Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Perils of Riding Someone Else's Bike

It was a cold and windy ride through the Superstition Mountains yesterday.  The route we took after taking Gaylen's advice at gets you out of the city and into the desert quickly and lets you bypass most of the urban sprawl east of Phoenix.

Our trusty mount was a Kawasaki Concours 14.  I thought it would be interesting to compare my 20 year old Concours to a younger one.

After I got myself turned around and rode ten minutes the wrong way into Phoenix, we got moving in the right direction and soon found ourselves on the Bush Highway, a twisty, bumpy highway that doesn't go anywhere - I guess that's why they named it that.

It took me some time to get used to this unfamiliar bike.  The gear shift was very close to and felt lower than the foot peg which made for awkward shifts, and the brakes felt very (dare I say over?) assisted unlike the old-school hydraulic brakes on my classic Concours.  When you applied the front brake you stopped in a hurry causing my pillion to plough into the back of me a number of times until I got really ginger with brake application.  The other off-putting part was that each time I used the front brake it was accompanied by a loud electrical whining noise like a cicada chirping.  Sometimes it would stop when I let go of the brake, sometimes it would keep whining afterwards.

I was unsure if this was a Concours 14 thing (doubtful) or an maintenance thing.  CoG didn't suggest any known brake electrical noise problems so I suspect this is a maintenance issue.  The website didn't mention what year the Concours was (unlike other rental sites which tell you it's a 2015 but show you a five year old bike), but based on the body the bike we had was a pre-2011 model.  Maybe it's starting to get cranky in its old age.

Taking a water break on the Bush Highway.  It was about 15°C, comfortable riding weather.
Up in the mountains it was 5°C when we stopped for lunch.
After owning three Kawasakis I have to say, man do they know engines.  Every one I've owned or ridden has had a jewel of an engine and this Concours was no different.  Passing through the tunnel leading out of Superior, the engine sounds echoing off the walls were spine tingling - it sounded like something straight out of MotoGP.

With that big wobbly wind screen up
high you're in a big air bubble, but it
looks ungainly.  Fortunately you can
lower the screen in town to restore
a sportier look.
The engine didn't disappoint in power either.  My Connie does the business with carburators and 300 less ccs, but what this bike does with the monsterous ZX14 1300cc lump is truly ominous.  I've ridden fast bikes before and this is one of the fastest.

On mountain roads this newer Concours felt smaller than my bike though they weigh the same.  The newer bike is much narrower and quite wasp wasted compared to the chunky older model.  That monumental engine that produces sixty more horsepower than my bike probably helps with that feeling of lightness too.

Wind-wise, I was able to ride in jeans all day into single digit Celsius temperatures without a problem.  The heat that pours off my Concours was absent on this one, though it was a cold day so it wasn't something I'd notice anyway.

The windscreen is electrically adjustable and at the top it stopped all but the top of my head getting hit by wind (I'm 6'3" and I had given up on windshields doing anything for me).  My bike gets me squarely in the shoulders and up all the time.  I didn't like how much the windscreen wobbled at speed, it looked flimsy, not to mention goofy in its highest position.  Once I was back in town I lowered it back to a less Jurassic Park look.  Goofy or not though, it made a cold ride through the mountains much more bearable.  A transformable windshield is a piece of magic, though a more solid feeling one with manual adjustment would do the job better.  I'd rather not have the added weight and complexity of the electrical one.
You can see just how ridiculously high the risers
are in this view of the Concours back in the lot.
The big googly-eyed headlights don't do
much for me either.

I've got a 32" leg and find my bike a bit cramped.  The ZG1400 was a bit more relaxed in the legs.  After a couple of hours in the saddle I had no problems.

The ergonomic problems began where made changes.  The huge risers they installed on this Concours looked like comedy units off a 1970s banana seat bike - huge bull horn things that put the grips right under my nipples, or so it felt.  They pushed me so far back that I was riding more on my tailbone - cruiser style - than I otherwise would have.  The narrow Concours 14 seat wasn't build for this contortion and it became quite uncomfortable.  It makes me wonder how the stock handle bars would have worked.  I have low risers on my old Concours and have a slight forward lean, which I prefer to a bolt upright or reclined stance.

No fancy paint, electrical wind screens or whining
electronics, but it's a solid old thing that does the
business with gusto.  I'm still wishing for the
bike bag to magically whisk my bike along.
All of the electrical noise from the brakes and fuel injection made me cross.  I don't mind electronics (I teach computer engineering), and my Ninja had EFI that was bullet proof, silent and efficient, but when the electronics are whirring away it is intrusive and just reminds you of another expensive thing that will break on you.  I don't feel that this Concours 14 gave me a fair idea of what the breed is capable of.  I'd especially like to try a newer one to get a better sense of the machine.  Maybe Kawasaki will be doing a riding tour again next year and I can try a 2016 model.

That whacky old-guy handle bar riser (and accompanying sore ass) conspired to make me long for my own bike.  It might not have the heat management, or easier reach to the ground (which I don't need anyway), or fancy moving windshield, but my old Concours feels solid, is usually the fastest thing on the road when you twist the throttle and offers a satisfying mechanical simplicity that I missed on this electronically whinny newer machine.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Roads to Ride: Arizona

We just left Sedona and headed south to Phoenix.  The Sedona area is astonishingly beautiful, and there isn't anything like a South West Ontario dull road to be seen.  The interstates have more twists and turns than the most interesting roads where I live.  Coming back here on two wheels is a must do.  Not only are the roads fantastic, but the scenery is otherworldly.

We stayed at the Arroyo Roble Best Western on the north edge of town and it made for a excellent base for exploring the area.  The on site hot tubs, sauna and steam room would also ease sore muscles after a long day of leaning into corners on the byzantine surrounding roads.

Here are some of the highlights from Sedona:

The view just south of Sedona

Looking down into the Oak Creek Canyon...

Local micro breweries abound, America is no longer the land of Bud Light.
The Black Ridge Brewery in Kingman make a lovely IPA, while the Oak Creek Brewery
in Sedona make a fantastic Nut Brown Ale.
Any direction you look, Sedona is magical.

Top of Cathedral Rock Trail - it was worth a sweaty climb
Boynton Canyon, a lovely drive in, then a secluded canyon spoiled by constantly running machinery from the golf course
stuffed up the middle of it.  There was an Apache ceremony at the vista coming in - flute sounds over a quiet desert
was much preferred to heavy equipment thumping away around the corner.  Still petty though.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Smoke & Mirrors

I've been watching Tough Rides: China by Colin & Ryan Pile.  It's the long way around China and a great introduction to a little known country, but it sometimes comes off as another thinly veiled BMW ad for adventure motorcycling.

The ride itself is indeed tough with the boys working their way through deserts, traffic and mudslides all the way to the base of Everest, but their bike troubles left me thinking about BIKE's ride from the UK to Japan on a Suzuki V-Strom.  In that case the (relatively budget) Suzuki V-Strom managed to cross Europe and Asia (including the Pamir Highway and Mongolia) in fine fettle.  Bike's 13,768 mile (22,160km) ride highlights just how tough Suzuki's less famous adventure bike is.

In comparison to Bike's bullet proof V-Strom, the new BMWs making the 18,000km circuit of China quickly develop character.  I just finished the episode where one of the bikes (after not starting in a previous episode), now needs a whole new clutch.  This got me thinking about another statistic.

The Consumer Reports reliability Rankings are pretty damning.  From a purely statistical point of view you'd be crazy not to buy a Japanese bike, adventure or otherwise.  If you want something American, get a Victory!  Want something European?  For goodness sakes, get a Triumph!  Ducati is more dependable than BMW yet the propeller heads from Bavaria still seem to be the darlings of the TV adventure motorcycling set.

I get the sense that this is a triumph of marketing over engineering, which is a real shame.  If every other motorcycle manufacturer took the same risks supporting epic rides we wouldn't all be subject to this style before substance adventure-bike TV.

A while back I was reading a Cycle World article comparing the big BMW adventure bike to KTM's Super Adventure.  The article ended with a litany of breakdowns on both machines.  It turns out taking 550+ pound, tech-heavy giant trailies off-road doesn't end well unless you're a magazine reporter riding a demo bike.  I guess they're great bikes as long as you're not pouring money into repairs yourself.

I got into Nick Sander's Incredible Ride a while back.  Nick road the length of the Americas three times, two of them in just 46 days, on a Yamaha Super Ténéré.

That's 50,000 miles (~85,000kms) through the bad gas of Central America, jungle, deserts, mountains all from north of the Arctic Circle almost to the Antarctic Circle.  The BigTen worked flawlessly and when they stripped the engine down after the fact the technicians were frankly astonished by how little wear there was.  Needless to say, it didn't need the clutch replaced during that massive trip.

Honda is bragging on their new Africa Twin, a 'true' adventure bike.  At 500lbs it's a bit lighter than the super-stylish yet very breakable BMWs & KTMs listed above, and if anyone could build a bike that wouldn't break it would be Honda.  Yet even in this case I'm left wondering just how resilient any off-road capable bike north of five hundred pounds is going to be.

You'd think it would be impossible to build a big bike capable of managing this abuse - it's a question of physics (mass vs. the violence of off-road riding), but Sanders' Yamaha suggests it is possible, though you won't see it on adventure bike TV.  Maybe bikes that work all the time make for bad TV.

There is a reason why you guys are having to figure out how to
install clutch plates in the middle of a trip....
An antidote to all of this is Austin Vince's various Mondos.  He seems to spend about the same amount of time repairing his ailing, ancient dual sport bikes but he isn't wearing designer riding gear and he didn't pay anything like the $15,000 that the two Canadian boys did for their new F800GS Adventures.  Vince probably spends less than that on a whole trip, including the cost of his bike.

Ultimately, much of the adventure bike genre is more concerned with style.  Like SUV drivers, most ADV riders seldom if ever venture off pavement so perhaps this post is suggesting something that doesn't really matter.

COST x FAILURE RATE presents a pretty obvious conclusion.
But if you can buy a better built Japanese adventure bike for less (they all cost substantially less than the nearly $22k a BMW 1200GS Adventure costs), then why on earth wouldn't you?

If you're buying that GS to feel like Ewan & Charley then I suppose it's all good if you enjoy the feeling you get from it, but if you're actually interested in going off the beaten path and don't have a sponsorship deal and a support crew, considering reliability before marketing seems like a no-brainer.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Riding an Iron Horse in The High Desert

Since missing the opportunity to ride in the desert last time I was in Arizona, I'm aiming for a day out on two wheels over this Christmas holiday.  Since the adventure bike I want isn't available, I'm looking at a pavement orientated trip.  That doesn't mean I'm suffering for choice in Arizona though.

Route 60 from Globe to Show Low has fantastic reviews and offers a winding way through the mountains.  The views are so spectacular that I won't tire of seeing them twice.  You see different things riding the other way anyway.  The section of sweeping switchbacks on the way down to the bridge over Salt River look fantastic...

...though I hope I can keep the bike in my lane unlike Sparky in the streetview above.

Route 60 over Salt River looks special.

Phoenix to Superior on the edge of the mountains is about an hour, then it gets even better!
From Superior, AZ into the mountains it's beautiful riding... easily a hundred miles of sweeping curves and glorious high desert scenery.  It's only about an hour from AZRide on lightly trafficked, arrow straight roads to get to the good bits, and even there you're in the desert surrounded by massive saguaro cactuses soaking up the heat.

Once into the mountains, the roads are interesting and the views astounding.
A nice thing about not doing a loop means that we'll know when enough is enough and turn around.  I was knocking myself out in BC to make sure the bike was back on time.  It won't be an issue on this out and back excursion.

I'm hoping to get the new Concours from sometime between Dec 24th and the 30th for a foray into the high desert, hopefully on a weekday when the roads are quiet.  It'll handle my son and I with ease while making mince meat of those twisty mountain roads.

The latest generation of my twenty year old Concours.  It looks like a rocket ship and is nuclear powered.  Hope it's available!

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Always On Motorcycle, or: to scramble or not to scramble, that is the question!

Time to put the bike away, right?  Not so much... 
it's 10°C and sunny out today!
I was all proud of myself for pushing into late November on two wheels this year.  When they finally laid down salt and sand after the first real snowfall I put the Concours away and stripped it down for winter maintenance.  I like having a twenty year old motorbike, but it isn't a hop on and go kind of machine, it needs TLC.

A bigger mistake was putting away the KLX even before that.  A newer machine with no need for heavy maintenance, it would have made sense to keep it handy just in case.  The past week I could have ridden in to work several times, but I'm finding myself bike-blocked by too early hibernation habits and a single purpose motorbike.

Riding into the frost line is a good time!
Next year I'm going to keep an iron horse
saddled just in case.
I coulda been riding in this!
I wouldn't be going on any long rides, just commuting, but that means 2-up with my son to drop him off at school.  I got the Concours because it does this job well while still letting me fly when I want to.  The KLX just manages the job of carrying me (it struggles to run at speed on the road with my 250lbs), but with storage and a second passenger?  I think it would be fairly miserable.  Perhaps that's what's stopping me from hauling it out of the shed again.

It's away too soon!  Too soon!
The Concours isn't going anywhere, but the KLX, while a good introduction to off road riding isn't the Swiss Army knife of a bike I was looking for.  Come spring I'm going to liquidate some biking assets and go looking for a more multi-functional alternative.

I think I'll clear $1000 on the XS1100 I'm currently fixing up, and I think I'll be able to get what I bought the KLX for ($2000).  Getting the $600 back I spent on the little Yamaha should also be possible.  With $3600 on hand I have some interesting choices when it comes to a Swiss-Army knife bike I can keep handy for multi-surface riding while also being able to ride 2 up while commuting.  The 650cc dual sport class of bikes has three contenders worth considering...

$1700  sitting in Kingston.  an '01 with 55K, well maintained,
KLRs are cheap and plentiful.  It'd also be more generally
usable than the KLX.

I'm thinking once again about a Kawasaki KLR650.  A tank of a bike.  Not fast, but fast enough, able to carry two up, and rugged.  If looked after it'd hammer along for a long time.  The KLR is the darling of the cheap adventure rider and has an awful lot of after market accessory clobber as a result.

$3400 over in Waterloo.  Top of the price range, but it's an  '05
in immaculate condition with 24k on it.  Nice photography too!

Honda makes an equivalent bike, the XR650.  It looks more off road focused, and it'd be my first Honda.  Other XR650s hover around $3000 with low kilometres.  They seem a bit more expensive than either the KLR or the Suzuki, but Hondas are famous for holding value like that.

An '05 with 33k out in Brockville going for $3200...

I looked at a DR600 last year, but shied away from such an old bike (this was an '89 in poor condition).  The DR600 evolved into the DR650 which is still in production today.

All three of these 650cc dualsports have enjoyed strangely long production runs with minimal changes.  That gives them a deep and well supported parts availability though.

I could creep into the adventure bike genre proper for about twice what I've got.  At under ten grand I'd consider the current crop of mid-sized adventure touring bikes, especially the ones with some off-road capability.  The Honda NC750x rolls out for just under $10k.  Suzuki's V-Strom 650 is five hundred bucks cheaper, and the Kawasaki Versys 650 is a grand under that, though it isn't much of an off-road machine.  The Honda CB500x rolls out for seven grand, making it an even cheaper option.  These bikes tend to put on the airs of an adventure bike without delivering any real off-road abilities.  Being new they'd all handle the job of an always-on/Swiss army knife bike better than the venerable Connie though.

Triumph's new Bonneville
Scrambler is a pretty thing.
Yep, we look good on that!
At just over ten grand I'm into Triumph Scrambler territory.  This would scratch both the classic itch as well as the multi-surface riding itch.  I'm not interested in MX riding.  My off roading would be dirt roads and light trail riding.  Staying away from the brightly coloured, long shocked dirt bikes would be OK with me, especially if I were on a classic looking Scrambler.

My kind of off-roading... very civilized!
The Scrambler genre has picked up as of late, with Ducati and BMW both entering the fray.  Yamaha is also doing it (though overseas), and Scramblers have long been a favourite of the custom crowd.  But unless I can make more space, a home made custom isn't the dependable always on machine I'm looking for... though that hasn't stopped me before.

Rather than just jumping into another dual sport that puts function before everything, maybe I should just start working toward the Scrambler I'd rather have.

However, the adventure bike rabbit hole goes all the way to the 1%er land.  On the way to Silly-Rich World you've got some multi-faceted mid-level adventure machines that are both stylish and capable.

With much disposable income I could go with the new Triumph Tiger 800cc XCx (about $16k).  With more cash on hand I'd be onto the new Triumph Tiger Explorer (north of $20k) or perhaps Honda's newly re-released Africa Twin (maybe $17k?).  In this territory you can get a stylish, long-distance able, off road capable machine.

Once you get into the high end adventure market things get silly quickly.  Suddenly you're thinking about Ducati Multistradas and superbike fast KTM Super Adventures.  Bikes with more computers than a moonshot.  Every time I read an article about these bikes they are described as fantastic, followed by a long list of all the things that broke on them but were covered under warranty.  I guess that's an adventure of a sort.

These kinds of bikes wander into more than just disposable income.  If I'm buying a bike like that I'd better be at my leisure.  Dropping upwards of $30k on a motorcycle that can handle dirt roads (but needs expensive TLC every time you do) should mean you've also got a stable of a dozen other bikes and lots of time to ride them.

Back in the real world I'm motivated to expand my riding season and have a machine on hand that can do more than one thing if the Connie is feeling her age.  Come spring I'll be considering options to scramble or dual sport, but it'll be scrambling unless I can afford an actual adventure bike.  If I'm going to look for a multi-purpose always on bike, I'd also like to get one that tickles an aesthetic itch.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Riding In the Desert On an Iron Horse with No Name... for reals this time

I've been through the desert on a lousy rental car with no name,
now I'll do it properly on two wheels!
I landed a free trip to Arizona a couple of years ago for an educational conference.  I'd never been to the desert before, it was a great trip but the cunning plan to rent a bike fell apart when I discovered they don't rent over the Easter weekend when I was flying in.

Ever since driving a lousy Nissan rental car through the Superstition Mountains, I've wanted to go back and do it properly on two wheels.  My time has come!

We're doing a family trip to Arizona over the Christmas break.  Opportunity never knocks twice, except when it does, like this time.

Eaglerider's selections look all of a kind,
a kind that doesn't really grab me.
Eaglerider has a huge selection of bikes, but AZ Ride has exceptional customer ratings.  I'll end up looking into both and seeing which grabs me.

AZ has the Indian Scout, which tickles a fancy (riding in the desert with an Indian Scout, c'mon!), along with the ZG1400 Concours, which I'm curious about for obvious reasons.  

Eaglerider has a lot of Harleys and a smattering of other very heavy offerings from other manufacturers.  In other locations they offer Triumphs but not in Phoenix.  Scraping floor boards doesn't make me think of spirited riding, it makes me think of a poorly designed motorcycle.  Lugging a massive hunk of iron that can't corner around the desert doesn't strike me as a good time.

Looking at what's on offer, and taking into account the customer ratings on Google, I think I'll be giving AZride a go.  They're both up the right end of Phoenix to get to easily, so location isn't a factor.  I'll be aiming at a Concours if my son wants to come with or the Scout if I'm solo, then it's off into the Superstition Mountains for a day... or is it?

309kms/192 miles, with that many bends should make for a good day of riding

The road to Roosevelt is something else.  I skipped it in the Nissan rental car, but on two wheels it might be reason enough to live in Phoenix.  It's about 80kms of serious switchbacks through breathtaking high desert, except it's a dirt road!  All my day dreaming about riding switchbacks of smooth Arizona tarmac aren't happening unless I go the long way around and stay on paved roads.

Once up on the plateau I'll make a point of stopping at the Tonto National Monument, which is a magical place.  The ride back down the other side offers a couple of nice stops, but also some tedium.  If that road to Roosevelt is as magical as it looks, I might just come back that way.

How do you say no to a road like that?  AZride has a BMW 800GS Adventure, but a ride like this would be the perfect time to try the new Triumph Tiger Explorer - alas, no one rents it.  I've been eyeing the 800XCx as well as the new Explorer, but no one rents 'em.  There is a Triumph dealer in Scottsdale.  Think I could convince them to let me have a 300km test ride along that crazy road?


In a more perfect world I'd rent bikes I'm curious about owning.  A short list would include:

The new Triumph Bonneville with the Scrambler package (favourite classic) - It'd also look awesome in the desert!

Kawasaki Z1000 (favourite naked bike), though Kawi just came out with a Z800, which I'd also like to have a go on - but I'd be trapped on pavement.

The Kawasaki H2 (because it's bonkers) - but not so good on a dirt road in the high desert...

The Ariel Ace (because it's sooo pretty) - but I suspect it lacks off road chops.

I'm in a conundrum now.  I really want to ride out of Apache Junction on the Apache Trail, but the bikes I want to ride are all pavement specialists while the adventure bikes I'd want to rent aren't available to ride.

Meanwhile Triumph cruelly taunts me with their lovely new machines.

Damn it!


Instead of turning left before Globe,
head on towards Show Low.  The
roads be magic there!
All is not lost.  If we're on pavement for the ride there is a nice triangle that'll make for a fine high-desert ride.  The road north out of Globe into the higher mountains looks like a corker too.  I don't think I'll be suffering too much if I can't ride the Apache Trail.  Either of those would be a blast on a big Connie.

Now to find a day when the weather is cooperating and see if I can make this happen.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Motorcycle Reading: Lois on the Loose

I just finished Lois Pryce's first travel book, Lois on the Loose.  Unlike many of these find-yourself-on-a-long-bike-ride books apparently written by people with a lot of time on their hands and no financial demands, Lois gives a real world account of the necessary evils of working in a job that anaesthetizes you.  You know where she's coming from and why she leaves.

You're on board with her once she gets going.  On the road Lois is an honest, witty writer who never leaves you waiting for the next moment.  Her prose is tight and well edited... you'll fly through this book, but it never lacks for detail or continuity.  Ashuaia feels like the galactically distant goal that it is throughout.

From shockingly rude Canadians to wonderfully supportive Guatemalans, this book makes you question all the prejudices we have about foreign lands (as well as the one I happen to live in).  Lois is amazingly fearless and committed to her journey.  You can't help but admire her for her bravery.

If you enjoy travel writing you'll love this book.  If you enjoy motorbikes you'll love it even more.  When things go sideways past Titicaca I was riveted, reading until way past my bed time.  You will too!

Fortunately I've still got Red Tape & White Knuckles to look forward to over the holidays.

On April 30th 2003 I left my job at the BBC and my cosy houseboat in London to motorcycle the length of the Americas on my Yamaha XT225 Serow. My route took me 20,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina, the most southerly place in the world that can be reached by road. The book of this journeyLois on the Loose is available in the UK, USA and has also been translated into German, Dutch and Italian.