Dec 31, 2015

Book Review - Zen and Now

Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

ZEN_coverby Mark Richardson, 2008
All Rights Reserved © 2014 Thomas W. Day

    There are a lot of books with Minnesota for scenery and there are a lot of Minnesota authors, but there are only a few books, from anywhere, that change lives. Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is, unquestionably, one of those books. Minnesota is prominent in the original Zen and there are more than a few references to our home state in Zen and Now. Pirsig's life began here, both his technical writing and teaching career had roots in his life in Minnesota, and, for a time, he came back to Minnesota to live and write. Richardson follows that path, while creating his own Zen trip on a grossly overloaded 1980's Suzuki dual purpose bike. Richardson starts at the beginning, 458 Otis Avenue in St. Paul, and ends on the street in San Francisco where Chris Pirsig was murdered. For many of Zen and Pirsig's fans, too much of the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance portion of the story ended, sadly, with the author visiting the site of Chris' death and some of the motivation for Pirsig's self-imposed exile.
    I stumbled on to Zen and Now looking for something to use as a road map reference to Pirsig's original journey. The map you see at the bottom of this review was what I found and it is one of the few illustrations in Richardson's book. There have been more than a few times in my life when I needed a Zen trip to clear out the crap that naturally clutters the remains of my mind. Lots of reminders have arrived lately to inform me that the capacity to actually follow the Pirsig path is nearly at an end for me. If I'm going to do it, it will have to be soon.
    Richardson was approaching his 42nd birthday when he began his Zen mapped trip. Richardson packed his wife and two sons off for a visit with family in England and began a well-researched retracing of Robert and Chris Pirsig's trip from Minnesota to California about the same time of year as the original journey. It only takes a few pages of Zen and Now to realize you are reading a midlife crisis book. Far too many motorcycle books are about this subject and after Richardson has a drunken, near-carnal moment with a 21-year-old girl he met at a motel in Lemmon, South Dakota I was pretty much tired of Mark Richardson and his story. His self-absorption and arrogance were too damn familiar and uncomfortable, maybe. The trick to writing a travel/self-realization book is exposure. Essentially, you have to pull down your pants, stick your ass out the window, and moon people you might have to face the next day. Richardson did exactly that with this segment and he continues to make himself less perfectly likeable throughout Zen and Now. The point in downgrading himself as a protagonist might have been to illuminate the humanity and complexity of the people he meets along the way. If it was, it worked. If it wasn't, it still worked. A lot of the people Pirsig touched in his book are illuminated and fleshed-out in Zen and Now. Richardson’s timing was excellent. Some of those characters didn’t live much past his last contact with them. He is a sensitive and insightful writer and it would have been a shame not to get to know these people a little better.
    A side "trip" bonus from Zen and Now is the background story of Robert Pirsig and his family. I knew just enough about Chris’ short life to pretty much completely misunderstand the tragedy of his story. Cursed by being identified by fools as “that whiny kid,” Chris and his brother, Ted, had a tough time with adolescence. It is exceptionally sad for me to think that Chris was saddled with that along with his dysfunctional father. I don’t remember ever considering his book character as whiny. I will always think of him as a brave, overwhelmed, loving kid struggling to save and regain his father’s love and life. If you know of a more courageous thing for a kid to do, I probably don’t have the stomach to hear about it.
    Part of Richardson’s purpose in writing Zen and Now was to introduce new readers to an American classic novel and to inspire the rest of us to read it again or to the end for the first time. It worked for me.

Dec 28, 2015

My Motorcycles: Suzuki V-Strom 650

Me and Wee

All Rights Reserved © 2007 Thomas W. Day

basic_vstrom The concise, well-edited, more politically correct version of this article can be found at the Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly website:

Sport bikes, including the "standard" SV650, are for kids (meaning anyone under 40) and folks who have not abused their bodies into a pile of creaking, rusting, decaying bones. That's not me. I have owned an SV650 for almost 30,000 miles and, while I like the bike, I missed my more multi-purpose Yamaha 850 TDM many times, especially on long trips. Particularly, I missed the relaxed knee bend of the TDM's riding position and the long, soft suspension. Four hundred miles on the SV and my knees are seized, my neck feels like an Alien baby is trying to hatch from somewhere between the second and fourth vertebra, and my butt hurts so bad it's practically speaking to me. My longest day on the SV was about 820 miles from a campsite south of Thunder Bay to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and back to another campsite near Marquette, WI. Granted, the camping didn't allow much recuperation the next day, although I slept like a dead man. Still, I could barely walk upright for two days after I got home and my neck was all but paralyzed for a week. I didn't travel more than 350 miles in a day on the SV since.

When the Suzuki V-Strom 650 arrived, in 2004, I started thinking about buying a "WeeStrom."  That's the slightly disrespectful nickname given to the Suzuki V-Strom 650 by its owners. The DL650 is the little brother of the V-Strom 1000 and the multi-purpose cousin of the SV650. Even after my old-guy complaints, I like almost everything about the SV; particularly the motor. So, as soon as the V-Strom arrived I started watching for a good deal on a used bike.  

At the beginning of last summer, I found used V-Stroms with 50,000+ miles on the motor going for $5,500 and up. Mildly used bikes went for nearly $6,000, consistently. My brother talked to a bike broker and was warned, "You'll be waiting until 2008 before you get one of these guys (even a 2004 DL650) for your price." My price was the Kelly Blue Book value! However, I got lucky, late last fall (September, 2006). I bought a barely-used (1,400 miles) 2004 DL650 through eBay from a seller in Cincinnati. We swapped money and paperwork at the Cincinnati Amtrak station. After a brief side-trip to the station's parking lot where I got used to the handling, brakes, and taller, less-nimble (than the SV650) weight distribution, I pointed my black horse westward. After a few hundred miles, the V-Strom began to feel familiar and downright comfortable. It is a big bike, though, and many folks will not be able to get past the long-tall geometry of this motorcycle.

There are a bunch of things to take into consideration when you think of the advertised (versus the practical) purpose of an "Adventure Touring" motorcycle. I think this breed of bike is best represented (in the US) by the 1992 Yamaha TDM, or the Honda Transalp in 1988, or today's BMW F650GS, and the ever-present KLR650. Outside of less tangible issues, like the motor and handling characteristics, I think there are some basic things to consider about this type of bike. Here is a radically short list of the specs I think are among those basic items stacked up against five semi-similar mid-sized Adventure Touring bikes:



Weight (dry)

Seat Height


2004-07 Suzuki V-Strom 650

front and rear 5.9"

427 pounds


low pipe no bashplate

Kawasaki KLR650 (1987-07)

front and rear 9.1"

337 pounds


genuine high pipe & bashplate

BMW F650GS (1993-07)

front 6.5", rear 8.7"

391 pounds


genuine high pipe

Honda Transalp 650 (1988)

front 7.9", rear 6.8"

421 pounds


low pipe with bashplate

Yamaha TDM 850 (1992-3)

front 5.9", rear 5.24"

507 pounds


low pipe with bashplate

The DL650 is pretty middle-of-the-road, compared to that group of competitors with moderate suspension travel and an unprotected low pipe and other fragile appendages (oil and water coolers, and a very low-mounted oil filter). However, it is insanely comfortable, particularly compared to the most dirt-worthy of the genre and it has that great Suzuki 650 twin motor. Obviously, the V-Strom is likely to be less adventurous than most of these bikes and more comfortable on pavement.

The riding position is ergonomic for an old, over-weight, short guy. While the bike is a little tall, making gear-loaded mounting a little difficult, the seat height allows for dangling my legs as a stretch position on long rides. This eases the pain on old, worn out knees and adds a few hundred miles to my daily long-distance capability. The slightly-forward dirt bike riding position is exactly the reason I traded in my SV650 for the DL650. Unlike every other bike I've owned, I'm not motivated to replace the Suzuki seat, although there are several alternatives that many riders say are terrific improvements.  I did change out the Suzuki handgrips, though. The thin, unpadded stock grips beat my hands up, just like they did on the SV. I opt for Owry road grips and wrestled with the resulting hassle that comes with replacing Suzuki grips.

The brake lever is adjustable from a very short reach to pro basketball player distances. The clutch pull is light and the clutch is strong and predictable. The brakes are the best I've ever experienced. I had a reason to "test" the emergency braking on the way home from Cincinnati and I wasn't disappointed. You can lock up the wheels, but with careful brake application you can easily and safely haul the bike down from high speed to full stop.

That low pipe and a 5.9" ground clearance and suspension travel is a concern. Unless my math skills have deteriorated, using up all of the suspension means that there is absolutely no extra ground clearance for that low pipe. The seat height is a little tall, for a guy like me with a 29" inseam, but I got along ok on the TDM and I'll probably survive the V-Strom. The suspension limits also spells problems for those who decide to lower the seat height by dropping the suspension. The stock rubber is a Bridgestone Trailwing semi-street, 19" front and 17" rear. I like the V-Strom's 19" front tire, on the grounds that it will roll over obstacles rather than smack into them, but that size proves to be a little odd for tire replacements.

I'm a little nervous about maintaining the fuel injection, but the older I get the less eager I am to tweak a pair of carbs. Fuel injection does mean that all my sophisticated cold weather fuel supply routines are history. Even at 5oF, turn the key, hit the starter, and don't touch the throttle for effortless starting. The V-Strom's airbox has a large, flat filter and is moderately well protected from water, but since the intake is at the front of the box don't expect to make tank-deep water crossings without problems.

A piddling feature that I really like is the headlight flasher. It's handy for attracting the attention of vehicles in front of the bike, but it provides all kinds of possibilities for customizing (think "photon torpedo"). The electrics, in general are cool. For the first time in my motorcycling career, I have electronic fuel and temp gauges. The V-Strom has directional turn signal indicators on the instrument cluster, so I don't have to peer over the bars and through the levers and cables to see which way my flashers are flashing. The headlights are revolutionary, compared to everything I've owned to this point. Low beams light up the road better than the SV's brights. The high beams turn night into visible terrain.

vstrom_dayview A common complaint about the DL-650 is "helmet buffeting" due to the size and shape of the windshield. On my 800-mile trip home, wearing a Shoei X11 helmet, I didn't notice any such problem. When I got home, I occasionally wore a Schuberth flip-up which is in no way aerodynamic and is almost as noisy as wearing no helmet. With that fiberglass sail on my head, I immediately discovered what the complainers were complaining about.

All along the ride home, I was impressed by the V-Strom instrument panel's visibility and ergonomics. At night, it was even better. Without lighting as an excuse, I decided to try and make it home without a rest stop. At the end of 801 miles, I pulled into my driveway and dumped my gear and parked the bike the garage. I ate dinner, watched a movie with my wife, and went to bed. The next morning, my old aching neck problem reared its head, but I'd worn my courier bag the whole distance from Cincinnati to St. Paul and I think that was more the culprit than the V-Strom. The next day, I hung out with my grandkids, did yard work (more payback for the two days I wasn't home), and put in a normal day. Any disability displayed on Monday and thereafter was with me before the trip. I've done a couple of short, less than 100 miles, and the V-Strom is becoming a regular companion.

jim_bike Years ago, our editor commented that the most "custom" Harley would be one that is bone stock, since every Harley buyer starts putting "custom" geegaws on the bike before it leaves the showroom, creating an odd definition of "stock" that is as personal and original as an Old Navy outfit. I think the V-Strom suffers that same affliction. Browsing the Internet's V-Strom user sites provides a reader with a long litany of items that are "necessary" to make the bike ride-able: crash bars and centerstands, windshields and windshield brackets, suspension modifications, luggage, foot pegs, GPS and other electronics, and all kinds of cosmetic hardware. The V-Strom seems to be a marketer's wet dream: it's a Harley, a KLR, and a Goldwing all rolled into one accessory-mounting vehicle. I think it's possible to double your investment on a new DL-650 with bells, whistles, farkles, carbon fiber, and polished aluminum. At the far end of the add-on spectrum might be Jim Winterer's Iron Butt V-Strom, with every bell, whistle, and long-distance, comfort-enhancement imaginable. I have, also, fallen victim to the "it needs more" trap. My list of "gotta have it" accessories is at the end of this review.

jim_console At 4,000 miles, the seat is just beginning to break in. I've tweaked some of the adjustable bits to make the little guy more comfortable for me. At the advice of Jim Winterer, I raised the forks 1/2". That seemed to quicken up the steering slightly. For my tastes, the suspension came set too tight. It's probably just right for sporty motorcycle reviewers, but I'm on this bike for long trips on rough roads. I dropped the rear shock pre-load and lowered the fork preload to the 4th notch. That made the bike's ride squishier and more practical for crappy Minnesota highways and my favorite gravel road surfaces. However, with full touring gear, I cranked up the spring load on both ends to the max.

Maintenance is something Suzuki actually thought about, including a tank prop and a fuel shutoff connector that allows easy removal of the tank for filter and plug changes, valve adjustments, and general motor access. Suzuki should have made a center stand a stock item to complete the serviceability of the bike, but they sell one as an accessory. Most everything you need to get at is accessible with a few standard metric tools by removing a few plastic bits and pulling the seat and tank.

For 2007, Suzuki has updated the WeeStrom's color scheme (gray or blue) and added an ABS brake option. Otherwise, the bike remains mostly the same vehicle that Suzuki introduced in 2004. The 2007 advertised list price is $6999 and $7199 for the ABS model.

Our editor once commented that the most "custom" Harley would be one that is bone stock. I think the V-Strom suffers that same affliction. Browsing the Internet's V-Strom user sites provides a reader with a long litany of items that are "necessary" to make the bike ride-able: crash bars and centerstands, windshields and windshield brackets, suspension modifications, luggage, foot pegs, GPS and cruise-controls and other electronics. The V-Strom seems to be an after-marketeer's wet dream: it's a Harley, a KLR, and a Goldwing all rolled into one accessory-mounting vehicle. I have fallen victim to the "it needs more" trap. My list of "gotta have it" accessories is still growing after a year of ownership.

Other than personal touches, the V-Strom was pretty much ready to ride long distances and rough roads out of the box. I can only say good things about how it held up riding across the western US states, Canada from Saskatchewan to the Northwest Territory, all around Alaska, down to Seattle, and back home on paved, semi-paved, and every non-paved kind of road I've ever imagined. Every day for 26 days and almost 10,000 miles, the V-Strom was problem-free and the most comfortable, dependable bike I've ever owned. The next year, I rode the V-Strom from Minnesota to Nova Scotia and back the longest way I could manage in 26 days. The addition of a Elka rear shock massively improved the handling and road-soaking characteristics. In 2009, I tortured the bike over 2500 miles of North Dakota backroads, including at least 600 miles of dirt roads. The V-Strom inspires confidence in both the machine's capability and reliability. I couldn't be more at home on a bike than I am on my WeeStrom. 

Suzuki V-Strom DL650 Accessories

Air FIlter

From my experience, this is a no-brainer. I replaced the stock filter with a K&N. I have had K&N filters in every vehicle I have owned since my 1973 Rickman 125 and my 1973 Toyota Hilux pickup. Call me "superstitious," but I think those filters have added something to the incredible reliability I've experienced in my vehicles. I don't consider a K&N filter an aftermarket "accessory." I think the lack of a K&N filter is simply an incompetent motorcycle design that has to be rectified before the bike is a reliable vehicle.

Hand Guards

dl650_lguardFdl650_rguardirst up for me was a set of Suzuki hand guards. There are several options for guarding your hands on the V-Strom, but I think the Suzuki solution is the easiest, most practical of the lot. Installation is simple, requires no mangling of the levers or brake reservoir and is easily removed or moved for servicing the brake, grips, and levers. The guards provide decent protection for the levers and excellent wind and flying projectile protection for your hands. They aren't as durable as Acerbis Rally Hand Guards, but the ease of installation and serviceability makes up for some loss in sturdiness.

Center Stand

dl650_cstand1My second necessary add-on was a center stand. Again, I went for the Suzuki stand because of price, quality, and availability. Installation of any aftermarket center stand is a life-threatening exercise and the Suzuki was no exception. All of the bolt-on parts installed easily and precisely, but hooking up the two stand springs was more garage-floor upper-body exercise than I've suffered in a while. Find a good pair of safety glasses before you even think about messing with those springs.  If you're going adventure touring, I don't know how you'll survive with a bike this heavy and no center stand. Fixing flats, doing regular maintenance (chain lubes, for example), parking securely with full luggage are all made possible by a center stand. Otherwise, plan on spending a lot of time looking for "just the right rock" in a pinch.


dl650_acc_shieldsWhile I wasn't convinced that the V-Strom's windshield was as worthless as some have claimed, I thought it could be better. Apparently, Suzuki does too. Suzuki offers a "tall windshield" (3" taller and 2 1/2" wider than stock) with a plastic wind deflector strip. First, I tried the Madstad bracket, which allows for a variety of height possibilities and a range of angles of deflection. It provided minimal improvement and not enough to make my Shuberth C1 helmet tolerable. So, I added the Suzuki tall shield to the Madstad ( bracket. I have the tall shield set on the Madstad's highest setting, angled back as steeply as the bracket will allow. I now have a substantial "calm zone" behind the shield, considerably better weather protection, and a little less wind noise at the helmet. Honestly, when I'm wearing the Shoei X11 I don't notice any difference in noise or turbulence, but it's definitely noticeable when I'm wearing the Schuberth lid.

Pat Walsh Case (Crash) Guards

dl650_acc_lhguardFinally, considering my general clumsiness, tendency toward exploring roads that are more technical than my abilities, and the expense of replacing body plastic, I installed Pat Walsh Design's Motor Guard (, which adds so many features to the V-Strom's frame (additional lights, oil filter guard, skid plate, highway pegs, etc) that a whole new industry of customization options becomes practical. If this thing came in chrome, Mr. Walsh would sell more Motor Guards than Suzuki sold V-Stroms. I've never used highway pegs, but I'm tempted now that I have a place to install them.

Wdl650_acc_rhguardhen I was looking into frame and plastic protection, I almost blew off the Motor Guard because it looked so massive, so I was surprised and happy, when the box arrived, to find that the shipping package was so light. It seems to be a lot of protection for a little additional weight.

Installation was fairly painless, considering the garage floor was about 10oF when I installed the Motor Guard. The whole installation took about an hour and a half, including Locktite'ing every bolt and screw I was near during the installation. The all stainless steel hardware was a surprise bonus and the actual Motor Guard is heavy steel construction securely bolting to the DL's frame at the top and the front of the skid plate at the bottom. The skid plate is equally well secured The screened filter and oil cooler guard is additional gravel protection, but it may be a problem when the front tire fills the screen with mud.

Immediately after installing the Motor Guard, I carefully lowered the bike into the crash position in my driveway. The bike lies resting on the guard, barely past the plastic bodywork, and the handlebar ends. Motor Guards wouldn't save the bodywork in a high speed crash, but in a typical low-speed, off-road spill you might avoid having to replace a few hundred dollars in plastic. Getting the bike back up again takes all the leg strength I own and the Motor Guard gave me a wonderful handle for lifting the bike back onto the kickstand.

Afterward: My long term experience with the Walsh design has been complicated. Not long after installation, I spent a weekend at the MN-Sportbike group's Hedonistic-Enthusiasm cornering seminar. I found that the first sign of lost cornering clearance was when the bottom of the case guard touch ground, lifting the front wheel and putting the bike into a really hard to recover slide on the metal rails. I've since ground about 1/2 of the lowest section of the guard away on both sides. 

Seven thousand miles later and about 100 miles north of the Artic Circle, I really tested the crash guards with a crash. On the Dempster Highway, after a 350 mile day and a few dozen miles short of my destination (Fort McPherson, Northwest Territories), I found myself blown backwards on deep gravel. Somewhere between 45 and 55mph, the V-Strom hit the ground pointed exactly backwards from the direction we'd been traveling. The right side case guard took a beating, almost all of the paint was rashed off as the bike slid 50 feet down the road on its side. In the end, I lost the right turn signal, pulverized my right side case, bent my handlebars slightly, gouged up the right side tank panel, and banged up myself pretty well. A little duct tape on the turn signal and the side case and I was on my way back to Dawson City. The case guard and bashplate protected my bike from experiencing any serious damage. The case guard was pretty chewed up on the right side and the bashplate had started to collapse on itself, approaching the front of the exhaust pipe.

For my riding purposes, the biggest advantage provided by Walsh's design over the competition is the bashplate. The V-Strom's low, unprotected pipe and oil filter makes me nervous off pavement. I've already drilled a hole through an SV's oil filter on a long gravel road stretch and I expect to be doing a lot more of that kind of riding on the V-Strom. The bashplate is "secured" to the frame at the rear engine mounting bolts. Otherwise, the plate and crashguards are one structure. A run-in with some deep ruts in North Dakota caused the bashplate to collapse hard against the exhaust pipe. I'm sure that the plate protected the engine, but I need to do some serious metal work to put it all right again.

In trying to repair the plate, I "discovered" it is aluminum. I discovered that by burning a hole in it while trying to make repairs. I'm about  3/4 convinced that the lost cornering clearance makes this product more dangerous than helpful. I may be at the end of my test of the Walsh guards.

IMS Super Stock Foot Pegs (Part # 273116)

e0bbe8b8If37176a5t took me a long time to figure out where to find these pegs. Nobody seems to make an off-road peg for the V-Strom. Fortunately, Suzuki and Kawasaki accidentally got together and made mounts that accept the same peg. Really fortunately, that foot peg is for the Kawasaki KLR650, one of the most common dual purpose bikes in history. In the package, they look a little large, but on the bike they provide an insanely solid platform for long range riding and for off-road grunge or hung-out cornering. After a week riding with the IMS pegs on my V-Strom, I couldn't imagine going back to the stock junk.

Stebel Nautilus Compact Dual-Tone 12-Volt Motorcycle Air Horn

dl650_acc_lhguard The Stebel Nautilus horn is billed as a 139dB device, which doesn't mean a lot in the real world. For starters, it would be helpful to know where that 139dB is measured. At 1m directly to the side of the vehicle, I measured the output of my horn at 119dB, which is loud but a good distance from 139dB (subjectively, 119 would probably be sensed as about 1/4 of the acoustic "loudness" of 139dB).  Since sound pressure drops 6dB for every doubling of distance, the output of a horn becomes pretty mild at practical distances. With the typical noises available in moderate traffic, a horn is only a useful warning device at very near distances. There are contradicting opinions to this evaluation, but they have a financial vested interest.

Pat Hahn and I did some subjective tests and objective measurements when I installed this horn on my V-Strom to see what value a horn (or other noise sources, you loud pipes douchebags) added to a motorcycle's conspicuity. The results were depressing. (Unfortunately, the audio files linked on the Minnesota state's webpage only work with Microsoft's Explorer program.)

Installation is a bit of a pain. Since the horn draws nearly 15A inrush current, you'll need a horn relay. Wiring the horn to your original horn harness will result in a burned-out horn switch. 15A is 4-8X the inrush current of a typical bike horn. Don't skip on the in-line fuse installation, either. A short in that wiring could result in a bike fire, which will definitely draw attention to your motorcycle but that probably won't be all that helpful.

However, the Stebel horn is a bit louder than the stock horn. The pitch of the dual-tone horn is lower and larger sounding, which might convince a braindead cager to give a motorcyclist a glance before violating right-of-way. Anything might help in a crisis. Unless you are right on top of the cage, don't expect the loudest horn to save your ass.

Dec 26, 2015

VW, Not A Motorcycle Company

Volkswagen_DucatiTwo years ago, I was just recovering from the misery of owning a VW-based Winnebago Class C RV. Needless to say, I was pretty disgusted with Volkswagen. It’s sort of reassuring and heartening to see that the rest of the world has joined in my disgust for the delusional German maker of mediocre vehicles and standard for half-assed engineering. While Germany is desperately trying to paint this pig pink, "VW scandal has not hurt German reputation, Merkel says," the country’s entire economy—largely dependent on auto manufacturing—has been put in jepardy by VW’s internal arrogance, delusions, and criminal behavior. As I wrote in “Delusional Self-Image” (February, 2014), “As demonstrated by their semi-crazed explanation for shriveling and lower-profit markets, VW/Porsche marketing dweebs seem to be disconnected from reality.”  As climate change deniers, war mongers, trickle-down economists, and free lunch believers keep discovering to their dismay, reality has a nasty habit of showing up uninvited. As best I can tell, VW is pretty much completely under the control of the marketing morons, which means they’re going to have one hell of a hard time fixing any of their problems. If there is one thing I know about marketing asshats, it is that they don’t know how anything works and couldn’t fix a hole in a paperbag with a truck load of duct tape. “Far Fig Newton,” my ass, and I’m not the only one who thinks VW has put Germany, the Euro, and a lot more in jepardy:

VW_matt_cartoon_3450195bI think the origins of VW’s problems came from the nutty idea that shutting out independent repair centers would improve VW’s customer service reputation (which has never been good). VW cut off the usual DIY service manual outlets in the mid-90’s and starting charging independents a whole lot of money for access to VW’s online service information system. Since most good shops don’t seen enough VW product to make paying $400 a month for service information worthwhile, lots of good independents simple quit working on VWs. The hope was that this would drive VW owners to VW dealerships for service. That probably is what happened, but what also happened was that lots of people who might have considered buying a VW didn’t because their local VW dealer was the usual ripoff shop.

The largely-unappreciated independent service center quality control loop was broken, too. Regardless of a manufacturer’s intention, it is almost impossible to stop complaints from an independent service tech from getting to the right ears. Piss one of these guys off with a manual or service procedure that results in screwing up one of their customer’s cars or costs them a repair bill and you’ll hear about it. Obsolete a critical part that means a tech will have to apologize to customers for not being able to fix their vehicle and someone in the Parts Department is going to get an ear-full. Kill that free system check and you end up being Volkswagen; deaf, dumb, and arrogant. Because all of VW's internal quality systems are closed loop, internally, they are not driven to fix their system and probably don't even know it's broken. Actually, it's pretty obvious that VW has no idea what the outside world thinks of them. I think they are getting an idea now, though.

VW_fitzsimmonsIt has always amazed me to hear the constantly repeated claim that VW is the “largest car manufacturer in the world.” I can only suspect that they make some really, really physically huge Hummer knockoffs, because I can not fathom how VW could be outselling any of the Japanese Big Three, Ford, or, even, Fiat. After this dropping-of-the-drawers, I suspect Toyota will be sitting on top. There are so many things wrong with that picture I am overwhelmed and confused. (The next Led Zep hit?) VW hasn’t made a decent vehicle since the 1967 Beetle. At least, in my opinion, and nobody sensible made big reliability claims for the old air cooled VW shit. Those silly vehicles were just fun to drive, fix, and look at while they were cooking on the side of the road after catching fire from overheating or a fuel system fault.

As you probably know, VW/Audi bought Ducati. I can’t guess why, Wired Magazine’s article about this curious aquisition included the funny but probably unintentionally ironic comment, “If VW started selling Golfs that went 175mph, but cost $75,000, got 8 mpg, required $5,000 services every 4,000 miles and blew up after 20,000 miles, VW would be in a lot of trouble.” Actually, VW Golfs are not particularly reliable, are expensive to repair, and the only thing they don’t have that Ducati makes claim to is the 175mpg top speed. Although, I suspect if you were to occasionally push the Golf GTI to its claimed top speed of 155mph, you’d probably also be rewarded with “8 mpg. . . $5,000 services every 4,000 miles and . . . 20,000 mile” engine life. There are understandible reasons why VW/Audi would feel compatible with Ducati (and Ducati owners): 1) advertised performance is more important than real world performance, 2) the product’s owners are easily deluded into believing that the product’s perceived quality image will rub off on the owners, 3) reliability is an inconsequential feature, 4) a dealer network is unimportant and dealer support is a waste of effort, 5) customers are what you have before the sale and suckers are the fools who show up with one of your products expecting service or support.

vw stockOk, so I’m wrong. VW is a motorcycle company, just not a very good one and not one that will ever see a dime of my money. Of course, VW/Audi has to survive this $9B+ disaster and still have customers gullible enough to buy their crap when this is over, so we’ll see if VW can sell cars or motorcycles.

Before I Forget

In between all of the stuff there is to be pissed off about, I need to remember to wish all of my friends and readers a terrific holiday season. Remember, there are a whole bunch of holidays celebrated this month by all sorts of people and I think we should take every one of those days off and ride somewhere.

Day 4 039Ride fast, be safe, don’t get caught, and have fun. Hope to see you in 2016!

Dec 24, 2015

Who’s #1 in People-per-Motorycle and Why?

The Motley Fool, of all places, recently published a sorted list of motorcycle ownership, by state (from a 2011 DOT report). Hillariously, South Dakota is #1 with 12 people per bike. I say hillariously because having ridden through that state a bunch of times what I take from that data is that SD citizens ride 2 blocks from their trailer court to the nearest bar, where the bike stays parked until they walk it home that night. I’ve seen thousands of motorcycles parked in front of South Dakota bars, but damn few on the highway going anywhere. The few spotted on the road are mostly in trailers or drooling fluids in pickup beds. Like southern New Mexico’s reputation for being “the place where RV’s go to die,” freighter-loads of motorcycles get abandoned in South Dakota, usually in August.

Second place is New Hampshire? I’ve only been to New Hampshire once, in August, 2008. I spent two days cruising the hills (Easterners cluelessly call these bumps in the road “mountains.”) and enjoying the mostly empty two lane roads. I rode through Portsmouth, Manchester, and Concord searching for a decent bike shop where I could buy a replacement for a scratched Shoei face shield (managled by a vandal when the helmet was locked on the bike in Portsmouth). Not only did I not find a shop that stocked Shoei anything, but I didn’t find any dealers that didn’t resemble a biker gangbanger hangout. I made it all the way to Cleveland before I found an actual motorcycle shop with motorcycle gear in stock. Needless to say, I’m not much of an east coast fan. I did not see a single motorcycle on the road at any time in New Hampshire and the weather was perfect and I left the state late on a Saturday afternoon. So, what gives, New Hampshire?

In 3rd place, Iowa is a different case and I don’t really know what goes on inside the heads of Iowegians. When I’ve passed through the state, there is occasionally a lot of motorcycle activity around Des Moines. It’s all cruisers, noisy as hell, the slowest moving packs of bikers I’ve yet encountered (I even had to pass them in our VW RV a couple of years ago because they were plodding along at a pace below tolerable even for that miserable semi-transportation appliance.) The Fool had an explaination, somehow connected to Polaris and the “famous Iowa Grand Motorcycle Rally” (which I have never heard of). I can sort of believe that their other justification, “this Midwest state's wide-open spaces make for a perfect landscape for Polaris' and Harley-Davidson's famous cruisers” could be true. You have to travel a lot of miles to find an Iowa curve that might cause one of those hippobikes to bottom-out and scrape chrome. Every Iowa motorcycle I’ve ever seen exhibited absolutely no tire sidewall wear. Hell, even Iowa dirt bike parks are pretty much straight and flat.

The Fool claims that the purpose in collecting this “data” was, “. . . for the first time motorcycle enthusiasts can truly see in which states they have the greatest chance of passing by a fellow rider. For the motorcycle companies this data gives them valuable information on where they can most easily reach the greatest amount of riders and customers.” Good luck with that. If you’re not riding near a Black Hills casino or one of the biker bar hangouts, you could ride 1,000 miles in South Dakota and never see anything on two wheels, unless it’s a camper trailer.

The bottom of the list is more interesting, I think. The bottom five (not counting the District of Columbia at dead last) states are Georgia, New York, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Makes perfect sense to me. Those three southern states are home to the freakin’ most aggressive, least skilled drivers in the US of A. Riding a motorcycle in Texas is pure suicide, unless you’re part of a gangbanger parade. I lived and rode in Texas for three years and I doubt that 10 miles of that was on Texas pavement. Texas drivers are homicidal toward any vehicle that is not a pickup or SUV or semi. Even when they are not intentionally trying to kill you, their incompetence makes motorcycle commuting unappealing. Louisiana is worse and I can only assume that Mississippi and Georgia are a combination of stupid and vicious. Remember Easy Rider anyone? Oddly, Mississippi and Georgia are two of the 19 helmet law states. I’ve often heard the poser crowd claim that they’d dump their motorcycles if they had to wear helmets. Maybe this is evidence that’s true?



# Bikes


People per bike


South Dakota





New Hampshire




















North Dakota



































New Jersey








































New Mexico





Rhode Island















West Virginia






































































North Carolina





South Carolina



































New York




















Dist. of Col.




Dec 20, 2015

A Strapless Helmet

This looks like a brilliant idea. Of course, US riders are already worried about how they’ll get their Bluetooth phones to work in it. It’s a good thing that most of reproduction is autonomic, otherwise most humans would be too stupid to reproduce.

Dec 17, 2015

It's Not My Fault

I take crap in both my MMM column and here for "injecting politics into motorcycling." North Carolina, however, injected superstition and politics into motorcycling and pretty much get a pass for it: North Carolina Motorcycle Abortion Bill Passes State House. It's a crazy world out there.

Dec 16, 2015

Oh Crap!

Just when I thought I was out of the motorcycle buying business (thanks Paul):

Dec 15, 2015

Crazy Coincidence?

This one is probably gonna hurt. Call me a “bleedin’ heart liberal,” but most of the “news” I can stomach comes through the Comedy Central filter. The ONLY way I can stomach bullshit from Fox is in quick segments punctuated by precise and accurate ridicule from Cobert, Stewart, or Trevor Noah. December 10th, 2015, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’s segment on “A Good Guy with a Gun” highlights what is, apparently, a general delusions in the United States about guns . . . and motorcycles: every idiot with a credit card thinks he or she is smart and quick and skilled enough to play with guns and/or motorcycles.
Listening to the training experts and cops explain to Jordan Keppler how complicated real world gun use works was eerily like being a motorcycle safety instructor. After being shot 20+ times by simulated bad guys, getting shot again by the cops because he was too stupid to put his gun down when they showed up, and shooting an unarmed simulated teenager trying to escape the bad guys, Klepper said, “Being a good guy with a gun was starting to feel way more complicated than movies and video games and politicians make it seem.” Afterwards, the situation trainer said, “It’s a complex situation and you don’t want just give people guns and say you assume they know what they’re going to do.” He followed that statement with a description of the many hours of training necessary to keep professionals semi-competent. (We know they are only semi-competent because the so-called professionals keep killing unarmed citizens.) Klepper replied, “Who’s got time for all that training?” And so it goes.
What part of this sounds like motorcycle sales, the outsized percentage of highway deaths attributed to motorcycle dumbasses, limp and lame and ineffective motorcycle “safety training,” and the general stupid attitude of lard-assed morons who think that because they waddle through a massively under-simplified “training course” on a bike that is 1/8 the size of the hippobike they’ve bought and still can’t ride and now have a license they are “motorcyclists?” I know these people, based on the characters (see above) who stood in line to buy guns and ammunition in San Bernardino after the mass shooting last week. These stupid fucks buy guns and kill themselves, their friends and families, and random people who piss them off by existing are the exactly the same morons who plop their obese lardasses on a Hardly, Victory, V-Star, or whatever unride-able bullshit they’ve been convinced will make them look less gross and stupid (as close to “cool” as they will ever be) and promptly drive off of the road and kill or maim themselves. If they live, their response will be to sue the state for putting curves in the road that are negotiable in a semi pulling a 50’ trailer, but unmanageable in a hippobike.
Yeah, I’m pissed off. How did a country that managed to fumble and fight its way out of the United Kingdom manage to down-breed itself into this stupid shit in only 240 years? If that doesn’t convince you that evolution is a two-way street, you probably own a gun and a Harley and can’t use either competently.

Dec 14, 2015

My Motorcycles: 1999 Suzuki SV650

Learn more about this bike


The SV and I have had a recent and occasionally scary life together. My first experience on the bike practically exposed me to the entire assortment of nasty Midwestern weather. I picked the bike up, in Cleveland, in mid-May 2000. On the way back, I rode through rain, golf-ball-sized hail, tornado damaged highway strewn with chunks of barns and houses, lots more rain, and three days of miserable cold weather that never warmed up beyond 42o F.  In the first week of ownership, I think I suffered more riding pains with this bike than with anything I've owned since my first Harley.

I broke almost every rule I own about buying vehicles when I popped for the SV. I guess that was a sign of how badly I wanted to own this motorcycle. I work hard at never buying a car or motorcycle from any male under the age of 40. Kids, especially male kids, are too damn dumb to be allowed to play with anything more complicated than a rubber hammer in a padded room.  Motorcycles are way more complicated than hammers. I bought the bike from a kid who had diddled with the bike in several ways that ought to have warned me off the bike.  He crashed the bike (in his driveway) about 100 miles into his ownership of the SV and gave up motorcycling and bought a big truck.  

Buying the bike was fairly painless, even though it was done over 1,000 miles, sight unseen. But putting the bike into riding shape was a challenge. I often thought I'd have been better off by spending the $1,200 I saved on a new bike that had never been mangled by a kid and his money. Six years later, I'm finally confident that it's all debugged. From the seat bolts to the carbs and the air filter box, parts were lost or mangled. The carb had been re-jetted and the plugs ran so rich you could probably get an extra mile out of the bike after the tank went dry, just from the unburned fuel fouled on the plugs. I returned everything to stock, over the next few years while  I put another 27,000 miles on the bike.

The SV did introduce me to my first on-road crash, after a couple of weeks of uneventful commuting, a short trip on the bike ended up with my suffering a mashed foot. The short version is that I screwed up in a hairpin corner and ended up highsided in the grass, with my right foot firmly stuffed between the rear tire and the frame.  My first ever road accident, after nearly 300,000 miles of jelly-side-up riding.  It turned out that the previous owner (or the shop that did his work) had mashed a throttle cable between the carb and the frame.  When the bars were turned full lock to the right, the bike auto-accelerated itself into instability.

The SV's mileage is fair, about 44-48mpg, with a range of less than 180 miles.  That's a not awful, but not great.  The motor is so strong, however, that I tend to forgive the fuel inefficiency.  It doesn't use a drop of oil between changes and the bike layout is a dream to maintain.

Since my first mishap, the SV and I made peace. It's an incredible bike with great power, decent handling, and fair rider comfort.  The SV is more of a sport bike than a "standard," regardless of advertising and media hype.  The riding position is aggressive enough that my legs tend to cramp after a few hundred miles.  I, often, miss the TDM. I'm thinking about Super Motard-ing the SV in the near future. I know more than a few folks, however, who put big miles on their SV650 standards and do it mostly painlessly. I'm almost 60, after all. I'm not all that comfortable in my easy chair after an hour or so.

In fact, I went several steps toward turning my SV into a mediocre version of the Suzuki DL650, including adventure touring tires. About four years into that experiment, the DL (V-Strom) was introduced to the US and a lot of my customizing work seemed pointless. I'll be selling my SV this coming spring (2005), but it has been a wonderfully reliable, comfortable, lightweight, sporty bike and, even after the initial poor experience, I will have nothing but fond memories of my little red SV.

Postscript: The bike didn't sell during the spring and summer of 2005, but I also didn't find a DL to replace it with until September 2005. After assuring myself that the DL was the Suzuki I wanted to keep, I posted the SV in Craig's List during the winter months. A buyer showed up in mid-January, handed me cash, strapped on an open-face helmet, and rode the SV away in sub-freezing weather. I hope he's as happy to have it as I was to be rid of it. There would have been no point in owning 2 Suzuki 650s.

SV Parts, Part Numbers, and After Market Stuff

Suzuki 650 fork spring preload caps - $109.95 Machined from billet fork caps (18 mm range of preload adjustment) for direct bolt on to SV forks, $109.95 complete. Also: Damper rod seals. Contact Madsen Engineering: 508-947-1079.

Part Description Part # Price/Source

  • Service Manual for 1999 US SV 99500-36090-03E
  • SV650 Accessory luggage rack 99950-70242-1 $76.93 (
  • SV650 standard gel seat 99950-62160-1 $111.93 (
  • GIVI Windshield & mounting brackets A600 $87 (Midwest Motorcycle)
  • Progressive Suspension fork springs 11-1145 $56.95
  • Progressive Suspension fork oil adjuster FOL-2 $33.95
  • Headlamps H4-45W Can be increased to 55W

General Purpose SV Information

The Engine ID#: On the left side of the engine, in front of the shift lever, there is a pad near the bottom of the engine block almost in line with the shifter. The number is on the pad. There are some letters and numbers in front of the six digit serial number. A flashlight will help with the reading of the ID.

Fork Oil: Check oil measurement from the top of the fork tube to the oil level in the fork, not by measuring the oil you pour into the fork. I recommend Bel-Ray 12wt. fork oil. 

Carb Sync'ing: Remove the plugs from the fuel screws and screw them all the way in, then turn them out one additional turn. Remove the float bowls and check the float bowl level. Do this before you sync the carbs. Put a .020." shim under the plastic shim on the needles. DO NOT allow gas to get on the rubber slide diaphragms or they will be ruined. Reassemble the carbs and check carb sync.

Run a fuel hose from the # 1 carb toward the steering head, secure it to the wiring, and plug it with a screw. You won't have to remove the carbs to synch them afterwards. The carbs must be at a precise angle for accurate adjustment.

Getting the SV into the air for service is a problem, due to the low pipe and motor-frame design of the SV. I bought a cheap bike jack from Sam's Club, but it wasn't useful until I built a plywood jack frame for the jack. Here's a drawing someone created to allow a flat-based garage lift to work on the SV (don't worry, it's high res if you download the picture):

Suzuki SV650 Modifications and Accessories

GIVI A600 Windshield

a600  I bought this shield on the recommendation of the GIVI service department. So far, I think it was a good purchase and it doesn't do much damage to the look of the bike, either. The mounting is fairly straightforward, but, because of the SV's handlebar setup, there isn't much flexibility in the shield adjustment. The GIVI hardware can not be faulted. It's incredibly flexible and well designed. I managed to highside the bike and the GIVI took most of the brunt of the crash. Other than some minor scratches on the lower portion of the shield, it held up perfectly.

The A600 provides a decent amount of chest protection from weather and wind. It doesn't do much for the wind noise, since it directs some turbulence right at the top vent of my Shoei X8 helmet. Overall, I'd rather have the windshield on the bike than not, which is no terrific recommendation, but it's the best I can give because of the noise factor.

Suzuki SV650 Gel Seat
From what I've experienced, this seat is very comfortable and worth the money. I bought the spandex-like material version of the seat. I guess there's a faux carbon fibre version, too. It's fairly firm and the material breathes well. I didn't actually put in any time on the stock seat, so I can't offer a useful comparison.  The seat slopes forward, toward the tank, which creates some discomfort on long rides.  

Suzuki Luggage rack
It's a dinky thing with an advertised "5 lb." Carrying capacity. You can see what it looks like (sort of) on the picture above. I suspect the weight limit is legal-weasel wording, but it's not a significant piece of equipment, by any standards. It is large enough to hold a tank bag and has posts and bracing that works well for the straps and bungees. It was a bit expensive, but I've found good use for the rack.

sjanddJANDD Mountaineering Luggage Rack Bag
This is a two-for-one picture; the Suzuki Luggage Rack and a bag that actually fits it well. I found the bag at my local (Eric's) bicycle shop, on sale. There are probably a pile of equally decent bags, but this one seems to be almost perfectly designed for use on the Suzuki rack. It has four Velcro attached straps and a Delrin buckle, all of which can be used to secure the bag to the rack. It is incredibly waterproof and holds a reasonable amount of stuff, in the normal configuration, and a lot of stuff with the extension added. Click on the picture to see more detail. The zippers were crap and the bag died after about a year.

Two Brothers Two-into-One M2-Oval Exhaust System
Like the aftermarket pipes I had on the TDM, this pipe is noisy. My Harley-owning next-door neighbor says he really likes the sound of the M2 oval, if that tells you anything. I, as usual, doubt that the pipe adds anything power-wise to the bike and it makes it a lot less neighbor friendly. Unlike the TDM stock exhaust, it's hard to believe that the 2Bros is light enough to be worth the cost/noise/effort. You can see what the M2 looks like on the picture at the top of the page. If you're more into getting noticed than riding unnoticed by cops and angry neighbors, this is the pipe for you. I suffered with it for about two months and went back to the stock pipe. I suppose someone will give me a few extra bucks for the bike, when I sell it, because it will come with a high priced noisemaker. (PS. I changed my mind and sold the M2 in 2006.) 

Dec 7, 2015

My Motorcycles: 1989 Honda VTR250

89vtr250 I bought this bike in the spring of 1999, after I'd decided against popping $6k for a new Suzuki SV650. I can only say good things about the VTR. It constantly amazes me that Americans don't consider small bikes like this as basic transportation. I've turned in a 95mpg tank and several long range trips averaged 75mpg. The bike will do 95mph and passes cars at normal freeway speeds with ease. A friend bought a CBX about the same time I aquired the VTR. On an around town trip, he was discouraged to find that he couldn't get the little 250 out of his rear view mirror.

The riding position is a bit cramped, but not so much that anything under 100 miles becomes painful (to a 50 year old in mediocre shape, BTW). The funky 1980's California colors probably didn't do the bike any good, sales-wise. My brother was particularly offended by the pink highlights. I bought the 250 hoping my wife would go back to riding, she didn't but I rode the heck out of "her bike."

In fact, I did nothing but ride this bike. I suspect the original Bridgestone tires are still on the bike, at 13,000 miles. They're hard as nails and wear at least as well. They don't do anything for the handling, but the bike gets along fine with them, so I didn't find motivation to install new skins. If I did, though, I think I'd pick Dunlop 591 Sport Elite's, a good sticky tire with reasonable wear characteristics. In the time I owned the VTR250, the only maintenance I provided was oil changes and a change of radiator fluid. I was too lazy to even replace the fork fluid, a first for me.

I sold the bike, in June 2000, to my brother. He enjoyed it as much as I did and put a lot more miles on the little bike. He rode it from Kansas into the mountains of Colorado with a group of biking friends (half of which trailered their big twins to the planned campsite). After taking a lot of crap about his "little bike," one of his cruiser friends found himself perched on the passenger pegs when his big Hardly died in the mountains and he needed a 200 mile ride back to his truck so that he could trailer the cruiser back home for an engine rebuild. 450+ pounds on a 250 twin in the heart of the Colorado Rockies and the little bike did that job, hauled Larry back home afterwards, and put in a lot of miles beyond that.

2002 VTR250It was an incredibly versatile little bike and I missed it imediately. I only put 2,000 miles on this little guy in a year of riding. I can't say I enjoyed doing long trips on it, because it was a bit cramped and the suspension is pretty stiff. But for an around town, short haul commuter, it's almost perfect. Of course, my father thinks I "unloaded" the bike on my unsuspecting little brother. I wonder if he'll ever figure out that Larry got me into motorcycling, not the other way around.

The 2002 version of this bike is so sexy that I'd almost consider the hassle of importing it (see beautiful little red bike at right). We rarely get the super-cool stuff that Japan builds, especially if that stuff is under 700cc. The current model of VTR is exactly what an urban commuter should be about: lightweight, small, quick, nimble, and gorgeous. I'd buy one new (something I haven't done in 30 years).

Dec 5, 2015

Crash Analysis

When you read about a motorcycle crash and the associated injuries or death, do you automatically analyze the news report looking for evidence that there was something different about the rider--or riders--involved and yourself? This is a question I've been asked by several experienced riders and friends lately. With the growing evidence that motorcycling is insanely dangerous and grossly overrepresented in traffic injuries and fatalities, even people who have been on two wheels for fifty years are rethinking their commitment to riding on public roads.

I wrote a column for MMM a while back titled "Ride Like the Killer Robots are After You." In that essay, I suggested that if you aren't committed to being the safest, best equipped, most talented rider you can be, you should reconsider your motorcycling habits. A friend, who is an excellent rider and who automatically gears up for even the shortest or most benign rides, read that column and wrote to ask me if I thought he was fooling himself and should quit riding while he was still mobile and on the good side of his lucky streak. He’s 71, so the fact is that any sort of road-speed crash could screw up what’s left of his life seriously. Howeve3r, answering that question for him is not something for which I feel equipped or competent. It's a good question for all of us to ask ourselves, though.

The things that put your risk of injury and death on an elevated status are combining riding with drugs or alcohol, group riding, riding helmetless and/or without reasonable protective gear, riding without a license, riding a motorcycle that requires more skill than you possess (most riders on most cruisers, for example), and riding when you don’t possess any skills.

I suspect most of the folks who follow this blog are pretty self-critical and don’t need my advice or opinion on any aspect of their motorcycling career. I think doing the self-reflection bit when you read about someone’s fatal crash is a pretty good habit. When you find yourself hitting on too many negative cylinders, it’s probably time to hang it up.