My kingdom for a helmet!

Sorry about the title, but I just saw Shakespeare’s Richard III at a local theater and the doomed king’s quote about trading his kingdom for a horse keeps going through my head. And speaking of heads, I’ve been wondering lately, among other things, why so many motorcyclists wear black helmets. Is it because they don’t clash with the various colors of the motorcycles themselves, or with jackets and other riding paraphernalia? Or is it, as I suspect, that black is considered to be the coolest, manliest (mannish?) of colors? According to the Bad Ass Helmet Store, “Black is never going out of fashion. It is minimalistic, stylish, cool, and attractive all at the same time”. Chuck Norris would definitely wear a black helmet, if he wore one at all. Black helmets do look good in many cases, but I think they’re completely out of place on a motorcycle, for the simple reason that they blend in so well with the surroundings. They’re not particularly visible, and visibility is the most important aspect of passive safety on a motorcycle. The most visible color, according to one study in California, is lime green. And it’s hard not to see something when its color is neon, hi-viz yellow. Now, I understand that not everyone wants to wear lime green or hi-viz yellow, but just about any light color will make a helmet, and thus you the rider, more visible, especially as your head is often above the roofs of the surrounding traffic. In addition to the visibility issue, black is also the color that soaks up the sun’s rays the most, making it warmer to wear in the sun. This is also a safety factor, as a warmer helmet can lead to a warmer head, and subsequently less comfort and concentration (the so-called “mush-brain syndrome”).

 

I’ve been actively motorcycling for over 20 years and have bought a variety of helmets for different types of riding. My current helmet of choice for commuting in the city and local trips that don’t involve much highway travel is this blue open-face example from MTR. Quite visible, there is no question that in an accident my schnozzola would not be as well protected as in a full-face helmet. Still, it’s lightweight, allows for great peripheral vision, has a drop-down sun visor in addition to the clear full-face visor (wonderful if you wear glasses!), and is fairly cool to wear in warm weather. It’s sort of a modern interpretation of the standard “jet” style of open-face helmet (see below), and although not as good looking, is much more practical. I’ve grown very attached to it as the season has progressed, and I’m tempted to wear it more often than I should.

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Here’s the standard open face helmet with it’s small, snap-on visor removed. These can be had for a song and look great, but leave a lot to be desired when it comes to safety, function and comfort. I mainly use this when I ride the 50cc Schwalbe for short trips around town. It’s a classic example of a helmet that looks good but fits poorly. After wearing for a half an hour I always have a painful dent in my forehead, as it’s just not made for my head shape. I bought it quickly without wearing it on a test ride, which in hindsight was not a good idea. Live and learn!

 

My helmet for longer trips is this somewhat old modular, or flip-up helmet. I love these types of helmets for their versatility, even if they are somewhat heavier and noisier. This type of lid allows you to quickly flip up the front if you want to talk to a fellow biker or cashier at a gas station (if you choose to leave your helmet on while getting gas, which is a controversial topic in itself!), meaning you don’t have to take off the helmet to communicate. It allows you to put on the helmet without taking your glasses off, which is very convenient to us old buggers. While riding slowly through towns and villages it’s possible to ride with the front flipped up, allowing you to get some fresh air and look a little less like an alien from outer space to those pedestrians you pass by. At higher speeds it still offers the protection of a full-face helmet, which is a comforting thought. Finally, it offers the best protection against the rain and wind, but will fog up in cooler weather if the visor is not left open a crack. This particular model has fairly poor ventilation, and is now at least 6 years old, so it’s time to think about a new one. Once again, I love the sun visor, and will never buy another helmet without this feature.

 

Having bought the Himalayan, I started getting interested in so-called “adventure” or dual-sport helmets. These are the helmets of choice today, as adventure bikes are the best-selling motorcycles at the moment. When this one was put on sale for less than half the original price, I couldn’t resist and bowed to fashion, even though it’s black. It fits well, has a ton of ventilation openings (in fact, it’s too cool to wear unless it’s quite mild), a retractable sun visor and a huge opening, allowing for great vision. The extended chin bar provides protection without feeling too claustrophobic, and the peak visor helps shade the eyes. To make it more visible, I applied some highly reflective tape on the sides and rear, and I hope this helps. I haven’t ended up using it much yet, though, as I find the disadvantage of having to take off the helmet to talk outweighs its positive attributes. It also buffets around a fair bit in the wind on the highway, even though I rarely go more than 110 kmh. I’m sure it’s a great helmet for off-road, but I have yet to try this out. Time will tell, but I have a feeling that in the end, I’ll probably end up wearing my modular helmet more.

 

This is an old East German helmet I bought at a flea market years ago when I was riding my 1967 MZ ES250. I mostly just like the way it looks, with its image of Berlin’s Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall) on the side and the zip-off leather ear protectors. I did actually use it a few times, as it’s extremely light, but would not want to have an accident with this on my head. It looks good on the shelf, though.

This is just a short overview of my own experience with motorcycle helmets, and should in no way be viewed as anything more than that. There are many different types of helmets and dozens of manufactures, and it’s important to decide exactly what is right for you before buying.  The right helmet is critical for riding comfort and safety. I would be interested in hearing what you think of the issue of helmets, though. What do you wear? What colors, and why? Please let me know!

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Heading south again

From where we live, on the southern edge of Berlin, it’s always tempting to head south when motorcycling, as it avoids going through the city. Berlin may only have a population of 3.7 million, but with an area of nearly 900 km2, it takes a fair bit of time to cross, especially when traffic is heavy. My wife Angela and I had a four-day weekend due to Ascension Day, and decided to head out overnight to see what we could find. And…we headed south, of course!

We were able to travel fairly light, as we were only planning to be underway for two days and wanted to stay in a hotel or B&B. Angela has a really nice 50-liter Cargobag from SW-Motech that she can quickly strap on to her passenger seat. It requires no rack and sits very solidly due to four attachment points. As racks for her bike are not inexpensive, this was a good solution for carrying her gear on the Kawasaki.

We stuck to small roads and quickly left the city behind us. Without any particular destination in mind, we slowly wound our way through southern Brandenburg into northern Saxony, past thousands of wind turbines and fields full of grain and poppies.

I couldn’t believe my eyes when riding past this Harvestor feed storage silo. Made by the American company CST, they are extremely common in Indiana, where I lived years ago while going to college. From what I’ve heard, they are generally strongly disliked by many farmers, who refer to them as “blue tombstones” because they cost so much to buy and maintain. The story is that a lot of farmers have gone bankrupt because of spending too much money on them. Looks like the eastern German farmers may be the next ones to sing these tales of woe.

At the end of the afternoon we ended up in the small town of Belgern, which lies directly on the western bank of the Elbe River. We quickly found a place to stay and went for an early dinner at place next to the Elberadweg (Elbe Bicycle Path), which runs along here and is a very popular way to get from the North Sea to the mountains of the Czech Republic, a total distance of 1270 kms. Quite full during the day, after dinner we were the only ones using it and walked along it enjoying the river as it quickly flowed past.

The town was very quiet except for the many cyclists who were staying overnight. There were a number of beautiful old buildings, including the Rathaus (City Hall), which had been restored and has one of the few remaining Roland statues in Saxony. The ungainly looking, 6-meter-tall knight in armor with a raised sword was once the symbol of the town’s rights as a city according to the Saxon Laws. As the statue has managed to survive for nearly 400 years, Belgern is known as a Rolandstadt, i.e. a Roland City, and seems quite proud of this heritage.

After enjoying a good night’s sleep in a B&B at the top of the bluffs overlooking the river, we decided to take the ferry across to the eastern side of the Elbe, and start riding back home from there. These small ferries along the river are quite an amazing feat of engineering, as they operate completely without engines. Known as “reaction ferries”, this one has a floating cable attached to a mid-river anchorage way upstream. When the ferry is angled into the current, its force propels the boat across the river quite quickly. It’s always enjoyable to take one, as there’s no noise but that of the boat gently curving through the river on its way to the far bank. It’s a peaceful experience but is always over much too quickly.

We rode along some old roads connecting the various villages located in the floodplain. One section still had a variety of old pavers, which withstand flooding better than asphalt. They do tend to be slippery when wet, though, and are quite rough. The Himalayan’s suspension is made for bad roads (“or no roads”!) though, and dealt with them well. It’s perfect for this type of slow exploration!

A few kilometers north of Belgern we crossed the Elbe again and entered the town of Torgau. Known best as the place where US and Soviet forces met for the first time shortly before the end of WWII, the town is dominated by Hartenfels Castle, which has been completely restored since the wall came down. Now a beautiful structure, a museum in the castle reveals its difficult history as a prison for political prisoners both under the National Socialists and later GDR government, and as a Soviet special internment camp directly after the war.

Climbing one of the castle’s towers provided us with beautiful views across the courtyard and surrounding town.

The temperature was climbing and it was time to get back on the bikes and take advantage of whatever airflow we could create. We stopped briefly at a memorial erected in honor of the “Spirit of the Elbe”, i.e. the meeting of the two allied armies in the city. This story has always interested me and will be picked up on in a later post.

Heading north, we stopped at the edge of a wooded area to take advantage of the shade and eat lunch. After unsuccessfully trying to find a place where we could get a bite to eat (often difficult down here!), we ended up buying a few things at a grocery store and having a picknick, which was nicer anyway.

In Jüterborg we stopped to tank up and get a cup of coffee and some water, and once again took to the shade. My helmet doesn’t offer much in the way of ventilation and I was beginning to suffer. I’m not used to the heat anymore, and this year it’s come early. Wearing lots of protective gear doesn’t help much concerning warm-weather comfort either, but I’m not willing to ride without at least a good jacket, helmet, gloves and boots anymore. Newer jackets and pants often have vents, which helps a lot, and ours were wide open.

The coffee at gas stations (in Germany) is generally quite good now, and I often, to the chagrin of my fellow motorcyclists, prefer it to that served at a cafe or restaurant. After sitting on a bike for hours, I like being able to stand up and walk around while enjoying a cup, and sometimes good conversations with other riders ensue as well. Angela didn’t mind stopping here either, and bought some ice cream to cool off with.

Shortly before reaching home we went through a small village and noticed an old telephone booth that had been converted into a little free library. We stopped and browsed for a few minutes and both went away with a book. What a great idea, and it was the perfect ending to a great little trip. We had seen some nice towns, had peaceful hours cruising between beautiful fields and forests, and enjoyed near empty roads and great weather, despite the growing heat at the end. The bikes ran beautifully, although Angela’s chain started making some strange sounds late in the day. After 25,000 kms, it’s time for a new one.

Heading south

Somehow this episode was published the first time without any text. Very strange, but the internet (and wordpress!) works in mysterious ways at times.

At any rate, I was able to schedule a 3-day trip with my buddy Josef last weekend, and off we rode in a southerly direction, hoping to meet up with Ivo in the Czech Republic. We generally get in a weekend ride in the spring, and it’s always a relaxing trip. It was to be my first longer trip with the Enfield, so I put the heavy aluminum panniers on and added a reindeer skin to the seat in order to make it more comfortable..

Josef (the photo below is a few years old, when I still had my old ST) has a Moto Guzzi T3 from the early 1980s. The bike is an old Italian police machine and he has had it for over 25 years. As it’s his only mode of transportation, it gets lots of use and sits outside in all kinds of weather all year long. Its a wonderful old bike and a joy to ride, but generally needs a bit of work. Under 80 kmh it rattles and vibrates like an old bucket of nails, only to smooth out into a powerful, smooth hum when travelling faster than this.

We hadn’t gotten very far when Josef noticed the old Goose was leaking oil pretty badly. It was coming out in three different places, from the front of the engine and both the front and rear gearboxes. We quickly decided to turn around and my wife graciously said we could use her Kawasaki instead. We parked the T3 in the garage, strapped Josef’s waterproof bag on the back of the ER5 and headed out again, having changed our destination due to getting such a late start. The Kawasaki’s parallel twin certainly doesn’t have the power or character of the big V-twin, but it runs like clockwork and handles well. Josef was really happy he could continue riding, and so was I!

The weather was on our side and we made good progress on Brandenburg’s long, straight roads. South of Berlin, the roads head through huge swaths of agricultural country, and are often lined with street trees originally planted to give horsecarts shade. It’s usually windy here and wind turbines have turned this into an energy-producing landscape, which the locals are not always happy about. I much prefer the idea of renewable energy to the lunar landscapes of open pit coal mines, which can also be found in this area, but I guess if your house stands next to one of these tall, humming monsters you might think differently.

After a day of enjoyable riding we ended up at a small B&B in a village in southern Saxony that used to be Trabant (the most common East German car) workshop. It was quiet, clean and inexpensive, and we were the only guests. We usually travel like this, finding a place to spend the night when we feel like we’ve had enough riding for the day. We often end up in interesting places, even though it often takes a while to find something. It’s less stressful than prebooking and then finding out you are concentrating more on reaching your day’s destination than on enjoying the ride.

The next day we rode around trying to find a cafe with breakfast, only to find very little open. This is a rural area with a fairly poor economy, and one woman in a bakery told us there is no need to serve breakfast, as no one ever orders one. We grabbed a couple of Brödchen (buns) and headed south to the Elbe. Passing through Bad Schandau, which was teeming with bicyclists and tourists of all shapes and sizes, we cruised along the big river until crossing into the Czech Republic, and then headed up into the hills of a national park called “Bohemian Switzerland”.

The landscape of this border reagion is quite beautiful. Fields of bright yellow canola are broken up by forested hills, fields of grain, orchards and small villages. The weather was perfect for riding, with no rain in sight.

The roads on the Czech side were narrow and full of curves, and often ran alongside fast-running creeks and streams.

We stopped for lunch at a little hotel and pub in Doubice I had been to a couple of times before. They serve hardy local dishes of wild boar with knedliky (dumplings) and cranberry sauce. Everything on the menu is in Czech, so when ordering we got some help from a German couple who lived locally. Wonderful stuff, even if the non-alcoholic beer wasn’t quite up to snuff compared with the normal Czech brew.

After lunch we decided to stretch our legs before climbing back on the bikes (one of the disadvantages of long motorcycling tours is a lack of physical activity!). On the edge of the village there’s a wonderful rolling meadow with a small chapel in the middle, built under a towering linden tree.

The chapel was built to placate the spirit of Rohál, a local who was once banned from the village and who now supposedly inhabits the adjacent Spravedlnost hill. It’s a peaceful place and we enjoyed a bit of shade before moving on.

We then headed back to the German border along slow winding roads, past both new development as well as somewhat run-down old villas and churches. The Czech Republic appears to be changing quickly now as it modernizes, but it still has a very different feel to its neighbor to the north.

Back in Germany, we headed over to Stolpen and took a quick look at the castle that dominates this hilltop town. Built on basalt, the fortress is physically imposing and has a very long and chequered history. The view of the surrounding fields from the top is stunning.

The day wouldn’t have been complete without a stop at a Biergarten, where we unfortunately had to drink coffee instead of the more refreshing offerings they had on tap. Cooling off in the dense shade of the chestnut trees was a pleasure.

Headed back to our B&B, we found some small roads through lush green fields. More bicycles than cars here. When riding down these roads, it’s easy to forget about the rest of the world and its problems. It reminded me of what my neighbor replied the other day when I asked him how he was doing. He replied “Das Leben ist gut, die Welt ist schlecht!” (Life is good, the world is bad!).

After a long but perfect day of riding, we were happy to be back at our hotel. Even though we hadn’t ridden a great distance, we had been underway for hours. We picked up some bread, cheese and beer for dinner, which we then joyfully consumed while sitting outside on a bench watching the night approach, talking about what we had seen. It was my first longer trip on the Himalayan and it had run flawlessly. The weather was perfect, the company great, the landscape sublime, and life did indeed seem good!

A bimble in Brandenburg

Took a short ride (aka “bimble” according to my English motorcyling buddies on Facebook) south of Berlin last Sunday morning to take advantage of the good weather and get some fresh air. I’ve been looking for and trying out unpaved roads around here that are legal to ride on, which is not easy as most of them are off limits to motorized traffic.

One of the best possibilities to ride semi-off road are the old roads connecting villages, many of which are barely used or maintained anymore. They often start out like this, with large granite pavers and sandy verges. Once the main means of getting from one village to another, it’s now very rare to see other vehicles on them, aside from occasional forestry department trucks and skidders.

The paving slowly disintegrates the further you get into the densely planted pine forest, getting quite bumpy and irregular. Time to slow down!

At some point the pavers disappear altogether, the road gets narrower and the sand gets deeper. It’s unusually dry this spring, despite the vividness of the new vegetation.

After about 5kms (3 miles) the next village appears, as do the pavers. There are some very picturesque little places down here, and they are surprisingly isolated, considering Berlin is less than an hour away. I think the inhabitants here are either farmers or urbanites who come for the weekend.

Back on a paved road, I then rode past large areas of asparagus cultivation. It seems to be everywhere at this time of year, which is high season, and the sandy Brandenburg soils appear to be a perfect medium. Large areas of white and black plastic sheeting can be seen from far away, and there are often many workers in the fields doing the back-breaking work of harvesting this very pricey crop. The local stuff is very high quality, and is supposedly shipped all over the world.

It was then time for a short coffee break at the Scheune, a village barn turned into a biker bar and restaurant. There are sometimes hundreds of bikes parked here, and it then gets pretty loud, which is not always appreciated by the neighbours, I’m sure. Some of the riders who stop here act like Donald Trump on twitter, and don’t really give a damn about whom they bother or insult.

Finally, it was time to head towards home, and I found another old road connecting two villages on either side of some wide-open fields. The landscape here certainly isn’t dramatic in any sense of the word, but it has a soothing quality and a lushness to it that is good for the soul. It feels much more expansive than it actually is. The Himalayan is the perfect bike to discover places like this: relaxed, quiet, forgiving and uncomplicated.

The end of an era

I had to bring my aging Toyota to the garage today to find out what’s wrong with the exhaust system. We had a new one put on less than three years ago, but it’s never been quite right and seems to be rusting away. The problem is that we brought our Matrix over from the States in 2005 (I inherited it after my Aunt Sheila died) and although it’s been the best car I’ve ever owned (bar none!), it is difficult to get many parts for it because this model was never sold here. Luckily, very little has gone wrong with it, and aside from getting louder recently, it still runs like a top. This is partly due to the service it’s gotten at Herr Magnus’ garage. A former Citroen dealer, he has also worked on lots of American servicemen’s cars over the years and long ago agreed to take us on as clients. One of the best things about going to Magnus is being able to check out the other customers’ cars there. Magnus is considered somewhat of an expert when it comes to the old DS models, the so-called “goddess”, and customers come from far and wide to get his advice and help. There are always a number of them sitting around waiting for new brakes or transmissions, or because the hydropneumatic suspension system has to be flushed. I’ve always been fascinated by them, and the smaller, two-cylinder CVs as well. They are so different than almost all the other vehicles on the road.

This one looks like it’s ready to eat anyone who gets too close. Lots of space under the hood and plenty of access to all the various parts of the engine. And those front lights!

Some of them look like they have been in the garage for a long time, and Herr Magnus does indeed have a hard time finding trained mechanics who are willing to work on these increasingly rare vehicles. He wanted to retire himself, due to various health problems, but decided that his 600-euro-a-month pension was not sufficient to enjoy a pleasant post-work life. I also suspect the idea of sitting around at home, not getting his fingers covered in hydraulic fluid on a regular basis was not very appealing to him.

Almost looks like two fish waiting to leap out of the water! Maybe they’re just anxious to get back on the road, and don’t like being kept in the semi-darkness of this old, underground garage. Are there any other cars this unusual, or beautiful?

I love the flowing form of the DS, and the fact that it takes a few seconds for the car to rise to its proper height once the ignition has been turned on. While this type of suspension certainly gave the car a smooth ride, it also made it very expensive and difficult to work on due to a need for special tools and training. This old DS is almost ready to roll.

And now my old Matrix sits tucked away in one of the bays, awaiting parts that will (hopefully) return it to its former muffled self. Unfortunately Herr Magnus has to move out of this garage, which he has rented for over 55 years. The landlord decided to triple the rent, which is quite common in Berlin these days, but this proved to be too much for the proud mechanic. When I asked him what would become of this place, he answered that he didn’t know and didn’t care, which I find somewhat hard to believe. You grow attached to the place you have spent a majority of your working life in, don’t you? At any rate, it’s the end of an era, and I will sorely miss walking down the steep ramp into this treasure trove of old technology.

Close to home

This may look like a typical path through the woods, but it’s actually where part of the Berlin Wall was located until 1989. To the left is West Berlin, while to the right is Kleinmachnow, where I now live. Strangely peaceful today, it was once the site of a high concrete wall, barbed-wire fences, floodlights and armed guards, and was nearly impossible to surmount. It’s hard to find any traces of all this now, and the path is usually full of walkers, dog-lovers and bicyclists. I was walking home from a nearby S-Bahn station when it occurred to me just how historic this place is. I walk along it all the time, usually forgetting that 30+ years ago I would have either been shot or bundled off to a very unpleasant prison for being here.

Emerging from the woods, I pass the old “An der Stammbahn” street sign that is slowly being bent out of shape by a healthy birch tree. The name of the street refers to the railroad line that ran along here from Berlin to Potsdam from 1838 up until the end of WWII, when it was destroyed. It was the first railway line ever built in Prussia, and allowed passengers to travel at a “breathtaking” 30 kmh. The sign was put up at a time when this side of the street was a Sperrzone, a restricted zone. This area was off limits to anyone but the people who lived in the houses on the north side of the street. The border guards patrolled along here, preventing anyone without a permit from entering, and when they wanted, they had unlimited access to the houses, day or night.

The street is now full of a mixture of new and old houses, and is a normal, quiet suburban street that makes it easy to forget about its turbulent past. The wall ran just behind the houses on the left.

The political party Die Grünen (the Greens) are the sixth largest party in the Bundestag, the German parliament. They are well-represented in Kleinmachnow, no doubt due to the town’s well-educated, well-heeled residents. This poster, put up as part of preparations for the upcoming European Parliament election in May, says “Europe, the best idea that Europe ever had”, which is something I completely agree with. I can’t vote here, because I’m not German, but if I could, I would vote for the Greens.

Shortly before getting to my street, I pass by my favorite house. A friend of mine’s mother lived in the second-floor apartment here until Alzheimers got the best of her and she was forced to move out. On the other side of the street is a peaceful little cemetery, with signs asking visitors to make sure they close the gates when leaving so the multitudes of local wild boars can’t get in at night.

Next to the little chapel in the cemetery there’s a small area called the Soldatenhain, or the Soldiers’ Grove. Wehrmacht soldiers, including a number whose names are not known, are buried here; most of them killed on the 24th of April, 1945 during the last days of WWII. Many were relatively old, others quite young. They were some of the last German soldiers to die, and were little more than cannon fodder in face of the overwhelming strength of the Soviet Army as it swept through here.

It really is amazing just how normal this suburb is today. It’s developed into a peaceful little bedroom community since the wall has come down, and the scars of WWII, which were enormous, have all but vanished. It’s important, nonetheless, not to forget all the history around here, and to make sure much of it doesn’t repeat itself!

Here comes the sun!

On my way to work this morning I walked past the Reichstag as the sun was coming up. The contrast between the upper part of the building and the rather dull grey sky was stunning, and gone all too quickly. The wall ran right along this street until 1989, but the only visible reminder is the double row of pavers in the tarmac. A lot has changed in 30 years.

This Suzuki V-Strom is often parked right outside, and it looks like the owner (Enduro Alex?) has done some serious travelling on it. I like the two watertight plastic containers he uses for the GPS and cell phone, and his addition to the windscreen is interesting. Looks like the seat has a bit of extra padding as well, which would no doubt help on long days on the road. These motorcycles are supposed to be fantastic to travel on, despite their somewhat uninspiring design.