Friday, 14 August 2015

The Ride To Indy


We are bouncing over some astonishingly bad interstate in Northern Michigan on our way to Flint.  Retread carcasses litter the side of the road, the only thing missing are clouds of flies above the rubber corpses.

The Super10, Concours and three riders ready for an adventure.
We crossed the border (my first border crossing on a bike!) in Sarnia at lunch time on a Wednesday.  It amounted to less than five minutes of waiting in line and thirty seconds with the US border guard, who looked like he was working out when he got off shift so he could join us.
"So, where are you guys headed?"
"To Indianapolis for the MotoGP!"
After running our passports he asks, "you guys excited?"
"It's Indy!"

"Have a great time guys."
... and then we were off onto the broken interstates of Michigan.  I'll never complain about Ontario roads again.

To and from Indianapolis
Just when we think the roads can't get worse, the interstate drops down to one lane each way because they are beginning to pull it apart and resurface.  It doesn't matter though, we were in America, heading to Indy!

My ten year old son, Max, is on the back of our loaded '94 Kawasaki Concours which is chewing up the miles with ease.  That bike is the best eight hundred bucks I've ever spent.  We're making the trip with my friend and colleague Jeff, who is a motorcycle-Jedi.  He's been riding for decades, has owned dozens of bikes, and has ridden all over North America.  If you're going on your first long trip, he's the guy you want with you.

We pull in for our first gas stop just outside of Flint and fill up for fourteen bucks (93¢ Canadian for 93 octane super unleaded).  The Connie is getting 48 miles per gallon.  Back on the road we turn south on 23 to miss Detroit and head toward Ann Arbor.  Twenty-three looked like a county road on the map, but in real life it's a multi-lane, limited access highway.  We are making epic time as we ride past a mountain of garbage covered in sea gulls and military convoys of Humvees.  We get to Ann Arbor, where we'd originally planned to stop for the day, at 2pm.

Concordia U's
beautiful trees
Sitting on the beautiful lawn at Concordia University we look further down the map, reconsidering where we might stop.  It only takes a us a few minutes to get around Ann Arbor and onto 12, which will take as all the way across southern Michigan to Interstate 69.

Best Philly steak ever!
We stop for a late lunch and stumble across Smoke BBQ and the best Philly steak sandwich I've ever had.  Topped up and ready to roll, we head out on 12 and are treated to a crop duster doing hammerhead turns and giving us a wave as he flies past us next to the road.  We're in the mid-west now!

Out of population we find ourselves on winding roads through the Irish Hills.  We thought the ride to Indy would be flat and straight but these are some nice riding roads.  We emerge from the woods to an astonishing sight, the Michigan International Speedway is right on the side of the road!  A security guard tells us you can sign in at the main office and they'll let you have a look around.  This place is enormous, a real cathedral of speed deep in the Irish Hills.  We spend half an hour wandering around a tiny corner of the massive complex.  That we stumbled across it and were happily invited in to have a look around has us all grinning like fools.  It's a good sign of things to come.

It's like that dream you have of being at
work and suddenly realizing you're naked
Back on the road time is ticking past 6pm and Max is getting tired on the back.  We've been on the road since 8am, but we've pushed way further down the map than we intended to.  We finally reach Coldwater on I69 and stop at a Comfort Inn with a warm pool and soft beds.

Every biker we see is riding around in shorts, flip flops and no helmet, and it's giving us culture shock.  We go to the end of the street to get take out and try naked biking, but it gives us both the willies.  Riding around without a helmet just seems crazy.


After a good breakfast at the hotel we're bombing south on Interstate 69 and quickly find the Indiana border.  Before Fort Wayne we strike off west into the country on Six and quickly discover that unless a town is on a truck route it has dried up and blown away.  The scale of the fields of corn beggar belief and stretch to the horizon, but there are no people.  Roads are closed and we find ourselves on gravel stretches looking for ways south.  The Concours has no trouble with this, but Jeff's Super Ténéré looks the part as he takes off down narrow dirt roads.

We try stopping in several towns but they are all derelict; beautiful nineteenth century buildings with boards on the windows and no-one in sight.  Corporate farms run remotely from headquarters thousands of miles away don't need local people.

Main View restaurant in North Manchester, IN: great
service, great food
We finally stagger into North Manchester mid-afternoon.  This is a university town and it's still vibrant.  A local directs us to Main View restaurant and we sit down for another excellent, non-conglomerate lunch.

Zigzagging south and west we soon find ourselves on bigger roads feeding in to Indianapolis.  We get into town at the beginning of rush hour, but this isn't Toronto.  Everything is moving even though the road is still patchy from recent rain (it missed us), and there is construction everywhere.  Other than having to cut into a line to get on the ring road (made easy by Jeff dicing traffic like a pro), we have an easy time navigating and we're feet up at the Hampton Inn by 4:30pm.

A short walk away is Chef Mike's Charcoal Grill which has the best grilled fish and steak imaginable, and a healthy list of craft beers; America isn't all Bud Light and hamburgers.  It was so good we went back again the next night.


It's been pretty good so far, but it's about to get spectacular.  We're off to the Indy Speedway (15 minutes away) early the next morning.  We pull into line and are told to ride around to the back and park in lot 10.  After working our way around the city-sized Indy complex we start looking for parking and keep getting waved through gates by security.  We go down a ramp under ground and surface only to be directed onto the back straight of the Indy oval.

Ever ridden on the Indy oval on your bike?  I have!
Jeff and I are both thinking we've been accidentally put in with the VIPs and are expecting to be caught at any second and kicked out, but I make the most of it and give it the beans.

Nothing sounds better than the sound of your own engine howling off the retaining wall of a straight at Indianapolis!  We're directed to park and stand there in awe.  A guy gives us a kick stand puck saying he doesn't want us punching holes in his race track.  Damn skippy.  We walk over to another guy scanning tickets, expecting to get kicked out.  He scans our general admission tickets (twenty bucks each - kids under 12 are free) and tells us to have a great time.

Did that just happen?  Yes, yes it did!

We walk through the infield, which is a golf course, and discover a circus of motorcycle going on inside.  The Moto3 bikes haven't even started practice yet but all the manufacturers have set up pavilions and there is an Indy kids play area that has Max hopping up and down.  Our general admission, twenty buck tickets give us access to the entire complex, from the front straight stands to hundreds of viewing areas around the infield.  The only place we couldn't go was the paddock area.

We wander around in a daze.  One moment we're watching Moto3s buzz down the straight, amazed that their little 250cc single cylinders can take them over 160 mph before they hit the big corner at the end.  The big, 1000cc MotoGP bikes come out next.  Where the Moto3 bikes sound like (big) angry bees, the MotoGP bikes sound like 140 decibel tearing silk (the Hondas) or the most frantic, staccato v-twin imaginable (the Ducatis).   Lastly the Moto2 bikes come out, their 650cc twins sound fantastic to my ringing ears with a turbine like howl.

Lunch is an Indy dog and some fries, sitting in the near-empty stands in the shade.  The place isn't empty, there are people everywhere, but Indy is so huge that it swallows the crowds with ease.  We spend the afternoon watching the bikes bend through the esses, standing on the grassy knoll on the edge of the golf course.

You can get within fifty feet of the bikes pretty much anywhere on the track and unobstructed views are easy to come by; photography is easy at Indy.  We head back out to the bikes at about 3:30pm as the practice sessions are winding down.  We've been here since 8:30am and we're sun-baked, overwhelmed and ready for a rest.  On the back straight are hundreds and hundreds of bikes, as far as the eye can see.  We slowly motor past row after row of every imaginable motorcycle before ducking out through the underpass.  We're back at the hotel in minutes.  Jeff and I end up passing out for an hour before having another great meal at Chef Mike's.  We're not done yet with Indy motorcycle culture though.

Motorcycles on Meridian shows the breadth of motorcycle
culture in America - it isn't all Harleys and leather.
Motorcycles on Meridian is a satellite event to MotoGP that brings in thousands of riders.  We saddled up and rode into town about 8pm and were stunned to see so many bikes.  From guys who look like pilots riding on Goldwings to lost souls who look like they are just back from rehab, to lean sportsbike riders and everything in between, I was once again reminded that American motorcycling isn't mono-cultural.  Sure, the Motor Company pirate was well represented, but so was every other kind of motorcyclist.

We did a slow pass through the middle of the chaos and then went for a walk.  It was hot, humid and all the hotter for all the revving and showboating.  I've never cottoned on to the look-at-me loud pipes and chrome thing that many bikers get excited about, and some of the stretched drag-strip like bikes looked virtually unrideable, but it takes all kinds.  After a brief tour through the circus of LED lit v-twins and custom madness we had a cold drink and slipped out south to the highway.  Tomorrow was the beginning of the long ride home.


The ride down had highlighted the agony that is the Concours' stock seat.  We stopped at Cycle Gear on the way out of town the next morning for a solution.  They had gel seat pads on sale for forty bucks so I gave one a whirl.  Max got himself a nice helmet with a tinted screen for sunny, highway riding.  The service was great (as it generally was throughout our trip) and we practically tripped over the location on our way out of Indianapolis.  The prices were also astonishing, especially when you aren't paying 13% tax on everything, basically half what we would have paid for the same thing in Canada with less tax.  Helmets seem to be especially cheap in a place where they aren't a requirement.

We made quick work of I69 north to Fort Wayne and were on the 24 heading toward Ohio before mid-day.  Jeff wanted to try and make it home that day so we parted ways in Toledo.  He took the I75 north to Detroit and was home by 7pm.  Max and I headed north on 23 to Ann Arbor thinking to spend the night there before finishing on Sunday, but Ann Arbor was booked solid with a pipe-fitters convention (?) and the rooms left were over three hundred bucks a night.  We pushed on and then got lost in the suburbs of Detroit (which are still surprisingly well kept) before finally stumbling into the Wyndham Garden hotel by the airport.

Like so much else in Detroit, the Wyndam Garden has the look of something that must have been super chic in sixties (it has an indoor forest!).  It's the kind of place James Bond might have stayed when he was Sean Connery, but now it's run down and tired.  People who went to Rome after the Empire fell must have seen something similar.  I left Max in the room and ducked out for take out.  Every store I went to had bullet proof glass and turnstiles between the customer and the clerk.

Day 5

The next morning we hit the road early.  Max wanted to try the tunnel but we got there only to be told motorcycles weren't allowed in.  A sign would have been nice, but at least we got to see downtown Detroit on a quiet Sunday morning.  My magic power kicked in at the Canadian border.  Everyone else crossed in about ten minutes, but we waited twice that because we got the guard who wanted to chat with everyone.  Soon enough we were bombing down the 401 toward home making excellent time.  A couple of stops at ONroutes (which felt like time travel after a night in Detroit) later we were in Kitchener and winding our way down familiar country roads.  We were home by 2pm.

The Concours was faultless, returning mid-fifties miles per gallon on the highway and high forties everywhere else.  It started at the touch of a button every time and showed me it could do the ton with two people in gear and all their luggage.  The gel seat eased the pain but got incredibly hot, leaving me with heat rash and a scowl.  A seat solution will happen before the next long ride, but there is little else I could do to make this wonderful machine any better.

The Concours has ridden on hallowed
ground.  She wears it with pride.
If you don't like crowds, the Indy GP is the one to go to.  Indianapolis is enormous and easily swallows crowds of even one hundred and thirty two thousand.  There is talk of cancelling the Indy round next year, but if it's on I'm going to attend all three days.  I think we can get within striking distance in one day, ride straight to the track on Friday, hotel in Indy Friday and Saturday and begin heading back after the race on Sunday, finishing the trip on Monday.  After doing it once I know I can do it even better next time.

After bombing down the Indy back straight once, I want to do it again!  It only costs forty bucks to do a lap of the MotoGP circuit!  That'll be on the short list for next year along with a paddock pass so I can get Sam Lowes autograph.

If you love bikes and live anywhere north-east in North America, you should give the IndyGP weekend in August a go, I promise you won't be disappointed.  The long ride through the mid-west is anything but boring and the hospitality is second to none.  And when you get there you get to ride on the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway and experience the MotoGP circus in full swing, it really is unforgettable.

NOTE:  The Indy MotoGP is no more - glad we went when we did!  I'm going to have to get more committed to riding to a MotoGP race if I want to do it again!