Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa's New Ride

My shop, Open Road Outfitters, builds Harley and Gold Wing trikes. This is a sample of our latest work, the Santa Trike. The custom motorcycle paint was done by Webster Designs in Ruckersville, Virginia. I can't wait to get a chance to ride it, but am told I'll have to put on a Santa suit. No problem!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

New Motorcycle Trailering Website

A couple years ago I put together a website about motorcycle trailering called Tailpullers. It was fun to create, but hard to maintain because I wrote the code. There are so many great off-the-shelf content management systems now, I decided the site needed a re-write.

The new site is called Motorcycle Trailer Guide and is located at www.mctrailerguide.com. It contains over fifty articles on all aspects of motorcycle trailering and includes a discussion forum and photo gallery. I look forward to building it out -- it's a whole lot easier with someone else's tools!

Come on over and join the fun!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Truth in Advertising: Highland Scenic Highway

I'm fascinated by Adobe Photoshop's panoramic scene stitching software. This image was taken along WV 150, the Highland Scenic Highway, about ten miles from Marlington, WV. Click on the image to see a larger version.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Spotted in a field on an evening ride. She's seen better days, but there's still a certain charm in her curves.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Swivel Hitch Installation Video

Motorcycle cargo trailers have a unique relationship with the bikes that tow them because the ball-and-coupler connection between the two moves in multiple dimensions as the motorcycle leans through a turn.

Some riders feel there is sufficient range of motion in the existing coupling to accommodate their riding style while other riders feel a swivel is essential. Then too, there are occasions when the motorcycle's lean can exceed the range of the joint and twist the trailer tongue. Hopefully this will only happen at low speeds, e.g. a tip-over in the parking lot or dropping the bike in a tight U-turn; I've done the former and heard from someone who has done the latter. In either case, it's possible the bike might lean too far, twisting the tongue.

Here's a little five-minute video I put together that demonstrates how a swivel is installed on a cargo trailer.

Click this link to order a swivel hitch for your motorcycle trailer.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Motorcycle Touring Do's and Don'ts

I had the chance recently to take my first extended ride of the '08 season and it reminded me of some lessons about motorcycle travel I've learned (and relearned) over the years. Funny, even though I write often on this topic, I still find myself, usually somewhere along the road, thinking "I should have known [insert travel pearl of wisdom here]." Here are a few things that re-occurred to me over the weekend.

DO bring backup maps and DON'T rely exclusively on a GPS. Three hours into my four-day trip, the GPS quit (that's strike two, Garmin) and I found I'd neglected to pack my DeLorme Gazetteer. It wasn't a deal killer for this trip, but had I been venturing into unfamiliar territory, it would have been a problem. I did at least have Street Atlas on my laptop, so I could browse routes each night and make notes.

DO choose boxers over briefs. I've found over the years that brief-style undershorts contribute to short rides because the elastic bands around the legs begin to chafe in delicate areas. Boxers or better yet, bicycle pants, are more comfortable over the long haul. Bike pants in particular are well padded in critical areas and significantly increase comfort on sport-oriented bikes with a forward-cant seating position that keeps you balancing on your nethers.

DO at least one shakedown run of any new gear before your "big" trip. I can't emphasize this enough. Week after week I get frantic calls from folks here at the shop, looking to bolt a trailer onto their bike and, oh by the way, they're leaving in a couple of days. Whether its a GPS, new tires, or anything else new to you, you will enjoy your trip a lot more if you add those gadgets and become accustomed to their operation well before your trip. This is especially true with any new riding gear. If you are planning to buy a new helmet or boots, purchase these at least a couple months in advance and wear them as much as possible to ensure they're well broken in. It's no fun to discover that your new helmet doesn't fit well or your boots pinch when you're at the end of day one on a ten-day trip.

DO have aspirin or ibuprofen handy. Take the recommended dose in the morning before you start riding and this will help ease muscle fatigue during the day.

Believe it or not, you'll feel fresher at the end of the day if you DO use earplugs on your ride. You may not pay attention to wind noise, but your brain is still processing it. Earplugs are especially good at filtering out white noise, while still allowing you to hear your bike and important sounds like sirens. In fact, I can hear sirens from a greater distance while riding WITH earplugs because the extraneous sounds around me are filtered out. When you hop off the bike and pop out the plugs after a long ride, you will be able to detect a noticeable difference in the sharpness of your hearing.

If you think you will need a tire change on your trip, DO coordinate that in advance, especially if you are choosy about your tires. Based on your tire's estimate remaining life (be conservative), figure out about where that will fall on your trip and contact a dealer in that area to reserve a set of tires. If your tires are within 1,000 miles of the end of their service life, replace them before your trip. When I returned home, my rear tire was shot. If I'd been on a longer trip, that could have cost me a day or two waiting on replacements that might not have been my preferred tire.

And finally, DO stay hydrated. Throughout your ride, that wind in your hair is taking moisture along with it. If you start feeling draggy, fatigued, or begin developing a headache, you own machine may just be low on water.

I hope you enjoy a safe and exciting riding season!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Road and The Ride

Some people are attracted to motorcycling for the thrill of the ride, the speed, the lean. Hitting the apex. Others are drawn to motorcycling for the camradarie enjoyed by a group of riders, or, just the opposite--the solitude of the lone rider. Still others are intrigued and inspired by the machine and its innerworkings. Over the years, I've come to enjoy these aspects of riding, but the original draw for me was, and continues to be, something else.

How could you hope to enjoy the American Experience, how could you expect to discover the unique, vast, mythic, iconic Open Road on anything other than a motorcycle? You can't. Just as we have mythologized and romanticized the American West with the cowboy and his horse, we've done the same with our motorcycles and the people who ride them. You can only find The Road on A Bike. (You may recognize this concept -- it's the strategy Harley has pursued for the last twenty years. I still remember one of Harley's print ads from years back "Ride Hard or Stay Home.") Hey, I'm a believer.

Of course there are roads and then there are Roads, just as there are rides and Rides, bikes and Bikes. After years of riding, I realized I'd become all too familiar with "little r" roads. I'm talking about interstate highways, expressways, the roads we often succumb to following when time must be converted to distance most efficiently. The problem is, riding the interstate too often becomes a crutch, a habit. An excuse. "Oh, well, I've just got to get to Asheville in six hours, so I'll have to take the Interstate." An Interstate will get you between points most efficiently, but it's not a fulfilling experience. Sort of like going to Sunday School and skipping church.

In the last year couple of years, I've made a special point to plan trips following more Roads and fewer roads. On average, I can travel between points in the Appalachians on non-express US highways and state primary routes, tacking on no more than 25% to my travel time; the greatest portion of that time being added when I ride through small towns instead of around them. Once in a while, the time is even shorter.

I came to this change of mind a few years ago on a return trip from the Roanoke Valley region, following the superslab. The GPS had my arrival home pegged at about 4:30 in the afternoon. As my mind wandered from one thing to the next, I started asking myself what I'd do with the rest of the day. Really, what would an hour's difference in my return mean? Nothing. I formed a plan to dump the Interstate and jump on US 211, a much more interesting ride. How much time could that really add? With the GPS on board, I could easily find the answer.

I wheeled the bike off the slab at New Market, quickly realizing the first benefit of the new route: Pack's Frozen Custard stand. +1 for The Road. Heading east on US 211 I found myself largely alone and riding in clean air, a welcome contrast to dodging the wind blast of one truck after another. 211 is a far more scenic and entertaining route with a couple short sections of switchbacks crossing Massanutten and the Blue Ridge. Instead of riding mindlessly, I was fully engaged in the ride. In fact, for a half-hour since diverting, I hadn't paid much attention to the GPS, knowing it would be recalculating routes for a while until its intentions matched mine. So when I looked down and noted my newly estimated arrival time, I was a bit surprised. 4:50 p.m. A paltry twenty minutes was the total cost between slogging along the Interstate and enjoying a memorable ride along The Road.

Since then I've replaced most of my interstate journeys with alternate routes and it's had an interesting effect on my perspective in more than just the added travel time, extra curves, and better scenery. To travel the old US highways regularly and exclusively is to rediscover what it felt like to travel cross-country years ago. You don't just point your bike in a direction and ride for hundreds of miles without interruption. Riding on old roads requires thought and some navigational skill. The general store is no longer just a curiousity you pass by; it regains its status as an essential rest stop. Original and one-of-a-kind eateries replace the endless string of derivative pretenders like Applebees and Cracker Barrel.

There's an entirely different feel to travel when I sit in a restaurant surrounded by community members instead of a herd of fellow travelers, all in a similar rush to eat and get back on the road. Instead of detachment, I feel connected. My waitress expresses surprise when she asks where I've come from and where I'm headed. A local rider offers a few new route ideas, giving the impression that if asked he or she would gladly escort me. No one's in a hurry, so I tend to linger a bit longer and relax.

Before it meant getting to your destination as fast as possible, this is what travel used to be about, connecting with people outside your usual circle. Making discoveries along the way rather than counting miles. Stopping at a wayside for lunch instead of another value meal. Dropping a few coins at Dinosaurland or The Mystery Spot, not an in-room movie. Sticking around long enough for a slice of homemade pie with a fresh cuppa Joe. Stopping for the night in a town where everything's closed at 8:00 p.m. Kicking tires and trading stories at the filling station instead of paying at the pump.

This type of travel isn't faster, but it's far more satisfying. And, as I have come to realize, if you're not on The Road, you're not enjoying The Ride.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Thoughts on the Zumo 550

In The Essential Guide to Motorcycle Travel (EGMT), I wrote extensively about GPS navigation systems, which is a little like writing about my daughter's current favorite teen star. Chancy business. In certain categories like electronics, print titles are always playing catch up to the latest and greatest. Just like dads.

The theory of GPS operation is still the same, which is the bulk of the chapter. However since EG was published, the Garmin Zumo has replaced the Garmin StreetPilot 2830 as one of the premiere motorcycle GPS systems on the market. I've been using a Zumo for almost a year now and thought I'd offer a few comments to supplement what was said in the book. Others, like Motorcycle Consumer News, have offered far more comprehensive reviews. These thoughts comprise my $.02.

I was immediately attracted to the idea that the Zumo was offered in a kit that includes all the accessories most riders would need to bolt the unit on their bike and go exploring, today. In the past, the biggest obstacle to putting a GPS on your bike was figuring out all the OTHER stuff you needed. The Zumo 550 also includes the gear you'd need to use the system in a four-wheeler, which I do as much as the bike. Very handy.

Voice prompting has been standard on automotive GPS systems for some time, i.e. "In 500 feet, turn left." Text-to-speech systems improve on that by announcing the exact street name to turn onto. "In 500 feet, turn left on Progress Street." This is a small refinement but an important safety feature for motorcyclists. When hearing the old prompts, you'd have to look at the screen to see the street name. With text-to-speech systems, you don't need to look at all.

If you're stepping up from an older StreetPilot like the 2610 (my first), you will appreciate the improved navigation and predictive spelling. When entering a city name, the GPS will return a short list as soon as you've entered enough of the name. Often it will return a list of two or three names with just a few characters entered.

I was really pleased to find integration with XM radio on the Zumo. I'm a big satellite radio fan. I just love being able to listen to the radio without fishing around for a new station every 50 miles. Of course, you have to purchase the Garmin GXM-30 antenna, which is about the size of a hockey puck and not cheap. I couldn't imagine why an antenna was so expensive, but later learned that it also contains the radio's electronics.

Bluetooth integration is nice, and I've used it a few times, but only in the car, not on the bike. Let's say you're hummin' along I-74 through Peoria and are getting toward the end of the riding day. You look up hotels ahead and find a list in Davenport, Iowa about an hour and a half ahead. With a Bluetooth connection to your phone, a "Dial" button becomes available that allows you to dial the number associated with a listing without entering the number. Likewise, in the car, the car adaptor includes a mic and speaker, so your Zumo acts as both a call manager and hands-free phone kit. Not essential, but a nice plus.

Those are the things I like. There are a few things I don't, to wit:

List priority is a mystery to me. For example, I'll often make changes en route (Safely off the road. Please!) and some times use the "Spell" feature to return a list of whatever I'm looking for, e.g., a restaurant, a city, etc. I'd like to see the list in order of distances from me. If I'm looking up, oh let's say "Lexington," I'd like to see Lexingtons from nearest, at the top of the list, to furthest. Instead, the one I want is always at the bottom of the list. Maybe there's a way to change this? If so, I'd like to know.

I wish Garmin would license a mapping product from someone like DeLorme or even Microsoft. Mapsource, the route mapping software that comes with every Garmin, feels software thrown together by a committee of Dilberts after a three-martini lunch. No offense to anyone actually name "Dilbert" -- you've suffered enough injustice already. And I can't say DeLorme is entirely without fault. Their Street Atlas product could use some updating too -- the tabbed mess at the bottom of the screen is a prime example.

The Zumo motorcycle mount needs to be beefed up and a better way should be devised to allow you to lock/unlock the unit. Would you like having to a) keep track of and b) fish out a tiny, specially-designed screwdriver to unlock your GPS every time you walk away from the bike for more than a minute? No. Do you have to? If your Zumo is wired for power to your bike, yes. There is no way that the little plastic mount, locked or unlocked, would stand up to even a semi-determined thief for more than 30 seconds. Unless you want to chance it and leave your expensive gizmo alone in the parking lot while you grab some lunch. Didn't think so. That means the only alternative is to take out the special pronged screwdriver (better keep it in a handy place), and loosen the screw that locks the release, stow the GPS, then reattach and re-screw, er, re-tighten the locking screw. Rather than this arrangement I'd like to see some type of spring-loaded button lock that engages when the GPS is mounted, then you'd have to actively push the button to release the unit.

On Bluetooth-equipped Zumos (the 550), you can pair the Zumo with a Bluetooth headset in your helmet, enabling you to hear voice prompts or audio from the MP3 player. Great. However, the Bluetooth connection does not support XM radio audio. If you want XM audio, that is only available through a headphone output. Maybe this has been addressed since I bought mine. Given the increasing popularity of Bluetooth, I'm sure it's just a matter of time. Still, I don't see why that couldn't have been available at the outset.

The Zumo doesn't support multiple waypoints when you're programming it on the fly. I can live with that. It doesn't offer touchscreen map movement. I can live with that, too, although I spent a good ten minutes on my first use trying to do so. Turns out, if you navigate down a couple of screens away from the main map, you can in fact move the map around with your finger, but it isn't obvious and I don't find it as useful as being able to do so at a higher level.

Yeah, I know, pick, pick, pick. None of these things is a big deal, however, the biggest fault with the Zumo, its fragile nature, cannot be so easily explained away. No one knows what percentage of Zumos have failed within a year, but if traffic on various motorcycle and Zumo related forums are any indication, it's higher than normal. At one time, I sold Zumos through my shop (no more -- can't keep up with the falling prices), and fully half of them required a warranty repair or replacement, including mine. Out of the box, mine never charged the battery. A replacement battery was issued. Later, the whole unit would simply shut off or reset itself. The replacement battery didn't fix the charging problem, so the whole unit was replaced. The headphone output jack in the car adaptor snapped off the printed circuit board. I have no fault with Garmin's response to my service requirements. There was never any hassle and they replaced everything in a timely manner. But still, it'd be nice to avoid these problems to begin with.

What it all comes down to is this -- given what I know now, would I buy another Zumo? I'd have to say "yes, I would." If I were a new GPS buyer, some of the interface issues I have would never have been apparent to me. Evidence with respect to the Zumo's fragile nature is purely anecdotal and Garmin's response, at least to my issues, have been satisfactory.

No, I have to say that despite the issues, I wouldn't give up my Zumo and I wouldn't trade back down to a StreetPilot. I would, however, like very much to get my XM audio via Bluetooth. I could forgive its other shortcomings if I could just get my Miles Davis and Steely Dan floating beamed directly to my headset, sans wires.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Motorcycle Camping in Brandywine, WV

I’m about ready to get out the forklift and pull the pop-up camper off the top shelf here at our warehouse so I can prep it for a new season of motorcycle camping. I’m not yet ready to take it on the road, but the ever-moderating temps have me thinking about long fireside evenings, poking at the fire, roasting a dog or two, and swapping tales with riding buddies.

One of my favorite cycle camps is a US Forest Service campground in eastern West Virginia at the Brandywine Recreation Area. While many private campgrounds have evolved into resort-like experiences (with the accompanying prices, I might add), Brandywine has just the right mix of facilities for a quiet weekend around the campfire with your family or a group of riding buddies. Brandywine is open to all vehicles, but generators are not allowed and sites have no power or water, so the big RVs go elsewhere.

The campground features about thirty shaded sites each with a picnic table, fire ring, and leveled spot for pitching a tent. That’s it. Oh, and yes, they also have hot showers. You’ll find those at a well-kept bathhouse near the entrance to the campground. Self-register at the entrance and pay a small fee ($13 USD per day).

Nearby family-operated restaurants offer hearty meals as an option to lugging along food. My favorite spot, The Cabin, is just down the road from the campground. If you stop by on Sunday after church lets out, expect to hang out on the front porch for a table. You’ll quickly strike up a conversation with folks who’ve come “over the mountain” from Harrisonburg or Franklin. A meal here is worth the wait.

If you plan to go on a popular camping weekend (Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day), show up on Thursday rather than Friday for the best choice of sites. There is no bad site, but I prefer the ones along the dry riverbed near the back of the campground.

I last visited Brandywine with my son Carl. We camped for three days, mountain bikes in tow, planning to tackle some of the areas fine roads. Weather was perfect whereas our conditioning was found lacking. We didn’t do much bicycling, but we had a great time exploring the surrounding countryside and enjoying each other’s company. Those few days spent hiking, skipping rocks on the lake, star-gazing, and chatting around the fire were priceless. (Carl will forever remember Brandywine as the place where dad let him drive the car around the parking lot.) I think it’s about time we visited again.

Brandywine is situated along US 33 in the shadow of Shenandoah Mountain, thirty miles west of Harrisonburg, VA. For more infor-mation, call the Dry River Ranger District at 540-432-0187.

Riders take note: Routes around Brandywine, including US 33, will cause you to squeal with childish delight.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Along The Road

As a kid, I waited for the school bus at the end of our driveway along VA Route 3 between Culpeper and Fredericksburg. You've probably traversed this length of highway in your travels. Several sections of Route 3 stretch out into long straightaways. I lived along one of those straights, and as I stood at the end of the driveway every morning, my attention was usually focused to the west where I could see a line of mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, of course.

Nothing much ever happened a long that stretch of highway, at least it didn't seem like it to me. Not unless you count the rare flash of excitement when a fire truck or state trooper would fly by the house with lights blazing and siren blaring. I can still hear the sound of the trooper pushing his foot to the floor and the sound of a thirsty old V-8 roaring to life. Once in a while high school kids would use our straightaway for some old-fashioned drag racing. On any summer evening, you could stand out by the road, watch the sun sink over the mountains and wave to no more than a handful of cars over the hour. Not much happened along that road on my watch.

Over the years, I've learned a lot about that road. Turns out, a few things did happen. Not long after the Europeans first set foot on these shores, one of Virginia's early governors, Alexander Spotswood, commissioned a settlement along the banks of the Rapid Ann (now the Rapidan River) at Germanna Ford, named for the First Germanna Colony. Spotswood later went on to explore the Shenandoah Valley, famously passing over Swift Run Gap (today's US 33) with an expedition he called the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.

Sometimes the action was in my backyard. Literally. The house behind mine, an old two-story that served as the village post office, was once a thriving, bawdy tavern known as Zimmerman's Cross Keys Tavern. It sat at the intersection of Route 3, known then as the Fairfax Stage Route (Fairfax being the original name for Culpeper), and the Carolina Road which ran from around Frederick, Maryland well into North Carolina.

Traveling west along the stage route for a full day brought you from Fredericksburg to the village, so Zimmerman's was a well known and popular respite for the weary traveler who'd covered some forty miles. Once when tilling our garden, I found an old Spanish silver coin from the 1700's, no doubt dropped by a passenger along that road and a tavern patron. Wonder if he found it missing when he went to pay for his pint?

In the mid 1800's there was plenty of action along that road. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia marched up and down that road and many others in the area as his troops roamed the central Piedmont. In wet times, the road was a muddy mess and simply impassable. Wagons would quickly become buried up to the cargo box. To fix this, Lee's army created a corduroy or plank road, the crudest form of early paving made by felling logs and laying them across the road. Can you imagine what it must have been like to ride a wagon across miles and miles of logs?

It's along this road that Stonewall Jackson's arm is buried. Along this road is the quarry where dinosaur footprints were found. It's the road along which Daniel Boone lived for three years before leading an expedition to some new land called Ken-tuh-Kay. It's the road that newlywed George Custer and his wife traveled to honeymoon at Clover Hill. It's the road Clara Barton followed to perform her first field duty in a Civil War skirmish known as the Battle of Cedar Hill. It's a road once traveled by Walt Whitman, George Washington, and Patrick Henry.

So there I stood, day after day, evening after evening, along that road. Waiting for the bus in the mornings. Watching the sun sink below the mountains at night. To me, nothing much ever happened along that road. Or, wait a minute. Did I just hear a siren in the distance?