Wheel alignment

Friday 24 June 2011

New Zealand's south island revisited, part 2

Following on from the last post, we continued on our merry way round the south island. We start this part of the tour at a transport and toy museum in Wanaka.  Amazing place, with aircraft, cars, toys - you name it, they have it!  We saw this sign in the entrance and wisely kept our mouths closed.

Oh dear......

Dave always wanted a part in Star Wars!

Yours truly on an NSR 50 - a touch small

Martin contemplating faster transport - a MiG

Jennie and I did our courting in a car like this!
A British Wolseley 6/110

A restored Polikarpov at the Wanaka Warbirds base

The spectacular Glenorchy road

At Wanaka, we took a jet boat up the Matukituki River and were met by a helicopter which took us up to Mount Aspiring national park and landed us on a glacier.  The chopper pilot was a gorgeous 25 year old with sublime skills.  The scenery wasn't bad either! As you might expect, a lot of Lord of the Rings was shot in this area.

V8-powered jet boat

River valley from the air.  The water colour comes from
suspended glacial rock particles

Approaching a suspended glacier

The photo below is of a suspended glacier at several thousand feet altitude.  To give an idea of scale, the front glacier face is 75 ft high!

Glacier in Mt Aspiring National Park

Chopper on the edge of the glacier

The 2 photos below are a post-publishing addition. They're for fellow blogger Ken who was disappointed that I hadn't published a photo of Alex, the pilot.  It's a bit hard to tell with her headset and sunglasses still on but you'll have to take my word that she was drop-dead gorgeous!

Transferring from the jet boat to the chopper
Alex, our pilot, is to the right

This photo of Alex was a sort of surreptitious one on the pretext of photographing the scenery.  Better than nothing though Ken!

The lovely Alex

The Clyde Dam just outside Alexandra is a superb piece of engineering, built to withstand major earthquakes.  We were fortunate to be given a tour through it as one of my long distance event riding partners is the production controller there.  It was quite an experience.

The Clyde River

Jennie and me at the Clyde Dam tail race

From Clyde, it was off to Milford Sound, a magnificent road into the Sound, followed by the majesty of the sound itself.  It doesn't matter what the weather is like as the character of the place completely changes - sunny or raining are both superb.  Average annual rainfall at Milford Sound is a staggering 6.8 metres, or nearly 22 feet!!!  At the Sound itself, the scale is so vast that you feel like an ant.

The vast expanse of the Milford Road

Entrance to the Homer Tunnel with temporary waterfalls from the rain

Moody, overpowering Milford Sound

The cliff on the left (Mitre Peak) is a mile high!

Yet more Milford Sound

Minerals and mosses on the Sounds rocks

Heading up the west coast, we came to the Punakaiki Rocks.  These limestone deposits have holes to the sea at their base and at high tide, they blast great fountains of water into the air.  We saw a bus-load of elderly tourists soaked to the skin because they were so busy talking to each other, they weren't paying attention to what was going on.  Honestly, you'd think lots of water running down the path would be a slight clue, wouldn't you?

Punakaiki Rocks

Beautiful city of Nelson cathedral

All tied down on the ferry for the trip home

I hope you've enjoyed parts 1 & 2 of the tour of NZ's south island by bike!  Save your pennies.....

New Zealand's south island revisited, part 1

The next 2 posts are principally to irritate Sonja as she is always complaining that her boss won't send her back to NZ on business and seeing photos of NZ always stirs her up!

It's a crappy winter day and not that pleasant for riding so I've been flicking back through photos of sunny riding days to cheer myself up.  Back in 2009, I made a post about our last south island riding trip but didn't attach many photos. We called it the "Birds Galore" tour as 4 of us with identically-coloured Honda Blackbirds headed down south.  Jennie wanted to come too, but not spend days on the pillion of 4 lunatics who were down there to misbehave on some of the world's greatest riding roads.  Her dilemma was solved when the partner of one of the other riders wanted to come as well and offered to bring their people-mover.  A perfect arrangement as we could chuck our gear in the back and the girls could do their thing whilst we did ours, meeting up at lunchtimes and late afternoons en route.  Here's some more photos and scribblings from that tour. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Leaving home for the great adventure
From L: Martin (a cop!), Jennie and me in background, Dave

En route to the ferry
Big John, Martin, me, Dave

On the way to the ferry at Wellington, we passed through the small town of Taihape.  Every year, the town puts on a gumboot throwing contest (how far you can throw it) with great prizes and the whole town has  a carnival atmosphere.  Fittingly, at the entrance to town, there's a giant gumboot crafted from old corrugated roofing iron!

Taihape corrugated iron gumboot

 Tying down on the ferry

Picton in the south island where the ferry docks

Kekerengu - stopping for a cold drink

Synchronised parking! Off whale watching

The sperm whales at Kaikoura hunt giant squid in a deep trench just off the coast.  They re-surface every 30 minutes or so to re-oxygenate and stay on the surface for 10-15 minutes, so the chances of seeing several on the 2 hour trip are very good.  There are also hundreds of dolphins and seals in the area.

Sperm whale diving for giant squid

There must have been at least 200 dolphins round the boat
leaping out  of the water and splashing us with their tails!

The photo below is of the iconic hotel at the tiny community of Blackball, an ex-coalmining area.  It's a bit down at heel but is one of those places which is a "must" to stay at because of the magic hospitality.  Full of old mining memorabilia, food to die for and beer from a local micro-brewery.  Now here's the even better bit!  A good few years back, the owners called it the Blackball Hilton.  Eventually, the Hilton hotel chain heard about it and told them they'd have to change the name if they didn't want their arse sued off for damages. You can just see the name board nailed to the railings on the balcony.  In a gesture of defiance, the owners did change the name!  See a little board nailed on an angle just above the other sign?  It has the word "Formerly" painted on it!  The full name was changed to "Formerly the Blackball Hilton".  The Hilton hotel chain gave up for fear of becoming a laughing stock.  Yayyyy for the little guy!!!

The Blackball Hilton

The  south island has a number of mountain passes, all of which are a biker's wet dream!  They all run through different scenery so each one has a unique character.  The trick is not to crash whilst dribbling at the scenery. Fortunately, there's minimal traffic outside the main cities which is perfect for bikes.

 Porter's Pass

The birds below are Kea, a native parrot with beautiful plumage.  Most people just call them bastards.  They're really inquisitive and mischievous.  They'll pull the rubber out of a car wiper blade holder, peck holes in your saddle, get inside your pack to steal food - don't ever leave anything unattended!

The entertaining, but delinquent Keas

The photo below shows the longest straight in Arthur's Pass. Four Blackbirds had their throttles pinned to the stop down here. (No wives or partners around to wag their collective fingers)

The Majestic Arthur's Pass

Lindis Pass covered in red tussock grass

Lake Wakatipu and another fabulous bike road

John and Martin by the Kingston Flyer

Dave helping a lady at a gas station fix a puncture
- seems more interested in her butt!

The following photo was taken at Cardrona between Queenstown and Wanaka, a ski area in winter but devoid of snow in summer.  It used to be the venue for the Race to the Sky, the NZ equivalent of the Pike's Peak Hill climb.  There are some terrific videos on YouTube - you must see this one: Top Gear

Old meets new at Cardrona

Queenstown panoramic shot

 Part 2 of the south island trip to follow in a few minutes.......

Friday 17 June 2011

Advanced rider training - reflections so far

 Off on another mission.....

My good mate Roger Fleming  (Raftnn) and I both set out to raise our riding skills this year .  We chose slightly different tuition routes, principally because having retired and wanting to put something back into the local motorcycling community, I'm undertaking formal training to become a voluntary advanced instructor (an Observer in Institute of Advanced Motoring terminology).  However, the techniques themselves are pretty much identical.

Roger has recently written an excellent review of his progress and thoughts so far (HERE) and I thought it would be useful to do the same both from a personal viewpoint and from the structured process which the IAM uses.  This approach to riding more proficiently is a strictly personal one and hopefully,  I'll avoid sounding too much like a boy scout or showing too much missionary zeal.

A quick and dirty summary of the method of training
The IAM train to a very high standard and it's used by professionals such as police riders and drivers.  They use a system called IPSGA  and without going into fine detail, here's the basics of each stage.

InformationContinuously knowing what's happening in front, behind and to the sides of you.  This means taking in what's happening, using that information to plan what you're going to do next and giving information out to other road users (signals or any other appropriate form of communication).

Position.  Putting yourself in the best possible position on the road to deal with hazards or any other events either seen or anticipated. (e.g. preparing for an overtake, positioning for a blind bend etc)

Speed.  Adjusting your speed for an impending hazard, accounting for visibility, road surface, cornering, actions of other road users, the possibility of unseen hazards etc

Gear.  For example, are you in the right gear  for good control such as engine braking in slippery conditions, or in the correct gear to allow a rapid overtake when a safe opportunity presents itself?

Acceleration.  Using the throttle to maintain appropriate progress through bends, accelerating smoothly away to regain the normal road speed under the prevailing conditions.

Each stage is dependent on the one before.  If road conditions/events change, new information needs to be considered and you re-enter the system at an appropriate phase, continuing in sequence. At first reading, it all sounds very formal and a bit anal but it's very easy to apply with a bit of practice.  The system must be flexible in response to actual road conditions.  During observed rides, the examiner has a detailed checklist applicable to these stages so that you are assessed against them in considerable detail.  At the end of the ride, the examiner will discuss your performance against the criteria and what aspects if any, you need to work on before the next stage.

That's all the description of the process I'm going to give at present; it's simply setting the scene for reflecting on how it's all been going so far.  The two posts previously made about the observed rides I've done so far are more to do with what happened rather than how I felt, so now it's time to share the latter bit; tough as it is for a guy!

Mind Games!
All the stages of IPSGA are well-covered in the two IAM-recommended books HERE and HERE.  Because observed rides were already scheduled, I  read them exam-cramming style rather than at a leisurely pace. The reading was followed up shortly afterwards with practice rides, trying to implement all I'd read.  HUGE MISTAKE! Doing it that way simply put me into overload.  I wasn't enjoying the rides and made too many mistakes.  On subsequent rides, I stuck to doing one or two things well until they became habitual, then a few more and and so on.

At the outset, fear of the unknown was a bit overwhelming - not knowing how I was going to be assessed, what the examiners would be like, road and weather conditions and so on.  All of them contributed to some stomach-churning moments. After the first check ride and having got through it with just a few improvement recommendations rather than a massive across the board fail, it was possible to relax; at least from fear of the unknown.

What hasn't gone away is the pressure from fear of failure although it has eased a little as I pass each stage. That fear isn't because of what others might say or think, it's simply an internal compulsion to do well.  Can't honestly say what causes it but ever since school it's been the same where something challenging is involved. Nature vs. nurture? Not a clue, but although it's not as bad as maybe a couple of decades ago, it's still present to some extent.  You need a bit of pressure to perform well but it could be quite easy to let it get out of hand.  I'd be interested in other's views on this aspect.

Where are the big improvements to date?
Summing it up simply, riding consistently well for much longer periods than in earlier times.  I'd previously ride well in bursts but concentration would lapse at certain times due to external or mental distractions, perhaps a bit laziness thrown in too.  I'm not there yet, but the IPSGA system of riding really aids concentration.  Initially, it soaked up all my riding time thinking about it but with practice, it allows you to ride well almost automatically whilst an area of the brain is still free for other stuff and most importantly; enjoying the ride!  For example, in touring mode, there's time to take in the countryside whilst the IPSGA tools are working for you on another level.  I think that's what advanced riding is all about - self-awareness and safe riding to a high standard all of the time.  In a recent post on a practice ride, I mentioned that for the remaining 80-odd km home, I cut loose and ummm.... pressed on a bit!  Although speeds in the twisties were higher than normal, I felt perfectly at ease because the techniques recently learned were still governing the way I rode.  Does that make sense?  Maybe not very well explained, but hope you get the gist.

In terms of one specific improvement, one definite area is being far more aware of what's going on behind me.  Having had bikes with serious performance for the last couple of decades, you don't get passed all that often and there's a tendency to direct your focus forward at the expense of what's going on behind.  A silly thing to do given that circumstances can change so quickly.  My use of mirrors in combination with shoulder checks/lifesavers into the blind spots has improved out of sight compared with a few months ago.

These are just a few random thoughts which have come up on the journey so far.  They aren't a comprehensive sum of what I've learned which has been immense and will hopefully continue.  In fact, it's the continuous improvement aspect of IAM training which I really like - it stops back-sliding!  In addition, it's also reinforcing the big difference between an experienced rider and an advanced rider.

More to come, but most importantly, I'm loving the experience (now)!

My Blackbird with active volcanoes in the background

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Tour de Thames (and something more taxing)

This is the tale of a day of 2 very different halves!  Here's the first half.....

I needed some re-writable CD's for the voluntary computer tutoring I do for local Senior Citizens. I can get them in our village but they're more expensive than in the nearest town, 55 km down the coast road.  Actually, adding the cost of gas to get there and back; overall, they're considerably cheaper in the village!  That ain't the point though to a bike rider, is it?  That delicious anticipation of the ride to come, wheeling the bike out of the shed and slowly kitting up with that slight churning feeling in the stomach.  All these years and I still get those anticipatory butterflies - nothing quite like it, is there?  So today was the day to head to Thames for a ride.

I've posted plenty of other photos of the Coromandel Peninsula, but hardly any of the town of Thames, which is the gateway to the western part of the Peninsula.  The town was built in the first gold rush on the Coromandel Peninsula in the mid-1800's.  There's still gold extraction in one area on the Peninsula but most of the area has a no-mining order slapped on it to preserve the natural beauty.  Consequently, the permanent population of Thames has dropped back over the decades and currently sits at 6 to7000.  However, many of the original old buildings and landmarks have been preserved so I thought a photographic tour whilst I was down there might be interesting.

Wheel the bike out, kit up with all those great feelings and....... down comes the rain!  Well, drizzle anyway but there are touches of blue on the horizon so away we go.  Run through the odd heavy shower but it's getting brighter as we reach Thames.

The photo below is of an old restored stamper battery which is a tourist destination.  The old tunnels in the hill behind the stamper are inhabited by cave wetas, cross between a giant grasshopper and something out of a horror movie and with a leg span as big as your hand.  Totally harmless though. Can wet your pants if one drops on you though! (Click to enlarge).

Working gold processing (non-commercial)

Cave Weta

Restored weatherboard home from the 1800's

The old gold mining training school
Now a museum
 Church for a small congregation

Family home offering bed and breakfast

Thames town centre from lookout

Two sexy bits of kit!

See the boat next to the fish and chip shop below?  That's delivering the catch - doesn't come any fresher than that!

When they say fresh, they mean it! Boat less than 4 metres away

Lovely old pleasure boat going out onto the Firth of Thames

Fully functional old hotel in Thames main street

This might have been the end of this post but.......

Here's the second part of the day which made it REALLY interesting!  Late(ish) last night, I got a call from my Institute of Advanced Motoring mentor, Wayne Holden, asking me whether I was ready for a check ride as he was clear tomorrow.  Immediate panic, but as he was suggesting Thames as a meeting point, it made total sense to do my shopping, take some photos, have lunch with Wayne and then get into the serious end of the day's business.  Didn't stop me thinking, "Oh shiiit" though, even though the short notice was a good thing to stop brooding about it!

I was feeling increasingly comfortable about the check ride as the sun had come out and the roads had dried.  Then something weird happened!  I was waiting for Wayne outside a local cafe when a chap comes out of a nearby shop and says, "Are you Geoff James"?  I was totally gob-smacked and he must have seen my surprise so he went on to say, "I'm Bob Benton, Wayne's other IAM student"!  I hadn't previously met Bob but over the last couple of days, we'd exchanged emails to introduce ourselves to each other as we only live 55 km apart. He'd previously seen a photo of me and the Triple and made the instant connection. What are the chances of me parking right outside where he works and him coming out to pick up some lunch???  You know how it is - within 5 minutes it was like we'd known each other for years. Really nice guy.  Had a good chat, admired Bob's DR650 adventure bike parked round the side of the shop, said our goodbyes with a plan to meet up again shortly.  A few minutes later, Wayne turns up.

Wayne Holden typifies the IAM members I've met so far - friendly, funny, modest, puts you at your ease and of course, a member of an elite bunch of riders who really are the best of the best.  Wayne is an ex-police rider, ex-helicopter flying instructor, runs a driving and riding school in the Waikato district, is IAM Chief Examiner (cars) and an IAM Observer (Instructor) on bikes.  It would be completely intimidating if he wasn't such a bloody nice guy!

Introducing Wayne Holden

Wayne's Yamaha XJR 1300 is a joy to behold in metallic blue with the trademark gold Ohlins suspension - a real beauty.  After lunch, we set off  for a ride around the hill suburbs of Thames with their narrow winding streets.  A bit of drizzle is setting in but isn't any bother until on a steep downhill grade with a sharp bend and a smooth surface, I manage to lock up the rear momentarily despite the slightest dab on the pedal - not a lot of traction there.  After a spell in the suburbs, we set out for Whangamata, a coastal town on the other side of the peninsula.  It's nearly 60 km away and most of the road to get there is twisty so all the skills or lack thereof will be on display!  

Leaving Thames, I feel relatively relaxed, having gone through my first IAM observation ride a few weeks ago, practiced hard since then and backed it up with reading the recommended books.  The relaxed state lasts all of 10 minutes as the skies open and the rain on the road reveals an awful lot of areas which have lost their chip - traction very limited.  Riding in the rain is one thing but riding in the rain on a slippery road with an IAM examiner up your arse whilst trying to ride like a pro is a near bowel-loosening experience!  As an aside, Wayne remarked later that he didn't like that stretch either and felt his bike moving about.  This section of road is exhausting and I elect to run a lower gear for most of it, both uphill and downhill to aid engine braking and good control.

After 20 minutes or so once we cross the mountain range, the roads dry out and I relax.  Traffic is light and I can concentrate on good positioning and situational awareness.  We're cracking along at a decent pace through the bends and it's really enjoyable.  In no time at all, we arrive in Whangamata and I pull up outside the toilets at the Game Fishing Club - enough said!  Wayne walks over, shakes my hand and says, "Well done, excellent riding in some pretty demanding conditions".  I'm genuinely taken aback as inside, I was jelly in the wet and slippery section of the ride - no wonder it was bladder-filling!  Wayne fills in the Observer check sheet and it's all A's - unbelievable and I'm over the moon.  Maybe there is a chance of making it to Observer level after all.  We chat about what comes next and agree that in a week or two, I'll ride down to the city of Hamilton to practice urban skills in dense traffic with him.  If that works out ok, Wayne thinks I may be ready for the final exam with Philip McDaid, Chief Examiner; based in Auckland.  Hmmmm....we'll see.....  

Can crack a smile at last with the stress off!

Bike porn - Wayne's gorgeous Ohlins suspension

After offering my profuse thanks for another fantastic day of riding, Wayne departs south and I head north for home, feeling on top of the world.  After dinner and three large cups of tea, I sit here typing this with energy levels starting to flag badly.  Early night methinks, but what a day!