Where to spend money as a new motorcycle rider (Part 1)

Introduction

Today’s ride made me consider some points I wish I had known earlier as a motorcycle rider. Those who know me can attest that I am slightly frugal when spending money on toys and gear. Not that I don’t buy stuff, but I usually want to be really sure that it’ll do what I imagine before committing to a purchase, especially when it comes to stuff with large price tags. This planned series of articles will contain information that wasn’t readily available to me before I actually bought the gear. My hope is to be able to share what’s worth its price and perhaps some stuff that I bought which quite frankly is a waste of money.

Continue reading “Where to spend money as a new motorcycle rider (Part 1)”

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Norway tour 2012 debrief

Having spent the weekend riding some 1400 kilometers in the beautiful Norwegian fjord and mountain landscape, I feel like jotting down some notes and almost-reviews.

Scala Rider

This intercom system worked so much better than I thought when I first saw it. I bought a NeckMike system a while ago, since I wanted to combine ear plugs with intercom functionality. In reality, the Scala Rider system does a better job when it comes to communication (it’s got full duplex for one, and second, it’s wireless, which means no forgotten cables when you step off the bike). It’s also fully functional up to about 120 km/h (on an effectively fairing-less bike) with or without ear plugs.

There are three main drawbacks:
1. I needed to “slightly adjust” my helmet to fit the speakers. It doesn’t come with depressions for this kind of communications system, so I needed to cut open the noice-reducing padding on the inside of the styrofoam protective layer to avoid getting cauliflower ears from the speakers pressing against my earlobes. Since the fabric cover for the chin pads is removable, I could do it without destroying anything.
2. The carrier rack for the communications module sticks down below the helmet if you don’t choose to glue it in place. This makes putting on and (especially) removing the helmet somewhat painful after a while, since the opening in effect becomes a little tighter than usual, so the ear on the receiver side tends to snag a little.
3. The accumulator is pretty integrated into the system, which means that with use, the time available for communications will diminish and you can’t do anything about it. Anyone familiar with Apple gear knows this problem. It’s OK if you plan on getting new stuff every other year or so, but a system like this shouldn’t be that upgrade prone, and therefore I count non-serviceability as a drawback.

As I mentioned above, wind noise renders the system useless above 120 km/h or so on a bike without a large windscreen. The sensitivity for voice activation needs to be adjusted or you’ll get closer to 8 than 13 hours of battery life out of it, and on the pair we used, one speaker quit working within a day of use, which probably is an individual problem rather than a design one – but again, miniaturization makes for lousy serviceability.

GoPro HD Hero 2

I never really saw the point of video cams until I really tried one. This one basically has a power/function button and a start/stop button, but it’s surprisingly easy to make nice movies, thanks to the fisheye lens. I edited the resulting raw film with iMovie on my Mac, and the result of an evening of playing around with the material can be viewed below.

The Zero Gravity Tall Windscreen

This was my first real test of the higher windscreen for my bike. Windscreens are a tradeoff between environmental feedback and comfort. Where the XB12X is an excellent hooligan bike and canyon carver, the R1200GS is a ride which lets the pilot step off the bike fully rested after 300 kilometers of highway.

Basically, even with the taller screen, the air – and, as I frequently experienced during this ride – the rain, hits me at the upper part of my chest. At highway speeds, this means my helmet gets pressed into my face, and I need to fight to keep my posture against the wind, and if it rains, it means all the rain that hits the front of my bike will end up on my jacket, drop down, and finally create a puddle in which I sit. This is OK with proper rain gear, but textile riding gear without GoreTex membranes soaks right through after a while in these conditions.

The next thing to try, of course, is a windscreen bracket from Palmer Products, to get the windscreen up a bit and make it adjustable. This should also fix the potential problem of the original rubber grommets breaking at highway speeds, giving me a face-full of windscreen at a hundred mph.

New farkle season

I just received a shipment from the Netherlands – more precisely from Twin Motorcycles.

Buell picture
The Buell - Farkled

The package contained three sets of goodies: A higher windscreen, a larger right hand side air scoop, and fork and swing sliders/bobbins.

The Uly’s original windscreen is completely OK for short rides, but early spring and late autumn, I get lots of windchill. It also requires the the rider to adopt the famous “ape humping a football” pose to get out of the wind when riding at speed. I hope the new screen made by Zero Gravity will help mitigate these problems.

The right hand air scoop is another feature released right before Buell got taken out back and shot by the Company:
To comply with Californian emission regulations, the Buell bikes ran rather hot (higher temperature gives better combustion). When they mounted catalysts on the newer models, they didn’t need to run the engines at the same temps anymore. The “rider comfort kit” was born, where the most important aspect from a mechanical standpoint was the inclusion of a larger air scoop for the right side of the bike.

I haven’t had the time for more than a short shakedown ride, so I can’t say anything definitive about the effect of the air scoop on the annoying fan sound (“oh right, a Buell”), but the wind stream over/around the new wind screen hit me square at shoulder height now instead of at the lower part of the chest when I sit in my “active riding” position, so I think it does what it should.

I’ll get back with a longer review when I’ve done some proper riding.

Scooter Survival Guide

Going on vacation and want to explore the surroundings a bit? Rent a scooter. Read on for a few tips that can save your day.

Scooters are a great way to get to know new places, especially smallish islands, like the Thai ones. They’re usually cheap to rent, they’re nimble in city traffic and they are not much more difficult to ride than a common bike.

The most dangerous thing about scooters is that people lack respect for them. They feel like toys, and it’s easy to believe that they are. A few general guide lines can save your skin – literally.

  • Always get a feeling for the available traction with your rear brake (that’s the left brake lever) first. Gravel in a steep hill will make you wash out if you use your front brake. If you’re used to street bikes, re-learn your reflexes to this braking technique. Your wheels are too small to be of help even if you manage to get a scooter with knobbies.
  • Don’t support your body weight on your arms when riding no matter how steep the downward slope is. Always use your legs for support. This helps keeping the mechanical link between your body and the scooter – or any kind of bike – as low as possible, thereby lowering the apparent center of mass and making the system more stable. I’m pretty sure most spills are caused by the rider panicking and tensing up. Being relaxed in your upper body, including your arms, is a pretty cheap way of staying safe.
  • Your arms are strong enough to catch you if you fall from a standing position. That’s not much more than 5 km/h. Do you dare to try it standing on a chair? Don’t. It won’t work. That’s about 15 km/h. On a 125 cc scooter, you’ll be doing 40-60 km/h in no time flat. Wear a helmet and sun glasses.
  • Unless you’re well pigmented, your arms, feet and neck will burn. Use a good sun lotion.

IronButt/SaddleSore 1000 debriefing

As I mentioned a few posts ago, a friend and I were going to do a SaddleSore run. Well, last Thursday we did it. Sad to say, I don’t have pictures. My phone died on the way, and luckily I didn’t find my camera before I left, or it would probably have met it’s demise in the same way.

The route

SaddleSore Route
Our route including fuel stops

We planned a route using Google Maps, looking to do a bit more than the 1609 km or 1000 miles required for the actual ride. The final result was 1637 km according to Google Maps (1646 according to my odometer). I was a bit worried about the time it would take for the run, so the entire ride followed the largest possible roads. We didn’t hurry things very much; our speed was mostly legal, and we took our time at stops – necessarily, as it turned out, and in the end we got our final gas receipts just about 22 hours after our starting receipts. A single person in a hurry and with more comfortable gear could probably do the same ride another couple of hours faster, which only goes to show that a SaddleSore 2000k run is entirely possible here in Sweden.

The ride

Short version:
It was wet, cold and miserable, and I’d do it again without a second thought.

Long version:
Rijad and I had been talking about doing this ride for a while, and I’d told him I was going to be free the week from the 16th to the 22nd, and said I’d like to try it then. Saturday to Monday, I’d been in Norway with Tanja, showing her the Hardangervidda area and the fjord country south of Bergen. Tuesday and Wednesday I spent working on the house, and Wednesday afternoon, Rijad came over to me to ask if we were going to go. The weather report for Wednesday had been way off, promising rain when in fact we had fair weather with scattered clouds. The weather report for Thursday said that we could expect rain when passing Stockholm, and then another two areas of rain clouds with possible precipitation near Norrköping and near Kalmar, and in the end we decided to go for it. What’s the worst thing that could happen, right? So we did a final check of our bikes, adjusting his chain, checking oil and air levels, lightbulbs, bearings, the works.

Contrary to the weather report, it had been raining heavily the entire night before we left. At about half past six in the morning, the rain had gone, and we were scheduled to meet up at the first gas station at eight. The clouds were bluish and hung a few kilometers inland, straight in our path.

Half an hour into our ride, we got into the first proper rain. Rijad had brought real rain gear. I hadn’t. 15 minutes later, it was clear to me that this was going to be a wet experience. I was sitting in a puddle and felt the icy-cold water down the front of my neck and up from between my jacket and my pants. Thanks to not having installed the comfort kit on my Buell, the engine heated my puddle to an almost comfortable level, not very different from what it must be like wearing diapers. In other words: The water from below didn’t really hurt, but my T-shirt was draining body heat off of me, and I was recognizing the symptoms of moderate hypothermia just a couple of hours into our ride. Without the heated grips, I would have aborted the ride then and there.

First gas stop was in Karlskoga. I thought for a while, and decided to ditch my wet T-shirt and shorts, changing to two layers of clothing, saving the final long-sleeved T-shirt for later. I also bought a magazine to put between my riding gear and my clothes. Donning three layers at once would have allowed me to build back heat faster, but I wasn’t sure about how effective the magazine would be when it came to keeping my clothes dry, and I was desperate to have something dry for the night. We also had some food, and I drank some scalding hot coffee to warm up a bit from inside. I was going to call Tanja, and realized my phone literally had drowned in my pocket – there was a puddle on the inside of the screen.

As we continued on our way along route E18 to Stockholm, the clouds shrank back a bit, even letting some sunshine pass through, which was exactly what I needed. I still wasn’t warm, but I was a lot more comfortable than I’d been up until then – I even stopped shivering for a while. We entered the actual city in the afternoon, and so our speed was low practically all the way past Bromma airport and down to the E4 on-ramp. We found a place to fill up on gas, but the pumps didn’t write the station’s name on the receipts, so we had to get them stamped and signed by the owner. Luckily, this was the only place where this was a problem during the entire trip.

The road down to the next stop was pretty much uneventful. After the stop in Stockholm, I took out the magazine for comfort reasons, but somewhere between Norrköping and Valdemarsvik, we got into another area of light rain, where I put it back, and then I let it stay there the rest of the ride. It was late afternoon and the sun didn’t do anything when it came to heating anymore. The rest of the ride was simply cold – but not violently so.

We got off the E22 and rode into Västervik to fill up and find a place to eat. We got directions to a pizza place from another customer at the gas station, but on the way to it we found a fastfood restaurant called the Corner, and decided not to lose more time. We had a giant burger with extra everything each, since it was more than six hours since the last time we ate, and we didn’t expect to eat much more during the trip. After dinner, I put on the last of my shirts and hoped it would keep me warm enough, while we headed back to E22 and the road to Kalmar and further.

The next few hours were interesting to say the least. We had to make a quick stop at a gas station around 10 in the evening to clean our visors. There were so many bugs and mosquitoes that it was impossible to see anything through them, and the light drizzle that had helped us to keep them clean earlier had stopped. The road varied from superslab level to main street through small towns, and every few kilometers there was a warning about the fence ending and the possibility of deer or elks or wild boar crossing the road. Often we kept up with cars for a few kilometers, freeloading on their superior headlights, but either they were driving too slowly or way too fast for me to risk keeping up with them considering the very real chance of hitting a wild animal. At this point, Rijad began keeping a bit of a distance to me. Given the choice of more light or a bit of a safety margin should something jump up in front of me, he selected the latter.

From Kristianstad, we turned south again, towards Ystad, for almost an hour worth of riding on relatively narrow roads through the deer-infested countryside to get a few additional kilometers worth of riding to qualify for the SaddleSore. From there, we went almost all the way to Malmö, and turned onto the E6. After a few hours of riding with the knowledge that we’d be dead, or possibly even worse off, if an animal jumped up in front of us, it was very nice to know that the next four-five hours or so of riding would be almost guaranteed animal free. At this point I felt my mind begin to wander, and my eyes began to move sluggishly. Fortunately, it was enough to stand up on the footpegs and flex my muscles for a bit to get a bit of circulation to my brain again, to keep me awake until our next gas stop near Falkenberg, where I filled up with some hot chocolate, since I felt my stomach wouldn’t like another cup of coffee right then.

Except for me still being cold and Rijad fittingly considering our ride having a bad case of saddle sore, the last bit past Gothenburg and upwards was a breeze. The sky was almost clear, allowing for a great view of the stars and, later, of the sunrise.

When we stopped for our checkout fill-up of gas at Knäm, Rijad asked me if I’d do another one of these rides back-to-back to this one if I’d get a million Swedish kronor for it. Of course I would. I did this one for free, didn’t I? From his question, I suspect his ass really didn’t like the ZX7 seat.

Lessons learned

Preparing for a 24 hour run is overrated. Make sure you’ve had enough rest beforehand, and make sure you begin with a mechanically sound bike. I kept putting the ride off, thinking I must have missed something crucial. In the end, our preparations consisted of googling for gas stations in 250 km intervals, and that was basically it.

Extended highway riding eats tires like crazy. Make sure your rubber is good before the ride.

Two things to bring for long rides: Clothes and rain gear. The latter isn’t just “nice to have”. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have felt really cold even once during this ride if I hadn’t started it by getting soaked and sitting in cold clothes for a couple of hours.

We stopped for fuel 8 times including the final/check-out stop. It turns out a Kawasaki ZX7 is a somewhat thirstier than a Buell XB12X, so Rijad’s bike decided the distance between stops: In the end we didn’t want to risk much more than 250 km per tank, even though I wouldn’t be afraid to ride somewhere around 300 km at a time with my Uly. With that amount of gas stops, no additional stops were needed, contrary to the IronButt recommendations. More stops would cost more time, but wouldn’t do anything good from a comfort perspective.

The food found along the way is good enough for a 24 hour ride. I would think more about what I ate if I was to spend several days in a row on the bike, though.

Another interesting thing I suspected but didn’t know for sure, was that you simply don’t get sleepy on a bike. Your brain may turn to mush, and your reflexes get slow (to a point), but you’d definitely need more than 24 hours in the saddle to actually risk falling asleep from exhaustion. One thing I noticed at one point was that I was starting to associate incoherently, almost feverishly, but once I noticed that, I just focused and made it to the next gas stop with no further problems, after which my brain worked fine the rest of the way.

Radio communications and MP3 players are overrated. We ended up not using my radios at all – it was enough to just overtake the other person and pull over when needed. When it comes to music, I got so much sensory input anyway that music in addition would have been too much for me. I hummed along with my engine and that worked fine.

Helmets. Get one you can wear for a few hours on end. I’m ditching the Lazer and getting a more comfortable and less noisy one next year.

Of all the farkles I can think of, heated grips is right on the top of the list for useful features. I don’t think I could’ve made it without them.

I found out what to use auxiliary lightning on a bike for. I didn’t expect that to be a useful feature here in Sweden, but for late-season night-time riding? Definitely.

The Buell XB12X truly is a capable touring bike. For high-speed cruising on the Autobahn, maybe less so, but for real-life riding in speeds below 130 km/h, definitely. I’ve said it before, but I can say it again: I’m keeping this bike.

Neckmike first impressions

I ordered a communications package for use with the bikes a few days ago, and it arrived yesterday. The system is the Cobra MT600 + Neckmike combo from Bikeman I mentioned in the Preparing for the Iron Butt post.

The contents of the box

I ordered the double package, which comes with two Cobra MT600 radio units, rechargable NiMH batteries, a charger with a Y cable (to charge both units simultaneously), two Neckmike bundles and one set of small + one set of medium size earbuds each.

Along with that, I also ordered an MP3 player extension – and some extra earbuds, since I’ll be using the system while training a couple of friends for their rider tests.

The Cobra units (manufacturer’s spec sheet) are vanilla two way radios in a retail package. They’ve got the standard features with availability of both CTCSS and DCS “channels”, and a theoretical range of 5 km.

The Neckmike all bundled up

The Neckmike system basically consists of a throat microphone of the kind used by tactical units in noisy environments, in-ear headphones, and a waterproof send button. The pick-up part of the unit is mounted on a springy piece of rubber covered metal, that feels solid enough. Because of how a throat mic works, it’s pretty sensitive to placement, in an almost digital way: It needs to sit right next to the jugular to pick up the vibrations from one’s speech, or you won’t hear a thing. Other units I’ve seen solve this with an elastic or velcro-fastened band around the neck. Further use will have to prove if the Neckmike approach to the problem is good enough, but I can see why one wouldn’t want to have a fastened band around the neck while riding a bike. In case something happens, you really don’t want to be stuck with things wrapped around your neck. This shouldn’t happen with the Neckmike system.

The problem with other communications packages for motorcycle use, is that they tend to depend on speakers mounted inside the helmet. This is alright if you never ever need to ride at highway speeds, or if you’ve got a windscreen like a barn door. Otherwise, riding for long periods without earplugs is a pretty good way to get permanent hearing damage.

The in-ear phones of the Neckmike come with interchangeable heads in three different sizes (the largest one can be specially ordered, but the small and medium ones are included in the package, as I mentioned earlier). They work very well in protecting from outside noise, and from what I could feel, they should be no problem to wear for a while, although I will write something on this when I’ve had time to try them for real.

A real road test review will follow.

Preparing for the Iron Butt

IBA LogoThe mission

I intend to become a member of the Iron Butt Association by riding a Saddle Sore 1000 run – “At least 1000 miles in less than 24 hours”, according to the rules – this summer.

The original plan was to ride solo, but now a friend wants to tag along as an introduction to his driver’s license. The reason I’m even thinking of accepting is that even though his papers will be new, he’s reasonably mature, has been driving cars at least as much as I have, and also has been riding motocross for a couple of years, so he’s by no means a rookie when it comes to riding on two wheels, staying awake and to traffic in general.

Also, if he has a driver’s license, it doesn’t really matter if one of our bikes would break down on the road, or if one of us would have to abort the ride, since the other one could finish the run independently.

The route

Map from Google MapsEach leg of the ride starts and ends at gas stations. The oligopoly here in Sweden means that you can find “your” brand of gas station almost anywhere, and use your brand specific credit card at all stations, which makes planning for night-time stops a lot easier. My route is planned from a safety perspective: I know more than half of the road like the back of my hand, and the final leg is almost all super slab, which makes for less chance of deer encounters during the time when I expect my reflexes to be toast.

The route follows the main roads from the westernmost town of Sweden, across the country to Stockholm, down along the east coast to the southernmost point, and back up along the west coast to the starting point. I will be passing Sweden’s three largest cities, which means I will need to plan my time to avoid traffic jams.

According to the Google roadmap, the trip is supposed to take about 20 hours, which leaves 4 hours of margin. Counting 200 km between gas stops, gives 8 stops á 10 minutes – say up to 1.5 hours including a couple of snacks. Four proper food/toilet stops á 1/2 hour each (separate from gas stops, as per advice from the more experienced), gives a net margin of half an hour. Given that we should be able to ride perhaps 10 km/h faster than the posted limits in most places, we should be able to save up another couple of hours, which could be used for an additional rest/nap stop on the last leg of the trip.

The bikes

I will be riding my almost-stock ’06 Buell XB12X Ulysses. I have mounted the pannier racks, but expect to do without the top box. I feel I can trust the bike now, having ridden it almost two thousand kilometers after putting it together earlier this season.

Rijad will, if he chooses to go, be riding his Kawasaki ZX7. It too has been along for a few hundred kms, so I’m not particularly worried about it.

Since I have the stock windscreen and Rijad doesn’t have a screen at all, orangutan arms will be an issue – extended highway speeds will be limited to well under the point where our licenses are in danger. I am confident however, that he’ll have more of a sore butt than what I’ll have: The Uly saddle is great.

The gear

My current riding boots are done for and need to be changed. I just bought a new pair of Lindstrands Max Tour which I got at a good price at Hansson’s Skinn & MC. They’re a bit thicker than my old boots, so I’ll have to adjust the shifter accordingly stop sissying around and just get used to moving my foot a bit more, but they’re so much more comfortable that I actually just threw the old ones away in a dumpster right outside the shop. I’m pretty sure my feet won’t go numb after a couple of hours on the bike in these boots.

I’m still unsure of what jacket to wear: my leather jacket has less lining than my textile one (both are of the Halvarsson persuasion) and will be more comfortable during the day, but the night part of the ride might get pretty cold, depending on how late in the season we go. On the other hand, I can just compensate with more layers of clothes.

I haven’t given rain gear any great thought, simply because I don’t intend to ride in rain. The area we’ll be covering is small enough that the weather should be predictable within a margin of a couple of days.

For communications, I plan to use a NeckMike/Cobra MT600 radio combo from Bikeman, along with a cable to connect the headset to an iPod.

When it comes to food, the overall advice seems to be to eat lightly. Cous-cous based salads are readily available on most gas stations and should do the trick, along with regular water.

The tools I will bring will be the most basic set: duck tape, a good knife, pliers, a small hammer, screw driver with bits, a tube of Loctite and a can of puncture spray. What I can’t fix with that will probably require more tools than I can bring anyway.