Thursday, 29 January 2015

What I can afford this month: MZ TS250/1


I mentioned last month that I am slowly, slowly, slowly building up savings toward buying a new bike. So far, there's not much there; the Honda VFR1200F or Indian Chief Classic I'm pining for remain faraway propositions. But in the interim, as I wait for funds to accumulate, I like to entertain myself by searching through online classified ads to see what I could afford right now.

Actually, I presently have just enough cash to buy a brand new 50cc Chinese scooter, but I have to imagine that's a purchase I'd soon regret. According to the aforementioned scooter's spec sheet, it has a maximum speed of 30 mph. Meanwhile, I am able to hit 27 mph on my bicycle when pedalling on a flat. On the hill that is a part of my daily commute, I once managed 40 mph.

Related to that, I've taken to ruling out the multitudinous 125cc motorcycles of dubious Chinese origin that are to be found for roughly the same price as a bicycle. The bicycle would be a better investment, I feel. Not to mention that those throwaway London commuting machines have no sense of style or soul.

The MZ TS250/1 I found this month, though...

MZ stands for Motorradwerk Zschopau, and the bike -- a 1980 model -- is a product of the East German state. It looks like it, too, doesn't it? Styling reminiscent of Robert Pirsig's 1960s Honda CB77. Drum brakes, front and back. A kick starter. A two-stroke engine in which petrol and oil are mixed in the tank. This is exactly the sort of thing I would have expected to see sitting on the other side as they tore down the Berlin Wall.

According to the bike's advert, this little beauty "smells of the 1970s."

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, poor MZ struggled in the capitalist world. According to Wikipedia, the company's spent the last quarter century being bounced from one ineffective foreign owner to the next.

But, hey, we'll always have the DDR, boys. And according to this bike's seller, this MZ is in good condition, having seen "reasonable restoration" by a previous owner. Elsewhere on the interwebs, I found a tale of someone buying an MX TS250/1 for just £100 and thereafter finding it impossible to defeat.

I suppose that makes sense. This is East German technology; it needed to run for a long time and be easy to fix, because no one had any money. The 5-speed machine apparently has a decent amount of pace -- I found YouTube video of a Polish guy pushing one to 115 km (71 mph) -- and it returns something close to 70 miles per gallon.

Not too bad, all in all. But I think I'd prefer the modern technology and performance of my Honda CBF600SA. I've long wanted to own a German bike, but not particularly this one.


Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Get a motorcycle

This, y'all. The only thing I would add, right at the very end of the video, are three simple words: get a motorcycle:

Monday, 26 January 2015

More Victory stuff


Good grief, I am such a ridiculous Victory fan boy. But I can't help myself. And the fact that they don't seem to publicise any of this stuff themselves always leaves me with a slight sense of responsibility (a).

Perhaps "responsibility" isn't quite the right word to use. I'm not sure what the right word is.

Have you ever seen It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? The way Linus has such indefatigable allegiance to the idea of the Great Pumpkin, the way he goes around, knocking on people's doors, to evangelise this idea that everyone else dismisses: that's sort of how I feel about Victory Motorcycles. Linus, of course, is from Minnesota, so I'm sure he could relate.

Last weekend, I was in Swindon, visiting the Victory/Indian dealership there -- roughly 80 miles away, it is the closest Victory/Indian dealership to Cardiff -- and that sort of got me excited for the bikes all over again. It helps that the sales manager, Paul, is a genuine Victory fan. 

Anyway, here are three Victory-related items I've spotted or have been pondering recently:

1) Victory UK has dropped the price of the Cross Country.
This is another one of those things I learned solely from my obsessive staring at the Victory UK website. I mentioned not too long ago that the price of the Gunner had been reduced by £400 even before its official European release later this year. Well, turns out it's not the only one. The price on the Cross Country, which is apparently Victory's most popular bike in the United States, has for 2015 been dropped by £550. 

In 2014, the Cross Country was priced at £16,500. For 2015 it's being offered at £15,950. Sadly, that discount does nothing for me, but it's still noteworthy. Compare the Victory Cross Country with the quite similar Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special and you're paying £2,800 less for the brand from Minnesota.

2) Polaris bought Brammo and that might mean an electric Victory is in the works.
A fortnight or so ago, Victory's parent company, Polaris, bought electric motorcycle manufacturer Brammo. Buried within that story was the fact Polaris plans to utilise the assets acquired from Brammo to begin producing electric motorcycles sometime this year at its plant in Spirit Lake, Iowa. The same plant where Victory and Indian motorcycles are assembled.

Considering that Polaris already oversees two motorcycle brands, I'm guessing that the Brammo brand of motorcycle (a brand that is, by and large, unknown outside the circles of people who pay attention to the minutiae of motorcycling) will cease to exist. I'd expect, instead, for Brammo's technology to be reincarnated as a Victory or Indian that allows either brand to keep pace with Harley-Davidson's forthcoming LiveWire e-bike.

Many moons ago, Polaris stated that Victory would be its performance-focused brand, so, in one sense, it fits for the Brammo technology to fall under the Victory umbrella. Plus, it gives Polaris a tiny bit of wriggle room as it continues to build and fortify the Indian brand.

If Victory were to release an electric motorcycle and it were to flop, I feel it wouldn't tarnish the brand as much as if Indian were to do the same. Victory could just say: "Hey, we're the guys who are trying new things, and sometimes new things don't work. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Here are some more Cross Country models while we think of something else."

Whereas if Indian were to flop with an electric motorcycle, you might get cries of: "Oh, woe, Polaris has ruined the great and noble heritage of Indian. Fie! Fie!"

3. I'm still convinced something genuinely new and exciting will come from Victory in March.
Victory unveiled the Judge at Daytona. It unveiled the Gunner at Daytona. Based on this, I'm inclined to believe they are keen to make their stamp on that event and that they will be unveiling something truly new this year. I wrote an article about this for Biker News Online not too long ago, so I won't go into too much detail here. But suffice to say, I think there's a decent amount of evidence to suggest that Victory has something exciting planned for the very near future. And I think that Daytona Bike Week (b) is where that will be revealed.

____________________

(a) Honestly, Victory, get in touch. I'll happily be your PR guy.

(b) Crikey. a few weeks ago I wrote a post about sexism in motorcycling and made the observation: "If you disagree with my suggestion that the motorcycling culture of that region is demeaning to women, I dare you to type the words "Sturgis women" into an image search and view the results at work." -- With Daytona, you don't even have to try that hard. Just type the words "Daytona Bike Week" and you will be inundated with hundreds of such images.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Chris Cope's great motorcycle manifesto


I've found myself reading a handful of law/safety-related stories recently (here, here, here and here) and it's gotten me thinking about the Right Way To Do Things. Obviously, the Right Way To Do Things is my way, because I'm brilliant and I have all the answers. One day people will recognise this and I will ascend to my rightful place as Emperor of the United States.

When that day finally comes, here's what things will look like for people on two wheels:

Helmets

Helmets are mandatory for riders and passengers on roads where the speed limit is greater than 45 mph. They are strongly encouraged in all other riding situations, and money raised from non-compliance fines helps fund campaigns to educate the public on the merits of riding with a helmet.

Riders and passengers under the age of 18 are required to wear a helmet at all times. Additionally, a helmet is required when a rider of any age is filtering/lane-splitting through traffic, regardless of posted speed limit. 

The helmet, or a combination of helmet and approved eye protection, must cover at least 60 percent of the rider's skull, the skull being defined as containing both the cranium and the mandible. In simple terms, this means those ridiculous beanie helmets are not sufficient.

Safety gear

Safety gear above and beyond a helmet is not required but is encouraged. To incentivise its use, licensed motorcyclists are eligible to reclaim at least half of the sales tax on all safety-related gear, e.g. gloves, jackets, Kevlar jeans, etc.

Use of reflective clothing at night is particularly encouraged. To this end, the standard DOT sticker required on the back of all helmets is reflective and features a 2-inch-by-3-inch U.S. flag.

Training

Motorcycle training is not required but is strongly encouraged. To incentivise riders to take part in training courses, the insurance rates for those who have not undergone training is at least 15 percent higher for the first two years of possessing a license. 

A qualifying training course must offer a minimum of 2 hours classroom instruction and 15 hours on-the-bike instruction. At least 5 hours of that on-the-bike instruction must take place on public roads. Instructors must renew their certification every five years.

After receiving training, riders are automatically eligible for a provisional license that heavily restricts where, when and what they can ride without an instructor, but that allows ample time (two years) for the rider to practice before taking his or her test.

Driver training courses require no less than 4 hours of motorcycle-specific training.

Licensing

License testing is conducted in the same third-party manner as car licenses. In other words, instructors (who may otherwise have a vested interest) are not allowed to issue tests to their students. Testing consists of three parts: a simple written exam ensuring riders know the rules of the road, an on-the-bike exam on a closed course that focuses on specific manoeuvres (e.g., U turn, parking, etc.), and an on-the-bike assessment that takes place on public roads. 

Licenses are issued on a tiered system:

  • A rider holds a Tier 1 license after successfully completing his or her motorcycle exams. The holder of a Tier 1 license is restricted to vehicles with no more than 47 bhp.
  • After 2 years, assuming the rider's driving record is clean, his or her license will automatically be upgraded to Tier 2 status. If the rider has been cited for speeding, dangerous riding or other major traffic offenses, the Tier 2 upgrade will be applied 2 years after the date of the most recent citation. The holder of a Tier 2 license is restricted to vehicles producing 100 bhp or less.
  • After 2 more years, again assuming a clean record, the rider's license is automatically upgraded to Unrestricted status. At this point, he or she is free to ride a motorcycle of any power output.
  • The licensing system is applied irrespective of age, placing the emphasis on actual experience rather than perceived maturity.
  • DUI or DWI convictions result in the automatic revocation of an individual's motorcycle license. To regain his or her license, the rider must again go through the examination process and work his/her way back up through the tiered licensing system. An individual's motorcycling privileges are permanently revoked if he or she receives three DUI/DWI convictions.

Laws

Passenger accommodation: Any motorcycle carrying a passenger for any distance on a public road must be adequately equipped to do so. This means, at minimum, foot pegs and approved hand holds. Passengers may be of any age but must be able to reach the foot pegs.

Filtering: Filtering or lane splitting is permitted on all public roads. Riders must never cross a double yellow line. Riders engaged in the act of filtering must be wearing a helmet. When filtering, riders must not exceed the speed limit and must not ride at a speed that is more than 30 mph greater than the speed of surrounding traffic.

Special lanes: Motorcycle-specific lanes are strongly encouraged in city planning and incentivised with federal funding. Motorcycles are always permitted in HOV and bus lanes. Electric and 50cc scooters with a maximum speed limit of 30 mph are permitted to use bicycle greenways, where they must adhere to posted speed limits.

Parking: All public parking areas must allocate no less than two motorcycle-specific parking spaces. Reasonable effort must be made to ensure that these spaces are visible from within the business for which the parking exists. In downtown areas, cities must allocate at least 10 free motorcycle-specific parking spaces for every 100,000 residents.

Insurance: Except in cases of Tier 1 license holders who have not received training, insurance rates on a motorcycle must be at least 20 percent less than rates on comparable insurance for a car. Riders who receive advanced training after attaining Unrestricted license status receive rates that are at least 25 percent less.

Monday, 19 January 2015

What I Want: Honda VFR1200F


"I think we get so caught up in the marketing hype that we forget that most of the time the only person enjoying the bike is you, and the wildlife doesn't give a shit how cool you look."
          –– Jeremy, from Australia

I pulled the above quote from an email I received last week from someone who got in touch to say he's a fan of the blog (a). It's a sage bit of advice, without doubt, and when I first read it I immediately found myself thinking about the Honda VFR1200F.

I'll admit I'm not terribly enamoured with the bike's odd Tomorrowland front end. And when equipped with the panniers that I'd almost certainly want to add, it looks even less cool. I can't imagine ladies swooning as I roll by. This is not the sort of bike my wife would excitedly tell others about.

But, oh my gosh, is it a fantastic machine. From everything I've read, from seeing it in person, and from getting a chance to sit on the thing, I've sort of fallen in love with it.

The catalyst for this, of course, were those cool Honda promo videos I watched back in December. Ever since then I've found a tiny bit more joy in riding my Honda CBF600SA around. The joy comes not in its sound or look but in the quiet knowledge that I can ride the hell out of the thing. I find myself thinking: "Hmm, how many miles can I put on this bike?"

It feels like a challenge.

And it's a challenge that inevitably buys me time before my next motorcycle purchase. Perhaps even enough time that I could save up enough to buy a VFR1200F -- a bike famous for its ability to rack up the miles.

Actually, in black, it's kinda sexy.

Capable of churning out a whopping 173 horsepower (!), it has considerably more oomph than I can imagine myself ever using or even wanting to use, but that's kind of the point of a VFR. It goes fast.

Fortunately, it has traction control to help regulate that speed, which is a feature so exotic to me I can't properly imagine it. Living in a wet and slippery country, though, it is a feature that holds a definite appeal. Anti-lock brakes are, of course, also standard.

Equally exotic to me is the happy daydream of never having to fuss with a chain. Yes, I've gotten used to it, but there has never been a point when I've found myself crouching next to my bike in the cold, spraying it with various expensive and toxic liquids, befouling old toothbrushes, rags and paper towels, caking my hands in grease, squinting at a ruler, banging my knuckles on the swing arm, and thought to myself: "Golly, this is fun."

Not once. Not one single time have I ever enjoyed cleaning, adjusting or oiling a chain. I tolerate it, but I don't enjoy it. And if I never had to do it again I would be quite happy. This is the appeal of a shaft-driven bike like the VFR1200F: no more messing with a chain.

The dashboard has an equal "ooooh" factor for me, mixing an analogue tachometer with two digital readouts that display all kinds of fancy information that can only be guessed at when riding my CBF600SA ("How much fuel do I have left?" "How many more miles can I ride on that fuel?" "What gear am I in?" "What's the ambient temperature?").

I've long admired the VFR1200F's features but had assumed I wouldn't want anything to do with it because of its riding position. I've thrown a leg over the smaller VFR800 and hated it. The ergonomics squished my legs up too much, and pushed me forward too far. But when I recently got a chance to sit on this bigger VFR I was amazed at how comfortable it is. The ergonomics worked brilliantly for my 6-foot-1 frame.

Additionally, the VFR1200F has a huge, comfy seat that has plenty of room for an actual human-sized passenger. Too often manufacturers fail to consider how important is the opinion and comfort of a rider's better half. It's nice to see Honda has put in the effort on the VFR1200F.


Having said all that...

Costing £13,000 (or £14,000 if you want luggage, centre stand and heated grips), there's a rather large chasm between the bike's price tag and the amount of money in my savings account. I won't say that the VFR1200F isn't worth the money, but for several thousand pounds less you can buy a number of other bikes that would achieve many of the same aims.

The Yamaha MT-09 Tracer, for example, has traction control and more than 100 horsepower (which, really, is more than I'll ever need) and all kinds of fancy bells and whistles for just £8,150. True, it's uglier and lacks shaft drive, but those things can be suffered.

Also, £14,000 will get you an almost-new Victory Cross Country. That bike's not nearly as fast, admittedly, but it's a whole lot cooler.

Meanwhile, although I found the VFR1200F very comfortable on a showroom floor, one wonders if I'd still feel that way after 300 miles. The idea of being slumped forward for hours on end makes me fear for my lower back.

And if I'm going to contort myself in odd ways for the sake of being on a motorcycle, I think I'd rather do it on a Triumph Thruxton.


___________________

(a) Muchas gracias, by the way.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Victory's European line is better than I thought


I was checking out Victory's UK website earlier this week and spotted something I had previously managed to overlook: Victory is offering ABS on more than just one cruiser.

If you've read more than two posts on this blog you'll likely have picked up that I am aggressively dogmatic about the importance of anti-lock brakes. It's my quirk. Anyway, Victory has made ABS available on its baggers and tourers for a few years now, but had until this year left its cruiser riders out in the cold. That fact had annoyed me for quite some time.

Then, at the Intermot Show back in October, Victory announced that the forthcoming Gunner (which had not yet reached European shores) would be ABS-equipped when it arrives in March of this year. It turns out, though, the Gunner will not be alone. Also receiving the ABS treatment in 2015 will be the Judge, the Boardwalk, and the Vegas Highball. The Vegas 8-Ball, the Hammer 8-Ball and the Hammer S will apparently, for now, keep their standard old-school braking systems.

You know, I can't help thinking that Victory should perhaps invest in hiring a press guy, rather than just hoping someone like me will stumble upon and promulgate all its news. As far as I can tell, I was the only person to write about ABS coming to the UK Gunner. After that, I was the only person to make note of the bike's price being slashed by £400

And I bet I'm now the first to draw particular to something fascinating about the new Judge and Boardwalk models in Europe. See, hitherto, it had generally been my impression that we here in the Old World were getting Victory's American sloppy seconds. That is to say, I assumed that the bikes showing up in UK Victory dealerships were just bikes that hadn't sold in the United States -- that this year's European-spec bikes were last year's U.S.-spec bikes.

I had thought this based on the 2014 Judge I rode last April. It had the mid-peg ergonomics of the U.S.-spec 2013 model. I knew, though, that these were not the ergonomics of the U.S.-spec 2014 model. I had read a U.S.-based article saying Victory was changing the ergonomics for its 2014 Judge, giving them forward pegs and more pull-back handlebars (a). That this 2014 model I was riding in Britain did not have these things is what made me think it was just a year-old machine.


I was wrong. The Judge was dropped from the U.S. line-up for 2015, but it is still part of Victory's offerings over here. And unlike old U.S. versions, it has ABS brakes; unlike old U.S. versions, it has mid-placed pegs; and, it has a blue paint scheme that was never available for the Judge in the good ol' U.S. of A.

In other words, it seems the Judge is alive and well in Europe. That's awesome. In your face, America! We get something you don't. And it appears the same is true of the Euro-spec 2015 Boardwalk (b). It, too, was dropped from the U.S. line-up but remains a part of the European one; it, too, has ABS as standard; it, too, is being offered in a paint scheme not before seen.

Huzzah. Go Team Europe. And huzzah for Victory, who have effectively put the Judge back on my What I Want list. All I need do now is find £11,700 (US $17,695).

____________________

(a) I'm pretty sure this is what killed the Judge in the United States. Without its ergonomics, the Judge lost its uniqueness.

(b) That thing has to be one of the best-looking motorcycles in the world.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Runs in the family


"What other bikes did you ride," I ask my father-in-law. "Before the 550?"

I am again trying to find a gentle way of getting him to do something with the old Honda CB550 that sits in the back of a garage in Devon. Give it to me. Drag it out and restore it. Something. Don't just let it sit there.

Jenn can remember riding on the back of it as a girl. For quite a long time, motorcycles were her father's only means of transport; well into Jenn's early teens, he didn't even have a car driving license (a). He only gave in after having to Jenn's mother to the emergency room one evening after she cut her hand. She had to ride on the back of the bike, through undulating Devon country lanes, holding on with just one hand –– the other elevated in the air and spurting blood. After this incident, Paul was informed in no uncertain terms that he would finally be getting his car license or suffer in all sorts of terrible ways.

Not too long afterward, he attempted to ride his Honda through a flood and the engine died on him. He got it back to his house, put it in the garage, and it's been there ever since.

"My first bike was a James 125," Paul says. "Well, actually, I took my test on my father's Lambretta. Back then, once you'd taken your test you were free to set out on anything."

The Lambretta. Oh. 

I suspect an entire novel could be written about the Lambretta. But the men of my wife's family are true Englishmen, which is to say they are not natural storytellers. The Welsh and Texans, we can talk for hours about anything. We can draw narrative from a trip to the cornershop to get milk. But my wife's brother, father and grandfather are the sort who don't care to share details; they are too comfortable with silence. So, I don't know a great deal about the Lambretta, but for the fact Jenn's grandfather bought it shortly after returning from the Suez, where he had been stationed in the early 50s.

Fuel rationing inspired him to walk most places and use the scooter for longer trips; they may have had a car, but they preferred not to use it. Jenn's grandfather had to me made passing mention of this scooter when I rode down to visit this past autumn. He had made it sound as if he'd not owned the Lambretta for long, but obviously he held onto it at least until 1971, when my father-in-law would have been 16 years old and eligible to take his test.

James 125

Seeing me squint in confusion at the mention of a James 125, Paul explains that his first bike was "an ancient thing." 

I had never heard of a James motorcycle. Later research reveals that James Cycle Co. folded when Jenn's dad was just 11 years old. And although his parents had enough money to send him to boarding school, I doubt very much that his mother, Jenn's forthright grandmother, would have put forward so much as a thruppence toward her son's first motorcycle. He would have had to pay for it out of his own pocket, which suggests the bike would have been very old indeed.

"After that, I had a Norton. A Commando," my father-in-law says. "Then a Triumph Bonneville. That was my favourite, I suspect."

"Oh! Chris is going to get a Triumph," Jenn states excitedly. "It's called a Thruxton, right, babe?"

I almost sprain my neck doing a double-take as she looks at me, smiling. This moment will spin in my mind for the next several days. Chris is going to get a Triumph, she said –– is. And the fact she remembered the name of the bike!

I mean, my wife does a good job of seemingly not caring about my obsession for motorcycles. She's supportive enough, and nods kindly when I wander again into a tangent about the merits of shaft-driven bikes, or my guesses as to why Italy has so many more manufacturers than anywhere else, or some equally boring topic, but I can tell it's not her thing. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if she couldn't name the model of bike I ride at the moment.

I had showed her just one picture of the Thruxton after I came back from Motorcycle Live and commented that I liked it. But I've made the same sort of comment about literally dozens of motorcycles. That she remembers this particular one is telling. In her comment to her father Jenn had accidentally shown her hand. I'm happy she did. Her opinion plays a big part in all my decision making.

Triumph Thruxton

"A Thruxton?" her father asks.

"It's like a Bonneville, isn't it Chris?" Jenn says. "Kind of like one of those... you know... mods and rockers bikes. Wait, when was that? When were the mods and rockers?"

"The riots in Brighton were in '64," I say. "So, before your dad's time."

"Yes. I'm not sure about mods and rockers... I don't know what we were," Paul says.  "But we did have quite a few... erm... disagreements with the chaps on scooters."

"You were a rocker, Daddy," Jenn says. "I'll bet you were totally a rocker."

Of course he was, I think. This is the man who snuck out of boarding school at age 15 to go see Jimi Hendrix play the Isle of Wight Festival. Having told the school he was heading home to see a doctor, he was found out when his mother called the school and asked to speak to him.

"That Triumph was so loud," my father-in-law says with a nostalgic smile. "I kept it in a garage that I was renting from some people. It was so loud they eventually paid me to take it elsewhere. I really enjoyed that one. It made such a racket."

"It's a shame you didn't keep it," Jenn says.

"Couldn't afford to," he says. "Everything always needed replacing. I spent so much money getting new parts. After that I had a Suzuki something-or-other for a while. That was the low point of my motorcycling career."

"How so?" I ask. "Did it fall apart on you?"

"No, it's just... there was nothing to it, you know?" he says with disgust. "It just went, but it had no life. No joy. No point. I couldn't stand it."

Quietly, in my head, I abandon the GSX1250FA as a potential future steed. It's never appealed to me too much, anyway. But its getting that sour look from my father-in-law almost certainly writes of Suzuki in my wife's mind. And unless you're crazy for it, why even consider a bike that won't make you look sexy in your wife's eyes?

"Well, that was the era of the UJM," I say. "Was your Honda any better?"

"It was," Paul says. "It was a good machine. Never gave up on me, 'til I rode it into a river. I'd like to do it up. It's in the back of that garage. I won't give it up. That's one of the things I'd really like to do: like to fix it up and get back on it before I get on too much in years."

"Chris would be happy to help," Jenn volunteers.

"I would," I say. "I'd love to. It's a pretty popular bike with restorers, so I'm certain it wouldn't be too hard to get parts."

"Yes, I'd like that," my father-in-law says. "Maybe. Not right at the moment –– I've got a lot on these days, you know –– but, yes, maybe..."

Honda CB550

––––––––––––––––––

(a) The two licences are separate in the United Kingdom, as opposed to the way a car driver's license is requisite to motorcycle endorsement in most U.S. states.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Andiamo in Italia


I don't know if you've ever noticed the little sidebar box on the right-hand side of this blog that says "Lifetime miles." It's not totally accurate. It doesn't account for any of the miles I've done on test rides, nor the miles I covered during the arduous and expensive European training process, nor even the roughly 130 miles I racked up when the lovely people at Michelin gave me a bike to play on for a day. But I figure it's close enough. 

Considering that I only earned my European license about 18 months ago, I suppose it's a decent number. Elspeth Beard clocked up roughly 10,000 miles in her first two years of motorcycle ownership and I'm on track to keep pace with her (a), but still I find the number sometimes taunts me. It's not large enough; I haven't been nearly enough places; I haven't seen nearly enough things.

The Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure is, in part, an attempt to rectify that, but it looks as if this summer I'll get a chance to really get some miles under my belt. The family of my wife's best friend has invited us to spend a week in Italy with them in July. They have a villa in Volterra, in the Tuscany region, and Jenn suggested I take the opportunity to ride my bike there (b).

She didn't need to make the suggestion twice. Within seconds of her mentioning it I was researching possible routes on Google Maps. In doing so, I discovered that one possible route runs past the German city of Saarbrücken, where my friend, the mighty Chris James, lives these days. So, I've tentatively invited myself out to visit him as part of this trip. I really should drop him a line and let him know I'm coming...

Roundtrip, this adventure will see me riding some 2,500 miles and visiting at least six countries: France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. If I choose to avoid the notoriously expensive French toll roads on the way down, I may also venture into Austria, though that would mean missing out on the opportunity to ride through the 10-mile-long Gotthard Tunnel. Either way, my route will take me through three completely different eco zones and terrain ranging from flat coastal plain to the Alps. Great googly moogly, y'all: the Alps. My breath stutters just at the thought of it (c).

More rides through the Welsh mountains will be called for.

And that's the thing. This trip is so big, so grand in vision, that I struggle to properly grasp it in my mind. And with that comes the difficulty of figuring out how in the world I'm supposed to prepare for such a thing. I mean, where do you even start? I guess it might be handy to know how to say a few things in French, German, and Italian. And I suppose I might want to invest in a good-quality map, but where after that?

I am very seriously considering forking out the cash to equip my bike with hard, lockable luggage. I am also inclined to believe it might be a good idea to get myself an up to date and more reliable sat-nav programmed with full European maps (my current not-always-functioning sat-nav covers just the UK and Ireland). I'll be sure to have the bike checked out by a mechanic before I go, of course. And I'll pack an emergency tire repair kit, my Haynes manual, necessary tools, and will spend the next few months trying to teach myself how to do roadside fixes of the most likely issues one might face (cables, levers, chain, etc.).

Additionally, I'll spend these next few months seeking out the more challenging nearby roads (thankfully, we have plenty of those in Wales) to build up my skill level, and I may do a few runs criss-crossing the width of the UK in a day to help me improve stamina for long days. I'll make sure I'm familiar with the Iron Butt Association's Archive of Wisdom. I'll try to figure out how the hell to secure a bike when it's on a ferry. And so on.

But even with all of this, I get a twinge of fear –– a feeling that when it comes time to point the Honda toward Italia, I will be woefully unready.

So, I'm keen to hear what advice you can offer. If you've got experience covering massive distances, I'd love to hear what tips you might have for making it enjoyable. If you've ridden through multiple countries whose languages you do not speak, I'd definitely like to get your input.

I've got about seven months to prepare. Already I'm finding it difficult to sleep.

Stelvio mountain pass in the Alps.

––––––––––––––––––––

(a) If you haven't guessed, I have something of a crush on Elspeth Beard.

(b) She's planning to go in a car with her friend. My bike is simply not passenger-friendly enough to be stuck on the back of it over such a long distance.

(c) If I can build up the guts to do so, I may even tackle the infamous Stelvio Pass.

Je suis Charlie


Monday, 5 January 2015

What I want: the new supercharged Honda NC750


I had a moment of excitement and glee this week when I spotted the following blurb on page 7 of the February 2015 (a) issue of Bike magazine:

"Kawasaki's supercharged H2 has caused proper rumpus, so now Honda plan their own blown bike. They've filed patents showing a supercharger on... yes, the humble NC750."

Wait. What?! 

I'll admit we're treading deep into the waters of Things Chris Doesn't Really Understand here, but from what I know of superchargers they are magical bits of machinery that when added to a motorcycle leave you wondering: why didn't they do that in the first place?

I mean, the Victory Hammer that set a land speed record at Bonneville, for example. Simply slapping a supercharger on that thing saw it delivering 200hp at the rear wheel. Compare those numbers with the roughly 83hp you'll get from a stock Hammer S and the stock bike seems like a bad investment.

I'm simplifying this so it makes sense to my tiny brain, but basically a supercharger is able to get increased performance by forcing more air into the engine. In the way I've visualised it in my head, this forced (compressed) air has an effect on the engine similar to blowing on the embers of a fire; suddenly the stuff being burned is being burned more efficiently. If you know about superchargers, please feel free to offer a clearer explanation in the comments. But remember to use small words and simple terms because I'm from Texas.


Even though they've existed for nigh 100 years, it's my understanding that superchargers haven't been placed on standard bikes because they are expensive, not just a little bit fiddly, and create a more urgent challenge in terms of engine cooling.

Also, hitherto, superchargers have really only been used to help a bike go insanely fast. And that's what so interesting about this Honda plan. Big Red intends to use the supercharger more for the sake of efficiency than speed.

According to an article in Motorcycle News, the supercharged NC750 will make use of the technology to deliver a vehicle that offers the same low emissions and enviable MPG while boosting performance to somewhere around 100 hp!

In other words, a supercharger will eliminate the single gripe I have about the NC750X. I have long been a fan of the bike, writing about it here, here, and here. Honestly, I don't think there's a week that goes by in which I don't find myself staring at the NC750X page on Honda's website, thinking: "Maybe. Maybe. Maybe that would be the bike for me."

I mean, the damned thing gets more than 80 mpg, for the love of Pete. That blows my mind. The pickup truck I owned in college got 14 mpg –– making the 240-mile drive from Bloomington to Moorhead on a single tank of gas was always a nerve-wracking experience. Meanwhile, the Honda CBF600SA I ride at the moment gets roughly 50 mpg and has spoiled me against many less-efficient machines. I love not having to pay for fuel (especially in the UK, where it costs so much).


But the thing –– and generally, the only thing, because I can overcome its ugly/bland looks –– that cools me on the NC750X is the fact it's so underpowered. It produces just 54hp. OK, uhm, true, that's the same amount of power as a Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200, and if I had the money I'd probably already be riding one of those around, but the Harley is so much cooler. My expectations exist on a sliding, often emotional scale. And because I ride a 600cc Honda that gets 76 hp, I expect at least that much from a 750cc Honda.

A supercharged NC750 would exceed my horsepower expectations while still offering a fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly machine. That last aspect is the driving force in developing a standard supercharged bike, it seems. More stringent environmental legislation is set to go into effect in Europe in 2016 and it's logical to assume that even tighter restrictions will be implemented later on.

To that end, Honda is not the only one looking to put out a supercharged middleweight bike. Just the other day I spotted a news article claiming that a supercharged 600cc Suzuki is very close to production. It's claimed the forthcoming Suzuki Recursion (which, to me, looks as if it has taken its styling cues from a sex toy) will put out 100 hp and a cruiser-like 74 ft.lb of torque.

It seems that for the sake of efficiency, the supercharger is the way forward. Indeed, not too long ago I read that Honda is developing a new VFR400 (not to be confused with the one that ceased production 20 years ago). No doubt it, too, will be supercharged. It's an exciting new world and I wouldn't mind being part of it.

Having said all that...

I've decided to add a new element to my What I Want posts, acknowledging the fact that all motorcycles have some flaws. In this case, one of the biggest problems will almost certainly be price. In the case of the Kawasaki Ninja H2, adding a supercharger means it costs 67 percent more than the Ninja ZX-10R. Jacking up the price of an NC750 by that much would dramatically decrease its appeal to me.

Add to this the fact that alleged patent drawings for this forthcoming bike show the supercharger eating up the space that currently exists for the NC750's signature tank-trunk thing.

So, now you're talking about an NC750 that costs a whole lot more and has a whole lot less storage space. Not to mention the inherently increased risk of mechanical problems that comes from adding technology that has taken more than a century to be perfected for standard use.

At that point it makes far more sense to spend your money on something like a good ol' Honda CB650F –– 86 hp and 60 mpg, plus better brakes, for only £100 more than the current NC750X.

Honda CB650F

–––––––––––––––––––––

(a) February 2015, lads? I bought the magazine in December 2014!

Saturday, 3 January 2015

GWTTA: Kidwelly (Cydweli)


Before I came to Kidwelly the only thing I knew about it was that it's the home town of Ray Gravell. The fact this is not mentioned on Kidwelly's Wikipedia page is a travesty.

It's quite possible you've never heard of Ray Gravell, but suffice to say he was one of the Welshiest Welshman that ever Welshed. A hard-hitting rugby player who was part of the Llanelli RFC side that beat New Zealand on the Day the Pubs Ran Dry (a) –– 31 October 1972 –– he was also a nationalistic Welsh speaker who served as sword bearer for the Gorsedd y Beirdd.

Oh hell yeah, we're going down the rabbit hole on this trip, y'all.

In Wales, there is a pseudo-religious group of Welsh-language sycophants known as the Gorsedd y Beirdd. There's not a particularly good translation for the word "gorsedd" so let's just use "posse." Meanwhile, "beirdd" is equally difficult to translate –– especially in this context. But basically it is the plural of "bardd" or "bard" in English, which is a word English speakers use to describe writer types (most famously William Shakespeare) and a New York college that Steely Dan hated so much they wrote a song about it.

So, anyway, this Welsh Bard's Posse was dreamed up in the 1700s by a guy who was whacked out on opium, but now people take it really seriously. If I'm not mistaken, my two university degrees in Welsh mean that I am, by default, a member of the Gorsedd y Beirdd. But I have never bothered to get dressed up in green tablecloth and chant with the rest of them. 

Ray Gravell did, though he was given white robes because his ability to run straight into people at speed made him more important than me. He was so important they gave him the super-mega special job of carrying around the Cleddyf Mawr. Literally translated as "The Big Sword," the Cleddyf Mawr is a 7-foot sword that its keeper holds over his head during the opening of the Gorsedd's biggest annual event: Eisteddfod.

So, yeah, that's what Gravell did. He also got drunk on television, commented on rugby matches, sold cars, and cried any time someone played "Yma o Hyd." He died in 2007 but Welsh separatists still wear T-shirts with his face on them.

Viewing Kidwelly from a window in Kidwelly Castle
Meanwhile, his car business thrives to this day, and if a person in Wales drives a Renault purchased at Gravells (replete with Gravells bumper sticker in rear window) it is effectively the same as flying a 70-foot banner banner that says: "I AM WELSH AND I AM REALLY, REALLY PROUD OF IT."

And he was from Kidwelly. He mentioned this fact at any and every opportunity. Like Kathie Lee needs Regis, like Kanye needs Jesus –– that's how our Grav felt toward Kidwelly. That the town fails to capitalise on that deep love is, as I say, a travesty.

According to the (n)ever-reliable Google Maps, Kidwelly is just 1 hour and 23 minutes from Penarth, but I chose to get here avoiding the motorway. Such a move was, admittedly, questionable. Not only did it more than double my journey time it also resulted in my having to roll slowly through a slough of undesirable Welsh valleys towns. Places with names that sound like Victorian diseases: Pyle, Margam, Baglan, Skewen.

Oh, aye, poor Tommy were working the coal pits only a fortnight afore he come down with the Margam –– he were dead within two days after that.

South Wales is the land of the bedsheet birthday wishes. At roundabouts and strapped precariously to railway bridges you'll see grandma's unwanted linen adorned with proclamation of landmark birthdays ("HAPPY 30TH GEMMA!"). This sort of thing is exemplary of how uncouth people of the South Wales Valleys can sometimes be. They think it's a good idea to make signs out of bedsheets. They think that a person would want to be celebrated in such a way; no doubt they hope to be celebrated in the same way themselves.

And because this is Wales, it is more often than not the case that these goodwill messages are illegible, the rain having caused paint to run.

Kidwelly lies on the River Gwendraeth, which stretches quickly into the Bristol Channel.
Eventually, though, I made my way past the grime and stench of these towns to the incongruence of Swansea's streets and thereafter into the best part of Wales: the west.

West Wales is the most attractive part of the country and its residents are, in my opinion, generally the most likeable. I admire the ridiculous Texan-like pride they have in their region; I enjoy the broad, growling way in which they speak Welsh; and I love their sense of humour that is at once self-effacing and unafraid. But, oh, are they annoying drivers.

In West Wales there seems to be just one speed: 40 mph. The people there drive too fast through towns and too slow through the country. Fortunately, with a little bit of throttle wind up, the Honda could easily launch past when gaps made themselves available. Then I was free to enjoy sweeping curved roads with good sight lines and decent surface –– until closing in on yet another crawling Renault.

Kidwelly itself is like a lot of West Wales towns in the sense that you imagine it would be lovely to live there but if you really imagine actually living there you realise you're happy that you don't. Especially if you roll into town on a Sunday in the winter; there is nothing to do. Nothing. Not a thing. These places live for the summer and its tourists.

I'm not entirely sure what the place lived for before tourists started showing up. Tin, probably. That's the story of huge swathes of Wales: the industrial revolution saw the ore and natural resources of Wales building up the rest of the world. Then the rest of the world decided it was cheaper to get their raw materials from places that didn't have labour unions, and the whole country fell into decline.

Kidwelly Castle
Before the industrial revolution, the town served as a strategically important location for numerous folks. The Normans established a castle in 1106. About 200 years later, Edward I ("Longshanks" for those of you who've watched Braveheart) fortified said castle amid his successful efforts to crush Welsh resistance. Another few centuries after that, it played a role in Owain Glyndwr's failed revolution.

I visited the castle and had the place pretty much to myself. It's in good condition, considering it is more than twice the age of my home country, and has lots of mysterious, narrow stairwells to wander through.

Many years ago, I watched an S4C documentary about Ray Gravell in which he stood atop of one of the castle's towers and started weeping because he loved Wales so much. Climbing up to that very same vantage point and looking out, I could understand how one might get emotional.

Just below your feet lie the town's higgledy-piggledy medieval lanes, then a handful of more modern houses that blight the eye, and beyond them a broad river delta that spills into the bits of the Bristol Channel as it becomes the Celtic Sea. On the whole, the view is almost cinematic.

The wind here is seemingly always fresh and clean. I gulped in deep breaths of the stuff, as if somehow able to store it in my lungs to enjoy back in Cardiff.

"Well done, God," I said aloud. "Excellent work."

I stood at the top of that tower until I started to chill and it occurred to me the sun was soon going to set. All the roads surrounding Kidwelly are hard to navigate in the dark if you're unfamiliar with them (b). I hummed a verse of "Yma o Hyd" in honour of Grav and scrambled my way back down to my bike.

I fired up the Honda and cranked my heated grips to 100 percent, then shoved my gloves over them to gather warmth as I did up my jacket, fussed endlessly with the two scarves I wear, and strapped on my helmet.

I sent a text to Jenn to let her know I was on my way, pointed the bike to the nearest motorway and flew home.
Narrow road leading to Kidwelly Castle
____________________

(a) For those of you playing along at home, this was a huge moment in Wales' cultural history –– on par with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, or the Berlin Wall being torn down. Rugby has long been incredibly important here, and the Wales national rugby team hasn't beaten New Zealand since 1953. The fact that a regional team managed to do it turned those players into demi-gods.

(b) Well, actually all the roads in Wales are hard to navigate at all times of day –– but outside of the cities they are even more baffling at night.