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Motorbike: wherein I re-live my youth

I am not going to post right away about the unhappy news this week about Bilbo. I’m still digesting that. Instead, I’ll talk about something you may have noticed in my recent Twits (twitter posts), or if you follow me on Facebook. I’ve been talking about a re-awakened interest in motorbikes.

A couple of weeks ago my Nephew bought a motorbike from a friend: a Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster, at a very good price. This tweaked my interest and got me thinking. I’ve been lonely lately despite the attentions of my loving wife, and looking for something. Shane is my best friend out here on the coast, and here, suddenly, was something he was excited about. He booked riding lessons, and started talking about road trips with friends. It sounded like a lot of fun.

The most practical evidence of my current affliction is the fact that I have signed up for serious lessons. Two weeks, nearly 40 hours, of road and classroom training starting April 21. To prepare for those lessons, I’ve purchased an armoured motorcycling jacket and boots. And I’ve researched half a dozen different motorbikes to find the right combination of features that “spoke” to me.

But aren’t Motorcycles dangerous?

Yes, they are: they aren’t nicknamed “murdercycles” for nothing. The statistics show that you are nearly 20 times as likely to suffer “serious injury or death” in a collision while riding a motorcycle as you are in a similar collision in a car. The problem isn’t that motorcycles themselves are inherently unsafe, but that the roads are full of cars. Cars are, in comparison, like armoured tanks: ten times as heavy, covered in sheet metal and steel, and with various crumple zones/impact barriers intended to turn even high speed impacts into highly survivable events. Motorbikes, on the other hand, place pretty much nothing between the rider and an impact. Add to this the fact that most car drivers are blissfully unaware and unprepared for the existence of a motorbike on “their” roads, and you have a greatly increased risk.

The one advantage a motorbike has over a car in a potential accident situation is maneuverability. Like a skilled martial artist, the biker has to master the art of not being where the accident will happen. This means that someone on a bike has to be far more aware of their surroundings and potential risk situations than a car driver. If you ride a bike like you drive a car, you are in for a world of hurt. Defensive driving is absolutely mandatory for a motorcyclist.

I’m a defensive driver, and I have been for years. I also rode a motorcycle for a couple of years, and rode bicycles for a couple of decades: I’m pretty good at avoiding accidents. With the right training, I can reduce the risks of riding a motorcycle significantly. It won’t be as safe as driving a car: it simply can’t be. But it won’t be nearly as dangerous as, say, rock climbing, parachuting, or other “extreme” sports.

Why do I want a motorbike?

To explain my interest in motorbikes, I probably should go back to my youth. When I was about six years old, my brothers had a broken down motorbike that they rode in the alleys near our house. Later Colin had a Honda CB100, and later still Ron and Colin both had various bikes of increasing size and capability. So I’ve been around bikes since I was little, and everything about them interested me. The noise, the “freedom”, the personal space a bike provides- it is much different than a car.

I substituted bicycles for a motorbike when I was too young for motorized transport. My Mom will probably remember me trying to convince her I needed a mini-bike when I was ten or so: I never got one, and in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t. I had a nearly endless series of different bicycles that took the place of that mini-bike. I spent endless hours trying to make several of those bicycles like a motorbike. Sissy bars, banana seats, speedometers, noisemakers in the spokes: whatever I could do to get that feeling, I did. I recall getting on my bike when I was about ten or so, and riding around and around the sidewalks in our condominium complex. I was, in my mind, riding to Red Deer. I think I made it there- about 70 or 80 miles- by riding dawn until dusk over a weekend. Of course, in reality, I was never more than 200 feet from the front door of our condo, but my imagination was strong. Later I had a motocross bicycle complete with shocks and fake plastic gas tank. Truthfully, it wasn’t as much fun to ride as my “mustang” style bike, but visually it was pretty cool.

I went through a series of mopeds in my early teens. The motors on these things would have been anaemic for the purpose of mowing a lawn, but they pushed or pulled me around at amazing speeds of up to 50 km/h: I finally had a motorbike! Unfortunately, I wasn’t allowed by my various schools to park my moped, so the primary purpose of a bike (getting to school) was curtailed. Eventually I went back to riding a bicycle, but by this time I upgraded to the more mature 10 speeds popular at the time.

When I was about 19 I purchased a proper motorbike. It was a Suzuki 250 cc bike, a great bike to learn on. I had my motorcycle learners, which technically restricted me to riding only under the supervision of a licensed adult. I broke that rule a few days after I got the license: try finding a person with a motorcycle license willing to spend hours with someone to teach them how to ride. I’m not sure why I didn’t just take lessons: probably the cost was too high. I rode all over- mostly on suburban roads, but fairly regularly to places like my friend Chris’ house. I eventually took my road test… and failed. I think I rode the bike for a year after that, but never re-took the test, and eventually sold it with about 2300 miles on the clock.

Why did I fail my motorcycle road test? My road skills were fine, but I had never, not even once, practiced riding around pylons or the other things that are a mandatory part of the skills test. I wasn’t prepared, and was crushed when I realized I wasn’t going to be licensed. Again, I have no idea why I didn’t think to take lessons after that initial failure. Maybe no one suggested it, and I was too caught up in my disappointment to think about it. Or maybe again I just didn’t have the money.

So, to summarize: I’ve wanted a motorbike since I was six years old, and my failure to get a motorcycle license is one of the few “unfinished business” things from my youth. Its time to address both issues. It could be argued that this is a “mid-life crisis” event, but… I’m not sure if that’s true. If it makes it easier to swallow, that’s what I’ll call it.

What kind of motorbike does a geek ride?

Geeks are just as much, probably more, individual than “mundanes”. So the type of motorbike your friendly geek might ride will vary as much as snowflakes. For myself, I’ve been torn between “highly practical” and the type of bike I’ve always dreamed of. I’ve looked at a dozen or so different bikes, and it really came down to two:

The Practical: Suzuki Burgman 650 Executive

suzuki.png

Technically, the Burgman isn’t a motorcycle: it is a “scooter”, which is loosely defined as a two wheel motorized vehicle with a step-through frame and automatic transmission. It is a very large scooter, however: 638 cc, and fully highway capable. The basic feature list:

  • 638 cc ~45 hp liquid cooled engine
  • automatic transmission (computer controlled CVT)
  • 60+ litres of storage
  • full fairing with gloveboxes and power outlet
  • ABS brakes
  • power windshield and mirrors (seriously)

The Dream bike: Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic LT

kawasaki.tiff

The Vulcan is a mid-size touring bike. It is a “proper” motorcycle: gas tank between the knees, manual transmission, and no power windshield 😉 The features:

  • 900cc ~55 hp liquid cooled engine
  • manual transmission (like 99% of the motorbikes on the road)
  • < 40 litres of storage with included saddlebags
  • front and rear disk brakes (no ABS)
  • windshield, but no fairing, and no glove boxes

I’ve been debating this with myself for a week, and until a day or so ago was torn. After all of my analysis, I have settled on the Vulcan.

Why not the practical bike?

Re-read the last couple of sentences: I said I was torn. But when I was a kid, the type of bike I wanted was a bike that looked like the Vulcan: I never thought about automatic transmissions, ABS brakes, power windshields, or trunk space. Emotionally, the Vulcan is the bike I wanted, right back to when I was 8 years old and was making “vroom vroom” noises while riding my little bicycle around.

An interesting fact about these bikes: the Vulcan is actually a couple of thousand dollars cheaper than the Burgman. Yes, you read that right: the bigger bike, arguably the more serious bike, is cheaper. My decision, however, had little or nothing to do with money, although that did weigh in to my emotional decision. I’ll admit, the choice *is* emotional, and it is important to note that riding a motorcycle at all for me is not a practical necessity. I can get where I need to go perfectly well with my car. It is an emotional choice all around.

Setting aside the emotional aspects, I’m not going crazy here. The Vulcan is a “mature” touring bike: unlike hardcore bikes, it is comparatively small (900cc vs 1700+cc for the big tourers), liquid cooled, and according to the reviews very easy to ride. It has the “relaxed” riding posture I like, and in a strange way reminds me a lot of my little 250cc Suzuki. Yes, it looks “cool”, at least to me, and probably it is too cool for a geek like me to ride. But one thing a geek has is the ability to buck convention, and to do things differently. In other words, I don’t have to ride the bike you expect me to 😉

What happens once you have the bike?

Once I have my license I’ll take delivery of the motorcycle. The licensing here in B.C. is a little different than in Alberta when I was pursuing a license: there are three stages instead of two. The written test gets you your learners, with three restrictions: supervised by a motorcycle-licensed person, no riding after dark, and no passengers. The second test is a skills test in a parking lot: once you complete that, the “supervised” restriction is removed. I might take delivery of the bike then. I’ll probably put a deposit down soon since the prices right at the moment are pretty good (early in the season).

And once I have my full license, in early May, what then? Well, I’ll ride to work when the weather is nice. But that’s not the main thing. The big purpose of the bike will be to go on small road trips with my Nephew and his friends. I don’t know exactly where we’ll go- mostly anywhere we can travel to and from in a day, I’d guess. Later, after I’ve got a few thousand miles under my belt, I might take a longer trip- perhaps down Highway 101, or how about back to Edmonton to visit? Probably not until next year, but that’s on my list.

15 comments to Motorbike: wherein I re-live my youth

  • Shane

    That’s a great looking bike, this summer will be a blast 🙂

  • Thanks, Shane! I’m looking forward to it. The next step is to get my license: I could find, in the process of getting the license, that I’m just not strong enough/skilled enough/confident enough. I don’t *think* that will happen, and thus I’ll go and put a deposit on a bike beforehand. But I’m trying not to kid myself into thinking that it will be all sunshine and roses 😉

    Mind you, I’m already thinking about stuff I’ll want to add to my bike: engine guards, a pack/case to strap on the sissy bar, a tank pack… the list is endless. As Irene said: “one good thing- I won’t have any shortage of Christmas gift ideas now”…

    One thing that amazes me, the more I think about it, is the amplification in engine sizes from when I was a kid. When I was growing up, a “midsize” bike was between 250 and 500cc. Big bikes were anything over 500cc, and the biggest bikes on the road had 1000cc engines. Now 750-1100 cc is “midsize”, and big bikes are all over 1700cc. A lot of first time riders are starting out on 1300cc and up motorbikes, which could go some way to explaining the increase in “motorbike accidents per mile ridden” stat since the 1980’s.

    I plan on doing a lot of moderate speed (i.e.: under 80 km/h) riding around the Langley area before I go out on the highway much. And I doubt that I’m going to be very interested in 130-160 km/h riding even once I’ve got a few thousand klicks under my belt. I’ll probably be the guy in the slow lane, doing the speed limit 😉

    I’m hoping that won’t cause too much difficulty on our rides- I know you are going to be taking it easy, but other folks we join might not. I’m thinking already about bike radios so I can let you know I’m still there, five miles behind 🙂

  • Sounds like fun, not sure who it is you are trying to convince. I’d have a bike if I lived in a warm climate to use as basic transport or had the money to afford one as a “recreational vehicle”

    It’s like owning a boat or a ski-doo.

    However, I have neither the climate or the funds, so I can’t join you as a fellow rebel without a clue 😉

    I assume you have already downloaded the appropriate Steppenwolf tunes? 😀

  • Who am I trying to convince? Good question, Chris: probably what my post reflects is my internal discussion with myself, plus my responses to anticipated reactions from family and friends.

    I sort of expected a “are you crazy?” reaction from more people, partly because Irene was pretty negative about the idea of me riding a motorbike initially. But so far, other than Irene, I haven’t received too much negative feedback. The self-analysis part is somewhat par for the course for me 🙂

    The riding season on the coast is probably close to twice as long as in Edmonton: it is “nice” riding weather for over six months here, and there are some folks who have their motorbikes on the road year-round (although personally I think that is kind of crazy). Your comment about it being like owning a boat or ski-doo is pretty close to bang on for me, though- it isn’t going to be an every day thing.

  • Jim HIldebrand

    Heya people. Been a while since I have posted here but I check in at least once a week to see how things are going.

    I am not much of a motorcycle person. I prefer being surrounded by large quantities of metal, like my ’96 Dodge RAM, when I have to share a road with the average Albertan driver. In my youth I did enjoy riding my cousin’s dirt bike down country roads and through cattle pastures. Dirt bikes still appeal to me but at my age and physical condition I am not likely to try and relive that part of my youth.:) Strangely enough as I started reading this, before I got down to your shortlist of choices, I was thinking about the kinds of motorcycles that did have any appeal for me and the Vulcan was the first one that popped into my mind. My neighbor rides a Harley and, during the summer, he often has several other Harley riding friends over so I been able to look them over fairly closely and discuss them with their owners. They are nice bikes but if I was to own a Harley it would probably be a V-Twin. I just like that cruiser style over the “hogs” and “rice rockets” that appeal to a large number of people.

    I don’t see myself getting a motorcycle but I must admit to being slightly envious of you and Shane and the biker adventures you are likely to have this summer. I wish you both much fun and hope you can avoid any serious cases of road rash. 🙂

    Jim

  • Hi, Jim! Good to hear from you. Hopefully you’ll chime in more often- I miss chatting with you.

    I’m partial to a particular riding “posture”: I guess you’d call it a cruising position. The cafe racer style bikes have you bending forward and putting your knees up near your chest, sort of a “foetal” position and that doesn’t appeal to me at all. The “standard” bike position is very upright, which I am okay with, but my preference is to have my feet a bit in front of center line and be leaning back a bit. Not quite a “chopper” position, where your hands end up above your eyebrows, but more relaxed. Another key factor for me is low seat height, so my feet are flat or close to flat on the ground when I extend them.

    Harleys are nice bikes, and I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting one. In the last couple of decades since they brought out the Evolution V-Twin motor they’ve gone from being oil leaking perpetual maintenance machines to well-behaved but still definitive bikes. The 1200 Sportster is what Shane has (hopefully I get this right).

    For myself, I prefer a somewhat more “sedate” ride, and wanted something with a liquid cooled motor. As much as I appreciate the qualities of the Harley, it didn’t “leap out” at me like the Vulcan did when I looked at it. That is a bit of a weak explanation as to why I picked the Vulcan over a Harley, but that’s the best explanation I can give. I guess that’s why there are so many bikes with similar but not identical features: bikes are pretty individualistic machines, maybe even more so than cars.

  • You aren’t buying a bike as daily transportation, nor are you joining a “lifestyle” … you are buying what amounts to a big expensive toy. As such, you don’t need any reason to want one over another other than, “That one looks cool.” 😀

    And of course, everyone’s idea of cool is different. If I developed a large surplus of cash that I needed to remove ( 😉 ) and was going to buy a bike to play with I’d probably get a BMW tourer, because I’ve always liked their looks (Hate the cars, like the bikes. )

    Something like a BMW 1200 RT:
    http://www.superbike.co.uk/imageBank/r/R%201200%20RT%20LE%20Image%201.jpg

  • BMW makes nice bikes, although you are seated more in the “racer” position (leaning forward) than I’d like. And yes, you’d need money to burn- around $20k for that bike, I think. Interesting fact: the local RCMP is replacing their Harleys with BMWs: kitted out for police use, they are over $30k. As for BMWs: I hate the drivers, don’t mind the cars, like the bikes 😉

    If I had unlimited money and had at least a couple of years of riding under my belt, I’d probably look at something like the Harley Electra Glide or Vulcan 1700 Voyager. That is, I’d be looking at larger engines, frame-affixed fairings, and more luggage: the basic riding position/style is the same.

  • Jim HIldebrand

    The V-Twin is the Harley I’d buy if I was going to buy a Harley but I wouldn’t pick that as my first bike. I would definitely start off with something smaller. I might not even start off with the Vulcan. I would probably try to find a smaller 250-500 cc used bike in good condition because I am sure that my personal riding learning curve would involve the bike sliding on the road a couple of times. 🙂 Once I was comfortable on my training bike then I would look to upgrading to the Vulcan.

    Jim

  • You have the right approach, Jim. I’m a little leery about getting a big (to me) bike like the Vulcan 900, and arguably I should be riding something with around 500 cc. I rode a 250cc bike 26 years ago (!!), and right now it is going to be like starting over again.

    I am optimistic, however, that the training I’m taking plus the ease of handling the Vulcan is purported to have will make it comfortable for me. There is a reason, though, that motorcycle lessons are usually done using bikes of about the 250cc size. Any bike 500cc and up is basically too big to “toss around”: 400 pounds and up (over 600 pounds for the Vulcan) means even getting the bike on its wheels from a prone position is a challenge.

    I’ve put my deposit down and now “own” a Vulcan: I put some pictures up on Facebook which, hopefully, folks can see. I won’t be taking possession until late April/early May, once I’ve completed my basic motorbike skills test at least. I sat on it today, though: it feels pretty good, and my feet sit flat on the ground. But this is definitely a big bike, and I could feel the weight as I shifted it from leg to leg.

    One really important consideration regarding the Vulcan: the bike name is way cooler than “Boulevard”, and lends itself to all sorts of custom plate ideas 😉

  • Really though, how are you going to look the part if you loose weight and don’t have any tattoos? 😉

    BTW: You have seen the movie “Wild Hogs”? 😀

  • Tattoos! I knew I forgot something {gets out pen and start stabbing arm}…

    Re: Wild Hogs- no, but now I have something to dig up and watch! I recall seeing the ads for that, if I’m thinking of the right movie- John Travolta and Tim Allen were in it. Thanks, Chris 😉

  • Jim HIldebrand

    Custom plate ideas 🙂

    IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations)

    LLAP (live long and prosper)

  • The IDIC one was on my list, but I hadn’t thought of abbreviating Live Long and Prosper. I also have AMOKTM (Amok Time) and PONFAR (Pon Farr) on my list 😉

    I’ll have to narrow my list down to five alternates in order of preference when I get my insurance and registration. Looking at the application form, I notice that I have to explain each “slogan”: that should be fun 😉

  • Troy

    I to like the cruiser style on a bike, i find the rides are more enjoyable and the typical cruiser usually has a large enough tank to get you 300-400 kms down the road, at highway speeds. Plus the average cruiser sits around 3000rpm at a comfortable highway speed. Then there are the cafe racers, or crotch rockets, which rev at 7000rpm and get you 100kms down the road. Another nice thing about cruisers is that you can find ones that are 4-5 years old for about $5000 and are in great shape. My sister recently bought an ’06 honda shadow 750 aero with 10,000 kms on it for about $5500.

    P.s.
    If anyone is looking for a starter bike for next year i will be selling my Yamaha”ha” XJ 550 Maxim for $1500. $1800 if you want a passenger seat bag and tank bag included. i will be selling it in August, because i am looking for a cruiser between 750 and 1100ccs

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