Thursday, 29 May 2014

Part III: Leaving John Muir's native land

At Carter Bar, marking the England-Scotland border.
If life were a TV series, this episode would probably, for the sake of dramatic license, start with me standing on a no-name country lane, somewhere off the A91 in Perthshire. Actually, I'm not standing, I'm jumping up and down in circles, waving my clenched fists in rage and screaming at the top of my lungs. 

I am angry at a whole host of things, not least of which the present moment –– in which I am suddenly unable to control my temper enough to safely ride a motorcycle. And I am subconsciously aware of just how ridiculous it must look to see a 38-year-old man throwing a tantrum in full riding gear and full face helmet at the side of the road. To that end, I have deliberately chosen this remote spot for this moment. But I am aware, too, that I need to sort myself out quickly because even on Scottish country lanes it is never so very long before a car comes along.

It is a little past 11:30 a.m. and this moment is a boiling point –– a culmination of annoyances that have been building since 7 a.m. That was when I had rolled out of bed in my hotel and headed downstairs for breakfast. For those of you playing along in the United States, the hotels here serve actual breakfasts. My goal was to fill up my belly for a full day's riding, pack my things and be rolling by 8:30 a.m.

I should have known from previous experience this goal was stupidly overambitious. An offer of free pints of Schiehallion the night before had meant I'd gone to bed without packing, leaving it for morning. Throughout the trip, stuffing the Viking Bags AXE Saddlebags was in and of itself a fiddly process; in combination with the packing of my backpack and tank bag, it meant that just getting everything ready to go on the bike took at least an hour.

So, it hadn't been until just before 9 a.m. that I found myself finally lugging everything out to the car park to begin strapping it all to my bike. I took off the heavy duty cover I had brought, rolled it up and packed it into its bag. By this point I was already sweating profusely, the sun of Perthshire morning being warmer than I had anticipated. I strapped the cover bag to the rack, along with cans of chain lube and GT-85, and the heavy security chain I had used to lock the bike to a birch tree. Then I put the fully loaded saddlebags on, adjusting the straps several times to ensure everything was secure. I strapped my backpack to the seat. After that, I pulled rain covers over the rack-and-chain bags and over the backpack. Two straps of Velcro, two luggage straps, four trident buckle straps, five bungee cords, and one cargo net. I would go through the gear-loading process four times on this trip and at no point would it take me less than an hour.

So, when I finally rolled out of the hotel's car park at about 10:45 –– more than two hours after my intended departure time –– my annoyance level was approaching a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. At the petrol station, the guy at the counter wouldn't wait for me to dig 53p out of my pocket so I could give him exact change. When I tried to give him the 53p regardless, so he could give me a £5 note rather than an overflowing handful of coin, it was clear he was unable to do such math on his own. The cash register had told him to dispense £4.47 and he was unwilling to trust the arithmetic trickery of an American. My annoyance level notched to 7.

I rode out of the petrol station and almost instantly spotted in my side view mirror that I had forgotten to zip up the jacket pocket in which I keep my wallet. I immediately pulled to a side street, performed an awkward U turn, cut the engine, made sure all the zippers on my jacket were secure, started the engine and couldn't help feeling that the clock on my dashboard was taunting me. My annoyance level notched to 8.

The countryside of Northumberland National Park
Within a few hundred metres I realised a lot of air was pushing up my right leg; I had forgotten to zip the leg of my riding pants. I immediately pulled to a side street, performed an awkward U turn, cut the engine, made sure all the zippers on my riding pants were secure, started the engine and promptly found myself stuck on a too-narrow-for-filtering road behind the slowest driver in Scotland. My annoyance level notched to 9.

Before long, though, I made it to the motorway. I opened up the throttle as a kind of emotional release. When I tucked down I noticed that I had neglected to hook my tank bag to the headstock. That's just a safety measure, the bag actually being held in place by magnets. But after several minutes I managed to convince myself that despite my lateness and annoyance, or perhaps because of it, this was not a good day to ride without strapping the bag to the headstock.

So, I took the first exit I found and discovered it to be one of those exits where there is no return ramp to the motorway. I had been dumped in the relative empty of the Perthshire countryside with no idea how to get back on track. I would have to stop, dig out my map and sat-nav just to figure out where I was, and burn even more time getting back to where I wanted to be. My annoyance level hit 10.

Which brings us back to the present, where we started this episode. I have ridden just a short way down the quiet A91 to the most backcountry-looking road I can find. I have cut the engine, carefully stepped off the bike and immediately launched into a full-on toddler tantrum. My face shield is fogging up and I am hyperventilating slightly from using up the oxygen in my helmet. Through the fog, though, I am suddenly able to see my bike is listing severely. I have parked it in mud and the sidestand is sinking.

In a panic, I rush over and muscle the bike upright. Then I push it well onto the solid pavement of the road. With all the calm I can muster, I remove my helmet, set it careful on the ground on top of my gloves, and return to jumping up and down and shouting obscenities.

I cannot figure out why I am behaving this way, but also I cannot stop. Some part of my brain feels it is better to get it all out of my system rather than risk carrying any of that negativity on the bike. My throat is starting to hurt from screaming. I am drenched in sweat. And suddenly I have this sense of myself and my place in the universe. If life were a TV programme, the camera would be rapidly pulling back, showing a ridiculously angry middle-class white man throwing a fit in the tranquil late spring beauty of Scotland because... uhm... he's running a few hours behind on an arbitrary schedule. A schedule that has no meaning. He doesn't have to be anywhere at any time. The whole point of this day is riding and meandering to a budget hotel in Northern England where he'll spend the night. That's it. There is nothing to be upset about.

I stop screaming and within seconds the birds in the tree I'm parked near go back to flirting with one another. It is quiet and warm and I am surrounded by green. I dig my map and sat-nav from my tank bag, figure out where I am and where I need to go, then suit up –– triple checking that all zippers are zipped and buttons buttoned. As I start my bike, an attractive woman in a high-end Land Rover rolls past and winks.

Border country

At Carter Bar. The trailer in the background is the roadside cafe.
Getting through Edinburgh was confusing because in order to go south and east you had to follow roads that claimed to be heading to Glasgow, which is due west. Eventually, though, the traffic opened up and I was speeding to the English border. It was well into that part of the day that could be called "lunch time" by the time I hit Carter Bar, home to a 16th-century border skirmish between England and Scotland, and I considered grabbing food at a roadside cafe but decided to press on.

I did this despite the fact I knew I was entering Northumberland National Park, which holds as its claim to fame the fact it is the least-populated region in all of England. Which, of course, means pubs are few and far between. But the thought of stopping to eat a bacon sandwich served from a dirty old van made me willing to try my luck. 

The roads of Northumberland were fantastic: well paved by British standards, with little traffic and good sight lines on the curves. Again I feel the need to praise my Michelin Pilot Road 4 tires, because ever since having them fitted I've felt more confident in corners. I was able to ride smooth and flowing, and was having such a good time I almost didn't mind that I was hungry. Almost.

I slowed at the only place I had seen for miles, the Camien Cafe. Its car park deserted, a sign out front declared: "BIKER'S AND HGV'S WELCOME!" (a) Some day in the not too distant future I plan to write a post about what makes a good motorcyclist pub/cafe. To me, one of the tell-tale clues that you have not arrived at a good place is a large, grammatically incorrect sign out front welcoming your "kind." To me, such a sign is, in fact, saying: "WE EXPECT YOU TO HAVE LOW STANDARDS!"

I rode on. After realising my options were incredibly limited I followed signs to Otterburn Mill, where I got a meal that wasn't pre-processed pub food. Not that homemade sausage casserole is so much healthier, mind. But, hey, those grilled onions and bell peppers count as vegetables, right?

With food in my belly, my mind seemed to unwind some and I found myself able to enjoy Northumberland even more. On certain sections of road I would like the run so much that I'd turn around and ride it again. When I hit the long straight of the B6318 I delighted in its undulating hills, hitting the throttle right as I crested so as to lift the bike just a little.

That road is straight because it runs parallel to Hadrian's Wall, a 1,900-year-old defense built by the Romans to, well, prove that the Romans could build a wall from one end of Britain to the other. And perhaps to serve as everlasting proof that it is actually possible to build stuff in straight lines in Britain, despite the circuitous and nonsensical planning habits of the island's native inhabitants.

The view from some of the finest toilets Rome ever built.
I stopped to stretch my legs at Vercovicium, a fort along the wall that housed a large Roman garrison for about 275 years. I sat on Hadrian's Wall and thought again on the issue of significance within the universe. Here I was, a middle-class white man in the tranquil late spring beauty of Northumberland, sitting on a structure built by an empire that ruled this place for nigh 400 years –– a space of time greater than the space of time between the present day and when the Mayflower pilgrims arrived in North America. As I thought about this, my phone rang and I suddenly got looped into a conference call at work, a surreal situation that allowed me to utter this brilliant statement: "Well, I'm afraid I can't answer that question right now as I don't have my computer in front of me. Presently, I'm standing in some latrines built in 122 AD. They're quite impressive. So, if you'd like to learn about Roman toilets, I'm your man. On other topics, it might be best to wait until I get back to the office on Monday."

I lounged for as long as my anxious self could allow. Despite having no particular place to be I still had the pressing feeling I was running behind schedule. Plus, I wanted to get back on those Northumberland roads. Sadly, they soon became crowded Cumbrian roads and thereafter Lancashire motorway. I arrived at my hotel just before 6 p.m. I got all the luggage off my bike, oiled the chain, took a shower and discovered that like the staff in every hotel everywhere the people at my hotel were utterly clueless about the surrounding area.

In hindsight, I should have just eaten at the restaurant in my hotel. But I felt there would be a tiny bit more atmosphere at the chain pub across the road. I was totally wrong on that one. My first-ever experience of eating at a Brewer's Fayre served not only as my last-ever experience of eating at a Brewer's Fayre but also one of the most depressing dining experiences of my life.

Walking back to my hotel in the warmth of late-spring sunset, though, I shook it off. I thought again of my place in the universe and what a lucky little place it was to be: a man out on a road trip across Britain, with another full day's riding ahead of him.

––––––––––––––––––––

(a) HGV stands for "heavy goods vehicle." A semi-truck, in other words.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Part II: A ride to John Muir's native land

A panoramic view from the summit of Cairngorm Mountain in Scotland 
I spent a few days in the Lake District, my bike protected from the frequent rain by a heavy-duty cover I had bothered to strap to rack. I was up there for a conference, which somehow translated into walking up a mountain in the pissing cold rain and wind, followed by many pints of German lager. The second part I liked most, obviously, but in hindsight I enjoyed the first part, as well. It was one of the most fun work-related things I've ever been to. Next year's conference is in the Broads and I am already planning my route.

Back in the Lake District, a perfectly timed break in the rain meant I was able to strap all my gear to the bike in the dry. It started raining again right as I pressed the starter, as if the button were wired not only to the Honda's engine but the clouds. I settled into it and hoped my motorcycle gear would hold up better than my hiking gear. The day before, I had ascended Scafell Pike with a group and discovered that my rainproof hiking gear was ridiculously sub-par when confronted by eight hours of constant rain.

Your faithful correspondent at the summit of Cairngorm Mountain.
On the motorway, the rain turned to hail at one point, which was less than pleasant, but I stayed dry. And huge love goes to the guys at Michelin for the Pilot Road 4 tires they gave me recently. Honestly, those tires are (so far) fantastic. They hold so well in torrential rain that I legitimately thought to myself at one point: "You know, when pondering which bike I want next, I may want to consider limiting my options to those bikes that can wear these tires."

So, you know, bikes like the BMW F800GT or the other sport tourers I wrote about not too long ago. Indeed, despite my extreme love for bikes like the Victory Cross Country, I couldn't help feeling that a middleweight sport tourer is considerably better suited to my present needs. Effectively, that's what I have now in my Honda CBF600 SA. And, but for a few additional creature comforts, I can't say I desired for much more on this trip than the bike I already had. That was especially true when I had to ride on gravel or spin the bike on its centre stand. Less weight means a bike that's easier to push around. Middleweight sport tourers aren't the bad-ass rumbling machines that some part of me seems to want, but this trip showed they are ideal for zipping around Europe.

I pumped my fist in celebration as I rolled across the border to Scotland. In total, roughly 9 years of my life have been lived in the UK and this was the first time I had managed to get to this part of it. By way of welcome, the rain subsided as I rolled into the services at Gretna. I ate a KFC lunch and took in the Scottish accents around me.

If you follow Steve and Sash and their various Road Pickle adventures, a common occurrence with them is their eating at unique, local places. It's much harder to find such a thing in the UK. At least, it is if you're just rolling into town and don't know the place. This is in part due to the fact that eating out in the American sense is a relatively new concept over here. They've long had fine dining, of course, as well as hotels with (usually not that great) restaurants, but they didn't really have a large middle class with lots of expendable income until the 1990s. And as such they didn't have a whole lot of stand-alone restaurants.

When I first came here as an exchange student in 1996, a restaurant of the sort like TGI Fridays (ie, not terribly expensive but also not a greasy spoon cafe) was extremely rare, usually very new, and generally only to be found in ultra-cosmopolitan places like London. I am inclined to digress into a train of thought on how utterly different Britain is now than it was two decades ago but the point is simply to say that when you are travelling from point A to point B in the UK you still too often find yourself eating at chain pubs and American fast-food joints. The best places are hidden and generally not open for lunch.

With my belly and gas tank full I got back on the motorway, riding through increasingly sporadic squally showers. The rain was never so heavy that it obstructed my view, and as I rolled toward Perthshire, the picturesque mountains of Cairngorms National Park loomed enticingly to my north. By the time I got to Perth, my home for the next four days, the sun had come out.

Loch Morlich in Cairngorms National Park
Traffic, too, had thinned to the sort of levels one might experience in farm areas surrounding a major US metropolitan area –– not so quiet that one could even begin to think about setting up a baseball game in the street, but sparse enough that I could maintain a steady speed for more than a minute. If one had such a feature he or she could almost –– almost –– consider clicking on cruise control. I have some very good friends who are originally from Scotland and they have long responded to my complaints of Britain's crowded nature with suggestions that I visit the wide open spaces of their homeland. I suspect that if I were to take them to a place like Paint Rock, Texas, the sheer quiet and solitude of it would cause their minds to melt.

But in comparison to the claustrophobia and pollution I had encountered between Liverpool and Manchester it was bliss. The air smelled fresh and clean. The vast majority of drivers around me behaved in a sane manner (safe following distances, reasonable speeds, etc.). And already, within hours of arriving, I was making promises to myself to return to Scotland soon.

That night I ate dinner at The Bothy, a great local pub in the heart of Perth that sources many of its foods locally. I drank pints of Schiehallion, I struck up a long conversation with my waitress who said her boyfriend looked like Benedict Cumberbatch (she showed me pictures; he does) and felt thankful for the life I have. Then I went back to my hotel and sent rude texts to Jenn.

Some pictures from Scotland

A field of bluebells I came across whilst walking in Battleby.
Looking up to the Cairngorms from Loch Morlich.

View from the summit of Cairngorm Mountain
Gorse flowers in Battleby

The tranquility of Perth city centre on a Sunday evening

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Jay Leno's 1962 Norton 650SS and the value of pondering

I thought I'd share this video of Jay Leno talking about his 1962 Norton 650SS. I can't say I have any real love for Nortons, but I understand those who do love them, and he says a lot of things in here that I really agree with. A few things, even, that I have talked about before on this blog. He talks about the collapse of motorcycling in the UK, chalking up Britain's failures in terms of market dominance to arrogance. That makes sense, definitely; the same thing happened to U.S. manufacturers. But I still wonder how motorcycling's popularity fell into such steep decline over here.

Jay also talks about something that I thought a lot about recently on my trip to Scotland: that one of the true joys of motorcycling is the absence of rest-of-the-world white noise.

"(I've) never quite understand why people put radios and Bluetooth and MP3 players on their motorcycles, " he says. "This is the one time when you can... kind of be alone and enjoy the solitude."

Welsh-language poet T.H. Parry-Williams (who also once wrote an emotive essay about his motorcycle*) said there was an under-appreciated value to sitting and staring at a fire, that people simply do not take the time to remove distractions and actually think about things. Really, truly think. When was the last time you used your brain to such an extent that it hurt? There is great value in pondering, and if you live an existence in which you cannot go 5 minutes without needing to have someone or something else fill your head with noise, there is something wrong with you. No doubt this is why people vote for UKIP -- they've abandoned the challenging work of thinking.

Getting my head out of the constant Twitter/Facebook/Google+/Tumblr/blog cycle and having nothing but wind and my own voice to listen to is always immensely beneficial. It rights me.

Jay starts to walk down the Old Man path when he says, "Your iPhone and Google Maps can show you what this looks like, but this machine can actually take you there." Then he waxes poetic about the joys of having to perform constant maintenance on an old motorcycle (for me, the maintenance required for a modern Honda is more than enough). So, I can see how someone might feel he's being a bit of a fuddy-duddy for criticising having media/connectivity on a bike.

But I don't think it makes you a grumpy old man to value the zen and mentally restorative experience of keeping the rest of the world out of your helmet. All the time I had between Cardiff and Scotland gave me time to reconsider who I am and remind myself of where I want to go.

Anyway, point is: you can see in Jay a real fondness for his 1962 Norton. Which is a feeling to which many of us can relate, regardless of what bike we ride.




______________________________

*Which Dr. Simon Brooks is convinced is actually an essay about sex. His reasoning for this was: 'Who would write an essay about a motorcycle? It's obviously about something else.' Indeed. Who would write a series of essays on motorcycles, create an entire blog about them, even? 

Monday, 19 May 2014

A thousand-mile ride to John Muir's native land: Part I

My route
I suppose the best thing to do is to split my adventure into four posts, commenting on the days I actually spent riding to and from Scotland, rather than talking too much about the space in between. This is a motorcycle-related blog, after all. 

Though, of course, it is usually the stuff in between that is most important. Motorcycles, as much as we may love them, as much as I may obsess over them, are essentially just vehicles -- hunks of dirty metal, rubber and plastic to get us to those places where life happens.

I suppose that's not entirely true. One of the real joys of motorcycling is that you experience so much more in getting from place to place. You feel the sun's warmth, taste the acrid pollution of Manchester/Liverpool, hear the rush of wind, smell the earthy damp of Scottish rain, and see it all with much less hindered view. 

And there is, too, the time to think. Riding roughly from the bottom to the top of Britain and back afforded me several hours of mobile solace in which to consider all those important things that get lost in the day to day: what I want from my life, who I want to be and how I want to go about achieving that, and, of course, that most important of all questions: What are the lyrics to the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" theme song? (I spent a number of days trying to draw them back from the part of my brain that stores memories of the 1990s)

In total, I covered a little more than 1,000 miles on this trip. It was my first true long-distance, multi-day adventure, which meant more planning and more packing. And that's a facet I could definitely stand to work on for future trips; getting everything ready to go consistently took too long.

Borrowdale or bust

The first day of riding took me 300 miles from Penarth to Borrowdale -- an interminably wet valley within Lake District National Park that instantly leads one to thoughts of Hobbits and Dungeons & Dragons and countless other mythical adventure tropes. The Lake District is easily one of Britain's prettier places but it is also an example of really good marketing. An estimated 15 million people visit the national park each year -- more than visit all three of Wales' national parks annually -- despite the fact that it is the wettest place in England. Borrowdale, in particular. It receives roughly 140 inches of rain a year, or 11.6 feet.

So, I knew there was no way I could avoid getting wet. Inside my Viking Bags AXE Saddlebags I had placed my clothes in dry sacks and my shoes in plastic grocery store bags, then wrapped both in large garbage bags. I'll get to this in detail when I review the saddlebags, but the rain covers that come with them aren't actually all that useful when attempting to place them on the saddlebags. However, I was able to make use of the covers to help protect a backpack and small case that I strapped to the seat and rack. Leaving nothing to chance, I also lined my backpack with a garbage bag and important items (e.g., laptop) were additionally wrapped in their own plastic bags.

Throughout the trip, packing all my bags generally took an hour. Meticulously strapping everything to the bike took another hour. In Scotland, my annoyance with this level of time consumption would boil over and I'd end up detouring into a bit of quiet countryside so I could throw a full-on yelling-and-jumping-up-and-down tantrum by the roadside. But it should be noted that the result of such meticulous packing was that nothing ever came loose; no bits came undone, none of my possessions were sacrificed to the gods of British roads.

Entering Lake District National Park
And (most of) my stuff stayed dry despite the laudable efforts of Mother Nature. The forecast in the days before had called for particularly awful weather, so I started off in full rain gear. This included a cheap waterproof over jacket I had bought just for the trip. Within minutes of hitting the road I was kicking myself for not having bought one sooner; it turns out that over jacket is the best £8 that I have ever spent.

Up until then, I had simply relied on the waterproof-esque qualities of my leather riding jacket, as assisted by regular treatments of Nikwax. I figured it was good enough. And generally it is for situations where I'm riding and get caught in an unexpected bit of rain. But what I didn't realise was that a simple over jacket also provides additional wind protection. Had I invested that £8 sooner I suspect this past winter would have been more tolerable, allowing me to hold warmth better.

So, despite cold rain and powerful gusts of wind, I was comfy and happy as I hit the road to Northern England. I was able to make it to Strensham (80 miles from home) before feeling the need to take a break, and I found that the additional weight from the bags actually seemed to improve how my motorcycle handled. This makes me think I may want to invest some time playing around with suspension settings when it's just me on the bike.

The ride north was mostly motorway, so nothing really notable. Traffic got heavy as I ran the gauntlet between Liverpool and Manchester and the air was so thick with pollution that both cities have fallen dramatically down my Places I Want To Visit list. As I neared the 180-mile mark on my journey I started to develop pain in my right shoulder and numbness in my right hand. A little further on, a tension headache started in. I knew the problem: the wind was gale force (30+ mph) in sections and I was being kicked around. I tried to loosen up, to not clench my jaw, but couldn't really shake it off. So, the final 100 miles came slow because of multiple stops.

Eventually, I made it to the Lake District. For those of you playing along at home, national parks in Her Majesty's United Kingdom would probably not be recognisable as such to Americans. The best comparison I can come up with is that of the Lake Tahoe basin, on the Nevada-California border. People live and work there, and there is a sense of delicate environmental balance. Planning decisions are made by an overarching body that magically makes everyone angry by being too stringent or not stringent enough (depending on what side you're on).

There is a whole ridiculous six-tier system of categorizing protected areas around the world. I won't bore you with details except to say that most U.S. National Parks are Category II. Denali, in Alaska, is Category I. The lower the number, the more "wild" and untouched by man the place is. There are no Category I sites in the UK. Or Category II. Or Category III. The national parks here are, in fact, Category V. All of which gives each visit to a UK national park a sense of urgency to me. Very little is holding back the tide of progress. Things that I find inspiring and beautiful can, and in many cases definitely will, disappear before I have children to show them to.

So, once I got to my guest house in Borrowdale, I threw my things into my room as quickly as possible and ran outdoors to explore.

A few pictures from the Lake District
The view from my guest house in the Borrowdale valley.

Starting the 5-hour hike to Scafell Pike. It's up there in the clouds somewhere.

A river runs down from Scafell Pike full of heavy rain and snow melt.

Atop Scafell Pike. I'm on the far right, top row, wearing a red jacket and grey scarf. All of us were completely soaked through by fog, mist, rain and snow. My smile is an utter lie; I really disliked this hike.

Looking down on the Borrowdale valley.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Ride review: Victory Cross Country

Victory Cross Country
A strange and interesting thing about the Victory Cross Country: it gave me the worst riding experience of my life, and yet the reason for that terrible experience is so easy to fix I am willing to overlook it and tell you that this is The One. This the motorcycle I need in my life.

Honestly, as soon as I got home after my Cross Country experience I set up a savings account and labelled it: "CROSS COUNTRY FUND." Goodness knows how long it will take me to save up for the £16,500 (US $27,725) American bagger, but the point is that's how great an effect the machine had on me.

So, let's start with that one bad thing: the little sliver of a stock screen is about an inch too short for someone who is 6-foot-1. Or, considering that I normally ride with my helmet in the wind, perhaps it is an inch too tall. 

To be honest, I don't fully understand the particulars of aerodynamics as pertain to screens, but the long and short of things is that the screen was wrong for me. I suffered intense, intolerable wind turbulence akin to having someone banging on my helmet with a club. Really, it was hell. After my demo ride I had to sit down and hold my head for a few minutes. If we accept the Chris Nowinski definition of a concussion as being any trauma suffered to the head, it is wholly correct to say the Victory Cross Country gave me a mild concussion.

I guess that could be a selling point: the Cross Country is so bad ass that it will knock you out. But, uhm, I'd prefer to just fix the problem with a different screen. Victory offers several, as do a number of aftermarket providers. Or, you could just remove the screen altogether and keep your skull in the breeze. I have no doubt that if I explained it was a make-or-break issue, most dealerships would just switch out the screen for free.

That's it, though. Everything else about the Cross Country is amazing. I mean, really amazing. I mean, so amazing that I could get the hell beat out of me by this thing and still go home trying to figure out how to get one. This is no Cruel Shoes experience, though, it's just a great bike.

The best place to start is that engine. Though this may be subject to change in the near future, at the moment all Victory motorcycles are powered by the Freedom 106 –– a 1,737-cc V twin that produces upward of 100 bhp and 110 lb. ft. of torque. I'll be honest, y'all: I still don't totally understand the meaning of the figures I just threw at you but it sounds impressive for me to use them, doesn't it? As if I were a real motorcycle journalist instead of some guy who squeals like a happy little girl when he gets to test ride a new bike.

But, of course, the latter is what I am, and the smooth yet powerful pull of the Cross Country had me whooping and shouting even as the wind kicked me in the head.

The Cross Country gives you a real sense of presence.
I'm guessing that, like the Victory Judge, the Cross Country would audibly benefit from the Norse-god-like rumble of Stage 1 exhaust. But I found the grunt of its stock pipes to be equally pleasing, making me want –– almost need –– to ride on and on. And that was a spirit that carried to every other part of the bike.

Stock screen aside, the wind protection was excellent. The large batwing-esque fairing cuts out a huge cocoon in which to sit and be happy. More than happy. Although the bike was obviously built by Americans and primarily for Americans, that front end makes it perfect for overcoming the perpetual misty-cold misery of Britain. Add to this the lower wind protection afforded by the enormous floorboards, which block out a space that came more or less to mid shin.

Initially I wasn't too hot on the idea of floorboards. I prefer the look of pegs. But the space afforded by the boards meant that on the move I was able to shift my feet down and put myself in a fully upright seating position. And that meant I didn't suffer any of the lower back pain that cruisers can sometimes give me. Also, I was able to lift up out of my seat when encountering the worst of potholes.

For all the other bumps in the road (and on a British road there are many), the suspension was blissfully plush and backed up with the most pleasant motorcycle seat I have ever experienced. There is plenty of passenger room on the seat, as well, so instantly I found myself fantasizing about dragging Jenn on long trips to Spain.

In addition to being able to handle the bumps of a typical British road, the Cross Country was surprisingly adept at handling its curves, too. There is no denying the Cross Country is massive and its nigh 800 lbs. of weight is not the sort of thing you'd want to try pushing uphill. But all that weight is so well distributed that it feels lighter than the Judge or Jackpot I rode. It handles better than them, too. Corners were easy and enjoyable, and the bike was happy to lean over far more than you'd expect.

Perhaps because it has a shorter rake than Victory cruisers, the Cross Country also –– shockingly –– handles better at slow speed than its cruiser brethren. Particularly when compared to the Jackpot. I was able to keep my feet up without wobble even when crawling through a crowd of people.

At high speed, ignoring the head kicking I was taking from turbulence, the Cross Country was solid. As with all Victory motorcycles the gears were long, meaning I could get up to 40 mph in first before the engine even started to suggest I shift gears. Acceleration was joyful and when I twisted the throttle it felt as if I was being shot forward by a giant bungee cord.

The dash offers plenty of information
but keeps a clean look.
I was happy for such an experience because, contrary to machines of Victory's cruiser line, the Cross Country can actually stop. Up front, it has two discs that actually work the way actual brakes are supposed to. Which means less aggressive reliance on the single rear disc, and an overall less stressful "whoa" experience. Especially because the Cross Country's brakes are anti-lock.

Anti-lock brakes! On a Victory! My one major complaint resolved! I felt, to paraphrase Steve Johnson, that Christmas had come early. And while they were at it, Victory had gone ahead and responded to a few of my other complaints. In that lovely big dashboard there is, in addition to the speedometer/odometer a tachometer and a fuel gauge. A digital gear indicator sits in the middle of the dash and the screen offers all kinds of other info.

There is also a radio, which I had no real interest in and didn't mess with. But the controls on the left handlebar looked easy enough to operate with one's thumb. Assuming one is not wearing winter gloves. The same is true of the cruise control buttons that would be operated from the right handlebar. Again, I didn't get a chance to test that out –– few and far between are the British roads clear enough to maintain a single speed long enough to make use of cruise control.

The radio accepts auxiliary input like an MP3 player, though I don't at the moment remember seeing any place to put such a thing. There probably was a storage compartment and I just didn't notice because such a feature isn't relevant to me. Also on the dashboard is a 12V plug in for said devices or one of those heated vests that everyone is always saying I should get.

The lockable hard panniers were easy to operate but smaller than I was expecting. They were not wide enough to hold a helmet of any size in them, but could still definitely carry several days of clothes. The Victory guys told me larger panniers are available, and you can add a top box to create the Cross Country Tour. Though, I feel that is an expensive and ugly option. I personally would choose to go with Kriega bags for additional storage, which I think would fit the bad-assitute of this bike well.

Meanwhile, speaking of bad-assitude, the panniers are relatively easy to remove if you don't need them and the bike sans saddlebags looks pretty cool. I suspect the absence of the panniers' weight and drag would also give just a little more kick to the already-fun acceleration experience.

The Victory guys gave me this key ring.
It is now one of my most-prized possessions.
The Cross Country has been on my What I Want list for quite a long time now and having now seen and ridden the bike I find I want it even more. Back when I first fell started falling for it I wasn't that hot on the fairing, but since then it has really grown on me. In person, that fairing gives the bike an aggressive look, it makes you feel you have real presence on the road. and it meshes so well with all the other aspects of the machine. Like the majority of Victory models, it is fun to just stare at –– to follow the lines with your eyes, to examine every little aspect.

It is a bike with a sense of spirit; it is the sort of thing you find yourself speaking to. It is the sort of thing for which you set aside your pennies. For who knows how long, because great googly moogly is it pricy, but  I think it's worth it and one day I'll have one of my own.

The three questions:

For me to consider spending my own money on a motorcycle it needs to answer in the affirmative three questions.

Does it fit my current needs and lifestyle?
Yes. It also fits the lifestyle to which I aspire. It is a bike for what I am and what I want to be. It is surprisingly capable in corners, it has plenty of space to carry a passenger comfortably, and it has a decent amount of storage which can be expanded if so desired.

Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. A massive stupid idiot grin. I was in the process of being concussed on my test ride and I still was hooting and shouting with joy. I mean, I know I'm saying it but I really don't feel I've conveyed just how much I enjoyed being on this bike.

Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Yes. Is sex better than a flu shot? It looks better, it rides better, it has more features, it has more power, it has more torque, and it's from Minnesota. I loved this machine.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

'2-Wheel Conveyances Embracing Alternative Fuel Sources' -- A guest post

The following is a guest post, provided to me by a digital PR company that is trying to sell you something in a clever way. As this blog has grown more popular (thank you!) I have found myself receiving an increasing number of offers of this sort: "Hey, Chris, we've got a great product that we think will really suit the interests of your readers" and so on. My standard reply to such offers is a polite "No thank you."

But in this particular case, I find the content of the article interesting -- alternative energy. Remember that not too long ago I wrote a post about electric motorcycles. And I'm a card-carrying member of the National Trust and the Sierra Club. Plus, as you read this I am still in Scotland and not really able to blog. (Expect several posts related to that trip when I return)

I am not being paid for posting the following content, nor am I receiving any goods/services in exchange. Genuinely, I just find it a bit interesting.

______________________________

A 2012 American Community Survey found that 864,883 people commute to work via bicycle, a 10 percent increase from 2011. Another study by Transport and Mobility Leuven in Brussels found traffic congestion would be eliminated and carbon emissions substantially reduced if 25 percent of cars on the roads were replaced by motorcycles.

Riding a bike in 2014 is no longer a matter of pedalling to get to your destination, and re-fuelling your motorcycle doesn't necessarily have to take place at Qwik-e-Marts. Alternative fuel sources, along with advances in electric motor technology, have made 2-wheel transportation more versatile and efficient for commuters. Others countries are far ahead of U.S. firms as far as alternative fuels and technology, but riders are taking notice regardless of location.

The Alter Bike

Three French companies, Cycleurope, Pragma Industries and Ventec, came together to develop the first bicycle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. The Alter Bike uses pedelec (pedal electric cycle) technology, which assists cyclists when traveling in hilly areas that require more leg energy to traverse.

The motor, powered by a combination of a lithium-ion battery and hydrogen fuel cells, balances the power needs so neither source is unnecessarily expended. Gitane, the official brand name of the bike, said the revolutionary fuel source stores the hydrogen in recyclable cans that connect directly to the bike. There is no need to locate a charging station to re-fuel as many electric cars require.

GizMag reports the official launch of Gitane's Alter Bike will be sometime in 2015 for companies, and 2016 for regular consumers.

Compressed Natural Gas

Motorcycles in Buenos Aires, Argentina have been powered by compressed natural gas (CNG) since 2006. It is not only one of the cleanest fossil fuels in existence, but also one of the more efficient. Argentinian bike-maker Zanella, along with Honda, teamed up on the project to produce a special gas tank to hold the fuel.

The technology is compatible with virtually all makes and models of motorcycle. Some new bike accessories might be necessary to make a successful conversion from gasoline to CNG. Treehugger.com says the cost of the tank and install is only $300, but additional engine modifications are necessary.

ECOP Rosario, another Argentinian company, started making motorcycles pre-equipped with a CNG tanks in 2009. The company claims a six-fold fuel cost reduction and increased engine life. ECOP Rosario is also considering exporting its technology to other countries.

Toilet Bike Neo

One thing humans will always be able to produce is waste. Japanese plumbing company Toto put this fact to practical use when it developed the Toilet Bike Neo. The 250 cc engine runs on bio-gas, which can be derived from feces, urine, and other organic matter.

Despite its gross-out description, the Neo is environmentally-friendly and even speaks to the rider and plays songs. Toto took the Neo on a 620 mile (1000 km) tour of the country to promote it in 2012.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Ride review: Victory Jackpot

Victory Jackpot
I'll admit right up front that I've never really liked the look or the idea of the Victory Jackpot. To me, it represents an outdated OCC-style of thinking: motorcycles as ridiculous trophy objects for people who are woefully uncultured.

Yes, I know I'm breaking the golden rule of this blog by criticising other people's riding choices but, you know, ugh. That fat-rear-tire-skinny-front-tire thing is just so... so... I can't quite explain what it is that annoys me so much. Basically, it's the equivalent of wearing a designer T-shirt to church. Just because it's expensive and flashy doesn't make it good.

Though, as it turns out, the Jackpot is a slightly better motorcycle than I had thought it would be. Sure, it's generally impractical, but at least it's a lot of fun. For a while.

Much of the reason for that, of course, is the fact that it's a Victory. And as such, it comes equipped with the stalwart and powerful Freedom 106 engine. The gears are long (i.e., you get a lot out of each gear before the engine even begins to suggest that you shift up) and always easy to find. Power is delivered smoothly, without the arm-ripping jerkiness I've experienced on Harley-Davidson machines. And there is plenty of that power, too. At 70 mph, the engine was tootling along with such ease it felt like I was in idle.

The massive rear tire, meanwhile, creates its own sort of fun. In corners, the mismatched front and rear create odd angles that you have to overcome with aggressive counter steering. This means that you really get to put some oomph into corners, which, in its own weird way is confidence-inspiring. In heaving myself into turns I lost some of my usual nerves on sharper bends. With the Jackpot, I felt more able to push aggressively than I have on other bikes (a).

It's worth asking, though, how long you'd want to keep that up. I mean, you wouldn't really want to tour Europe on something that needs to be muscled through every damned corner. Nor would it be particularly wise to do such a thing considering the state of the Jackpot's brakes.

Like its Victory stablemate, the Judge, the Jackpot is equipped with sub par stopping power. There is a too-small single disc up front that needs to be yanked back to deliver only a modicum of "whoa," and a single rear disc that is on-off and only slightly more effective than the front. According to some reviews I've read, the rear is prone to locking up. Thankfully, I did not experience this but the lack of ABS on Victory's line of cruisers is one of the reasons I can't really take them seriously.

That engine, though.
Not that I would seriously consider the Jackpot anyway. The mismatched tires seem to make all the bike's weight even more difficult to handle at slow speeds. I pride myself on being able to keep a bike upright at extremely slow speed but with the Jackpot I was duck walking like the noobiest noob of Noob Town.

On the go, the riding position was more appropriate for a visit to the OB/GYN than getting from point A to point B. Keeping in mind that I am 6 foot 1, my legs were splayed forward in such a way that wind both shot up my pant legs and pushed my knees apart. The seat was plenty comfortable in and of itself, but my seating position meant that I was not able to lift up on the pegs to avoid the omnipresent British potholes. The bike being nowhere nimble enough to avoid them all, I was forced to eat quite a few and each one delivered a small attack on my lower back. It was an experience that reminded me of the observation I made when test riding the Triumph America: cruisers are generally not well suited to British conditions.

When the speedometer crept upward, the wind blast also pushed at my shoulders and, because I was not at all leaned forward, started to get under my helmet and shove my head around –– something I hadn't experienced on the equally fairing-free Judge.

As time wore on, I grew less and less fond of chucking the bike through corners; I just wanted to get off the thing. In contrast to every other motorcycle I've ever ridden, when it came time for me to dismount I was perfectly content to do so.

Taking the time to assess the Jackpot afterward I found myself asking: "What the hell is this bike for?"

Yes, it's fun to push through corners, but you wouldn't want to keep it up for a run any longer than, say, 30 miles. And you'd need to somehow be sure said run is free of anything that might require a quick stop. Your best bet is to keep it moving in a straight line, at 60 mph or less on a windless day, on an empty road that has been recently paved. Or just park it and let people look at it while you put on your best designer T-shirt and head to sermon.

Baby got back.
I love Victory Motorcycles and think they produce some amazing things (be sure to check out my upcoming review of the Cross Country), but the Jackpot is proof that even the best can get it really wrong sometimes.

The three questions

For me to consider spending my own money on a motorcycle it needs to answer in the affirmative three questions. I'll bet you can guess how this will go:

Does it fit my current needs and lifestyle?
No. In many ways, the Jackpot is the antithesis of life in Britain. Its ideal riding scenario exists nowhere on this archipelago. Also, not that you'd necessarily want to subject a loved one to the Jackpot experience but it has no passenger seating to speak of. Pillion accommodation is even less adequate than on the Judge.

Does it put a grin on my face?
For short periods of time, yes. Most of that joy, though, is coming from the Freedom 106 engine, which is better showcased by a number of Victory's other platforms.

Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Nope. The engine's better, but in terms of brakes, handling, comfort and overall usability, my cheap little Honda beats the Jackpot all day.

––––––––––

(a) Note what I'm saying here. It's not that the Jackpot corners better than any other bike. It definitely does not. But because it is a big monster that I had to shove around, I was less afraid of taking too tight a line, etc.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Test rides

It looks the part...
Almost exactly five years ago, I set out on a Great American Road Trip that took me across both the width and length of the United States. That adventure lasted nigh 3 months and saw me travelling close to 20,000 miles. The amount of planning I did for that trip, however, was minimal. I rented a car from Avis, I told a few friends I might be around, and that was about it.

Tomorrow, I set off on my first true Great British Road Trip. It will last only 8 days and consist of just a little more than 1,000 miles of travel. Britain, after all, is a very small country. But in contrast to my U.S. road trip, for this adventure I have invested weeks of planning and fretting and downright panicking. The big difference, of course, is that it is also the longest road trip I will have ever taken on my bike.

I've done overnights to mid Wales and the English Midlands but this is something different. This journey will demand that I go further and that I carry more stuff. Both of which are aspects I've been working on especially in the past week or so.

Powis Castle, near Welshpool
Stage 1 of preparation for the Great British Road Trip has involved working on my riding stamina, something I've been focusing on for quite a while now. My very first day of riding will demand that I take on roughly 300 miles -- the space between Cardiff and the Lake District region of Borrowdale, where I'll spend the weekend before continuing on to Scotland. The goal is to cover this distance within 8-10 hours. So, last week I decided to make a run of equal distance -- up to North Wales and back -- to make sure I could handle the physical toll.

The good news is: I can make it. Probably. The route I took last week actually worked out to be closer to 260 miles, and it took almost exactly 10 hours. That route took me up to the frustratingly misspelled Powis Castle in Welshpool (it should be "Powys") then back to The 'Diff via Shropshire, which meant slower roads.

On the side of arguing that I'll be able to cover 300 miles in the same time (or, preferably, less) is the fact that much of my journey to the Lake District will be via motorway. That means a higher official speed limit, a much higher unofficial speed limit, and no stop lights/roundabouts/etc. Additionally, on my test run last week I did a fair amount of lingering at Powis Castle and fellow National Trust property Berrington Hall, taking a leisurely walk and cream tea at the former, and lunch at the latter (a).

On the side of arguing that I may still struggle with time/distance are much of the same facts: I was riding on slower, less-stressful roads and taking very long breaks.

Berrington Hall, near Leominster
One thing I know for certain, though, is that my new Pilot Road 4 tires are up to the task. The weather on the day was perfect until the very last hour or so when suddenly heavy cloud moved in and started dumping rain. My tank bag soaked through. Parts of the M4 flooded. But the tires held perfectly. I mean, I don't want to sound like a shill for Michelin here, but, damn, them is some good tires.

Meanwhile, Stage 2 of preparation has centred on all the things I need to bring and how to bring them. This is a business trip, which will see me attending three different conferences, so I'm going to need to rock the smart-casual look on several occasions, as well as the hiking-up-a-mountain look, and the having-dinner-with-people-whom-I'd-like-as-my-employer look.

If you're a regular reader of this blog (thank you!), you'll know that the nice folks at Vikingbags.com sent me a set of AXE saddlebags not too long ago (crikey, are they getting their money's worth with the number of times I mention them), which will serve as the foundation of my luggage system, along with my trusty tank bag and a lagniappe backpack my Michelin homies gave me when they were winning my heart through free tires and fun stuff.

I'll get into this more when I write an eventual review of the saddlebags, but when first inspecting them they raised a few questions in terms of suitability to purpose. Indeed, for a while there I was spending quite a bit of time on eBay trying to score a good deal on Kriega bags that I could use instead, but without success. Finally, a combination of knowing my tendency to be over-anxious, the state of my finances, and that old thing they say about gift horses made me decide to just stick with what I've got.

Luggage full of towels for a test run.
Because Britain loves Mexico (b), Monday was a holiday here on the Island of Rain and that gave me an opportunity to fully pack up my bike and make a quick luggage test run. I did 37 miles of riding at unofficial motorway speeds and am very happy to report that it was without incident. I still plan on being armed with great quantities of spare bungee cords and duct tape, but I am now much more confident in my luggage system.

Since Monday I have moved aggressively into Stage 3 of preparation: mapping, planning routes, researching places to eat, working out contingencies, and waking up two or three times a night in an anxiety-fuelled sweat. I have written a list of every single thing I need to take with me. I have made a list of nearby Honda dealerships. I have put together a folder of routes to various locales, with optional routes if it is raining heavily or if I am tired. I have waxed boots, gloves and my jacket. I have counted pairs of underwear. Quite frankly, I need to go on this trip just so I can stop thinking about it.

It will be an adventure. At present, the weather forecast is calling for heavy rain the whole way up. There is supposed to be an hour or two of dry right when I'll be loading everything on the bike; if I can have just that I promise not to complain (much) about whatever gets thrown at me thereafter. Which may be a lot; the forecast for Borrowdale is thunderstorms.

I've got a few blog posts lined up to auto publish while I'm away, and, of course, I'll be yammering about this trip endlessly once I return, but if you'd like to follow my adventure in real time I'll be posting updates on my Twitter as signal allows.

See you later, mis amigos!

__________

(a) If you live in the UK, I strongly advise getting a National Trust membership. Their properties are almost always located in places you want to ride and they treat motorcyclists really well, always offering me a place to store my helmet and gear rather than my having to carry it around.

(b) Not really. In truth, we had the day off because we are socialist scum. Sadly, no one here celebrated Cinco de Mayo.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Ride review: Triumph Tiger Explorer XC

Ugly, but almost the best bike I've ever ridden. Almost.
"Hold me closer, ugly dancer." That's the song I found myself singing to the almost-wonderful Triumph Tiger Explorer XC recently as I explored the famous roads of Peak District National Park. It is a bike that is so close to being exactly the sort of thing I want but falls horribly flat on just two points.

The first one is, admittedly, subjective. The Tiger Explorer XC is stupid ugly. It's a machine that looks to have been designed by the same bloke who produced the 2012 London Olympics logo. There are many good things to say about the bike but I'm afraid that no matter how I turn my head or squint my eyes, I cannot say it looks good. This is the girl in the bar who always goes home alone.

But the 1,215-cc three-cylinder machine has so many great qualities that it almost makes up for its looks. Almost. As Samuel L. Jackson says in Pulp Fiction, personality goes a long way. But still there is one other aspect of the Tiger Explorer XC's personality that is impossible to overlook and which eliminates it from any list of bikes I'd consider buying.

I don't want to be too negative of an otherwise amazing motorcycle, though, so let's look at some of the good things first. And there are a lot of good things.  

Apparently the "XC" stands for "cross country," but it could just as easily mean "extra comfortable." I took on more than 130 miles in the Triumph's saddle and this was after having already pushed 160 miles from Penarth to Stoke-on-Trent on my own bike. But at the end of the day I would have been happy for more. Seat, wind protection, heated features and riding position all combined to create an experience that was anything but tiring.

The seat was large and offered an unobtrusive comfort. You didn't notice it. The day's weather was such that I didn't need it but the seat came with heating for both rider and passenger, the pillion seat being equally large and providing plenty of space for an actual-sized human. I will say, though, that the angle of the seat was just a little strange and had me occasionally slipping forward on hard stops.

I was amazed at how well the screen worked.
Wind protection, meanwhile, was surprisingly effective. I would not have guessed from looking, but the windscreen and basic fairing offered a happy cocoon that kept the wind away from everywhere but the very tippy top of my helmet. Within that space I was warm and happy and somewhat shocked at what an incredible difference wind protection can make. I made a promise to myself to invest in better wind protection for my own bike before the next winter.

Part of that protection involved hand guards, which kept my frustratingly-susceptible-to-cold hands from hurting as they usually do when spending too much time in a cold wind (I fell through the ice as a teenager and the ensuing frostbite made me less able to tolerate cold in my extremities). Helping things, of course, were dual-setting heated grips.

The Tiger Explorer XC produces a whopping 135 bhp, making it the most powerful vehicle I've ridden thus far, but everything worked so beautifully that all its power and torque (89 lb. ft.) were easily managed. Wide bars made the big machine simple to move through corners, and when you wanted that power it was so incredibly accessible. The distances that I usually look for when passing suddenly halved –– the shaft-driven engine easily launching me forward as if I were attached to a giant rubber band.

There was a bit of grumbling if you tried to throttle up when in too high a gear, but by and large the machine was willing to move regardless of where you were on the shifter. The engine offered a tractor-like sound and reassuring clunks when hitting gears, something that I'm sure sportbike guys might moan about but that, as a cruiser lover, I thoroughly enjoyed.

I'm 6 foot 1, so obviously the bike's height was something of a selling point to me. Another person in our group was a good 7 to 8 inches shorter than me and actually chose to hop off the bike at stops, because he could not put feet to ground when seated. He managed this in part because he was a superior rider (I saw him take a corner at such speed it made me feel queasy) but also because the Tiger Explorer XC's weight is so well balanced.

It really is an incredible machine and, I think, very much worth its £12,300 asking price...

Ugly from any angle.
...until you get on the motorway. There you find the bike's biggest flaw. Once your speed starts to crawl above 75 mph the Tiger Explorer XC begins to dance, swaying in the turbulence of cars and trucks like an American newsman reporting from a hurricane. Because I am used to the bum-clenching gusts that hit a person when crossing the Severn Bridge, all this kicking around didn't bother me too much. But it was visible to other riders in my group and made them feel nervous for me. And it made me nervous to think of how terrifying it would have been had there actually been any wind at all that day.

I mean, if this thing was jumping so much in the wake of a big truck, what would it be like to ride in the great exposed space of the Severn Bridge? Or how would it handle the valley gusts that plague the A449? Maybe the weight of a passenger and luggage would better anchor you, but on your own it would be hell.

It's a fatal flaw that I simply wouldn't be able to overlook. Which is too bad, because the Tiger Explorer XC is otherwise one of the best bikes I've ever had the pleasure of riding. Ugly. But an absolute joy to ride. If I lived in the United States, where it is possible to still travel efficiently on slower roads (the slow roads in the UK are really slow) I'd very seriously consider overlooking the aesthetics of the bike to shell out the cash. As is, though, it is simply a bike that has helped me get a better sense of the features I'd love to have. It is not a bike that I would buy.

The three questions

For me to consider spending my own money on a motorcycle it needs to answer in the affirmative three questions:

Does it fit my current needs and lifestyle?
Pretty much. Off the motorway, the Tiger Explorer XC is 100-percent an ideal vehicle for tackling British road and weather conditions. I suppose it makes sense that a British company would know how to make a bike for the British environment. But once you approach the speeds that Britons achieve on their morways it becomes a nerve-wracking disappointment.

Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes, as long as I'm not looking at it. I loved being in the saddle of this thing. Absolutely loved it. But when taking it in visually I felt almost embarrassed. This bike is the equivalent of having a really ugly wife who is really, really good in bed.

Is it better than my current motorcycle?
Yes. I'll state that unequivocally. It's not as stable at high speed, but even so it is immensely superior to my trusty Honda CBF600 SA. If someone were to offer me a Tiger Explorer XC at a discounted price I would jump at it without hesitation. I could avoid motorways or just learn to love dancing at high speed.

Friday, 2 May 2014

One year hence

The day I finally earned my UK license.
Exactly one year ago today, I earned my UK motorcycle license. Traffic to this blog has increased considerably since then (thank you for reading), so some of you might not know the whole story leading up to that moment. In short, I had earned my U.S. motorcycle endorsement in a YMCA parking lot when I was 18, but thereafter done nothing with it. Years later, I became obsessed with the idea of getting a motorcycle to combat the interminable dreariness of British life.

That meant, however, I needed a UK motorcycle license. It's a separate license here, not just an addendum to your driver's license, and thanks to Europeans' love of circumlocutory bureaucracy getting it is much, much more difficult than it had been in Minnesota. Admittedly, the process here instilled in me considerably more riding knowledge than I had gleaned from doing circles on a CG125 and watching Wheels of Tragedy (a). But the unexpected challenge of completing that process was borderline traumatic. 

No, really. One of the reasons I initially decided to pursue my UK license was for the sake of an "easy win." At that point in my life, I had not held down a full-time job in 6 years (thanks for destroying the European economy, Great Recession), my university degrees had turned out to be utterly useless, I was stagnant in literary/creative terms, and I felt socially isolated. I wanted to be able to do something; I wanted an accomplishment with which to boost my plummeting morale.

But instead, I failed my Mod 2 exam on the first try, and again on the second try, and within it all I burned away all kinds of money that I did not have. I maxed out a credit card (still paying it off) and everything was just hell. So, on the one-year anniversary of that great big poopy process finally coming to an end, my first line of thought goes to the questions of "What if...?". 

I am happy that I now have my license; ultimately, I am glad I went through the process. But could I have done it differently? If so, how?

Often I tell myself I would not have gone immediately down the Direct Access route. For those of you playing along at home, the motorcycle licensing structure here is stupidly complicated. Look at this chart and you'll see there are five different categories of license, broken up according to a person's age and what, exactly, he or she is keen to ride. And all of those categories mean testing.

Training often involved lunch at a greasy-spoon cafe.
I mean, sweet baby Jesus on a surfboard, do they go crazy for motorcycle testing over here. If a British 16 year old wants to ride a motorcycle, he or she will be subjected to no less than seven tests before attaining the type of license I now have (b). Because I'm over the age of 24, I was able to "fast track" my way there with only five tests (c). This is known as the Direct Access route.

Either way, though, both routes require the CBT. Compulsory Basic Training is the first step in your motorcycle journey in Britain, and for many people it is the only step. After a one-day CBT course you are allowed to ride a 125-cc motorcycle, and in many crowded British cities that is all you'll ever need. You're not allowed to carry a passenger or ride on the motorway, but otherwise you are free to roam for a full two years before having to subject yourself to the ridiculous testing process.

This, I claim with hindsight, is how I would have done things. I would have gotten my CBT and with the inordinate amount of money I spent training and testing for my full license I would have instead bought a Chinese 125 and spent time getting good at riding. When I felt confident, I would have borrowed a 600-cc bike and taken the test without fuss.

Jenn, however, points out that this imagined scenario is woefully flawed. And she is right. Firstly, I don't have any motorcycling friends in this country; I don't know anyone from whom I could borrow a 600-cc bike for the sake of taking the practical tests. More importantly, the part where I maxed out my credit card by failing lots and taking loads of extra training days was not part of the plan. To say that I should have instead spent that money buying a throwaway motorcycle assumes a Doctor Whovian future awareness.

And I suppose that's one of the main things motorcycling teaches you: to live in the present. To focus on what is, not what could be or should be. Focus on what's there –– that car, that curve, that pothole –– and let go of the things that aren't there.

Another lesson I've gained from motorcycling, or, rather, from my particular motorcycle journey since starting this blog, is that things are attainable. It is actually possible to identify a goal and work toward it. Slowly, occasionally with setbacks, often with compromise, and even more often in ways you don't anticipate, you can get from the Point A of being a guy with no license, no money and no bike, to the Point B of planning a 1,000+-mile adventure to the Scottish Highlands.

Riding to Hay-on-Wye last summer
Both of these lessons I try to incorporate into other aspects of my life. For example, the not-dwelling-too-much-on-a-past-I-cannot-change thing has helped me to shake off some of the deep bitterness I feel toward the Welsh-language community. The persistent-forward-movement-toward-a-set-goal thing means Jenn and I have saved enough money to visit my home state of Texas this summer -- my first trip back to the United States in 3 years.

Three years. That much homesickness leads to madness -- actual thinking-crazy-thoughts madness. But there motorcycling helps again. My stalwart Honda CBF600 SA brings me a tiny sense of freedom on this island of rain, a feeling of being in control of my own self, and an ability to seek out the kinds of places and things that originally made me want to move here.

Over the past year I've become a slightly better rider. I've become, too, a slightly better person. There is plenty of room for improvement in both aspects, but I'm looking forward to seeing what's on the road ahead.

__________

(a) Not really, but we did have to watch some safety films in my motorcycle course in Minnesota. Sadly, none were as amusing as 1960s driver's ed films.

(b) Also, he or she would have to wait until their 24th birthday.

(c) Well, five tests in theory. Of course, in actual fact, I ended up taking seven tests because I failed the Mod 2 twice.