Archive for February, 2010

Six Things You Need to Accept to Enjoy Motorcycle Touring

There are many benefits to touring on a motorcycle, but they don’t come without certain costs.  The reasons so many people never really experience the many benefits of riding a motorcycle, let alone the benefits of touring on a motorcycle is due to their inability to accept the shortcomings of riding.  This is not necessarily a conscious decision, and in some cases it’s not a decision that they have complete control over.  Here’s a list of things one needs to accept to enjoy their ride on a motorcycle.

  1. Inherent Danger.
    This is the first and foremost thing that keeps most people off a bike.  It’s more dangerous than driving a car.  You need to accept this to enjoy your ride.  We only live once and personally the experience of riding and seeing the road on a motorcycle outweighs this danger for me.  I also have been riding two wheeled vehicles for as long as I can remember and my worst injury to date has been a broken collar bone and thumb.  I know many people who play team sports that have had worse injuries, and actually, I have had a worse injury:  I had a pretty severe concussion from riding a bicycle while I was in college.  You can mitigate a lot of this risk by adhering to two basic ideas:  Wearing safety gear, and riding smart.  Unfortunately the smart riding can only really come with experience.  There are a lot of tips which I might highlight in future posts, but there’s no substitute for experience.  As far as safety gear goes, when I’m touring I ride with the following equipment:  Full Faced Helmet, Kevlar/Nylon riding Jacket (I ride with a leather jacket in nicer weather and shorter rides) with armor reinforcements, Dedicated back protector, Kevlar/Nylon Riding pants, motorcycling boots with armor, and armored leather gloves.  Luckily, I haven’t had to test most of this equipment yet.
  2. You will be uncomfortable
    Every touring trip has at least one moment where you’re uncomfortable.  It might be a cramp, a sore muscle, cold weather, rain, hot weather, intense sunlight, other drivers… whatever.  It will happen.  The world will conspire at times to foul your mood and make you wish you didn’t do this.  Being on a motorcycle exposes you much more to the world surrounding you and this is both a blessing and a burden.  The main reasons I ride are the blessings, the reasons I have second thoughts are the burdens.  I find the bad moments don’t generally last very long and in the long run you will enjoy the majority of your entire trip.  There are some precautions you can take to make yourself as comfortable as possible including bike choice, researching your route, the weather, mental preparations, packing smartly, etc.  Once again, this is something I will explore in further detail in future posts.
  3. Your Bike Will Get Dirty and worn.
    This is unavoidable.  Your bike will get dirty.  It will also get scratched.  If you ride through rain it will get very dirty.  If you ride through snow (and presumably salted roads) it will get downright filthy.  If you’re holding an aggressive schedule you might not feel you have time to clean it.  I met a guy once who apparently wiped his bike down every time he filled up with gas.  Most people aren’t so meticulous.  I like to schedule a bit of a break every few days that will allow me to catch up on cleaning my bike, checking over maintenance and such.  It’s definitely a good idea to lube the chain and check the tension every day if you’re touring, checking the engine oil and tire pressures frequently (as well as tire wear) but cleaning the bike just comes in pretty low on the list, and also takes about as long as everything else combined.  Although it’s good to note that often times a clean machine is a reliable machine.
  4. You will get dirty
    You’re often exposed to the same exact conditions as the bike.  Many larger touring bikes have big fairings and windscreens that can keep you well protected, however they’re not going to work perfectly.  I ride a naked bike so I’m just as exposed as the bike itself.  Rain gear is really nice in this sense to provide a layer to take most of the damage for riding in the rain or snow.  I also pack a set of clothes that I don’t wear while riding so that I have some clean clothes for socializing and being in public without being smelly.
  5. Your visor will get dirty
    Same scenario as the previous two, but this is worth mentioning because it really impairs your vision.  If you wipe it off a lot it will get scratched up, too, particularly if it’s snowy and the roads are heavily salted/sanded.  It’s not a bad idea to carry a spare visor for this case.  I also carry a set of goggles with tear-offs.  I used these once so far:  Riding in freezing rain.  I was happy I had them as they allowed me to actually see where I was going, that shouldn’t be underrated.
  6. Your attitude ultimately makes the journey
    I know, everyone always talks about attitude.  The reason’s really simple:  Your attitude is the only thing that determines whether you enjoy life or not.  That’s right, this transcends riding; ultimately it’s a life principle. Attitude: without a good one you will be doomed from the start.  It’s easy to have a good one when you’re riding in warm, sunny weather on beautiful roads just cruising.  It can be a bit more difficult when you’re riding in the cold rain.  It can be impossible at times.  So how do you keep going?  Sometimes I look at things as a challenge.  I always make sure to make myself as comfortable as possible.  Sometimes I just have to stop and take a break.  Finally, I always focus on the bright side of things.  The worst moment I’ve had to date involved being stuck in pouring rain, in stop-and-go traffic when it was about 45F out.  I was cold, I was soaked all the way through two “waterproof” layers, and I was not making any progress.  It was also dusk and I still had well over 100 miles to ride.  This was the single most difficult part of any ride I’ve had to date.  I had to stop.  I pulled into a Taco Bell and just got some comfort food and spent some time warming up (and yes, in conditions like this even Taco Bell is comfort food).  While I was there I wouldn’t say I got excited about my ride, but I readjusted mentally to prepare for the forthcoming ride.  Ultimately situations like this will make great stories to tell your friends, and when you’re done you can feel your personal sense of accomplishment.  The final thing is that you need to have a destination you’re happy about.  In this case it was a warm hotel room.  Now I can officially say:  I rode from St. Louis to Kansas City in the pouring rain in October.  It sucked, but I did it.  More recently I can say I crossed the Rocky Mountains in February, at one point in blizzard conditions.  I get a certain sense of satisfaction from having a guy tell me that I’m “certifiably crazy.”  Without a positive attitude (I kept reminding myself that crossing the Rockies was only a small part of my overall trip which included a significant amount of time in Southern California) I would not have been able to do this.  When the going gets tough, you have to keep your eyes on the prize.  Ultimately I’m glad I kept going.  In the grand scheme of things it didn’t last that long and the payoff was many wonderful experiences, including fair weather for the rest of my trip up to Seattle from Denver.

I’ve focused a lot on the tough parts of riding, so I want to briefly mention the reasons that you ride in the first place, and the reasons one might be inclined to tour on a motorcycle.  This is also worthy of it’s own article which I’ll get to eventually (although I have quite a long list of future articles at this point) but I think this article is worthy of a reminder why we do what we do in the first place:

Touring on a motorcycle provides a deeper connection with the world around us.  For some this can be a deeply spiritual thing, but it is certainly also valid for the less spiritual types of people.  You are immersed in the world to a much deeper level than in a car.  Everything carries much more gravity.  The smallest details carry stronger emotional responses.  A car is very much a bubble – it isolates you from the experience.  Many riders refer to cars as “cages.”  I don’t think the problem is so much that the cage of a car keeps you in, so much as it keeps all the unique experiences out.  This isolation is the exact reason that doing long trips in a car is relatively comfortable, and it’s also the reason you miss so much of what’s going on around you.  You are removed from the experience.  For the sports fans out there:  Being in a car is like watching the game on TV, while riding a motorcycle is like being at the game in person.  In some respects it’s even like playing the game yourself.  It’s like watching a standup comedian in person as opposed to on TV – you get all the dirty jokes and foul language.  It’s like going to a regular movie theater vs. IMAX 3D.  I could come up with a lot more examples, but the result is always the same:  Being on a motorcycle immerses you in the experience much deeper.  There is much more energy involved with the experience.

Finally:  There’s the time alone, the time inside your own head.  On the open road on a motorcycle you’re forced to be with yourself.  Personally I enjoy occasionally listening to music on my headphones.  I know some people use radio systems to talk with other riders they’re traveling with, but I think one of the most powerful parts of riding involves turning all these distractions off and just meditating on life.  Combining the immersion with the world that you get from riding with the lack of distractions really allows you to enjoy the trip.  There are few experiences that essentially force you to evaluate yourself and your place in life as deeply as riding a motorcycle on the open road.  Some people may of course be uncomfortable with this, and maybe touring isn’t for those people.  Or maybe those are the guys that have the GPS and the two-way radio and their MP3 player going all at the same time.

The ultimate point is that riding is what you make it, but there is no denying that it is a much more complete experience and connection with your surrounding world that driving a car.  That exposure is only as powerful as you allow it to be, and if you’re looking for that sort of experience then driving a car just cannot compare to riding.

10 Useful Gadgets to Have on Your Motorcycle Trip

I had some trouble with the title for this post.  The fact is that there are hundreds of things you need for a successful motorcycle trip, ranging from the motorcycle itself all the way to having a good attitude. I hope to eventually cover them all, but for starters I’m going to highlight the top 10 gadgets that I don’t leave home without.  This list specifically is relating to more touring oriented motorcycle travel, but is still very applicable to a long day trip.

  1. A Multi-tool

    I rarely go anywhere without this.  I’ve had a few in my day, and my favorite so far has been the Leatherman Skeletool CX.  Leatherman has a wide variety of different products so you can get the one that’s right for you, the most popular is the Wave, but my choice is the Skeletool.  I’ll admit that part of the reason is likely due to the fact that it’s absolutely gorgeous, but it’s also about as minimalist as a multitool can get and thus has pretty much everything you could need and nothing you don’t.  The Skeletool (and Skeletool CX) have a knife blade, pliers, wire cutters, a screwdriver with phillips and flat-head bits, and perhaps most importantly for some of you:  A bottle opener.  Simply put, Leatherman makes a high quality, useful product that can really get you out of a bind if you happen to find yourself in one. The one complaint I have about this tool (and I’ve had it for almost a year now) is that since it’s so light it doesn’t love twisting action. I haven’t had any issues with it, but it does flex quite a bit when twisting with the pliers, or putting a lot of torque through the screw driver. ‘m guessing the beefier Leatherman models are better in this regard.

  2. Ear Plugs
    I’ve had people ask me why I wear ear plugs when riding and the simple answer is:  It’s loud.  At the end of a long ride, even WITH ear plugs my ears have been ringing.  Hearing should not be overrated and I have a hard enough time hearing people’s mumbling now, let alone if I had profound hearing loss.  I’ve had good experience with hearos in the past, but I think most soft foam ear plugs will do the trick.
  3. Bungee Cargo Net
    I was a little skeptical when I first got this.  It made me uncomfortable because I didn’t trust the size of the netting to hold everything, and I didn’t trust the hooks to stay hooked.  Over time though I’ve come to trust it and it’s never let me down.  My personal preference is to combine it with a dry bag (the next item on the list) but I have friends that use their cargo nets for carrying an extra jacket, shoes, or whatever.  There are different sizes available, and you’ll have to decide for yourself what works best for you, but I went with a larger size because I have enough other cargo capacity with my tank bag (item six on this list) and saddle bags that I only really need the cargo net for longer trips or bigger items. I bought mine at a local dealership.
  4. Dry Bag
    When I do long touring trips, this is an absolute must-have.  For shorter day trips, I don’t usually bother unless I know I might run into rainy or wet conditions, or if I am carrying my laptop.  I actually have two different dry bags, a small one and a large one.  the small one I use for carrying my laptop or a sleeping bag, particularly if I’m not carrying the large dry bag.  The large dry bag I strap to the back of my bike with the previously mentioned cargo net, and it’s where I put anything and everything that I don’t want to get wet.  A lot of the time, rain gear and rain covers for yourself and your saddlebags or tank bag will be sufficient to keep you and your stuff mostly dry, but sometimes you’re just going to get wet.  One ride in particular I had was in a downpour on the highway at 70mph in somewhat heavy traffic.  You can’t avoid getting wet in that scenario.  Luckily, a good dry bag will keep your valuables (including a change of clothes, sleeping bag, or sensitive electronics) nice and dry.  These bags are designed to be able to be submerged in water and still keep things dry, and they do a damn good job. My small bag is by Outdoor Research and my large bag is by Cascade Designs and I’ve been very happy with both of them from a quality standpoint. You can find these bags at camping stores, and don’t forget: ziploc bags work really great for smaller items, too!
  5. Heated Hand Grips
    Anyone who’s ridden into the nighttime in the spring or fall knows that as soon as the sun goes down, temperatures can drop rapidly.  If you have experience with longer rides you will also know that the temperature fluctuation over a 100 mile ride can be pretty big, let alone a 3,000 mile cross-country touring trip.  Heated grips can be had for pretty cheap, there are many options out there, but I got the Symtec Motorcycle Grip Heater Kit w/round rocker switch and have been very happy with them. I think I spent about 6 hours installing them.  The instructions say you can install them in an hour or two, which is true, but I prefer to take a meticulous approach to make it seem as close to a factory install as possible.  I think for the money heated grips will probably get the most use out of everything on this list.
  6. Tank Bag
    This is another item on the list that if you’re anything like me, you will use almost every single time you go riding.  I prefer the magnetic type of bag because you just put it on the tank and go.  I prefer a somewhat larger bag, too, but I’m also a pretty tall guy with long arms.  I’ve had a lot of people ask me about it being intrusive and in the way and preventing me from being able to move around and ride well, and all I can say is that it is the least obtrusive piece of luggage I have.  It’s out of my field of view and unless I’m trying to tuck down and race it’s never been in the way.  Actually for riding in cold weather it’s nice because it breaks a lot of the wind from hitting my body.  Having said all that, the features I look for in a tank bag are a map pocket on the top, quick access side pockets, and one of my favorite features:  A small, quick access change pocket which is very useful for toll booths and such.  My tank bag also has some shoulder straps so it can be setup as a backpack in a pinch, which works really great for short day trips which involve both riding and some short amount of hiking.  Like the Leatherman, this is another product I could write an individual review for.
  7. Cinch Straps

    I first discovered the usefulness of these through my hiking experience.  The simple fact is that even if you’re an expert at knots, cinch straps are light, strong, quick, easy, and can probably be tied just as tight if not tighter than most people can do with knots.  I use them for all sorts of things, especially when there is camping involved.  I regularly use them to help strap down my dry bag, since when I use just the cargo net the dry bag can shift around a bit more than I like (mostly it just shifts forward and ends up resting on my back – I don’t like that). There are a couple different styles, and I prefer the ones with steel head pieces that lock a little bit more securely. There are some slightly larger straps with the steel head type here: Master Lock 3060DAT 12-Foot-by-1-Inch Lashing Strap, 2-Pack

  8. Credit Cards
    I know not everyone is going to agree with me on this one, but credit cards are great – when used responsibly.  With the widespread use of credit cards these days, carrying a credit card with a $2,000 limit is almost as good as carrying around $2,000 cash, but with the added bonus of having a large company keeping track of every transaction, and being very interested in keeping every transaction legitimate.  If you lose it, you can cancel it.  If it gets stolen, you can report it and in some cases get a refund.  With cash you’re pretty much out of luck if it gets stolen or lost.  I still think it’s a good idea to carry some cash, but I feel much better having a credit card than carrying a few thousand in greenbacks.  Additionally there’s a lot of credit cards out there which have rewards programs which actually allow you to get some percentage off of every purchase you make.  The drawback, of course, is if you start carrying a balance the interest will in many cases far-exceed the rewards.  Many people also find that they are not responsible enough to keep their debt under control.  Ultimately, when used responsibly credit cards have many positive aspects, including but not limited to being able to bail you out if you get in trouble.  In my experience the rule of responsible credit card use is to be able to pay the card off completely every month.  If you can do that, then they’re a far better option than carrying lots of cash.
  9. My Buff
    These things are great;  I have two: the Cyclone Buff and the Original Buff, and I’ve been extremely happy with both of them.  The Original is great for riding in any weather, I like to use it to keep the wind, bugs, dirt, sand, and chaffing from my jacket off my neck.  It’s very soft and I wouldn’t go on a long ride without it, except possibly in the hottest weather.  The Cyclone Buff is made specifically for cold weather activities, and I actually use it mostly for skiing.   Having said that, I never go on a long ride, especially in colder months without taking my Cyclone Buff with me, it is one of the few pieces of gear that I use more than I thought I would.
  10. Tire Plugger

    I’ll admit:  At this point I actually don’t have one of these, and I’m kicking myself for it.  These are not the typical type of plugs, but rather a mushroom shaped plug that requires a specialized gun to install on the tire.  I’ve used – and had poor luck with – the standard tire plugs in the past.  Some motorcycle tires don’t have enough meat to them to really hold onto the plugs well.  On these mushroom shaped plugs the “cap” of the plug goes into the tube and creates a one-way barb type effect which hooks the plug in place against the pressure of the air inside the tire.  While I have not personally used this, I know people who have and have nothing but good things to say about them. I recommend carrying a small bicycle hand pump too, but you can also get a kit with CO2 cartridges for filling up the tire. The kit that includes the CO2 is here: STOP & GO POCKET TIRE PLUGGER W/CO2 1001

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