Autumn Is Here.

The weather’s still pretty damn good. Just a few weeks back I was out riding thinking I didn’t have much Summer left. A short fifty-miler today before the weekly commute grind.

Washed the bike observing the usual Sisyphean practice. It’s due to rain tomorrow.

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A Close Call

There’s a lesson in everything.

This could have gone very badly, luckily nobody was hurt and nothing was damaged.

What could I have done differently?

  • Fumbling the horn didn’t help. I cancelled the shit out of that turn signal, though…
  • The police vehicle was being erratic long before the incident. I could have hung much further back.
  • It didn’t occur to me to jump off the bike; maybe I should have. It could have been a very serious accident if he’d continued reversing. Not impossible I would have gone under the rear axle, or been pinned under the bike.

In fact I was confused, as I thought for moment I was going to get pulled over, especially at the top of the street when the vehicle stopped for no obvious reason a few feet in front of me. I fully expected the blue lights to come on.

Cheating on my girl with a pair of Italian supermodels

In this part of the world, test riding bikes isn’t easy. The bar to a ‘M’ endorsement is low, and there are no restrictions. A novice rider can get their learner’s permit and hop on a 180hp, 1000cc bike the same day. Yes, they’ll probably hurt themselves. There’s a good example of this from Laurie Jennifer’s Youtube Channel:

I’m assuming – though I am not certain – this is the reason most dealers do not offer test rides; An absurdity given that you might be spending North of ten-thousand dollars. However, manufacturers do run demonstration days where they will rock up in a trailer full of $CURRENT_YEAR models and let you have a ride around in a group. It’s better than nothing, but be sceptical of ‘reviews’ on YouTube (and fuck me, there are loads) based on these rides; they’re simply not long enough for anyone to really learn much about a bike.

Back in July, Ducati ran one of these demo weekends at a local dealership. I’ve never been particularly interested in the brand; the fierce ownership cost and tricky servicing is quite enough to put me off, they are however extraordinarily beautiful bikes, and I definitely wanted to ride their 959 Panigale supersport.

The PanigalePhoto by me

On their booking sheet I’d chosen the Panigale and the naked Monster 1200, as these were the categories I was interested in.  The supersport/superbike class is highly aspirational among novice sport bike riders, and there’s considerable debate in their suitability for the street for they are – to use the formal classification – stupidly fucking fast. The first time on a supersport is lightheartedly seen as a rite of passage for the new rider, i.e. me. The stereotype is well covered in this video…

I, however, am too old for the hype. I just wanted to ride it and see what it was like. I knew it would be quick; it possesses around four times the power of my Ninja 300, and weighs only a little more. Frankly I wasn’t particularly intimidated by it; I had around 9000 miles under my belt at this point and wasn’t worried about riding it; ultimately, it’s just another bike, but jeepers, look at that thing.

20160716_130934Photo by me

Hopping on, the bike immediately felt very light; similar to my own. The supersport seating position is awkward – your feet are back and high, and you feel like you’re on all fours looking over the front wheel. It’s no doubt exacerbated by my height, most of which is in my legs. It makes sense once you start turning the bike, but you have to make a great effort to keep the weight off your wrists. What surprised me about the Panigale is that for a thoroughbred it’s extraordinarily easy to ride. The fueling is very smooth and the clutch action easy; and quite contrary to expectations the bike feels completely stable poodling around a parkling lot at crawling speed. It is steady. Throttle response was gentle but precise, and the bike never stopped pulling at any speed, but I rarely got a chance to really push it. I didn’t love the gearbox, but it was a hot day, it had probably had a hammering, and I found neutral only about a third of the occasions I wanted it, and a number of times I didn’t. The brakes were terrific, needing only a very light pull, but not intimidating at all.

The Author looking downwards, probably trying to figure out how to cancel the turn signal. Photo by Ducati’s marketing bod, whose name escapes me. Sorry.

The route for the test ride took us on a familiar road which happens to have a sequence of very good corners, so I had at least some basis of comparison. At this point I realised the danger of such a bike; it was so effortless to hold a line that you just want to go faster and faster. Likewise the bike felt so comfortable leaned over that I wondered if it was designed to sleep on its side. Just as I felt like I was starting to get used to it, we had to go back.

After a drink, the world’s most expensive gyro, and some surgery to take the smile off my face, it was time for the Monster. I’ve always liked the Monster, they’re extremely cool, and I was looking forward to trying this one despite feeling it was a lot more engine than I thought I’d ever want. Again, a gorgeous machine in a rather different way to the Panigale; all alloy muscletone and sinewy detail.

20160716_150544Photo by me

I thought it looked pretty chunky, but this is an illusion that completely disappears once you sit on it, where once again it feels as light as a feather, and very, very comfortable. Like a living room chair, albeit one that’s one fire while hurtling through Hades. The heat kicked out by the v-twin on this hot day was brutal, and I would not want to be sitting in commuter traffic in similar conditions.

Once underway, the 1200 wasn’t quite as refined as the Panigale, nor is it meant to be. I needed more time with the bike to get used to the throttle, which was fly-by-wire and smooth enough, but The torque was awesome, and I use that word advisedly. Ever walked a pair of strong dogs and felt they could get away from you if you dropped your guard? That.

Bowman and the Monster 1200
The Monster 1200’s torque is not to be taken lightly
 

I knew the throttle feel was just a matter of familiarity and muscle memory but above all, this thing was fun. I wanted to spend all day on it and ride my favourite roads. Shifting about on the seat was easy, and while the steering wasn’t quite as point-and-click as the Panigale, the bike still made me feel very confident. The nature of the engine made it feel like a scooter on steroids; I just stuck it in third gear and left if there for most of the ride. Twist and bloody well go!

Despite having far more power than I’m familiar with, while neither bike was frightening, this was the most obvious sensation for me. Gearing was less important on the street, but having to watch throttle inputs while at rest and under braking was a new experience; the slightest hiccup could cause a small surge in power. The other surprise was ride quality. Both bikes beat the shit out of my Ninja when dealing with Pittsburgh’s dire city roads. For the Monster I expected this, but the fact the Panigale also managed it was impressive to me. I’d expected a supersport to break my back, whereas it was a bit of a magic carpet. The Ninja, on her skinny tyres feels every little bump.

At the end of the ride, it was time to hop back on the Ninja 300 and go home. Afterward, a friend asked me if I still loved my bike after riding two bikes with far more power and better…well, everything. Conventional wisdom says test rides are usually ruinous for your relationship with your current ride. I think the truth is, you’ll always desire more. Power in particular, is addictive. There are a couple of circumstances where I’ve wanted more grunt out of my bike, and eventually I won’t be happy until I have it.

For the moment, however, the kind of riding I do, my bike is nigh-on perfect. If I had a full weekend with a different bike I may feel differently, but after a forty minute ride, it barely qualifies as a holiday romance.

10,000 miles.

Last month, I hit the milestone. I’d been managing around one-thousand miles a month since I got the bike; Winter had caused this to slip in January, when I had lost most of that month to bad weather. I knew I’d get back on target when summer came around; and so it came to pass.

wgnepjp

From this year, a number things have stood out:

  1. Motorbikes are a lot of work. A lot. Like, fucking seriously.
    • Two sets of tires, a new chain and sprocket set, a valve inspection and adjustment, twelve quarts of oil,  four oil filters, a set of brake pads and a replacement rear rotor.
  2. Cheap running costs are obliterated by the amount of biking-related stuff you will buy.
  3. Dealerships are full of worthless, lazy arseholes. The service departments are particularly well-represented.
  4. At six months, I realised I knew nothing about riding after three months. At twelve months, I realised I knew nothing at six. This seems set to continue, and I love it.
  5. Most people,here in Western Pennsylvania, do not accumulate one-thousand miles a month. Perhaps one-tenth of that is more common. I want to write more about this another time.
  6. I don’t blog enough; that’s my fault, but as a fact if not an excuse, I have been very busy. Family, work, and riding.

Quite a bit has changed since my previous blog entry in March. My first full Summer of riding, for starters. It was wonderful. Of course, as much as I love my bike, I want something else now. I’ve been here before. We will see.

Fear.

Motorcycle accident, Balham. By Drew Leavy. License

You have to learn from the mistakes of others. You won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

(Unattributed)

When you think of riding, the elephant in the room – or if you prefer, the SUV at the intersection – is the prospect of getting killed, or seriously injured. Motorcycles are dangerous, so the received wisdom goes.

Well, in some cases, definitely. You can go on Wikipedia and discover that “Motorcycle riders aged below 40 are 36 times more likely to be killed than other vehicle operators of the same age.”(“Motorcycle safety,” 2016). You can find all sorts of information, anecdotal and peer-reviewed, that might persuade you to not even look at a bike, for fear you may spontaneously self-combust.

I didn’t want to turn this post into a statistical dive, mostly because I find that too hard, and I’m lazy, and honestly, it’s been done to death by more qualified people. Have a look around the work for yourself: The reality is, there’s a lot you can do to help your dice rolls, and most of it is training and attitude. Every ride is a lesson. The biggest risk, assuming you are appropriately protected and aren’t riding like a twat, is still other road users.

IMG_2711, by Killbox. License

Like most things in life, you can go a long way to helping yourself with the right approach.

If you spend any time on YouTube “researching” (looking at crash videos, like some knobber totalling his GSXR on Mulholland Drive) there’s a chance you will scare yourself away from riding. I watched – and of course cannot find it now – a video wherein the narrator strongly advised not looking at crash videos for exactly this reason. Likewise, the Reddit board /r/motorcycles tends to have a notable focus on accidents. People like the drama.

I take a different point of view. Look at them, don’t shy away from it, because it could be you. Try to understand what happened. Recognise and accept that it can happen. Knowledge and training the rational part of your mind can help keep the anxiety reflex – which is dangerous – away. It surprises me even now how, in times of stress, much my body tries to fight me when on the bike. Nearly all accidents contain useful information that will help the rider build a good mental picture on the street. Also note that in a large number of cases the rider makes a full recovery. Here’s a classic example, similar bike to mine:


If you’re new to riding, you’ll probably wonder how on earth such a thing happens. Ride a few thousand miles, and you’ll understand exactly how it happens.

The other side to this is, we see what we want to. For all those Mulholland Drive bike crashes, there are plenty of cars filmed doing worse in exactly the same place. You have probably known more people that were killed in cars than on bikes.

you start with a bag full of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill the bag of experience before you empty the bag of luck.

(Unattributed)

This is one of the truest things I’ve read about riding. I wish I knew where it came from; it appears to have originated in Aviation; another pursuit terribly unforgiving of errors. You will have close calls when you start out. As a novice, you are so occupied with simply controlling the bike that situational awareness is very poor. You won’t signal, you won’t cancel signals (you will usually leave them blinking for about 38 hours), you won’t do enough shoulder checks. You’ll stall on hills, you’ll nearly run wide at stupidly low speed a few times. You’ll nearly run wide at stupidly high speeds a few times.

For all that, and well beyond the fear, it’s like nothing else. Concentration and relaxation doesn’t come naturally to me. On a bike I feel completely relaxed; it is practically therapy. YouTuber TnP puts it well:

You ride motorcycles? Seriously? I mean if you want to live, if you like living, why would you ever get on a motorcycle?

Has anyone every said that to you? have you seen that attitude come up in conversation with family, friends, for that matter, strangers?

Yeah, me too.

I have lots of responses, but here’s the core of it: If you want to live, if you like living, why would you not get on a motorcycle?

(nutnfancy, 2014)

Hell yeah.

Where Do You Want To Go?

After spending amounts of time researching bikes that neared the definition obsession (a recurring theme…), I stepped back to think about what I was doing. I was forty-one in 2015; why did I feel the need to get a motorbike? Was this an early midlife crisis?

Midlife Crisis...
Me IRL

Possibly. The fact I was in my forties and taking up riding was not unusual; in fact it’s in line with a trend that was identified in 2003 – more people of my age were buying motorcycles (“Table 4 – Motorcycle Owners by Age in the United States for Selected Years, 1985-2003,” 2009). Of course that isn’t particularly meaningful, and merely gives credence to the idea I was mere weeks away from buying a sportscar and shagging my secretary.

Getting back to the point, back in the day I used to go to a friends farmhouse to ride one of his many dirtbikes around all day. I liked riding in the family car and being driven about along rural country roads by my dad, just for the sheer enjoyment of it. I’d been very into bicycles when I was younger, and this was something I’d definitely lost with over two decades of city living. It never occurred to me this isn’t an interest everyone shares, and I’ve met a few people that don’t get it at all. It’s summarised better by the YouTube personality TNP (nutnfancy, 2015):

…They look at driving as a burden.
…Myself, I am a pilot by nature, that’s the way I was born. I love piloting jets, I like piloting cars, I like piloting motorcycles.

I’d been in the USA for three years and lived a short walk from work; I hadn’t even bothered converting my UK license; it was one of those things to do, among a great many. Now that I had moved out of town and had a reason to drive again, I got a taste for it. This was a also a new place and outside of the city, I hardly knew it. I felt very much like something old had woken in me.

Driving around in the car again, on my own, I’d been struck by how wasteful it seemed. Not unlike the author, It was big, expensive to run, and not getting any younger. A bike fitted that desire for individuality and immediacy to the environment that a car could give you only on the right day.

My wife, for her part, was extremely supportive from the word go. She considered me careful and responsible. I had to consider I’d possibly fooled her in this respect, but I loved her vote of confidence. Either that, or she possibly wanted me dead.

There was nothing stopping me, was there?

An Informed Choice. Maybe.

If was to get into motorcycles, I thought I wanted something small and light, without a huge amount of power. Something – conventional wisdom says – I would not hurt myself with. I wasn’t twenty-one anymore and didn’t want some crotch-rocket to set my remaining few hairs on fire. No, That desire would actually – and rather unexpectedly – come later. Some Google-fu turned up the Ninja 300 straight away: New as of 2013, 300cc, and an all-new platform built on top of the wildly successful but now discontinued Ninja 250R. At this point I’d never considered a secondhand bike. This is considered unwise in motorbike lore, the reasoning being you will lose money on a new bike, and will surely damage it, being a new rider. The first is definitely true, and it didn’t bother me as much as it should, as I’ve never been that sensible with money. The second isn’t necessarily true at all, even if it sounds prudent. There was also a matter of practicality – I knew fuck all about motorcycles, I would therefore not be able to meaningfully inspect a potential purchase, or ride it home. None of these problems were intractable, but they were sufficient to raise the volume of my inner desire for something new and shiny.

I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to Kawasaki; somewhere in my head was a warm feeling toward the brand, but I don’t know where that came from. Maybe it was my initial sighting of the 250R, but I definitely liked the Ninjette. Likewise I liked sport bikes, despite the slightly chavvy image. I think I have to admit that perhaps there’s a smidge of hooligan in my otherwise pretty straight demeanour.

Choosing a motorcycle is a matter of wading through the glut of choice. There’s a wealth of content on the internet. YouTube has countless videos of whatever bikes you’re into, but, Pareto’s Principle definitely applies: Eighty percent of the the reviews are crap when it comes to actually informing the viewer. Pottering around on a Honda for a few miles and pronouncing that it “feels pretty good, YouTube!” after talking about your merchandise isn’t useful, even if it’s fun to watch over a morning coffee. There’s an entire subculture of riders equipped with a GoPro and microphone, collectively known as motovloggers it’s kind of fascinating and worth a blog post on its own.

I did find a number of channels that I ended up watching many hours of, if for nothing more than the creators were so enthusiastic and likeable. There’s really too many to write about, but a handful stood out in the beginning and I’ll write why.

Chaseontwowheels is a Georgia-based bloke whom records a lot of ‘first rides’ on new bikes, courtesy of a local dealer. Over time, I formed the opinion Chase isn’t a particularly thorough tester, but he doesn’t pretend to be, and he’s highly watchable, and his videos are well made. His impression of the Ninja 300 was somewhat tepid, but despite that, I liked what I saw. What he disliked about the bike – modest power, questionable long term satisfaction, I saw as a strengths for a new rider looking for a good all-rounder they won’t kill themselves on.

In that review, Chase remarked:

I definitely feel like if you get one of these you’re gonna…I feel you’ll outgrow it eventually…which is why I recommend [a] 650 bike.

He’s not wrong. Sort of. This is a very, very common sentiment regarding 250/300cc class bikes. There is some truth in it, but it depends on what you’re looking for in your riding. Again, that’s another topic I want to write about, as it it much more complex than it may seem.

For a rider in his first year, I loved Iamramekin’s early videos. He’s zooming about on a meaty Yamaha R6 these days, but his early videos on his Ninja 250R are lovely. Here’s one where he takes his bike around the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) range. This is of particular interest to a beginner, because in the USA, you’ll be doing this. More on the MSF course in another post.

If you concluded I’d sold myself on the Ninja 300 from the start, you would be right, but I did digress for a while and very nearly talked myself out of it. The way I saw it was, I wanted a 250/300 bike, and the Ninja seemed to be the best one. Between me and a new bike, there were still many things in the way, both real and imaginary. I still hadn’t even sat on one.

The reader may have spotted there’s a lot of feeling here, but little in the way of hard fact. One thing you learn about motorcycles is, there’s a vast amount of opinion. A lot of it is just that – opinion – and there’s few easy answers. If you ask a forum what direction you should go, you won’t get a clear answer. Part of this is because of the diversity in motorcycle culture, and this in itself is totally different in the UK and USA.

I needed to knuckle down and establish how I really felt about this. Get to first principles, what I want, and why. Then figure out how to do it.