanting anyone to see me, of not being able to sit still because this place is not my own, this space is not mine to enjoy.

This is the experience of an immigrant, I think. Subtly, you feel over time that you have no protection, no rights, no solidity. Because over and over authority in its many forms demonstrates to you that it can do whatever it wants as far as you are concerned. Whether it's the cop who stopped me a few years ago and gracelessly explained all the ways he could mess with me, the border agency that rejected my visa on the grounds of their not understanding the definition of just one word in my application (2), the motorcycle examiner who failed me because I touched a radio, the motorcycle insurer who suspiciously had me describe in detail the shed where I keep my motorcycle, and on and on, I am made to feel that anyone at any time can ruin me with little or no grounds.

Living away from the United States has made my U.S. citizenship the most precious thing in the world to me. But I digress. The point is that sometimes I feel anxious or downright paranoid. And I suppose if you look at it that way, it makes some sense that such feelings are heightened by my motorcycle.

The machine, after all, is the physical manifestation of my emotional reaction to that anxiety. Some incongruous and intangible entity makes me feel subjugated (2); a personal vehicle of any kind –– something that allows me to go where I want to go, when I want to go –– is an obvious means of fighting that. A motorcycle, with its design often not allowing for more than just a single user, and its ability to "escape" other vehicles via superior speed and manoeuvrability, is a particular declaration of one's independence.

That anything, especially something so nebulous as this anxiety, might threaten that independence is likely to put me on edge. So, perhaps that's really what I'm feeling/fearing: that They are going to come and take my bike away.

Certainly the fear of its being stolen is something I struggle to overcome when I'm out and about. The Honda CBF600 comes equipped with HISS immobiliser, of course, and I always set the steering lock. I also have a U lock that I run through the spokes, which would block the wheel from turning. And whenever possible, I chain the bike to something stationary, like a lamp post. But still I feel sickly uncomfortable when the bike is out of my sight. I would leave a newborn child unattended for longer than I'm willing to be away from the bike.

And perhaps it's this which creates the panicked feeling that I must always keep moving. Don't stop to enjoy the fields of rapeseed flowers, don't relax at a cafe, don't park at the beach to pull off your boots and wade into the ocean. Just go. Keep going. Don't let anyone catch you. Don't let anyone see you. Hide in your helmet, slip through the queues of traffic. Disappear.

What I long for is a sense of comfort, a sense of connection, that I am a fluid part of the Everything: the zen. Because one of the greatest beauties of being able to go where you want to go, when you want to go, is the peace of mind that comes from not having to go. I want to relax.

Perhaps this is my learning experience. Whereas some people have to learn how to ride –– mastering U turns and gear changes, etc. –– I'm struggling with the emotional/spiritual side of motorcycling. I'm having to learn how to not ride.


(1) If you've ever driven/ridden to Sturgis, SD, home of the one of the most famous bike rallies in the world, you probably know that the roads leading there are incredibly straight. There are points on I-90, approaching Sturgis from the east, where one can see down the road as much as 60 miles. The only bends are those that are government mandated –– coming every six miles so drivers don't fall asleep.

(2) I appealed the decision and won. Partially, I think, because Jenn came along and started crying in the courtroom.

(3) OK, we're tripping off into Crazy Land with this sort of talk. Let me stress that although I feel "lessened" (for lack of a better word) by many of the offices of the world around me I do not think there is any sort of conspiracy against me, or what have you. I'm just a nameless insignificant, made more insignificant in people's eyes because I'm not from here.  

Friday, 28 June 2013

Gear review: Force Riders Kevlar jeans

I find myself often struggling to find reviews for gear –– especially gear that isn't ridiculously expensive. So, for the benefit of whatever person arrives here via Google search, I've decided to make note of the items I've used or am using. Starting with the Force Riders Kevlar jeans I bought way back when I first started training.

The old adage comes to mind here: You get what you pay for. 

I found these jeans advertised on eBay, offered brand new for considerably less than what other brands were being offered used. So, I wasn't expecting much. I figured anything that offered even a modicum more protection than my Gap jeans would be a step up.

And that's pretty much the best I can say for them: they are better protection than fashion blue jeans. Maybe. Since I've (thankfully) not taken a tumble in them I can't even say that's true. To be honest, I don't think I'd trust that "Kevlar" lining. Methinks it may be a little more dyed cotton than bulletproof material.

But an extra layer is an extra layer. I felt most comfortable with these jeans in the winter, when they were a part of a three-layer system: Lycra base layer, jeans, and waterproof over trousers. However, riding out to Tyntesfield the other day, wearing just the jeans and feeling the engine's heat on my shins, I found myself trying hard not to think of the damage that would be done to my legs were I to crash at at anything other than very low speed.

The jeans come with knee and hip armour, which is kept in place by little mesh pockets. In the hip pockets, this mesh started to rip on the very first wearing. Each time I take the hip armour out, for the sake of washing the jeans, the mesh rips a little more. And the hip armour itself is not exactly confidence building –– just a half-centimetre-thick bit of padding that one might find on a child's backpack.

The knee armour is a little more substantial but not so much that I would be willing to drop to my knees from a standing position. Also, the knee pads slip around a lot in their mesh pocket. I find that I am always adjusting them as I ride. I seriously wonder what, if any, good they would be if I came off the bike. The only reason I bother to put them in is that they provide a nice bit of padding between my knees and the tank.

As I said, I wouldn't trust the Kevlar lining much more than I'd trust a pair of long underwear. Additionally, I find it annoying that the Kevlar lining is only partial, covering the butt and knees, but not anything below the knees and not the crotch. The crotch, yo. That's a really important spot. You don't want road rash there.

Lastly, the quality of the denim is sub par. This is the sort of stuff you get at Walmart/Asda with pocket money. And it is about as fashionable as your granddad. No, that's not true. My 89-year-old grandfather has more style than to be caught wearing these things.

Overall, I chalk this up to learning experience. I have learned, again, that really cheap things are very rarely good things. I bought a pair of £30 Kevlar jeans and, surprise surprise, they didn't live up to the expectations I might have for a pair of £200 Kevlar jeans. I am actively searching for a better alternative.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

What I want: Arch KRGT-1

I'll admit: first time I saw the motorcycle set to be produced by Keanu Reeves' new venture, Arch Motorcycle Company, I wasn't all that impressed. Something about it struck me as being the motorcycle equivalent to Dogstar. But the more I look at it, the more I take in every feature, the more it appeals to me. 

That is a crazy-looking bit of machinery, y'all. And its look speaks especially to that beautiful-crazy truth of motorcycling, which is: really, you are just sitting on top of a big engine and hurling yourself at the world. Nothing is covered up with fairing; everything is exposed. It looks like a terrible health and safety violation, the sort of thing that a bureaucrat would insist you should wear eye protection just to see a picture of. Honestly, just look at that thing; imagine all the terrible things it could do to fingers and hands just by sitting still.

I imagine the reason there is no room for a passenger is to try to prevent the eventual heartbreak that would otherwise take place. If there were space for one more on that thing, a fella might end up giving a lady a ride on it. Needless to say, she'd fall in love and the two might have a child. Then the KRGT-1 would eat the baby.

As I say, the more I look at it, the more I love it. But, in truth, I'd probably never buy one. 

Partially that is because the motorcycle is set to have limited production and the odds are quite good that purchase of one of these beasts will require at least two years' worth of my current salary. Even if I were ridiculously wealthy I would struggle to spend the cost of several motorcycles on just one. Also, I'll admit that it's just a teensy bit too "raw" for my liking. When tastefully done, I don't mind if something has a bit of paint.

But the thing that really appeals to me about this bike, and why I would do a super-happy dance if Keanu were to give me one, is the fact that it exists. I love the idea of this bike as much as I like the bike itself. I love the fact that people are building something new, that they are adding to the American motorcycle lexicon.

In my previous post, I mentioned the negativity that is rife on the British motorcycle website VisorDown. Its commenters took a great big stinky poop all over the idea of the KRGT-1, complaining that it is an ugly "Harley-Davidson clone" that is "a lot of good parts wasted." In reading this, one thought came to my head over and over: "What are you building? Name the British people and companies who are building and creating new motorcycles."

Triumph, of course. And... uhm... maybe Norton (but maybe not). To my knowledge, that's it. If you know of any British company that is actually making new motorcycles (i.e., not people like Kevil's who are making awesome bikes out of old parts), let me know. Whereas on the other side of the water I can think of several motorcycle companies big and small. You have Harley-Davidson, of course (1), and Victory, Indian, Cleveland CycleWerks (2), and now Arch. I'll bet there are a few others.

So, as I say, what I like most about the KRGT-1 is that it exists. I like what it represents. I like that people are investing their time and energy and money into developing new things, that they are doing. To me, that's a lot of what motorcycling is about: actually doing. Being an active participant in your environment.


(1) We'll save the "Are Harleys American?" debate for another day. As far as I know, they're at least assembled in the United States, which is more than can be said of many "American" cars, and their headquarters are in the United States.

(2) Same issue as with Harley-Davidson, I know. If not more so.

Monday, 24 June 2013

How it happened

The first thing we need to establish is that Harley riders are awesome. They seem to have an overall bad reputation amongst other motorcyclists, especially those that lurk on internet forums. I think the commenters at VisorDown, for instance, would rather piss marble-sized stones than show any love for Harley-Davidson (1). But as I said in a previous post, I would quite happily be seen on that most-iconic of machines, and I particularly like the look of the lower-cc models like the Iron 883.

It is because of that post that a particular Harley rider got in touch with me a while ago and offered me an opportunity to get a bike of my own.

"Probably not an Iron 883," he said. "But not a piece of junk, either."

His name was Marc. A Harley rider himself, he could relate to my enthusiasm for motorcycles and realised that we could help each other out. I have web and writing experience, and he has a business for which he's been putting together a website: exchange for some hard work, he said, he'd get me a motorcycle.

It's been an interesting experience working with the folks at, because it's somewhat changed my perception of the people and businesses involved in the world of extending personal credit. I'll be honest: my attitude beforehand would kindly have been described as sceptical. Indeed, my initial reaction to the thought of working with them was to decline. But thanks to a conversation I had had with Tina of Road Pickle a few days before I decided to follow her advice and try to think outside the box in pursuing my dream of owning a motorcycle.

I'm glad I did. I am still working with to get the site exactly as we'd like it, and the common theme in all the direction I've been given is that they want to help people out, not to trick them. Admit it: that's what you thought loan brokers do, isn't it? But over and over again it's been stressed to me the importance of encouraging people to make thought-out and intelligent decisions about their borrowing.

Obviously, benefits when people borrow through them. But that they would be willing to lose some of that business by encouraging serious consideration of finances and alternatives before borrowing is impressive to me. It makes me feel good to be a part of the project.

And I am so thankful to Marc in particular for extending to me the opportunity to work with him. As I said on my personal blog, this has been an experience that has shifted my overall perception of people. I have always been hyper-cautious and hyper-cynical. But this experience has taught me that there are, in fact, some good people in the world. Some of them even ride a Harley.


(1) They hate Harleys especially, but cruisers in general –– as well as tourers, electric bikes, Chinese bikes, traction control, anti-lock brakes, and just about any new idea. I need to stop looking at that site; it's too negative.

Friday, 21 June 2013

600cc of awesome

I'm not quite this awesome.
But close...
And suddenly I am the coolest person in our circle of friends; even without a Harley or a Triumph I've ended up meeting the Chris Jericho test after all (1). I suppose that in some cases, the key to passing that test is simply being the one who actually gets on a bike.

Just about everyone Jenn and I hang out with on this island is an artist of some sort: performers, singer-songwriters, painters, musicians, authors, filmmakers. All those ridiculous red-wine conversations you see mimicked in films? That's my actual life, yo. And by and large, I enjoy it. These are people who are witty and thought-provoking, and quite often come out with some of the most fantastic tales you've ever heard.

They are such amazing people, in fact, that I often feel a little out of my depth. My friend, Clint, for example, is cleverer than you. It's his job. He's a successful stand-up comedian and he possesses a brilliance in almost always being able to offer a witty reply.

The other day, though, Jenn and I rode the CBF600 (2) over to his and his partner's house. In the presence of the machine, Clint seemed to be struggling to put his words together.

 "Oh-ho," he said. "It's got that real... smell of a... motorbike. It, you know, it smells like..."

"Freedom," I joked. "It smells like freedom, Clint."

This was probably the only time I ever have or ever will beat him to a punchline, and I have the motorcycle to thank.

Over the past several months, every time I've mentioned this wild motorcycle obsession to another male, I've found I was not alone. Indeed, just about every man I know has confessed that he, too, secretly wants a bike. In part because many of the company I keep are feminists, I am particularly averse to drawing conclusions based solely on gender, but the empirical truth is that the overwhelming majority of men I have spoken to have expressed a desire to get a motorcycle.

A second empirical truth is that only one of those men seems to be taking any action toward achieving that goal (my coworker has spent the past several months restoring a 1967 Lambretta, despite never having ridden one before).

What to do with these empirical truths is a different issue. What conclusions, if any, can be drawn? I don't know. But I can say that I feel humblebrag proud of myself for following through. I have a personal mantra, "If you're going to say it, you'd better do it," (3) and feel most accomplished when I manage to live up to this creed.

Treading even further down the dangerous path of gender-based generalities, I can't help but noticing, too, that the bike has the ability to evoke an equally foundational-emotional response from women. Speak to them about a motorcycle and they will either show no interest, or disdain. But put them next to a bike, encourage them to sit on the saddle, and something deeper takes over.

Clint's partner, Laura, grinned as she gripped the handlebars and said: "Do I look bad-ass? I'll bet I look fucking bad-ass."

Another woman sat on the bike and squealed like a little girl, waving her hands about and giggling as though on a thrill ride rather than a stationary motorcycle.

All of these reactions, of course, reflect back on me, and I feel that in just a tiny way they alter how people see me. I don't necessarily believe that such a change in perception is solid enough that it can be labelled as good or bad, just that it occurs. Or maybe I only feel that way.

Whatever the case, I find it interesting and strange that simple ownership of a trundling hunk of machinery could have such an effect. I suppose the moral of the story, mis amigos, is this: Get a motorcycle; it will change your life.


(1) "All the women want to be with me; all the men want to be like me." -- Upon further research, it may be that this quote actually originates with Ric Flair and that I simply read it in one of Chris Jericho's books.

(2) Jenn has decided I should name the bike Aliona, in deference to one of my favourite "Strictly Come Dancing" professional dancers, Aliona Vilani.

(3) I used to prefer the far simpler: "Don't say; do." But the fact is, I am a talker and it is almost impossible for me to avoid yammering on about something I care about.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Bullet points

Near St. Bride's Major, Wales –– 15 June 2013
Here's a collection of various thoughts I've had since getting a motorcycle:
  • Great googly-moogly, lane splitting is awesome. Nothing better confirms the awesomeness of owning a motorcycle like filtering through a mile-long traffic backup.
  • So, this is my life now? I am destined to always have chain grease on my hands and under my fingernails.
    • I suppose I could get some latex gloves for when I'm working on my bike. Thank goodness for the internet that I can have those sent discreetly to my house rather than having to go into a shop and explain why I need loads and loads of latex.
  • Everyone stares at you when you're on a motorcycle. Everyone. Sometimes the looks are of disdain/annoyance, sometimes the looks are of envy, sometimes the looks are of approval. But everyone looks. This must be what it's like to be a sexy lady.
  • Is it just my bad luck, or are BMW riders jerks? What's wrong with saying hello fellas? Harley riders get a bad rap, but all the dudes I've encountered have returned a nod, and if they were to roll up next to me at a motorcycle shop I suspect they would respond to my saying hello. The same cannot be said for the BMW riders I've come across.
  • Why does so much of the gear for motorcyclists have to look so stupid?
  • Riding a motorcycle really makes you thirsty.
    • I have yet to come up with a particularly good means of carrying water.
    • I want Kriega bags.
  • I wish there were a way to transport my cowboy hat (that does not involve a top box).
  • I am still nervous as hell going into bends; I have watched way too many motorcycle crash videos.
  • There is something therapeutic about washing a motorcycle. My favourite part is covering the exhausts and lower frame with GT85.
  • That whole riding with two fingers covering the brake thing? I cannot figure that out. When I try to do it, I feel terribly unsafe.

Monday, 17 June 2013

The converted

The summer sun was low in the sky. A Sunday night, it was quiet as we sat at the lights. Just the whirring idle of the CBF600 and that overarching sound of peace that is all too uncommon in an overcrowded place like the United Kingdom. The temperature had dropped down to the point of my being quite happy to be wearing a leather jacket, but still it was warm by British standards. 

The light changed and I gently rolled the throttle through a left turn. As the road went straight I clicked up a gear and sprung up to 40 mph. Crossing the bridge from Cardiff to Penarth, I looked down over the River Ely and out to the bay. I felt Jenn squeeze me with her legs, and she shouted out: "I love the bike, babe! I love this!"

What a difference a few months make. When I first started floating the idea of my earning my UK motorcycle license and thereafter getting a bike, her reaction was unsupportive, to put it lightly. If she had a little too much to drink her attitude could be pretty disparaging. The whole issue of motorcycles started pushing toward one of those chosen points of contention that sometimes spring up in a relationship.

If you've been with someone for any amount of time, you've almost certainly done this. Some thing or idea grows to the point of your feeling it is a statement of your independence or personality. And you defend it with the same tactical idiocy of a WWI general.

For example, many moons ago I used to be with a girl who was Mormon. Because it didn't matter so much to me, I even went to the trouble to get baptised Mormon. I quit drinking, and willingly ticked off all the boxes of the Word of Wisdom, save one. For some reason, I got hung up on tea. Iced tea, in particular.

The more I thought about it, the more wound up I got. Iced tea came to represent some aspect of myself that I grew panicked about giving up. Iced tea made me think of hot days in Texas, it made me think of my father; I created in it all kinds of deep and silly connections, some of which I hold to this day. Take a look at the cover photo on my Google + profile. It's a picture of Texas beer and a big-ol' glass of iced tea. Iced tea is who I am, goddamnit. You can have my iced tea when you pry it from my cold dead hands.

So, the issue of iced tea became, really, an issue of my asserting myself as a person independent of the relationship. Fortunately, my partner at the time didn't challenge me on it. If you want to drink tea, she said, drink tea. Heavenly Father has much more important things to do than waste His time punishing tea drinkers.

This motorcycle issue came close to being the same sort of thing for both Jenn and me. Obviously, assertion of self has been and is a part of the motorcycle journey for me. I am Jenn's husband, yes, and happy to be. But before that and always I am Chris Cope. I am my own man, my own self. My decisions are not made by committee, my actions are not taken by anyone but this tea-sippin' muthahugga right here. For me, getting and riding a motorcycle is a way of stating that.

Things became dangerous when it started to seem that Jenn was going to decide that blocking such a move was vital to her asserting her self. There were points when the whole thing made me extremely upset, because it shook at the foundations of Us (i.e., Jenn and me -- the collective unit). It challenged my understanding of who We are.

I have my own theories as to why she was throwing up barriers, too various and incomplete to expound upon here. But the valuable thing is that at some point she started to ease a little. And I like to think it is because she saw this was so important to me.

Now, she squeezes me and shouts into the air as we roll through the lanes and roads of South Wales. She takes delight in the fact that all the passing motorcyclists nod back at her, and she gleefully tells everyone -- everyone -- that I have a motorcycle.

"I'm proud of you, babe," she said the other day. "You had this idea of getting a bike and you focused on it. And you made it happen. That's an inspiring thing. And, personally, I think your helmet hair is really sexy."

Motorcycles are pretty amazing things, y'all.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Charlie Bravo Foxtrot part II

At the King's Head in Blakeney, Gloucestershire.
Hang on a second, let's back up here. I feel I've glossed over something, which is this: OMG, I has motorcycle! (1) In my previous post I talked about the experience of going to get the bike, and yes, I did mention that Jenn described my behaviour on that day as akin to someone high on cocaine, but I still feel I haven't properly expressed how super-awesome happy-surprised I am at the reality of the experience.

Indeed, some random mosquito of a thought keeps flying around in my mind thinking I need to take the bike back before they charge me for an extra day -- as though it were a rental car. But I don't have to give this motorcycle back. It is mine. And with it I can go anywhere I want.

That's a reality which is almost too much for me to handle. We structure our world with certain truths, and my not having a motorcycle has been a truth for 37 years. But then last week that reality shattered. Whereas I had previously struggled to get up the nerve to even walk into a motorcycle shop, fearing... well, I don't really know what I was afraid of... I now found myself at Pittville Motorcycles being handed the keys to my own machine.

I realise I must sound like a rube in saying such a thing, but it was an odd experience: Here are the keys to your bike, Chris. You are free to go wherever you want to go. You don't have to have someone following you, talking in your ear. You don't have to stick to certain routes. It's yours. Go. Ride.

My first-ever single ride would be a long one: 70.6 miles according to Google Maps. Tack on a few extra for getting lost whilst looking for a petrol station in Gloucester. Richard, the general manager at Pittville Motorcycles, helped me strap down my bag with a cargo net and a few bungee cords that I would only realise later I had not paid for. It was just before 3 p.m. and I had not eaten all day.

Cheltenham is loaded with good places to eat, but adrenaline was screaming through my body and the whole amazing nature of this experience seemed to have initiated a fight or flight sensation. I felt I needed to get the hell out of Cheltenham before someone told me to give the bike back. Indeed, it was only once I got to Gloucester that I even felt safe to stop for petrol.

Looking back, it occurs to me that having a large bag strapped to the back of a motorcycle is the international symbol for: "I'M ON AN ADVENTURE!" And I should have enjoyed that more. I should have gleefully imagined what other people were imagining about me and the places I might have seen and and would see. Next time..

In part because this was my first-ever ride on the CBF600 (2) and in part because I thought it would be a more interesting ride, I had chosen to go down the slower A48 rather than take the motorway home. Within a mile or so of my filling up the tank and gulping down a bottle of water I was on a simple two-lane road winding through the yellow-flowered countryside.

The road curved, lifted and dropped, running through hedgerowed corridors. The bike felt comfortable, solid. The fairing pushed some of the wind away from me and I felt comfortable enough to sit upright, relaxed. On certain rises I could look out and see the misty Severn Valley stretched out to my left. The River Severn here is Mississippi wide and gives one the sensation of riding somewhere utterly foreign.

In looking at a map the day before, I had told myself I'd stop at Newnham, roughly halfway between Cheltenham and Chepstow, where I planned to make a second stop. Yeah, putting two stops into a 70-mile trip is silly, but I wanted to make sure I arrived home safe. I am not terribly experienced, so frequent stops allow a chance to refocus.

On a different day I would have had the awareness to stop at the really nice pub I passed in Westbury-on-Severn, but I was too stressed to do anything outside The Plan. Well, until I actually got to Newnham and discovered that: A) the pub where I had planned to stop looked bleak; B) said pub was located on a precarious hill. So, onward to Blakeney, where I found a standard pub that offered standard food, which I consumed like a starved prisoner of war.

I sat outside the pub in the rare, warm sun. As I ate, a Suzuki GSXR750 rolled up and parked next to my bike. Its two passengers wore matching RST jackets, the woman groaning as she dropped down from the back. Pulling off her helmet, her neck scarf lifted up to her nose and she reminded me just slightly of Strax when he's dressed in his Sontaran battle gear.

I smiled, nodded and wondered what to say. Sure, I had a bike now -- I was part of the clan -- but still felt like a fraud.

"Got far to travel?" asked the fella in thick West Country accent.

Getting lost near Llancarfan, Wales a few days later.
We talked about nothing in particular for a bit then he and his partner went inside. I looked back at my motorcycle and thought: "This is my life now. This is what you hear about: that bikes seem to initiate conversations, and now I am a part of that. This is the first of countless little conversations I will have about my bike, the road ahead, the road behind..."

Onward toward home. At Chepstow I made a sudden decision to carry on a bit further, telling myself that I'd stop for tea at the first nice little village I found. Unfortunately, there are no nice little villages on the A48 between Chepstow and Newport, so I ended up taking a rest at McDonald's. I lie in the grass out front and felt exhaustion in my body even though my mind was still jumping. I tried to relax but couldn't; having decided to take the motorway the rest of the home, I was too focused on the new challenges that would bring.

I took my time putting on my gear. Then slow toward the main road before allowing all the anxiety and adrenaline to focus on the M4: a too-thin six-lane strip of concrete with a 70 mph limit, in a country where people feel their one true God-given right is to drive well beyond the limit. This particular stretch of road is one I have hated from the very first time I drove to Cardiff, almost 7 years ago. It has odd turns and suddenly disappearing lanes that cause people to make really bad decisions about braking and lane changes.

On the bike, though, I felt a little more free to move around. There were no door frames to obstruct my view, and the bike had no problems helping me dodge the idiot cars all around me. At one point I was even having fun. Soon enough, I was rolling into Penarth. After a fair amount of sweat and profanity, I was able to squeeze the bike through our garden gate and lock it up.

Before this whole trip I had imagined finally coming to the end of it and sitting quietly to listen to the sound of the hot engine clicking as it cooled. But I now forgot all about that. My mind was still racing. It would take several days before I could calm down and stop feeling I had stolen the thing, fearing someone was going to come take it away from me.

Of course, if anyone were to try to do such thing they'd have a hell of a fight on their hands. That bike is mine, yo.


(1) Remember, kids: the correct way to pronounce "OMG" is "Omm-guh."

(2) I am working my way toward simply referring to the bike as Charlie Bravo, to be said in the style of Rick James when he saw Charlie Murphy and punched him in the face.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Charlie Bravo Foxtrot

Cheltenham Spa station
I had been up since 4 a.m., sick to my stomach from nerves. Now, as the train pulled into the station, I was physically shaking with... well, a little bit of everything. Nerves, anxiety, excitement, fear, panic. I thought of the Bad Mod 2 Day. I hadn't slept well before on that day, either. My stomach had played hell on me in that way of dramatically lowering one's standards for restroom cleanliness.

The public toilets in Briton Ferry, Wales, on a freezing-cold day. That is when you are reaching the lowest of the low, mis amigos. No no doors and not likely cleaned but once a year. It was like being in a Montana anti-meth ad. Actually, it was a bit worse because the lights didn't work.

"This isn't that day, though," I told myself. "With the exception of just one similarity –– beyond the similarities that exist in all your experiences, i.e., the fact you are a part of them –– this day is wholly different."

Indeed, Cheltenham, some 70 miles from Penarth, is in England and is gloriously unlike Swansea in almost every way. The weather today was perfect: sunny and about as warm as it ever gets in Britain. And no one was going to test me. The only thing tying the two experiences was the fact a motorcycle was involved.

Things had fallen together so quickly in the week or so prior. The full story of how I got to this point is an improbable tale I'll save for a future post but the basic gist is this: through incredible luck, the immense kindness of others and hard work, an opportunity to get a bike presented itself. Last week, a possible bike became available, a flurry of emails and phone calls ensued, and now I was stepping out onto the platform of Cheltenham Spa station.

My bag, loaded with helmet, gloves, and Corcoran boots, was slung over my shoulder. I checked the map on my phone and started the 2-mile walk to Pittville Motorcycles. Cheltenham is a nice town; I had never been there and enjoyed wandering its tree-lined streets. It served as another stark contrast to the Bad Mod 2 Day and by the time I reached the shop I was feeling better.

I had only seen pictures of the bike: four basic shots, each only showing the side of the bike, and none so close that I could work out minute details like tiny scratches, corrosion or rust. I had decided to prepare myself for the worst, though this went against an optimism I felt from the fact Pittville Motorcycles has been in business for more than 30 years, serving as the only authorised Honda dealer in Cheltenham.

I know I sound like I'm pitching for Honda here, but their dealer network has a pretty good reputation. There is a certain standard one expects from a motorcycle shop that carries that label. And on top of that, as I walked through Cheltenham I got the feeling that it's a town of the sort that wouldn't sustain a dodgy motorcycle shop for three decades.

Once I got to the shop, this optimism turned out to be well-founded. The bike was perfect. Well, far more perfect than any other vehicle I've ever bought. It was a 2006 Honda CBF600SA (1), with anti-lock brakes and only 8,000 miles on the clock. For a first bike you really wouldn't want to get any newer. Walking in and seeing the bike in the flesh I felt a little weak in the knees.

I decided to go with it and dropped down to the floor, instantly deciding I would thoroughly inspect the bike. Brakes: good. Frame: tiny (and I do mean tiny) spot of rust on the swing arm but otherwise spotless. Fluid levels: good and with a shiny new oil filter. Tires: practically new set of Bridgestone Battlax. Bodywork and seat: immaculate. Engine: clean and rust free. Reasonable amount of blue on the exhausts and that was it.

Richard, who is general manager of Pittville Motorcycles, came over and introduced himself. He got the keys and I went through the process of making every check I could possibly think of relating to electricals. Again, everything was ideal. I was feeling I had stepped into a kind of dream world. I mean, really? I was going to be riding back to Penarth on this thing? Surely there's been some kind of mistake.

Indeed, my adrenaline was now pumping and somewhere in the back of my brain I started to feel like I was getting away with something –– an Ocean's 11 style heist. Just keep it together, man. Stay cool. Don't let them know you're not really the king of Prussia. Just roll with this and get the hell out with the bike before they get wise.

Oh, CBF600. I heart you.
Then out onto the road to take the bike for a spin. Yup. It did what a CBF600 does. I had trained on older models that were sans-fairing and sans ABS, but hadn't expected any major differences in the ride. No surprises; which is good. If anything, this bike was just a tad more comfortable. The fairing gave me a greater feeling of presence and kept some of the wind off me. Add to this the fact the gearbox was, of course, smoother than an old training bike that's been dropped a million times.

Also, Richard had adjusted the seat to its highest point which meant my leg wasn't as cramped as it had been on the training bikes. The bike felt familiar, but at the same time better. I think the seating position on the SA is just a little different. It's difficult to describe but this bike feels less harried. Maybe that's the fairing; maybe it's the smoother gear box; maybe it's the slightly higher seat; maybe it's the fact I no longer have a motorcycle instructor shouting over a radio when I ride. Whatever it is, I like it. It feels right. Like, really right.

Notice that in the above sentence the tense when referring to the bike suddenly switches from the past to the present. Because you know I wanted that machine. My mind was jumping. Several hours later Jenn, who used to manage a somewhat famous rock band and would therefore know about such things, said my excitement was causing me to act like I was high on cocaine. Goodness knows what I must have been like back at Pittville Motorcycles.

The staff there must get that all the time: day after day of wild-eyed boys and girls coming in to make a dream come true. We got to work on all the paperwork –– setting up insurance and road tax and filling out ownership forms –– then Richard and David, one of the mechanics, took the time to sit down and go through every detail of the bike with me. This does this. This is how you do this. To make this work, turn it it this way. OK, now you try.

And so on. I didn't feel patronised in any way and because of that felt comfortable asking all kinds of really stupid additional questions, like: "So, uhm, how do you oil the chain?"

Finally, they helped me secure my bag –– now loaded with my street clothes and a helmet for Jenn –– to the back of the bike and wheeled it out to the front.

"Ride safe back to Wales, mate," Richard said, shaking my hand.

He stepped away and disappeared back into the shop, leaving me with just my thoughts, my new bike and a 70-mile road trip ahead of me.

To be continued...


(1) Honestly, Honda, what's wrong with giving a bike an actual name?

Friday, 7 June 2013

The allure of Big Red

1989 Ford Mustang GT convertible
I've mentioned before that strange, short period in my life during which I was a professional actor, driving a convertible Ford Mustang and going out a model. No, really. That was my life. In the mid-90s I was living the dream. Not necessarily my dream, mind you. In fact, I wasn't very happy with any of it.

The model, for one thing. Sure, she was pretty to look at but her little-boy physique when disrobed sort of creeped me out. On top of that, she possessed a rice-cake-fuelled mania that made her diplomatically challenging (i.e., she was unpredictably annoyed by every other thing I said or did) on the best of days.

Acting, too, was not as much fun as I wanted it to be. From a professional standpoint it is 98 percent stress, 2 percent fun. You think of nothing but how on earth you are going to earn your next paycheck, and you keep weird hours with weird people. One of my better "friends" from those days would occasionally get up mid-conversation, go stand with his nose to a wall and hum to himself.

The Mustang was probably the most tolerable aspect of life. That was a good-looking car. Mine was an '89, which wasn't exactly the heyday of Mustangs in terms of aesthetics, but the engine sounded right and it looked cooler than anything my friends were driving (1). Despite that, in a rather short period of time (just a few months) and to my surprise, I discovered it was a car I didn't really enjoy. I didn't like the seats, I didn't like my view of the road, I didn't like how it felt on the highway, I didn't like the convertible top, and so on. It just wasn't me; none of it felt right.

Eventually I sold the car and bought a GMC Sonoma 4x4 that had no air conditioning. And I. Loved. That. Truck. With. The. Whole. Of. Me.

I drove the hell out of it –– Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California. I lived in that truck for days at a time. She took me everywhere I needed to go, everywhere I wanted to go. She survived several girlfriends, one of whom accused me of loving the truck more than her. Which was true.

That I have no photos of the two of us together (the truck and me, I mean) makes me deeply sad. In the end, the Sonoma was stolen from outside my apartment in San Diego, and I was advised by the police that it was not even worth looking for. I like to think she is still alive and running today, somewhere in Mexico and making someone as happy as she made me.

But I digress. The point is this: experience suggests that although I may really like the idea of something, I may end up not actually liking that thing. Which is why I often think the bike I actually want, deep down, is a Honda.

I suppose that's not too surprising. On this blog I've sung the praises of the CB500X and the NC700X, as well as lamented the absence of the the CTX700 from the UK market. And in my mind, every bike I consider finds itself being compared with the CBF600 (on which I took my Direct Access), regardless of whether the comparison is fair. Hell, I have even found myself daydreaming about getting a Deauville.

I fear I may let you down, Chris.
Hondas are good bikes, there's no denying that. But they don't look very cool. Even the new CB1100 –– though it's certainly a step in the right direction. Hondas don't growl. They are not the type of bike that induces that fire-engine reaction in non-motorcycling males (2). Hondas are not cool. They are not badass. They struggle to meet the Chris Jericho test.

But then I think to myself: they're reliable as hell. For the same price as a Triumph of questionable age you can have a Honda from the past seven years or so that has ABS, lower insurance premiums, and higher mpg. 

I'm not Chris Jericho; I've never even attempted a moonsault. I suppose I'm more of a Lance Storm guy.

Lance Storm is one of Jericho's best friends. The two trained at the same school in Canada and moved up through the ranks together until the strength of Jericho's character really started shining through in WCW (3). By all accounts, including that of Jericho, Lance is the better technical wrestler. He built a reputation as being stalwart, capable of always producing a solid match. But he never had the flash or character that makes a pro wrestler great. He wasn't cool; but he was reliable as hell.

My Sonoma wasn't cool, but it was reliable as hell. Maybe, in its own way, reliable is cool. Especially where a new rider is concerned. I want a bike that starts every time, a bike I can ride and ride and ride, a bike that won't sap me of my almost negative funds. So, maybe what I really want is a Honda.


(1) Maybe. The definition of "cool" is nebulous. My best friend drove an enormous 1974 Mercury Marquis. In it's own way, that car was infinitely cooler than my Mustang.

(2) My wife has correctly identified the fact that every man wishes he had a motorcycle. For those without a bike (and that includes me these days) they are left to stare: jumping up and turning their head when one goes by, just as when they were kids and fire engines would zip past. 

(3) Chris Jericho is my favourite wrestler. I met him once and I still count that as one of the best days of my life. So, obviously, I know a hell of a lot about the guy. Sorry to bore you.

Monday, 3 June 2013

What I want: a Triumph anything

Triumph Legend
That stuff I said last week about wanting a Royal Enfield? Forget that. Well, don't forget it completely  –– I'd still happily accept an RE if anyone wants to give me one –– but I've recently shifted my focus. Again. Or, rather, perhaps it's more accurate to say that I find myself suddenly refocusing on what I've always wanted. And here's why:

When my wife was a little girl, growing up in a small village in Devon, she had a sticker book full of motorcycles. On the wall of her tiny cottage bedroom, she had pictures of even more motorbikes and she daydreamed of growing up to ride a bike of her own.

"Triumphs were my favourites," she told me the other day. "Those are the ones I wanted in my sticker book. I don't like racing bikes; I don't like the look of them. The ones that I always liked were the Triumphs that, you know, look like proper motorcycles."

You hear that, Liam Marsden? Proper motorcycles.

What Jenn is referring to, of course, is a cruiser or upright in the 'classic' style. Triumph make race bikes and adventure bikes, both of which are (not surprisingly) beloved in the UK. But the bikes that hearken back to the company's early heydays are the ones that spark Jenn's interest.

Of course, I have long pined for a Triumph. Before I even started this blog I was stating on my personal blog a desire to one day find myself astride a Triumph America. And on this blog I've also expressed a desire to own a Triumph Speedmaster or a Triumph Bonneville, the latter of which means I have an equal desire for a Thruxton or a Scrambler.

Triumph Thunderbird 900
Over the months, these various faces of Triumph have risen and fallen within my daydream scenarios of which bike I'd most like to own as my first. At the very beginning of this motorcycle obsession, when my focus was centred more directly on the America, I thought its 900cc engine meant it would be far too powerful for someone who is new to riding, even one who (like me) has trained on a 600cc bike.

But then, of course, I slowly, slowly came to understand that whole "a bike with a big engine is not necessarily a fast bike" thing. (A 900cc Bonneville churns out just 67 bhp, compared to the 76 bhp produced by a 600cc Honda CBF600 –– that still blows my mind.) And suddenly the idea of getting a second-hand Bonneville, strapping some Kriega bags to it, and mimicking Jamie Roberts in Sequoia National Forest became my new favourite thing to think about. This was a fantasy that became even more justified when Jenn said she thought I'd look sexy on a Triumph.

Indeed, that my wife thinks I would look cool on said bike moved it from the mental realm of wishing to something more akin to necessity.

But, unfortunately, it appears a few other people in Britain think Triumphs are cool, and partially because of that the bikes seem to hold their value really well. For the average cost of a 5-year-old Bonneville, one could buy a brand new Honda CB500F. After running the numbers over and over in my head and even trying to work some fuzzy math it became relatively clear that, lottery win withstanding, although I could choose a Bonneville as my first bike it would probably be several years before I could afford to do so.

Realistically, and I use that term loosely, I reckon that over the next year or so I may (possibly, maybe) be able to find £2,000 for a bike –– a good £3,000 short of what I've seen secondhand Bonnevilles going for. So, armed with that knowledge, dreams of Triumph ownership faded into dreams for the future, and I began to ponder other bikes that could be had closer to the present.

I pondered, too, the costs of insurance. Soon I had whittled myself down to thinking a 125cc Honda Varadero would be acceptable, despite the fact that it is the sort of bike that most certainly does not pass the Chris Jericho test (1). Soon thereafter, however, I spotted that Royal Enfields are in the same insurance group and can also be had for roughly the same price secondhand, and I set my heart on one of those.

Triumph Adventurer
"Well, it looks kinda cool," Jenn said after being subjected to a monologue on the virtues of the Royal Enfield Bullet Electra. "But, you know, if it's not very powerful... Is that what you'd want? I thought you wanted a Triumph."

"I do," I said. "But you said I should think about the insurance costs and everything. A Royal Enfield is in a lower insurance group."

"Hmm," Jenn said. "Yeah, well. It would be your bike. So, you know, I guess you can do whatever. But, well, would it really cost that much more to insure a Triumph? Maybe you should look into it. Because I thought that the bike you wanted was a Triumph..." 

Then she told me about the sticker book she had as a little girl.

Fellas, you're reading the subtext there, right? The lady wants a Triumph. Keep in mind, too, that when I first started to express this motorcycle obsession her reaction was flat opposition. So, she really wants a Triumph. And I have now the option of either making her little-girl dream come true or getting myself a motorcycle that will probably come to annoy her in its non-Triumph nature.

Therefore, a Triumph it will be. Somehow... some way...

I checked rates and although a Triumph is indeed more expensive to insure than a Royal Enfield (or Varadero or CBF600), it is still quite a bit less than I thought it might be. Entirely possible if I have my wife's blessing.

Unfortunately, knowing I could manage to afford to insure and keep such a bike doesn't mean I will anytime soon have enough money for the initial purchase. Or so I thought.

Triumph Thruxton
Up until a few days ago I was focusing my Triumph love on five models:
  • Triumph America
  • Triumph Bonneville
  • Triumph Scrambler
  • Triumph Speedmaster
  • Triumph Thruxton

They are all effectively the same bike. So much so, in fact, that some are hard to tell apart. The main difference with the America and Speedmaster models from the other three is that their forks are a little more forward, in cruiser style. But between each other, as best I can tell, the America and Speedmaster differ only in their styles of seats and mudguards. Whereas the Bonneville, Scrambler and Thruxton all seem to only differ from one another in where the exhausts and handlebars go. Credit to the boys and girls at Triumph for making the most out of a single bit of engineering.

But it turns out this is an old trick. As I say, up until a few days ago I thought the above listed were the only Triumphs I liked. But upon reordering the way in which search results are displayed on BikeTrader I discovered that there is such a thing as a Triumph Adventurer. Which looks a whole hell of a lot like a Triumph Legend, which is almost exactly the same bike as a Triumph Thunderbird 900. The forks on the Adventurer are forward; the Thunderbird and Legend differ only in the amount of chrome.

These three previously unknown-to-me models are machines from the late 90s, eventually phased out in the face of stringent Euro 3 emissions standards. But by all the accounts I've read, they were built incredibly sturdy –– amid a resurgence for the Triumph company during which it seemed eager to overcompensate for the awful bikes it had produced in the 1970s. Add to this the fact that Triumph owners have a reputation for being quite dear with their machines and the end result is that there are a number of really beautiful examples of the models available secondhand.

And those older machines are closer to my price point (though, admittedly, on the high side of "close"). I can, if I squint really hard, picture myself being able to get one. So, the bike that I want is a Triumph Adventurer, or America, or Bonneville, or Legend, or Scrambler, or Speedmaster, or Thunderbird, or Thruxton. Whichever I can afford first...


(1) "Guys wanna be me; girls wanna be with me."