The One Bike to Rule Them All

My good friend, Rich Marin, in a situation where one bit of bad news was followed by another, flipped it around and came out smelling like a rose and the owner of a like-new BMW 1200GSA at a smokin’ deal. Rich appears as enthralled with his new GS as I am with my Tesla (Falling in Love: With a Tesla). However, my route to owning and becoming a committed fan of the BMW 1200GS was more circuitous than his.

Rich and I are long-term riders, starting as kids, and after only a few pauses, have kept it as lifelong pursuits. My love and involvement with motorcycle’s evolved into an avocation. Rich wrote a book about his riding life, The Ride is All. While it is true we’re discriminating to the point of opinionated about various brands and models, in the end, our focus is mostly about how these machines enhance our journey and where they take us.

I’ve extolled the advantages of the BMW 1200GS and recommended it to others for years. My friend, Roger Hansen, was urged by me to buy a GS, which he did, and then proceeded to ride it all over the world. My first long ride on one was in the fall of 2005, when I picked up a brand new GS in Istanbul, Turkey before a 12-day circumnavigation of the country, led by the famous Turkey tour guide, Kazim Uzunoglu. BMW had just replaced their venerable R1150GS with a new model weighing 66 lbs. less and increasing its horsepower to 100 bhp. The BMW faithful were livid. “It has too much plastic and feels like a Japanese bike,” they said, the ultimate put down from this circle of enthusiasts. I agree the R1100 and R1150GS had stability and tractability like no other mounts. But after spending two weeks riding it, my reaction was quite the opposite: I thought to myself, “they need to get over themselves, this is a fantastic motorcycle.” A moto-journalist colleague of mine, Fred Rau, also liked the new GS. He began his print review by saying “While vastly improved, the big GS remains so ugly bugs won’t hit it.” I recall Fred and MCN getting a good bit of complaints about Fred’s motorcycle aesthetics. Fred, however, made a great point: The GS is all about performance and the purity of riding, more than appearance.

After returning from the Dakar Rally in South America (also aboard a 1200GS) in 2011 and its painful pre-trip dismount on my Crown King tune-up ride, I grudgingly knew it was time to get rid of a bunch of motorcycles. The dirt bikes had to go and soon they were. My garage was suddenly down to only 2 motorcycles: the Honda Goldwing and Suzuki V-Strom. A Honda Grom was on its way, but I did not know that yet. At first loath to give up any of my motorcycles, my rationale for losing the off-road bikes was sound. The Dakar trip brought center stage a point about off-road riding I had forgotten. It is imperative to keep one’s speed up. In the dirt, speed, and staying pointed in the general direction you wish to go, often saves your butt. You don’t need to go 100 mph, but staying above 40 mph (45-50 mph is better) when travel surfaces loosen is critical. And here is the deal, in the dirt, you are going to occasionally go down. Assuming you wear all the appropriate riding gear, you are unlikely to get seriously hurt. However, after 60 years old, as I learned, you don’t heal as fast as 20-year-olds, who still seem to be made partly of rubber.

Loving my new extra garage space I decided it was time to go all the way and merge the Goldwing and V-Strom into one machine. You now have the background for my multi-year, epic quest, to do just that, to find “The One Bike to Rule them all.” (My apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”)

You cannot imagine how difficult this change in attitude was for me. For my entire motorcycling career I had strenuously argued that MBD (Multiple Bike Disorder) was not a disease, but in fact, the only proper way to approach motorcycle ownership. The correct answer to the question “How many motorcycles should one rider have?” is always, “One more than you have now.” Motorcycling only made sense in this context. Stick with me for a moment and allow me to explain: First of all, everyone knows you need a different motorcycle to ride off-road than riding on pavement. Right? No arguments here. But for pavement, there are many variations of riding. I found it took 3 machines to cover my street riding. These were: First, a Honda Goldwing for long-distance cruising, second, the Suzuki V-Strom for shorter sportier rides but still capable of carrying luggage, and lastly, a Ducati 750 Monster for carving the canyons around my place in the bay area. Understand, this still leaves out several important categories, such as a pure weekend cruising, represented by Harley and Indian models, (although other manufacturers have models in this category, too). In my list, you may notice there is no pure sport bike on the list, a motorcycle you could respectably take to a track day. You get the idea: to adequately cover the needs of an all-around street-only rider, you’ll need at least 5 motorcycles. And this is before getting to off-road bikes, where the choices are even more plentiful.

If you wish to ride off-road and go any significant distance, you need an adventure-oriented machine to handle luggage, spare parts, maybe even camping gear. If you want to go over jumps and whoops, you need a motocross bike and tons of suspension travel. If you want to go desert riding, you need a lighter, single-thumper model. A Trials Bike is dissimilar to all other off-road motorcycles – its first 3 gears are designed for less than 10 mph. I defy you to ride a typical Trial’s route on anything other than a Trials bike. You get the idea. A well-rounded off-road rider needs at least 5 different motorcycles, and before adding in any extras if you want to bring friends.

Do you see how this adds up, boys and girls? This is the vehement stance I defended each and every time someone asked to explain why I had 9 (yes, NINE) motorcycles. Over the years I watched countless riding friends search unsuccessfully for the one magic motorcycle that would do it all. And now here I was, attempting to try it myself. God help me!

After very little work, I found 9 initial candidates to be my one and only, including:

  • KTM 1190 (now the 1290)
  • BMW 1200GS (now 1250)
  • Triumph Tiger
  • Ducati 1200 Multistrada (now 1260)
  • Honda Africa Twin
  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000
  • Honda ST1200
  • Yamaha FJR1300
  • Kawasaki Concours

Although wonderful machines that I loved to ride, the Yamaha FJR, Honda ST1200, and Kawasaki Concours (“Connie”) were quickly eliminated as too road-oriented and why the BMW RT never made the list. The ultimate bike for me had to be up for some off-road duties. Now the list was six and after participating in a press shoot-out between the 650 cc and 1000 cc V-Strom and owning the 650 “Wee-Strom” for several years, I knew all-to-well its suspension limitations. The V-Strom’s elimination cut the list to now only five.

One great benefit of writing for motorcycle magazines is being able to try out any particular motorcycles for a week or two. The PR departments for most top brands are happy to find something for you to test. So, for the next few years, I “tested” these top 5 motorcycles. I read reviews, shoot-outs and comparisons of these specific models. Of the five, I had vestigial prejudices towards two of them which needed addressing. On the plus side, the Triumph Tiger: I’d ridden it in New Zealand for two weeks and was blown away by its handling on the tarmac and it prowess off-road when venturing into spots like Skipper’s Canyon. It was always well-planted, predictable and did everything right. On the other hand, the BMW 1200GS had negative issues: I’d ridden them a good deal and was greatly put off by its ubiquity. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a 1200GS,” I’d often said. It is BMW’s biggest seller and outsells all other brands and models. I credit much of its popularity to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding and filming of their trips documented in TV specials, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which I hated. So, I began by not giving the BMW much of a chance. Honda’s Africa Twin was also difficult, although not because I was predisposed for or against it. The problem was the Africa Twin was hard to get in the US. I’d seen it several times on foreign trips, and it looked positively brilliant, but I was right to suspect difficulty in getting one to test.

Ducati has always been very good to me. I’ve become friends with several people in their PR department. They graciously provided me a 1200 Multistrada Touring model for use on a two week trip over the top of Italy and down the Dalmatian coast in the fall of 2013. This exquisite trip was in the company of a bevy of BMW riders and a KTM 990 EFI (precursor to the 1190), ridden down from Turkey by my friend, Kaz Uzunoglu. Not only did I get long days on the Ducati, I was able to swap with Kaz to test the KTM and some of the BMW riders to verify my riding impressions. The Ducati went from a starting point in the middle of the pack to now being my first choice after this trip, especially given its performance in the wet – which was simply amazing. The computerized “sky hook” automated, on-the-fly adjustments to suspension and ABS are nothing short of incredible. At the beginning of 2015, my list in order looked like this, the top 3 in a near dead heat: 1) Ducati 1200 Multistrada, 2) KTM 1190 (now the 1290), 3) BMW 1200GS, 4) Triumph Tiger and 5) Honda Africa Twin.

I am aware of the ultimate futility in detailed comparisons like the one here. I’ve participated in evaluating and writing motorcycle shootouts. Most readers of motorcycle magazine have no idea how difficult it is finding and highlighting differences between models in a single category. It is almost impossible. Motorcycles today have all gotten so damn good and so very similar. Here is how these reviews trips generally go: The first day of the trip/review, rides are frequently swapped so all writers in the group get at least one ride on each bike. At dinner the first night, we’d desperately try to find any real differences. The general feeling, from every tester/writer was “For this purpose, all of these are the same. It won’t matter which one a reader picks to buy, they’re going to be perfectly happy on any of them. They’re all priced within $500 of each other, weigh within a few lbs., have the same warranty, seating position, handling, acceleration, braking, etc.” Of course the lead writer for the piece is panicking. Somehow, publishing an article about five disparate 650 cc: sport bikes and saying “They’re all pretty much the same, any one of them will do,” isn’t going to make readers or advertisers happy. So, the task over the next two days is to tease out each tiny, superficial, insignificant difference and exaggerate them enough to make a story. Trust me, auto journalists have the same problem.

Given my experience above, I worked hard to focus attention only on things that would really matter. In reviewing my notes as I worked to a decision, two things stuck out: The first was that the Ducati did not have cruise control. For long rides where cranking out miles is paramount, cruise control was something I’d begun to rely upon. The second was the fact the KTM was chain-driven (as was the Ducati). While aware of the superiority of chains for performance reasons, having adjusted and cared for motorcycle chains my entire motorcycle life, I was done with them. Now the BMW 1200GS moved into first place, eliminating the rest. While it made total sense analytically, I struggled with the idea of owning the same bike as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry owned – or in this case, add in every Bob, Jim, Jane, Kevin (he has 3), and Roger (has two), etc. “Steve Larsen is highly discriminating and does not ride what everyone else rides. Period.”

Two years went by. A friend finally took my V-Strom and I added a Honda Grom to the garage, so I was down to two — or, 1½ if you don’t consider the Grom a full-size motorcycle, which it is not.

Late in 2016, I wandered through GoAZ in Scottsdale, my favorite dealer. They are always well-stocked and represent all major brands including Aprilla, BMW, Ducati, Husqvarna, Honda, Indian, Kawasaki and Royal Enfield. Don Reiff is the sales manager and a friend of mine from his days at North Valley Honda. I mentioned the possibility of trading in my Goldwing and Grom if I could find the right deal on a BMW 1200GS. The 2017 models had begun to arrive and Don had two brand new 2017 1200GS’s. He quickly went through the various features on both of them. One had everything I wanted and as it turns out, Don really wanted to get his hands on my super low mileage Grom. Before I knew it, the deal was done and a few days later I delivered my Goldwing and Grom to GoAZ and they sent me home on a new BMW, festooned with about $4K in accessories – which any GS owner can tell you, is only a drop in the bucket.

During the first couple of years, there were no performance or handling surprises. It was sublime. I gave it good workouts on the pavement and love how it dances around curves like something half its weight. Shod with off-road only knobby tires and other accessories for tackling dirt, I took it to Moab, UT for a couple of off-road adventures and once down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Before spending much time on a big bike like the GS in rough terrain, be sure to acquire the specific skills for this. RawHyde Adventures or Bill Dragoo’s DART classes are two of the best.

It still bothers me it is so incredibly popular and there are so many of them. My remedy was to configure my GS differently than others. I’ve made it unique to me, a bit on appearance but more significantly, on how it rides. The handlebars and foot pegs are customized for me and make a huge difference. Lighting is very unlike the stock version and my tires and wheels are interchangeable for the sorts of riding I do. So, after a few years of getting used to the commonness of the 1200GS, it’s grown on me and has become “The One Bike to Rule Them All.”

Me on my GS, outfitted for the dirt, near Moab, UT

Yeah, try that backward and one-handed

California Superbike School logo

One of my “beats” when writing for Motorcycle Consumer News was training schools. I loved going to them, ate up learning new riding techniques, and enjoyed writing about them. Things I’d always considered impossible on a motorcycle, at least for me, turned out to be doable with expert instruction, patience, practice, and a building block approach to acquiring new skills. Willingness to listen to instructors and executing what they said, greatly improved the odds of success.

I was lucky and able to attend nearly all of the biggest and most highly-ranked motorcycle riding schools. Different schools focused on teaching off-road skills, racing and track proficiency, slick track riding/drifting, advanced adventure-riding/survival techniques, motocross, trials riding and even a wheelie school. On top of these, I’m also the only civilian to take and pass both mulit-week police moto-officer training programs conducted by the AZ Highway Patrol and the Phoenix Police Departments. You can read about those experiences here: a) Top Cop Skills, and b) Ultimate Riding Skills: What Motor Officers Learn That Could Save Your Life.

One of the longest-running and most respected track schools is Keith Code’s California Superbike School. I begged Motorcycle Consumer News (MCN) editor, Dave Searle, to get me a spot in one of the classes and promised him a great story. Keith Code has trained some of the most successful motorcycle racers ever, including Wayne Rainey, James Toseland, and Leon Camier. Riders training with Code or at his schools have won over 60 world and national racing championships. If you wish to go fast around a race track on a motorcycle, Keith Code is the gold standard for perfecting this particular set of skills. Code’s class and his books present the right way to take a corner on a motorcycle. One of the most valuable things I took from his class were the observational skills necessary to critique my personal riding with an eye to continual improvement. Code’s class provides a template for converting any future ride you take into a class on better riding, with you as your instructor. A few months after my pleas to Editor Searle, on a sunny day in early April, I was in Rosamond, California driving into the Willow Springs Racing complex for a two-day stint at Keith Code’s world-famous track school. And oh yeah, I was nervous!

I’ll not recount the entire class experience here, as you can read about it in this article “Two Days and 5 Thousand Corners: Learning to Ride When You Already Know How.” However, in this short newsletter, I will recount two vivid memories. In the beginning, we were divided into three groups based on riding and track experience. The first group were the macho confident types (nearly all young males), familiar and experienced with racing on a track. The second group consisted of riders with a solid set of basic skills but a desire to get a knee down and go faster around a track. The third consisted of those with much less time on a motorcycle and I sort of wondered what they were doing there. I ended up in the middle group. It was a surprise to nearly all attendees that at the end of the second day, the fastest riders and best times were held by riders in a cross-section of all three groups. Why was that?

It turned out some in the first group had to spend time un-learning bad habits and poor technique before they could start learning to do things the correct way. Conversely, some of the faster riders emerging from the third group had few bad practices to unlearn, tended to pay closer attention to the instructors, and did precisely what they were told to do without thinking – and some of them got faster in short order.

All laps were timed and frequently videoed via a camera on the back of the bike. After a run (runs consisted of a warm-up lap and then 3 speed runs around the track) we went into the video room and watched our most recent attempt to put everything together with an instructor, clearly seeing what was done correctly and where we needed to improve. My lap times steadily decreased as I gained confidence. Following the instructor’s advice, I continued to push the bike, and myself, more and more. Damn, it was fun!

Toward the end of the second day, my times had begun to get fairly consistent. My instructor rode over to me and said, “Hey, Keith said you wanted to do a hot lap through the bowl at race speeds. You’re not sketchy at all, so if you want to do it, we could go now.”

Oh my God – I couldn’t believe this was happening. First, a bit of background: The Streets of Willow Springs is a 1.6-mile track, featuring 13 turns. Turn 8 is a big “bowl” or “sweeper-type” turn with a 20% camber. The track, by itself, is one of the fastest tracks in the world, and Turn 8 is one of the fastest turns on any track. Racers everywhere dream about getting a chance to ride the Streets of Willow Springs and try this turn, which can be taken pretty much as fast as you want to go. When signing up for the class months before, I’d asked if it might be possible to get a hot lap through the bowl, but I’d completely forgotten it until that moment. Hell, yes!

The instructor reminded me of what we’d done before. This would be just like all our other laps, just a lot faster. We’d first do a warm-up lap, then the hot lap as always, but this time we’d do only one additional lap and at full race speed. As always, the admonition echoed in my head to stick directly behind the tail of my instructor’s bike and I would be fine. We were riding the exact same bikes. If that bike was safe following a particular line at a specific speed, my bike would be safe, too. Plus, I thought how unlikely it would be for them to kill a moto-journalist at one of their classes? So, with no more prep than that, off we went. The warm-up lap was no problem, just me loosening up and working the butterflies out of my stomach. Then we crossed the timing line and went into the tight rabbit’s ear corner. Things immediately began to get different, and this is where you need to start paying attention, boys and girls.

Heading north, after turn 4, the track goes uphill in a gentle turn 5 before you head more steeply uphill to turn 6. Every other time I’d slowed at this spot, as I wasn’t able to see over the hill and what lay beyond. I like the idea of seeing where I am going and of course, this is the part of the track where one starts to set up for the bowl. But we didn’t slow this time – quite the opposite. Following my instructor who was not slowing, but accelerating, I came over the crest of the hill. While not actually getting air, the bike certainly got light, very light. Wow, that was scary! Before I could think too much about it, we were heading into the dramatic wide radius of the bowl, absolutely flat out. As I leaned the bike over and slid off the right side of the bike to drag my knee puck, I matched my instructor’s bike like an image in a mirror. I could feel the rear wheel bite and tear at the tarmac, but it held. My mind screamed at me, “You’re doing it! You’re riding the famous bowl full out. You’re going through here as fast as anyone ever has. This is exactly what true professional racers feel.” At this moment of maximum exhilaration and triumph, I saw my instructor turn her head around, look back at me, reach her hand out, and give me a thumbs up. And in that instant, it occurred to me, “Well, maybe this wasn’t the fastest ever through the bowl, because she is doing it one-handed and backwards. And she is a girl!” I’d been taking instruction from this young woman for the past two days, so I was familiar with her easy and fluid command of her bike and knowledge she exhibited when critiquing my riding in her efforts to make me better. My comment about her being a girl is aimed at any vestigial sexism you, dear reader, might have. Might I ask, did the first mention of my instructor as “her” in this story surprise you? Just a little bit? If it did, there’s the evidence – you’ve got some work to do on some of your latent sexist attitudes.

Like my other efforts to get beyond just being good, I always reach a point where the road ahead gets very clear. What is required of me to reach the next level snaps into focus, and I often, although not always, say to myself, “I’m okay. I’ll stop here. This is good enough.” My results for these few days of riding and competing at Willow Springs put me right in the middle of the pack of other students. I went on to do more track days with a group of ex-racer friends at various tracks around northern California but I never got much beyond the middle of the pack. In a race with 30 riders, I was happy to finish in the top ten and thrilled to get into the top five, which sometimes happened. Like a good high school or college basketball player watching the pros play, they see a different game than the one seen by casual fans who’ve never played at an advanced level. Professionals play a very different game and these classes revealed this secret in more detail.

MotoGP race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX

Years later, I attended and reported on the MotoGP racing series. These are the fastest, most powerful racing motorcycles on the planet, piloted by athletes of tremendous skill, mental and physical endurance. Watching those races track side and in the press tent, I realized I was seeing something very different from what the fans around me were watching. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts from the Keith Code experience and my time piloting track bikes was this perspective I’d not had before. Watching these riders, I began to be aware of what I was seeing, this incoming stream of data starting to make sense as it came together inside my skull. I found myself flashing back to my Willow Springs bowl experience and appreciating just how amazingly accomplished these professional riders are, which leads to my final memory of the Willow Springs event.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, as most of the riders were taking a break, I began to hear murmuring near the track starting line. Several guys I’d just been speaking to walked over to see what the commotion was and I followed. Then we heard it, “Keith’s going to ride. Code’s taking one of the bikes around the track.” We’d all heard rumors occasionally, although not always, Keith would get on a bike and ride it around the track. Of course, seeing this legend ride the track on which we’d just spent two days would be an exciting event. We all imagined the thrill of seeing him burning up the straights and diving into the corners at unbelievable angles. As we got closer, sure enough, it was the man himself zipping into a leather riding suit. Keith rode back into the paddock area for a bit, pushing the bike from side to side at a slow speed. He then aimed the bike toward the starting line and was off. We watched as he rode off and entered the first tight turns. He didn’t seem to be going very fast. One of the guys standing next to me said, “This must be his warm-up lap,” but everyone kept watching. Sure enough, Code showed very little stress as he circled the track. Many of us were disappointed when after crossing the finish line, Code didn’t continue into a hot lap, but instead pulled back around and dismounted the bike. Ah dang, we wanted to see him go really, really fast. As we grumbled, one of the students pointed to the timing clock high on a pole near the starting line. It was Code’s time. He’d just circled the track more than 4 seconds faster than the best time over the past two days. We’d all looked up at that timing clock a hundred times over the weekend and knew to a hundredth of a second, the current best time and when it was occasionally and rarely improved upon, and when it was, it was typically only by a few hundredths of a second. No one had shaved a full second from the clock since the early laps on the first day. So this was a second lesson: genuine professionals make what they do look easy. It’s only when trying to replicate it that one can appreciate the level of training, skill, and experience they bring. Code looked positively leisurely circling the track, when in fact, he was exceeding everyone’s best time by a wide margin.

One of my local riding heroes here in Phoenix is Dustin Apgar. Dustin’s riding business is near me and I stop in on occasion. Dustin’s bike control is as good as any track rider I’ve ever seen and he’s fast as hell. And I know the amount of training, preparation and endless practice he puts in to ride at this level. I want you to see what I’m talking about. Here is a video of Dustin dragging not just his knee – but his head around a racetrack turn. Now that’s a class I’m never taking.

Epilogue: One of the most consistent findings across all of these classes, irrespective of the type of riding skill being taught, is a building block approach. Code used it and it was the backbone of all the training the cops did. Off-road training from Dragoo, Hyde or LaPlante takes this approach as well and I always found it to be remarkably effective. It starts with a first step which is learned, repeated, and practiced until it becomes second nature. Only then is a second, more advanced move that builds on the first, introduced. It too is practiced and learned to perfection. Then these two moves are combined until they can be done repeatedly and easily. After that, a third move is introduced and the process repeated. Students running into difficulties are channeled back into working on earlier building blocks until they gained enough confidence to proceed.

Dakar Tune-up Ride and Lessons Learned

Desert sections of my Dakar trip were a playground. No need for a center stand, just hold the front brake and spin the rear tire until the bike would stay upright.

Late in 2010, my plans to travel to South America for the 2011 Dakar Rally across Argentina and Chile had been finalized.  While I felt mostly ready, I decided one more challenging tune-up test ride was in order to ensure my riding skills were suitably sharp. This is the story of my Dakar preparatory ride  — and crash — along with some important riding lessons learned.

Crown King, Arizona is situated about 50 miles north of Phoenix and 30 miles west of Highway 17.  High in the Bradshaw Mountains (elevation 5,571 feet), it is quite a climb from the valley floor.  Cars and road-oriented vehicles typically exit Hwy 17 at Bumble Bee and then take Hwy 59 through Cleator and on up to Crown King, a one hour drive on wide, well-maintained gravel roads.  However, there is a popular “back way” alternative favored by well-equipped, rock-crawling jeeps, Polaris RZRs, and other off-road vehicles.

A rarely maintained mining road constitutes major sections of “the back way to Crown King,” a favorite play ground for all sorts of off-road vehicles.

This “back way to Crown King,” although only about 35 miles, takes a good 2-3 hours, as you cross creeks, crawl up rock walls and clamber through some nasty and difficult old mining roads rarely in good repair.  It is not recommended for passenger cars, ever. Jeeps and pure off-road vehicles with skilled drivers love it.  For experienced off-road motorcycle riders it’s possible, but you must be prepared. It is best done on lighter dirt bikes with high clearance and never done alone.

Having recently returned from several days at Jim Hyde’s Rawhyde Adventure training camp in northern California, I was full of confidence. I’d spent 4 days riding one of Hyde’s BMW 1200GS bikes nearly exclusively off-road and often through some unique and diabolical challenges created by Hyde’s training staff. I had performed well, finding myself in the top group of riders in each event. I decided to take my Suzuki 650 V-Strom the backway to Crown King as a final tune-up for the Dakar trip.  While the “Wee-Strom” is not in the same class as the 1200GS, I’d done a good bit of work improving its suspension with the full “After Shocks” suspension upgrade, done for me when the bike was with me in northern California.  I’d also upgraded the brakes and installed steel-braided brake lines.  I felt it could handle it.

For my planned ascent, I’d imposed on two skilled riders from the Arizona Trail Riders Association.  We’d met at one of the ATR meetings and done a few easy rides together.  The ATR focuses on the sport of riding motorcycles in the dirt and is open to riders of all ages and skill levels.  In addition to riding off-road, they get involved in trail maintenance and other efforts supporting the environment.  On the day of my ride, I followed my two buddies on my V-Strom as they trailered their dedicated off-road motorcycles to the staging area north of Lake Pleasant. Soon we were off and headed to Crown King.  Everything went pretty well on the way up. The biggest difficulties were several sections filled with river rocks that significantly slowed us down.

Rather than stopping in Crown King for a burger, they led me out of town to the top of nearby Towers Mountain, a tall peak with an enclave of huge radio transmission towers.  Near one of the larger tower installations we came across 20 or more off-road motorcycles parked here and there – mostly set in place so they couldn’t roll down the mountain on their own. We dismounted, parked, and walked behind a building to find a large grill filled with burgers and brats. Riders were standing around who’d made the trip to the top and were now enjoying lunch. These were friends of my two guides and we were greeted like long-lost brothers. We had a delightful lunch with them, told motorcycle lies while some of the group napped in the shade before the long ride home. As we walked back around the building to where the bikes were parked I found several riders gathered around my V-Strom, scratching their heads.  “Who’s bike is this?” they wanted to know. And the more important question to them, “How the hell did it get up here?” I was pleased these riders recognized the skill set required for getting a bike with substantially more weight and fewer suspension chops than theirs up to this particular landmark.  Basking in the glances from my fellow riders, I momentarily forgot how much more difficult it was going to be getting this heavy bike down from something like this place. As any off-road rider will tell you, in a descent, the bike’s weight is always trying to pull you in a direction in which you typically really do not want to go.

It took a while, but I managed to get back to Crown King.  From there I elected to take the front way home, which meant wide gravel roads on which normal automobiles have no issues. With my two riding buddies having no objections (they were tired, too) they pulled in behind me and we headed off down the nicely groomed gravely route 59. Now the V-Strom felt great, its extra weight no longer an issue.  As I began to relax from the tense trip down Towers Mountain, I began to let my speed creep up.  Approaching the switchbacks, I pushed the rear wheel out a bit, giving it a bit of throttle and letting the rear end gracefully slide through the turn. Looking in my mirrors, I no longer saw my companions, so I pushed it a little bit harder.  It was a great feeling, moving through each turn – until suddenly, it wasn’t.  Coming in perhaps a bit too fast, I spotted a large rock right in the path I’d assumed I would travel.  Going to the inside (where there was a cliff wall) was not an option and drifting around the outside of the rock would put me not only in the opposite lane of traffic, but have me pointing directly off the road and over a cliff. Before I could make a decision on which of the two very lousy and bad options to take, the bike made the decision for me.  The gravel in the corner had gotten increasingly deeper in the months since the road had last been graded, and my front wheel dug into some very deep and loose gravel, and, with the bike as it was angled, immediately went down, slamming me to the road with it.  I hit on my left side first, with my leg and knee taking the brunt of it, but was then quickly pitched forward onto my head.  Finally, something unlikely to break! I laid there for what seemed like several minutes but was probably less than one when the two riders following me came upon the scene and rushed over to help.  By that time I was beginning to get up but was glad to have help.  My leg, knee, head, and wrist/hand hurt.  I’d been wearing all the proper gear – helmet, gloves, chest and arm protectors. However, I’d cheated on gear to protect my legs and it turns out I was going to pay for that shortcut.

A couple of cars pulled over to offer help and after several minutes of weighing the options, I got back on the bike – which was mostly undamaged – and road it down the mountain and home.  When we got to Highway 74 where my buddies needed to turn off to head back to the launching pad where they’d left their truck and trailer, I was feeling better and promised them I’d have no trouble making it the rest of the way home.  Maggie had been alerted by phone of my crash and immediately upon arriving home she took me to the ER for X-rays and to be checked out.

There were several lessons learned from this crash. The first was how much longer it took for me to heal than it had taken in my youth.  After crashes in my younger days, (yes, I did crash), I was sore for a few days and back in the saddle as if nothing had happened in less than a week. But not this time.  Two weeks after the crash I boarded the plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina with a large bursitis bulge still on my knee, roughly the size of an orange.

The next lesson was a growing appreciation of how riding when fatigued negatively impacts judgment and reaction time.  I’ve ridden long distances on tarmac, the longest in memory was a single day ride from Napa Valley to Sun Valley, Idaho.  On that 972 mile route, I left Napa at 4:30 a.m. and arrived in Sun Valley 16 hours later, after dark.  I was so tired I can’t remember arriving at the small motel, checking in and collapsing on the bed.  That same sort of fatigue arrives much faster when you throw in off-road sections.  Riding over 300 miles of pure off-road terrain has always been my limit, even when younger, and a 150-200 mile off-road day is a better planning range number.  It is not lost on me that the natural relaxation and letting down of my guard after reaching a significant goal (getting to Crown King on a V-Strom) had left a depleted energy tank when it came to getting back home safely.

After crossing the amazing Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on the planet, the South Pacific Ocean appears to go on forever.

The third lesson was the importance of having a safety net.  In this case, it was a couple of guys riding behind me, and they were there when I needed them. They got my bike back upright, helped assess the situation, evaluated my fitness for continuing and then followed me for a few miles, watching to make sure I stayed upright and in my lane.

On the two-week South America Dakar ride, which you can read about here, these lessons were never far from my mind, thus serving the desired purpose of a tune-up ride – being physically and mentally prepared.  Of the 14 riders that began the Dakar trip, only half returned on the same bike as we left, and I was one of those. Some abandoned the trip early on, finding it too grueling; others crashed and ended up riding in the truck or finding other ways back to our starting point. I didn’t crash, didn’t wreck my bike and was never hurt. Being prepared had a good deal to do with that outcome.

Falling in Love with a Tesla

Deep blue Tesla Model 3
Lotus on top in back, NSX in the middle and McLaren in the foreground.

Okay, no surprise, I’m a car guy. Everyone knows it. I’ll not clog this newsletter with information on my collection of three of the most iconic cars of all time: a 1969 Lotus Elan, a 2002 Acura NSX and a 2014 McLaren MP4-12C, although the McLaren makes an appearance later in this story. You may notice they are all three yellow. It’s a weakness, what can I say? You can see pictures and read all about why they are so great here.

The Polaris RZR would go just about anywhere. It also managed to fill a very big garage space.

When I let my Polaris RZR go a couple of years back, it created an extra space in my 7-car garage and a void that had to be filled. What to do? What to do? After months of input and debate among my car buddies, I settled on finding a low mileage, 2-3-year-old Mercedes Benz S-550. The primary attraction of this car was its precipitous depreciation rate – one of the five worst in the world. It meant a low mileage version of this powerful and great looking 2-dr coupe with an original sticker of $155,662 in one example, was priced at just $57,900. This is an awesome saving. Plus, if you bought one certified pre-owned from a MB dealership, they honored the full five-year warranty as if you were the original owner, and added an extra year.

Mercedes Benz S-550 2-dr. coupe

I wanted this car so Maggie and I could drive to and from California and perhaps Minnesota in ultra-luxury and safety. Once the model, year and miles were decided on, the search began. I looked for over 3 months, in no particular hurry. It drove my car buddies crazy, but I love being in the market for a car and delight in chasing down all manner of crazy alternatives. The Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote was a good friend and ultimate car guy, Clayton Saffell.

Saffell and I met in the Phoenix Lotus Owners Club and he provided invaluable assistance and guidance during my Lotus Elan rebuild. Although a good bit younger than me, Saffell knows more about cars than Elon Musk knows about batteries. He has perfect recall to an encyclopedic memory, and strong, although nearly always justified, opinions on a great many things, including automobiles.

After a few false starts, money allocated to this purpose was burning a hole in my pocket. So, one Saturday Saffell agreed to go with me to visit a couple of MB dealers who had S-550’s for sale on their lots. One condition, however, was visiting a couple of Tesla dealers. Saffell was strongly considering the purchase of a Tesla Model 3 and Tesla had special pricing that weekend on in-stock models.

We looked at the first MB S-550 and decided to pass. Then, to the Tesla dealership. We checked out the Model 3 demo on the showroom floor and got a few questions answered, but didn’t like the salesperson or the vibe of the dealership. So it was off to see the next S-550 prospect.

Clayton Saffell

That one didn’t leave us gushing either, although it was a great car and a decent price. The next Tesla dealership was near Kierland Commons, in Scottsdale. We met an over-the-top helpful salesman. We drove the Model 3 around and Saffell decided to pull the trigger and order the car then and there. It was a breeze. The salesman guided Saffell through a smartphone app, and before you knew it, he’d matched the specs of the car he wanted to a car in their inventory and made a $5K deposit to hold the car until he could pick it up on Monday at the delivery center.

As Saffell was lining up his new car, I learned all sorts of things about Teslas of which I was unaware. If you don’t count rotating the tires, the first service is due at 124,000 miles when the brakes need inspecting. You never need an oil change or have to stop at a gas station. The car is quicker from 0-60 than anything other than a total muscle car and even then, it’s no slouch. It has zero emissions. Consumer Reports rated it as the safest car they’d ever tested. More of it is built here in the United States than any other car – it is more “made in the USA” than Ford, Chevy, or Chrysler. The design knocks your socks off – inside and out. It is just spectacular. And it is built to drive itself, if and when the government regulators and lawyers get all the kinks worked out.

You order a new Tesla from your phone.

And then there is the process of acquiring a new car from Tesla. It’s completely different from any other car buying experience you’ve had. Everyone is familiar with the term “slick as greased owl shit,” right? The Tesla car purchase process represents a brilliant manifestation of that phrase. Saffell didn’t physically have to sign his name once. After he’d decided to buy the car, we were done in less than 15 minutes and all he needed to do then was pick up his car on Monday morning. As we were about to leave, I said to the sales guy, “Ya know, I think I’d like one, too.” I turned to Saffell and asked, “Do you think this is better for me than an S-550?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Yes. I do.” I’ve known Clayton Saffell since 2011. Every suggestion he’s ever made to me has been perfect. Well, except Roon, but that’s another story and not his fault.

Maggie and I have been living with our brilliantly blue Tesla Model 3 with its pure white interior for a year now. The damn car has squiggled and wormed its way into my heart. It was the most impulsive auto purchase I’d ever made. I was certain it wouldn’t last. Quite the opposite has happened. I have come to love it. New technology frequently irritates the crap out of me – especially Apple products. A day doesn’t go by that I’m not screaming at my iPhone, iWatch, or iPad, asking “Why are you doing this? I didn’t ask you to do this! Please stop!” Tesla is as full of technology as Apple, but they simply implement it so much better. For example, our other cars are set to open our garage doors and neighborhood security gate by pushing either a special clicker or button in the car. Tesla, which has advanced GPS, has you decide where you want to be when the gate or garage door opens. Approaching the gate or garage doors, you do nothing. No clickers, no buttons, you just drive up and things open. It is so intuitive, so simple and cool. You don’t realize how arcane other cars are until you drive them after driving the Tesla. I’ve driven up to our gate many times in one of our other cars and then realized I needed to find my clicker. You find yourself asking, “Why doesn’t this just do this automatically, like the Tesla.”

Most people familiar and comfortable with gas-driven cars excessively worry about running out of battery power. This is called range anxiety: “How do I know where the next charging station will be? What happens if I run out of battery charge?” I’ve noticed this fear is almost the exclusive domain of those interested in an electric vehicle like the Tesla, but haven’t purchased one yet. One finds that within a few months of driving an electric car, most fear that you’ll not have enough juice to reach your destination goes away. Last year I loaded the Tesla with 2 other good-sized guys like me and one average guy – Saffell and headed for Las Vegas. Leaving the house with a full charge, Tesla’s navigation system showed us heading north and west, stopping in Kingman, AZ at a charging station a few blocks off the highway. Off we went, with the car doing a good share of the steering, accelerating, and braking while we jabbered away. Pulling into the Kingman charging station a few hours later, the Tesla’s battery was just over 23%. The Tesla screen said we should charge it for 15 minutes to give us enough juice to make it to Las Vegas. In just 15 minutes, our battery showed 81% charged. Wow! And we made it to the north end of Las Vegas with juice to spare.

This is the only time I’ve charged my Tesla outside my home garage, except for once at Kierland Commons when Saffell showed me how to plug it in and follow proper charging etiquette.

Other than this one trip, we drive around town all day and evening. Rarely do we use even half the juice in the battery. When we get home, we plug it in. I’ve not been able to see an increase in our electric bill, although I’m sure there has been. I’ve just not been able to quantify it. The 3-year cost of ownership puts the Tesla in a genuinely low-price bracket when you factor in that you don’t spend any money for gas nor do you take it in for tune-ups and other repairs.

Another enduring quality of Tesla is how quick it is. It was only a few weeks ago when a car with a very loud set of pipes coasted up in the lane beside me. Looking over I saw it was an Asian tuner car, great big wide tires, body panels galore and rumbling pipes, as the driver blipped the throttle every couple of seconds. The rear airfoil was huge and painted logo and words on the car’s doors promoted a host of speed shop brands. It was clear this driver was hoping for a race. Even though Maggie was with me, I decided, why not?

As soon as the light turned green the car next to me began roaring like a madman. The tires squealed as the driver dropped his clutch and his car took off a bit ahead. Me, I floored the Tesla, shooting across the intersection, and before we were all the way through, I was over a full car length ahead. In the next hundred feet, I was 3-4 car lengths ahead and a half mile further on, as I slowed for a red light, I was all the way stopped and waiting as the tuner car pulled in next to me. I just looked straight ahead. What the young driver probably did not understand is, unlike a piston-driven car which makes maximum torque and power typically over 5,000 RPM’s, the Tesla’s maximum torque and power are at zero RPM’s. And it’s totally quiet. This is just so incredibly fun I can hardly stand it.

With 640 HP in a 3,000 lb. carbon fiber car, 0-60 is less than 3 sec.

Here is what is funniest. This sort of thing at stoplights happens to me all the time in my McLaren. Anyone having anything close to a “hot car” attempts to take it on. In this situation, had I been in the McLaren, the result wouldn’t have been much different. But here is what would have been different: Yes, I’d have blown off the Asian tuner car in the McLaren — but people in five states would have known about it. The McLaren’s light carbon fiber body and 640 horses channeled through its “sport exhaust” can wake the dead when pushed hard in race mode. It’s been verified – they come right out of the ground and they are pissed! This is why, about 95% of the time when someone pulls up beside the McLaren, revving their engine in hopes of a quick drag race, I just let them go. It’s not worth the bother or the noise.

There was no advance inclination I would be this smitten with the Tesla. It is so beautiful to look at, inside and out. The sound system is the best I’ve ever had in a car. Tesla surprises owners with feature that have no practical use, but are just crazy fun. Did you know the Tesla can emit farts of all sorts from under any seat in the car? What other car does that? It has a Santa mode that makes the turn signals jingle like bells and has the car show up as a Santa’s sleigh on the screen. When setting up your Tesla after purchase, you are given the option to name your car. What you put as its name comes up each time you turn the car on. Without much debate, we named ours “Steve & Maggie’s Tesla.” A week or so later, Saffell called me and suggested I rename my Tesla. He said, “When it asks you what you want the name of your car to be, just type in 42.” So I did and the next time I turned the car on I noticed the name of our Tesla was now “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Of course, any geek worth his comic book collection will recognize and appreciate the Douglas Adams tribute and reference to “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.”

My intention was not to fall for the Tesla. My plan was to drive it for a year and then line up something else. Not now. This Model 3 began working its way into our hearts from the first day and hasn’t stopped. I get a charge every time I get into it. Pun intended.