Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Gear review: Suzuki Tank Bag

Here's the thing about a tank bag –– any tank bag: once you get one, you will find it extremely difficult to live without. That's something to consider very seriously; there is no turning back. They are that useful: gear so incredibly essential you will wonder how you ever got by without it. 

Ostensibly, the Suzuki V-Strom tankring tank bag is an official accessory item for use with both the V-Strom 1000 and the V-Strom 650. But I'll let you in on a secret: this is, in fact, a SW-Motech Quick Lock EVO City bag that's been given Suzuki branding. 

And that's a good thing. A very good thing. Because SW-Motech gear is top-of-the-line stuff. Made of 1680D ballistic nylon, it is rugged as hell. Holding 11 liters of stuff and expandable to 15 liters, the bag has one main compartment and three smaller external pockets –– one in the front (i.e., facing the rider) and one on each side.

On my recent European trip, the (expanded) main compartment was enough to hold:
–– Two base layer T-shirts
–– Base layer shorts 
–– Long-sleeve T-shirt
–– Three 500ml bottles of water
–– Six candy or breakfast bars
–– Four neck buffs
–– Sunglasses case
–– Digital camera
–– Mobile phone
–– Small packet of tissues
–– Small box of medication (ibuprofen, etc.)
–– Earphones
–– Small notebook
–– Baseball cap

In the front external pocket I was able to store: my Leatherman, two different rags for cleaning my visor and sunglasses, a small pouch containing coins of various currencies, and my house keys. The side pockets are less useful, but offered enough room to hold the bag's waterproof cover in one and a small flashlight in the other.

In the Netherlands

I have found the bag to be invaluable. Not only did it hold all that stuff on my Europe trip, but it also served as a quick and easy place to stow tollbooth tickets when zipping along on Italy's motorways.

The bag attaches to the bike via a simple lock ring that you bolt to the tank ring. It is so simple that the first few times I put the bag on the bike some part of my brain would think: "Really? That's it? Is this a trick?"

Motorcycling luggage is usually so strap-, hook-, or button-intensive that it's hard to believe something could work so easily. But it does. The bag just clicks on. To take it off, you pull a little wire loop located at the front of the bag. Sin problemas.

Compare that system to the magnetic Oxford X30 tank bag I used to use when I had the Honda. Putting a magnetic bag on the tank involved meticulously lining it up and ensuring all the magnets were just so, otherwise I risked having the bag shift. Not to mention the fact it chipped the paint.

It was a situation that created classic Chris Cope moments of unnecessary anxiety. Having spent several actual minutes getting the bag to set on the tank perfectly, I'd be unwilling to remove it if I were stopping someplace just for a toilet break. But then, going into a building without the bag –– and knowing valuables were contained within –– would result in my peeing in a state of rushed panic. Nobody needs that. 

With the Suzuki tank bag, though, life is so much easier. The bag has a handle, or, if I were so inclined, I could attach a shoulder strap that comes with it. It's big enough to hold my gloves and when I'm in the little boys room I can set it on the floor and set my helmet on top. 

Waiting for a ferry

Within the main compartment, along its side walls, are four elastic mesh pockets each large enough to hold an iPod. Within the bag's lid is a small, zippable mesh pocket.

Toward the back of the bag (i.e., that bit which faces the motorcycle's dash) there is a small rubber port hole through which I have run a USB cord that allows me to charge my phone/camera/Kindle using the V-Strom's 12v plug. There is a similar port at the front of the bag. 

The zippers are sturdy with large rubber-coated tabs that are easy to grab with gloved hands. To keep them from flopping around, the tabs for the front and side pockets can be tucked behind small elastic bands. The zippers for the main compartment don't have such a band but are placed in such a way that they won't catch on clothing or touch the bike. Additionally, the zippers for the main compartment can be locked via a small luggage lock of the sort we all used to have on suitcases before the TSA decided it needed easy access to our underwear.

As far as a tank bag goes, this is just about as good as it gets. It's easy to use, practical, and looks good on the bike. Especially on an adventure motorcycle it fits the aesthetic.

All of this said, I am always suspicious of glowing reviews, so I feel personally obligated to identify a few complaints. The first being borne of my own laziness.

Unless you pay your Suzuki dealership to install this bag there will be a certain amount of DIY involved. Definitely do not pay a dealership to install the bag. I am an idiot and I managed to do it. 

All that's required is replacing some screws on your tank ring, and setting the locking mechanism into the bag. The latter part of that process involves drilling holes into the bag, which is insanely stressful, but fortunately the incredibly useful website webBikeWorld has clear step-by-step instructions and photos to help ensure you get it right the first time.

In Germany, where the tank bag is made.

My only other complaint is that housing the locking mechanism eats up a lot of space inside the bag. And that creates a situation where some of the main compartment isn't as useful as it could be because you can't figure out what the heck would fit there.

Additionally, I worry just a little bit about that locking mechanism. When I was in the Netherlands I met a British BMW R1200GS rider who was using the SW-Motech version of the bag. He had been using it for a number of years and had recently had the wire release loop snap on him. Which, of course meant that he couldn't get the bag off to be able to refill the tank.

He was eventually able to get it free by detaching the locking mechanism from the bag, then detaching the mechanism from the tank ring with a set of pliers and a patient mind. He put it all together again afterward and was back to using it when I met him, but hearing about it is the sort of thing that puts doubt in your mind.

Not enough doubt, though, that I don't use the bag on every single ride. As I say, once you go tank bag you don't go back.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Ride Review: Indian Scout

"It reminds me of bikes from the 70s," says a leather-vested balding man also test-riding the new Indian Scout. "I mean, it just feels like those bikes, you know?"

I don't know. But from his enthusiasm I take this comparison to be positive. You can see it in his eyes; some part of him is back in another place, another time. The Scout is transporting him to that wonderful period of a man's life when girls were so easy to get that you didn't even care.

Some of us have never actually experienced that period in our lives, but as time puts more distance between the present and the past we start to think we did. Or that we could have. Especially if we had been riding around on a Scout.

I will credit the Scout that much. Deep within my soul I feel that if I had been riding this bike in my early 20s I would have had to fight girls off with a stick. The bike is nothing short of amazing. And that's an important thing to note in this review: I think the Scout is amazing. Really. Genuinely.

I'm not the only one saying that. Motorcyclist recently named it Best Cruiser in its 2015 Motorcycle of the Year Awards. It earned the same accolade in's Best of the Year awards. And in Cycle World's Ten Best Bikes of 2015 it came runner-up in the Best Cruiser category (losing out to the incomparable Indian Chief Classic).

But despite that, I feel the Indian Scout is not as good as it could be. Because it is being hemmed in by the category in which it won the above accolades. The Scout is just too good to be a cruiser.

The Good

Let's start with that engine. To describe it as a sportbike engine is pushing things just a little. Although if you're particularly clever in terms of mechanics you could easily turn it into a sportbike engine. Polaris won't say either way, but it's generally believed that the engine used in Victory's Project 156 was a modified version of the Scout's.

The liquid-cooled V-twin engine is more rev-happy than something found in an old-school cruiser. Pushing the bike toward 8,000 rpm will reward you with catapult-like acceleration. Heading onto the motorway, I found myself in excess of 90 mph before I was even halfway down the entrance ramp.

Although the performance of the Scout is kind of Japanese (in a good way) its gearbox remains solidly American. Shifts are noted with a THUNK that I initially found to be a little annoying in light of the engine's performance, but one that I quickly grew to appreciate. I'm not sure, though, that clutchless upshifts would be possible with such an agrarian set up.

The brakes are solid. I'd still prefer to have two discs up front, but I have to admit the bike had no problem coming to a stop, even when squeezing the front brake lever with just two fingers. ABS comes standard in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. In the United States it'll cost an extra $1,000, because, uhm, freedom?

By and large, fit and finish are what you would expect from Indian. This is a motorcycle you will enjoy staring at. It's beautifully simple from a distance but come close and you'll spot all kinds of fantastic little details that let you know Indian put a lot of effort into this machine. This is something worth holding on to, something worth treasuring. The leather seat is certain to be an aspect that only improves with age (and care). If I had kids, I'd probably buy a Scout despite my reservations about it, just for the sake of being able to pass this piece of American history down to my children.

Instrumentation is pretty basic. The dash consists of an analogue dial speedometer, with a digital tachometer contained within. I'd prefer it the other way around, making it easier to switch from mph to kph when you ride across borders. You can switch the tachometer display to also show a trip meter or engine temperature. You'll get no fuel gauge or gear indicator, however.

The Bad

One comment that comes up in a number of reviews for the Scout is that it's small.

It's not small. Take a look at official specs and you'll see the Scout is longer, wider and heavier than my Suzuki V-Strom 1000. It is "small" only if you are using motorcycles to compensate for your personal inadequacies. What leads people to say it's small is the fact that its ergonomics are quite compact. And the seat is particularly low to the ground.

If you are long in the leg (I'm 6 foot 1), these factors lead to your feeling a bit cramped. Indian offer different pegs and seat to help stretch things out somewhat, but I personally can't see those fixes being to my taste. I don't want to ride a motorcycle with my legs splayed out as if I were in an obstetrician's stirrups. And for me, the Scout's 25-inch seat height is just too low.

The vast majority of my criticisms of the Scout could be fixed if Indian were to answer the plea I made in RideApart for a Scout Scrambler. It doesn't have to be a scrambler per se, but the Scout deserves a platform that better allows a rider an opportunity to really enjoy its amazing engine. Something akin to the BMW RnineT, perhaps: a retro-influenced roadster.

The engine makes you want to play; it makes you want to go. But in going around corners I found myself consistently scraping the Scout's pegs. The awesomeness of the bike is diluted by the category of the bike.

I understand why Indian did this: it operates first and foremost in the United States, where the cruiser is the unquestioned king of motorcycling, and it wanted the Scout to succeed. But considering Indian had already delivered the Best Cruiser Ever in the form of the Chief Classic (and, if you like fringe, the Chief Vintage), you'd have hoped the company would be a little more willing to take a risk.

Make something that hasn't existed within the American context for a very, very long time: a standard. My hope (and it seems a reasonable one, to be fair) is that the Scout is the first step toward a whole range of machines, similar to Triumph's Bonneville platform.

If so, this first step is a very good one, but it still leaves you with a motorcycle on which you're going to end up dragging pegs. You'll probably also be rubbing your back after a long ride, because the suspension suffers from all the inadequacies inherent to a bike with only 5 inches of ground clearance. And the seat tends to lock you into a single position.

As good as the brakes are, I did find them to be just a tad off/on. Subtle braking was a challenge. Slow-speed manoeuvres were particularly awkward because the seating position makes it difficult to operate the rear brake with a great deal of finesse.

The lack of a passenger seat means you'll have to risk damaging your marriage to ride a Scout, or you'll need to fork out the extra cash to dig into Indian's accessories catalogue. You'll generally need to do the same if you want to carry any luggage (although, the Scout's sturdy metal fender allows for the judicious use of bungee cords).

The gas tank is a bit small, but considering the Scout's ergonomics you'll probably be eager to stop before the bike demands it. Especially if you're travelling at motorway speeds without a screen. The wind blast is pretty intense and will have you looking like a bobble-head doll when trying to make good time.

The Ugly

The Scout's indicator lights are quite flimsy. At idle you can see them jiggling around. In RevZilla's review of the Scout Lemmy points out that this is so they'll give way, rather than break, should a rider accidentally drop the bike. When I heard that, I immediately thought: "Ooooohhh! Indian, you are so clever!"

But without knowing that I just thought they looked cheap.

Related to that, how much does a gear indicator and fuel gauge cost? The Scout doesn't have these things and I think that's silly. You get gear indicators and fuel gauges on Japanese 125s these days. Surely the presence of such simple, useful features wouldn't have bumped up the asking price that much. If at all. Whereas the absence of them gives the bike a sting of cheapness. It feels like savings for the sake of savings.

This negates the quality inherent in the rest of the bike. I'd be happy to forgo the seat's genuine leather (which will only soak up rain, anyway) in exchange for a gear indicator, fuel gauge, and better looking turn signals.

The three questions

Overall, the Scout is one of the best motorcycles to come out of the United States in the last decade. My frustration remains, however, because it really could have been so much more. I feel Indian was playing not to fail here, rather than playing to win.

Timidity seems to be a family trait amongst Polaris brands. Hopefully, though, the Scout's success will convince Indian it's on the right track and encourage it to step out of the cruiser box before too long.

So, that leaves the three questions I ask of every motorcycle I test ride:

1) Does it fit my current lifestyle/needs?
Not really. However, forking over great quantities of cash could equip the Scout with a screen, passenger seat and panniers, which would bring it more in line with what I want out of a bike. I'm not sure it would fit in my shed, though.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. As much as I complain about the Scout not being exactly the bike I want there's no getting away from the fact that I loved riding it. It is so much fun that I think it creates a slight flaw in Indian's positioning it as an entry-level machine. A person who gets used to the fun of this engine may be disappointed by the relative sluggishness of a larger air-cooled V-twin. Thrill-wise, the Chief Classic might actually be a step down from the Scout.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
In terms of price, features, handling, usability and engine, no, the Scout is not better than a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 (some people would be surprised to find out what a hoot the V-Strom's engine can be). But the V-Strom is not something I would ever consider holding on to for a really long time. I'm already daydreaming of what I'll replace it with in two or three years.
Whereas the Scout possesses an intangible that you want to keep with you. There's something in the Scout that speaks to the soul, that makes a person want to sink the time, money and effort into fixing its little flaws and making it one's own. The Scout makes me think of the pickup truck I had when I was in college –– the GMC Sonoma I drove all over the United States. I can remember often thinking that all I needed in the world was that truck. And I can imagine a person feeling that same sort of thing toward his or her Scout.

For me, right now, at this time and this place in my life, the Scout isn't THE motorcycle, but I can understand how it could be for someone else. I have to admit I'm just a little bit jealous of that person. And when Indian finally makes the Scout roadster I want, I'll be joining them.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Is Belfer for real? Thoughts on the future of EBR

I watched a lot of professional wrestling when I was a kid. This was during the dying of the light for wrestling territories. Down in Texas it was all about World Class Championship Wrestling. I remember, too, watching Mid-South and a fledgling World Championship Wrestling. When my family moved to Minnesota I got to see the American Wrestling Association in its final two years. I never watched WWF; I didn't like it.

The common thread in the wrestling I liked was that it was based in the Southern or Central parts of the United States. In those wrestling promotions (and in my wider Texas-born world), people from the East Coast were always bad guys. They were condescending, arrogant, unethical, smarmy –– always trying to trick you. These themes still run as subtext in American country music, but in the unfettered days before cable TV dominance (and, later, the internet), they were rife in the South. 

As a result, oh my goodness did I hate the East Coast. I hated it in the pure and unquestioning way only a child can. Although I've grown up and now have the ability to override childhood prejudices, some intrinsic distrust remains.

I tell you all this to explain my illogical and totally unfair gut reaction to Bruce Belfer.

Belfer is the owner of Atlantic Metals Group LLC, the company that recently purchased Erik Buell Racing from receivership. And one of the first things Belfer seems to want people to know is that he is from New Jersey. Or, rather, "Jersey." 

Which is something I find infuriating. He is not from Jersey. That's an island in the English Channel. Belfer is from New Jersey. How arrogant is it for a person to think that where he or she is from is so significant they don't have to correctly identify the name of that place?

Ugh. Sorry. Breathe. See what I mean? It runs deep. And, as I say, it's totally unfair. 

It is also silly and personally frustrating. Because on the strength of his words Belfer is someone I really like. He's recently given interviews with both and the Milwaukee Business Journal, and in them he's said things I not only agree with but that cause me to pump my fist in celebration.

For example: "America needs another cruiser manufacturer like it needs a hole in its head."

Yes! Yes to this a thousand times.

I also think Belfer is spot-on when he says the main reason EBR failed was that it got "distracted from its primary business of manufacturing motorcycles... [it] did not focus its energies well. So, what was missing from the equation was service to the customer base, in the form of parts and warranty service and new models. At base, the core business was being ignored."

Belfer talks a lot about "the core" in his interviews, which I think is, again, spot-on. A few months ago, Cycle World ran a three-part interview with Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich in which he used the word "core" 14 times.

"Core is critical," Levatich told Cycle World. "Clarity of direction is critical... We are not going to confuse ourselves with... other things because that would take us away from being great at motorcycles."

Considering Harley-Davidson controls more than 50 percent of the U.S. market for motorcycles with engines of greater than 600 cc, I think Belfer is wise to follow the same strategy. There seems to be a consensus amongst the keyboard quarterbacks that too much focus on racing is the thing in particular that "distracted" EBR into failure.

Erik Buell has always loved racing, considerably more than the overwhelming majority of American motorcyclists. The feeling is that his dedication to the former resulted in his being unable to deliver a desirable product to the latter.

In a July interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Buell effectively denies this, saying that racing "didn't cut too deeply" into EBR's revenue. Which, of course, means that it did. If it was cutting into EBR's revenue at all, and EBR's revenue was such that the company found itself being walloped more by than $20 million in liabilities, it was inherently cutting too deep.

Read between the lines and it would appear that Belfer agrees with this assessment. Tactfully, he told "you can't really separate the EB from the R. They've cut their teeth in racing. Having said that, applying those skill sets to a broader range of products makes a lot of sense to me... we have to hold onto the Erik Buell Racing definition of EBR, and we have to expand it to Engineered By Riders."

Lest there be too much grey for you in that statement, Belfer clarifies his position by saying: "A racing program is one of the most expensive things a company can undertake, and I will not sacrifice the core business for a racing program... [Racing] is a huge part of the brand. But for me it has to be about business. For EBR and its employees, it has to be about business."

Superbike racing is pretty niche in the United States. By extension, so, too, are supersport motorcycles. EBR's opening shots at the motorcycling market were via the supersport 1190RS and 1190RX. In their very existence, these bikes asked the question: Is there room in the market for another expensive supersport that is as good but not significantly better than existing supersports?

In the United States the answer to that question was (and, I suspect, always will be) "no." Arguably, you'll get the same answer on a global scale. Name one company on the planet that is successfully staying afloat selling only sport bikes. EBR eventually produced the 1190SX but I think that came too late.

So, Belfer's strategy of focusing on the core is, in my opinion, a good one. The question from there is: who is the core?

If Belfer (rightly) believes there is no need for another cruiser company, if he believes, as Victory Motorcycles Head of External Relations Robert Pandya told me in an interview a few months ago, that "there are spaces where American bikes are not currently present," and that some of these spaces can be successfully filled, who does Belfer think he'll be selling to?

It won't be the same "core" that Harley-Davidson are chasing. It won't be the too-small-to-be-relevant core of American superbike enthusiasts. Look to interviews Belfer has given and he's admittedly somewhat vague on defining the core, but he offers a few hints on who he thinks it is.

At one point in his interview he says the reborn EBR's first order of business will be "to reward the faithful." At another point in the interview he lets slip this fact: "I originally tried to reach out to Erik Buell when the Harley situation came apart for him, being a lifetime fan."

Belfer is the faithful.

So, who is the core? People like Belfer. And from what I can pick up, Belfer is one of those folks who didn't so much love EBR as admire it because of what it had come from: Buell Motorcycle Company. Indeed, check out the EBR Facebook page or pay close attention to internet comments from EBR fans and you'll note that a whole lot of them don't actually own EBR bikes. They have Buell machines.

So, I sense that the EBR that Belfer wants to build is the Buell Motorcycle Co. that he believes could have been had Harley-Davidson not derailed the whole thing with its lack of faith. Buell Motorcycle Co. made sportbikes, yes, but it also produced naked/standard motorcycles, the infamous Buell Blast, and the ahead-of-its-time adventure-sport Ulysses model.

In a broader sense, then, the core that Belfer is hoping to reach is also someone like me: someone who wants an American-made motorcycle that isn't a cruiser and that isn't hyper-niche/hyper-expensive. I want a motorcycle that isn't painful to sit on for more than 45 minutes, a motorcycle that isn't ridiculously low to the ground, and a motorcycle that can be put to use in a number of different scenarios. I want an American motorcycle that is like so many other motorcycles made by BMW, Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Moto Guzzi, Suzuki, Triumph, and Yamaha.

Cynics might say that this core rider doesn't exist in great enough numbers. If it did, why did Buell Motorcycle Co. tank? Why did Harley-Davidson lose faith in it and drop it like a burrito filled with pubic hair?

Well, firstly, I think Harley-Davidson was too focused on its own core to be able to see any other kind of rider. But, I also go back to a post I wrote a while back that everyone totally misinterpreted, in which I suggested that for many years Harley-Davidson skewed the motorcycling landscape. They defined what an American motorcycle was and, by extension, what it was supposed to be.

But you will notice that in the last few years Harley-Davidson has been changing far more rapidly than it had in the decades before. Why? Why are they changing and why would Buell Motorcycle Co. now succeed?

Simplifying things somewhat, the answer comes in the pervasiveness of the internet. Specifically the fact that social media is everywhere. In the short time since Buell Motorcycle Co. was scrapped social media has spread beyond the phones of college kids into everyone's lives everywhere. And in so doing, it has given everyone a voice.

Meanwhile, motorcycle publications have all but left store shelves and now reside primarily on the internet. There is no hardcopy version of RideApart or Bike EXIF, for example. And by existing in such a fluid and vocal space these publications have discovered that there are a lot more motorcyclists –– and potential motorcyclists –– out there than we thought who want something other than a cruiser, who don't think certain technologies (e.g., anti-lock brakes) are an affront to their manhood, or who, indeed, are not even men.

The Harley-Davidson vision of motorcycling no longer suppresses other interpretations. If this environment had existed 10 years ago, Harley-Davidson might never have pulled the plug on Buell Motorcycle Co. Now that the environment does exist, I think Belfer's EBR might have a chance.

Well, in theory it might.

In an article I wrote for RideApart recently I identified a number of issues that make me cynical about EBR's future. My biggest concern is how EBR handles its old debt. If I understand the rules of receivership, Belfer's EBR doesn't have to pay its old debts. But it seems to me it will want to make some sort of peace with the holders of those liabilities if it wants to be able to move forward. I mean, the motorcycling world can't be so big that you can go around burning bridges with suppliers and dealerships.

For his part, Belfer is again saying all the right things.

"Our first order of business at EBR is to reconnect with our dealerships to figure out who's still on board," he told "There may be some attrition, it wouldn't surprise me, but I'm hoping it will be minimal, and that the best players stay in the game.

"I can't speak for them. I can speak to what we're going to do, and we're going to do right by our dealers. And we're going to do right by our clients. The first thing we have to do is step up."

I also like how Belfer plans to "step up." He says he's a strong believer in American manufacturing, in creating American jobs for American workers.

"I feel very strongly that the only way for this country to return to its glory is to make things," he said. "The only way for the U.S. to get back on its feet... is by being productive."

Which brings us back to my illogical and totally unfair gut reaction to Belfer. On paper, based on what he's saying, I love this guy.

I want to believe that he has a genuine grasp of the challenges EBR faces and that he equally possesses the skills, drive and business acumen to overcome them. I want to believe that the 1190AX adventure sport that was rumored to be just around the corner will be resurrected and that I'll be riding one within three years. I want to believe that EBR will slowly, steadily grow and that its success will force America's other manufacturers to diversify their models, and in some glorious future people will be talking about the dominance of motorcycling's Big Four and they will be talking about American machines. I want to believe. I want so much to believe.

But I don't. I don't believe it at all. I expect EBR to flounder for a while, promise things it can't deliver, maybe take the Motus route of offering an out-of-date motorcycle with Givi luggage and an astronomical price, then collapse before 2020.

Maybe the reason I don't believe it is because the 8-year-old in me sees a man who is just trying to connive his way into winning the heavyweight title. Or maybe it's worse than that. Maybe I've lost faith in the American Dream.

I don't believe Bruce Belfer. But I hope I'm wrong. I very sincerely hope that Belfer will make me eat my words.

Europe 2015 pt. VI: Penarth to the Black Forest

I have visions of one day going back and writing up an extended version of the whole trip, but, honestly that sort of thing might bore you to tears. There are times when the editorial confines of professional writing are of benefit to the reader.

I'm working on a second part at the moment and that will be published on RideApart soon. As is always the case when I link to stories I've written on RideApart, if you have any comments please make them there. That way the site editors will be duped into thinking I'm brilliant and that I'm worth what they pay me.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Scooter Bob and I go to Aberystwyth

Recently I've had the privilege of hosting Scooter Bob, who you can read about here. We went on two little adventures together before he carried on with his world travelling. Here's the first of those:

Hey, Chris, I've been thinking...

Yeah, Scooter Bob? What about?

Well, you know, I don't want to sound ungrateful... I mean, I appreciate your letting me stay at your place for so long and keeping the fridge stocked in beer and everything... but, well, since I'm a wooden scooter I don't really drink beer. Or anything else for that matter. And I'm not really a homebody, either. I'm a travelling sort, Chris, and I'd really like to do something.

Like what, SB?

Like go somewhere. We're here in Wales, aren't there any interesting places to go?

Sure. Loads. Arguably, Wales is home to the best motorcycling roads south of Hadrian's Wall.

OK, that sounds like my sort of thing. Let's explore some of those roads!

Good idea, SB. We'll head up to Aberystwyth, about 100 miles north and west of Cardiff. Hop on the back of my V-Strom. The road to Aberystwyth takes us first through the post-industrial towns that line the Welsh Valleys. Coal, steel and all other sorts of useful things used to pour from these valleys. To a certain extent, it could be said that the Industrial Revolution started here. Certainly it could be claimed that the labour movement got its start in Wales. Legend says that the reason socialists choose to be represented by the color red comes from a blood-soaked flag that was waved during a workers' riot in Merthyr Tydfil many centuries ago.

Wow. Interesting! Why aren't we stopping to take any pictures?

Because it's depressing. There are many warm-hearted people in the Valleys, but I honestly can't understand why they stay here. I'd rather be dead than wake up every morning to find myself "living" in some of these Valleys towns.

That's pretty extreme. Ooh, where are we now?

This is Brecon Beacons National Park, one of Wales' three national parks. Not too long ago it was awarded Dark Sky status, which means it's a place to try to escape the light pollution that blights so much of the UK. Even out of the park, though, Mid and West Wales offer good stargazing. My wife and I were up here for my birthday back in March. The temperature fell below freezing but I stayed out, staring into the night sky, until I couldn't feel my toes.

The roads that curve and roll over these hills are pretty fun.

They are. Well, they are when the sun is shining, at least. Unfortunately, that doesn't happen nearly enough.

I have roots in Vancouver. Don't talk to me about rain! So tell me about Aber... uhm... What was it called?

Aberystwyth. The name means "Mouth of the River Ystwyth." Its claim to fame is that it was a popular seaside town during the Victorian age. When the weather's good it'll still draw a decent number of day visitors. As you'll see when we get there. But in modern times it has also transformed itself into being the cultural capital of the Welsh language. The bulk of Welsh-language artists and writers and such went to university here. To the extent that it's sort of a cliché.

Didn't you get a degree in Welsh, Chris?

I did. Two of them –– a bachelors and a masters. But I went to Cardiff University. I figured a big city and a big university would offer more chances to fit in. I was wrong. I didn't know at the time how much of Welsh culture is centered in Aberystwyth. I often wonder how things could have gone for me. Anyway, look, here we are. The town lets motorcycles park for free, right on the promenade.

Ha! Wow! This is so cool. There are some pretty nice bikes here. 

Yeah, it's definitely THE thing. Riders from all over the place like to make a trip here, then they'll make their way back to wherever they started by following the roads that hug the coast. It's a pretty nice way to spend a Saturday. Or you can just lounge around and talk to people about their bikes; all the riders are friendly. And because many are Welsh they will never run out of things to say.

What are all these different flags along the promenade?

Well, those are the flags of various nations that are seeking independence or, at least, some form of greater recognition from their governments. There's Brittany's flag, the Catalan flag...

The Quebec flag...

Yup. There's a fair amount of separatist sentiment here. As I say, Aberystwyth is the capital of Welsh culture and a lot of people within that culture are, or at least purport to be, in favour of leaving the United Kingdom. Further along the seafront you'll see a mural dedicated to Owain Glyndwr, who rebelled against the English crown in the 1400s. 

And what does this say?

"I ble gei di dy gludo pan fo'r haul yn suddo?" The fact that it rhymes should clue you into the fact it's a verse from a poem –– I don't know which one –– and as such, translating it is somewhat tricky because of the issue of interpretation. Roughly, I'd say it means: "Whence shall you be carried when the sun sets?"

What does that mean?

No clue. It's poetry, SB. You can interpret it to mean whatever you want it to. Welsh-language culture is stupid for poetry. They even have their own wholly unique form of it, known as cynghanedd, which manages to turn poetry into some kind of mathematical equation. I can't stand it. 

You certainly have a lot of negative things to say about Wales.

Yeah, I guess I'm pretty jaded. A lot of bad things have happened since I moved here and I guess I can't really let go of how angry and hurt I am about them.

Bad things. Like meeting your wife, Jenn?

No. That was a good thing, obviously.

Oh, so you must mean something bad like getting your motorcycle license?

Well, no, but...

Or maybe it's the free healthcare that upsets you about Wales? Or those incredible roads we took to get here? Or those dark skies you mentioned? Or this seafront? Or those mountains I can see in the distance?

OK. I get your point, SB. Want to hit the road? We can take a different route back to Cardiff.

I hate to go. It's so pretty here. The sea looks so nice. I'll bet it would have been a lot of fun to attend university here.

Maybe. Maybe. It's pretty isolated from the rest of the world; that might get lonely. But, see these houses along the seafront? A lot of that is student accommodation. Imagine being a student with that view.


Indeed. OK, let's get rolling. If there's enough time we can stop for chocolates at a place I know in Llandeilo.

Sounds good. Hey, what's that by the roadside?

Ah, this is the "Cofiwch Dryweryn" wall. In Welsh that means "Remember Tryweryn." It's something of a rallying cry for the separatist movement. Tryweryn was a little village that the government cleared in the 1960s, then flooded the surrounding valley to create a reservoir for water to serve Liverpool. Needless to say, flooding a Welsh village to provide water for English people fuelled the separatist fire. The wall itself has earned its own kind of iconic status. Activists make sure it's repainted regularly.

You live in a place with so much beauty and unique history, Chris. You're very lucky. You really need to remember that, rather than holding onto whatever negative experiences might have happened here. 

I'm trying, Scooter Bob. I'm trying. Now hold on tight, this next section of road is pretty curvy...