Riding the TET and contemplating life

Well, I did finally get my XF through inspection, even if it meant going somewhere else to get it done. I had no luck in Berlin, and after two attempts rode to Potsdam, which is just down the road a piece, and went directly to an inspection station (as opposed to a workshop where an inspector comes in once a week). I was through in 20 minutes and the guy didn’t even look at the handlebar or brake line that had me pulling my hair out during the first two inspections. The inspector was still thorough, but he merely concentrated on whether the bike rode well, stopped as it should, and didn’t make too much noise. That, in my eyes, is what inspections should really be all about. At any rate, now I’m all set for the next two years, which is a great relief.

The green circle shows that the next inspection will have to be done in May of 2024.

I originally bought the XF (and the Himalayan before that) with the idea of riding the Trans Euro Trail (TET), which is “Europe’s dirt road motorcycle adventure” (https://transeurotrail.org). The trail is currently 51,000 km long (30,000 miles) and stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Artic Circle. A so-called Community Interest Company, the TET is not profit driven, and is completely free of charge. It’s organized and maintained by a group of linesmen, and is slowly growing as more trails are added to it. Most of it is not paved (Germany is an exception here, with only 30% unpaved), and all of the trails may be legally ridden by motorcycles. There’s a code of conduct that needs to be obeyed, as much of Europe is densely populated, and these trails are often used by many other people seeking a bit of rest and relaxation.

I did a little riding around in a sand quarry on a friend’s Honda Elsinore as a kid, but my experience riding off-road is limited, to say the least, so Germany’s a good place for me to start. The closest stretch of the TET runs in an east-west direction about 120 kms north of here, and I’ve spent two days in May riding on two different sections. Most of the trail is, as mentioned, “paved”, but this is usually with age-old cobblestones or fairly poor concrete pavers and asphalt. The unpaved sections are mostly very old roads between villages, and are generally easy to ride on, although some sections are sandy, while others can be quite muddy. The XF is fine for the trails I’ve done so far, but if the riding got more challenging, I’d have to get some proper enduro tires, as the Mitas E-08s that I have are mainly for on-road riding.

The riding has been very enjoyable, and even if not terribly challenging, gets you off the bigger roads, riding between verdant fields and through tiny villages. It really is a great way to see Europe.

I’ve only seen two other motorcycles on the trail so far, as well as a few horses and bicyclists. No one has complained about my using the trail, which I was worried about, as so few people here outside the motorcycle community know anything about the TET, or that there is actually legal off-road riding in Germany.

The cobblestone roads are very old and have held up quite well, but are bone-shaking to ride down for any length of time.

Old Feldwege between villages are mainly used by farmers nowadays, but are also open to the public. The XF feels right at home on these dirt roads.

While riding home after a few hours on the trail, feeling good, I stopped at a bakery in the small town of Lychen to grab a belegte Brötchen (basically a bun with cheese) and a cup of coffee from the friendly woman behind the counter. I sat on a bench in the middle of town and enjoyed the scenery before continuing. This is a very standard part of a riding day here for me, so I was shocked and surprised when reading a newspaper a few days later that the very bakery I went into actually exploded less than a week later. Although the cause of the explosion is not 100% certain, it’s assumed that a gas leak caused the destruction, which was extensive. The woman working in the bakery at the time was seriously injured as well.

Damage to the building was extensive. Photo courtesy of the Giessener Allgemeine

Now. I’m not one to spend too much time dwelling on the dangers that life poses, but it did occur to me that as dangerous as motorcycling can be, sometimes you just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for bad things to happen. There are over 10,000 bakeries in Germany (according to de.statista.com), and I happened to be in the one that exploded a couple of days later. Fate? Coincidence? Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows, but it has certainly given me something to think about.

Inspection blues

In Germany all road-going vehicles are required to pass a safety inspection carried out by the TÜV (Technischer Überwachungsverein, or Technical Inspection Association) every two years, and the two motorcycles my wife and I own both need new inspection stickers by the end of June. I figured I would get the ball rolling early and take the bikes in to the mechanic who works on the bikes one after the other, on two consecutive Tuesdays. I took my Suzuki in first, thinking there would be no problem, as it passed its last inspection with flying colors, only to have my query as to its success answered by a big “Nein!” It seems there were two small blocks that were part of a kit to raise the handlebars by 20mm that didn’t have a KBA number on them, which certifies single component acceptance. The same fate befell a braided front brake line that had been added as a replacement for the original one, even though it was a great improvement. I thought, if anything, some of the other changes (pannier racks, new blinkers, new rear light with LEDs, knuckle guards, brake and clutch levers) I had made would be a problem, but never thought a 2cm higher handlebar would even be noticed. At any rate, I rode back home, promising to take care of the problems before coming back.

The little black blocks raising the handlebars were one of the problems. The braided brake line the other.

The following week I took my wife’s BMW in because I didn’t have the new risers yet, also thinking there would be little the TÜV inspector would find fault with, as the bike is almost stock. Nonetheless, when I dropped into the workshop at lunch just to see how things were going, I was told that the Beemer hadn’t passed inspection either. In this case it was because the steering head bearings were worn out, which neither my wife nor I had noticed while riding. The bike is 20 years old, and only has about 25k kms (15k miles) on it, so it has probably had longer periods of disuse. This is always hard on bearings, so I guess it shouldn’t come as a total surprise. I was in a hurry to get back to work and told the mechanic I’d pick up the bike a little later that afternoon after I finished work. I went back at 2:30, only to find that the whole place had just closed down for an hour-long lunch break. No one was around, so I had no choice but to wait around to get the bike, as it was my way home. To say the least, I wasn’t entirely amused! But…at least the mechanic came back on time, and I was able to make a new appointment to get the new bearings and the inspection, even if I will have to wait till the middle of July to get the work done. It’s not a real problem to ride for a month or so with an expired inspection sticker, but it’s still not something I thought I’d have to deal with this time around, especially since I started so early. Seems like everything takes longer these days.

At least there were some nice old Beemers to admire while waiting, and it was dry!

Hopefully I can take my XF in for a successful inspection next week, when I have the new blocks in place and a components certificate for the brake line. Can’t help thinking inspections must be easier to deal with in other countries, but maybe this isn’t the case. It is good to have safe vehicles on the road, especially at the speeds people drive around here, but it’s still a hassel, and an expensive one at that.

Motorcycle meditation

I’ve often wondered about why motorcycling is such a pleasant pastime, and until a couple of days ago I wasn’t convinced I’d found an answer. Sure, it’s great to feel the wind in your face and have the sense of movement when leaning into a corner, to hear the sound of the engine and be able to get out into the middle of nowhere and relax, but I kept thinking there has to be more to it than that. And then the other day I read an article about meditation, which is something I’ve always wanted to do, but have been too busy (or lazy) to actually learn about and practice. The author of this article, whose name escapes me, said that it was really all very straightforward; the problem is that most people try too hard, leading to dissatisfaction in the end. He/She said that the main idea behind meditation is to try and concentrate on the present, on the here and now. Take a few breaths and just concentrate on breathing in and out, in and out, in and out,…without letting any other thoughts get in the way. Just concentrate on the moment. It is hard and takes some practice, and I certainly haven’t gotten there yet. Reading the article, however, I suddenly thought, “That’s pretty much what motorcycling is all about!”. When I’m riding, I’m concentrating on what’s going on around me. On the road up ahead, on the traffic, on the weather, on my speed, on the landscape immediately surrounding me. Riders have to do this, or every ride could end as a one-way trip. Concentration on the essential lets me (or forces me) to block out other thoughts, problems, etc., and I can just get into a state of “glide”, where everything else becomes less important, less present. This is obviously less possible when surrounded by urban traffic on a morning commute, or zipping down the Autobahn when it really can feel like it’s you against everyone else, but riding nonetheless has something to do with meditation for me.

A sign of life

I haven’t written anything on this blog for months. It’s been hard to put pen to paper, so to speak, with everything that’s going on in the wild world out there, i.e. covid, the war in the Ukraine, strange politics (including the so-called Zeitenwende, or “turning point” in Germany), and there’s also been a good deal of work as well. On top of all that, winter just seems to have gotten to me this year, even though it wasn’t a particularly rough one. It did seem long and grey, however, which didn’t serve as a very good source of inspiration. Spring is on its way, though!

I find the war to the east of here to be exceptionally troubling and trying to get my head around it has been very difficult, as I assume it has been for most folks. In light of the battles, rockets, burned villages and terrified refugees I read about every day, I got to thinking that writing about vehicles and trips and personal interests was all fairly trite. In the whole scope of things, it’s really unimportant, and maybe even wrong to go about my life as if things were normal. The other day, however, I read a very interesting article about a comedian named Akau Jambo from South Sudan (Yes, there really are comedians from that part of the world!), who, when asked about how he manages to find humor in all the misery his country experiences on a daily basis, said “Life doesn’t stop. We keep living”. This thought stayed with me, and has since become my new motto. Life for me, my family and my friends shouldn’t stop because of everything that’s going on. We all have to keep living, keep doing the things that keeps us sane, as long as we can, or else we won’t be any good to anyone. That’s the bottom line.

1000 miles through the Rockies on electric motorcycles

Reading various articles on ADVPulse the other day, I came across a video about two friends who had ridden their fully loaded Zero DSR motorcycles 1000 miles along the continental divide following the Colorado Backcountry Discovery Route (COBDR). Being very curious how a trip like that would be possible in such an out-of-the-way place, I watched the video with interest and greatly enjoyed it. The riders obviously know how to ride bikes offroad, but being on electric motorcycles made for a very different kind of trip, in more ways than one.

I’ve been interested in Zero motorcycles, and in electric motorcycles in general, since reading a booklet entitled Zero Below Zero, which was published by Aerostich in 2017. It describes how the company’s employees rode a Zero FX through a long frozen Minnesota winter (Where the maximum temperatures remain below freezing for an average of 106 days a year!), with each person riding the bike for a few days and then writing about their experience. I found it to be a very convincing tale of how functional and practical electric motorcycles can be. As Andy Goldfine writes at the end “It’s as simple as a refrigerator… You just get on this bike and go. All you have to remember is to unplug it before taking off. It is by far the easiest-to-use motorcycle I’ve ever experienced. Apparently the most maintenance-free too. No tune-ups. No oil changes (EVER!), no warm-ups. No vibrations. No smells. Less pollution”.

If they could just get the price down ($15,695 starting price – ouch!) and increase the range (now between 160 and 200 miles), I’d be seriously interested in a bike like the Zero.

An icon turns 75

“A Vélo-Solex is two-wheel asceticism. No speedometer, no rearview mirror, no suspension, and who needs turn signals when you have two arms and hands? Add to that the fact that it weighs less than 30 kilograms and rides like a bicycle, and generations of users love it.”

Tati, Jacques - Mon Oncle, 1958 -2a | Mon oncle, Mon oncle ...

                                                   Jacques Tati on his Velo-Solex in the 1958 movie Mon Oncle.

While browsing the net the other day I came across an article written (in German) by Jürgen Schilling  about the 75th anniversary of the launching of the Velo-Solex. Being a big fan of this most basic form of motorized transport, I read through the article and started thinking about my own experience of owning one back in 2009. I had picked up a 1967 model fairly cheaply in order to fix it up and have something for my daughter to ride around on when she was old enough. It was fun to find out how this diminutive vehicle worked and I was fascinated by the simple technology, and equally amazed that parts for the bike were still readily available for it in Germany.

The Velo-Solex hit the market in 1946, although a prototype had been developed as early as 1940. Schilling writes that the “Vélo-Solex can be described as the two-wheeled equivalent of the Renault R4 or Citroën 2CV: small, inexpensive, with a weak engine, but also inexpensive to maintain and built in huge numbers (over 6 million) over a very long period of time”. Its 47 cc 2-stroke engine producing less than 1 hp really is tiny, and its location above the front tire gives the machine a very distinct look, and also makes the starting procedure interesting: Slide the choke on the carb to start and pedal like mad while lowering the engine onto the front tire with a lever and pulling the small decompression lever on the handlebar. At the first sputter of life you have to let the decompressor go and then slide the choke from start position to the right until it runs more smoothly. As Schilling says, “To use the term “acceleration” for it would be rather inappropriate. But the Vélo-Solex runs, rattles along happily while emitting the smell of burned two-stroke mixture, all of which quickly beams you back to your youth”. If you’re lucky you will eventually (about 30 seconds according to Schilling) get the two-wheeler up to 25kmh / 15 mph, but will have to provide a bit of pedal-power when climbing up inclines. With my 86 kilos / 190 lbs it always felt like the little machine was somewhat overtaxed, but it was fun nonetheless. I exchanged a lot of parts on the Velo-Solex, and the engine ran well enough, but I never replaced the friction roller that drove the front wheel, and this no doubt prevented me from ever reaching that dizzying top speed. I just had to learn to take my time, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to do.

My daughter rode it a couple of times when she was 14 or so, but had a lot of trouble getting the engine from its upper position to its lower one on the wheel. We also realized that it wasn’t going to get her anywhere she couldn’t get on her bicycle and decided to sell it again and look for something a more modern with a bit more get up and go. My advertisement on Ebay Kleinanzeigen was quickly answered and the caller said he was looking for a 1967 model to give a colleague at work who was retiring, and who used to ride just such a machine. I was sad to see the little bike go, but greatly enjoyed working on it and learning more about how it worked. I guess that’s the reason I like to buy different bikes: Each one is a learning experience and has its own interesting aspects and peculiarities, its own reason for being. It’s part of life’s small pleasures.

The latest project

As I’ve mentioned several times before, I love almost anything on two wheels, with or without an engine, and with or without pedals. The latest addition to the garage (not that there’s that much in there!) is a 35-year-old East German cargo bike, although I’m sure it wasn’t referred to as such when it was built. The MIFA Universal, Model 510 was intended as a bike for transporting realtively light amounts of luggage (leichter Gepäcktransport), and was built at the Sangerhausen factory in the German state of Thuringia between 1983 and 1990. They are quite a rare sight on the roads these days, and I found this one for sale online by the original owner in Berlin. I’d been looking for a simple, affordable cargo bike, and wanted another project bike to work on as well. I hadn’t heard of the 510 before, even though I’ve restored two MIFAs before, and have found them to be simple and robust, which they needed to be in order to survive the rough roads and long years of use in the former GDR.

After bringing the bike home, I cleaned it up, steel-wooled the rusty chrome parts and replaced a host of parts, including the tires (original East German Pneumant tires, probably as old as the bike), the entire front wheel (which now has a hub dynamo), the lights, pedals, brake pads and chain. I also added two baskets, each of which is allowed to carry a whopping 10 kilos of groceries. For aesthetic reasons I left the old plastic tool kit hanging from the back of the soft plastic seat, and the dynamo on its rear mounting bracket, even though it’s not hooked up to the lights anymore. The new dynamo hub allows the use of LED lights, which are a huge improvement over the old incandescent bulbs and make the bike great for use at night or during the grey of winter. The standard Flammrot paint, which is more orange than red, cleaned up nicely, and the bike positively glows as it slowly makes its way down the street.

Due to the bike’s strange mixture of 26″ rear rim and 20″ front, it rides better than the company’s much more (in)famous Klapprad folding bikes , which had two 20″ rims, making it quite enjoyable to ride around town. The small front rim allows the basket above it to be attached to the frame, so that it has little effect on the bike’s steering, regardless of weight it’s carrying. Can’t say as I’d want to go on a long tour with the 510, but for the daily run to the grocery store it’s perfect. The folding bipod stand in the rear also works well and holds the bike steady while loading.

The finished 510 in all its glory! It may not look that much different at first glance, but the numerous changes have made a huge difference in how it rides. Although it’s quite a small bike (especially compared to new cargo bikes!), the long seat and steering tubes can be raised or lowered to fit almost any size rider. It certainly isn’t a lightweight due to its oversized steel frame and aluminum fenders, but it feels solid. I originally thought I would exchange the standard 1-speed rear hub for one with 3 speeds, but I’ve gotten used to not having to shift, and it is amazing how well you can get by on one gear, as long as you don’t have to go too far or climb any big hills. And I’m certainly not intending to take this bike on the Iron Curtain Trail (EV13), which stretches for nearly 10,000km from the Barents Sea in Norway to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast. I mention this because I’m currently reading a book called The Cyclist Who Went Out in the Cold by Tim Moore, which describes the exploits of a crazy British writer who decided to ride an old MIFA Klapprad the entire distance. While it’s certainly an entertaining read, it doesn’t make me want to use my MIFA to explore Europe, even if the bike is called Universal.

I immediately took the bike to the local grocery store and filled up both baskets with wine and food, just to see how it rides when doing what it was made to do. Everything arrived home in one piece. The small holes running along the lower edge of the rear mudguard were once used for the tiny hooks that held the Rockschutz, an elastic net that spanned the upper half of the wheel in order to prevent women’s skirts (Rock in German) from getting pulled into the spokes, sort of like the saree guards on Indian motorcycles. I probably won’t be fitting a Rockschutz to this bike, even though the tool kit came with a spare one.

When I was buying some parts for the MIFA at the local bike shop, the owner, who grew up in East Germany, shook his head in bewilderment and asked why I would be interested in such a strange little old bike. I said that where I grew up in the US we didn’t have any of these bikes, and that I therefore find them pretty exotic. He just laughed and replied that where he grew up they were all over the place and anything but exotic. It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

A good quote

I haven’t added anything to this blog since June, but I have been doing a fair amount of riding. Riding a lot, especially when the weather is good, is much better than writing a lot, in my book. I did, however, recently find a good quote by Robert Pirsig in his famous book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility, it’s right.” That must be why I like the XF as much as I do. It just feels right. It’s as simple as that.

Summer has arrived!

Time certainly flies when the weather is good. Although I have been thinking about a few ideas/themes to write about, it’s been so nice of late that I’m anxious to get outside and leave the computer behind whenever possible. The spring and early summer were quite wet, as I mentioned before, but the weather has certainly improved from the standpoint of riding, even if most farmers won’t be happy dealing with increasing dryness again. I read somewhere that we would need three straight months of precipitation to get moisture levels back to normal, but I doubt that’s in the cards anymore. This year is certainly more wet than the last three, but it’s hardly been like it used to be, say 20 years ago.

But I digress… There has indeed been more riding the last few weeks, and instead of writing a lot, I think I’ll just upload a bunch of photos and let them do the talking for a change.

Riding through Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt is certainly not as exciting as many other places in an aesthetic sense, and I’m always jealous of friends who send photos of the landscapes in Scotland or Australia or the Stans, etc. that they’ve been riding through. This area does have a certain beauty, however, and there are many small, uncrowded roads and villages to find. The fields of canola have been magnificent this year, and the Alleen (tree-lined avenues), whether new or old, are always a treat to ride along. This past weekend, riding to Ferropolis (an industrial museum) with friend Michael, we happened upon a great little GDR-style cafe located way down a dirt road on the edge of a beautiful lake, and sat there watching the locals swim (and wishing we had brought our own suits!) while eating home-made cake. It really was a magical moment, and made the whole ride, which had been good already, even more enjoyable. Hard-working Michael looked quite relaxed on his big old Flying Brick (The sheer presence of that engine is amazing!) by the time we were ready to head home. It made me realize once again that riding a bike isn’t about speed or distance, it’s about gliding through the landscape discovering new things, clearing your head and having time to think.