Friday, January 30, 2009

Get STARTed

Track days can be great learning tools. They can also be intimidating, especially if you're not on a sportbike, or if you're not into going crazy fast. The Utah SportBike Association's Sport Touring Advanced Rider Training (START) is designed to make you a better street rider no matter what you ride.

"An exciting part of this program is that you won't have to ride a dedicated sport bike to enjoy this program. It has been designed to work with riders of everything from GoldWings and FJR1300's, BMW R-bikes and Ducati ST's as well as naked bikes, cruisers and standard motorcycles. In other words, this program will work for riders of every kind of motorcycle!"

Read about experiences at START sessions here, here, and here.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Too Bad The Name "Team Green" Is Already Taken



Nelson-Rigg has a new line of soft luggage called the Solar Series. Built-in solar panels keep your MP3 player and cell phone charged.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Flashback Friday

Kenny Roberts, Laguna Seca, surrounded by the King's men.
(photo by Jerry Smith)
Add to Technorati Favorites

Inside Lines

"We are sure that you will use your Ducati for longer journeys
as well as short daily trips, but however you use your
motorcycle, Ducati Motor Holding S.p.A. wishes you an
enjoyable ride."


If you've ever wondered what it would be like to own a Ducati, here's an inexpensive way to find out. Ducati has all of its owners manuals posted online and downloadable as .pdf files.

MotoGP is considering a regulation, similar to one in Formula 1, requiring engines to last more than one race, with penalties for engine failures or early exchanges.

Valentino Rossi has more Facebook friends than F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton. Way more.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Now Playing At A Very Old Theater Near You







From the 1952 screen gem The Pace That Thrills.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inside Lines

Here in the states we've been hearing a lot lately about Harley's troubles. But H-D isn't the only big name affected by the economic mess. Yamaha, the world's second-largest motorcycle manufacturer, is hurting, too.

If you've been waiting to find out how to get your hands on the soon-to-be-reborn Motorcycle Retro, go here and Mitch will tell you.

Honda tells its dealers to get the lead out.

The Motorcycle Industry Council weighs in on the lead issue.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Milwaukee Malaise, The Saga Continues

I hate to keep going on about this, but I just can't get the phrase "circling the drain" out of my head.

"Harley-Davidson Q4 net income down 58%"

And before anyone accuses me of schadenfreude, let me point out that I’ve had some genuinely great rides on Harley press-fleet loaners I got through American Rider magazine. I did my Iron Butt Association Saddlesore on a Heritage Softail. I had a Sportster that was as much fun just to start up and listen to as some other bikes were to ride. I rode an Electra Glide over the Cascades, through the desert, over the Sierras, across California's central valley, and up the Oregon coast, clocking 500 miles a day for three days, and when I got home I damn near turned around and went back the way I'd come.

So, yeah, I sort of like Harleys.

I hope this ends well. I really do.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Electric Avenue

"We want to prove electric can be fast," Hussain told Wired.com. "Up to now, the electric experience for road-legal vehicles has not been great. As far as we know, this is the fastest road-legal electric bike in the world."

Read about it here.

Add to Technorati Favorites

The Silent Treatment

"The bill would prohibit modification of exhaust systems in any manner, prohibit operation of motorcycles without stock mufflers, require that every bike has a functioning tachometer, and also lower the allowable sound limit."

As I wrote here, this is what can happen if we don't take care of our own problems.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, January 26, 2009

Cashing the Reality Check

Like a lot of people, I sat awestruck in front of the TV as executives of the Big Three automakers asked the government for a bailout. To their shock and surprise, no one seemed to want to buy expensive, gas-guzzling behemoths any more—hadn’t, in fact, for the past few years, although maybe the execs had only just noticed it—and now profits were a thing of the past, layoffs loomed large—oh, and don’t forget, those corporate jets didn’t run on coal.

The Big Three took a lot of heat from the press and public, and deservedly so. Now the long knives are out for Harley-Davidson—and some of them are being pointed at Milwaukee from an unlikely direction.

On January 16, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA) approached the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation about a bailout for Harley.

As you'd expect, the request has its proponents.

But if you think Harley riders themselves are unanimously in favor of a bailout, think again.

It's a tough choice. If you pump money into a foundering company, all you're doing is rewarding bad business practices. But if you let it fail, it's the workers who pay the price.

What do you think?

Attention to Detail


In the time it would take me to build this, I could build a real motorcycle.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Honda Dreams

These three short films from Honda aren't really about motorcycles so much as they are about Honda itself. If you're a motorhead you'll find them interesting. Also, check out Danica Patrick's cool driving shoes.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Shameless Self-Promotion



Deadman's Throttle

"A rollicking good tale . . . the plot twists, and there’s some who-done-it suspense, a surprise ending, and even a little romance."
--American Rider

"Before I knew it, I’d finished the book—all in one sitting . . . characters who ride motorcycles, crash motorcycles, talk about motorcycles, and read motorcycle magazines."--Twistgrip

"Quite a good read, well-crafted, believable, and entertaining."
--BMW Owners News

Download the first chapter of Deadman's Throttle here.

Hotshoe

"Smith is a gifted storyteller. And his colorful portrayal of dirt-track racing is as vivid as any I’ve ever read. Moto-journalists will howl, dirt-track purists will scoff, but most readers won’t care. They’ll just find themselves hanging on the edge of their seats as they root for Street’s rider to win the number-one plate."--Cycle World

"Manages to capture the warmth, camaraderie and good humor of these unique, real-life characters . . . a book that will appeal to all detective novel fans, motorcyclists, and nonmotorcyclists alike."--Motorcyclist

Download the first chapter of Hotshoe here.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Who's the boss? Car or bike?

It depends on what car, what bike, and where...





Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, January 23, 2009

Flashback Friday

Gary Scott on the booming XR750 roadracer, Laguna Seca.
(photo by Jerry Smith)
Add to Technorati Favorites

And now for something completely different...

Wow, Check Out That Motorcycle Revving!

Add to Technorati Favorites

Inside Lines

More bad news from Harley.

Honda scales back its racing efforts worldwide, but MotoGP seems safe...for now.

Ducati doesn't want to give up its electronic rider aids to save money.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hats Off



The Eject Helmet Removal System gives first responders a way to safely remove the helmet of a rider with suspected cervical spine injuries. Shock Doctor, the manufacturer, says the AMA and the IRL now require it for all licensed professional rider and drivers.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inside Lines

Metisse is building a limited-edition replica of Steve McQueen's Triumph-powered desert sled.

If you thought your local dealer's showroom looked a bit more crowded last year, this could be why.

Suzuki is backing off the throttle in 2009.

Have a friend who wants to learn to ride, but you don't know how to help? Harley-Davidson does.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good Night, Sweet Prints





I picked up my first motorcycle magazine sometime in the 1960s, when I was still in high school. It was probably a Cycle World, but it could have been a Cycle, too. It doesn’t matter. I was hooked. From that moment on I bought, read, and saved almost every bike mag I got my hands on.

Eventually the accumulation of magazines got out of hand. Last year, when I moved from a house I’d lived in for 15 years to this one, I went down to the basement where they were piled with the intent of boxing all of them to take with me.

It took about 10 minutes to realize that the sheer effort of lugging all those magazines up the stairs would take years off my life if it didn’t kill me outright. So I started two piles, the keepers and the recyclers. I still had to haul all of them upstairs, but only a fraction of them had to be carried to the new house.

These days I’m wondering if I did the right thing by tossing so many of them. That's because motorcycle magazines, along with the rest of the print media, are on the ropes, thanks mostly to what you’re doing right now—reading this on the internet.

The internet has a number of built-in advantages over print. The internet is not a physical product. It’s not printed on paper, and it doesn’t have to be mailed to the reader, or delivered by truck to a newsstand. So it’s cheaper to produce and distribute right from the start.

In addition, the internet is immediate. Most motorcycle magazines come out six, nine, or 12 times a year. Some websites are updated that many times each day, making the idea of “news” in the context of a monthly magazine laughable.

The inevitable result of this is that magazines have had to become more like websites, with more flashy graphics to grab your attention and fewer words to make you stop and think.

Cook Neilson, the former editor of Cycle, said it best in an interview on motohistory.net, when asked for his thoughts on motorcycle journalism today, and whether he’d be comfortable getting back into it full-time:

Everything's different not just in the publishing world; it's different in the WHOLE world. The competition out there for eyeballs is ferocious: TV, video games, the Internet, all different kinds of other magazines. So at the same time the motorcycle magazine press is becoming more and more stratified and "niche-ified,” it is being forced to move faster and faster. It strikes me that it's not as contemplative as it used to be, and I feel the decibel level has gone up. There are pluses, though. The quality of the graphics is much stronger than it used to be. Cycle World and Roadracer X both look terrific, and they both seem to have unlimited color budgets, which we never had. My sense is that circumstances are forcing the publishers and editors to go for maximum impact, all the time. I read a while ago that Roadracer X didn't feature the Suzuki race bikes on their covers as much as they otherwise would have because the Suzukis are blue and therefore don't have the kind of eye-catching instant newsstand appeal that red or yellow bikes produce. I understand that speed, immediacy, loudness, urgency, and impact are seen as essential. I'm not sure I like it. Phil [Schilling, who succeeded Neilson as Cycle’s editor] and I have talked about this quite a bit; I'm not sure he likes it either. But it is what it is.

What Neilson didn’t say is what many magazine publishers are finding out every day, which is that in addition to print magazines taking on more and more of the characteristics of the internet—“speed, immediacy, loudness, urgency, and impact”—at the same time the internet is taking advertising revenue away from the print media in buckets.

For example, newspapers make a lot of money from classified ads—or they did, until Craigslist came along and offered to post those same ads on the internet, where they're accessible to far more readers in many more places than any newspaper can hope to reach, for free.

Advertising pays a magazine’s bills, and advertising space in a magazine is sold based on the number of people who read the magazine. The more readers the magazine has, the more it can charge for ads. Since the point of advertising is to reach as many people as possible, as readers migrate to the web so will advertisers, leaving behind them a huge hole in the print magazines’ ad revenues.

I’m not suggesting motorcycle magazines are breathing their last, although several that I’m familiar with are looking a bit pale and listless lately. As someone who makes his living writing for them, I certainly wish them a long and happy life.

Even so, I also wish I had back all those magazines I threw out.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, January 19, 2009

Milwaukee Malaise

Good news/bad news for Harley-Davidson, which has been living high on the hog for so long it's doubtful anyone imagined things could go so bad, so quickly.

First the bad news.

Then the (maybe) good news.



Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Reality. What a concept.





When I was a kid, the closest thing we had to a video game was moving the rabbit ears on the TV to make Howdy Doody come in clearer. Now every American child above the age of four has grotesquely muscular thumbs from chasing, and being chased by, horrible fire-breathing, many-headed, bloody-fanged horrors all over the vast simulated medieval landscape of virtual reality.

The fact that today’s kids would rather get their kicks in front of a computer screen than on a motorcycle is cause for concern not only to toothless old fudds like me, but to the motorcycle industry. It’s no secret that motorcyclists are getting older; figures I’ve seen recently say, for example, that the average age of motorcyclists was 32 in 1990, 41 in 2003, and 42 in 2008.

Things are looking worse for Harley-Davidson; in 1988 the average age of Harley riders was 35; now it’s 48.

There are several reasons for the graying of motorcycling. The boomers who fueled the sport’s rapid growth in the 1980s are retired now, and are discovering there’s nowhere on a Fat Boy to carry golf clubs. When you have a bad hip, an artificial knee, and a pacemaker, flicking a GSX-R1000 into a corner with the peg trailing sparks doesn’t have the same appeal it did when you were 40 years younger, and immortal.

The manufacturers share some of the blame, too. Today’s typical “entry-level” motorcycle is a 600cc sportbike that puts out close to 100 horsepower and can twist the needle all the way to the last numbers on the speedometer face. The dearth of friendly small- and mid-displacement bikes scares off some potential riders, and kills off others.

Harley especially has been digging itself a hole by making bigger and more expensive motorcycles year after year while pretty much ignoring the needs of entry-level riders, who get to choose between starting out on a $20,000, 800-pound bike or staying home. (Sportsters don’t count. You can’t even get one out of every 10 Harley riders to take Sportsters seriously, never mind someone looking for a first bike.)

But the real problem is there aren’t enough young riders coming into the sport, at least not in numbers sufficient to keep sales from going downhill. They’re too busy Facebooking, or MySpacing, or Twittering, or some other passive activity, to get up off the couch, go outside, get on a bike, and risk their lives to have a good time.

My mom used to find me sitting in front of the TV on a nice day and tell me to go outside and do something. I did, although riding and racing bikes might not have been quite what she had in mind. To her dying day she referred to motorcycles as “those things.”

Still, I’m glad she got me out of the house, because it opened up a whole new world, and changed my outlook on life forever.

For example, I now know there’s nothing you can do in virtual reality that can come close to the adrenaline rush of an SUV swerving into your lane and missing you by inches. Or grabbing the brake lever at 150 for the chicane at Daytona and discovering your front tire is flat.

Who needs virtual reality when there’s real reality?

Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, January 16, 2009

Flashback Friday




"Don't worry, I have plenty of time to qualify for the main and still make it to the wedding."
(photo by Jerry Smith)
Add to Technorati Favorites

Motorcyclist Retro Update





As I wrote here, although Motorcyclist Retro was axed last month by publisher Source Interlink, editor Mitch Boehm had plans for its revival. Here's the latest.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Seriously?!



Last summer, when gas hit $4 a gallon, people were buying up cheap scooters like peanuts at a ballgame. At the same time the radical V-twin custom craze was bleeding arterially, because who wants to pay $60,000 for a bike they can’t really do much of anything useful with?

Meanwhile Honda, a company that sells any number of good, economical, small- and mid-displacement motorcycles overseas—but not here—was working on this, a $13,000 piece of metric driveway jewelry that stands out in the cruiser market only by virtue of being more radically styled and by all appearances even less practical than its competitors.

Is this really what Honda thinks we need right now?

Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Is the ride over?

Harley-Davidson's reign as the 800-pound gorilla of the heavyweight bike market might be coming to an end. Read about it here.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Down the rabbit hole





Yesterday's post touched briefly on the Iron Butt Rally. It's an event that defies easy description, so I won't try. Instead I'll direct your kind attention to Hard Miles, The True Story of the 2007 Iron Butt Rally.

After watching it, either you'll be convinced these people are certifiably insane, or you'll want to join them.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Latitude and Lunchitude






“A GPS is ideal for pinpointing the exact location of the crash you had because you were looking down at the GPS instead of the road.”
—Mike Kneebone, president, Iron Butt Association


I laughed the first time I heard this, then realized Mike could have been talking about me. I got my first GPS years ago, and haven’t ridden without one since.

I attribute the urge to get one in the first place to hanging out with people in the Iron Butt Association, something that ultimately led me to become a member, which you can do only by riding a minimum of 1,000 miles in 24 hours. Almost everybody I came in contact with had a GPS, and I began to feel left out. So I got one, too.

Although there are probably 40,000 IBA members by now, only a small number of them could be considered hardcore. Most of these while away the odd weekend riding 24-hour rallies that mimic the 11-day Iron Butt Rally. A GPS isn’t essential to success in these smaller rallies, but it really helps.

My first GPS turned out to be pretty helpful, too, but in a different way. Many motorcycle speedometers read high. An indicated 60 might only be an actual 54. The speedo on my V-Strom is off by about 6 mph at highway speeds. I know this because I checked it against the GPS.

Last year I retired the old GPS and got a new one. Not the latest model favored by my riding buddies—that puppy lists for a grand—but a factory-refurbished Garmin 2610 StreetPilot. It has a color screen, and it talks (“Turn left at next corner”).

The mapping software is incredibly detailed, too. I went riding with my buddy Ron a few months ago. We headed up into the hills and after a while the pavement turned to gravel. Then the gravel turned to dirt, and the dirt road became a dirt track. At one point the track was just wide enough for a car—a slot car. We couldn’t turn around and go back. Our only choice was to press on.

It was the kind of situation that leads to headlines like “Bleached bones of lost motorcyclists found in remote area.” It wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere, but if I’d stood up on the pegs I could have seen the middle of nowhere from where we were.

And still, when I glanced down at the GPS, the glorified goat trail we were on showed on the screen as a thin line.

We followed that line to another, thicker line, and that one led us back to a paved road. When we got there, just for kicks I told the GPS to take me home. It plotted the fastest route there, and all I had to do was follow its directions to my driveway.

Some people would say this takes all the fun out of getting lost. I say if that’s your idea of fun, you can have my share.

Granted, a paper map of the right scale would probably show the same roads as a GPS. But I’d have to stop, dig it out of the tank bag, unfold it, get out my reading glasses, figure out where I was—which if I knew I probably wouldn’t be lost anyway—then find a way back to civilization.

You call GPS a pointless gadget. I call it a miracle of modern science. We’ll agree to disagree.

But the GPS has one important feature no paper map I’ve ever seen has. I call it the Food Finder. Call up the right screen and it figures out where you are, then lists all the restaurants in the area, and how far away they are, and their phone numbers, and how long it’ll take you to get there at your current speed. It does the same for motels, too.

Find me a paper map that does that, and folds itself when I’m done looking at it, and I’ll buy it.

Meanwhile, I’m hungry, and the GPS tells me I’m only 37 minutes away from a cheeseburger.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Friday, January 9, 2009

And now for something completely different...

"I stayed in a hotel last week, and I asked the desk clerk for a wake-up call. He said, 'Your career's in a rut and you're not getting any younger.'"

Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Dog and the Hog




We all have little secrets we’d prefer no one else knew. Maybe your iPod is full of Clay Aiken songs, or your nickname in high school was Crater Face.

Me? I like sidehacks.

I really should know better, too. When I worked at Rider I had a chance to put some miles on two sidehacks, one a factory-built Harley Electra Glide rig and the other a BMW K100-based EML. I learned that sidehacks combine the very worst traits of cars and motorcycles into a single machine that lacks any of their virtues.

The EML outfit was made in Germany, and as you’d expect, it was a lot more technically sophisticated than the Harley. It had fuel injection, shaft drive, a leading-link front end, and a sidecar that looked like it had been stolen from the German Olympic bobsled team. It rolled on what appeared to be a car tire in the back, and had a similar square-edged tire up front.

It’s my guess that the front tire accounted for why the EML was so little fun to ride. Sidehacks are known for heavy steering, but this one was awful. Even with the leading-link front end, the front tire leaned slightly from side to side when I turned the handlebar. Each time I did, it felt as if the bike was resisting being tilted up on that square edge. A rounder profile might have solved the problem, but the rig had to go back before I had a chance to find out.

Compared to the EML, the Harley was about as trick as a claw hammer. They even left the sidestand on the Glide when they bolted the sidecar up to it. The fork was the same telescopic unit found on all the other baggers, and the sidecar had that nose-wrinkling fiberglass smell, as well as a number of sharp rivet heads poking into the interior, like an Iron Maiden with a windscreen. It was a thing of beauty, though, with a timeless style that made me grin every time I thought about anyone still making something that weird and wonderful.

The Harley was even harder to ride than the EML. Every time I turned the handlebar the entire rig felt like it was winding itself up like a big spring. The sidecar lagged on acceleration, pulling the rig to the right, and although the sidecar wheel had a brake, the sidecar tried to pass me whenever I braked, pulling to the left. At first it was all I could do to ride it a block without veering into oncoming traffic or colliding with parked cars.

But the Harley had something the EML didn’t, and probably never would have. It had the same effect on people as a string of circus elephants marching down Main Street. Adults stopped and stared, little kids pointed and laughed. I felt like I ought to be wearing jodhpurs and a pith helmet, with a comical sidekick named Bud or Stumpy in the sidecar. Every ride was an adventure, and after a while I forgot what a peg-legged goat the thing was, and grew to like it.

I rode it from Southern California to Las Vegas to attend the auction of the Steve McQueen estate at some garish casino on the strip. I’m usually a frugal packer when it comes to bike travel, but with the Harley I filled the sidecar with all the luggage I owned and still had enough room left over for a beach ball and a grandfather clock.

When I got to the outskirts of Vegas and hit the first stoplight, I put my foot down. Then I started laughing. The man in the car next to me glanced over at me as if he thought I was losing my mind.

What I remember best about the Harley, though, is how my old dog Steve took to it. Steve didn’t care for motorcycles one bit. He stayed in the garage during the day when I was a work—the landlord’s rules, not mine—and every time I brought a bike home he’d hide in the corner behind the workbench until I shut off the engine, then come creeping out to see me.

He did the same thing when I brought the Harley home for the first time, and every time after that—until the day I picked him up, all 60 quivering pounds of him, and put him in the sidecar.

I could almost see the cartoon light bulb go on over his head. Huh. This isn’t so bad.

I clipped a short leash to his collar and tied it off to the grab rail in the sidecar. He just about tore it loose when I stared the engine, but by the end of the driveway he had settled back into the padded seat. Okay, maybe once around the block.

That’s all it took. He was hooked.

For the rest of the time I had the Harley, as soon as I opened the garage door a big red dog would come charging out and leap into the sidecar. Then one day I came home with just another motorcycle, and he ran and hid behind the workbench until I shut it off.

Steve was a great dog, and lived to be 15 years old. He came with me when I moved to Oregon, where he traded a fenced back yard for five acres of wooded land where he could run and dig and chase deer and quail and do all the things dogs were born to do. I believe he was a happy dog right up until the end.

But I don’t think he ever forgave me for giving back the Harley.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Wheel of misfortune




I just got back from a run into town in my car. On the way there the car started handling funny. I stopped, got out to check the tires, and found the right rear almost flat. Out came the jack, on went the spare. Twenty minutes later I was on my way.

A flat in a car is a pretty boring event compared to one on a bike, which can get way too exciting way too quickly. This was especially true back when all motorcycles had spoked wheels with tube-type tires that when they blew popped like party balloons. Today’s tubeless tires typically deflate more slowly when punctured, giving you a chance to pull over before things get too squirrelly.

Tubeless tires give you something else tubes don’t, a good shot at getting back on the road with a minimum of fuss. With a tube you have to take off the wheel, then weasel the tube out of the tire, then patch the tube, then put everything back. You need at minimum a way to prop up the bike, enough tools to remove either wheel, tools to dislodge either tire, a new tube or a patch kit, and a way to reinflate the tube.

With a tubeless tire, you need a plug kit, and an air source, and that’s it. You plug the hole from the outside, air up the tire, and hit the road. The tire stays on the wheel, and the wheel stays on the bike. You don’t even need a centerstand to prop the bike up. Just roll the bike a few inches at a time until you spot the puncture.

After you plug the tire you will, of course, ride straight to the nearest repair shop to have the tire plugged from the inside, or replaced, whichever the tire’s manufacturer recommends. (This message brought to you by The Litigious Society of America™.)

Since you asked (no, don’t deny it—I heard you) here’s what I carry to deal with flats on my bike, which has tubeless tires:

A Pocket Tire Plugger from Stop & Go.

A 12-volt air pump that runs off the battery. CO2 cartridges hold only so much CO2, and you can carry only so many of them. When you run out, you’re screwed. A 12-volt pump keeps pumping as long as your battery is working.

As a backup to the Stop & Go kit I carry a tubeless-tire repair kit that consists of half a dozen flexible plugs (sometimes called gummy worms) and a reamer/insertion tool. You can get these at any auto-parts store for a few dollars. They’ll sometimes fix a jagged hole or a small tear that the Stop & Go plugs won’t.

Add to Technorati Favorites

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Northern Exposure



The bickering couple seated to my left on the plane has lapsed into a tight-lipped silence. She's glowering at the back of the seat in front of her, and he's playing video games on a laptop. He's closed the window so he can see the screen better, so I miss seeing Anchorage from the air as we descend for landing. My first glimpse of it comes as I trudge through the airport, a wall of stark, snow-streaked mountains rising sharply toward a low, cloudy sky. It's the Fourth of July, summer in Alaska. It's raining.

The car from the Glacier Bear Inn bed and breakfast picks me up and takes me to my room, where I find it is the custom in many Alaskan houses to remove your shoes before entering. I put on my warmest socks and join my fellow tour members in the common room. There are just four others beside me. Jim and Janice Mulvaney from Denver, Jim Crocker from Fort Worth, and Jerry Holl from San Diego. The Mulvaneys and Crocker have been on Edelweiss Alps tours. Holl and I are rookies.

After the introductions it strikes me that there are not enough names to go around. We have two Jerrys, two Jims, and a Janice—five names beginning with J. Also Keith Hull, our tour guide, and Keith, manager of the Glacier Bear. We have dinner that night at the Regal Alaska, a hotel on Spenard Lake. Along with adjoining Lake Hood, it's home base for the world's largest fleet of float planes, the only practical way to get in and out of the roadless bush country and the interior.

We assemble the next morning for the first of the briefings that take place each day over breakfast. Today we are riding to Seward, 120 miles southwest of Anchorage on Resurrection Bay. For part of the day we'll ride along Turnagain Arm, a body of water known for bore tides, extremely rapid inflows of water that can and do catch tourists off-guard and trap them in the quicksand-like mud. Keith warns us not to go walking on the mud flats. He drives the point home with a cautionary tale of a tourist who became mired and had to be pulled out by a rescue helicopter. "They got him halfway out," Keith says. "The top half."

The sky threatens rain as we leave the Glacier Bear. In addition to leading Edelweiss tours, Keith rents bikes. A few days before I arrived the BMW boxer I had asked for was totaled, so I am offered a Kawasaki KLR650 with triple Givi hard bags or a BMW F650 with no bags and a mere 200 miles on the clock. I opt for the Kawasaki.

Our first taste of Alaska is a flock of Dall sheep cavorting on a sheer cliffside along Turnagain Arm. Traffic slows to watch, and the sheep appear to be hanging around for no other reason than to witness a major wreck involving two or more of the lumbering motorhomes swerving dangerously toward each other as their drivers crane their necks to make out the tiny white shapes hopping from crag to crag.

Jim and Janice have gone on ahead. Jim and Jerry and I take a side trip to the Alyeska Ski Lodge for a cup of coffee. Rain spits down out of the gray sky as we pass the tiny town of Girdwood, which is reveling in its annual Forest Fair. A sign by the entrance to the Fair grounds says, "No dogs, no politicians, no religious orders." I order a blueberry muffin and get something the size of a small birthday cake. It is unbelievably delicious.

Back on the road we buck strong headwinds howling up the Arm. We take the road to Portage Glacier, only to find it's obscured by the weather. The rain is bucketing down now. I put on my boot and glove covers in the shelter of a closed rest room. Out in the water by the visitor's center float fantastically shaped chunks of ice, pieces of the glacier that have broken off and drifted away. Their cores are a startling shade of deep blue. This is a characteristic of glacier ice, which is so dense it absorbs all colors of the spectrum except blue, which it reflects. It is bluer on cloudy days than on clear ones. It is very blue today.

The group, including Keith in the Edelweiss Suburban, loaded with enough gear and food to provision a small army, and towing a four-bike trailer with the F650 on it, meets at the Summit Lake Lodge for lunch. We comment on the heavy traffic heading back toward Anchorage. Keith tells us Seward is a popular vacation town with folks in Anchorage. The procession of motorhomes and trailers is known to locals along the way as "the 'Bago train." After the Fourth of July weekend, traffic will decrease to a trickle. Lunch is prompt, good, and expensive by southern standards. To an Alaskan, even a Connecticut Yankee is a "southerner," as is everyone else who lives in the lower 48.

What has already come to be known as the 5-J Tour arrives in Seward. An enormous cruise ship is docked in the harbor, towering over the fishing and pleasure craft like a Sequoia in a cornfield. We check into the Harborview Inn, a new and tidy motel a block from the waterfront. I experience an X-Files moment when I see that our hosts at the Harborview are—Jerry and Jolene! Another Jerry! Two more J's!

On tonight's schedule is a picnic served by Keith in one of the pavilions along Resurrection Bay, from which an astonished fisherman hauled a 340-pound halibut the day before. Keith's resume includes a stint in the food service industry. That industry's loss is our considerable gain. His idea of a picnic is grilled halibut, barbecued chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, fruit, chips, drinks, and pie for dessert. The award for the hands-down, shoot-potato-salad-out-your-nose-funniest story of the day goes to Jim and Janice who, riding double, pulled up to the ticket booth at Exit Glacier north of town and were asked by the ranger, "Are you two together?"

At 11:30 that night, the streets of Seward are deserted. Despite overcast skies, it's still light enough outside to read a newspaper. Time seems unreal, like foreign money when you travel overseas. It isn't green, it has pictures of dead royalty or obscure landmarks on it, and it's hard to take seriously, like Monopoly money. Maybe it's a problem with the hour-exchange rate—the hands on my watch keep moving, but it's just not getting darker. Maybe we're on metric time. All I know is I can't get to sleep, and when I finally do it's time to get up.

A free day in Seward. Jerry Holl and the Mulvaneys ride to Homer and back, a round trip of about 340 miles. Jim Crocker and Keith and I explore some of the back roads around town, some paved, some not. Keith leads the way to the far side of Resurrection Bay. Looking across the water at the town, the cruise ship looks like a toy. The mountains that ring the bay loom large and ominous. They're imposing as hell, obviously designed from the git-go to be all mountain, with none of that wimpy hill-stuff leading up to the steep parts. They make the mountains around my house look like speed bumps.

We turn on a side road and see a building that resembles one of several Princess Resort Hotels in Alaska. It's new, and has a bright blue roof, lots of windows, and what appears to be a penthouse restaurant atop a tower. It is in fact a guard tower, and the building is not a resort hotel, but the new Spring Creek State Prison. I am informed of this by an armed guard in a light-barred Bronco who intercepts me in the parking lot. I play dumb tourist—not much of a stretch under the circumstances—and he tells me indulgently that this really isn't a good place to stop and take pictures. We leave with the distinction of being the only people ever to get thrown out of jail in Seward.

We seek tamer amusement at Exit Glacier. A short hike brings us to the face of the glacier itself, a river of ice flowing out of the 300-square-mile Harding Ice Field, from which eight glaciers reach the sea. Deep blue glacier ice is visible in the cracks. Signs warn hikers to keep back, as huge chunks weighing tons can break off at any moment. Tourists being what they are, several are standing under wide overhangs, slapping the ice and grinning for friends with cameras, while others climb above them and leap over crevasses 10 feet deep.

We walk back to the bikes, passing hikers wearing bear bells, jingling merrily. The bells are supposed to alert bears and scare them off. It reminds me of when I was a kid, and bells heralded the approach of the ice cream truck. I mention this to Keith, who says they sometimes find bear bells in the stomachs of "nuisance bears" killed by rangers. A stuffed wolverine at an interpretive center reminds Keith of a friend's assessment of that animal's temperament: "If wolverines weighed a hundred pounds I'd never go into the forest."



The KLR is working out better than I had expected. During an exploration of a dirt road it skips over potholes like a dancer. Jim's BMW twin skitters like a fat lady trying to keep the mud off her opera slippers. The rain gets worse, so we leave the bikes and our soggy raingear at the motel, pile into the Suburban, and warm up in an old church converted to a coffee house. Van Morrison and the Chieftains are playing on the stereo. The locals do their polite best to ignore us, and we do our best to blend in. Next we visit the Alaska Sealife Center, where I am suddenly 12 years old, with my nose pressed up against the underwater viewing windows in the seal tanks, and taking picture after picture of the comical puffins splashing and diving.

The next day we saddle up and head for Sheep Mountain, 247 miles from Seward. Backtracking along Turnagain Arm, the wind is sharp and cold. The sleepless nights and unrelenting headwinds are wearing me down. Through Anchorage and heading north, the KLR is out of its element on the 65-mph four-lane highway, and it's a toss-up whether duct tape on the frame rails would be more comfortable than the narrow seat. Over lunch in Palmer I announce my intention to switch to the F650, despite its lack of bags. The others immediately offer tank bags, rain covers, bungee nets. Are these guys pals or what?

At Sheep Mountain Lodge we sleep in bunkhouses, two to a room. A large contingent of touring bicyclists has arrived, and the management has churlishly bumped us from the private cabins Keith had booked. At breakfast the two groups steal surreptitious glances at each other's outlandish outfits, like caravan travelers meeting at a desert oasis, shy but curious.

Today it's Sheep Mountain to Fairbanks. Jim Crocker sees a small animal that becomes known as the Mysterious Furry Critter of the Frozen North. I spot my first moose, grazing in the water by the side of the road. Later I see a beautiful speckled grouse-like bird, a ptarmigan. It leaps in front of my bike and ricochets off the F650's front fender with a sickening thump. I mention this to Keith at lunch in Paxson, at the east end of the Denali Highway. He tells me the ptarmigan is the state bird. Great. I'm here three days and I whack the state bird. Maybe I'll get into Spring Creek after all.

We ride west on the Denali Highway until the pavement runs out around mile marker 20, then return to the main road. The side trip rewards us with glaciers and towering crags we would not have otherwise seen. The stretch of road between Paxson and Delta Junction and over Isabel Pass is simply stunning, spectacular, magnificent—pick your favorite travel writer's cliche, then multiply it by about 12.

We parallel the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At a construction zone we stop while graders push gravel and dirt around. I chat with the worker holding the stop/slow sign. He moved to Alaska from Oregon 26 years ago. I mention I live in Oregon. He bets me I've never heard of the little town he's from, and names it. The hell I haven't, I say, and to his astonishment tell him exactly where it is. Later that day I meet another Oregonian, this one from Tillamook. Who's back home, minding the store?

This is the longest travel day, 340 miles. I pause to gas up and grab a bite at Delta Junction before tackling the last 100 miles to Fairbanks. The sun comes out at last, while the weather to the south looks ominous. A miles-wide cloud trailing tendrils of rain drifts across the sky like a gigantic jellyfish. Nine hours after leaving Sheep Mountain I arrive in Fairbanks, 20 minutes behind the others, dog-tired.

Keith has a special genius for arranging unique lodging and meals. We stay in cabins on the Chena River, and dine on all-you-can-eat salmon, halibut, and ribs at Alaskaland, a tacky but entertaining theme park (suggested motto: "Admission is free, and worth every penny!"). A cloudburst drives us into a dining hall with a metal roof where the pounding rain makes conversation nearly impossible. Two of Keith's bike renters join us, a father and son from Georgia. They're bound for the top of the pipeline, at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean.

After breakfast the next morning we visit the museum at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and make another pass through Alaskaland before leaving town. The flight museum there features complete aircraft, as well as numerous parts of aircraft apparently recovered from crash sites. A massive 16-cylinder radial engine is missing several cylinders, the bent stumps of broken con rods poking up through the crankcase testifying to the violence with which they were removed. I've seen museums dedicated to flight before, but never one that so emphatically demonstrates the consequences of failing to maintain flight.

On the way to Denali National Park, we pass a tavern called Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn. The walls and ceiling are covered with bills, mostly singles and a few fives, stapled there by travelers, ostensibly for Dick's retirement. The inscriptions on some of the bills would make a sailor blush—I can only imagine the effect on the economy if they are ever put into general circulation. Skinny Dick himself is behind the bar. "Has the conversation gotten around to sex yet," he pipes in a raspy voice, "or are we still talkin' about the weather?"

Lunch at the Depot Cafe in Nenana. The TV by the pool table reports a 6.4 earthquake yesterday, centered about 125 miles southwest of Anchorage. Jim Crocker, a Texas native, says almost wistfully that he's never been in an earthquake. Keith, Jerry, and I, who all have, assure him he's not missing anything.

The wind is tossing the F650 around like a kitten with a ball of string. From the front, then one side, then the other, but never from behind, which is the only direction I wouldn't mind. After about 40 miles of this I see a sign that says WIND. If that wasn't wind all along back there, what the hell was it? And how much worse can it get? My answer comes in the form of a bright orange wind sock, placed mid-span on a bridge over a river. It's sticking straight out sideways like a traffic cone.

My cabin is on the glacier-fed Nenana River. We have a free day tomorrow, and this is the perfect place to spend it relaxing. No TV in the room, no phone. I go to the gift shop for a book. Amid the Grishams and Kings and Clancys I find two true classics of the north, Jack London's White Fang and Call of the Wild, both in one volume.

Jim, Jim and Janice, and Jerry go flight-seeing over Denali Park. I'm not fond of airplanes to begin with, and the smaller the plane the less I like it. Or maybe I'm still thinking of the flight museum at Alaskaland. Anyway, I stay behind and read. Keith whips up another picnic on the deck by the river that evening, and we finish it off by passing around a book of poems by Robert Service and reading them out loud.

A free day in Denali. The lack of sleep finally catches up to me, and I feel as bad as I've ever felt without actually getting sick. I go back to bed after breakfast, wake up five hours later feeling better, and spend the rest of the afternoon loafing. Around four I ride into Denali Park to catch a glimpse of Mount McKinley, which the Indians call Denali, the Great One. Measuring from its base, it's taller than Mount Everest, which sits on a plateau. McKinley rises 20,320 feet from an elevation of only 2,000 feet. But the mountain isn't "out" today, which is the case two days out of three.

Jim's Mysterious Furry Critter of the Frozen North is spotted again, under an outhouse on the road into Denali Park. It is positively identified as a hoary marmot. That evening I spot my second, third, and fourth moose, a female and two youngsters, in the trees beside the hotel parking lot. Peering at them through the dense brush, what I initially take for saplings are in fact the female's hind legs—her heinie must be six feet off the ground. I approach to within 10 feet to snap pictures. Keith creeps up behind me and whispers, "If she flattens her ears, run like hell." Which way? I ask. "Just follow me," he says, then adds, "but don't get ahead of me."

The final day of the tour takes us from Denali back to Anchorage. It's bitterly cold and raining, and when it's not raining the clouds are so low I feel like I can stand up on the footpegs and touch them. Despite the weather, Jim and Jerry and I stop at the Talkeetna Moose Dropping Festival. This event does not, as a group of particularly humorless animal rights activists are rumored to have believed, involve dropping moose, but rather the droppings of moose. The end-product of moose digestion is incorporated into jewelry, used in contests of skill, and lends it name to various chocolate confections.

As we arrive, the Anchorage Scottish Pipe Band strikes up "Scotland the Brave." We lunch at the Roadhouse, where we are served by one of the top 10 friendliest waitresses in North America (the other nine are in Alaska, too) and watch locals mixing with out-of-towners who wouldn't ordinarily be caught dead at such a rube-fest and are trying hard not to let on how much fun they're having. I pose for a picture with a reindeer, which responds to the touch of my hand on its bristly coat by urinating in a splashing torrent. Add one more item to the list of liquids that won't soak through Gore-Tex. People in colorful costumes roam the tiny town, and I see more mixed-breed dogs than I've ever seen in one place outside the animal shelter. Another hour and a half on the road and we're back at the Glacier Bear, from which we'll catch rides to the airport and home in the morning.

Human habitation has a way of taming a place, of softening it, civilizing it. There are only a little over half a million people in Alaska, and they haven't even begun to take the rough edges off it. Maybe they never will. Maybe they just can't. If Montana is Big Sky country, Alaska is Big Everything country. The state motto should be, "There's nothing small here." Words are inadequate to express the sheer size and scope of the place—lakes miles long, mountains miles high, wooded hills rolling to the horizon in all directions.





See it while you still can, big, wild, empty Alaska, full of sights that'll make your brain doubt your eyes. See it on a motorcycle. And see it soon, before somebody gets to work on those rough edges.

Add to Technorati Favorites