Thursday, 29 August 2013

220 miles (and a little more)

I look like a German fetishist.
Hitherto a week or so ago I hadn't taken any particularly long journeys with Aliona. Well, "particularly long" is a relative term, I suppose. For some people, perhaps 20 miles might be a long ride. It's all a matter of your experience. I'm still pretty green –– having now owned a bike for less than 3 months –– so my experience is such that the 110 miles to the Fleece Inn in Bretforton seemed like a pretty long distance.

Indeed, by the time I finally got back home, having racked up at least 220 miles in one day (I say 'at least' because I got lost several times en route), I was completely exhausted. Before that, the greatest distance I had covered in one day was 140 miles. And the extra 80 miles I tackled on my Bretforton trip just about kicked my ass.

Coming home, I started to suffer major lapses in concentration –– focusing too intently on just the car in front of me, changing lanes or turning without checking my blind spot, etc. The worst moment came as I was speeding toward a roundabout at 80 mph and suddenly realised that the massive truck ahead of me was stopped. Thank the sweet baby Jesus for good Honda brakes (ABS for the win, y'all), dry pavement, and the absence of any cars in the lane I drifted into while slamming the brakes. Because of them it was just a learning experience and I can, overall, look back on the day fondly. Here are a few pictures from the day:

The Monnow Bridge in Monmouth, Wales. Crossing the River Wye, the bridge was built in the 1270s. If you're reading this in the United States, try to wrap your mind around that: 740 years ago!
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I got lost a lot. I've lived in the United Kingdom 7 years but British roads still confuse the hell out of me. What's wrong with road signs that actually convey pertinent information, guys? What's wrong with the occasional road sign to let you know what blasted road you're on? What's wrong with the occasional straight road?
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Eventually I made it to the Fleece Inn, just an hour and a half later than I had originally intended. This is the beer garden –– a perfect place to spend a British summer afternoon.
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The building is a farmhouse, built some time in the 1400s. In 1848, it was turned into a pub and remains as such to this day. It preserves its older feel, with very low ceilings and uneven flagstone flooring. It is a special enough place that it is, in fact, a National Trust property.
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I definitely want to come back here with Jenn (she was at a music festival, so I was travelling solo), in the winter, when the pub will have an entirely different and cosy feel. That's assuming I can find it again! 
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Not keen to jump back on the bike after having a beer (even though it was only 3 percent), I decided to rest and lounge in Bretforton's green for half an hour or so. You can see the pub over my left shoulder.
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Bretforton's a pretty nice place to kill some time. The village consists of only old homes, many with thatched roofs. What I loved most, however, was the quiet. I just sat and listened to the sound of birds and felt the summer breeze on my face.
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Eventually, though, I had to get back. Here's Aliona in the Forest of Dean, where I stopped for a rest, then decided to get in a little practice riding on gravel. There's a section in the latest MotoGeo episode where Jamie handles gravel like a boss. Upon seeing that, I decided I needed to get over my fear of the stuff.

All in all, it was a good ride. I got home, washed the bike, lubed the chain and took a very long shower. Slowly, slowly I am working toward being the sort of rider I want to be –– one who can travel particularly long distances. Like, say, to Spain...

Monday, 26 August 2013

Ride review: Harley-Davidson XL1200CA Custom

An un-Harley-like whir let me know the engine was ready. I pushed the start button and...

FWAHWOOMDAHDOOMDAHDOOMDAHDOOMDAHDOOM...

"Oh, baby," I whimpered. "Baby, I think I love you."

Thus began my experience with the Harley-Davidson XL1200CA, a fat-tired beautiful thug of a machine that I got a chance to test ride recently at Swansea Harley-Davidson.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had visited Wales' only H-D dealership on a whim, hoping simply to be able to stare at a few of the bikes up close and maybe, just maybe, sit on one. When I got to the dealership, though, I was greeted with a relaxed friendliness I simply had not expected. Sales executive Paul Chapple said I was more than welcome to sit on any of the bikes, but suggested a test ride or two to get a real sense of the machines.

The first bike I rode was an XL883L SuperLow, which is reviewed in the aforementioned post. Overall, I was crazy about the bike and the Harley-Davidson experience in general, but there was something, a certain intangible, that kept me from thinking: "Yes, this is my next bike." I felt cramped on the machine, resulting in some serious aching in my back and left knee.

"The controls on the 1200 should be a little more suited to your frame," Paul said when he handed me the keys.

Paul is my kind of salesman: very low pressure. The fastest way to get me to not buy something is to push me to buy it, and Paul seemed to understand that. Of course, he has the benefit of working with a product that pretty much sells itself. I have no doubt that most men return from test rides weeping and pleading with Paul to take their money.

Certainly I felt like doing that from the very first note of the big 1200's engine. The additional 300-odd cubic centimetres this machine has over the 883 were instantly apparent. I could hear them. I could sense them. I felt like raising my fist defiantly into the air and madly shouting: "Power! Power! Bwahahahaha!"

What I loved:

As I say, the aura of power to this bike was impossible to ignore. The common analogy for a Harley is to compare it with a tractor, but this experience was more tank-like. It just makes sense that Wolverine and Captain America both choose to ride these things into battle. The engine shudders with a raw authority that is intoxicating and confidence-boosting. When Kissinger said that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac he was almost certainly thinking of a Harley-Davidson. Sitting astride all that rumble and quake feels incredible.

In every review I've ever read of a Harley-Davidson they seem to leave that bit out. They complain about brakes (which were OK, as far as I was concerned) and ground clearance (I got no dragging when navigating the tiny, sharp-turn roundabouts of the Gower) and so on, but they leave out the fact that just sitting on a Harley gives you a feeling of being able to conquer the world.

That's a feeling backed up by the incredible pulling sensation you get when twisting the throttle. The XL1200 wants you to go. It feels almost impatient for you to push the speed limit. And once you get going, it holds the speed pretty well. On a bit of straight, I was able to easily get the machine roaring up to 80 mph (a).

The bike seemed most adept at speeds below 60 mph, though. There is no tachometer on the XL1200, so I was left to operate on sound and feel, but she sounded and felt perfectly comfortable cruising at 40 mph in fourth gear. As I had noticed when riding the 883, the bike's weight was distributed closer to the ground than on my bike. So, it felt a little more "solid," a little more more stuck to the ground -- especially in straights. I noticed this most when filtering past traffic; I pointed the bike in a straight line and it hurled me there without question.

The contoured, comfy seat added to the general feeling of being "planted" on the bike. And the ergonomics were generally more comfortable than I had experienced on the 883. This, I felt, would be a great machine to take Jenn around on. I could almost feel her squeezing my waist with happiness, as the two of us ride through country lanes.

What I didn't love:

As with the 883, wind protection does not come standard on the XL1200. So, once you get up to highway speed it's something of a traumatic experience. Almost all of the 47 miles between Penarth and Swansea Harley-Davidson are motorway, and on Aliona they were a veritable afternoon snooze compared to just 1 mile of high speed on the XL1200. Riding long distances on this machine would take some getting used to and a fair amount of forearm exercises to ensure you keep your grip.

Indeed most of my criticisms of the XL1200 are exactly the same as those for the XL883. Along with minimal wind protection there is limited information provided on the dash. No tachometer. No engine temperature. There did not even appear to be a low-fuel warning light. And again I was faced with the conundrum of what sort of posture to adopt. Slouched? Upright? Nothing felt exactly right.

These are little things to which a person would probably adapt in, oh, say, an hour or two. But at the end of that hour or two I'd be concerned another issue would crop up: mental and physical exhaustion from the constant shudder and roar of the engine. It's a sound that bores into the your skull, roots in the marrow of your bones. I'm not entirely sure I'd be able to sustain it for very long periods of time (though, I have to admit, I'd be more than willing to try).

I realise that's an issue of taste -- some people like the H-D riding experience, some don't. And perhaps so, too, is the question of performance. You don't buy a Harley-Davidson because you want to win the Isle of Man TT; that is not what the bike's about. But I can't help lamenting that for all the sense and sound of power, the XL1200 doesn't actually generate that much of the stuff. Despite carrying an engine that is 600cc larger than my Honda, the XL1200 produces a whopping 26 bhp less.

And although the XL1200 is brilliant in straight lines, it feels sluggish if you try to throw it around. Filtering straight past a line of cars came easily, but I wouldn't attempt to weave this bike up through traffic as I do with Aliona.

Overall:

There are plenty of motorcycles that I say I want, but for me to even begin to seriously consider spending my own money on a bike it has to first answer in the affirmative to three questions:

1) Would it fit in my garden? Yes. The XL1200 would be a tight fit, but I think, maybe, I could manage to get it through the garden gate. Just. Performing side-stand turns to manoeuvre the bike around, however, would be out of the question.

2) Does it put a big grin on my face? Oh hell yeah. Without a doubt. I felt like Thor on this fucking thing.

3) Is it better than my current motorcycle? Uhm, well. No, but, yes, kinda. Maybe. As I mentioned in my review of the XL883L SuperLow, it's a difficult apples-to-oranges question to answer. It's a bit like comparing polar bears to drone planes: both are pretty good at killing, but each in a different way. Sure, the drone kills more efficiently, but to imagine terrorists being ripped to shreds by one of Svalbard's finest is far more emotionally gratifying. So, similarly, the XL1200CA does not have the horsepower, wind protection, fuel range, dashboard information or liquid-cooled engine of my CBF600SA, but, then, Aliona doesn't quite make me feel like a super hero.


The XL1200 is a machine very much built for the American market and American landscape. It is large, comfortable, heavy, and most easy to ride at speeds of or below 60 mph. In the United States, a lot of motorcyclists prefer to stay off the interstates and freeways, sticking to highways wear the limit doesn't go above 60. And in 49 out of 50 states motorcyclists are not legally allowed to filter. Visibility, solidity and comfort -- these are the XL1200s strengths.

So, whether you'd want one boils down to what you want and need of a motorcycle. The XL1200 provides a super-crazy-awesome-amazing-unique riding experience, but abandons certain aspects of practicality for the sake of that.

If I were forced to choose between this and my existing bike, told that those were the only two options and that I could only ever have one of them for the rest of my life, I would probably choose the the Harley-Davidson. OK, there's no "probably" about it. I'd go with the Harley. It looks cooler, and it is better able to accommodate a passenger.

But for the time being, at least, I'll be sticking to my Honda. If Harley-Davidson were to add ABS it might make the Sportster impossible to resist.

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(a) If you work for the South Wales Police that sentence is a lie; In truth, I always obey the speed limit. Always. Really. Honest.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Ride review: Harley-Davidson XL 883 L (aka Sportster SuperLow)

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is like riding a tractor.

That's the criticism so consistently levied against Harley-Davidson motorcycles: that there is something agrarian to the experience. And I can now say from personal experience that all those critics are right. But I can also say those critics are leaving out a key piece of information, which is this:

TRACTORS ARE FUCKING AWESOME!!!

It's a tractor that hurtles forward with roller-coaster intensity, a tractor that goes really fast, a tractor that makes you feel like Brock Lesnar in a children's ball pit. A tractor from the Land of Bad-Ass, with which you can sow the seeds of awesomeness.

But let me back up a bit...

A few days ago, I decided to take the day off, solely for the purpose of getting a chance to ride around and finally make use of the free breakfast coupon sent to me by Thunder Road. As I was gearing up, I suddenly decided that since I was already heading west, I might as well push a few miles further and check out Swansea Harley-Davidson –– Wales' first and only full-on H-D dealer. The place had opened up in March, but due to my deep animosity toward Swansea, I hadn't before made time to visit.

I went simply with the desire to look at the bikes –– nothing more. I wanted to see the Iron 883 in person, wanted to see if it could even pass the very first test of any motorcycle I would consider at the moment: Is it thin enough to fit through my garden gate?

Any bike too big to manoeuvre into the relative safety and shelter of my garden is too big for me too own right now. The good news is it appears –– though be it from visual guesstimating –– a Harley-Davidson 883, whether in Iron, SuperLow or Roadster form, passes the gate test.

The next question I had was: would I even want to ride a Harley? In all my (limited) motorcycling experience, I've only ever ridden in the sit-up-and-beg position of a modern standard or sport tourer: a Yamaha YBR125, a Suzuki GS500, a Honda CBF600, and now a Honda CBF600SA. The riding position of motorcycling's most-iconic and sometimes most-divisive brand was an unknown to me.

I had heard all kinds of horror stories about Harley-Davidson dealers, with some people claiming to have not even been allowed to touch bikes. So, I was very timid in wandering around the shop (side note: it has air conditioning, which is very rare in Wales, so Swansea Harley-Davidson is my new favourite place to go on a hot day), doing my best to not even breathe on the machines. Eventually, I was approached by sales executive Paul Chapple, who asked if he could help out.

"Well, uhm," I said nervously. "Would it be, uhm,  alright if I were to, uhm, sit on the Iron 883 over there?"

"Of course," he said. "Sit on as many of the bikes as you'd like. Though, you'll get much more sense of a bike if you try out one of the demos, take them out for a test ride. That way you get the sound, the feel, the whole experience. That's what these bikes are all about."

What?! A test ride?!!

I had always been conditioned to believe that HD dealerships were run by dicks. But here's Paul offering me the keys. After a tiny bit of paperwork, we were outside and standing next to an XL883L SuperLow –– effectively the same machine as the Iron 883, with more chrome and a lower riding position. He explained the basics, suggested a route and left me alone.

Perhaps Paul understands that a man needs a little alone time for his first Harley experience.

"Fwahwahwahwahwahwahwah," growled the bike as I started it up.

"Oh, my," I said to myself. "See. This. This is why Harley-Davidson sells so many of these things."

The bike shuddered and growled. I thought of the slogan for Victory motorcycles, "Ride one and you'll own one," and thought to myself: "Good Lord, how could anything be better than this mind-blowing sex machine? This thing is fucking amazing!"

KAKUNK! I put the bike into first gear. I instantly understood the comparison to a tractor. There is no doubting gear changes on a Harley. Sometimes I'll be riding along on Aliona, will shift gears but not hear or feel anything, and think: "Did that shift take? What gear will I be in when I let out the clutch?"

This would never, ever happen on a Harley. Never. Ever. People half a block away will hear your gear changes.

The second thing that makes one think of a tractor is the fact it feels as if you are being pulled by one when you twist the throttle. Acceleration on Aliona is quick but relatively gentle –– nimble. On the glorious devil tractor that is the 883, I felt I was being launched. It was terrifying for half a second, unnerving for two seconds, and super-amazeballs awesome for every second thereafter.

At the A484 I brought the bike easily up to 65 mph and shouted above the roar: "I'm on a fucking Harley!"

I felt giddy and excited. I was laughing and whooping. It occurred to me that this bike was adhering to Lucky's first rule of motorcycles, which is that it should put a huge smile on your face. This thing was making me grin so big it hurt my face.

What I loved:

I loved the pull of the bike. I can't think of any better way to describe it; I felt I was hooked to some sort of industrial device that was aggressively dragging me from one place to the other. With Aliona, speed and movement are more fluid –– you think about being in a place and you are just there –– but with this terrible wonderful machine the movement was felt. There was no doubting I was on a machine. I was sitting on an engine.

It reminded me of an old drunkard I used to know in Minnesota who worked in construction. As a party trick he would pull down a large, industrial plastic barrel from his pickup truck. He would light a stick of dynamite, set the barrel over it, then sit on the barrel. When the dynamite exploded it would send him 10-15 feet into the air and he would laugh with the full of him. This is what I felt. I was on that dynamite barrel.

I loved, too, the machine's distribution of weight. Although the 883 is a good 100 lbs. heavier than my CBF600SA, that weight is lower to the ground, meaning the bike felt just a little more steady. Possibly not as nimble, but more solid. Within just a few minutes of being on the bike I felt at home enough to filter through traffic.

Indeed, the whole experience felt intuitive and natural to me. It felt right. In fairness, I suspect this may have a lot to do with the fact that in the United States I always chose pickup trucks as my mode of transportation. I prefer, it seems, a rougher, more industrial ride. Though, I have to point out that the seat on the 883 is markedly comfier than the one on my Honda.

I loved the constant drone of the engine, and the way it shuddered and growled when at stops. It reminded me of the 1969 Ford F250 I drove in high school. And indeed I felt a deep awareness of the fact that a Harley was the sort of machine that could help me get a girl.

"Jenn would really dig this," I thought.

What I didn't love:

With all of the above said, I have to admit that I don't think it very likely you'll see me cruising around on an XL 883L SuperLow. It is an incredible machine, but, it turns out, not quite my kind of machine. First of all, it felt cramped. I am 6-foot-1 and the SuperLow was clearly not designed with me in mind. It is targeted at shorter riders. I kept trying to push the seat back, trying to give myself a little more legroom. On the afternoon of the test ride there was pain in my left knee that I think may have come from being cramped up on the bike.

Additionally, there was some lower back pain that I think may also have originated with the 883. A major issue I had with the bike was: How to sit on it? Slightly slouched forward? Slightly leaned back? I wasn't sure. No posture felt exactly right. Thanks to getting lost while out on the ride, I spent a solid hour on the 883, and toward the end of the experience some of the initial lustre had worn off.

To that end, I can't imagine myself being able to tolerate particularly long rides on this bike. It would cause me physical pain, and I wonder if perhaps the constant roar and shudder of the engine might get on one's nerves after a while. Perhaps not. Perhaps it would just become part of the experience. Hard to say.

Perhaps, too, suffering all that wind would become acceptable –– after I had developed strong forearms. As is, however, the 883 wasn't terribly pleasant at high speeds. I found myself hanging onto the bike with almost the same level of strength I'd need to hang from a chin-up bar. In motorcycle training, I had ridden naked bikes but for some reason the wind on this machine was considerably worse. Again, this may be an ergonomics thing because I was the wrong size for the bike. And, obviously, Harley-Davidson sells windscreens.

One thing Harley-Davidson does not sell, however, is a particularly good solution for the heat that comes off the engine. I was wearing high-quality motorcycle trousers and the temperature was no more than 20C (68F) but heat was pouring into my leg as I rode. I'd be a little concerned about riding such a bike in anything other than British weather. That said, the air-cooled engine did make that strangely therapeutic "tink-tink-tink" noise of cooling when I stopped to take pictures.

Overall:

As I say, by and large I was enamoured with this machine. I felt instantly an understanding of why some people hold such a strong allegiance to them. But I felt I could understand, too, why some people are equally critical. It is a motorcycling experience that spurs an emotional response: if you like the Harley-Davidson riding experience, you're probably going to really like it; conversely, if you don't like it, you may really not like it. For my own part, I really liked it.

The Harley-Davidson 883 answers a number of questions to the affirmative –– Would it fit in my garden? Yes. Does it put a huge grin on my face? Definitely. –– but I'm a little uncertain on the last of the questions I'd ask of any new bike: Is it better than my current motorcycle?

Comparing the Harley-Davidson XL 883L SuperLow and the Honda CBF600SA is, admittedly, a pretty apples-and-oranges exercise. The wind protection, antilock brakes, good gas mileage, more dashboard information, additional horsepower and lower asking price make my Honda appealing, though I'll admit that the emotional draw of the Harley-Davidson is considerably greater. Based on my budget and needs I think that if given the choice I might just stick with the Honda. Maybe. But maybe not...

Monday, 19 August 2013

The great Welsh boondoggle

According to my stats, the majority of the people who read this blog are in the United States. Even if you lived in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though, you might find any talk of the proposed Circuit of Wales race track to be a little hyperlocal. But, hey, it's my blog and this seems like the appropriate forum to express my deep frustration with what I feel is yet another swindle at the expense of the people of the South Wales Valleys.

For those of you playing along elsewhere, the Circuit of Wales is an enormous knot of concrete proposed for an area of Britain that was once described as one of the most beautiful in the Empire.

In the late 1800s, however, much of the area fell victim to the Industrial Revolution and began churning out all kinds of terrible pollutants, along with coal, tin, and iron that was shipped all over the world. The Ebbw Valley, at the top of which would be the proposed CoW, became a major steel-producing area and was soon choked by all the terrible things a factory can produce. It is generally thought that the valley was partial inspiration for JRR Tolkien's Mordor ("a dying land not yet dead").

I used to teach Welsh in the town of Ebbw Vale -- right next to the proposed CoW site -- and got to have numerous conversations with folks who had worked at the Steelworks. In the 1960s and 70s some 14,000 people were directly employed by the steelworks. Things collapsed in the 80s and it was shut down completely in 2002. The area is today one of the poorest in the United Kingdom.

In the two years I spent working in Ebbw Vale I didn't meet a single person who wished to see the steelworks return. Tales of the place at the height of the steelworks sound like hell. Kids' soccer matches would have to be instantly cancelled because of sulphur clouds wafting across the pitch, plants refused to grow, the slag heaps glowed demonic red at night, etc.

"I didn't like losing my job, and I never really did find anything else, but I'd do it a thousand times over to stop what they were doing to this valley," one of the old workers told me.

But obviously, they are still desperate for something. Unemployment is high and opportunities are minimal; for every one available job there are 27 applicants. Roughly 35 percent of working-age people are without jobs. It's important to understand the area's history to understand why its people are apparently so willing to be duped, why they will believe any lie told to them by CoW proponents. Because they have little else to believe in.

For the most part, if you are from the Ebbw Valley and have any sort of intelligence or ambition, what you do when you grow up is leave the Ebbw Valley. There are many noble exceptions, but not so many that it keeps the local government from being populated by easily fooled simpletons -- idiots who will sell the Ebbw Valley's soul and rape its greatest asset (natural beauty) on the empty promise of 6,000 jobs.

That's the figure that Circuit of Wales proponents throw around: 6,000 jobs. Oooooh!

Really? No, really, though? Does anyone actually believe that?

First of all, let's take a look at the quality of those jobs. The Circuit of Wales website claims "6,000 new full time jobs in a broad range of sectors including: track stewarding, security, catering, retail, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants etc." Are you going to be able to buy a house on the pay of a track steward? Is the salary you get from wearing a high-vis jacket and pointing people to the exit going to be enough to raise a family? Are you going to be able to send your kid to university on the money earned from serving tea?

Secondly, all those jobs in "retail, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants etc." won't come from Circuit of Wales. They are simply an optimistic assumption of knock-on effect. CoW proponents want you to believe their big concrete mess will turn the Ebbw Valley into a destination, that people from all across the country will suddenly start flocking to the region. These are the same sort of claims that were made for the Festival Park Outlet Shopping Centre a few years ago -- a place that is now generally empty and berated by anyone who goes to it.

At the very best, a CoW might bring more business to nearby Abergavenny and Monmouthshire, which is already well-equipped to welcome visitors. The promised 6,000 jobs will not manifest in the Ebbw Valley, though, and those that do will be of poor quality. But even beyond that I can think of five reasons why CoW is a bad idea:
  1. Destruction of natural beauty: One of my favourite things about teaching at Ebbw Vale was looking out my classroom window at the surrounding hills. The valley is recovering remarkably well in the wake of the steelworks and could quite easily become a much-envied place to live and visit, serving as gateway to Brecon Beacons National Park. It is beautiful up there and all you need do to capitalise on that is tidy up a little and leave nature alone.
  2. Weather: Wales is well known for its bad weather. I read a statistic many moons ago that on average it is cloudy in Wales 300 days a year. It is measurably wetter here than elsewhere in Britain, which is the sort of thing I'd think you'd want to avoid when picking a spot to race two-wheeled vehicles. Additionally, the proposed CoW site is in one of the most miserable spots to be in winter. It snows. The wind kicks around terribly. And because of elevation it is markedly colder than just 30 miles away in Cardiff.
  3. Poor road access: In the aforementioned bad weather, roads in the Ebbw Valley are pretty much unusable. Every winter, a handful of my classes would be cancelled because people simply could not get to the centre where I taught. But even in good weather, the only means of getting to the proposed CoW site is via the Heads of the Valleys road (ie, A465), which is just a two-lane thing with multiple roundabouts and curves that help to keep most people to a speed of 40-50 mph, despite a legal limit of 60. Access to this road is via equally small and winding roads. Physically, I live about 30 miles from Ebbw Vale but it took about an hour and a half to get there with no traffic. Any traffic at all, especially coming from multiple directions and converging at the CoW site, would create huge, huge problems.
  4. Poor infrastructure: The nearest train stop to the CoW site is several miles away and takes an hour to travel from Cardiff Central. Bus travel is farcical and infrequent. This is the way of things in Blaenau Gwent. Anyone who thinks the CoW could somehow spur development at infrastructure should read this article. Public transportation is abysmal in Wales and its leaders have effectively admitted that they plan to do nothing.
  5. The state of motorsport in Britain: Even big-name tracks like Mallory, Donnington, Thruxton and Silverstone struggle to pull in crowds. Why on Earth would anyone think that a track located in a cold, wet, faraway and hard-to-reach location could perform better? Especially when motorsports are not all that popular in the UK. After a Google search, it appears the BBC have television rights to Moto GP but I have never seen it. I have never seen it being aired in a pub. I have never had a conversation with someone who was interested in it. Certainly motorcycle racing is more popular here than in the United States, but not by much outside of niche circles.
This whole thing is like the episode of "The Simpsons" when the town gets sold on a monorail. It's a boondoggle that makes me so angry. The people of the Ebbw Valley deserve so much more. They deserve legitimate investment from legitimate businesses that can actually build something lasting and worthwhile, investment that will respect and enhance the area's incredible natural beauty, investment that will support and foster the tremendous kindness and goodwill of the region's people.

The people behind CoW should be ashamed for abusing that goodwill.

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NB -- This whole tale is also an example of the Labour Party's utter failing of its constituents. Take a look at the list of Blaenau Gwent councillors and you will see not one Conservative, not one Liberal-Democrat, not one member of Plaid Cymru. Labour owns Blaenau Gwent and they are shitting all over it.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

What now for Victory motorcycles?

In the past few weeks I've talked a lot about my love for the motorcycle products of Minnesota-based Polaris Industries. First, I waxed lyrical for both the Victory Judge and the Victory Cross Country, then Indian came out with the new Chief Classic and I was so excited I had to change my pants. Both marques produce big, beautiful American machines to be proud of. But, see, therein lies something of a problem.

Ever since Polaris bought the rights to the iconic Indian motorcycles marque, there has been the unanswered question of what will happen to Victory. Now that Indian has officially been relaunched, that question becomes even harder to ignore.

Polaris built Victory from scratch. To my knowledge no other company has done that in my lifetime. Buell came close, sorta, perhaps, but used Harley-Davidson engines, never found its feet, and was then bought and killed by Harley-Davidson. What Victory has done is admirable, inspiring and (at the moment) profitable. I doubt that Polaris would be keen to kill off such a success story.

But now they've also got Indian, which carries with it that indefinable "heritage" quality that Victory will have to wait quite a few more decades to attain. Hondas first started coming to the United States in the 1960s and are only now receiving nostalgia love from hipsters, so I'd assume Victory has another 40-odd years before most people get all weepy-eyed for them on reputation alone.

Indian has said it doesn't want to be pinned down into making just cruisers, baggers and tourers, but certainly for the foreseeable future that seems to be their path. Unfortunately, that's the same path Victory has been on for the past 15 years. Parent company Polaris says it has taken great steps to ensure a separation of the two marques, but it has to be said that the water between them is not as clear and deep as it should be. The look of the engine, the pipes, the foot pegs, the accessories, etc., of the new Indians is unmistakeably similar to that used on Victorys. If you're going to have two companies producing the same bikes, the company with the iconic name is going to win.

This means Victory is going to have to change or die. As I say, the story of Victory is too good to just let it wither away, so here's what I'd do if I were in charge:

Firstly, I would fully embrace the idea of Indian as a heritage brand. Conveniently overlook the fact it's a marque that was in flux for 60 years and lay claim to 112 years of motorcycling tradition. Keep building the big, beautiful and smooth cruisers, baggers and tourers you've started with. Expand on those and make them technologically superior to those produced by your most obvious competition, Harley-Davidson, without committing the sin of drastic changes in overall design.

After the "fives and tens of years" mentioned by Indian Director of Product Gary Grey, expand the Indian range to further encompass the heritage feel. The most obvious direction is the reintroduction of the fabled Scout. Indeed, Indian has already held a design competition for the look of a new Scout. The idea, I feel, would be to produce other "timeless" machines, as Triumph has done with the Bonneville, Honda with the CB1100, Kawasaki with the W800, and so on.

With Victory, I would push more toward a future vision. I would hold onto the 8-Ball models (despite their awful names) and push them gently toward something just a little more sporty/utilitarian -- still essentially a cruiser, but modern and game changing. I would let baggers and tourers pretty much fall away and into the hands of Indian, but keep the 8-Ball as the iconic premier machine of the marque. I would load it with quality technology and strive toward making it one of the flat-out best motorcycles available in the world.

Using a quality machine like that as a launchpad, I would mine the tremendous knowledge base that already exists in Polaris to develop a quality adventure-tourer or two. Things that could compete and kick the ass of with a BMW GS or Triumph Tiger. I would name these after North American animals. Additionally, I'd develop a few quality sport-tourers or the like, naming them after U.S. states. Again, in both cases, I would focus on making a durable, technologically advanced machine that is well-suited to the incredibly diverse landscapes of the North American continent (a).

The differences then between Indian and Victory would become far clearer and would essentially hinge on what type of jacket you wear riding: leather or textile. The leather-wearing Indian riders would simply be in a different market segment than the textile-wearing Victory riders and both marques could be successful.

If anyone at Polaris is reading, yes, I'd be happy to come work for you.

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(a) There's nothing wrong with focusing primarily on your home audience. It certainly hasn't hurt Harley-Davidson.


Monday, 12 August 2013

What I want: Indian Chief Classic

Yo quiero.
By now you should have figured out that I am a Minnesota fanboy. Sure, I am fiercely proud of my Texas heritage, but most of those years in which a man is truly formulating his personality (15-22) were spent in Minnesota; it is the place of my heart. And if something comes from Minnesota, there's a good chance I'll like it. So, I'm willing to admit upfront that I am biased when it comes to the newly relaunched Indian motorcycles.

Like Victory motorcycles (which have also shown up multiple times on my What I Want posts), this latest incarnation of the Indian marque is owned by Minnesota-based Polaris. Like Victory, the Indian machines are made in Iowa, which is still pretty much Minnesota if you look at NFL fanbase (ie, there are more Vikings fans in Iowa than say, Packers or Bears fans). But even without my rose-tinted regionalist glasses on, these bikes look pretty damn good. They possess that certain je ne sais quoi that makes you think: "I really want to ride that thing. No, wait. I really need to ride that thing."

OK, there's far too much chrome for my liking and in certain styling aspects the Victory influence is too obvious, but, still. I would spend my actual money on one of these. Fortunately, the one I like the most is also the cheapest: the Chief Classic.

Maybe it's not bad ass in the traditional sense. It doesn't have that threatening "I will get off this bike and break your bones" quality that the best stripped-down Harley-Davidson might possess. Instead, the Chief Classic looks even more menacing. That headlight set-up brings to mind the spaceships in the 1950s version of War of the Worlds. So, rather than breaking bones it will raze entire cities with a laser death ray.

The machine appears solid, too. ABS is standard (you know I love me some ABS) and the all-new "Thunderstroke 111" (a) engine gets a respectable-for-a-cruiser 45 miles to the gallon, according to the New York Times. There are also clever little features like keyless start and cruise control. According to Cycle World the bike is as comfortable as it looks and handles surprisingly well.

The initial response to the new Indian motorcycles has been positive. Even writers from the generally cruiser-hating MCN have described the bikes as "a revelation." And as a Minnesota fan boy that makes me happy. But also I want to see Indian be a success because, as I said when writing about the Arch KRGT-1, I love the fact that there are people who are trying and adding to the American motorcycle lexicon.

I am particularly inspired by Polaris' attitude toward Indian. They are putting all their weight behind it and it is so obvious that they want the marque to succeed not just for financial reasons but for heritage and history. And I like, too, that they have big ideas for what lies ahead.

"We don't want the brand pinned down into cruisers, baggers and touring, like everyone probably expects," Indian's director of product Gary Grey told Cycle World. "We want to go beyond that. That won't be a quick process. It's not going to happen next year, it's going to happen over fives and tens of years."

That is incredibly exciting. When they produce the new Scout, for instance, what could it be? Something retro cool like the Triumph Bonneville? A lower-cc fewer-frills cruiser like the Triumph Speedmaster or the Harley-Davidson Iron 883? A sport bike? An adventure bike? (Dude, Polaris knows all about building things that go off-road; imagine how bad-ass an American-made adventure bike could be) As I say, it's exciting to think about.

In the meantime, though, I will continue to pine for a Chief Classic. As best I can tell, the bikes won't be sold here in the United Kingdom in the immediate future, but I suppose that's OK. With a weight of more than 800 lbs and a width of 41 inches, the Chief Classic is not exactly the sort of machine you'd choose for filtering through traffic. It's the right machine for obliterating said traffic with your factory-standard death ray, perhaps (replete with leather-fringe trigger tassells, of course), but not for filtering.

Instead, this is a machine with which I'd like to wander across the great North American expanse. It is a machine that goes to the very top of my Bikes I Will Get When I Return To The United States list. It is a machine that is big, comfortable, announces its presence and is delightfully shameless in its flashy, unnecessarily ornate style. It is a machine that is pure Americana.

Hell yeah, I want one.

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(a) Yes, I feel like a tool for using the engine's name.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Drop it like it's hot

Jenn's self portrait at Dunraven Bay
Jenn and I are both Pisces, which is a commonality that means nothing because astrology is intolerably stupid. But if you were intellectually thin on the ground you might perhaps point to that as a reason both of us love playing around in water. 

Or, perhaps, more believably, it has something to do with the fact both of us spent portions of our childhood living close to the sea (Jenn by the English Channel and myself by the Gulf of Mexico). 

Or, maybe it is simply that quite a lot of human beings like being close to bodies of water, as evidenced by the location of most major metropolitan areas. It doesn't really matter why; the point is simply that Jenn and I like playing in water. And last Saturday, there was a break in the rain, so we decided we needed to get out and make the most of whatever moments of summer that might be left in these parts (summer in Britain is often not so much a climatological phenomenon as it is an idea).

"I want to swim in the sea!" Jenn said.
"I'd prefer to swim in a river or lake or some other body of water that doesn't have jellyfish," I said.
"Oh, don't be silly! There won't be jellyfish," Jenn said.

There were jellyfish. Dozens and dozens of the little bastards floating around just below the surface. But they were tiny and, apparently, of the sort that do not sting. Once I got used to their presence I was able to enjoy splashing about and hurling myself into waves. We had ridden to Dunraven Bay, a little spot on the western side of the Vale of Glamorgan -- about 25 miles from Penarth.

The sheer number of ocean-dwelling creatures that bite and sting generally makes me averse to playing in salt water but I will readily admit I had a great time. The waves were perfect for body surfing, the water temperature was not too cool, and the sun shone brilliantly. We swam, ate lunch and swam some more.

The weather forecast had called for rain in the early evening and Jenn didn't have any wet-weather gear (I have yet to treat her jacket with Nikwax), so at tea time we decided to pack up and see if we couldn't get in a drink at a nearby pub before heading home. The previously mentioned Plough & Harrow is just 3 miles away from Dunraven Bay and has one of the best beer gardens in the area -- the perfect place to sit and enjoy a sunny day.

Dunraven Bay
Approaching the Plough & Harrow, you have to take winding country lanes that many Americans would feel are too narrow to even serve as a driveway, let alone a two-way thoroughfare. It is the sort of thing that makes you feel very clever, as if you're the only person in the world to know about the place. But as we neared the pub it became clear that at least a few other people are hip to the Plough & Harrow's whereabouts because there were cars everywhere.

As of this weekend, I have clocked some 800 miles astride Aliona, which, I suppose, is a respectable number of miles for a month and a half, but not nearly so many that I have overcome all my newbie anxiety. And that's something that is increased when Jenn's on the back; handling at slow speeds is far more of a challenge. Add to this that sort of nervousness that comes from encountering a jumble of cars and wanting to find a place to park amongst them. On a motorcycle two contrary thoughts do battle in such a scenario: the first is the natural motorcycling desire to keep the bike upright by moving, the second is the desire to slow or stop to examine the qualities of possible parking spaces. The first desire was too strong and I found myself quickly moving the bike into a small slot between a car and an ancient wall.

Jenn hopped off and the sudden lightness of the bike cooled my brain enough to realise I had chosen to park on an incline and in a big patch of rocky gravel. Not a good choice. So, I started to straddle-walk Aliona backward, intending to get back on the pavement. The rear wheel hit a rut and Aliona shifted to the right.

I will blame a lot of things at this point -- I was on gravel, I was tired from swimming all day, the bike was a little top heavy because of a large bag strapped to the rack -- but really I have to accept there was a failure in my state of mind. I was distracted or lazy or some such thing, so when the bike first started falling I had a physical thought of being on the bicycle I take to work each morning. At stop lights, I will often stand astride the bicycle and absentmindedly shift it from thigh to thigh. So, I let Aliona tip, intending to catch her and push her back up with the inside of my right leg. But, you know, Aliona weighs 500 lbs -- considerably more than my bicycle.

She continued to tip and too slowly my brain registered: "Oh, I need to put some actual strength into this."

"Shit. Shit," I said, glancing at Jenn. "It's going. Helphelphelphelp."

It was at this point I learned I had married a women without quick reflexes. I love her dearly, but I think I have to accept that when the zombie apocalypse comes she'll be one of the first to go. She just stood there, watching, as Aliona tipped slowly, slowly, slowly onto her side with me grunting and swearing the whole way down.

A soft crumple. And then the sound of several men shouting: "Oooh!"

Of course, I had dropped the bike right in front of the pub, right in front of the beer garden, where I had an audience of no less than 40 inebriated individuals. As I clicked off the engine with the kill switch I caught in the corner of my eye a couple on a Harley-Davidson crawling by. For some reason it felt like insult to injury; I am still such a newbie that I feel often I'm being judged by other motorcyclists. Other motorcyclists who aren't picking up their bike in front of a pub.

I got off lucky.
Thankfully, I've watched plenty of YouTube videos explaining what to do in this situation, so I extended the kick stand, nudged my butt into the seat and pushed the bike back up from a squat position. Aliona came back up easily, aided by the adrenaline rush that comes from overwhelming embarrassment.

Now the couple from the Harley were approaching -- a man and woman.

"This gravel, mate" said the man in a broad Australian accent. "I was just sayin' to the wife the only thing I don't like about this pub is havin' to park in gravel."

"She's actually come out of it alright," he said, running his hand along the fairing. "Just a few scratches here. A scratch there on the exhaust..."

"Yeah, just my pride that's hurt the most," I said.

"Well, that's the rule, isn't it, mate? You can't drop your bike unless there's an audience. I've been riding I don't know how many years, and, honestly, I have never dropped my motorbike... unless there's been at least a dozen fellas around to laugh at me. This gravel, I reckoned I'd be on the ground with you. But, see, I parked over there, out of sight, so everything went fine."

Despite the shame, Jenn and I decided to stay at the pub. She went in and got drinks while I sat outside trying to absorb the tremendous shame of having done such a stupid thing in front of so many people. I hyper-analysed the incident and said a little thank you to the gods that I had gotten through it with only damage that could be covered up by the Minnesota Twins decal I've been wanting to put on the fairing.

They say it happens to everyone. Now it's happened to me. My ego is still bruised.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Honda CBF600 is not an adventure motorcycle

Aliona likes the road. The smoother the tarmac the better, thank you very much. I suppose that's not terribly surprising; the Honda CBF600 is really just a detuned CBR600RR, the supersport stalwart that for many people is the very definition of a sport bike. Aliona has been modified to offer a more natural seating position and a throttle that won't make me pay dearly for learner mistakes but she is still, at her core, a bike that was intended to never stray too terribly far from track conditions.

That can be a challenge if you live in the Land of Song. Most roads here in Wales leave quite a bit to be desired. Mother Nature spreads mud, farmers spread manure, and some roads are so pockmarked you're inclined to believe the local council simply hasn't gotten around to fixing it since its being bombed in the war. 

I live on the corner of two roads that are riddled with potholes, ruts, and half-assed quick fixes (just throw some tar at it). The plus side of this is that anyone who doesn't want to lose the suspension of his or her vehicle can't drive these roads any faster than 25 mph, so it makes for a more peaceful living space. But it is hell on my bike. I weave down the road as best I can but still usually manage to hit at least half a dozen frame-rattling bumps every time I ride. Away from my neighbourhood things are often not much better -- especially in the beautiful spaces I want to go.

Case in point: Llanilltud Fawr. It's a seemingly unimportant village on Wales' south coast that 1,500 years ago was a major hub of activity. It was effectively a college town back then -- a place where a number of big names received religious instruction, including St. Patrick (patron saint of Ireland) and St. David (patron saint of Wales). These days it's mostly a feeder community, serving as a place to live for people working at the nearby Royal Air Force base. But it also has a nice (albeit pebbled) beach and serves as a good starting point for hiking a section of the Wales Coast Path. And it is home to the Old Swan Inn, a 900-year-old pub that is one of the best to be found in these parts.

The weather was good a few days ago and I decided to take a quick ride down to Llanilltud Fawr after work. I hadn't ridden since before the wedding and it had been even longer since I'd taken the bike out without Jenn, so it took me a nervous mile or so to adjust to Aliona's agility. It helped, too, that I stopped to put air in the tires -- something I probably would have put off had it not been for an article I'd read that day on RideApart. Each tire was a little low and the difference in handling was notable once I got back on the bike. Check your tires, mis amigos; it's not just manufacturer BS.

I opened up on the smooth, long curve of the B4265. Being a good boy, I never ride faster than the posted speed limit, but there is a long stretch where there are no speed limit signs, so I decided 80 mph was appropriate. While sailing across golden farmland I achieved that fabled motorcycle zen in which the bike and I are no longer so much physical entities but congruous elements of the environment: the reliable Honda engine drone, the rhythm of steady movement, the taste of the air, the glint of sunlight, and on.

At Aberthaw the landscape takes on for a moment the familiar gentle roll of the American Midwest but to my left it was broken by the gunmetal blue of the wide Bristol Channel. The previous days' rains had turned the trees and hedgerows a vibrant green. Everything was right. 

Aliona makes the blind corners of Llanilltud Fawr's narrow medieval streets easier to navigate, but I still moved through town at almost walking pace. Then slowly down Colhugh Street toward the beach. The road is potholed and there are speed bumps every hundred feet or so. The bike was not happy. The folks at Thunder Road have promised me better service next time I head in there; and with each bump I imagined myself getting to find out whether that's true by having to come in with rattled-loose fairing.

When the speed bumps stop the road turns even more potholed and muddy. Then, finally, a turn onto a pockmarked gravel parking lot. I brought Aliona into first gear and had a sudden memory of Steve Johnson talking about the extreme nerves he felt when navigating gravel for the first time on a Harley.

"How hard could it really be?" I thought.

The bike moved off the last bit of tarmac and immediately jerked left. "Ah. Well. That's an interesting sensation." I quickly thought of a YouTube video I had seen of a bloke riding in the snow. His main point of concern was trying to brake as gently as possible, and only with the rear. I took to this method and crawled slowly forward to a spot of concrete where I was able to park the bike and finally take a breath. 

"Well, mental note," I said, looking at the bike. "We won't be taking you off road."

But at least she got me to the beach.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

What I want: Victory Cross Country

Am I getting old? I think I may be getting old. What other explanation could there be for my fondness toward big-ass baggers like the Honda F6B or -- far more appealing to me -- the new Victory Cross Country? In my heart, though, I tell myself it is not so much age that makes me want such a thing but a gradual understanding of my own style and needs. The more I ride, the more I feel I'd like to own two types of bike: one for moving around in city traffic, and one that can comfortably haul Jenn, me and a bunch of stuff to various locations.

I love Aliona (that's Jenn's name for my bike), but she's not exactly the ideal machine for taking two people much further than the nearest beach. Both of us have found there is a magical 46-mile threshold before Aliona suddenly becomes very uncomfortable to sit on (I am assuming tolerance distances will increase with experience, though. And I can last longer on my own, when buzzy pegs are less of a problem due to less strain on the engine). So what I dream of sometimes is a big, comfortable beast. And when I think of big machines, I think of Victory Motorcycles.

I've mentioned before my deep emotional attachment to Victory. Their parent company, Polaris, is based in Minnesota and they hold a more legitimate claim to being American-made than Harley-Davidsons. Parts are manufactured in Wisconsin and Iowa and the bikes are assembled in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Until the day a manufacturer sets up shop in Texas I will feel a tremendous allegiance to Victory (a). 

I'd love to own a Jackpot or a Judge (in spite of their stupid names) but can't honestly imagine a scenario in which a lumbering naked machine would be terribly enjoyable. Certainly not in Britain. Perhaps some day when I'm back in Minnesota such a thing would be the perfect way of meandering along Mississippi River Boulevard, Minnehaha Parkway and around Calhoun and Harriet lakes. Here, though, I'd like something just a tad more practical, even if that means forgoing some of the cool.

Step forward the Cross Country: a big, comfy, ride from the Upper Midwest (or, at least, I'm assuming it's comfy; I've never sat on one). It's not quite as sexy/threatening as I'd like a big American machine to be, but it definitely maintains an air of sleek coolness that I don't see in the Harley-Davidson Street Glide, which appears to be the Cross Country's equivalent.

I'd love to get one in what Victory calls "nuclear sunset orange," but to me looks a lot like the University of Texas burnt orange, and head out on adventures to Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Germany and beyond. How awesome would it be to tour Europe on such an intrinsically American machine?

I do have some issues with the Cross Country, though. Firstly, there is the name; it is boring and inexplicably makes me think of the golf shirts that my grandfather wore. Secondly, I feel the space on the fairing is ill-used. If I had that bike I'd probably remove the stupid, unnecessary and likely-to-break speakers to create useful space for maps and bottles of water and so on. And lastly, I'm a little concerned about that 26-inch seat height. Zoinks that's low.

In truth, if I were in the position to buy a bagger/tourer I'd struggle to look in any other direction than a reliable, shaft-driven, ABS-equipped, heated-grip, full-fairing F6B. History shows that although I love choppers and hispter rides, I'll eventually spend my money (b) on reliability and technology. But in watching the video for Victory's new line-up something very important caught my eye.

Blink and you'll miss it. But for less than half a second the camera focuses on three little letters: ABS. The Victory Cross Country is available with ABS brakes. This is what I want, yo. A cool, American bike with modern technology. Now all I need is $20,000.

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(a) And the same can probably be said for new Indian Motorcycles. Like Victory, they are owned by Polaris and headquartered in Spirit Lake, Iowa. I look forward to seeing what they produce over the coming months. They new Chief is set to be unveiled at Sturgis and there is talk of an all new Scout, as well.

(b) Or, well, someone else's in the case of my bike.