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.

When I began this blog I was riding a 2010 BMW R1200R. In BMW jargon, this bike was 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!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

February 26, 2011

It was cold, but I badly needed a mental health ride.  So I bundled up--a process that is a lot like an astronaut preparing for a space walk--and headed off.

I have two very large playlists on my Ipod that I use for riding.  One is mostly classic rock and rockabilly (heavy on the George Thorogood).  I use that for the ride home when I'm tired and need a boost.  The other includes New Age/space/techno/soundtrack instrumentals (lots of Tangerine Dream).  I use that on the way out.  Early in the morning on isolated country roads it makes me feel like I'm in a movie.

The sun peeked out and I had a nice time on Route 147 which runs along the eastern edge of the Susquehanna River.  This has been one of my favorite roads since I began riding.  But it's also one that seems to have gotten straighter over the past few years.  (I now don't even notice or slow down for curves that once frightened me--I just dive deep into them and countersteer).

I crossed the river and cut through the cute little historic town of Lewisburg, home of Bucknell University.  I took Route 45 west, dodging a few Amish buggies. Even though I was only 75 miles north of home it was much colder, the ground was still covered with snow.  (All had melted around Carlisle).  I went through Mifflinburg--another cute little town with a lot of Victorian houses.  One of these days I need to visit the Buggy Museum there.

I was then going to come back to the south on Route 235.  I love this road, particularly the two mountain crossings through beautiful state parks.  But on this day taking it was a mistake: the road was absolutely covered with the gravel that the highway department puts down during snow, particularly the tight climbing curves.  There is just not enough traffic on that road to blow the gravel off.  So I bailed out after the first mountain crossing and took farmland roads home. At least the deer aren't as much of a threat as they'll be a few months from now when this year's fawns begin tottering around.

Despite the cold temperatures and gravel in the road, it was a nice day. I always laughed at bumper stickers that say, "A bad day fishing is better than a good day of anything else," but that does apply to riding. I ended up with about 175 miles.  In my way of keeping track of the length of a ride, this one was rated three Red Bulls.

I'm still breaking in the Italian-made seat that I bought about a month ago.  After four hours in the saddle, I was still fairly comfortable.  When summer comes and I go back to longer rides (often 8-10 hours), I'll throw on my Airhawk cushion for the return.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Plunge

As I first caught the motorcycle bug, I headed for the local Harley dealer. It was close to me and, like most Harley dealers, was a real emporium. But it only took a few minutes of browsing before I realized I wasn't a Harley person. There was country music playing loudly, the parking lot was full of pickup trucks with NASCAR stickers, and most of the people in the shop had tattoos. That's all fine, but it's just not me.  (Since then I've put in several hundred miles on rented Harleys, and realize that I made the right choice.  I find them beautiful but the performance and comfort are mediocre at best).

I then went to the Honda dealer just down the road. All the bikes in stock were either crotch rocket sports bikes or cruisers which seemed like Harley wanna-bes. Again, not me.

But 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. The BMW 318i I had in the 1990s was one of my favorite autos.  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 that looked cool and was in my price range. I asked the salesman and a buddy if they thought it would be OK 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 kit--a helmet, gloves, and a jacket--and got a neighbor to ride it to my house. So five days after the first glimmer of an idea, I was a motorcyclist. Sort of.


As I considered my second motorcycle, I know knew exactly what I wanted: something light and agile enough to commute and ride on trips to Washington; something sporty enough to make me grin when catapulting through twisty mountain roads on my fun rides; something with enough carrying capacity to run errands and take on trips; and something comfortable enough to put in 450 mile days.  I wanted a bit more power now that I was experienced.  (Even though I'd only been riding two years, my mileage was that of someone with 15 years of experience).  Having locked the rear tire and fish-tailed during a number of fast stops on my old bike, I knew that I wanted anti-lock brakes. 

Most of all, I wanted something reliable. Luckily my dealer had a bike on the floor that, with a bit of modification, fit the bill: a 2010 BMW R1200R.  This is the "urban" or "roadster" version of BMW's R series which is built around the 1200 cc version of the horizontally opposed air/oil cooled "boxer" engine that has been BMW's stock in trade since it began making motorcycles in 1923 (I like the tradition).  I added a touring package which included a luggage rack and nice side bags, a windscreen, and, eventually, an Italian-made aftermarket seat to replace the uncomfortable stock one, and I had my perfect bike.

It was love at first ride.  I put 800 miles on it the first weekend I owned it.  I hit 2,000 miles in about three weeks.  Having had it eight months at this point, I have 13,000 miles on it.  I've explored nearly every isolated road and twisty mountain crossing in central Pennsylvania.  I've twice taken it to Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, and am planning a five day ride this spring or summer to transit the full length of the Blue Ridge Parkway and return through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland.  I ride whenever possible, year round.  It is my favorite possession ever.

When I began riding, I promised myself to do everything possible to maximize my safety.  I've devoured every motorcycle safety book and video I can get.  I always wear protective gear.  I practice things like fast stops.  And I get refresher training at least every other year.  In fact, immediately after getting this bike, I retook the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's Experienced Rider's Course.  And I flunked!  Having passed it two years earlier and put in 30,000 miles since then, I was flummoxed.  But I practiced a bit more and re-took it a month later with different coaches.  In the rain.  And got a perfect score. Go figure.

Now the saga continues.  Here are some of my favorite photos of my adventures and explorations (so far) on this motorcycle:


A Steep Learning Curve

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 themselves--I now realize that was my second major stupid decision.  I should have taken the state sponsored beginning rider's course offered by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation first.

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 up hill from a stop light, 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 that 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 to 35 MPH back roads at low traffic times.   Then trips into town at low traffic times and trips on roads with a 40-45 MPH speed limit.  Then rides at higher traffic times and trips over the mountain ridges on a few of the less challenging roads.  Then major roads and interstates during low traffic times.  Eventually, busy interstates, rides into cities, a few rides at night, a few rides in the rain, and mountain crossings on the twistier routes.

After about a month, I had 600 miles under my belt and was able to get into the basic rider's safety course.  This lasts four days, with two days in the classroom and two days doing coached exercises in a parking lot using 250 cc beginner bikes.  At the end, there is a four part skill test.  Passing this gives the ride a full fledged M class license and was a requirement to ride on a military installation.

To my utter amazement, I failed.  The instructor said 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 got shook and just 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 didn't want to go through the entire four day beginner's course again so registered for the advanced riders course.  This is basically a one day session using the rider's own bike rather than low power loaners.  The end of course test is the same as for the beginner course.

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 felt more and more in control as the day went on.

There were six people in the course.  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.

I then went back to the Department of Motor Vehicles and took the licensing test there again.  As I did, it was beginning to rain.  Since I'd never ridden in the rain before, that wasn't helpful.  But after hours of practicing riding figure 8s over the summer (which is the gist of the licensing exam), I nailed it.

So at summer's end, I had a couple of thousand miles under my belt (which is more than the average motorcyclist rides in a year).  I had my safety course card, and my M class license.  I'd also accumulated a mountain of gear as I searched for the perfect helmet, gloves, jacket, boots, and pants.  But I was, sort of, a rider.  Then it was time to explore.

The Passion

I vividly remember the first ride where the thought that "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.  And I remember the first time I rode on a 65 MPH divided highway--I was squeezing the grips so hard that I had to pull off at every exit and rest my hands.

As my skill and confidence grew in the autumn of 2008, the motorcycle replaced my car as my primary means of transportation.  I took it whenever I could.  I rode from Pennsylvania to Vermont on a Friday, gave a talk Saturday morning, then rode home.

I also began to go on longer and more challenging weekend fun rides, blending my love of motorcycling and photography.  To do this, I had to add a GPS to the bike.  This enabled me to build very complex routes, picking interesting twisty roads from mapping software.

Here are a few photos from these rides:

 The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania

Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright House

The Flight 93 Memorial in Western Pennsylvania

 Burkittsville, Maryland

Harper's Ferry, West Virginia

The Peach Orchard at the Gettysburg Battlefield

Orbisonia, Pennsylvania

 Somerset County, Pennsylvania

Franklin County, Pennsylvania

Cumberland County, Pennsylvania

Dauphin County, Pennsylvania

Cruiser's Cafe, Pennsylvania

Cumberland County, Pennslyvania

 Perry County, Pennsylvania


I now realize that the F800ST was not a good starter bike.  It was too high strung and sporty.  Even with all of the riding practice that I put in, I was lucky to not hurt myself during those first few months.  (I did stall and drop it a few times, but didn't go down myself.)

Once I developed some ride skill, though, it was perfect for my needs.  It was light and agile enough to be a good commuter and city bike, but comfortable enough to spend 10 hours in the saddle during my increasingly long weekend rides.  But most of all, it was a hoot to ride.  I began to notice that every time I got on it, there was a smile on my face within a couple of minutes.  This was particularly important since I was going through some difficult times at work.  When my dealer gave me a service loaner than was significantly more sophisticated and expensive than my bike, I was always ready to get back on my own.

 But as time went on, I became very frustrated with the numerous mechanical problems I was having.  In two years of riding, I had six major warranty repairs and had to call roadside assistance twice.  In one two month stretch of prime spring riding, it was in the shop more than it was on road.  As I hit 30,000 miles and began approaching the end of my warranty, I was very concerned.

I contacted BMW to complain about the number of problems and repairs.  At first, nothing happened.  But I harangued them for months.  I was getting so frustrated that I considered simply selling the bike and giving up riding.  But I stayed on BMW.  I told them that I wanted to be a loyal customer and would happily trade for a different and, hopefully, more reliable BMW, but I was upside down in my payments.  Finally, to make me leave them alone, they agreed to give me $1800 credit toward the purchase of a new one.  So in July 2010, with 35,000 miles of riding in a little more than two years, I gave up the F800ST for what has turned out to be the favorite thing I've ever owned in my life.