“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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Can tires be beautiful? They definitely 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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!