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!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Rally Ho

I spent last Friday and Saturday at the long-awaited BMW Owners of America national rally in the cute little town of Bloomsburg, PA.  The rally moves to a different location every year, so it could be years before it's this close again, so I wanted to take advantage. It was a peculiar experience.

The East Coast was in the midst of a nasty heat wave which kept attendance at the rally much lower than expected.  I set off early Friday to head up, hoping to beat some of the heat.  I took a nice route using PA route 443, Goldmine Road, and 125.

In riding, like anything physical, some days you have your "A" game and some days you don't.  On that ride, I didn't even have my "B" or "C" games.  I blew more curves and shifts in an hour than I normally do in a month.

It began to get interesting coming down off the mountain on Goldmine Road.  Without warning, I hit a stretch of loose gravel where the highway department had resurfaced the road with an abomination they call "oil and chips."  They put down tar, cover it with gravel, and let the traffic beat it down.  After a few days or weeks (depending on how much traffic the road gets), it does become passable.  But it's treacherous until then.  I was going about 50 MPH but luckily it was a straight away.  If I'd hit that loose gravel in a curve, I would have wrecked.  Other than peeing my pants, I got through by just pulling the clutch and coasting.

Then half an hour later, I sucked a yellow jacket up my sleeve.  That's happened before--I've actually gotten them inside my helmet and under my tee shirt.  But this was the first time I was stung.  The dang thing was swollen and itchy for days.

But I finally made it to the rally.  It was interesting.  I enjoyed the display of vintage BMWs going all the way back to the first one made in 1923.  And I checked out all the vendors.  Normally I can ride all day and see at most a handful of BMWs, often none at all, so it was strange seeing 5,000 in one spot.  But it was so blasted hot that I left after a couple of hours and headed home.  I did really sympathize with the thousands of people who were camping at the rally site.

Then it got really interesting.  I was on one of my favorite stretches of road--Route 235 in the Bald Eagle State Park.  I was moving at about mach 2 but scanning for deer as I always do through there.  My head swiveled right then left, then I did a double take: there was a full grown bear standing on the right side of the road.  I checked my mirrors to be sure no one was behind me and came to stop since I wasn't sure if it would run out in front of me.  I was maybe 50-75 feet from it.  We had a stare down for about 20 seconds while I tried to decide whether to get off the bike and grab for my camera.  At that point, it ran back into the woods, and I continued on.  The temperature gauge on my bike never got out of triple digits, and topped out at 104.

I was ambivalent about going back to the rally the next day but you had to be present to win one of the door prizes.  And there were some great ones, from a European guided motorcycle tour to some $1500 riding suits.

I took a roundabout way back to the north, with lunch at one of my favorite places--the Forksville General Store right outside the beautiful World''s End State Park.  I first discovered these places last fall during the gorgeous peak leaf season.  This time there must have been 50 motorcycles in the parking lot.  As I continued riding toward Bloomsburg after lunch and then cut through town, the roads were thick with BMWs.  It was much cooler than the previous day, so the ride was fun.

For reasons I don't understand, my riding skills seemed to have returned that day.  Going over the beautiful and twisty northern mountain crossing on Route 74, I noticed another BMW had pulled in behind me.  Since we were on my home turf, I considered that a manhood test.  I flew over the mountain, taking curves with recommended speeds of 10 and 15 MPH at 35-40, leaning so hard that my boot scraped the pavement.

When I got to the rally, I found out that they didn't draw for the door prizes until the end of the closing ceremony, which began at 6.   It was a pretty miserable experience--5,000 people packed into a stadium with the temperature by then in the mid 90s.  It went on and on and on as the organizers thanked and recognized everyone involved with the rally.  When they finally began the drawing, most of the people pulled had already left, so they just kept drawing until they hit someone who was there.  Of course I didn't win.

At that point it was so late that I took the most direct way back--Route 11 and Interstate 81.  Since it was dark for about half the ride, I figured that those wide roads minimized my chances of a deer encounter.  But since Route 11 runs along the Susquehanna River and it was hot and windless, the insects were intense.  It sounded like popcorn from them hitting me.  This was my helmet when I got back:

It made me laugh to think of how many bugs the people riding along side me on Harleys without a helmet must have swallowed.  They certainly had a four course meal after a short ride.

All in all, I'm glad I went to a rally but since I didn't go with anyone else or know anyone there, I was glad I didn't ride a long distance to get to it.  Next year the rally is in Missouri, so I'm sure I'll pass on it.   I'm just not a rally or group ride guy, but more of a lone wolf.  So I'll stick to plotting my five day September ride on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I'm extremely excited about that, and already have my daily routes planned and motel reservations made.  I've even picked out restaurants for each night.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Planning the Blue Ridge Parkway for September

I've been talking for more than a year about riding the full length of the Blue Ridge Parkway. An opportunity has popped up so, unless the weather is horrid, I'm going to do it.

A group of us from work are going to a meeting in Charlottesville, VA 27-28 September. That's perfect: it's the time of year when I wanted to do the ride. It will be getting cool but before the peak leaf season when traffic on the Parkway gets bad. And Charlottesville is 30 miles from the Parkway so I'll ride down to the meeting, following the other guys in a van. After it's over, I'll let them bring my suitcase back, change clothes, and head south.

I've worked out daily distances of 300-330 miles. That's less than I often do on my Saturday rides, but since I'll be on very twisty roads, the pace will be slow. My idea is to spend the first night in Hillsville, VA, the second in Bryson City, NC (which completes the Blue Ridge Parkway). Then ride the Cherohala Skyway in NC, cut through the Smokey Mountain Park, and spend the third night in Abingdon, VA. Then I'll go through Southwestern Virginia and into West Virginia, mostly on Route 16, and spend the fourth night in a town called Weston. Then I'll be back in Carlisle by Sunday afternoon.

The trick on this is to maximize the time on twisty mountain roads but end each day at a town big enough to have motels and restaurants, while keeping the daily distance in the target range.  As I built the route, I focused on towns with a barbeque restaurant.

There are dozens of interesting looking, twisty roads in West Virginia, but I can only get so many in on this trip. Later in the fall or next spring I'd like to spend about three days riding just there. I may need to see if I can revive my West Virginia accent in case I'm captured by locals or something.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

No Elk, Sweet Ride

Once again I went north, looking for Pennsylvania's wild elk. Once again, I didn't find them--nothing more interesting than a few wild turkeys. But unlike my May 8 ride that way when I hit frigid, pouring rain, it was a lovely day. When I started early in the morning, temperatures were in the upper 50s but in the mid 80s by the time I got back. All in all, it was a great 350 miles. This was my first long ride for a couple of months.

I did take a short detour to Hyner View State Park. Strangely, I'd ridden past that turnoff dozens of times but didn't know what a lovely view I was missing until I saw someone mention it on a discussion board.

I was also able to resolve the issue I mentioned in my July 13 post. One MPH for each horsepower on my bike.

Next weekend the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America's annual national rally is in Bloomsburg, PA, about an hour and half from me, so I'll ride up there.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Conversation in My House

"Where have you been?"

"I went to the grocery store."

"It's four miles away. You've been gone two hours."

"I took the long route."

"What long route?"

"The ninety mile one."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ton Up

Mom: Don't read this post!

While riding back from Washington a few weeks ago, my Garmin GPS flew out of its mount as I accelerated hard and bounced along the pavement. To my surprise, it was still ticking but badly scarred. I emailed Garmin explaining what happened and asking if I could buy a new faceplate for it. Shockingly, they offered to replace it under warranty.

So my new one arrived yesterday. That's good, but there is an issue. The Garmin Zumo line remembers and displays the maximum speed that it has recorded. I was quite proud that I had a triple digit number in there. But now, of course, it's gone. I did touch 86 passing a truck on the interstate the first day I got it, but I need my ton up (which is what British cafe racers of the '60s called triple digit speeds). So over the next few days, I'm going to be looking for a nice, isolated country straight away. I don't need much.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It's Been a While

It's not that I'm not riding, but there's been nothing of note and no good photos. Between bad weather, illness, a wedding, and a number of overdue writing projects, I haven't done any really long rides. I don't think I've had a day over 300 miles all season. But the miles pile up. Yesterday I'd owned my R1200R one year and one week, and passed the 21,000 mile mark. I followed an excellent if not overly long ride along this route:

View Boalsburg in a larger map

This route involves about 8 mountain crossings. The weather was beautiful and I had my "A" game, routinely hitting curves at 20 MPH over the posted recommended speed. I didn't scrap a peg this time, but was close.

One bizarre thing did happen, though: on a twisty section of Route 74, I was passed by an old lady in a Subaru. Never saw her coming. That really took me aback. I very rarely get passed anymore, and then only by brainless young males. But this lady was flying. I saw her later by the side of the road with a cigarette hanging from her mouth.

While there weren't many fun thieves on the road, the last half hour I got stuck behind a gaggle of about 20 Harleys from Virginia. They weren't skilled enough to hold a tight formation, so there was lots of accordion action in the curves. But they eventually pulled off and I was able to blast by.

I haven't gotten a speeding ticket for 12 years but I can't imagine the streak will continue. I've bonded with the R1200R and it's so wicked in luring me to ride fast. I'm very good about slowing down in towns and on major highways. But on isolated farm and mountain roads, 20 over the speed limit is my comfort zone. I've been saved a few times recently by someone blinking to let me know of impending speed trap, but I'm living on borrowed time.

The BMW Motorcycle Owners of America national rally is coming up in a few weeks. This year it's at Bloomsburg, PA, so I'll ride up for a day or two. It will be my first big rally.

I've been thinking a bit about the difference in culture and philosophy between BMW and Harley. To demonstrate, let me copy and paste the description of my bike and the Harley Softail Deluxe, which is my favorite model from that brand. This is from the Total Motorcycle web site (since it uses promotional information provided by the manufacturers).

2010 BMW R1200R

The R 1200 R. All business, all the time.

If you're looking for a bike with zero pretensions that's all attitude, the R 1200 R is your ride. From blazing performance in the twisties to long distance touring to blasts around the city this is a supremely capable motorcycle that offers exhilarating performance. Featuring a generous 109hp, the new R 1200 R has the horsepower torque and acceleration to create thrills with every mile. Add the latest version of BMW Integral ABS and Automatic Stability Control, and the R 1200 R is as sure-footed as it is exciting. Handling is remarkably precise thanks to the Telelever front suspension and the motorcycle's low center of gravity. Now every turn becomes a pulse-quickening experience no matter where the pavement takes you.

Powerful character for pure motorcycling joy - the BMW R1200R. The 1200cc generates an output of 109 bhp and 115 Nm of torque. The perfect suspension has no trouble at all with the weight of 223 kg (fully fuelled). You could load up the same again and still enjoy the almost playful and truly convincing handling of this motorcycle. Combined with exemplary safety equipment, a timeless yet modern, high-quality and sporty design, the BMW R1200R is truly a multi-talented motorcycle.

The BMW R 1200 R is a classic roadster, yet one which is far ahead of its time thanks to its state-of-the-art technology.

But its confident attitude doesn’t come by accident. After all, 80 kW (109 hp) and 115 Nm peak torque are bound to make a name for themselves. The unique style of the R 1200 R is a testament to the fact that only true originals can be one of a kind. The R 1200 R is a superb all-around talent on the road. One the one hand it is a powerful and sporty curve raider, while on the other it is a comfortable yet unflappable travel companion on longer tours. The R 1200 R can be tailor-made to the rider’s needs with a wide array of accessories. Whether it’s a sporty, a traditional or a more touring-oriented naked bike you desire, the BMW R 1200 R is always a faithful companion.

This roadster is a bike of many talents. Relishing the corners on the one hand and a supremely comfortable travelling companion on the other. Moreov­er it can be customised with a wide range of accessories to suit your every need (including BMW's groundbreaking Automatic Stability Control). The classy design will catch many an eye and the high-quality construction can be seen and felt everywhere. Pure BMW, the R 1200 R features proven technology that will impress you time and time again - qualities that, once experienced, you'll not want to do without.

The BMW R 1200 R - modern power, exclusive looks and a truly classic naked bike.

2010 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe FLSTN

The Softail® Deluxe combines nostalgic styling cues like a tombstone tail light, deep-skirted seat and wide white wall tires, with ergonomics that make this an old-school cruiser that's easy to handle.

The Softail rear suspension mimics the clean lines of a vintage hardtail frame but offers the comfort of a modern suspension that is hidden under the chassis. The rigid powertrain allows tight packaging of the engine and frame and creates a solid connection between the rider and the power that moves the motorcycle.

Model Highlights

New Fuel tank sender for accurate fuel-level readings
New Helical cut 5th gear for improved transmission sound

• Black powder-coated powertrain with chrome covers
• Chrome over/under shotgun exhaust
• Chrome, Laced Steel wheels
• Wide whitewall tires
• MU85B-16 rear tire
• Chrome nostalgic seven-inch ball headlamp
• Chrome oil tank
• Chrome nostalgic tank console with electronic speedometer
• Stainless steel, low-rise handlebar
• Full-length rider footboards
• Two-piece, two-up Softail® seat with “collapsing” sides and removable pillion and chrome grab rails
• Integrated chrome luggage rack
• Tombstone taillight
• Full-coverage front and rear fenders with chrome accents

Key Features

The Softail® Deluxe combines nostalgic styling cues like a tombstone tail light, deep-skirted seat and wide white wall tires, with ergonomics that make this an old-school cruiser that’s easy to handle.

The Softail rear suspension mimics the clean lines of a vintage hardtail frame but offers the comfort of a modern suspension that is hidden under the chassis. The rigid powertrain allows tight packaging of the engine and frame and creates a solid connection between the rider and the power that moves the motorcycle.

• Rigid-mounted, counter-balanced Twin Cam 96B™ V-Twin engine with Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
• 6-Speed Cruise Drive® Transmission
• Horseshoe oil tank
• Five-gallon fuel tank
• Optional Harley-Davidson® Smart Security System with hands-free security fob
• Optional Chrome Profile Laced Aluminum wheels with wide whitewall tires

My point is the degree to which Harley focuses on the looks--the bike as a work of art--and BMW on the performance and technology. I'm glad to live in a world where both exist.