Monday, February 5, 2018

Finding adventure: Why I ride

The hardest part of undertaking an adventure is deciding to go. Uncertainty about the unknown, concern about risk, and anxiety about whether it’ll be the “right” use of precious time and resources—all can defeat taking action. When “analysis paralysis” and agonizing over all the “what-ifs” take over, they often shut doors to enriching new experiences and insights.

Even for seasoned adventurers, making the decision to go may paradoxically become both harder and easier with age. This is certainly the case for me now as I ponder my 50th year and plan a new trip.

On the one hand, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to live in or extensively visit some 35 countries since an early age. Growing up as an only child to young parents who were also students, we lived in nomadic poverty. Leaving Canada for Sweden, we wound our way through Eastern Europe to Greece and then Italy, and on to South Africa, LeSotho and Swaziland before emigrating to a small backwater town in Queensland, Australia.

Soon after, a family break-up led to the next chapter of my life and the addition of two new people who would eventually become my wonderful step-parents. It was also the start of my dual life, splitting my time between my father’s adventurous  lifestyle around the world and my more mundane routine in Canada. These adventures included sailing around the south Pacific, hitchhiking through Europe, and spending time in Switzerland and southern France with a remarkable collection of musicians, artists, and business people in my father’s (and stepmother’s) circle of family and friends. It was all bare-bones budget, often risky by the standards of the day, and certainly not what was then seen as an appropriate way to raise a teenager. It was fantastic.

This upbringing naturally drove me towards being independent and self-reliant. In that respect, a major epiphany for me was learning to ride my second-hand bicycle on our dirt road in Australia. This, and some old books on bicycle repair, kindled a life-long passion for independent, two-wheeled travel. At 16 I completed my first bike tour, a solo four-day tour through a corner of France and Switzerland. I could hardly wait until the end of high school, when a friend and I spent three months cycling across Europe and I worked as a bicycle tour guide in France.

In university I started to race bicycles, and took up running--against the advice of a doctor who was horrified by my gait. Despite being relatively late to the sport, soon I was competing internationally in duathlons and was fortunate to represent Canada at two world championships. Racing led to rock-climbing and mountaineering, and many trips to stunning locations to enjoy new challenging experiences and guide others.

Twenty years ago today, in 1998, my wife and I took our biggest risk together (besides getting married—that’s a whole other story!). We scrounged every penny, left our careers, and took half a year to travel as locals would through West Africa and the Middle East. In retrospect, it was an unusually perfect time for such a trip. The regions we visited were mostly stable and conflict free at the time, yet tourism was rare. We met many wonderful people in Gambia, Morocco, Mali, Ghana, Syria, and other places where it would be difficult at best, or outright suicidal today. We took chances and had an adventure of a lifetime.

Now—and with the accumulated responsibilities of teenagers of my own, extended family, entrenched careers, and the usual burdens of simply getting older—finding adventure becomes more challenging. It must emerge in more compact, refined forms to remain feasible. In that respect, the addition of a motorcycle license a decade ago enables adventures further afield while retaining many of the characteristics of bicycle travel. 

All this wealth of experience, while contributing to useful know-how in finding and having great adventures, also gives rise to the paradox I mentioned at the start: it stimulates the “what-ifs”. If unchecked, these what-ifs can defeat the goal of finding or enjoying new adventures. I think the key is to find an appropriate balance between experience (often gained through failure) and openness to risk (optimism that you can find a way to succeed) that is right for you. This is tricky. First you need to be aware of the issues, then you need to identify the right balance, then you need to act on it. Many people never figure it out. 

For myself, I think I’ve found a reasonable balance. My fears are tempered by having been in some situations that could have easily and irrevocably led to a spectacular death or at least injury. We all gotta go, someday. I just don’t think my time’s up yet. And when it is, I hope it’s while going full-throttle doing something I love.

Nevertheless, and speaking as a motorcyclist, for the benefit of my family I try to be a conservative rider who assiduously avoids traffic, main roads, and populations in general. Those are risks I can control somewhat by simply minimizing my exposure to them. The tradeoff is allowing myself the luxury of enjoying perhaps a little more risk riding on the path that’s less-traveled and definitely more rutted, rocky and remote: Pick your battles.

Probably like most of you reading this site, I ride because the combination of acceleration, fresh air, and physical exertion is intoxicating and exhilarating. Whether it’s on a bicycle or motorcycle, those two wheels become extensions of my body, allowing me to go places and find adventures that most people can’t or won’t try. The journey—not the destination—is the basis of adventure. Every ride can become an adventure if you approach it the right way. The amazing thing is, once you make that decision to go, the rest just falls into place.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Dualsport route: Michigan's Upper Peninsula

While researching my giant-loop of a ride for this summer, from Ottawa south to the TAT, up the spine of the Rockies, and then back east via South Dakota Badlands and Michigan's Upper Peninsula, I ran across this route in ADVRider that's just too good to not share. Now to see how I can incorporate this into my return journey. GPXes are available through this link.

Those dunes are amazing! Did not know the glaciers left sand so deep in this area! Photo from the route creator's (Cannonshot's) photoessay.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Fastway Adventure footpegs

Santa finally showed up with a much awaited delivery this afternoon: new footpegs!

Although the WR250R comes with some half-decent footpegs (they're all steel and sharp), the other half of that equation is they're small and uncomfortable if you have to stand on them for any length of time. They also grind your soles to pieces, and this was a contributing reason for replacing my moto boots recently.

A slightly larger peg than stock offers more control and less fatigue on long trail days. After looking at various options online, Fastway (aka Pro Moto Billet) seemed offer some of the highest quality and best set of features in terms of adjustability, and the reviews to back them up. Many riders raved about the Adventure footpeg model for it's size and improved control as a result. While I was a little dubious of going to such a large design, I put faith in the review and decided to order a pair from Gnarly Parts. All the Fastway pegs require an insert kit (ordered separately) to fit the peg to your particular bike.

As you can see, the Adventure is substantially larger than the stock. In fact, you could probably have a picnic with a couple of buddies sitting on each one, they're so huge. I think the optimal size would be about a centimeter shorter, but Fastway doesn't seem to offer anything in that size and you need to go a couple centimeters shorter.

Some assembly is required. There are two lengths of pins to install, which lets you tune the profile under your foot. I opted for the tall pins at the back and middle, and short pins in front to more or less match the profile of my boot midsole. The kit includes red thread locker, which is a nice touch.

Installation is fairly straightforward but I had some minor fitment issues. First, the inserts are a tight fit in the aluminum peg body. The kit includes a small mandrel for hammering the inserts into place, but I found this clumsy and used my arbor press instead. Of course, once I installed one insert I discovered it was about 1.5mm too long to fit in the OEM bracket on my bike. I was able to turn the insert to a precise length using my metal lathe. Alternatively, you could probably file them carefully by hand.

There are two return springs, colour-coded silver and gold. Their fitment on either the left or right side depends on whether you mount the pegs in their low or high position. The height difference isn't much; the low position is about only 5mm lower than the OEM pegs and high about 5mm higher, but with my long legs, I'll take any extra room I can get. Changing the position means pressing out the insert (use the included mandrel) and flipping it over in the peg body. There's really only one way the springs can be installed in either scenario, and with a little fiddling and exertion you can push the peg into position so it aligns with the hole and then drop the original pin through to hold it in place.

One other adjustment is the resting angle of the peg. I don't see the point of this feature on the WRR, where the footage bracket constrains adjustability, so I just installed the adjustment bolt in its lowest position (no washers) which left the peg sitting horizontal. The pegs do swing back if hit from the front, although the range of motion is limited and may not offer much useful protection except when scraping the pegs in a corner. Although, this scenario seems unlikely on a dirt bike with such high ground clearance.

With a Forma Terra (size 11) boot on the peg there's about a centimeter of peg protruding past the side. I'm curious to see how using the full range of foot positioning that's possible on these pegs can improve riding control. If the reviews are accurate and my skills are up to it, it there should be a noticeable benefit.

Monday, January 22, 2018

WR250R winter rebuilds

With the weather oscillating between -40 and +12C, and an ill-timed crash while fat-biking that led to a sore knee, it was finally time to inspect and repair my bike for the upcoming season. This year I'm planning an epic romp that starts in Ottawa, follows the Appalachians down to the Trans-American Trail, sneaks up the crest of the Rockies to Wyoming, and beelines back home via the South Dakota Badlands and part of the TCAT north of Sault Ste Marie. Both bike and rider both need to be in good shape for this journey. If you're interested in joining, drop me a line and check out the ADVRider thread.

The WRR has now accumulated about 27,000km of 50/50 dual sport riding. Last winter I tackled several minor mods to the bike, so I was curious to see how these "improvements" stood up after a relatively short but chronically wet and punishing season of 6,000 km of trail riding.

Removing the skid plate revealed some shortcomings with my latest anti-vibration strategy. It consisted of an adhesive asphalt matting to replace prior failed attempts to use a glued rubber sheet. The asphalt material had softened and flowed with engine heat, and allowed significant accumulations of rocks and other debris to become embedded and rub against the frame, especially in the contact area under the cradle.

Since the matting itself seemed to work well at preventing reflected noise, I decided to just carve out the worst areas of grit (and all in the contact areas), and cover the remaining material with thin adhesive aluminum foil.

This should prevent more crap from becoming embedded where it can touch the frame. In addition, I laid a thin bead of silicone weatherstripping along the areas contacting the engine cradle. This shouldn't collect grit and should provide a secure base to tighten the skid plate bolts. With the asphalt material, I discovered that the bolts loosened and eventually fell out as the material softened, despite using blue Loctite.

All that grit sandwiched between the skid plate and cradle caused some abrasion and superficial rust on the steel. Light sanding followed by 6 coats of primer and paint, combined with the above skid plate mods, should resist further corrosion.

Replacing the OEM gas tank with the larger IMS last year proved to be well worth the money. Being concerned about exposed plastic soaking up engine heat and potentially deforming or degrading, I decided to apply a foil-faced foam insulation as thermal protection. This resulted in a slightly tighter fit than ideal, and some spots where clearances were especially tight (like over the radiator main outlet, shown on the left of the photo below), rubbed and wore through the insulation. This type of friction isn't good, so I peeled off all the foam and replaced some areas with just foil tape. The tank now mounts a little more easily although the hideous gaps remain on the sides (a design flaw).

While the paint was drying I also decided to repair a cracked corner on my home-brew signal light bracket, which was needed to incorporate the tail-tidy kit I had installed. The first version was fabricated from three section cut and filed from 1/8" 6061 aluminum plate, the side pieces riveted on to the centerpiece using extruded aluminum angle brackets. One corner bracket got bent in a tip-over, also cracking the turn signal housing. While hot glue fixed the housing, the bracket needed to be replaced.

Rather than fabricate an entirely new set of parts, it was easier to drill out and replace the corner brackets with new parts made from stainless steel salvaged from the decorative front panel of an old dishwasher. (The dishwasher that has kept on giving and giving!) It's a springier assembly to allow more give. These were riveted to the centerpiece using beefier stainless rivets, and the side pieces were attached using stainless screws and nuts to facilitate removal if necessary. Otherwise, removing the taillights means disassembling the whole back end, which is a nuisance in a warm shop and not recommended at all on a trail.

With the swingarm off I also inspected and cleaned the pivot bearings and chain slider. The pivot bearings may need replacing before my TAT adventure. The slider showed even wear--indicating no chain tensioning issues--but I really don't like how it sits over the pivot bearing cover (the brass-colored part) and digs into the swingarm. The material is too flexible and allows grit to become trapped underneath, which then acts to grind down the swingarm. You should be aware of this issue so you can inspect the swingarm before it leads to failure.

As a temporary fix, I reapplied some JB Weld to fill the worn areas. A better solution would be to fill the worn area with metal, but that's not a feasible option for me. 

A proper fix would eliminate the rubbing caused by the slider design. A search of eBay indicated that TN Designworks finally offered an aftermarket, improved slider made from oil-impregnated hard plastic for the WRR, so I ordered one only to find that although I'd requested the right part, the vendor shipped me something that obviously wouldn't fit.

Searching the TN Designworks site led to more disappointment: they still don't--and are unlikely to--offer a slider for the WRR. So if anyone has a recommendation over the OEM Yamaha slider, please let me know.

A clutch inspection (very helpful using my own guide at this link!) showed virtually no wear since the last time I checked two seasons ago. At this rate I should get another 20,000km out of it before the friction plates need to be replaced.

Likewise for the front rotor: it has worn to only about 3.45mm thickness versus 3.5 mm stock and wear limit of 3.0 mm. No need to replace. However, the rear rotor wears faster in typical trail riding, so I replaced it last season.

New farkles arriving soon include Fastway Adventure footpegs from Gnarlyparts, and a Shorai LFX lithium-iron battery from Fortnine to replace the lead lump while benefiting from considerable weight loss and capacity gain. Also on the shopping list is (finally!) a new, lighter jacket (probably the Klim Carlsbad, to replace my heavy and leaky Olympia MotoQuest) and new armour (leaning towards a TekVest RallyMax tp replace my deteriorating Fox pressure suit).

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Terra Forma ADV boot and AlpineStars Pro Coolmax socks review

Two motorcycles and seven years of sharp pegs finally took their toll on my Thor moto boots. A good centimeter was chewed off the midsoles and several holes had worn through the uppers in a way that managed to perfectly funnel the slightest of splashes right into my socks. Every ride not in perfect drought conditions resulted in wet feet, leading me to conclude that this was simply the way ADV riding was supposed to be.

So, after finally springing for a new set of Forma Terra boots last summer, it was an epiphany to ride in torrential rain and yet have my feet remain perfectly dry (except, of course, when wading through water crossings). Who knew that certain kinds of suffering were optional?

I struggled to choose a replacement boot. As for many people, one of my feet is slightly larger than the other, which often means that one side of a new set of shoes may fit perfectly, but the other is either too loose or too tight. Some accommodation can be made by choosing leather, since it eventually moulds to your foot. Leather was therefore high on my list of boot criteria, both for its mouldability and durability under repetitive friction. In addition, I was reluctant to spend more than $500 on footwear only to learn it posed some unavoidable pressure-point or other fatal flaw.

After trying on so many brands and models of boots that even Imelda Marcos would've raised an eyebrow, I kept coming back to the Forma based on its fit and good online reviews. They cost more than most entry-level or even mid-level moto boots, but offered real leather and metal buckles, which are likely to be more durable (and comfortable) than the moulded plastics that less costly options have all migrated to.

Initially I was concerned that they wouldn't be stiff enough compared to my moto boots: would they truly protect my ankles in a fall? While thankfully I haven't tested that limit yet, having now put some 6,000 km on them, I feel like the increased flexibility, significantly lighter weight (about 60% that of my moto boots!), overall comfort and--yes--waterproofness all contribute to enhanced safety on long ADV rides. They do a reasonable job of deflecting rocks, shifting and braking control is improved, and walking around in them for extended periods is entirely acceptable.

So far the soles have held up well although I have some new Fastway Adventure footpegs on the way that may change this part of the equation versus the sawtooth IMS-style pegs I've been running up to now. In any case, Forma appears to have solid distributor support in Canada, so there's a good selection of styles and sizes available and, presumably, good warranty support.

Further enhancing the comfort and performance of these boots are these AlpineStars Pro Coolmax socks bought online.

These are some of the most comfortable and practical socks I've worn for active sports. They wick sweat, apply an even compression all the way up your calves, resist blister formation, dry fast, and noticeably reduce fatigue on long, hot trail rides. The silver-impregnated fibers resist bacterial growth and I can attest that after 6 days of wet, muddy riding, these socks did not smell nearly as bad as other socks I've worn. At around $20 a pair, they are a must-have in your riding wardrobe. I've also worn them fat-biking down to -25C and am impressed by how well they work across such a wide temperature range. They are simply great gear.

On a related note, my stepfather received a pair of Forma short ADV boots (I don't recall which model, but I think they're also the Terra) for his mainly road-oriented riding on his 1200GS. He also finds them extremely comfortable and practical, and a significant upgrade from his previous touring boots.

Overall these boots and socks have been a pleasure to ride and walk in, offering improved control and comfort on long days, whether in extreme heat or miserable cold and wet.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mitas E07 tire report at 6,000km

As a near-record wet season comes to a close, I've been squeezing in a few last rides and reflecting on  what kind of bike and set-up works best for me. Since the most obvious wear item on my WR250R has been tires, I've been experimenting with different options aimed at completing a month-long adventure ride.

Last May I installed a set of Mitas E07 50/50 tires on a new set of wheels I built up myself. Having run knobbies (MT21 front, D606 rear) for much of last year, my plan this year was to let the pendulum swing back the other way and see how well a more road-oriented set-up would perform on a long, dirt-oriented route (see my Round Algonquin Park report for 2017). Call it a test ride in preparation for a more ambitious attempt at riding the Trans-American Trail in 2018.

Anyone who's played with different tires knows there's no one perfect choice for all-round adventure riding. Bike type, riding style, load, route distance, and of course route conditions all factor in to selecting appropriate rubber. On my WRR I've previously run the original Trailwings (horrible on pavement and dirt); Scorpion Pro FIM front and K760 rear (K760 wears fast and can break loose unpredictably in the dirt, and the Scorpion can wander in gravel); Heidenau K60 Scouts (overall decent on pavement and gravel, but useless in mud); the classic combo of MT21 front with D606 rear (the best handling and wearing knobbies I've tried). Sure, knobbies are great in loose gravel and dirt, but they vibrate and wear out fast in the rear--especially on hot pavement and with a loaded bike. They're a poor choice for longer rides involving slab unless you can change your rear tire every 3,000-5,000 km. So, what to choose?

Having had a generally good experience with the K60 Scouts, I thought that perhaps a "better" version of the 50/50 concept could offer extended wear life and a slight improvement in dirt handling, opening the door to longer adventure rides on rough terrain where a small bike shines. Various forums raved about Mitas tires, and particularly the E07 which is rated as a 50/50 tire with exceptional wear due to Kevlar fibers incorporated into the rubber. Having now ridden almost 6,000km on these tires (much less than planned, thanks to all the rain and mud this season), it's clear they've held up well in terms of general wear:

The front appears hardly scuffed, and although the rear has squared off a bit, there's still a good 5mm or so of tread above the central rib and lots of tread depth below that.

Now with more kilometers on these under my belt, my overall impression has shifted since my first review. They still handle well in gravel, but as my speed and skills have naturally improved over the season I think I quickly reached the grip limit of the front tire and got a little frustrated with my front wheel drifting and washing out in the loose stuff. At the same time, as the already low tread in the rear wore away, I found traction in the wet stuff noticeably diminished. Altogether, it quickly became tedious navigating any kind of mud, where holding a line was almost impossible with the low lateral traction. This can be forgiven in the rear (as long as you can maintain momentum), but having the front constantly slide around because a serious liability.

Interestingly, the tires performed much better overall when my bike was fully loaded with bags and gear. Indeed, the combo worked surprisingly well in loose sand with a loaded bike, although it was sometimes a struggle to keep a line. Perhaps the lack of knobbies prevented the front from ploughing in and dumping the bike, which is a risk if you can't keep your weight back and throttle up. The enhanced performance with a loaded bike is likely because the E07s are tremendously stiff--especially the front, which is the even stiffer "Dakar" version. The unloaded weight of my bike and rider simply isn't enough to form a decent contact patch without almost deflating the tire. In fact, after one short ride I discovered my front tire was completely out of air and yet it was almost unnoticeable when riding! On the other hand, the stiff sidewalls offered great pinch protection in the rough stuff, although somehow I still managed to put a minor ding in my front rim.

My conclusions on running these tires on a small bike are as follows:

  • The E07 front (especially the stiff Dakar) isn't worth it unless your bike is fully loaded. It  would be a strong contender for a heavier bike like the Africa Twin, where you're probably not as likely to ride much rough single track and so the lower traction in those conditions isn't as much of an issue.
  • The E07 rear is so heavy and hard to change (easily the hardest tire I've tried!) that it too is not one I'd recommend for lighter bikes. A K60 Scout would probably offers reasonably comparable performance and wear, at significantly lower weight and cost, and would be much easier for a tired rider to change trail-side. 
  • Having switched my front tire back to an MT21, I have to say it makes a great combo with the 50/50 rear: all the front traction you need to corner and maintain a secure line (loaded or unloaded), with the smooth-rolling wear and acceptable traction of a 50/50 rear.
You could agonize forever about what tires to run, but at some point I think it's just splitting hairs and it comes down to rider skills. As long as my tires are in the right ballpark, I'll continue to focus on building my riding skills so I'm less reliant on the rubber and can just "run what I brung".

Thursday, September 21, 2017

T7 or not T7?

This past summer I hoped to tackle the first half of the Trans-American Trail, and even had a month vacation lined up, but unfortunately it didn't work out this time and I ended up doing a solo 6-day adventure ride north as a consolation prize.

Next summer offers a real possibility of ripping the whole TAT from east to west, but I'm debating heading straight for Colorado and riding the second half only, if time is tight. (And looking for a riding partner, hint-hint.)

The real question is should I do it on my WRR? Yes, others have ridden this bike the length of the trail, and mine is nicely modified for exactly this purpose. However, after this summer's riding on some long, lonely pavement (a likely scenario on my TAT route), for the first time I began wondering if maybe it's time to consider a bigger bike. Shortly after I returned, I got the chance to ride my dad's 1200GS. Holy crap, that thing's got power! Surprisingly nimble too--much easier to turn than my WRR, in fact. Although way too big for my needs, it planted the seed deeper.

Then along comes rumors of the new Yamaha T7, nearing production-ready form and more practical than the concept bike shown below. The engine has proven to be excellent, the chassis and suspension have been designed to be state-of-the-art for dual sport, and the size, weight, and power are a decent bump up from the WRR without being overwhelming. It could be a good 75-100 lbs lighter than the Africa Twin, also a solid option but too heavy for my needs and out of my price range.

Looking forward to seeing what's announced at EICMA in November!