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!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Very Strange Day

Yesterday I renewed my attempt to find Pennsylvania's herd of wild elk in the beautiful region of state parks north of Interstate 80.  I'd done this without success last summer and fall, but had waited to go up that way until the last of the winter's gravel had washed off.  It's such a beautiful region that rides are well worthwhile even without the elk.  This was the plan:

View Elk Quest in a larger map

It started wonderfully.  I knifed north on the great Route 74 under a clear blue sky.  I was listening to my New Age/soundtrack music playlist, giving me the feeling that I was in a movie. I had my A game, hitting the tight curves 15-25 miles above the posted speeds

Later I stopped and bought a Gator Skin thermal shirt at a little motorcycle shop near Bellefonte, thinking it would come in handy next winter.  (I really need to sit aside a few hours some day to walk around Bellefonte and photograph the Victorian houses and buildings).  I had a fun talk with the guys at the motorcycle shop--I was deep in the heart of Harley land, so I don't think they'd ever seen a BMW up close and were very interested.

But then the bottom began to fall off of the ride.  As I tried to turn on to State Route 1011, the Quehanna Highway, the road was closed due to a bridge construction.  But there was no marked detour and in that part of the state, there are so few roads that it's hard to work around a closure.  So I headed the other direction on Route 879.  My GPS was no help--when I kept asking it to recalculate my route, it just told me to do a U turn over and over.  After wandering around, stopping and stopping to buy a map, I finally stumbled into Clearfield and then knew how to get back on my original route.  I've ridden so much through the back roads and small towns of Pennsylvania over the past three years that no matter where I am, I can ride in any direction and eventually hit somewhere that I've been before.

So I finally got to Route 555 which is the heart of elk country.  It was overcast but life was good other than one near-collision with a buzzard that was very irked to have to leave a dead porcupine in the middle of the road..  Then when I hit the little town of Benzette, it began to rain.  I was once again victimized by my own doltishness--I have a bad habit of checking the weather at home before a ride, but not at the destination.  As it turned out for the next five hours, the Carlisle weather was beautiful but it was raining heavily above Interstate 80.  Which was where I was.

So I rode on in the rain.  It wasn't too bad except for forcing me slow down.  At that point, my Roadcrafter suit was doing its job.  The only problem was that I hadn't brought rain gloves and my Fox Creek gauntlets soon soaked through. 

The rain finally stopped while I was on the fantastic Route 120, deep in the forests.  But as I was approaching the town of Renovo, it began to look grim.  I was riding in bright sunlight but just ahead of me I could seek that the sky was nearly black on the other side of the upcoming mountain ridge.  If I'd been in the more developed southern part of the state, I could have just turned south and tried to avoid the storm.  But in the north, there are fewer roads and thus no bail out options.  So there was little I could do but press on.

Between Renovo and Lock Haven, the skies opened up.  It was some of the heaviest rain I'd ever ridden in.  But I had no choice so just kept moving.  When I finally got to Lock Haven, I fueled up, put on the Gator Skin that was in my side bag, and changed to a dry pair of gloves that I had in my side bag.  These were also Fox Creek gauntlets and hence not waterproof, but I was hoping I'd gotten through the storm.  That was not to be.

As I was leaving Lock Haven, it began to rain again so I abandoned the twisty backroad route I had programmed into my GPS and just told the device to get me home as fast as possible.  The route it picked was about 30 miles east on Interstate 80, then south on Route 15.  So I took off.

It was misery.  The rain turned into a deluge.  The interstate was full of trucks laboring over the mountains but still moving fast enough to blind me with spray when I passed them.  My hands were freezing as the gloves soaked through.  At one point my hands began stinging and I noticed that I was riding in pea sized hail.  That was a new motorcycling experience for me. 

I pulled off on a rest stop and found that I had a pair of glove liners in my side bags.  That was fortuitous since my hands were getting very cold from the wet and wind.  And the Gator Skin--which I had purely by luck--saved me.  By this point the temperature had dropped to the mid-40s.  Since I'd planned on it being in the 60s, I hadn't brought cold weather gear.  When the wetness was added it, I would have gotten badly chilled, perhaps dangerously so, if I hadn't had that Gator Skin.

Eventually I got to Route 15 and stopped for some warming coffee in Lewisburg.  I was in pretty good shape other than the legs of my riding suit having leaked through, leaving my crotch and legs wet.  (I've ordered some sealant to try and deal with this issue).

Then as I moved south, the rain went away and the sun came out.  By the time I got home, everything but my gloves had dried out.

It ended up being about 350 miles, half of them good.  Lessons learned: remember to check the destination weather and buy some glove covers or waterproof gloves and always leave them in the side bags.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Peculiar Event

I was playing around in my garage and decided to adjust my handlebars about half an inch back hoping this would be more relaxing on long rides since my arms would be a bit less extended.  I went for a short ride on some twisty back roads to test it out.  Pulling away from a stop sign on the way back, I stalled.  This shocked me.  I had a terrible time with stalling when I first started riding.  During the initial weeks, two, three, even four stalls weren't uncommon at stop signs.  But it's been a year or more since I've done it.

Then I nearly stalled again at the next stop sign and it dawned on me: what my arms and hands do when riding a motorcycle is so complex than even a small change like moving the handlebars altered the whole geometry.  Specifically, it moved the clutch friction zone to a different point in my hand extension.

Once I figured that out, I simply adjusted the clutch lever to a longer throw and the problem was solved.  Lesson learned: everything is related to everything else (something I should have known from a bicycle where a half inch adjustment in something like the seat height or handlebar angle also has cascading effects).