Sunday, March 20, 2011

Decisions, decisions

I got together with a group of riding friends last week when one friend came into town on work-related business.  As he was driving up from Ohio, Chris made a bunch of calls in hopes we’d meet him for dinner.  A few hours later, 6 of us sat in Peppino’s in downtown Grand Rapids reviewing our trip to Deal’s Gap last Fall.   By the end of the week, we’d spent several evenings together talking about how we want to spend this riding season.

Snow has melted for the second time this year already, and we’re eager to get out and ride.  Regular riding isn’t yet possible- temperatures are still dipping down into the 30’s- so we’re restless.  The six of us huddled around appetizers with mugs of beer in hand and talked about the trips we want to take this year.   A couple of us want to revisit the Gap with a few changes in the planned rides.  I’m looking forward to a lengthier trip further into Georgia.  Austin has some great routes all mapped out courtesy of a local rider he encountered while there a few years back.  We talked about breaking up into small groups for extended rides rather than short loops around the house.  We talked about skipping the Dragon one day in favor of new roads, new routes.

There is a diversity of experience and interest in the Deal’s Gap crew.   Some ride dirt, some track on sport bikes.  Some ride supermoto and some just ride street every day because it’s the way they prefer to get around.  It seems that for some of us, exposure to a new type of riding brings a desire for a new way to ride.  For example, when I went up to Brevort a few years back with Aaron, Phil and Joe, I fell in love with dirt riding and especially single track.  I’d started on dirt and hated the deep sand so I didn’t think I’d like it much all these years later.  But after a full weekend of it, I was in love.  Riding in dirt requires a whole new set of skills.  It was challenging and took all of my mental energy- much like when I first started riding.  To top it off, it was physically demanding and I liked the way my body felt afterward: stronger, more aware, alert. Austin and Mike have dual sport bikes as well and are also interested in a trip up north for a weekend of dirt riding.

For some of the Deal’s Gap crew, sport bike riding has become an engaging pursuit.  After a few track days last year, Austin and Amanda bought bikes for the track.  Before long, they outfitted themselves with leather suits, boots and gloves after some savvy internet shopping.  I haven’t yet ridden on the track.  I plan to do a track day this year simply to improve my riding skills.  I’m a little nervous about it - I may fall in love with track riding, too.  It leads to a question I don’t have the money for: how many bikes is it reasonable to have? 

But perhaps I’m asking the wrong question.  How many bikes will it take to make my riding life as diverse as the rest of my life?  Now that’s a good question.  And of course, if money weren’t an issue, the answer is three.  Money is always an issue though, and still the answer is three.  My ideal fleet would include my current getting-around-the-city bike, a dual-sport for off-roading and a sport bike for laying it over in the twisties.  Maybe I could squirrel away a little cash and get a used-dual sport this year and get onto the single-track up north again.  Aaron’s up for that and I’ve got no doubt we’ll have quite a group signing up for that trip.  Off road riding is another sport of itself though and means I’ll need more gear- a chest proctor, helmet and jersey- as well as spare parts and the accompanying tools - shift levers, clutch levers. And I’ll have to know how to work on her- break downs are to be expected when navigating over stumps, around tree limbs and into sand pits.  I think it’d be worth the investment.  I just have to decide whether I want to be paying on two bikes this Summer or pay one off first and get the second one next year.  It would be an easier decision if I wasn’t trying to be responsible about it at the same time. 

My third bike will be a sport bike- they don’t grab my eye like the Bonneville did in terms of styling so, much like with the dual sport, I don’t have my eye on a particular bike yet but rather I know I just want to do the kind of riding I can do on that sort of bike.  After riding Joe’s for a few miles a few years ago, I understand the allure.  Sport bikes are built for speed and for agility.  When I was on Joe’s (I can never remember what kind it is- except fast) I couldn’t feel the wind on my body.  The bike wanted to go fast.  In fact, I’d be going 40 or 60 with such ease it didn’t seem real.  On my Triumph, I feel her speed up at around 70.  It’s not that she doesn’t go faster than that, it’s just that she doesn’t feel like she needs to.  The sport bike however, begs you to go faster and harder still.

Unless I win the Lotto (which will be especially difficult because I don’ play) I won’t be getting both a dual sport and a sport bike this season.  It’s often the case that what I want to do doesn’t really mesh with what my finances, or my time and even my energy will let me do.  When I think about what I really want out of life and from myself, I get bogged down by it.  How am I going to make it all happen?  Or even, how is it possible for all of this to happen without a great deal of energy and effort?  And do I really want to do all of these things- spreading myself that thin- or just pick a few and really devote myself to them. 

At this point I’m not just talking about which kind of bike to ride.  I’m talking about starting a new hobby vs. continuing to work on my other love- writing.  I’m talking about whether I plan on making another trip to Deal’s Gap when there are so many other roads that I haven’t explored.  Do I finally pick up that guitar in the corner and start practicing or do I save that energy for writing?  When I start thinking these  kinds of questions, I understand that I really don’t know the answer yet.  These are the questions I’ll just have to live my way into.  With Chris here, I went out with the cycle crew 4 times in one week.  Chris was poking fun at me saying he was “getting me out of the house.”  That’s when I realized that I have in fact, been staying in more.  It’s not that I don’t have other things I can do- it’s just that most nights I’d rather be writing so that’s what I’ve been spending a good deal of my time doing.  So even though I don’t often make a formal decision to do something, I find myself doing the things I really want to do anyway. 

Of course, getting a second or third bike are gonna require definitive action but I still don’t know what feels like the right choice just yet.  So despite the email spam I’m getting from Mike with used dirt bikes for sale, I’m unsure which direction I’ll go in - second bike this year or next?

By the end of our week together, 6 of us had laid tracks for several trips- Deal’s gap this Fall, dirt riding up north this Summer.  Aaron will teach again this year with Class Schools and Austin plans to do some racing.  I hope to make at least one trip camping with the bike and explore roads I haven’t yet travelled.  There’s even a snowboarding trip planned for next Winter.  I’m not thinking about Winter yet, with this one barely over but I like Mike’s philosophy on this- with a Winter hobby you can keep occupied doing something you love all year long.  It makes the Winter fun instead of loathsome.  I’d like to find another way through Winter besides holding my breath until Spring gets here.  I could probably get a good deal on snowboarding equipment now that it’s the end of the season.  See?  There it is again.  Do I do this or that?  Now or later?  Guess I’ll just have to sit on that one, too.  Maybe I’ll put on the heated gear and go for a ride - let the road help me decide.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Getting an Education

I have a second strategy for making it through the Winter doldrums.  I decided to help organize a few of RIDE Motorcycle club’s winter education nights.  I thought it would be a good review for me, a chance to learn a few more things and also thought it would help “keep the ride alive” through the cold weather season.   I decided along with Ken that I would focus on group riding skills.  We have some newer members and a group of women joining this Spring who are new to riding with a group so it was a natural place to start.  Part of the difficulty in structuring the discussion revolved around not knowing the experience level of the riders who will be joining us.  After talking about it with Ken and reviewing articles in hand and on-line, I finally decided on a comprehensive approach to the class.  While it wasn’t the most simple, it was the most complete, and it will give any rider new to our group a framework for what to expect when riding with us.  It also provides riders with some sound information about how to manage oneself on a ride. 

When I first started riding I had conflicting feelings.  I wanted other riders along in case I had questions or problems, but I didn’t want the pressure of going faster than I was comfortable with.  The best tip I got back then was to “ride your own ride.”  Traditionally this phrase is used to infer that each rider is responsible for his own safety on the bike.  Each rider has to watch for obstacles, road conditions and traffic signals and respond appropriately regardless of what the group is doing.  It's a warning to be mindful of one's own performance and to avoid falling into a group-think approach that could compromise one's safety.  Even at this most basic level, this is good instruction.  Making a rider responsible for his own ride means that he can't blame the group if he chooses to run a red light.  I took the instruction to "ride my own ride" to another level.  What it meant for me was to continue riding alone until I had conquered some of my other concerns.  I needed to feel comfortable operating the motorcycle before incorporating another's riding style and preferences into my ride.   Riding primarily alone or with one other rider initially, gave me the courage and practice I needed to feel comfortable in groups later on.  However, I have friends who are newer riders who prefer group riding rather than alone.  That is the beauty of such a simple directive: ride your own ride not only refers to being responsible for how you manage your bike on a ride, it also means how you manage your own desires and preferences. 

In researching skills for riding, I came to understand how critical it is to understand one key concept.  Riding with a group of people requires a unique set of skills.  Stunting, track riding, dirt riding and group riding all require different skills.  Because I “grew up” in RIDE, I didn’t particularly appreciate this concept until last year when I started riding more with others outside the club.  The first thing I noticed in riding with another group of friends was the sense of uncertainty and even frustration that would develop on rides.  I’d find myself thinking, “I just want to go home.”   What I’ve come to understand is that these feelings and the accompanying internal dialogue was a reflection of my discomfort on the rides.  It has taken the last month of reflection and preparation for the education night, for me to understand the root of these reactions. 

Riding with others who have the same understanding about what to expect on a ride and who regularly practice particular behaviors together, creates a framework for the ride that is predictable.  This approach supports the individual and the group as a whole.   Uncertainty is diminished and this allows for a relaxed baseline for each motorcyclist.   With that starting point, the challenge and thus excitement, is reserved for navigating the ride itself rather than negotiating around other riders.

Let me give some examples.  RIDE motorcycle members drive in an established pattern- we ride side-by-side in a staggered formation 1 second behind the closest rider in the opposite lane and 2 seconds behind the rider directly in front.  While this is not a fixed distance- it adjusts according to road conditions and when navigating through the “twisties”- it is the standard.   The ride pattern is strengthened with the use of particular roles on a ride – the leader, wingman and tail.  Riders in these roles serve particular functions that are known to the group and that promote a sense of safety because of their supportive functions. 

We use other strategies as well- a set of hand signals to communicate with, a pre-planned route that is reviewed with all participants prior to the ride and an unwavering commitment to safety – wheelies, stoppies and other stunts are expressly discouraged due to the distraction and sense of uncertainty they can create for other riders.  While this last factor is specific to our group, I have come to believe that any kind of framework for individuals and group functioning can improve the riding experience for those involved. 

I have several friends interested in racing and stunting – most of them get those interests met among riders who share the same focus.  So while they may not have “avoid excessive speeds” listed as a guide for how they operate as a group, they still adopt other parameters that make the ride safer, such as riding in a staggered formation or riding in a setting designed for their particular style of riding.  All of the long-time riders I know though, are clear about one thing in particular: riding with those whose riding style you know creates a more relaxed riding experience.  That doesn’t mean the ride isn’t challenging or stimulating- in fact, it means just the opposite.  The ride is exciting but the riders are calm rather than distressed or distracted by unpredictable riding. 

I offered my first ride education class last week at El Arriero to 15 riders in the club.  That’s a good turnout for any ride gathering.  The discussion went well with a few folks new to RIDE in attendance.  Detailing group skills was punctuated nicely with stories from long-time members Michael and Mark.  It gave us a chance to confront our own biases as we explored our group communication practices with Gala, who is unaccustomed to using hand signals and finds it an unwelcome distraction while riding.  Her input reminded me how important it is to practice new skills.   The signals we use to “talk” initially felt awkward to me, too, but now they are reassuring and contribute to a feeling of camaraderie.   

Reviewing strategies for group rides, gave me the basis I need for going forward in this next riding season.  I’m thinking it’s also pretty helpful in how I’m going forward in friendships.  I find myself focused on creating a framework in my relationships as well.   While I really enjoy the company of others, I also like being alone. Recognizing that sometimes I need a solo ride is an important part of understanding what it means to “ride my own ride” on the bike and in life.  When I say to a friend “I don't want to hang out tonight," what I'm really saying to myself is that I need some time alone.  In so doing, I’m creating space for myself and my desires.  Until recently, I had roommates.  Sharing my home with others became very stressful for me.   I found myself trying to coordinate sharing responsibility for upkeep of the house.  I was also trying to balance the need for privacy with socializing.  Much like my early riding experiences, when I am in the company of others, I tend to focus on their needs and desires and set my own on the back burner.  Although my need to be alone seemed to contradict my desire for companionship, I finally accepted that I need a lot of alone time.  Living alone is a part of how I ensure I get that time.  Since living alone again, I'm doing more with much less effort.  While I don't prefer alone time over time with friends - I need both- living with others for awhile helped me understand my limits.  Turns out, discerning my own preferences, is the best ride strategy I have both on and off the bike.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Gear Talk (or How to Make it through the Winter)

Although I haven’t been on my bike for months now, I continue to think about  riding.   A few weeks back, I went with a vanload of RIDE club folks to Chicago for the International Motorcycle show to “get my fix” just as the Winter blahs were encroaching. It was fun being out with the group I’ve shared so much of my riding life with.  Gary, Ken and I went to the Chicago show together several years ago- this year we attended again with other RIDE folks including a few new to the RIDE club.  We met up with people from two other chapters as well, including Jess and Andrew who relocated from GR to Elkhart a few years back.    While there, I sat on some bikes, looked at gear and outfitted myself with a few new things for the coming riding season.   I also found myself reviewing gear options for women with Gala.

Gala hails from Europe and has gear I’ve never seen before- she was unimpressed with the vendors here in the U.S. - noting how heavy the show is in cheap leather goods that are not fashionable or functional.  I take it for granted that I have to weed through the stuff that doesn’t suit me to find items that fit my riding style, personality, taste and preferences. For example, I love my Frogg Toggs® rain gear for the seam strength, breathability and easily compressed size but I remain frustrated with design flaws.  I was hoping this year’s model would include longer leg length with a sturdy zipper and elastic strap to hold the pants in place.   While they have made changes in the pant length, they have not incorporated the other changes.  Another issue for me remains:  tops and bottoms continue to be sold as suits rather than separately.  Because of this, I didn’t purchase new raingear after all.

Every motorcycle show I’ve attended has several vendors for custom-fit earplugs.  This year was no exception.  Michael and I asked for more information about them in hopes of understanding their popularity at the shows.  As it turns out, they offer some great benefits.  The biggest benefit is the molded earpiece that ensures a perfect fit.  Secondly, they can be made with wires to integrate them into use as earpieces for an mp3 player or phone.  Made from silicone, the earpieces are said to offer better protection against noise than is achieved with foam or plastic earplugs most commonly used.  While I can understand why someone would be drawn to these, the $70-$350 price tag seems unreasonable and was easy to resist.  I’d rather have another jacket for that price, than a pair of earplugs – especially since I seem to lose them so easily.  I have difficulty enough justifying the cost of good eyewear (also easily misplaced), let alone earplugs.

I’ve been searching for a small tank bag for many months now that I can use while commuting.  I’ve never had a tank bag and didn’t realize what I was missing out on until I borrowed a friend’s bike.  It’s very convenient- much easier than stuffing it all in my pockets or reaching around to my saddlebags.  I finally found one that’s just the right size and style for my Bonneville.  I’d spotted it while shopping on-line but hadn’t purchased it because I was unsure about the size.  I managed to find the exact bag hidden among a pile of gear at the show.  It’s big enough to hold a small bottle of water, a snack bar, my wallet, sunglasses and a camera.

My first Chicago motorcycle show was over 5 years ago.  At that time, women’s gear was new to the market and the only jackets available exclusively for women, were in powder blue and light pink.   While color options for women’s gear have changed considerably since that time – now available in teal, hot pink, yellow, brown and tan- manufacturers are still offering gear that is shaped for men but fit and accented for women.  What results, is a linebacker shaped jacket with topstitching in a floral pattern accented with rhinestones.  Designers have yet to learn to appeal to a wider range of women by changing their whole approach.  Simply shortening sleeve length to accommodate women and adding sparkle and butterfly detailing isn’t enough. 

Alpinestars is one company that has reached beyond the traditional in creating a line of motorcycle apparel that appeals to fashion as well as function.  The cut and fabric of their jackets blend into a wardrobe for appeal off the bike as well as on it.   This is a revolutionary approach to gear and I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to find their line at the show.    I did find one small start-up company offering leather jackets and suits for riders.  Although style wasn’t at a premium, function was- the company provided a few key pieces with astute design details related to function.  I wasn’t surprised to find that one partner in the company was a design engineer.  I put my name on a list to be notified about their upcoming demo suit for women. 

I am excited about what’s in store for motorcyclists as new gear becomes available and manufacturers continue to evolve their product line for a wider range of riders.  There may have been a time when fringed leather chaps and tiny triangles of leather were standard for female riders but I’m grateful that time has passed and there are other options.  Although riding apparel in particular continues to miss the mark on cross-over styling (into everyday wear), many companies are at least designing for women.  I was glad to see the Chicago show included a whole booth devoted to women riders but next year, I’d like to see it include a larger selection of gear with more diverse color and style options.  

Since talking with Gala about women’s riding gear at the show, I’ve had time to reflect more on our options.  I realize I’ve grown accustomed to the problems I’ve encountered in gear fit, function and styling.   I’ve just accepted it as normal.  Now I’m wondering what a trip outside the U.S. would yield.  I’ve shared my frustrations about women’s gear with other riders and have even talked about developing a line of gear that fits what I see missing.  I haven’t the vaguest idea how to start.  But the Winter months where I’m holed up waiting for the snow to clear and the weather to warm offer the perfect opportunity to dream about what’s possible.  I hope to find some bridge between my desire for safe, functional apparel that is stylish and simple.  Maybe that means I’ll have to design it myself, even if it’s only in my own mind.