30 Dec 2012

In photos: Byways 2012

In the UK there remains a (shrinking) network of byways which are classified as public highways—Byways Open to All Traffic or BOATs. Some of these roads are packed dirt or gravel, while many are not much more than trails and mud pits running through the woods. Many have signs alerting that they are unsuitable for motor vehicles.

Most councils have websites showing the locations of the byways using Ordinance Survey (OS) Grid Reference maps. The maps also feature on the Bing website, making it an indispensable resource for planning routes.

Throughout the year I’ve passed the time on many occasions on the byways near London and beyond but this photo report focuses mainly on the byways in Surrey Council, about 20 miles south of London.

Ockham—13 May: Oops... this is why it’s not a good idea to attempt mud with Pirelli Scorpions—I may as well have had racing slicks and it took nearly 45 minutes to get unstuck

Ranmore Common—10 June: With Chris on a gravel byway

Godalming—10 June: With Chris on one of the better dirt byways

Surrey—15 September: On a country road

Ranmore Common—16 September: One of my favourite routes connecting Honeysuckle Bottom to Gomshall—although a bit dodgy in the wet due to high clay content of the soil

Ranmore Common—16 September: Another view of the trail—note standard highway signage in the background

Ranmore Common—16 September: Width restriction sign—motorbikes allowed but no 4x4s

Honeysuckle Bottom—6 October: The beginning of the byway to Gomshall, and a bit of a muddy mess

Ranmore Common—7 October: Stopped with Dan at the site where I came off the bike the day before in an odd 180° spin on the slippery clay mud—definitely time for some meatier tyres... the chap walking in the background came out of nowhere randomly

Madgehole Lane—27 October: A demanding trail for a heavy dual sport bike but I had to break in my new Heidenau K60 Scouts that were fitted earlier that morning

Madgehole Lane—27 October: Detail of my new K60s in natural environment—the tyre mould nipples haven't even worn off yet

Hogden Copse—27 October: This is why we take the road less travelled

Ranmore Common—27 October: Back at the old haunt to give the K60s a go on the clay mud—these things hook up on anything, safely and predictably, and are possibly the single most effective upgrade I could have done to the F800GS

Madgehole Lane—28 October: Another go at Madgehole Lane which was a mud pit with 50cm deep ruts in places, deep enough to rub the crash bars in places—a chap on a 250cc Honda MX bike stopped to see if I was all right as he couldn’t believe I’d made it up on such a heavy bike... I owe it to the new K60s, did I mention I love them?

Bookham Wood—25 November: Zev taking a break on an easy byway passing through fields of horses

Bookham Wood—25 November: Zev with a couple of horses—they came up to the gate looking for a bit of fuss

A tyre-ing ordeal: Heidenau K60 Scouts

To me, the weakest point on the F800GS is, without question, the choice of tyre that BMW fits on the bike from the factory—in my case, Pirelli Scorpion Trails. Depending on available stock during manufacture, they also may come with Bridgestone Battle Wings or Michelin Anakee 2s. From anecdotal reports, the only one of these stock tyres that even approaches an acceptable level of traction on anything beyond hard packed dirt or gravel roads is the Anakee.

Objectively speaking, these tyres are all safe choices on the part of BMW since most of the thousands of GS models they sell never see anything rougher than a speed hump or kerb. They are all V-rated (240km/h or 149mph) which allows for a suitable margin of safety for the bike’s top speed.

On road, of course they do the job—I’ve always been partial to Michelin tyres but the Pirellis did all right on both wet and dry asphalt. In fact, having carried out a panic stop once on a wet road only resulted in the ABS activating on the rear wheel—the front gripped remarkably.

Going off road, the Pirellis and Bridgestones would be generously classed as 90/10 tyres—designed for 90% on road and 10% off. The Michelins might be 80/20s.

Following a strange, slow, 180° spin on clay mud last September, which resulted in the bike on the floor and me standing next to it somewhat confused and perplexed, I decided it was time to get something a bit meatier.

BMW recommend Continental TKC80s or Metzeler Karoo 2 (T)s for off road use but these are considered 30/70s and 20/80s respectively. It is common knowledge in the ADV community that the Continentals are great tyres but the treads melt down faster than an ice cube in the Sahara when used on road. And the Metzelers are considered by many to be downright scary on wet tarmac. Both of these tyres appear on BMW’s recommended list for the F800GS.

The list has an obvious gap—nothing in between the on road and off road tyres. Speaking about this to a number of people in the ADV community, and, in particular, Leslie (have a look at her excellent blog ADVgrrl), the Heidenau K60 Scout came out as the tyre of choice for riders in search of the holy grail of dual sport tyres—the elusive 50/50. In fact, I was unable to find a single negative review and we all know how fast bad (misjudged?) reviews flap around the internet.

In mid-October I spoke with Micky at my usual (and highly recommended) tyre shop Essential Rubber Tyres in Bow E3—the K60 was not a tyre they carried, or one with which they had any first-hand experience. He was happy to install them for me if I brought them in, however—£50 fitted and balanced.

I ordered the tyres from Oponeo and they totalled a reasonable £140 including delivery. According to the realtime tracker, they came directly from Heidenau’s factory in Germany—encouraging, as this indicated fresh stock, not tyres that had been sat around in a warehouse for months on end. They arrived 7 days after I put in the order.

I emailed BMW Battersea, my home dealership where I purchased the bike (and they are conveniently just round the corner from me), on the off chance that they were around the same cost for fitting and balancing. I received an email back offering to fit them for £70. I emailed back requesting the next available booking. I received a reply that the earliest appointment would be in 5 day’s time and the service adviser asked what tyres I’d purchased.

I responded and received an email back stating that they were “only allowed to fit BMW recommended tyres and  Heidenau K60 Scouts are not on [BMW’s recommended tyre] list” and that I would “need to supply [the dealership] with these makes or use another dealership to fit“.

Mildly disappointing to say the least, and with a bit more prodding I received an explanation that BMW Park Lane/Battersea is run by BMW UK directly and that was why they were obligated to only install the tyres shown on the official recommended list from BMW. Fair enough, I suppose—if that’s what they’ve been told to do, they’re only doing their job... But it seems slightly odd in that scenario to refer me to a competing dealership.

At the bottom of BMW’s recommended tyre list it states: “BMW Motorrad recommends obtaining a clearance certificate from the tyre manufacturer and keeping this certificate with the vehicle at all times”—so I did the reasonable thing and emailed Heidenau directly.

The next morning I received an email back with a link to Heidenau’s Certificate of Conformity which confirms that the K60 Scouts are approved by the Bundesministerium für Verkehr, Bau und Stadtentwicklung (German Federal Transport Ministry) for use on the F800GS.

I daresay this endorsement is good enough for me—it’s common knowledge that the German authorities don’t f**k about. But also, it’s interesting to note that I have it on good authority that the K60s are among the marques of tyres used by BMW’s own off road training centre in Hechlingen, Germany.

Moving on, I still had tyres to mount so I did as advised and rang Vines of Guildford, the next closest motorrad dealership. I happened to get the service manager who was happy to fit K60s on my bike, but said they were booked up for the next couple weeks. He suggested I contact Guildford Tyre Company whom he said Vines often used themselves.

In retrospect, at this point I wish I’d stopped faffing about and just gone to my faithful tyre shop in Bow but in the heat of the moment I rang Guildford Tyre Company who told me to come in first thing that Saturday morning.

Of course we had a sudden cold snap with the weather dropping from about 15°C to 2°C overnight. The 800cc Rotax engine has some chunky cylinders so when the weather drops much below 8°C the battery feels it—the starter sounded decidedly tired as it brought the bike to life.

I got about 10 minutes down the A3 before noticing that the heated grips were not so heated. In fact, they were stone cold. It seems the ZFE (electronic brain) decided in a moment of self-preservation (rise of the machines?) that, with the battery already tired, it would not permit the grip elements to suck even more electricity. A quick stop at a pull-out to switch off and restart the engine resolved this, and before long my hands were toasty again.

Now, I’m not in the habit of slagging off companies from one bad experience, but Guildford Tyre Company’s negligence in this case had potentially life threatening results.

Arriving at Guildford Tyre Company, I think the chap who helped me had got up on the wrong side of bed, as he was genuinely dismissive when I requested that he remove the ABS sensors before removing the wheels—a peculiarity about several BMW models including the F800GS. I wasn’t being abrasive, patronising or twatty with him at all—it was a simple request.

As much as I don’t like being told how to do my job as the next person, at the end of the day it is my (expensive) bike and I don’t fancy paying to replace the ABS sensors when the induction magnets are sheared off by the brake discs—they only have about 0.5mm of clearance. I would have assumed, being in the tyre business and working for Vine’s preferred tyre shop, he would have known this already—instead, he gave me a look as though I’d propositioned him.

Next—while enjoying my second complimentary coffee in the waiting room—I heard my anti-theft alarm going mad. I popped my head into the workshop and offered to permanently disable it, but I needn’t have bothered since all I got was another contemptuous glare and a dismissive “I think we’re all right here”.

The alarm is not difficult to disable—all that’s required is to press the arming button on the fob twice. But no... his ego again got in the way and so the bike sat for the next 30 minutes with the ignition switched on, further taxing the already tired battery.

Finishing my third and fourth complimentary coffees, nature called and, by the time I’d found the toilet and returned, the tyres were done. The chap was slightly less stroppy now and I thanked him (there’s never an excuse for bad manners, that’s why blogs exist), paid him £54 and left.

On my way home I took to the byways to break in the new tyres. First impressions? On road the bike felt unsettled, like I was riding on marbles—this was expected as it was noted in a number of reviews, and apparently goes away after 50–100 miles, once the tyres properly bed in and scrub off the release agent. Off road, straight away they were bloody fantastic. Mud, dirt, gravel, deep water, sand—the bike went exactly where I aimed it, no slop, no fuss.

After riding about 20 miles off road, I rode the rest of the way home on a mix of motorway and city roads. By the time I was home, the handling had settled down, the ‘marbles’ feeling gone.

The next morning, as I approached the bike, I noticed that something was not quite right. I’m not sure what possessed me to look at the rear axle but the right-hand-side axle locking bolt, used for adjusting the chain tension, had been left screwed fully into the swing arm. Not only that, but the chain only had about 10mm of slack. The F800GS spec is 35–45mm of slack—yes, a very floppy chain, but a necessity with 215mm of swing arm travel. I have no idea how much the life of the chain was shortened, having ridden off road the day before using the full range of suspension travel.

Slightly more chilling was the axle locking bolt—without this being tightened up to the axle, the rear tyre has the potential to twist resulting in a rear-steer effect. Not so much a problem doing 20mph on a trail, but it made me shudder thinking about what would have happened on the motorway at 70mph. Even though I probably should have, you just don’t think you would need to double-check the work of a professional.

So not only did the chap at Guildford Tyre Company give me attitude about the ABS sensor, he ended up screwing the pooch with his incompetence about safely remounting the wheel and adjusting the chain to spec.

I went through everything thoroughly at that point, readjusting the chain tension, checking the torque on the axle bolts, and properly securing the axle locking bolts. I contemplated ringing up Guildford Tyre Company to have a conversation with them, but there was little point since I’d already made it right. I didn’t have the willpower to endure the strop and attitude I no doubt would have received when bringing into question the quality of their work—and I have little reason to believe they’d do anything other than deny it anyway.

I’m perplexed by how something as simple as getting a new set of tyres ended up being such a monumentally shit experience all round. I don’t think I have unreasonable expectations—all I ask is for people whom I am employing to carry out a prescribed job to be transparent, honest and courteous. Is that unreasonable in 2012?

Needless to say, I will be going to Essential Rubber in Bow from now on when it comes to tyres—for the last 5 years they’ve always been great and I’m kicking myself for not seeing them this time around. You live and learn.

Two months on—I love these tyres. On road they match the Pirellis for traction, cornering and braking regardless of whether the road is wet or dry. They mask their semi-knobbly treads well—the only evidence is a slight vibration at 15mph and a modest hum on damp roads at higher speeds.

Off road they are in another league compared to the Pirellis. No matter what I’ve thrown at them, they’ve take it in stride. How those crazy German engineers at Heidenau managed to strike such a balance of inspiring confidence both on and off road, I may never understand. Das grenzt an Zauberei.

I can’t say why BMW don’t include the K60s on their recommended list. I suspect, in the vehicle industry, tyre makers canvass vehicle manufacturers and/or codevelop some of their products. However, all of the F800GS recommended tyres are standard, off-the-shelf models, so perhaps Heidenau hasn’t paid to be on the list. Or maybe I’m just talking rubbish.

Either way, I’ve joined many others in the Heidenau fan club.

[Addendum 19 Jan 2013: Metzeler are releasing the Karoo 3 in March 2013 which appears to be another 50/50ish tyre—it will be interesting to see how it compares to the K60 Scouts once the ADV community get their hands on it. However, from the photos it doesn't look as aggressive as the K60.]

[Addendum 18 Feb 2013: The sidewalls on the K60s are slightly ambiguous regarding the correct pressure—I went with BMW’s recommended 2.4/2.8 bar front/rear which seems to work well. However, I recently emailed Heidenau to find out their recommendation and they have come back with 2.7/3.0 bar front/rear (44/39 psi)—will report back after I’ve given this pressure a go.]

[Addendum 5 Mar 2013: Tyres feel slightly sharper handling at Heidenau's recommended pressures. I’ve noticed no effect on grip wet or dry, ABS virtually impossible to activate in normal circumstances unless deliberately stomping on the brakes.]

[Addendum 22 May 2013: Discovered 4 seized links in my chain which I have maintained meticulously with regular cleaning and lubrication. By fused, I mean absolutely solid, no movement at all, as though they are welded together. Seems riding rough byways with an over-tight chain does inflict irreparable damage. Thanks, Guildford Tyre Company.]

Ride report: Fryslân

What possesses us to travel? Is it the boredom of our everyday routine? The thrill of being someplace new? Or the excitement of the journey?

For me, it’s often the latter. Many of the places I travel to nowadays are places I’ve been to before. While it’s always a joy to reconnect with family and friends, it’s the journey that gets me most fired up about a holiday.

I’m not referring to tolerating a journey on a fetid train to an airport (inevitably standing up), putting up with suspicious security staff and X-ray screenings, passing time by begrudgingly humouring shopkeepers’ advances in trashy airport malls selling all manner of cheap tat, and filling up on McShits because the other restaurants require a mortgage approval in principle before being seated—and all before boarding an enormous metal bird pushing physics to the limit as it climbs to the troposphere. That’s not mentioning the actual flight and the airport on the other end.

What I’m talking about is the excitement of taking your life into your own hands on a quick and nimble machine, small enough to squeeze into the gaps between cars—and on a minimal schedule. If I see a sign to someplace that looks interesting, I can just go there. If the road turns to a dirt track, I can still go. Whether or not this actually happens is a different matter entirely, however, but it’s inspiring to know that the option exists.

To the trip. Fryslân is the largest Dutch province located in the north of the Nederlands, also known as Friesland or Frisia. It is the only province to have its own language—Frysk (or West Frisian)—which is the native language of the majority of the population. The province also contains about 1/6th of all the traditional windmills in the Nederlands. My mum was born in a village near the town of Joure.

My parents had a stopover in Fryslân on their way to their summer home in Greece and invited me to come for a visit. On a sunny morning in early June I packed up the bike, complete with camping equipment, and set off from London.

When you’re accustomed to riding a bike of a certain weight, it takes some time to get used to the way it feels fully laden. It should go without saying that I tightened up the preload and rebound a half-turn from the top. The F800GS hides the weight surprisingly well when the wheels are turning, with acceleration, braking and cornering nearly unaffected. Most noticeable is how smooth and sorted the bike behaves over broken tarmac, road humps and other bumps—it glides over everything.

The side panniers also require care at first, being as wide as the handlebars but set much lower, exactly at the same level as the average car’s wing mirrors. Until you’re used to gauging gaps with a fat arse, filtering is somewhat unnerving.

I programmed Sneek NL into the GPS. Cutting through Kennington, New Cross, Lewisham and Sidcup, I made my way out of London, stopping along the way to fill up with petrol. Once the A20 became the M20 it was a typically uninvolving motorway journey in 20°C weather to the Eurotunnel terminal in Folkestone.

After going through border control—which, as is typical for European overland routes, involved a nominal flash of the passport—I threaded my way round to the train queues. For reasons unknown, the trains were two departures behind schedule. After nearly 90 minutes, my queue finally began to move ahead and we boarded the shuttle.

Motorbikes generally travel in the regular-height car carriages which means your head is uncomfortably close to the 1.9m ceilings when riding a tall bike like a GS. There are also metal grates running along the centreline of each carriage—treacherous on a wet day.

Safely parked on the side stand, front wheel against the kerb, the train finally departed England for the 35 minute journey under the English Channel at a top speed of 140km/hr.

Alighting from the Eurotunnel shuttle in Calais, you are unceremoniously ejected onto the E40 motorway without even realising. Once freed from the clutches of the ghastly town of Calais, the motorway became distinctly continental in flavour with a wide central reservation filled with grass and wildflowers. The sky was almost indigo in colour with glowing white fluffy clouds dotted here and there. There was an immeasurable feel-good quality about this road, perhaps amplified by my presence in a foreign land.

The E40 carried on past Dunkirk and into Belgium with barely a sign-posting at the border. The French really do know how to build a good road.

Because of the delay with the Eurotunnel shuttle, I arrived in Brugge around 3pm and we stopped to eat at an Egyptian restaurant. I had quite possibly the best kebab I've ever eaten—lots of salad and hot sauces, and no grease to be seen. A pleasant surprise in the country of chocolate, mussels and chips with mayonnaise.

I intended to reach Sneek by nightfall so there was no time to sightsee. Returning to the E40, I joined the E17 at Gent to Antwerpen. I startled myself on the Antwerpen ring road on a sweeping right-hander—the camber of the road caused the bike to unexpectedly want to go into the next lane on the left. It was an unbelievably unnerving sensation, and one I've not experienced on a bike before or since—while writing this piece 6 months later I still have no comprehension about what exactly occurred. My only thought in retrospect is that, being overcast with flat light at that point, I’d not noticed where car tyres had worn slight ruts into the tarmac, which caused the bike to turn inconsistently. I’ll be ready next time...

After Antwerpen the E14 becomes the E19—I carried on into the Nederlands, joining the E312 and E311 at Breda, the A27 at Utrecht and the lovely A6 at Almere.

The A6 runs along the dykes bordering the Markermeer and sits about 10m below sea level—an absolutely surreal section of this motorway, as it is lined with energy-producing wind turbines, each at least 100m tall, against a flat, grassy landscape.

A curiosity in the Nederlands is that the speed limit is 120km/h during the day, but goes up to 130km/h from dusk. It seems counterintuitive to increase the speed limit at night, but my relatives later explained that, due to agriculture being the main industry in the country, people go to bed and get up early and therefore traffic tends to be light after dark.

I arrived at Joure as the sun set and the temperature dropped to a slightly less palatable 11°C. In my attempt to join the A7 I managed to be in the wrong lane and was forced to head east instead of west, despite my TomTom’s best efforts to tell me I’d done wrong. This resulted in an unexpected 4km round trip to the village of Oudehaske and back to the roundabout. I arrived in Sneek at my second cousin Jannie’s home around 10pm—nearly 2 hours later than expected, and with a very sore bottom. Mental note to get a new seat once back in London.

Mums being mums I got a proper telling-off, was fed a small meal and escorted to my cousin Willy’s house, 2km away in the neighbouring village of Ysbrechtum where there was space for us to sleep.

The next morning was wet but not raining and after a traditional Frysk breakfast of black rye bread, cheese and cold meats, I set off back to Jannie’s home for another catch-up with my parents whom I’d not seen for nearly 4 years.

After lunch I explored Sneek, a town of around 30,000, founded more than 1,200 years ago. Like many Dutch towns it has numerous canals which typically run alongside the town roads, with nothing to stop someone from driving/riding straight in. Indeed, most people equip their cars with a LifeHammer in the footwell with which to break a window should the worst happen.

By UK standards, particularly London, the traffic in the Nederlands is delightfully light, making exploration of towns, villages and country roads a relaxing, almost calming experience. Some might say undemanding to the point of boredom, as the country is flat—flat as a table—but the lush fields and scenery make up for it. Despite my many hours on the bike the day before, it was a pleasure to be out on it again.

I stopped in Ouwsterhaule to see a monument built in honour of my great uncle Jetze Veldstra. During the second world war he was made to keep a list of ‘criminals’ that the Nazis were trying to locate. These people were typically farmers in a rural area who were taken away to Neuengamme concentration camp where many were murdered.

My uncle managed to elude the Nazis for several years by ensuring that people on the list were as difficult as possible to be located—but in 1945, just a few months before the end of the war, some neighbours who were in a boat in one of the canals saw the Nazis take him away in a car.

Several months went by and the villagers heard a rumour that he would be returning. Despite being very poor from the war, they contributed to a collection to prepare a feast in honour of him upon his return. However, news finally arrived that this was not to be, as he had been murdered by the Nazis.

Using the funds for the feast, a monument was made instead, and installed next to the church in Ouwsterhaule. I am sure that his story is one of many everyday people who did heroic acts during a dark time, but I also feel very honoured to know that one of my ancestors gave his life standing up to the unspeakable events occurring during the war.

In fact, about half the population of the area fled to become farmers on the prairies of Alberta Canada after the war because of how toxic life had become in the area.

Back in Sneek that afternoon, I went to a birthday party for two of my great aunts who are in their 90s (above 2nd left and far right). While they are both somewhat hard of hearing, whatever they’ve done, they’ve done it right—I’ve seen people in their 60s and 70s nowhere near as chirpy.

Also pictured is my mum in red and my other great aunt next to me in blue—three generations of my family, all with the same noses! Fingers crossed the longevity genes made it through to me as I push 40.

The next morning I rode the dykes from Ysbrechtum to the beautiful lakeside village of Terherne, followed by a loop of south Fryslân.

On one of the dyke roads a small car was floating with its back end bobbing up and down in a canal. A police car was on site and a few people were standing around contemplating. Hopefully the LifeHammer came in handy.

Many of the villages on the sea have drawbridges, some of which have been around for hundreds of years. The route took about 2 hours, with straight stretches approaching 90° bends, followed by more straight stretches and bends, and the odd village in between.

On the way back, I stopped at the house that my mother was born in (pictured)—it is still in the family and now owned by one of my third cousins.

The house is typically Frysk-style with the barn attached at the rear. This format of home is still popular in the area, enabling farmers to see to their livestock without having to go outside during the colder months.

Living in the city, I took this rare opportunity to see the cows up close and the rumours are true—they are not the brightest creatures but they are quite sweet in their own way... and pong like nothing else.

One last stop at my uncle Foppe’s for a quick visit and I headed back to Sneek.

We had a Sunday dinner of Dutch-localised Chinese takeaway—tasty but unlike any Chinese cuisine I’ve experienced. This was followed by the ubiquitous and delicious groentesoep met balletjes, or Dutch meatball soup.

Afterwards I said goodbye to my parents and went to my cousin’s house to pack up the panniers and get a good night’s sleep.

The next morning was miserably grey and rainy. Not just a drizzle, but proper rain. I set off around 9am with London programmed in the TomTom, retracing the route I took on the way to Sneek.

I had accidentally left the waterproof liner for my jacket in London but had a full waterproof boiler suit which I put on under my jacket and over my trousers. The rain was torrential—despite the good weather protection of the F800GS my legs, feet and gloves were soaked within 2 hours.

One thing I didn't consider was that travelling on a Monday on the continent means double the volume of HGVs, as they are prohibited from traveling on Sundays. As anyone who rides a motorbike is well aware, riding among HGVs on a motorway in a downpour rates among the least favourable riding conditions.

Approaching Antwerpen, the traffic was gridlocked, although there was a reasonable amount of space between the lanes to filter through on the bike. Antwerpen is possible the coldest, least inviting city I've come across in Europe when seen from the ring road, being a 10-lane motorway of misery running through the industrial districts. The wet weather didn't add to the charm.

The rain did subside somewhat when I arrived back in Brugge where we stopped for lunch again (at the same Egyptian restaurant) and bought handmade chocolates for my friend Renate who was cat-sitting for me.

When I put the TomTom back in its cradle for the final push back to Calais, it refused to come to life. I opened the sealed SD card slot at the bottom, and it peed out about 50ml of water. RIP TomTom and the £400 it cost.

I know it sounds ridiculous but it’s so hard to revert to road signs when navigating a city you don’t know well, and somehow I got myself properly lost trying to return to the E40. After nearly an hour I managed to find it.

The journey to Calais was perhaps the worst of the trip. The rain started up again but this time it was accompanied by enormous gusts of wind coming off the North Sea 5km away—almost strong enough to blow the bike into the next lane.

Passing HGVs became something of a sadistic affair—pushing left approaching the rear to keep from being vacuumed in by the turbulence, and pushing right approaching the front to keep from being blown outwards.

Just as I was arriving at the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais the weather cleared up. I was about an hour late for my scheduled shuttle but it seems they take no notice of the time when it’s a bike. Being somewhat shellshocked from the storm, I forgot to remove my helmet at border control and the chap made a slightly snide remark about being none-the-wiser after seeing my passport photo.

Crisis averted and after slithering into the carriage on the wet metal ramp, I took the opportunity to freshen up in the train loo. My fingers looked necrotic having been wet all day in my gloves and warmed by the heated grips.

Coming out at Folkestone I headed up the M20 back to London, the weather once again warm and sunny with a few fluffy white clouds—ironic given the UK’s reputation for weather.

About a mile from home I had my only near miss of the trip—a car decided to change lanes without doing a life-saver and came within inches of hitting me. Statistically most accidents happen within 2 miles of home and it seems there is plenty of truth in that.

On reflection, I had a fantastic time travelling—shame about the shit weather on the way home but it’s all part of the adventure. It was quite special to find out so much about my family’s past and I came home slightly less naïve than when I left. I think that’s one of the point of travelling.

As for the bike—through all the rain and wind, plus riding 1,200 miles in 4 days, it behaved itself, doing its job without protest. It had more than enough power and torque to get the job done, and I averaged around 55mpg overall.

Of course it’s more entertaining to throw around with me alone on it, but it was still much more enjoyable than it had any right to be while fully laden. I can’t think of higher praise for the engineers who designed it.

23 Dec 2012

Icon Variant Construct helmet

Photo: Icon Variant Construct • Source: Icon
The time arrived to replace my ageing Arai Condor helmet, which served me well for the past 4 years. It was a reasonably quiet helmet with good aerodynamics at higher speeds, although I had fogging issues in wet and/or cold days.

I tried everything from Autoglym anti-fog visor cleaner to various furniture polishes to carnauba wax-based car polish and nothing helped for more than 30 minutes. Neither did combinations of opening and closing vents. The only solution was to keep the visor cracked a millimetre but this resulted in raindrops ending up on the inside of the visor.

On a ride from Fryslân to London last June—nearly 8 hours in a constant downpour—this proved tiresome and stressful.

I spent time debating what to replace it with. Flip-fronts (convenient for a quick drink at rest stops or paying at petrol stations) were a consideration but I really wanted something with peak to stop myself being blinded during the cooler months when the sun sits low.

I had my eye on the Fox Racing Helmet V1 at a more-than-reasonable £100—however, being a motocross helmet, it requires separate goggles which are too much of a faff for day-to-day, me being the forgetful Freddy I am.

I also had a look at the decidedly smart BMW Enduro Helmet—a particularly versatile dual-sport/crossover helmet with removable visor and peak. You do pay for it though—£330–350 (depending on colour) for the standard version and an eye-watering £875 for the carbon fibre version.

The similarly versatile Arai Tour-X 4 helmet comes in at an even loftier £500 (for comparison, there seems to be no carbon version) and is loaded with features but, like the BMW helmet, seems to carry the brand premium in the price tag. [Off topic note: Some may note that I splurged for the BMW Rallye 3 jacket but the pricing of this was in line with other premium jackets and I believe it has been worth every penny.]

Photo: Icon Variant Construct
with Sena SMH5 headset
I recently rediscovered Icon, a Portland Oregon-based company that makes motorbike gear, including a range of dual sport products. Many of their products seem to take influence from the snowboarding industry, known for straightforward and practical design—jackets with hoods, trousers with extra pockets, relaxed fit etc—and an industry close to my heart, having snowboarded since 1992.

Icon have recently entered the world of dual sport riding with a pair of fantastic Triumph Tiger 800XCs—I've absolutely fallen in love with their brand new Patrol Raiden range and fairly new Variant helmet range, introduced (from what I can find via Google) in 2010.

Reading up on the details/features, the Variant helmet was exactly what I was looking for, and has the option of a 'breathbox' which redirects exhalations from the nose/mouth out the bottom of the helmet (one could argue that this should be included in the box—such is the world of commercialisation). All for a somewhat reasonable £220-280 (depending on colour) for the standard version, and an admittedly very reasonable £390 for the carbon fibre version.

I had my eye on the Variant Battlescar, a naked version with hand-dyed/washed fibres at £280, but decided on the less flashy Variant Construct (also pictured above), naked without the added colour at £250.

Icon only have 3 official dealers in the UK, Gorgeous Bikes in London that specialises in their 'fashion gear' and therefore don't carry Variant helmets, Topgear Superstore in Bexhill On Sea and Ultimate Bike Gear in Papworth Everard (closest at around 60 miles north of London).

Photo: Detail of helmet surface
I took a leap of faith that Ultimate Bike Gear would be open the Sunday before Christmas and left London at 10am with ominous clouds looming overhead, optimistic in the Met Office's claim of a 20% chance of rain. Yes, I could have rang ahead but I didn't feel like waiting until 11am when they opened.

Traffic was typically light as expected on a Sunday morning and I made good time cutting through the city and arriving at the shop in about 90 minutes—keeping in mind, of course, that the average speed in London on a motorbike, even on a quiet Sunday morning, is 19mph (compared to about 7mph for a car). The A1(M) motorway had fairly strong crosswinds as usual.

Ultimate Bike Gear was indeed open, and I had a chance to try on the Variant Construct—it fit my head/face/nose as well as I could have hoped, and actually felt much less claustrophobic than my Arai. The field of vision is the best I've experienced in a full-face helmet with nearly the same peripheral vision as an open-face helmet.

I was helped by Mike who kindly moved over my Sena Bluetooth headset/intercom to the Variant, and even supplied the mounting bits at no cost. Incidentally, the standard clamp mount for the headset doesn't work with the Variant—due to the way the padding and shell come together, there isn't enough of a gap to wedge the clamp in between.

Photo: Icon Variant Construct worn—
plenty of room for my big nose
and excellent peripheral vision
Ultimate Bike Gear was a good experience—within 2 minutes of arriving I had a fresh coffee in hand and the use of a supremely clean toilet (it's all about the everyday things!), plus the aforementioned good service. I prefer to support small, independent businesses where possible because of these little things.

Of course I wore the helmet home. First impressions? It's about as quiet, and about the same weight as the Arai. As noted above, the field of vision is superior. Even tight and brand new it was comfortable without any undue pressure points. The ventilation is the best I've experienced in any helmet—including the open-face helmet I use around town.

The most notable difference is at motorway speeds (60–70mph)—it does catch the wind much more than the aerodynamically efficient Arai. It's not a problem as such, simply a characteristic of peaked helmets which might put off people who are not expecting this. The helmet is light enough that I don't find it a problem.

The helmet came with a second dark tinted visor (illegal in the UK but tolerated on the continent), a ubiquitous 'free advertising' sticker, a little spray bottle to fill with visor cleaner of your choice, obligatory microfibre visor cleaning cloth, a reasonably well-made carrying bag, a key for changing the visor (although a flathead screwdriver also works), a poster and an accessories list.

All in all, I'm really pleased with it so far (based on a 90-minute ride). We'll see how it fares in the longterm after a couple holidays... and the next time I'm stuck in a downpour for 8 hours.

26 Oct 2012

27 Aug 2012

25 Aug 2012

In photos: Cornwall

With 10 days of annual leave to use up before the end of August, I contemplated a journey to Helsinki Finland. It was not meant to be, however, so I booked in at a campground near Porkellis Cornwall, packed up the bike and made the 300 mile journey from London.

My route took me past Basingstoke, Andover, Yeovil, Exeter and Bodmin—a scenic route, but one with heavy traffic. There are no motorways going all the way to Cornwall and bottlenecks form where 4-lane routes merge into 2-lane roads. In theory, not a problem with a bike, but in practice with side panniers in place it was slow going at times.

On the way back the rain chucked it down—true to tradition whenever I leave London, it seems. The combination of rain, traffic and small roads meant the normally 6-hour journey ended up taking nearly 9 hours, with the rain finally subsiding 4 miles from home. I’m starting to feel like I’m jinxed—but the charms and gorgeous landscapes of Cornwall made it worth every wet moment.

Campground—Porkellis: The road in—the grass in the middle was treacherous in the wet as the heavy bike wanted to sink, and riding in the ruts meant about 4–5" clearance between the stone walls and panniers

Basecamp—Porkellis: Tent set up in a grassy field with a view almost to the ocean—it proved to be waterproof as advertised during a storm on the last night

Camp stove—Porkellis: Macro shot of my camp stove—it was the smallest/lightest stove I could find but a powerful little bugger

Campground—Porkellis: A disused antique soil roller

Daisies—Porkellis: Daisies in the garden at the campground

Progressive post-modernist dish scrubber holder—Porkellis: Yes it’s Barbie naked and bound in the campground wash house—she symbolises the eccentric charm found all over Cornwall, although she didn’t have much to say about it

The end of England—Sennen Cove: Well, not quite the end—Land’s End is technically 100m further west but has become trashy theme park charging admission for the privilege of setting foot on the most western point of the English mainland... what a disappointment that people will try to capitalise on anything

Bridge—Boscastle: In August 2004 a flash flood nearly 3m deep washed away the previous bridge at this spot, flooding all the surrounding buildings and washing out around 50 cars into the bay—unimaginable on such a serene sunny day

Boscastle: Another view towards the bay—following on from the devastating flood in 2004, the bay flooded again in June 2007 but on a much smaller scale

Witchcraft Museum—Boscastle: Cornwall is almost synonymous with witchcraft so the museum had to be on the must-see list—nice to see the witches playing their part with their environmentally friendly truck

Witchcraft Museum—Boscastle: An altar near the entrance of the museum

Witchcraft Museum—Boscastle: This charming crone was meditating with her puss while stroking her crystal ball

Witchcraft Museum—Boscastle: Jars of botanicals labelled with their properties relating to witchcraft

Witchcraft Museum—Boscastle: A petrified teddy bear used in witchcraft for its healing properties

Giew Mine boilerhouse—St Ives: Giew Mine was in operation from 1838–1922 and produced around 150 tonnes of tin during that time—the boilerhouse housed the steam engine used to pump water out of the shafts

Fields near St Ives: Typical stunning Cornish landscape—being one of the wettest parts of the UK it lush and green throughout the summer

Beach—St Ives: Don’t let the cloudy sky put you off—it was around 25°C, perfect for exploring by motorbike