Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Doing an Iron Butt ride was utterly pointless

Back in June I took part in my first-ever Iron Butt ride.

Ostensibly, I took part in the ride to help raise money for the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal, a charity initiative that helps the UK’s military and veteran communities. The Poppy Appeal is a good cause (A special thanks to those of you who donated) and an Iron Butt is something I’d wanted to do for a while, so I jumped at the chance. 

 Now that I’ve done it, I’m pretty certain I will never do it again. 

Turns out I don’t actually enjoy riding 1,000 miles in less than 24 hours. It’s not my thing. It’s tedious, exhausting, and runs contrary to many of the things I love about motorcycling. Of course, I never would have known that unless I’d done it. So, while I’ll readily tell you an Iron Butt is a waste of time, I’ll also tell you that you may need to learn that for yourself. 

My ride started at 5 a.m. on the outskirts of the Northern England city of Leeds, at a place called Squires Cafe. I had ridden up from Cardiff the day before, about 250 miles away, and hit surprise heavy rain en route. I’d spent the night running up Holiday Inn’s electricity bill, holding a hair dryer to my clothes, and by the time I had to get geared up and go my stuff had almost but not quite dried out.

It was raining again –– lightly –– when I pulled up to the starting point, my Suzuki V-Strom 1000’s panniers full of spare gloves and extra layers. I was wearing a one-piece rainsuit. My heated grips were on low. To the bike’s rack I had strapped a 5-liter bottle of water. In the months before this ride I had intended to sit down and read the reams of advice offered by the Iron Butt Association UK, but… ah… I didn’t. The only nugget of wisdom I’d managed to pick up was that I should stay hydrated.

A Royal British Legion volunteer checked me in, wished me well, and I was off. I would not return until almost exactly 21 hours later. Of those 21 hours, I’d say roughly 20.5 were spent in rain or fog –– usually both.

As I approached Manchester, thick fog, illuminated white by my headlight, limited visibility to about 100 feet. I sped onward into the unknown, because “Making Progress.” Less than 50 miles into the ride, I had already stumbled upon an aspect of the Iron Butt experience that makes me never want to do it again. Throughout the day, “Make Progress” was my mantra. I had to keep going, had to keep pushing forward, because I was against the clock. And that mentality negatively altered my riding style; I took fewer breaks and greater chances.

The only real break I took during the Iron Butt ride was a stop for breakfast, shortly after crossing the Scottish border. Looking back, it was one of only a few enjoyable parts to the experience.

By the time I was 270 miles into the ride, I had abandoned my usual rules for filtering, aka lane splitting. Normally, I won’t filter above 30 mph, won’t take gaps between two moving semi trucks, won’t ride more than 10 mph faster than surrounding traffic. It’s a prudish technique, perhaps, but I’m relatively confident that if things go wrong under those conditions I’ll survive. That was all gone as I ripped through Glasgow.

Effortlessly, mindlessly, I slithered through the city’s traffic. Tearing through the chaotic wind tunnels between trucks, shooting within inches of cars’ mirrors. It was, as I say, stupid. Looking back, I’m disappointed in myself and embarrassed. You know those jackass riders whose idiot behavior spoils it for everyone else? That was me. I was that jackass. Somewhere in Glasgow right now there’s a motorcyclist getting all kinds of daggers from the eyes of drivers who think one of us is all of us, and it’s my fault.

North of Glasgow, through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and northward toward Inverness, the roads turned to two-lane winding routes that would have been fantastic on another day: a day when it wasn’t raining, a day when I didn’t feel pressed for time, a day when the road wasn’t clogged with tourists hauling camper trailers.

Make Progress. Make Progress. Make Progress. My mind was locked into this course of action now. On blind corners I passed four or five cars at a time. I swooped into too-tiny slots to narrowly avoid oncoming traffic, then dove back across the not-always-dotted lines. These actions blur together in my memory now: all one big fluid bad call.

The one moment that stands out came along the shores of Loch Ness. I leapt out from behind a motorhome without looking, right into the path of a BMW 4 Series. I tried to swing back into my lane but by this time had already come astride the motorhome. My pannier bumped against it. The BMW didn’t slow, didn’t swerve –– I’m not sure the driver ever saw me. Somehow I slipped through. I didn’t die.

I made Wick –– roughly the halfway point in the ride –– just before 5 p.m. At a grocery store where we had to check in I snapped one of only two pictures I took that day. Usually, what I love about motorcycling is that it connects me to the world, helps me take more of it in and appreciate it all. Not here. I was a drone, ignoring everything but the space in front of me and the miles I needed to cover.

Behold the glory of a Tesco in Wick, Scotland.

The other picture I took that day was of my breakfast (see above). By the time I hit Edinburgh, pushing back south toward Leeds, I had gone roughly 13 hours without eating. For a tiny moment I looked up, stepped out of my mental cocoon, and saw the new Queensferry Crossing bridge being built over the Firth of Forth. In the rainy early-dusk light it looked strangely beautiful and special. I felt lucky to be there in that moment. But once it was out of sight I slipped back into my idiot state.

Hunger, exhaustion, stress, and mindlessness caused a meltdown. We use the C word quite regularly here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and on this day my use of it –– in conjunction with words that start with A, B, D, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, and W –– was abundantly liberal. When a sudden increase in the rain’s intensity caused cars in front of me to slow I started screaming the C word with such ferocity that my brain locked and I could only spit the first syllable: “Cuh-Cuh-Cuh-Cuh…”

I found food at a 24-hour McDonalds in the middle of nowhere. Another personal rule broken. As I inhaled chicken nuggets and French fries I was overcome by the deep, hollow pointlessness of what I was doing: 1,000 miles alone in a big, dumb, wet circle. Why?

Heavy fog made the night darker. My rainsuit was giving up on me. Two of my four pairs of “waterproof” gloves had quit entirely. As had the pinlock visor in my helmet. Mist collected on the outside of the visor; I kept it open to prevent fog from building up inside. Droplets of water splashed against my face.

The external temperature display on my dash told me it was 10ºC (50ºF). The Suzuki has always been an optimist, so I know it was colder. My heated grips were on high but I couldn’t feel my hands. My teeth clacked from shivering.

The last 200 miles were like the final scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey: a tunnel of colors and my mind coming undone. Orange. Yellow. White. Red. Black. Any light spread out across the fog that surrounded me. Beyond it, darkness. I could not see the road. I was riding by GPS. If the map showed a curve, I leaned into it.

Credit to the Iron Butt Association and the Royal British Legion for their organization in putting together this event. They were the ones who had gone to the trouble to create the GPS file that guided me through the night. And they were the ones waiting for the riders when I arrived back at Squires Cafe. As I pulled into the parking lot, a woman came running up to me, grabbing my shoulder and looking me in the eyes: “Turn off your engine and set your side stand down. There’s food over there and tea. You can warm up and they’ll take your paperwork. If you want to get out of the rain, you can eat under the awning just over there.”

I looked at her. She repeated her spiel. I blinked. She repeated it again. In my head I thought: “Why does this woman have a Yorkshire accent?” 

Squires Cafe is in Yorkshire. 

When she repeated her spiel yet again, I thought: “I wonder who she’s talking to.”

I looked behind me. No one there. By now she had recruited a man to push down my side stand and help pull me off my bike. I recovered enough to thereafter ride 5 miles to my hotel, sleep for 9 hours straight, then ride the 250 miles back home to Cardiff –– stopping five times –– before falling into my bed and sleeping another 9 hours.

Really, probably, I should be dead. I did so many things wrong on this Iron Butt ride. It was an elephantine string of bad decisions. I suppose I’m glad I did it –– I had always wanted to –– but I am nothing short ashamed of how it went. It was a challenge that created a perfect storm of pressure and fatigue, and within that situation I let myself down. I was neither the rider nor person I want to be.

Right now I’m inclined to say my first Iron Butt ride was also my last.

Monday, 28 November 2016

2016 Honda CBR650F - Ride Review

Touring Sport: Scotland on a Honda CBR650F

Summer in Her Majesty's United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is more a state of mind than meteorological phenomenon. It can be 50F and raining in December or June, March or September.

But as that time of year approaches, residents of this soggy archipelago pretend things will be different this time. We dig out straw fedoras and shorts, and we hope. Motorcyclists optimistically remove insulated lining from jackets and pore over maps looking for places to visit.

I sometimes allow myself to be suckered by the glitz of the Global Motorcycle Conspiracy (they're all out to get you, man), so when I daydream about touring I tend to daydream about bikes that are big, heavy, and tech-laden: the venerable BMW R 1200 RT, perhaps, or Triumph Tiger Explorer XRT, or the newly refreshed Yamaha FJR1300AS. The problem with all these bikes, though, is they are also really expensive. Meanwhile, ever since I spent some time travelling on the relatively affordable Indian Scout Sixty I've been questioning whether the go-to bikes of my daydreams are really necessary. 

Cue the Honda CBR650F. Receiving a subdued reception when first released in 2014, the bike has been given a refresh for 2016. By which I mean "new graphics." Honda places the CBR650F in its sport category, but that's because Big Red doesn't really want to call it what it is: an all-rounder.

Honda's U.S website describes the CBR650F as "in a class by itself;" that's pretty accurate. More comfortable, less powerful and easier to live with than the CBR600RR it is an everyday, all-the-time tool –– a fact I think some U.S. reviewers missed upon initial inspection. When RideApart's Bruce Speedman reviewed the bike two years ago, he described it as "an excellent midpoint platform for those on the CBR300RR-to-CBR600RR vector."

I'm not sure what he means, but my general feeling is that to focus on the CBR650F's track worthiness, or lack thereof, is to miss the point.

First Impressions

After several hours of map gazing, I decide I want to run Scotland's North Coast 500, which the country's tourism officials refer to as "the Route 66 of Scotland." But first I have to pick up the CBR650F from Honda's UK headquarters in the English Midlands. As is usually the case when I borrow a motorcycle, I ride my own bike –– a 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 1000 –– to the location and leave it there for the duration of the loan. 

"We'll keep it safe, mate," says a Honda rep, nodding at my 'Strom. "We'll just leave her out in the street with the keys in; no one's going to want that ugly thing."

Honda employees are like this: confident in the superiority of their product. Arguably, they have a right to be. Every criticism I have of the CBR650F is something another rider would not notice or would be happy to overlook. The essence of the bike is sound; everything works.

Looking a little small for my 6-foot-1 frame, it is surprisingly comfortable and instantly familiar. Light enough for me to spin on the sidestand using one hand, it has a low center of gravity that gives the rider instant confidence. As a touring rig, it lacks in passenger accommodation –– the seat is reasonably sized but the passenger pegs are too high –– but offers plenty of places to strap/bungee luggage. Its tank is metal, which means it will take a magnetic tank bag.

Handlebars are clip-on, but above the triple tree. My ever-present TomTom Rider fits easily on the left 'bar.

Engine and Transmission

From the Midlands I face a 325-mile sprint to my friend Cam's house in Glasgow. I settle into an 80-mph cruising speed, with the Honda's 649cc inline four spinning at roughly 6,000 rpm. The bike's redline comes in north of 11,000 rpm, which is right about where it hits maximum power output: 86 hp. Maximum torque of 46.4 ft.-lbs. comes at 8,000 rpm.

At 80 mph, the CBR650F is smooth, with none of the buzzing that put me off inline fours a few years ago. It's smooth at slower speeds, too, and stays relaxed as you push toward a license ban. Honda claims a top speed of 140 mph, which aligns more or less with the straight-line 135 mph I was able to achieve. (Under closed-track conditions, of course...)

Power delivery is syrupy. How power can be like syrup, I'm not sure, but that's the word that comes to mind. Twisting the throttle, feeling the bike push forward without effort or hesitation, the image that comes to mind is of a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth's pouring onto a stack of pancakes. My one complaint, which is not really a complaint at all, is that this syrup isn't hot.

Honda's damnably brilliant engineers have made an engine that doesn't really get warm under normal riding conditions –– unfortunate as I cross the border into Scotland. It starts raining. From Gretna Green to Glasgow I get drenched and my hands lose feeling from the cold; pressing them against the engine accomplishes nothing. 

The transmission, meanwhile, is totally Honda. It makes sense as soon as you get on the bike and it's so slick that above third gear it's almost like having a quickshifter. The engine pulls from low in the rpm range –– I'm able to leave it in sixth while lazing along with 30-mph traffic –– but in the coming days I will find I enjoy keeping revs high and slipping up and down the gears on Scotland's winding roads.

Ride Quality and Brakes

The CBR650F falls into the "reasonably affordable" category, so you get what you pay for in terms of suspension. For all-round road use, though, it is above average.

On the second day, Cam and I cut through Glencoe to Fort William, then push west to Inverness. It's a route that provides some good-quality high-speed bends. Cam, who likes to claim he's a riding novice (the man commutes 90 miles a day on a motorcycle) proves otherwise. His spirited pace allows me to really enjoy the Honda in its element. In Bruce Speedman's review he claimed pegs drag too easily, but for my tastes there is more than enough lean angle for anything you'd want to do amid the unpredictable nature and unreliable quality of public roadways.

Things only get unsettled once: when I suffer a brain fart and downshift two gears mid corner. My pride wants to place some of the blame for the resulting oh-my-god wobble on the suspension, but we all know that's unfair. 

The standard Dunlop tires do a good job of keeping me stuck to the road, even on the third day, when we spend several hours riding through unrelenting rain. During the deluge I am thankful, too, for the Honda's anti-lock brakes, which come standard in the European Union and are available as a $500 option in the United States. In dry or wet, the brakes offer plenty of bite without being overbearing.

Cam (right) and me before heading out on Scotland's North Coast 500 route. My clothes were still wet from riding up to Scotland the day before.

Comfort and Features

The bike's forward-leaning riding position means water dribbles into my gloves as we ride through the rain. I have ultra sensitive hands (I fell through the ice as a teenager and suffered nerve damage) but try to press on. My heart aches for the upright ergonomics, heated grips, and huge Givi AirFlow screen of my own bike.

The CBR650F is somewhat low-frills in that sense; it's a lovely motorcycle that goes fast, but don't expect bells and whistles. No slipper clutch (as I learned the hard way), no traction control, no rider modes. There is fairing to keep some of the weather off, but not much. The screen puts wind at my xiphoid process. The only way I can get completely out of it is to drop into a full belly-to-tank tuck, which feels silly at legal speeds.

When it's not raining, I'm happy to hang out in the wind, finding speeds above 60 mph to be preferable. The wind hits my chest and holds me up, taking the weight off my wrists. Lower speeds are tolerable. After four days on the road, I observe an overall lack of pain. No cramped legs, no aching back. My right wrist is just a teency bit tender but that has more to do with the fact this is not my usual riding position.

Cam and I are men who appreciate frequent stops for tea (such is the rock-n-roll lifestyle of married dudes, y'all), so I don't spend ultra-long stretches in the saddle, but there's never a point when my butt is wanting to quit. 

One of my two biggest complaints about the CBR650F is its dash. It looks too "built to budget." All the important information is there, though: speedometer, tachometer, trip meters, clock, fuel gauge, and so on. There is no gear indicator, though. The buttons to to use the dash functions are on the dash itself, rather than on the handlebar, which is annoying.

Mirrors offer a splendid view of forearms and elbows. Contortion is needed to spot what's actually behind, but when I find the right angle things are at least steady.


The whole purpose of this exercise is to prove to myself the viability of the CBR650F as an everything machine. I suspected it would be, and –– shocker –– it is. Most everything you could want to do on paved road can be done aboard this (relatively) cheap and cheerful Honda.

Down in England and through the gridlock of Glasgow the bike had filtered through traffic with stunning ease. Riding the NC 500 it's handled every sweeping curve, every hairpin turn, every wide-open straight, every crawling village lane. On the fifth day, we hit the infamous Applecross pass. The bike is so steady I'm able to do a section no-handed. This has the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of calming Cam's nerves (he's following me down and feeling stressed) he panics about the both of us.

Cam's riding a Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, which has a 20-liter (5.2 U.S. gal.) tank. The Honda has a 17.3-liter (4.5 US gal.) tank but the two of us are needing to fill up at roughly the same time. Ridden prudishly, the CBR650F's fuel economy is mystical. Ridden like a goof by someone who loves the tight roar of its engine at high revs, it still delivers a solid 190 miles before the fuel light.

Lubing the chain without a center- or paddock stand is a pain in the caboose, but people with far more expensive motorcycles face the same challenge. Cleaning the bike is simple enough, though I'd worry about the fairing's stick-on graphics coming off over time. Checking tire pressure is relatively easy; access to valves is uncomplicated and the bike light enough I can muscle wheels into position.

Inverness Castle marks the official starting point of the North Coast 500.

Build Quality

On the sixth day, Cam and I stop for lunch north of Perth. From here we'll go our separate ways: he back to Glasgow, me taking a slow route south via Northumberland National Park.

"So, what's your assessment of the bike" he asks. "Sick of it yet?"

"No," I say. "I'm pleasantly surprised. That dash annoys me. And I feel the frame welds and fairing decals are tacky, but that's really about it as far as downsides."

The decals are my second biggest complaint. They're just stickers, looking like they've been slapped on as an afterthought. In "matte gunpowder black" with "candy rosy red," though, the bike is overall gorgeous. With only one more day in my possession, I'm feeling sad about not getting to stare at it much longer.

That night I stay in a hotel and can see the parking garage from my room. I go back down to the garage and move the bike to the top level so I can sit and look at it from afar. There's something about the CBR650F's look that says: "Someone cool rides this bike."

Beyond the decals, all the bits and bobs are up to the standard I'd expect from Honda. Which means you could ride this thing around the world six times before needing to adjust the chain. OK, I'm exaggerating, but you get my drift. Certain bits are plasticky –– this is an affordable bike, after all –– but it should all last a long time.

Final Verdict

My final hours with the CBR650F are spent covering 100 miles of motorway on an unusually cold morning. The bike is out-maneuvering everything else on the road and handily keeping pace with the Audis and BMWs that try to muscle their way down the A1. Zipping through traffic I'm able to hit gaps I wouldn't think of attempting on my own bike. The Honda has so much zing, fluidity, and ability to dance.

This bike really has done everything I've asked of it. I'll be honest: it hasn't cured me of my desire for technological and comfort whizzbangery, but I've really, really enjoyed my time on it. Meanwhile, the aftermarket offers all kinds of bike-specific accessories to help transform the CBR650F into something more tour-ready (add a set of Shad panniers and it will definitely look the part). No, two people wouldn't be happy crossing the continent on such a rig, but an individual may find it's everything he or she wants.

Cam (right) and me at John O'Groats – the furthest point north on mainland Britain.

I wish I could test this theory. I'd like to kit this bike out with hard panniers, a top box, heated grips, and a new screen, and ride it to Vladivostok. But too quickly I arrive at Honda HQ and am handing over the keys.

"I'll go fish your bike out of the [garbage] bin," the Honda rep says.

The Three Questions

1) Does the Honda CBR650F fit my current lifestyle?
For the most part, yes. If I had a version of this bike that was fully kitted out with all the aftermarket bells and whistles I could easily live with this thing as my everyday, all-the-time, go-everywhere bike. But it would fail completely to serve as transportation for both myself and my wife; our spontaneous trips to Devon would be no more.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Definitely. This thing has a fluidity and lightness that instantly feels right. It makes a great noise when revved hard but also provides effortless, genteel handling through urban situations.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
No. The Honda's a lot of fun, and if you hit it hard with an aftermarket-accessories hammer it could be damned useful, but it's simply not better than the 'Strom. That was instantly clear to me when I got back on my bike after riding through cold morning traffic. On the Honda I had been aching and losing feeling in my hands from the chill. On the 'Strom I was warm, comfortable, confident, felt I had power more readily accessible (the 'Strom hits peak torque at roughly 4500 rpm, after all), and, with the Givi AirFlow screen to protect me and my heated grips to warm me, I was much happier.