Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mondo Enduro

This Afternoon: Mostly sunny, with a high near 39. North wind around 18 mph, with gusts as high as 29 mph.

That's pretty typical. Yesterday, or the day before, I can't really recall, it was snowing, hailing and raining. The interesting thing was it was doing it all at the same time. Yeah, it's pretty freaky. It's new England, it's frustrating. I can ride in 39 degree weather. It's not fun really, 'cept sometimes it is. But tires are cold and that's the high, and it's near 39.

In reading over my writing I find it has a lot of wistful quality to it. I'm afraid that it's really true, I am feeling sort of that way. Back in December when a the lion's share of winter dimness was rolled out before me I kept saying to myself, "three months to March". I was thinking by March I can ride half the time.

I'm making up for it by puttering around with my beehive stuff. The bees know spring is coming too. They're making plans for it. The queen is laying again. The workers are starting to squirrel away pollen substitute. After a winter of reading motorcycle stuff I have to switch my focus or go crazy.

To that end, and because I am a librarian I would like to note that Mondo Enuro has to be the funniest book about motorcycling ever. Seven English guys set off on DR350's to ride a 44,000 mile route around the world.

I've long been a fan of British travelogues and I have to say this is non parell. There is something in the English attitude to adversity that just isn't found anyplace else. Things that would be a huge deal if Americans we're writing the book are footnotes.

If you've seen Long Way Round this is the exact opposite, though Long Way Round is great too. It's as hodge podge as it gets. It's a beautiful example of what's possible with some desire and a single cylinder motorcycle. We often get caught up in optimizing things, these guys just go. It's hilarious. If I were King I would give them all medals.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Conservation of motion

This past winter was not friendly to motorcyclists. Normally, there's that week in January where it gets darn right near hot. As I am a bee keeper too, I keep my eyes on the weather. When you get that sixty degree day in January you rush out and slap pollen patties on the hive and feed the bees some. If you're lucky you get stung. All the motorcyclists rush into town and the girls from the women's college wear wife beaters. Everyone is happy.

It never came this year. It's the end of March and I'm still riding every time with an eclectic vest. Anyhow, this winter I tried hypermiling in my car. Basically, hypermiling is driving without braking. There's a lot more to it than that but, really, that's it. It's also accelerating slowly. Anyhow, it was very interesting. What struck me about it is that it's a lot like riding motorcycles really fast.

Let me explain. To drive without breaking you have to look really far ahead. You have to think about what will happen as well as what is happening. For example, my route to work has a lot of lights. I watch the light on approach from as far away as I can and decide how to adjust my speed so I can coast through it. But there is the looking, looking far away feels like nothing else. Looking far away while moving.

It sounds a little funny but I feel like I'm coming of this winter with my motorcycle skills better intact. When hypermiling in I try and predict gaps that I can slot my car into, sometimes I go into turns in the car kind of hot, because traffic speed dictates it and because I don't want to burn off that precious energy by braking. The only recourse is to look through the turn and smoooooth on through. Sometimes the tires squeal a little.

So, its been pretty amazing. Hypermiling avoids wasted energy. Fast motorcycling also avoids wasted energy. There is a slight difference in that in fast motorcycling your trying to minimize uncontrolled energy reaching the frame, suspension or, mostly, the tires' contact patch. In both cases it's all about smoothness.

But that I didn't expect was the same kind of curtain. Good riders look ahead, make predictions and they think about where they will wind up. The faster you go the further the "event horizon" the distance that you think to, how far you reach out with your mind and your eyes. The world gets bigger.

I took a bit of a pleasure ride after work today. It was cold, hard tires, frozen road. I went into the hills to visit friends a take a loop around a local "racer road". It was interesting how far I pushed out my event horizon once away from dangerous cars, with a good line of sight. I think it was the memory of this road at speed. Like tying your shoes, it's automatic.

It was a little like the Frank Lloyd Wright effect. The noted architect employed a technique whereby he used tiny entrances to make the interior spaces seem big. I have to say that my commuter motorcycling entrance to this year with it's short lines of sight and 90 degree corners and stop and go made the world seem little, like winter that closes us into interiors. It's not a bad thing. I've said that here in the north we learn to love each other in those hardest months. We learn to conserve our motion and be careful. It's like riding in the cold. You don't want to upset the frame, or suspension or tires. They have to work together. You could slip, you need to slow down and think in the close quarters of cold months.

When spring comes it is all the more glorious for it. My loop on the racer road, by the spring melt river, I looked deep into corners, a distance suited for a speed far greater than my cold hard tires could cope with. In looking that far into corners I had a taste of summer weather that not travel brochure could ever offer. For a moment the world opened up again to a place that I could employ the techniques of a winter's study, to where the wind rushing by me would be pleasant and warm.

Friday, March 21, 2008


I rode into work again. This time it snowed on my way to work instead of on my way home. Again, electrics work great. It's an awesome feeling to be inside the 'stich, especially if you can get a layer over the outside of the eclectic vest and under the suit. It's really cozy. I also slapped a set of enduro style hand guards on the bike. Keeps the wind off the fingers, it's a nice plus to the heated grips.

On the way to work some Department of Public Works (DPW) guys pulled level with me at a stop light and looked over. They were talking, clearly about me, and waved. I used to work some for the DPW on information projects. I like DPW guys generally. They're motor guys, they keep the roads in repair, keep water and sewer running and generally keep society from collapsing.

Showing up at work in near freezing temps (people are wearing down jackets!) wasn't my plan, but so far people seem OK with it. I can't imagine what people think.

Hmm. Anyhow, I needed to drop some paperwork at the town hall. I had to explain about the eclectic vest. Well, at least nobody is thinking I am so bad ass biker dude.

So I stopped by the garage, home to the Pelham DPW and their boss Rick., while over at the town offices. Rick rides cruisers and we had a good laugh about the snow and me riding in the cold and snow. We talked a little about my trip around the Maritimes in Canada and how it had rained every day. How cold but not wet isn't so bad, but how the snow is still freaky.

In a small town like Pelham it's funny to see how the town politics works in reality. I'm happy Rick and I have bikes common. There's a few other riders in town too, connected to the town. I'm going to push ride to work day as much as I can and maybe try and get an all Pelham ride together. It cant hurt and it might even be fun.

I'm finding I am in a good mood and more productive at work on days when I ride. In the stop and go traffic I've averaged around 42 MPG. All to the good.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Riding, finally

In the end I just got sick of not riding. I'd seen the forecast and it was wintery mix, or mixed precip, or sub freezing temps. I had a one day window to ride. I was antsy and over worked.

I rode to work on Tuesday, I wound up meeting with the Friends of the Library and actually leaving work at 9:30 PM. The forcast changed throughout the day and I actually wound up leaving the library in a light snow, on my motorcycle, in the dark. Well, I can say that I made an impression.

I also wound up talking to the History Commission suited up and holding my helmet about grant opportunities for public records. So, you know, I'd gone through all this angst about presenting such a nice face on riding and all and wound up just getting tired of caging it to work every day.

Nobody batted an eye.

Riding home it was somewhere in the 30s. I was wearing a Mario wool t-shirt, a cashmere sweater, the electric vest and a wool sweater under the stich. I was fine temp wise but cornered gingerly. The eclectic grips were nice. But honestly, I could have ridden another 10 miles, though my legs did get cold.

The light snow swirling in the single beam headlight was kind of awesome.

One of the people leaving the library asked what kind of bike I had. I replied and he sort of looked unknowing. He asked me not to gun it by his house as his baby was sleeping, I assured him it was not that kind of bike. I coasted out of the parking lot with the key on but the engine off, kicked it over in 3rd gear and disappeared into the snow, silently.

Lessons learned:

People are not as judgmental as I might have thought. I need to give people more credit.

I was just happier that day. There is no rational quantitative reason for this. I was happy to be in control of something, to feel the wind rush 'round me. I was a better librarian that day.

I can't wait to ride to work again.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Operation Barbarossa

The morning was nice but it was still dicey. When I left to go to the Hanging Mountain Farm sugar house by motorcycle it was about 50/50 as to how things would go weather wise. Arriving at there we had coffee and decided that a more ambitious route to a more distant house would be worthwhile. We headed off to Windy Hill Sugar House after some time warming by the boiler at Hanging Mountain Farm.

It's a little house with only about 5 tables and it's within site of the old home. The neat thing about Windy Hill is they offer oxen sled rides if the weather is right. It turned out that the weather was right, for oxen sled rides, but not motorcycles. It has snowed about 4" in the hills. I'd ridden up by back road and thought it was just drift. I figured once I made it to the turnoff for the state highway I'd be OK. Well the turnoff was about 3 miles beyond where I'd remembered it.

It's amazing that with a steady hand you can ride 3-4 miles in slush. When I did make it to the state road I continued up to get a coffee at the general store atop the hill and at least get a view. The roads were terrible and the conditions cold at that height. When we stopped at a post office on the way down they asked where we'd parked the snowmobiles.

We came into the valley and roads were again clear, if the weather was cold and stopped by Southampton Harley Davidson's Customer Appreciation Day. It's a monthly event with free food. We had corned beef and cabbage, I had a coke too. We chatted and talked bikes, they seem like genuinely nice guys. Best of all they heat the dealersip WARM! For all I say about HD and everything they are still motorcycles, if motorcycles with conchos. A good time was had by all. Of about 20 people we were the only riders save one HD that'd come in from a couple miles distance and whose rider was lovingly toweling down the primary cover. Harleys get about 50 MPG, I guess, on 91 octane.

So, I made it to the first sugar house of the year but didn't breakfast there, but did have coffee. I feel as if I have half killed winter.

My commute would take me 10.6 miles. Not far but I leave work around 6:30. It's around the time that the mercury really drops. The 7-day NOAA suggest highs in the low 40s and lows in the 30s. It feels like as soon as the sun goes below the horizon it's cold. Plus, there's assorted "wintery mix" weather almost every day.

As I am in this for the long haul a week more or less does not matter. I'll start commuting when it makes sense and not sooner.

I was up at Davenport's sugar house this morning (by car). Its setting is, in a word, spectacular. Inside the boiler room there is a window that they keep many syrups from years past to make a sort of amber stained glass window.

On the ride home though we passed through the great meadow that is between Whately and Conway. A seasonal river had formed from the runoff in the hills, perhaps a quarter mile wide in places, swirling and eddying, crisscrossed by islands and never more than a foot or two deep.

It is hard for me, with my farmer's past, not to imagine sinking boot deep in it and how the water flows above and below the soil, how it is cold and swift. It is hard to imagine not having to get a vehicle across it to plow; how a morass like that would swallow even biggest tractor and not so much as belch. It looked like the spring of 1942 down there.

It is hard for me not to think of that river as the lifeblood of winter lying wounded in the hills west of me.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Knowledge Corridor

I am the director of a small public library in what is now billed as New England's Knowledge Corridor. The northeast has always been associated with learning and erudition. When we think of Gregory Peck 's postwar professor roles it invariably includes the orange hues of maples in New England fall even if we must add the color to the black and white film stock with our own imagination.

I would argue that no part of region better matches the popular imagining of iconic collegiate mythos than Western Massachusetts. No place is more "college town" than my own home of Northampton, lest it be Amherst just a short ride on the bike path and a town shy of Pelham, home of the Pelham Free Library where I am director.

Pelham is where professors go to retire. Virtually everyone in town has some connection to the University or colleges. In Pelham you're significantly more likely to have a graduate degree than a bachelor's alone. If the world looked like Pelham Volvo would be the world's largest car company, except they'd be hybrids.

As a director I am the public face of the library, and in large part I am expected to interact with the public in a way that reflects the values of the people I serve. This is pretty easy as I am well suited to the task being valley born and valley bred.

Which comes to the question of motorcycles.

The success of Harley Davidson over the last few years has tarnished the motorcycling "brand" which in my opinion peaked with the Honda Super Cub. My respects to anthropologist Cathrine Leonard some of whose language I am about to lift.

I would agree with Leonard's explanation of Harley's big success story of the 1990s was based on the comodification of working class angst. Harley's success was based on the loss of traditional male roles. In my own words Harley dealerships became "masculinity boutiques". Moreover I would say that Harley embraced many of the worst elements of masculinity.

One look no further than Harley's tacit embrace of The Hell's Angels and other 1% motorcycle clubs. Through the corporatization of gang iconography including skulls, flames, the three panel Harley Owners Group "patch" and faux Americana H-D capitalized on their association with the hyper masculine Angels. Owning an Harley meant that you could have a t-shirt that read on the back, "if you can read this the bitch fell off" and it was all in good fun.

The cultural iconography of the Harley or "custom" crowd is also often racist. Take a look at the popular West Coast Choppers logo. This show was wildly popular as a Discovery Channel series. Somehow, I doubt that James has Prussian ancestry. Considering the Angels widespread use of swastika's it's pretty hard to think of the Maltese cross as anything less than a proxy swastika.

So, in a worlds where women are usurping a man's traditional role as a bread winner, where the assets of a man's greater potential physical strength are up ended by tools and gentrification, in an America where we want to build a razor wire fence hundreds of miles long Harley steps in with a neat product that communicates your resistance to the "progress" that has robbed you of your fathers supposed virility.

This chopper and gang symbolization has largely displaced whatever else existed in the popular minds eye of motorcycling.

As the weather warms and I contemplate making my "debut" as a commuter motorcyclist it is with some trepidation wonder at how I will overcome this most recent incarnation of the idea of "motorcyclist" as only "biker".

In my mind a motorcycle is a light, efficient, ecologically sounder choice. My motorcycle is sprightly, quiet, and maneuverable. It brings me closer to my community and to nature. If it is cold out, I am cold. If I drop something at a stop light, it falls on the ground. It is honest and straightforward. It is truly a machine for living.

How I will choose to interpret my Bauhaus idea to the community is a challenge for me in the days to come. Libraries are about continuing education and life long learning, not the least of all mine.

Monday, March 10, 2008

In Like a Lion

What they say about March, here where I live, is "in like a lion". March comes in cold. The ground is about as frozen as it will get. The jet stream is still shifted well south. It's cold and I am about as beaten down by winter as I'll get.

Here in New England, though, deep in the ground the roots of the maples are starting to pump. A week ago I was having breakfast with a young lady I'd taken a fancy to and looking over her shoulder to the branches high above the courthouse lawn I could see a gray squirrel nibbling on the buds.

For me winter ends when I ride my motorcycle to a sugar house to have breakfast. Between Delaware and Quebec, between Boston and Duluth is where all the maple syrup in the world comes from. The frogs up north square dance but we make pancakes to celebrate.

For about 15 years now the first "long" ride of the season for me is to sugar house. Even with an electric vest and a one piece Roadcrafter I am cold. I park in the gravel lot, my bike blue gray with road salt. On the ride over I am unsure and shy from a winter of huddling. The sand and mud on the road do not help.

But I arrive and rush to the boiler where the sap is condensed to syrup. I warm myself with fresh cider doughnuts and coffee. That day, not come yet this year, is the first day of spring.

There is something ritual about this plan of mine, enacted new every year but never repeated. I am always unsteady, unsure. It would be simpler, safer, saner, to take the car. I feel, illogically, that I must. There is, at first, the grudging inevitability. It will be uncomfortable.

But once in motion, even if I am very cold, I fall into the rythum of riding that all the winters reading cannot even hint at. I am less cheated by layers of comfort, I am cold because it is cold out. I am thrilled by my own tenuousness and caution.

This day approaches and it will be easier, to take the car. I will not. Like a gnat that sometimes inexplicably appears above the snow, small and vulnerable, I will end winter.