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Thursday, May 13, 2010

A few laps on the race track

Last night I dropped by Race City to visit my old friends from BGPRSchools and see what the VFR1200 felt like on the race track.

Being a guest, I was careful not to overstay my welcome and stuck around for just 2 sessions. Also, I knew that the more laps I rode, the faster I would want to go, and the more likely I was to crash my expensive prized possession. The race track is a dangerous addictive substance, but I just needed a taste.

Having not ridden on the track for nearly a year, I had some serious jitters. I went out in the (nearly vacant) intermediate group and pinned it down the front straight. Just as it did on my very first ride, the big VFR put me immediately at ease. Though I wasn't riding at anywhere near a competition pace, the VFR accellerated, braked and flowed through the turns effortlessly. The jitters were gone by turn 3 and I settled into a relaxed but fun pace, easily dragging my knee through a few different turns and braking confidently at the ends of the straights. The Dunlop Roadsmart tires had no trouble with my sedate pace and gave plenty of confidence in the tight turns.

Unlike the racier motorcycles I've had in the past, the VFR1200 has gear ratios suited for road riding. First gear is good for pulling away from a stop fully loaded with luggage and a passenger... but it's used up by 80Km/h. 2nd through 5th are spread widely and take you from 80-220Km/h. 6th gear is a tall overdrive that's good for relaxed highway cruising. The road bias of the gearbox was frustrating in a few spots, where it was tough to know what gear to use. Muscle-memory is a powerful and surprising subconscious influence. My brain and left foot were programmed to change into specific gears at specific points in the track from the hundreds of laps I've run here before. The influence was so strong that I even upshifted a couple of times going into slow turns, having been accustomed to a GP shift pattern on my old racebike... which hasn't happened once on the road. It seems my brain runs on a completely different motorcycle riding software at the track. I suppose that's a good thing.

Brad signalled for a first-gear roll-on dragrace on the front straight. He was riding his slightly modified Suzuki B-King. We lined up doing close to 100Km/h and I didn't stand a chance. As soon as I "hit it" I hit the rev limiter and had to upshift. I made a hasty upshift and caught neutral, and Brad and the BK were gone. At 100 in first, his Suzuki was just getting into the good part of the power curve, and the VFR was almost redlined. We had a re-match the second time around in second gear. The big VFR still lost ground to the big streetfighter, but kept pace surprisingly well.

As always with the BGPR team, bikes are shared, and Brad Gavey is one of about 3 people on the planet that I would allow to ride my VFR1200. He's ridden literally hundreds if not thousands of motorcycles and was eager to throw a leg over the big Honda. His impression was that it was faster and better handling than he expected, but the length was very noticeable. He loved the gearbox for its smoothness but hated the ratios. The Dunlop Roadsmart tires reached their limitations quickly with an expert racer on board, even at what was for Brad a very casual pace. He figured it could probably lap pretty quickly with better tires. He made no mention of the shaft drive which probably means he didn't really notice it. He said he would have gone a bit faster but was concerned he'd drag the bodywork on the curbing.

While Brad tested my VFR, I tried his 2010 Kawasaki ZX-10R. I took it easy for fear of crashing his brand-new gift from a sponsor. The "gentleman's insurance policy" is "you crash mine I keep yours". I didn't want Brad to keep my VFR any more than I wanted to keep his ZX so I was very cautious. The big Kawi has a reputation for being a man-eater but I was pleasantly surprised. Though it accelerated and braked with cataclysmic force, it was remarkably forgiving and easy to ride. For a Honda guy, the riding position felt weird; a tight riders' triangle with high pegs and low clip-ons. My hands were positioned right ahead of my bent knees and if I didn't sit bolt upright when braking for turn 1 it felt like I would be ejected over the front wheel. Brad said afterwards that at the limit, it does get pretty twitchy but I wasn't going anywhere close to it. Still, I liked it more than I expected.

I didn't plan on running a full track day on the VFR; I just wanted to try it out. It won't be something I'll do regularly, but it was a good exersize to build a bit of confidence on the bike and see what it would do when pushed a little. Definitely glad I went.

Friday, May 7, 2010

My Motorcycle History

From the first...

1982 Honda XL80
My dad picked this one up (and a matching XR80 for my brother) at the farmer's auction for a hundred bucks to get us introduced to motorcycles. We learned how to ride (usually full throttle, top gear, trying to stay ahead of each other on a gravel road) how to dress for the ride (always full coverage, boots, helmet, gloves and eye protection) and a little bit about motorcycle maintenance. (oiling the chain, changing the oil, keeping the bike clean) Near Dad's acreage, there was a rodeo grounds with a dirt track and a sand quarry. We would do most of our riding between those two places, riding the gravel roads to the general store now and then to get fuel. Dad always preferred Hondas and that's how the rest of this goes...

1983 XR350, 1984 VF1100S Sabre, 1982 FT500 Ascot
These weren't really mine... they were my Dad's bikes but I was allowed to ride them whenever I wanted through high school (1996-1999) and they all had their own influence on me.
The Ascot was an air-cooled single that sounded and handled like a quad and could only do about 120Km/h pinned in top gear downhill with a tail wind. It was a little lacking on the highway but it loved dirt and gravel roads where you could slide the back wheel around as much or as little as you wanted. It was the easiest motorcycle in the World to ride.
The Sabre was Dad's main touring bike and I only tried it for a few short rides. Like a good roller-coaster, it was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. The back-end would raise up like a big cat on his haunches getting ready to pounce when you opened the throttle in the lower gears, due to the crude shaft-drive design. The chassis would wind up like a big rubber band and then release with a kinetic explosion of accelleration. It would do 260Km/h. Second gear didn't work. You had to go straight from first to 3rd but it didn't really matter. It still accellerated faster than my unconditioned brain could process and I loved it. It had a V4 engine and I decided I liked that.
The XR350 was half dirtbike, half Sherman tank. It had a SuperTrapp muffler that made it sound like a gatling gun. Through my adolescent years I was way too small to handle it but that didn't stop me from borrowing it go mess around in the trails once in a while. It was lots of fun as long as I didn't stall it or drop it... or both. I could barely pick it up and it took everything I had to get it restarted. I went away to college and it would be almost 10 years before I rode a dirtbike again.

2000 VFR800FI
I didn't ride a motorcycle through 3 years of college, and when I came back home Dad had a brand new VFR800. His was a 2001 model.... blue with grey wheels. I loved riding it and decided I needed one of my own. I picked up a cheap rebuilt-status red 2000 model that had been crashed and fixed and repainted but was in good mechanical shape and had a strong motor. It had gear-driven cams and a Kerker pipe and the sounds it made were just intoxicating. I rode it to work every day, rode it home on the weekends, and took a few long trips into the mountains. It was the first bike that I really went fast on and learned to love the curves in the road. I had no idea what I was doing but it felt great to lean it over and I could drag the pegs through the turns. I have no idea how I avoided crashing the shit out of it. After about a year I was struggling to make ends meet and had to sell it. A friend bought it, used it for stunting and within a few months crashed the shit out of it.

2003 CBR954RR
This should be a short chapter... the bike only lasted a month. Before I got the 954 I very nearly interrupted my all-Honda motorcycle pattern. I had my first decent job as a lower-level manager and with my steady income I decided I could afford a new motorcycle. The 2003 GSXR1000 had just been released and it was the fastest baddest most insane bike money could buy. I wanted a silver one. Problem was, Suzuki didn't have their own financing and I didn't qualify for the 3rd-party financing through the banks. Honda, on the other hand, had their own financing arm which was happy to loan me the 14 grand for the new 954. Luckily, the financing included "gap" insurance which covered the negative equity if the bike was written off. (can you see where this is going?) It might not have been quite as fast as the mental GSXR, but it was still absurdly powerful and way beyond my capabilities to ride properly. Martin Gelinas scored the winning goal in overtime in game 6 of the western conference semifinal against the Detroit Red Wings and I hopped on the 954 for a celebration ride with my brother in tow on his RC-51. We did a few wheelies downtown then I took off down a dark twisty country road, misjudged a turn, hit the ditch and smashed the CBR into pieces against a boulder. At some point before the boulder I bailed off the bike and only my pride was hurt. My brother eventually caught up and saw me pacing back and forth next to the smouldering red and black Honda. He pulled over, put his bike on its side stand, lit me a cigarette, looked me square in the eye and said: "Can I have your tires?" It gave the situation some desperately needed levity and we shared a good hard belly laugh. That bike barely made it past its first oil change.

2004 CBR1000RR
As soon as the insurance was settled on the 954 I went straight out and purchased the 1000RR. I wanted the new Kawasaki ZX-10R but again... easy financing on the Honda! The CBR still felt more "right" to me and it looked fantastic it its all-black glossy bodywork. For the most part I fooled around in town and posed with the other squids but I did take a couple of really memorable trips into the mountains on the 1000RR. One day while fooling around with the other squids - in this case doing laps around a cloverleaf - I fell off and hit my head on the pavement hard enough to crack the shell of my Shoei RF900 helmet. I spent 3 days in a hospital bed with a nasty concussion. To this day I still don't remember the wreck. The bike had enough damage to be written off but I decided to fix it instead. I was afraid to see what would happen to my insurance premiums and I just felt foolish about it. There was a busted aluminum water joint that needed to be replaced, but the engine had to be removed to access it. I bought a service manual and a bunch of new tools and went to work. Other than basic maintenance, I had no idea how to fix a motorcycle and this was a fantastic learning process. I gained a better understanding of how everything worked, and gained a lot of confidence as a mechanic. I followed the book to the letter, took my time and eventually got it all put back together, with the addition of a custom race-replica paint job. I continued on with the posing but dialed down the squidly stuff and took a couple more trips into the mountain roads of BC. The mountain roads were a lot of fun but riding around in the city was getting to be really boring. Then I signed up for a track day and everything changed. I learned how to ride a sportbike properly, in the environment it was designed for. I wasn't even interested in riding on the street any more. I put the fairings and street stuff in a box and installed some fiberglass racing fairings. I rode exclusively on the race track for a full season and started to get interested in racing.

2007 CBR600RR
I started looking for a deal on a crashed sportbike that I could build into a track bike. A 600CC supersport would make the best platform (easier than a litre bike to go fast on) for a rookie racer, and Honda's new '07 CBR600RR was the lightest, most powerful, best-handling 600 on the market. I found a perfect candidate... an insurance write-off from Saskatchewan with only 630Kms. It was irresistably cheap. The fairings and lights were smashed but I wouldn't need those anyway and all the important parts were still in good condition. I spent a winter building it into a kick-ass race bike. In the spring I put my CBR1000RR back to street-legal trim and sold it. I got my race license and competed in the local racing club initially as a novice, then an amateur. I raced on a team for the local trackday / track school company... the founder of which I became good friends with. I ran all 6 events and between race weekends got lots of track time as an instructor for the school. It was a summer I'll never forget. I documented the build of the bike here: http://www.motorcycleaddicts.org/honda/7242-07-600rr-racebike-resurrection-journal.html (sign up as a member to view pics)

2007 CBR125R
I was looking for a "pitbike" that I could mess around with at track days when Honda Canada announced that they would be offering the CBR125, which was previously only sold in foreign markets. With a price of only $3300 it was only a little more than I was planning on spending for a pitbike, but it was road legal and therefore much more useful. It was a hilarious little bike. It didn't have enough power for riding on the highway but it was great around town and always made me laugh when I rode it. I even took it to a couple of track nights. Eventually I just stopped riding it. I moved from a central location in the city to the suburbs. It didn't make sense to commute on it and I had an expensive wedding to pay for. I sold it to a guy who wanted to learn to ride. This, after all, is what it was designed for and I'm sure it did its job well.

2008 CRF250X
A couple of friends who used to do trackdays with me had sold their track bikes and started riding dirt. They had been bugging me to get a dirtbike and join them. I went out with them a couple times on a borrowed CRF450X and got hooked. The type of riding they were doing was not what I remembered from my dirtbiking youth. They rode challenging technical single-track in the mountains and I found it exhilarating. In 2009 I upgraded the suspension on my 600RR racebike and rode it...... once. It wasn't that I didn't want to ride it anymore, I just didn't have time with my job and my upcoming wedding. It seemed a shame to have it sit there unused in the garage, so I sold it to another racer and used the money to buy the CRF250X. I decided on the 250 for similar reasons that brought me to a 600 for the racetrack... it was easier to handle than a 450 and with my limited skill I could actually go faster on it. Ibought it second-hand but it was basically brand new. A guy with no riding experience had bought it, rode it once for about 10 minutes, scared himself stupid, and put it up for sale. I got a great deal. I upgraded it with some trail-riding gear (skidplate, hand guards, rad guards) and only rode it once before I had to put it away for winter. As I am writing this, it's the 6th of May and winter still hasn't released its icy grip, but I'll be getting back out to the trails very soon. And I'll be filming my rides. Maybe I'll share them here.

2010 VFR1200FA
I've written at length here about my reasons for getting the 1200... here is a brief overview: I miss riding in the mountains, and I want to bring my wife along when I can. The VFR is awesome, and I wanted it. Now I have it. I'll let you know how it goes. So far so good.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Trip to Edmonton... second impressions

I almost drove the truck instead of riding the VFR. The purpose of the trip was to visit my sister, who is very sick. The doctors let her out of the hospital on a day pass and I knew it would mean a lot for her to see me. It meant a lot for me too.

It was cold as hell and there was still snow on the gound on Friday morning from the massive winter storm that hit on Wednesday night. At the last minute I checked the road report and weather forecast and decided it would be safe to ride the VFR. The roads were clear, and though it was only 6 degrees in Calgary, it would get a bit warmer as I rode north. How could I complain about a little discomfort when my sister had just endured a week of having chemo drugs pumped through her veins? This needed to be a motorcycle trip.

I considered this a good opportunity to test the claims of the Joe Rocket Survivor Suit that I purchased this winter. This is a piece of equipment meant for riding in all conditions, so I was interested to see how it handled the bitter cold and wind on the open prairie. I installed the insulated liner and donned my Alpinestars Drystar gloves and boots, and UnderArmour Coldgear neck protector.

The VFR felt great right from the moment I rolled it out of the garage. Honda have successfully designed and built a motorcycle that is wickedly powerful and quick while being completely unintimidating and effortless to ride. I felt confident in the grip in spite of the conditions. I rode a gear or two higher than I normally would and I enjoy the way I can roll on the throttle in 6th gear and pass a car or two or 5 with a rush of smooth torquey acceleration.... almost as much as I loved the look on car drivers' faces when they took a double-take of the lunatic riding a motorcycle in the freezing cold. The road shoulders still had snow and ice and the ditches were still littered with crashed cars and trucks from 2 nights before.

The Survivor Suit proved its worth immediately. With the insulated liner installed and all of the vents shut I was warm and dry and comfortable. I ordered the suit online and didn't have an opportunity to try one on, but luckily, it fits me almost perfectly. It's just a bit snug... I can wear shorts and a t-shirt underneath but nothing bulkier than that. When I first tried it on I was concerned that the legs were too long but once I sat on a motorcycle it made sense. Like my racing leathers, the survivor suit is tailored tofit best when in a crouched riding position. It's easy to get in and out of, with zippers that go all the way up the sides of both legs and down and across the front. The waterproof pockets are located conveniently but their small openings make it hard to get my hand in to retrieve my wallet, keys, camera, etc. Crash protection seems sturdy and the shell is indeed 100% waterproof as claimed. A front "storm flap" and back vents are meant to let air through and keep the rider cool on hotter days. On this day I would not need to test them. The Drystar boots and gloves were warm and comfy, but I doubt their ability to protect me in a crash. The gloves are sure to wear through quickly and the boots will probably come off. I plan to only use them if I'm riding in serious cold or rain.

I stopped for fuel in Red Deer and had a chat with a new Victory Vision owner. He liked the VFR's paint and its single sided swingarm. With his pudding bowl helmet and badass black leather, he was a different breed of rider... but we talked bikes (what else?) and he was as thrilled with his new Victory as I was with my new Honda. Well, I haven't been completely thrilled... I've been a bit frustrated with the limited range of the VFR1200FA and I grumbled to the "Visionary " that I had only achieved 233Kms on this tank of fuel. He threw a leg over his enormous motorcycle and casually replied: "she'll grow legs buddy, she'll grow legs". He cranked George Thoroughgood on the Vision's stereo speakers, and I didn't yet realize how right he was.

The more I ride the VFR the more comfortable it gets. The riding position, which felt a little awkward at first, is feeling more and more natural all the time. I'm re-training muscles that I haven't used in a while and the aches are subsiding. It's still not perfect though. After about an hour in the saddle I'm finding that my throttle hand is getting numb. The throttle effort is inexplicably high... why is a stiff throttle return spring neccessary when electric motors are opening the butterflys? Cruise control would be nice for longer rides. I suppose Honda are saving that for the rumored VFR1200T.

There are a couple of other quality "issues" that I'm somewhat disappointed with. The license plate light box doesn't fit tightly and wobbles around. And the paint is already scratching off the heel guards.

On the way home the motor seemed to "loosen up" almost instantly. It seemed the bars on the digital fuel gauge were not disappearing as quickly as before, and this was confirmed once I calculated the mileage. Very suddenly, the new motor went from achieving 30mpg to 37... and the last fill-up seems to be going even better. She's growing legs, just like the Visionary said. If the VFR will achieve 40mpg (US) when ridden the way I want to ride it, I won't be quite so bothered with the range anymore. 300Kms on a tank would be adequate.

 The VFR gets better every time I ride it. I'm glad I rode instead of driving. My sister is coping better than can be expected, and it lifted her spirits to see me. Maybe when she finishes her treatments I'll take her for a ride.