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.