Monday, 28 April 2014

The 12,000-mile service

The before picture. Note the open Haynes manual on the ground.
Let me just say right off the bat that I don't begrudge anyone earning a good wage. Life is hard and if you can earn enough money to make it just a little bit easier on yourself and your family, then more power to you. Especially when the thing you do has intrinsic value, like teaching or curing illness or fixing cars/motorcycles. Often when we see discussions of motorcycle maintenance and repair we fall into the trope of portraying mechanics as Shylocks.

This is silly. My brother is a mechanic (a), so is one of my very best friends, and I've hung out with plenty of other guys and gals from all sides of that world: mechanics, auto body technicians, painters, tire guys, and so on. They're just people who, like any right-thinking individual anywhere, want to make a good living doing stuff they're good at. If you're being critical of that you need to consider whether what you're actually feeling is jealousy.

As a side note, kids, take it from your ol' pal Chris: Consider a career in auto tech. I have a bachelor's degree and master's degree from one of the top universities on the planet. In my particular degree, it is ranked first. My brother, meanwhile, has just one semester of community college credits to his name. Annually, he earns four times more money than I do.

All of this said, however, I hate giving my money to mechanics. And any time I can avoid doing so fills me with a joyful sense of accomplishment. This past weekend provided just such an opportunity. The Honda's odometer hit 12,000 miles recently, which, according to my owner's manual, meant it was due a service. I'll admit my original inclination was to take it in to a garage, but in flipping through my Haynes manual it occurred to me that there was not actually a whole lot to do. I decided to tackle the job myself and set aside the money for the 16,000-mile service, when I definitely will take it to a mechanic because that job involves valve clearances.

Replacing the air filter.
In researching what, exactly, I would need to do for for the 12,000-mile service I came across a handy list of all the work my local Honda dealership, Thunder Road, undertakes:
  1. Replace oil
  2. Replace oil filter
  3. Check fuel lines
  4. Check throttle operation
  5. Check idle speed
  6. Check cooling system
  7. Check secondary air system
  8. Check chain wear and adjustment
  9. Check brake fluid 
  10. Check clutch fluid
  11. Check brake pad wear
  12. Check brake system
  13. Check light operation
  14. Check tire depth and condition
  15. Check wheel bearings
  16. Check suspension
  17. Check bodywork condition
  18. Road test
  19. Lube locks
  20. Lube pivots

The good folks at Thunder Road will charge you £130 (US $220) for all that. If you read between the lines, of course, really all you're paying for is an oil change with the addition of having a professional do a thorough version of the pre-ride checks you're supposed to be doing every time you ride (b), as well as spray a few bits with lubricant. Remove the £50 cost of a new oil filter, 5 litres of oil and a can of GT-85, and you're paying a mechanic £80 (US $135) for his or her time. As I say, I don't begrudge anyone a good wage; it's nice work if you can get it. But, you know, I'm happy to avoid being the one to pay for it. Meanwhile, in addition to all of the above, I also:
  1. Replaced the air filter
  2. Lubricated the clutch cable
  3. Adjusted the headlight alignment
  4. Replaced the switch on my heated grips

The Oxford heated grips my father had bought me for Christmas had gone kaput only a month after having them badly installed by a Penarth mechanic. A while later, in chatting with a mechanic from Fowler's of Bristol, I learned that a common problem with that particular model of grips (version 8) is that the switch is prone to shorting out.

"Just throw in a new switch is what I'd do," he said.

With the seats and side fairing removed.
The fact he said this without suggesting I take it to his shop to get the work done made it sound really easy. And, I suppose, all things considered, it was. A kind of "really easy" that took me several hours to accomplish, but that's probably more to do with the fact that I am an idiot.

All told, the work took me three hours from start to finish, and that included roughly half an hour of experimenting with adjusting the seat's height.

It's a fair bet it would have only taken a professional mechanic one hour to do all of the above work. It's an equally fair bet he or she would have charged me for at least two. Total up the cost of parts and service, and I suspect I would have been looking at a bill of somewhere around £250 (US $420). By doing the work myself, it cost only £80.

Though, I will admit it was stressful. Taking apart the fairing and lifting the gas tank was causing me to suffer little panics as I thought to myself: "There is no going back from this. You will have to put everything back together. And you will have to put it all back together before you run out of daylight." (I have a very tiny covered area to store my bike but I have to work on it outside.)

It was a time-consuming and surprisingly delicate process that involved gently nudging free dozens of little things that you wouldn't expect to be so fragile on an object capable of going 150 mph. It is certainly something to store in my brain for the next time I'm hurtling down the motorway: "Hey, remember how this thing is held together by super-easy-to-break trim clips and pegs? Stuff you could break with your fingers? And now it's being hit by 90-mph wind. Contemplate on that, motherhugger. Wheeeee!"

I mean, good lord, are planes held together like this? Next time I go back to the States I may choose to swim.

Replacing the switch for the heated grips.
But, I suppose, because things are so fiddly it is comforting to know that I am the person who dealt with these things. It being my motorcycle, upon which I ride, I inherently took great care in every little thing. An example of this came when replacing the switch for the heated grips.

When I had paid someone to install them, he had simply stuffed the excess wiring up under the tank. Re-doing the work, I now took the time to neatly zip tie things and meticulously wrap it all in gaffer tape. If the switch shorts out again I will know it is because that version of grips is crap and not because putting wiring in a rat's nest just above the carburetors somehow led to a fault.

I will know when I ride that each of the bolts and screws and clips and pegs on the bike were checked and rechecked to make sure they are secure. I will know that the person who did the work didn't cut any corners, didn't say: "Yeah, well, that's good enough."

And the feeling of accomplishment from having done all this work myself is immense. I am not by nature very mechanically inclined. There is some fault in my brain that I very quickly get confused and upset by stuff that is childlike in simplicity to people like my brother. When I'm able to overcome that, though –– when I'm able to strip away bits on my bike, rewire things, and put it all together again –– I feel so incredibly proud.

Jenn came home just as I was clicking the final bit into place. I pointed with glee and said:

"Look, babe. I just spent three hours working on the bike."

"It looks the same as it always does," she said.

"Exactly," I said. "I did it right."


–––––––––––––––––––


(a) I feel the need to go out of my way to tell you how much I love my little brother. Ignoring the fact that he is awesome and funny and could kick your ass, I estimate he has saved me several, several thousands of dollars in car repair costs over the years by either doing the work or very patiently explaining to me –– in simple terms so I can understand –– how to do the work myself.

(b) Though, in fairness, who really does all that every single time they ride? 

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The future gets a little clearer

Is this the Victory Fatty?
Not too long ago I wrote about how excited I am to see what Victory Motorcycles has up its sleeve for the future. At the time, some sketches had leaked to various motorcycle publications showing multiple styles of bike all sporting a liquid-cooled engine.

In that post, I pointed to two bits of information that might suggest what will come next from the Polaris-owned marque. First was a 2013 interview with Polaris VP Steve Menneto in which he said he expected to see Victory focusing on "performance and innovation" in the wake of Indian's revival. 

It's the general feeling amongst motorcycle journalists and laymen, such as myself, that with Victory sharing its parent company with legacy brand Indian it should avoid trying to compete for the hardcore H-D rider's money. That's Indian territory now, and Indian is so far doing really well. It will be fun to see where Indian goes from here. I would like to see another Indian model introduced at Sturgis (a) this year, but I think it's more realistic to think that will come in 2015.

The second bit of information came from Victory's UK offices. I wrote to them a while back to ask if there were plans to put anti-lock brakes on the cruisers, their absence being my only real objection to great bikes like the Judge. In response, Victory assured me that its R&D facility keeps tabs on EU rules and "will always look to work within guidelines."

These two bits of information gave a lot of credence to the rumours of a new powerplant from Victory. Not only will 2016 see ABS required on all new bikes sold in the EU above 125 cc, it will also usher in more stringent Euro 4 emissions standards for motorcycles (b).

Then, at a Victory demo event a few weeks ago, I got a chance to chat with one of Victory's engineers.

"Please put ABS on the Judge," I told him. "A second disc up front wouldn't be a bad thing, either."
"Ah, well, that's chassis," he said. "I'm more on the powertrain side of things."
"Oh, so you're one of the guys working on the new liquid-cooled engine they've been talking about," I said.

He said nothing. I have chosen to interpret the silence as an acknowledgement that I was on to something and he wasn't entirely sure that I should be privy to such knowledge.

I like the wheels.
"The thing they're reporting in the motorcycle press," I said.
"Oh, right. The sketches and that," he said. "Yeah, well, you wonder where they get those things. I've not seen any of those sketches come across my desk."

Again I chose to read between the lines and interpret his comment not as a denial of a forthcoming new engine but simply as a suggestion that what they were working on was not what those of us in the public had seen. And it seems that was the correct interpretation. This week, Polaris registered a design patent with the EU for a Victory cruiser that features a big ol' radiator up front. Meanwhile, it has already filed in the United States to trademark "Fatty," "Rogue" and "Magnum." as potential names for future models.

I really hope they don't go with that last one, which is already the name of an extra large condom, an ice cream bar and a cheesy 1980s TV detective. None of which are spirits you want to invoke for a motorcycle. Well, OK, maybe Magnum, P.I., but only if they somehow incorporate a moustache into the Victory logo. I'd prefer to see them go with "Fatty" solely so they can make an advert that makes use of "Lip Up Fatty" by English ska band Bad Manners.

But I digress. To my untrained eye, the motorcycle in the most recent sketches looks a whole lot like a Gunner. Which, of course, is really just a Judge with a solo seat. Which makes me think that maybe, again, this isn't really the bike that will eventually come out. Or, if it the sketches are accurate, maybe it's not the bike that some people are predicting.

Visor Down is positing that the next offering from Victory will be a performance cruiser -- something to rival the Ducati Diavel. Based on these sketches, though, I'm not buying that. Going back to the wisdom of Aaron Kaufman, a performance cruiser is going to have a hell of a lot of "go," which means it is going to need considerably more "whoa" than that offered by the single front disc brake pictured in these sketches. 

Also, are performance cruisers really that big of a thing? Victory bikes already produce upward of 100 bhp, which is more than every other bike in the cruiser/bagger/tourer class (except Indian). Is the market for performance cruisers like the V-Rod, the VMax, the Valkyrie and the Diavel really so large and profitable that Victory would want to spend its limited resources developing an all-new powerplant for it?

Lip up, Fatty.
Is it possible, instead, that what we're looking at here is a smaller bike? Something that can serve as an entry-level machine? Think about the Harley-Davidson Iron 883, the Star Bolt (aka Yamaha XV950), the Triumph Bonneville (and its attendant variations, the Scrambler, Thruxton, Speedmaster and America), the Moto Guzzi V7, and so on. Think about the upcoming Harley-Davidson Street. Especially the H-D Street. Take a look at that bike, then take a look at these sketches.

At present, Victory does not have an entry-level machine. The Vegas is the cheapest of its line-up but remains far too expensive to serve as a "gateway" to the brand, in the way the bikes mentioned above can. Presently, all Victory bikes require a financial investment that many people are not willing to make on a relatively unknown product. I'm willing to put that money down (if I had it) but that has a lot to do with the fact that I am fanatically devoted to Minnesota. Not everyone is in my same boat, including even a lot of Minnesotans.

So, maybe the upcoming Victory Fatty will be an affordable machine aimed at that young/new rider audience that wants an authentic/classic motorcycle look without having to pay up the wazoo for a ginormous machine they can't really control. I'd love for that to be true. Indeed, if Victory were to produce such a thing I'd be first in line to put down a deposit (c).

Time will tell.

__________

(a) Famously, Sturgis was originally an event dominated by Indian riders, its founder, JC "Pappy" Hoel having owned an Indian dealership. From the 1950s it slowly became much more of an H-D affair but Indian stole pretty much all the attention with its launch last summer. I think it would help to embolden the legacy brand feel of Indian if it were to choose the Sturgis rally as its "home" and create a precedent of delivering its major news and reveals at the event. Though, it doesn't have to be Sturgis. If there were a large rally in Minnesota or Iowa that would make more sense. I just like the idea of Indian full-on using the weight and legacy of its brand to create traditions.

(b) It's worth noting that motorcycles will still be behind the curve. Euro 4 was implemented for cars nine years ago.

(c) Assuming it has anti-lock brakes.

Monday, 21 April 2014

What I want: Honda CB1100 EX

The other day, on the way back from riding out to the Fleece Inn, I took a detour to the Cwmbran location of Thunder Road, the official Honda dealership here in South Wales. I have an unsteady history with Thunder Road, having visited their Bridgend location several times and never really coming away with a positive feeling. To their credit, they once tried to make good on a negative experience by calling and apologising to me in person but on consecutive visits I still found myself being wholly ignored.

But, you know, I still love all motorcycles and the Cwmbran location was more or less on my route home, so I dropped in to stare at a few things. And, of course, it was an experience that served to remind me of that old truth that one does not equal all. Separated by more than 30 miles, Thunder Road's two different locations are, you know, different.

A saleswoman, Mel, started chatting with me (not in a pushy way) soon after I wandered in. We talked about the new CTX1300, which looks so much better in person than in pictures. She let me sit on the bike and I'll admit that I cooed for the thing. The seating position is car-like comfortable and the exhaust pipes make it look pretty bad ass. It's £15,000 price tag deflates my enthusiasm (a) but if someone were to give me a CTX1300 for free I would be very thankful.

But, also there's the fact that I tend to go for a certain aesthetic: cruisers and standard/retro machines, or what my wife refers to as real motorcycles. I fear that makes me somewhat old and busted, that I have allowed myself to be duped into overvaluing the past, but I can't help it. That's what I like. So talk soon turned to the CB1100 and its newly revamped guise, the CB1100 EX. 

"I don't see one out on the floor here," I said. "Are they not out yet?"

"We just got one in yesterday," Mel said. "Some of it's still wrapped in plastic, and it has a bit of that Saharan dust (b), but come on back and have a look."

So, back we wandered into a part of the service department that was neatly crowded with tools and wires and countless parts for countless bikes. And there, sitting on a pedestal, was a dusty CB1100 EX. I couldn't help feeling this was the way it should be displayed. I imagined that the Saharan dust had been earned –– that the bike had been ridden all the way from Japan rather than shipped in a crate.

Because it has that essence to it. It looks really well built. The fenders are metal, everything is solid. There is nothing extraneous, nothing unnecessary. It looks like a bike to be ridden. And ridden. And ridden. Amid all the motorcycle bits of Thunder Road's service department, the CB1100 EX felt timeless, as if it had existed before all those parts and would exist still long after they had worn out.

But, of course, it is a modern machine. Equipped with two discs on the front and one on the rear, the brakes are anti-lock. It's 1,145-cc inline four-cylinder engine is oil and air cooled, and produces 88 bhp and 67 pound feet of torque through a six-speed gearbox. Cleverly hidden within its analogue-style dials are all kinds of things that would be missing on the classic machines being emulated here, such as a gear indicator, trip computers and so on.

The CB1100 was introduced only a year or so ago, but the EX, in my opinion is a superior version. The tank and seat are a little less angular and the wheels are now wire spokes. It has the look of a bike that can be ridden forever but also has a lot of style. Trust me on that. As is the case with the CTX1300, it looks infinitely better in person than in pictures.

Mel told me that Honda would be holding an event at Thunder Road in June, and may have a CB1100 EX that I can test ride. That is dangerous information. The chance to actually get on the bike may tip me over the edge. Because it strikes me as a serious contender for The Bike For Me. It has a classic look but the kind of brakes and performance that are so ridiculously important to me.

That price, though. Here in the UK, the standard CB1100 EX will set you back £10,000 (US $16,790). Putting that money together would be an extreme challenge for me and inherently begs the question of long-term value. I suppose, in terms of the quality I saw in the bike and the reputation of Honda's reliability, that is a sort of fair price. There is the unhappy knowledge, however, that if you end up selling it a few years down the road you'll get only a third of that if you're lucky.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe this is just a bike you never sell. Famously, Robert Pirsig still has the 1964 Honda CB77 that he road across the United States. The CB1100 EX recalls the spirit of that sort of machine. Maybe it is something you aren't ever supposed to let go...

––––––––––

(a) If I'm going to pay that much for a bagger, I'll get a Victory Cross Country.

(b) Britain had been recently hit with a particularly bad spell of pollution that was exacerbated by the presence of dust that had kicked up from storms in the Sahara and drifted all the way here.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Ride review: Victory Judge

Beautiful but flawed.
I used to be a delivery cyclist. Clocking up roughly 40 miles a day, darting through traffic, dodging buses and hitting gaps you would not imagine, I could push upward of 30 mph and stop on a dime. I'm not bragging when I say this, just being honest: on a bicycle I am really good. Probably better than you. And even though I now have an office job, I still cycle every day to work. I tell you all this as preface. 

Recently, I was zipping down Paget Road, a steep hill that is part of my daily commute. Without pedalling I can hit 24 mph on that hill (my bicycle has a speedometer). This morning being dry and sunny, and with me in a good mood, I'd reckon I was going close to 35 mph when a cat decided to jump out in front of me. Which initiated a sequence of events that all occurred in less than 2 seconds: 
  1. The cat stared at me in terror. This particular fellow, however, did not appear to be blessed with the reflexes for which cats are so famous. He chose instead to just stand there. 
  2. This left me as the responsible party, so I quickly shifted my weight to allow for a hard stop, firmly applied the brakes -- front first, easy on the back -- and...
  3. The back wheel locked and went shooting to my left side. It wasn't just a wobble; the rear wheel kicked out a solid 30 degrees. 
  4. But ability, experience, speed and sheer luck righted me. 
  5. The noise of the skid, meanwhile, awakened in the cat the sudden ability to act. 

Had he not leapt out of my way at the very last second (I felt his tail on my leg), he might now be dead and I might have come off my bike. I would now probably be covered in cuts and bruises; I might also have a few broken bones. And this, my friends, is why I make such a stupid big deal about anti-lock brakes. Because cats happen.

You can have an incredibly experienced rider in perfect conditions and still a domestic pet has the potential to mess everything up. In the words of Aaron Kaufman, if you're gonna have a lot of "go" you need a lot of "whoa."

Therein lies my only real criticism of the Victory Judge: there is just not enough "whoa." The single-disc front brake is spongy, demands a full-handed grab to be deployed and is overall not as effective as you need it to be when you're sitting astride a 700-lb. motorcycle. The rear brake is more substantial but the combination of both still leaves you covering a lot of ground before coming to a stop. Add to this the fact the brakes are not anti-lock.

The uncomplicated view from a Judge
I know that cruisers are notorious for having brakes that don't compare to those of sport bikes but I have ridden both Triumph and Harley-Davidson motorcycles that had better stopping power. I am not the only one that feels this way, in a recent review of the Judge Motorcycle.com singled out brakes as the biggest problem.

It is a heartbreaking problem because otherwise the Judge is a very, very nice bike. I mean very nice.

Like all Victory machines it is beautiful to look at. Pictures simply do not do these bikes justice. In the flesh, there is something about them that induces staring. You follow every line, take things in from dozens of different angles, hold your hands close to the massive Freedom 106 engine to feel its aura. The bikes are made by a Minnesota company and as someone who was raised there I can feel that spirit coming through. Indeed, at one point I actually heard in my head the voice of a Minnesota girl saying: "Oh, hey. This is classy."

The Judge is, in my opinion, the toughest-looking of the bunch. Although it remains very much a piece of moving art there is something about it that makes you want to push the bike, makes you want to find situations where it might suffer a scrape, a ding or some dirt that never really washes away. It is a bike that looks like it will age well even when given tough love.

That's a personality that continues once you press the starter. Especially if you have the Stage 1 exhaust, as did the demo bike I rode. Dude. Get the Stage 1 exhaust. That is a sound you will never get tired of. The sound is not of the annoy-the-neighbours variety but a low, devilish growl that causes all kinds of involuntary whooping when you first hear it.

On the move, the bike has great, usable, power that is delivered in long gears. That is to say, you can go a hell of a distance in first before feeling the need to shift. I found that when launching the bike from a stop it was happy to be pushed to 40 mph before even beginning to audibly signal that I should change gears. Unfortunately, sound and feel is all you get; there is no tachometer. Though, I've checked the accessories catalogue and Victory will happily sell you one if you are so inclined.

The bike has six gears but the first five are so efficient that the highest gear almost feels unnecessary. Though, I didn't get a chance to push the bike up to British motorway speed (i.e., upward of 80 mph), so it would likely be useful there.

Similarly, I can't speak to the effects of wind blast at that speed, but at 65 mph I found myself perfectly comfortable. Wind hit my chest but the massive headlight seemed to block out the roughest of stuff. After-market screens of all sizes are available from Victory but none of them look very cool. They might as well have "Grandad" printed across the top. If I had a Judge, I'd probably invest the time and energy hunting down some Arlen Ness bullet fairing for the thing.

A slightly blurry photo.
The camera man may have been shaking with excitement.
And while you're hunting down expensive after-market gear, you might as well fork out the cash for a new seat. As is, it's pretty comfortable for one, but the passenger accommodation is useless unless you're toting around a child. Actually, no. Most of today's children are obese. They wouldn't fit. A Furby maybe. If you roll with a Furby as your homie, then no worries. Anyone else and you'll need something more substantial.

According to the aforementioned Motorcycle.com review, Victory is changing the rider triangle on the Judge to be more in line with that of its other cruisers, which means pushing the pegs forward 3-4 inches. That's a shame because the seating position on the Judge I rode didn't give me that notorious cruiser back ache. For a 6-foot-1 rider such as myself there was still plenty of room and the closer pegs allowed me to sit a little more as I would in a chair. It may be that Victory has some sort of kit that would allow you to move the new Judge pegs back to the position of the old Judge pegs.

Overall, the riding experience is pretty intuitive. It is different, obviously, than on my 600-cc Honda sport tourer but those differences are quickly and easily learned. It moves into corners with an ease you might not expect of such a heavy machine. Though, I will say the weight never really goes away. It is wholly manageable and not a cause for concern, but it is not something you forget about. "Sprightly" would be well down on my list of adjectives to describe the Judge.

Which brings us back to those awful brakes. When I first drew back on the front brake lever I felt nothing and experienced panic at the thought they might not be there. By grabbing hard, though, I was able to get a tiny bit of mushy, unhappy "whoa" that struck me as little more than icing on the rear brake's cupcake. The brakes simply are not adequate.

And as I say: that is heartbreaking because it is an otherwise fantastic bike. I find it devastating to admit to you that there is no way in hell I would own one in its present state. In two years, Victory will have to equip all its new bikes with ABS to adhere to EU regulations. Maybe then I'll give the Judge another look. In the meantime, I'm sorry to say, it's off the list.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Visor Down and Michelin are my new jam

A rare bit of straight on the Cat and Fiddle road.
I ended up getting to put your advice to work sooner that I had thought. After my longish ride to the Fleece Inn, many of you offered tips on how to improve my timing, last longer in the saddle and make the most out of breaks. I'm thankful for that, because the day after I wrote that post I got a call from Visor Down asking if I could be in Stoke-on-Trent by 10:30 a.m. the next day.

Visor Down is a UK-based motorcycle website and I had won a competition to be a part of the launch event for Michelin's Pilot Road 4 tires. The prize included getting to learn all about the new tires (more interesting than you might think), getting to put them to the test by taking a Michelin-provided bike on a 130-mile tear through Peak District National Park, getting put up in a hotel (along with food and booze), and receiving a free set of Pilot Road 4 tires to put on my own bike. All I needed to do was get myself to Michelin HQ.

The distance from the Welsh seaside town of Penarth to the Midlands city of Stoke-on-Trent is roughly 160 miles. According to Google, those miles can be covered in 2 hours and 39 minutes. But Google is a liar, and its estimates don't take into account my tiny bladder, so I knew it would take longer. I decided the journey would, in fact, take 4 hours, which meant getting on the road by 6:30 a.m. I should have aimed to leave sooner but didn't want to have to wake up any earlier.

As it turned out, when I finally started rolling the clock on my dash said 6:55. Strapped to the seat was the old Nike gym bag I use for overnight trips. It had occurred to me this adventure presented a great opportunity to test the AXE Saddlebags that Viking Bags sent me recently, but one of the wisest bits of Iron Butt advice that I've seen is: "Avoid adding accessories or doing maintenance immediately before a trip."

I had not tried out the bags yet, had not even put them on my bike. Figuring out how to secure things when I was pressed for time would have been a bad idea. Additionally, the bags add a little width, which isn't really something you want when you have to ride through the second most populous city in Britain -- at least not until you're able to account for that extra width when filtering.

Most of the traffic at that time of day is flowing into Cardiff, so I was out and onto the motorway quickly enough. Pegging my speed at 80 mph (a) I was soon also across the Severn Bridge and away from the heaviest of the Bristol-bound traffic, too.

There are roughly 70 million people in Britain -- twice the population of Canada -- all squeezed into a space the size of Oregon. Many of those people are on the roads, so you don't tend to hold speed for long. Because traffic may come to a standstill around the corner, it's hard to gauge progress, hard to guess how much time you have to linger when taking a break.

The Cat & Fiddle. Sort of a British equivalent of the Rock Store.
On my first break, I set a time limit of 10 minutes. Which, it turns out, is roughly the bare minimum needed to stop at the services (similar to a rest area, for those of you playing along at home, but run by corporations and usually featuring a gas station, at least two food outlets [e.g., McDonald's] and a convenience store), wrestle off the multiple layers of gear necessary for riding at high speed in 4C (39F), do a little tinkle, wrestle all your gear back on, check your pockets 700 times to make sure no zippers are open, and get back on the road. On the second break, I allotted 20 minutes which was enough time to do all of the above and gulp down an outrageously priced pot of tea (£2.44!!).

I pushed hard and arrived at Michelin HQ at exactly 10:30. There was tea and lunch and a quick explanation of why Pilot Road 4 tires are better than their competitors and predecessors (they have good grip in wet weather and last 17 percent longer), then I was handed the keys to a Triumph Tiger Explorer XC. Expect a review of the bike soon, but suffice to say, it's an almost-great machine.

We set out into Peak District National Park, which is home to some of the most famous motorcycling roads in the UK. I suspect that's to do mostly with the fact a huge proportion of the UK population lives nearby. The roads there are good, but no better than those we have in Wales. And by "good" I mean "really curvy and full of blind corners," which isn't actually my personal definition of good. I prefer long, gentle sweeps with quality sight lines, but amongst UK riders I seem to be in an extreme minority.

We took on the Cat and Fiddle road and Snake Pass and plenty of other roads that caused my neck to go into knots. In part because I have no friends in this country who ride bikes, I suffer a knowledge gap when it comes to taking corners. You can read about cornering and watch YouTube all day, but that only goes so far. It would be nice to be able to go out with someone who could say: "This corner you can hit at xx mph," and "Right there is where you should enter the corner" and "Here's how to pick a line" and so on.

But as things are, hard cornering stresses me the hell out. I am extremely comfortable on my bicycle but have a lot of trouble transposing that to the speed and weight of my motorcycle. I tense up and lose my nerve at points. Especially on corners of the ilk found in Wales and the Peak District. They are utterly blind, without any signage to suggest adequate speed. You're just supposed to know how to hit these ridiculous bends that were originally cut in the 1800s for horse carts.

Toward the end of the day, however, I was starting to get the hang of things. Sort of.

There was a large group of us and I had gotten slightly ahead of everyone but the guide thanks to a procession of tractors I managed to pass before a heavy section of tight bends. Ahead of me there was only the group's guide, a former motorcycle cop. UK motorcycle cops are some of the best high-speed riders you will ever see. This particular retired officer, who I'd guess to be in his late 60s to early 70s, was keen to have some fun, not dawdle for the sake of leading some nervous American. So, in the moment he decided I would not get lost in the upcoming stretch, his BMW went into hyperdrive. He simply disappeared.

The view from my Tiger Explorer XC
Suddenly I was on my own. Which is really how I'd prefer to be tackling corners, rather than feeling pushed by other riders behind me. Able to relax a little, I reminded myself that, hey, this Triumph wasn't mine and it also wasn't a test ride. If I crashed it, Michelin would be footing the bill, not me. So, I pushed. This corner I managed to take at the speed limit; that corner I managed to go 5 miles over the speed limit (a). Little by little, I was starting to feel more confident and better about myself.

The posted speed limit was 50 mph. When I came around a bend at 65 (a) I did a little celebratory cheer. Then, out of nowhere, a guy who is an engineer at Michelin screamed past going no less than 100. I felt emasculated again.

So, it was appropriate perhaps, that the hotel Michelin chose to put us up in was Splash Landings, a very kid-friendly part of the Alton Towers resort. Alton Towers, for those of you playing along at home, is sort of the British version of Disney World. But colder, wetter and without internationally beloved characters. My room had bunk beds and a view of the indoor/outdoor water park.

Having tackled nigh 300 miles in a single day, I was exhausted once I got to my hotel room. I took a shower and contemplated going straight to bed. But I wanted dinner, and in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland one never misses out on free drinks. Really. Booze here is more important than football in Texas -- more important than Jesus in church.

I headed to the bar, where Budweisers were readily shoved in my hand and I got to talk to folks from all over the country. I also got to take a bit of stick from them. At one point, a bloke from Northern England was chatting with a woman who said she wanted to get her motorcycle license but worried she wouldn't be any good at riding. The Yorkshireman pointed at me and said: "Love, trust me: You can't be worse than him!"

Dinner was from an all-you-can-eat buffet. Snide comments about sodium-laden tasteless food goes here, but you can't really complain when the food is free. Besides, more beer was delivered throughout the meal and I got a chance to talk with some cool people. They joked about my weak riding but also gave me a few pointers that I've been able to apply since. And as much as I criticise the food I certainly ate my fair share of it. That night I barely slept, so full was my belly.

The view from my hotel room.
I made the effort of showing up for breakfast the next morning but didn't actually consume anything other than a mug of tea and two mini pain au chocolat. The sound system was blaring generi-Caribbean music at a volume that made me feel sick. I pocketed some muffins and returned to my room until it was time to take a shuttle bus back to Michelin HQ.

Once returned, the Michelin representatives shook my hand and said they'd get in touch about having my tires sent to me. I found myself feeling weirdly sad at having to say goodbye. There was this part of me that just wanted to hang out and talk about tires. Imagine how delighted Jenn was that this part returned with me and she was that night subjected to a lecture on the qualities of the Pilot Road 4...

The first part of the ride home was a challenge. I stopped at the first services I came across and was desperate for rest. Through luck, an attractive woman who had been hired by Red Bull to hand out free cans to hapless men happened to be there. As a rule, I detest Red Bull, but on this morning I made an exception and washed it down with a bottle of water.

From there, the ride home came easy. The day warmed and I zipped down the M5 without incident. At one point I passed a bloke who had rigged a side car to an old Moto Guzzi California and we exchanged happy, stupid waves at each other. A woman on a big yellow CBR gave me a thumbs up. I wish this were my life -- travelling up and down the country feeling a goofy kinship with people who choose the same means of transportation as me.

Though, when I finally got home I was happy to be there. I had travelled roughly 450 miles in less than 48 hours. Nothing approaching Iron Butt territory, but enough for me. And a great adventure to let me know that I am ready for my trip to Scotland in May.

__________

(a) Law enforcement officials please note: This is a lie. In fact, I always obey the speed limit.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Kids these days

The kids are alright.
A lot -- in fact, most -- of my connection to the wider motorcycling world comes via the interwebs. And I've talked before about the fact there are a number of revolving themes within the internet side of that community: helmets, and filtering, and holding a vociferous opinion on Harley-Davidson, and so on and so on. 

One of the themes that shows up quite often, an opinion that will show up several times in the comments section of almost any web story about the launch of a new/revamped model of motorcycle, is the one that goes: "We need to get more young people riding."

Do we, though?

I mean, really: does it matter that the median age of motorcyclists in the United States is 40-ish? 

That's a surprisingly difficult to clarify statistic, by the way. Though it frequently gets dragged out to show the dire state of things -- that motorcycling is doomed. I'm not able to find a recent, reliable source for the statistic but it generally ranges between 42 and 49 years old. Old enough to legally have sex with someone half your age. Old enough to be a parent. If you're a Mormon, old enough to be a grandparent. And, dude, that is soooo old.

But here's a question, a genuine question to which I am not really suggesting an answer: If motorcycling in Western countries like the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom has become an activity dominated by people in their late-summer and autumn years, is that really such a bad thing?

I can definitely see the advantage of getting more people into motorcycling. More is better. It encourages innovation, a wider variety of products and broader acceptance/awareness of motorcyclists. And I'm especially in favour of encouraging a wider diversity of people, i.e., not just white men. But do those people need to be young

Or do we just wish they were young so we can feel young by association? 

Certainly that's a fair enough desire. I'm 38 years old and I'll admit that I do certain old-man things like telling the university students who live upstairs to turn their music down, or making a conscious effort to eat enough fiber. I'm not necessarily proud of these facets of my personality, though. I don't want to wave the flag for old man-ism. I still feel quite youthful mentally and I'd like to think that the things I do are more an extension of that. So, you know, if the overall image of motorcyclists was a little more youthful and a little less white guys burning their khakis on the tail pipes of their fringe-adorned Harleys (a), I guess that would be OK. I guess that in some way that would make me feel young and hip by association.

Maybe. But beyond their second-hand cool, what do young riders bring to motorcycling? Are they the consumers driving innovation in new bikes? These days technologies like ABS are filtering down to the lower-priced bikes that would likely be of interest to a jobless millennial, but they didn't start there. Technology tends to start at the high end, the stuff most often being bought by the chap who, when shopping for a new bike, considers how the seat will affect his prostate.

Young man, you will throw your back out doing that.
Additionally, young riders, if they are anything at all like I was as a young driver, are highly unlikely to improve the overall reputation of motorcyclists. Perhaps we might like for the people around us to think that the person beneath the helmet is young and hip, but we almost certainly want the irrational rage and discrimination that young people often find themselves being the recipients of.

Or, maybe we do. Maybe that is all young people need bring to the table: attitude and enthusiasm. Spirit.

Ever been to a classic car show? Row after row after row of the finest versions of the fastest cars in history... all lovingly buffed and polished by torpid, pot-bellied old dudes who will never, ever, push said cars to their abilities. Those guys are the antithesis of why the cars were made in the first place. They are the motoring version of smooth jazz. I sometimes see the same thing in motorcycling and it makes me feel sad.

So maybe we do need young people. Not for the sake of motorcycling, but for motorcyclists. What do you think?

__________

(a) I don't mean to make fun of that guy. I don't know him and I'm sure he's a very cool fella. But you get my point.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Visiting the Fleece Inn

The Fleece Inn
A few miles from the quaint Cotswold market town of Evesham lies the Fleece Inn, a pub with a history stretching back more than 600 years. I'm a sucker for that sort of thing. I love the idea of sitting in a place that's been around since before any Europeans even knew that the American continents existed. I love the Fleece Inn especially because it belongs to the National Trust. For those of you playing along at home, the National Trust is kind of sort of like a privatised version of the U.S. National Park Service.

Though, whereas the U.S. National Park Service is best known for looking after large swathes of natural land and is lesser known for taking care of historic buildings and property, the reverse is true of the National Trust. I'm veering into my day job here, but seriously, y'all: wherever you live, it is a whole hell of a lot more interesting than you realise. Get on your bike on go see the amazing stuff that surrounds you.

Too many people in the modern world lack a real, vested interest in the space around them. And that results in their being bad citizens. I think motorcyclists are a little less guilty of this because it is inherent in the experience of riding that we want to explore. We pick a spot on a map and we ride there just because. The side-effect of going to that spot is that we develop an appreciation for the space between. 

But think about all those people you hear yelling for the sake of yelling on political TV and radio. How invested are they in their region? How much do they actually care about anything beyond their own, personal comfort? How have they served their country or their community? How much have they explored? How much do they actually know about the history and culture of the places where they live?

Forget about going to Gander Mtn or Cracker Barrel; go someplace that means something. Learn the history of your place. Help protect it from the great waves of unimportance that drown cities in chain restaurants, shopping centres and business parks by showing that where you are is a place worth being.

But I digress. The point is simply that I rode out to the Fleece Inn on Friday. I had been there before and the long journey there had worn me out so much that I almost rode into the back of a semi truck. Now with more riding experience under my belt and a long trip to Scotland coming up at the end of the month, I was keen to do the trip again and gauge my ability to handle that much riding (a little more than 230 miles round trip).

I'm happy to report that I held up well. I felt alert and relatively comfortable at all points in the journey and am confident I could have pushed on for at least 60 more miles, which would put me into the 290-mile range that I will need for one of the days on my Scotland trip. Taking breaks every 60-70 miles definitely helped me stay focused. Also, I am riding with a back protector these days, which helps improve my posture and eliminate some fatigue.

Though, I am still somewhat worried about my timing. I operate on the theory that rushing a break defeats the point, but that means my breaks are quite leisurely. And that makes it difficult for me to guess how long it will take me to get places, other than saying: "A lot longer than Google thinks it will take."

On the first day of my Scotland trip I need to be in Lake District National Park by 4 p.m. and I'm not really able to decide what time in the morning I will need to set off. Google suggests I'll need to get on the road by 10:45. I know that estimate is ridiculous, but how many more hours should I add? If I stop every 60 miles, that results in four stops. Assume three of those stops will take 20 minutes and another –– my lunch stop –– will take an hour; that means I need to leave by at least 8:45. But that still feels pretty ambitious. Also, it puts me in rush-hour traffic. So, at the moment, my thinking is that I will try to be moving by 7.

The ride home saw me stopping by Thunder Road in Cwmbran, where I got a chance to sit on the new CTX1300 and be amazed by the fact it looks a whole lot better in person than in pictures. But at £15,000 I'm not entirely sure it would be the bike for me.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Worth waiting for

Victory Judge
In my previous post, I talked about how I'm struggling with the concept of delayed gratification. After flirting with the idea of chaining myself to challenging monthly payments for the sake of a brand new Triumph Bonneville, I've decided instead to hold onto the objectively superior bike I've already got, ride it into the ground and in the meantime set aside money for something I really want.

I've wanted a Victory Judge ever since they were first introduced, but it's been off the "Bike I'll Get Next" list because of, primarily, two things: cost and the absence of ABS.

Give it two years, and at least one of those issues will definitely be resolved. Recently, I wrote to Victory (which already offers ABS on its tourers) to ask about anti-lock brakes being made available on its line of cruisers. Obviously, they're not going to share specific secrets with some random fan boy who emails in, but they did tell me this: "Victory have always been applauded on their handling and brakes... [but] yes, our R&D facility do keep tabs on EU rules [a] and we will always look to work within guidelines."

It other words, ABS is coming within at least two years. That gives me time to save up.

Although, by then I may no longer want a Judge. The Minnesota-based company may produce something even better. Recently, a rumour came out that Victory is working on a new water-cooled engine. That's exciting news not because of the presence of water cooling (after all, Victory bikes have been oil cooled for quite a while now), but more for the fact that a new engine means Victory is moving forward.

After the launch of Indian last summer, the immediate question that came to the minds of a lot of people, including myself, was: What now for Victory motorcycles? With both it and Indian owned by Polaris, how was it going to differentiate itself?

"Keep moving forward," Polaris VP Steve Menneto told Forbes last year. "When we acquired Indian, that allowed Victory to really go all out."

The Gunner, the first Victory offering to come in the wake of
Project Rushmore and the Indian launch, was a disappointment.
However, it certainly didn't seem like that recently when Victory announced the addition of the Gunner to its lineup. Little more than a Judge with a different seat, it was a real disappointment to me. I mean, I'm sure it's a great bike, but I had high hopes for what would be first out of the gate in the post-Indian world. I was imagining a bold step, a statement of difference. In writing about the future of Victory last summer I opined that they could draw on the expertise of their parent company and build an adventure bike of some sort to rival the BMW R1200GS.

In fairness, I suppose history has shown that bold steps don't often work for American vehicle manufacturers. And Victory simply doesn't have the wallet to take gambles like, say, the Honda NM4. It has to know that what it makes is going to sell. And in the God-blessed United States of America what sells –– especially in the Upper Midwest, where Victory is based –– is a cruiser. But I was still disappointed by the Gunner.

So, news that Victory is working on a new powerplant is encouraging. They're not just sitting around redecorating old bikes. They really are moving forward. And it's exciting to think of where it could lead. At present, Victory is a one-engine company; all its bikes run on the Freedom 106 engine. Please don't ask me to explain anything about engines. I don't have a clue. I think it would be cool, though, if this new water-cooled engine were added as an addition to the lineup. Rather than simply replacing the Freedom 106 in all the bikes.

From the leaked sketches obtained by Motorcyclist, it appears the new engine will go in a Judge chassis. Again, please don't ask me to explain anything about a chassis. I am just regurgitating stuff from Motorcyclist so I can point out that, in some way, Victory are following my advice from last August. At the time, I suggested improving and then keeping the Vegas 8 Ball as the "iconic premier machine of the marque" –– the philosophical heart of the Victory lineup, if you will. It appears Victory is doing that, but with the Judge.

Good call, Victory. That makes sense. The Judge, with its lesser rake, is a more manoeuvrable machine than Victory's other cruisers, and that fits with what Steve Menneto told Motorcyclist in an October 2013 interview: that Victory intended to "focus on performance and innovation as core brand values." Yes, you have to take that with a grain of salt, since it's performance and innovation within the cruiser context, but it's still exciting.

A sketch of a possible design for a new Victory.
Will this be my next bike?
So, what will the future hold? Will Victory make something on par with the Ducati Diavel? The Moto Guzzi California? The Honda F6C? Will the lineup have two different engines?

Personally, I'd like to see the new engine be lower displacement, so Victory could offer an affordable bike like the Harley-Davidson 883, or the Triumph America, which serve as "gateway" bikes to draw people into the brand. At present, Victory doesn't have that. And I think that's something that hurts them. They are a relatively unknown cruiser brand whose cheapest product costs thousands more than the cheapest product of the best-known cruiser brand in the world.

Also, on a side note, I have trouble believing that Victory's cheapest product, the Vegas 8 Ball, is appealing to anyone who doesn't live in a trailer park. It looks cheap with those rims. The Judge and the Gunner (and, sort of, the High Ball) are stylistically right. I'd like to see these style cues followed on a more affordable machine.

What will happen, though, is anybody's guess; only time will tell. I just hope it will be worth the wait.

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(a) From 1 January 2016, ABS will be mandatory on all motorcycles above 125cc sold in the European Union.