Thursday, 5 December 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part XIII - Home

Morning in Upstate New York

Part XII of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIIIPart IXPart XPart XI, Part XII.

I wake early on Sunday. It is a sunny, cool, crisp morning, the sort of perfect fall day that compliments the colour scheme of the landscape. The air smells fresh and clean. The scene is, thankfully, still vibrant here in upstate New York, a contrast to the dead hues and barren trees I had encountered in Pennsylvania and New Jersey the previous day.

While everyone else sleeps in I take the opportunity to once again walk the property and enjoy the sunrise. I'm treated to a spectacular sight as the sun's rays warm the surface of the lake and produces a thin layer of mist across the glassy-smooth water. As soon as it appears it is gone - a fleeting moment of beauty that disappears within the span of a few minutes. I don't envy the guests who are sleeping in late.

Sunrise

I hear a familiar sound overhead and note a group of Canada Geese flying south. How poetic, considering I'm reluctantly taking the opposite trajectory. They seem almost majestic in this setting, their obnoxious honks taking on a gentler quality when heard from several hundred feet below. Having had some up close and personal encounters with them I'll note that despite their name and symbolism they are just vicious poultry that will sooner bite your fingers off than do anything to instill national pride.

Mist on the Lake

I'm reluctant to leave early before anyone has woken up. I'm too polite to take off without saying goodbye, and I hate to rouse everyone with the thundering racket of an old Ducati. I'm not in a hurry in any case. I mill around the property and take photos for a while until one of the guys wakes up. I relay my thanks to Alan through him and load up the bike for a final time, satisfied that I am leaving without disappearing abruptly like an ungrateful transient.

Dawn over the Lake

I am fortunate that today the bike starts without too much protest. The fuel pump problem from the previous morning isn't manifesting itself and the cold startup routine is only a slight pain in the ass. It's clear that something is acting up intermittently, which suggests electrical problem, which is pretty much every single problem I have ever had to deal with on this bike (exploding coolant tanks aside). I say a silent prayer to my personal non-denominational deity, the God of Speed and Recalcitrant Italian Vehicles. It's just one more leg to home and then I can park it for the winter. As long as it gets me back to Montreal I will be happy, and then I will reward it for its faithful service by lavishing it with all the maintenance I'd been neglecting up to now.

GODDAMN IT'S SO BEAUTIFUL

And neglect it I have. I didn't mention this at the outset, being a good Ducati owner who minds his service intervals, but I was sucked into the whole endeavour so quickly that I postponed a critical valve adjustment. Funny how I would feel guilty sharing that detail, as if it would reveal some shameful personal weakness. My excuse is that I figured it would be better to take the risk of running loose clearances rather than encountering a problem during a rushed service right before I left. It almost never fails that if you undertake any sort of "routine" service during prime riding season, or right before a major trip, you will end up sidelined by some stupid issue you could not possible have foreseen and your bike will remain disassembled in the corner of the garage when you could and should be out riding.

Morning in Upstate New York

I dread returning home. My malaise is mounting at this point. Aside from my general sense of ennui my boss saw fit to throw a dozen projects at me before I left on this trip, so I have a stack of unpleasant busy work awaiting me the moment I arrive back at work. I am not looking forward to this. To any bosses in the audience, here's a tip - don't dump a bunch of new tasks upon an employee right before they go on vacation. The same applies to university professors who think they are clever by assigning work during Spring Break.

Autumn tree Upstate New York

I hesitate to even call Montreal "home". It's not a place that I have ever truly felt comfortable in. I like the city, and I enjoyed living there in the moments when I could ignore the provincial politics and draconian bureaucracy. But I am not French, and I am not a Quebecker. I grew up in New Brunswick. I am and will forever be an outsider in this culture. I don't like living in a place where I am explicitly singled out as a colon ("colonist")nevermind the headaches of being a motorcycle rider in Quebec, a situation which I have bitched about ad nauseum in my editorials here on OddBike.

Beautiful Sunrise

I pull off for gas at Shroon Lake, which turns out to be a pleasant little tourist trap on the shores of a beautiful mountain lake. The main street of the town feels a bit put on but it's still a nice place to pause and take a few photos. This will be my last stop before the border, my last moment to reflect in the United States before returning... erm, "home".

Shroon Lake New York

The border crossing is jammed with traffic. It's not a significant amount of cars, maybe 10 per lane, but processing is so slow that everyone is parked with their engines off, waiting around 5-10 minutes between each person. It's a marked contrast to the painless and rapid crossing I had from Canada into the US, which is a bit ironic considering how much border security and anti-terrorist operations have been touted in our "post 9/11 world". I'm having far more trouble returning to Canada than I had getting into the USA.

Shroon Lake New York

After an interminable period it is finally my turn at the wicket. The agent starts with the usual annoying questions. Then he starts going in-depth. How much did I spend during this trip? Where did I stay? What sort of accommodations did I use? He peers at my passport.

"This photo doesn't look like you."

What, in the name of all that is holy, are you supposed to say to a border agent when he suggests you are using forged papers? "Oh, dangit, you got me. I'm here to assassinate Steven Harper and steal your maple syrup!"   

Shroon Lake New York

I think I had the correct reaction that he was looking for: a moment of stunned silence, followed by a narrowing of my gaze and the words "...but that is me, I don't know what to tell you". He doesn't press the matter further. After a few more annoying inquiries he waves me through. Welcome back to Canada.

Shroon Lake New York

And Bienvenue au Quebec. Holy sweet mother of mercy I forgot how catastrophically awful the roads are in this province. Within a few miles of the border I'm back to dodging potholes and fissures, getting my spine hammered into all sorts of unusual shapes by the lumpy road surface. Even the worst roads in Pennsylvania were still more bearable than this. Every frost heave is sending a massive, tooth-shattering jolt through the bike into my backside. The suspension is bottoming out going in a straight line down the highway. Between my screams of agony and vicious curses I have the thought that I cannot believe I got used to these atrocious road conditions in the course of daily riding. It's no wonder the damping has blown out on both ends of the bike during my ownership. My front forks were so fucked after 30,000 miles that I gave them away for parts and then rebuilt a set from Gotham Cycles that had less mileage on them.

Shroon Lake New York

I enter Montreal. The roads, against all odds, become even worse. Now I return to my familiar routine of driving aggressively defensive (defensively aggressive?) to stay alive in the manic cut and thrust traffic of this city. Aside from the rough roads and homicidal/distracted drivers you have to contend with some of the most terribly organized road networks in North America (which are then peppered with construction projects in perpetuity). There are abrupt 100 foot merges onto major freeways that have no shoulder and no margin for error. The locals learn to anticipate them - we either floor it to cut off traffic, or slow our approach enough to dart in between cars. Some will use the hail-Mary berserker approach and simply drive straight into the flow of traffic, expecting that everyone will get out of their way. It's no wonder that multiple times every single day traffic will get blocked by accidents. This place does not suffer fools, or absent-minded motorcycle riders at the end of a long journey.

Shroon Lake New York

I met Dennis Matson in Montreal at the apex of his journey across the USA and Canada. Dennis, I will note, lives in California and has commuted in downtown Los Angeles. He had ridden through practically every major city between SoCal and Toronto, then everything along the Eastern seaboard on the second half of his Coast to Coast by Panigale journey. I rode with him through downtown Montreal and onto the south shore to have dinner with another local Duc owner. Dennis noted afterwards:

"Again--no lane-splitting, lots of traffic and hell--you can't even make a right on a red here. Most streets are either one-way or they're two lanes in each direction and there's always a truck or a car double parked. Add to that the most slippery roads I've been on (even in the dry) and no shortage of drivers with more aggression than skill and, well--Montreal ranks as the most dangerous motorbike city I've been in." 

I'd be inclined to agree. In fact I'd say he is understating things considerably.  

I survive my re-introduction to Montreal's murderous denizens and arrive at my apartment in the afternoon. My odometer reads a little over 37,000 miles - that's 59,500 kms for those of you who are metrically inclined. I have ridden 4050 miles (6500 kms). Over the course of the trip I've replaced one melted fuse, two spark plugs, a coolant temperature sensor, and my coolant expansion tank is cracked but held together by two-part epoxy and good intentions. I dropped the bike once in a motel parking lot in Tennessee. I've burned about a quart of oil. The saddlebags have drooped and deformed around the tail of the bike, looking even more awkward and out of place than when I began the trip. The bike is running like shit and needs immediate attention, but it has gotten me home.

Shroon Lake New York

I grab some food and decompress for a few hours. In the evening I head back down to the parking garage and give the 916 a thorough cleaning to remove 12 state's worth of bugs, chain lube and road grime. I'm listening to M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming on my iPod as I toil away in the depths of my building's parking garage.


I finish cleaning the bike and take a step back to admire my handiwork. The track "Soon My Friend" starts playing. I experience one of those perfect moments, those tiny little cinema-quality instances of lucidity where you stop in your tracks and take in the unreal quality of the scene. It's beautifully melodramatic. I'm taking in the details of the 916 as if it was the first day I took it home. That sensation of awe I am experiencing right now is the same I felt more than seven years ago when I dismounted the machine and stood back, looking over my new acquisition with pride and reverence. It's a sensation that I relive every time I pause to look over the bike. I can still scarcely believe it is mine, that I own something so stunning and so timeless. It's a tired cliché to say I could sit and stare at it for hours, but it's the truth. It has an aloof and graceful appearance. It sits tense with potential in front of me. It must be ridden. In that moment I forgive all the vices, all the flaws, all the trouble it gave me on this trip. I pat the gas tank and mutter a thanks for having gotten me safely through this adventure. I know that I will be riding it many more miles for many more years.

I fucking love this bike.    

Epilogue

Shortly after I arrived home I made good on my promise to myself to escape from my dreary routine and make a leap into the unknown. My best friend moved to Calgary a few months ago and had great luck finding a good career there. Upon reflection I realized that out of all the Canadian provinces, Calgary was the most appealing to me. From a pragmatic point of view I'd make way more money and pay way less in taxes, and I would not have to deal with any more four-digit bills for registration or insurance. Plus the Rockies are right next door, which means great riding during the summer and great skiing during the winter.

Shroon Lake New York

So for a laugh I posted my resume on Kijiji in Calgary just to see what would happen, with motorcycles singled out as my main skill.

Within a week I had three tentative offers and several more calls from recruiting agencies. Of all the calls I got the most interesting was a post at a vintage motorcycle specialist in downtown Calgary. At first they were looking for a mechanic with experience with British machines, but more recently the owner suggested I could work on building his online business. At this point it is a "show up and we will see" kind of offer. The mechanic's gig appealed to me, though it would take some time to get back into the groove and re-learn the trade. I'm less inclined to sit in front of a computer all day (Again. Still.) but if he would be willing to offer me a balance between the two I'd be quite happy.

That's just one of the possibilities. I have a few other places interested in seeing me once I arrive in Calgary. The consensus I've heard is that Alberta has a booming motorcycle industry, with many oil-rich workers getting into bikes in the last five years - and spending a lot of money fixing and modifying those bikes. It turns out that I posted my resume in the right place at just the right time, when demand for motorcycle experts was skyrocketing in Alberta.

Shroon Lake New York

I gave notice at work and started preparing for the journey. I bought a car and a trailer and sublet my apartment. I decided this will be a total life reset. I gave away most of my furniture and anything I can't bring with me in the car will be put into storage. I will drive across Canada, taking only what I can carry in the car, with the Ducati in tow. On the first week of January my life begins again and I take that leap into the unknown that I was desiring so intensely after the end of the OddBike USA Tour.

As for the bike: shortly after I got home I tore down the engine and did a valve inspection. 10 000 miles since the last adjustment and they were slightly loose on both the openers and closers on 6 of the 8 valves, but still within safe tolerances according to Ducati's specs. I use tighter clearances than the factory recommends so I will have to get my hands on a shim kit and adjust them before next spring, but I was within safe specs for the duration of the trip despite going way past the service interval. I also did not have a single flaking rocker arm - this would be the first time I've ever adjusted the valves and not had to deal with at least one fucky rocker, so I was quite happy despite having the spectre of a full valve adjustment ahead of me.

As for the intermittent fuel pump and cold starting problems, I did some troubleshooting and discovered that the current to the fuel pump was intermittent on the wiring harness side of the fuel tank connector. This suggests one of three possibilities: wonky relay or fuse, poor electrical connection somewhere in the wiring harness, or a failing ECU. When the first two diagnoses turned up nothing, it became clear that the ECU was the likely culprit. I borrowed a known good computer off a local Ducati enthusiast who uses a 996 as his track weapon. He turned out to the only person willing to lend out his ECU - thanks goes out to him for that.

Shroon Lake New York

Sure enough swapping the ECUs cured the intermittent fuel pump issue. I had a moment of realization - it was a small miracle that I made it home without getting stranded somewhere in the middle of the US with a dead bike. The computer was functioning enough to run the engine most of the time, but was causing all those temperamental cold starts, all that rough running, and more than likely caused that breakdown at the Barber Vintage Fest. Satisfied that I discovered the source of my problems, I set about sourcing a replacement computer.  

There was one thing I need to do before I go - I had to take the bike to Guy Martin one last time before I moved to Alberta. I wanted him to give the bike a once over and make sure everything was in adjustment. While I'm pretty handy with my 916, Guy is one of the top Ducati guys in North America and always manages to massage those last little bugs out that I have trouble with. He has the eyes and ears that can only be developed through decades of experience. He's seen every possible problem a hundred times over. Whenever I have an issue I am unable to sort out, or a particularly elusive gremlin that I can't locate, Guy is my go-to resource. He can usually find the problem within five or ten minutes of laying his hands on the machine. Plus he lives about 20 miles from me, close enough to limp over to with a sick Duc.  

I didn't yet have my trailer and the weather was fast getting worse. I called Guy and asked if he would be around in the coming days. We made a plan to meet in the evening after I finished work, provided I could get the bike started. I still hadn't received my replacement ECU so getting the bike running was a crap shoot. But it was coming down to the wire - we were having a week where the temperature was staying barely above freezing, and snow was expected within a few days. It's now or never.

I managed to coax the bike to life and get it thoroughly warmed up in the parking garage before I set out. It was a wet evening, the city streets slicked with cold drizzle and the temperature around 4 or 5 degrees celsius. Drivers were clearly not expecting to encounter a motorcycle at this time of year, and I narrow avoided getting sideswiped by an absent minded minivan driver. Once I got onto the freeway conditions took a turn for the worse. The rain started coming down hard and my visor quickly fogged up. I flipped it open and endured the cold conditions to maintain my vision. What started out as a shower soon turned into a downpour of freezing rain, with icy droplets stinging my face.

Morning moon

I endured the miserable weather and arrived at Guy's house. Just as I pulled into the driveway he opened the garage door, a look of curious bemusement on his face. 

"You're crazy."

"Yeah. But you don't know what I did with it last month. I rode it to New Orleans and back."

He intensified his glare and smiled, shaking his head slightly. "You're crazy."

"That's what I like to hear."

We confirmed that the ECU was indeed toasted and ran some tests with a spare computer he had on hand, along with a couple of different EPROMs. He was able to get it running smoothly and responding crisply once again, surprisingly by using a 748 fuel map designed by Doug Lofgren. While the 748 mixture was too lean for a 916 at anything other than light throttle, the throttle response, idle and free-revving were remarkably improved. It almost felt like some flywheel weight has been removed from the engine, without any of the drawbacks that usually incurs. I later discovered that the 748 has a totally different ignition map. I'm currently experimenting with open-source software and building a 916 fuel map that uses a 748 ignition table, just to see what happens when you combine the two. My idea converged with the experiments of another amateur tuner who is working on developing the "ultimate" Weber-Marelli 1.6M setup so I have gotten a preliminary map from him and will build my own version to test. Guy seems to think I might be onto something, as he saw the improvement first hand - though most tuners I proposed the idea to simply scoffed and informed me that there must be something wrong with my bike. In any case it's a fun diversion to play with during the winter months, even if it goes nowhere.

Guy lent me his ECU and EPROM to get me home safely and refused to charge me for his labour. He wished me well on my move to Alberta and gave me a few contacts to get in touch with when I arrive there. If there is one thing I'll miss about Montreal, it'll be Guy's expertise and generosity. He's helped me out of a few binds over the years.

Autumn in New York

Conclusion

There was a faint hope in the back of my mind throughout the trip that this adventure might bring about some sort of leap forward for OddBike. While I'd long ago given up on any commercial aspirations for the site (and I like the idea of keeping my writing free, honest, and "uncorrupted" by sponsors), I still hold some optimism that there will be a moment or encounter where my work will suddenly take off. This trip was a significant milestone for OddBike, and a fantastic journey for me personally, but I don't know if it was that breakthrough I was hoping for. Maybe it was and I just don't know it yet.

Upon returning to Montreal I realized that was the wrong mindset to have. I have had an incredible tour of the United States and met a number of amazing people along the way. It's hard to summarize the impact this trip has had on me. I will simply say it has been a life-defining experience, something I will never forget and which will have a huge impact on my future and the future of this website.

That being said not all was good. There were negative encounters. A few trials. Unpleasant realities. Certain events or places that brought forward my personal demons. I hesitated to share them here on these pages but as the number one piece of feedback I've received about OddBike has been "keep telling it like it is" I chose to reveal the lows as much as the highs. I did not censor myself. Am I thus an "arrogant Canadian", that trope I fought against at the beginning of the journey? That's not for me to decide. I received some criticism of this side of my work - I can only counter that I have done nothing but share what I perceive as the truth, revealing elements of myself in the process. This travelogue has followed the journey from within my own mind. It is a piece that has been written through a combination of stream-of-consciousness recollection, personal introspection, and copious notes taken while on the road. You have been following my innermost thought process, be it good or ill. 

So here I am today, filled with anticipation for another adventure that lays before me - this one considerably more permanent in nature than the OddBike USA Tour. I didn't anticipate the USA Tour to be such a phenomenal success, and aside from the experiences I had and friendships I forged along the way, I have been able to gather a ton of information and photographs to use in future OddBike articles, even more than I had anticipated before setting out. I could not have done it without the support of my readers and I thank everyone who helped out and encouraged me to undertake this crazy trip. The OddBike USA Tour was a success, and won't be the last such endeavour I undertake in the course of building this website into something special.

All that being said, if I learned anything from my time spent drinking with JT Nesbitt it is that I mustn't be defined by what has happened or what I have done. I need to keep looking forward. The best articles to be featured here on OddBike haven't been written yet. And the best OddBike Tour will be the next one.

Once again I extend a sincere thanks to everyone involved, whether it was directly or tangentially. I could not have done this without you.

- Jason Cormier
Home?

9 comments:

  1. Loved every word Jason.
    As a fellow Canadian ( transplanted to SoCal) and 916 rider, I very much enjoyed sharing your journey. Best of luck to you in Calgary,not to mention driving across Canada in January!!

    Jamie

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  2. You're much to young to have a 'Bucket List" but the things you saw and people you met are high on a lot of motorcyclist list . Like everything it life there is always room for improvement but " well done " and good luck on the move and new opportunities . Bob

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  3. Really enjoyed reading about your journey. Sounds like the move and career will be good for you. Best of luck, and keep up the great writing.
    PG, Norristown PA USA

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  4. Loved the journey... sad it had to end

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  5. Great trip! Even better if it helped you take the plunge of moving. Nothing like taking the step in to the unknown in search for something better, never knowing what to find. Thanks a lot for shareing your experience and best luck for the future.
    /Nik

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  6. Excellent story, great writing. What an amazing trip! I wish I could have been there, but this travelogue is the next best thing. You introduced me to some excellent destinations, such as Wheels Through Time, and some great personalities, like JT. I think your story can be inspiring to young riders or aspiring writers, or both. My only hesitation sharing this piece with my own nieces and nephews would be the abundant use of the "f" word in the latter chapters. Not that it is inappropriate in moto-journalism. Again, wonderful piece, enjoyed it thoroughly!

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  7. Hi Jason, I was just trying to decide where I wanted to be in 5 years, where I'd live, what I'd be doing...so I googled pictures of someplace I've never been...upstate New York. Stunning. Then I saw a picture of a cross-country bike on the edge of a steep rise over the countryside and it was as if someone had plucked the image right out of a dream I'd had one night several years ago when I dreamed and wrote a lot. An image with the title "oddbike tour" caught my eye and here I am. From a southern California native whose psyche has craved the rolling hills of Scotland, England, Canada, and the north west and east of the US since a little girl, thank you for sharing you experiences on your (motor) bike. Your defining moments are bringing my own into perspective.

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  8. Loved it. And believe me when it comes to slippery roads I know what you mean...I'm Irish, our roads are permanently wet and greasy!

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  9. A wonderful, heartfelt travelogue. I live in Washington, and you will love not only Alberta, but B.C. and everything to the South. Great riding, and work is just a means to that end, IMO. Your future looks very bright and exciting and cool! All the best to you!
    Martyn Edwards

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