Making the most of the weather

There haven’t been too many nice days this spring, and we’ve had a fair share of rain as well (which we need!). Every now and then a sunny day sneaks in between the cloudy ones, and then it’s time to hit the road. Last weekend I made a short trip with friend Josef. He’s the one with the big old Guzzi T3, which is always a delight to experience. He has had the bike for over 25 years, all the while never having a car. The Guzzi looks battered and bruised even though he has just dumped a considerable sum of money into it to keep it on the road. I guess he believes in the old adage that “a clean vehicle is the sign of a sick mind”, and its coat of grime on top of the dark blue paint and chrome doesn’t seem to bother him to the point that he ever considers washing it off. And somehow I find that comforting. It is just a vehicle, after all, and life is too short to spend cleaning something that’s just going to get dirty again, right?

At any rate, we had a nice day cruising between the fields of canola, winter wheat and asparagus that are now flourishing outside of the city. Ended up visiting a friend of Josef’s who got hit by a serious bout of cancer, and who moved to a small village outside the city to try and get his life back in order. An inspiring guy, to say the least. At 55 he has taken up skateboarding and BMX bike riding, while contemplating getting back to work and starting a new relationship. Kind of puts covid and its difficulties into a different perspective.

I’ve been riding the Beemer on and off for the past few weeks and have started to like it quite a bit. It is a well-designed, practical little beast, and its unobtrusive but nonetheless meaty exhaust tone puts a smile on my face. My wife laughs everytime I take it instead of my Suzuki, and reminds me that we really bought it for her. She’s right of course, but it’s always fun to ride something new, and she understands that as well. Hopefully we will be riding together more soon.

Still a boy on a bike

“You see, in my dreams, I am still a boy on a bike. Because when I was a boy, every day was an adventure and a new beginning. Because when we are children, we are reborn every morning, but when we grow older, a little of us dies every night: killed by what ifs and if onlys, by mortgages and bills, dry rot and rising damp. When we travel, though, we are children again. And when we travel by motorcycle, we have nothing to think of when we wake but checking out of a motel, throwing a few belongings into our panniers and riding off down the road, unencumbered by regrets and concerns. On a motorcycle, every day is an adventure and a new beginning. On a motorcycle, I am still a boy on a bike.”

GEOFF HILL
Way to Go: Two of the World’s Great Motorcycle Journeys

Spring is here, sort of…

Spring is here now, but it’s not exactly what you could call “warm”. The weather has been quite cool and wet, but there have been a few sunny days interspersed among the overcast ones. Brandenburg’s long, straight roads beckon once again. And best of all…

…there’s a new motorcycle to ride! Well, not exactly new, as it’s 20 years old, but it’s new to us. More on this soon.

A change in the weather

This winter has been a bit strange, and it’s also been colder than the last few. The temperatures didn’t really drop below freezing until January, but then they stayed there for three weeks. We had a number of clear days (somewhat of a rarity here) and enjoyed some brisk walks through the Rieselfelder just south of where we live.

Rieselfelder (rieseln means to percolate) are part of the big sewage farms that used to surround Berlin. Begun in 1876 and based on a concept developed by the engineer and urban planner James Hobrecht, the system involved the collecting of Berlin’s sewage at twelve topographical low points within the city and then using huge pumping stations to send it out into the 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) that were set aside for the purpose of allowing the sewage to percolate into the soil. The fields were kept free of trees and were used to grow food for the surrounding communities. As Berlin grew and industrialization flourished, the effluvium became increasingly toxic, and one by one all of the fields were closed down as newer methods of sewage treatment came into effect. The last part of the system didn’t close down until quite recently, however. At any rate, it’s safe to say that the soil in these fields is still nasty stuff, and building or agriculture of any kind is prohibited for the foreseeable future. As they are close to Berlin, however, these wide open areas have now become popular destinations for the city’s urban dwellers, and they are also actively used for those with horses and dogs. It would be fun to ride motorcycles here as well, but that’s not permitted, so I’ll just have to be satisfied by taking long circuitous walks around them.

Another favorite winter activity of mine is skating, but as the rinks are all closed this season due to the pandemic, I had to wait until the ponds and lakes froze to the degree that they were safe to venture out on. I finally managed to get out to a local pond and had a great time, and the ice wasn’t too bad. The bigger lakes were still not completely safe, but the ponds were fine, and full of skaters, young and old. When putting on my old hocky skates, I realized that I’d had them since I was 18 years old, when my great aunt La bought me a pair. Somehow they still fit after all these years, and even though it takes a while to get them laced up, it’s great to be able to use something for so long.

I figured I could go back and get some more skating in the next day, but that was not to be the case. By the next day the temperatures had climbed so high that the surface of the ice was no longer hard enough to use. It was such a rapid and continuous increase that a few days later I completely forgot about skating and got my motorcycle out instead. I’m a hopeless case!

Needless to say, I was ecstatic (well, maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but not by much) to be able to get back on the bike, especially considering it was only February. After a few days of riding the temperatures went down again, and I’ve since returned to the bicycle and train when commuting, but now that March has rolled around, the days will slowly warm up and the riding season can begin. And even though we had that relatively long cold snap, this winter was another one in which the temperatures were still above average. It seems like riding in February may not be anything unusual in the years to come.

Time for a good book!

When the weather is cold (-9 degrees Celsius) and the streets are covered in snow, it’s time to hit the couch with a good book and a cup of tea or something stronger, and forget about the outside world for a few hours.

I recently bought a copy of John Mole’s latest book, Harley and the Holy Mountain. In it he describes his journey on an old Yamaha 50cc stepthrough (aptly named Harley) from his home on the Greek island of Evia to Mount Athos, where he wishes to deliver a couple of P.G. Wodehouse books to a Moldovan monk. I’ve just begun reading, so I can’t give a complete rundown of the book, but was intrigued by what sounds like an unusual jouney, and I’ve read enough to realize that this Englishman is my kind of traveller:

“I’m a Sixties re-enactor. I have the clothes, the bike, the map, the Spam, the girlfreind – subsequently wife – some of the teeth, less of the hair. Hit the road on clapped-out wheels without TripAdvisor, Booking.com, Expedia, Airbnb, GoogleMaps, the nanny technology infantilising us as we suck on the teat of Silicon Valley. Turn off the smartphone, put the helmet on your elbow and let’s drive somewhere, anywhere and see what happens. Man and machine are ready for the road.”

Pimp my Sladda,…er, my Dynabike

The days are short, relatively dark and hovering around the freezing point, so my thoughts have shifted from motorcycles to less fun modes of transportation like bicycles and public transport. We are lucky that there are three good S-Bahn (metro train) stations within four kilometers of our house, so it’s easy to hop on a bicycle (or Drahtesel, i.e. wire donkey, as the Germans say) and get to a train in 15-20 minutes.

Sometime during the fall I decided it would be nice to have a lighter bicycle, as the steel-framed one I usually ride is a real heavyweight. I’ve always been a fan of steel frames because they’re very durable and have a more forgiving ride than aluminum, which can be pretty harsh. When my bike got stolen a couple of years ago (the third one!), however, I quickly bought an inexpensive old clunker to provide some mobility until I could get something better. I ended up with an old Kettler Alu-Rad 2600, which was built in 1977 and was supposedly the first mass-produced bicycle with an aluminum frame. A rather strange looking, unpainted little critter with 26” wheels and three speeds, it rode very well despite its age and condition, and I couldn’t believe how light it was, especially considering it was made as a commuter bike. It must have been a real revelation in its day.

Hard to believe how light an old bike can be: The Kettler Alu-Rad 2600 was an eye-opener!

The more I rode the Kettler, the more I liked it, and the more I liked the idea of a lighter bicycle. So, when the weather went south just before this past Christmas, I started looking around for a project bike or an aluminum frame to use as the basis for one. After looking at a variety of old bikes that were either a bit too expensive or too beaten up, I found out that Stadler, a big bicycle shop in Berlin, was selling brand new aluminum bikes for 200 euros. The Dynabike, the advertising explained, was intended as a simple, unisex urban bike that was robust and easy to ride and maintain. With its very solid, powder-coated aluminum frame, it was made to carry a lot of groceries and could be bought with both a front and rear rack. The most unusual part of the bike, however, was its 2-speed automatic rear hub, which meant that it shifted automatically from the lower to the higher gear at around 17 kph. It needed no shifter or the cables associated with it, so it had a very simple look to it, which was underscored by its light grey color.

The Dynabike, straight from the store.

The bike looked somehow familiar, however, and then I remembered IKEA had had a very similar one for sale a couple of years earlier. Upon doing a bit of internet research, it turns out that the new Dynabike was the exact same bike as offered by the giant Swedish company under the name of Sladda (which is Swedish for “slide”, “lurch” or “slip sideways”). As I remembered though, the Sladda used a belt drive instead of a chain, but the Dynabike had the standard chain. Hmm, what was going on here?

Lots of YouTube videos and websites later, I found out why IKEA was offering a bike at all, and who had actually designed it. It was an interesting story about why the best of intentions often go astray.

The Sladda was designed for IKEA by the Veryday design studio, and the design won a prestigious Red Dot Award (“It’s “democratic” design successfully picks up on classic role models and finds a timeless and aesthetic form.”) before it first went on sale in 2016. The designers felt that bicycles in general were the “world’s best invention” and wanted the Sladda to fulfill functions many highly specialized bikes couldn’t, to be “modern, practical, scaled-back and affordable”. They hoped to get more people riding, to reach people who didn’t ride much. They also aimed for a relaxed riding position and a frame that made it easy for both men and women to use, so that the bike could be easily shared, like a mixte. A belt drive was chosen so that the bike would be clean, quiet and easy to maintain. And the automatic hub meant that the bike always started from the lowest gear and shifted into the higher gear without any “fiddling around” while in traffic. The brakes were an odd mixture of modern and old: A disc brake slowed the front wheel down, while a coaster brake took care of the rear. The designers made the bike a little longer so that bags could be carried on the back without interfering with pedaling, and so that children would have more room when sitting on the back. They added a central, two-legged stand to prevent the bike from tipping over when fully loaded. The frame was made of aluminum and powder coated so that it wouldn’t rust, even if left outside for long periods of time. The frame came with a 25-year warranty and the belt-drive a 10-year warranty.

A big front rack that attached directly to the frame was offered along with the smaller rear rack, and a trailer could be bought as well. The designers hoped this would all just be the beginning, and that over the years they could develop more and more accessories to make the bike even more useful. This was to be a “Scandinavian bike for the world” that would hopefully prove to be a viable alternative to the car in an increasingly urbanized world. IKEA said that it “will never be a bike company but it can use its principles of Democratic Design – form, function, sustainability and low-price to influence behavioral change”.

So what happened? What was Stadler doing selling IKEA’s bike, which had started out so well and had so much potential? It seems the Sladda’s belt drive, made by the German company Continental, turned out to be the bike’s Achilles’ heel. A number of the belts (11 to be exact) ripped apart while in use, and two people were slightly injured. IKEA, worried about its reputation as a provider of high-quality but affordable home furnishings, quickly pulled the plug on the Sladda and in 2018 offered a full refund (400 to 500 dollars in the US / 500 to 700 euros in Europe) for all the bikes, before more problems occurred. IKEA supposedly felt the belt could not be replaced with a chain and sold some of the bikes to Stadler, who then did exactly that. Stadler buried the IKEA name under its own sticker and dropped the price to around 200 euros, which doesn’t seem to have made it more attractive to buyers, as there were still a lot of the bikes sitting around the store.

Hidden under the Dynabike sticker.

At any rate, I ended up with this strange looking, somewhat practical 2-speed bike as a project. After riding it for a few days I knew that two gears would not do for day-to-day riding, which meant the rear hub and rim needed to be replaced. I had a 7-speed Sachs hub on another bike, so that was easily solved. I also decided to replace the battery-powered lights with proper dynamo-powered ones, meaning a new front rim with a hub dynamo needed to be sourced. I ended up replacing a number of other parts as well (the stand, grips, pedals and mudguards) and also added a rear rack with a basket to make it more practical for the daily commute. By far the worst part on the original bike was the stem connecting the handlebars to the steerer tube. It was an adjustable stem that was way too flexible, and as a common source of complaint. Being a threadless stem, it was easy to replace with another, meatier one, which made the whole front end feel tighter and more settled.

Rebuilding the bike made for a couple of enjoyable evenings in my basement workshop, listening to the radio and having a nice glass (or two) of Scotch. Using a combination of new and existing parts, I was able to put together a very usable, safe and comfortable commuter bike that is a joy to ride, and it didn’t break the bank, either. I should even be able to sell the rear hub, as it’s no longer manufactured, and is supposedly a sought-after item by those crazy folks who ride single-speeds.

I think it’s safe to say the new Sladda-Dynabike Special is not a thing of beauty, but it’s also not something you’ll find on every corner. Now, if I can just keep it from getting stolen!

The old 60/40

The older I get, the more my desire to get rid of things, to pare things down, to streamline the number of my possessions, grows. It’s not like I’m very good at it yet (I still have a lot of stuff, and I’d like to have a couple more motorcycles!), but I do feel a growing need to cut down on the number of items I own, to simplify my life. I’ve gotten pretty good at selling used items on the internet, and it’s always nice to get a bit of money, even if it’s not much, for things that you no longer use, as opposed to letting them sit in a corner of the basement or attic and gather dust.

In the course of this new push to be less materialistic, I’ve also sold a couple of jackets, and recently put an old Woolrich 60/40 jacket on a couple of online sales portals. The 60/40 is a typical “mountain parka” that was popular with hikers and campers before Gore-Tex came along. The jacket’s shell is made of a blend 60/40 Cotton/Nylon material that was originally popularized by Sierra Designs in the early 1970s. The material is a tight weave that does a good job of keeping out rain, snow and wind, and with its big hood, wool lining and abundance of pockets is a very practical piece of kit to have. I bought the jacket back in the early 1990s because I had always wanted one, but it turned out to be one of those things I never wore much, and for some reason I never really warmed up to its deep green color.

After putting the jacket up for sale, however, I came across a photo taken in 1996, the year our daughter Helen was born. She’s sitting on my lap during a trip I made with my folks, and in the photo I have the green jacket on.

The picture brought back a lot of happy memories of a great trip my wife, daughter and I took to western Massachusetts with my parents. It was one of the last trips with my dad, who died the next year of cancer, and my mom and I still talk about how the only way we could get Helen to stop crying while we were driving was to play a tape of Japanese opera songs my father had picked up while on a business trip to Asia. It’s kind of a bizarre image to be riding through the Berkshires while listening to Japanese arias wafting around the car, but it proved to be very soothing, and that tape was on continuous play. It’s funny the things you remember when you see a photo. It made me think about how my father and I had gotten along well the last couple of years before he died, something that was often not the case. And it made me think of how fast time goes by. At any rate, the photo and the memories it evoked made me decide to keep the jacket, and now I find myself wearing it more and more often, and it always puts a smile on my face when I do.

The motorcycling season comes to a close

December is here and the days are short, cool and mostly overcast. Although still dry around here, it’s not the kind of weather that makes me yearn to run out the door and hop on the Suzuki and tear off into the wild blue yonder. I know some people really enjoy riding in the winter, when the roads are quiet and the countryside peaceful, but this year I don’t think I will be doing much more than the occasional commute into and out of the city. You never know, though.

It’s certainly been an eventful year, has 2020. Twelve months ago, who would have thought a pandemic would come along and change everything for most of the world. I’ve been very lucky (knock on wood!) thus far, and have managed to stay healthy, as have my family and close friends. I still have work, and have never felt so fortunate to live where I do, in a comfortable house on the outskirts of a city that continues to function fairly well. It’s nice to live somewhere where the government believes what its scientists tell it, and although covid is gaining the upper hand at the moment as people tire of the (necessary but difficult) restrictions, I trust the government here to generally make the right decisions. I do think another lockdown is probably unavoidable, however, but together with the various vaccines slowly becoming available, maybe we will just manage to beat this horrible thing before too long. Perhaps I’m just being naive, though, and some predictions say it will take much of 2021 to get things rolling again. “Mal schauen!” as the Germans like to say when pondering the future.

I started the year off with a beautiful, flashy old Italian 500 and ended with an inconspicuous Japanese 650. Who’d a thunk it? Not me! My interest in the Falcone took a fairly sharp nosedive after several rides, even though the bike mostly ran well, and the bike drew a crowd wherever I went. It truly is an interesting piece of machinery and highly unusual at that. But I soon realized it just wasn’t what I wanted. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But I guess the older I get, the more I want to ride and the less I want to wrench, even though I do enjoy working on a machine every now and again. I don’t know, maybe it’s just that time seems to be getting shorter as I age and there are still so many wonderful places to see out there. I certainly don’t feel old, but life feels more finite than it used to, and good health is not a given. And if I can have a machine that is fun to ride AND reliable, my current state of mind will push me in that direction. The XF650 has been great this year and I have seldom enjoyed myself on a motorcycle as much. It’s taken me over 8000 trouble-free kilometers, and it’s also been fun tweaking it a bit to get it where I want it: new rear pannier racks, hand guards, tires, mirrors, blinkers and foot pegs have all helped turn it into a great machine for the daily commute as well as a journey across the continent. I look forward to riding it a great deal in 2021. If I think about it, there are even some similarities between the XF and the Falcone: both are thumpers that feel pretty much like tractors, and both bikes are something you don’t see on every corner.

In the meantime, it’s the season to get out my bicycle and use public transport more. Not much fun sitting on the train with a mask on, but at the times I ride it’s usually not too crowded, and riding to and from the train stations on a bicycle helps get the blood flowing and the calories burning. And bicycling is still using a vehicle with two wheels, so it’s actually quite fun. Berlin is a great place to ride a bike as it’s so flat (I’ve written about this before too!) and it’s quite possible to do it on any bike that has more than one gear. More on this later. So, stay healthy, and keep listening to those scientists!

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…