Saturday, August 18, 2018

Making Progress

This is the article I quoted yesterday about how to make progress on a motorcycle in the UK. 

By  - May 06, 2015

Categories: How ToSkillsSafety

There's a police officer behind me urging me to ride faster. I'm too dumb to figure this out just yet.
"Leaving a built-up area now," he says over the radio. "So, perform your checks... when it's safe to do so, we're away."
Just before a 60 mph sign, and as I learned in my initial rider training, I check both mirrors, glance over my shoulder, and roll the throttle. I reach 60 and peg it there.
"OK," says the voice in my ear. "Road ahead is clear. We're making progress..."
The voice belongs to Kevin, a motorcycle instructor for South Wales Police. He's following me as part of a BikeSafe course.
The British love red tape. Getting your license here ultimately requires that you take five tests –– more if you're under the age of 24. Many riders can't get enough, though. There are several levels of post-license training—all the way up to being certified at the level of police motorcyclists. And you have never seen someone ride as well as a British police officer. It's freaky. Not just slow-speed Shriner tricks, but ghost-like ability at bladder-loosening speed. To me, they are a high-vis Nazgûl from Lord of the Rings. You'll never outrun them.
BikeSafe is the first step toward achieving such prowess. I've been at it less than 10 minutes and I'm already doing something wrong.
"Road's clear," repeats Kevin. "So, let's make progress."
I know I should be doing something, but I can't figure out what that might be. My shoulders tense up and I can feel his Nazgûl stare from behind.
"Can you hear me alright on the radio?" he asks.
The gentle lilt of his South Wales accent has subtly crossed the line from "calm and reassuring" to "explaining things to an idiot." I nod my head to indicate I've heard him.
"Right," he sighs. "Why don't we pull up by here and have a little chat?"
By the time I cut my engine, he's already stomping toward me. A lot of Welsh cops play rugby in their spare time, and for a tiny moment, I fear Kevin is going to see how far he can throw me.
"You ride like this normally, do you?" he asks. "Like someone's granny?"
And here's where I begin to learn the primary lesson of the day, which is:

Use your brain box all the time

All the tips and techniques I'll learn today fall under this category. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve a state of constant mindfulness: Be fully aware of where you are, what you're doing, and how you're doing it.
British police
This means analyzing each situation anew, and avoiding routines. In watching me check my mirrors, Kevin had seen me performing a routine, rather than an act intended to gather information about my surroundings.
"You had a cop up your arse, mate," he says, "but you didn't make much effort to find me in your mirrors. And what was behind me? Had there been a car there, how close would it have been to me? How close was I to you? Had you been forced to stop quickly, would I have had enough time to react? Would the driver behind me have had enough time, as well? Or would he bump me into you?"
On a single, seemingly insignificant action, Kevin is able to write an entire Choose Your Own Adventure novel. This is what I mean about using your brain box all the time. All the time. Constantly. For everything.
Breaking that down, my instructor offers a few specific areas of thought to focus on:

The tennis ball technique

Imagine a tennis ball attached to an infinitely long piece of string. Imagine throwing that tennis ball to the very limit of your vision and reeling it back in. Doing this over and over and over as you ride, the tennis ball is your line of sight. Your goal is to take in as much information as you possibly can, not just about what's in front of you, but what's way off in the distance.
British police
Initially, my inclination in doing this is to stretch my vision to the furthest point in the road, but soon I realize this isn't enough.
"You see that cyclist?" Kevin observes as we ride. "When he catches up with that tractor, it's inevitably going to cause traffic to slow."
I nod my head but see neither a cyclist nor tractor. We ride over a hill and around two bends, then I see the cyclist. As I move closer, a tractor appears from further downhill.
I can't imagine how Kevin saw these things. I decide he may be a witch. Then I get worried, because Kevin can probably also read my mind.

Predict what you can't see

Beyond the information you're gathering with the tennis ball technique, you can take educated guesses about what might be even further down the road. This may come from your experiences or your knowledge of the area.
British police
For example, in Britain, it's quite common to find a village every 10 miles or so. If you've been zipping along for nine miles, it's reasonable to expect you'll soon be hitting an area where traffic is slow, and perhaps additional vehicles will be joining your route from side roads.
If you're riding somewhere scenic, it's common for people to stop just beyond the crest of a hill so they can take pictures. It's possible cars will be pulling away slowly from this point, or that there will be people in the roadway.
And so on, and so on. Think about what might be several minutes ahead and consider how that could affect you sooner.

Make decisions early

Using the information gathered from the above, decide what you're going to do at a given point before you get there.
British police
This is something Kevin identifies as a challenge for me. At roundabouts, I have a tendency to only begin to assess the situation after I've arrived. This means I'm slowing and treating them somewhat as I would a four-way stop in the United States. This is unnecessary. It's perfectly acceptable to zip through a roundabout if the situation allows, and on a motorcycle it's a lot of fun— instant twisties.
Additionally, by slowing too much I may run the risk of being rear-ended.
Kevin's constant "what if" scenarios teach me I should also come into situations with two or three back-up plans.

Ride with confidence

Once you've decided to do something, do it. In a riding scenario, one of the keys to ensuring a decision is the right one is committing to it. So, if I've approached that roundabout and I've decided I'm going to move through with pace, I need to commit to that decision.
The caveat to this is that you heed the old Marine Corps advice: "Don't fall in love with the plan." Even after making a decision, you should be constantly gathering information and reassessing your situation. Always be ready to implement the Plan B that you've already thought through.

Ride according to the actual conditions

Normally, when we see that sort of advice we think the obvious things: don't drag a knee in the rain; don't crack it WFO through rush-hour traffic. But this also applies when everything is lovely. The conditions on a public road are never right for you to pretend you're Guy Martin, but it's not necessarily bad to get your hustle on. Especially when doing so will create more distance between you and other road users.
British police
Kevin stresses that he does not endorse speeding for the sake of going fast, and points out you're unlikely to find a judge who will see things your way if you get caught. But throughout the day, my instructor uses terms like "making progress" and "enjoy the acceleration" when I'm dogmatically sticking to the speed limit. He wants me to get going.
Eventually, I interpret this as emphasis on being a moving target.
This is especially true on fast-moving roads like motorways, freeways, and interstates. The less time you spend hanging out near someone's car, the less time you need to spend worrying about whether that driver sees you. As such, it may be the right call to give the throttle a quick twist if you find yourself riding even with traffic in another lane.
That's doubly true for large trucks. The odds are they can't see you. Plus, they're riding on tires pumped to upward of 100 PSI. If one of those things blows up next to you, it will definitely ruin your weekend plans.
Kevin spends all day suffering my riding on motorways, down country lanes, and through towns. We cover roughly 120 miles of Welsh terrain. Toward the end of the day he takes to saying, "Yeeha, Texas, yeeha," when he wants me to ride faster. The experience teaches me to put more faith in my bike and more faith in myself.
British police
Finally, with the light fading, we pull over for a final chat. He identifies a few things for me to work on, mostly based around my incredible tendency to get lost in British cities. Then he issues me a very fancy certificate. I have earned a B grade. He encourages me to continue the process toward advanced rider certification, then speeds off.
On the motorway back to Cardiff, it feels as if the road is suddenly wider—that I am seeing more of it. With the dying sunset at my back, I take in everything around me, twist the throttle, and make progress into the night.
NOTE: For more ideas on improving your riding, it's worth it to hunt down a copy of Motorcycle Roadcraft: The Police Rider's HandbookIt's required reading for British police riders. Obviously, some aspects of the book will be UK-specific, but a lot of the advice translates regardless of what side of the road you're on.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Rider

Tomorrow I take off for Niagara Falls on my Burgman scooter. I leave behind friends and family and of course my Rusty as I chart a 1500 mile journey by Interstate freeway to the Canadian border attempting to get there in 36 hours. By myself. 
Motorcyclists are an odd bunch, mostly because  they aren't a bunch at all but clumps of iconoclasts who stick together by style, brand or size of machine but not by common interest or for self preservation. People who ride motorcycles despise people who ride scooters. People who ride Harleys frequently can see nothing beyond the marque while youngsters on sports bikes think going slow is a death sentence when the opposite might very well be true. And then there are BMW  riders...
Naturally I cut across all these lines and artificial divisions because I rode scooters as a youngster and of course motorcycles as I got older but always had an eye on a Vespa or two in my life. I see the good in a Harley Davidson even though the foot forward style and short suspension on a 600+ pound motorcycle doesn't work for me. I grew up with European brands, exotic outside their home countries, but I have had my share of Japanese machines, derisively described as rice burners when they first appeared in the West. My motorcycles have always been useful things, machines that I enjoy riding but that will work as my daily transportation.  I prefer to ride than to drive.
Yet I ride alone mostly. Ask and I shall be delighted to offer a ride but I would never require anyone to sit on a motorcycle in traffic and face the world exposed as a potential meat crayon without their express desire. I have been lucky riding ever since 1970 that I haven't been hurt badly by my two wheelers. Beyond the luck I have gained tons of experience riding in the  hair raising flow of Italian cities, where two wheels are the only way to get around, and better  a scooter than a motorcycle:
In England I took advanced riding courses learning to anticipate traffic and understanding how to move ahead of the vehicles in the roadway to avoid unexpected turns. In the US most motorcyclists come to their two wheels from cars and perhaps its a matter of temperament but the notion of making progress is not clearly understood or deployed. I love this article from RideApart which explains perfectly how I was taught to ride:
Making Progress
It occurred to me a few years ago that the only place I feel graceful and in my element is on two wheels. My buddy Giovanni and I were riding the mountain roads of our childhood a few years ago and he coined a nickname for me; he said I was an architect as I drew perfect lines cornering through the Italian mountains. He is faster than me as he crosses the center line and ducks into hairpins braking too hard but I amuse myself by bend swinging in a more measured way without brakes, riding the gears and the gas only and cutting the apex of each corner at the exact right spot, if I can. We take our fun where we find it.
I discovered recently an old friend who was curious to take a ride and see what I see and I never made the offer to sit on my pillion. I often feel as though my pleasures are too abstruse to find any resonance and what I fear appears selfish is merely a misplaced attempt to respect other people's space. Offer a ride to someone who is fearful of two wheels, and many are, and you will find yourself exposing parts of people's psyche they do not want exposed. To me a motorcycle is a meditation, a magic carpet, a machine capable of turning the banal into a memory. I don't car if I'm riding a  scooter or an exotic brand, 15 or a hundred horsepower the mesmerizing effect of flight on the ground remains the same. For most people motorcycles are noisy smelly dangerous contraptions with no more raison d'etre than a guillotine. Why the hell would you put your head in one of those? Because I love the sensation of flying that's why.
By choosing these years in the Keys to explore small bore engines I have opened a whole new North American world of riding. I love using a small bike in a big bike role as I feel like I'm getting one over on the advertisers who tell us what we "need." Screw them, I'm fine on my little urban runabout. I go on a long distance ride to see what I can do with a plastic bodied Japanese gearless motorcycle. It would be too easy to rumble out on a full size touring motorcycle with all the bells and whistles and large fuel tank and cruise control and so forth. Where's the challenge?  I have a suspicion I shall have  a very fun ride if all goes remotely close to plan. But in any event it will be me alone for 36 hours, riding with my thoughts and hopes, pondering the meaning of life and my incompetent place in it.  
I hope that explains the why and wherefore, of me alone on the road without even my dog for company. Sometimes it just has to be done. I hope I shall be back in a week with stories to tell and joy in my heart. Always you need that joy that comes from roads like this and encounters along the way:
Image result for pennsylvania twisty backroads
 I am the architect...says Giovanni scepticism writ large all over his face:
I don't always ride scooters. Sometimes I ride 170 hp behemoths. 
You decide which is more fun and which one you'd rather ride with me.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

My Town

Swimming in the canal behind my house, still a rather bilious shade of green thanks to Hurricane Irma's passage eleven months ago I asked my wife if she thought Key West has changed in our two decades living and working here. She looked at me like I was an idiot. Of course it haS she said firmly. It isn't, I wondered out loud that we may have changed and what seemed fresh and new and interesting no longer is..?  She snorted in derision.
I came to Key West in 1981 and there was no doubt the place was different. I kept coming back, visiting friends, going sailing living the life of a tropical wharf rat in short bursts before returning to real life in California where I sailed in harsh seas under gray skies through cold summers and colder winters. California was dynamic and interesting and the weather sucked. But Key West was too isolated and remote in those pre-internet pre-Amazon days for young persons like me. And then time passed and I sailed into Key West with wife and dogs never to leave.
The litany of changes that have taken place this century, for us, consists mostly in the ways we amused ourselves back when we were in our forties. My wife reminded me we used to get cheap eats on the beach at the Sands as it was known, an informal buffet place right on the water and dog friendly. We watched al fresco movies at the Atlantic Shores, the resort that was pleased to describe itself as straight friendly. Movie nights saw me chomping free popcorn with my yellow Lab on the chaise longue between my legs snoozing and oblivious to the movie crowd. Who was it on stage that handed out raffle freebies? Super girl..? Wonder woman..?  Lots of laughter and not bad movies either under the stars.
Then we had access in those pre-digital photography days to the Botanical Garden, an overgrown under attended forest on Stock Island that later fell victim to the organizational drive of a woman from Up North who mended the fences and started charging a fee and labeling all the plants. We bought pizza with Robert and carried boxes and beers out to the two picnic tables under the Canary island date palms and had supper under the trees before retreating and leaving the place to become the bums' bedroom as it did nightly. We cleared our trash of course as well. We ate at Stick and Stein and played incompetent pool and spent very little money. Or there was the buffet at Winn Dixie and the weird vibes at the Hukilau much lamented when it was torn down, Polynesia in paradise...
Things have tightened up in Paradise, where street art, bumming  a drink and standing around weaving palm fronds have  become memories for the most part. The color that was Key West, the hippy town that time forgot and that visitors proudly adopted as their away from home vibe has been buried under an avalanche of money. There is some perverse notion in me that a cleaner tidier Key West will be nicer to live in, yet despite the influx of money we still have a malodorous Duval Street with dirt ground into the paint, but we don't have the pirates or the men in tutus wandering around giving cover to those of us that like to pass unnoticed. Gone are the days you could rent cheap digs, do a couple of low stress jobs and have time left over to go fish or play a guitar or watch a sunset. When small homes in Key West sell easily for a million dollars  frivolity gets pushed to the curb. Come to Key West, pay top prices for a hotel room and see the southernmost buoy which is known to locals by several unflattering nicknames.
I admire the seashell for hanging in for now. Youth Hostel, cheaper rooms and a bit of funk. I cherish it as long as it lasts...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


If you want to know what the back country looks like off Highway One, this is it:
I took these pictures on different days in different places.

 Rusty the hot dog.
 Side roads always run into dead ends.

 You can hear cars coming from a way away.

 In winter it's harder to find roads free of the endless brigades of Spandex clad cycle racers.
Winters bring more bird life as migrations tend to settle around here in the cold months.

Rusty looks so downcast. He's actually not, he's just tired.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

My Key West

I saw this sign on a recent wander and I thought to myself, I can think of nothing more ordinary in the way of modern bar food  than exactly that. It's a popular bar on Greene Street but I am not tempted to test the out of the ordinary nature. My wife made me a breakfast pizza Sunday which is about as out of the ordinary as I have had in a while. I do not need to travel to  find out of the ordinary.
There is much lamentation that downtown isn't a place to go shopping for useful stuff for locals. So I was not entirely sure which way this one might go: useful or not?
I posted this picture on Instagram mentioning how Rusty reminded me of Lilli Marlene standing underneath the street lamp waiting for her soldier to appear from the barracks.  Naturally Rusty refused to stay posed as I adjusted the camera though I liked the atmospheric look of Lazy Way Lane behind Schooner Wharf despite my dog's non cooperation.
Dinghy parking is in low season like everywhere else in this town as parents prepare to end vacations and get children back into school. There is lots of room for dinghies at the city docks.
I loved the idea of Flats Fishing for Beginners. I went fly fishing once in a  stream in Scotland where I caught a  trout and ate it for breakfast. That was about half a century ago with a Ghillie called, improbably enough Ian MacDonald. I took this photo (below) at the spot near Loch Broom when I was there last Spring because I remember that day very well. It was the first and last time I went fly fishing but I put the experience in the "done that" column. Many years later when I was a reporter I did a story for National Public Radio on fly fishing the San Lorenzo River in California and while I like the idea I find the act itself tedious and technical. I am glad I did try the fishing once. 
Yes indeed, fly fishing for all in Key West.
Key West still carries the trappings of the eccentric past that marks the town as different. I spot them from time to time between the developments and the clean ups which frankly I think the city could do more of, considering the nearly three million tourists a year who visit. Yet the weird shacks and abandoned cars dressed up are useful reminders of what is lost:
And then there is the electrical supply company across from Harpoon Harry's. I remember years ago they tried to move to the Boulevard but they have stayed put in the heart of tourist town. I used to rely on them when I lived on my boat to supply electrical gubbins and most importantly to rewire and rewind pumps and alternators and expensive stuff. They did and I am sure still do, great work. And they hold their ground downtown.
Hurricane shutters old school: a plank and some nails.
This I liked though you will never see me decorating anything around where I live like this. Restraint in decoration, that's me. Not Harpoon Harry's though: