Wednesday 18 July 2012

Col de l'Arpettaz test ride

Over the last few weeks, I have preparing myself for a couple of long "GS" style rides. The first one is to ride from Chamonix to Finale on the Mediterranean coast riding on gravel, off-road and high Alpine roads. This short video is from one of the test rides.  I have been using a Contour + HD mini cam with various mounts. This ride is the Route de Montagnes, from the Col des Aravis to Ugine on the , France

Tuesday 17 July 2012

V-Strom to BMW F800GS

The yellow-coated examiner handed me pass certificate and then it got real. I had already lined up  second-hand Suzuki V-Strom and now I had to pick it up. In the pissing rain from Kincraig to Forres I suddenly realised what this was about. I know nothing, yep I can pooter around a city making sure I don,t become bus food, but driving without instruction, on the open road at 60+ I do not have a clue. Whilst the 650cc bike purred away though the rain back to base, I felt there was something missing. However nice the bike was, it neither had the image or the character that could take me to the outer reaches of my journey. It was a bit more Hairy Bikers cookery machine, than Jedi Master continental dirt slugger. But before Obi-wankenobi became the true master of his realm he had to learn a few tricks. Dropping the bike and dumping my pillion (girlfriend, moll, life-partner- what do you call a lady friend who you love and live with?) on the tar at a 0mph, only reinforced the statement of the friendly traffic cop, that I am a minnow in a sea of sharks. Its time to get some teeth…

The new BMW F800GS at the top of the Col du Petit St-Bernard 

Inspiration, if you could call it that came from watching a few re-runs of the Long Way Round, nope, not the Charley Boorman bits, or  Ewan McGregor' s more engaged interactions but from the bikes. But the 1200GS's are just too big, so I found myself edging towards BMW dealers in Inverness and Edinburgh. So I took the plunge, and without having ridden one, I traded in the Suzuki for the F800GS demonstrator from BMW Motorrad in Dalkeith. Two days later a few shekels were exchanged for the gleaming new machine. But before the dreams of the mongolian step became reality I had to learn to ride...

Push Comes to Shove, Part 2

The first ride on the Joux Plane, Samoens, France

What started off as a simple requirement to legally cross 200m of tarmac through the village on my trails motorbike, to reach tracks on the other side, has turned out to be a monumental trial of will, roundabouts, money, tears, and shaking nervous hands.

There has always seemed to be something romantic edgy, nonconformist, anti establishment about motorbikes, Steve Macqueen jumping barbwire fences, TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) screaming down an English country lane to oblivion and incongruously, a faded picture of my mother, on an old English James Motorcycle in the early fifties. It has always niggled away at me but up until now I had not created the opportunity. I do kind of fancy myself as being quite capable, macho but sensitive, strong but with a caring edge, you know the type, in the Ewan Macgregor mould but a bit older, but the motorcycle thing has eluded me so far. I have always looked at the speed bikers in Glencoe and Tyndrum and though it looked fun, it seemed a bit too crazy, too tribal, unknown, an impenetrable creed with, codes, colours and kudos. That was until I rode my first 500cc bike on the road. Call it mid-life crises, (the other symptoms are there), but I am happy to be a cliché as long as the clothes fit.

Having made the decision to go for my licence, I thought, naively I would sit my test somewhere quiet, with simple roads and not much traffic, I plumped for Nairn, two roundabouts, a few grannies on the road and the occasional stray golf buggy.  No such luck.

For those who have had their car licences for a while, over ten years or so, it’s all change. Its now a much more complex process than riding around the block. Having failed the practise online theory test with a miserable 30 out of 50, I should have got the message. But no, I have wobbled on. In a hot room full of spotty teenagers in early July, I creamed the theory test with a solid 49 out of 50. It was now time to pull on the leathers and race through the rest, or so I thought.

I elected to do an accelerated program, in theory; it could see me going from complete novice to qualified death machine rider in about 10 days, if all went well. Kevin of KDM Training went through the CBT theory and promptly plonked me on a 500cc street bike; the sheer weight of it was a shock. Dropping it could be so easy, but there I was weaving in and out of cones at 12mph trying to control the grumbling red beast between my legs. Once he had explained the necessary theory we headed off to the nearby industrial estate. Thankfully either because of the recession or an early Saturday shut down, the roads and junctions were deathly quite. Turning right, left, emergency stops and having performed more u-turns than a liberal party in government, I was asked if I wanted to go for a town ride. Earpiece in, I was guided through he throbbing metropolis of downtown Nairn.

I can tell you it was a thrill, to really have to concentrate on driving, after all of these years being inured from the road. To feel the acceleration of a road worthy motorcycle, exhilarating, I even touched 50mph! After 2 hours learning the basics of road riding, we called it a day and my CBT was issued. Step two complete.

The glorious EU have created a modular series of bike tests designed to push new riders to hirer levels of skills than previously required and the MOD 1 test is designed to test your slow speed handling skills amongst other things. Tales from friends of crashes, broken arms and endless failures over weeks and months, left me feeling more nervous than setting off up some super Alpine climb. After two hours of practise in the examiners caged arena, I was deemed ready.

I wobbled through the slalom, and wound my way slowly through the head up, eyes in front, awful figure of 8. Speed through the “high-speed” cornering test to the fateful emergency stop; Front brake, rear brake, clutch 50 kmph to a standstill in 30m. Heart thumping, trying to be as calm as possible I executed what I thought was the perfect stop, smooth and short. The impassive instructor announced that the test was over, and lead me out of the compound, mirror, life-save left, mirror, life-save right, into the test centre car park. It was only when I parked the bike, did I think that I did not do the hazard avoidance exercise. No worries, maybe I was super good and it was not needed. No such luck, a puff or rubber during my emergency stop from a locked up rear wheel, failure.

How stupid, how humiliating, how expensive, how damingly disappointing; EU bureaucracy kicked in and a 10-day mandatory gap was enforced. Meanwhile dreams of the open road had to idle in the garage and the ever-increasing pile of bike magazines, just reminded me that entry into the exclusive club was a fantasy that seemed to be ever more distant and elusive.
Life and kids took over, but there niggling in the back of my mind was the test. I found I was watching the weather trying to predict what the test day would be like, wet, dry, sunny or windy, all factors which I felt could conspire to increase the difficulty of the retry. On the day despite the fact I though I drove with less confidence, I passed.

The initial test failure really scuppered the program, in the breaks between the rain, I peddled my road bike up mountain passes, and thrashed my Down Hill bike though muddy forests and across raging streams.  But my summer’s challenge was dragging on, the nagging disappointment ever present.

6 weeks later, Highland Grandparents were supplied with various kid’s instructions and I was there again, this time for the last and arguably the most difficult portion of the test, the MOD 2 road test. 45 minutes of town and open road driving which has to be near perfect.

Every turn, every roundabout, every manoeuvre has to follow a set EU assessed sequence, mirrors, indicate, decelerate, mirrors, left life-save, left turn, cancel indicator, mirrors up to national speed limit as quickly as possible; 2 second gaps, and 4 second gaps in the wet, lane procedure. It’s a mind numbing and brain taxing set of processes, designed to make you aware that the rest of the idiots on the road are trying to kill the unobservant motorcyclist.

No thrill of the open road here, just defensive driving, observation and systems. Try and drive for 45mins, in a busy city, every signal, every lane change, every observation having to be perfect. Add to that the perverse proclivity of planners in Inverness to build multilane roundabouts, some the size of Bermuda and you will understand how I could let a crofter, out for his monthly shop, who signalled left but turned right, leave me stranded half way across one of these islands of confusion. Swearing into my helmeted head, unheard by the whirlpool of motorists still trying to decipher the Corryvreckan sized roundabout, I life-saved my way back to the compound for the inevitable black mark.  38minutes of near perfect, mechanical driving out of 45mins, I knew I had blown it.

The failure set off an avalanche of rearranged flights, cancelled hill walking days, bike purchases, insurance policies and put dreams of hell angels and my leather clad pillion girl on hold. I extended the loan of the leathers, and contended myself by cleaning my new helmet.

Born to be wild, would just have to wait, due to an extended gestation period. What I had hoped would be a Immaculate Conception, was turning out to a pregnancy of elephantine proportions.

I can understand the logic, every short sighted pensioner, every hurrying business man, every school run mother on a mobile phone, every white van and four wheeled vehicle has to be treated with suspicion, on a bike you are more venerable. In a car a simple shunt, is a scratch or broken indicator, to a biker is a broken leg or worst, so don’t just “think bike, think that the guy or gal who is riding the street rocket, really has spent a lot of time trying not to be a mobile target.

10 EU length working days later, (that’s nearly 3 weeks to you and me), the 4 month journey come down to 40 minutes, consisting of 101 life-save “looks”, 38 mirror-signal-manoeuvres, 12 national speed limit changes, 4 roundabouts, two hills starts and a 20mph school limit which went on and on. I now hold one licence to thrill, it also allows me too without question as a middle aged man wear tight leather pants, dress like a storm trooper, and finally justify the goatee. Let the Adventure begin…