Dec 13, 2010

My Top Ten Bike List #10:

This is it, my last pick of ten. So far, my list includes the following 9:
  1. 1988 Honda NT650 Hawk
  2. All versions of the Montesa Cota trials bike
  3. All models of the Honda Transalp XL600V
  4. Yamaha's SRX Series (250, 400, and 600cc)
  5. 1992 Yamaha 850 TDM
  6. 1977 Yamaha IT175D
  7. BMW R 80GS Paris-Dakar Special
  8. Honda EXP-2
  9. Yamaha XT350
This is a pretty complete list, from me, and I'm running out of motorcycles to add to the group. You'd think someone as old as me would be at the other end of the spectrum; with more favorite toys than room to list them. Sorry to disappoint. Most of the motorcycles I really would have loved to love have been unavailable in the US and I've only had the opportunity to drool at the idea through magazine articles. One thing I've discovered through experience is that long distance love is usually misplaced. Things look better from a distance than up close. So, I'm tempted to say "I'm done at 9."

That wouldn't be fair. In fact, I own one of my 10 favorites and it could be my last motorcycle. This affair started with the first edition, the 1999 Suzuki SV650, which I rode for almost 50k trouble-free miles before trading it for the newer, more multipurpose, fuel-injected version, the 2004 V-Strom. In fact, if you look at the picture of my SV you'll notice that it was heading toward becoming a V-Strom before I sold it. Now, approaching 50k miles on the V-Strom, I'm as happy with the DL650 as I was when I saw the first version of this motorcycle at the Cycle World Motorcycle Show in 2004.

I've already posted dozens of pictures of this bike and my adventures on it on this blog, so doing it again is probably idiotic. But he's a rare shot of the bike in clean condition. If you want to see a few more, go here. Or check out the June 2009 North Dakota Tour blog entries or the August 2008 Nova Scotia tour stuff. Eventually, I hope to do something with my 2007 Alaska pictures and video, but that might be a lost cause. The V-Strom has taken me places I've always wanted to experience. Five guys on V-Strom 650's toured from the tip of Venezuela to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and, other than damage caused by hitting a British Colombian moose at speed, all 5 bikes and guys made the trip without incident.

The V-Strom 650 is everything I expect and almost everything want in a touring motorcycle. It gets reasonable mileage (43-58mpg, depending on conditions and speed). The stock suspension is almost dirt-capable. The motor is tough, starts easily and reliably at any temperature or altitude, and fairly easy to maintain. The brakes are powerful, reliable, and predictable. It's comfortable for long miles. The V-Strom is capable of mounting luggage that will hold all of my stuff and has room for my grandson or my wife. It handles well on freeways and limited-access dirt roads. The top speed is faster than I need to go and all-day cruising speed is anything between 55 and 95. The headlights are the best I've ever experienced. The stock exhaust system is stainless steel and quiet as a cage.

So, without any question I put this bike on my top-ten list. Some of the other bikes may fall off of the list, but the V-Strom will be there for a long time. It would be disloyal to do otherwise.

My Test Riding

How I ended up being a test rider is probably the most convoluted story I could tell. "Purely by accident," would probably be the best answer. In my decade with Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, I've been allowed to write about two Kawasaki KLR 650s, Suzuki's SV and DL 650, the Kawasaki Versys, and Hyosung's 650 cruiser. Now that I look at the list, I realize that the editors only put me on 650s and never anything expensive. Sort of an interesting trend, don't you think? I'm the mid-sized, budget bike guy.

With that in mind, last spring I had a Suzuki SLV 650 Gladius for a week. Yep, another 650 and another budget bike. I guess I wouldn't trust me with anything expensive either, so the tactic is fair and reasonable. Irritating, but fair and reasonable.

I've been on my Suzuki V-Strom for almost 4 years and it's a long ways from a sport bike. When I sold my SV, I sort of thought I was finished with that genre of motorcycle. Mostly, that's because I'm old and my knees don't like being tucked into a sporting crouch for any period of time. I had a good time on the Gladius, though. It's quick, light, and handles so much better on good roads than my bike that I had second thoughts about giving up on that sort of motorcycle. The Gladius is probably close to 200 pounds lighter than my V-Strom all loaded for a trip. It's smaller in length and height, too. In fact, if I needed a 3rd bike, the Gladius might be that bike.

After that test ride, the whole season went by without another bike riding/reviewing offer. I suspect my days as a test rider are limited. I'm not inclined to look at a new motorcycle as a prospective purchase, which alters or perverts my opinion on the value of that motorcycle. In fact, at best I review motorcycles from the perspective of a guy who might be interested in the bike as a 2nd or 3rd owner; after the majority of the depreciation has done its economic damage.

On top of that, I am clinically unable to hype any motorcycle as a "good buy." Motorcycles, mostly, are a poor transportation investment for most owners. In the north, a motorcycle serves as a vehicle for no more than 9 months out of the year and, often, for less than 6 months. The rest of the time, motorcycles are garage ballast or decoration. While riding a motorcycle can save on direct fuel costs, the higher maintenance costs (especially tires) negates those savings pretty quickly. The kinds of motorcycles I love the most, 250s and under, don't suffer as much from those disadvantages but Americans generally don't buy small motorcycles so magazines don't review them. Which means, I don't get paid to write about riding them.

After and before the Gladius review, which oddly hasn't even made it into the Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly archives, the magazine reviewed the Honda NT700V, Royal Enfield G5, Suzuki TU250X, Ducati Monster 696, and the KTM 990 Super Duke. Of that lot, the Honda and the Suzuki are the only bikes I'd have been interested in or, most likely, would have said anything good about. The Suzuki was reviewed by that bike's brand new owner, so that wasn't even an option.

Test riding is a risky business. Sometimes it's fun, sometimes it's painful. Hurt found that most crashes occur to new riders or riders on borrowed motorcycles. A test bike is a borrowed bike with a big price tag. Nothing makes me more nervous that borrowing someone else's brand new stuff. Usually, test riding is break-even economically. At MMM, we aren't compensated for our expenses (fuel, food, etc.) and the pay is pretty much the rate writers expected in 1955 for pulp science fiction. If you're not having as much fun as you would on your own motorcycle and you aren't making money, what are you doing? Showing off? Exchanging your time for microscopic bits of fame or infamy? Personally, I've always favored wealth over fame and I manage to acquire infamy without even trying.

An odd thing about getting old is that stuff doesn't mean as much to me as it once did. I don't care at all about your stuff and I'm only loosely attached to my own stuff. When I go to the CW Motorcycle Show, I mostly look for friends and interesting people to talk to. The new bikes look suspiciously like the previous years' bikes and styles and colors are all that change much (and I don't care about colors). The V-Strom was the last motorcycle that really tripped some of my triggers and the only thing I see on the manufacturers' 2011 import list that even looks interesting is the 2011 Yamaha Super Ténéré Adventure-tourer. It's a good thing I don't have a job that requires me to pretend to be excited about the 29th coming of the Honda VFR or the Suzuki GXR. No wonder marketing morons make so much money. That's the only way you could get anyone to do that job. Mostly, each year's new releases are just minor variations on the last decade's stuff and I already have enough stuff.

So, as my test riding career withers away, I find myself caring less and less. If I'm going to go somewhere, it will be on my own motorcycle. If I'm test riding, the ride is usually limited to something local, something safe, and someplace with which I'm familiar to minimize the crash risk. I'd never go anywhere like that on my own dime. Those places are the places I go through on my way to somewhere interesting. With a reduced interest in new stuff and an increased interest in new places, I don't even sign up for many of the magazine's offered test rides. Where would I go on a Polaris Victory? How would I get off and on a BMW (any model)?

The one bike I really want to test ride, the Yamaha WR250X, is the only current model motorcycle that I have an interest in owning. It could be dangerous to put one of those dudes in my hands because I'd take it somewhere that would put the test to the bike's abilities. It might not be pretty when I bring it back.

Dec 10, 2010

All the News that Didn't Fit

There wasn't much news that didn't fit this month. These are the scraps:

Motorcycle Parking
Brooklyn, NY cops are putting the arm on motorcyclist sidewalk parking, an illegal practice that has escaped notice in the past. Motorcyclists park on the city's sidewalks to protect their motorcycles from the city's infamously erratic drivers and for security. A parking ticket costs $115.
Cincinnati, Ohio officials are going to create more parking spaces for scooters and motorcycles. The director of Transportation and Engineering said demand for these spaces is high and the city will add more spaces as streets are being redone.
Fit Yourself to a New Motorcycle
Check out this website to see how you fit on a brand new motorcycle: http://cycle-ergo.com/
Road 2 A Cure
Former Army Ranger Chris Calaprice has crossed several milestones in his 43 years. He is a two-time survivor of pancreatic cancer and was also treated for melanoma (skin cancer). On November 20th (November is National Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month), he came to the end of his 9-month-long, 42,000-mile 50 states tour.
Chris said, “We set out on the Road 2 A Cure to change the nation’s view of pancreatic cancer from one of hopelessness to hope, and to capture it in documentary style.What we learned is that cancer funding is largely driven by big marketing dollars and politics, but we can change that through our democracy – survivors and supporters need to exercise their voices. My wife and I paid a high price to bring pancreatic cancer awareness to America, but it is imperative for those millions of people out there being crucified by this unforgiving disease.”
Like the US economy, European motorcycle sales are crashing. Following a terrible 2009, 2010 sales are 33% below the previous miserable year. In fact, for the last 3 years, sales have contracted by almost one-third every year. Italian sales, which drives the European motorcycle market has been hammered, but Germany, the UK, France, Denmark, Greece, Poland, Norway and Sweden are all down. Even scooters, the under-50cc market, is down 26%. There is some hope, though. The 5-day Cologne INTERMOT show registered more than 210,000 motorcyclists and scooterists, which was a decent increase from the previous year.
H-D Set to Manufacture in India
Harley Davidson's CKD (complete knock-down) assembly facility is expected to go on-line in the first half of 2011. This plant will, initially, build "motorcycles for the Indian market from component kits supplied by its U.S. plants."
Harley-Davidson Motor Company President and Chief Operating Officer Matthew S. Levatich said, “This investment will allow us to improve our market responsiveness and production flexibility while reducing the tariff burden, which we expect will drive growth over time by making our bikes more accessible to India’s consumers."

Dec 5, 2010

You Didn't See Me

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

Last winter, in the span of two days, I had a pair of "you didn't see me" events. The first was heading east on Rice Street across from the capitol building. Traffic was heavy, it was snowing, the road was covered in ice, and as I approached an intersection a pedestrian dressed in a gray business suit and overcoat stepped into the crosswalk in front of traffic. He was well within his rights to expect traffic to stop, in fact he dramatically pointed to the iced over crosswalk-way in an attempt to illustrate his rights, but most of the traffic sailed by him without even slowing because stopping at that point would have caused a multi-car pileup. The first car that stopped for him received a jolt from the rear as a reminder that there are more pressing issues in that situation than a pedestrian's rights. Of course, the pedestrian could have pushed the "walk" button to make his passage easier. He could have worn clothing that provided some contrast from the road surface. He didn't because he was convinced that drivers were obligated to see him. Another American who believes that physics and nature should give a flying damn about man-made laws. Reminds me of Kansas ruling that pi should be a nice, clean three-point-oh.
A day later, I was leaving work late at night, exiting from a downtown parking garage. It was pitch black outside and raining. As I approached the street, a young guy--wearing a knee-length black fur coat, black sneakers, and a black fur cap--stepped in front of my car and glared at me as he passed a few feet in front of my car. He was clearly pissed that I hadn't seen him until we were both startled. I was amazed that I had seen him at all. 
Now there is a motorcycle safety ad running on YouTube called "You Didn't See Me." Not one of the YDSM characters depicted in the ad appears to know anything about motorcycle gear. A safe bet would be that none of them every wear a helmet, own a single piece of retro-reflective clothing, know that armor is available in leather jackets, or would consider doing anything other than blasting really loud "brub brrub brrrub" noises at the vehicles behind them as a safety measure.
Not being seen is a big deal to folks who either have difficulty watching out for themselves (and for folks who dress for some kind of success and need to be seen to make that triumph occur). Personally, I think being inconspicuous is overrated.
The examples provided in the YDSM video are cases in point. "You didn't see me squeeze my wife's leg as she told me to take the next turn." "I saw you stare at my long hair, but you didn't see me and my friends . . . " "I saw you complain about how noisy our bikes can be, but you didn't see me when you were checkin' CDs and drifted into my lane." All of these guys were doing something other than watching out for themselves. If I see someone screwing around with anything other than the steering wheel (that means you cell phone morons), I assume they will be drifting, lane changing, and crashing without a clue to their environment. I don't have time to worry about their opinions of my hair, exhaust noise, or lifestyle or for leg squeezing social moments. This is motorcycling dude. Pay attention to your business because nobody else will do it for you. Of the bunch of YDSM whines, the worse one was, "I saw you run a yellow light just to save a few minutes in time, but you didn't see me tryin' to make a right turn." How many things are wrong with this whine? You "run" red lights and if someone whacked a bike turning right at an intersection on yellow, that means the bike ran a red light or the bike was turning right from the left lane and was doing something less legal than the cager he's criticizing.
Finally, "I saw you waiting impatiently for my friends to pass . . . " about does it for me. I have exactly as much sympathy for parades of noise and air polluting tractors as the average cager. Packs of bar-hopping gangbangers only elicit empathy from bar-hopping gangbangers. Spend some time in a Hudson Highway 30 front yard on a Saturday afternoon and imagine yourself cursed with that sort of idiocy all summer long. It would make me want to run for city council just to be able to hire a real police department instead of the useless sort that small towns usually get.
There is a lot about the "right of way" motorcycle movement that pisses me off. The idea that motorcycles are a protected class because of our lack of protection, embarrassing skills, and minimal common sense is pretty high on the list. Any motorcyclist with reasonable intelligence has a lot more going for him than the average bicyclist or pedestrian. We throw around more weight. We have no good excuse for not wearing modern armor. We have better technology--accelerate faster, stop faster, have more escape routes, and have better visibility--than cages. More often than not, we get killed because we are ignoring those advantages or because we're being idiots. (Maybe that's just one problem said two ways?) If being mostly white, male, middle-class and having had access to public education (regardless of how that privilege was squandered) and state-provided training and regulation isn't enough of an advantage, motorcyclists want special laws to punish other road users who disrespect those rights.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for restricting driving rights to those who are competent drivers. If it were up to me, getting a driver's license for a cage would be fifty-times more difficult and getting a motorcycle license would require evidence of extraordinary intelligence, on-and-off -road racing experience, and exceptionally uncommon sense. I absolutely believe that when someone is caught making a right turn from a left lane their existence should be aborted immediately and on the spot. If your cell phone is on and you are moving at more than 20mph, the closest cell tower should terminate you with expedience. And the list of my favorite population-reduction solutions goes on for miles and days. However, none of that will happen on this plane of existence, so we just have to assume no one sees us and look out for ourselves as best we can. Yeah, you didn't see me, but I saw you, assumed you were a moron, and did my best to stay as far away as possible. If I succeed, I live another day.

Nov 21, 2010

Fear Itself

I'm not a pet guy. My wife collects animals. I tolerate them. Sometimes, I enjoy them, but I wouldn't go out of my way to have a pet. Even a fish, except for catfish because I love catfish and black beans. So, we have a dog, a cat, and six or seven birds. It's a busy household.

Our cat, Spike, is a brave soul. He's mostly an inside cat, but he gets out in the yard to climb trees, catch and kill mice and voles, and pester the neighbor's cat. Spike is particularly unusual in that he likes to be wet. You can pet him when your hands are wet and he appreciates the attention. He likes to explore the bathtub after I take a shower. Sometimes he sticks his head into the curtains while I'm taking a shower. Since he was a kitten, he has jumped into the tub right after anyone has used it and he often rolls around getting himself wet. He knows how the shower works. He knows someone could turn it back on and he'd get soaked. He's pretty sure that won't happen. Spike is totally unafraid of things he believes are unlikely to happen. I like that quality, a lot.

Not that many people are capable of that. In fact, people are afraid of the damnedest things. When the Twin Towers were bombed, my neighbor's wife freaked out. She'd never traveled anywhere, never even went into downtown St. Paul, but she became convinced the world had changed and she was at risk. Since 2001, she rarely leaves her house for anything. An engineer friend is terrified of flying. Always has been. He's been traveling by commercial airline for almost 35 years, hundreds of trips without an incident. Every time he gets in a plane, it's white knuckle time. His paranoia would be more understandable if he wasn't a roller coaster fanatic. He's traveled all over the country to ride every whacked-out roller coaster he can find. He's especially fond of the wooden versions of the damn things. Once, when we were 35,000 feet over the Great Plains, I suggested that if the plane did go down it would be the coolest roller coaster ride he ever took. He almost squeezed the arm rests off of his seat and didn't let go until we were parked. Another friend is convinced that I ride my 250, instead of my 650 road bike, because I believe it's safer. He can't imagine that it is quicker or more fun. He is a motorcycle owner who puts about 250 miles/year on his bike and believes the "freeway is a deathtrap" for motorcycle commuters.

Neither of these people are anywhere near as likely to be harmed by terrorists or falling airplanes or cell phone-crazed commuters as my wife's cat is of getting soaked in the shower; especially if my grandson has anything to say about it. Those humans are freaked out and terrified while the cat is happy with his odds. One person's fear is incapacitating. The other has a significant portion of his life wreaked. The last owns a piece of garage candy he's afraid to play with. Fear  keeps us from enjoying our lives, from doing what we want to do, from living where we want to live, from being who we are. Roosevelt said "We have nothing to fear but fear itself."

True, but somehow not all that helpful. At least in my case, I need something a little more specific to work on, in regards to controlling fear. In every corner, there is at least one spot where rider control is on the edge. Even on a simple, in-town, residential-street turn there are opportunities for loss of control: sand or gravel at the worst possible place, crumbling asphalt that choses the moment you arrive to collapse, traffic, unpredictable pedestrians, falling space rubble, and other motorcyclists picking the wrong moment to demonstrate their "skills." Those butt-clenching moments are what keep you alert, or convince you that motorcycling is unnecessarily dangerous. What you do with fear determines who you are, who you can be, what you can do, and how long you are going to live.

Research into the human fear response has provided a little insight into how our over-sized, underused brains work. Many people with a low capacity for actual danger are horror movie fans, where you get "the gratification of real fear without any of the danger." People watch serial killer movies, listen to Glenn Beck, and ride roller coasters to get the psychological kick from artificially induced fear without any personal risk (except on the carnival roller coasters, which are installed and maintained by drugged-out grade-school dropouts). The spillover between the areas of your brain that interprets pleasure and fear is often significant. On the other hand, an under-developed or segmented amygdala or  nucleus accumbens could make you completely fearless even in situations where you are at extreme risk.

I suppose there is a reasonable balance between fear and fearlessness. At this point in my life, I could do with a little more immunity to fear. There are places I'd like to go that pose more risk than I'm comfortable taking. People go to those places, people live in those places, so my fear is not reasonably founded. I'm not afraid of dying, but I am damn nervous about getting hurt. If I could, I would have a good bit of that part of my brain trimmed away so I could get on with an adventure or two.

Nov 8, 2010

Listening and Living

In the 60’s and early 70’s, Harley and what was left of the British motorcycle industry sort made a stab at addressing the bottom-up-market attack from Japan. Harley branded Italian (Aermacchi) machines and provided minimal support. BSA gave us the infamous 441 Victim that may have sealed that company’s fate all on its own. Triumph and BMW fought back, slightly more effectively. In the end, HD devolved into a portion of a bowling ball company's holdings. BSA and Triumph vanished into bankruptcy. Triumph manged to struggle back, but mostly as a high-end make of rich kid toys. Never again have any of those companies made motorcycles for folks who don't have $15-20k to dump into a recreational vehicle.

Now Japan is on the short end of that same stick. Indian, Malaysian, Korean, Taiwanese, and Chinese motorcycle and scooter manufacturers are cranking up production and aiming product at the low end of the US and world markets; the entry level rider. If history was an indicator, you'd expect Japan to respond with bigger, more expensive, less efficient, less reliable vehicles as a response. That's what American and British manufacturers did. Maybe not so.

One advantage Japan has over their stogy 1960's US and Euro competition is that they never gave up on the cheap, functional stuff. They just quit bringing it into to the US. Maybe that's changing. Honda is taking a chance on US riders with the 2011 CBR250R and CBR250X ABS. This is the kind of bike that Japan has left at home or Europe for the last 20+ years, assuming we are too fat, dumb, and rich to ride a motorcycle that has a functional purpose. As usual, Suzuki started the experiment with the TU250X, a fuel injected street bike with manners and abilities. Honda's entry is less practical, but it might be more fun. Yamaha and Kawasaki are sitting this one out, waiting to see if Suzuki and Honda have discovered something new about the American market. By the time they have their answer, they might starve their US dealers to death and miss the whole event.

 The competition doesn't have the dealership problem. Like the Japanese manufacturers in the 1960's, anyone who has a retail outlet appears to be capable of grabbing a Hero, Royal Enfield, Hyosung, Chang Jang, Kymco, SYM, Baja, PGO, or whoever-pops-up-next dealership. The Pep Boys have carried a few brands of Chinese-made motorcycles. So does a filling station a couple of miles from my home. A local hardware store hustles the Hyosung brand, servicing the bikes along side their lawnmowers and snowblowers.  When I was a kid, our local Suzuki dealer also sold Sony televisions, Bogen sound system equipment, and lawnmowers. Our Honda dealer was, primarily, a farm equipment dealer. Yamaha and Kawasaki were sold out of a handyman's Quonset shed along with his regular home repair services. Only BSA/Triumph and Harley Davidson had actual dealerships in town, both of which went out of business by 1968. So it was, so it is.

Will Japan hang on to this business? Your guess is as good as anyone's and probably better than mine.

Nov 7, 2010

Making A Miserable Experience Worse

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

I've lived in Minnesota for almost a dozen years. You'd think that would be long enough for me to remember some of the dumber things about buying a motorcycle here, but you'd be disappointed. In my defense, I don't buy a lot of motorcycles; three in a dozen years. Almost every time I venture, title in hand, to the local DMV I get reminded that Minnesota pretends to record and track engine numbers. I've lived in a collection of places--Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, California, Indiana, and Colorado--and Minnesota is the only place that has asked me for my engine number. Why do they care about the engine numbers?

Now, we all know that the state can't hang on to Social Security numbers and our local police couldn't find a stolen Boeing 747 if it were parked on 35W. What do you think the chances are that a bored DPS bureaucrat would notice a reported-stolen engine number, track it to the original owner (the rare owner who bothered to report that engine stolen), and hand that information over to the police? Even more unlikely, what are the chances that a cop would pause from his busy parking-ticket-writing day to chase down the engine-stealing thief and ensure that justice is done? Better than a million-to-one? Probably not. I'd put better odds on my being able to count the stars in the Colorado sky before that scenario would occur.

The first time I was asked for my engine number, I was told that this little song-and-dance was instigated by the Harley garage candy crowd, since their ride is stolen and parted out more than any other vehicle on earth. The engine ID line on a motorcycle title was added to the form sometime in the 1970s, when stolen Harleys were more common than purchased bikes. A lot has changed since then, but we're all still paying the bureaucratic price for all those stolen chopper parts.

My most recent bike purchase was a 2000 Kawasaki Super Sherpa KL250. It's sort of an enduro, very much a multi-purpose small motorcycle, and probably most often spotted strapped to the back of a big RV. Of course, I forgot to note the number on the title before I brought it to the DMV. The clerk noted the missing number and tossed my paperwork back at me, noting that "Everybody forgets to get the engine number. Come back to the front of the line when you get it." I trudge out to the parking lot and spend a half hour looking all over the motor for the number. No number. I give up, ride home, and dig out the owner's manual.

The chances that someone would steal this bike for parts are slim-to-stupid. It's not worth enough to bother stealing, unless the thief needs money to buy a pack of cigarettes but doesn't need the money quickly. The owner's manual indicates that the engine number is stamped on the starter housing, a part that might be replaced when the electric starter dies. However, it's not there: it's under the starter, requiring the removal of the starter to read the number. I was lucky. A previous owner wrote the number in the owner's manual, so, rather than starting an unnecessary engine overhaul, I copied the number from the manual on to the line on the title. If that manual ever gets lost, I pity the fool who buys this motorcycle from me. Of course, I have no idea if it's the right number, since I was unable to find it on my own.

With the microscopic possibility that the police might identify and chase down a stolen motorcycle engine based on the serial number, the minor economic impact that a lost rat bike would have on an individual, and the thousands of lost hours from "everyone" having to quadruple the time necessary to register a motorcycle title due to forgetting to get the engine number, I think this is a stupid, obsolete law that should be reconsidered. Maybe the law could be modified so that only grossly expensive garage candy owners are obligated to crawl under their vehicles looking for non-existent numbers. Those bikes probably have the engine number printed when it can be found, though. Good for them. I, on the other hand, buy rat bikes and am about as inconvenienced by the engine number egg hunt as I would be by having my bike stolen. Any trip to the DMV is a miserable experience. Compounding the humiliation of paying sales tax on a vehicle whose previous owners have probably paid that same tax multiple times with groveling around my own motorcycle looking for a hidden number just adds to the pointless misery.

Here's an idea. Instead of ganging up on our legislators to battle laws that only affect the few, how about we get really mad about something that affects us all? Let's ride in mass to the capitol building to protest multiple taxation on used vehicles, road use restrictions on fuel efficient vehicles (like small displacement motorcycles and scooters), and if the DMV wants my engine number let them find it. If I were any less convinced that the state government could find a stolen motorcycle based on this identification, I'd doubt that they even have a department that attempts to find stolen vehicles. They do have a department that does that, don't they? Yeah, right.

Oct 22, 2010

Insights from an Ex-Ducati Exec

Ducati North America head Michael Lock gave an interview to the New York Times about the state of motorcycling in the US and . . .  I agree with practically everything he said.

Lock has abandoned motorcycling for a Norwegian EV company, Think, and he appears to be feeling free enough from the constraints of politispeak to say what he thinks about the state of motorcycling in the US.

For example, as to the state of motorcycle sales in the US, "September was minus 39%, which was pretty tragic considering September last year was a disaster. So I know the trend is not upward and it’s not slowing down. The industry is still contracting at quite a pronounced rate." Or his opinion on Harley's market future, "A motorcycle is a status symbol. It’s a discretionary purchase. You buy it. You feel good about life. Where Harley goes in the U.S., the rest of the industry has to follow in many respects. The shadow Harley casts over the rest of the industry is undeniable and their age demographic issue along with general economic conditions was a perfect storm."

 Like most of us, Lock believes, "Motorcycling won’t die, but it has to be substantially restructured. A lot of the fluff marketing has to go away. Maybe motorcycling has to go back to being a simpler pursuit rather than the whole posing thing and all the race replicas. It has to go back to being a simpler pleasure."

So, bring on the 100mpg 250's and out with the hippobikes! Want to kick some life into US motorcycling, ride small and often.

Couldn't Catch a Break

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

Scotty couldn't catch a break. He got tangled up in office politics and ended up laid off during of one of the worst economic periods in seventy years. Out of work and with the usual expenses knocking on the door, he still wanted to take a long motorcycle trip in 2008. It wasn't looking good for him, one week from the day we were planning to leave town. It would get worse.

In 2007, after I got back from Alaska, Scotty got the bike bug. He asked what I thought would be a good bike for commuting from Hudson to downtown St. Paul and I gave him a short list of my recommendations. He started shopping and found what looked like a good deal from an old biker in Wabasha. It was a 1992 Yamaha TDM, one of my all time favorite motorcycles, with low miles and in mediocre condition. We drove down to look at the bike and found it was moderately beat up, but ran, and seemed to be in neglected but reasonable condition for the asking price. Scott bought it and rode it home, struggling with carburetor problems that caused the bike to run insanely lean below 3,000 rpm and worrying about brittle and bald tires.

He cleaned it up and started working on the carb problems right away. After taking the bike apart a dozen times, wrestling with the overly complicated carburetion that was always a hassle on that generation of motorcycles, Scotty gave up and took the bike to a "reputable" Minneapolis independent repair shop to get the last of the tuning problems tweaked into shape. The three-day turn around he'd been promised by the shop turned into three weeks. When he got the bike back, the original $300 estimate had turned into an $800 repair bill, but the bike ran and he was happy.

At least, he was happy until he tried to do some minor work on the bike and discovered the shop had stripped the mounting bolts to his fuel petcock, lost some fairing screws, and done assorted damage that took him a few more hours to sort out. When he called the shop to complain, they admitted to having set a rookie tech loose on Scotty's bike, apologized, offered to "make it right," and asked him to submit a copy of the invoices he'd collected in fixing the stuff they'd screwed up. When he arrived with the list, he was blown off by the shop owner and ended up with a reimbursement offer that was more insult than compensation. A few hundred miles later, the bike was back running as badly as ever. The shop's "fix" was expensive and temporary.

Scotty kept plugging away at the obstacles to his making the trip, though. He found freelance work and filed for unemployment to make up for the lost job. He got involved in starting an on-line school teaching the stuff he'd been teaching at the college. He kept working on the bike and his travel gear, fine tuning both into something he felt confident in traveling with into the "wilderness" of eastern Canada.

Three weeks before the launch date, we made a backroad trip to Duluth where Scotty picked up some extra gear at RiderWearhouse and we put on a few hundred miles finding out how we'd travel together. On the way back, we took a side trip through Jay Cooke State Park and Scotty lost control of the TDM in the first of a pair of quick turns. He crashed, softly, in the gravel beside the road, avoiding a trip into a gully but doing some minor damage to the bike. He put on such a good demonstration going down in his riding gear that a lid-less cruiser rider traveling in the opposite direction vowed he'd be buying a helmet as soon as he got home. Scotty was in pretty good shape, until he swung back on the bike and hyper-extended his left knee. All the way home, he worried about the knee and he was right to worry. By the time he got home, his knee was swollen, painful, and barely mobile. He set to work in a home-schooled physical therapy program and was pretty mobile about a week before we were planning to leave.

Due to his time pressures and a little reluctance to take on a new mechanical task, he decided to have a Hudson shop replace his chain and sprockets. A few hours after dropping the bike off, he got a call from the repair tech asking him to come back to the shop. When he got there, the tech showed him that the previous owner had screwed up the countershaft retaining nut and, in a moronic attempt to repair his mistake, had welded the nut to the countershaft. The sprocket was worn out and moved freely on the shaft spline, behind the weld. The repair estimate was a dozen hours and nearly $2,000. Scott called me, hoping for some miracle, but I could only think of one possibility that didn't involve partial transmission disassembly; carefully grinding the weld away and using a wheel puller to break the sprocket away from the shaft. He had given up on riding the TDM east and didn't want to test my theory. The bike went to a Bayfield, Minnesota repair shop and Scott had his fingers crossed, hoping for a happy outcome. Three weeks later, the shop was still waiting for Yamaha to deliver some key parts. The repair costs were more affordable, but the time estimate for the repair was beyond the point of no return.

When he hung up, Scotty was done in. He'd been working for almost a year, getting himself and his gear and his bike ready for this trip and, short of buying a new bike, he was stuck. At every turn, something happened to keep Scotty off of the road. He couldn't catch a break on a used bike, on a repair shop, or on his own body and skill. He went on a little of the trip in his Toyota, but it wasn't the same.

When we got back from the East Coast, the second shop delivered the bike with parts missing. Important parts. The bike was leaking oil from a missing oil filler gasket. The chain had been installed with no slack. They'd installed the wrong front sprocket, gearing the bike down radically. They tried again and brought the bike back with even more problems. After several passes at repairing the problems they'd created, they started howling "What did you expect?" And even became downright threatening when he asked them to fix the problems they'd caused. Scott had to pull the whole bike apart to figure out what the shop had screwed up. A year later and dozens of hours of labor, Scott finally figured out the fuel delivery problems and the TDM is running like a TDM. He still hadn't taken a decent trip on the bike.

Sometimes, instead of calling for you, the open road does exactly the opposite. If you believe in omens and signs, it's probably best to listen. If you are of a more practical bent, you just tell yourself "the best laid plans of mice and men" and write off all that work and frustration as preparation for life's next event. Sometimes, you are just beaten by events and if there is a lesson in there, somewhere, you try to find it and learn from it.

UPDATE: This fall, Scotty moved to New Mexico on his TDM without incident or mechanical interruption. After a couple of years sorting out the booby traps left by the previous owner and a collection of MN mechanics, the TDM appears to be a real motorcycle again. He's enjoying spectacular rides in the NM mountains and is even getting into riding the 850 off-pavement. Sometimes the break just takes a while to catch up to you. 

Russian Off-Road Challenge 2010

The well-informed and always entertaining folks from the TC_DualSport group turned me on to this incredibly entertaining off-road expedition. Some seriously macho Russians on some unbelievably tortured motorcycles with a great Russian Rock and Roll soundtrack.

These guys found every possible way to fall down and survive. All the scenery and riding footage of The Long Way Round, without all the whining and yak.

Oct 21, 2010

Perfect Motorcycling Weather

I've said this before, but fall is my favorite time to ride. The weather is usually pretty predictable in Minnesota, unlike spring. So, I can count on knowing what to wear and what to expect when I hit the road. It's cool enough to need gear and warm enough to be comfortable without all the bulky underlayers that I'll be packing on in a month or so. Tires still start the ride warm enough to have some grip.

But the best part is, for some reason, the motorcycle seems to be a whole lot happier to be working in cool weather. I don't mean that my trusty V-Strom minds the heat, but the engine just feels more alive on a cool fall morning. The throttle seems to be directly connected to the rear tire. It's probably an illusion, but it's one I like.

Sev, the MMM editor, had me all primed, this weekend, to get to ride a new Triumph (2011 Sprint GT) or Ducati (2011 Monster 796) for a review. He let me down, though. Apparently, there are better suited folks than me on tap to ride those two cool bikes. I'll probably get first dibs on the next Hyosung POS. No competition for reviews on that sort of ride.

Honestly, I have mixed emotions about test riding motorcycles. There is a nasty statistic that claims that a substantial number of motorcycle crashes occur on borrowed or new motorcycles. I can believe that. Getting used to a new ride takes some time. If I had my druthers, I'd druther test ride on a closed track. At least, I'd rather put a few dozen miles on a new bike on that closed course before I venture out into the vicious and nutty world of cagers and truckers.

Since a Triumph or Ducati isn't in the works for me, I'm going to make some miles in Wisconsin this weekend. On my V-Strom. By myself. I love this weather, so I'm not complaining.

Oct 6, 2010

Product Review: GIVI E21 Commuter Side Cases

All Rights Reserved © 2007 Thomas W. Day
The GIVI E21 USA Monokey cases are described as "Compact Travel Companion In City Traffic, Short or Long Range Tours!" Could be, but I'm going to test that theory. I have a pair of Chase Harper soft saddle bags that I love, but the DL's big butt prevents me from using those cases without serious modification of the bags' mounting system. The other end of touring luggage, giant aluminum panniers or the more typical GIVI hard luggage, turns the DL from something moderately svelte and agile into a bike with the wingspan of a Goldwing.  If I wanted a Goldwing, I'd buy a Goldwing.

The GIVI mounting frame is something worth discussing, too. It's built to take abuse and to support substantial weight. The frames are designed to accept any of the GIVI MONOKEY cases, which means anything from 21 liters to 52 liters could be mounted to the same frames. In a 45-55mph crash that totally destroyed one side case, put deep gouges in my crashbars, and busted me up extensively, the GIVI mounting frame suffered not one bit of damage. I'm not sure I can overstate how well this frame is designed and built.

In 2007, I had wrestled with side cases and touring luggage for my Suzuki V-Strom DL650 until settling on the GIVI E21 cases. The E21 cases are 16" x 14" x 5”, top-opening, and have a 21 liter capacity. Not small, but not huge enough to radically change the lane-splitting clearance of the V-Strom. Another advantage of the GIVI cases is the MONOKEY™ locking and mounting system that is custom designed for specific motorcycles and adaptable to every MONOKEY™ case GIVI makes. You could have E21 cases for commuting and E44 cases for touring, if you have the cash. All you would have to do to change luggage is use one key to unlock and remove the little cases and the another key to install the big guys. You can buy the E21 cases in flat black or get the top portion of the case painted or supplied in cruiser chrome'ish.

In theory, all of this makes the E21 cases seem pretty practical. In practice, the small top-loading cases are difficult to make useful for more than around-town errands and minimal gear storage duties. For a recent 10,000 mile trip, I ended up dedicating one case solely to camera and computer duty and the other to carrying a Darien jacket liner, a bike cover, chain oil, and a few bits of maintenance equipment. Both cases were stuffed to capacity with that light load. This restriction put serious demands on my tail bag load and resulted in a top-heavy, wind-sensitive load that turned dangerous on the Dempster Highway.

The Red-Green E21 field modification

Even earlier in the trip, contact with another rider's soft bag (caused by a sequence of events that neither of us is proud to describe) at about 15mph caused my right side GIVI case to disintegrate like a plastic Easter egg while doing next-to-no-damage to the soft bag. Some creative use of Gorilla Glue and a mile of duct tape put the case back together where it lived until I decided to crash on Canada's Dempster Highway and even the duct tape failed to hold up for that incident.

In all, I still like the E21 cases for commuting, although I hardly ever have much in them on a normal day. For touring, unless all you're packing is a toothbrush, one change of underwear and socks, and a spare tee-shirt, I think the E21's are too small and too fragile for that duty. Trust me, I tried and failed in the attempt to prove that statement wrong.

All the News that Didn't Fit

Moto2 Takes A Life
Shoya Tomizawa, a 19-year-old Japanese Moto2 250cc racer died from cranial, thoracic and abdominal trauma after a crash at the San Marino Grand Prix. He lost control of his bike in a corner and was struck by Scott Redding and Alex de Angelis. All three riders crashed and Redding was hospitalized for evaluation.
Tomizawa won the first race of the series at Qatar, took 2nd in Spain, and after ten series races, he was in 7th place. His death occurred barely a week after Peter Lenz's fatal crash in Indianapolis. He was the first on-track GP-level death since Daijiro Kato died in a crash at Suzuka in 2003.
Looking for a Few Good Racers
Vemar Helmets, Sidi Boots, and AGV Sport Apparel are looking for riders to sponsor for the 2011 season. Motonation, the USA importer for those brands, is "accepting resumes for rider support for the 2011 season." Contact Motonation, 10225 Prospect Ave., Santee CA 92071 or jojo@motonation.com to tell them why you should be the one to use their gear for free.
Noise in New Hampshire
In May, North Hampton, New Hampshire voters approved an ordinance requiring stock exhausts on post-1982 motorcycles. New Hampshire state law sets a limit of 106 decibels. The city attorney and the local police chief claims the law is unenforceable, but local citizens are adamant that motorcycles are a "nuisance." Planning Board Chairman Phil Wilson said, "What the chief should have asked the lawyers is, ‘The townspeople have passed this ordinance, now how do we enforce it?’"
Targeting Motorcyclists
NHTSA is offering up to $350,000 to be distributed among five law enforcement agencies under the "Motorcycle Law Enforcement Demonstration" grant program. The program is modeled after a controversial New York State Police experiment that setup 15 motorcycle-only checkpoints this summer to verify proper motorcycle "paperwork" (license, insurance, registration), fill quotas, and generate municipal and state income. The discriminatory character of singling out a specific type of vehicle for "inspection" has been questioned by the AMA and other motorcyclist organizations.
California Smog, Noise, and Motorcycle Bill
The California senate passed SB 435, the "motorcycle exhaust bill." The bill is on Governor Schwarzenegger’s desk, waiting to be signed into law. If passed, SB 435 will require stock exhausts on all model year 2013 and newer motorcycles.

Sep 15, 2010

In Pursuit of Quality

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day

The most recent owner/manufacturer of the Norton label claimed that he's only going to be capable of making 2000-4000 bikes a year because "Nortons are essentially going to be handmade . . . you simply can't maintain that level of quality and control with large-scale production."

Funny. Nortons have never been particularly famous for "quality," unless oil puddles, unreliability, and no competitive advantage in power, handling, or any other performance category has become a quality value. The definition of quality this corporate goof is using is one that is mostly centered around cosmetics and no-expense-spared handiwork. That's a definition that only the richest folks can appreciate.
2010 Norton Commando 961 Cafe Racer
An old manufacturing maxim directs the fruitcakes in marketing and the delusional loonies in sales in the reality, "Quality, price, or delivery. Pick two." Modern American and Brit motorcycle manufacturing blew off the option making that decision and appears to be happy with going for the appearance of quality without caring a lot about price or delivery. That appears to be the tact Norton's new owner is going to take with the long-abused marquee. That kind of business model only works when a sufficient number of customers are dumb enough to cough up buckets of money for a mediocre product. It's probably a pretty good short-term tactic, assuming those rich, dumb customers aren't actually going to ride their new toy.

For the rest of us, the modern manufacturing standard of quality will have to do: a quality product meets its customers' expectations. That's it. Japan practically perfected this standard and changed everything in the world of manufacturing in the process. Before the quality revolution of the 1960's and 70's, middle-class customers expected products from Detroit, American electronics manufacturers, and their appliances to have "personality." Personality means defects, glitches, and high maintenance. Most of us have places we want to go, people we want to meet, deadlines and schedules, and bucket lists. We don't have time for vehicles with personality, so we settle for real quality instead of the cosmetic kind.

If you are going to make that choice, your only option is to go for "large-scale production" products because that's where practical quality usually lives. One of the beauties of large-scale production is large-scale consumer feedback. Even in our age of passive consumers, a noticeable percentage of consumers still make the effort to complain when they get ripped off. That percentage might be less than 1%, but 1% of millions is still a pretty large collection of complaints. 1% of "2000-4000' is easily ignored. NTSHA might ignore 10 irritated Norton owners, but even a federal government agency pays attention to 20,000 complaints.

More importantly, the large manufacturer has the motivation and manpower and talent to squeeze failures down into the six-sigma territory. Although quality is largely taken for granted in modern products, the reason for that expectation is that modern products are largely very reliable. The reason that is true is because designers and manufacturing engineers have the resources and the skills to anticipate and resolve product reliability problems. A group of shade-tree mechanics working for a rich kid who is intent on burning up his trust fund won't be so inclined or gifted.

So, I'll just stick with boring, machine-made, engineer-designed production motorcycles and it won't even cross my mind that I would be happier with a boutique one-of-a-kind handmade bike. Besides, I'd have to decide between having a home or owning a rare piece of art and I'm not that interested in two-wheeled art.

Sep 12, 2010

All the News that Didn't Fit

No More HD Sidecars

From an HD press release, "As a result of the decline in retail demand for Harley-Davidson sidecars, which accelerated following the introduction of the Harley-Davidson Tri-Glide family of trikes, Harley-Davidson has made the decision to exit the sidecar business." Sidecars are made at the HD Tomahawk, WI facility and 2011 will be the last year the Company will be in that business. HD has produced sidecars since 1914, but as Boomers abandon motorcycles looking for vehicles that are more appropriate for handicapped parking spaces, Harley is trying to accommodate its customer base.

Sales Falling, Profits Rising

Cutting costs, eliminating unprofitable divisions and products, while the overall sales picture is depressing, Harley's profits are looking up: upwards of $71 million for the 2nd quarter of 2010. Harley-Davidson isn't the only company using this tactic, but they are using it effectively. Harley has warned its employees that if the union doesn't compromise, the company will move production to other locations.

The company is not worried about having to increase production any time in the near future. CEO Keith Wandell said, “The last thing we’re worried about is when are we going to have to add more capacity, because what we’re really doing is reconfiguring our entire operational system for greater flexibility.”

Feeling Like God

Bajaj Motorcycles has an idea for improving motorcyclists' image with the advertising program for their Avenger DTS-i 180cc cruiser. In posters and video ads, Bajaj is claiming that you can "Feel like God," "feel supreme," "feel immortal," and "f

eel above all" when you ride their 16hp Kawasaki Eliminator-derived cruiser. Royal Enfield's "Everybody Makes Way for the Bullet" ads are every bit as silly. Check it out on YouTube. India is trying to take up where Honda left off in the late 60's. You have to give them credit for trying.

Sccoters are Safer?

Liev Schreiber and John Stewart reminisced about the good old days when Steward rode babe on the back of Schreiber's motorcycle. Now, "because of the kids," Schreiber rides a Vespa because, as everyone knows, two little wheels are way safer than two big wheels. Of course, his press photo shows him posed on the little thing with a shopping bag dangling from the left grip, his face shield flipped up and the helmet unbuckled. "Because of the kids," indeed.

Anti-Rotation Helmet

Lazer Helmets has introduced a significant improvement in modern helmet design, called "SuperSkin" or "PHPSTM - Phillips Head Protection System." This helmet liner material is fixed to the surface of the shell, but allows the interior of the helmet to slide during the initial period (15mS) of impact, preventing "rotational impact to the brain." Lazer claims that this design can significantly reduce brain injury due to hemorrhage.

California Gets Closer to Requiring EPA-Labeled Pipes

The California state legislature is a step closer to approving Senate Bill 435, which would require bikes built after January 1, 2013 to use only EPA-approved exhaust system components (which has been federal law since 1978). The AMA is fighting this and proposing its "model legislation" version of a system that would require complicated individual field testing by law enforcement.

The EcoTough® Piston

A US company, Federal-Mogul Corporation, is hyping a new design for an old device: a "coated piston for gasoline engines that combines the properties of low wear and low friction in a single application." Their claim is that the piston coating (made from "solid lubricants, including graphite, molybdenum disulfide (MoS2) and carbon fiber") can reduce fuel consumption by 0.8% and improve CO2 emissions.

Sep 2, 2010

Product Review: Aerostich Compact Tire Repair Kit with Mini Compressor

All Rights Reserved © 2010 Thomas W. Day
The question is, "Can a motorcyclist visit Duluth and not stop at RiderWearhouse?"
The answer is, "Probably not."
On our 43rd anniversary trip this summer, my wife and I planned a cage trip to Duluth to escape the August heat. There was no motorcycle component to this trip because she isn't a comfortable passenger and that week offered exceptionally uncomfortable weather; afternoon temperatures above 100oF and thunderstorms in the evening.
However, I'd received an Aerostich sale email earlier that week advertising a bit off of the tire repair kit and a disappointing experience with my Mini Foot Pump convinced me that yet another piece of modern technology belonged in my emergency bike tools kit.
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The Aerostich Compact Tire Repair Kit is exactly that; compact and a complete tire repair kit. Aerostich has stuffed at least 10 pounds of kit into a 5 pound bag, with accommodations for even more if you have the space. I don't. The storage space I have on my V-Strom is exactly right for the area taken up by my old foot pump and my new 'stich kit. No more and I'm serious about that. In fact, my only complaint about this kit is that, like practically everything I buy, getting it all back in the packaging as neatly and compactly as the factory could probably use a manual. If I were to do it over again, I'd take a picture of the pump as I removed it from the extremely well-designed stuff bag. I didn't, so I wrestled with putting it all back together after my first use.
The Aerostich Compact Tire Repair Kit contains a nice set of tube and tubeless tire repair tools, three connector sets to wire the electric pump to your electrical system, and a very compact 12VDC air compressor with enough wire and 26" of hose to get you to either tire from either end of any bike, a power switch, and a carbiner to clip to a convenient attachment to relieve strain from the compressor wiring. The well-made stuff sack has 4 small outer pockets to hold other tools, like a flashlight and tire gauge, if you have the real estate for that on your bike.
The Aerostich catalog claims this is "the smallest and most packable tire kit available" and at 1.2 pounds and a packed size of 7"x3"x5.25" I have no reason to argue with them. My old foot pump took up about the same space in the rear cowling of my V-Strom, but when it came time to fill a dead flat 150/70R-17 rear tire the foot pump completely failed the task. Repairing and refilling an equally flat 110/80R-19 took about 45 minutes and 40 of that was finding the nail, pulling it, and plugging the hole. From the moment I pulled off the handy and huge rubber band, untangled the pump wiring, and inserted the valve adapter, it took less than 5 minutes (end-to-end) to fill the tire and put away the tools. The tire's rim seal had not broken and if that were the case the fill-up would be more difficult.
As usual, I give this product the usual five-star recommendation for all things Aerostich. Nice work, guys. Now, I just have to explain to my wife why stopping at RiderWearhouse is part of an anniversary celebration.

Aug 29, 2010

Following the Leader

"If all your friends jumped off a bridge then would you too?" I must have answered this question a million times when I was a kid, followed by asking my own kids the same question two decades later. In a recent column, Kevin Cameron despaired at ever again seeing new technology because all of the good ideas in motorcycle engineering have been polished and repeated on every brand of motorcycle and, now, every bike has every good idea incorporated in its design.

I just got home from a week trip to meet my new grandson. When I opened the kitchen door, I discovered a red, gory, bloody smear all over my kitchen floor.

As we were leaving the house, my wife or I did something in the refrigerator and when we closed the door the pressure cracked open the freezer door. During the week, everything in the freezer thawed and melted and distributed itself all over the kitchen. This is a fairly new refrigerator, purchased a couple of years ago by my wife with absolutely no input from me. She got a deal on it, but the several hundred dollars of food I tossed probably wiped out any savings she might have realized.

It's a Maytag and like all of the Maytag appliances we've ever owned, it is a piece of crap. My bet is, if the Maytag repairman really doesn't get much work, it's because his phone number is unlisted. All he'd need to do to get busy would be to do a Google search on the words "Maytag sucks" and 44,400 hits later he'd be occupied for several generations. The door gaskets on the refrigerator are magnetic and they are worthless; dissolving into cracked plastic junk in the first year. The temperature varies like a Minnesota spring. The shelves are fragile and expensive. After a year, the only real "feature" the refrigerator provided--quiet operation--vanished and the damn thing sounds like an electric Harley. The appliance claimed to be energy efficient, but I have found no evidence of that. Pissed off and ready to impulse buy, I went to the local appliance store looking for a real refrigerator with real door latches. There are none. Every idiot engineer on the planet has decided that those weak-assed magnetic gaskets serve as perfectly sufficient latches. I couldn't find a single refrigerator at any price that uses a mechanical latch. So, I'm stuck with my POS Maytag until I find an alternative.

This experience started me ques
tioning how well motorcycle and other engineered devices have sorted themselves out through the "never reinvent the wheel" philosophy of design. For example, in my other field of employment pro sound systems have all gone the way of small speaker, array systems with compact and high-power-absorbing sub-woofers and lots of electronics to compensate for the flawed theory behind arraying speakers for efficiency. Everyone in the industry makes these systems and they all sound like crap. If you have been to a large venue rock concert in the last decade, you have experienced the wonder of array speaker design. If my car system sounded as bad as the best of these aural disasters, I'd yank it out and sing to myself for entertainment. Rather than sound quality being the goal, sound companies lusted for light weight and small transportation requirements and the result is an industry that is driving its customers away in droves.

Engineers aren't all brilliant. I had that fact reinforced during my stint in medical devices. Some are barely capable of cutting and pasting someone else's design into their company's drafting format. Some can't rise to that low bar. Companies are even lazier. Instead of nurturing young engineers and developing a corporate culture of design and creativity, most engineering companies simply raid the engineering departments of their competitors for solutions. This results in an industry with carbon-copy products and "inventive" design departments that wrangle over color combinations and the cosmetics of bend angles rather than actual engineering issues. Many of these engineering departments are more like dress designers than product inventors.
"Alright, Mr. Wiseguy," said Douglas Adam's marketing girl when his character complained about how long it was taking to release the wheel for use, "if you're so clever, you tell us what colour it should be."

This isn't a problem I'm proposing to resolve. In fact, I'm heading toward retirement and entropy as fast as I can gather the momentum. However, it does make me suspect that a good deal of invention is left to be done. I don't think many large corporations are up to the task, but maybe a good old fashioned long-term depression will rectify that serious error in cultural design. In the meantime, I'm buying a pair of childproof latches to keep my crappy Maytag refrigerator's door shut.

Aug 7, 2010

Extravagant Methods and Extreme Results

According to the JR Central Japan Railway Company statistics, the high speed Tōkaidō Shinkansen holds the record as the world's most used high-speed rail line. The train averages 151 million passengers per year (March 2008) and since the inception of the rail line the Tōkaidō Shinkansen has carried over 6 billion passengers.

I thought about this fact as I rode across parts of the Rockies in July. In a discussion about alternative transportation systems, Kevin Cameron wrote, "The Japanese high-speed trains tear up their roadbeds so rapidly that track alignment machines have to make frequent passes. Such machines put down big hydraulic elephant feet, grip the rails, and then using vibration jerk them into better alignment. Those trains are more of a hood ornament than a practicality - like the Moscow subway."

As I rode down well-maintained highways in rural South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah and passed through hundreds of miles of "men at work" sign-dotted roads under repair, I wondered who's system is really a hood ornament? In the United States, we dive off of the deep end of rationality to protect individuality. We use massive taxpayer investment to protect the "rights" of the few individuals who can afford to live and work in places that have little-to-no socioeconomic justification. These highways require constant maintenance and every couple of years they are ripped up and rebuilt, mostly because the earth itself tears them up.

One Wyoming path we traveled constantly brought me back to the conversation with Kevin. It started with US18 at Redbird, turned into WY 270 toward Lance Creek, and ended back on US18 through Lost Springs and eventually reconnected us to I25 at McKinley. 91 miles of nothing: no population, no industry, no traffic, and damn little justification for a well-maintained road. On top of that economic insult, most of the 270 section had been gouged by someone dragging a piece of equipment down the middle of the west-side lane, cutting a 1-2" deep, 8" wide gash into the asphalt. This section, in fact, is where I began to suspect I had a suspension problem. Each time I crossed that gouge, the bike "skipped" its front tire across the damaged section and chattered for several feet until settling down.

The technology required to build and maintain a road in this abandoned place is unjustifiable. If a system that has transported 6 billion people is a "
hood ornament," what is an investment in rural highways that probably wouldn't serve 6 billion people in 6 million years? At best, this area might deserve a gravel road maintained by the taxpayers of the county and state. It might be inconvenient for the local farmer(s?) to have to drive something less manicured than a personal interstate highway, but since it wouldn't matter at all to the rest of the country if this inconvenience turned into a disaster I have no interest in that justification.

Roads like this are nothing more than the result of pork-barrel politics and they exist all over the country. As a taxpayer, I resent them. As a motorcyclist, I really resent them.

The only traffic I saw in nearly 100 miles of this route were three motorcyclists; one traditional Harley couple and a pair of adventure touring BMWs. We passed the first Beemer about 10 miles into US18 and the second in the middle of 270. I was southbound, the BMWs were northbound, so I didn't have much opportunity to watch their interaction with the road. The Harley couple were, like us, heading toward Colorado. Wolf took some pictures of them, while they were in front of us, but they turned out poorly so they've hit the digital trashcan. Honestly, they seemed to be struggling with the wind and the occasional corner, but that's probably just my biased view. They were, however, traveling about 15mph below the speed limit, so we didn't spend a lot of time behind them.

I can't speak for the Harley pair, but I suspect the BMW riders were like me; picking an out-of-the-way route hoping for a little challenge. Instead, what we got was a manicured (if recently damaged) two-lane personal freeway that was hardly challenging and rarely interesting. Wolf and I had a few disappointments like that on our trip. Several of my favorites, including Pike's Peak, that used to be interesting, challenging gravel or dirt roads are turning into expensive, well-maintained, paved highways. If there is any road that rivals the Tōkaidō Shinkansen as an overpriced hood ornament, it has to be the highway to the top of Pike's Peak (or Mt. Evans, which has been paved to the top for decades). The girlymen of the world are ruining all the good rides and I am sick of it. It's time to put a little cost-justification into highway construction (Republicans would call that "rationing") and ask a few reasonable questions before setting the asphalt fascists loose on every backroad in the country.

Aug 3, 2010

All the News that Didn't Fit

BMW's CBX
BMW appears to be infatuated with the company's concept bike, the K 1600 GT and the K 1600 GTL. The 160 bhp compact in-line six-cylinder engine, features ride-by-wire fuel-injection and traction control, Duolever and Paralever suspension with Electronic Suspension Adjustment, a TFT displayed control console feature GPS, an audio system, Bluetooth, and an iPod interface, and lots of customization options. So far, the model is still in the concept stage, but BMW is committed to producing this luxury motorcycle in the very near future.

Cruising for Ducati
Tom Cruise prominently rode a Ducati Hypermotard in his most recent movie, "Knight and Day." However, when he demonstrated his motorcycle abilities for publicity photos he chose to pose on a lighter Aprilia SXV. I wonder how Ducati felt about Cruise shilling for a competitor's product after they spent so much money product-placing their brand in Cruise's movie? Maybe they are happy it was a box office bust.

Looking Under Motorcyclist's Skirt
Motorcyclist Magazine's readers got an interesting look at the inner workings of a major motorcycle magazine this month. As a result of Dexter Ford's reporting of motorcycle helmet testing standards in a New York Times article, he was fired as a staff writer for Motorcyclist Magazine. After editor Brian Catterson commented on the reasons for Ford's termination, Ford apparently fired back by releasing the text of email conversations between himself and Catterson: http://www.mc24.no/getfile.php/Innhold/Bransje/DFemail-2.pdf.

Many readers were upset to learn that equipment manufacturers were able to wield so much editorial clout in a major magazine. That portion of the story revolved around helmet manufacturers, Arai and Shoei, pulling advertising because of the criticism Ford made of Snell standards. If an major magazine is afraid to criticize flawed safety standards, why should readers trust their product reviews?

The World Considers Motorcycling's Future
This year's EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) discussion featured a discussion titled "MYMOSA: The pros and cons of motorcycles." MYMOSA stands for "MotorcYcle and MOtorcyclist SAfety," a European Union research project that evaluated motorcycle efficiency, environmental concerns, and safety compared to other vehicles. MYMOSA was relatively motorcycle friendly, but the discussion was often not so sociable.

"I actually wonder why you are saying that the motorcycle industry is going to help with sustainability," said Christian Siegmund, an engineer and panel participant. "Those companies have shown no motivation to reduce emissions or noise... And the way they market them encourages people to drive in a way that is not at all fuel efficient. . .

"I came to this session because I'm a motorcycle enthusiast. But the motorcycle is not the answer for sustainability. They are dangerous and inconvenient to use on a daily basis. They should be talking about improving public transportation if sustainability is the goal."

Industry representatives appeared to be unprepared to respond to comments like this.

Why Did the Bear Cross the Road?
To meet motorcyclists, why else? A bear crossing a New Jersy highway met a motorcyclist, up close. The motorcyclist was treated for minor injuries and the bear returned to the woods to convalesce.

Kitty Lube
For $33/liter, you can lube your car with Agip Hello Kitty SAE 5W-30 synthetic. Why just for cars, motorcycle are cuter than cars?

Motorcycles and Bicycles Mix Catastrophically
Lance Armstrong and dozens of Tour de France competitors crashed after an earlier motorcycle crash had left oil on the road, which mixed with water creating a disaster for the bicyclists. Armstrong finished the race with a road-rashed thigh and an elbow injury. France's Sylvain Chavanel was one of the few riders to escape the mass spill and, although he began the stage in 87th place, took top place in the 125-mile stage and reorganized the positions of the race's leaders as a result. Two Americans and a New Zealander were briefly hospitalized for injuries.

Jul 30, 2010

Photo Trip Report



This trip was all about Wolf. The whole point was to take him on a tour of places he'd never been and to enjoy being with him on the ride. So, there wasn't much of a trip report accompanying this adventure.

The map (at right) describes two routes: the one we planned (purple) and the one we took (red). Garmin's Mapquest software says we travelled 3400 miles. My GPS and odometer put the trip at closer to 3600 miles. Our original route was 4100 miles and included New Mexico and Arizona.

Obviously, we bypassed some of the adventure we'd planned; in favor of ease and comfort. Wolfe is a Minnesota kid and he isn't fond of heat. After a few days of cooking in 100+F South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah heat, he decided he wasn't all that interested in the Grand Canyon. So, that changed the western edge of our route. Once we passed Grand Junction, CO, I decided I wanted to see more of the western edge of CO. That was a terrific move.

We took a couple of days at Mesa Verde and Durango, which meant we wouldn't be doing New Mexico. That allowed us to head for Marble, CO via the scenic route I've never looped the Black Canyon and that was more than worth the effort. We spent a half day in Marble, another good move. We took Independence Pass through Aspen on our way to Buena Vista, something I've never been able to do; mostly because the pass always seemed to be closed when I lived in CO. That was a great move. We blew almost a whole day in Buena Vista, rafting the Arkansas. We split Buena Vista mid-afternoon, early enough to ride to the top of Pikes Peak. Always a great move.

We loafed for two days in Manitou Springs and Denver. Wolf had dinner at South Park's infamous Casa Bonita. We split Denver late afternoon Friday in the middle of Denver's rush hour and made it a dinky 150 miles to Sterling for the night. The next day, we cut out of Sterling at 5AM and diagonal'd Nebraska to make good time while seeing the sandhills, the grasslands, and Ashfall Fossil Park. After that, we just hammered out a way home, 850 miles total on Saturday.

We made it back about 10:30PM and neither of us went straight to bed. We had a great, safe trip and it was one of the most fun mini-adventures of my life. I hope we get to do a few more of these.

Jul 27, 2010

Highway IQ

All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day

I stare into every car, truck, van, or SUV that shares the roadway with me. Women probably think I'm checking them out. Sometimes there might be an element of that. I'm human. I stare at guys just as often, though. No matter what they think, I'm not checking them out. I am stereotyping them, though. I know that's politically incorrect, but there it is. Like the marketing gurus say, "impressions are everything." Or "image," something like that. I don't have time to get to know these people. I'm not even interested in doing so. I just want to know, as quickly as possible, what kind of hazard they present to me. Cops call this "profiling." Lawyers get really upset at this practice. So sue me.

The average person has an IQ of 100 points. I grant that and start from there. My built-in point system adds or subtracts from that number almost as quickly as I can make out the interior of the vehicle. From there, I either disregard the driver, more or less, as a threat or apply evasive tactics to get as much distance between me and the hazard. The dumber the driver, by my IQ accounting system, the quicker I want to escape their sphere of disaster influence. You probably do the same thing, either more or less aggressively than me.

  • Driver is in a 4(or more)-wheel vehicle: -5 points (How smart do you have to be to drive a cage?)

  • Driver is a cop. This class of government official has an inflated sense of driving skill, not reflected in performance. They are prone to make sudden, irrational moves when their radio distracts them. They regularly ignore stop signs and stop lights. They scare the crap out of other drivers, making everyone in their vicinity a little less skilled and attentive: -10 points.

  • Coffee, hairbrush, and/or cigarette in hand: -15 points for each item

  • Driver is tipped at 45 degrees, so that his (always a guy) head is right under the rear view mirror: -20 points (This appears to be a Minnesota thing, because I've never seen it anywhere else, but it always means the driver is drunk, stupid, physically incapable of holding himself upright, or all three. I treat this driving posture as a flashing "beware of idiot!" sign.)

  • Backwards baseball cap, blue hair, cowboy hat, or ski mask on driver's head: -25 points

  • Coffee in face or driver is most often looking in any direction other than the vehicle's path of travel: -30 points

  • Driver looking at self in rearview mirror with hairbrush, coffee, or cigarette in hand: -40 points

  • Cell phone in use or beer in hand: -50 points

  • "Start Seeing Motorcycles" or other pro-biking sticker on the vehicle: +2 points

  • I catch the driver's eyes in the rear view mirror: +10 points

  • After seeing me once, the driver looks again every few moments to see if I'm still there: +10 more points

  • Both hands on wheel, head and eyes in motion: +25 points

  • The driver is towing a trailer full of dirt bikes: +50 points

After I've made the above calculations and classifications, I use a modified version of the David Roth (ex-Van Halen frontman, current-EMT-has-been) crowd intelligence rule. I roughly count the number of vehicles in a 100' distance, front to back and both sides, of the vehicle and divide the driver's IQ by that number. In heavy traffic, everyone is a menace to my safety, almost by logical default. I'm the least likely vehicle on the road to harm the passengers of another vehicle, so I'm in the logical space for an escape route for other vehicles.

Just to calibrate your appreciation of my scoring system, an article in Scientific American Magazine once stated, ""Adults in the bottom 5% of the IQ distribution (below 75) are very difficult to train and are not competitive for any occupation on the basis of ability. . . " and "Persons of average IQ (between 90 and 100) are not competitive for most professional and executive-level work but are easily trained for the bulk of jobs in the American economy. . . " That's pretty cold, isn't it? Nature and the highway are cold as the floor of an icehouse. As far as my own survivability is concerned, a web article on IQ gave me the following information about the brainpower behind the numbers and I've added my own "Estimated Driving Skills" column to assess my own risk based on the driver's IQ:

IQ RangeEstimated Driving Skills (Alert Level Color Code)
Below 30Flashing Red: This driver is clearly an unpredictable moron, an outrageous hazard at any speed, expect any damn idiot move from this rolling example of chaos theory. Ultimate alert.
30 to 50Red: Mostly unpredictable, slow-witted, prone to panic and irrational lane changes. High alert.
50 to 60Orange: Unless a slight change in traffic, road condition, or the moon's position relative to the sun occurs, you can probably count on this driver to remain stable. Check for distracted behavior every second or two.
60 to 74Yellow: Loud noises, bright colors, anything sparkly or in motion will distract this driver, but he/she will probably do something mildly predictable when panic occurs. Moderate alert.
74 to 89Blue: Mostly, this driver is stable. Pay special attention to this driver at intersections, on curves, and near fast food entrances. Fairly low alert.
89 to 100Green: Probably not a risk, if anyone else in the above categories is sharing the road, this driver warrants minimal attention. I'd still avoid spending any time in an adjacent lane with this driver.
Above 100Invisible: The chances are slim that this driver provides much risk. Based on past experience, one of these guys will probably be who kills me.

I realize these generalization are culturally "unfair," "biased," and even irrational. They are based on my nearly half-million miles of motorcycling and they are habitual. I constantly and automatically balance my belief that most people are decent and well-intentioned and that most drivers are nuts and "out to get me." My riding state boarders on paranoia, I'll admit. My confidence in my ability to deal with these contradictions varies with the road conditions and my concentration. You'd think that this would take the fun out of riding a motorcycle and it does put a damper on outright highway euphoria, but I'm disinclined to that mental state as you might have noticed. Riding a motorcycle is risky and that's part of the attraction. However, there is a definite line between assuming risk and committing suicide and evaluating the folks I share the road with is part of my risk assessment.