Sunday, 28 February 2016

Gear Review: Auritech Biker Earplugs

Time used: Four months and counting
Cost: About $35 with shipping

There's nothing sexy about ear protection. Imagine some company paying David Beckham to model earplugs. Or special Deus-branded 'plugs being wantonly fondled by a bearded hipster while his waifish girlfriend slow-mo kickstarts a '65 Royal-Enfield in the background.

Nope, it just doesn't work.

In fact, ear protection is a little dorky. No doubt, those riders who refuse to wear a helmet will see earplugs as ATGATT-ism out of control.

But that doesn't mean hearing protection isn't important. It's a very real issue. My grandfather lost much of his hearing as a young man, thanks to WWII artillery guns. Having to shout my every conversation with him convinced me at an early age I wanted to keep my ears protected, so I have always ridden with 'plugs.

My go-to's are polyurethane foam earplugs of the sort they hand out at rock clubs. They're handy, cheap, disposable, and the ones I use do a really good job of blocking out sound. Though, sometimes too good a job. Riding in the city, I can hear sirens and horns, but I can't understand conversation. And cars with quieter engines can sneak up on me if I'm not paying attention.

A few months ago I got a hold of a pair of Auritech Biker earplugs, which the company claims have a "precision-tuned, patented ceramic filter" that "allows conversation... to remain clearly audible, without the muffling effect of conventional earplugs."

Effectively, Auritech claims its earplugs will block out the stuff you don't want to hear, while magically allowing in the things you do. That's not exactly Auritech's pitch, but it's more or less how I translate the seven pages of information that arrived in the mail along with the earplugs.

Looking like tiny, orange Christmas trees and consisting mostly of a soft rubber, the 'plugs are smaller than the foam versions because they don't expand in the ear canal. In their center is a tiny ceramic piece that Auritech says filters out damaging frequencies, rather than just blocking all noise.

Costing roughly as much as 200 pairs of my old disposable 'plugs, the reusable Auritech Biker earplugs are designed to be a more permanent item and come with a handy aluminum carrying tube. I've been wearing them off and on since I rode from Cardiff to Milan back in November, using them in several different riding scenarios.

What's Good

Since the plugs don't expand they don't put pressure on your ear canal. The rubber, or "unique thermoplastic shell material," is durable and stands up well to my disgusting habit of flicking away earwax that occasionally collects on the 'plugs.

Because you don't have to stand there, counting "One Mississippi, Two Mississippi..." and waiting for foam to expand, these earplugs are easier to set in your ear. So they don't add more than a second or two to your pre-ride gearing up process.

I remain skeptical of the amazing claims made of the ceramic filter, but I will admit I find these preferable in urban situations. I'm able to hear people speaking to me, while at the same time not experiencing discomfort from wind and engine noise. And as a result, I definitely feel I'm more alert in city situations. The earplugs are easily washed in warm, soapy water, or if you're lazy like me, you can leave them in your jeans pocket when you do laundry (remove before tumble drying). 

What's Not Good

I still prefer a greater level of silence when doing extended runs. If I know I'm going to be droning along at speed for a few hours I'll choose a pair of Howard Leight MAX disposable earplugs. Additionally, the ability to keep out wind/engine noise decreases pretty dramatically as your speed heads north of 65 mph. This is especially true if you're on a naked, or some other bike that leaves you out in the wind.

If you happen to set the earplug incorrectly, or it gets jarred as you put on a full-face helmet, it can be very uncomfortable. I also find these to be less comfortable than foam 'plugs if worn for really long periods, such as when I rode 685 miles from Milan to Rotterdam in one day.

Because these are reusable, it's likely you will get into the habit of only bothering to wash them when they really need it. Inevitably, then, you will one day find yourself juggling your gloves and key and helmet, and you will absent-mindedly place the not-recently-cleaned earplugs in your mouth. And, trust me, that will be gross.


The Auritech Biker earplugs cost more than disposables, but I think it's safe to say they will last for at least 200 uses so price isn't really an issue. They're easier to wear, once you figure out how to wear them, and would allow you to still employ a Bluetooth system in your helmet. If you're an ATGATT nerd, the fancy carrying tube makes them seem more slick and "professional" than foam earplugs, and hey, anything that can make earplugs feel even a little less dorky is probably a good thing.

Whether these are better than foam earplugs, though, depends on the type of riding you do. If you're the sort that stays off the interstate, and sits behind a nice, comfy screen, these are ideal because they allow you to hear more of the world around you. For long hauls they are less effective, but still, of course, better than nothing.

I feel the Auritech Biker earplugs are worth the cost, but I still tend to carry a set of industrial-strength foam earplugs in my jacket so I can switch according to riding conditions. Ultimately, though, what matters is that you wear some kind of ear protection. Because this is the thing about hearing: once it's lost, it doesn't come back.

(Originally published on RideApart)

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Ride Review: Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin

Just about every review you'll read for Honda's new CRF1000L Africa Twin speaks to the bike's surprising usability off road. Honda seems eager to drive that home, to such an extent that the manufacturer had journalists gather in South Africa recently (my invite must have gotten lost in the mail) to spend two days in the dirt.

Despite my own experience (I'll get to that in a moment), I don't doubt the Africa Twin's off-road chops, but it occurs to me the vast majority of the people who pay upward of $13,000 for this 511-lb. motorcycle are not actually going to go skipping off to the Kazakhstan steppe. I mean, if you really want an all-roads world-traveling Honda, surely you'd choose the Rally Raid CB500X instead. It costs and weighs less.

Instead, I think the Africa Twin will fall primarily into that awkward category of heavy adventure bikes that are perfectly capable, but unlikely to be used by the majority of its owners for anything more exotic than a rural dirt road. So, I got in touch with Honda and asked to spend some time with the Africa Twin to assess the bike as a purely on-road tool.

As an owner of a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 –– which has almost identical dimensions, weight, horsepower and torque figures — I wondered whether the Africa Twin was worthy of its larger price tag and all the praise it's received in the motorcycling press. The short answer to that question is: maybe. It really depends on personal taste and how much the Honda badge means to you.

There's no question the Africa Twin beats the 'Strom — and every other bike in its class — in terms of weight distribution. Center of gravity is kept nice and low, so it feels lighter than it actually is. At least, until you have to pick it up (again, I'll get to that in a moment).

Throwing a leg over the one-piece saddle I'm immediately impressed by how nimble this bike feels even at a standstill. At 6-foot-1, I've set the seat to its highest setting (34.2 inches) and have no trouble putting both feet flat on the ground. The seat can be adjusted to suit those with slightly less inseam, and doing so is simple. Really simple. Other manufacturers need to adopt this system.

Honda have given me a model with all the bells and whistles: panniers, top box, touring screen, heated grips, crash bars, fog lights, etc. It's a good-looking package and there's a real feeling of quality — especially the bike itself. On each side an understated, but beautiful, Honda badge makes this feel like a premium product.

The dash is a bit small and so packed with information that, on the go, it can be a little difficult to pick out relevant information. I'm also not a fan of the digital tachometer, but to each his own; I'm certain you'd get used to it after a week.

Handlebars are wide, but not unnecessarily so, and hands fall naturally to the grips. Standard handguards help keep the weather off. In a move that makes sense if you think about it, Honda have done away with the idea of a separate starter button and incorporated it into the kill switch. Press down on the big red switch and the bike fires up with the healthy whirr of a modern machine.

(EDIT: Someone has since pointed out to me that the one-switch system has been around for a while on the Yamaha MT-09; a bike I have ridden. I had forgotten about it.)

Whoever designed the Africa Twin's clever seat and start-up system must have taken the day off when Honda was developing switchgear for the left handlebar. The button for the horn has swapped places with the switch for the bike's indicators. So, EVERY DAMN TIME you try to signal a turn, you end up honking the horn. There is no possible intelligent explanation for Honda having done this and you will never get used to it.

A less significant quibble is the button for Honda's integrated heated grips. It doesn't make a lot of sense; there is no up or down. But, again, it's the sort of thing you'd get used to. Or, you could just install an aftermarket set of heated grips, which would be cheaper and warmer.

I'm riding the manual version of the Africa Twin, and, man, is this transmission slick. Buttery smooth. Here, again, it beats everything in its class. It's definitely the sort of thing you'd appreciate over a multi-day excursion. Clutchless upshifts are effortless. It's rare that I shout, "Damn, you are so sexy!" at a gearbox, but here I'm given occasion to do so.

Would a transmission this smooth be a problem off road? Its light touch difficult to nuance with a heavy off-road boot? I don't know.

The 998cc parallel twin pulls strong from low revs. Power delivery is smooth and linear. On the highway, illegal speeds are found quickly. Above 85 mph the bike starts to run out of puff, and the gentile, tolerable vibration felt at lower speeds turns to a shudder. It's not a frightening shudder — the bike still feels stable — but it's definitely not comfortable, either. A sign the Africa Twin might not be your first choice for the autobahn.

At 70 mph, though, the bike cruises comfortably at 4,000 rpm, which suggests Honda's claimed 60 mpg is achievable with a calm hand. Meanwhile, the feeling of lightness translates well into a decent flickability in corners. Roundabouts, twists and turns are fun on this machine and don't require much effort.

If you're reading this in the United States, the "Where did that car in my blind spot go?" feeling that comes when shooting through roundabouts may not be familiar to you. But it's something that makes one value good mirrors. The Africa Twin's set is OK but not great and I have to readjust frequently. After a few stops I accept the mirrors are not strong enough to hold my helmet.

The Africa Twin's off-road-friendly suspension travel means it can buck a little under hard acceleration or braking but that may be the sort of thing you're only going to discover when trying to find flaws. The same person who is disinclined to off road with this bike will probably also be disinclined to wring its neck through the twisties. Treat it like a tourer, for instance, and you'll never have issues.

And I can very much see this being used for long-distance trips. The seat is comfortable and offers plenty of space to move around. The optional touring screen keeps windflow just over my helmet. Though I would like the screen to be wider; my head is in a nice pocket of still air, but my shoulders are out in the cold.

My biggest qualm with the Africa Twin, especially as pertains to its value as a long-distance road machine, is the fact it has tubed tires. Ostensibly this is because tubed tires are preferable if you've launched your bike off a ridge or something and damaged the rim. For a road-only rider, though, they are a pain in the caboose — considerably more difficult to repair roadside, and, even in this day and age, more likely to blow up.

Honda has confided in me it plans to offer rims that accept tubeless tires in the not-too-distant future, which is a good thing. Hopefully quality road tires will soon be available in the bike's narrow sizes. At the moment, for example, the excellent Michelin Pilot Road 4 tire is not available. The tires with which the Africa Twin comes standard, Dunlop Trailmax, provide a decent amount of grip but can kick on particularly slick surfaces, like raised pavement markers on a wet road.

Honda's adventure-looking panniers look well suited to extended travel, but a goof on my part helps expose a number of flaws. On a mountain road, I stop to take some pictures, steering the bike onto a patch of grass. As I do this, the bike lurches, stalls, and I suddenly find myself lying beneath it.

As stated above, I totally believe everyone else's claims about the Africa Twin's off-road capability. I don't have a great deal of experience off road, so it is entirely possible and indeed likely that this bike is in no way to blame for my dropping it in the exact same photo spot where I have taken half a dozen other bikes without incident — including the 900-pound Victory Vision. I accept that I am a bonehead and any assertions that the Africa Twin is too inclined to stall are nothing more than desperate attempts to comfort my damaged ego.

But hey, I've dropped this thing, so let's talk about that, shall we? 

Fortunately, I have dropped it into some good ol' Welsh mud. I am able to slither out from under the Honda with ease. No damage to my person or, it appears, the bike (a). After a 30-second break to scream profanities at the sky, I turn my attention to the task of getting the bike upright.

Now, I cycle almost every day; I also lift weights, and part of my routine involves doing several dozen squats. I'm not Brian Shaw or anything, but I'm strong enough that I've not had difficulty picking up dropped bikes in the past. But Sweet Jeebus is it hard to pick up a 511 lb. motorcycle in the mud. Swearing, spitting, huffing, straining hard. Who would think that off-roading with this thing would be a good idea?!

After a minute of struggling, I get the bike up. And it's at this point I notice the left pannier is missing. The Honda panniers have an aluminum look but are really just plastic, attached via clever integrated mounts. I find the pannier in the mud a few feet away and instinctively look for all the shattered plastic bits that I expect to have come off with it. There aren't any, and to my surprise, I discover — after using the key to unlock its plastic clamping mechanism — the pannier clicks back on with ease.

I can't decide how I feel about this. The pannier has simply popped off, rather than shattering into pieces. I suppose the former scenario is preferable. But it doesn't really fit the rugged Africa Twin adventuring image. These things can be forcibly removed with a swift kick. Clearly, they are only good for road use. Which then begs the question: why aren't they more aerodynamic, like luggage on the V-Strom 1000 or Kawasaki Versys 1000? As is, you have these honking big boxes hanging off your bike, creating all kinds of drag, without the indestructible benefits of say, a pair of Metal Mule cases.

When I take the bike to a nearby jet wash to clean off the mud, I discover another problem with the Honda luggage: it's not entirely waterproof. However, I also discover the Africa Twin is easy to clean. Hit it with a hose and not much else is required. That's certainly an advantage over my V-Strom 1000, which has nooks and crannies that will never be clean unless I remove the fairing.

All in all, then, the Africa Twin is well suited to the sort of road-only use most owners will ask of it. It is solid, nimble, all-day comfortable, easy to live with, and comes with the promise of Honda's famous reliability. It makes sense. This is a bike I would ride cross country. Though I'd personally not buy anything more than the actual bike, and not until tubeless tires are available.

After that, perhaps some Shad cases for luggage, a Givi AirFlow to replace the too-narrow screen, Oxford heated grips, and so on. Because of the expected popularity of the Africa Twin, aftermarket companies are rushing to provide accessories for the bike, allowing you to turn it into your perfect machine.

As to the question of whether I think it's better than my V-Strom 1000, well...I don't. As good, maybe, but not better. However, that's an emotionally driven opinion; if an Africa Twin owner were to contest it, I wouldn't argue. The Africa Twin is a very, very, very good motorcycle. But for the person who has come to love his or her Suzuki V-Strom 1000, Kawasaki Versys 1000, Triumph Tiger 800 XR/C, BMW R800GS, KTM 1190 Adventure, or Yamaha Super Ténéré, it may not be so good as to be worth trading in for. Not on the road, at least.

The Three Questions

So, with all that said, here are the questions I ask of every motorcycle I ride:

1) Does it fit my needs/current lifestyle?
Yup. The Africa Twin is very evenly matched to the Suzuki V-Strom 1000, which is a bike I have really come to appreciate. The Honda is perfectly capable of handling almost anything I would ask of it. Except, as I say, travelling on the German autobahn.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
A utilitarian grin, yes. It didn't punch me in the chest with joy or any such thing, but it is a very good bike that can take me to all kinds of grin-inducing places and experiences without worry.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
No. A Honda fanatic would disagree, and, as I say, I wouldn't try to tell him or her that he/she is wrong. In road-use terms, the 'Strom and AT are incredibly similar. But for me the 'Strom wins because:
a) It has quicker, more exciting acceleration (I prefer the feeling of a V-twin).
b) It is capable of going faster without feeling unsettled.
c) The engine's snarl when accelerating sounds a lot cooler/meaner.
d) It doesn't stall as easily.
e) It handles better.
f) It is just a teency bit more comfortable.
g) It's cheaper.
h) Its panniers, though smaller, stick out less and are more aerodynamic.
i) The Honda is not actually any tougher than the 'Strom (see footnote below). 

It is certain the Africa Twin will have a better resale value, but after returning it to Honda I was happy to be going home on the 'Strom.


(a) When I closely inspected the bike, I saw that the rear fairing had come slightly loose, with a fingernail-sized tab/fairing clip having popped out of its slot. When I attempted to push this tab back into its slot it snapped off. Visually, nothing seemed amiss, however, so I left the tab there on the mountain and spoke not a word of it to Honda.

(Parts of this review were originally published on RideApart)

Sunday, 21 February 2016

British riders are better

(Originally published on RideApart)

Fire up the hater machine: There's no way things are going to be civilized after a headline like that. 

But if you haven't gone straight to the comments section to break your fingers typing a load of stereotype-driven vitriol (Bad teeth! Socialism! Rain! Russell Brand!), if you are actually still reading this, I'll explain why I think Britons are better motorcyclists than their American counterparts. And why I think Americans could stand to learn a few things from the Mother Country.

I hope you understand it hurts me to say that. I've developed a fondness for the UK over my years here, but not so much that I don't hate to admit anything British is in any way "better."

Food? No.
Music? No.
Weather? Definitely no.
Healthcare? More accessible, but no.
Police? Friendlier and considerably less shooty, but probably no.

When it comes to riding a motorcycle, however, I can't deny it: The people here do it better.

I'm speaking in general tones, of course. If you happen to be a championship racer or some such thing I'll wager your skills surpass those of some bloke named Nigel who's pootling about on his Triumph. Though, I'd also wager that if you pit Nigel against the average American motorcyclist, he'll come out the better rider.

On the surface, if you compare the two countries, there's not much reason for this to be true. In both places, motorcyclists make up about the same small percentage of road users (roughly 2 percent). Both countries have a rich motorcycling history stretching back more than a century. Both countries have fostered motorcycle cultures that have influenced all other parts of the world.

It's true that Britain has more curvy roads per mile. The straightest road in Britain is 12 miles long and there's really only one like it. Whereas the straightest road in the United States is apparently 123 miles long and roads of its kind are so common you probably don't even notice. Obviously, being required to navigate more curves more frequently may help Britons sharpen their skills. But surely that can't be it entirely.

The weather might have something to do with it. We get a lot of rain in Blighty—a lot of gale force winds, too—so if you're going to ride more than five days a year you have to learn how to handle a bike in unpleasant conditions. Laura Llovet's recent RideApart article about riding in the rain suggests some Americans have developed these skills, but it seems most refuse to venture out if there's even a possibility of water from the sky.

Certainly it's true that Britain has considerably more commuting motorcyclists (and scooterists). Just last month, the Motorcycle Industry Association announced that sales of commuter motorcycles (i.e., 125cc or less) had reached a record high in the United Kingdom. Maybe the fact that more people ride more frequently is what makes the Brits better.

Maybe, but again I'm not convinced. I mean, quite a lot of people commute on motorbikes and scooters in Hanoi, but I'm not sure that makes them masters of the craft.

If I had to peg the reason for British superiority to one thing, I'd say it would be tiered licensing. Yeah, that old chestnut.

Grumpy old Brit riders will tell you tiered licensing exists thanks to the European Union's incessant love of bureaucracy. They are, of course, forgetting Britain's far greater love of bureaucracy, which extends back centuries. And in the unlikely event that the UK does choose to withdraw from the EU this summer (bet you didn't know they're voting on that), I can all but guarantee they'll keep tiered licensing for motorcyclists. Heck, they might even make it more complex.

Those old dudes are right, though, that the current system is guided by EU policy. So the system here is more or less the same you'll encounter in Ireland or France or Germany, etc. And guess what? Those guys are also (generally) better riders than Americans.

The reason tiered licensing makes for better riders is not so much because it restricts different ages to different machines (though there's an argument that may help), but because it creates multiple testing situations. More testing means more studying. A British person riding from the age of 16 could potentially face seven different exams before attaining a full motorcycle license at the age of 24. There are ways to ignore a few of those tests, but even in the cases of people aged 24 and older, and therefore able to test directly to full-license status, there are a lot of hoops to jump through.

That latter route, known as Direct Access, is how I got my UK license. Much to my chagrin, British authorities saw no value in my US license, so I had to:

Just the process of earning my CBT was more intensive than the Basic Rider Course I had taken as a teenager in Minnesota. When I took that BRC, I was in a group of 14 people under the direction of a single instructor. The group never left the safety of a YMCA parking lot. But at the end of the day I left with a license endorsement that meant I could go out and buy any size bike I wanted.

Whereas when I did my CBT in Britain, I was given one-on-one instruction (most UK training schools allow no more than three students per instructor) and spent several hours riding on public roads. Not to mention the hours of closed-course and classroom instruction. And at the end of it, I was still only at the beginning of the process. Legally, I was only allowed to ride a 125cc bike.

That may sound frustrating –– and it was –– but the process built my confidence. I did several more days of training to practice and prepare for the on-road tests (tested on a 600cc motorcycle) and when I finally earned my full license, I actually felt I had the ability to use it. Which isn't really how I had felt back when I was 18 and driving home from a YMCA parking lot.

Indeed, in the years between getting my US motorcycle endorsement and my moving to the UK, I never bought a bike of my own. I rode other people's bikes, crashed them, and soon acquiesced to my ex-wife's belief that those murdercycles were bad news.

So, although getting a US license was easier, the process didn't prepare me to use that license.

The idea of tiered licensing in the United States has been discussed before and the reaction has been pretty negative. The basic response that people give is they don't want tiered licensing because Freedom.

Right. The freedom to crash. The freedom to pay high insurance rates because everyone else is crashing. The freedom to not know what you're doing, get scared and give up. The freedom to allow your insecurity to turn to animosity and have your bad behavior spoil it for others. The freedom to be irrelevant in transportation planning. The freedom to sit in traffic and suffer because the government thinks you're too stupid to lane split. The freedom to look across the water and see that just about everyone in Britain is a better rider than you and enjoys more freedoms and advantages as a result.

I think about this stuff a lot, because one day I want to come home. And I don't really want to be wistfully thinking back to these soggy nations when I'm out riding in America. I find a quaint charm in the idea of American exceptionalism, but I know you can't actually claim to be the best if you make no effort to be better.

In order for American motorcyclists to no longer hold our heads in shame, perhaps we may need to consider tiered licensing. Or, at least, far more stringent testing. Exactly how to fix it, though, I'm not sure. What would you do to improve things?

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Riding Motorcycles In Britain

(Originally published on

Forget the Frogs, the UK is best for motorcycling

Not too long ago Tod Rafferty wrote a piece for in which he intimated that France is the best country for motorcyclists. As a resident of the country that is France’s oldest and closest enemy, I feel I am duty-bound to inform you that, with all due respect to Tod, his assertion is codswallop.

Yes, codswallop. Tommyrot. Poppycock. Flapdoodle. I’m sorry to use such strong language. But if you’re anywhere east of the Atlantic Ocean, it’s Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland you want to be visiting. Britain is home to civilised riding. That's civilised with a 'S,' thank you.

I’m from America, but have lived in the UK –– in Wales, specifically –– for roughly a decade. I often pine for Minnesota thunderstorms and Texas cooking, but one thing that keeps me from going back home is knowing how much I’ll miss motorcycling here.

Germany (or possibly the United States) may be able to claim to have made the first motorcycle, but the UK is the country that made motorcycling. Triumph, Norton, Vincent, Brough Superior, and dozens of other great names. The rockers (and mods), the ton-up boys, the Isle of Man TT heroes, and adventurers like Ted Simon, Elspeth Beard, and, of course, Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. Eric Gardner, the man who invented the crash helmet. Geoff Duke, the first man to wear a one-piece leather racing suit. Café racers and streetfighters. It all started here. 

Motorcycling runs in British blood. It is a part of the people’s history, a part of their present, and, as roads grow ever more congested, very much a part of their future. Just last month, MO reported sales of commuter-sized bikes are at an all-time high in the UK. That’s not surprising. I’ve driven in Houston, Los Angeles, Boston and Manhattan, and I assure you: no American has seen traffic congestion of the sort experienced in London or Manchester. Motorcycles are allowed to filter (a.k.a., lane split) in the UK, which means they are generally the best way to ensure you’ll show up on time.

Additionally, a motorcycle-friendly culture means toll roads are often free or discounted. In most cities, motorcyclists are allowed to use bus lanes. Parking lots and parking garages usually have allocated free spaces for motorcycles, and many offer locks and helmet storage.

Police enforcement of speed limits is rare, and on the occasion officers do post themselves roadside they take a relaxed view, disinclined to stop anyone going less than 30 mph over the limit. By and large, though, authorities leave speed enforcement to our machine overlords. Around cities, radar cameras are the scourge of British motorways (a.k.a. “freeways”), but the good news is: those cameras are almost all forward-facing. A motorcycle has no forward plate.

Meanwhile, the good ol’ British punk spirit means many cameras will be damaged –– lenses smashed or spraypainted –– by locals who hate them more than you. Especially in parts of Scotland and Wales where nationalists see rules as a form of English oppression.

Outside of urban areas, roads are generally free flowing. Off the beaten path, Britain’s narrow B roads and country lanes make it seem as if it was built for motorcyclists. In truth, it was built for horses and carts by Roman soldiers; it’s simply that no one since has put in effort to widen the roads. In my wife’s native Devon, roads leading to her father’s house are so narrow that hedgerows scrape both sides of a car.

It’s a situation that plays to a motorcycle’s size, allowing you to explore nooks and crannies that are effectively inaccessible to cars. Well, assuming your motorcycle is set up with good suspension. There’s a reason the BMW R1200GS (including the GSA) is the best-selling big bike in Britain. Followed closely by the Yamaha FJ-09 (known as the MT-09 Tracer over here). The country’s best-selling Suzuki (V-Strom 1000) and Triumph (Tiger 800) are also adventure-styled.

That’s not to say all the roads are awful. Routes known as “A roads” are generally in good condition and offer plenty of opportunity for engaging and spirited riding. FYI, “spirited” is British motorcycling code for “in excess of the speed limit.” Especially in Scotland in Wales.

One of the real advantages of British geography is the fact this place is so small. Run top to bottom (John o’ Groats to Land’s End) in less than a day and you’ll still need to ride a quarter of the way back to earn an Iron Butt badge. So, everything is close. Long, boring, tire-squaring rides on the interstate aren’t necessary for great riding.

Okay, it’s true what they say about the weather. It rains. If you’re one of those people who refuses to ride in the wet, you should probably stay in Arizona. The good news is that, except in winter, it doesn’t tend to rain very heavily or for very long. Besides, wearing waterproof gear isn’t uncomfortable because temperatures rarely exceed 75º F. Every few years we’ll get a day in July that hits 90º F and they treat it with the same sense of alarm and confusion as Houstonians do snow: cancelling school, closing offices, panic-buying things from grocery stores, etc.

In the case of Britons, though, the thing they’re buying is booze. This speaks to an aspect of Britain that helps one overcome the wet weather, an aspect that makes this such a great country to ride in: British people. Quirky, irreverent, foul-mouthed and quick-witted, they are a people who know how to have fun. British motorcyclists in particular.

Moto-journalism legend John Burns has written a few times about the feeling of asking oneself: “Why doesn’t somebody take this thing away from me?” The feeling that we motorcyclists are somehow pulling off a great trick on the universe, that we’re getting away with something: “Whee! Somebody’s slapped some wheels on this metal box of explosions and I’m going to sit on it! Ha-ha!”

That spirit is strong in British riders. They are mischievous and silly, and happy in their silliness. We Americans often feel need to make what we do seem more important than it is; we don’t just go on a group ride, we Ride in Support of America’s Warrior Heroes. You don’t tend to see that sort of thing here. Britons possess a sense of adventure that they don’t seek to justify or rationalize. After all, it was a Brit, George Mallory, who said he wanted to climb Mount Everest simply “because it’s there.”

I can give you plenty of reasons to come to Britain. Americans are generally well-liked. Everyone speaks English (though, the Welsh appreciate when you use the greeting: “S’mae”). Drivers are better than those found in California, Italy or Spain. You can’t drop a bike without hitting some historical something or other. The food is far better than some would lead you to believe, especially if you like pork. And the quality of the ale will help you not care either way.

But the real reason, of course, is simply that it’s here. It’s odd and it’s beautiful, but most importantly –– and they’ve fought wars to prove this –– it’s better than France.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

What I want: Triumph Tiger Sport

W'hey, it's been a while since I've done one of these posts. To some extent, that speaks to how busy I've been lately. I've been getting a lot of work from RideApart and –– living the dream.

But also it speaks to how happy I've been with my trusty Suzuki V-Strom 1000. The thing is a comfortable, fun, do-everything workhorse that –– ever since I installed a Givi AirFlow screen –– has been pretty close to perfect. 

Pretty close. I would really like cruise control.

So, I have to admit, it's primarily that feature that draws me to the new Triumph Tiger Sport. Well, OK, that's not the only reason. If cruise control were really so make-or-break for me, I would have bought one of those cruise control kits from Australia (does anyone know if those things actually work?).

There's also the fact that the Tiger Sport is a sport-tourer with adventure-style ergonomics but no pretense of off-road ability. And its 1050-cc inline triple delivers something close to 130 hp.

The Tiger Sport has been around in one form or another since 2007. It was sold for a while in the US as the Tiger 1050, but apparently Americans couldn't wrap their heads around the concept and it hasn't been available Stateside since its last update back in 2012. This new version won't be available in America, either.

Ever since the Strom taught me that it's possible to appreciate an ugly bike I have had my eye on the post-2012 Tiger Sport, and I even toyed with the idea of getting one a few months ago when Triumph was offering £1,200 of free accessories as part of the deal. I didn't bite, though, because I didn't like the idea of giving up traction control, a feature on the Strom that has helped keep me upright on at least two occasions.

Now that the Tiger Sport is equipped with traction control, and multiple rider modes and that blessed cruise control, I am very interested.

So interested, in fact, that I find myself able to develop mild appreciation for this bike's aesthetics. It certainly helps that I (unlike seemingly everyone) actually like the gigantic Megaman-cannon exhausts that are showing up on bikes as a result of Euro 4 regulations. I think they look cool.

I like, too, the single-sided swingarm, and that bellypan/sump guard thing. The front end is a little too Kawasaki Versys for me (whereas seemingly everyone else in moto-journalism loves the Versys, I hate it), but you don't really see a bike when you're sitting on it.

This looks like a motorcycle that can handle every task I currently put to my Strom, but with the added benefit of being more powerful, having better residual value, and, of course, cruise control. Plus, the scuttlebutt is that this particular model will be assembled at Triumph's plant in England. I can't find any information either way, but, if true, it would speak to my sentimental patriotic side.

The voice of reason

Having said all that, I'm not sure my reasons for wanting a Tiger Sport are all that strong. I mean, effectively I like this bike because it is –– I assume, I've not test ridden it yet –– like my Strom but with the addition of cruise control and a Triumph badge (which earns more street cred in Britain).  Is that enough reason to get rid of the Strom? The fact that the Tiger Sport's got more power than the Strom doesn't factor into things because I have never use the full of the Strom's 100 hp.

So, just two reasons. Are those enough to justify getting a more expensive bike? Probably not. Especially since those features already exist on the less-expensive Tiger 800 XRx.

And that speaks to another concern I'd have about the Tiger Sport. I'm not entirely sure that Triumph motorcycles are as high-quality as the company would like to believe. 

If you've read my review of the Tiger 800 XRx, you know that its gearbox was one of the worst I've ever encountered. I've since been told by a number of folks that I was unlucky, and that, in fact, the gearboxes are fine. Meanwhile, if you've read my review of the Tiger Explorer you'll know that I experienced wobble above 75 mph. And, again, I've since had Triumph riders since tell me that I was unlucky, and that, in fact, Tiger Explorers are perfectly stable.

I don't think anyone is lying to me –– maybe I have just been unlucky with Triumphs –– but my experiences have made me question Triumph's quality control. I'm not sure I'd want to spend my own money and risk being unlucky again.

Maybe I'll just write letters to Suzuki, asking them to add cruise control to the Strom.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

The problem with custom

(Originally published on RideApart)

I spend a lot of time playing the "What I Want Next" game, daydreaming about the dozens upon dozens of bikes (and bike-related things) I'd like to own. As a result, I spend a lot of time reading reviews and descriptions of bikes. One sentence that occasionally shows up, which annoys the heck out of me, is: "This motorcycle makes a great base for customization."


My level of annoyance varies depending on the bike, of course. I don't feel too upset when the base in question is something like the Triumph Street Twin or Indian Scout Sixty — quality machines in and of themselves. They don't necessarily need to be improved upon, it's simply the case that the opportunity is there if you have the will and the wallet.

Other bikes, however — and I'm looking at you, Harley-Davidson Street 750 — are steaming piles of poo. And in that case the "great base for customization" claim feels like a cop-out, a means of ignoring the fact that a manufacturer is trying to get you to buy a product that it knows is not good enough.

To inspire you to overlook the bike's obvious shortcomings, a manufacturer will fill its Instagram feed with images of motorcycles that have been transformed by someone who likely possesses far more skill than you.

I mean, for the love of Pete, if I were as talented as, say, Roland Sands or Shinya Kimura or David Borras, I wouldn't be buying a brand new motorcycle to serve as my base. I'd be making up stuff on my own because I'd be a genius. And if I did rework one of these bikes that are claimed to be "a great base for customization" it would be only because a manufacturer had come to me a with fistfuls of money.

Malasana yoga pose

I'm guessing that's what happened when Roland Sands made all those really cool Scout Sixty flat trackers a few months ago. I love those things. Primarily because they eliminate my one complaint about the Scout/Scout Sixty: low seat height. As a guy who's 6 foot 1, I don't really want a bike that forces me into the malasana yoga pose. But as a fan of Indian, I would like a Scout. I want that Scout Scrambler I've been dreaming about for more than a year.

Since I'm not as clever as Roland Sands, the only way to get such a bike is to pay someone else to build it. So, not too long ago, I got in touch with one of the UK's best known motorcycle shops, Krazy Horse, to ask if they could do the job.

"Yes, we can," they told me. "But it will be costly."

Then they ran down the list of bits and bobs that would be needed: longer shocks, fender points, spacers, new forks, new wheels, longer brake lines, longer clutch cable, etc. Fine, fine. It makes sense that one needs lots of different parts to create an essentially different bike.

"How costly is 'costly'?" I asked.

"Well, cost will change based on the specific parts you choose," they explained. "But to give you an idea, if you wanted the Ohlins rear shocks that Roland Sands used, they would be about £1,500 alone." (That's US $2,150)

And that's pretty much where the conversation ended. If just one set of parts was going to cost that much I knew the whole thing would be beyond my meagre resources.

Harley-Davidson knows this custom is better than the standard Street but refuses to offer anything close to as good.

Now, at this point, you're probably thinking: "So, what exactly are you complaining about here, Chris? That you're too stupid to build a bike? That you're too poor to have someone else do it for you?"

Well, sort of, yes. Maybe it's childish and unreasonable to say this, but the whole thing feels unfair in some way. Manufacturers entice us with incredible customizations that are simply unattainable to the average rider. But in performing these customizations on entry-level machines, there's an implicit suggestion that they should be attainable, a suggestion that you should not be happy with the out-of-the-box product. For some reason that irks me.

If a manufacturer knows its bike could be better, why not make it better?

It's not like this happens in other parts of life. I don't fork out money for a brand-new coat and say to myself: "This coat will be great as soon as I sew in a new liner, take in the waist, add a fleece collar, and replace the zipper with a sturdier one."

I don't want to buy a washing machine and have to put in a different motor. I don't want to buy plates and have to paint and glaze them myself. I want to be happy with the things I purchase when I purchase them. Along with this, spare a thought for the poor soul who doesn't live anywhere near a good custom shop — the person stuck in a town full of Orange County Choppers wannabes.

Of course, exclusivity is arguably the point of customization. The more expensive the build, the better. The more challenging it is to find someone who can interpret your vision into metal and paint, the more special you feel. I get that. And that's life; some people will have things you don't have, even when you really wish you had them.

Additionally, if a manufacturer doesn't sell the bike I want, I don't have to buy it and try to turn it into something else. I can just go out and buy a BMW RnineT — nothing wrong with that thing.

I still can't get over the feeling, however, that in some way it is all a bit unfair. But I can't quite come up with a reasonable suggestion of the way things ought to be instead. Perhaps I'm just overthinking it. I am, aren't I?

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

8 reasons cycling to work will make you a better rider

(Originally published on RideApart)

I'm a strong proponent of motorcycle commuting, but if you live relatively close to your workplace — say, within 7 miles — it may make more physical and financial sense to get there via pedal power.  
I work from home these days, but up until the start of this year I was commuting to an office about three miles away. With a distance that short, I found it difficult to justify the time and effort required to put on my gear (usually awkward rain gear because I live in the UK), maneuver my motorcycle out of its storage space, then squeeze my way through traffic on roads designed in the 1800s for a journey so short my tires weren't even warm by the time I got to work. 

It was easier to just grab my bicycle and go, and I was always happy I did. Even in the rain and gale-force winds, there was something immensely cathartic about it: a guaranteed 30 minutes of solace each day.

Full disclosure: I used to work for a charity that promotes cycling, so of course I would think this way, but I genuinely feel that regularly getting out on a bicycle — especially if you do so on public roads — can benefit your motorcycle riding in a number of ways, both physically and mentally. Here are eight reasons why:

1. Healthy Body, Healthy Mind
This one's pretty obvious. There's nothing new about the idea of there being a correlation between physical state and mental state. And, of course, your mental state is vitally important in motorcycling.

Your brain box is your best and primary defense against incident or injury, so you want it suffering from as few physical distractions as possible. Cycling is just one of many ways to ensure you're not the sort of person who breathes heavily when sitting still. But the benefit that it has over, say, swimming, is that it can be incorporated into your daily commute.

Unless you and your workplace happen to be separated by a lake.

2. Improved Balance
As with the first reason, this probably won't blow your mind. The sense of balance developed from regular cycling transfers to the sense of balance needed for riding a motorcycle. Obviously, it's not a like-for-like issue — your motorcycle weighs considerably more than a bicycle and therefore requires different physical input. But the basic concept is the same: you're imprinting certain truths on your physical memory.

For instance, you're teaching your body that it has to be an active partner in the process of manipulating the bike, not something it experiences much in a car. You're teaching it to involve your hands in braking, and to use all of your senses in assessing your situation. And you're teaching it how to behave on a vehicle that relies on balance to keep it from falling over.

3. An Easy Way to Work on Body Positioning
Many of the ways in which cycling benefits your moto life come from the fact that everything moves slower on a bicycle. When it comes to body positioning, that means you can practice certain concepts at far safer speeds. 

I've found that cycling has helped me a lot when it comes to figuring out where my body should be in cornering. Again, it's not a 100 percent like-for-like situation, but the basic philosophies are the same. Spending a day at a racetrack might help more, but cycling costs a hell of a lot less. As slowly as 10 mph, I'm able to lean a bicycle, hanging my weight off the side, etc., but with the happy knowledge that if I crash it likely won't result in anything more than a skinned knee. Thereafter, with some adaptation, I'm able to apply the same physical techniques on my motorcycle.

4. Perfect the Art Of Countersteering
At the really low speeds of which a bicycle is capable the need for countersteering may be so subtle you don't really notice it, but it's there. Build up a decent amount of steam and you'll find all the rules apply, but again, with the relative safety of your not actually going all that fast.

A surprising number of people struggle to get their minds around the idea of countersteering, which is why cycling regularly (e.g., to work every day) is so beneficial. By experiencing something over and over and over, it becomes innate.

5. Learn to Read Situations More Effectively
Last year I spent a day picking up motorcycling techniques from a British police officer. The very next day, I started applying those same techniques to my cycling: looking as far ahead as possible, considering the potential situations ahead of me, and developing responses for those situations before they occurred.

What I've found is that doing this on a bicycle vastly improves my ability to do the same on a motorcycle. This was especially true early on because all this forward thinking was easier within the slower context of cycling. I could look ahead, see a hazard with which I might intersect and have plenty of time to come up with a possible response (as well as a back-up response), and evaluate the quality of said responses all before actually having to take any action. It would be hard to do that much analysis at high speed.

On a motorbike, you need to have a store of go-to answers in your mind. Cycling can help you develop those answers, as well as develop the skills and awareness that will help you choose the right answers when needed.

6. Improve Your Understanding of Lane Positioning
Most of the time when people encourage you to cycle, they sell it as a fun, healthy activity for the whole family and direct you to car-free cycle paths in your area. That's a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but in this case, I say forget that noise. Get on the road.

Inevitably, someone will tell me I'm an awful person to offer such advice, but it's worth noting that in the United States bicycles have a legal right to share the road with everyone else. And in some places, as is the case in the UK, bicycles are legally not allowed on the sidewalk. Therefore, by being in the road you are doing the right thing.

You will learn a lot by sharing the road with cars and trucks and motorcycles. One of the first things you'll want to learn is how to be seen. As a cyclist, you lack the motorcyclist's ability to speed out of negative situations. So, the importance increases for all the other things a motorcyclist should be doing to stay safe. In particular, you should be paying attention to where in your lane you choose to put your bike — pedal or motorized.

Because Britons love rules, there is, of course, plenty to be found on the British Cycling Federation's website relating to the subject of lane positioning. But the important bit is this: Where you put yourself in the road communicates certain things to other road users. If you're not aware of this, you may inspire some weird behavior that can put you at risk. Innately understanding the why of lane positioning at slow speed will help you to be more confident at high speed and, perhaps, create fewer situations where you need to use speed as a defense against someone else's actions.

7. Find Peace Among the Ass-Hats
As a cyclist on the road, you will find that almost everyone hates you. They hate the very idea of you because... uhm... I don't know. I've never fully understood it, but man, is there a lot of vitriol for the great evil that is some guy or gal on a bicycle. Too much, in fact, to worry yourself over.

It's a little bit masochistic to do so, perhaps, but by subjecting yourself to the experience of being a vulnerable road user that everyone dislikes (i.e., a cyclist), you will develop a better ability to deal with the psychological effect of being a vulnerable road user that quite a few people dislike (i.e., a motorcyclist). Eventually (after a few shouting matches) you will find a zen; an ability to stay aware, stay visible, and stay calm.

You develop a mindfulness that helps you remain in the moment, paying attention to what's happening now rather than losing focus and raging about what has happened or what could have happened. This mindset helps immensely when on a motorcycle. At speed, all the dangers I face as a cyclist become even more dangerous. So it makes even more sense that I not fill my helmet with focus-stealing anger toward the dumb things others are doing — acknowledge and move on.

That's much easier said than done, but regular cycling helps you practice.

8. Be More Bad-Ass
Get into the habit of cycling every day and you will inevitably run into bad weather. You can deal with this in a number of ways, but the best method is to just shut your cake hole and keep pedaling. I've cycled through torrential rains, 70-mph winds, hail, snow, freezing cold and discomforting hot. Sometimes it just really sucks.

One of the reasons it sucks so much is due to the absence of gear that can adequately protect you from the elements, while still allowing you to exert so much physical energy. By contrast, modern motorcycle gear is amazing. And if you've developed an ability to tolerate bad weather on a bicycle, you will hardly notice it on a motorcycle. Riding in the rain, riding in the cold—no problem.

While all your friends are calling off their rides and hiding under electric blankets, you will be out there enjoying the amazing awesomeness that is motorcycling.

Monday, 1 February 2016

What has Erik Buell taught us?

(Originally published on RideApart)

Sportbikes still matter in Britain. Less so than they once did, but enough that MCN —a weekly motorcycling newspaper with a readership of roughly 330,000 — dedicates several pages each week to superbike competition.

Read motorcycle reviews in UK publications and you'll notice a distinct sportbike tinge in the interpretation of a given motorcycle's qualities. The more a motorcycle displays sportbike-like features, the more reviewers are willing to forgive shortcomings.

Many British riders view motorcycling through a similar filter. They coo and swoon for machines that are unmanageable, uncomfortable, impractical and, often, unreliable, because said bikes are capable of going really, really, really fast. Keeping this in mind, I'll tell you about an experience I had in 2014.

I was at the UK's largest motorcycle show, Motorcycle Live, which draws thousands upon thousands of riders who feel it their duty to sit on every single bike. Or, well, almost every single bike.

Whereas I had to throw elbows to get close to other models, the area displaying the then-new EBR 1190RX was completely devoid of life. No one — I mean, not one person — gave a damn about it or the 1190SX. That's when I knew EBR was doomed. If you can't get people to look at your sportbike here, you've screwed up. It's like not being able to sell barbecue in Texas.

Less than five months later, EBR tanked. Some indeterminate part of the company fell into the hands of erstwhile partner Hero MotoCorp. The other indeterminate part (exactly what was sold was never fully explained to the public) was set to go to New Jersey businessman Bruce Belfer.

But after months of Belfer failing to raise the actual cash (no shame there, I suppose; I wouldn't be able to put together $2.25 million either), those indeterminate bits of EBR were sold last week to a company called Liquid Asset Partners, who specialize in, yes, liquidating assets.

There are a handful of Buellistas out there with enough faith to start a new religion (expect them to show up on your doorstep soon with pamphlets), and they swear unto their dad-jeans-wearing god that EBR is not dead (it's pining for the fjords, perhaps). They will point aggressively, full of hope, to a Liquid Assets Partners press release that uses the word "maybe" four times in a sentence. 

(UPDATE: That press release is no longer available on LAP's website. The company has removed all references to wanting to sell EBR as a single entity and has begun selling off whatever parts they can)

But let's be honest with ourselves: it's over. The final chapter has been written. EBR is no more, and nevermore shall be.

I'm inclined to believe that this is more or less the last we'll hear of EBR's eponymous founder Erik Buell. He's been eligible for AARP benefits for almost 16 years now and it seems unlikely that anyone will want to bankroll a venture in which he might hope to be involved.

Take that with a grain of salt. I've never met Erik Buell and I can't speak to what he will or won't do, or what he's capable of. However, a handful of established moto-journalists who have met him say he's the sort of person who should never be written off.

But, as many more people who have never met him will almost certainly point out in the comments below, Buell has been involved in multiple failed motorcycle companies. That sort of thing puts a mark on a fella, and in the skittish, hoodoo world of modern business, it may be an indelible mark. 

So, if this is the end, what lessons can we learn? What has Erik Buell taught us?

First and foremost I think he's taught us that the motorcycle business is kind of hard. And from that truth we can perhaps start to see why Buell was very much on his own in trying to make sportbikes over the years.

Because another thing Buell taught us is that Americans aren't all that into sportbikes. At least not enough that the things are going to just sell themselves—not the way cruisers do. I don't know why Americans love cruisers so much. I'm genuinely baffled every time I see that Harley-Davidson motorcycles still account for 50 percent of the bikes 600cc or larger sold in the United States. The sun is yellow, the sky is blue, Americans buy a lot of cruisers. Some things just are.

That's not to say American motorcyclists are completely homogeneous, it's simply that there aren't enough riders in a given non-cruiser category that you can throw any old bike out there and expect it to sell... especially since those non-cruiser riders are used to looking beyond US borders. Patriotism doesn't necessarily work on them.

Buell's motorcycles were innovative in certain ways, but none were ever truly better than their foreign competition. This was a fact especially damaging to Buell considering his chosen style; electronic whizbangery is an inherent part of the sportbike genre.

So, the third lesson from Buell is that if you're going to build something other than a cruiser in America, you can't rely on intangibles to make it sell. America's major manufacturers have already taken note.

This past November, I got an opportunity to corner Gary Gray, product director for motorcycles at Polaris (parent company of both Indian and Victory). I looked him right in the eye and I said: "You know there is a desire out there for something other than a cruiser, right? You're making great bikes, I love them, but surely you've heard the voices calling for these engines in a different platform?"

His answer, diplomatic and far more tactful than my question, was effectively: yes, they are aware of those voices, and they don't dismiss them outright, but they are also alert to the fact that anything they do has to make economic sense.

This is what Buell taught them: If US companies are going to answer the voices calling for non-cruisers, they have to be damned sure those voices will translate into sales. Otherwise, they face the curse of the fifth thing we've learned from Buell, which is that American motorcyclists hate failure.

Oh, man, do we hate it. Hate, hate, hate it. Take a look at the vitriol against Buell that you see in some forums and internet comments. You'd think the man had been making the seats for his bikes out of kittens.

All in all, there is a sadness in looking at the career of Erik Buell. A sadness that is sad in part because it's an unfair weight to place on his shoulders. After all, Buell has in his career accomplished a whole hell of a lot (he may accomplish even more, who knows?). But there is the deep-sigh ache of what could have been, what might have been — what, maybe, almost was.

Almost. And more than once.

As I suggested in my 2016 predictions, there may be a day, many moons from now, when people will look back on the legacy of Erik Buell with kinder eyes and he will receive the accolades he seems to be missing out on now. Maybe then someone, or some company, will be inspired to make an American motorcycle that isn't a cruiser. And maybe, because they will have learned from Buell's experiences, it will succeed.

They'll have to call it something other than an EBR, though. Because, odds are, that name will still be in legal limbo.