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, 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.