The yearly motorcycle trip with “the boys”, 2 travel days, 5 days to ride beautiful twisty roads. We don’t ask for much and our “significant others” grant us permission but once per year so it must be planned, and mapped, and carefully considered many months in advance. We have been doing this for a long time and… The rain gods have mostly smiled down upon us every year. Over the years the destinations change slightly, but always to the south with warm climate. Virginia, Carolinas both North and South, Georgia, Arkansas and Tennessee, with roads chiselled out of the sides of mountains and hills that bend and twist and contort themselves for our motorcycle riding pleasure, pure nirvana. We have been lucky really, weather wise, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that into everyone’s life some rain must fall (literally). But I don’t have to like it!
Riding day #1 was great, but just a tease really, day #2 we got wet but managed to salvage a good ride.
#3 and #4 we seem to have pushed our luck as far as it will go for now.
Day #5? Can we make a sacrifice to the rain gods to appease their anger?
Damn I sure hope so!
Questions/comments, always welcome
BACK IN THE DAY
Where were we when I was so rudely interrupted? Oh yeah, I was attempting to explain how First Street Louth could turn into the Isle of Man, with blind curves and hills, after starting out as a dead-straight county road. Well, it’s not that complicated really – at the junction between First Street and County Road 69 (it used to be Highway 8) the altitude is 117metres – it then drops straight down to less than 80 metres and then curls its way up the Niagara Escarpment (called “The Mountain” by the locals) and ultimately reaches over 180 metres. It goes from low point to high point in about one kilometre, but in order to do so, it snakes and curves all over the place. Now that we’ve set the parameters, we can carry on with our story. After many moons of riding the first part of the journey, the whole way up to this point was basically straight and flat. Right now though, you sit at the stop sign and look at an incredible downhill that allows you to gather speed before you hit the twisties.
The worst thing that could happen was to be forced to follow a four-wheeler (this encompasses every vehicle on the road with the exception of another bike) since they were notoriously dead slow through the best part of the road. The only solution was to wait for them to get started, and then pass them on the downhill which set you up for the best part of your day. After blowing past the obstacle, the scene was set for the first turn – a blind, almost 90-degree uphill left turn, setting you up mentally and physically for the snaky climb ahead with a shot of adrenalin, and a sharpening of the senses! Usually, there would be one (in a worst-case scenario, perhaps two) vehicles to pass before the bridge – the first of the adrenalin shots, since too much speed will get the Honda 350 airborne, which is not its most graceful attitude when you’re two up.
On the day in question, it looked like a complete disaster – the guy in front of me at the stop sign sat patiently and waited for two cars on Highway 8 to make the turn onto 1st Avenue Louth right in front of him (and me, of course) before leisurely moving off. Figuring that I needed to hustle my ass, I left right behind him and took a look to see if I could pass all three before the turn. As it turned out, my hunch was correct, but in my estimation, I could probably pass them all by the bridge and get back into my lane to set up for the turn – assuming that no oncoming traffic showed up to thwart my plans. Needless to say, that only took a split-second, and I hammered the throttle and let her rip! Two-thirds of the way down I realized that I had miscalculated, and the first car was going to reach the bridge before I was! I decided to keep the throttle pegged and take my chances at making the pass, since the likelihood of oncoming traffic was low at that time of the morning.
I hit the bridge and glanced at the speedometer – which read about 85mph (approximately 140kph for the younger set) and caught more air going over the bridge than ever before! Nonetheless, I was able to get back in front of the lead car, with room to spare before the turn. Unfortunately, for the last week or two I had been hearing scraping sounds whilst going through the turn, but (given my inexperience and overconfidence) had not identified the reason for the noise – I was about to be enlightened! To make things worse (not that making things worse was even remotely required at this point) it had been cloudy in the mornings for quite some time, and I had not thought to (nor needed to in my opinion) change the face-shield on my ¾ helmet. Remember, back in the day, aftermarket shields were notoriously soft, and routinely needed to be cleaned with scratch remover or replaced more often than one liked – especially given their cost.
On this fateful day, the Gods were definitely not smiling, since as I started into the turn travelling faster than I ever had, the sun miraculously appeared making it impossible for me to see anything at all thanks to the myriad of gouges and fine lines in my shield reflecting the light and distorting my vision! In other words, it was like riding in a heavy fog – going too fast and facing a right-angle, uphill, blind left turn! I made the immediate decision to lay off the brakes and cut the corner short by using both lanes (remember my contention that there would be no oncoming traffic at this time of the morning). Luckily, I was right about the traffic, but unluckily I had ignored the previously mentioned grinding sound, and that coupled with my increased speed quickly allowed me to figure out the problem. As the bike leaned farther than ever before, the centre-stand dug into the pavement, lifted the back tire off the ground and dropped us into a slide that ended abruptly in the ditch, running us up against the hill – going from 50 to 60mph to a dead stop!
As luck would have it, we caught a break – actually a few of them. Firstly, both Mike and I were dressed for the cold wearing snowmobile suits that protected us from road rash. Next, the time we spent sliding on the pavement was mercifully short – thanks to the ditch and a mudbank at the side of the road. Finally, because the ditch was lower than the road, it tilted us slightly downward, so that when we hit the mudbank the bike hit on both wheels, stopped immediately and sat us upright! By the time the cars caught up to us and could see us, we looked like we had just pulled over for a smoke, so we got some pretty weird looks from those vehicles. You could see that they couldn’t understand why the hell we had bothered to pass them if we were going to stop around the corner. The only apparent damage to the bike was a broken clutch lever although there were complications that we simply didn’t have a clue about until later. More on this in the next installment…
Questions / comments, always welcome.
BACK IN THE DAY
Where were we when I was so rudely interrupted? Oh yeah, we were approaching the railroad tracks south of Caledonia in the rain. Well, it wasn’t really raining hard, it was just spitting. Having crossed the tracks on the way up to Mike’s cottage made me an expert railroad track crosser - in my own mind at least. So, I approached the railroad tracks at the 45-degree angle at 100 kph without giving it another thought. Little did I know that my world was about to change dramatically!
As the front tire hit the first track, the bike leaped to the left and then righted itself – just in time for the front tire to hit the second track (or the rear tire hit the first track – who knew at this point?) and the whole series of slip, slide and then grab for traction, causing the bike to jump wildly while moving increasingly to the left long enough to put me in the oncoming lane!
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the worst of our problems – only because there was no oncoming traffic at that point – what worried me more was Mike on the back being cool. What that meant was that he was no longer holding on (if you remember in the last chapter, he had let go in order to look and feel cool) and at one point during the ordeal, I caught the sight of Mike’s leg about eye-high and swinging wildly! In retrospect, the only things that saved us (aside from the lack of oncoming vehicles) was the fact that the tires were brand new, and I had a death-grip on the bars (befitting my station as a new rider who was in over his head).
I managed to keep it together long enough to pull over at the side of the road (my side – not the wrong side) to attempt to figure out what just happened. Actually, if I’m truly honest, it was primarily the fact that I really needed some time to let my heart return to its designated spot in my chest and slow down from the 200 beats per minute to a more reasonable rate and to check my underwear for bricks. The first thing I did once I managed to bring the bike to a halt was to turn around and check to see if Mike was still there. Luckily, he was, since he was dressed in the uniform of the unwitting – a short-sleeved shirt, jeans and flip-flops – and don’t forget his helmet, black-taped to his head!
I could see by the look on his face that he wasn’t amused, and if I missed that, I could hear him yell (through gritted teeth – don’t forget the black tape) “What the f**k just happened? Since I had no idea myself, I stalled for time asking him what he had just said, and that he might want to repeat it slowly, so I could comprehend his question. After he repeated himself, I admitted that I wasn’t sure, but we should light up a smoke and try to figure it out. Between the two of us, we managed to ascertain that railroad tracks in the rain were substantially different than railroad tracks in the dry weather. This was just the first installment in my education about the differences between motorcycles and all the other vehicles that I had previously driven. It certainly wasn’t the last. We managed to make it back to Hamilton relatively unscathed, and we even stopped at the bike shop so that Mike could purchase a real motorcycle helmet before I dropped him off at home.
Considering that this was the middle of August, I just had time to purchase and have installed a handlebar fairing to cut down the wind blast on the highway, and to distance me even further from the cool guys riding Harleys or Triumphs. Looking back, my biggest difference was that even though I was a rider, my choices still made me look like a dork. Nonetheless, as it turned out, my choice of bike, size and accessories was ideal for the use that we were going to put it to! Beginner’s luck, I guess – I would make many more stupid decisions before I finally had to admit to myself that I really didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Unfortunately, that was about 10 years later – but that didn’t stop me from starting to teach people how to ride the next summer!
Before we jump forward that far, there are several lessons that Mike and I had to learn over the Winter – and we had to learn them the hard way. We started commuting to St. Catharines in September, and we rode (or at least I rode, since I had promised Mike that I wouldn’t let him pilot the machine because he hadn’t paid for it) all but 5 or 6 days in the winter when it snowed hard. Mike and I wore snowmobile suits and gloves to ward off the cold, and they came in very handy later – but that’s another story that we’ll save until the next column.
In the meantime, I mapped out a route to Brock that allowed me to introduce some really nice roads (i.e. hills and turns) to the end of our journey – setting us up with a shot of adrenalin to start our day at school. We would get off at 1st Street Louth which ultimately lead to a massive downhill stretch, just before turning in to a snake-like series of curves as it wound its way up the Niagara Escarpment past Lake Moodie and Lake Gibson. We would use the downhill section to easily gain speed so that as we crossed the little bridge at the bottom (just before the right-angle left turn!) we could get some air on a good day with no traffic in front of us – which was most days. I’m certain that even the slowest among us can see the problem that is likely going to occur, although I must have been slower than that, since it didn’t dawn on me until it happened. More on that topic next time…
Questions / comments, always welcome.
BACK IN THE DAY
The last installment ended with me deciding that I should ride to Mike’s cottage at Nanticoke on Lake Erie – a distance of approximately 60 km. from my house in Hamilton – most of it highway riding. I found that once I got through the city and on the open highway, the bike became easier to ride, but harder to turn (at least in my rookie opinion, since I had absolutely no notion of push steering). Just south of Caledonia, there was a set of railroad tracks that crossed the highway on about a 45-degree angle. I ignored them, and was rewarded with no reaction from the bike as I sailed merrily over the tracks. Ignorance is bliss, eh?
Further along, I needed to make a left turn on a County road that was unpaved gravel. I was well aware of that stretch of road, since I had driven it in a car many times. This time (on the bike) was very, very different. Just my luck, they had recently re-gravelled the road, and there was an inch or so (2.5 cm.) of nice, fresh, loose stone between my tires and any semblance of traction. When I made the turn, I found that the bike started to swerve from side to side, so I slowed down. Unfortunately, that only made things worse, so I did the only thing I could think of – I sped up. Once I got going about 80 kph., the bike smoothed out – but I knew instinctively that I didn’t really want to have to turn or stop, since I would likely wipe out.
I managed to keep it upright through several stop signs, and finally reached the lake road which was packed mud. Luckily it hadn’t rained in a while so the traction available was similar to riding around the city on paved roads. I rode up to the cottage, and sure enough, Mike was there with his parents. I triumphantly dismounted and walked up to the cottage and found Mike relaxing in the sun. I dragged him back to look at the bike, and watched as his face turned green with envy. It was everything that I had hoped – I felt in my mind that he was absolutely regretting that he hadn’t sprung for his share of the bike. That wasn’t enough for me though – I needed to get him on the back for a ride so that (as I told him) we could get some practice riding two-up, so we wouldn’t be totally green when we headed to school. In reality, I just wanted to lord it over him.
After letting it sink in that I had a bike and he didn’t, I suggested that I take him back into the city – ostensibly to get that “experience” that I mentioned earlier. He agreed totally, but just when everything seemed to be falling into place, Mike raised the problem of his lack of helmet – the law requiring motorcyclists to wear a helmet had just been enacted. Since we were both ignorant of the finer points of the law, I had a flash of brilliance! I remembered that I had left my lovely yellow Dofasco hard hat (with “Slacker” written on the back by one of my previous co-workers) in the shed attached to the cottage. I told Mike to wait by the bike, and I ran to the shed, picked up the hard hat and gave it to Mike to wear for a helmet. He enthusiastically put it on and got on the back of the bike, preparing to ride into the city.
Unfortunately, surrounded by his family, as we pulled away there was a gust of wind off the lake which blew his “helmet” off his head. He thumped me on the back and delivered the bad news. Needless to say, I was devastated by the fact that my goal of making him totally eat crow was crashing down around my ears. It was then that I had another brilliant idea! I told Mike to stay with the bike and I ran back to the shed and picked up a roll of electrician’s tape that I knew was there. I then proceeded back to the bike and told Mike to put the hard hat on and close his mouth, and when he did I took the tape and ran 5 or 6 times around his chin and the top of the hard hat. He climbed back on (complaining with his mouth taped shut) that he probably looked like a dork. I assured him that wasn’t true, and besides that, no one who was following us would notice the fact that his headgear was black taped to his head. We pulled away, and although the wind continued to gust, the hard hat remained securely in place.
After riding along the lake road, we turned onto the beginning of the gravelled section, and of course the bike started its wandering and fishtailing about. Mike was absolutely astounded and frightened by this action and clamped onto me like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood, but I assured him everything was fine and once I got up to speed the wandering would disappear. Sure enough, once I got up to 70 or 80 kph., the ride smoothed right out, but Mike still had a bear hug on me in abject terror (in this case, he was smarter than I was, but who knew?). We managed to reach Highway 6 unscathed, and I sat at the stop sign for a minute to catch my breath (actually to allow my heart rate to slow to a somewhat normal rate). Mike mentioned (through gritted teeth – remember the tape) that it was ironic that it was starting to rain and we had chosen to ride a bike, but again I assured him that that was interesting but ultimately unimportant.
Once we were on the highway, everything settled down, including Mike who managed to let go of his “death grip” on me and let his arms dangle in the breeze (so he would look cool – at least as cool as anyone could look wearing a Dofasco hard hat with slacker written on the back, black taped to his head). All went well until just before we got to Caledonia – remember the tracks and the 45-degree angle? Well, I was experienced crossing tracks, wasn’t I? The only caveat was the rain – but that didn’t mean anything to me at the time. Unfortunately, I’ve reached my quota of words, so you’ll have to wait for next time to find out how the tracks were navigated.
Questions / comments, always welcome.
BACK IN THE DAY
Okay, we left this tale with Mike and I going to buy a motorcycle that we would share – mostly so we can cut our costs regarding the daily commute from Hamilton to St. Catharines in order to go to University. Although many, many people warned us about buying a bike together, Mike and I decided that since we’d known one another since Grade 6, and since our wives got along as well as we did, and since we had no plans for the bike except commuting, there would be no problems that we couldn’t solve.
The first thing we had to do was get our bike licences – that was a new deal back then, so we borrowed my cousin’s Suzuki 125 and bombed all over the area until we felt confident enough to book our tests with the MTO. We both passed with little problem, and then got to the fun part – test driving motorcycles! However, when we got to the Dealers, we found out the first difference between cars and bikes – when buying a car test drives were expected, but when buying a bike, there was no such thing! You had to visit several different Dealers and then beg someone to take you out on the bike as a passenger – that was as close to a test ride as was available!
The other thing that I should mention here is that back in the day, only hoodlums and misfits actually rode motorcycles. The rider population at that time consisted primarily of motorcycle gangs and other people of questionable character. In fact, the Japanese motorcycles were just being introduced into North America – prior to this, if you wanted to ride, you got to choose from Harley Davidson and “British bikes” – Triumph, Norton and BSA. All of them were basically unreliable and leaked oil at the slightest provocation. In order to combat this view of bikers and in order to shake the label of unreliability, Honda was spending millions trying to convince the public that “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”.
That was enough to convince us that we should go ahead and buy a bike, and after visiting all of the bike dealers, we decided to purchase a Honda 350 from a combined Harley-Honda dealership. The dealer tried his best to talk us into a Harley (the last of the rebuildable bikes according to him) as opposed to the Honda. We weren’t having any – we wanted to picture ourselves as one of the “nicest people” riding a Honda, rather than an outlaw or a member of the “1%” who identified themselves as a “Biker”, and almost invariably rode HD’s.
After riding around on the back of a Honda CB450 Hellcat (the dealer convinced us that going two-up on a 450 was equivalent to riding a CB350 alone) we started negotiating, and came to an agreement that we would purchase a brand new CB350 for $900! It came in several heinous colours, and we chose the delightful turquoise (to differentiate ourselves from the 1% who always rode in black and on black). Just before we were scheduled to pick the bike up, two things occurred that should have alerted me that this may not be the best decision that I had made in my life. Firstly, the dealer phoned and told me that the price had now gone up to $1000, and when I complained and pointed out that we had made a deal, his answer was “Too bad – if you don’t want to pay a grand, you can take your business elsewhere”. I called Mike, and although he agreed with me that the dealer was a prick, it was still the best value that we had found after an extensive search.
The second problem raised its ugly head when the dealer called to let us know that the bike was in, and that we should show up and write him a cheque for the balance. I called Mike to let him know the good news, and he then informed me that his wife wouldn’t allow him to buy a bike – with or without me. I was gobsmacked, and said in desperation “You aren’t going to let your wife tell you what to do, are you”? His answer was unexpected but excruciatingly clear – “I sure as hell am!”. My answer was just as clear and unequivocal – “Alright, I’ll buy it myself, but don’t think that you will ever get to ride it”. “You can sit on the back, but as far as I’m concerned you are simply a package that I get to deliver 5 days a week. Mike was quiet, but agreed that since he wasn’t contributing to the cost of the bike, he would pay for the majority of the gas.
So, I told the dealer to go ahead and prepare the bike and let me know when it was ready. He called on a Saturday, and came out on the 450 to pick me up and take me to the dealership to claim my bike. I had purchased a used helmet from my sister’s boyfriend (it was a white half-helmet) since he had just sold his scooter and had no use for it anymore. You must understand that when I mounted the 350cc at the dealer, the biggest bike I had actually piloted was my cousin’s 125 Suzuki (which had 15 horsepower) so the Honda (at 36 horsepower) felt like the fastest and most powerful vehicle on the road to me!
After riding around for about an hour (scaring the crap out of myself several times) and convinced that I was now a competent (if not brilliant) rider, I went over to Mike’s house in order to take him for a ride and rub it in that I had a bike and he didn’t. I was incredibly disappointed and crushed that he was not home for me to brag on. In fact, no one was at his house, and it dawned on me that the whole family was probably at their cottage on Lake Erie. Since getting to the cottage demanded that I ride on a highway with a speed limit of 60mph (100kph for the younger demographic) I decided that that was a perfect excuse to get some highway experience and still get to brag about my purchase and make him envious. That story will have to be saved until next time, since I have run out of space for this week – trust me though, it’s a story worth waiting for…
Questions / comments, always welcome.
I came late to riding – as long as you don’t count the time when, as a sixteen-year-old, I rented a Suzuki at Wasaga Beach. The idea was, as long as you had a Driver’s Licence and promised to stay on the beach, anyone could ride. The proprietor spent two or three minutes instructing my cousin John and me on the intricacies of making the motorcycle go forward – not so much time spent on braking though. So, there I was ready to go – bathing suit, T-shirt and runners. I’m reasonably certain that the slowest among you can guess where this is going. You’re right – after ten or fifteen minutes on the beach, we were bored (or at least I was) so we headed for the freedom of riding on the roads – with traffic – real cars and trucks. I had, by this time, overcome my initial fear, and had proceeded to totally unwarranted confidence and self-assurance.
Okay, we were now bombing up and down the strip (this was 1960 – long before Wasaga became a Provincial Park, and you could go both ways on the main drag. Soon that became boring, so we headed for the road that runs along beside the beach. That road was basically straight, with the exception of a spot that essentially moved the road one block further away from the beach. That was accomplished by a 90° left turn for one block, and then a 90° right turn to continue the road. I had driven this road countless times, so I can’t even suggest that I was taken by surprise when these turns arrived. At first I was particularly careful (actually scared to death) but after riding through them a couple of times, I regained my sense of overconfidence, and started to lead my cousin through the turns – each time increasing the speed – just to see if I could leave him behind.
For those of you unfamiliar with Wasaga Beach, it is purported to be the world’s longest fresh water beach, and it is blessed with very, very fine sand which packs hard and allows traffic on it when it’s wet, but once it’s dry, it covers everything with a fine layer of non-traction – including the road and the turns. I blew through the left turn, and checked my mirror to see where John was, and then increased my speed since he had stayed fairly close to me. That set me up for the right turn (remember, it’s 90°) going much faster than I realized, which allowed me to panic in the turn, hit the rear brake, and slide into the oncoming lane – which was filled with traffic! Luckily for me, the guy coming towards the turn in the other direction was a wimp – he was hardly even moving – but nonetheless, was driving a much larger vehicle (a 59 Chevy, if I remember correctly – I could tell you if you just let me lie down in front of the car and let me watch the front bumper descend toward my head). As I’m sure that you can figure out that I survived my first motorcycle excursion and needless to say, didn’t go looking for another opportunity to ride for a very long time. Taking the bike back to the rental company (actually, some dude on the beach trying to make a buck) was also a lot of fun – since I didn’t have enough money to repair the bike, plus I was scraped and bleeding in some obvious spots. I’m not certain how I managed to do that (return the bike that is) without getting caught, but I did.
It was 10 or 12 years later before I returned to riding. That made me almost 30 before I seriously got back into riding – hence, the opening sentence. I realize that now, someone of that age would be common in learning how to ride, but, back in the day, I was considered a fossil, since the vast majority of riders were in their teens and early 20’s. Even then, I was blessed with a overwhelming and unjustified sense of confidence, since during the hiatus between rides, I had driven virtually every type of vehicle manufactured, and had spent several years working for A-1 Driving School (later to become Young Drivers of Canada) as an Instructor. There was obviously nothing I had to learn about riding a bike – I had done it once before, and borrowing another cousin’s Suzuki 125, I taught myself and my friend Mike how to ride well enough to pass the test.
The reason that I was interested in returning to riding in the early 70’s was that I had decided to go back to school. Time out for an academic synopsis. I had managed to get through Public and High School without ever opening a book outside of the classroom. I behaved myself throughout and never cut a class. When I got to grade 13 though, I learned how to skip classes and subsequently, was called down to the office at the Easter Break, where the Principal explained that since my average mark was 29.9, there was little chance that I would graduate, and he therefore suggested that I get a jump on the job market. I took his advice, got a job, hated it, and therefore applied to the Ryerson Institute of Technology in the business division. Unfortunately, the skipping disease was still in my system, so they threw me out (even though I was carrying a B+ report card) for not maintaining an 80% attendance rate. At that point, I went back to Grade 13, and promptly failed it once more.
It was 8 or 10 years later, when I decided that not having an education was a pain in the ass, so I grabbed a buddy of mine, and applied to 6 or 7 Universities. Needless to say, I received 5 or 6 outright rejections, and one offer to allow me to write an Entrance Exam, and if I passed it, they would let me in (Mike had passed Grade 13, so he got accepted everywhere). We lived in Hamilton at the time, and the University which accepted me was Brock (in St. Catharines) which meant a commute of 45 minutes each way every day (I had been cured of the skipping disease). Since we were both basically broke, rather than spend a ton of money on gas for our car, we decided to buy a motorcycle together – even though we were told by hundreds of people that it would be impossible to share a motorcycle.
To be continued…
When I’m asked for the perfect beginner’s bike, I’m torn, indecisive, elusive even. What do I think is the perfect beginner bike? Or, what do you want to hear me say is the perfect bike? Choosing a first motorcycle is a very slippery slope indeed. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a rookie rider talk him/herself into the latest GSX-R / R6 / CBR 1000 etc. as “the perfect beginner bike”, I’d be a very rich man indeed! The reality is; The quickest way to statistical irrelevance (serious injury) is choosing the wrong bike at the beginning of your motorcycle career, but thankfully the manufacturers have caught on to this and are starting to do something about it.
When I think back…waaaay back to when I first started riding, after I clear away the spilled tears of regret over what I’d do differently (hindsight is 20/20 they say), I consider the options of what was available to a newbie and I smile, those were good ol days. Somewhere between then and now, the two-stroke motorcycle was killed off, the insurance industry stopped supplying personal lubricant and proceeded to bend us over in a grievous manner, beginner bike quality and originality took a serious nosedive and somehow…. motorcycles lost their “cool” factor. That last nail in the potential coffin is what has the manufacturers lying awake at night in terror. Old timers are hanging up their helmets in record numbers these days, and until recently, new riders entering our sport were all but non-existent. As you can imagine, this caused some anxiety in the industry. Then some smarty pants at brand X had an epiphany; perhaps our entry level motorcycles really do suck!
So as previously mentioned, the manufacturers have caught on, and are trying to make motorcycles relevant again. Entry level bikes thankfully don’t look like an afterthought anymore, creative designs, and excellent fit and finish are no longer just reserved for the flagship lines; it’s a full-on renaissance! Now what do I think might be the perfect beginner bike? Still an ambiguous answer but at least there really are some fantastic choices available, here’s my two cents:
So now you’re probably saying, “where is he going with this?”, “I thought this was going to be a motorcycle review”. Well, stop rushing me, it’s coming. This elaborate lead in was setting the scene so to speak. What I’m trying to emphasize is that I really wasn’t expecting to be blown away by these three newbie bikes, but damn…apparently, we’ve come a long way!
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS, Z650 ABS, and Versys 650 ABS LT, all share the same mechanical heart, a 649cc liquid cooled parallel twin that makes about 70 hp in all three versions. The same motor in all three bikes that are all intended for different riding/motorcycle styles. To say that I was skeptical is an understatement.
First thing that catches my eye with these new bikes, fit and finish. No big gaps, no cheapo plastics bits, switchgear and gauges look and feel premium, these things certainly look the part, good job Kawi this is starting to look promising! Then we get into some of the specs, nothing surprising here until…
it’s the number that gets my attention, 42 pounds (that’s 19 kg for the metric types), That’s how much weight they managed to remove from the Ninja, and that my friends is huge!
The Z650 is new this year but it is also heroically lighter than its spiritual predecessor, the ER-6N. My biggest question now? With the same engine, can Kawasaki really make these bikes different? Hell yes, they can, as it turns out! Even more surprising is with some gearing magic, this engine suits all three bikes beautifully. All 3 have more than adequate power, near perfect fuelling, and strong braking performance even at the limit when the ABS starts to suggest that you take it easy. They have enough power to get you into trouble, enough engineering to get you safely back out, and easy enough for even a newbie to ride.
So how did we test these bikes? Well…we sure weren’t kind to them, we rode em’ hard and put em’ away wet. More importantly our testers covered a wide range of body types. First there’s me, I’m more than slightly overweight and slightly more than average height, Trevor is the “tall skinny” type and Adam is shorter than us and much closer to “average” than he’d like to admit. Surprisingly, we mostly came to the same conclusions.
650 Versys ABS LT
Adam: “Tall, smooth and comfortable. Feels more powerful than it is, lots of room”
Bob: “Bike obviously much larger, makes engine feel more powerful. Comfortable and agile but needs proper setup to take advantage.”
Trevor: “Upright seating, great brakes, nice midrange pull through corners, great mirrors. Suspension needs proper setup”
Ninja 650 ABS
Adam: “Planted, makes good use of power through gearing, front feels a bit vague Compared to the others”
Bob: “Smooth, stable, planted but front end feels bulky. Good power and great intake sound.”
Trevor: “Good riding position and brakes, predictable handling but noticeable vibration in the grips”
Adam: “Narrow and light, flickable handling, gearing makes good use of power and torque but also makes some unwanted vibration. Cramped leg position but good shifting and Brakes.”
Bob: “Little hooligan machine! Gearing is short but makes great torque, tight cockpit, could use wider bars”
Trevor: “Great instrument cluster, super nimble and flickable, great low end and midrange pull. Needs wider bars.”
Three great examples from an industry that seems to have collectively realized that to sell motorcycles, someone had better be paying attention to the new riders. The old timers just aren’t writing the cheques anymore… but the newbies have mobile payment options! Let’s see if we can make this work.
Questions/comments, always welcome
Helmet snobs…I hate helmet snobs. They offend my inner cheapskate, and my engineering brain favours function over form most of the time (although I certainly do appreciate sexy gear). Let’s face it, fit, finish and materials can make the price of a helmet skyrocket in a hurry but safety is mostly controlled by the test ratings of the big 3 (D.O.T., Snell, and ECE). The rating systems don’t change with the brand name or price category, they are a constant. Brand loyalty I understand, when you find a brand that fits your head shape (my wife tells me that mine is square), your wallet and your safety requirements you stick with it, but for some reason there are a few names in the industry that seem to carry more…cachet.
HJC has long been associated with the “value” segment, and helmet snobs be damned, I like them because they always fit consistently on my oddly shaped melon, they’re my “go to” lid. Mid-range helmets at entry level prices, what’s not to like about that? In recent years HJC has entered the high-end market and has listened to feedback from customers, testers, and racers to produce what I believe to be their greatest creation to date, the RPHA 11 pro.
The RPHA 11 pro checks off all the right boxes: Light and aerodynamic, D.O.T. and ECE certified, sexy (especially if you go for the incredibly cool graphics options), the best ventilation of any helmet I have personally strapped onto my pumpkin and the best part… In Canada, retail pricing of the RPHA 11 starts hundreds of dollars cheaper than the nearest competition and yes, I’m referring to the Shoei RF1200.
So, I’m painting a rosy picture here, does that mean I’ve discovered the helmet unicorn? Perfection? Well, no… But I must say that HJC is on the right track. I do have some relatively minor gripes that keep the RPHA 11 from achieving full helmet nirvana.
First problem is the visor, specifically the pinlock pegs. Visibility is very good vertically, as this is primarily a sporting/racing style helmet, lots of visor real estate there. The problem is that the pinlock pegs at either side of the visor are just out of my peripheral vision but seem to reappear occasionally when shoulder checking or scanning intersections and for the first little while can be rather distracting. A minor redesign of the visor would do wonders here. Second, is the volume level inside the helmet. It’s not bad but there is room for improvement here. If you wear earplugs (and you should) this is basically a non-issue, but the “premium” helmets have really set a high bar and is definitely a goal that HJC should consider. My final gripe is: Why do the ultra-cool graphics like Boba Fett and Lightning McQueen (officially my new favourite graphic ever) make the helmet almost double in price? I understand licensing and royalties etc. but damn! That makes my inner cheapskate get all uppity again.
So here I am bitching and moaning about minor issues, but what do I like about this helmet you ask? Literally everything else! In true HJC fashion the value factor is astounding, this is truly a premium lid at clearance sale pricing. The venting is nothing short of miraculous, opening the vents unleashes a vortex of fresh air that should keep you cooled on even the hottest summer day. Even in size 2XL to fit my giant cranium, the RPHA is impossibly light and the aerodynamics are spot on, I experienced almost zero wind buffeting. And did I mention value? HJC includes two visors, one clear, one tinted with perhaps the best quick change visor system in the business, as well as a pinlock antifog insert. The inner liner is pure premium here, removable and washable anti-microbial fabric and emergency release cheek pads, breath deflector and chin curtain as well. Helmet snobs…This is one sexy helmet, and the “premium” manufacturers had best take note, there is some new competition in town and they’re on a roll.
Big thank you to Molly @ HJC USA for sending me this sexy gear to test
Questions/comments, always welcome
So, what do I call this thing anyway?
A “Moto Blog?” Seems pretentious at best, maybe a bit “Hipster.” Neither of which describes me very well. I’m too nerdy to be a hipster and way too plebian to be pretentious, so I suppose I’m comfortable enough with myself to say I’m somewhere in between. OK…now that I’ve talked myself into it, Moto Blog it shall be.
Now that we have that out of the way, what exactly am I planning to do here? I’m so glad you asked! First, a bit of background.
Motorcycles are in my blood. They’ve been part of my life since before I could string together coherent sentences. I can’t recall a single moment of my life that didn’t in some way include motorcycles, for better or worse. Motorcyclecourse.com is a family business, started by my Father in 1974, kept afloat on a shoestring budget by my Mother. My Brother and I have been involved in one way or another since birth, and officially I’ve been training people how to ride motorcycles since I was 18 years old (unofficially since well before that).
Alright, back to my point. What am I planning with this blog? Well quite simply I’m going to give you my opinion, actually it’s more than that. Motorcyclecourse.com has grown since 1974. In fact, it now employs almost 100 professional motorcycle instructors and when you have that kind of talent at your disposal you’d be foolish not to take advantage of it. So, armed with my opinions, and my talent pool I will try to answer the questions that I get on every motorcycle course; “What should I buy?” And “where should I buy it?”
It should be interesting to see where this goes!
Comments/questions/ideas please feel free to email