Tuesday, 19 April 2016

This will probably end in tears

Last week, Jason Fogelson published an article on RideApart about the infamous Iron Butt Association, the worldwide motorcycle "club" where membership is earned by riding a stupidly long distance in a short period of time.

Jason finished his article by stating: "I'd love to be counted among the world's toughest riders. Wouldn't you?"

Yes, I would. And coincidentally, just before I read that article I had signed up to take part in an event that will see me tackling my first-ever Iron Butt ride. If I pull it off, I'll get to claim membership in the Iron Butt Association and, presumably, get a spiffy patch that I can have sewn into an Aerostich Roadcrafter or some such thing.

If I don't pull it off, though, that'll be OK because this will be an Iron Butt attempt with a difference. Unlike most attempts this won't be a lonely affair. I'll be on the road with more than 200 other riders, all helping to raise money for British military personnel as part of the Royal British Legion Riders' 1000 ride.

The Royal British Legion is an organization that helps provide support to current and former military personnel, as well as their families. It's an incredibly active organization and one of its most famous fundraising initiatives is the Poppy Appeal. Folks from the UK will know what that is, but if you're unfamiliar with British culture it's an integral part of life here.

Almost all performers on Strictly Come Dancing incorporate a poppy into their costume in November.

The initiative reaches its peak in the month leading up to Remembrance Sunday (the Sunday closest to Armistice Day). In those weeks, paper representations of poppies are sold in every shop, train station, and main street in the country. And just about everyone pins one to his or her lapel. Turn on the television during that time of year and poppies are omnipresent, worn by everyone from politicians and newscasters to reality show contestants.

Although most visible in the autumn, the Poppy Appeal raises money year round. And it's in support of that initiative that the RBLR 1000 ride has taken place each June since 2009. When I first heard about the event I knew I wanted to take part, if not simply because it's partly organized by the Royal British Legion Riders Branch, a group of motorcyclists — the vast majority of them veterans — helping to support the work of the Legion. And those dudes are awesome.

One of my favorite motorcycling experiences happened when I was amid a throng of Branch riders. Like a lot of people in riding organizations, many Branch riders wear leather cuts bedecked with patches that, if you didn't know better, might make them look somewhat nefarious. I was riding amid a pack of about 10 of these guys when we pulled up at a stoplight and one of them decided to crank up the stereo on the Indian Chieftain he was piloting.

It took approximately half a second before the entire group was dancing along to Taytay's sick beat. Within another half second we had managed to coordinate our moves, a few of the particularly celebratory riders dismounting their bikes and beckoning to people to get out of their cars and join us.

So, yeah, this June I'll be riding with those guys.

As well as members of the UK's Iron Butt Association, who are equally nuts.

Earning an Iron Butt badge in the UK isn't easy—if not simply because the country is less than 1,000 miles from top to bottom. And there are close to 70 million people crammed into it at any given time. Which means you can't just point yourself down a lonely highway and click on cruise control. There are no lonely highways; you have to navigate congested roads through heavily populated cities.

And more often than not you have to do it in the face of British weather. It never gets hot in Blighty and the odds of your riding 1,000 miles without hitting rain are extremely low. Nonetheless, I'm looking forward to it. Which is to say that ever since I sent in my entry fee I've been jittery with fear.

I worry I've made a terrible mistake and this whole thing will only end in tears. Or, perhaps snores. I mean, 1,000 miles in 24 hours; I'm the sort of fella who likes his sleep. Still, I feel I'm capable of accomplishing the feat. In part because of a marathon ride I managed last year on a Victory Vision, speeding 685 miles from Milan, Italy, to Rotterdam, Netherlands, in just shy of 15 hours.

The weather on that ride was horrendous — nonstop rain for about 6 hours — but apart from wet boots and gloves I came out of it OK. Admittedly, the Vision is a more comfortable bike than my own Suzuki V-Strom 1000, equipped with heated seats, cruise control and a radio to help fight boredom. 

So, perhaps one of the main things I'll be doing between now and June 11th is working to increase my Strom's levels of comfort. The seat is famously large, but maybe I should do that sheepskin thing. Anyone know if that actually works? Any other tips you want to throw at me, feel free.

I think my main fear in all this is that I'll hit the physical wall in the middle of nowhere. That I'll be riding along in Scotland at 2 a.m. and suddenly realize, "Nope. No more of this. Gotta sleep," and end up trying to grab some shuteye in a rest area that turns out to be a popular spot for dogging.

(If you don't know what dogging is, look it up. Do not look it up if you are at work. Hint: it has nothing to do with dogs.)

As I say, though, it's OK if I don't finish because either way I'll be raising money for a good cause. I've had the pleasure of meeting a number of veterans and current military men and women in my 10 years of living in the UK, and I'm always struck by how friendly and good humored they are. Perhaps, too, I feel a fondness for them because the UK has been such a staunch ally of the United States for more than a century.

And this is the part where I transition into an awkward pitch for donations. As part of my participation in the RBLR 1000, I'm being asked to raise at least £50 (US $70) for the Poppy Appeal. My plan is to simply contribute that amount myself, but I have set up a GoFundMe page to collect additional funds.

Yeah, I know. GoFundMe. It's the site used by Gixxer brahs when they crash wearing no gear and need money to pay medical bills. But, of the crowdfunding sites I'm aware of, it's also the one with the lowest fees. And I want the most money possible going to the Poppy Appeal. Additionally, the site allows donations in different currencies. 

So, if you're reading this in the United States, or Australia or Spain, you can still help out. That is, if you want to. If you don't want to, that's OK. I'm hoping though that the reach of the interwebs can be used to help out some very cool people. All of the money collected will go to the Poppy Appeal. To donate, visit: www.gofundme.com/ironbuttchris

(Originally published on RideApart)

Friday, 15 April 2016

Ride Review: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special

According to Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich, roughly 80 percent of the bikes his company sells in the United States are touring models. Harley-Davidson sold 168,240 units in the U.S. market in 2015, which, according to my fuzzy math, works out to 134,592 touring bikes sold in a single year. 

That's more than the total number of motorcycles and scooters — of all brands — sold in the United Kingdom in the same period. Which speaks to the value of the touring segment for Harley, and why the company's Project Rushmore initiative of a few years ago was so important. Those big numbers may also help explain why seemingly every motorcycle I see when visiting my home state of Texas is a Street Glide.

They're far rarer here in Britain, though, so when an opportunity came up to spend a day with a 2016 Street Glide Special, I jumped at it. If nothing else, I was eager to see what my Texas brethren love so much about this iconic touring bagger.

First Impressions

There's no denying it looks cool, but upon swinging a leg over, the first thing that struck me about the Street Glide Special was how cramped its ergonomics were. I felt I was sitting in a Smart car. Apparently this is just the Harley-Davidson experience; I've been squished every other time I've ridden a Harley.

It's a strange and counterintuitive thing to feel so contorted on an infamously large and heavy bike. I've ridden cruisers from Indian, Victory, Triumph and Yamaha, and only Harley has ever left me feeling like a dad on his kid's Big Wheel. As a result, I can't help but think that an essential element of the bike is lost on me.

There's an implicit expectation in the Harley-Davidson experience that one should forgive less-than-amazing performance and braking for the sake of "character." This implicit expectation is at the heart of critics' disapproval of the brand. I don't mind it so much; I get the idea of character. But when I'm sitting like this, like an old lady on a mobility scooter, I don't feel cool. I feel silly.

Clearly, though, Harley thinks this rider triangle works, and no doubt it does for many people. I'm a lanky 6 feet 1 inch tall; if you are 5-foot-something, you may find this set up far more appealing.

Engine and Transmission

With history and heritage being one of the selling points of Harley-Davidson ownership, I decided it was appropriate to point the Street Glide Special toward Kidwelly Castle, a Norman fortress built more than 900 years ago.

Like most of Harley's bikes, the Street Glide Special employs a keyless fob system, which I think is cool. However, there's a steering lock/ignition switch that requires a key before the fob can be used, so I'm not entirely sure what the point is.

Nonetheless, once the bike started up I kind of didn't care. One of the primary complaints waged against Harley-Davidson products is that they feel agricultural. Indeed they do; riding a Harley is like riding a tractor. But something the haters neglect to mention is that riding a tractor is awesome.

Even with stock exhaust, the bike emits a deep, maniacal-laughter-inducing grumble at idle. The whole thing shakes with each kick of the pushrods. The experience is visceral. The happy truth of all internal-combustion-engined motorcycles is that you are effectively sitting on top of a metal box of explosions, but here you really feel it. You know it.

Initially, the experience is delightful. You ride around over-revving the engine just for kicks, and fighting the urge to shout: "Look at meeee!" Problems arise, however, when you attempt to use the Street Glide Special toward its stated purpose of touring.

Tackle a long stretch of highway and all that noise and shuddering will get on your nerves. Push the 1690cc air-cooled V-twin engine toward 80 mph and it fights you, desperate to lurch back to slower speeds. Keep fighting to make progress and you'll soon feel the engine's heat on your legs. The temperature was just 6ºC (or 43ºF) on the day I rode to Kidwelly, but by the end of my ride the heat pouring onto my right leg in particular was something close to painful.

The Street Glide Special's six-speed transmission is solid enough, each gear announced with the reassuring KATHUNK we've come to expect from cruiser transmissions. No real complaints beyond my feeling that first is too low and second too high. It's the sort of thing you could probably get used to, though. You'd have to also get used to an aching left hand, because clutch pull is anything but light.

Ride Quality and Brakes

Because the Victory Cross Country and Indian Chieftain were clearly styled to compete against the likes of a Street Glide Special, I frequently found myself comparing my experiences with those bikes to this one. And it was here that, for me, the Harley really fell short.

Suspension was subpar; handling was awkward at low speed and unsteady at high speed. Somewhere in the sweet spot between 30-60 mph, things were OK, but I still felt every bump and imperfection in the road being transmitted to my lower back. Pushing through corners was a full-body effort and, of course, the scraping of floorboards became part of the cacophony of sound when things got particularly twisty.

The weight of the bike never really went away. In some strange sense you can feel it even in the straights. But, I suppose, that contributes to a feeling of surefootedness you might want in a long-distance machine. Certainly within the 30-60 mph window the bike felt solid against an early-spring squall blowing in from the sea.

It was during that sudden deluge, however, that I discovered the Street Glide Special's stock Dunlop Multi-Tread tires are considerably less than great in the wet stuff. Not as awful as the Dunlop Elite 3s that are used on some other touring V-twins (e.g. the Victory Vision), but definitely not great. Feel from the tires was minimal and left me unwilling to lean too far into a turn.

Tires are something you eventually have to replace on a bike anyway, though, so I wouldn't necessarily allow the Dunlops' poor performance to affect my purchasing decision.

The Street Glide Special's brakes are decent enough, if a bit soft, but great googly-moogly does the front end dive when the bike's dual front discs are squeezed. It's a stereotype of cruiser riders that they don't use the front brake, but you certainly couldn't blame someone for such behavior if he or she were aboard this rocking horse. Meanwhile, ABS comes standard and is unobtrusive to the point of taking a fair bit of work to engage.

Comfort and Features

Since the Project Rushmore overhaul in 2014, one of the major selling points of the Street Glide Special has been its all-bells-and-whistles dash, centered around the touchscreen Boom! infotainment system (damn, I thought I was going to make it through this whole review without using Harley speak).

The dashboard is laid out well. However, the dials aren't terribly useful because the numbers are too small and the engine's shuddering blurs vision. The gear indicator is particularly hard to spot, and frustrating because it seems to need a second to think about each gear change. And the dashboard lights showing the signal/indicator are quite possibly the smallest I've encountered. You will need to be Screamin' Eagle Eyed to spot them.

The infotainment screen, though, is easily readable. It features an integrated GPS that is just a little outdated in fluidity and intuitiveness for my tastes. It reminded me of the system in my mother's Toyota Prius. But it's useful enough. The system's touchscreen doesn't work too brilliantly with thick gloves, but that means it doesn't get tricked by heavy rain.

I tend to think of stereos on motorcycles as sacrilegious and didn't spend much time investigating the Street Glide Special's sound system beyond discovering that its radio wasn't very good at holding signal. But the static was nice and loud. The dash has a space to plug in an MP3 player or other USB-compatible, phone-sized device. So, if you're eager to rock out on two wheels you can do so to a playlist of your own choosing.

Moving away from the dash, I will never, ever, ever, ever understand Harley's system for indicator switches. Whereas the vast majority of motorcycle brands place a single switch on the left grip to initiate and cancel signal/indicator lights, Harley places a switch on each side; the left switch for lights on the left, the right switch for lights on the right.

If you have never ridden a motorcycle before, you may think the Harley system makes sense. But, of course, it doesn't. In times when a rider is most likely to be using his or her turn signal he or she will be needing the right hand for throttle control and covering the brake. Adding a splayed thumb to this juggling act just to operate an indicator switch is stupid.

Because Harley-Davidson inspires a cult-like following, I have no doubt some of you will disagree with me vehemently on that point, and will somehow manage to suggest that my dislike of the system has something to do with my living in the country where Karl Marx chose to spend most of his life. You can say that, but you'll still be wrong.

Meanwhile, counter to its jarring suspension, the Street Glide Special's seat is comfy and cosseting. For the rider, at least. Not so much a passenger. If you want to ferry your significant other around, she or he had better be tiny and wearing rubber pants to keep from sliding off the back of the stylistically sloped rear of the seat.

The bike's fairing does a great job of keeping a rider protected from the elements. I was particularly surprised and impressed by the effectiveness of the Street Glide Special's tiny screen. A vent in the fairing pushes air up and creates a nice buffeting-free zone that works even in excess of the legal speed limit.

Panniers are slick and easy to open, but — perhaps commensurate to the amount of time a person would actually want to spend on the bike — aren't very big. There's probably enough luggage space for a weekend getaway, though. Assuming the place you're getting away to is hot and you don't mind wearing the same pair of shorts two days in a row.


Practicality? With a Harley-Davidson? Hahahahahahahahahaha!!

I mean, yeah, I guess one could commute to work on a Street Glide Special if so inclined, but it wouldn't be my first, second or third choice of steed for such a job. Equally, it wouldn't be at the top of my list for long-distance touring. It is too heavy and awkward for serious urban use; too hot and shuddering for eating up the miles.

I'm not entirely sure that matters, though, since practicality isn't really a part of the Harley-Davidson mystique. No one buys these bikes expecting Honda reliability and utility; that's not what they're about.

Build Quality

Although I can find some flaws elsewhere, let's not pretend the Street Glide Special is anything other than a gorgeous machine. It looks fantastic. This is a motorcycle upon which any sane human being wants to be seen.

You may not want to pay for a Street Glide Special, may not want to spend your life with one as your only bike, but unless you are a card-carrying member of ISIS there is no way you can truthfully claim to not have at least some tiny desire to be seen on one.

This is true because when it comes to aesthetics Harley-Davidson does all the things right. Paint is deep. The chrome is shiny, but still looks cool covered in road grime. Everything feels sturdy and high-end. Even little things like the numbers on those not-actually-useful dials have a feeling of aesthetic care and attention.

Inevitably Harley-Davidson will have to develop retrofittable infotainment interfaces in a few years, but everything else has the feeling of an object you might want to turn into a family heirloom: something to give to the grandkids once you're done with it.

Final Verdict

Despite current signs of Harley-Davidson's weakening market grip in the face of competition, the company continues to be responsible for roughly half of the motorcycles sold in the United States with engines 601cc or greater. And several of its models remain among the top 10 best-selling bikes worldwide. All of which points to the fact that people are going to buy the Street Glide Special regardless of the fact it doesn't really do what it's supposed to do.

After a day with the bike, my lower back was screaming in pain and I had a headache that lasted into the next morning. Ultimately, I found I could not tolerate more than 60 miles of highway before needing to stop, stretch, and try to regain my bearings. This is not a good motorcycle for touring.

But if I were to tell this to my fellow Texans they would not care. By and large, most of them will not ride more than 100 miles in a day anyway, and far more will ride less. This "touring" bike will mostly be put to use traveling from beach to bar on comfortable weekend afternoons. And that's OK, because the Street Glide Special is a lot of fun in short bursts.

Yes, it could easily be beaten in speed, power, acceleration, cornering, comfort and touring ability by any number of bikes that cost a third of its US $23,200 (£19,645 / €30,895) asking price. But those bikes aren't Harley-Davidsons. And to many riders that's all that matters.

As I say, I get the "character" thing. Ultimately, though, I feel there's no way I could allow myself to pay so much money for a motorcycle that does so little of what I want it to do. But, hey, not everyone uses a motorcycle as their only means of transportation. Some people use a bike just to meander nearby streets, to see and be seen by the local gentry.

And to that purpose I guess I can understand why my fellow Texans, or folks anywhere, might choose a Street Glide Special. There are worse ways to spend your paycheck.

The Three Questions

Any time I review a bike, I try to think of it from a consumer's perspective, imagining that I'm being asked to spend my own money on the bike. In doing so, I always ask myself these three questions:

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
No. As I say, the Street Glide Special is far too impractical, hot and overweight to serve as the all-the-time, do-everything machine that I need. Equally, from a more immediately practical standpoint, it is too wide to fit through my garden gate and into my shed.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. For the first 20 miles or so. It is a huge, stupid, laughing-in-my-helmet grin that helps me understand why so many Americans seem to be religiously devoted to this brand. However, as the miles piled on my grin turned quickly to a grimace. And I have to admit that by the end of my day with the Street Glide Special I was approaching something akin to anger. As I say, the bike simply does not do what Harley says it is supposed to do. It is, however, really great for peacocking around town. Whether you see that as positive or negative depends a lot on your personality and what you want from a bike.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
Nope. Not in any measurable way. The Street Glide Special looks better than a V-Strom 1000 and, of course, it's got the Harley-Davidson badge; it's more likely to help me get chlamydia at Daytona Bike Week. But in all other ways it doesn't measure up.

(Parts of this review were originally published on RideApart)


**This June I'll be taking part in the Royal British Legion Riders 1000 ride, helping to raise money for the Poppy Appeal. Please check out this page to learn more and donate in support of British veterans, currently serving military personnel, and their families.**

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Long-term gear review: Corcoran Jump Boots

I wrote a post about Corcoran Jump Boots a few years ago, after about a year of use, but I thought it would be good to offer another review, now that I'm considering retiring my pair in favor of some Alt-Berg boots. Or, well, perhaps not retiring, but taking out of regular service.

I first bought a pair of Corcoran Jump Boots about three years ago, based on the recommendation of the dog camping guy. Since then, I've put roughly 24,000 miles on them, using them in all weathers. 

In Wes Siler's article he suggests these Corcoran boots as a good middle ground between fashion, usefulness, and safety.

"[A] little more normal to walk to do normal things in," he wrote. "I can even dance in these."

Since I grew up in Texas, where dancing consists of spinning on your cowboy boot heel while trying not to spill your Lone Star, that's not really an impressive claim. I can "dance" in ski boots.

So, yes, these are dancing boots; perfect for those of you riding stereo-laden baggers and tourers, eager to bust out a boogie at stop lights. But that's not why I bought them. I chose these boots because they are: 1) cheaper than any equivalent-quality boot I could find; 2) made in the God-blessed United States of America. Specifically, they are made in Martinsburg, Pennsylvania — a community so full-on Americana that its police department offers to check up on your house for free while you're on vacation.

The story of Corcoran Jump Boots stretches back to World War II, when US paratroopers wore them on the battlefields of Europe. Made of thick, insanely durable leather, they offer a decent amount of protection for motorcycle use in the sense that internal ankle support, a steel shank, and high lacing all help to keep the foot firmly in place.

I had to look up what a shank is: it's the bit of a shoe's supportive structure that runs down the middle of your foot, between the heel and ball of your foot. I can't feel said shank when wearing the boot, but the firmness it offers possibly explains why I have found the boot to be a good substitute for a hammer when trying to put tent pegs into hard ground. Obviously these boots don't offer the sort of protection you'd get in something specifically made for high-speed track riding or ankle-snapping off-roading, but for everyday all-the-time use I've found them to be pretty good.

They've become immensely comfortable over the years, to the extent that I've been known to walk several miles in them. They are unlined, so they were about as tolerable as any boot could be when riding in 102ºF Italian heat last summer. In Britain, where warm weather is extremely rare, I find that more often than not a good, thick pair of wool socks is necessary. When temperatures drop below 40ºF, two pairs of socks are required if I'm going to be riding for more than 30 minutes.

The boots are not waterproof, but a dedicated regimen of slathering them with Nikwax helps keep them fairly water-resistant... within reason. When I spent several hours riding through constant downpour in Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands last autumn, puddles formed inside the boots and things took roughly a week to dry out. But I'm not sure many boots would have faired a whole lot better in the same situation.

Meanwhile, failure to religiously clean and re-wax the boots has occasionally left me with soggy feet.
One of the things I like is the fact the boots lace up and, as such, can be brought tight against the calves. Because I live in a place where it rains all the time, I prefer to wear my trousers over my boots, rather than tuck them in and risk having water run inside. Having the boots tight against my leg means they'll fit beneath pretty much any riding pant.

Additionally, I prefer the secure feeling of boots that can be laced tight. Many motorcycle boots are made for the pant-tuckers of the world and leave my leg feeling too loose and unprotected. The most extreme example of this came when I was able to kick off a fully strapped pair of Forma Adventure boots.

Corcoran Jump Boots come with a set of smooth, hard rubber soles that Wes suggested are "good for making them last," but my experience was that they wore away pretty quickly. But maybe I am just really hard on boots; I have had these resoled three times.

Which speaks to another advantage of the Jump Boots: they're easy to get repaired. High-end boot manufacturers like Daytona will sometimes repair worn soles if you take them to an official dealer and have them shipped off to the factory. But that's incredibly expensive and time consuming. Meanwhile, Jump Boots can be resoled at your local strip mall shoe repair store in a day or two for considerably less money.

The boots take a while to break in, and when I first bought them they were so stupidly shiny as to make me feel foolish. But over time they've proved themselves so comfortable and versatile that finding replacements has been challenging.

Ultimately, I decided these aren't quite suited to all-the-time British use and bought a pair of truly waterproof boots that meet European safety standards. I'll still hold on to my Jump Boots for summer rides — especially those that see me traveling somewhere and doing a fair bit of walking. I've treated these boots pretty rough, but I'm confident they've got several years of life left in them.

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Living the Dream

I'm sitting in a hotel in Yorkshire as I write this — about 300 miles north of my home in Cardiff. Known as "God's own country" by locals, this region of England is rich in hills, curving roads, quaint villages and (when it's not raining) staggeringly beautiful sunsets.

I'm here to visit the factory where Alt-Berg boots are made. Primarily the maker of hiking boots, Alt-Berg also offers a handful of rigorously tested motorcycle boots popular among the Iron Butt/BMW-owning crowd.

Partially my visit is personal, seeking out a set of riding boots that meet my ambition to buy local. The factory is the only place to see/touch Alt-Berg's motorcycle offerings in person, and I'm the sort of old-school dude who thinks that's important. And partially my visit is professional, trying to determine whether there's a story to be had here and whether that story would fit on RideApart.

To the first purpose, the trip was a success. I ended up buying a set of Hogg All Weather boots, which will be made to order and shipped in the next few weeks. I got to wander around the factory where my boots will be made (amid a scrum of frightening machinery), and I got to meet Debbie, the woman who will be making my boots.

But to the latter purpose I question whether the fit would be a good one. The above paragraph is pretty much the meat of any story I might write about Alt-Berg — nice people making nice boots in a nice place — and it strikes me as perhaps a little too local for an international (often USA-focused) site like RideApart.

Riding back from the factory to my hotel, I got stuck behind one of Yorkshire's surprisingly numerous slow drivers (30 in a 60? For the love of Pete!) on a road where passing was not allowed. It started raining heavily and within a few minutes the not-Alt-Berg, not-waterproof boots I was wearing were soaked through. Wet, cold, frustrated and hangry (the factory visit had taken longer than expected and I'd not had lunch), I proceeded to throw a little tantrum in my helmet.

Harrogate, Yorkshire

For some reason I had decided to twist in my mind the whole purpose of this trip. I cursed the fact I had come here and that my story idea had met a dead end.

"What a waste of time this whole trip has been," said me.

Actually, I just thought that; it was an idea that flashed through my brain. But it was an idea well enough formed to have intonation — an intonation I did not like. There was arrogance in the thought, a sort of "I'm better than this" quality.

And instantly I felt stupid. I found a place to pull off the road, killed the engine, stepped off the bike and took a few deep breaths as the rain faded to light drizzle. In the distance, I could see the clouds breaking and radiant sun pushing through.

"You're riding a motorcycle, Chris...on a Wednesday afternoon," I reminded myself. "And, more or less, this is your job. Why are you bitching?"

This month marks the one-year anniversary of my joining the RideApart team, and moto-journalism became my full-time gig earlier this year. Although I have plenty of experience in other journalistic fields, I think it's fair to say I'm still something of a newbie on the moto side of things.

Though, from my past lives in television newsrooms and long-dead news websites, I know that one of the curses of a newbie is the fact that arrogance sometimes builds faster than experience. Which, I guess is more or less what happened to me on that ride. I had somehow managed to convince myself that I was an Important Person who did Important Things, and when faced with minor inconvenience I went all Stone Phillips on the road (a mentor of mine was a runner for NBC many moons ago and tells a story of the broadcaster losing his sh*t when she brought him a 7-Up, rather than the Sprite he had asked for).

But I'm not an important person, and I'm definitely not doing important things. I write about motorcycles, y'all. This is quite possibly the most ridiculous career a person could have. And although the pay's not great (I'd struggle to purchase any of the bikes I write about), I really have nothing to complain about. Even when a story idea comes to naught, even when I'm stuck behind someone's overly cautious grandmother, even when I'm hungry, even when it's raining.

Back in my hotel— fed, warm and dry —I felt stupid and embarrassed about the whole thing. But rather than keep it to myself, I've decided to write about it to perpetuate the embarrassment, to better crystallize the experience in my mind and hopefully hold it as something to keep me from pulling the same sort of nonsense again.

I'm living the dream here, and if I forget that fact I risk losing the sense of excitement that comes from getting to spend so much of my time astride a fire-driven dandyhorse. Which would be very sad from a personal point of view, and also negates my ability to do my job well.

So, yeah. I let myself temporarily forget how good things are. No one saw it, no one but me was affected by it, but I'm putting it out there on the internet so that, hopefully, it won't happen again.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Victory's NM-4: Remembering the Vision 800

A little more than 10 years ago, Victory Motorcycles revealed a concept bike that featured an 800cc liquid-cooled parallel twin engine, automatic transmission, and storage in the space where a tank would traditionally be. Dubbed the Vision 800, it was a dramatic departure from the sort of thing Americans had come to expect from their motorcycle manufacturers, and it offered a glimpse of Victory's true potential.

If you've never heard of the Vision 800, you're not alone. I only learned about it last year, as I was doing research for my review of the much larger V-twin tourer that shares part of the Vision 800's name, as well as its futuristic look. To my eye, Victory had created the Honda NM-4 several years before Honda, and I was surprised such a unique concept could seemingly have come and gone without more fanfare.

When Victory released its new liquid-cooled Octane model earlier this year, one of the narratives of the bike was that it represented a kind of opening of the doors for the Minnesota-based company. Finally, with its Polaris sibling, Indian, shoring up the traditional/heritage side of motorcycling, Victory could begin pushing in new directions.

All of which got me thinking again about the Vision 800. I decided to get in touch with the folks at Victory to ask a little more about the bike, starting with the most obvious question: Why wasn't there a production version?

"The Vision 800 was designed to be a concept motorcycle and introduce design elements that eventually showed up in the Victory Vision," explained Victory/Indian External Relations Manager Robert Pandya. "It was not intended to be a production bike, [but] then 'backed off' from production. The point of concept bikes is to introduce a series of design ideas and explore the product possibilities for the brand."

For more information about the Vision 800, Pandya directed me to Tiger Bracy (pictured above), the designer behind the project.

"The history of the Vision 800 began with my summer '04 internship," he said. "I was a Transportation Design student at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, California. My boss (Greg Brew) handed me a design brief to work on something rather unique. We had a few conversations surrounding what an automatic motorcycle might be like for Victory. It needed to utilize a motor from our existing portfolio, and it needed to tie in with the Victory Vision touring bike."

The motor Bracy used was from a Polaris Sportsman 800 ATV. Equipped with a cast aluminum alloy frame, linked brakes and low-seat cruiser ergonomics, the Vision 800 was aimed at expanding Victory's customer base beyond its current buyer.

"I decided to... aim it towards new riders with very little or no experience," Bracy told me. "It was a statement on how a new motorcycle brand could develop its customers from the ground up. Notice I say motorcycle brand and not 'cruiser' brand. I wanted to challenge the status quo of what the 'New American Motorcycle' could become in the future."

To do this, Bracy spent a long time thinking about the sort of person that would ride the Vision 800 — someone he hoped could grow with the brand after choosing his concept as their first bike.

"Most inexperienced riders aspire to have a more powerful bike right away, even though they lack the riding skill to safely ride it," he said. "There is nothing intuitive about riding a traditional [large, air-cooled V-twin cruiser] motorcycle when you’re a beginner. They’re dangerous and difficult to master. In an absurd way, I guess that’s a part of the appeal.

"So, the styling of the Vision 800 needed to say American Muscle, and, most importantly, it needed to be unique. Think trendsetter, not a follower."

For the styling, Bracy said he couldn't help but look to the Vision tourer.

"The Vision touring bike was in the beginning stages of development," he explained. "I had this prototype sitting right in my face every day. The Vision 800 was designed to flaunt the new look of the Vision touring bike, but they could not share any actual components. I decided to borrow the touring bike's architecture of having twin fuel tanks mounted on either side of the motor, and that’s it.

"I rotated the parallel twin cylinders toward the front wheel to give more room on top of the motor. The radiator was moved out in front of the forks so the motor itself could be pushed even further forward to give room for the CVT. That architecture aided the Vision 800 to open up a massive storage space where the fuel tank and air-box would normally reside."

Bracy isn't exaggerating when he says "massive." The Vision 800's "trunk" was large enough to hold two full-face helmets, plus a little more. Bracy felt that having that much storage would help encourage new riders.

"When you’re a newbie, what’s the best way to get more experience? Simple: more seat time,” he said. "You could use the 800 as a daily commuter. It could haul a bag of groceries and your gym bag, no problem... The low seat height would make the bike less intimidating for smaller people or the less experienced."

In discussing his desire to create a bike to draw in new riders, Bracy offered a lot of insight into the challenges that any motorcycle manufacturer faces, especially in the modern world.

"Grandpa is getting old, but he’s living longer than his parents did," Bracy said. "[However,] his great-grandchildren may not have any interest in the bikes he once enjoyed. If you want to sell more new bikes, then you probably need to find new riders. You want more riders, you’ve got to teach new people how to ride. In high school, I had a driver’s automotive education class at 15 years old. But what about early motorcycle education? Good luck with a two-day safety foundation course."

Bracy said that when he designed the Vision 800 he gave it an automatic transmission in hopes of partially answering those challenges. He said it makes a bike easier to ride, and therefore more "newbie" friendly. He's not the only one to think this. Again, the comparison to the Honda NM-4 comes to mind. And, indeed, Honda has been at the forefront of pushing automatic transmission bikes.

"Since the Vision 800, we’ve seen Honda’s DCT in many different models. This confirmed that I wasn’t alone in identifying a new segment that most manufacturers overlook," Bracy said. "You see attempts to make an automatic motorcycle look either like a traditional bike, sans the clutch lever, or like something out of Transformers. This to me is the dilemma. It’s very difficult to get rid of the manual clutch; it’s like a badge of honor. It’s proof that you earned your stripes."

But, Bracy said, that "badge of honor" may be something older generations are more concerned with than those who might be considering riding now.

"Future generations will grow up in a world where these new autonomous cars are common to them. Didn’t I just see a robot piloted a Yamaha R1 last year? I bet the phrase 'what the hell happened to the clutch lever' will seem old soon," he said. "Do I see a future for more automatic bikes in our lives? The answer is yes... That future will probably be dictated by the OEM that is smart enough to begin appealing to a much younger generation that may not see a benefit in a manual clutch."

Which leads to the obvious question of whether Victory will be that OEM. The official answer to the question is the company-wide response of, "We cannot speak to future product," but Robert Pandya did say that Victory— and to a broader extent, Polaris —is aware of the opportunity to head in a more unique directions.

"The possibilities for the brand are very wide indeed. Even moreso now than they were when the Vision 800 came out. Polaris brands have access to a wide array of engines and technologies, and would be able to build anything. But the real question is if customers will buy it," he said.

The bottom line has long been a guiding factor in Victory's decision-making process. The brand's prudish business sense has sometimes earned it criticism from those who would like to see more earth-shattering projects being put forward. But you have to admit that there's something to be said for a brand that isn't constantly hovering near bankruptcy. And that's not to say that Victory is dedicated to being stuck in its ways.

"As consumer demands change, there are few companies in a better position to leverage a variety of technologies and product design groups than can build whatever we design," Pandya said. "It’s an exciting time to be in the PowerSports industry — especially with the Victory brand."

Meanwhile, Bracy remains hard at work within the Polaris umbrella. Since the Vision 800, he's worked on several of Polaris' off-road and on-road vehicle programs. Most notably, he was responsible for the three-wheeled Slingshot. Looking back on the Vision 800, Bracy said he remains proud of the concept— which these days sits in his office —and feels Victory was particularly brave for putting it out there.

"It let us know that anything was possible and we weren’t going to get stuck in one segment, just building clone bikes," he said.

And contrary to my limited perception (the internet gives us all a short memory), the Vision 800 did make a fairly big splash at the time.

"It was featured in more than 20 magazines, and Puma used it in an international ad campaign," Bracy said. "Some random design studio did a total rip-off and butchering of the concept for the latest Judge Dredd film. A friend of mine reminded me that imitation is the best form of flattery. I chuckled and grinned because I didn’t know if I should be flattered or pissed."


(Article originally published on RideApart. Huge thanks to Tiger for his time and for providing images of the bike)

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

GWTTA: Aberaeron

I first came up with the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure a few years ago. The idea was pretty simple: using the map on a touristy dish cloth (aka "tea towel"), I would visit some 66 different villages, towns and cities in Wales, as well as Snowdonia National Park.

The reason for this was twofold:

Firstly, it's an excuse to ride my motorcycle. Wales is a tiny country and just about any location within its borders can be reached and returned to from any other location within the space of a day. Wales has a number of exceptionally good roads for riding and if –– like me –– you live here, the proximity of everything to everything else means you can pretend you're on a fancy, exotic road trip without having to fork out for hotels.

The tea towel
The second reason was that I had developed a deep, unabiding hatred of Wales, and I found this to be somewhat detrimental to my overall wellbeing. I had come to Cardiff in 2006 full of incredulous belief I was moving to my spiritual home, that this would be my place of acceptance, my milltir sgwâr of belonging. But it turns out I was wrong.

In particular, I was wrong about the ever-dwindling community of speakers of Wales' native language. They are isolationist, exclusionary, and welcoming only in the sense that a really good B&B is welcoming. You may feel very cosy and happy and special in a B&B but there is always a clear you-and-them relationship. No matter how long you stay, how frequently you return, you will never be welcomed into the B&B owner's family; you will never become one of them; the B&B will never be your home.

That lesson was learned via a series of personal disasters that created in me a deep, festering bitterness toward Wales and everything in it. Which, as I say, was problematic. First and foremost because I was angry all the time. All I needed do to enrage myself was open my eyes and look at my surroundings. Was I in Wales? Yes? Cue rage. 

That was a silly way to be. Especially in light of the fact I had no solid plans to leave. Convenience and circumstance keep me here: free health care, the fact my wife and I own our home, the fact my wife (an Englishwoman) generally likes Wales, the fact her best friend lives roughly 45 seconds away, and other little things. I want to leave at some point, and have made my wife promise on numerous occasions that she will not bury me in Wales should I meet an untimely end, but leaving right now creates a stack of financial and personal burdens that, ostensibly, may not be worth shouldering for the simple joy of being able to skedaddle.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the Not Going To Leave Soon reality of my situation (I still haven't completely accepted it) but I realized that if I was going to survive here without developing stomach ulcers, I was going to have to find a way to accept Wales for what it is, rather than what it isn't.

The daffodil is the national symbol of Wales.

And what Wales is, generally, is a pretty-but-wet place populated by mostly nice people who will never show you true love. Which means that, of all the places you could end up, it's not actually that bad. I implemented the Great Welsh Tea Towel Adventure as a means of reminding myself of that.

But, as I say, that was a few years ago. The idea ran out of steam after a handful of trips and I soon found myself using my motorcycle more as a means of escaping Wales rather than improving my opinion of it. I was working a full-time job and I didn't want to waste those rare moments when good weather intersects with a weekend trying to change my opinion about a place.

Then, late last year, circumstance pushed me into the life of a freelance journalist. With my schedule now more flexible, I decided it would be a good idea to restart the GWTTA project. After all, the financial instability inherent in freelancing roots me even more firmly in Wales; no new home loans for me. And in restarting the project, I decided to go about things in a more systematic way: choosing to visit places alphabetically.

So, Aberaeron –– a small town on Wales' west coast –– was placed at the top of the list. Where it stayed for the next three months, thanks to one of the facets of Wales that causes me the most displeasure: weather. For three months not one day passed in which rain was not forecast for Aberaeron. Sometimes it was an all-day light rain, sometimes it was a heavy rain with gales, sometimes it was drizzle with freezing fog, but always there was rain.

Finally, just a day or so before my 40th birthday, my phone's weather app showed an open window. So, I threw my camera in my pocket, hopped on the bike, and pushed northwest.

Aberaeron is some 95 miles from Penarth via the "slower," more interesting route that I chose. Google Maps would have had me get there by a long stretch of motorway, running from Cardiff to Carmarthen on the M4, then trundling up the A485 and A487. But it's generally my experience that you can get somewhere in Wales more quickly if you avoid main routes, i.e., the routes suggested by mapping programs and GPS devices.

Partially this is because you'll be avoiding the route that everyone else is taking and partially this is because main routes tend to be the ones littered with speed cameras. I can too quickly start to sound like a libertarian wingnut in expressing the frustration and concern I feel toward speed cameras, but suffice to say I think they're a terrible idea.

Fortunately, Big Brother's reach isn't as vast in Wales' interior as other parts of Britain. And the fact that local authorities have abandoned actual policing in favor of stationary yellow boxes on main routes means that the odds of your getting in trouble for riding 110 mph on a 60-mph road are shockingly low.

My route took me first across an eastern section of Brecon Beacons National Park, where sheep served as the only witness to my Suzuki's high-rpm snarling. Twisting routes like the A4069, A4059 and A4067 provide scenic riding that –– in certain sections –– is on par with roads I've encountered in Italy. Sight lines are good across the moorlands, meaning you can see all the way through curves, and road quality is generally better than you'd expect for tarmac so exposed to the elements. Sheep poop and gravel are omnipresent, and overnight ice can sometimes linger into the afternoon, but sane riders can still enjoy spirited biking.

Further east, I hopped onto the A482, which winds its way through slightly more forested terrain all the way to Aberaeron. Technically the speed limit on large sections of this road is a bafflingly slow 50 mph, but, as I say, there is no enforcement. I made good time.

I don't know why my tea towel draws particular attention to Aberaeron. As far as I can tell it isn't noteworthy. It doesn't get a single mention in John Davies' A History of Wales, which, at 718 pages, contains exceedingly more information about Wales than anyone ever need know. 

More than 800 years ago, Aberaeron was home to a fortress known as Castell Cadwgan, named after one of the myriad squabbling warrior kings that fought over Wales until Edward I succeeded in conquering the region in 1283. 

There are no signs of the fortress now, and it was all but gone to the sea when the town was set up as a shipping port in the 1800s. For a very short while it supported the shipbuilding industry but by the start of the first World War it had generally turned its hand to the task of attracting tourists.

To that end it is a lovely place to visit on a sunny day. Aberaeron is located in the Welsh county of Ceredigion but it feels more Pembrokeshire to me. The latter county has been known since Tudor times as "Little England Beyond Wales" thanks to the fact it was the area of Wales most successfully held by the Normans in the 12th century, and roughly 1,000 years later it possesses a certain Englishness.

How you interpret that depends on your view of Englishness. To me it is good. Aberaeron is colorful and it has a handful of little shops, boutique restaurants and charming pubs. It is immediately likeable; it is the sort of place one might choose to take his parents were they to travel several thousand miles from another country. 

In contrast to its perceived Englishness, according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, some 70 percent of the town's inhabitants speak Welsh. I suspect some fuzzy math there, however, because in walking around I didn't hear a single Welsh word being spoken.

Not that I cared, really. The sun was shining and it was warm enough for me to take my jacket off. I bought an ice cream and sat on a park bench overlooking the harbor and sent a text to my wife expressing my delight in having a freelancer's schedule. Far better to be doing this on a Tuesday afternoon than sitting in an office.

Aberaeron is home to the annual Cardigan Bay Seafood Festival in July, which might be worth returning for, but on a random weekday in March it was unsurprisingly quiet. Pretty, charming, but still not terribly noteworthy.

Once I had finished my ice cream I walked around town. Maybe I will come back with Jenn in the summer, I told myself. Aberaeron would be a nice place to spend the day –– eat some ice cream, go swimming in the sea. I guess it depends on how many other people have the same idea; the smallness of the town suggests it wouldn't be very enjoyable when crowded. And really, there are similar places –– in Pembrokeshire, for example –– that are easier to get to.

Either way, I suppose it was a good way to restart the GWTTA project. After walking around a little more and finding not much to pique my interest, I bundled up in my gear and sped home to Penarth. Next on the list: Aberdaron.