The Black Flies ride

For quite a while I’ve been anticipating an unusual event as part of this year’s Airstream trip to the northeast.  My brother spent the winter acquiring and refurbishing a pair of BMW motorcycles, which we planned to take on a tour.  I just got back from that trip a few days ago, and finally have a chance to write it up.  I’ll post blogs about the trip over the next three days, starting with today.

Motorcycling was never something I had planned to return to.  My last bike was a Yamaha 550, sold in 1989 after I realized that it just wasn’t fitting into my life anymore.  It was fun, but I never looked back, until Steve started sending me links to stories of “adventure” riders who have ridden their BMW motorcycles on long and treacherous roads in remote parts of the world.  At this point in my life, a motorcycle still didn’t fit and I had even more reasons not to get back into it, but eventually I softened on the issue and began buying the necessary gear.

I’ve already described my first ride in the previous blog entry.  We had planned to take a three-day tour through New York’s Adirondack region starting Tuesday (see map below), but the weather got iffy and none of us were eager to ride in the rain.  So on Tuesday we used the clear morning hours to take a local tour through Vermont, up to Rt 100 and back, which (with various zig-zags on dirt roads past numerous farms) gave me another 80 miles of touring practice before the rain arrived.

This also gave us time to prepare. Eric’s Ural needed a little more tweaking of the drum brakes, which are weak at the best of times, and Emma was still at work painting up some black Airstream Life t-shirts for our gang.  We named ourselves “The Black Flies”:  Steve, Rich, Eric, and Colin.  Each of us adopted a gang name.  Mine was “Wally”, Steve was “Pusher,” Eric with his Russian-made Ural & sidecar was “Putin,” and Colin was “Axel” (deliberately misspelled).  We pledged to wear the shirts all three days no matter how stinky they got, and almost managed it.

On Wednesday the weather was clear again.  Steve, Eric, and I rolled out of the driveway and a few miles to the Charlotte-Essex ferry that crosses Lake Champlain.  In the hamlet of Essex NY, we met up with Colin and his thunderous 1980s-era Harley FLHT “shovelhead.”  It looked like a black limousine with four inches of ground clearance, a typical Harley of the era, with plenty of added chrome, huge saddlebags, and a “King Of The Highway” emblem.

As Colin noted, the Harley was basically the equivalent of two BMWs, since it had twice the number of cylinder (two to our one), twice the engine displacement (1350 cc versus our 650 cc engines) and weighed nearly twice as much.  These characteristics proved to be highly relevant later, especially the fuel economy.  The BMWs got a steady 69 MPG, while the Harley and the Ural were running more like 29 MPG, with the same size fuel tank.  As a result, we stopped for fuel a lot but Steve and I only filled up every other stop.

From the very beginning the ride was spectacular.  After all the practice the bike was beginning to feel like a part of my body, which is exactly what you want, and the sun was shining, and the roads were sensuously curvy.  We browsed through the towns of Essex, Port Henry, Mineville, and Schroon, taking every off-beat twisty road we could find.  I leaned into the corners with a feeling of absolute freedom, remembering why motorcyclists love to ride.

It wasn’t long, however, before Steve’s route plan began to challenge Colin’s Harley.  That thing was built for straight-line highway cruising, and Colin wasn’t sure at first how much he wanted to lean it.  He came up to speed fast, especially when we went off-road a little to explore a defunct amusement park in the woods.

A few hours later, we hit the first long dirt road of the trip, and had to pause for a conference before proceeding.  Could Colin’s bike make it?  The road was 30 miles long of single-lane former logging road that was only marginally improved.  Every inch of it was either a pothole or a FBR (Big Rock) embedded in the road, and with the road dappled by sun filtering through the trees overhead it was difficult to see what was coming.  If you took your eyes off the road for a split-second, it was virtually guaranteed that another FBR would arise directly in front of you.

Colin and the Harley’s low-slung crankcase miraculously survived this treatment, with good humor to boot.  Riding the BMWs, Steve and I were in paradise. This road was like a game for our deeply-suspended bikes, and I soon found myself dodging and weaving around the obstacles at 30 MPH with pleasure.  This sort of road (or worse) is exactly what these bikes were made for.  The 30 miles disappeared far too quickly for me.

We eventually found ourselves in the village of Old Forge, and from there rode a relatively boring stretch of highway all the way to the Adirondack Inn at Long Lake, where we stopped for dinner.  After dinner the air had dropped into the 50s and it took every stitch of warm layers I had to survive the 15 mile ride at dusk to our cabin at Blue Mountain Lake.  The other problem with riding at dusk is that the bugs and animals come out, so by the end I was tired of watching for deer and my visor was coated with smashed insects.  We had been out for 11 hours.

The cabin was borrowed for the night.  We were under orders to return it in immaculate condition, and that was a bit of pressure for four guys but we managed.  The hot water was off, which prevented the glorious pre-bedtime shower I would have liked, but Eric got the hot water going for the morning.  We divvied up the beds, wiped the bugs off the visors, split a half-gallon of ice cream, and crashed by 11 p.m.  It had been an awesome day, and we were all looking forward to more…

Sunday cruise

When we drive through New York’s Adirondack Mountains in June, heading to Vermont, it seems we always encounter a little light rainshower.  This year held to the rule, and I was noting that despite the dampness there were a lot of motorcyclists heading south in large groups.  It was the last day of Americade, a big annual gathering of bikers in upstate New York.

Further north the weather was gorgeously clear, fantastic conditions for a ride, and there were even more bikers to be seen.  Watching them sweep through the curves of the sinuous roads made me think forward to the ride that we’ve got planned this week, which will also be in the Adirondacks.  It has been over two decades since I rode a motorcycle, and frankly I’ve been very thoughtful and a bit nervous about the prospect.

On Saturday after we had parked the Airstream and set up, I finally had a chance to inspect my ride.  It’s a BMW F650 GS “Dakar”.  It’s categorized as a “dual sport” bike, meaning that it rides tall almost like a dirt bike but is equally comfortable on pavement.  The bike was renovated by my brother over the winter, along with his identical ride, supervised by my father the aircraft mechanic, so I had confidence that all of the systems were in good order.  I sat on the BMW and manipulated the controls, wondering if I really remembered how it all worked or if I was just kidding myself.

Sunday morning was my first chance to actually take it out.  We were joined by Eric, who brought his 1996 Russian-made Ural motorcycle with sidecar.  The Ural is no hot rod, but it gets plenty of attention on the road.  It has two distinct benefits:  (1) it isn’t really geared for highway speeds, so we have a good excuse to go slowly; (2) the sidecar provides a great place for us to store extra gear and the tools & spare parts that a Ural inevitably needs when on a roadtrip.  The Ural marks its territory wherever it parks (meaning, it leaks).  It also gets poorer fuel economy than our Honda Fit.  Eric thinks it gets something like 15 rubles to the hectare, or something like that.  It’s hard to say since the speedometer isn’t accurate and all the gauges are in Russian.

(The photo is of me and friend Kathy posing on the Ural.  We weren’t going anywhere.  My normal riding gear includes an armored high-visibility jacket, helmet, gloves, and steel-toed boots.)

The BMW turned out to be an excellent bike.  It fired up smoothly and clunked into first gear exactly like my old Yamaha 550.  I cautiously ran it up the driveway about 35 feet just to see if I could.  I didn’t fall off and I didn’t stall, but that was probably because of the silky-smooth clutch that made shifting easy, and the comfortable riding position. But the big test was ahead.  I wasn’t worried about the motorcycle, I was concerned about myself.

We set off. At first I had to get re-acquainted with the sensations I’d forgotten: the pressure of wind on your chest, the feel of the suspension on the bumps, the thumping of the one-cylinder engine.  Then I started thinking about smoothness.  Despite the forgiving clutch, I had a few shifts that were embarrassingly clunky, and I had to remind myself, just flick the throttle. Don’t over-analyze it.  The less I thought about the shifting, the smoother it became, which is the sign that your muscle memory is ahead of your conscious brain.  When that happens, it’s time to relax and put your cerebrum onto another task.

Before we’d gone a few miles down the road I knew my neighbor Frank was right when he told me that you never forget how.  I stopped worrying about whether I’d remember which pedal was the brake, and started focusing on situational awareness.  My use of the controls needed a few hours of polishing, but I knew that the key to a successful ride was going to be my ability to anticipate what was coming and know what my responses would be.  In other words, don’t doze along and then react hurriedly when something “unexpected” happens, be ready.  It’s the same thing I do when towing the Airstream.

We took the long way through the towns of Charlotte and Shelburne VT on this absolutely perfect day.  Numerous bikers were on the road, along with cyclists participating in a road race.  Our goal was simply to explore some varying roads and shake out any problems with the bikes or the drivers.  After about 30 minutes we stopped at a friend’s house, then went on to breakfast at the Dutch Mill, and then to the big-box stores to pick up a few last-minute items.

I attached a GoPro Hero2 video camera to the top of my helmet, and shot a little video along the way just to see how it worked.  33 minutes of video have been edited down to two and a half minutes, so if you want to waste a couple of minutes of your day you can watch it here.

We had an interesting episode on the ferry across Lake Champlain, from New York to Vermont, on Saturday.  I was directed to pull the Airstream straight on to the ferry, which would put the streetside next to the center wall.  As always, I pulled up carefully, eyeing the trailer in the mirror.  The crew member who was directing us forward looked confused, then said loudly,”You can’t see that trailer, can you?”  Well, of course I can see my own trailer.  It’s the big shiny thing in the mirror.

I smiled and gave him a thumbs-up through the windshield to reassure him, but for some reason he really was convinced that the Airstream was invisible to me.  Maybe it was because I was inching the Airstream closer to the wall (I figured they’d want me to be tight to it, as ferries are usually short on space for large vehicles).  He might have thought I wasn’t aware that the trailer was within 6 inches of the wall by the time I finishing pulling in, and that I was going to hit the wall.  Then he yelled, “You need towing mirrors!”  Hm. I don’t have anything against towing mirrors, but in the space I had, they would have needed to be folded in anyway, so they’d be useless in this situation.

I get variations on this a lot.  It’s a rare stop when somebody doesn’t come up and question our choice of tow vehicle, or “help” us park, or even (and this really happened) suggest that we unhitch on a hill so that he can tow us up instead.  I’m all for learning new things, but in most cases the people who are trying to help us with towing issues don’t know what they are talking about.  We just smile and then get the job done.