Tuesday, 16 July 2013

On the road


The blog will be quiet for the next fortnight, while life gets pretty busy. First, we're getting married on 20 July. That probably seems a bit silly, since Jenn and I are already married. But we didn't get a chance to have a proper wedding back in November, so we're throwing a big to-do for friends and family. In a shock turn of events, the British climate will be cooperating and it looks as though the weather will be ideal for the barbecue we have planned at the reception.

After that we'll be in Ireland for a little while.

Thanks so much for all your support of the blog. I'll be back on 1 August.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Gear review: Hein Gericke Panther II jacket

It's too short. That is my primary criticism of the Hein Gericke Panther II leather jacket. It seems to have been made for a strange long-armed circus freak of a man who is as thin as me, has arms as long as mine, but who is at least five inches shorter than me. 

Or perhaps I am the freak, as it seems the intolerable bulk of motorcycling gear is built for people shorter than me. Maybe this is why ABATE is so successful in Minnesota: with so many people in the Land of 10,000 Lakes being of Scandinavian descent, the safety gear doesn't fit them anyway.

Anyhoo, this jacket was one of the first bits of gear I bought. I was so terrified of my getting in "trouble," afraid that Jenn would discover my motorcycle gear, that I had the jacket delivered to my office. I wore it from my very first day of training -- my CBT -- in February and now wear it any time I go out. As such, I have experienced every season and every weather condition whilst wrapped in this jacket. So I can say confidently: by and large, it's the bee's knees.

When I'm actually striding a motorcycle, the jacket's length becomes much less an issue. Indeed, I'm sure its cut is deliberate. This way it doesn't create a false paunch when sitting down. In what is currently my most favourite photo of me ever (see the picture in the previous post), you can see the jacket fits well and doesn't create a false belly that might come from a longer jacket.

It has four zippered pockets: two on the outside and two on the inside. That provides plenty of space for my wallet, house keys, ear plugs, an Allen wrench, mobile phone, and insurance documents.

All leather (almost), and equipped with armour in the elbows, shoulders and back, I feel safe in this jacket. The leather is heavy, the stitches are durable. The feeling of security is enhanced by the fact that it is concrete-wall windproof. 

The jacket's wind-blocking ability meant it was up to the task in winter. In early March, I found myself riding at 70 mph on a naked CBF600 when it was snowing. Wearing just a base layer, a T-shirt and a sweater underneath the jacket, my torso and arms were the warmest part of me.

Having slathered the jacket in Nikwax, it holds up well in rain -- except at the inner elbow where there are small patches of textile fabric, presumably to allow the jacket to "breathe" a little. After riding for an hour in steady rain recently the dampness started finding its way to my arm. I have since sprayed waterproofing on the fabric, so hopefully that will help.

However, the jacket's strengths become a weakness in warm weather -- it doesn't let air in. Last week, I was riding through mostly-stop traffic in Cardiff on an unusually warm day and suddenly felt I could understand why a person might indulge their squid tendencies in summer. Temperatures in the UK very rarely go above 25C (77F), so the jacket can just barely pass as a year-rounder. Anywhere else, though, and you'd need a second jacket for the "riding season."

I also wonder how long the jacket's Velcro straps will hold up. There are four in total: one that keeps the zipper from moving around near my neck, one that isn't terribly necessary on the waistband, and one on each sleeve to keep the zippers from flopping about. I am confident, though, that it will hold up for a long while, giving me plenty of time to set away money for a jacket I really want.

Just as long as I don't get any taller.

Monday, 8 July 2013

135 miles

This is why you get a motorcycle.
On average, Britain experiences five really good days a year. Sometimes less, rarely more. The last time we experienced anything of the sort that an American would describe as summer was in 2006, when there was about a month of hot weather. Everyone lost their minds that year –– Ninjah took to wandering the city centre claiming to be a sun god prophet, and the Prince of Wales pub installed an air-conditioning system they have not used since.

The five good days a year are not even consecutive. Nor are they placed anywhere near one another. Perhaps one will come in early March, another in late May (though, not on the bank holiday), two lovely days in July perhaps, and then an incredible and unexpected weekend in October or November. That's about it. If you're lucky.

So, living here teaches you to seize upon climatological opportunities. You have to be always ready to act, always prepared to make the most of a sunny day. Many Britons falter on this point. Their inexperience means they don't really know how to handle good weather, so they simply spend the day in the ovenlike confines (a) of a pub's beer garden, getting blind on cider and developing medically threatening sunburns.

Not me, though. Especially now. Because I've got a motorcycle.

As soon as the weather forecasters started predicting a good weekend I was staring at a map and thinking: 1) Where should we go? 2) Where will everyone else go?

That second factor is an especially important one to consider on this island. Southwest England, just 30 miles east (or 10 miles south) of Penarth, is the most densely populated area in Europe. And with the exception of perhaps certain corners of the Scottish Highlands, the rest of the United Kingdom is not much better. In a space the size of Oregon there are squeezed double the population of Canada. There is never enough room. Solace of the kind available to me as a kid in Texas or a teenager in Minnesota is incomprehensible to people here.

So, when the weather turns hot the absolute last place you want to be is the beach. Because everyone else will be there. Everyone. And far too many of them will be drunk and have come to the beach from some post-industrial swill-pit of a town that no one in their right mind would ever visit except for the purpose of firebombing (b). A town where no one has ever heard of tact or politeness toward others. A town where the women outweigh the men one to three. A town where racism counts as humour. A town where even the children are incapable of completing a sentence without profanity. And the last thing you want is to be spending one of your allotted five good days sitting next to them.

My new favourite picture of me.
I decided the best thing to do was go inland: some 60 miles from the azure main, to Hay-on-Wye, a small village on the northeastern edge of Brecon Beacons National Park. Nestled just barely on the Welsh side of the Wales-England border, the town becomes overrun with literature types every year for the Hay Festival, but the rest of the time it is relatively quiet.

We finally left the flat a little before noon, well after my intended departure time of 10 a.m. The delay was of my own doing. I was slow to get out of bed, leisurely in eating breakfast, and painstaking in gearing up. I have yet to develop the ability to get ready to ride with any sort of efficiency. If I were to be riding with a group of guys I am certain they would all just leave me behind. Jenn, though, was patient enough -- turning her face to the sun like a lemur as I messed with my keffiyeh (or shemagh, if you're British) and jacket and helmet and gloves and trousers and the bike and so on.

Soon we were flying up the A470, through a corridor of leafy-soft trees and the gentle hills of the Taff Valley rising on each side. Then onto the smaller, curvier, slower stretch of the road as it passes through the Brecon Beacons. In each dip, glen, glade and meadow we could feel and smell the air change. We were a part of the world around us, not just speeding through it.

Tea in sight of Pen y Fan and Corn Du.

We stopped for tea and Welsh cakes at the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre, managing to find a table outside the cafe that offered an incredible view of Pen y Fan and Corn Du, the two most iconic peaks of the Brecon Beacons and the spot where Jenn and I once watched the sunrise early in our relationship (c).

Soon we were back on the bike, the CBF600SA seemingly built for exactly this sort of thing: cheerfully carrying two people through mountain scenery. The bike held to the road, never straining. Due to my penchant for getting confused at roundabouts (d), we ended up taking a detour through the town of Brecon, but soon we were back on the road to Hay.

We ate lunch at the Three Tuns, a pub suggested by the conversational woman at the tourist centre. The food was incredibly good, but sitting in the pub's beer garden I found myself way too hot. My newly purchased motorcycle trousers, it seems, are designed for the more traditional British climate.

As soon as we finished eating, I insisted we head down to the River Wye. I wanted to take off my shoes and dip my feet in the river. But once I was there, memories of Texas and Minnesota summers flooded my mind and I decided I needed to jump in.

Remember what I said about this being an overcrowded place. I could see people across the river about 100 yards away. But I didn't care. I stripped off all my clothes and flopped into the cool, clear water. I dove down and swam under the water for a bit. When I resurfaced, Jenn was also naked and shuffling into the river.

"This is my first time skinny dipping," she said.

"Well, usually you do it at night," I said. "And in a place where there aren't so many people around. I know this is an odd thing to complain about, but this water is really clean. And really clear. I thought perhaps things would be covered up a little better, but I can see my toes. There's no hiding the fact we're nude. I can see a canoe coming down the river. I think I'll swim around a little more and get out before they get too close."

I dove down and swam looping circles under the water, then hustled back to the shore to hide behind a bush as I used my keffiyeh to towel off. Jenn, however, kept playing, and soon the canoe was too close for her to be able to get out of the water without being clearly seen.

"I'll just stay here and wait until they pass," she said. "Hopefully they won't paddle too close."

She tread water, staying as low as she could, and laughing. I wrapped the keffiyeh around my waist and stepped out from the bushes and shin deep in the river. There I spotted something: it wasn't just one canoe. There had been a cluster of them. And now, behind close them, I could see several more. Several more.

The River Wye

It turned out to be an urban youth group -- one of those things where they ship a load of inner city kids out to the country for a weekend. There were three teenage boys in each canoe, none of them possessing the skill to do a great deal more than follow the current. So rather than paddle around the lady who was swimming, they floated -- slowly -- right toward the spot where Jenn had chosen to stand her ground.

She looked at me and grimaced. A procession of no less than 20 agonisingly slow, mis-angled canoes followed, each passing within five feet of her. The boys, of course, stared brazenly at the naked white lady in the water but were good enough not to say anything, apart from a solitary whistle. I like to think they returned to the city with a tremendous appreciation for the countryside.

I could do nothing but laugh. Fortunately, Jenn was laughing, too. Eventually, finally, all the canoes passed and Jenn was able to get out. We got dressed, feeling refreshed and happy, and walked back into town.

Jenn catches me adjusting my visor.
With cones of sheep's milk ice cream from Shepherd's in hand, we found a shaded spot by the walls of Hay Castle where we could look out over the village and across the Wye Valley.

This is why I came to Britain, yo. This sort of view and atmosphere is what I moved here for.

Unfortunately, it's not where I live (yet), so we wandered back to the bike, I took 10 minutes to get my gear on, and we started the trip back down to Penarth.

The late afternoon was beginning to cool enough that once we got moving I was perfectly comfortable in my head-to-toe black gear. As we passed again the peaks of Corn Du and Pen-y-Fan I moved my left hand back to squeeze Jenn's knee. She responded by hugging me.

I felt happy, and in one of those rare states of mind in which I am not constantly pining to return to the United States. Swimming in rivers and ice cream; that's summer, yo. That's real, actual summer. If we were in Minnesota or Texas we'd be doing those same things.

I thought to myself how fortunate we've been this year, having already had an incredibly good summer-like weekend back in May. Maybe there will be more. One can only hope. If so, we'll be ready.
 
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(a) Due to the paucity of legitimately warm days in this country, the British have developed what they call a "garden." It is somewhere between the American definitions of a garden and a back yard. A common, clever feature of the British garden is the way of building walls so that the garden is windless, thereby trapping the sun's heat. This means that if you are wearing a booze coat you can often sit outside when it is actually too cold to sit outside. However, when the weather is genuinely warm, a garden becomes intolerable.

(b) I guarantee you that any British person reading that is thinking: "Hey, yeah, I know the town he's talking about." There are dozens of them. This is not because the UK is poo, but simply an unhappy side effect of overpopulation. If you have a lot of people, by nature some of them are going to be dickheads.

(c) I credit that experience as key in Jenn's falling in love with me.

(d) Before you start criticising me, British people, I understand how roundabouts work. My problem comes at large roundabouts where I can't see my exit upon entering the roundabout. In that situation, I am forced to rely on my terribly poor short-term memory and the glanced-at information I got from the sign approaching the roundabout. Remember, too, that in Wales all that information is in Welsh and English, and that I am fluent in both languages. So, I am inundated with information at exactly the point my brain is instead focusing on slowing down and hoping the car behind me is going to slow down, as well. The end result is that I often find myself entering the roundabout and thinking: "Oh, hell. I'm not sure which turning I want."

Friday, 5 July 2013

Praise for the hipsters

I don't really know what to call them. The postmodernists, perhaps? The baroque classicists? The custom culturists?

The Old and Boring of motorcycle culture tend to call them hipsters; I'm never really sure. 

I think I get confused in part because I may be looping at least two different sub-cultures: the Iron & Resin crowd and the Born Free crowd. In both there are beards and Pabst and old motorcycles and Biltwell helmets and tattoos and genuflection to art and authenticity, but maybe there is a fine line that actually draws out more than one culture. 

Indeed, with the Born Free crowd one can convincingly argue they are simply the present incarnation of the long-lived American chopper culture, and that the fine line that separates them from hipsterism is one drawn by the wheels of a Harley-Davidson. But then Deus ex Machina builds a Harley and the crew from Death Science take Hondas on a Revenge Run and the waters are muddied. Not to mention the whole additional tangent of Roland Sands and Shinya Kimura and their ilk. Where do they fit? Are they part of the same breed? Or something entirely different?

Certainly the critics of hipsters seem to have trouble making a positive identification. This Motorcycle.com article, for example, is both dated and schizophrenic in its definition of a motorcycle-riding hipster. Whereas this Tumblr blog seems to class anyone not riding a brand-new motorcycle as a hipster.

For the sake of ease I will put all those different tangents in one tent and refer to them not as hipsters but as neo-classicists. In art, classicism tends to refer to a canon of widely accepted ideal forms. That is, the version of a thing most people would think of if asked to describe that thing. For example, if I were to ask you to describe rap music, you might, embarrassingly, do that arms-across-the-chest thing and make beat-boxy repetitive rhythms. Is this an accurate portrayal of current rap music? No. But it is many people's classical vision of it.

And if you ask a person to draw a motorcycle, what do you get? Something pretty similar to the machines being built, ridden and promulgated by the neo-classicists. Few non-motorcyclists would draw something that looks like my CBF600SA, for instance –– despite the fact it is one of the most common styles found on the road (outside the United States). Hardly anyone would draw the odd dinosaur front ends found on bikes like the BMW F800 GS, despite adventure bikes being one of the hottest trends right now.

The motorcycle neo-classicists hold quite strictly to the forms we know, but modify them just enough that each is an entirely one-off experience. In this way, I suppose, they are like the piano part in salsa music. Pick a salsa song and listen to the piano. At first, it seems to be doing nothing more than driving the rhythm with a single repeated stanza. But listen more closely and you'll hear that, in fact, nothing is repeated.

First off, from an aesthetic point of view I love what the neo-classicists are doing. They have scaled back from the Baroque excess nonsense of the Orange County Choppers crowd and helped return the motorcycle to its rightful place as a useable everyman machine. The bikes favoured by the neo-classicists look like they actually can and should be ridden. In some situations that may not be the case in practice (I am sure there are many a rebuilt Honda CB350 cafe racer that is as much a piece of expensive butt jewellery (1) as an overchromed Paul Jr monstrosity), but at least they look right. Neo-classical bikes look like motorcycles.

It is that adherence to the aesthetic –– visual, mechanical and experiential –– that annoys the Old and Boring quite a lot. The criticism seems to be that by holding to the classical forms the neo-classicists don't actually understand motorcycling. They don't know what it really is, man.

Criticism of the neo-classicists is pretty generic, similar to the tired and borne-of-envy laments I used to wage against over-privileged Volvo-driving Bard College students almost 20 years ago (2). It is catch-all and changes easily to suit the situation at hand. But the most standard complaint about "hipsters" is that they are a wealthy and, by extension, disingenuous breed who waste undeserved money on the beautification of outdated technology that was never really the top of its game. I mean, all that money on a CB350? It's like a movement to lovingly restore Dodge Neons.

And those hipsters who are riding Harleys? And, by extension, Harley-Davidson's (wise) decision to pursue them as a demographic? Why, that's just as bad. Because, well, uhm, just because.

For me, though, I'm all for it. The superbike movement of the 1990s drove a stake into the soul of motorcycling (does anyone pine for the bike Rob van Winkle rode in Cool As Ice? No. No they do not). The glamour chopper movement of the early 2000s served as life support but still missed the point: the simple independence offered by a motorcycle. Independence that is gained affordably and instantly, regardless of whether your setting is urban, rural, or somewhere in between.

As I've said many times, I got my motorcycle license in the mid 90s, but then did nothing with it. The neo-classicist movement is what properly rekindled my interest in riding a bike. OK, yes: in the end I fell on the side of ABS, low MPG, and the like. When it truly came down to choosing my own bike, I chose (slightly bland) modern reliability. I don't regret that choice, but the fact is: it is not what pulled me into motorcycling. I consistently rank this video as a key impetus in my deciding I needed to get a motorcycle, followed very closely by this video. Neo-classical choppers and a hipster Bonneville.

I still dream of owning a Bonneville. I tell myself it will be my next bike. I don't think of myself as a neo-classicist but I dig their world. If I were on my own Road Pickle adventure, my map would take me to See-See in Portland, Deus in Venice Beach, and wherever it is that the Show Class Magazine dudes hang out in North Carolina.

So, shine on you crazy Instagram diamonds. Keep drinking your Pabst and waxing your moustaches because you are making motorcycling cool and relevant.

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(1) Credit to Lucky for coming up with that term.

(2) I didn't go to college there; my girlfriend of the time did. I always say she majored in breaking hearts.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Respect for Thunder Road

Remember in my previous post I mentioned I've been suffering mild paranoia lately; getting a call from Thunder Road the other day didn't help that. But still I'm glad they got in touch.

For those of you playing along outside of South Wales, Thunder Road Motorcycles is one of the better known motorcycle dealerships in the area. Serving dually as Honda and Suzuki dealers, Thunder Road has two locations: Cwmbran and Bridgend. Both of which are exactly 21 miles from my house.

A while ago, I had decided to check out the Bridgend location and feel out the cost of certain modifications I'm hoping to add to my bike before winter, namely engine bars and heated grips. I figured I'd also check out their gear and try to get a sense of what costs I'll be facing when a full service comes due on my CBF600. So, it was basically a Getting To Know You sort of trip. 

Wales is a small place and when you've got an American accent people tend to remember you. So my relationships with businesses are rarely faceless. When I used to have a car, for example, my mechanic knew who I was as soon as he heard my voice on the phone.

ME: "Hi, I'd like to schedule an MOT for..."
MECHANIC: "Oh, hello, Chris! You still driving that old Peugeot?"

So, as I say, I decided to drop in at Thunder Road to effectively say: "Hi, I'm the American fella you'll be seeing around for the next who-knows how many years."

The shop is of decent size, with a fair mix of both motorcycles and gear. It is clean, there is a cafe upstairs (which does not take cards, much to my hungry tunmmy's chagrin), and, of course, it sells two of the most reliable motorcycle brands there are.

Because I had come intending to make a sort of introductory purchase -- a gesture of saying, "I am a person who will actually spend money at your business" -- I bought a little over £100 of minor things, consisting primarily of a heavy-duty chain lock. But I left, too, with a feeling that I would not return.

Basically, it boiled down to a less-than-stellar customer experience. There were a lot of staff milling around but getting their attention was a challenge (keeping in mind, too, that I am a 37-year-old white dude who rode up to a Honda dealership on a Honda). Once that attention was gained, I was passed from one staff member to another until I decided that I didn't actually care how much engine bars would cost.

A few days afterward, I shared my experience as a review on Thunder Road's Google+ page. And it was because of that review that Thunder Road called me. On my phone. While I was at work.

"HOW ON EARTH DID YOU GET MY MOBILE NUMBER?" was the first thing I found myself thinking, before realising I had given it to them as part of the warranty on the chain lock.

But then my next thought was: Wow. That's customer service, yo.

The person I spoke to, Carol, said it's really important for Thunder Road that its customers are happy, and was keen to see me return to Thunder Road and give them a second chance. She offered to keep me up to date on any open days, so I can get a chance to play on the toys for free, and encouraged me to drop in and speak to her directly if I had any questions.

So, yes, of course, I'll try them again. You can't help but respect the effort they've made.