Maps

IMG_20190831_163159533.jpgI was approached by two bicyclists the other day while stopped at a red light. It was starting to rain and they weren’t sure which road to take to get to their final destination. I pulled to the side and took the map out of my tank bag to show them. I was greeted with surprise: “Look, he’s actually got a map, and a waterproof one at that! Wow!” I pointed them in the right direction and headed off on my way. As I was rolling home, I thought about the look on the bicyclist’s face when he saw I was using a map. Was it that strange? He was fairly young, so maybe the idea of not relying on GPS was new to him. I don’t have one mounted on my bike, and as I love  maps, use them to find my way. I do have a smartphone for when I really get lost, but luckily seldom need it. I’ve thought about taking the plunge and getting a Garmin or TomTom, but really haven’t felt the need yet. I always travel with a tank bag, and these generally have clear pockets on top for maps, so that’s the preferred method. I enjoy getting away from electronic gadgets while riding, so I don’t have an intercom and don’t listen to music while underway. I can’t talk on the phone either, and there’s no USB port. The Enfield does come with a compass though, which tells me both where north is, and which direction I’m riding, so I always find my way home. This will have to do for the time being.

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A timely quote

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad / Roughing It

Riding into a storm

I went out for a short ride last Sunday evening, ignoring weather predictions about possible high winds and rain. The day seemed just perfect for a bimble, and I needed a little riding to clear my head of all the various thoughts swirling around it.

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The weather was perfect for most of the trip, with nary a wind to stir up ripples on a lake near the village of Dobbrikow. Brandenburg may be flat, but it does have its own special beauty! After admiring the view, I took a small road through the woods, heading west, trying my hand at a few short off-road sections and enjoying the ride.

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The sun was still shining and traffic was almost non-existent when I entered the woods. Three riders did cruise by at what seemed like a slightly excessive speed, but I thought little of it. Upon arriving at the western edge of the woods, however, I was faced with this:

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Beautiful light, but it was getting darker by the moment. Big piles of dark clouds quickly blotted out the sun and marched across the open fields. I put on my rain jacket as I headed in their direction. The storm broke just as I hit the main road, and fierce it was! I headed past cars that had pulled to the side of the road, but the bike felt stable despite the cross-winds, and I gingerly headed into the next town to find some shelter. Just as I found an empty bus stop in Beelitz, the storm ended as suddenly as it had begun. The rest of the ride home was fairly dry, and although my shoes and pants were soaked, I quite enjoyed it. There were a few downed trees (ABS to the rescue once again!), and the roads were full of leaves and branches. It felt like a bit of an adventure, right on my own doorstep. I later found out that a small tornado had hit a couple of nearby villages, damaging quite a few houses. My guardian angel was definitely watching over me! And next time I’ll pay more attention to the weather forecast.

New tires

I decided the Himalayan’s original Pirelli tires were getting too worn out and a bit square, and started looking around for a new pair. The MT60s had done a good job, getting me safely through a winter’s worth of riding and into this season’s first journeys, but they are quite street-oriented, and I wanted something with more bite when riding off-road. I was also somewhat disappointed that the original tires had held up for less than 9000 kms (5600 miles), especially considering the bike is relatively light and not exactly a monster when it comes to power, with all of 24.5 horsepower.

There are plenty of tires of various manufacturers that fit the bike’s 21″ rim up front and its 17″ rear, but I narrowed it down to local favorites Heidenau K60 Scouts (made in Germany!) and the Czech Mitas E07s. In the end I decided to go with the Mitas, as they are universally praised as fantastic 50/50 (percentage of use on/off-road) tires that last a long time and handle a variety of conditions very well. They are also quieter than the Scouts, which can be quite loud on the road from all accounts, and to top it all off, the E07s are less expensive, so in the end it was a no-brainer.

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Can tires be beautiful? They certainly have a certain “chunkey” aesthetic, as far as I’m concerned, and they fit the agricultural nature of the bike just fine.

The E07s have a good deal more profile than the Pirellis, but that doesn’t seem to affect the bike’s performance on the street too much. The Enfield feels very much as it did with the MT60s, except when I leave the road, where the new rubber provides much better grip on gravel roads and in the sand. I do notice a bit of noise at around 60 kmh (36 mph), but that quickly fades away as I get faster. The Scouts, on the other hand, seem to be a good deal louder, and a friend who uses them on his BMW is not amused with all the “singing” his tires do at a variety of speeds.

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I recently put over 1000 kms (600 miles) on the tires while riding past golden fields of grain in Poland, and was very pleased with them. They are well-suited to the rough riding conditions we encountered in that country, as is the Himalayan, for that matter. I haven’t gone off-road that much yet, but when I do, I’ll have the right tires for exploring old paths across fields and through the woods. They might not be up to the demands of the TET (Trans-European Trail), but then I may not be either!

For an interesting review that certainly influenced me in my tire-buying decision, take a look at Bret Tkacs link:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnEcI3F_pqE

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!

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.