Sunday, April 29
Rather than spend last weekend (my original plan) in WI, I spent Sunday riding around a massive lot for six hours. The weather could not have been better! Still, Sunday started out a bit shaky. I was a wee bit tired--but in a good way--after having spent much of Saturday riding to and from WI. By Sunday morning, something I had eaten Saturday in Harvard, IL, was making my stomach rebel. Still, I didn’t want to miss the hard work and fun that awaited me in Ride-Chicago's SRTT (Street Rider Technical Training) class, which I had taken last year. I rode the 13 miles to Maywood, trying to ignore the unpleasant rumbling in my gut.
When I arrived at the range, I was met by an assortment of colorful, serious-looking bikes. In my first SRTT class, the bikes appeared tamer, some nakeds, several cruisers and a couple of Goldwings. While sport bikes seemed to dominate this class, we had a diverse mix. Don Helle, teacher par excellence, is the instructor. In addition, teachers from Ride-Chicago were on hand to assist.
It doesn’t’ take long to know that Don is a master rider. He rides an aptly colored yellow and black Yammie FZ1, which makes me thing of a zip-zagging bumblebee. Don has garnered many awards for his riding and teaching and I’m sorry I can’t list them here (next time I’ll have to interview him at the end of the class). I do know that while in the military, Don was in charge of teaching motorcycle safety. I know his riding and teaching has transcended North America to include international ventures. He advocates superior skills, particularly Japanese style street riding techniques. Don is a demanding, clever instructor who knows that so much of effective teaching is relationship-building. Before you know it, you’re sucked into his circle; you’re convinced that mastering the skills and techniques he teaches are achievable and potentially life saving. Basic motorcycle safety skills, which you need to take this course, scratch the surface in the vast world of motorcycle riding. We know, that the more we practice, the more proficient we become. But at some point, many of us will want to deepen our knowledge and hone our skills with a track day, private lessons, experienced riders course or an advanced “super” course like SRTT. It is a demanding, doable step-up regardless of one’s current skill level.
Whole body riding is key to SRTT style. The class is about developing confidence-inspiring skills, being in absolute control of one’s machine; it’s about efficiency, maximizing stability, and becoming a highly skilled motorcyclist. As Ride-Chicago states, it’s about riding “with” the motorcycle and not “on” the motorcycle.
Many of us rely on upper body strength to maneuver our bikes. For the most part, this works. Before you finish SRTT class, however, you realize how much more efficient riding is that incorporates the whole body. Think of all that unused power in the lower body. It’s a different ride altogether when you’re cornering in full body synchronization. Thus, the class commences with stretching exercises to loosen up the joints and get mentally prepared for riding. A pre-class suggestion recommends taking an Advil before class. I was smart, this time around, I did. Don always bets that by 2pm the aches and discomfort will be palpable to some of us. Really, it’ll be the next two days before you stop walking as if you’re imitating John Wayne.
After riding the vast lot to warm up self and tires, our first lesson is braking. My explanation will probably not do justice to the technique, but here goes: When learning to ride, I was taught to ease off the throttle (engine braking), disengage the clutch, and apply both brakes simultaneously. SRTT teaches a solid, firm application of the brakes just before you hear/feel that unmistakable sound of the bike beginning to peter, at which point, you pull in the clutch and downshift to first gear. Don gave a convincing, technical explanation of why this method is superior to what most of us are traditionally taught. I can’t explain it better than I have. I know this: it feels better, more certain and definitive, more streamlined and far more efficient. That skill alone is worth the $105 tuition!
Get a good night's sleep before the course as the class requires almost continuous riding around a massive space that is marked off with cones and directional arrows that create a maze of real-road challenges. Thus, learning the route is the first challenge. I zoned out and lost my way a few times, which of course, throws off anyone trailing you. The class is devoid of long queues of bikes waiting for their time on the course. Sunday’s class had more than a dozen bikes buzzing about the range together the whole day. I never felt crunched for space or time. By the end of class, even with pulling out for 15 minutes to settle my churning stomach and to fret over a sore thumb, my odometer registered more than 45 miles.
Considerable time is devoted to proper cornering in tight spaces. After hearing Don’s sound instructions on entering, braking, and accelerating--all of which are executed at specific points--we spent significant time applying these skills. Some of the more talented riders (and there were a lot in this class) inhaled the technique and demonstrated it early and easily. I understood the theory and the technique, but I was stuck a bit in basic cornering technique, which works, but I needed to step-up. It took me many attempts to sorta put it all together. I didn’t mastered it with the precision, smoothness and gracefulness that seemed second nature to some of the others. These riders seemed to fly into the marked space, brake on a dime by applying both brakes, turn their head at exactly the right point, get off the front brake (while staying on the back brake) and accelerate to the next corner. The entire course had its share of cornering opportunities but these particular corners were set up back-to-back. It was challenging, yet fun. I ended the class feeling that I had greatly improved my cornering skills but still had a lot to learn. That’s the beauty of SRTT, no matter the level at which you begin the class, you end it feeling like a highly improved rider.
I can’t forget the straight-line cone weave. Not a problem, right? Well, the goal isn’t just about getting through. None of us had a problem with that. Yet, many of us managed the cones by working harder than necessary because we depended heavily on our ability to steer the bike around the cones, ignoring the power inherent in our lower body. This is where the whole-body riding shines. Don said if done properly, our knees would move up and down as we navigated around the cones. Sure enough, while watching one group, we could observe some of them bowling through with nary a move from the hip/knee region, and others who seemed to be marching as their bikes flicked flawlessly around the little orange domes.
Riding with both hands firmly on the handlebars is what motorcyclists do. Imagine riding the entire course with one hand. Last year, I remembered liking this a lot. But I had forgotten how exacting it was. One hand riding makes you acutely aware of how often we compensate for flaws in our skills by using both hands. One hand riding demands that you think ahead and prepare yourself for what’s coming up next; it forces you to be precise and on point with your head turns; it requires you to exercise smooth throttle control; it makes you deliberate in using whole-body riding. Without the use of both hands, you automatically call upon all your resources to help you ride; thus, your lower regions are activated to assist. One hand riding around a challenging course is also mental and you’ll be amazed at just how good a rider it renders you and how aware you’ll become of the need to put your whole self into riding.
The class doesn’t end before Don takes everyone on a ride on his Yammie. Even though it may feel like it, the goal is not to make you pray for divine intervention. The objective is to help the passenger feel how to ride the course by riding with a master. Anyone who has ridden two-up with Don knows that it is an understatement to call it "an amazing experience." Having had the ride the previous year, I knew what was in store for the unsuspecting participants and I did my part to encourage them to take the ride. I did not ride with Don. Not because I didn’t want my turn but because my stomach warned me not to. I imagined going down in Ride-Chicago history as the woman who upchucked on Don during SRTT—I would never live that down.
It’s not just a ride. It’s an experience. You come away with a tangible sense of how it feels to execute a flawless corner, how it feels to control speed, how it feels to stop on a dime, how it feels to make your bike seem as if it is being held upright by an invisible string, you feel what real leaning is and how proper throttle use maintains stability. It’s hard to convey, but I know this: after you ride with Don and return to riding the course, you'll see that your riding has changed and greatly improved because you’ve felt what it feels like to do it right and in seeking that same feeling in your own riding, you ride so much better than before.
The class ends with Don introducing us to riding with no hands (beyond straight line riding) and teaching us four rather showy but important skills, one of which is said to help enhance your love life (well, sorta). Of these, I love the bump and roll and the Chicago stop/California stop (I heard it said both ways). All in all a magnificent day and one that I’ll repeat each year to mark the beginning of a new riding season.
Tuesday, April 24
Yet, the literal reference to the hawk puzzled me until I did some research (another of my father's saying whenever you asked him a question was "look it up--that's what they have libraries for!"). So I looked up hawks. We know that they swoop on their prey, they soar and shoot through the sky and swoop down again. Yesterday, I went for a leisurely ride of about 75 miles. Winds gusts were out of the southeast 44 mil
Sunday, April 22
My first "trip" of the season and the weather could not have been more perfect. High 70s and enough intermittent wind gusts to keep me on my toes, especially out in the open farmlands, where the gusts felt strongest. My plans for a weekend romp to WI had to be scraped because an advanced skills class was rescheduled for today. A day trip to Sharon, WI and a short trek farther north to Williams Bay was just what I needed to excavate the cobwebs. West of Sharon was a museum, Bartlett Memorial Historical Museum that I didn’t go to because of time. I wanted to reach Williams Bay before the Yerkes Observatory tours closed. I didn’t.
I superslabbed about 28 miles of the trip. Did people just not get the news that using a cell phone while driving is illegal? Last I checked you could purchase an earpiece, which isn’t that safe either or a hands free contraption, fairly cheaply. I saw many folks driving with one hand and a phone cradled between their cocked head and neck. Twice, two cars changed lanes in front of me. Specifically, they ventured into my lane without signaling or looking. This is why a space cushion is critical. Staying out of someone’s blind spot assumes that the driver will be checking that on occasion. These two didn’t bother. One of them, changed lanes in a 45 mph zone at about 10 mph. I tooted my horn at him and he made an angry face and mouthed something that I’m certain wasn’t “I’m sorry for being inattentive and rude. Have a nice day” The woman, didn’t bother to look.
On my first leg, I was supposed to take I-290 west to IL-53. Seems easy enough, right? Wrong. I missed the cutoff for IL-53 and had to take another route. I managed to find IL-173. (This is when the automatic rerouting of a GPS tops a map). I made a few other mistakes too and for every error, I was forced to stop to recollect myself. Even when I think I know a route, road constructions or poor signage on detours can derail me. This time, however, it was my fault. When I found IL-173, I headed for some county back roads. Around Hebron, IL, these roads were in horrendous shape. Huge craters lined the road forcing me to practice the cone weaving skilled learned in safety class. Other than that, I enjoyed numerous sweeping, curvy roads with plenty of rolling “hills.” I had so much fun, I got lost again. Some people have an instinct for direction, I’m not one of them. A curvey road will get me turned around if I’m not paying attention. Eventually, I'll need to stop just to get my bearings. I ended up at some point going in the opposite direction of where I wanted to go. Oh well…it’s about the ride, right?
Finally reached Sharon.
She’s quaint, cute and small. Not much ethnic diversity here, which may explain why I met up with officer friendly so quickly. I seem to have that effect on some towns, which is another story I'll not go into. I pulled into a local school lot to snap a photo and to consult the map on the best way to Williams Bay. Within minutes, a police car pulled in, parked and watched. I studied the map for about five minutes. He waited. He watched. Finally, when I had taken the pics I wanted and oriented myself, I fired up my gal pal. Then I had an idea. Go talk to the officer. I mosied on over and asked for direction. He was nice and actually gave me a better route than I had selected. Glad I spent some time in Sharon, population less than 1600. By the way, Sharon happens to be “Home of the best Swedish Pancakes in WI”—according to one sign.
Williams Bay is home of the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago. It is also the home of George Williams College of Aurora University. The entire area was beautiful, lush and green. Even the distant smell of healthy and abundant livestock didn’t bother me--much.
My return route was simple but laborious. I took IL-67 south to US-14 East much of the way. It’s a long journey that way but one travels through many little towns (and I do like small towns in spite of my experiences in some of them) such as Big Foot (there’s a high school named in its honor), Harvard (where I stopped for a salad), Woodstock, and Crystal Lake and far too many suburbs to mention. We had a little mishap when I thought the kickstand was down but it wasn’t. A kind gentleman with an admiring wife looking on, helped me upright the bike. I thanked him no less than twelve times! I don’t know how I didn’t hurt any flesh or metal.
I started my trip at 9:15 a.m. (very late for me) and returned home safely by 7:45 p.m. The more miles we added, the better Queenie performed. We covered 240.3 miles--not bad for a day trip.
Tuesday, April 17
Crusty The Biker is one of those friends from whom you'll always get the straight, honest answer whether you want it or not. As my late father would say, "He doesn't bite his tongue--he'll tell you like it is, like it was, and like it's gonna be." Read Crusty's advice on motorcycle maintenance and you'll know you're in the hands of a master. I trust his expertise and therefore his advice. Like DBrent Miller, Crusty is a map lover. Do all motorcyclists love pouring over atlases and maps? I sure do. I received one of my favorite freebies from reading a blog entry on travel and maps that Crusty did some time ago. He has tons of interesting favorites on his site that you should not miss. Crusty would be the first to say, he's not a gadget man. He uses technology because he has to and because he knows, on some level, it's supposed to make his work easier but he'll tell you about those times when technology has made his work far more arduous than it needs to be. In any case, his is another place I like to visit. Check him out and get smarter about taking care of your bike too.
Carla King is omnipresent. Not only has she been in the forefront of motorcycle blogging, she's been on two wheels a long time. She too knows a lot about bikes and is an intrepid solo traveler. While Carla may have met some roads she didn't like, I don't think she's met a motorcycle she hasn't been willing to test in some challenging, interesting way. Her enthusiasm for taking on roads in faraway places is contagious. She's a good role model--a young Ardys Kellerman! I read American Borders with an atlas at my side and with her keen descriptions and ethnographic eye, Carla kept me on the edge of my seat. No one can tell me I wasn't her riding companion on that trip! Now, in addition to her regular hang outs, Motorcycle Misadventures and American Borders, you can visit Carla at OpenRoad.TV -- sort of an odd name, but it works. Read about these folks and you'll be impressed. Carla is the moderator/host of the motorcycle forum, where you can share, learn and find out all you want to know about two-wheeling in the American West. After reading Carla's book and Neil Peart's, Ghost Rider: Travels Along the Healing Road, I've felt the urgent call to "Go West young [woman]!"
Friday, April 13
Panniers--a unique style:
I'm very impressed with Whitehorse Gear's Afrika Tank Panniers. They hang over the tank, leaving the gas cap exposed for easy access. The panniers are stylish and the bags appear ample enough to carry one's loot. Adjustable bungee cords allow the sides to be adhered to the bike's under belly. Two adjustable Velcro straps drape over the tank, which I assume means they might work on my SV. One only would need to keep the two pouches well-balanced when packing. This set-up sounds ideal. Not bad for $79.95
Big Mak AirBag Stealth SS, H3 Map Case
This is a clever system! The folks at BMA, who offer "unique" accessories for the BMW have come up with the answer to my tank bag woes. The Big Mak AirBag Stealth SS is one bag with an interesting optional companion bag. Before the bag is functional, a rack is bolted to the fuel filler cap. The bottom of the bag is then placed on this hinged mount, allowing one to flip up the tank bag when gas is needed. Imagine the amount of time saved in an Iron Butt, where time matters. The added bonus of this system is that one can attach to the Stealth, a separate and smaller bag, the H3 Map Case. This flatter, square bag is perfect for holding a map in its large clear pocket. This extra bag doesn't have a lot of depth (2.5 inches) but the top bag, The Stealth, is the real tank bag. With the two bags, a good height is created, which can help block the wind and serve as a tower to lean on if necessary. Take a look at BMA's system. The Stealth costs $179.90 and the H3 Map Case, $89.95 I'm open to other ideas.
Saturday, April 7
On my last outing, within 20 minutes, I couldn’t ignore the sensation of my face warming and expanding inside my helmet. This heating up spreads to my legs and then my thighs. It is a strange, miserable feeling that reminds me of those bizarre stories I’ve read about people who spontaneously combust and I can’t help thinking this is how it all begins. This heating (and subsequent appearance of hives) happens when I’m out walking in the cold too. On my gal-pal, it happens faster and is more aggressive. It has become my signal to turn Queenie around and return home for it is too distracting to dare continue. When I remove my gear, I’m a mess of reddish, itchy, splotchy, swollen welts. Doctors? I know they mean well, but they don’t seem interested in the “why” of this. They’ve push; I mean, “prescribed” their powerful potions and declared the hives “idiopathic”—a fancy way of saying, “we don’t know why.”
The weather will improve. For now, I will ride until the elevation in my body heat warns me to stop; and, I will try to embrace my Quasidomo-ness when it rears its disfigured head. I will ride, however brief, to keep that physical, muscle memory sharp and fit for the smell of spring, sniff-sniff, scratch-scratch, really is in the air.
Thursday, April 5
Then there’s Linda Bootherstone-Bick, WIMA (Women’s International Motorcycle Association) introduced me to this amazing woman, artist, songwriter and free-spirit. I had not heard of Linda before this but I’ve now followed her magnificent travelogue. In 2005, Linda, a seasoned motorcyclist, turned her long-held dream into reality when she embarked on a solo trip from Gibraltar to Australia. While on her challenging trek, Linda celebrated her 61st birthday. Her trip, which took 21 months to complete, is an inspiring narrative about old and new friends, personal fortitude, and survival. View Linda's warm and inviting pictures; follow her trials and tribulations atop a Suzuki DR650. Fall in love with Linda's spirit.
And then there’s my all-time heroine, Bessie Stringfield, a black woman who served as a military dispatch motorcycle rider during WWII, motoring around the USA eight consecutive times, outperforming other dispatch riders with her successful completions. Bessie rode at a time when race relations made it difficult at best for a black person to travel freely through the South. Fearless Bessie rode with abandon. Imagine the tales of Bessie Stringfield, a lone black woman on a motorcycle, often forced to sleep on her bike because she was refused hotel accommodations—I’m talking about a time long before Civil Rights was on anyone’s radar. There are moments when I believe she summons me from her grave, whispering, “Tell my story,” which I am planing to do.
These are not just role models for woman; they are role models for anyone breathing. These courageous individuals rode day after day—solo—expecting the best from life but forever prepared to deal with the worst. This summer, when I’m out there alone, navigating around Lake Superior, enjoying the scenic, often desolate roads that proudly profess nature’s miracles, these are the brave, strong, independent souls I shall dwell on and feel a connection. Collectively, they goad and motivate me to persevere, to get out there and live my dreams, and to ignore naysayers and one’s own internal critics. I’ve always marched to a different drummer. Now I ride to one too.