Monday, May 21, 2001

Excerpts of Vercours Riding Trip, May 2001


The following are my notes from an article I never finished:

After our return from yet another trip to California for a fix of mainline curve addiction, I realize that I have made another transition in medium in my life. Years ago it was photography that consumed every waking moment, then music, then writing, then film-making and finally furniture making. Whilst visiting a muscian friend in Vermont after making that transition from music and film to furniture making, I sheepishly tried to justify my latest change in direction. I produced a small photograph of a cabinet that I just completed. My friend said, in response to the photo, "You are clearly jammin' in wood, man."

I am now jamming in motorcycles. I have always had a rather myopic fixation on a particular medium at different times throughout my life -- a fixation akin to a form of autism, being barely able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, but excelling in some quirky obsession. I have survived in relationships only because I have been able to involve my significant others in my work. When I was a photographer I was involved with a narcisist who couldn't resist being in front of a camera. When I was a musician, she was a singer, when I was a writer she was a lit major, and when I was a furniture maker she was a bulemic weight-lifter who eventually began to resemble Paul Bunyan... well, the latter relationship didn't work out quite the way I thought it would. It took lawyers and money to undo that damage.

"Motorcyclist" is how I identify myself, and Girl Wonder, my significant other for nearly a decade, is a natural born moto-fiend. If she had started earlier she would have been a racer, as I actually have to work to stay ahead of her these days. And we are on a quest to find the holy grail of roads in which to execute the perfect set of twisties -- the one road in which we have a pact that if one of us crashes and are obliterated, that the other will tie-strap the head of the fallen victim to the triple clamps like a Viking gargoyle and finish the run. While motorcycling may not be an art, cornering surely is, and to this we have dedicated much of our lives.

It is with this particular pursuit that we find ourselves on a plane to France with the famous Vercors as our final destination. We managed to find cheap seats on British Airways from Seattle to Lyon for $550 round trip. The seats were so cheap, apparently, because no other full-fare passenger would have tolerated being wedged between to other passengers like a porn star in a double-penetration scene. To make matters worse, this happened to be the nursery section of the cabin. One particular newborn screamer was seated directly next to me and the only thing that calmed the wrinkly parasite down was a tit in his mouth, and even the novelty of that seemed to be wearing off. I conspired that I could possibly get a few winks of sleep if I could just rub his fucking soft spot with all the force my thumb could deliver until he was cross-eyed and quiet. Fortunately for him and my criminal record, he fell into a deep slumber after sucking mom's tit dryer than Dean Martin's martini glass.


Our first stop was for a five-hour layover in London where we used our time to meet up with a friend and former business associate from Boston -- now working in the motherland as a software engineer/consultant. Eric picked us up at Heathrow and drove us to Windsor to catch a local brew and walk about the town to get a feel for British existence. The first thing you notice, if you are a motorcyclist, is that all the local bikers are wearing full leathers, boots, gloves and helmets, with very few exceptions. The second thing you notice, motorcyclist or otherwise, is that the country is full of ugly people, especially the women, who appear to have been tossed out the window of Ugly's AMC Pacer. I asked Eric if he had noticed this and he replied, " it seems as though the country was started by two ugly people and they've never recovered from it."

The only thing uglier than the people is the food, but at least you can find a decent Indian restaurant to jump-start your taste buds after they reflexively retreat from culinary abuse. It's no wonder that the Brits have such a love affair with Indian cuisine -- and as a conciliation prize the Indian people are whole lot more attractive to look at.

We used our short time to catch up on America politics, movie and book reviews and our respective future directions. After a pint outside the gates of Windsor Park, on Britain's first sunny day in a year or so, we had to depart for Gatwick. Eric dropped us off and we bid each other farewell until our next rendezvous, probably in Paris if all goes well.


We boarded our plane and had a quick, uneventful flight to the Lyon airport. While disembarking, I noticed that British Airways had placed a red carpet at the end of the stairs so I figured they must be trying to make up for the cramped quarters and bitter snacks. I stepped onto the little red square only to discover that it was colored Astroturf soaked in chemicals to kill foot and mouth disease.

We had to drive another hour through tight and twisty mountain roads to arrive at the Girl Wonder family compound. In that hour, I took notice of some of the major differences between the US and France. At an even 6 feet tall, I tower over most people in South France by at least 12 inches. And I look like an Attila the Hun with my body by Stairmaster. The French do not appear to work out, but don’t picture a bunch of pudgy beret-wearing pouty-lipped cheese eaters. They are as thin as Iggy Pop on a hunger strike. The French appear to maintain their waif-like figures by eating small portions of high fat foods such as red meat, sausage and cheese, consuming alcohol at all meals except breakfast, and smoking cigarettes by the faceful. This diet is not approved by the American Heart Association, but it seems to be working fine for the French, at least when they are young. Many French, in their late thirties and early forties, acquire the exploding rivulet, Charles Bukowski-like complexion that comes from the constant flaring of facial capillaries in reaction to a steady stream of Cote du Rhone.

Another thing you can’t help but notice is how clean the towns and villages are. Without a McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s on every corner, the place isn’t littered with Styrofoam tumble weed and oil-soaked French fry vessels. The fast food thing is a cultural mismatch for the French, who do not consume food in their cars and they are not in a hurry when it comes to eating, or much else for that matter.

Despite the fact that the French are laid back in ways that an American can only achieve with Prozac or moggies, they drive like crazed maniacs. I have never seen such egregious and reprehensible conduct on the roads anywhere else – except Boston of course. No Frenchman can tolerate the presence of a vehicle in front of them and they will pass any and all obstacles at the crest of a hill, in a blind curve, while arguing on a cell phone. If you thought cell phones were an American obsession, you were wrong. Americans may like their cell phones, but the French LOVE them.

According to a riding buddy who works for a large telecom company, only 40% of Americans have cell phones, whereas 70% of Europeans pack the noodle-melters.
Motorcycles, scooters and mopeds are also much more popular than in the states. Both men and women have some experience on one or more of the above, but unlike the Brits, most do not subscribe to safety gear other than helmets and a fashionable leather jacket. If you do see a fully-clad rider they are most likely British, German or Dutch.

Swarms of derestricted two-stroke scooters and mopeds attack the streets with engines that sound like a mosquito on steroids. The range of motorcycles is vast. You will see everything from RS125 race replicas to big Dual Sports and Harleys, all filtering and lane splitting in an attempt to keep the snarled and congested streets manageable. And there is nowhere near the animosity and contempt towards bikers as there is back home.

We rested and drank away the jet lag for a few days in Roanne and then boarded a train heading south. Our destination was Holiday Bikes in Lyon, where we had reserved a Yamaha Fazer and a TDM. From there we would head even further South to the Vercors, an area surrounded by shear cliffs, deep gorges and cascading rivers, alpine prairies and wild forests, jagged ridges and high plateaux. And throughout each of these geographic archetypes, there are roads with curves tighter than my pants when I’ve got a raging chubby.

The Agency

We arrived in Lyon and walked to the Holiday Bikes, about 6 blocks from the train station. We easily found the building, which appeared to be an apartment complex with a few retail businesses on the bottom floor. There were no signs or indications as to the presence of anything motorcycle related. I had found Holiday Bikes on the Internet and they had locations in at least a half dozen cities in France, so I expected something that resembled a real business. As instructed, we rang the buzzer for “suite” 3, took the elevator and entered what appeared to be an apartment. It was an apartment, in fact, and it was being used as a branch office. The “office” looked like an unclaimed baggage room at an airport. The place was littered with an avalanche of paper and helmets and motorcycle bits. I made my way to a table spotted with coffee stains and croissant flakes in the middle of the room to sit down and relieve the leather wedgy that gathers when you stand in a race suit for too long. I knocked a helmet off of a chair to sit down and There was so much debris on the floor that I could only extract the chair far enough to get the surface for a single cheek.

In one small Oasis of organization sat a computer, fax and telephone. Girl Wonder did most of the talking since French is her native language. Despite the condition of the office, the pixy of a rental agent dress in body-hugging black attire which empahised his growth-stunted, cigarette-thin stature, had our paperwork in a well organized folder. We listened to the usual spiel about our responsibilities, about the $1300 insurance deductible and holding the agency harmless for maiming ourselves on their bikes. I largely missed the details because my French is only good enough to well fed and drunk, so after providing copies of our licenses and entrusting credit card slips to the paperstorm aftermath, I left and waited out front. Pixy boy and his sidekick emerged from the parking garage a few minutes later on the bikes.

I mounted the TDM and GW climbed about the Fazer. By now I was sweating profusely from being tapped in leathers, so I was anxious to get under way. We needed gas though, because the tanks we only half full.

The TDM is big sweaty farm animal which is capable of inspiring true discomfort, especially in your ass. The TDM is Yamaha’s butt-ugly answer to the Adventure-Touring paradigm, not that many of these bikes could win a beauty contest even if it were judged by blind swine. Powered by an 850cc vertical twin, it’s a big oaf of a bike with strange, yet moderately comfortable ergos. The handlebars are high and wide which results in surprisingly light steering. Piloting this misfit through thick and nasty traffic is a breeze, and visibility is good since you are perched atop the crows nest of a seat. The seat is 33 inches off the deck. If you are a vertically challenged rider you’d better be wearing heals. And the foam padding is also paper thin, so expect your ass to ache as if it were beaten with an oak cricket paddle.

The TDM has a sloppy five-speed gearbox that combines with the 10-valve 849cc vertical twin cylinder power plant to generate enough torque to drag Robert Downey Jr. into rehab. The space between gears is generally good, although the gap between first and second is a bit of a stretch. This results in strange power delivery at low revs. Rolling the throttle on and off usually produces an unwanted lurch which is just the kind of thing you want to avoid when piloting a bike through tight curves.

The bike can corner though. Lean angle feels exaggerated given the height of the bike, but once you become acclimated to the sensation, you can really push the TDM through tight bends. The suspension has a lot of travel, but the front seems to be too softly sprung. This is most noticible when squezzing the binders which compress the forks in a big gooshy dive. The brakes also lack power and feedback. I am biased since like my woman, I never want to use more than two fingers -- and with my Triumph, that’s all you need to loft the rear.

Post Crash

He was dressed in tight black clothes which fulled revealed the fact that he had the body of a prepubescent girl. He went over the bike, commenting about the larger damage and whining about every micro scratch in the clear coat. This was in clear contrast to our experience with Cruise America in California where the rental agent specifically said not to sweat the small stuff -- these were rental bikes and they expected a few scratches -- they'd only be looking for road damage. I was taking it all in stride until he started balking about the scratches in the peg feelers. Given the enormous difference in our size, I figured that I could snap the twiney motherfuker in half and leave him bleeding from both eyes in the parking garage. A quick collection of our paper work and credit card slips and we'd be home free. He would never be able to identify his assailant with his hollow eye-sockets and I could use my bad back as an excuse as to why I could't have possibly perpetuated suck a forceful attack. These ideas rose and fell as he would complain about the slight roughness on the weld of the muffler was a problem, but he would not charge us for that. I nearly executed my plan, though, when he pointed out that the saddled bags had abraised the clear-coat on the side covers. Girl Wonder handled him with reason, with me looming in the background.

With his list, he quickly totaled up the damage: One mirror, one turn signal, one brake lever, the upper fairing, and the left lower fairing all for a quick and dirty 4,000 french francs, or approximately $600 US. There was not a lot we could say.

To help us swallow the cost like bad medicine, he suggested that we lie to our insurance company and tell them that we knocked over his motorcycle by accident -- not by riding it, mind you, but by pushing it over in some strange act of negligence. I assured him that there is no insurance in America that was going to pay for the act of an individual, but if he'd let me use his phone, I would check with my Platinum MasterCard since they often include an insurance benefit or two. I called citibank, and the woman said they do cover rental cars, but motorcycles are excluded. c'est la vie. We'd have to take our lumps and take solace in the fact that GW didn't get hurt.