Dec 27, 2018

To Whose Eyes?

Wired's catchy title for this article was "It Looks Like a Motorcycle, but Yes, It's an E-Bike." Nothing about this eBike looks like a motorcycle to my eyes. It mostly looks like a woman's bicycle. What am I missing?

"The minute you see an Elby bike, the difference between it and a standard bike is obvious. 'Is that even a bicycle?' my daughter’s preschool teacher asked, when I wheeled the Elby into the hallway. It looks more like a motorcycle.'" Now I get it, the great cataloger of all things engineered is a preschool teacher. We all know how educumacated preschool teachers are. At $3k, it better look like something hipper than a Walmart eBike.

 I suppose a preschool teacher and Wired writer probably think motorcycles still look like this.

Dec 26, 2018

Face-Planting Across the Ages

350bhornIt was spring 1971 and I was well on my way into parenthood at 23 years old, a trade school dropout, living in Hereford, Texas and working 80-90 hours a week at $3.25 an hour servicing the electronic scales on cattle feed trucks. What a life! One of my new friends at my new job turned me on to a deal on a 1970 Kawasaki F5 Bighorn 350. It didn’t take long and, if I wasn’t stuck behind the wheel of the company Chevy C10 pickup blasting my way from one feedlot to the next, I was on that motorcycle. It was my first 2-stroke and the first bike I seriously tried to prep for off-road racing. 28 raging horses with a rotary valve fueled motor, a 5-speed transmission, electronic ignition, aluminum wheels, Hatta forks (at least 3” of travel), lime green paint job, and . . . lights. I don’t think Kawasaki advertised the weight. Maybe metric weights and measures numbers don’t get that big. If it was less than 400 pounds, wet, I’d be astounded.

70s helmetMy last gasps of freedom before becoming a father and really needing to rack up overtime at work would be two races: the Canadian River Cross-Country Race and a state series motocross in Dalhart, Texas. The Canadian River race was first and I was “preparing” for that race by blasting across the Texas plains on some friend’s property every spare evening could get away from work. Helmets were optional at most Midwestern 60’s motorcycle events and I had one, a gold metal flake open face unit just like the one in the picture at left. But I often took it off when I got where I was going because riding off road was “so much safer than being on the highway.” Everybody knows that, right? It, honestly, wasn’t much of a helmet and the only reason I owned it was because the rancher who sold me the motorcycle included the helmet. When I arrived at the field where I often practiced riding fast, I would sometimes take off the helmet and stick it on a fence post to be picked up when I got back from playing racer.

One weekend afternoon, I snuck out of work and rode my Kawasaki to the practice field and for whatever reason I popped the gate loop, rode through the gate, reattached the loop, and headed into the field with my helmet still on my head. I rode around the field for a long while and after I tired of going fast, spinning around in dirt-bomb circles, and racing down the dry creek bed on the property, I decided to practice jumping big rocks. The Canadian River race was notorious for having rock piles that had to be either ridden over or you had to drag your bike across the rocks or take the long way up the river bank and back down, hoping you didn’t miss a check point in the process. Some of those river banks were a long trip up, around, and back down. If you could do it, hopping over the rocks trials-style was the way to go and I needed a lot of practice if I would be able to use that tactic in the race.

The Bighorn’s 350 motor was an unpredictable bitch. You never really knew what would happen when you opened up the throttle. Plus or minus a hundred rpm at 3,000 rpm would be the difference between flipping over backwards or charging full speed ahead without enough torque to clear a dime under the front wheel. Hopping logs and rocks on that bike required a lot of clutch and throttle work. I was having a pretty good day working on the technique when I suddenly wasn’t. I’d been working a fairly large pointy rock from several angles when I got the full speed ahead torque-less response and slammed my front tire solidly into the rock, launching me over the bars head-first into the rock, flipping over that and landing on my back in a pile of goatheads. I remember hearing something that sounded like gunshot just before the lights went out.

The day I wake up and can’t remember where I am or who I am will be sponsored by the many times I’ve been concussed in my life. This was one of those times.

I don’t know how long I lay on my back in the goatheads, but it was long enough that when I decided to rejoin the west Texas population of humanoids my shirt was covered in blood. I managed to get to my feet, pull the Bighorn upright and swing a leg over it, and sit there semi-balanced for a bit longer until I remembered where I was and how to get out of there. By that time, my lime green gas tank was blood red. I was really losing a lot of blood and I didn’t know where it was coming from. I rode back to the gate, did the unloop and relooping thing, and rode to my friends’ house. I think I was hoping for a hose to clean myself and the bike off and a bandage for my lip. By then, I had figured out that I’d punched a hose clamp bolt (from the toolbag on my crossbar) through my upper lip. I could feel the wind on my teeth while I rode, even though my mouth was closed. It didn’t hurt much, yet, but I suspect it would soon.

I got to their house and, luckily for me, they were home. I freaked them out a good bit; looking like someone had taken an axe to my face. One of the couple was a nurse and she quickly realized that my face needed stiches and she did them right there in their kitchen. Six stiches, I think. While she was stiching up my face, he took a hose to the bike and my gear. About the time the nurse was applying iodine to her handiwork, he came into the kitchen with my helmet in his hands. “Was this from today?”: He pointed to a triangular-shaped hole in the center of the very top of my helmet.

“Nope. That’s something new.”

We loaded my bike into his pickup and drove out to where I was fooling around when I crashed into the rock and there was a lot of gold metal flake paint on the point of that rock. I must have been launched headfirst into the largest spearhead in Texas. It was a crappy helmet, but it wasn’t crappy enough to let that rock get through to my skull. That was the first time a helmet saved my life.

IMG_9575 Page forward to December 2018. I’m 70 and the only big moment in life I’m anticipating is my next bowel movement. No kids on the way and no demanding, unrewarding, dangerous as hell job to worry about. My grandson gave me his fairly worn-out eBike earlier this winter and I just got it back on the road.

I bought a new winter helmet, since my usual bicycle helmet is colder than wearing nothing and isn’t really much protection. When the mailman delivered the new helmet, I had a bunch of small errands to do and a bike ride on a 38oF December day seemed like the perfect excuse to go for a ride. I put on about 12 miles bombing around town and enjoying both the ride and my new much warmer gear (including some Bar Mitts I picked up at Red Wing Bicycle while I was downtown). Just to put some more miles on the battery and see what kind of range the bike had hauling my lard ass around town, I headed out the Cannon River Trail toward the Anderson Center at the west edge of town. I came to the gate that blocks all traffic except fat tire bikes (like mine), cross-country skiers, and hikers and scooted between the bars on to the trail.

IMG_9591I made it about 30’ on the partially melted slush and the front tire zipped out from under me and dumped me face-first into the road. The slush was soft and slippery, but didn’t provide any buffer between me and the asphalt path. If you look at the middle of the front of the helmet, you’ll see the nice new dent I put in my nice new helmet on its first day on my head. Once again, I was knocked punchy for a few moments, but not unconcious this time.

IMG_9589Once again, I punched a hole through my lip, but this time it was with a tooth. Once again, I coated my coat, pants, and bike with blood, but the hole was small and self-healed after a couple of hours. Weirdly, it leaked saliva all over my lip for a couple of days, but it didn’t swell up all that much and while it pretty much squashed any whistling I might have wanted to do it wasn’t that limiting otherwise. No serious kissing, please. I might have been able to whistle through the hole before it closed up, but I didn’t think to try. Too late now.

I wouldn’t have been out there on the snow if I hadn’t had the helmet, but I’d have been out there sometime this winter. You just have to ride snow sometime if you are going to live in Minnesota and be a biker. Once again, a helmet kept me from bashing my tiny brain out.

Dec 19, 2018

Helmet Testing in the Bicycle World

I just started riding a fat tire eBike this past week, after spending a month or so rejuvenating my grandson’s first eBike. The bike had suffered a couple of winters commuting regardless of the weather and needed a lot of going-over to be a dependable ride. Quickly, I discovered my regular bike helmet was worthless in cold weather. On the recommendation of a friend, I ordered a Lazer helmet a couple of days ago and just before I took off for a ride today it arrived. So, I took the time to adjust it and headed off to the bike trail.

IMG_9591I tend toward overconfidence (ask my wife) and on the way back from my safe and sane ride into town, I decided to take on a couple of miles of the unmaintained fat tire, cross country ski, and winter hiking trail. The trail was covered with about 2” of slushy snow and an ice base. I made it about 30 feet before the front tire slid out from under me and I slammed face-first into the slushy snow and pavement at, maybe, 10mph. Look at the dent in the front of the helmet, without the helmet that would have been my skull and I'd probably be dead. As it was, I really got my bell rung and punched a tooth most of the way through my lip.

The dealer, Wheel and Sprocket, didn't have to get the helmet to me before the 29th, but it arrived on the 19th and most likely saved my life. If I hadn't have tested the snow today, I'd have probably done it before the 29th. That's the kind of genius risk-taker I am.

IMG_9589What can you say about a product that absolutely saved your life? The last thing I ever want to do is to write a product test review of a helmet. It would be nice to get to talk about the features (excellent), the comfort and warmth (terrific), and the visibility (again, terrific). However, I decided to do an impact test. At the least, I tested the Lazer Snow Helmet and it passed. However, I might need a full face helmet if I keep doing stupid stuff like this. The picture, at left, is a selfie taken a few minutes after I got back home. Now, my lip is about 4X that thick and I have developed a cute little lisp, if you can get me to talk at all.

Dec 17, 2018

Thinking about Change

All Rights Reserved © 2015 Thomas W. Day

Every day and every place my wife and I traveled on our winter 2013-14 RV trip, motorcyclists were rare and, too often, obnoxious. The more I see of us, the less I think we’re a sustainable group. The only bright light in two-wheeled transportation is electric. Not that I’ve seen much in electric two-wheeled transport this winter, but there has been more than enough signs of coming electric vehicles to keep me interested. Obviously, the good old Toyota Prius is ever-present, even in surprisingly backwards, backwoods areas. Smart guys, like our Elephant Butte, New Mexico friend and VW-rescuer, Victor Cano-Linson (Big Victors Automotive), are thinking about how their repair business will change as we move from internal combustion engines to electric motors. All of a sudden, you find public charging stations in the most unlikely places and more are popping up almost while most of us are pretending change isn’t coming. 
 
But it’s happening anyway. Regardless of how hard the Koch brothers and other 1% scumbags try to stop it, the power grid is about to make a giant leap into the 21st Century. It’s probably too late and far too little to stop the kind of climate disaster we’re just beginning to experience, but the fact that we’re scraping the bottom of the oil barrel in places like North Dakota’s Baaken “Reserves” [If we’re mining them today, they aren’t exactly being “reserved” for the future, are they?] is evidence that the century of prosperity the oil economy created is running out of gas; literally. The only question is, “Are we going to be part of the future or are motorcycles this century’s horse-and-buggy?” 
 
At 70, it’s not my job to be part of the future and after my last eight medical-problem-ridden-years I feel even less pressure to be futuristic. Still, it’s hard to ignore the kind of advances that have been made in electric vehicles. My hot buttons, for example, have been addressed and resolved: economy and reliability/longevity. Once I believed the Prius Achilles Heel would be battery longevity; electric motors are pretty well shaken out and it’s hard to imagine those motors squeezing much more than their current 99% efficiency from new technology. Turns out, Toyota not only pretty well sorted out the battery problem, they were smart enough to build the batteries in cells so “replacement” didn’t always mean replacing the whole battery pack. I've met several Prius owners who are heading toward 300,000 trouble-free miles and their cars look barely used. A few years back, I wrote about the tendency of technologies to get really good a few moments after they became obsolete (A Technological Dead End?). Tesla's Powerwall/Powerpack have changed all sorts of games, regarding what batteries can do. With battery life stepping up, efficiencies improving, competition and availability increasing, and energy production shifting (at least everywhere else in the industrialized world) from oil-based technologies to alternative energy, the writing is on the wall. One of the sad facts about being a conservative nation is that we are going to be among the last to accept change, but change comes regardless of human resistance; especially in a competitive world. 
 
For the last three years, I’ve been thinking hard about owning one of the electric motorcycles available in the US: Zero or Brammo. Zero makes a model aimed very close to my heart and Brammo did some cool stuff with battery replacement and performance; before the geniuses at Polaris decided to kill the product line. It’s a tough call, but I may be swapping a couple of 250’s for an electric bike soon. The added advantage of knowing that my “fuel costs” will be included in the camping fees we’re charged at electric sites this coming winter is a small bonus. At this moment, I’m leaning toward the Zero, but I’m open to suggestions. This winter, while I put away my two carbon-pukin internal-combustion powered bikes, I'm thinking when spring comes there might be some changes made in my garage.


Dec 16, 2018

My New Ride

IMG_9575IMG_9576

I’m still an eBike rookie, but I finally got all of the necessary pieces to put this baby on the trail and I went out for a 10 mile test ride today. With a “warm” (38F) Minnesota December day to enjoy, I hit the trail from our place to downtown Red Wing, about an 8 mile round trip. I averaged 16mph over snow and a little ice on the Cannon River Trail and had about as much fun as I’ve ever had on a bicycle.

The bike, a Rad Power Radrover, is a blimp; about 70 pounds with the fenders, heavy duty rear rack, and mirror added aftermarket. It doesn’t feel like that on flat land. Those 4” fat tires are surprisingly low resistance, even though I ran my first ride with 15 pounds in the tires in case the snow and ice was a problem. That was a surprise, because the tires look and feel like they ought to really produce some drag. I do not understand why they don’t. I’m a lard ass, at 220 pounds, and the bike’s max range, 40 miles, is probably not something I can count on, but today’s ride didn’t take much out of the battery capacity.

I mostly rode in Pedal Assist System (PAS) modes 2 (Eco) and mode 4 (Power). Lower mode numbers indicate less assistance from the motor. Max speed for an eBike is typically 20mph and the speedo indicated around 19.5-19.8mph for my Sunday ride. My GPS logged an average 18mph (moving) for the trip and there were a lot of spots where I slowed down for ice on the trail. I’d guess 90% of the ride was in mode 2, but I switched up to mode 4 when I crossed Highway 61 and for a couple of uphill bits downtown. Other than those quick getaways at lights and intersections, I pedaled the whole trip.

The exercise I got from this ride was surprising. When I swung off of the bike in my garage, my legs were downright rubbery. I was actually surprised to be tired because I didn’t notice it until I had to walk. While there isn’t as much pressure required to pedal the bike with the motor assistance, the cadence is way up from my usual 70-something rate.

I am absolutely happy with having an eBike to experiement with this winter. Now, I gotta buy a winter helmet and a better bike lock.

Dec 3, 2018

One Too Many Minds

All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day

too-many_minds 2In my early twenties, I decided that horseback riding and me were a bad fit. For most of you, that wouldn’t be a big decision. For me, it was an end to a fairly significant part of my personal history. I’d ridden horses since I was a little kid, since one of my uncles owned a large eastern Kansas ranch and always had a couple dozen working horses on his property. That uncle was enough of a role model that I still like digging post holes to this day, because he taught me how to use that tool. Growing up in Dodge City, Kansas loving western movies and real rodeos (and I still do), at one time I assumed I’d be riding off into the sunset on a horse. For at least 30 years, I had a horseback trip from Kansas to Alaska on my bucket list. Sometime between moving to California in the 80's and 2007 when I rode my V-Strom to Alaska, the horse and pack-mule plan disappeared from the list.
too-many_minds 3 
I didn’t quit liking horses. Horses and mules are terrific animals: dependable, brave, funny, loyal, and a smarter than a lot of humans. I just don’t like them well enough to maintain one and I’m not smart enough to cope with equine psychology. The phrase “eats like a horse” is no joke. A full grown horse eats about 20 pounds of food a day (or about $6/day and $2,000/year). A vet bill averages about $1,500/year and you can spend way more than that in a blink of a blink of a pink eye. Horses are intelligent enough to unlatch gates and disassemble fences and they definitely know how to get back to the barn where there is food and a roof over their heads, regardless of where I want them to go. Getting a horse to agree on a destination is not much different from preventing a corporate executive from destroying a business; it's practically impossible. It's also not worth the effort. You have to really love the relationship between a horse and a human to make that commitment and I'm not that guy. I like horses the same way I like giraffes, zebras, gazelles, and buffalo. I'm glad to share the planet with them, but I don't need a personal relationship.

I took a couple of trips this summer with friends. Mostly, I had a good time hanging out and nothing bad happened on either trip. However, both excursions left me wondering why people travel in packs of motorcycles. Not to beat a horse post-termination, but economically it makes no sense for 2-20 people to ride to the same destinations at the same speed on 2-20 vehicles that burn 25-50 gallons per mile each. Do the math. You'd always be better off renting a bus or driving your own vehicle with all seats stuffed. Motorcycles are awesome solo vehicles, especially small, versatile motorcycles that can go places cages can't and do it more efficiently. My Yamaha WR250X, even with it's mediocre 50-60mpg fuel consumption, is an amazing touring bike. It's hard to imagine a road that would be too difficult for even an old man like me to explore.

Riding in a group is way too much like riding a horse. Too many minds to keep track of at a point in my life (a point that has lasted for most of my life) when I can barely remember what I’m doing, let alone what someone else is about to do that will complicate my situation. Almost a decade ago, I started my Alaska trip with a friend who is a very competent rider and a spectacularly nice guy. At the time, riding more than 50 miles with someone else was a rare event for me. I had more than a half-million two-wheeled miles under my belt and I suspect less than 5,000 of that came in any sort of group riding situation. (For most purposes, I consider two people in any sort of closed space to be a "crowd" and any more than that to be a rampaging hoard of mindless savages. My tolerance for my fellow human expands considerably outdoors where I can deal with a half-dozen people before I want to slink into the woods.) While he was constantly trying to get me to "pair up," I was a lot more comfortable with about a mile between us. He almost never used his brakes to slow down and when he did it was because he'd overshot his intended turn and that often resulted in a full-panic stop for me. My reason for the trip was to sightsee and take my sweet time for thirty days in the first extended vacation of my 61 years of life. He had two weeks to get to Alaska, tick off a list of destinations, and get back to work. For about a week, we knocked off 800-1,000 mile days and I was having almost as much fun as being at work. After the Yukon's Dempster Highway bit me in the ass, we parted ways so he could get back to ticking off his targets and I could take a day off for a bush plane trip over Alaska's permafrost swamps with my son-in-law's cousin. Over the next two weeks, I put in a few 1,000 mile days because I was riding in 23 hours of daylight. But I stopped when I wanted, took pictures of all sorts of silly crap, ate when I was hungry, and camped when and where I felt like spending a night. The first week of the trip was closer to frustrating than fun and the last three weeks were life-changing. 

 
Any time I see a pack of pirates or squids cruising on US61 or WI35, it’s pretty obvious that many of the members of those groups are hanging on for dear life without any hope of being able to make an evasive maneuver if one is required. Working to preserve their "formation," they wander all over the road, come to wobbly and unstable stops, and transform curves into random motion demonstrations. The whole “safety in numbers” delusion gets proven grossly wrong multiple times every summer. Group rides are always a significant contributor to motorcycle crashes, injuries, and deaths. Not that many years ago, one of Minnesota's safety instructors was killed when she fell down in an intersection and the rest of the pack ran over her! I've seen one rider wander off of the road into a ditch, followed by three other riders who apparently figured the ditch was part of the route. It's very difficult-to-impossible to decouple your ride from the rest of the group and as dangerous as motorcycling is adding group psychology to the task adds a whole new dimension to the risk. Personally, I don't see the attraction, let alone find anything in a group ride that repays the return-on-risk-investment. Group riding proves David Roth's theory of crowd intelligence: divide the smartest person in the crowd's IQ by the number of people in the crowd for the group IQ. I don't know anyone smart enough to correct for my contribution to that equation.