Are we scarving yet?

I have been trying to convince my wife Angela to part with her beloved Kawasaki ER5 and buy something better. She bought the little Kwaker four years ago when she got back into motorcycling after a long break from riding, and it proved to be a good idea, as it really did get her back on the road. I wrote about the bike in a previous story, so I won’t go into it here. At any rate, she has gotten to the point where a better bike would be a benefit, as the ER5 really is a basic bike with an especially poor suspension system and average brakes. It’ll get you from point A to B, and isn’t a bad commuter, but it’s hardly a bike that inspires passion. She mentioned that it would be nice to have ABS brakes, and that owning a BMW would be kind of cool, so I started to look around. Autumn is a good time to buy a bike, and the F650 Beemers made between 2000 and 2007 seemed like a good place to start. They are supposedly very solid bikes that handle well, have about the same weight and number of horses (50) as the ER5, and there are a considerable number around at affordable prices.

The first F650 that I looked at was the CS (City/Street) model, also known as the Scarver, a portmanteau of “street” and “carver”. Now, this model is indeed a bit strange, as it was a completely new design (by American David Robb) aimed at getting youngsters who hadn’t ridden before into motorcycling. It was hoped that young urban professionals would like the unususal “modern” design and the practicality, but it was a marketing flop, as Klaus Herder wrote in Motorrad magazine in 2011: “There is probably no other motorcycle where the target group and the actual buyers are so far apart as with the “Scarver”, which was built from 2002 to the end of 2005. The single was advertised as a trendy fun device for hip, chic young people. However, it was bought – if at all – by seasoned BMW customers who wanted to say goodbye to their old Boxers or K-models and were looking for something smaller and lighter. People who were a little shorter were also among the customers, because of all the F series models the CS offered the lowest seat height. Unique, the CS has some nice gimmicks: Where other motorcycles have the tank, the CS has a multifunctional storage compartment, where a sound system (among other things) or tank bag can be placed. Single-sided swing arm, toothed belt and fat road rubbers also make the CS unique in the BMW single environment” (The same article, entitled Used Bikes that No One Wants to Have, also mentioned my Suzuki XF650 as being an undesireable bike because of its “swollen, misshapen form”, although the author admitted its “inner values were right on”).

A cleaner used bike has probably never existed! It has a full set of custom-made bags, and a little bicycle bell to worn pedestrians as well.

I have always been intrigued by this model, as it really is different, and everything I’ve read about it confirms that it’s a good, practical bike. Still, there’s nothing else on two wheels that quite looks like it. This particular bike was owned by a retired Berlin policeman who bought it new and has put about 36,000 km on it. It has been extremely well maintained and is in pristine condition. And despite the bike’s baby-blue color, I was a bit hooked. The seat is indeed low, but very comfortable, and the upright riding position is just the thing for dealing with both urban traffic and long hours in the saddle. The sound is great, even if the exhaust pipe is really ugly. The belt drive is a great idea, as there’s no need to keep them lubricated and they supposedly last for up to 100,000 km. And it gives the back end of the bike a muscular, athletic look. Not good for offroad, though, and the 17″ wheels aren’t either. It’s really much more of a roadster than a bike you would ride around the world. Still, at 2000 euros, I thought it was worth considering.

Angela didn’t share my enthusiasm, however. She doesn’t care for the looks, saying that the deeply concave plastic storage compartment makes it look like it’s had a botched open-heart surgery operation. She didn’t like the color either, and thought the two lights at the tip of the narrow nose make it look like an angry mosquito on steroids. We each took it for a ride, and were impressed with how easy it was to get used to and how solid it felt. Typical BMW quality. It would undoubtedly be good on the open road, but it was just too bizarre, design-wise.

An angry mosquito on steroids. A nose only a mother or a designer could love.

What finally killed the idea of buying the bike was the fact that it didn’t have the ABS brakes that we both think are a good idea. Riding the bike in all kinds of weather and on wet streets with lots of traffic makes having the best brakes you can get a must. I got used to ABS on my Himalayan, as crude as it was, and it would be nice to have it again, so we’ll keep looking. The 650 GS model might be just the thing! Still, if I had an extra 2000 euros…

“Elsewhere is just a little bit further”

I recently discovered Anne-France Dautheville, a French journalist and writer who is touted as the first woman to ride a motorcycle around the world alone. Sounds like another amazing story that needs to be told, but unfortunately most of the information about her is in French, and since my knowledge of French is almost non-existent, I’m not finding it too easy to get more details about her life and travels. Although she wrote a couple of books about her trips, it seems they haven’t been translated into English yet.

Dautheville grew up in Paris, but had a longing to escape the city and see the world. In 1972, she took part in the Orion-Raid long-distance motorcycle tour, riding a Moto Guzzi 750 from France to Iran and then on to Afghanistan. This must have whet her appetite for two-wheeled travel, and in 1973 she started on her solo trip around the world on a 100cc Kawasaki GA5, covering 12,500 miles over three continents. Along the way, she worked as a freelance journalist, and supported herself by writing about her travels, which she continued until 1981. Her books, Une Demoiselle sur une Moto (Girl on a Motorcycle), published in 1973, and Et J’ai Suivi le Vent (And I Followed the Wind), published in 1975, supposedly caused a stir in Paris at the time, but she says she was unaware of it.

After her travels Dautheville moved to the village east of Paris she grew up in, but was hit the headlines again in 2016, when the French fashion house Chloé used her as the inspiration for its autumn line of clothing. Designer Clare Waight Keller said that she wanted to evoke Dautheville’s “amazing sense of adventure, daring and courage but also the curiosity of traveling. She had a boyish cool attitude but she also took these amazing dresses with her which she threw her sweaters and biker jackets over. I wanted to bring that lived-in quality to the collection.” Dautheville became Keller’s muse, and the New York Times and the Guardian wrote articles about her.

Dautheville said that during her travels money was the only limitation. It was exotic being a woman on a motorcycle back then, but there was also a lot of curiosity and hospitality, and real problems were rare. And although she usually wore practical, robust clothing, she always had a couple of dresses and some makeup with her, because, as she says, “I was still a Parisienne”!

For an interesting video that is actually an extended Chloé commercial, take a look at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NplLl8NtFGM

Another ride to Wietstock

It being September, it was once again time for the Classic Offroad Festival Wietstock. Always an enjoyable day out, I headed there with three friends to enjoy the spectacle. Weather-wise, it always seems to be a perfect day when this event is held, and this year was no exception, despite the problems with covid.

The event seems to get more popular every year, especially since classic motorcycles have been discoverd by those plaid-shirted, wallet-on-chain, eight-panel snapcap-wearing, bearded urbanites commonly know as hipsters. There were probably less international riders this year due to the difficulty of travelling, but the local populace was out in force, and as the track is only 45 minutes or so south of Berlin, it’s a piece of cake to get to.

Dry again this year, the course was none to easy to navigate, as it was full of deep troughs. The motorcycles churned up a lot of dust, and the air was filled with the sounds of two and four-stroke thumpers flying past, slinging sand in all directions. The racing is divided into classes (pre-65s, mopeds up to 80cc, pre-1975 250s, post-1975 over-250s, twin-shocks, hobby and sidecars) and is particularly interesting because you get a mix of seasoned ex-pros and complete beginners, so there really is something for everyone.

The parking lot in an adjacent field is almost as interesting as the track itself, and always contains a wide variety of vehicles. This year there seemed to be quite a few old English bikes, and some were real beauties.

Always a number of old Simsons and MZs as well.

And this old motorized bicycle was a thing of beauty as well. These things are, for good reason, called “Hühnerschreck” in German, which roughly means “terrifying the chickens”.

Nicest of all, however, was just spending the day riding (well… mostly drinking coffee, if I’m being honest) with my three buddies Torsten, Michael and Josef, whom I have shared many a mile with over the years. As comfortable as I am riding alone, it’s great to have some friends who who have similar riding styles and goals, and not an easy thing at all to find. On our way home we stopped for a last chat near this sign, the arrow of which pointed down a long, empty dirt road. Just seemed like a funny thing to come across out in the middle of the landscape, but I later found out that Absurdoom is a Serbian one-man death metal band, so maybe he was recording his latest release in the surrounding fields. Could make all the noise he wanted out there! Who knows. Made for a great photo opportunity, though. Thanks for a great ride, guys!

Do not sleepwalk!

Reading an article this morning about the latest vagaries of American foreign policy (is there actually one at the moment?), I came across a quote from one of Hilary Mantel’s books about Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s chief minister:

“Study the world without despising it. Understand the world without rejecting it. Have no illusions but have hopes. Do not sleepwalk through life.”

While this may have little to do with motorcycling, it is nonetheless an excellent way of looking at life, I find.

Riding a Honda C90 around the world

No, I haven’t given up my job, sold my house, said goodbye to all my friends and headed off into the wild blue yonder, but I have been watching the adventures of Ed March as he rides from Alaska to Argentina on his battered old C90. I’ve been enjoying his adventures since way back in 2011 when he rode the same machine from Malaysia to England, and have been sporadically keeping up with him ever since. A bit over the top at times, he seemingly never loses his cool when the going gets tough, and his boyish humor is entirely contagious. As one viewer wrote, his videos are probably a lot more fun than Ewan and Charly’s various generously funded, perfectly filmed jaunts from one end of the earth to another, and it is amazing what you can do with a lot of enthusiasm and a bit of luck. As the C90 has been a favorite of mine for years and I have long dreamed of riding a “postie” home from Oz, it’s fun to see how much of a beating these amazing little machines can take and keep going.

At any rate, take a look at the link if you feel like having a vicarious experience of long-distance travel while having a few laughs. A perfect bit of distraction from the world’s seemingly endless number of problems!

Slow!

I was riding my bicycle to a class I was teaching this morning and taking it fairly easy because it was another warm summer day. Better to move slowly during the heat, I was thinking. Remember what Noel Coward said about the British, I thought, i.e. that “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”! And then it occured to me that I’m pretty slow even when the temperatures are not that disagreeable, even when the “dog-days” of summer have past. Whether I’m riding a bicycle or motorcycle, driving a car, or even on foot, I tend to be passed right and left by fellow travelers, commuters and pedestrians of (almost) all ages. It’s not that I’m usually late to arrive at work or for an appointment, I just have to give myself a good amount of time to get where I’m going. And going slow hasn’t prevented me from having accidents either. The one bad crash I had was when accelerating moderately from a red light. It was still too fast for me to stop when a car suddenly pulled into my lane, and over his hood I did fly. Nothing too serious happened to me (I try to adhere to the saying “Dress for the slide, not the ride.”), but the bike, a lovely early-90s MZ 500 Silver Star, was a few inches shorter and a complete write-off.

Maybe it was the 18 months I spent living in Jacksonville, Florida back in the 80s that made me this slow. It was hot there (and I mean HOT) nine months of the year. It often felt like walking into a wall of heat when leaving one of the city’s air-conditioned buildings, which were generally so cold inside that you had to wear a sweater to keep from shivering. I got used to sweating a lot, and I guess I took the natives’ advice and slowed down.

At any rate, I like the hot days of summer, even though there seem to be more of them now than there used to be. After moving to Berlin in 1990 I was surprised at how many of the summers were cool and rainy. It often felt like there was no summer at all. It was no surprise people here headed south during the six weeks of school vacation in July and August, as the sun in this part of Europe was quite scarce at times. But now? The last few years have been hot and dry, and this year’s pandemic has made the idea of staying put even more attractive.

Take care and stay out of the sun, wherever you may be! It’s almost too hot here to take a ride on the motorcycle, but only “almost”. The cooler, shorter days of fall are just around the corner in this part of the world, at which time we may all wish for the hot dog-days of summer again.

A great bike with a terrible name

I sold my old Guzzi Nuovo Falcone in May (despite a strange, coruna-virus-influenced market) and bought a used Suzuki XF650 instead (actually it was the other way around, but that’s another story). I decided, as interesting and exotic as the Goose was, it was going to be a bit of work and was not the best bike for commuting or going on long trips. I don’t know exactly what it was that made me lose interest in the bike, but once I get the idea of selling a bike in my head, there’s usually no going back. So I started to look around for an affordable, simple, reliable bike that would be good for both riding into the city and going on trips. Lots of world travellers swear by the Suzuki DR650, and I certainly do like the idea of a big single cylinder, so I started looking around for one. It turns out the DR, which can still be bought new in the US and Australia, hasn’t been sold in the EU for ages due to emmissions restrictions (they still have carburetors) and all the ones I found were either pretty beat or quite expensive. During my search I kept coming across the XF650 Freewind, which was a slightly modified DR (two carbs instead of one, bigger valves, 19″ front wheel, a fairing) made between 1997 and 2003 to compete with BMW’s successful F650 Funduro. I knew about these bikes but had always found them pretty uninspiring aesthetically and assumed they had a boring engine to match. When I realized they had the same motor as the fabled DR, I got more interested, and it turns out there are quite a number of them around for fairly decent prices.

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So, despite some puzzled looks and derisive comments, I bought one from a guy I used to teach English to a couple of towns over, and chuffed on home with a smile on my face. Needless to say, it’s not a bike that gets anyone’s pulse beating faster, but it’s in great shape, has Japanese reliability, a comfortable seat, good brakes and suspension, is fairly light weight, and is simply a blast to ride! And as it only cost half what I got for the Guzzi, I had some money left over to play around with.

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I quickly took off the god-awful Freewind stickers (How did they come up with that name? It sounds like the designer was preoccupied with some tricky bowel problems.), replaced the mirrors since one of the originals was kaputt, added some hand guards, changed the brake and clutch levers to more adjustable ones, took off the ugly top box (I know, I know, they are extremely practical, but I hate they way they make most bikes look, and when full, can add weight where you really don’t want to have it.) and added some racks in the rear to enable me to carry panniers (custom made by a great Polish company called Moto-Adventure-Tech). A change of oil and some new rear brake pads, and I was ready to hit the road! And now, some 6000 kms (3500 miles) later, I have to say the bike might just be the most enjoyable one I’ve ever had.

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Ready to roll! I had some time off in July, so I headed to Slovakia. More on that later!

Women riders, part 3

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Peggy Thomas on the Bantam during her earlier trip around Scandanavia with a friend.                   photo credit: classicsmallmotorcycles.com

In 1951, at the same time Winifred Wells was slogging her way through the sands of the Nullarbor Plain in Australia, 26-year-old Peggy Iris Thomas and her faithful Airedale Matelot were riding her new, rigid-framed BSA Bantam D1 125cc motorcycle across Canada, the USA and Mexico (Before attempting this journey, Peggy had ridden 4,500 miles around Scandinavia). Starting out with 60$ in her pocket, she stopped several times along the way to work and earn enough to eventually continue. In 18 months of riding she covered 14,000 miles. She carried a typewriter the entire way, and upon finishing her long journey returned to England and wrote the book Gasoline Gypsy (also published as A Ride in the Sun), which was published in 1953. It really was an amazing and difficult journey that required an incredible amount of pluck and staying power, and the book accurately portrays this. It’s a great read, and once again proves that any bike can be used to travel to the far corners of the earth if the rider is so inclined.

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Beyond help!

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I accidently hit my knee with our nasty big electric hedge trimmer the other day, and upon seeing the blood run out and the skin flapping around, what was the first thought that went through my head after the initial shock? “Oh no, so much for riding this weekend!” And then, laughing at myself for being so stupid, I thought of the German phrase Ihm ist nicht mehr zu helfen, which translates as “He’s beyond help”. Fairly apt in my case, I’d say!

Women riders, part 2

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photo credit: Ann Ferrar; American Motorcycle Hall of Fame

Bessie Stringfield taught herself to ride her first motorcycle at the age of 16, and in 1930, at the age of 19, rode across the United States, making her the first African-American woman to do so on a motorcycle. She was a civilian courier for the US Army during WWII and later founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club in Miami, where she was known as the “Motorcycle Queen”. Married several times, she never seemed to let anyone slow her down for long. She often faced racism, once being told that “nigger women are not allowed to ride motorcycles” by the police, but continued to ride (she owned 27 Harleys!) until she died in 1993. She was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 2002.

For a short film about Bessie Springfield see the following link: https://timeline.com/watch-meet-bessie-stringfield-the-black-motorcycle-queen-9e2e6951a0d4