Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Spring Cleaning; Rediscovering Your Sprint

Girl Wonder and I have been so busy riding dirt bikes that the tires went flat on the SV650 and Sprint RS. This weekend seemed as good as any to breath some life into the streetbikes.

The truth is, we've been having so much fun in the dirt that if someone had stolen all of our streetbikes I would never have noticed. And even though I was about to take a ride, my heart wasn't in it the way it was a year ago. This happens in all types of relationships. You know, you wake up one day and that person sleeping beside you isn't as interesting as the tattooed tongue-pierced bar-maid that you've been heavily tipping on the outside chance she'll lock you in the bar and reseat your bearings.

There seems to be an obvious difference in fun factor, even if both women are anatomically similar, save the bolt-on doodads and ink. The real question, though, is whether you'd dump your babe of record and take a chance on the chick who can tie the stem of a cherry into a knot with her tongue. It sounds like an obvious choice if your hormones have anything to say about it, but it never is, and it never works out the way you expect it will. Take my ex-wife, for example. She was the total PSE(1) once the bedroom door closed, but in all the other rooms of the house she was an obsessive compulsive freak with no self esteem, an eating disorder, and real lack of endurance for the aspects of a relationship that aren't advertised on the inside of a Hallmark card. Three years and one-day later I was describing it as a "starter marriage."

Anyway, the same is true for modes of motorcycling, and I am not about to dump my streetbike in favor of the dirt machines until all my needs can be met. Hopefully someone doesn't come out with a kickass supermotard or I'll be in a real quandary.

The good thing about being where I'm at right now is that the throbbing I used to feel for a lot of other bikes has subsided. Sure, I still think they are sexy, but it has become much less important to own them. And as I rode my Triumph Sprint RS towards Mt. St. Helens, I was realizing, or perhaps remembering, just how good this bike is.

When I first bought the Sprint in 2001, I wasn't sure if it would work out. I wasn't in love with it, but it did everything well. After a little time together the bike's personality and do-everything prowess grew on me. It was like an arranged-marriage that worked out way better than expected. I have enjoyed this bike on the track, it's good over long distances, and it enthusiastically charges through curves as if it were a more purposeful bike. No, it's not a lot of things that the latest and greatest superbikes are, but I just don't ride that way often enough to put up with the downsides of most single-use weapons.

Our ride to Mt. St. Helens was cut short, unfortunately, because the only road worth riding within two hours of Seattle was closed (Forest Road 99 to Windy Ridge). Apparently it doesn't open until June so that the snow melts off. How much snow could there be? It was almost 80 degrees out. We continued on Forest Road 25 towards Cougar, but a quarter mile later I was faced with the answer to my snow question.

Girl Wonder was not having any of my talk about trying to push on a little further. "Hey, it's only 12 inches deep and there are wheel tracks to follow." Nope... no way. We ended up doubling back over our initial route. Once on the edge of the city, we headed to "Smarty Pants" to have some of the best bar food in the Seattle area -- one of the only motorcycle-themed bars that doesn't cater to the rough and tumble wannabees. This place is for hungry enthusiasts. We wolfed down their massive barbecue pork sandwiches while staring at a mid to late-sixties Ducati single and a couple other nicely restored relics that are displayed above the entrance door. It was a cool place to end our day after dustng off our under-appreciated street bikes -- all part of the spring ritual.

(1) GFE and PSE refer to services provided by escorts. Those acronyms mean Girlfriend Experience and Porn Star Experience.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Desert Lessons

Girl Wonder and I paid a visit to our California neighbor and riding guru, Gary LaPlante this past weekend. Gary lives about 2 1/2 miles (the way the crow flies) from our property in Aguanga. That's qualifies him as a neighbor, even though we had to fly from Seattle to see him. Gary has 300 acres of varied high-desert terrain located off of Reed Valley Road; house-sized boulders, great hill climbs, a one-mile MX track, lot's of sandy desert trails, and beautiful views. This is all part of his "Motoventures" operation that he started back in 1998, and he is one of the best teachers and tour guides for any skill level. It's always great to be mentored by a veteran racing and trials champion.

A few days before we arrived, those aforementioned views were threatened by the flames licking their way over a nearby ridge and consuming everything in their path. To the south, Route 79 had been shut down by another fire. There aren't many trees to burn - only brush and barns and houses - but these fires really cook. And in their aftermath, they leave a mat-black and totally barren landscape which is curiously silent. Fortunately, both of our properties were spared and the weather was perfect for riding.

The reason that I believe in continued training, whether it be for street bikes, dirt bikes or firearms, is that we tend to forget the basics unless we are engaged in the activity every day. We do the same thing with our posture, sitting nice and straight, and then over time, slouching - unless someone gives us an occasional tug on the ear and says, "sit up straight!" Hopefully there comes a day when there is no need for correction - when the right form becomes the natural state of being. Slouching and other gradually acquired bad habits start because unlike the gym, there aren't any mirrors on the wall or at the sides of the road. Yeah, there are narcissists among us – like my friend’s dad, who was so mesmerized by his own reflection while driving past a storefront window that he smashed into a parked car – but we are often not privy to the objective view.

GW and I ride almost every weekend in Washington, where traction is not really a problem. In the desert, however, traction is measured in negative numbers. This is the place to experience losing control, and it doesn't take much effort to have the front and rear sliding. In fact, I had forgotten about this and immediately felt as though I was riding on ice. And my apathetic counterbalancing was coming up short. Gary and his assistant both pointed this out to me. Me? Less than perfect? No way! It was true, and the terrain conditions wouldn't let me deny it or make excuses. Expert criticism and the terrain's irrefutable feedback were the missing mirrors.

GW had some hard-learned lessons. She typically rides behind me, so my critical eye is often not upon her. But out there in the desert there is no way to hide your weaknesses. She too would have every bad habit emphasized by the demanding conditions and having to ride an unfamiliar bike. Her Kawasaki KLX300 that she rides at home is a forgiving machine. It will lug all day and let you get away with poor clutch and throttle control. It will allow you to sloppily eat your way up hills, and slog down embankments with nary a concern. In short, the KLX is a tractor.

The Honda CFR230, which she was riding on Saturday, has less power and needs to be flogged. The clutch also needs to be finessed in order to keep the bike running while creeping along. And there is far less engine braking. Do it wrong and you will pay for the mistake with an inconvenient uphill stall, or worse.
One of the exercises best done on a dirt bike, as opposed to a street bike, is threshold braking -- you know, riding at the very edge of a lock up for maximum braking efficiency. If you lock the wheel and fail to perceive it -- and not immediately modulate the lever pressure -- you will sustain a predictable, and sometimes painful lowside. This is not the thing you necessarily want to experiment with on your plastic-ensconced race replica. Dirt bikes, however, will take much more abuse and the plastic almost never breaks.

So we went through some drills racing down a straightaway and then clamping on the binders to the point that the front disc begins to howl, keeping the front wheel just shy of a lock-up. It's amazing that you can stop so well on semi-loose granular surfaces, and as GW found out, it's equally amazing how fast a locked front wheel will hurl you towards the earth -- especially if you fail to perceive it happening. And THUD she went, with two hundred and something pounds of bike slamming on her ankle. This is where you ask yourself if you've paid enough for your boots. Luckily, she had, and while she sustained a nasty sprain, nothing broke. Gary leaves it up to the rider to determine how tough they want to be. He doesn't coddle women riders, or anyone else for that matter, because dirt biking requires a fair amount of toughness and aggression. That's not to say he lacks patience or care. And after five minutes of agonizing pain while lying prone, GW was back on the bike and where she continued to ride another 3 or 4 hours.

GW had a tough day, but she realized what skills she needs to improve: clutch, throttle and brake control. She also forgets to counterbalance, which like me, is a slowly developed bad habit born out of Washington's superior traction. She did have some moments of achievement. She succeeded in climbing a very challenging hill after two attempts that resulted in get-offs. Climbing up a hill in a straight line is fairly easy. Throw in a few boulders that you have to traverse, obstacles that must be sliced between with surgical precision or risk tearing off your pegs -- and some loose traction -- and all bets are off. Because I had to stop part way up and wait for GW to clear the carnage of body and bike, I had to finish the climb without any built up momentum. I made it, but it wasn't pretty.

We finished the day playing around on GasGas trials bikes. Trials bikes are the tai chi approach to motorcycling, and if you can ride one well, you can ride anything else. It's all about superior balance, strength and machine control. The object is to creep up and over obstacles such as elephant-sized boulders and other technical obstacles without putting a foot down.
What I took away from the day was that variety in your diet is important. Being faced with new challenges is the quickest way to realize that there is still much to learn. And having an expert give you constructive criticism will stop the "slouching."

To not break from tradition, we headed over to The Blue Coyote Café in Palm Springs for our favorite margaritas. At 100 degrees, Palm Springs was a good 25 degrees "warmer" than where we had been riding -- and those killer margaritas have never tasted so good.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

Bikeless in the Med

We recently staggered off of a plane from the Mediterranean -- a supposed vacation. Vacations with parents, at a particular point in your life, are not vacations. I never really enjoyed vacationing with my own parents, and spending time -- to me, excessive time -- with Girl Wonder's parents, is pure hell. Fortunately, it does not have any detrimental effect on our relationship, which is a major miracle.

My plan was to escape the family commitments, with or without Girl Wonder, on a rented motorcycle. The family vacation home is situated near Bastia on the island of Corsica, and I had noticed in the phone book that there was a motorcycle rental agency located right at the airport. How cool is that? And even if I couldn't get my hands on a sports or sport-touring bike, there was a beach within crawling distance of the family compound in which you are allowed to ride on the 10 miles or so of beach and trail network through the chaparral between the sand and the mountains. This opened up the possibility of scoring a dual-sport or an ATV in the event that I struck out on my street bike quest.

It was my misfortune, apparently, to have committed some unspeakable acts in a past life, and I was going to have to serve my prison sentence over the next several weeks. I would have to serve it listening to the waves breaking on the shore, and the mosquito-esque buzz of two-strokes churning up the sand -- all whilst I remained trapped in my concrete cell as if I were the Count of Monte Cristo. And making matters worse was the fact that I could see, from my bedroom window, the island where the Count had been held

Newsflash: There were no rentals available until the tourist season starts, April 1st. April fools day and I was going to be the fool in March! I even stopped in and got friendly with the local Honda dealer in hopes of scoring an invitation to ride. The salesman kept referring to California as paradise, but that is not what I wanted to hear. Reality began to sink in: I was never going to get my hands on a bike, short of stealing one.

I know there are worse things than being imprisoned on an island in the Med, in a brand new house, complete with pool and a Mercedes in the driveway. Sure, the Count never had the luxury of a Benz, but the reality is that these amenities and the sun and the sea and the mountains wear thin when you are in the care and control of Pinochet reincarnate (Girl Wonder's father) with no chance of escape. There wasn't even a health club or other sort of place to relieve my stress, replenish my withering muscles and work off my expanding waste line. I am the action adventure sort of vacationer, not a house cat.

To amuse myself between drag-down hair-extracting verbal matches between other French-speaking gladiators engaged in the hourly battles, I cooked and ate myself up to an extra 5 or 6 lbs which seems to have settled in my mid section. These battles were engaged over a variety of subjects from socialism to investing for retirement, and I was able to stay out of 95% of the fray since my French ends at subjects beyond food and drink. With the din of arguing in the house, I whipped up meal after meal of Mexican and Indian cuisine -- something impossible to find in Corsica. These dishes were devoured and soon the word was out. We began entertaining the neighbors, with me at the stove's helm. Biryani, Chicken Tandoori, Chana Masala and Balti Chicken with Lentils; Fish Burritos, Albondigas, Chicken Chipotle Chimichangas and pounds of refried beans... all eaten, inhaled, plates licked clean. Of course, each meal was accompanied by bottles and bottles of local wine and cheeses. Weight gain was inevitable.

While I managed to avoid eating much of the traditional French fare, we did find a wonderful restaurant known as "LE BIPS" at 14 Cours Paoli in Corte, about an hour and a half away. My first impression of the place was less than desirable, but you can't always judge a book by its cover. The restaurant was a bit cave like, sort of medieval in atmosphere. This was further emphasized by the patrons who had obviously opted out of the state-sponsored dental program. Toothless or partially endentured goons, all smoking and eating and carrying on, had packed the small restaurant. It was likely a scene from Michael Palin's "Jabberwocky" that was left on the cutting room floor and now digitally re-mastered for my viewing pleasure -- the only things missing were snarling dogs jumping up on the tables to steal scraps of meat and a spectacular jousting scene staged in the parking lot.

We were warned that they were understaffed, as they had not anticipated all these people who had come for lunch prior to their having to attending a sport competition. Sports? These people? A cigarette in one hand and a fork in the other, drinking and consuming as if this were their last meal? Only bowling came to mind as a possibility, but it turned out that their children were competing in some sort of gymnastic endeavor. They would surely suffer asthma attacks, while catapulting themselves across blue padded mats, from all that second and smoke.

They weren't kidding about the staffing, and while we were promptly seated, we waited at least 45 minutes to get a basket of bread with our wine. I resorted to stealing bread from tables that had yet to be cleared. If I had been anywhere else, I would have left and never returned, but where else did I have to be? On the bright side, papa was keeping his mouth shut and that was a welcome change.

To my horror, I was the best looking man in the room -- sort of like Brad Pitt showing up as the guest speaker for the Wives of Recovering Burn Victims' Support Group. It seemed that all the women's eyes were upon me, which would have been flattering, stimulating even, had it not been for their canine resemblance. The singular exception was this total hottie with conical shaped breasts that defied reason. She was dining with her homely husband and her gaze was riveted in my general direction. Had it been a larger restaurant, I would have stole away to the nearest dark corner to further investigate whether those breasts were shaping her euro-bra, or if her euro-bra was shaping them. Here I am picturing Girl Wonder and this Emmanuelle Beart look-a-like as the ultimate aperitifs in my new home video entitled, "9 1/2 minutes." We are in a restaurant, after all - and I've got enough flash card left in my digital camera for a couple of short movie clips. Hey, when in France you cannot help but have these kinds of fantasies.

Once the food did make it to the table, it was stunning, both in quality and quantity. And fortunately, food does take a man's mind off of his procreative tendencies. We all had wonderful salads -- which would have
been considered creative in America, but were quite traditional for the area -- followed by a variety of Charcuterie, which is seasoned smoked or aged meats that are frequently served as soon as the red wine begins to pour -- Wild Boar pate, and of course, outstanding bread. Then our main courses came; 'Entrecote, sole meuniere, and cannelloni. After the main course came a selection of Corsican cheeses, the plate being passed from table to table. The wine kept flowing, and then finally a we indulged in a brandy-like wine mixed with myrth prior to ordering our deserts. I explained to the owner, who was waiting on our table, that I was quite full and didn't need any desert. "O.K., sure," she said, and then she brought me two: crème Brule and profiteroles au chocolat. I ate them both just to spite her. Also on the table for me to sample were chocolate mousse and an outstanding chestnut and mandarin ice creams.

I expected the bill for the five of us to be in the $250 to $300 area. Yes, it was lunch, but the quality and preparation, and of course volume, were well above any lunch I have ever eaten before. It was not lunch, it was a feast, but instead, the bill was adjusted for our having to endure the slow service: $70 Euros or $85 USD, the gratuity included. I spoke with the owner after extracting myself from my seat, and she invited me to return on Wednesday for another meal. I accepted the invitation figuring it would give me an opportunity to at least partially repay the favor of the reduced check. We did return on Wednesday, and feasted on steak d'autruche avec de la sauce au vin ostrich (ostrich steak with red wine sauce) and fish and
another wonderful assortment of food. The bill? There was no bill. I tried to pay, but she refused to accept my money. All this because of some slow service, and a little bit because she was fascinated with this dashing American.

The drive to Corte would have been perfect on a motorcycle. We took the National, which is wider and reminded me of some of my favorite asphalt in California. If you continue South from Corte, the road becomes even more spectacular. Corsica, like much of Europe, is a motorcyclist's wet dream. The only thing straight is your driveway. There are some caveats to consider, though. There are a lot of unfenced livestock in the countryside - cows and sheep sharing the road with traffic. In certain places there are cattle just wandering around and I had one of them dart in front of me. The little bugger was about 6 inches away being branded by a boiling Mercedes radiator.

On another occasion, I rounded a corner to find an entire herd of sheep running towards me in my lane and then darting sharply to my right as I sat there impatiently waiting for this woolen train to pass. Last but not least, the local police and Gendarmarie do not take kindly to riders doubling the speed limit. Not only are you taking some very serious personal risks, if you get nabbed at felonious speeds, you are going to need to call the American Embassy to help you get out of jail.

There is a different sense of safety and liability in France, despite it having a quasi-socialist government. There is definitely an "every man for himself" attitude. This seemed especially true in Corsica. In example, we were driving North along the Cap Corse (more on the Cap Corse in a few moments) when we, and everyone driving on the road, found ourselves to be moving chicanes in a road race. Yes, there was a road race in progress and the drivers were taking three warm up laps on this relentlessly curvy, narrow road - and the road was still open to the public.

These drivers were serious, dressed in flame retardant suit and helmets, and they would pass you without
hesitation -- even if it meant having to drive on the left shoulder to avoid a head on collision. My advice for anyone traveling to Corsica with plans to tour by motorcycle is to go in March if you are renting bike on the French or Italian mainland, or go as early in the tourist season as possible if you are flying directly to Ajaccio or Bastia. The more people that are on the roads, the more chance you have to become a hood ornament. You are going to want to be in full protective gear, and the temperatures rise significantly
during the summer months, so it makes sense to go early in the year (rental issues already noted, of course).

I did manage to steal one of the family cars and drive the Cap Corse. This is a harrowing drive on winding roads no wider than the car, with rocks on one side and the sea on the other. The drivers on the island, in a word, suck. I often found vehicles headed towards me, in my lane, as I rounded a corner because these people are too lazy or too unskilled or too brazen to stay in their own lanes. But when the opportunity presented itself, I did my best impersonation of a formula one driver. This came in handy later on as I evened the score for having to endure all those arguments.

GW's father seemed to like my driving, but not without criticism. I use the brakes too much... I should let the engine do the braking. I found this particularly amusing since I had taken over the driving duties because the guy cannot park, and had backed up into a tree. His driving method was typically French: no person shall ever be in front of him, and every effort will be made to ensure that -- whether it requires passing up hill in a blind curve with only seconds to spare before being squashed like a fly against the front of an oncoming truck. Well, they have curves in America, and I am accomplished in getting around them.

So after a laid back afternoon of tooling around the countryside, I brought up the matter of the brakes. See, I like to have my corner entry speed just right, so I typically shave a tiny bit of momentum off just before initiating the turn. As soon as I initiate the turn, I start accelerating to stabilize the suspension and not lose any momentum from the tires scrubbing off speed in the curve. Last turn of the day, before having to retire the car and probably endure a few more waking hours of shouting, and I set up as usual. This is a very sharp turn -- one most comfortably taken at 15 to 20 mph, but I am doing about 45. As I approach, I announce that there is no need to worry about the brakes on this one, and I rail through the turn at speed, tires shrieking and papa's arms are flailing about as he tries to grab handfuls of the dashboard and not soil his undies. He even vocalized a little "whooooaaaaahhhhhh." I just looked over at him and said, "Dude,
you've just got to have faith in the machine." It was priceless.

The rest of my days were spent surfing the web at internet cafes, or hanging out in Bastia sipping Pietra, a hand-crafted local beer brewed with a blend of selected malts hops and chestnuts. The people watching was
plentiful, and the weather splendid. Despite the fact I managed to salvage something of my "vacation," I will never again allow myself to be imprisoned in motorcycle paradise without access to SOMETHING, ANYTHING that has two wheels and a motor. Life is short and a few weeks without a bike is an unconscionable fate.


A map of the island: - in French. Motorcycle tour in which they happen to stop at LE BIPS (telephone: