Sunday, 20 August 2017

Box Hill On a Sunny Sunday Morning

If you're ever in the southern end of the London suburbs, Box Hill is a local meeting place for motorcyclists.  On the sunny, August, Sunday morning I was there it was already busy at 9am and had thousands pass by over the day.  If you get a chance to go see it you'll get a good sense of just how diverse and how different UK motorcycling culture is from North American cruiser biased riding culture.  It's little wonder that there are multiple British riders in MotoGP, but North Americans are thin on the ground.

From 50cc classics to 2300cc modern monster bikes, Box Hill had it all on a Sunday morning.  It's a strange thing seeing British imagery substituted for the Stars and Stripes when you're used to seeing Americana everywhere.

Inside Ryka's, the restaurant/coffee shop in the parking lot at Box Hill, there is a lot of British motorcycling memorabilia.

My cousin Jeff (who has done hundreds of thousands of miles on two wheels) looking over his dream machine.

On the back of one old timer's jacket - what you'd expect to find in the UK.

Lots of customization on hand.  UK riders seem particularly drawn to farkling their bikes.

A local dealer on hand to show of the latest Hondas.

A hand stitched webby seat on a very customized machine.

Just in case you felt your Triumph wasn't British enough.

There were more Indians than Harleys in the lot.

Well marked territory.

The lot was already over half full when we got there and just got busier and busier by the time we left just past 10am.

Lots of Triumph on display.

After weeks only glimpsing motorcycles on the road, this was a good fill up.  I only wish I'd had the Tiger there - it would have been the only 955i Tiger in the lot.

Tim's happy bike face.

They ride everything, but if there is a single type of bike that typifies the British biker, it's still the sports bike, at least on Box Hill.

A small contingent of what would be the dominant form of riding in North America proudly showing of patches with such wisdom as 'loud pipes save lives'.

An hour of wandering around was nice, but when you show up in shorts and get out of a car you're only half there.  I never missed the Tiger more than that morning at Box Hill.
What do you do after you've gone up to Box Hill, had breakfast at Ryka's and chatted with other riders?  You open it up going down the hill like this guy did.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Planes Trains & Automobiles

As I sit here I’m in the middle of a twelve hour odyssey to get back to Canada from the UK. From this cramped seat where I’m constantly being jostled by people, babies burst into full throated song and planes sit on tarmac for forty minutes waiting to unload luggage from two people who checked in then didn’t board, I’m reminded of how much I fucking hate flying. My sinuses are in a vice and I spent ten of the short 90 minutes we had on the ground in Reykjavik trying to clear them of blood and mucus.

At 6’3” and 17 stone, I’m not built for air travel. These seats were designed for people half my size and the leg room varies from barely sufficient to chronically painful. The only reason I’d subject myself to this hell is to visit somewhere spectacular like Iceland or go home to England for a few short weeks to make any kind of connection with my family and memories from childhood.

It has been over a month since I’ve ridden the Tiger with its infinite headroom, divine wind and singular sense of freedom. The freedom of riding a motorcycle has never felt so far away as it does when you’re human cattle on an airliner.

As a younger man I studied flight and once dreamed of doing it myself, but and older post sinus surgery me finds the pressure changes painful and the increasingly OCD/socially anxious me would rather be walking across the Sahara than sitting on this aeroplane right now. There is no kind of tired like the kind of tired you get from the pressure changes and dehydration of flying. The resting 150 heart rate from the social anxiety is a nice bonus.

I love to travel. Going to new places and seeing all the different ways the world can be beautiful is one of my favourite things, but the emotional cost of doing it this way is extreme. The difference between going somewhere on a motorbike and going somewhere in a plane is like the difference between creating a piece of art and looking at a picture online.  One is Travel with a capital T, the other is utilitarian transportation.
We did nine days and covered over two thousand kilometres in some truly beaten up rental cars in Iceland, and the country begs for another go. It’s a beautiful, expensive, unique place that makes you feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Iceland wasn’t born yet when the Canadian Shield I live on was already ancient. That newness comes through around every corner, and it’s blessedly free of people. The ones you do meet are happy to see you (because seeing you is a rarity) and their sense of humour is so honest and piercing that it’s practically glacial in its purity. If you can afford it, there isn’t much to dislike about Iceland though more than a night in Reykjavik is enough though – head out of the capital for the real thing.  If you want a less touristy city, Akureyri on the north coast is a lovely alternative.

We wandered Iceland in a rental hatchback that looked like it had fought a ground battle

in Afghanistan and then a diesel minivan with no springs left and almost a hundred thousand kilometres on the clock. They did the job, but they did it with no joy. When I returned the black and blue Vauxhall Corsa to the impossible to find rental agency (they are called Flizzr, but you have to go to SixT to get it and they don’t say they’re Flizzr anywhere), it was with minutes to spare. I came screaming in from miles of lava fields in a never ending dusk with whisps of smoke streaming off the car, drove it into the side of the building where it burst into flames, mic-dropped the keys at the feet of the stunned attendant and skipped off into the never-to-happen darkness – at least that’s how I remember it. The car had over 80 known dents and scratches on it (life is tough in the land of fire and ice), yet the attendant still went over it with a floor mirror on a stick and took ten minutes to OK it so I could go. Whatever.  

The best car I've ever driven was a 9/10.  The worst car I've ever driven was a 1/10.  It got a 1 because it actually moved.  I've sat in zeroes.  This Corsa was a 3/10 car because it didn’t strand us anywhere, but the car pulled constantly and sounded like an asthmatic runner.  I've seldom driven a car so beaten and tired and so minimally engineered in the first place as to make driving it so tiresome... and don’t rent with Flizzr, it’s a headache.

The worst bike I've ever ridden was a 9/10 (bikes go up to 15/10, though I suspect an H2 is a 17/10).

The next day we picked up the diesel Citroen C4 Picasso – a six passenger minivan that was supposed to carry 3 adults, 3 teens and all their luggage for a week. Somehow it managed it, which says great things about Citroen’s ability to package a people carrier. It had three times the mileage of the poor, old, beaten Corsa but looked five years newer which says great things about Citroen’s ability to produce a tough vehicle. Other than the shock-less suspension that wallowed over bumps, the C4 was useful, but never enjoyable. It pulled well enough with all that weight, and got impressive gas mileage; it was the best vehicle on this trip, 7 out of 10.   Who rents vans with blown suspension, a broken windshield and almost 100k on them?  Icelandic car rental agencies, that's who.

We drifted out of Iceland on a bus, which was easy enough, only to get stranded at the airport for five hours because Air Canada can’t be bothered to change the tires on their planes often enough. An Air Canada Jazz flight out of Gatwick, where we were headed, blew a tire on take off. A close scan of the runway showed nothing.  Even when we don’t take Air Canada they manage to delay us.

We touched down near London at about 1am only to walk into a massive line at customs. The five hour closure had created a huge backlog, but rather than prepare for the backlog the UK had its customs agents sit there all day doing nothing and then left the night time skeleton crew unsupported. We got a bit lucky and only had a 45 minute wait in line, but the planes coming in behind us filled the massive waiting room with snaking lines. It must have been hours before the backlog was cleared by that exhausted night shift.

We were car-less for nearly a week and made do with commuter trains and the tube in and around London. We finally made our way up to Norfolk on British Rail First Class. It only cost a few pounds more to upgrade and it was the nicest single public transport experience of the trip. Comfortable seats, a quiet, modern train, complimentary tea and big windows were a joy. That the drooling masses weren’t on that car was also nice. Our seatmate was a transport engineer on his way back from interviewing a job prospect in London. We arrived in Norwich feeling ready for the next leg.  I still love trains, I'm not sure why.

My cousin’s car (another ancient Corsa in similar shape to the one in Iceland, but 100%
A week living in my home town? Priceless.
less expensive) got us all over Norfolk. It took a few days for us to acclimatize to no shoulders (ever), roads that often disappeared into a driveway sized single lane and drivers who seemed almost psychotically intent on over driving every blind corner. We were told later that as we drove away from Norfolk things would get more sane, and they did. You have to treat driving in Norfolk like lion taming – show no weakness, never break eye contact and establish dominance immediately. Any sign of weakness is seen as an opportunity to try and kill you. We learned the term ‘normal for Norfolk’ and in fifteen days of living there came to appreciate the intensity of their driving culture. Doing it in an old teal Corsa with Norwich City Football Club stickers on it made us look a bit less touristy. By the end of two weeks we could blend.

We cabbed it over to Enterprise Rental Car in Norwich for the next leg. We were getting a Skoda something or other mid-sized (compact in Canada), but it turned into a diesel Toyota Avensis station wagon (estate in the UK). This car was relatively new (12k miles on the odo), with massive, fancy alloy rims and a powerband about an inch wide. It pulled like a V6 from idle, but if you went over two thousand RPM it would start to wheeze, and by 2500rpm it was like accelerating in reverse.

It had a six speed manual transmission and I couldn’t imagine a car that needed that less.

One of the most perverse things about UK driving is that for a people doomed to sit in traffic most of the time, they are all determined to drive a manual transmission. I love manuals, but there is a time and a place, and a big diesel station wagon isn’t that time or place. The Toyota felt under-powered and guzzled diesel. Conservatively I’d guess that the Citroen with six people and their luggage got at least 40% better mileage than the newer Toyota that would turn off if left in neutral and stopped at a light – which caused quite a panic the first time it happened. That the Citroen managed to feel more lively with an automatic transmission, twice as many people and over four times the miles on it doesn’t say great things about Toyota’s state of the art when it comes to diesel motoring, but that wasn’t the worst part of the car.

I’m a sceptic of integrated sat-nav/GPS systems in cars. I understand how Google Maps and apps like Wazer crowdsource information and generate their map data, but the corporate systems built into cars have always seemed like half-assed, cheaper attempts at doing the same thing. They steer me wrong often enough that I usually take their directions as a suggestion at best. Toyota’s 2017 model GPS/sat-nav was the most half assed I’ve ever seen. A number of times in Dartmoor park we were led onto roads that were more an idea of a road than a passable thing, but it really let us down on our way to one of the biggest tourist attractions in the UK.

The Eden Project is a massive greenhouse science experiment in an abandoned quarry in Cornwall. As one of the largest tourist attractions in the country you’d think Toyota’s sat-nav could get us there. Instead of walking us in the front gate it turned us away into a town nearby and then directed us up a single lane track that almost had us damaging the rental car (with £1000 detectable) while we tried to avoid other lost new Toyotas.  We eventually did a 15 point turn to get back around and followed Wazer on the phone instead. This kind of psychotic behaviour came up so often that I started questioning everything it suggested (“what are you talking about you psychotic bitch?”) We eventually retired the Toyota sat-nav (all we’d need according to the kid at Enterprise in Norwich) and used Wazer, which worked a treat on the heavily travelled roads of the UK.

Our last day with the car had us driving from Dartmoor in Devon to Epsom near London…

during the summer holidays. We spent nearly as much time sitting in traffic as we did trying to get the car back in time. That the on-board GPS kept wanting to drive us through the middle of towns during rush hour (it’s always rush hour in England) didn’t help.

After lining up to get in, lining up to park, lining up to pay, lining up to get into the castle and then lining up to leave again, we ended up with about 20 minutes at Corfe Castle. That’s what driving in the UK is like. You start on a trip and the GPS tells you you’ll get there at 5:00pm and you watch that slip away over the day until you’re frantically trying to navigate roundabout on top of roundabout in London suburb rush hour traffic ten minutes before they close and charge you for another day with the car. Our saving grace was my cousin leading us over there after we dropped off the luggage at his house – you’ll never get lost with a native guide.  I'd give the Avensis station wagon a 4/10 - it's more like a six or seven as it's a big car that carries a lot and is smooth and modern, but that guzzling diesel and murderous GPS mean I wouldn't even give it a pass.

The stress of driving at best meh rental cars in UK traffic meant I didn’t find the energy to go looking for my Morgan3 fix. Perhaps that would have reinvigorated my love of motoring after the diesel miasma.  Dartmoor is a driver’s playground with paved over twisty medieval paths and stunning countryside. As I watched everything from MG-As to E Types and a plethora of motorcycles ride the roads from behind the bars of my soulless diesel prison, I longed to be out there in it.

So here I am, writing this on a flight back to Toronto. That My Tiger has been sitting under a gentle accumulation of dust for weeks in the middle of the too-short Canadian motorcycle season is a source of consternation.  I can't wait to go for a ride again, I just wish I could wormhole my way to Dartmoor to do it.

The vegetation is very mobile in the UK...

Friday, 21 July 2017

British Driving Culture

We've been in the UK for almost a week and yesterday spent the day skulking about London.  Like the rest of England, London makes demands on a vehicle operator's attention that many North Americans would find onerous.  The small lanes, lack of shoulder and volume of traffic conspire to create a very intense and focused driving environment.  Efficiency of motion isn't an option, it's an expectation.

A few years ago they set up a roundabout in our small town in Southern Ontario.  The locals used to bring out lawn chairs and sit and watch the circus as Canadian drivers tried to negotiate an intersection that didn't have lights telling them what to do.  At a roundabout in the UK you tend to accelerate into an opening.  If you slow down (or stop as many Canadian drivers do) before entering it, you're going to create a chorus of honks behind you.  You can expect others to see you coming and make space, but you need to be attentive and collegial in your approach.  Ignoring others by cutting them off doesn't fly here.  Being a waffling idiot and not taking an opening won't make you any friends either.  A demanding kind of efficiency and cooperation that is foreign to many North American drivers is the expectation.

London traffic is that kind of urgent efficiency turned up to eleven.  Oddly, British drivers are still very polite, waving thanks and making eye contact when they are facing a problem, like cars parked on an otherwise busy road blocking an entire lane of traffic, which seems to happen constantly.  If the obstruction is on your side of the road you're supposed to wait for traffic in the clear lane to pass, but people often pull over to let through cars that are stuck if it improves the flow of traffic and doesn't slow them inordinately.  This kind of consideration is another aspect of North American driving that is vanishingly rare, especially in the Greater Toronto Area where drivers tend to take on more of a 'get yours and screw everyone else' mindset.

Based on what I've seen, even a hesitant, relatively slow British driver would be considered near the pinnacle of driving talent in Canada, which is one of the reasons I find driving a car there tedious.  Given a choice, Canadian drivers are content to give over about half of their attention to driving effectively, mainly because the massive roads with constant shoulders, signalling that tells you what to do rather than take initiative and minimal traffic volume encourage it.  When things do get busy, as in Toronto, asshole is the default rather than let's all work together to make this go more smoothly.

Even with steep congestion taxes London is a constant flow of traffic, but it's all moving, and usually quickly.  Into this maelstrom, thanks to demands of space and emissions requirements, motorcycles thrive.  My first view when we got above ground and out of The Tube was a blood delivery bike effortlessly cutting through traffic on a busy Thursday morning.  An older guy on a Suzuki Vstrom, he handled his machine with the kind of effortless grace you see of people who have a lot of miles under them.  He seemed to see everything at once and disappeared through the delivery vans and cars in a flash of effortless speed.

Two wheeled delivery vehicles thrive in London, with couriers of all shapes and sizes on everything from 50cc scooters to big BMWs making the rounds.  As we were walking toward Camden Market a rideere pulled into one of the few unused pieces of tarmac in London (the small triangle a car wouldn't fit in before a curb) and carried out an animated conversation over bluetooth head piece with his dispatcher.

The efficiency of small vehicles like motorbikes isn't ignored in England like it is in Canada.  Bikes can squeeze through gaps that would cause a queue otherwise and split lanes.  Parking is more efficient for bikes, so half a dozen commuters can and do park in the space taken up by one SUV.

Being a dispatch rider in London is considered a badge of distinction by motorcyclists here.  If you can survive that you're a good rider with exceptional awareness and control.  If you weren't, you wouldn't last.

We're now on a train to Norwich (my dad's hometown) where we're picking up a cousin's car and driving in the UK for the first time.  I always look forward to it because it's engaging and challenging.  You can't eat or drink and drive here like you can in Canada, but you wouldn't want to.  You seldom stop due to a lack of traffic lights and a plethora of roundabouts and the roads are tight, twisty and require your attention.  To top it all off everything is backwards.  For the first couple of days I chant that like a mantra inside my head when I'm driving here.  It keeps me on the right side of the road and gets me used to indicators and wipers being on opposite sides more quickly.  Within a day or two I'm acclimatized and accidentally cleaning my windows way less.

I might try and find a motorbike rental while I'm home and see if I can find out where my Granddad Bill took that picture on his Coventry Eagle and get a photo of myself on something similarly English and iconoclastic, perhaps an Ariel Ace?

The other night I was in the car back to my cousin's house and we were intent on making time.  With the twisty, tight roads it felt like navigating a rally stage  As we thrashed down the highway a Porsche 911 blew past us like we were going backwards.  I love UK driving culture.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Icelandic Wishlist: A ferry from St Johns to Reykjavik please!

Iceland is at the intersection of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, so in essence it's part of North America and Europe. Unfortunately, only Europe is making an effort to connect to the place.

You can take a ferry from Denmark to Iceland with your own bike and tour this spectacular island for just over 1000 Euro (personal cabin - half that if you share) in the summer and for less than 400 Euro in the off season. If an enterprising ferry operator would start sailing from St John's Newfoundland to Reykjavik, not only would we North American types be able to explore this beautiful and relatively empty piece of the world, but we'd also have a land line to Europe since we could explore Iceland and then ferry to Denmark if means and time permitted.

I'm just a couple of days past a 9 day odyssey around Iceland in a rental car, and all I could think of was how brilliant it would have been on my Triumph Tiger that is sitting in a garage in Canada.

The ferry wouldn't have to run all the time, but four sailings a year would allow a number of adventurous North American motorcyclists to discover the magic of Iceland, and maybe wander on to Europe itself on their own two wheels.

Ride Iceland on your own motorcycle:  Live in Europe?  You can do it now!  Live in North America?  Keep dreaming.

St John's Newfoundland to Prins Christiansson in Greenland to Reykjavik, Iceland. A regular ferry to these places also means another regular ground based means of importing and exporting people and cargo.  The existing ferry from Denmark to Seyðisfjørður on Iceland's east coast could take you on to Europe and Asia.
Costs to get to the European leg of your ride.  With a St John's to Iceland ferry you'd be able to surface travel without special cargo headaches from Los Angeles to Tokyo across Eurasia.

Icelandic Motorcycle Culture

I'm sitting in England thinking about our 9 days in Iceland.  We covered over two thousand kilometres in the land of fire and ice, alas, none of it on two wheels, but I was always on the lookout for motorcycle culture and there is no shortage of it on Iceland.  In a future post I'm going to hammer out all the advice I've garnered from our Icelandic reconnaissance.

You see a lot of BMW GSes on Iceland.  Viking Biking rents them out of Reykjavik and a ferry delivers them from mainland Europe on the east coast.  The adventure bike is the perfect motorcycle genre for Iceland as the roads vary from smooth tarmac to potholed hard dirt, and everything in between.

On our second day I discovered another side of Icelandic motorcycling culture.  The big-twin cruiser rider can also be found here, albeit in much reduced numbers.  The Norse Riders Iceland Chapter are a mashup of your North American patch club with viking imagery.  Like every other biker I've talked to, they look rough but are the nicest people when you chat with them.

Later that day we were making tracks back to Keflavik Airport to return the rental car when we came across some massive lava fields in the south west of the island.  We'd been driving 20 minutes at a time without seeing traffic either way, and this was during the height of tourist season when a number of people had asked me if we should be going there then.  If you like empty roads, you'll love Iceland.  Through the lava fields eventually came two GSes making time on the empty, winding roads.  I can only imagine the smiles on those riders' faces.

Even in the capital of Reykjavik you're looking at something the size of a small North American town.  Traffic moves all the time and there are seldom any backups.  Out in the country you're making tracks all the time with sporadic traffic at worst.

You're driving on the right, so you've got none of the headaches involved in riding in the UK or Australia/NZ, and the drivers themselves are polite and efficient.  If you pull up behind a slower moving vehicle they'll turn on their right indicator when it's safe for you to pass.  We made good time in a hatchback and then a mini-van with six people and luggage; on a bike it'd be heaven.

This left me wondering what I'd most enjoy riding in Iceland.  The Tiger I've got sitting in a garage back home would be the ideal weapon - able to make good use of tarmac but able to manage gravel and packed dirt/potholes.  Iceland is adventure bike nirvana.

A couple of days later we were out near Lake Myvatn and came across a couple of Germans on KTMs.  With their light weight soft panniers and nimble bikes capable of handing any rough stuff, these enduros would be another good choice for riding Iceland.

Those KTMs slice down the valley of the Krefla Geo-thermal power plant (Iceland's main source of electricity and heating is green/geo-thermal energy).  
On our first day with two families, 3 kids and a minivan, we did what all Canadians do and covered a lot of miles, all while repeatedly ignoring the satnav.

The vast majority of this drive was on tarmac, but the satnav kept telling us to turn back on the north shore of the peninsula and we soon found out why.  There were over 100kms of gravel roads that soon devolved into hard parked pot-holed earth roads.  While battling those roads you're also wrapping around fjords and experiencing blind corners at fifteen degree inclines.  It's beautiful, but it's a tough road, especially if you're still hundreds of kilometres from where you're going to lay your head that night.  We saw a number of campers just pull up in a fjiord for the night to enjoy the quiet and the view.

It'd be a challenging ride on an adventure bike, but you'd never forget the scenery.  Based on how exhausting the car ride was, I'd suggest 2 full riding days to do this on a bike, and be ready for some technically challenging roads on day two.

Snaesfellsyokel: a stratovolcano in a land of rift built shield volcanoes.  There is a road across the back of it, if you dare. Rental cars are restricted from using F roads, and considering how rough some of the 'main' roads where, F roads must be quite technical.

Your typical busy Icelandic summer road - if you like the view you'll get a new one like this every ten minutes.

Lava fields

1st day in Iceland: driving Canadian style (huge distances, various road surfaces)...

Taken five minutes past midnight - that's pretty much as dark as it gets - dusky.
Riding in Iceland isn't an oddity.  You'll meet people from all across Europe exploring the continent's last real frontier.  Whether you're a cruiser, a sport or an adventure rider, you'll find your people here on two wheels enjoying some Jurassic Park quality landscapes and empty, sinuous roads.

If you're into exploration of any kind, Iceland delivers.

A 4x4 off-road ready camper van?  Yep, saw that (parked on black lava sand at the base of a cinder volcano!)
This couple were pros.  Their packing was exceptionally organized and the next morning they were up in a light rain in full waterproofs and gone before 8am.