Thursday, 27 November 2014

What I Want: Victory Gunner

I can't believe I've thus far neglected to add the Victory Gunner to my What I Want list. I suppose I got a little wrapped up in being disappointed in Victory for appearing to rest on its laurels over the past year or so.

The 2015 model year line up that was announced this past summer was a real let down, full of rehashed versions of bikes that have been around for years. Before that was the let down of the Gunner itself. The first new model since the rebirth of Indian Motorcycles (both Victory and Indian are owned by Minnesota-based Polaris), it fell short of my hopes. Polaris had promised a new, performance-oriented Victory as a result of Indian, but the Gunner is not the all-singing, all-dancing wündermotorrad I had wished for.

Really, the Gunner is just a stripped down Victory Judge. Same engine, same rake angle, pretty much same everything but for paint and seats. And that is, as I say, disappointing when you're a Victory fan who was hoping for so much more.

(On a side note, I recently wrote an article for BikerNewsOnline explaining why I think something very big will be coming from Victory within the next 5 months.)

But, the thing is: just because the Victory Gunner isn't the newest, most-amazing, most-spectacular example of American engineering ever known in the motorcycling world doesn't mean it's not a cool bike. And it definitely doesn't preclude me from wanting one.

The fact is, the Gunner is right near the top of my list of bikes that I really would buy if I had anywhere near enough money to pay for one. Especially now that it will come with anti-lock brakes. If you've read my blog for long you'll know I'm a stickler for that feature on motorcycles and have complained vociferously about its absence on Victory's line of cruisers.

But back in October, Victory announced at the Intermot motorcycle show that the Gunner models coming to Europe in March 2015 will be equipped with ABS. This is, of course, a response to the fact that anti-lock brakes will soon be required on all motorcycles (above 125cc) sold in the European Union.

Though, I'll admit that I'd still be a little concerned about the Gunner's stopping power. As I say, the Gunner is effectively a Judge styled to capitalise on the current bobber craze. I got a chance to ride a Judge a few months ago and my primary complaint was that its brakes seemed inadequate in countering all that power and weight. Adding ABS isn't really going to resolve that issue (though, I guess you can at least now grab more aggressively without fear of locking up). Really, the Gunner should be equipped with a second disc up front.

But apart from that -- based on my experiences on the Judge, at least -- the Gunner is an amazing machine. It has an immensely powerful engine that launches you forward without every really seeming to strain at all.

The bike's subdued aesthetics of no chrome and blacked-out sections appeal to me infinitely more than the shining tassle-laden butt jewellery that many cruiser manufacturers seem to think their customers want.

Priced at £10,300 (US $16,200) in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Gunner costs exactly the same as the new Indian Scout (which will also be out in March over here and will also be equipped with ABS as standard). I like to daydream about being in a financial position where I could choose between the two. I go back and forth in my deliberations, but always eventually decide to spend my (imaginary) money on the Gunner.

I daydream of adding a passenger seat and hunting down the same sort of bullet fairing that the Ness family put on their custom-built Gunner. Though, I sure as hell wouldn't incorporate any of the other changes they made. I like the Gunner as a machine of understatement and utility. The matte green paint available on standard models is exactly the sort of look I prefer. It gives the Gunner a sense of being something you could scratch without feeling too much guilt -- a machine on which you could ride long distances in the ever-present British rain.

Whether it will ever be anything more than a daydream remains to be seen. Victory motorcycles are pretty sparse on UK roads and perhaps because of that they hold their value pretty well on the rare occasion that an owner decides to part with one. But, hey, hope springs eternal. If anyone wants to send me the cash for a new Gunner, please get in touch.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Gear review: Knox Fastback Gilet

"Gilet," for those of you playing along at home, is a fancy word for vest. But Knox, being a British company, probably doesn't call this bit of kit the Knox Fastback Vest because in British lingo a vest is often a tank-top.

"So, wait," I can hear American voices saying. "Does that mean that when Brits wear a three-piece suit, the piece under the jacket is a gilet?"

No. that is a waistcoat. Presumably, calling it the Knox Fastback Waistcoat seemed a little too prim, considering the purpose and target audience of this article of clothing. The suggestion of wearing a waistcoat on a motorcycle brings up images of the Distinguished Gentlemen's Ride.

"OK. What about a sweater vest?" my countrymen may ask. "What do they call that? A 'sweater gilet?' A 'sweater waistcoat?'"

Nope. That is a "sleeveless jumper." Obviously, calling this thing a Knox Sleeveless Jumper That Is Not Actually A Jumper is too wordy and not just a little bit confusing.

"A jumper?" American voices may persist. "That's what they call a sweater? But isn't a jumper a..."

Look, let's just forget about it, OK? The truth is, the British are not very good at English. This is additionally evidenced by the fact that the product's name doesn't really describe what it is. I mean, yes, it is a gilet. But usually gilets are worn skiing, and the Fastback's mesh construction would be a real disappointment if your primary aim was warmth.

The main function of the Fastback is as a back protector. And in that role I think the Knox Fastback Gilet does quite well.

"Think" is the operative word there, I'll admit. I have thankfully suffered no major incidents riding my motorcycle, so I can't speak from personal experience as to the effectiveness of this back protector in a crash. I hope I'll never have occasion to do so.

To be honest, I do somewhat wonder exactly how useful a back protector would be in a crash, because what are the odds you are going to land flat on your back? I am willing to bet that many spinal injuries come from contortion -- the body twisting in not-very-pleasant ways -- and there is little that a back protector can do to prevent that. But, hey, just because an air bag won't protect your feet doesn't mean you drive without one.

And philosophically I suppose that is an accurate comparison. Like an air bag, a back protector is not the be all and end all of safety, and like an air bag you'd really prefer to never have to find out how useful it is or isn't. Its primary value is psychological.

To that end, the Fastback is a good product. I feel safer when I ride with it (typically any time I'm going to be going on the motorway). The unexpected benefit of the vest, though, is that it also makes me feel more comfortable.

The main feature of the vest, of course, is the large, thick back protector that covers from the shoulders down to the lower lumbar region of the spine. Almost an inch thick, the pad is quite firm -- enough that you could fall to your back from a standing position onto a hard surface and not be injured.

The vest has a zipper down the front and two large Velcro straps at the belly to keep it snug. Mine is quite snug. The first few times I wore it I found myself thinking of the old legend that William Shatner wears a girdle.

"This is what it feels like to be Captain Kirk," I thought.

But it is not really uncomfortable or restricting, and you soon get used to it. Soon, it starts to feel right. I now find I really like the feeling of being "hugged" throughout my ride. Most importantly, though, the back pad results in my having better posture when riding. This has delivered an ability to ride much farther without ache. I wear out less quickly -- especially at body-jostling motorway speeds -- and can cover far greater distances.

The Fastback is equally handy at rest stops if I want to close my eyes for a few minutes, the pad helping to turn a picnic bench or just about any other surface into one comfortable enough to stretch out on.

Overall, I can't now really picture myself riding without this sort of gear, but I'll admit there are a few potential drawbacks.

The first is that the vest is, as I say, quite snug. This means I have to wear it as close to my body as possible or it will feel restrictive. I wear an Under Armour base layer, the vest, then whatever else I'm wearing according to the weather. And that means I don't really take it off or loosen the Fastback at stops. It would be too much fuss to take off, say, a sweater and T-shirt to get at the thing.

This means that if I stop for lunch, etc., I still have that snug feeling of being hugged as I eat. To me, there is a knock-on positive in that I don't eat too much, which means I am less likely to get sleepy once I'm back on the road.

I bought the Fastback early this year. In summer temperatures, I wore just a base layer and vest underneath my jacket, and that leads to the second potential drawback: the Fastback adds a layer.

Temperatures here in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland never reached a point this summer where that was a problem, especially considering that the vest is comprised mostly of (sturdy) mesh. But in other parts of the world, where they have actual summers, wearing another layer -- especially one that is so snug -- might be off-putting.

Neither of these are real problems for me and overall I've been pleased. The Fastback is well-made and durable, so I expect to be wearing one for quite some time. Though, as I say: I hope I'll never actually use it.

Friday, 21 November 2014

GWTTA: Caerleon (Caerllion)

This is the second stop on the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure. Remember that this whole thing is a work in progress, so if you happen to know anything about the towns, villages and cities I'm planning to visit, don't wait until after the fact to tell me what I should have done -- give me your suggestions on what to see, what to do, where to eat, when to visit, etc. Thanks!

Caerleon –– according to the tourism officials at Caerleon –– was once one of the most important places in Britain. It was home to a large Roman fortress and thereafter the setting for a number of Arthurian legends.

Yeah. Bet you didn't know King Arthur was Welsh, did you? He was. He gets mentioned a lot in the Mabinogi, a collection of folk tales that has somewhat biblical status in Wales. And even before then he was being linked with Caerleon. Some versions of his tale say he came from there and others claim simply that he held court there.

Somehow, however, Caerleon's prestigious beginnings didn't translate well beyond the Middle Ages. These days it is little more than a quaint suburb of Newport where visitors may find themselves somewhat challenged to find anything worth taking a picture of.

That said, it is somewhat exemplary of Wales. There is was a castle. There are Roman ruins. And the people of the town don't really seem to give a damn about either. That is such a Welsh thing. You have history falling out of your ears and you just don't give a fuck. These days all that's left of the castle is a crumbling bit of tower next to a pub, and the Roman ruins are crowded by rugby pitches and a school.

There is also evidence that Caerleon may be the home of the Mari Llwyd tradition, which is the most Welsh thing ever. It involves singing a bunch of boring songs and waving about a horse's skull for reasons no one understands until you either get bored or people bribe you to go away.

Huge chunks of Welsh folk tradition, song, dance, food and storytelling were obliterated forever by the unrelenting no-funness of puritanism and thereafter Methodism in Wales (a). The Mari Llwyd is one of the very, very few things to have survived long enough for us to even know it existed. But, of course, no one in Caeleon cares.

Remains of Roman amphitheatre

I used to teach Welsh at the school that overlooks the Roman ruins. That is, I taught night classes there. Getting students to show up was a challenge. Eventually, my class was reduced to just two regular attendees. Often no one would show up for classes at all. In a trick I learned from reading Mihangel Morgan novels (b), I took to marking absent students as present so the council wouldn't cancel my class and put me out of a job.

I didn't have a car or motorbike in those days, and getting to Caerleon was always an unreasonably arduous process due to the infrequency of buses. So, I'll admit that Caerleon instils in me a kind of sadness, a "Is this all there is?"-ness. This place was the end of the dream for me. I had come to Wales, worked incredibly hard to learn the language and culture, and all it had earned me was a small-time teaching gig in a town where the Welshness had withered away before I was even born. Sometimes, when I'd find myself again with a studentless classroom and an hour's wait for the next bus, I would walk out to the remains of the Roman barracks, sit on the walls and cry because I hated my life so much.

This speaks to something I mentioned when I first came up with the idea for this tea-towel-driven adventure: I carry a great big heaping lot of bitterness and animosity toward Wales. Several of the worst years of my life have been spent in this country. I want to overcome that, but there will be times during this adventure when it will all come flooding back and I'll just want to scream and set things on fire. That's kind of how I felt upon visiting Caerleon again.

Which is a really unfair amount of weight to put on the shoulders of an otherwise quaint British suburban town. In and of itself, there is nothing too terribly offensive about Caerleon. Nor too terribly exciting. 

From a motorcycling standpoint, you can cover the town in under three minutes. That's assuming you want to see it twice. There is a single one-way road that runs in a circle around/through the town taking you on a speedy tour past Roman remains and a handful of interesting looking pubs.

If you ignore the soul-destroyingly uninteresting 1970s semi-detached homes on Caerleon's outskirts, it is a town set within an attractive valley of the River Usk. Thanks in part to the fact Caerleon's train station closed in the 1960s and buses are so rare, it seems most of the undesirable elements of Newport don't make it this far upriver. 

If you've got good weather and sturdy legs, you can use Caerleon as the starting point for the 25-mile Usk Valley Walk, which will eventually land you in the very charming and very much worth visiting (even though it's not on my tea towel map) town of Abergavenny. Jenn and I have walked various sections of the route and I've always come away from the experience feeling inspired.

So my point is, Caerleon is a very nice spot indeed. As long as you're not me. 

Before heading here, I had thought I might stop and have lunch at one of the pubs that overlook the River Usk, the day being just barely warm enough for me to sit outside. But when I got to Caerleon I managed only to take a picture of the old Roman amphitheatre before a deep feeling of needing to be elsewhere kicked up inside me. I rode two or three loops around the town before deciding there was nothing worth taking a picture of, then sped away.

Caerleon town centre


(a) One of the things that makes Wales harder to love than its Celtic cousins of Ireland and Scotland is that it lacks the sort of songs, dances, foods and traditions those places have. Protestantism spent a very long time stifling creativity in Wales, to the point that well into the late 1800s it was considered sinful to read or write a work of fiction, because fiction is inherently a lie, and to lie is a sin.

(b) In one of Morgan's novels -- either Dirgel Ddyn or Y Ddynes Ddirgel, I can't remember which -- the main character is a Welsh teacher who creates a false student for the sake of having the bare number of students to hold a class.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Monsoon season

Nikwax, Fabsil, duct tape, repeat. Nikwax, Fabsil, duct tape, repeat. Nikwax, Fabsil, duct tape, repeat. Nikwax, Fabsil, duct tape, repeat. Nikwax, Fabsil, duct tape, repeat...

It feels as if it has been raining nonstop for the past two months.

The relative dry of September had lulled me into a false sense of security and I had not put much effort into getting all my gear ready for the Long Dark: that unrelenting cold, wet greyness which envelops this island from October to May. So, I find myself now trying to play catch up.

There was that soaking ride to Bristol. My gear barely had a chance to dry out completely before I put it through hell again a week or so later on the way down to Exeter.

To my credit, I had spent the days beforehand washing my riding trousers and gloves in Nixwax Tech Wash and thereafter coating them in Fabsil. I had waxed my boots, as well. But that sort of stuff is just the starting point. There is a mental aspect to staying dry that I had somehow forgotten since riding through storms in Scotland earlier this year. You have to remember the routines: this goes with that, these overlap those, etc.

Exeter, for those of you playing along at home, is the largest city in Devon -- the English county in which my wife was raised. As the crow flies it's not too terribly far from Cardiff, but I'm not a crow. Getting to the other side of the Bristol Channel means a journey of roughly 110 miles. Which is still not all that far, especially considering that a solid 90 percent of the trip is on motorway. It is close enough that I can head there after work and be at Jenn's grandmother's house in time for a late dinner.

That was the plan, at least. We hadn't seen any of her family members since August, so had arranged to head down and spend the weekend at Grandma's. I was to meet Jenn there, she having taken the train because she works in Bristol -- halfway between Cardiff and Exeter. This turned out to be for the best. Had Jenn been forced to suffer through that storm I doubt I ever would have gotten her on a bike again.

Setting out from Cardiff, it was only wind I had to contend with. Strong winds and the mile-long Severn Bridge are never a happy combination, but I had suddenly remembered the Dutch flappering knee technique, which works surprisingly well. It helped, too, that I was bringing down all the weekend's clothes for Jenn and myself, giving me a bit more weight.

Almost as soon as I got off the bridge and onto the M49, rain started to fall. By the time I reached the M5 junction, just a few miles later, rain was falling so hard it was causing traffic chaos. I have never understood what it is about rain that causes drivers' IQs to plummet. I mean, it made sense when I lived in Southern California; people there aren't used to the stuff. But here? It rains all the time. And still, each time it does society goes into collapse. People drive as if there are no rules, as if there are no white lines separating the lanes.

Though, in fairness, the white lines were damned hard to see. Rain was falling so heavily it bounced up from the road. It pooled in other places, creating fearful riding through the long sections of the M5 for which there is no street lighting. Meanwhile, 50-mph gusts lifted the water off the road and turned it into blinding spray.

Those are the moments when you find your zen. All you can do is trundle on through the night. Keep one eye on the mirrors at all times to try to anticipate any weirdness. Hope all the high-vis you're wearing will do its job. Accept the wet. Accept the wind.

Near Taunton, the rain eased just in time for me to be stopped in traffic. An accident resulted in the police closing all three lanes of the motorway. I filtered up to the front of the queue, then cut my engine. I got off my bike to stretch my legs and a police officer came over to tell me off.

"Mate, don't be walking about on the motorway," he said.

"Like the way you're walking about on the motorway?" I joked.

I sat there for about 10 minutes and it became utterly surreal. The world was quiet. There were no lights on the road, no sign of life beyond it. Just the blinking of police lights about 100 yards ahead of me and the white-blue glow of hundreds of car headlights backing up behind me.

It was hard to figure out what had happened at the accident scene. There was a car in the far right lane (the fast lane in the UK). Its occupants appeared to be over on the side of the road. There was no ambulance. Several officers seemed to be showing particular interest in the rear of the vehicle, shining it with flashlights and opening and closing the trunk. Eventually they hooked it to one of the police cars and pulled it to the side of the road.

The cop who had been holding up traffic got in his car and signalled it was OK for us to head off again. The end.

I don't have any commentary on the whole thing apart from the surreality of it. The quietness of sitting there in the quiet dark of nowhere, eerily lit, while something so important takes place that it stops traffic. But then, right as I'm thinking of digging in my bag to find my phone to text Jenn that I'll be late, it all clears up. Engines rev. Within seconds we're all again screaming through the night at 80 mph. And within seconds after that the wind and rain have returned with vengeance. The next day there is news of a body being found on the same stretch of road but at a different place and a different time to where and when I was stopped.

It's as if the whole incident existed to remind me of the basic philosophy of riding in the rain: Stuff happens; don't dwell on it. Acknowledge it and move on.

As I got closer to Exeter I found myself having to acknowledge that I had forgotten to zip in the waterproof liner of my riding trousers. The Nikwax and Fabsil had performed admirably, but it wasn't enough. Water seeped into my crotch and ran down my legs. It found its way into my boots and collected in squishy pools I could feel when moving my toes. By the time I reached Jenn's grandmother's house my teeth were chattering with cold.

I lucked out two days later, on the ride home. The weather was dry and unseasonably warm -- fortunate because my winter gloves, the ones I had worn on the way down, were still soaked through. My boots, too, were still wet. My helmet was musty. My pannier bags were still damp. And this, more or less, has been the story of riding life ever since. I am forever on the back foot in my battle against the relentless British wet.

My biggest problem at the moment is keeping my bike protected. I keep it under two allegedly waterproof covers, but they're just not good enough. Moisture is coming through and I noticed yesterday that the paint on the tank is starting to bubble as a result. My bike is being ruined and I don't know how to stop it.

Is this another case of having to find zen? Having to accept this is just the way of things, that entropy is irresistible?

Man, I hate this country at times.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

GWTTA: Newport, South Wales (Casnewydd)

It seems appropriate for Newport to be the first place visited on the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure. It is here, after all, that I finally passed my Mod 2 exam, thereby earning my motorcycle license.

It is appropriate, too, because Newport exemplifies how utterly random is my tea towel map. I can think of very few scenarios in which I would suggest Newport as a place to visit. I doubt many Welsh people –– including and especially those from Newport –– would tell you to visit, either. Newport is not a place to go to of your own free will; it is a place to ridicule.

Literally translated, the town's Welsh name, Casnewydd, means "new hate," but, of course, this name is almost certainly a mishearing of whatever people were calling it centuries ago. That happens a lot in South Wales. Cardiff's Welsh name, for example, is Caerdydd, which literally translates to "Day Fortress" (a). The name of the town I live in, Penarth, translates to "Bear's Head" (b).

According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Newport's original Welsh name was Castell Newydd ar Wysg, meaning "New Castle on the River Usk." The castle being referred to there hasn't been new since about 1087. Get used to this sort of thing as the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure rolls on: stuff is really old here. Sadly, this particular really old stuff is no longer visible, its crumbled remains having been buried under rubble created by railway work in the 1840s.

That's not to say Newport is sans castle. After all, Wales is home to more castles and fortresses than any other country in the world –– for a city to be without one would be gauche, darling. A new, new castle was built around 1327. Within two centuries, it had fallen into disrepair but it was used by various invading forces off and on right through the inaccurately named English Civil War (c).

These days the castle is little more than a miserable pile of rocks, occupied primarily by dodgy-looking teenagers. "Dodgy-looking" is a descriptor that can be used for almost everything in Newport: buildings, people, cars, rail-road tracks, even the River Usk as it churns wide and muddy through the middle of the city.
In case you're wondering, Newport smells as bad as it looks.
Still, for some reason I can't quite fathom, I have a little soft spot in my heart for Newport. That is to say, I don't outright hate it. I guess the fact I passed my motorcycle test there plays a part in this. Along with the correlating days I spent riding all around the city in training for the test.

Located less than 15 miles from Penarth, it is a place to which I will often ride when I want to refresh certain skills. The almost-always-empty car park for Newport Stadium is a good place to work on slow-speed manoeuvres. The width of the roads through city centre make them ideal for practicing the art of filtering. And overall, the city's roads are pretty quiet, except for certain roundabouts connecting the major arteries of the Sirhowy, Ebbw, Ebbw Fach, Llwyd and Usk valleys.

All of these road junctions are in the north of the city, where the M4 runs past, exporting goods and talent to Cardiff and the more profitable towns and cities of Southwest England. And therein lies the only thing that Newport has ever had going for it: it's conveniently located near better stuff.

During the Roman occupation it was conveniently located near the legionary fortress of Caerleon. During the Industrial Revolution it was conveniently located between Wales' ore-rich valleys and the sea. These days it's conveniently located between the major cultural centres of Cardiff and Bristol. However, its interminable ugliness and notoriously drunken and drugged-up residents mean it hasn't really been able to shape itself into a commuter town.

Newport's most famous residents, comedy rap group Goldie Lookin' Chain (who achieved their greatest fame with the songs "Your Mother's Got A Penis" and "Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do"), are a mocking but equally accurate portrayal of the sort of person you're likely to encounter in the city: dirty, bedecked in discount leisurewear, under the influence of at least one kind of substance, but ultimately convivial and open to conversation. Newport, in other words, is one of those places that apologists like to describe as "having a lot of character."

And, indeed it does. Or, rather, it should. If you look at Newport, it seems to have all the elements necessary to be a cool, quirky, artist haven like London's Camden neighbourhood, or Brooklyn's Williamsburg. But it isn't. The artists aren't here; they won't come. It's just an ugly place full of scary people that, because of its general desolation, happens to be a good spot to practice riding one's motorcycle.

I rode into the city taking the old Newport Road out of Cardiff, a route that was long ago superseded by the adjacent A48, and thereafter the M4. As such, Newport Road is relatively quiet. It is one of the few places in Britain where you can cheerfully putt along at the speed limit without having other road users aggressively trying to force you to go faster. At St Mellons, it joins up with the A48 for a few miles but this section, too, is almost always quiet.

Reaching the city boundaries I began looking for something to take a picture of. Anything. This was something of a challenge because the look of Newport is generally one of two things: 1) crumbling post-industrial decay; or 2) a flat space where crumbling post-industrial decay has been levelled and replaced by a McDonalds or KFC.

Eventually I settled on the Transporter Bridge.

Built in 1906 as a unique answer to the problem of getting people across a river that is also used for shipping, the Transporter Bridge features a sort of platform gondola that hangs from wires. Within a few years it was being used as a setting in the film Tiger Bay, which highlighted how utterly shit life in South Wales was in the 1950s. A few decades later, the bridge ceased operation because it had fallen into disrepair and there was no need for it; industry was dead.

These days it is just a tourist destination that struggles to stay open because there are no tourists. When I stopped to take pictures, a woman at the bridge's shed-sized visitor centre asked me if I was lost.

She explained to me the bridge was closed for the winter. Should I be keen to return in summer there are specific open days during which I can ride the bridge's gondola back and forth to my heart's content and climb to the top of the structure all for the low price of £2.75. It's an unmitigated bargain, to be sure, but the problem is that it requires you spend time in Newport.

After finishing the cup of tea the woman had kindly offered, I decided I had spent enough time here and packed up to move on. If the goal of this whole adventure is to improve my opinion of Wales, it was probably best to get Newport out of the way as soon as possible.


(a) Most people agree that Caerdydd is a bastardisation of "Caer Daf," which would mean "Taff Fortress." That name makes sense, considering Cardiff began life nigh 2,000 years ago as a Roman fortress on the banks of the River Taff.

(b) Although Penarth Town Council have embraced the bear's head theme, even going so far as to incorporate several images of bears into the town crest, Penarth's name is probably a mishearing of "Pen y Garth," which means "top of the hill." And surprise, surprise, Penarth is located at the top of a hill.

(c) Which took place in the 1640s. If you're unfamiliar with the English Civil War, here it is explained in two and half minutes through the medium of song.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure

My first year in Wales was awful. Ranked among my thus far 38.5 years on this planet, I would say it was the second worst of my life -- edged out of the top spot by my fourth year in Wales. I am willing to bet that the third worst year of my life also took place in Wales, which sort of begs the question as to why the hell I am still living here. But I'll get to that in a moment.

Despite it being so generally awful, there were in that first year some highlights. One of which being the day Mormons showed up at the door with a TV.

My ex-wife was (and presumably still is) a member of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, and had found a welcome in the nearby Rhiwbina ward soon after our arrival in Cardiff. I am thankful she did. I doubt very much that we would have survived that first year on our own.

For those of you playing along at home, if you are considering a move to the Old World, be prepared to suffer at least 8 months of unemployment. Jobs are a hell of a lot harder to find in Europe than in the United States. Hitherto our moving to the United Kingdom, the longest my ex-wife or I had ever gone without work was just two weeks. Having arrived Cardiff in early July, we were by late October in dire straits.

Most of the money we had saved up before moving was now gone. Primarily we were living off my student loans and her minimum wage earnings from a part-time gig at Starbucks. We ate a lot of rice; I can't now remember a meal that didn't pad the stomach with rice. We didn't have a car. Getting groceries meant walking 2 miles to the Tesco and stuffing everything into backpacking rucksacks.

We couldn't afford to go out; we couldn't even afford a television. Meanwhile, I had learned that I was in way over my head in university, so my life became one of attending lectures and thereafter coming home to lock myself away in the study. At night I would surface just long enough to wolf down a rice-heavy meal, then disappear again until well after midnight -- collapsing into bed with eyes hurting from staring at Welsh dictionaries. My ex-wife would spend the evenings reading in silence.

Her respite was attending church. Or "chapel," as they call it here in Wales. Going to "church" usually implies attending Church of England services. Not that many people here do either these days. And to that end, LDS meetinghouses are few and far between. Cardiff, being the largest city in Wales, has two but neither were particularly close to us. So, members of my ex-wife's ward would give her a lift.

Stoic almost to a fault, I doubt very much that she ever complained of her condition -- thousands of miles away from family, poor, highly qualified but reduced to serving coffee (a substance barred by her religion), effectively ignored by her academically swamped husband, left to spend her free time alone and reading in silence -- but no doubt the members of her ward were able to pick up on her unhappiness. So, one night, amid the rainy creeping darkness of October, a group of them showed up unannounced and armed with gifts.

There was the TV, of course -- a 27-inch-screen beast that one of the congregation had had lying around spare. He insisted upon giving it to us because, he joked, he didn't want us to miss seeing Wales playing in the international rugby matches that take place each November. More touching, though, was the huge care package the group had brought with them. It was full of foodstuffs like canned goods, pasta, rice (more rice!), and a few jars of Caro, which is what British Mormons drink instead of tea (which is also against the LDS Word of Wisdom). But also there were a number of Welsh items: local jam, honey and chocolates, a little stuffed dragon, and a tea towel featuring a map of Wales.

A few years later came that aforementioned fourth year in this country. That was the year that put the "ex" in ex-wife. Our lives had gotten better, but they hadn't gotten good. And all the years of struggle had worn us down and made us miserable. In particular, both of us had developed a very deep, angry bitterness toward Wales. My ex-wife wisely responded to this by leaving the country. I still don't really understand why I stayed.

Ultimately, we are both much better off these days, and staying here was the right decision for me. But if you've read this blog for very long you will almost certainly have picked up that much of my old bitterness remains. I don't want to make myself angry by trying to express just how deep that well goes, but suffice to say it is a motherhugger. And it is so intense as to be a hindrance. 

I mean, uhm, I'm a pretty lonely dude; I don't have a lot of Welsh friends. You could count them all on one hand and still have enough fingers to hold a cup of tea and a Kit-Kat. There's a reason for that: my attitude doesn't make me easy to befriend. If I knew someone who was anywhere near as critical of the United States as I am of Wales I sure as hell wouldn't be his pal. I understand this logically, as well as the fact that it is utterly ridiculous to be so emotionally hurt by a place, but I struggle to overcome it.

Quite some time ago I learned through the grapevine that my ex-wife had actually returned to the UK after our divorce, for a visit. Apparently she had come expressly to "make peace with Wales," keen to bury and move on from her own negative emotions toward this little wet nation. It's a good idea, and something I have tried to do myself, though without much success.

I think that is partially because of how I've gone about it. I haven't left. You can't really "move on" if you don't move. Instead, it occurs to me that if you're going to stay in a place, it's probably better to try to rekindle the affection that brought you there in the first place.

Meanwhile, I have noticed that my overall level of rage toward all things Welsh has decreased considerably ever since I got a motorcycle. (You were wondering when a motorcycle was going to fit into this, weren't you?) And I have thought that perhaps one way of getting over my bitterness toward Wales is to get to know it better, to invest some time trying to remind myself why I wanted to live here, why I was desperate to call this place my home.

And here's where we get to the point of all this. I still have that tea towel given to me by Mormons back in 2006. As I say, it's primary image is a map of Wales. Though there are also a few drawings of notable buildings, such as Harlech Castle and the Swansea Guildhall...

"Wait. The Swansea Guildhall? What the hell is so special about that? It's just an office building used by the council. Who would list that as a tourist attraction?" 

That was the thought that came to me recently as I found myself actually looking at the tea towel for the first time in a number of years (rather than simply using it to dry dishes, or watching Jenn accidentally set it on fire whilst cooking, as she does with most of our tea towels). And upon further examination I saw that little of this representation of Wales made sense. The map lists some 66 cities, towns and villages in Wales, along with one national park –– those being:
  • Aberaeron 
  • Aberdaron 
  • Aberdovey 
  • Aberporth 
  • Abersoch 
  • Aberystwyth 
  • Amlwch 
  • Ammanford 
  • Bala 
  • Bangor 
  • Barmouth 
  • Barry 
  • Beaumaris 
  • Borth 
  • Brecon 
  • Bridgend 
  • Builth Wells 
  • Caerleon 
  • Caernarfon 
  • Cardiff 
  • Cardigan 
  • Carmarthen 
  • Conwy 
  • Corwen 
  • Criccieth 
  • Dolgellau 
  • Fishguard 
  • Flint 
  • Harlech 
  • Haverfordwest 
  • Holyhead 
  • Kidwelly 
  • Knighton 
  • Lampeter 
  • Llanberis 
  • Llandudno 
  • Llanelli 
  • Llangollen 
  • Llanrhystyd 
  • Machynlleth 
  • Merthyr Tydfil 
  • Milfordhaven 
  • Monmouth 
  • Montgomery 
  • Neath 
  • Nefyn 
  • New Quay 
  • Newcastle Emlyn 
  • Newport (South Wales)
  • Newport (Pembrokeshire) 
  • Newtown 
  • Pembroke 
  • Pontypridd 
  • Port Talbot 
  • Porthcawl 
  • Porthmadog 
  • Pwllheli 
  • Rhyl 
  • Ruthin 
  • Saint David's 
  • Saudersfoot
  • Snowdonia 
  • Swansea 
  • Tenby 
  • Tywyn 
  • Welshpool
Effectively this is just a random collection of places. There is no rhyme or reason here. This is certainly not a map of places that you should or necessarily would want to visit. I mean, Borth –– a city that Morrissey described as a "seaside town that they forgot to bomb" –– makes the list, but Hay-on-Wye, home to one of the world's best known literature festivals, does not. The thoroughly unspectacular town of Barry is listed, but tourist honey pot Abergavenny isn't. The map mentions Port Talbot for Pete's sake. The thinking behind the selection process here is impossible for me to grasp.

But, see, in its randomness, its that-doesn't-make-a-damned-bit-of-sense-ness, this tea towel map is so very, very Welsh. That is such a Welsh thing to do. Welsh people are often clueless about what might make Wales appealing; its part of their charm.

So, from this ridiculous tea-towel-based map I came up with a ridiculous idea: to visit every single one of these places. Because why not? Any excuse to ride a motorcycle is a good one, and maybe this excuse can help change the way I think of Wales. Maybe riding to pointless corners like Ammanford and Knighton, and, more importantly all the spaces in between, can cure me of my Welsh hate.

It shouldn't be too hard. Wales is a tiny place; in the case of all the locations on the map, I can ride there and back within a day. The only trick is hitting these places in good weather. After all, if your stated goal is one of improving your impression of Wales, definitely don't go visiting places in the rain.

So, that's the plan. I'm aiming to visit all 67 spots within the next year or so. Maybe longer. We'll see what happens. I'll be keeping an eye on the weather and seizing whatever riding opportunities I can. Expect my first report soon.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The new all-rounders

I'm not really sure what we call these bikes: adventure-sport? Adventure-tour? The bikes that look a bit like offroad-capable machines but that are never intended to be taken off road. The motorcycle equivalent of the Volkswagen Tiguan, I suppose. Though, I feel that's slightly insulting to this particular class of bike. 

But like a pseudo-SUV (a "pSeUdo-V," perhaps?) it is a class of vehicle that borrows offroad styling and features to deliver a positive on-road experience. But in the case of an adventure-touring motorcycle (let's just agree to use that term here), the vehicle is one that is applicable to almost all (paved) scenarios. 

It is an all-rounder. It may not be the perfect bike for any one situation, but it will perform admirably in all. Faster, lighter and better in corners than a cruiser; more comfortable and functional than a sport bike; better suited to long motorway hauls than a true offroad machine. And although very much geared to paved-road use, an adventure-tourer can be expected to hold up on a well-maintained dirt/gravel road. And if, like me, you are on the tallish side (I'm 6 foot 1), adventure-tourers come with the added benefit of ergonomics that don't require yoga.

The real weak point of an adventure-tourer, as with an actual offroad-worthy adventure bike, is that it is ugly. But the incredible usefulness of my own not-terribly-sexy Honda (which is an all-rounder in a sport-tourer guise) has softened my previously aggressive stance on aesthetics in recent months, to the extent that when I play the Next Bike I Will Own game, this type of bike starts to creep in.

This is an example of my practical side, acknowledging that I don't have the money or garage space to own more than one bike. So, whatever bike I do choose next will need to be capable of being put to many different uses. And in the spirit of practicality I've created the following chart to help me examine the qualities of the adventure-tourers I find myself considering most often:

Honda VFR 800X Crossrunner
Kawasaki Versys 1000
KTM Adventure 1050
Suzuki V-Strom 1000 Adventure
Triumph Tiger 800 XR
Yamaha MT-09 Tracer
(?) At least £11,000
(?) At least £10,000
(?) Roughly £8,000
Engine cc
Traction control?
Multiple ride modes?
228 kg
242 kg
250 kg
212 kg
228 kg
213 kg
210 kg
Unique standard features?
12V plug
- Heated grips
- Top box
- Centre stand
- TomTom GPS
- Self-cancelling indicators
- Akrapovic exhaust
- Centre stand
- Assist and slipper clutch
- Adjustable windscreen
- Hand guards
- Slipper clutch
- Adjustable windshield, handlebars, footrests and levers
- Hand guards
- Lower cowling
- Engine guard
- Panniers
- Pointless graphics
-Adjustable seat and levers
- 12V plug
- Sump guard

- Hand guards
- Centre stand
- 12V plug
- LED headlights
- Adjustable headlights, windscreen, seat, and handlebars

You'll note that all are in the largish end of the middleweight category. More and more I find I am attracted to bikes that are "only" a litre or smaller in engine size, and I can't really see why I would need something larger apart from the fact that bigger-engined bikes tend to be more accommodating of tall guys. By and large, though, because of how I ride, a bigger engine is wasted on me. It has horsepower I will never use. Truthfully, for a solid 85 percent of my riding I would be perfectly content astride a Honda NC750X. and I could probably live with its shortcomings the other 15 percent of the time.

But, see, I like being able to dramatically accelerate at high speed. And when I think about the bikes I want, my eye tends to wander toward those with a little more oomph. So, here's a closer look at the bikes in this category that are tickling my fancy at the moment:

This bike was unveiled recently at EICMA, the big trade show in Italy that is like Christmas for those of us who get excited about the new things happening in the motorcycling world. Using the same inline-4 engine of the BMW S1000R, the S1000XR reportedly churns out 160 hp, which, if I'm honest, steps into the "too much oomph" territory for me. Not that I'd complain if someone were to give the bike to me, you understand.

But when I consider how much I think BMW will expect people to pay for such oomph I am reminded of that scene in White Christmas when Danny Kaye asks: "How much is 'wow'?" No pricing has been announced yet, but I'd not be surprised to see a price tag nearing £13,000 on this machine. If it ends up being less that it is only because BMW has figured out how to create its own Harley tax by making almost everything an extra.

An example of how they do this can be found in the F800GT. It's a great bike that in the UK has an asking price of £8,290. But if you want all the features that make it great you'll end up forking out an additional £3,000 in extras. This sort of thing annoys the hell out of me to the extent that even if I could afford a BMW I probably wouldn't get one just out of principle. Probably...

Honda VFR800X Crossrunner
This is a bike I've actually had my eye on for a while. It's been revamped for the 2015 model year and no longer looks as much like a dolphin. It's also been given a few technological upgrades. In the UK it will come with bells and whistles a plenty, but that will jack it up to costing roughly £1,000 more than the old Crossrunner. Which was a bike I already felt was overpriced.

Using the acclaimed (and occasionally maligned) VTEC inline-4 set-up of the VFR800F, the Crossrunner's primary claim to fame is an engine that makes moto-journalists swoon.

I certainly prefer its new look but had been warming to the old aesthetic if not simply because its bulbous front end brought on warm childhood memories of playing with an inflatable Shamu in my family's swimming pool. I've seen a few on the used market that appear to be in really good condition and are far more reasonably priced. If I had a spare £6,000 I'd seriously consider getting one. Although, crikey, is it heavy.

Kawasaki Versys 1000
Speaking of heavy, the Kawasaki Versys 1000 tips the scales at 250 kg! I realise that's nothing compared to the 360-kg Victory Cross Country that I often pine for, but we're talking about a bike with a higher centre of gravity here. Still, the Versys appeals to me on some level.

Like the Honda Crossrunner it's been given a facelift for the 2015 model year, which is too bad because I sort of preferred the old look. Sort of. In a very weird way. I obviously was in the minority.

For me, the appeal of the bike is that its designers put a lot of thought into the passenger experience, which is something that is often ignored on anything that isn't a behemoth American tourer. I also like that, with 120 hp, it hovers right on the edge of having too much oomph but not so much that I'd feel guilty. Its mpg, however, is apparently abysmal.

Price, though, would probably be the biggest issue for me. Prices on this new Versys have not been announced but the existing version will set you back £9,600. Which, in my opinion, is already a bit steep. No doubt the price will only go up to allow Kawasaki to capitalize on the "newness" of this version.

KTM Adventure 1050
Speaking of things that cost a lot. I tend to automatically discount KTMs. They are very much in the "How much is 'wow'?" pricing category. And in that weird thing we all do of assuming a person's personality based on his/her motorcycle choice I've always felt that KTM owners were pretentious. I hasten to add, however, that I have no legitimate reason for feeling that way. I don't know anyone who owns a KTM.

The Adventure 1050 is another bike to have been introduced at EICMA, so there's still a number of unknowns. Because I don't know the bike's price I find myself interested in it –– despite its deep, deep ugliness –– because KTMs have such a good reputation among moto-journalists. The V-twin engine no doubt delivers a whole lot of fun.

However, my lasting impression of the bike will depend wholly on how much KTM asks for it. A publicity photo I saw for the bike features young, sexy people hanging out on a beach. Maybe maybe maybe this bike (like the Ducati Scrambler, which used similar publicity shots) will be one young people could actually afford. But I doubt it.

UPDATE: Amid my writing this post, KTM put more information on its website. The UK price is £10,999. In other words; way, way too much.

Suzuki V-Strom 1000 Adventure
Wait. Do I actually want this bike? Not for the price, no. Here in the UK it would appear that Suzuki is discovering many people feel the same way. A few months ago, Suzuki was offering a £1,000 rebate on this bike. Now that promotion has ended you'd have to be kind of stupid to pay the full price.

To tempt people into doing so, Suzuki has slapped on some luggage and dumb graphics. If the price tag were considerably less this bike might be competitive. I think, though, that if I had my heart set on one I'd just wait until they start showing up on the used market. Oh, wait. They're already there. I just did a search and found a 2014 V-Strom 1000 Adventure with only 130 miles for £7,990. That's more like it.

Triumph Tiger 800 XR
Triumph's strategy for the 2015 model year seems to be one of not doing very much beyond offering long-existing models in a multitude of new skins. Its Bonneville range is in desperate need of an upgrade, for example, but for the 2015 model year (the last year it can do so before EU regulations force it to at least add anti-lock brakes) it is offering the exact same machine they've been selling since 2009 with minor aesthetic changes.

Triumph has most muddied its waters, however, with the Tiger 800 range –– offering the bike in four different guises: the XR, the XRx, the XC, and the XCx. The differences are mostly cosmetic. The XR is the cheapest.

However, in fairness, Triumph claims to have tweaked its 799cc triple to the point that it now delivers roughly 65 mpg. And indeed, its economical nature is really the selling point for me, considering that, in my opinion, its definitely the ugliest bike of the bunch. Coming in at £8,500, the better-equipped Tiger 800 XR costs what the Suzuki should. Also, cruise control is available as an option.

Yamaha MT-09 Tracer (aka FJ-09 in the United States)
I was anticipating seeing this bike at Intermot, but Yamaha chose to wait until EICMA. To my mind, this is the machine to get –– assuming my guess on the price is accurate. Loaded with bells and whistles, the MT-09 Tracer (I have no idea why Yamaha gives it a special "FJ-09" designation just for the United States) is the lightest of the bikes I've listed here whilst being beat in the horsepower stakes only by the BMW and the Kawasaki.

I got a chance to ride the basic MT-09 back in August and my initial impression was that it wasn't as much fun as the MT-07. Primarily I felt this way because I didn't feel the platform fit the particular application. Which is to say, I felt the 847cc triple was better suited to a more all-round bike. I suggested in my review of the MT-09 that its engine would work better in "a bike that can take you long distances." My other issue was the fuel mapping, which is something that quite a lot of other people have commented on.

Both my laments appear to have been rectified with the Tracer. Yamaha says it has adjusted the mapping and this machine is clearly aimed at taking people long distances. And in red it actually looks kinda cool. Kinda. I especially like the look of the bike in red with its optional side cases.

The big question, then, is how much Yamaha intends to charge for it. A basic MT-09 in the UK will set you back £7,000. I am hoping that the extra fairing and bells and whistles of the Tracer will only bump the price up by £1,000 or so.

If I had the money to spend...
Although I like these bikes, it's unlikely that I'll own any of them soon. For the most part, my plan remains to save up enough money to buy a good-condition used Suzuki GSX1250FA.

Had I the cash to spend, however, I think the two bikes most grabbing my attention would be the Triumph and the Yamaha. They just strike me as the best value for money. If the price turns out to be right, I'd say the Yamaha is the overall winner.