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Friday, 27 August 2010

Memorable motorcycling moments

Chick magnet (errr...until the helmet comes off of course)

During our lives, many of us are fortunate enough to experience a few seminal moments.  One such moment which has had an on-going impact on my motorcycling occurred in 2003. It was a riding course, less than a day long and I thought I might mention what it covered and the impact it had on me.  I've done other courses since then, including an advanced car handling course but it was that first one in 2003 which has continued to have the biggest single impact on riding to survive.

It's been mentioned before that I've been riding for ummmmm... a long time.  Apart from basic training for a motorcycle learner's licence way back in 1963 (eek - THAT old????), most of the learning was through the School of Hard Knocks!  Trouble is, whilst you learn a few survival techniques, you also pick up bad habits along the way.

Buying a Honda Blackbird back in the early 2000's was the catalyst for needing more skills.  I'd owned a BMW K100RS since the mid 90's but was completely unprepared for just what a modern "hyperbike" is capable of.  Far too easy to get yourself into trouble with the blinding acceleration and effortless top speed; not to mention controlling the sheer mass when you're on the edge.  It didn't take long to realise that I was out of my depth if it was to be used anywhere near as intended.  Loss of licence, handing over contents of wallet, extended hospital stay or even worse were all seriously realistic scenarios.  One of the biggest problems was that everything seemed to be happening faster than I could anticipate.  It was clear that better roadcraft (as opposed to other riding such as trackday skills) was of immediate importance.  In other words, I was unconsciously incompetent but knew I needed help!

Enter a gentleman called Ward Fischer.  I'd heard about Ward's reputation from a couple of sources.  Ex-chief traffic instructor for the Ministry of Transport which included high level training of police pursuit drivers, diplomatic protection driving and so on.  He was also a major contributor to formal motorcycle training programmes in the public sector.  In other words, someone who really knew his stuff and was able to walk the talk.  Ward had retired and set up his own motorcycle training business in the city next to where I lived at the time.

"The Man" - Ward Fischer

Somewhat nervously, a call was made to Ward and after some questioning from him about what I wanted to achieve, my riding experience to date and so on, he suggested a 1:1 session to evaluate my current public highway skills (or more accurately, lack thereof) and implement remedial action if required. A date was set and the butterflies in the stomach started...

Arriving at Ward's place on a very windy day, nerves were jangling a bit because in addition to the course itself, the Blackbird tended to move around a bit in crosswinds and I was worried about showing good control in the conditions.  However, Ward was very personable and explained that as the biggest proportion of motorcycle accidents, irrespective of whether they involved more than one vehicle or not; was caused by "looking but failing to see"; he would be spending a good deal of time on situational awareness (which I've harped on about in some previous posts).  He had a checklist that looked like a cockpit sheet for the Space Shuttle, breaking down observed riding into sub-categories of Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute, with a whole bunch of further sub-headings.  That was frightening enough in itself!

Equipping me with helmet-to-helmet communication, he explained that he would follow on his 1200 Bandit and periodically issue instructions and comment.  After telling me to head for the city's main street it was time to front up.  Trying to do my best Captain Sensible impression with exaggerated looks in the mirrors and excessive indicating, we worked our way towards the city centre. Suppose he'd seen it a million times before and was therefore singularly unimpressed with the display!  As we entered the main drag, Ward's voice comes over the R/T and says, "Right, I want you to give a running commentary on all the actual and potential hazards, and what you are doing to reduce risk".  The bastard - no warning!  My mouth seemed to be totally disconnected from eyes and brain and I was gabbling like a parrot on acid.  It seemed like Ward had bribed every motorist and pedestrian in the street to put on a demo of incompetence and under severe stress, I could feel sweat not trickling; but pouring down my back.  Several times, I forgot to cancel the indicator when switching lanes and felt like a complete muppet.  Added to that, the Blackbird is hard going in slow, heavy traffic and the radiator fans whining away and blowing really hot air all over my legs wasn't helping either.  Ego was in tatters and I had to give myself a bit of a talking to in order to avoid losing the plot entirely.

 City congestion - hard work on a big sport bike

Having more or less safely avoided jaywalking pedestrians, cars pulling out on me, parked drivers opening their doors and so on, Ward gives directions to go to a particular spot in the countryside and I'm no longer operating in the supposed comfort of familiar surroundings.  The road is predictability twisty, a complete mix of right-angled bends, blind corners, sweepers, adverse cambers, bends made in heaven - the whole 9 yards.  The wind is fair piping through and it's hard work staying on line.  Having Ward watching from behind and not saying a thing over the R/T is distinctly unsettling but at least I don't seem to be melting in my own sweat any more. At one stage, I lose sight of him entirely which is a clear sign that the mirrors haven't been used enough but a few seconds later to immense relief, he reappears.

Around an hour after setting off, Ward calls me to a halt for debriefing.  "Not too bad", he says, "Just a couple of things to work on".  Instant relief and able to relax for the first time!  However, he proceeds to tell me that from both the running commentary I was giving and my head position, I clearly wasn't scanning far enough for potential hazards.  This would lead to tears sooner or later if left uncorrected.  He cites the "12 Second Rule", where you scan up and down the road and adjoining countryside, junctions, buildings etc, equivalent to the distance you'd cover in 12 seconds at the speed you're currently travelling at.  He also says (note: we drive on the left in NZ) that my positioning for left hand bends is fine, but that I move over too early before the apex on right handers; limiting my options and also restricting vision through the bend.  I wasn't aware of either of these important shortcomings, so there's clearly plenty to work on.

After a bit of verbal coaching on some other items, Ward asks me to re-trace our route so that he can see if I've learned anything.  Now that my failings are out in the open, the riding is a lot more relaxed and enjoyable. Perhaps a bit too relaxed as I enter one sharp bend far too hot and the sphincter clamps right down onto the seat!  Under normal circumstances, I'd trail a bit of brake to scrub speed but don't want to give Ward the heads-up that I've over-cooked it, so crank it well over and get away it; but feeling my face colour up under the helmet.  Lots of encouraging R/T chat on this part of the journey which is great.

A few minutes later, Ward asks me to turn off down a narrow, bumpy country road and pull over.  The road is arrow-straight and I can guess what's coming next.  Oh shit, high speed emergency braking practice!  I'm paranoid about this part of the course as I've had the odd panic stop in the past which was pretty ugly and barely controlled, and I'm worried about going down the road on my arse or over the bars!  Ward correctly makes the point that I'm going to need to know just how hard I can brake as one day, that may be the difference between serious harm and getting off scot-free.  I voice my misgivings and Ward says not to worry as it will be a progressive build-up in applying the skills.  He then coaches me on the staged braking technique. He advises that on the first run, I should brake firmly, but not to the extent where I feel out of my depth.

Ward tells me to ride down the road for about 800 metres, then turn round and approach him at the open road speed limit of 100 km/hr.  When he raises his clip board, I'm to start braking hard. Down the road and turn round, feeling nervous as I accelerate towards him.  Ward's arm flies up, in with the clutch and sqeeeeze those brakes, then squeeeze even harder as instructed for proper staged braking - no snatching and locking up.  Nervousness vanishes under concentration and time seems to slow down, taking in far more detail than I would have thought possible.  Ears straining for a lock-up, the Blackbird simply squats down without any drama whatsoever.  I've just braked harder than I've ever done before and it wasn't at all scary either.

The exercise is repeated several times to refine the technique and each time, stopping distance is progressively reduced. The force on the wrists and elbows is enormous and the wedding tackle is painfully wedged into the back of the tank on each occasion - ouch!  Ward is very positive which means an awful lot to me.  I must have shaved a good 10 metres or more from the first run to the last and am really impressed just how good the brakes on modern bikes are.  The mental limits of a lot of people, certainly mine; are set way below the capability of the machine and this course has been outstanding in broadening my awareness.  I've subsequently practised staged braking so much that it's totally second nature now.  Trying it on each new bike is important as they have different characteristics under heavy braking. For example, the Blackbird mainly squats whereas the Triple lifts its rear wheel.

After chatting for a few minutes, Ward and I head back to his base where he completes the assessment.  Those hours under his critical gaze are probably the most worthwhile I've ever spent on two wheels.  On the 50 minute ride home with the pressure off, various parts of the body begin to ache quite badly, partly through the various exercises but also through being stiff with tension during the day.  I wonder how accident statistics would decline if a course like this was made compulsory every 5 years or so for all road users.  The concentration has taken its toll and after a meal, it's straight into a deep sleep in the armchair.  A fitting end to a wonderful day.

Seven years later, I'm still of the opinion that acquisition of these skills should be mandatory at an earlier stage of learning to ride or drive.  We might stand a chance of making a substantial dent in the road toll without it being a perennial political football.  Finally, if the image of me insanely gabbling my head off into the R/T about hazard identification eludes you, take a look at this 2-part video on You Tube:  Great roads, great rides pt 1 and Great roads, great rides pt2.  This is an excellent example of situational awareness commentary and sometimes, if I haven't ridden for some time; talking out loud for a few minutes when setting off is helpful to dial back in.  Making this technique second nature has certainly saved me from harm a few times - thanks again, Ward.

It's been mentioned before that one major difference between car drivers and motorcycle riders is that the former group think that passing a learner test qualifies you for life and the latter group believes that you never stop learning.  Long may it be so!  Hoping to do a California Superbike School trackday next year just for fun.

Link to later post:  Speed doesn't kill, stupidity kills

Emergency braking practice :-).  The Britten in NZ




Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Triumph Street Triple review revisited....

 Bye bye Blackbird, the Gentleman's Express!

A while back, I made some posts on the reasons for changing from my much-loved Honda CBR 1100XX Blackbird after 8 years of ownership to a Street Triple and the initial comparison after 2500 km from new or thereabouts.  Those initial impressions are here but having now covered over 8000 km over a wide range of  riding conditions, I thought it might be interesting to quickly review some of them and add a few further thoughts.  Having over 40 years of riding experience and dropping in capacity might give me a slightly different viewpoint to that of a relatively recent rider going the other way .  We'll see.....

The "fitness for purpose" of any bike completely depends on what individual owners are looking for at the time. The criteria for replacing the Blackbird were not straightforward.  I turned 62 in October 2009 and at only 5' 8" tall, the Blackbird with its raised rear ride height, 250 kg wet weight and high C of G was becoming more noticeable (and risky) at low speeds and parking.  This was exacerbated by moving permanently to our beach property which is on the side of a hill and has lots of off-cambers and slopes - had some close calls with the 'bird!  Therefore, any replacement had to be lower and lighter and it came as a surprise just how many bikes ruled themselves out due to these aspects alone.  I didn't want another faired sports bike as there wasn't sufficient differentiation compared with the 'bird but it still had to have plenty of performance as my riding partners (who are all younger than me) like to "press on a bit" on occasions and come to that, so do I!  However, I wasn't overly concerned with an insane top speed as much of my riding is now on twisty coastal roads; so torque and handling is more of a consideration. Two-up riding for any distance wasn't a factor any more as Jennie prefers the comfort of her tricked-up MX-5 nowadays.

A shortlist was drawn up, dealers visited and bikes tested.  I was nostalgically leaning towards Triumphs anyway as that was my brand of choice over 40 years ago but seeing the Street Triple in the flesh, let alone test riding it made that oh-so-important emotional connection which is critical for a lasting relationship.  The test ride merely confirmed it so that was that and a Street Triple graced the shed in double-quick time!

Lust at first sight!

Pure sex, or what??

Anyway, here's some more thoughts about owning a Triple nearly a year on, not in any particular order of importance.

Ergonomics.  Within 5 minutes of getting on a Triple for the first time, it became clear that it was the most comfortable bike I'd ever ridden, excepting speeds well above the open road legal limit. Hands and feet instinctively went to where the controls were positioned and that gave instant confidence. That doesn't mean it's going to be perfect for everyone but suggests that unless you're at the extreme ends of the human dimension bell-curve; you're going to be pretty pleased. The positioning of the bars means that the wrists are lightly loaded, perfect for a long haul. The reasonably upright stance gives great all-round visibility which considerably aids situational awareness - a worthwhile safety bonus. I tried a Ducati Monster as part of the selection process and whilst I didn't bother with specific measurements, looking at the instrument cluster on the Monster seemed to require a deliberate downward movement of the head from the normal riding position as opposed to the quick flick of eyes on the Triple.  Instrumentation is easy to see and excellent at night although changing the display on the run takes a lot of care.  Resetting the trips can only be done whilst parked up, which is when you'd normally want to do them anyway.  Oh, and a small black mark on the report card. A corner of of the instrument cluster mists up very slightly after having been on the road for half an hour or so.  It's not intrusive so I haven't complained but this issue has also been reported on Triple forums.

The stock seat is actually more comfortable than the standard Blackbird seat and that curve seems to allow you to move about sufficiently to vary any pressure points.  700 km days have been achieved with no discomfort so far but for our October 1600 km in 24 hours endurance ride, some prior experimentation using large cell bubble wrap to temporarily change the profile is likely to be on the cards.  Seat (dis)comfort is often discussed on Triple forums but an individual's weight, shape and personal padding is likely to have just as much influence as the seat design itself.  Update: The Airhawk pneumatic pad is the best comfort aid ever. See HERE for more info and the report on the 1000 mile/1600 km in 24 hours endurance ride is here: The Grand Challenge 2010

On the periphery of ergonomics, the light weight of the bike lessens fatigue on twistier roads and the relatively low seat height provides a bit more security for people with short legs like me when manoeuvring at low speeds, especially on roadside steep cambers.

The lack of a screen, or having a minimalist one can mean increased fatigue at speed on a long haul compared with a faired bike but the excellent riding position doesn't make it as bad as you might first think.  The wind blast on the body is nowhere near as fatiguing as the load on my wrists and forearms was when riding the Blackbird over seriously long distances.  In fact, the wind blast is almost a positive thing in lessening load on the wrists and arms.

Two up?  Well, the height of the rear pegs are hardly designed for pillion comfort over long distances but that wasn't a criterion for me anyway.  However, a pillion passenger is unlikely to thank you without regular stops.  Being two-up is getting away from the fundamental purpose of the Triple though.

 The perfect day for a run...

PerformanceWossit do mister?  This is the question that all kids seem to ask motorcyclists and to be fair, quoted top speed is something which more than a few mainly male riders use as an important selection factor too.  I know - I've been there!  Jennie rolls her eyes and accuses me of having a small willy when bike top speeds get discussed.  However, top speed is only a small part of overall performance.  I have a confession.  In the 8 years of owning the Blackbird, it's never been flat out.  It's been in the indicated 280's (km/hr) just a handful of times and for a few seconds per occasion and just once showing a shade above the next magic number but that's it.  I adored the deceptively brutal acceleration of the 'bird which is akin to going into warp drive but again, the number of times that the throttle has been pinned against the stop for long through the gears was pretty infrequent because of the roads I mainly travel on.  I think that it was the great Kenny Roberts who said that he preferred the GSX-R 750 on the road to the GSX-R 1000 because he could use more of its capability.  If he said that, then big bikes are pretty much overkill for the the rest of us mere mortals.

That previous paragraph is a fitting prelude to some of my thoughts about selling the 1135cc Blackbird and getting the 675cc Street Triple.  As already mentioned, the Triple actually sold itself to me but at the back of the mind, there was a nagging worry that dropping capacity was somehow unmanly.  Ridiculous, but at least I'm being honest!  Guess that my regular riding partners all having litre + bikes may have also influenced this thought. 

Reality is that I haven't missed the insane top end of the Blackbird because equal, if not more satisfaction has been gained from carrying higher speeds in the tight stuff and the generally better agility of the Triple.  It's also good fun to occasionally hunt down bigger, heavier bikes in the twisties (errr...spoken like a 20 year old rather than someone over 60)!  In the original comparison with the Blackbird, I tabled a comparison of power to weight ratios which were amazingly close.  The comment was that until aerodynamics at higher speeds made their presence felt, any performance difference between them could be largely measured in tiny percentages; which is negligible under normal road conditions.  Top speed is still more than sufficient for instant license loss in most countries anyway!

When first owning the Triple, the revs at a given road speed were higher than the Blackbird and this was slightly disconcerting - kept trying to hook a higher gear.  However, within a few weeks of ownership it seemed perfectly natural and no big deal. If I was riding long distances mainly on open highways, then a Blackbird may still be first choice but the Triple fits my current needs perfectly.

Flexibility.  Unlike "race replica" 600's which by comparison only deliver strong power higher in the rev range, the Triple starts delivering big lumps of torque not far off idle (around 85% of max torque at 3000 rpm if I remember correctly).  For road riding in particular, this gives a huge advantage.  Firstly, it means that you're unlikely to get caught out in the wrong gear when wanting to make a rapid overtake. Secondly, the low-down torque means that it is very comfortable pootling along in traffic at low revs, but will respond instantly if need be.  The flexibility of the motor makes it the perfect bike for experienced riders and less-experienced ones alike.  The only negative aspect from my perspective was a pronounced snatch when opening up from a trailing throttle during early ownership.  Interestingly, this has significantly reduced over time.  Part of it may be due to the motor bedding in, part of it may be due to a more sensitive right wrist but in any event; it's no longer particularly intrusive.

Handling. In a word, exceptional!  The light weight, fairly aggressive steering geometry, short wheelbase and fantastic riding position adds up to a bike which can change line almost by thought alone and if you make a balls-up of a corner entry, it's sufficiently forgiving to give you leeway to put it right.  The Blackbird with its greater mass was far less forgiving of rapid corrections in the tight stuff  with entry and exit requiring greater precision and planning.  Corner speed in the tight stuff on the local roads I know intimately is noticeably higher than on the Blackbird.  On rougher surfaces when cornering, the Blackbird was definitely more planted due to a more conservative geometry but in particular, top of the line aftermarket suspension.  The Triple tends to jump around a bit more, but not in a really disconcerting way.  Clearly, the stock suspension is built to a price and damping is pretty average but there is no intention to replace it with a more upmarket option until performance noticeably declines. When that time comes, it will be with a Penske unit as the outstanding damping transformed my Blackbird. Under really heavy braking, the rear tyre has a tendency to unload when riding solo but as most of the braking effort is through the front wheel, it's not a big deal although it can be slightly disconcerting the first time the rear tyre leaves the ground!  A little more care is also required with heavy braking in wet conditions as it's comparatively easy to lock up the rear, not that this causes any real problems.  If you do get into trouble as I did when unexpectedly encountering a road surface that had been dug up, you're more likely to get away with it on a light, responsive bike like the Triple than with the mass of something like the Blackbird swinging about.  I've had 2 serious tank-slappers on the 'bird under adverse road conditions and they're not something I prefer to experience again!

Penske rear shock for the Blackbird - a work of art

Tyres are part of the overall handling equation and it would probably be fair to say that among the top brands at least, there isn't a tyre currently made which doesn't exceed the needs of the average road rider despite all the hot air and bulls*it generated on bike forums throughout the world!  They're increasingly improving too. However, the character of each tyre will vary according to where its strength characteristics lie in both wet and dry conditions, wear characteristics and that elusive but oh-so-important "feel".  The type of riding that an individual does will also have a big impact.  Without going into detail again, tyre performance is discussed in this post: Tyres .

Front Dunlop Qualifier after 6000 km

Range. Fuel consumption.... ummm... how long is a bit of string?  All I can say that on longer runs where I can maintain more constant throttle openings but still get along quickly , the trip recorder usually shows around 5.3 litres/100km.This translates to close to 300 km per tankful on a run and not be hanging about.  Having this sort of range is important to me because of the longer runs I do and a dislike of constant stopping to refuel.

Lighting. The standard headlights are the only really disappointing aspect of owning a Street Triple.  If your night riding is restricted to riding around town or maybe on well-lit major roads, it might just be adequate.  For unlit, twisty open road riding, it most certainly isn't. For starters, the lights are set way too low but properly adjusting them only takes a few moments.  The spread of light is fine for covering the roadside verges as well but the actual level of illumination is poor.

There are a few options such as changing the headlights (including HID which is not a perfect solution either) or upgrading bulbs.  I went for 100W bulb replacements on the Blackbird but thought that with the lower headlight volume on the Triple, a big wattage increase might cause overheating damage.  Because the quality of identical wattage bulbs vary enormously, I retained the standard wattage but fitted Osram Nightbreaker bulbs instead and what a difference!  It's a pity (and penny-pinching) that Triumph don't fit these as standard.  The following daylight photo shows the difference between the yellow-ish standard bulb on the left and the whiter, more intense Nightbreaker on the right.  In the dark, the difference is even more pronounced.    The upgrade has made night riding on twisty, unlit roads acceptable.  Not outstanding, but acceptable.  Oh, and it pays to give the inside of the headlamp shell where the mounting brackets are affixed a squirt with chain wax.  The design is a rust-trap if ever I've seen one!

Standard bulb on left, Nightbreaker on right

Addendum:  There has been a further upgrade to the lighting.  See the more recent post HERE

Farkles (extras).  Since taking ownership, I haven't added a huge number of extras, preferring instead to get to know the bike properly first.  From the dealer, the only extras supplied as part of the purchase were:

A 3M clearfilm kit to protect various areas of paintwork from scuffing and stone chips.  This is virtually invisible and really does the job.  The other extra was a Ventura rack to take the soft luggage transferred from the Blackbird. Since then, my Escort 8500 radar detector and screamer have also been transferred and a quickly detachable headstock mount manufactured for the Garmin GPS.

In terms of extras after purchase, a Triumph hugger has been added which does a reasonable job of keeping crap off the suspension.  The radiator core was showing a few small dings after a comparatively short distance and not wishing to hole it miles from anywhere, a guard was purchased from Cox Racing Products.  Beautifully manufactured, only took a few minutes to fit and the communications and service from Andrew Cox in Portland OR, to New Zealand was outstanding.

 Cox Racing Products guard

The final addition is a Barracuda Italian screen.  It does offer more protection from wind blast than the completely naked Triple but not hugely so unless leaning well forward. However, it was purchased on grounds of looks alone.  Good protection would have required a pig-ugly big screen and that's getting away from the principle of a naked bike. As an aside, the purchase price of the screen at 99 Euros wasn't too bad in the scheme of things, but the manufacturers showed that Italian extortion isn't restricted to the Mafia by wanting an almost identical amount for shipping it to NZ.  Fortunately, the world-renowned purveyor of Blackbird parts and accessories, John Smith (Jaws Motorcycles) from the UK; was able to lay his hands on one for me and the postage was only 22 Euros, bless his heart.  Every other automotive/motorcycle parts dealer in the universe should learn from John's consistently flawless service.

 Barracuda Aerosport screen

Servicing.  Being a naked bike, routine servicing is easy and pretty fast.  As the bike is still under warranty, I've let the dealer do the servicing so far and although the cost will depend on the prevailing labour rates of individual countries, I've been pleasantly surprised.  It's certainly cheaper than the Blackbird, principally because of ease of access.

The grin factor. The Triumph Street Triple has won numerous international Bike of the Year awards since its launch and continues to do so.  Owners and journalists everywhere talk about it being a larrikin of a bike with a fu*k you attitude.   Even at over 60 years of age, I agree wholeheartedly with these sentiments but what do those phrases really mean in more definable terms?  After thinking long and hard, it might be a combination of several things.  The engine delivers instant power across the rev range and combined with the bike's light weight, this means that it's a seriously potent weapon.  Add the sublime handling to the mix and you've got something which is utterly confidence-inspiring and can keep you out of trouble where some other bikes will bite back.  This means that the rider might go just that bit harder!  I guess it's these features more than anything which allows the rider to have a lot of fun with a fair degree of safety.

Then there's the growl from the airbox when the throttle is tweaked.  The sound is not obvious to bystanders but guaranteed to get the rider's hormones sloshing around, even for an old fart like me.  If it could be bottled, Viagra would lose all sales to it overnight! 

Let's not forget the less-experienced rider though.  Those very same features and flexibility of the motor give you a comfortable and safe ride even if using a sizeable percentage of its performance is not currently your thing.

Pillion-carrying limitations and below-par lighting aside, it must be close to the ideal bike for an awful lot of riders!  Doubt that I'll be selling it anytime soon.  It wouldn't be stretching the truth to say that the Street Triple has revitalised my riding enjoyment!

Hope that this personal viewpoint has been of interest but use the blog search facility for more Street Triple or tyre info as there are many more posts about this excellent machine!

Addendum: Since this post was written, there have been many more posts written about the Street Triple - laser wheel alignment, other farkles, experiences with different tyres and so on.  To find these, simply type Street Triple into the search bar immediately below the main blog header photo, or something more specific such as tyres.
 

Great bike, calm seas... life is good!

A ride of two halves

 Looking ugly

I guess we've all been in this position: a ride which has been organised for a while, weather looking distinctly "iffy" - do we abort or go ahead anyway?

Last weekend, we'd organised a get-together for our bunch of close friends who are doing the Grand Challenge endurance ride in October for a general chat about the event and to get used to riding together at a reasonable pace again. Trouble is, we live a good couple of hours' ride from each other and with all the weekend commitments we have, cancelling a meeting is not to be taken lightly.

Enter the good old New Zealand weather! Coming out of winter, it's warming up nicely but rainfall can be a bit unpredictable. Wouldn't you know it but 2 days before the planned ride, a weather system from the tropics started dumping huge amounts of rain on the eastern side of the north island - fields flooded and some rivers overflowing. The forecast for the day of the ride was moderately encouraging, particularly the western component but as we needed some decent wet weather practice anyway, the decision was made to stop being a bunch of girls (sorry girls, you're probably braver than us guys!) and ride anyway.

441 km of mainly twisty back roads

I left Coromandel for the first rendezvous point in light drizzle which was ok.   What was not ok were the literally dozens of small slips from the cliffs lining the coast road south, caused by torrential rain over the 2 previous days.  The bigger ones blocked part of one lane which simply required care when going past so as not to collect something large coming the other way.  The major problem was where road crews had used a front end loader to scoop up slips already and in doing so, had spread clay across the whole width of the road.  Not only treacherous but makes one heck of a mess of the bike as it bakes on.

The first of many clay coats

Arriving in the small rural town of Paeroa (motto: Listen for the Banjos *joke, honestly*) and waiting for Andy to turn up from Auckland, I decided to photograph Paeroa's one and only landmark, a giant Lemon and Paeroa bottle.  L and P as it's commonly known, is for NZ what Coca Cola is for the USA.  NZ's national soft drink is a refreshing lemon-flavoured carbonated beverage and used to be manufactured in Paeroa until the big corporates got their paws on the brand.  So there you are, education as well as entertainment at no extra cost!

Family size bottle

There were a few minutes delay as Andy and I had arranged to meet at Paeroa's gas station.  What neither of us had realised is that incredibly, it has TWO gas stations and of course, Murphy's Law had placed us at each of them!  Confusion over, we headed off in moderate rain to meet Richard at the next town of Te Aroha (motto: Handy to Paeroa *another joke, honestly*), which is even smaller than where we'd just come from.  Arriving at exactly the same time, we all parked up for a quick chat.  The place was empty and the uncharitable thought was that the locals had to be back in their coffins by dawn.   Of course, it could have been the weather as it really started to chuck it down. 

The first part of the route from Te Aroha to our final rendezvous/lunch spot at the Okoroire Hotel in the South Waikato district is down a road ominously called The Old Coach Road which runs close to the foot of  the Kaimai mountain range.  Narrow and bumpy at the best of times, the heavy rain added an extra dimension in the shape of standing water in the hollows.  Like true friends everywhere, Andy and Richard put me up front to give early warning of any potential hazards which they could then avoid whilst I was sliding along the road on my face.  Many fields were flooded right to the roadside and the cows looked pretty dejected.  More than a few standing water pools caused the bike to dance around a bit. However, the Triple took it all in its stride and the Avon Storm 2 Ultra tyres I'd recently fitted lived up to their reputation for superb performance in wet weather.  Also importantly, all the wet weather gear functioned as it should and the newly-applied Nikwax Visor Proof allowed the raindrops to bead off instantly, giving excellent visibility.

 Where's my breakfast???

About 20 km from our destination, my radar detector gave a squawk and then stopped.  Seconds later, it squawked again more insistently and the immediate action was to roll off the throttle although we probably weren't much over the limit if at all, because of the weather. The display was showing Ka band which meant that there was either a mobile speed camera or the Highway Patrol in the area.  A few minutes later, a patrol car appeared from out of the murk and I was impressed with the warning we got - must have been 4km or so from first contact.

Having laughed at the worst the weather could throw at us, the Fates decided that we needed a wake-up call.  A few hundred metres before the turn-off to the Okoroire hotel, a truck coming the other way lost a tyre.  I'm not talking about a bit of tyre, a WHOLE big truck tyre jumped off the rim and came rolling down the road towards us less than 50 metres away at open highway speed!  The steel retaining plate must have mercifully come off a bit earlier. We only noticed it as it speared off from the truck's direction at a shallow angle towards us.  Fortunately, we were past by the time it crossed into our lane, otherwise, the consequences could have been disastrous.  With the miserable weather, traffic was light and we lost sight of it disappearing into a ditch before we turned off. 

Arriving at the Okoroire Hotel, the two Johns had pulled in less than 5 minutes in front of us - great timing.  They had only travelled 30 km to get there as opposed to about 180 km for the rest of us and thought we were crazy for riding in the prevailing conditions.  The Okoroire Hotel is a popular hang-out for motorcyclists and it's perhaps it's a fair commentary on the weather that only one other rider turned up the whole time we were there!

Massive car park and 5 lonely, wet bikes


Our old friend John P introduced us to John H, a mate of his from boarding school a few decades ago.  John H rides a Kawasaki ZX10R - massive horsepower, seat like a plank, racer crouch, lots of load on the wrists and knees AND HE INTENDS TO RIDE 1000 MILES IN 24 HOURS WITH US.  A certifiable lunatic who is going to be in a world of pain.  Hope he has medical insurance!

Andy, John H, John P, Richard and an old fart (errr..me) drying out

Hot coffee, chips and various other edibles were ordered and suddenly, the world seemed a much brighter place.  After talking about the big ride to our mates who hadn't done it before and filling empty stomachs, a quick look out the window was encouraging.  The rain was still coming down but there was a band of bright light on the horizon out west where we were heading next for afternoon tea at Richard's house, some 100 km away.

Getting under way, the rain progressively eased, then stopped altogether and with drying roads, a bit of pace could be injected down the country lanes - just what we needed with all those lovely twisties.  Following directly behind Andy's BMW K1200R since he removed the restrictor from his Lazer sports muffler was a weird experience.  At certain revs under hard acceleration, the harmonics from his exhaust and the note from the Street Triple airbox merged, caused a really unpleasant resonance in my head which was quite disorientating!  Must watch out for that in future.

Arriving at Richard's lovely house way out in the countryside, we were treated to fresh chocolate cake and whipped cream plus magnificent cookies, all made by Richard and his wife Maxine.  Sitting in warm sun on their deck relaxing, it was hard to believe the unpleasant conditions we'd ridden through out east.

Soon, it was time to split up and head home.  A thought occurred that with true friends everywhere, you can spend weeks and months without seeing each other but the moment you meet up again, it's like you've never been away. A few cheerios and "see you in a couple of weeks or so" and we were all off to our respective homes.

Off home to the 4 points of the compass

The ride home was wonderful, most of it being on good quality country lanes with minimal traffic and dry roads, although there were still big black clouds covering the Coromandel mountain range in the direction I was heading.  Fortunately, the rain stayed in the hills but the 50 km northbound run up the Coromandel coast road was extremely demanding.  When the sinking sun shone through gaps in the heavy cloud, the sun strike was just terrible with the reflection off the sea and it was impossible to see the clay which had been spread about in the mornings' clean-up of slips.  Added to those hazards was the strobe effect as the sun flickered through the line of pohutukawa trees on the shoreline - easy to see why it can trigger epileptic attacks in some people.

Descending off the last set of hills before Coromandel town, heavy cloud cover rolled over the harbour, leaving an eerie light so I stopped briefly and took a photo.  Here it is:

Coromandel Harbour in a weird light

By the time I'd ridden the remaining 6 or 7 km to the part of the harbour we live on, the sun had dropped below the cloud base and lit up the sky, land and water with orange fire - almost apocalyptic.  Got a photo of that too!

Wyuna Bay at sundown

All in all, a wonderful day shared with great friends that I wouldn't have missed for the world.  441 km covered in a whole range of weather conditions. Great that we all bit the bullet and decided to turn out on a day that didn't start on an exactly promising note.  Besides, it was great skill-sharpening for us all and is another indicator of why motorcyclists are a bit "different" from a large percentage of the rest of humanity **grin**





Monday, 16 August 2010

There are some clever people....

Motorcycling is a passion but as I get older, I'm becoming increasingly interested in what might be termed as "traditional skills" to make things of beauty.  It would therefore be poor form not to share and acknowledge the amazing talents of our retired friends Brian and Mary who live a few doors away from us.  Both are true "Renaissance people", supremely talented at whatever they choose to interest themselves with.  Brian is an ex-motorcyclist and breathtakingly good wood carver. Both of them are similarly outstanding with stained glass work.  Their 30 ft home-built Bristol Channel Cutter keelboat is as much a work of art as it is a beautiful yacht.

Getting to the point, our main living area has a high, sloping ceiling with two tapered windows up high on one wall.  They're a pain to clean as it involves getting the steps out of the shed downstairs and also, direct sunlight through them in the mornings is dazzling .  We were grizzling about this one day and Brian reckoned that stained glass would look great.  Furthermore, he said that he wanted a winter project and that if we'd like to come up with a design, he'd love to make a pair for us.  An incredibly generous gesture.

Top windows are a pain to clean!

Give me a technical problem to solve and I'm your man but when it comes to arty stuff, I have zero talent; sub-zero in fact.  Fortunately, Jennie has a great eye for design and colour so we both sat down at the computer with Photoshop to ponder some design basics.  We wanted a design to represent the Coromandel Peninsula where we live in NZ and Jennie's idea of a nautical theme was great.  First attempt was an impressionist one of sails and spinnakers which was pretty cool as a rectangle, but looked awful once we tried to fit the idea to the true shape of the windows.

First try and doomed to failure

Several other iterations were tried over a month or so and went nowhere (apart from mutual droopy bottom lips and silences when we couldn't agree) so eventually, we sat down with Brian and Mary to get their input.  Here's where artistic talent really shows and Mary quickly whipped up a couple of sketches with sailing boats, a rowing boat and some NZ native Clematis flowers. 



Mary's sketches


Now we were getting somewhere!  Over a bottle or three of wine, the Clematis flowers got dropped, substituting them with NZ flax in flower, a native Nikau Palm tree, and islands like those just offshore from us - we had a winner!  Delighted to say that I was at last able to make a minor contribution by scanning and scaling Mary's final sketches on the computer to get  them to full scale and to be eventually used as glass cutting patterns.

Next step was a trip to Hamilton to choose some stained glass and lead from a specialist supplier.  What a mission but great fun at the same time - every texture and colour imaginable but after a few hours, we had something which looked like it would work.  Brian couldn't wait to get started and talking with him about the method of approach, it was clear that stained glass work is incredibly complex to get it right.  What a buzz it is to learn about cool new stuff!!!

Watching the windows taking shape was an utter privilege.  Actually, watching a master craftsman at work was what was really a privilege.  Here's some shots of Brian at work on them. Sadly, the photos simply don't show the detail, colours and textures adequately but they're still pretty good. Click photos to enlarge.

Template cutting for flax flowers

Building up the small window


Brian checking soldering on rear of large window

Brilliant use of texture and colour

Amazing level of detail


After sealing all the joints and blackening the lead strip, it was time to install them.  The Health and Safety Nazis wouldn't have approved of Brian and me teetering at the top of step ladders but that gave a bit of extra pleasure!

For God's sake, don't drop them!

A perfect fit and here's the finished windows........

Texture, colour, local theme - wow!!

The windows have been in place for just a few days and we can't take our eyes off them.  As the light changes with the passage of the sun, so do the ripples in the water and sky effects.  Moonlight will be interesting too. Always something new to be discovered.

In these days of instant gratification and mass production, people with traditional skills are in decline.  May there be people in each generation who are able to give us all joy from producing something which has a bit of their soul in it.



Wednesday, 11 August 2010

It's the journey, not the destination

Yeeehaaa!  Sure sign that spring is approaching..... 17 degrees C late morning, buds bursting out in the garden and a Rosella busy eating the buds of one of our flowering cherries!

 Beautiful, but greedy!

We won't have many buds left at this rate!

Between Rosellas and the Kaka, (a large native parrot) from a nearby stand of native bush, our flowering shrubs and fruit trees take a bit of a hiding but I reckon that's a small price to pay for the pleasure of having them in the garden.

We are also getting the nectar-eating Tui songbirds in another flowering cherry and flocks of tiny Waxeyes waiting for the food scraps and honey water we put out for them .
Tui after nectar

Waxeyes waiting for a feed

The improved weather means time for a trip halfway round the Peninsula for a scallop burger.  Well, it's the journey really, but as the Coroglen Tavern was closed last time I came past, a burger packed with local scallops makes the destination worthwhile too!

The journey didn't start off on a promising note .  The beautiful weather always brings out a few cage drivers who use one brain cell for breathing and the remaining few for gawping at the scenery. Driving ability is apparently left to divine intervention.  Regular readers will have seen my previous rants about cage drivers crossing the centre line to straighten a bend irrespective of oncoming traffic but this one took the prize for biggest knuckle-dragger of the season so far! Ascending the Coromandel Range, I spotted a Toyota Corolla several bends away creeping downhill towards me.  This normally signifies that all occupants including the idiot driver have their brains at half-mast and are staring at the stunning vista over Coromandel Harbour, so my brain was on maximum alert.  As the car hove into full view, it was completely on my side of the road and actually within a foot or so of the Armco barrier on the edge of the steep drop!  Whether it was a sudden awareness of the Armco right next to the driver's wing mirror or my headlights just down the road, the car gave an almighty over-correction back to the proper side of the road and I was left with an impression of bulging eyes and mouth open in alarm!  Although it wasn't really a close call, a momentary thought was entertained about turning round and delivering a pointed sermon to the elderly guy driving the car.  However, this would have got the ride off to the wrong start and the wrong frame of mind, so I simply filed it into the "yet another dickhead" category and got on with enjoying the ride.  Just so that you can see the cause of the distraction, I momentarily stopped on the way home and took a photo (click to enlarge).  We live in the small group of houses just right of centre on the narrow peninsula.

Coromandel Harbour and outer islands

Traffic was very light on the eastern side of the Coromandel Range, so a short photo opportunity was taken at the roadside where there are several acres of pampas grass growing.  Really pretty, but can be quite invasive in our climate so it probably won't be long before it gets sprayed.

Roadside pampas grass

Dry roads, warm, light traffic and no more idiot cage drivers - what more could one want?  The perfect conditions for dropping into Zen Riding State, where control of the bike seems effortless through heightened perception.  Doesn't happen all that often but when it does, what an absolutely sublime experience.

Arriving at the Coroglen Tavern a bit early, I was the first customer and after ordering the scallop burger and a big mug of latte, it was off outside to join the owner and his dogs on the deck. The dogs are real characters - they don't scrounge, just try and soften you up with a big grin!
Trying to grin me into dropping a bit of scallop burger

Weekdays and the only bike at the Tavern

The Coroglen Tavern is a cool place and in the summer, outdoor concerts are held in the grassed arena behind the main building.  They get a great attendance from all the local beach resorts, so attract some great acts.  Jimmy Barnes, the great Aussie rocker is appearing here this summer, as well as other well-known local acts.

Relaxed and at one with the world, it was time to return home.  An absence of traffic meant that the pace was a bit more spirited than originally intended, but an unplanned burst in ideal conditions is all part of a perfect journey. I normally don't react when a cage wants to join in the fun but this time, a guy in an Audi saw me coming, put his foot down and was driving really safely, so I just hooked in behind at some rather naughty speeds until he turned off with a wave about 20km up the road - nice and it's good to have someone running interference in case the Highway Patrol suddenly appears!

A quick stop at our local wharf  to see if anything interesting was happening and then back home to complete a wonderful ride.
Coromandel wharf

A poor attempt to reflect the harbour edge!

 Looking forward to this coming Sunday.  Our full 1000 miles in 24 hours team are meeting up for the first time at a central spot down country to grab a meal, do a bit of planning and have a ride so looking forward to it and reporting in due course.

Friday, 6 August 2010

A place in the sun

At the end of July, Jennie and I celebrated our 38th wedding anniversary. Ever since the 10th anniversary, it's been a tradition that we take turns to organise a secret destination to go and celebrate our good fortune (Well.... my good fortune to be married to Jennie anyway!)  When the kids were smaller, our friends would look after them whilst we went off for an ahem..... dirty weekend to somewhere not too far away.  Once they were independent, the destinations became much wider! The trick is to keep the destination a secret from each other for as long as possible by months of misdirection and outright lies.  I've even been previously threatened with bodily harm if I didn't give a hint of what clothes to pack! 

Anyway, it was my turn this year and the destination was a no-brainer.  Injecting a slightly emotional note for a moment, our Melbourne-based son and his family were holidaying in Western Samoa in October last year when the earthquake and tsunami struck.  It was his quick-thinking that saved them (literally by a couple of metres).  They lost everything but their lives and heartbreakingly, the people right behind them when they ran for high ground weren't so fortunate.  Despite the level of destruction, the Samoan people were simply magnificent, going way, way beyond what was reasonably expected to look after visitors to their islands.  Because of the breakdown in international communications, the 48 hours following the tsunami were the darkest days of our lives and when the call finally came, there wasn't a dry handkerchief in the house.  We contributed to the relief fund at the time but that paled into insignificance compared with actually visiting Samoa, putting something directly into the economy and saying thank you personally so that was our destination taken care of!  I might add that Jennie didn't find out our destination until we were standing at the check-in counter at Auckland airport.  The Chief Executive was well-pleased!

It's a 3.5 hour flight north from Auckland and jumping from a 15 degree Celsius winter day in NZ to a 29 degree Samoan winter day is is a very welcome step change.  We've holidayed all around the South Pacific but never before in Samoa. It certainly didn't disappoint. The entire population was genuinely welcoming and went out of their way to ensure that everyone had a great time - very humbling.  The scenery and facilities were magnificent, recommended to anyone wanting a holiday in a laid-back and unspoiled country.  We aren't ones for laying on the beach all day so it was pretty much full on swimming, kayaking, touring round the country and learning about the culture of Samoa. (Errr... not to mention great eating and working our way through the extensive cocktail menu where we stayed at the outstanding Sinalei Reef Resort.  Couldn't be faulted in any way).


View of main dining area at sunset


 Coconut milk, chilli, fish and tropical vegetable soup for entrĂ©e


 And what cocktail will it be tonight, Madame?


Working off too much food with a bit of kayaking


..... or a swim in crystal clear warm tropical waters

Breathtaking beaches and water

A tramp through the bush  to a waterfall


Superb Samoan roof interior - all tied, nothing nailed


Exquisite rope lashings as part of a roof assembly


 Gorgeous Lipstick Palm stems


 Wild Ginger - the national flower of Samoa

 On a more sombre note, we were privileged to visit the area which the tsunami hit hardest and thank the people who looked after our son and his family so well during the aftermath.  We were both deeply affected and despite international aid 9 months since the event, some villagers are still living in marginal conditions among the ruins of their villages.


Living amongst the tsunami wreckage


One other thing which we learned made us feel pretty uncomfortable and more than a little saddened.  Take a look at the following 2 pictures.


The fale (pronounced far-lay) in the foreground is a typical Samoan home.  Just one open plan room which is bedroom, kitchen, living room all in one.  Cloth or palm woven mats are suspended between the uprights for privacy or in bad weather.  There's high unemployment and for those who are fortunate enough to work, incomes are generally low.

Here's the next picture:



This is a village church, larger than some but not hugely so.  It doesn't seem to matter what denomination, the churches are all built on a grand scale and so are the clergy's houses.  Several locals told us that up to 65% of their income has to go to supporting the Church presence which doesn't leave much for supporting their own families and getting ahead in life.  I doubt that having only visited the country for 9 days, we have any real right to pass judgement but church piety doesn't seem to be in evidence to any visible extent. Looking after spiritual needs is fine but there isn't much evidence of pragmatic, practical assistance to the local parishioners; certainly not to those who are still affected by the tsunami.   More the other way round if anything.  It left us with the impression that western religious practices and island cultures do not sit together easily, despite the Samoan people being deeply religious. 

Not only was our stay a wonderful experience due to a stunningly beautiful island, it was really made by the personal family connection through near tragedy with the incredibly warm, unconditional welcome by the islanders themselves.  To finish off, virtually every New Zealander we met holidaying in Samoa was there by choice to put money into rebuilding the economy.  If anyone else is looking for a holiday destination, you won't be disappointed.

Oh yes, an amazing postscript to the tsunami story.  Our son and family lost everything but the clothes they stood up in.  Six months ago, a local found a battered camera washed up on the beach and took it to someone at the Tsunami Co-ordination Centre.  Although the camera was completely wrecked, the card was in perfect condition.  From the photographs, they tracked down our son and returned all the photos to him.  *Karma*.


Back to motorcycling next time!