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

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.

Copper Canyon: There’s more to the story

a group picture
Copper Canyon Riders – click for more

On March 29, you got a newsletter about my motorcycle trip to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. If you need a reminder, it is here. While helpful to know some of the details of the trip, it’s not a requirement for appreciating the story in this newsletter, about something incredible and truly wonderful which happened on the last night of the trip, at a small dining room in Nuevo Casa Grande, Mexico, about 3 hours southeast Douglas, AZ where we would end our trip.

Here is a quick background: The allure of Mexico’s Copper Canyon region to motorcycle riders has had it on my radar for over twenty years. A ride there was near the top of my mental bucket list. Thinking I might be closer to the bucket than at other points in my life, in March of 2018 I persuaded a group of my closest riding friends to join me on a seven-day ride from Douglas, AZ down to the Copper Canyon. Skip Mascorro and his MotoDiscovery team put together the itinerary and managed everything. All we did was show up and ride.

First, you need to understand the players. Joining from around the USA were: Roger Hansen from Florida, Mark Dilly from Phoenix, Eric Schmid from Salt Lake City, Kevin Ward from Florida, a friend of Eric Schmid’s from Chicago – Eric Baurele, and my brother Leif Larsen from Minnesota. Roger is an experienced rider, a veteran of several of Helge Pederson’s global rides, including the Silk Road tour. Roger and I had met in 2006 on an American Flyers Motorcycle Club ride in Washington State. Roger was riding a Harley then and found it was unable to keep up with the group, which was mostly on sport-touring bikes. I believe I was testing Yamaha’s new FJR 1300 for one of my magazines. Back on that 2006 ride, Roger and I spent dinners discussing the riding he hoped to do in the future. Once I knew his plans, I recommended he get a BMW 1200 GS. It was less than a month after the Washington trip when he was riding a new BMW.

Kevin Ward is a member of the American Flyers Motorcycle Club. Although in a near-perpetual state of probation with this group, Kevin is a skilled rider, displaying one trait I greatly admire in a motorcyclist – a constant desire to improve his skills. Kevin understands that if you’re not always practicing and mastering new skills and techniques, you’ll regress and your abilities will atrophy. We have an affinity for the same instructors and riding schools. We’ve become close friends.

Kevin had introduced me to his friend Eric Schmid a year earlier, and we’d ridden together off-road in Moab, UT, staying in his luxury trailer/toy hauler. Eric is a superb rider and signed up instantly. Unlike Kevin, Roger and I, Eric was on the younger side of fifty (then for sure, I don’t know about now). For me and most of my riding friends, our transition to a more cautious approach to off-road riding had occurred in our early sixties. For the self-aware in the group, this assessment of our bodies’ speed to heal combined with our inability to turn as fast, wheelie as far or slide the rear tire as smoothly through an entire turn, had gradually dawned on us. For all the rest, it was some sort of crash, mishap, or other “oh-shit” moment, often accompanied by some sort of a physical damaging motivator. Don’t get me wrong, we still love riding challenging terrain, we’re just learning to do it differently. Schmid invited his pal from Chicago, Eric Baurele.

Some years ago, Mark Dilly had made the move to Arizona from Chicago. A key reason for his choosing Arizona and the Southwest was his love of riding. The abundance of great motorcycle roads and the long riding season. When calling or emailing Mark about a motorcycle ride, be it a day ride or more extended trip, he has yet to say anything other than “Oh, sounds like fun. Count me in.”

Talking with my brother, Leif, in Minnesota, I told him about my upcoming trip. Never wave a trip south in front of a Minnesotan in March. He was officially sick of winter and so was added to our group. What Leif lacks in formal motorcycle training, he’s makes up in being a quick study. Although I had some worries, it was mostly “older brother syndrome.”

Just as I had invited people on this ride, Skip Mascorro surprised us all. He had extended an invitation to join our group to Kaz Uzunoglu, his partner for planning and executing motorcycle tours in Europe. I’d met Kaz in 2001 on a ride in Italy with Lotus Tours but really got to know him on an American Flyers Motorcycle Club trip to Turkey in September of 2005. AFMC member Andy Forrester had instigated the trip and Kaz had pulled it all together. This time, Kaz flew to Texas from Turkey where he met up with Skip, then rode to Douglas, AZ with Skip and the crew. Skip’s team included Juan Stanglmair of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Juan is a walking encyclopedia of all things automotive, including racing and classic cars. We were joined in the Canyon portion of the trip by Ivan Fernandez, a registered tour guide with vast knowledge of the Sierra Tarahumara (or Raramuri to be more correct). Ivan’s instincts and contacts make sure we didn’t end up someplace where we shouldn’t.

There are some parallels between people riding together and going through military boot camp. Jokes and constant ribbing abound. When it’s all men, few things are out-of-bounds: choice of bike, your inadequate gear, lack of preparation, your lousy physical shape, bad hair, general ugliness, and of course, ridiculously poor riding skills. Oh, and flatulence. Very macho and all fun, with that certain edge. But something grows as the days go by. Concern for others in the group is evidenced by the speed at which everyone rushes to the aid of a fellow biker who’s gone down, and this trip, pretty much everyone went down at least once – except maybe for Eric.

While riding, your head is encased in a helmet. You are not talking with your fellow riders. As Rich Marin, the founder of the American Flyers Motorcycle Club, explains in Chapter 1 of his book, “The Ride Is All,” nothing is more whimsical or fickle than seeking to be alone in a group. Riding is a solitary endeavor with nothing to restrain you or anyone to annoy you. You live in your helmet with your thoughts. It’s very much a solitary experience.

However, every breakfast, lunch stop, and dinner you are together. At every gas stop or rest break, you are together – every single day of the trip. You talk, you get to know each other, learn what others do, what they’re working on, care about, and the people important to them in their lives. This group became aware of Eric Schmid’s business issues, my open heart surgery and its complications, and all our various political ideas.

Overhearing Roger Hansen on a few cellphone calls, we learned he was helping his daughter and the recovery homes she’d founded to assist recovering alcohol and drug addicts. We learned Jennifer Hansen had emerged from a drug habit that had nearly ended her life. She was now taking on a cause and struggle that she knew all too well. Her Serenity Houses are set up exclusively for men or for women. All residents living in the Serenity Houses are expected to work full-time, go to school, or volunteer. Roger agonized over how and why the State of New Jersey, rather than helping these efforts, worked to stop these homes and shut them down. At one dinner, Roger pulled out his phone and showed a video residents had helped put together, eloquently expressing how these homes had saved their lives.

On a tour planned and operated by a tour operator, it is traditional on the last day for members of the group to gather tip money from well-mannered participants. Typically the money is pooled; those not perceived to have given enough are cajoled to give more. One person holds the money and watches for an opportunity to present it, along with the thanks of the group. This typically occurs on the final night dinner and when beverages and glasses are available for toasts, and that is what happened for our group.

If you know nothing of the motorcycle touring industry, know this: One should not go into it with the idea of becoming wealthy. Besides Skip, I’ve known several other tour operators that I admire greatly and have ridden with repeatedly over twenty-five years. Their motivation is to make some semblance of a living while doing what they love most – showing remarkable parts of the world and its citizens to like-minded individuals who can see and appreciate this particular experience. So, tips at the end of a trip are never refused.

Mark Dilly took the leadership role and pulled all of the money together. Mark was a pretty effective fund-raiser and so, following his very nice speech thanking Skip and his crew, the pile of cash he pushed into Skip’s hands was not only decent, perhaps even slightly better than average.

Tradition then calls for the recipient of the tip to thank his crew, pledge to share a portion with them, and tell the participants that they are indeed, the absolute best group he’s ever had the pleasure of leading.

As Skip Mascorro began his speech, one he’d given countless times before, we could see him hesitating, losing his train of thought. His words and direction began to change. Of course, he said all the nice things about his crew and how great it was to ride with us and how he’d love to do it again sometime. But then, he took the ball cap full of tip money and pushed it in front of Roger Hansen, saying: “If it’s okay with all of you guys, I’d like to give this money to Roger Hansen’s foundation to help his daughter and her Serenity Houses.”

Roger Hansen is a tough guy, but he couldn’t keep the tears from rolling down his face. Nor could the rest of us.

Note: Photos of the riders are listed at the bottom of this newsletter’s page.

Best Motorcycle Mishap Ever

One of the most humbling experiences of my motorcycle career was attempting Trials Riding. Trials bikes are purpose-built motorcycles supporting a very precise and particular sort of riding competition. The sport is generally referred to as “mototrials” or “motorcycle trials” and is big in Europe, South America and other parts of the world, but has a more limited following in the US. If you’ve never seen a Trials bike ridden well, click HERE. This video will give you a good idea of what it is and what a skilled trials’ rider can do. It is highly exacting and rigorous riding focused on balance and control over speed.

Before I relate my mototrials riding experience, know that I took from that experience a healthy respect for those who learn to ride a trials bike well and compete in the sport. Later in my motorcycling career, I became good friends with former mototrials champion, Gary LaPlante. I rode with Gary and went on a few trips with him, and wrote about him and his riding school, MotoVentures, for different MC magazines. Gary’s off-road motorcycling training is superb. He is a masterful coach. I also had the good fortune to meet Geoff Aaron and do some publicity photos for him. Geoff is an exceptional mototrials rider and went on to gain sponsorship from Red Bull and now makes a career of giving mototrials riding demonstrations at Red Bull events. You can see more about Geoff here.

My trials training was done under the tutelage of Griff Wigley, one of the best teachers on the planet. Griff can teach just about anyone anything. He’s patient, kind, observant and somehow knows precisely the right thing to say at the right time. Griff is very civic-oriented and spends most of his time with non-profits, helping them build their communities, online and otherwise. There are few people who I admire more for their commitment to the greater good.

So, time for my trials story: Many years ago when living in the Twin Cities area, Griff volunteered to loan me one of his trials bikes and teach me some basic trials riding exercises. Taking him up on his offer, one Saturday morning I found myself some miles out of Northfield, MN near a park with a lot of trails.

Typical modern trials bike

Griff unloaded the bikes from the trailer, explaining to me their nature and operation. Trials bikes have super grippy tires running 5 – 8 lbs of pressure. Gas tanks hold less than 1 gallon, so they have a range of only about 50 miles. But with no seat, few use them for serious transportation. Top speed is less than 40 mph and most riding is done slower than 10 mph. The bikes weigh only about 150 lbs., putting them in the rarest form of motorsport vehicle, where the vehicle weighs less than the rider. The bikes have six gears, with the first four being super short with high torque. What and where riders manage to ride these bikes is mind-boggling. A trials bike can climb to the roof of a house. I’ve personally seen one ridden up the side of a semi-truck trailer to its top. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do.

After a morning of the basics, with Griff not letting me out of his sight, he allowed me to begin the afternoon on my own, working on the exercises he’d shown me: jumping over logs, balancing along a railroad tie, and riding over some big rocks.

At one point, Griff took off on a jeep trail that wound around and around the mountain, through some beautiful large pine trees, up to the top. I followed but, of course, could not keep up, and soon he was far ahead of me. About half-way up the mountain, I came across a log on the trail. I slowed, recalling Griff’s instructions on how to approach the log slowly, then blip the throttle as I pulled up on the handlebars, to raise the front wheel over the log. This time I grabbed more throttle than intended, and the bike reared up like the lone ranger’s horse. As the bike began getting away from me, I grabbed the handlebars more tightly, twisting the throttle fully wide open. The bike took off on its rear wheel without me, over the steep drop-off at the edge of the road. After checking myself for damage and finding none, I tiptoed to the side of the road and looked down for the bike. There it was, hanging from a tree limb, about 6 feet up from the ground.

Further down the hillside, I spied a bit of the road that circled the mountain. That was a good sign. I slid down the steep ten feet or so to the base of the tree and looked up. Sure enough, there it was, stuck about six feet up. I scooted down another few feet to the roadway below and waited for Griff to appear. Eventually, he did. As he rode up and stopped, he instantly realized I’d crashed and began looking around for the bike. I just stood there. He looked, not seeing anything anywhere. Finally, he said, “Okay, I give up, where’s the bike?” I took him to the side of the road and pointed up into the tree. There was his other bike. Griff looked for a while, then started to laugh and laugh. Then he finally said, “Wow, I wonder how many points you’d get docked for losing your bike in a tree.”

To understand what Griff said, you need to understand how scoring is done in trials competition runs. Each contestant starts with zero points. Points are added for errors. Dabbing a foot down adds 1 point for each dab, 5 points for going out-of-bounds, which are the sections marked with ribbons, 5 points for going backwards, etc. Like golf, the person with the lowest score is the winner. Griff had no idea how many points I’d “earned” for getting a trials bike caught over six feet up in a tree, a pine tree no less.

By the time we got the bike lowered to the ground, we were covered in pine tar. The bike was unhurt, but my riding prowess had taken a considerable blow. The next day I woke with every muscle in my body complaining. I could barely move. It eventually dawned on me that the skill, balance and physical conditioning required to ride a trials bike vastly surpassed other sorts of motorcycle riding, and I still believe that to this day. After I got into teaching precision riding, I often told students that learning to ride properly at slow speeds was critical. Unskilled riders often use speed to hide poor technique. Top riders know that executing maneuvers perfectly at slow speeds means you’ll always be able to do it right when the speed increases. BTW, in the years since this has happened, Griff has gotten into off-road bicycle riding. You can find his site here.