Wednesday, September 14, 2005

El Poderoso

I stepped off the plane and into Parisian heat that felt like being draped in humid towels fresh from the dryer. All in all, it was a welcome change from the sub-desert-like conditions that they maintain on international flights. My lizard skin began to molt.

Making matters worse was the diesel-powered Air France oven - the concept of air-conditioning having never been explored for public transportation. The airport seems to have missed out on the principle of having the planes pull up to the terminal, so you are transported like cattle aboard poorly ventilated, vapid busses that flow over the tarmac with all the speed and elegance of a three-legged sloth.

We would have to change airports, either by bus, or by subway, in order to make our connecting flight to Corsica. Yeah, Corsica. Island situated between the coasts of France and Italy. Sea and mountains. Racetrack-like roads. Birthplace of Napoleon.

I had a bike rental lined up for most of the trip. Nothing exciting, really. All the good stuff seems to be located on the southern part of the Island -- you know, the Tansalps and Beemers and such. I managed to locate a Suzuki DR650 in Calvi, not too far from where the house is, for about $70/day. I have ridden a DRZ400 before and found it to be a decent all-arounder, so the DR650 seemed to be a logical compromise from what I could tell from Suzuki's web site.

Truth be told, I was not keen on the idea of riding some kind of dirt-oriented dual-sport on roads that rival some of the best tracks for curves. Endless curves. On a SV650, sure. A heavy old-school enduro... not really. OTOH, some of the roads I would encounter are no wider than my shoulders. They'll be teaming with semi-domesticated wildlife and homicidal French drivers who think that the lines on the pavement are carelessly spilled paint that needs to be cleaned up. And then there is the off-road potential for riding along the beach. I know this from my previous scouting mission, circa March, 2004.

On Monday morning we were driven to Calvi to pick up the 21st century version of "El Poderoso." First thing I notice is that the bike is rough. Not the paint, mind you, but after two-years of rental service the levers are bent, there are scrapes
and dings all over the place and the license plate had been sheered off from someone's over zealous wheelie. The plate was subsequently reattached with large rivets through the rear fender. I could tell that a hack mechanic did the maintenance, but I didn't have any options. I either accept the condition, or I'd sit on my ass drinking copious amounts of red wine for the next ten days, and pine about being bikeless in the med again.

I climbed aboard the Mighty One and thumbed the starter. The engine sputtered to life with the enthusiasm of a strangled corpse. It does run though. The one thing it doesn't do, however, is stop. I discovered this the first time I applied the binders. The front brake required a four-fingered death-grip, and the rear brake had no effect whatsoever. Great!

When I got this piece of crap motorcycle back to the house, I noticed that the brake fluid was the color and consistency of Turkish coffee. Both rotors were deeply scalloped although the brake pads looked fairly new. I did a complete brake system drain and refill, and then bled the lines. That got the front and rear calipers working. To bed the pads, I ran up and down the road a dozen times and braked as hard as I could - just shy of locking up the wheels. This seemed to result in satisfactory stopping power. I then adjusted the chain to dial out the drive-train lash, lowered the tire pressure, and adjusted the rear suspension.

While working on the brakes I noticed that the front tire's sidewalls were cracked and dry. Certainly wasn't a fresh Dunlop. I'd have to take it easy, but things were looking somewhat better in terms of mechanical fortitude. The only thing I wasn't going to be able to fix was the seat. The seat was so uncomfortable that after 30 minutes of riding you had the feeling of not surviving your first prison shower. I taped a towel over the vinyl seat-cover with packing tape to mitigate the pain.

Tuesday morning, we woke to Seattle-esque weather - mid-60s and overcast skies. Girl Wonder and I geared up and took an easy ride to Corte to get used to riding two up. After an hour of riding we were in ass-agony and the atmosphere was exhibiting the distinct signs that it was about to rain. And rain it did. We decided to stop for a long lunch and wait out the sporadic downpours that continued over the next two hours. While killing time we noticed a road on the map that looked as though it had been drawn by someone suffering from Parkinson's disease. Having gained some confidence in the Suzuki from the morning ride, we set a course for D71, a road which ran from Ponte Leccia to Piedicroce and then the D506 to Folleli. (See, and for *large* maps.)

Once the motor was warm, the DR had some grunt. There was a strange stumble midway through the rev-range as a result of the poorly jetted carb, but the engine had enough torque to short-shift before the sputtering began. It also ran fine in the upper rev range, so you had to either keep the motor turning below the stumbling point, or punch past it and keep it on the boil.

Engine vibration wasn't too bad for an abused thumper, but the lack of wind protection definitely made high-speed riding an unpleasant endeavor. This was all for the better, though, since the road we were on was stocked with every kind of domesticated creature imaginable. It appears that along with air conditioning, the concept of agricultural fencing has failed to penetrate the island's farming lexicon. On no fewer than a dozen corners, I rounded the bend to find cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and dogs in the middle of the road. WTF? Not only did we encounter these proverbial appearances of animal husbandry mingling with the transportation system, we also had to endure an innumerable parade of feckless idiots intruding upon our lane. The DR proved to be highly adept at mid-corner corrections allowing me to perfect abrupt line changes in
order to get out of harm's way.

At the end of the day, I started to accept this "arranged marriage." Despite the bad start, the bike was proving to be a decent all-arounder. It was especially good on rough sections of single track chip seal that were attempting to be passed off as roads. No corner was too tight, and no crater too large. The DR had taken it all in stride.

The next day we awoke to light rain and thunder storms. I had planned to test the DR's metal on Cap Corse, a mountainous promontory characterized by tiny coves, fishing villages and a nearly endless ribbon of meandering asphalt. Napoleon had this road built around this nearly inaccessible peninsula in the 19th century. It now ranks as one of the world's most beautiful seacoast driving/riding experiences, but I wasn't going to do it in a thundershower. Instead, I affixed my knee and elbow protectors like battle armor and headed towards the Mediterranean Sea.

With the surf cascading on the shore and thunder and lightning raging on the horizon, the coastline seemed surreal. I hit the deep sand of the beach and shifted my weight rearward to lighten the front and allow the bike to become buoyant. Then I just let the rear churn away in low gear. Wet sand has a lot of traction, but too much steering correction resulted in the bike squirting out from under me. This is when I realized how heavy the DR is, especially compared to my usual off-road mount that weighs in at just a few pounds lighter than my body. Trying to right the DR was just about impossible. I eventually dragged the seat up onto a mound and then busted my gut until I could get the damn thing vertical again. Jesus, that was hard work. It inspired me to keep the bike upright from that point on.

After a while I was able to cruise along the shoreline at about 30 mph, making steering corrections by simply weighting the pegs. I was also having fun doing slow donuts and posing for GW who showed up to snap a few pictures on the otherwise desolate beach.

Further down the beach there were a bunch of sandy, interconnected trails that I explored. The DR powered up and over a few small jumps and generally exhibited good off-road manners. While I wouldn't choose this bike for much more than light duty off-road type of use, it sure outperformed some of the ridiculous "adventure bikes" that have been showing up in the latest moto rags.

By early afternoon the weather had cleared up, so GW and I headed for Cap Corse. From Bastia, Route D80 follows the shore for approximately 70 miles around the peninsula. I figured it would be wise to top off the tank, but there were persistently long lines at all the gas stations. Hmmm...

Outside of Bastia we found a station with a slightly shorter cue, so we pulled in. An older couple on a handsome BMW R1150R explained that the island's truckers suddenly went on strike and were blocking all the fuel distribution depots. No one knew how long the strike would last, or what the ramifications would be. In the past, truckers' efforts to block fuel depots left gas stations dry and led to gas rationing and the prohibition against filling gas cans. I whipped out the cell phone in hopes of encouraging GW's father to fill the Benz in the event I needed to siphon off a few dozen liters. Shit! No signal. Is France telecom on strike too?

A few miles out of town we pulled over in hopes of cell service. GW explained the situation to her dad and he assured us he had twenty liters in storage. Cool. Just then the R1150R flew by. I was suddenly stricken with the urge to chase it down like a goofy greyhound in pursuit of a rabbit being propelled around the dog track. We put our helmets on, stowed the phone, and I got on the throttle.

Within a minute I had the BMW in my sites. The scene was mesmerizing - the Beemer banking left, then right -- jagged cliffs on one side, , and deep blue sea on the other. D80 between Pietranera and Masinaggio is a 2/3 scale Angeles Crest located next to the untamed coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. The road surface in this section is perfect, fairly level, and the
curves are laid out like a race track. (In fact, sometimes it is used as a racerack)

Just as I was closing the gap on the Beemer, a car overtook me and planted itself in the twenty-five or so feet of space between the two bikes. I hovered 15 feet behind the cars left flank, looking for an opportunity to overtake both vehicles. With the curves spaced so closely together, this was proving to be a futile effort, but soon the Beemer pulled off to enjoy
the vista. The slowing of the car ahead gave me the edge I needed and I punched my way through the gap.

Entranced by the rhythm of cornering, "El Poderoso" shape-shifted into an Aprilia RS250. A half-dozen curves ahead I spotted a couple of squids on Suzuki Bandits. I locked on the target like a Python 4 Air-To-Air missile. Now on their tail, I studied their lines and looked for an opportunity to stuff both of them. Of course, there were a lot of factors to consider. I
did have a passenger, though she is one of the best, always remaining very neutral. I would need enough distance too overtake two bikes traveling approximately two or three seconds apart, and I'd have to scrub off enough speed to make the next curve with a comfortable margin. Hanging out in the left lane is an invitation to be planted on the grill of a tour bus.

And then the moment came. I could see clearly through two tight curves, so I cracked the throttle wide open. El Poderoso, in its Aprilia form, rocketed forward, overtaking the first bandit, then the second. I gave a hard jab to the right bar while trail-braking through the remainder of the turn and landed beautifully set up for the subsequent bend. I kept up this
pace until I entered the next town. Damn. This lug of a bike can really corner. "El Poderoso" returned to its original Suzuki form, the one-lunger thumping along as if it had nothing to brag about.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

An American Experience

Girl Wonder's cousins just finished up their first American Experience. Despite Phillip being 18, and Valerie being 21, neither had taken a plane before, nor had they ever left their own French borders. So they crawled aboard a KLM flight in Paris and headed West. To be sure that their American Experience was complete, we exposed them to pickup trucks, motorcycles, guns and crime - sometimes in odd combinations.

I figured that the most fun thing you can do at almost any age is ride a motorcycle. Thus, I decided to introduce the "cousins" to trials bikes. Neither of these young folks had ever piloted a motorcycle, so I organized a little training outing near Gold Bar, Washington. And this was when things got strange. I've never had any trouble in our local riding area, but this particular day would be different - different in a way that would validate all the perceptions that Europeans have about America and crime.

I had driven out with three bikes to our usual spot -- a wooded area with soft, loamy ground and a small trail system. This particular spot is about 3 acres in size and connects to a much larger trail system. It is a good area to teach new riders -- and my job was to instruct these two newbies how to do the basics and get them riding. I succeeded, but not without enduring a remarkable American Experience.

The day was going along rather perfectly until our cooler got stolen - a cooler with about $100 worth of steaks and French cheese that was supposed to make its way to a buddies house for a BBQ after the ride. Ultimately, GW is to blame for the loss of the cooler. She decided to leave it outside the truck so it wouldn't "get too hot." I had instructed her not to stray from the vicinity of the truck as I was working with Phillip. A few minutes later she showed up with Valerie who was struggling more. I wasn't pleased about this, given that Valerie has never ridden any motorized two-wheeler before. So I took over and asked Juliette to look after Phillip.

When I returned to the truck, I noticed that the cooler was missing. Apparently GW interpreted "looking after Phillip" to mean that she should take him deeper into the woods. So I waited with Valerie for a good half-hour without keys to the truck, and hence, no access to water, food, or my handgun -- which was under the seat.

Next to the spot where we parked, about 100 yards away, were some young "kids" -- maybe 17 to 22 years old. They had yelled at Phillip earlier for riding near them. They definitely weren't there to ride. They had set up an outside shitter that reeked, some tents and a trailer, and they were just hanging out around a fire pit, sans fire. They had the look of someone that might be having steak for dinner...

After GW returned with Phillip and sustained a caustic lashing from yours truly, I rode into what turned out upon closer inspection, to be a meth-encampment occupied by a half-dozen dentally challenged low-lifes. They were quiet as mice, which I found odd. One of the young men was sitting there with a baseball bat -- and there were no gloves or balls or bases. I asked if they knew anything about the disappearance of goods from my truck. "We didn't hear no breaking glass or nuttin'."

Realizing that I wouldn't get anywhere with them other than to provide some good campfire stories, I bid them farewell only to find out that they had apparently booby-trapped their site with chicken wire buried just below the leaves and loamy soil (Later I could see that it had been weighted down with some car rims). So, as I rode across this snare, the knobbies picked up the wire and proceeded to wrap me up in this entanglement like a fly in a spider's web. SLAM when the bike! I could not free myself because my leg got wrapped up in the wire along with everything else. So now I am surrounded by potential bat-carrying meth-heads, with nothing more than my helmet and my two spyderco knives for protection.

Fortunately, they seemed so fascinated by the situation that they actually helped me get untangled - all the while asking me "how much is that bike worth?" Hmmmmmm. Just about the time that I freed my leg, GWshowed up with my Glock, concealed in its fanny pack-looking holster.

So these fine young folks hung out with me for the next 20 minutes while I made several hundred cuts through the wire with snips to get that wire off the axle, brake line, rotor, sprocket, chain, etc. Other than some cuts into plastic bits, the damage was surprisingly light. "That stuff is all over the place here... you'd best not ride around here." The fact that they had yelled at other riders for being anywhere near their little encampment was not lost on me. I've ridden in this spot for the past two years and never seen chicken wire out there before. It doesn't blow around like tumble weed.

After I got the bike freed from its meshed-bondage, I left GW with her cousins and the Glock, and I took a short ride to make sure the bike was
O.K. In my absence, some guy showed up with a baseball bat, allegedly
looking for a "17 year old punk" who had stolen something from him, and he indicated that this punk had been hanging out with "those people over there." (IOW, the meth-heads.) GW thought his gig was a bit dubious and was prepared to gun the SOB down if necessary. He left without incident.

When I returned, we rode for another ten minutes doing some exercises, but the meth-heads started getting loud -- screaming and carrying on like they were engaged in some tribal ritual about to go awry. They must have drank the Kool-Aid and it was clearly time for us to split. And that we did.

Interestingly enough, this encounter had no negative impact on their vacation. Just before they left Seattle, Valerie said, "If we had know how much fun America was, we would have come a lot sooner." Ah... kids...and their crazy perceptions!

Monday, June 06, 2005


I was told by someone, while visiting Boston, that millions of dollars changed hands every day, some of which inevitably slipped through the fingers of frivolous spenders and dealmakers. All you had to do was be there to catch it. No one had ever told me this in Buffalo.

In Buffalo we were concerned about keeping our sidewalks clean after the snowfall. We bragged about our supermarkets and architecture and how cheap things were. We got by - sometimes barely - and we had different expectations than the people in those other cities.

In 1994 we left, car packed to the visors with possessions and artifacts of a soon-to-be former life. We arrive in Boston, and the first thing I noticed was that they did not clear their sidewalks after the snowfall. This would have never happened in Buffalo.

We held our arms out and ran around catching some of the money that slips though the fingers of frivolous spenders and dealmakers. Five years later we were on our way to being millionaires. This would have never happened in Buffalo.

I was told by someone, while living in Buffalo, that California was a terrible place. Los Angeles, in particular, was a horizontal megalopolis spilling out over vast desert. Drivers shot at each other on the highways for failing to signal. Gangs roamed the streets and smog strangled the sunlight into a pale diffusion of dismal light. This was not a place to go. Ever.

Years later, I found myself walking towards the Pacific Ocean. I knelt on the sand and touched the earth with the gratefulness of a man who had nearly died at sea. The water was warm as it soaked the cuffs of my pants. I almost cried for having been deceived by half-truths.

My mother told me that she had cancer. I flew her to Seattle so that I could spend some time with her. I was shocked by the sight of her, an annual after the frost, withered, frail, pathetic. It was not the disease that did this to her. It was the winter, which kept her imprisoned in a basement apartment, her world a television set and what she might observe through high basement windows. Her perspective was that of a woman having to look up at the snow and ice and cars and boots that represented the place where elderly hips and collarbones are broken.

I offered her my home in Florida as a place to escape the cruel seasons. She replied that someone she knew told her it was flat there and the people were unfriendly. I told her about the lies I had heard too.

For the rest of our visit, she dwelled on the past. She spoke of my father as if they had never divorced. She spoke of Buffalo as if the streets were teaming with post-war solders and swank couples. Cocktails and Sinatra, big American cars with fins, and a contagious optimism existed where a sullen mall stands today. I marveled at her courage, cancer merely an inconvenience, while she lived in this perpetual reverie - but then I realized, like Buffalo, she was already dead.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day Weekend, New Mexico

Ninety degrees in Seattle and I was looking forward to getting on that plane and heading to New Mexico for Memorial Day weekend. Weather was supposed to be mid-seventies and I had reserved a convertible. Before signing off the computer, I decided to see if Jason and the Argonauts were playing anywhere. I had checked a few weeks before and they were going to be playing at the Old Taos Inn, but before I could get there. As luck would have it, they were booked in Jemez Springs.

So fly we did, in search of better weather, motorcycle roads for future use, and a general curiosity to see if the Red River Rally would suffer from the call to boycott the event. We found the answers we were looking for, and caught some good music and a good unwinding along the way. After arriving in Albuquerque, which so far has always reminded me of Buffalo with a different climate, we headed North to Jemez Springs.

State Highway 4, is one of New Mexico's splendid and scenic drives that takes you past amazing geological formations, ancient Indian ruins, the Jemez Pueblo and Los Ojos, the local watering hole. There were approximately 50 people attending the Memorial Day JAMM Festival. Great place if you are uncomfortable with crowds. We hung out, sampling salsas, barbeque and Indian fry bread until Jason played. At best there were 15 people sitting in the tent as he opened with "Everything Good." During his set, it began to rain like a bastard, so the entire cadre of festival attendees suddenly appeared to take advantage of the tent. Good thing I put the top up on the car.

After chatting with Jason at the conclusion of his set, we headed North, and then East towards Bandelier National Monument. By then the rain had stopped and the scenery was kick-ass. We eventually landed in Chimayo to check into our hacienda. At the conclusion of yet another wonderful New Mexican Dinner, I smoked a cigar and relaxed outside. A passing native asked me if I wanted a beer. "No thanks," I answered, a little suspicious of her seemingly unstable gate and slurred speech. She assured me it was non alcoholic, but she could come up with some wine if O'Doul's didn't suit me. I used the cacophony of coyotes yelping in the background as the reason for why I had to leave, immediately, and thanked her for the offer. Maybe next time.

On memorial day we headed up to Taos via the scenic route. Toas get's its fair share of spill over from the Red River Rally. The locals seemed to indicate that things were a bit quieter this year.

Last year, 15-year-old Gerald Bailon of Questa hit a motorcycle traveling east along New Mexico 38, head-on, and sent another motorcycle skidding out of control. This resulted in the deaths of two bikers, and there is a theory that the driver crossed the centerline on purpose - a sort of game of chicken or bizarre scare tactic. There is a feeling by many bikers that the families of two bikers that were killed have yet to see justice. Fuelling this anger is the fact that the kid's license was never yanked. There is also speculation that his family is politically connected. Just a bad situation all around.

In response to this tragedy, Abate of Colorado had said that they would boycott the rally, and they encouraged others to do the same. It seemed to be having some effect, though I questioned whether it really hurt the intended targets.

We drove through Taos and indeed there were bikers - grey-haired circus clowns dressed in Harley bling, sans helmets (anyone catch this months Motorcyclist article about helmets? ), brandishing their Harley credit cards and tattoos. I was embarrassed for them so we headed north to our property which rests in a valley near Arroyo Hondo, where the Hondo River meanders through farm country and eventually meets the Rio Grande Gorge. We hung out for a while and then drove down to the Gorge to watch rafters preparing to battle the class 4 rapids.

Hunger eventually got the best of us, so we had to endure the biker circus until we could seek refuge at the Old Taos Inn. After a few margaritas, few glasses of wine and a wonderful feast consisting of duck, venison sausage and elk wellington, we started to forget about all that shameful noise and silly behavior going on out front. I was half-prepared to gather them up and hold an intervention, but then I thought, hell, if these people want to play dress up and throw money at the town, why not? I left Taos wondering what sort of goon-squad would replace them after they eventually died out?