Wheel alignment

Wednesday 30 June 2010

3 cylinder Triumphs - full circle

I guess that most people know that I currently ride a Triumph Street Triple which is now 8 months old and I love it to bits - perfect for the type of riding I do at present.  There's a nice symmetry to owning a Triumph now because after the Suzuki 50 which my grandparents bought me to learn on in 1964 whilst still at school (arrrgh... 46 years ago!), my "formative" years were all spent on Triumphs; including a spell on the drag strip.

The 675 cc 3 cylinder motor in both Daytona and Street Triple guise is a peach of an engine and the bikes have won many awards and continue to distinguish themselves creditably on world racetracks. However, you probably have to be a Triumph enthusiast or a sad old git like me to know that the origins of it go back 48 years to 1962!  This was the year that two talented engineers at Triumph (Hopwood and Hele) laid down the original design for an across the frame triple.  Typically for Triumph at that time, politics and poor management delayed the launch and it wasn't until mid-1968 until they were launched in the guise of the 750cc Triumph Trident and the BSA Rocket 3.

Unfortunately, the production delays only saw it launched weeks before the first Honda 750 4 which was a higher specification bike in all respects.  Nonetheless, the 750 triples enjoyed huge racing success in both Europe and North America.  I was privileged to attend the first UK Transatlantic Match Races in the very early 70's where the UK's finest competed against the likes of Nixon, Mann, DuHamel, Rayborn and many more.  At one stage, both teams had factory-backed Triples and in my humble opinion; hearing the howl of 6-10 triples with unsilenced 3 into 1 megaphones warming up in the pits is still one of the greatest motorcycle sounds ever.  I saw a replica Rocket 3 racing in a classic meeting in Auckland early this year and the howl still gave me goosebumps!

Here are two photos I took at the 1971 event.  Despite it being nearly 40 years ago, these bikes still look fantastic!

Dave Aldana's Rocket 3

Paul Smart's Trident

Completing the symmetry between the original 1960's 750cc Triple and today's 675, it's interesting to compare a few key specifications.  Top speed of the 750 was around 130mph (210km/hr) with a 0-60mph time of about 4.1 seconds.  The Street Triple has a top speed about 5 mph up on that but the 0-60 mph time of ~3.3 seconds is far superior thanks to the better power to weight ratio (~220 kg for the 750 compared with ~170kg for the 675).  So despite the passage of time being over 4 decades, there's not a huge difference in straight line performance and the same goes for the racebike versions of both capacities too.  In the handling stakes of course, there's no comparison! 

There's also no comparison in terms of reliability.  A close friend of mine in the UK still has an early 70's Trident.  Admittedly, it rarely comes out of the shed these days but he has so many memories invested in it that selling is completely out of the question.  When he used to ride it regularly, electrical (un)reliability was such that his wife claimed he was on first name terms with every Automobile Association recovery team in half the country!

Personally, it's almost Karma for me having returned to Triumph after an association which started so long ago - long may it continue!

Sunday 27 June 2010

Motorcycle tyre performance in the real world

If ever there's a subject guaranteed to raise blood pressure and provoke circular (no pun intended) argument, look no further than tyres!  Anyone incautious enough to ask on a forum "What's a good tyre?" will not only get conflicting results, most of the feedback will contain plenty of hot air and stuff-all in the way of qualitative facts.  Motorcycle magazines are only marginally better - lap times with the same bike using different tyres but how representative is that of the real world either?

In terms of main brand modern motorcycle road tyres, there's probably little difference between them in the performance envelope that most of us operate in, although there's no question that overall, tyre performance has improved markedly over the years.  Good news for all of us given the critical role they play in keeping us safe.

It's that old question about "fitness for purpose" because the term performance means different things to different people. Basically, sports tyres give incredible grip but (relatively) limited life and at the other end of the scale, touring tyres give longer life but a bit less grip. Manufacturers now try to blur these distinctions with additional options and we as consumers have seemingly endless permutations whilst trying to decide what's acceptable for the type of riding we do.

I wonder what others think about the subject of tyres?  Here's some personal experiences over the last few years that have marked the quest for tyres that fit my purpose.

Acquiring the Blackbird in 2001 was the first foray into riding what might be termed "hyperbikes" for want of a better word.  Enormous horsepower, heavy with a forward weight bias and conservative steering geometry that "pushes" the front end - those factors are an extreme test for any tyre.  It came equipped with Michelin 90X radials.  For the first few weeks, it could have had sugar-coated doughnuts on the rims and would have still been safe because I rode like a complete granny whilst getting used to it.  As confidence grew, a bit more power was applied, particularly whilst leaned over driving out of corners and the first limitations became apparent - the rear would spin up with little provocation in all but perfect road conditions.  The Michelins would have lasted forever because they were a pretty hard compound but in terms of grip, they struggled to cope with the new generation of performance bikes.  After 6 months of ownership, the tread depth had hardly dropped at all but they had to go because I'd lost confidence in them.  In wet weather, they were a nightmare.

The replacements were Dunlop D220's.  Better in terms of grip but as confidence grew in them and they were pushed a little harder, another problem manifested itself.  Have a look at the picture, particularly towards the bottom of the tyre:

As distance on them increased, the front tyre developed a terrible profile with big flats (almost concave in fact) from just off the centre line of the tyre running out towards the edge.  An under-inflated tyre could exhibit similar symptoms but it wasn't that as I was anal about pressures. The handling was horrible with it wanting to flop into corners. Fortunately, there was a lot of collected experience on the 2 major Blackbird websites and there was a strong body of opinion that most tyres simply weren't up to supporting the dynamic loads generated by heavy, powerful bikes when cornering and were almost certainly deflecting badly under load.  As already mentioned, the standard Blackbird has fairly conservative steering geometry with a weight forward bias.  To drive it quickly through corners requires a fair bit of countersteering and that exacerbates the problem.

Some manufacturers clearly recognised the problem and Avon brought out the Azaro "B" specification tyre which had additional reinforcing to reduce carcass deflection.  When the Hayabusa was released, Michelin shod it with the HPX, another reinforced tyre, for the same reason.  As soon as the Azaro "B" was released, I put a set on the Blackbird and the alarming front profile wear pattern disappeared.  Overall grip was pretty good too.  Clearly, the weight component and less extreme steering geometry compared with pure sports bikes had created their own particular set of issues.

Avon then released the Storm sport-touring tyre which was a further development of the Azaro "B".  This proved to be a real winner among sport-touring bike owners and is the Blackbird tyre of choice in the UK and NZ as well as with a lot of SV650/1000 and Hayabusa owners world-wide. I've had several of these tyres and whilst the good dry weather grip is probably on par with other major competing brands, the wet weather performance is the best I've ever encountered.  The other thing I like about Storms is that they keep their profile through a large percentage of their life, which means that handling remains uncompromised for longer.  Life was around 7500 km from a rear Storm which mainly consisted of spirited riding rather than touring or they would have lasted longer. Front Storms lasted nearly half as long again.  Overall, not bad for a heavy performance bike being pushed on grippy surfaces. Tyre life comparisons without replicating the exact road and road temperature conditions are pointless.  Where we lived pre-retirement had less-twisty roads with smoother surfaces and lower temperatures.  It is noticeable that the tyres lasted longer than where we live now.  This is a photo of a Storm rear:

Superb tread pattern for clearing water!

Mind you, new tyre development isn't always smooth sailing.  Four of us with Blackbirds fitted the newly-released Storms in readiness for a South Island tour in early 2007.  All of us experienced a low speed front end shimmy, two of them so severe that even rebalancing had no impact whatever.  A bit of networking both in NZ and around the world revealed quite a number of other cases and Blackbirds seemed to be particularly affected.  To cut a long story short, we worked with the NZ importer to gather data as well as with overseas users and Avon were able to identify an intermittent manufacturing issue and addressed it promptly. Far from the fault putting me off Avon tyres, it actually gave me confidence that here was a company that was willing and able to respond quickly to feedback.

Working with the NZ importer had a useful spin-off and I was subsequently approached in 2009 to formally evaluate a new pure sports tyre, the Avon VP2. It was a new generation tyre with a radical carcass construction to increase contact area when leaned over and had an overlay of 3 different types of rubber plus grip additives for wet weather.  I had severe doubts as to whether a pure sport tyre on a heavy bike was a smart idea but was pretty surprised at the outcome.  Firstly, the grip.  The VP2's were still effortlessly holding on long after my nerve had given out, both in wet and dry conditions.  They also had a great "feel", progressively rolling into corners rather than "dropping in" despite the aggressive profile (a high crown).  This was a clear example of just how good modern tyres are.  Most of us will never explore the outer limits of traction during normal riding but it's comforting to know it's there for those occasional "oh shit" moments!  Secondly, life.  The rear VP2 lasted for just over 5000 very hard kilometres which was a real surprise as I wasn't expecting much more than 3000km.  On a lighter pure sportsbike, the life would have been significantly greater.  I subsequently replaced the worn rear with a Storm sport-touring tyre, but kept the front VP2 on and it lasted for around 7500 km all up; a pretty good result considering that the 'bird tends to "push" the front end.  Had I kept the Blackbird, a Storm rear, VP2 front would have been the combination of choice for the type of riding I do.  The photo below shows the rear VP2 at 5000km.  The centre tread is down to the minimum depth indicator, yet there is no real indication of "squaring off" in the centre, a remarkable achievement by the manufacturer.  Carcass construction and the use of different rubber compounds for the centre and sides clearly have a significant influence in keeping a good profile for a big percentage of total tyre life.

VP2 profile has remained excellent over its life

Moving forward to recent times, the Street Triple came equipped with French-made Dunlop Qualifier pure sport tyres and I was prepared not to like them because of my past experience with the Dunlop D220's.  This proved not to be the case as dry weather grip far exceeded my modest abilities although in the wet, I didn't feel as confident with them compared to the Blackbird with Avons.  However, this is akin to comparing apples with oranges because of the differences in the 2 bikes - far too many variables to reach a meaningful conclusion.  At just over 6000 km, the rear tyre  needed replacing.  I was expecting a little more distance given that the Triple only weighs 167kg dry compared with the 230kg of the Blackbird but it's still ok for a pure sport tyre, especially given the type of roads where we live!  The front still had plenty of centre tread but it was developing flats on the sides and whilst the handling was still acceptable, the transition from upright to leaned right over was no longer linear in terms of "feel".  Here's a photo of the front profile and the flats are quite noticeable.

The following photo shows a different view of the front tyre wear.  Despite the high crown of sports front tyres, it also shows how far a bike can be comfortably leaned over in perfect safety.  The rear has no "chicken strips" at all and the high angles of lean weren't noticeable at the time because the bike felt so planted.

So what now?  A set of tyres that would last up to and beyond the forthcoming endurance ride in October were needed so the VP2 sports tyres I'd really like to have fitted might be pushing the boundaries of life until that time.  Besides, there aren't any in the country for a few more weeks and waiting that long wasn't an option. The new Pirelli Angels looked  interesting and early feedback seems very promising, but full-life evaluations over a whole range of conditions don't appear to exist yet.  However, Avon have recently released the Storm 2 Ultra based on the VP2 technology, only with sport-touring compounds so those are the ones I've just had fitted. Ok, so no-one has done a full-life evaluation on these either, but the purchase decision was based on the considerable experience mentioned above with the forerunners of this tyre.

In the dealer's workshop for new tyres

Far too early to comment on them other than saying that they feel very predictable and directional changes are rapid.  More performance comment to come in due course but for what it's worth, here's a  photo of the front hoop taken at the end of the delivery trip home.  As previously mentioned, the Storms have a deserved reputation for exceptional wet weather performance and that's a feature I'm particularly keen on!

Avon Storm 2 Ultra front tyre

From personal experience, its clear that all the major manufacturers are heavily investing in continuous improvement and that's great for us as consumers.  It probably doesn't matter at all what major brand you choose as long as it's matched to the type of riding you do and whether it's suitable for the bike in question; particularly whether carcass construction will adequately support the dynamic loads imposed by heavier bikes.  The real test is does it "feel" right and give you the confidence to ride in the conditions that you normally encounter.  For me, as previously mentioned; the decision to stick with Avons at least this time round, is largely based around my historical experience of their performance.  Incidentally, I was so used to the performance of the Avon Storms that it was possible to tell when tyre pressures were as little as 2 psi different from my normal settings!

I also mentioned earlier about being anal with tyre pressures.  This comes from bitter experience of gas station gauges which are notoriously inaccurate and correct pressures have such an impact on both grip and tyre life.  I carried an analogue AccuGage brand on the bike for some years.  These are bourdon tube devices constructed like a barometer and are very accurate.  Sadly, it slid off the seat at a gas station forecourt and that was the end of that!  I now have a reasonably expensive digital gauge which looks a bit more robust!

Whilst on the subject of tyres, some small CO2 cartridges and plugs for emergency repairs are normally carried.  Thankfully, they've never been used yet but I've always fretted about whether the 3 cartridges would be sufficient for a full inflation, especially when you're a long way from home.  They're no good of course for small pressure adjustments on the run either.  What I did recently was modify one of those cheap 12V compressors that you buy in automotive accessory shops.  They have large plastic cases which would be a pain to carry on a bike but the internals are very compact.  The case was removed and the accessory plug replaced with crocodile clips to attach directly to the bike battery.  Stick it in a plastic bag and instant air when needed!  The compressor gauge is ignored as it's just as inaccurate as those at gas stations.  My trusty digital gauge is in the photo too.

Mini-compressor for the bike

Finally, it's worth reiterating a comment from the earlier post on aftermarket suspension.  After the OEM Blackbird rear suspension was swapped for a top of the line Penske unit and the fork internals were replaced with upmarket components from the UK, the average improvement in tyre life was close to 2000km.  This is almost certainly a result of  the tyres having less dynamic stresses due to the suspension doing its job effectively.  Something else to ponder on!

Addendum: For an update on Michelin PR3 performance, click HERE

Saturday 26 June 2010

The weather gods hate me!

Acknowledgement this photo: Steve Ferguson, local resident and fellow motorcyclist

Well Mr Bobscoot, thank you for offering to send good weather after my rainbow post but it arrived a bit late for which I hold the NZ Quarantine Service personally responsible.  A strongly-worded letter will be sent off forthwith.

We continued to have cloudbursts but by the next morning, it had eased to showers.  Just as well as we had arranged to drive the 160 km to Hamilton.  Thankfully, this was not a bike trip.  Our neighbours are going to make us stained glass windows for part of the house and we went down in our 4x4 with them to buy the glass we needed.  The weather was lovely in Hamilton, we had a fine time choosing the glass, followed by a sumptuous lunch and were about to head back to Coromandel when  my phone rang.  It was another neighbour and his call went like this, "We're having a severe storm on the Coromandel Peninsula, there's been torrential rain all day and the west coast road is flooded in several places.  Oh, and you can't come up the Eastern side of the Peninsula either because there's both flooding and 2 big slips"

So, with some words that would cause my late mother to scrub my mouth out with soap, we head back to see how far we can get.  It all seems a bit bizarre as the weather is still lovely in Hamilton.  As we approach Thames, the gateway to the Peninsula; the sky turns from  blue to almost pitch black and the rain starts to fall heavily.  A quick stop at the information centre confirms that we're stuck so the 4 of us check into a motel.  A quick visit to the local supermarket to stock up on cheeses, French bread, salami, wine (several bottles), breakfast goodies and so on sees us set for the night!

This morning, the weather is clear and calm and a phone call to our rural mail delivery driver reveals that the slips will take a while to clear but the water has subsided from the most direct route as he's been down the coast to the regional mail centre at first light.  Caution is advised as there are mini-slips and tree debris but we should be fine with a bit of care.

So, here we are.... arrived safely home an hour ago in dire need of a shower, shave and change of clothes.  After that, I must appease the NZ Weather Gods.  I'm undecided whether it should be setting fire to the Triumph or telling the Weather Gods to pick on Bobscoot for offering to send Canadian weather over here!

Thursday 24 June 2010

Somewhere over the rainbow....

The only connection that this post has to riding is that I'm not doing any today as we're having torrential downpours and I washed and waxed the bike a couple of days ago!  However, whilst mooching about indoors and organising lunch not 30 minutes ago, the sun momentarily came out and created a rainbow over the harbour.  I thought I'd share the picture I took from our front deck.  It would have been slightly more photogenic if the tide had been in and covering the oyster beds in front of us, but it's still good for the soul to see something like that!  Click photo to enlarge.

 Just as a counterpoint, the following photo is one I took at the end of winter last year right on sunset when the tide was in.

.... and one taken at dawn a couple of years back to split the day up nicely!

Wednesday 23 June 2010

A lapse in concentration

When occasionally riding the 160km down from Coromandel to Hamilton, I travel on a variety of back roads for most of the journey because it's more fun and is a good opportunity to keep your skills up.

Normally when setting out on a decent run, particularly solo; I kick the ride off by talking myself through the "12 second rule" observational process for a short stretch as I find it helps to bury it in the subconscious, especially if I haven't been on a run for a time. This particular trip to have new tyres fitted was no different and I soon settled into a decent pace in clear, cool conditions feeling content with the world.  Closing in on Hamilton, I was dog-legging down country lanes that I wasn't all that familiar with.  Now you might think that it would call for a little extra vigilance being on unfamiliar territory and you'd be right.  Looking back, my concentration at that time might have been mainly directed at figuring out what turn to take next.

Anyway, I was bowling along at open road speed down one of the country lanes and noted a low humped bridge spanning a fairly small creek in front of me.  It was a straight road but the bridge hump partially obscured the immediate far side.  What I should have done and didn't, was to ease off until I had unrestricted vision.  Whether it was figuring out where the next turn was, seeing the straight road stretching out or whatever; I hardly backed off at all.

This was a BIG mistake because as I got onto the bridge, it became apparent that in my previous blind spot, someone had dug up the road and there were several metres of broken-up road surfacing mixed with some fairly big lumps of under-surface dirt.  Pleased to say that the training kicked in - no panic and certainly not hitting the brakes - far too late for that.  As soon as I hit the rough stuff, the front swung way out of line but I steered into the slide then the back kicked out the other way, correcting itself as I countersteered and then we were through it.  I must say that the Triple handled it magnificently but it might have been entirely a different story  with the mass of my old Blackbird swinging about.

It all happened too quickly for any fright but for the rest of the journey, I mentally beat myself up for poor judgement.  I think any experienced rider is far harder on himself or herself than anyone else can be; which is only right and proper.  It was a powerful reminder that no matter how much you care about your riding, you can never, ever afford to be complacent.

I've left the fact that there were no warning signs out of the equation as you should always ride to the conditions.  I didn't and the fault was entirely mine; getting away with it being partially a matter of luck.  A few years ago, a very experienced friend of mine wasn't so fortunate.  He entered a blind bend and encountered loose gravel which had not been properly cleaned up after resurfacing.  That wrote his Hayabusa off and gave him 6 weeks away from work to recover from a number of injuries.  The message is that you can never risk lowering your guard for an instant.  We get away with it on most occasions but as previously mentioned, that is largely a matter of good fortune.

Ride wisely, Guys and Gals!

A few hundred metres from home and all is well!

Sunday 20 June 2010

More old photos!

It might not get all that cold in the area of NZ where we live but at least in winter, the grass only needs cutting every few weeks and the garden largely takes care of itself!  This gives a bit more free time to do indoor stuff, especially with longer nights as well.  One of those "other stuff" things is continuing to sort through thousands of old photos, including 35mm slides, prints and some digital images.

Hope it doesn't bore the pants off everyone, but here are a few photos which might be of interest.

The first was taken at a North Island classic car meet at Kerikeri in 2009.  Looks like a Lotus 7-type kit car, doesn't it?  Well, it was clearly influenced by Lotus but it was built from scratch by a well-retired panelbeater even older than me!!  Alloy and glass-fibre bodywork, carbon guards - all fabricated by him.  Now here's the bike connection - it has a modified Honda CBR1100xx Blackbird motor in it.  It apparently has electrifying performance on account of its power to weight ratio. We had a long discussion about the motor and his next project was to turbocharge it.  Absolute proof that as you age, there's no need to slow up or grow up - what a great advertisement for ageing disgracefully!

The next picture was taken at a charity toy run in the 1990's.  It was a 1960's UK-built Raleigh 20 bicycle but someone had cleverly grafted a little engine onto it which pressed down on the front tyre. The steering characteristics must have been quite interesting.  I vaguely remember the French having a penchant for powered bicycles way back.  Looks like throttle control is via a thumb lever on the handlebars.  Also noteworthy is the apparent absence of brakes so in an emergency, I guess the rider simply abandoned ship and left it to its own devices.  It does have a bell though - the ultimate safety accessory.

This photo was taken in 1991 in Bali and shows a novel approach to passenger safety.  Gary Francis' recent blog from Thailand also commented on the practice which clearly continues to this day in south east Asia.  There must be safety rules for riding motorcycles because everyone wears helmets, but side saddle???? Perhaps gravel rash is an acceptable risk in the face of style and modesty.  Heaven knows what happens on tight corners or under emergency braking!  As an aside, there are a few big bikes in Bali but by far the majority are scooters and mopeds.  Craftsmanship is alive and well over there as we saw roadside motorcycle shops (shops is a rather loose description for a pavement workshop), manufacturing exquisite expansion chambers for customised 2 stroke mopeds with sheet metal, crude hand tools and a gas torch!

This photo was taken in 1987 and the very pretty Honda GB400TT in the foreground was responsible for getting me back into motorcycling. They were built in the British cafe racer style and it was a delight to ride.  I'm standing by the GSX-R1100 owned by a workmate and it's a good job that it's not a video or you'd see me shaking!  After my absence from bike ownership for close on 15 years and totally rusty, Chris turns up and suggests we swap bikes for a "gentle" ride round a local twisty route.  Oh Lord, I was terrified of the Gixxer, with its super-sensitive throttle and Chris had disappeared into the distance on my bike within the first minute of the ride (and he claimed that he was taking it easy).  It was probably while this photo was being taken that the realisation dawned that there was a whole load of unlearning and relearning to be done!

The following photo was taken in 1993 and shows all that is wonderful about motorcycling - a 2 stroke screamer in the shape of a 250cc Suzuki X7!  It belonged to our eldest son Lyndon who graduated to a road bike after spending a year on a Suzuki TS 100 trail bike honing his skills in our company-owned forests.  The X7 was a beauty of a bike and whilst Lyndon was a layabout at university, I used to sneak out on it at every opportunity and thrash it round the country lanes. Two strokes take an awful lot of beating in the fun stakes - the exhaust howl is something else.  A friend still owns this bike, hasn't ridden it in years and I still have hopes of getting my paws on it again one day!

I mentioned the Suzuki TS 100.  The next photo is yours truly giving it a hiding along one of our company forest fire breaks around 1990.  Lovely little bike, surprisingly tractable and would carry my weight along at a fair old lick.  It was given to us by a friend  who's crowning glory was to jump it off a jetty into the sea after drinking a little too much of the amber liquid!  Amazingly, after a thorough wash-down and lots of CRC, it showed few ill-effects and was a family favourite for some years.

The final photo in this post (taken in 1980) clearly isn't a motorcycle but there is a connection!  Before returning to bikes in 1987, I raced single-handed catamarans, called Paper Tigers, at national championship level.  Quite difficult to handle in a decent breeze as shown by the shot taken on our local stretch of water. Incidentally, the yacht was called "Hooligan"; a not inappropriate name, all things considered.  The successor to Hooligan was called "September Warrior".  So-called because that's when all the bullshitting started before the new sailing season opened in October!  Anyway, the motorcycling connection is that I reckon that the skill set required to sail a yacht and ride a motorcycle are practically identical in terms of balance, reaction times and situational awareness.  Perhaps that's why I instinctively took to yacht racing. Although I've never piloted a light aircraft, it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to think that the skill set for flying is very similar too.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

But is it art?

Y'see, I trained as an engineer and according to my darling wife, all engineers either border on Asperger's Syndrome or fall completely into that category.  I think what she means (as much as any guy knows what the opposite sex really means) is is that we prefer "real stuff" to touchy-feely things like emotions, subtle nuances and ART. These things normally float in through a guy's ear and out the other side without leaving any residual traces or impact.  It's a bit harsh singling out engineers as targets for this withering sarcasm as most guys I know share these characteristics.

I'm certainly not  wishing to start a battle between the sexes but thought it was useful background on how I tend to view motorbikes - very much function over form. Well, perhaps just a smidgeon of form due to Jennie's encouragement not to be a complete ass.

Getting to the point, I had a most enjoyable 340 km  round trip yesterday to a motorcycle dealer in Hamilton to have new tyres fitted to the Street Triple (more on tyres in a couple of posts).  Anyway, having consigned the bike to the tender mercies of the service department, I was clear to grab a coffee and wander round the  showroom for an hour.  The Hamilton Motorcycle Centre is agent for Triumph, Ducati, Kawasaki and BMW and the showroom is comprehensively stocked with multitudes of models representing these brands.  Now whether it was the sunny day, a good ride, outstanding bike centre staff, or the sum of all these things; I was very surprised to find that I wasn't looking at the functionality of these bikes, but their shapes, colours and artistic merits - eeeeek.... must take my man pills.   All joking aside, looking at them in this light rather than a purely technical  one was a real pleasure and I must really do more of it.

I'm not saying that Jennie would enthusiastically embrace any of these bikes hung on a wall in lieu of our paintings and photographs, but she might appreciate the fact that I've stepped out of the usual way of looking at things!  Learning from more experienced bloggers, I'd actually packed a camera and I'd like to share some of the photos I took to illustrate the artistic side of motorcycles.  Click to enlarge.

Ducati 1198S rear end.....(wiping drool off chin)

Oh, those curves.......

Rocket 3 engine - immense power and a thing of brutal beauty.  
Isambard Kingdom Brunel would have approved

Plain matt black Rocket 3 tank - where less is more

Thunderbird engine
Tell me this isn't art!

Every woman looks great in a black number with diamonds
Every guy looks great on a black number with chrome

Ok, so I've been ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek about functionality and form but it's hard to dispute that the bikes above are superb examples of beautiful machinery, whether you're a die hard sports bike fan, cruiser enthusiast or whatever.  The other thing I've noticed is that modern bikes seem to attract favourable comments from both sexes when parked up anywhere, not just guys; maybe another telling commentary on classy styling.

Saturday 12 June 2010

Night riding - love it or loathe it?

Nightfall, just setting off for a 200 km autumn ride

There have been some superb blog posts recently coming out of Canada and the USA about riding in adverse conditions and their "character building" nature.  Therefore, I thought I'd continue the general theme with some random musings for consideration about  Kiwi night riding experiences.

Night riding is something you don't see much written about in motorcycling magazines, either from the viewpoint of the effectiveness of headlights on various makes of bike or even tips on how you ride safely at a reasonable pace.  This leads me to wonder whether motorcycling is largely regarded as a daytime activity by most manufacturers, the motorcycling press and even a decent percentage of riders.  In the latter case, it's probably something that many people don't do a lot of by choice.

Let's start with a definition of night riding. I'm not talking about riding through town with reasonably high levels of street, office and shop illumination, nor the reduced levels of lighting out in the suburbs.  What I'm referring to is being out in the blackness of the countryside with no lighting at all on two lane twisty roads rather than busy major arterial routes.  If you don't ride a lot in these conditions (and with a few exceptions, I don't), it can be fairly daunting; especially as in rural NZ, wildlife ranging from little furry things, larger woolly things and even through to big horny things all want to share the road with you on the odd occasion after dark!

Despite all the apparent risks, night riding is an incredible means of making you more complete as a rider.  Done properly, it sharpens your situational awareness skills and smooth riding techniques immeasurably which pays off in spades for normal daytime riding too.

How good or poor your lights are clearly has a bearing on both enjoyment and the opposite end of the scale too - the dreaded  "pucker factor"!  Your own skills and mindset are the other critical ingredients.  From a personal perspective, one of the few times I do what might be described as serious night riding is on organised endurance events which start off in daylight, run all through the night and finish sometime the next day.  This is at the extreme end of going out for a night ride but the techniques are really no different from heading off for a shorter run.  When you're comfortable with night riding, there's something very special about travelling in a little bubble of light, eating up the miles.

Lit up like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise

In terms of enjoyable night riding experiences, two come to mind; one riding solo and another with a group of other riders.  Hopefully, the reasons for them being enjoyable will become apparent.  The first was pre-retirement when I used to frequently commute 200 km from home on a Friday evening after work to our beach house that we now live in permanently.  The roads were one lane in each direction with a few straights but mostly sweepers and twisties.  The road was well known so that removed any mental apprehension about what to expect.  The journey itself was also of sufficient length that it was possible to start at twilight and "dial" into the ride and relax -  an important consideration.  The relaxed mental attitude was critical for concentration and heightened situational awareness which included a decent focus on chasing the "vanishing point" for correct corner positioning and entry/exit speeds.  Riding in the dark, you are also able to see small objects in the road, loose road metal etc. much easier than in daylight as the headlights cast shadows off even small items.  Travelling in the relatively small cocoon of light cast by the headlight seemed to remove extraneous distractions and focusing on the task at hand felt almost automated.  In fact, the fastest commute to the beach was done entirely in the dark.  I wasn't hitting the highest momentary speeds of a normal daylight run, yet through what I'd like to think was a smoother ride overall, a minute or two was shaved off the elapsed time, despite traffic densities being comparable.

The second example was on a 1000 miles (1600km) in 24 hours endurance ride in 2003. There were 4 of us riding together, with a high degree of trust in each other's abilities.  That takes a lot of stress out of any ride for starters, particularly in terms of having company if any problems are encountered.  Having already covered about 900km and well in the groove at somewhere past midnight, we found ourselves in volcano country in the central north island at an altitude of close to 3000 ft.  It was a clear night and the starlight alone was sufficient to brightly illuminate the snow on the upper reaches of the volcanoes.  Just 4 bikes and nothing else on the road with the sky and snow ablaze with light. As close to a mystical experience as one is likely to get without the ingestion of chemical supplements.  Again, being in the groove and the ability to relax with trusted friends in close proximity made good riding habits completely subconscious, allowing time to thoroughly appreciate the surroundings. "Zen-state" riding at its best!

Our first ever 1000 miles in 24 hours ride, early a.m, 1996.  Yellow blob in corner is a mate cat-napping (or possibly unconscious)!

One of the least enjoyable night rides was on an early 1000 miler where we were a long way from home in unfamiliar territory.  The road was narrow, no centre markings and there were continuous bends but it had plenty of grip. We were warm, there was no great risk yet I was rigid with tension which was causing fatigue; my thought processes had appreciably slowed up and I was riding with poor anticipation (gun-shy is a better description).  In hindsight, I'd almost certainly let myself get overwhelmed with apprehension about the narrow, twisty road we were travelling on rather than relaxing and simply sticking to the basics of riding smoothly.  In any event, it was all to do with my mental approach on that part of the ride rather than the conditions themselves.  I'd simply talked myself into not enjoying it.  Not that it applies in the case of "normal" night riding but I've noticed that on endurance rides at around 2-4 a.m, I don't really get tired, but I do get quite anxious and wonder whether the body clock trying to shut down releases chemicals that cause anxiety when you are forced to remain awake.  Maybe a physiologist would know.

So in trying to summarise personal thoughts about the skill sets for good night riding, it seems to be no different for those required in daylight riding BUT needs to be applied with a little more concentration than maybe we tend to in the day.  Heightened situational awareness, scanning all around and out to the limits of the headlight, attention to the vanishing point on corners and relaxing are just some of  the things which make a huge difference to enjoyment and safety. Relaxing is probably an easier proposition on a longer ride or if you set off in daylight so there is time to gradually adjust or dial in to the conditions. The other thing which undoubtedly aids the mental state is being adequately dressed in terms of warmth.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest bar to enjoying a night ride is a poor headlight.  What is surprising, however; is just how poor the standard headlights are on some modern bikes, particularly those with sporting pretensions.  Perhaps the manufacturers don't expect them to be ridden very far in complete dark.  My old BMW K100RS with its large oblong headlight (photo above) wasn't bad but was improved immeasurably by fitting a relay and a 100w halogen bulb.  The same modification was performed on the Blackbird and whilst it was fantastic on straights and sweepers, the physical shape of the headlight gave a sharp sideways cut-off which was quite unsettling when leaned well over in pitch blackness on tight corners.  Form over function by the designers methinks and probably a common occurrence on a lot of modern bikes.

The Street Triple twin round headlights give an excellent spread of light, but intensity in standard form is barely adequate.  They are also set too low during assembly. The relatively small volume of the lamp housings makes fitting higher temperature/wattage bulbs (i.e 100w) a possibly risky proposition.  As an intermediate step, the standard bulbs have been replaced with Osram Nightbreaker bulbs of the same wattage and what a difference!  The illumination is SIGNIFICANTLY better - why oh why can't the manufacturer fit better quality bulbs as standard?  The photo below shows the difference between the standard bulb and the Nightbreaker in daylight.  In the dark, it's even more pronounced.  The standard bulb on the left  is quite soft and yellow.  The Nightbreaker on the right is much whiter and more intense.

Standard bulb left, Nightbreaker right

As an aside, I tried 100w blue-white xenon bulbs on the Blackbird.  They didn't seem to illuminate greenery at the roadside as well as the 100w halogens.  Where they did score appreciably however was in daylight.  It was really noticeable how much earlier car drivers detected your presence and moved over if you were closing on them from behind.  That has to be a significant safety consideration given that most collisions or near-misses occur as a result of the "I didn't see you mate" excuse of cage drivers.

Fitting HID lights is another option but as I only do seriously long night rides about once a year, the upgrade to Nightbreakers is probably sufficient for now (we hope).

Actually, I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of this post has been, other than to ramble on more than a bit to help clarify in my own mind why I should get out more for decent length night rides in a range of different weather conditions, particularly in preparation for the big ride in October.  There's little doubt as already mentioned that  it sharpens your awareness, road positioning and makes you ride smoothly.  That's got to be a good thing, hasn't it?  Hope it all makes sense.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Response to the previous post

In response to the comments received about the last post in getting off a parking ticket, I thought I'd add a further example of how it's possible to get a good outcome without abuse, no matter how satisfying it is to let rip!

This event occurred a few years back when out of the blue, we received a letter from some solicitors regarding an unpaid veterinarian bill which had nothing at all to do with us. This is the letter: Click to enlarge


 As it was close to Christmas, a charitable response was called for:


 I was delighted with the response from the solicitors and surprised that upholders of the law actually had a sense of humour!


 Sonja and Bobscoot:  My services are way cheaper than a solicitor.  A small block of dark chocolate will be adequate recompense ;-)

A bit of light relief

Just been cleaning out some computer files and came across an old letter which might provide some brief amusement.

It concerns a fleeting visit I made on the bike to the city of Rotorua for some shopping. It's a major tourist centre and in addition to fleecing tourists for various attractions in the area, the city fathers clearly see the regular issue of parking infringement notices as a useful addition to city revenue. Parking wardens lurk round every corner.  I took the risk of parking illegally as no more than 5 minutes were going to be spent in the shop.  A cunningly camouflaged warden must have licked his or her lips on seeing me arrive and sure enough, there was a ticket on the bike but no warden in sight in the few scant moments it took to make a purchase.

It was pretty much pointless writing a letter ranting and raving about the unfairness of it all, so I tried one which was hopefully a mix of humour and grovelling.  It's reproduced below - click to enlarge, then + to zoom.

And the outcome?  It got waived!!  It must have lightened someone's day and since then, I've always tried to write letters of complaint in a similar vein, getting a reasonable amount of success.  One even got me an apology and a classy box of chocolates!  Might be worth giving it a try if you suffer the indignity of a ticket when you're on the bike.

Finally, a quotation  from an unknown (but wise) source:

People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it's safer  to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs. 

Saturday 5 June 2010

Damascus steel - an ancient art

Nothing about bikes for a change but thought it may appeal to those with an appreciation of  technology, history and art.

It must be about 4 decades ago when I saw a TV programme on knife and sword-making using the Damascus steel (also known as pattern welded steel) process. It's a technique at least 1500 years old and is practically a lost art in the age of mass production. It’s how the original Middle-Eastern scimitar blades were made along with the Japanese Samurai Katana swords. One presumes that there must have been technology transfer even in those days, for them to have come into being at much the same time but be so geographically far apart.

The problem with ancient swords and knives was combining overall strength with a keen cutting edge in the absence of yet to be developed carbon steels and the Damascus process was the first to achieve those combined qualities.  Without going into too much detail, a billet of iron or steel is cut in half and forged together again whilst red hot. This is repeated multiple times to produce many layers, i.e. 9 double-ups produces 512 layers! This traps fine carbon layers from each slightly cooling surface and the layering process results in a blade which is incredibly strong and carries one of the sharpest and durable edges known. The Japanese allegedly used to test sharpness by cutting miscreants in half with one blow.  (Apologies if you've just eaten or are about to, but you'll get the drift about sharpness now!)

The principal difference between the Middle Eastern and Japanese methodology is that whereas a Katana is highly polished, the Middle Eastern blades were etched to expose some of the different layers. Depending on how the billet is spot-hammered or twisted during the forging process gives different patterns on the blade as these various layers are exposed during grinding and polishing.

As an engineer, I was blown away with both the ingenuity of the Damascus technique and the sheer beauty of the finished object. Owning one would be akin to owning a piece of history but that wasn't even a consideration back then.

Fast forward nearly 4 decades where the family had accumulated some nice art objects along the way. On a visit to Christchurch, we saw a one-off pocket knife in Damascus steel at an arts centre which had been made by a local forest park ranger. That was all that was required to start the yearning again and we decided that if possible, we would get a carving knife commissioned so it was both practical and an object of art which we could hand down as a family heirloom.

The Internet is truly a wondrous thing and lo and behold, we found 2 people in NZ with international reputations who still practised the ancient skill! After a bit of dialogue, one of them accepted a commission to make a carving knife for us. You'll understand that the manufacture of such a one-off item from scratch is not cheap, but neither is good original art.

A couple of months after sealing the deal, it arrived by registered mail and the result was breathtaking. It's a 10" drop point raindrop pattern Damascus ferrous blade, Canadian burr maple treated handle with etched copper fittings. It’s a truly stunning piece of workmanship and the only problem now is that all our 3 kids (who are great cooks) want to inherit it! Sharp is an understatement and the crisp “ting” noise when tapping the blade is something else!

The photos simply don't do it justice, but here are some anyway. The original file sizes are large so you can click on the photos to enlarge detail.

It's not that easy to see but along the top edge shot below, the major layers from the billet folding process are just visible. The burr maple has the most amazing luminescent grain.

This commission gave me nearly as much pleasure as the emotional surge one gets from buying a new bike and the history connected with the process makes it ultra-special too.  It's wonderful that there are still craftspeople round the world keeping the ancient arts alive.

A word of warning though about "fake" Damascus steel.  There are kitchen knives available which purport to be Damascus because of the patterns etched on the blades but they're solid, not layered and not ferrous either.  Therefore, it's important to look closely and check provenance!  The ferrous blade is surprisingly easy to keep in good order, just a light wipe from a paper towel with a spot of cooking oil on it after hand-washing.  I really ought to make a mount or fancy case with a velvet liner for it to show proper respect rather than keeping it in a kitchen drawer.  Maybe we should commission a carving fork to match it......

If anyone is interested in breathtakingly beautiful Damascus knives, check these sites out:
Hoiho Knives  and Damascus NZ

Wednesday 2 June 2010

Some random photos

Following on from the last post about wet weather gear, it's only a short skip to cold weather riding.  One of my friends lives in Central Otago, an inland area of the south island of NZ.  It's stunningly beautiful, sparsely populated and the climate can best be described as "continental" - low rainfall, up to 35degrees C and beyond in summer and down to -15degrees C in winter.  They breed them tough down there as Malcolm rides his bike to work in all but the harshest conditions.  He reckons that at minus 6 degrees, it starts to get a bit tricky because even with the coarse chip of south island roads, you start to lose mechanical grip.  Personally, I'd be more worried about losing digits and other extremities but what do I know; I'm just a soft north islander.

The photo is of Malcolm riding his Suzuki GS1200 SS down his kilometre-long dirt drive in the middle of winter.  Pretty heroic if you ask me.  Common sense has prevailed though.  He now owns a VStrom 1000 which is probably more suited to the winter conditions!
A Central Otago, NZ winter!

Keeping the winter connection, when I lived in the UK, there was a motorcycle event held every Boxing Day in Northamptonshire called the Wild and Woolly Scramble.  Scrambling being the quaint earlier term for what is now motocross.  The track was laid out through the fields of a working farm and testing conditions is an understatement - snow laying on the top of metre-deep mud in some places.  Great for spectators but not so hot for the competitors.  No such thing as a pressure wash for the bikes either.  The photo was taken by me in 1968. 

A study in abject misery!

The following photo was taken at the same event in 1969 but clearly in better conditions.  There's a bit of pedigree here as the photo is of Don Rickman , co-founder of Rickman Motorcycles who made nickel-plated frame "Metisse" kits for just about any type of motorcycle on the planet, including GP bikes.  Note the safety gear of that era - rugby shirt, leather pants and boots and not a bit of armour to be seen! (And temperatures hovering around freezing).

The famous Rickman Metisse frame