Monday, December 31, 2012

Looking Backwards, Looking Forwards

Oh jeez, not another end of the year special?!  Sure, why not? 

Highlights for me of 2012? 

Got to ride Europe again, and that's always a treat.  Picked up my Versys from the garage of my late riding pal, Colin Barlow.  Visited with his wife and friends before heading out to ride the Chunnel to France. 

Met up with my good friend, Matthias in Dole, France, and the two of us had a lovely ride through rural France on tiny roads between Dole and Lyon.  In some ways it was the best single day of riding for me in Europe this year.  Matthias sorted it all through his GPS, and we had a ball zinging up and down tiny lanes. 

Once in Lyon we were hosted at the home of a fellow whose videos I'd admired on YouTube, BenDYd.  That was enough of an introduction that he invited us to stop by and spend the evening.  He and his boys cooked us a delightful French meal enjoyed on a perfect summer evening, and providing us a good night's sleep before launching off into the Alps. 

Best new-to-me pass this year?  Colle Sampeyre in far northwestern Italy.  At least I think it was new to me.  It reminds me of a road we ran in the 2006 Centopassi.  Not sure.  If you like the goaty stuff, try it out. 

After the Alps it was time to rendezvous with my lovely wife at her sister's home in North Yorkshire.  It turns out that one of Colin's best mates - Stuart, who we rode with in 2010 - lives close by.  That meant we got a brilliant guided tour of the Yorkshire moors and a lovely evening out.  So fun to watch Stuart's effortless speed on the wild and nadgery lanes and humpback bridges of the rural UK. 

Every year the high points have to include the BARF rallies, and thanks must be extended to those adventurous souls who trustingly follow me on all the most treacherous roads I can find en route to our rally destinations.  I love you folks for your enthusiastic comradeship! 

There's no way to pick a favorite rally.  Hawthorne is always its own thing, not really comparable to any other rally.  Paso Robles was fun, as always.  One little highlight at Hawthorne this year was the opportunity to stop by to see Andy's (tzrider) vacation home and tree house.  Not only was the tree house at least as cool as the photos, but Andy had a bigger treat for me.  We had the chance to discuss my 2011 crash, and Andy offered a possible diagnosis of the contributing inputs that - in addition to excessive exuberance - put me on the ground.  After reflecting on Andy's suggestion, it became clear that he'd nailed it (no wonder he's such a superb coach!), and now I have something to work on to keep me out of trouble. 

It's always a treat to get some advanced training in each year, and in 2012 it was provided by the Alameda County Sheriff's training center and their civilian motorcycle training class.  It's a bargain in motorcycle training, where they introduce you to the fundamentals of cop bike training (make sure to rent one of cop Kawasakis - they're a blast!)

Looking forward, what does 2013 have in store?

More training for sure.  Maybe a return to something I've done before, like Rich Oliver, or CSS, or Lee Parks.  Maybe something new.  At least go back to the Alameda County Sheriff's training.  There is so much opportunity to improve.

Hoping to get a small dual sport some time in 2013 so I can get some more off-road riding in.  Partly for skill improvement, partly for the chance to do fun and challenging riding that keeps me away from cars, and where fun happens at lower speeds.

Back to Europe seems likely.  The Versys awaits in the garage there.  Not sure about the Alps in 2013.  Maybe.  Maybe Scotland or the IOM instead.  Thinking that it would be fun to see the Southern 100 road race there in July. 

Obviously, the BARF rallies, but I can't say whether I'll be able to rallymaster in 2013.  Life gets busy.  Still, the rallies are so much fun that there must be a way to participate even if I may not be able to lead.

Group rides with my friends are always a highpoint, and not to be missed.  In that mix of group rides has to include the legendary highways 36, 162, and 25. 

If all those things come to pass, 2013 will be at least as wonderful as 2012. 

How about you?  What was the best part of 2012 for you?  What did you learn?  What do you treasure?  What do you want to make happen in 2013?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Riding With Friends

Today was highlighted by participating in a ride celebrating a friend's birthday.  Fourteen riders, some I knew, most I didn't.  The birthday boy wanted oysters for his birthday, and you really can't beat fresh oysters from Tomales Bay enjoyed outside on a brilliantly sunny late November afternoon.  It was wonderful!

Like lots of riders, I can be a little uncomfortable riding with folks for the first time.  Plus, it was a little damp under the trees from recent rain, so when the route was planned to go straight up Hwy 1 from Point Reyes Station to Marshall, I separated myself from the group to go ride Marshall-Petaluma, a local favorite, then reunited with the group at the Marshall Store.

Listening to talk over lunch, it was clear I'd missed out some by riding apart from the group, so when the birthday boy said he wanted to ride Fairfax-Bolinas on the way home, it was time to re-integrate with the group.  As it turned out, the group of fourteen fractured a bit going south, and I ended up in a group of four, all of whom I knew, but only one of whom I'd ridden with.  As it turned out, all were superb riders, beautiful and smooth arcing down 1, sharp and surefooted over Fairfax-Bolinas.

Once we were over the top of the ridge and down the other side we stopped to talk, trade stories, ask question, and review the highlights of what we'd just ridden.  The conversation was full of laughter, sharing the raw joy of a great ride in a way that can't be fully shared with anyone who wasn't there.  What a pleasure!

It brought up a number of recent rides, with old friends and new, small groups and large, in which the intensity of the experience, combined with the need to be flexible and ride in concert with others over the road in a sort of dance, brings to light a part of the motorcycling experience that one can't really get riding by oneself all the time.  There is much to be said for the quiet and introspection of the solo ride, and they are an important part of the riding experience.  That said, the afterglow of today's ride is a vivid reminder that joy shared is joy squared.  Enjoy. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Ride It/Pay It Forward Day

November 24th.  What a great day to remember all the folks who have help us out along our way as motorcyclists.

Time to remember that friend who used to let you rip around on his minibike because he had one and your parents forbid you having one.  Time to remember the guys down at the moto shop who let you hang around.  Time to remember the folks who helped you figure out how to work the throttle and the clutch - at the same time!  Time to remember the friend who helped you do your first valve adjustment.  Time to remember the folks who stopped to help you when you were broken down on the side of the road.  Time to remember the cool guys who let you come on their rides when you were just starting out, and then made sure you didn't get lost or dropped when you fell behind.  Time to remember the cop who cut you some slack when you were being a fool on your bike. 

The list goes on and on, doesn't it?  Folks often tend to view motorcycling as this intensely individual activity.  When you're riding it's all up to you.  Head in your helmet, by yourself (often), iPod blasting in your ears (sometimes), captaining your own ship (always), encapsulated in experience if not in steel.  Yet when I think back, motorcycling has often depended on other people to a great degree.  Not just the folks who helped, but the folks who've been there, who've shared the moment, the view, the road food, the buzz of a twisty road ridden quickly.  The folks who helped us keep going.  The folks who took care of us when we were hurt or broken down.  The folks who showed us the way when we were learning or lost.  The folks whose kindness made it all so much better.

Today is a good day to remember those folks, and having remembered them and all their many kindnesses to us, today is a day to make sure we pay those kindnesses forward.  Today is a good day to help a newbie rider, to share a favorite backroad, to buy another rider's lunch, to help someone work on a broken bike, to show the smooth way through a turn, to stop to help a broken down rider, to lead or sweep a group ride.  Today is a day to remember everyone who made motorcycling so much more than an intensely individual experience, and do the same for another rider.  Ride it forward.

Miss you, Colin. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012


Weekday riding is for some riders a rare luxury, and this week I was reminded just how luxurious they can be.  I'm not working right now, and Monday night a friend reached out to see if I could show some visiting Brazilians some of our local roads.  So on Tuesday I met up with Lynn and Lygia who were visiting from Rio on their Moto Guzzi Stelvio.

My friend who'd contacted me had highlighted a map of great Marin and Sonoma country roads for Lynn and Lygia to follow, and it included some of my favorite backroads, but since it was a weekday, and they'd never been here before, it seemed worthwhile to try out some of the routes I usually avoid due to overcrowding.  We rode straight to Tam Junction to pick up Hwy 1, then over the hill towards Stinson Beach.  A brilliant road, and recently re-paved!  Normally I avoid that section of Hwy 1 like the plague due to its usual crowding with frightened sightseers, overloaded minivans, stoned out surfers, and HOG chapter rides.  On Tuesday is was nearly empty at 11 AM.  Woo-Hoo!

Hwy 1 was so empty I even agreed to ride through Bodega Bay!  And even better, my head didn't explode! 

In the end, it was a great day of riding.  Lynn and Lygia fly down the road on that Stelvio.  We only rode goat trails for fun, not for the purpose of avoiding crowds.  If you get a day off, you should try a weekday ride on a road that's normally too crowded.  Like me, you may find you'd forgotten just how much fun can be had on a tourist road when the tourists are gone. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012


I posted about rain back in July when I had just returned from a trip to France that featured a couple of heavy rainfalls.  Back here in California, it's been the usual weather pattern of a dry summer followed by the resumption of rain in the autumn.  Any of you who saw the Giants defeat the Cardinals in the NLCS know that rain has returned to northern California in earnest.  With that in mind, what are some things to think about when riding goat trails during or after rain storms?

Since most of the roads here that we call goat trails are on hillsides, the number one concern regards run-off.  What has run off the hillside and on to the road surface?  It can be mud, sand, gravel, manure, etc.  All slippery.  With short sightlines and and the possibility of poor visibility when riding in the rain, it's good to be cognizant of the risks of run-off and adjust your speed accordingly.  While you're at it, give some to where on the road the run-off is likely to be, beginning with the uphill side of the road surface. 

Next, since one of the characteristics of California that gives us such fun roads is our area's geological instability, it's good to think about what that means - particularly if it's been raining heavily for some time.  Sometimes what it means are mudslides, and while some of those can be similar to the debris on the road mentioned above, they can also turn into the road you're on sliding away down the hillside.  No fun to round a turn and find there's no road!    Another thing to consider when choosing the entry speed for a corner. 

As the rain falls this time of year, it will also bring leaves and pine needles down on the road, creating a very slippery surface, and one which may take months to clear on the less traveled roads.  Add to the the falling of some of the branches that held those leaves coming down in big storms, and in really big storms, even the trees that held the branches that held the leaves can be waiting to give you a surprise around that next bend. 

Last for today, though we won't have to worry about it for a while, after a long damp period, roads that don't get much sun can develop moss.  Moss is another one of those slippery items that can deliver a nasty surprise.   Running in the tire tracks can help, but you need to be aware that the path your head takes around a corner won't be the same as the paths your tires take.  If you cross over the area between the tracks, you'll find yourself in the mother lode of slippery!

Just a few thoughts rattling around in my head as I get ready to go out for a ride following our first real rain of the season.  What did I miss?

Friday, October 12, 2012

Visual Discipline

It's a truism in motorcycling that where you look determines where you go.  If you focus on a a tree, the edge of the road, the bumper of the car in front of you, that's exactly where you'll steer the bike.  You can find lots of discussion out there on motorcycle forums and in other literature that explains that, but let's just call it a given, and refer to it as target fixation.  Below is a classic, if somewhat chilling, example.  The rider visually locks on to something that frightens him, then crashes straight into it.

There may be riders who've never experienced target fixation, but I'm not one of them.  Come to think of it, most riders I know well will admit to having experienced it one time or another.  Truth be told, I've experienced target fixation at least once per year for as long as I've been riding.  Yet for me and most of these same riders, target fixation does not always result in crashing.  Why is that?

Looking at the above video gives us a classic example of how target fixation typically begins.  In the video it appears that the rider brakes for the upcoming turn / intersection and inadvertently looks the rear brake causing the rear wheel to slide, and the rider to panic - stiffen up, foot off the peg, etc. - the rider sees the wall, stares at the wall, and proceeds straight into the wall.  Ouch!  The critical point being that target fixation is typically preceded by something happening that scares the rider, causing the rider to stare at whatever is the object of fright, then steering straight into it.

If it's fairly common for riders to target fixate, but not that common for them to crash as a result, what is it that enables a rider to recover from target fixation incident, and safely avoid a crash?  My experience is that somehow the rider recognizes what is happening, and breaks the fixation by choosing to look where he wants to go rather than at what he wants to avoid. 

This ties to the topic of visual discipline - knowing where you're looking, knowing where you need to be looking in order to safely pilot your motorcycle, having the presence of mind to recognize when the two don't match and that corrective action is required, and having the discipline in the face to fear to put your eyes where you need them to be.  No mean feat.  

How do you accomplish this?  Going back to an earlier post on self-awareness, it begins with knowing where you're looking as you ride.  Where am I looking?  Are my eyes scanning the road out to the vanishing point?  Am I looking at the ground just ahead of my front wheel?  Am I locking on to roadside objects that scare me?  Some self-awareness and self-critiquing will go a long way towards establishing a baseline of experiential knowledge regarding where you need to look.  

The next step is recognizing when your normal pattern of looking at the road has been disrupted.  A good clue for this can be seen in the video - it's noticing that you're frightened.  Have you suddenly stiffened up, stopped breathing, felt a jolt of adrenaline and a rise in your heart rate?  Are you staring at something?  

And this is where the "discipline" part comes in.  Having noticed this, it's time to force yourself to look where you want to go.  There are times when I've felt like I need to reach up and grab the chin bar of my own helmet to yank my head in the direction I needed to look!  You know what?  If that's what it takes, that's what you do.  

Lee Parks has an exercise he describes in his book, Total Control, that helps out with this.  You'll need a friend and a parking lot to pull this off, but it will greatly help you in developing the ability to recover once you target fixate.  Lee suggests that you figure out where you can comfortably ride in a circle with your friend standing in the middle.  As you ride around the circle, your friend rotates in the middle so that the two of you can maintain eye contact.  Every time you break eye contact your friend will point it out and tell you, "look at me."  Keep doing this until you can consistently ride the circle without breaking eye contact.  When you can do that, tighten the radius of the circle until it begins to be difficult to maintain eye contact, then stay at that radius until you master it, then tighten the circle again.  Do this turning both clockwise and counter-clockwise, trading places with your friend so that you both gain experience looking consistently where you want to go, and recovering if you get distracted.  

This is a great way to develop and sharpen the visual discipline that will help you recover when you start to target fixate, assuring that your ride home is on the bike and not in an ambulance.  

Monday, October 1, 2012


An area in northeastern Italy near Slovenia and the Adriatic that I've not visited, but now I feel compelled.  My favorite videographer of alpine riding is a German fellow whose YouTube channel name is TheMimoto, and he recently posted a video taken in August of riding in Friuli.  My mouth is watering!

It's definitely worth a watch, and when you're done, if you still want some more, here's a video made by one of his companions on the same trip.

If you've ever wondered whether you should ride the Alps, these videos should make clear that the answer is an emphatic, "Yes!"

Monday, September 24, 2012


No, not that clown in the mirror.  Well, sometimes.

Self-reflection in this case is your ability to evaluate your own performance of any skill, activity, knowledge, whatever.  In this case, let's assume it has to do with riding motorcycles, and evaluating your own abilities, and based on that evaluation, make positive changes in the way you ride.  Is this something you do?  Is it something you think about?

Assuming you're not a riding god, and assuming you know that, and you're not a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, most of us have some room for improvement in our riding.  Barring having regular sessions with a riding coach who observes your riding and provides useful feedback, we're pretty much stuck with evaluating our own riding.  We may read all the best books on becoming better riders.  We may post questions on internet forums and eagerly sift through the answers.  We may even ride with more accomplished buddies who demonstrate how they get up and down the local racer road.  But even after we do all that, we still have to compare these ideals with an unvarnished look at the way we're riding now before we can hope to figure out the steps to take to improve.  Yep, self-reflection. 

Here's what got me thinking about this.  A few weeks back I was with some motorcycle friends talking about (what else?) riding.  One of these friends - who will remain nameless for now - knows more about what it takes to ride a motorcycle quickly and well than anyone else I have the pleasure to know.  When the topic of conversation moved to embarrassing events, I related what happened when I crashed my motorcycle about a year ago.

Crashing my motorcycle is not something I like to do, and it had been 5 years since my prior crash, and 20 years back to the one before that.  Last year's crash had been a bit of a mystery to me, and the only thing that seemed to explain it was too much throttle in a low traction situation, but the quickness and violence of the crash made that explanation a bit unsatisfying, and no one I'd talked to about it had any better of an explanation than that one.

When my friend heard how the crash happened, he said that he'd seen a lot of people crash by getting back on the throttle before they finished setting the lean angle for the turn, and in those cases these riders experienced losing the rear tire and low-siding even though their lean angle wasn't terribly steep and traction was not that bad.  This seemed odd, and it stuck with me.

The next day a group of us were riding over the Sierra headed back to the Bay Area, and I began to reflect on what he'd said, asking myself, "Am I opening the throttle before I've finished setting the lean angle?"  I didn't think about it every turn, but when I had time to think, I posed the question.  Any time I felt like the rear tire had been squirming or skittering across the road, I posed the question.  Here's what I found: yes, in some cases in some circumstances, I sometimes start opening the throttle before I finish setting the lean angle for the turn.  Exciting!  A new insight! Once home a brief exchange of messages confirming what had been suggested, and some helpful feedback, and more to work on.

The moral of the story is that it doesn't matter how much Code, Parks, Ienatsch, Hough or others you read, you've got to bring them with you when you ride.  The only way to do that is save a little bit of bandwidth to observe and record your own riding, then - perhaps later - reflect on what you observed and how it compared to what you read.  Is there a gap?  Can you learn something from that gap?  Can you bring that gap back to another reading of the book to see if you learn something else?  I hope the answer is in all cases "yes"!

Self-reflection is a key skill to develop in becoming better at pretty much anything, including riding, just don't let staring in the mirror overwhelm everything else.  We all know what happened to that Narcissus character. 

Thursday, September 6, 2012


Tomorrow begins the annual Bay Area Riders Forum (BARF) Rydther Rally bound for Hawthorne, NV.  I think this is the 5th annual, or thereabouts.  We travel to Hawthorne each year in memory of a deceased member whose motto was Ride There, wherever it might be.  Going there by motorcycle is better than going just about any other way.  We ride to Hawthorne every year to remind ourselves of the truth of his motto.

Why Hawthorne?  Lots of reasons, but I'll start with four:
  1. Tioga Pass
  2. Sonora Pass
  3. Ebbetts Pass
  4. Monitor Pass
Any of those can be on the way to Hawthorne and back, and they are among the highest, wildest, and most beautiful passes in the Sierra Nevada.  Throw Yosemite NP in there if you're taking Tioga Pass, and there's another reason.  We're going to make those passes even more fun by taking some entertaining goat trails leading up to the high Sierra to avoid the car traffic, and to have some fun!

Once you're over the passes, the fun doesn't stop.  You can have lunch at The Whoa Nellie Deli at The Mobil in Lee Vining to experience fine dining in a truly improbable setting.  If that doesn't suit you, there's always Mountain View BBQ in Walker, CA, a worthy destination even if you chose to turn around and head back home.  

While you're taking in the natural beauty, you'll pass right by the legendary Mono Lake, which is slowly returning to its earlier water levels.

As for Hawthorne itself?  Well, Hawthorne is an old munitions town, with bunkers dotting the hillsides surrounding the town.  It's a remote spot, a relatively quiet (unless they're disposing of old munitions) spot in the desert.  It's inexpensive to stay there.  It's inexpensive to eat there.  The locals have always been happy to see us, and to share their hospitality over the course of a few days of days of riding and hanging out by the pool, and evenings of having fun over in Joe's bar.  It's tough to beat.  

See you when I get back.  

Hairpins (again!)

Two weeks ago I enjoyed a great goat trail ride!  Some of my favorite Marin and Sonoma roads, little traffic, nice weather, and ripe blackberries by the roadside for a little al fresco feasting.  Combine that with riding with good friends, and that's just about ideal. Throw in a new learning, and it gets even better.

I've posted before on the topic of hairpin turns on a couple of occasions because they cause problems for lots of riders.  One of the varieties of hairpins that I've seen cause the most difficulty are downhill right-handers, and I devoted a post to that particular variety earlier this summer.  Our ride two weeks ago demonstrated that uphill right-handers can be problematic too, and that's the topic of this post.

What do the two varieties have in common beyond the obvious fact of turning to the right?  In the ones I've seen cause the most problems the other common feature is very short sight-lines - the rider can't see where the road goes beyond some obstruction (tree, hillside, wall, house) that is on the inside of the turn.  The result of that short sight-line is one of the following, or some combination; the rider slows (not a bad idea), stiffens (not so good), stares at the ground in front of the front wheel that is visible, stares out the opposite side of the road which is also visible, forgets to shift down to a gear appropriate for the slower speed, etc.  With the exception of the first one, not optimal responses.  Let's examine them.

Slowing down is not a bad idea.  The conventional wisdom is that you should travel at a rate at which it takes you four seconds to reach the edge of your line of sight so that you have adequate time to react to any obstruction of your path.  It's pretty hard to argue against that even when your line of sight is so short that your speed drops to what feels like a crawl, however unless your path actually is obstructed, I can't remember seeing a hairpin so tight that you need to get your feet off the pegs.  Keep your feet in the pegs, shift to a gear appropriate for your road speed, cover the clutch if necessary, and be very careful of using the front brake unless you actually have to stop.  You're going uphill, so you should  be able to control your speed by rolling off the throttle and/or using the rear brake.

Stiffening is pretty much always a bad idea, in hairpins or otherwise.  It your elbows are stiff and/or you have a death grip on the bars, you're too stiff, and nothing good can come of that.  This is the time when you need to be a little self-aware (difficult if you're frightened), and wiggle your fingers and waggle your elbows to loosen them up.  Two of the most common causes are the following:

Looking at the ground.  The old saying in motorcycling that shows up as more and more true the longer I ride is that you go where you look.  Meaning in this case that if you look at the ground, that's where you're going.  Looking at successive spots eight feet in front of you will mean that even at very low speeds the world will be a continual surprise, you'll be frightened, you'll stiffen as a result, and you make bad things more likely to happen.  Get your eyes up.

Looking at the outside of the turn.  Where you look is where you go, right?  If you're looking at the opposite roadside, where do think you're likely to end up?  Bingo!  Across the road and in the ditch, unless you're really unlucky, in which case the local in the F350 heading to pick up the day's second sixpack may turn you into a hood ornament before you get there.  

So, if it's okay to slow down, but it's bad to stiffen, or to look at the ground, or to look at the other side of the road, and your line of sight is blocked, where in the world are you supposed to look?  I'm glad you asked.  You want to keep your eyes probing the place where the road is about to appear.  You're always pushing your eyes out in front so you can see the road surface at the earliest possible point of visibility.  Your eyes won't be in just one place, you'll scan to the farthest point you can see, then let your eyes come back, then scan ahead, moving quickly to take it all in.  Ideally, you should be scanning the roadside, the trees, the local geography to see what other cues about that emerging road you can pick up.  I'll post something in the near future about reading the road, but for now keep looking ahead to where the road disappears (the vanishing point), keep on looking for the right-hand edge of the road, keep your eyes up, and your elbows and grip loose, and keep the bike on your side of the road.  Enjoy!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why France (and Italy)?

In my last post I addressed the question that comes up about why it's so great to ride in the Alps.  Next up is the follow up question, of all the alpine countries, why France?  Good question.  The Alps span France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Slovenia, and you could even include Liechtenstein and Monaco in that list.  You'd think that surely there must be great riding in those countries, and you'd be right.

After all, Austria is the country of The Sound of Music and its expansive alpine scenery.  Austria is home to many roads - often toll roads - that seem to exist primarily for the pure joy of riding or driving them.  The Grossglockner is a case in point.  Austria is also home the greatest concentration of Biker Wilkommen signs I've ever seen.  It seems the whole country is filled with restaurants and hotels competing for the business of vacationing motorcyclists.

Then there's Switzerland, the archetypal alpine country, all beautiful lakes, perfect houses with exquisite flower boxes, perfectly trimmed lawns, and roads without a speck of litter.  Combine that with it being the home of some of the most legendary alpine roads (Furka, Bernina, etc.), and it would seem to be the one perfect place for an Alps motorcycling vacation.

Germany is a classic portal to the Alps.  It's easy to get air connections from the US to Munich, visit the BMW factory, and take off into the Alps.  The reality is that Germany is only a tiny portion of the Alps, and while there are nearby places to ride in Germany that are great such as the Black Forest, if you want to experience much of the Alps themselves, you won't be restricting yourself to Germany.

I can't really speak to Slovenia because I haven't ridden there yet, but what I know about it makes Slovenia very attractive, and I'm looking forward to trying it out.  It looks wild and rugged and remote, and that's just what I most enjoy.

This brings us to France and Italy, and the things that are great about both of them.   This may not win me any friends with the ministries of tourism for these two countries, but here goes.  What I most love about France and Italy is that they are just a bit wilder, at bit less controlled, a bit more rugged,often a bit more remote, a bit more ragged than the other alpine nations.  This is true in many ways, but seems particularly true around attitudes towards motorcycle traffic.  It seems that both police and other road users in these countries understand that you're on a motorcycle and that you're going to be going quickly, and they make allowances for that.  That hasn't been my experience in Austria, or particularly Switzerland - where it is joked that everything that is not obligitoire is most certainly interdit.  France and Italy are just a little more like the wild west. 

Where else can you come flying up behind a police car, have the officer look in the mirror, then wave you around?  All this in a no passing zone!  Where else do car drivers routinely move to their right a foot or so to enable you to easily overtake them on narrow mountain passes (truth be told, a lot of California drivers are pretty good about getting out of the way)?  Where else is it acceptable  to split between lanes of traffic moving opposite directions?  Where else in the Alps can you find passes as wild, rugged, and simultaneously perfect and imperfect as the Col de la Cayolle or the Passo di Gavia?

An exaggerated  analogy might be that France and Italy are to Switzerland as California is to Disney's California Adventure.  One is the real thing; wild, imperfect, chaotic, and maybe a bit more dangerous.  The other is refined, perfected, triple-distilled, constrained, controlled, and safer.  Fair?  No, not really, but fun. 

For me, the greater wildness and tolerance of France and Italy make the experience of actually riding there ever so much more intense and enjoyable.  As a rider it also requires me to be more on my game, more vigilant, more flexible, and more responsible for my own conduct because traffic enforcement isn't going to save me from myself. 

France over Italy?  Yes, by a slim margin.  I somewhat prefer French food, but Matt prefers Italian.  We both prefer French drivers, if only because they're slightly less aggressive than Italians.  Both are a huge improvement over Americans.  Oh, and I love the sound of the French language, whether I understand what I'm hearing or not, though Italian is quite nice too. 

There you have it.  Why I love riding some countries more than others.  Some of the touring companies seem to concentrate on Austria and Switzerland.  My suggestion is to try France.  All those GS's with German plates seen each summer in the French passes may be on to something.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Why the Alps?

From time to time folks will ask what the big deal is about riding in the Alps.  After all, we've got some pretty great roads right here in California.  We've got Yosemite and we've got Tioga Pass.  We've got Big Sur and we've got the Sonoma coast.  We've got Hwy 36 and we've got Hwy 25.  We've got Mulholland and we've got teh (sic) 9.  Hell, we can even lane split here in California, and if you get bored with that we can ride to Oregon, or Montana, or Alaska ferchissakes!  So what the hell is the big deal?

Good question and good points!  There is a wealth of great riding here in California, and even more in adjoining states.  You could keep yourself busy riding new California roads every weekend for years.  In fact, you should. 

The great gift of riding in North America is space.  Once you get out of the big cities, north or south, or across the valley, suddenly you have space.  Even here in populous California you can easily find places that are empty.  Riders coming here from Europe marvel at the distances you can travel in Nevada, or Utah, or Idaho where there is nothing for miles.  It truly is a gift.

The Alps are different.  The area has been densely populated for centuries, millennia really.  And much of that time the tide of governments and cultures and armies have washed back and forth over them.  It's the inverse of the space of the West.  Not that it's what you'd call crowded, but it is developed.  The benefit of this for motorcyclists is that all this development involved building roads, and those roads go nearly everywhere.  Every river valley was a path for commerce.  Every high cirque that didn't have a glacier became summer pasture.  In between were countless farms and villages, and roads were needed to connect all of them.  So today the place is positively cross-hatched with roads and trails, and many of those roads are paved.  And most of those paved roads are positively brilliant on a motorcycle.  

What it comes down to is sort of the inverse of space.  It's road density.  You can base around one town, and ride exciting, beautiful roads day after day, with very little repetition, and not much time spent on big busy roads or and big crowded cities.  For example, one day in particular this year, Matt and I left the inn at Serre Chevalier, rode Izoard, Vars, Restefond, Bonette, Lombarde, Sampeyre, Agnel, and Izoard again in one day - and that's just the high passes!  That does not include some of the really fun roads that connect them through the countryside.  There is nowhere that I know of near where I live in California where you could ride so many amazing roads in just 400 kilometers (~240 miles).

There are other reasons to ride the Alps.  The scenery is obviously spectacular.  When little kids draw mountains, the mountains their crayons depict seem to be inspired by the Alps.  The architecture is often nearly as breathtaking as the natural scenery.  The food is great.  And in my experience, the people are wonderful.  

That said, for me there is at least one more reason to ride the Alps.  If you're a baseball fan, and you love the game and all of its history and pageantry, if you love all the great games and players that have come before, you may feel the pull to make a pilgrimage to the sport's hallowed ground.  Maybe for you it's Yankee Stadium, or Fenway, or Wrigley Field.  A place where you can go to feel connected to all that has come before, and all that is yet to come.  The Alps are like that for motorcyclists.  I recall reading about alpine touring in Cycle World when I was a kid, seeing B&W photos of tourists on BMW R69's and Triumph T100's, gear lashed to the seat, layered up against the chill, with stunning mountainscapes in the background.  I knew then at age twelve that this was where real riding happened.  This was where a motorcyclist went for great riding and to meet great riders.  This was hallowed ground.  

Now after four trips I can say with all honesty that it has been everything I'd hoped it would be.  That the roads, the scenery, the food, the people, the quality of the riders, and the quality of the riding I was inspired to do exceeded anything I could have reasonably expected, and often even exceeded what I'd unreasonable dreamed.  

The Alps, you must try them. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Just Like Casey

One of the signature characteristics of roads in the Alps are the switchbacks.  Lots and lots of switchbacks.  On my first day there it seemed like I'd ridden more switchbacks in a day than in the prior year back home in California.  In an earlier post I covered some ideas about riding downhill - particularly right-hand downhill - switchbacks.  Today let's talk about uphill.  As with downhill, right-handers are typically tighter, so keep that in mind.

By definition, it's tough to carry much corner speed in a switchback.  Depending upon the radius of the turn, 15 or 20 mph can be a lot of corner speed.  That means that often the throttle is completely closed on the way into the turn.  On many modern fuel injected bikes, opening the throttle from fully closed can be a bit tricky when you're over on the side of the tire dealing with a tight line and with less than ideal surface conditions (i.e. gravel, diesel spills, sheep manure, etc.).  That's because for many bikes the fuel injection acts a bit like a switch, either on or off, and when it comes on mid-turn it can do so with a bit of a lurch.  How do you deal with that?

Both Matt and I were riding bikes that don't have quite perfect fueling - he on a BMW F800R and me on my 650 Versys.  One night, comparing notes over dinner, we discovered that we were using the same technique to control the line, attitude and acceleration of our bikes as we executed uphill switchbacks - we were both dragging the rear brake as we rolled on the throttle. 

How does this work?  It's a bit of a subtle thing, but it makes a big difference.  As one begins setting up for the turn by adjusting speed (usually meaning shifting down, closing the throttle, and applying both brakes) and swinging out to get the best entry line and speed for the turn, as one begins to turn in, the front brake is usually fully released - but not the rear brake.  At this point the amount of pressure on the rear brake is very light, but still there.  As the bike reaches maximum lean, and one's eyes are well through the turn, one begins to roll open the throttle.  This can be the danger point.  The bike is over on the side of the tires.  The bike is not yet pointed at the exit.  If the throttle comes on with a lurch or a bang, this can unsettle the bike and greatly undermine the confidence of the rider - not to mention make you ride like a n00b.  This is where that subtle pressure on the rear brake is key.  Keeping some pressure on the rear brake keeps the bike's suspension settled, and it buffers the impact of engine torque hitting the rear wheel.  This results in increased rider confidence as the bike accelerates smoothly rather than abruptly, making it easier to apply the throttle earlier in the turn to bring the bike back upright as you get it pointed towards the exit of the turn. 

How does one go about developing this technique?  Probably the easiest way is riding around at low speed in parking lots making turns as tight as possible.  The usual tools for managing the bike at low speeds are smooth throttle control, use of the clutch friction zone, and dragging the rear brake to stabilize the bike.  Working on these tools while riding in tight circles in a parking lot will enable development of the feel and habit that will make the use of the rear brake on switchbacks feel more natural and comfortable. 

If you'd like to get more instruction and coaching on low speed practice, there are a couple of resources I can recommend based on experience.  If you are located near the SF Bay Area, the Alameda County Sheriff's Training Center puts on an excellent civilian motorcycle training class.   This class will teach you a huge amount about low speed management of your motorcycle.  There are other training classes of this sort around the country that teach you police motorcycle riding skills.  Another class that will introduce you to these skills in a controlled environment with help and feedback is Lee Parks' Total Control clinics.  Lee Parks' book can be a big help if you don't have access to one of his classes.

What does any of this have to do with Casey?  When Matt and I were discussing this it reminded me of Matt Oxley's column in the August, 2012 issue of Bike magazine.  Matt was describing all the reasons why we'll miss Casey Stoner when he retires from MotoGP, and he quotes Lucio Cecchinello, the owner of LCR, a Honda satellite racing team.  Matt quotes Cecchinello describing Casey's first test on a 250 GP bike back in 2001, "He opened the throttle very, very, very early and he had this particular talent to use the rear brake when opening the throttle so the bike isn't so nervous."

See?  Just like Casey.  Whether you're riding tight switchbacks or MotoGP, you can use the rear brake to allow you to get on the throttle earlier without putting yourself on your head.  You always wanted to say that you ride just like Casey, right?

Friday, July 27, 2012


Sorry that I've been quiet for so long.  I've just returned from another pilgrimage to the Alps.  The plan had been to blog throughout, but due to being busy riding, dining, chatting with friends, and planning the next day's ride, that didn't happen.  The next several blog posts (at least) will be in reference to experiences and observations from that trip.

Those of us who call California home are so fortunate about rain.  We don't see much of it in the summer, and if you we do, it's not very much or for very long.  Not so northern Europe.  It was sprinkling when I left the UK on the Channel Tunnel.  It was sprinkling when I arrived in France, and before the day was through, it turned into a full on gully washer with limited visibility, water flooding road surfaces, etc.  One of the lessons such downpours teach is what gear works in rain and what gear doesn't.  

I'll start with a list of what gear worked in the rain because it's shorter:
  • Ortlieb dry saddlebags.  These are the only panniers I've ever had - hard or soft - that will keep their contents dry during an all day downpour.  
  • Daytona touring boots.  I bought these last year at a Louis motorcycle store in Mannheim.  The only way these get water inside them is if rain works its way through my pants, then drips down into the boots.  These are wonderful and comfortable all day long.
  • Aerostich Triple Digit rain covers.  These pull on over your gloves to keep the rain off, and for the most part work pretty well, and much better than gloves alone.
  • A fleece muffler that came as a giveaway with an issue of Fast Bikes, which I pull on over my head before donning my helmet.  It keeps the rain off my neck, keeping me warmer and more comfortable.  It's not waterproof, but it's bulky and absorbent, and water doesn't seem to reach my skin through it. 
  • The Kawasaki accessory top box stayed dry inside.
  • Heated grips.  Why don't ALL motorcycles have them?  Seriously.   
What didn't work?  Pretty much everything else:
  • Luggage that requires a rain cover.  Rain covers are difficult to apply snugly while stopped along the highway in a downpour. Rain covers flap in the wind.  The wind finds ways to lift covers and allow the migration of water past the cover and into the luggage beneath.  My Marsee tankbag is well built, but in an all day downpour the contents will get damp.
  • Motorcycle apparel that uses a waterproof liner as its method of keeping the rain out.  In this case my Olympia mesh gear was less than ideal.  I have loved Olympia gear for a long time, and have even manage to crash test it twice.  It works great in many circumstances, but extended, driving rain storms is not one of those circumstances.  First of all, you must remember to remove everything that you don't want getting wet from the pockets, and place it some other place that will stay dry, before the rain begins in earnest.  Otherwise, your wallet, phone, passport, etc. will get soaked.  Next, realize that this is because everything outside of the liner is expected to get wet.  In an all day gully washer that means very wet.  When it does, not only will the suit get sloshy, drippy and soggy - making you ever so welcome in that lovely roadside cafe in  rural France - all that water up against the Goretex liner means that water will eventually migrate through to you on the inside.  You will get wet inside.  Tip: wear quick drying synthetic materials against your skin. 
  • When the above happens, and water gets to your skin, even the good stuff like the Daytona boots and Triple Digit rain covers will not keep those parts of your body dry because water will move along your skin past the sealing surfaces.  Fingers and toes will be soaked too. 
One other thing.  I never thought I'd need a heated vest for a July ride in France so I didn't pack one.  What I did pack was several Grabber adhesive body heat packs that I was able to open and stick to my t-shirt.  These made it possible to continue when I was otherwise too cold and wet to safely carry on.  They take up nearly no space in luggage, and last indefinitely as long as they are not exposed to oxygen.  When the packaging is opened and they are exposed to oxygen the exothermic chemical reaction begins that generates heat for 6-8 hours.  These will ALWAYS be in my tankbag, along with zipties, duct tape, and tools.  

Now I have to go shopping for a proper rain suit.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Ready for Hairpins?

In a few days I'll be picking up my Versys in the UK, then heading to the Continent and down to the Alps for another week of riding some of the greatest goat trails anywhere.  The first time I rode the Alps in 2006, I had thought that my experience in dealing with hairpin turns was pretty solid, but I found quickly that the Alps can dish up more hairpins in a day of riding than I had encountered in a month, or even a season of riding here.  Nothing like practice to make you better, so today I want to share a few thoughts about hairpin bends, in anticipation of the practice I'll be getting in about a week.  

One of the key skills necessary for riding is making yourself consistently look where you want to go.  Sounds easy, but with distractions, uncertainty, surprise and fear entering the equation, it's a challenge for many riders to maintain the visual discipline necessary to keep themselves smooth, safe, and happy.  Rather than go into depth about visual skills and how to develop them in this post, please have a read of Lee Parks' book "Total Control" and his chapter on vision.  He's done a nice job with the topic, and he's got a killer drill to help any rider develop better visual discipline.  

Today, I'm just going to write about one particular type of turn and one aspect of visual discipline.  The one turn that seems to create the greatest challenge for riders not accustomed to hairpin bends is the right-hand hairpin because for those of us riding in countries where traffic keeps to the right, these turns have the tightest radius, resulting in the least available room to execute the turn.  

This issue is compounded for many riders if that right-hand hairpin is also downhill.  Downhill turns can make it feel as though the bike is going to run away with you, which can make riders stiff.  Downhill makes it more critical to get your entry speed set low enough that the bike can be easily controlled through the turn.  Downhill makes it more difficult to keep your weight off the grips and to maintain a light touch for optimal control.  

There are many factors to be addressed to execute one of these turns well, but today it's just one trick that I'd like to leave you with.  As you approach the downhill right-hand turn, you will evaluate it for appropriate turn-in point and entry speed.  Having done that - and while slowing the bike as you approach the turn-in - your eyes should begin looking through the turn, all the way to the vanishing point (addressed in this very helpful thread on BARF).  So far, so good.  Where many riders get into trouble is that at this point they can see traffic coming the other way around the hairpin bend on what may be a very narrow road, they can see the outside of the turn, maybe a huge drop-off, and all these things can distract the rider from looking where he needs to look to finish the turn.  

So here's the trick, and it's pretty simple.  As your eyes look through the turn, play a little game with yourself - see if you can keep your eyes on the right-hand side of the road until the turn is completed, the motorcycle has returned to fully vertical, and you're headed in a straight line on your way to the next turn.  This is made somewhat easier if there's a white fog line painted at the edge of the road surface, but even if all there is to look for is the gravel shoulder at the edge of the paved surface, see if your eye can trace that edge as you complete the turn.  As always, keep your eyes as far out in front of the bike as you can.  If you look at the ground right in front of the bike, it's quite possible that you'll find yourself on the ground, so keep your eyes up and out in front of you.  

Themimoto, a German rider who makes the best videos of alpine riding I've ever seen, has a great video of descending the northwest side of Stelvio Pass and its forty(!) hairpin bends.  One of his cameras is helmet mounted, so see if you can see his head moving so that his eyes can follow the right-hand side of the road has he completes the twenty or so downhill, right-hand hairpin bends in the video.
Try it! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


The countdown is on.  Next week I leave for the UK to pick up my bike that's living there, and once its oil and brake fluid are changed, its tires pumped up, its chain lubed, and it gets packed up, I'll be off for the continent, and a trip to the Alps. 

Why the Alps?  So many reasons that it's hard to know where to start, but I'll start with density.  The Alps have been inhabited for millenia, and in that time thousands of villages and towns have been built, and those have been connected by roads.  There are few places where so many beautiful villages with spectacular views are connected by so many challenging and fun roads.  No other place that I've experienced.  Yes, you can find great mountain passes and beautiful scenery in California.  Yes, you can find even higher passes in the Colorado Rockies, and higher yet in the Himalaya.  But if you want to ride all day, day after day, on new and spectacular roads, the Alps offer that up like nowhere else.  That's without even going into food, culture, history, architecture, scenery, and the many other wonderful attributes of the Alps.  For me, it's mainly about the riding, and the Alps have that in spades. 

For the next few weeks (months?) most of my posts will have something to do with alpine riding, either in direct reference to roads we're riding or experiences we're having, or having to do with the riding skills one needs for having fun in the Alps.  From my first trip to ride the Alps during the 2006 Centopassi, after every trip I've found that my riding has improved.  Fast riding on high alpine roads serves as a crucible in which the flaws and impurities in one's riding technique get burned away.  Why is that?  While there are many roads in the Alps that are open and flowing and gorgeous, the really fun ones are high, narrow, frequently bumpy, technical, and very, very exposed. 

The signature technical characteristic of high alpine roads is the switchback, or hairpin turn.  This is a turn that passes through something close to a 180 degree direction change.  Sometimes the radius of these turns is rather open, but other times - and Stelvio Pass comes to mind with its 60 hairpins -  the radius of the turns approaches zero, meaning the surfaces to the two ramps of the switchback effectively touch as they pass one another.  These turns require a rider to make a very tight turn in a very constricted area, often with other road users - cyclists, motorists, tour buses - sharing the same space as the turn is made.  The skills necessary to do this require visual discipline, precise speed control and road positioning, and there are few places here in California that will introduce a riding to this kind of riding in anything like the frequency and intensity in which it's encountered in the Alps. 

Stay tuned, because I'll be writing about how to ride these turns during my posts from the trip, particularly the variety that appears to be most challenging for many riders - the downhill, right hand, hairpin - in upcoming posts. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let the Skis Do the Work

Say what?  This is a blog about riding motorcycles, right?  Yeah, but sometimes ideas and experiences cross over.

On my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, I stopped by my old ski area, Crystal Mountain.  Many - too many - years ago I lived and worked there for a season, and since I was a night chairlift operator, I had all my days free to ski - probably close to 100 days that year.   

At age 20, my skiing was more shaped by enthusiasm than by skill.  It seemed like being young, fit, willing to crash, and quick to heal were virtues.  There came a time in that season though where my skiing was in a rut.  I was stiff, ragged, and thrashing my way down the hill.  

Fortunately, I was surrounded by skilled and fluid skier, many of whom were, or had been, quite accomplished racers.  One day during this slump, I was skiing with one of them, and complaining about my struggles, when he said, "Let the skis do the work."  Huh?  I had no idea what he was talking about, and so he made me his part time project.  

Without going into all the details of what we did, he pointed out that the skis were designed to turn, to carve through the turn, and to accelerate out of the turn, and it was my job to figure out how to access and enable the performance that was already there built into the skis.

Motorcycles are similar to skis (in so many ways!), in that most of them are designed to turn, and will do so very well if we can tailor our inputs into the bike to be exactly what it needs in order for it to utilize that built in capability, and no more than what is needed.

This was all brought home to me at a Doc Wong clinic earlier this year on the topic of handlebar pressure.  Now I'm thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, light on the bars, elbows bent, wiggle your fingers.  I know all that stuff."  Then Doc demonstrated how much pressure we should use on the bars by lightly resting his right hand on his left forearm.  He said that was all the pressure that was required.  Not even letting the weight of your arms rest on the bars, but holding your arms up with your shoulders and just lightly resting your hands on the bars.  That day was spent being very tuned into exactly how much pressure I was putting on the bars, and then trying to put even less pressure on.  Frankly, it was a revelation because it made it easier than it had ever been to let the motorcycle do the work.  Depending upon only the amount of pressure needed to initiate a turn, I concentrated on what Keith Code calls "being a good passenger". 

Last month when I was riding back from Oregon in the midst of a nasty spring storm with ripping side winds, I was reminded of this lesson again.  Riding in cross winds is the bane of many riders, particularly new riders, and the tendency is to wrestle with the motorcycle to attempt to counteract the effects of the wind.  Some riders, even very experienced riders, believe that a rider must constantly make counter steering inputs into the bars to correct for the effect of the wind.  For many years I've thought this was not true, and that the best thing is to anchor yourself to the bike with your legs, stabilize your upper body with core muscles, and to put as little pressure on the bar as possible.  This time, thinking of Doc Wong's message, I took it a step further - not that I recommend this, it was for science - and held on only to the right grip with my right hand, and held on to the tank with my left.  Then I paid careful attention to the pressure passing through the palm of my right hand.  Was I counter-steering to correct for the wind?  Was I constantly making inputs to make up for the wind?  The answer - a bit to my surprise - was no, not really.  Even with all that blustery side wind going over the Siskyous and down the Sacramento Valley, the motorcycle wanted to go straight so long as I didn't try to consciously or subconsciously react to the wind.  It all worked better if I let the motorcycle do the work. 

That's the moral of the story.  Let the motorcycle do the work, and concentrate on giving it only the inputs it needs to access the abilities to turn, stop, accelerate, and go straight that were already designed into it. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

July Issue of City Bike

Gabe at City Bike published a submission of mine in the July, 2012 issue.  The topic is DIY motorcycle tours in the Alps.  If you want to read it you'll need to get your hands on a paper copy, but if you love motorcycling, you'll love City Bike, so that will be a good thing.  You can go to their website to find out how to get a copy.

City Bike web site 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reflections On a Long Road Trip

It's been a couple of weeks since I posted due to being gone on an unplanned road trip.  There were many good things about this road trip, not the least of which was that it was via motorcycle, but one particularly bad thing - the cause.  My brother-in-law of many years, David McGuffey, died suddenly almost two weeks ago.  He had been ill, but I had hoped and believed he was going to get a good outcome.  Godspeed, David. 

There is much to be said about the events of the past two weeks, but for here I'll do my best to stick to things related to riding motorcycles, and riding goat trails, where possible.  Herein follows a list of observations, questions, thoughts.  A download, if you will.
  • For all of you who ride sportbikes, standards, and whatever else, where the hell are you?  Easily, 90% of the bikes observed out on the road the past two weeks have been either Harleys or metric cruisers.  All others comprise the remaining 10% of the bikes observed once you're out of major metropolitan areas.  BMW's?  In the remaining 10%.  Sport tourers of all brands?  In the remaining 10%.  Dual sports?  10%Gold Wings and other full dress tourers that aren't Harleys?  In the 10%.  Adventure bikes?  In the 10%.  Geez folks, get out and ride.
  • Rain.  It's a reality of road trips.  Being prepared makes a difference.  If you ride hundreds of miles in the rain, you'll find out whether or not you're prepared.  First issue is rain gear.  If like me, you wear gear with the rain liners inside, everything outside of the liners (including the contents of your pockets) will get soaked.  Eventually this soaking will make its way through the liner, and you'll be soaked too.  Know this.  It's not pleasant.  Next is luggage.  The only luggage I've ever used - hard or soft - that was 100% waterproof are dry bags.  If your tank bag, tail bag, saddlebags require that you put on a cover to stay dry, and you ride all day at speed, the contents of your luggage will get wet, and you may shred or lose your rain cover to boot.  There may be hard luggage that's waterproof, but I haven't used it, and the hard bags on my Triumph Tiger seemed to collect all the water that fell that day. 
  • Maps - they're a good thing.  I left home in such a rush to get to my sister's house, more than 600 miles distant, that I didn't bring maps.  Not a problem if you want to ride the interstate all the time.  A bit more problematic if you like to find distant goat trails.  The punchline - at least one of them - to this story is the 44.7 mile long dead end road I put myself on trying to find a goat trail between Reedsport and Drain, OR.  Great road until it just stopped.  Not turned to gravel, or dirt, or single track, just stopped at the the trees, forcing a 44.7 mile backtrack.  I hope to explore the area around Kentucky Falls someday.
  • It rocks to be a motorcyclist when you use the Washington State Ferries, where you can embark and disembark ahead of all the cars and trucks.
  • Many of the road surfaces in Washington and Oregon are great, but it's hard to beat California for great road - even if they're beat to crap sometimes.
  • It sucks to ride where lanesplitting is not legal.
  • It's great to ride where the state DOT's have not managed to get the volume discount on yellow paint that has become the hallmark of Caltrans.  Legal passing zones are more common and more reasonable in both Oregon and Washington.  
  • A shout out to the county mountie in Washington who warned me of the WSP radar placement ahead of me!  
It's good to be back, and I will be posting more regularly.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How Do You Get "Technically Proficient"?

Early on I wrote that goat trails are pretty fun if you have pretty good basic riding skills - that you're technically proficient.  How do you know if you are, and how do you improve?

Let's start with a definition of terms.  What do I mean by technically proficient?  This could go on and on, so let's focus on a few things first:
  • That you can consistently make the motorcycle go and stop when and where you want it to without coming off the bike.  Sounds simple, and I'll grant you that it's basic, but I see riders out there in the summer months who struggle with this.
  • That you can consistently make the motorcycle travel the path you intend.  This means that the wheels go pretty much (within a few inches or less either way) where you want them too.  There a couple of skills that are implied with this, so let's make them explicit.  You can consistently run a path less than half a foot wide, no matter what distractions you're facing, and you understand that when you're turning that the path your head follows will not be the same one your wheels follow.  For instance, if the road you're on has a lot of sand or gravel, or even snow on it, but there are car tire tracks exposing clean pavement, you'll want your wheels to on that clean pavement.  If you align your head with the tire tracks, as soon as the road turns your wheels will be off the tracks and you'll be out of traction. 
  • You can read the road well enough to make good decisions about corner entry speed.  Too slow is a better decision than too fast, so if you have to err, err on the side of slow.  This means looking at upcoming bends and using the cues the road and the surround terrain offer to imagine the radius of the turn, then choose an entry speed that will allow you to navigate a turn of that radius at a speed that keeps you on two wheels
That's a good start for defining basic technical proficiency, and even before we get to the above skills, it is necessary to have developed the muscle memory to be able to consistently operate the controls of your motorcycle - accelerate, shift, brake, steer - without having to dedicate much in the way of conscious thought to it.  

How do you get these skills if you don't have them now?  I'm a big fan of getting instruction.  Insightful observation by a trained instructor who can provide useful guidance and feedback is priceless (full disclosure; I am not and never have been a motorcycling instructor).  By the way, in almost all circumstances, "your friends" are not up to the task. 

Where do you find this priceless instruction?  Have you already completed the basic MSF course?  If not, do so.  When I started riding that sort of instruction didn't exist.  When I completed the basic MSF course with my daughter, I had already been riding for more than 30 years, and I still learned useful stuff.  

If you've already completed the basic MSF, have you considered their Experience Rider Course (ERC)?  It can build upon what you've already learned and practiced.  

Next up are some of the schools that can be found in many areas.  Some schools like the California Superbike School, American Supercamp, and Lee Parks' Total Control clinics travel around the country or even the world, and you can often find one relatively close by.   

Other schools are unique to a region.  Here in northern California we have couple of really great ones, and you might have local equivalents where you live.  The Alameda County Sheriff's Dept runs civilian versions of their police motorcycle training that are a bargain, and that get you time with some of the best trained, most effective motorcycle instructors to be found anywhere.  Another regional gem is Rich Oliver's Mystery School at which Rich shares the kind of training he got when he was racing GP's for Kenny Roberts.  Blasting little 125's around a tight dirt track will teach you more about dealing with sudden changes and adversity in your riding than you could ever imagine.  

The bottom line is that quality instruction and feedback combined with an open, learning mind is the fastest way to become a better rider.  Arranging for good instruction, then making yourself humble enough to benefit from it will take you far, far down the path of increased technical proficiency.  Whether you go to a world famous racing school, or a school aimed at improving your basic riding skills, you'll be a better rider as a result - if you choose to be.

Next time, books. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

From a Friend in France

A friend who lives near Lyon sent posted this youtube video for me.  Now that's a goat trail!

Next month!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Where Do You Find These Goat Trails?

Someone once asked me how I knew so many great, out of the way little roads.  My somewhat tongue-in-cheek answer was that I'm a crappy navigator, so I find great roads by getting lost.  Partially true.  Folks who've ridden with me often know that u-turns are part of the experience.  But, there's getting lost and there's getting lost. How do you make sure you get lost where you're most likely to find great roads?

One way to start is by studying maps.  It helps if the maps are very detailed.  Some of the best goat trails don't show up even on the relatively detailed maps that AAA sometimes provides (I found one today that wasn't on my AAA map).  Instead it helps to use atlases from Gazetteer or Benchmark.  In Europe, the finer detailed Michelin maps can serve the same purpose.  When looking at this maps you want to look for obstacles - mountain ranges, ridges between river valleys, canyons, etc. - anything that will make it difficult to build straight, smooth roads between any two points.  Then look for the major routes traversing those obstacles.  These are not goat trails.  Then look for roads, paved or not, that are alternates to the major routes, and these are your likely candidates.

Let's look at some examples.  Here in California there is a low but significant coastal range of mountains.  Using the area north of San Francisco as an example, there are several major roads between Hwy 1 on the coast, and Hwy 101 which runs inland from the coast.  Between Mill Valley, CA and Leggett, CA these roads include - Pt Reyes - Petaluma, Bodega Bay - Petaluma, Hwy 116 and Hwy 128 and Hwy 20.  These are beautiful roads which bear the bulk of the traffic between Hwy 1 and 101, but they're not goat trails.  The goat trails are the other roads that make the crossing - Marshall - Petaluma, Coleman Valley, Skaggs Springs - Stewarts Point, Mountain View, and so on.  

Whether you're in coastal California, the high Sierra, rural Connecticut, the French Alps, or even Kansas, you can apply the same approach to find the small, out of the way, and interesting roads that will make riding so much more fun.  Dig out some maps and start searching!  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Tribute to My Friend, Colin Barlow

I've been playing around with the Youtube video editor to string together a bunch of videos I have from riding behind my friend, the late Colin Barlow.  I'll tell you more about Colin another time, but for now it's enough to say that every year that I've ridden in the Alps I've ridden at least part of the time with Colin, an amazingly accomplished rider.  Colin lost a three year battle to gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) last November.  He'll be on my mind and in my heart when we're riding the Alps in July.

Not all the roads are goat trails, but I hope you'll forgive that. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What's the "Best" Bike for Riding Goat Trails?

Best?  Sounds like a topic bound to create controversy, doesn't it?  After all, everyone seems to have a different opinion.  

Andy loves riding goat trails on an FJR1300.  Kyle recently bought a new Tiger 800, but before that he was going on goat trail expeditions on a 675 Daytona.  Sara's Hypermotard might be a bit more obvious of a choice, along with Duncan's 1050 Tiger.  Certainly both are more obvious than Steve's choice of an R1100S.  The list can go on and on with a variety of choices.  Which one is best?

The best bike for riding goat trails is the one you have.  Simple.  If not having some ideal bike is keeping you from having fun, so you think you need to wait for the perfect bike, you're missing out.  Aermacchi to Zundapp, run what you got.

Okay, now that we got "best" out of the way, are there characteristics that might make one motorcycle more pleasant/fun on a goat trail than another?  Sure, and here follows a list of some characteristics I favor:
  • A bit more suspension travel - because many goat trails have rough surfaces, anything between 6" and a foot of travel at each end is desirable.  This spans from bikes the Brits call 'tall-rounders' like my Versys, to full-on plated dirtbikes.
  • An upright riding position makes it easier to keep your weight off your hands and keep your eyes scanning the road while skittering down some steep, bumpy goat trail.
  • More than 100 miles of fuel range.  Many of the most enjoyable goat trails are far from any opportunity to re-fuel.  It is a shame to be shut out from riding them because your bike doesn't have enough range.
  • Flexible and manageable power.  There's a lot going on when riding goat trails, and having a motor that can tolerate you being a gear or two too high/low is a blessing when you're trying to take it all in.  Further, power that is easily manageable makes dealing with the sometimes tenuous traction on bad surfaces that much easier.
That's a start of a list of what I think is "ideal".  What's ideal for you?

This post was prompted by events of the recent BARF Spring Rally where I led the goat trail group on my beloved Versys.  During the weekend I began envy Andy and Bud and others with their 100+ horsepower bikes, and the ease with which they could overtake slow moving vehicles, leading to daydreams of a 1200 Multistrada or maybe a big GS.  

While taking a break with my group on Sunday, George who has ridden with me many times in many places offered up this little gem, "I've never seen you ride faster than you did on your KLR."  What's this?!  I'm pining for a big increase in horsepower, and George says I was faster when I had only 36!?  Is big power the answer, or is power that you have the confidence to utilize the answer?  Hmmm, maybe there's more than one right answer to the question of what is "ideal" in a goat trail bike. 

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Little More Detail On the Definition of Goat Trails

It's said that a picture is worth a thousand words, so how many is a video worth?  Here are some clips strung together of different goat trails to give you a better, a more experiential idea of what the term means.  These are a combination of roads in California and in the Alps.

As you can see, there's a lot going on when riding these roads; rough surfaces, tight turns, steep hills, cyclists, cars, trucks, sometimes livestock or wildlife.  Lots to keep a rider fully engaged and entertained!  Interestingly though, usually not at terribly high speeds.  No need for a liter bike to have fun.  Even a humble 650 twin will rarely get the throttle open more than halfway.   Additionally, while you do see some traffic on these roads, for the most part you won't see much, and what traffic you do encounter will usually be in your mirrors within moments.  Do you need more reasons?  How about scenery?  Some of the most beautiful views anywhere can be enjoyed from these remote and challenging roads.  

Downsides?  There are a few.  Oftentimes if something goes wrong you will be a long way from help, it may be along time until someone else comes along who can render assistance, and it's not unusual for cell coverage is spotty.  More?  Okay, locals frequently drive as though no one else is one the road because in their experience only rarely do they encounter other road users.  That can mean two pickup trucks stopped in the middle of the road for a chat, or it can mean one of those same pickup trucks rounding a blind corner fully on your side of the road.  How do you deal with that?  It means that you always have to ride as though there is something really scary coming around the next blind turn.  It's a rule to live by.   

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Welcome to my blog!  The main purpose is to blog about motorcycling, and specifically about motorcycling very technical roads, sometimes known as "goat trails".  No guarantee that there won't be posts that go way off topic, but will be the general theme.

What are goat trails, and why blog about riding motorcycles on them?  So glad you asked!   

There can be lots of definitions of goat trails, almost as many as there are riders, but for the most part goat trails have several common characteristics.  First, goat trails are narrow.  Generally too narrow to have a center line painted on the road surface.  The more narrow the more goaty.  Second, while goat trails can be either paved or unpaved, the surface of a goat trail is generally rather bumpy.  Third, goat trails tend to have short sight-lines, which means lots of turns, lots of obstructions beside the road (trees, rocks, etc.), and they have limited straight sections.  There can be other characteristics as well, but usually what it means is that the road is so poor that it is reminiscent of a mountain trail that only a goat would be comfortable using.

The reason to ride a motorcycle on one of these goat trails is that it's fun!  Not everyone agrees with that, but if your technical riding skills are up to snuff, a goat trail can provide a very entertaining challenge.  Plus, goat trails have several benefits that make them particularly attractive.  Because there are usually nicer, straighter, better paved, etc. alternate roads, goat trails don't tend to get much traffic.  Less traffic means less being held up by other road users, and that means more opportunity for fun!  There will also be fewer motorcyclists sharing the road with you - particularly those of the newer, squidlier variety.  Fewer newer, squidlier riders also means less need for the local constabulary to come out to do speed enforcement, which means less opportunity to earn "performance awards".  Sounds like a win win win to me!