Saturday, May 26, 2012

That first long day

My friend, Brutus (not his real name), got his motorcycle endorsement and first bike, a 2005 Kawasaki Ninja 250, a few months ago and has racked up about 2,000 miles commuting to work. So far, the bulk of his riding experience has been on urban freeways during rush hour. What a way to cut your teeth on a motorcycle! One of his goals is to ride with me on some multi-day trips, so we decided to spend a sunny Saturday on a long local ride to simulate the kind of riding typical of longer trips.

We met at the parking lot of Steigerwald Lake, an animal preserve on SR14 in Washington, just east of Camas. The sun was rising, the air was slightly cool, and there was very little wind. Brutus showed up on a yellow bike and wearing neon yellow jacket and helmet. Only his pants were black. He likes to be noticed! We chatted for several minutes about bikes and the day ahead, then set off. I took the lead at first with Brutus following but lagging slowly behind. I pulled over and waited for him to catch up. Since it was his first major ride on curvy roads, we decided it was best for him to set the pace, so he took off first and I followed.

He showed remarkably smooth form and had excellent body position for a beginning rider. We navigated the curves of SR14 and after 20 miles we pulled over at a gas station in North Bonneville for a snack break. The Columbia River Gorge is notoriously windy but fortunately we only had to contend with a slight breeze. Coupled with the sunshine and moderate temperature, it was turning out to be a fantastic riding day. Since Brutus was doing well in the lead, we pulled back onto SR14 and maintained that pattern as we continued east.

As we neared the bridge to Hood River, I passed Brutus and then pulled into a rest stop for another quick rest and discussion about the route ahead. The next stop would be a private game preserve that offers public access, but it was easy to miss, so I led the way. The forests of the cascades were soon behind us and we entered the grassland of the eastern slope. Just before reaching the junction with SR14 and Highway 197, I pulled to the left into a paved driveway up the hill to the north. The lane was bordered on both sides with high wire fences and it soon became clear why. To our right were dromedary camels and to our left were zebras. In the distance we spotted llamas and bison, and high atop a rocky crag some kind of exotic goat, perhaps an ibex. We turned around at the top and slowly rolled back down the hill, stopping several times to see what other kind of exotic animals might be seen.

It was getting time for lunch and gas. We crossed the pink metal bridge just below The Dalles Dam and fueled up at the Chevron, then crossed the highway for lunch at McDonalds. When both the riders and bikes fueled up, we got back onto Highway 197 and continued south. The road is surrounded by rolling hills covered in green wheat and tan native grasses, with hardly a tree to be seen. The topography and open skies makes for a surprisingly dramatic view, and later on Brutus told me he was blown away by how scenic it was. We eventually descended down into Tygh Valley before climbing back up the hill, and after a few more miles, met the junction with Highway 216. We turned west and began the fourth and final leg of our route. The road is long and straight for several miles before we passed through the hamlet of Pine Grove and entered the forested eastern slope of the Cascades.

Soon we were climbing the last slope up to Government Camp and after passing some slow RVs, we were heading down the western side toward Sandy. Fortunately traffic was very light and we practically had the road to ourselves. I pulled over in Rhododendron and discussed with Brutus the remaining route, and after agreeing to stop in Sandy for a quick fuel fill-up, we continued on.

Our ride into Sandy was uneventful and once our tanks were filled up, we said our goodbyes and rode on our separate ways. By the end of the day Brutus had racked up 275 miles, which was by far his longest ride to date. He showed excellent form and his bike ran like a champ. Later on he told me that he experience both great fear and delight during the day. The excitement of the ride, the wonder of the scenery, and the wonderful tired feeling you have after surviving a long day's ride.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Touring Tips: How to Ride Long Distance Like a Pro

I ride an average of 9,000 miles per year, more than half of which is during long-distance trips. Those miles have occurred without a single get-off and took place during all types of weather and road conditions. During that time and over those miles I've learned a few things, some of which are included below. Most of these tips pertain to long-distance touring rather than short single-day trips or commuting.

1. Take classes and practice specific skills. Take the Basic Rider's Course from the Motorcycle Safety Foundation to get your endorsement, then after 5-10,000 miles, take a more advanced course. I suggest Lee Park's Total Control.

2. Don't buy cheap gear. Quality is a higher priority than price. Quality gear is usually more comfortable, making the ride more enjoyable.

3. When buying gear, get pants and a jacket that is waterproof via the outer layer. Gear that uses a removable waterproof inner liner is a waste of time and money.

4. Rub Pledge furniture polish on the outside of your face shield to make rain bead up and run off. Rub shaving cream on the inside of your face shield to prevent fogging.

5. Keep some kind of tool kit on your bike. My suggestion for its contents are: flat repair kit, DC air compressor, electrical tape, adjustable wrench, allen wrenches, multi-tool, small can of WD40, rubber gloves, paper shop rags, and one large black plastic bag.

6. Keep a bottle of water and a power bar in your tank bag. It's also a good idea to keep a half-roll of toilet paper in a ziplock bag.

7. Wear earplugs.

8. Look down at your side stand when you put it down. Be sure of the surface before resting your bike's weight on it. Crush a pop can and put that under the side stand foot to give it more stability on loose surfaces like gravel or sand.

9. Leave cotton clothes at home. Use merino wool socks, even in the summer, and wear synthetic wicking underwear and t-shirts as your base layer, especially during warmer rides. In colder weather, use polar fleece as an insulating layer under your jacket and pants; bonus points if your polar fleece is the wind blocker variety.

10. When it's hot, wear a vented or mesh jacket and get your t-shirt wet underneath. You'll actually get a better evaporative cooling effect this way than riding without the jacket at all (warm air compresses against your chest and is actually warmer than the ambient air temperature).

11. This is a tip about riding in general rather than specific to long-distance touring: look ahead, don't look at the road right in front of your bike. Your cornering will be a lot smoother and more efficient, and you'll even be able to take the same corner faster than you would otherwise.

These are some rules I live by:

Riding is optional. Never ride when it isn't safe to do so, either because of weather conditions, the mechanical condition of your bike, your physical health or mental state (don't ride stressed or distracted, etc.)

Never drink and ride. Ever. No exceptions.

Your ability + current conditions = riding safety margin. Never exceed this.

Take care of your bike. Pay attention to maintenance items like fluid levels, tire wear and pressure, chain cleanliness, etc.

Ride respectfully. Be courteous to other riders regardless of their brand of bike. Be respectful of the communities you ride through. Be a positive reflection of motorcyclists and never leave a negative impression of riders upon those you meet.

Some people consider All The Gear, All The Time (ATGATT) to be a flexible matter of personal choice. I don't. I consider it a basic rule that should never be broken. I value my health and safety too much to violate the rule or even bend it, regardless of conditions.

Always wear a helmet, even if one is not required by law. Keeping your brain contained inside your skull is more important than keeping the wind on your face.

Never buy a used helmet. If you drop your helmet, replace it. They suffer internal damage that is not visible or detectable and you need it to be factory-fresh in case of an accident.

Looking good is nice, but never sacrifice safety for the sake of fashion.

If another rider needs assistance, do what you can to help. You may need help someday and good karma is a handy thing.