In the Beginning

Driving a car, your relationship with the road is like that with a friend. Bumps are softened. On a motorcycle, the relationship is much more intimate, like that with a lover. You feel every small bump and dip.

Me, November 2011

This is the unfolding story of motorcycling and me. While I'd toyed with the idea of riding for several years, I'd never thrown a leg over a motorcycle until I was 51. Then the time seemed right. My youngest kid had finished high school so I considered myself expendable. I'd just spent two years with every waking moment was consumed writing a book. With it completed, I again owned my life and was looking for a new obsession.

My driving force in life has always been pushing myself, taking on new challenges and mastering new skills. I thrive on exploring new places and always prefer to be outside with the wind on me as much as possible. So I gravitated to riding.

As I contemplated this big plunge, I made several assumptions. One was that riding a motorcycle would save money given that gasoline prices had just spiked. A second was that royalties from the book would pay for a motorcycle. But most of all, I assumed that having put in thousands of miles on road racing and mountain bicycles, and manual transmission cars for years, I'd pick up motorcycle riding easily.

These assumptions all turned out to be wrong. What I spent on motorcycling far exceeded any savings from higher gas mileage. I didn't sell enough books to cover the costs. And learning to ride was much, much more difficult than I expected. But it was also much more fulfilling. In life, I've always wanted to be where I'm not. And I'm rushing to get there.

In the few years since I began riding, I've fallen passionately in love with it. The average American motorcyclist rides 1800 miles per year. I did 16,000 my first year, 18,000 the second, and over 20,000 in the third. I've continued to average 15,000 to 16,000 miles per year even when I began writing a weekly column that eats up much of my Sundays. At night I often dream of squiggly lines on a map. Seriously.

When everything is clicking--I'm alone on a winding country road, I've got my "A" game, the music is in a groove--I sometimes forget the motorcycle is there and feel like I'm simply flying. If you don't want to take my word for it, trust Alton Brown.

Luckily, I live close to some fine riding, with twisty roads over mountain ridges, large state forests, miles of farmland (which often requires dodging Amish buggies), charming little towns (each different from all the others), and lots of historic sites. There's always somewhere new to see. (Here's a map of my favorite routes and road food). I particularly like combining riding with photography--one of my other passions.

My current motorcycle is a 2010 BMW R1200R. In BMW jargon, this bike is a "hexhead" (named because the engine cylinder covers are hexagonal). So these are the "Hexhead Diaries." I'll update them regularly with stories and pictures. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

No More Overthinking

My riding skills seem to have taken a leap recently--I'm hitting even the tightest curves with greater speed and confidence.  The only thing I've been doing differently--and this is kind of strange--is that as I approach curves, I don't even think about entry speed, apex, and all that stuff but just clear my mind and incant "trust the the Force."  I'm serious.  It works. 

The Saturday forecast is looking great this week and the leaves should have started changing to the north and west of me, so maybe I'll get a chance to test this out on some other roads.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

I Feel Like Navin Johnson Seeing His Name in the Phone Book

A year and half after acceptance, the "My First Bike" article I wrote for the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America Owners' News finally appeared.  You have to have a subscription to access it but, heck, here's the text.  (I would add that regular readers of this blog have seen most of this already, but I know that there's no such thing).

The Mid-life Crisis Motorcycle

I am a classic mid-life crisis motorcyclist. While I’d toyed with the idea of riding for several years, I’d never thrown a leg over a motorcycle until I was 51. Then the time seemed right. My youngest kid had finished high school, so I considered myself  expendable. I’d just spent two years with every waking moment consumed writing a book. With it completed, I again owned my life and was looking for a new obsession.

My driving force in life has always been pushing myself, taking on new challenges and mastering new skills. I thrive on exploring new places and always prefer to be outside with the wind on me as much as possible. So riding held a deep appeal.

As I contemplated this big plunge, I made several assumptions. One was riding a motorcycle would save money, given that gasoline prices had just spiked. A second was royalties from the book would pay  for a motorcycle. But most of all, I assumed, having put in thousands of miles on road racing and mountain bicycles and manual transmission cars for years, I’d pick up motorcycle riding easily.

These assumptions all turned out to be wrong. What I spent on motorcycling far exceeded any savings from higher gas mileage. I didn’t sell enough books to cover the costs, and learning to ride was much, much more difficult than I expected. But it was also much more fulfilling. In life I’ve always wanted to be where I’m not, and I’m rushing to get there.

As I first caught the motorcycle bug, I headed for the local Harley dealer. It was close to me and, like most Harley dealers, a real emporium. But it only took a few minutes of browsing before I realized I wasn’t a Harley person. I then went to the Honda dealer just down the road. All the bikes in stock were either crotch rocket sports bikes or cruisers – again, not me.

Luckily, the Honda dealer also sold BMWs, so I wandered down to that end of the showroom. I hadn’t really thought about BMWs before but was curious. I’ve always been a fan of German engineering, having driven German cars exclusively since the mid-1980s. So I was interested. Very interested. I briefly considered looking at Triumphs, but geography sealed it: the Triumph dealer was 30 miles from my house and the BMW dealer five.

Then I did something that was very unlike me. Normally when I buy anything, particularly a major purchase, I first do extensive research. This time, though, I was impulsive. I found the BMW looked cool and was in my price range. I asked the salesman and a buddy if they thought it would be okay as a starter bike. They both said, “Yes.” I later decided that was probably bad advice, but a few days after beginning to think about motorcycling, I bought a 2008 BMW F800ST.

I picked up some basic gear – a helmet, gloves and a jacket – and got a neighbor to ride it to my house. Five days after the first glimmer of an idea, I was a motorcyclist. Sort of.

I got the bike on a steaming hot Saturday morning in June and set out to ride around my neighborhood. While I’ve always been an autodidact – someone who teaches himself or herself – I now realize that was my second major stupid decision.

As I set out through the neighborhood (which, unfortunately was crowded with yard sale traffic that day), my immediate problem was stalling. Every time I stopped, I stalled multiple times before I’d get moving. I was also struck by the strangeness of motorcycle controls: the right hand controls the front brake, the right foot controls the rear brake, the left hand controls the clutch and the left foot shifts gears.

I did make it around the block a few times. Then on about the fifth circuit, I had what remains my closest encounter with a serious wreck. I had to make a left turn uphill from a stoplight and stalled several times. This frustrated me, so I vowed I wouldn’t stall the next time and gunned the throttle.

The bike took off. Of course, all I needed to do was either let go of the throttle or pull in the clutch. But in my panic, all I did was squeeze tighter. I careened toward a parked SUV and was already becoming angry with myself for wrecking the bike after owning it for an hour. As I flinched for impact, I instinctively leaned away from the SUV. This was just enough to steer me slightly away from it. I skirted the vehicle so closely I felt it brush my hand. But I made it. Barely.

I then began a rigorous skill development program. I rode every day, only moving on to the next level of difficulty when I felt comfortable with the previous one. First was riding around my neighborhood at 15–20 mph. Then short forays on 35 mph back roads at low traffic times. Then I took trips into town at low traffic times and trips on roads with 40–45 mph speed limits. Then it was on to rides at higher traffic times and trips over the mountain ridges on a few of the less challenging roads. Next, it was on to major roads and interstates during low traffic times. Eventually, I inched into busy interstates, rides into cities, a few rides at night, a few rides in the rain and mountain crossings on the twistier routes.

I vividly remember the first ride where the thought, “Hey! This is fun!” crept into the terror that normally accompanied each ride. I remember the first time I pulled back into my garage at the end of a ride and did not think, “I cheated the devil again!” I was getting comfortable enough on the motorcycle that I actually expected to live through a ride. I remember the first time I rode on a 65 mph divided highway – I was squeezing the grips so hard I had to pull off at every exit and rest my hands.

After about a month, I had 600 miles under my belt and was able to get into the Basic Rider safety course. To my utter amazement, I failed. According to the instructor, I went too slowly through the tests. I was shocked and angry. I jumped back on my bike, popped back on the interstate and came home.

Throughout the rest of the summer, I continued to practice, including parking lot sessions doing the exercises from the course. I also went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take the test there for my M class license. It was a disaster. I lost my composure and stopped half way through. Another flunk.

But I was determined to both pass the safety course and get my license so I could ride to work. I expected to fail, but figured the additional coaching would help me. I dropped my bike during one of the exercises and had to have it lifted off of my foot, but I felt more and more in control as the day went on. After the coach compiled the test results, he said, “Unfortunately, not everyone passed.” Since I was expecting that, I began to walk away. Then to my surprise, I heard him call my name. I’d somehow passed.

By the summer’s end, I had a couple of thousand miles under my belt. I had my safety course card, and I had earned my M class license when I retook the test from the DMV. I’d also accumulated a mountain of gear as I searched for the perfect helmet, gloves, jacket, boots and pants. I was, sort of a rider.

I owned the F800ST for two years and put about 32,000 miles on it before trading for an R1200R. I still see the old one around town and some day will get a chance to talk to the new owner. For me, it clearly was a gateway drug – the R is my favorite possession of my entire life. I get in over 20,000 miles a year. I made it to the 2011 Bloomsburg Rally (but left because it was too cold). I’ve been able to explore nearly every twisty, isolated road in Pennsylvania, combining my passion for riding with my passion for photography (see my photos on my blog at I’m certainly a different and happier person than the one who almost smeared himself on an SUV in his first hour of riding.

Motorcycling and the Introvert

I've long recognized that one reason motorcycling appears to me is because I am a very strong introvert.  I'm normally what motorcyclists call a lone wolf but even group rides are essentially solitary, with human interaction only at stops, time spent immersed in the conversations in my head.

My obsession with full safety gear reflects this.  In boots, gauntlets, an encapsulating one piece suit and a full face helmet (dark tinted face shield preferred), with earphones giving the impression that the music is coming from inside my head, I am both an integral part of the environment and isolated from it it.  I experience it but it can't see me.  I spy with my little eye--the world.  When the road is empty, it is like being in a movie.  For an introvert, that's a good thing.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I'm Beginning to Think About Maybe Considering New Tires

These are only about four months old and with the replacement guarantee I got when I bought them, I'll only pay for mounting the new set.  After only going through one pair last year, I hope to get back to my normal pace of two or three sets a year.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Apparently My Superpower Is the Ability to Cause Rain in West Virginia

This weekend was the fifth time in the past two years that I've planned a multi-day Virginia/West Virginia ride, was fooled by a good weather forecast a week out, and had to cancel at the last minute as the forecast turned grim.  I may try again in October.

With hindsight, it may have been a good thing that I aborted this one--I was checking the air in my tires yesterday and noticed that cord is showing on the rear.  I went through this set in about four months. 

With almost 52,000 miles on the R1200R, the ride is starting to get uncomfortably hard.  I think that if I get an unexpected consulting gig over the winter which produces some "mad money," I'm going to get replacement shocks from Works Performance.  The service manager at my dealer gushes about them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

It's Been a Beautiful August in Pennsylvania

The weather has often been stunning--70s and sunny at times.  On a few rides, the initial hours were actually cold.  Although I missed one weekend for #2 daughter's wedding, I've been getting in quite a few miles because of the good weather and the fact that I've been furloughed Mondays for the past month due to the absence of adult leadership in Washington.

On one of these, I took another stab at finding Pennsylvania's herd of wild elk.  Still no luck.  Maybe in the fall when they're most active.  I did get a lovely shot of Lurgan Mill at the start of the ride.

This was my odometer as I pulled in the driveway following an after work ride yesterday:

This was after three years and one month on the R1200R.  While I'm beginning to think about my next bike (probably a tourer), the R remains my favorite physical thing I've ever owned.

I do expect my mileage to decline soon.  Once college football season begins, my Saturdays will be centered on that.  My alma mater the University of South Carolina is expected to have the strongest team in school history.  Perhaps if they lose a couple my interest will decline.  And then having to begin working Mondays again, I'll have to devote Sundays to writing my weekly column for World Politics Review.  I'd like to take another stab at a multi-day Virginia/West Virginia ride in the fall but with the hit to my family income from the furlough, I suspect that's not in the cards. 


Late note on riding Route 555 looking for elk:  So maybe not such a good idea, at least when it's still dark.

Thinking back over the past few years, I think the biggest risk to me is not cars and critters--I haven't had a close call with either for a very long time, largely because of my hyper-vigilent riding style--but the incompetence of the Pennsylvania Highway Department.

Along this same line, I had two near wrecks in the last month.  One was when I was on a stretch of road under maintenance.    The road surface was black and it was very dark because I had just gone under a canopy of trees.  I was looking ahead at an upcoming curve and hit a huge pothole in the middle of the lane.  It almost jerked the bars out of my hands, but I kept control.

The next day I was on a road I'd ridden just a few days earlier.  I came into a blind curve and the highway department had decided to cut a rectangle out of the pavement in the middle of the lane and fill it with loose gravel. Luckily there wasn't any other traffic on the road so I was able to jerk the bike upright and slide into the other lane.  Had either of those caused a wreck, I would have explored a law suit against the state.  It might not have gone anywhere but I would have at least tried to make a case that the state has a responsibility to maintain the roads to a minimum level of safety, and PennDOT had failed in that responsibility.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Sorry, Bicyclist

Until I had knee replacement about seven years ago, I was an avid bicyclist.  I was putting in 150 miles a week for a while.  So I'm very sympathetic to them (and there are LOTS more around here than there were when I rode).

Over the weekend I was buzzing along Route 233 in the Pine Grove State Forest.  Having ridden that road hundreds of times, I know that there are only a very few, very short passing areas so if you need to get around someone, you have to jump on the opportunity.

So I was behind a meandering 300 lb. guy on an 800 lb Harley when we reached one of those 75 yard long passing areas.  I popped out hard to get around.  Of course I checked for cars first but one I started the pass, I noticed a bicyclist coming the other way.  I hadn't been able to see him because we were in the forest and it was dark.  He was wearing dark clothes and had no light.

I instantly decided that by staying on the center line, I had plenty of room to pass the Harley and leave a safe distance from the cyclist.  But I guess he didn't see me until I was rushing toward him.  He panicked and drove off the road, wobbling to stay upright.

I checked my mirrors and he didn't go down, so I kept riding.  I felt bad about it, but don't think I did anything wrong.

Since it was July 4th weekend and the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, I'd intended to skirt the mobs there.  But I missed a turn and ended up on the west edge of the battlefield where the first morning's fight took place.  It was kind of nice because I'd never been in Reynold's woods before, but it was so crowded that it took me three turns of the traffic light to get from Reynold's Avenue onto Route 30.  And I was roasting in black leather.  It was perforated so I was fine while moving, but not while sitting.

Still, a gorgeous day.

Friday, July 5, 2013


I had a very nice but very uneventful 282 mile ride on the 4th of July, heading west on Route 30, through Blue Knob State Park, and across Raystown Lake.

It was too overcast for decent photos, but I skirted a few small rain storms. The GPS actually worked. Sort of. I uploaded the route from the computer but it showed up as 288 miles on the device, so Garmin had added a detour somewhere. I recalculated it and it then then showed up as 282 like it was supposed to. I turned it off, walked out to the garage, mounted it on the bike, turned it back on, opened the route and now it was 292 miles. So somewhere between my study and my garage, the Garmin had added another detour, so I had to recalculate again.

By the way, I'd emailed Garmin tech support about my ongoing problems and they offered to "fix" this for $60. Given that this is my fourth replacement of the same unit in two years, I'm certainly not betting $60 of my money that Garmin can get it right the fifth time. I'll just live with it and hope that some competent competitive product comes on the market. The only other thing I can find now is a Tom Tom Rider 2 and the reviews of it that I've seen have been terrible.

But, as to the name of this post--toward the end of the ride, I stopped for gas and while I was standing around drinking a bottle of water, a couple of Harleys pulled it. They fit the model--big roar of sound, not wearing helmets, all wearing tee shirts from various Harley dealers around the country. I knew they'd be watching so as I left, I did a perfect, tight U turn out of the parking lot that no one could do on a Harley other than maybe a motorcycle cop.

Then when I got ready to pull out of the parking lot, I stalled! I was shocked--I haven't done that since I started riding five years ago. And since I knew I had an audience, it was the worst possible time. The only thing I can figure is that I had on thick elkskin gloves, my hand was tired, and the clutch lever slipped. But I hung my head in shame and took off.

Monday, July 1, 2013

I've Done Many Stupid Things In My Life....

...many.  But I nearly topped them all this afternoon.

I added a pre-paid a service contract when I bought my bike three years ago, so hadn't done anything to it myself.  The contract is finished so I figured I'd save the $50 in labor and at least do my own oil change.  I drained it but then couldn't get the filter off so I had to run to an auto parts store to get a wrench.  I carefully reinserted the drain plug with a new crush ring and the new filter.  Then I thought I'd go for a ride and get it heated up so I could check my levels and seals.  Before I pulled off I was thinking, "That thing sounds really, really weird."  I mulled it over for a few seconds then remembered that I'd forgotten to fill it back up with the new oil.  Had I taken off, that would have been a $5,000 ride.


To follow up on this, I'm absolutely stunned at what a difference super premium, Swiss-made, synthetic oil makes in the performance of the bike.  Much smoother shifting and quieter.  The company says I'll also get better fuel economy and less oil usage.   

Asshat Riders and Garmin's Incompetence

The past few weeks--and the coming one--have seen almost daily thunderstorms so it's been hard to get a ride in.  I did try to do a medium one--173 miles--last Saturday.  The weather was nice but storms in the preceding days had blown gravel into the road in unexpected places.  I hit a pile of it coming down off a mountain and nearly dumped the bike at high speed.  That made me a little tentative for the rest of the ride.

Then I was on Route 125 south of Shamokin.  This road, which has a couple of twisty mountain crossings, is popular with the sports bike crowd.  I was tooling around and checked the mirrors and
saw one behind me, so I stepped up the pace to my comfort level so as to not steal any more fun from the guy than I had to.  Then I was leaning hard in a curve nearly scraping a peg and one of the asshats in the group passed me on the right, in my lane.  He was inches from me.  We were both moving fast and leaning so even if our mirrors had made contact, it would have been disaster.  The other two then passed me on the left.  It was a double yellow line but I didn't care so much about that.

As I thought about it, I was angry at myself for not flipping off the first moron.  At least I can be satisfied that his single digit IQ will probably be out of the gene pool relatively soon.

Then the other annoyance.  For like the fifth time in a row, my Garmin Zumo 220 corrupted my route.  I had put in a help ticket to Garmin after the previous episode and they had me reset the unit to the factory configuration.  But this didn't resolve the problem.  So now they're telling me that they'll replace it for "only" $60.  Well, this would be the fifth replacement in three years (including one that cost me $120) so I don't think so.   I cannot believe that Garmin stays in business with such abysmal quality control.  Unfortunately though, there aren't any other motorcycle specific GPS units out there, so I don't know what to do now.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Back in the Game

I was laid low all week with back pain.  It was so bad I took a couple of days off work and then went to the doctor's office.  The physician's assistant couldn't figure out what it was, so just gave me some muscle relaxers.

But Saturday morning was perfect--70s and sunny--so I decided to get on the bike and see how my back reacted.  I took off without a plan.  Whether from the vibration or just relaxation, I was pain free while riding (although I did get a few shots of pain lifting my feet to the pegs after a stop).

I only rode a little over 100 miles but was glad I got to get a bit of such a wonderful day.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Some Good, Some Bad, Some Ugly

For the fourth time in less than a year, last minute changes in the weather caused me to cancel a long-planned West Virginia ride.  This time the Sunday forecast was 60% chance of afternoon thunderstorms, so I begged off.  But Saturday was supposed to be nice so I thought I'd do my first really long ride of the year, using one of my favorite routes that goes through the state forests of north central Pennsylvania, but adding a couple of new twists.

Spring and Autumn rides are always a challenge since there can be a large temperature variation from the beginning to the end.  This was no exception as it was mid 50s at the start and low 80s at the end, but I was able to peel off layers and stay reasonably comfortable.

I started with two of my favorite roads: Rt 74 out of Carlisle and Rt 235 north of McAlisterville, cutting west to Bellfonte, through Snow Shoe and Karthaus.  The plan was to swing north on Route 144 and back south on 44 to Lock Haven.  This would briefly put me into Pennsylvania elk country.  Then I wanted to hit the superb 477 south of Lock Haven, over to Mifflinburg, and south on 104, then 11, 850 and 34.

As it turns out the new roads were very nice.  They included Wykoff Run Road between 2004 and 120 (which someone told me about on Facebook) and 4001 north from 120 to 144.  This ran along Kettle Creek which is one of the better known trout streams in Pennsylvania (although I've never fished it).

All was well until I hit the northernmost part of the route and started back south on 44.  There were piles of gravel at random places in road.  I almost dumped the bike hitting one at high speed.  When I started sliding I instinctively reached for the brakes but luckily the experienced motorcyclist part of my brain vetoed that idea--hitting the brakes when you're sliding on ice or gravel is the exact wrong thing to do.  I assume that area had a very bad storm within the past 48 hours which washed all of that onto the pavement.  In any case, it caused me to ease along where I would usually rocket.

I had nice at an interesting honky tonk diner in Lock Haven.  As I parked and was taking my full panoply of protective gear off (full face helmet, leather jacket, elkskin gloves, protective overpants), a guy pulled up on a Harley and parked right next to me.  He had clearly spent tens of thousands of dollars on a intricate specialized paint job and after-market chrome.  The bike glowed--there was not a smudge on it. The paint glittered; I could see my reflection in the highly polished chrome. I'm sure guy rode it a few miles from his garage to the diner carefully avoiding anything that might mar it. I'd guess that he had an extra loud after-market muffler as well.  Of course he wore no  helmet, had regular faded jeans (which are worthless in a crash), and sported a Harley logo vest and boots.

My bike (and me for that matter) was bug encrusted and looked like it had just been ridden very fast over hundreds of miles of mountains.  Which it had. Anything aftermarket on my bike is there to improve comfort and safety, not for looks.  This was all emblematic: tt's a Harley versus BMW thing.

Then when I started back up, I noticed that the route was corrupted on my Garmin GPS.  This happens 100% of the time now and has across multiple Garmin units.  The utter incompetence of Garmin's software engineers continues to anger me.  After I designed the route using Base Camp, Garmin's bizarrely awful mapping software, it took four tries to get it to upload correctly without adding detours (which is normal).  When I previewed it on Friday it was fine but when I ran it on Saturday it decided to just draw straight lines between my waypoints regardless of whether there were actually roads.  I so wish there was some competition to Garmin.  (I have tech support request in to them but have never been successful at the dozen or so other times I've asked for help, so I'm not expecting much).

But in this case it didn't really matter since I knew the route.  Unfortunately, when I got to 477, the state had recently resurfaced it using what they call the "oil and chips" method.  This is a Third World technique where they put down tar, cover it with gravel chips, and depend on traffic to imbed the chips in the tar.  The surface becomes solid (but still bad) after a few days or weeks depending on how much traffic there is.  But in the interim, the road is very treacherous because it is a just a bed of loose gravel.  I was crawling along at 20 as the road twisted along a mountain stream, pulling off when I could to let cars get by (which is an exact reversal of how things normally work).

I finally bailed out on 477 because I knew there was a mountain crossing coming up and knew I couldn't do it safely (thank PENNDOT!).  I jumped in I-80 for about five miles, took the next exit, then following my hypothesis that at any location in central Pennsylvania, I can ride for 25 minutes in any direction and eventually know where I am.  As it turned out, I picked up my original route and followed it the rest of the way home.

Being out of riding shape, I was exhausted when I got home. even though I'd only ridden a bit over 380 miles  I still didn't see any elk but the ride sure beat whatever else I might have done for the day.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Close By

Taking the Advanced Riders Course killed my Saturday and, of course, I can only do short ones on Sundays since that's when I write my column for World Politics Review.  The weather was so nice that I did bop down to the vicinity of Gettsyburg.

I'm excited about next weekend's ride to West Virginia.  It looks like I may finally make this happen after getting weathered out several times.

Stayin Alive, Staying Alive

I made a firm commitment to riding safety when I took up motorcycling exactly five years ago.  I always wear high quality protective gear.  (Well, almost always--I do ride the three miles to and from work in khakis or dress pants, and sometimes wear regular jeans when riding a local errand).  I read
every motorcycle safety book I can get my hands on.  I regularly go out on an isolated road and practice safety skills, particularly swerves and quick stops in order to sustain muscle memory.  And I regularly take safety courses with trained coaches.

I took the Basic Rider Course which was developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) a month after getting my first bike.  Over the years I've taken what used to be called the Experienced Rider Course and is now called the Basic Rider Course II four different times.  Last year I signed up for a new Advanced Rider Course (ARC) that Pennsylvania was offering but got sick and wasn't able to make it.  So I registered again for this year.

The course was four hours of classroom instruction and discussion (which, ironically, fell on my fifth year riding anniversary) and four hours on the riding course.  I was a bit disappointed because I'd hoped that this one would involve actual riding on a road with coaches, but it was more exercises in a large parking lot.  The difference from the earlier courses was the complexity of the exercises and the speed with which they were done--the earlier courses were mostly under 20 MPH and in the ARC we were often going 25-30 MPH.

A lot of people take the basic courses either to get an insurance discount or because it's required to ride on military installations.  Since anyone taking the ARC has already take the BRC and BRC II, the only motivation is a personal commitment to safety.  So it's like safe riding grad school.  That means the classes are pretty small.  The BRC and BRC II classes are often 12 riders; my ARC had me and three others.  But since we had two coaches, that was a good thing.

During the first classroom session we took a number of self assessments including our propensity for risky behavior.  We had to rate our overall riding skills level.  Then, to my surprise, the instructor wrote  everyone's numbers on the board.  I had given myself the highest skill level rating within the group so I figured I had self created pressure to perform the next day when we got out on the range.  But that was OK since I need pressure to be at my best.  (Plus, I still think my rating was right: I have myself an 8 out of 10.  Since my annual mileage is in the top 5-10% for all motorcyclists and I do things that the vast majority of motorcycles don't, specifically take a training course every year and go out on isolated roads and practice skills like fast stops and swerves, I really think I'm in the top 20% of all riders).

I did stumble a bit on the risk assessment we did.  One of the questions was "Have you recently ridden over 100 MPH?"  I put my and up and said, "Define 'recently'."  The instructor said, "This riding season."  I said, "OK, that's good" and moved on.

But as it turns out, that self assessment was fairly accurate.  We would break into groups of two to ride the various exercises.  When I was paired with one of the two guys in the group, they really held me up because they were so slow going through the complex exercises (which involves as many as 8 or 10 different maneuvers in a single exercise, including very tight descending curves and S turns).  One held me up so much that the coaches put me in front of him on subsequent runs and I would lap him and still end up behind him.

In their defense, both were riding big bikes--one a one a Kawasaki Vulcan 900 and the other a Kawasaki Concours.  And they weren't bad, just slow.  I did one exercise behind the guy on the Vulcan and he must have scraped his floorboards ten times.  The coach started calling him "Sparky" after that.  But the course was derived from the U.S. military's sports bike safety course.  That means the exercises emphasize quick maneuvers and hence are much easier on sports style bikes.  That's the reason that the two of us in the course with sportier bikes had a much easier time than the two guys on larger rides.

On one exercise I was paired with the fourth rider--a lady.  During the introductions during the classroom session she had said she'd only been riding a few years and had about 14,000 miles total, so I was expected her to hold me up.  Wrong.  She was very skilled.  She actually was increasing the distance from me in a few of the exercises (but I was pushing her in some).  I later found out she was a MSF coach who teaches the basic courses, so she'd been through coach training and done the exercises hundreds of times.  And she was on a Kawasaki Ninja 250 which is one of the most agile bikes out there (with an engine 1/5 the size of mine).  But she was just darned skilled, particularly on the exercises that were like the ones in the basic course.

Anyhow, there were no accidents throughout the day and, since there's not a test at the end, no failures.  So count is as a win.  The weather forecast had been for clouds and it turned out sunny so I was overdressed and physically exhausted at the end.  But it was worthwhile--I could sense things I'd learned in earlier classes but forgotten coming back.

Next year I'm going to enroll in something like the Lee Parks Total Control Course.  I'm very interested in a getting a critique of my actual, non-parking lot riding style.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Two Brains

While I have yet to get in what I would consider a long ride this year (at least 350 miles), I did ride a 225 mile loop today.  There were good parts.  In particular, I was able to float unimpeded through the lovely section of Pennsylvania Route 30 from Fort Loudon to Breezewood.  This includes four wonderful mountain crossings but there's so much traffic on it that the chances are very good of getting stuck behind a slow car or truck.  But not today.  It was sublime.  Later, though, the weather turned out to be much hotter than predicted so I was roasting in my black winter jacket with limited ventilation in 90+ degree heat.  It really sucked the life out of me.

I'd ridden most of the route many times before but used my Garmin mapping software to add one new section.  On this part I could have stopped, gotten off the bike, laid down in the road and taken a nap and would not have been disturbed.  I was going five and even ten miles through rolling farmland and small stretches of forest without seeing another vehicle, even one of the thousands of Harleys with riders dressed like pirates that were out on the road..  That I like.

I noticed something today that has never occurred to me before.  Having upgraded my ten year old camera a few weeks ago, I was looking for things to photograph.  But I wasn't seeing anything worthwhile or would see if after I'd passed.  It dawned on my that my motorcycle brain and my photography brain are very different, and I can't run both at once.  Photography brain scans for shapes, colors, light and dark, and interesting composition.  Motorcycle brain scans for potential threats and is constantly calculating time/movement trajectories and curve apexes.  When motorcycle brain was running (which is was most of the time), I'd miss things that photography brain would have been drawn to.

Ultimately I'd probably see and take better photos driving a car, which takes much less concentration and constant calculation, than while riding a motorcycle.  But I'm not going to do that.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Horns of a Dilemma

I have a dilemma: all motorcycle safety training stresses not getting on the bike when you're not in the right frame of mind, especially when you're angry.  But because of things at work, I'm walking around with big honking piles of anger all the time. So to ride or not?

I did yesterday and the results weren't good.  In less than a mile from my house I got into a big screaming encounter on a single lane bridge when six cars failed to yield the right of way to me which I had at the time.  After counseling the  lead driver on his road skills (the lack of which he acknowledged after I explained it to him), I thought about turning around and riding home.  But I continued on and once I began floating through an isolated state forest road, the anger melted away.

So I'm stupid to take the first few miles of a ride now, but OK after that.

Next weekend I'm taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Advanced Riders' Course.  Pennsylvania just began offering it last year.  I signed up then but got sick at the last minute.  I'm curious about this one--I've taken what used to be called the Experienced Riders' Course (and is now called the Basic Riders' Course II) four different times, so it has declining utility for me.

I would like to get in some longer rides.  I just upgraded my ten year old camera and have been quite pleased with the results.  These were all shot nearby on my short after work rides.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Motorcycle Safety

I have two articles to write this weekend so only a short ride for me.  I did get into what is a typical online argument on motorcycle safety, this one strangely enough on a sports board.  A yutz there claimed he put straight pipes on his bike as a safety feature.  Having had this argument many times before, I pointed out that none of the organizations in the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia or elsewhere concerned with motorcycle safety, whether the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, the state highway safety organizations, state police, or insurance companies, recommend loud mufflers as a safety feature.  Yet all do recommend high visibility clothing, full protective gear, especially a full face helmet (preferably white), getting regular professional safety training, regularly practicing skills like fast stops, and developing a hyper defensive riding still with minimum distractions.  I asked Mr. Straight Pipes if he did those things.  I haven't received a reply yet.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Back in the Saddle

After spending the last few months of winter in meticulous planning for the three day Virginia-West Virginia ride I wanted to take in April, I ended up cancelling it.  The tires on the bike were almost shot.  I thought I would get a replacement set under the one year warranty that I purchased when I got them, but I was a few weeks past it.  I decided that I couldn't both pay for the new tires and the trip.  As it turns out, I probably would have cancelled for weather reasons anyway. 

Between weather and health issues, I did the least riding over the winter of 2012-2013 since I began in 2008.  Spring was more than welcome.  I have again gotten in a few 300+ mile Saturday rides the past couple of weekends, the first west of Carlisle out the fantastic section of Route 30 and up to Raystown lake, the second to the World's End state park east of the Susquehanna and then through coal country around Shamokin.

The second of these included a lunch stop at the charming Forksville General Store, just over the covered bridge

The weather was great for both rides but, as has happened so often over the years, my Garmin Zumo GPS screwed me.  It added random diversions and detours to the routes I had designed and uploaded.  I tried stopping then restarting the routes but then they became hopelessly corrupted and I had to just ride until I figured out where I was.

This has been an ongoing problem as long as I have had a GPS on the bike.  I've contacted Garmin multiple times but the company simply denies the problem.  As one of their tech support people said to me, "That can't be happening."  Well, it has happened to me dozens of times, maybe more than a hundred.

All I want is a device that takes the route I designed and runs it--I don't want Garmin to "improve" or shorten it for me. Here's an illustration.  I just designed a route using Garmin's bizarrely bad Base Camp software.  The program shows it as 72.5 miles and taking 2 hours, 2 minutes.  I then transferred it to my Zumo.  On the Zumo, the same exact same route shows as  74.9 miles/1 hour, 36 minutes.  I'm going to ride it later today after I draft my weekly column and would not be surprised if detours and short cuts that I didn't design show up in the route.  I simply cannot understand why Garmin can't find competent software engineers who can successfully integrate mapping software and the GPS devices.

I would dearly love to throw the Zumo away and move to something else, but there is no serious competitor.  The only other motorcycle-specific GPS is the Tom Tom Rider, and I can't even figure out if it's still being sold in the United States. 

And this is more than a nuisance.  When the GPS screws up, I tend to become so angry and distracted that I lose my concentration and my riding erodes.  Yesterday I had a near miss when a yutz ran a stop sign and pulled out in front of me while riding through a town.  He avoided a crash by hitting the brakes but if I hadn't been distracted, I would have been in control of the situation and wouldn't have had to depend on the driver to prevent diaster.

Speaking of which, in June I'm taking the advanced safety course that Pennsylvania began offering last year.  I've taken the basic riders' course and what used to be called the advanced riders' course (which was a compressed version of the same thing) four times.  Those courses are useful but limited--since they're given in a parking lot, speeds never exceed 20 MPH so it doesn't replicate real street riding.  This new advanced course is at higher speeds, so may be more helpful.  That means it requires a bigger course, so I'll have to go to Gettysburg to take it.

I also need to get out on a isolated road and practice some fast stops and U turns.  I may do that today.  I'll continue to try and do long Saturday rides, leaving Sundays to write my column for World Politics Review.  Hopefully at some point I'll be able to do a multi-day ride.

There is one other thing.  While my R1200R remains my favorite physical thing I've ever owned, I'm just starting to look ahead.  It has 43,000 miles which is young for a BMW (and I have about 78K total in a little under five years of riding), but I'm beginning to think that it might be a good idea to move away from a sporty bike that compels me to ride hard and fast, and shift to a bigger touring bike.  In the 1990s I drove a 3 series BMW sedan which forced me to drive fast.  I have five wrecks in the five years I owned it.  I traded it for a larger sedan, first an Audi A6 and now a BMW 528i and haven't had a wreck in either.  So there may be a BMW K1600GT in my future. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Silence of the Hexheads

During the past six months I've ridden the least since I began almost five years ago.  A number of things have caused this.  In September 2012, I began writing a weekly column called "Strategic Horizons" for World Politics Review.  Since this is moonlighting, I have to do it on weekends, so it fills much of every Sunday.  Then during the autumn I had a few lingering health problems.  None were major but they did keep me off the bike.  Once winter got here we've had month after month of cold, grim weather.  We haven't had any huge snowstorms but there have been enough small ones to keep the roads covered in gravel, making all of the fun mountain roads very dangerous to ride.  Finally, there's Fritz.  He's an absolute sweetheart but very needy and takes up a lot of time.

Because of all of this, all I've been able to do is an occasional hour ride just to make sure I still remember how.

As winter grinds to an end, I'm hoping this will change.  I'm already plotting a two day ride through Virginia and West Virginia for late April to try and make up for the two failed attempts I had last year.

View VA WV April 2013 in a larger map

I'm tingling with excitement about this but it remains contingent on weather and my job conditions since like hundreds of thousands of other civil servants, I'm being used as a political plaything by Congress.  If I'm furloughed, I'll have to cut my riding back dramatically.