Monday 30 September 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part I - Prologue

It's a 916. With luggage. Deal with it.

As promised in the OddBike USA Tour Indiegogo campaign, I will be providing my readers with an in-depth ride report detailing my journey across the United States by Ducati 916. I’ll also be revealing the more candid commentary and thoughts from my adventure. Pour yourself a drink and join me for some vicarious cross-country touring.


Incredulity, followed by a comment on the size and metallic composition of my testicles. That is usually the immediate reaction I receive when I tell people I use a Ducati 916 for touring duty. I’ve never seen it as that exceptional. Sure, 916s have earned a reputation for being cantankerous and uncomfortable mounts that are certainly ill suited to cross-country adventures. But reputation and reality are two different things.

Actually I’m lying: the reputation is well earned and quite accurate. I’m not a Ducati apologist who sugar coats the truth in favour of rosy nostalgia or blind brand worship. Riding a 916 any great distance is an exercise in zen-like concentration and meditative pain control, always haunted by the remote but present possibility of mechanical disaster. Spend any time on a Ducati forum and the stories of horror, and the photos of shattered alloy that were once engines, will instill an irrational but justifiable fear into the heart of any Ducati owner.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Peter Egan about an exchange with a mechanic after telling him he planned on riding his Norton Commando from Wisconsin to Washington State:

"Jeff, the head BMW/ex-British Twin mechanic, stepped outside to look at my bike, wiping his hands on a rag. I told him about my trip and asked if there was anything special I should do, outside of regular maintenance, to prepare the bike for a 4,000-mile trip.
'If I were you,' Jeff said, 'I'd change my oil, adjust my chain, set the valves, and then, just before I left, I'd trade it on a BMW.'"

The most inappropriate tool for the job.

That’s precisely why I enjoy using a 916 as my daily driver and occasional long-distance mount. The mere act of riding it further than the nearest café is a flip off to all those jello-butted Ducatista poseurs who are scared of putting five digits on the odometer, and thumbed nose at all those fairweather tourers who wouldn’t ride more than 100 miles on anything other than a full-dress 800-pound touring rig. I ride a 916 thousands of miles because I can, and because I like to be an iconoclast in my poor choice of equipment.

Also it’s my only vehicle, it’s paid for, and I couldn’t afford to get something more appropriate if I wanted to.

Of course I've learned over the years that no matter how tough or proficient you think you are, there is always someone out there who is riding a pre-war machine a thousand miles further than you. Presumably while eating nothing but beef jerky mixed with crushed glass, carrying a backpack loaded with cinder blocks, occasionally pausing at truck stops and asking burly truckers to kick them in the groin a few times to warm them up. That's not mentioning the Iron Butt brigade, who do their damnedest to make everyone else on two wheels feel inadequate. One must be careful when assuming one's level of badassitude, because there are plenty of far more hardened old gits out there who will be happy to demonstrate how weak and unskilled you really are.

in·con·gru·ous: strange because of not agreeing with what is usual or expected.

But I digress – you’re here to read about the OddBike USA Tour. So let’s step back a bit and start at the beginning.

It’s mid-summer, 2013. I’m sitting at my desk at my day job, which is located in a basement retail store. I’m staring at my computer screen for about the fourth consecutive hour that day. I've run out of ways to appear busy when the boss is looking. I work in the type of business that we would charitably call a “destination store”: a high-falutin’ luxury retail shop, accessed through double-locked bulletproof doors, on an street populated by bars and nightclubs, with shitty parking. We don't get much traffic in the course of the day. Some weeks are so quiet that you begin to see visitors as undesirable interruptions to your meditative state. Their arrival jars you out of your catatonic trance and you are more annoyed than enthused by the sight of another human being. This is not a place where you make many friends.

I spend most of my time tinkering with the online aspects of the business and hammering out the odd bit of content. But it’s impossible to stay focussed and occupied 8 hours a day, so I often find myself staring at that damnable LCD screen, hunched over the keyboard, watching my skin whiten from lack of sunlight and feeling my muscle atrophy. It’s in these moments when I've run out of things to do that I feel truly trapped. Your average white-collar retail gig, in other words: the sort of soul-crushing routine where you expend far too much energy attempting to look busy rather than actually accomplishing anything.

It looks akward because it is.

It’s within this environment that I began developing an escape plan. An idea I had long been mulling over was the classic “Coast to Coast” cross-country tour. I wanted to ride a motorcycle across Canada (and back again). This sort of wanderlust seems to be a peculiarity of us North Americans. We live in a vast landscape that occupies multiple time zones and spans thousands of miles. A cross-country tour to the average European would be a pleasant weekend trip. To a Canadian or American, it’s an arduous journey, a rite of passage that every motorcyclist worth his or her salt must accomplish before they can be considered a “real” rider. We envy those fearless enough to drop everything and hit the road with no particular destination in mind – just ride till you hit ocean, then turn around and do it again.

I had the opportunity to meet Dennis Matson a year ago when he was passing through Montreal on the northernmost portion of his cross-continental blast. For those of you not familiar with Dennis’ journey, I strongly encourage you to read his travelogue. I can’t possibly summarize the journey in any meaningful way, you must read his thoughts and reports. The synopsis is he dropped everything, sold his current bike, bought a brand-new Ducati 1199, and hit the road immediately with just a backpack and the clothes on his back with no particular destination in mind. 15,000 miles later he finished his journey, inspiring intense jealousy among thousands of people who yearn for the ability to let go and ride.

Dennis’ adventure was utterly inspiring, and maddeningly accessible. Two wheels and whatever you can carry on your back and you could be on an epic soul-searching trek. Of course reality, work, bills, and debts keep most of us grounded (Dennis was fortunate enough to have a job that could be done on the road by telecommuting). But the idea was planted and my wanderlust was ignited, smouldering in the back of my mind over the winter, spring and summer.

I finally snapped around July, and set my idea into motion. I began organizing my thoughts and making a serious plan of action to get my ass across the country. I may be crazy enough to use a 916 for a daily rider, but I’m not stupid enough to try and ride it 7500 miles both ways across Canada. I needed to get a second bike, my first choice being a used Honda CBR 1100 XX Super Blackbird, my favourite intercontinental ballistic sport tourer, and enough funding to pay for 30 days on the road.

Being perpetually broke like most Gen Ys I sought aid from my bank. Here’s a tip – don’t ever go to your bank and tell them you are applying for a loan to drive a motorcycle across the country. Tell them you want to buy RRSPs, or sink a bunch of money into junk bonds, or put your cash into a big pile so you can set it on fire. The moment you utter the words “motor cycle” you will see their eyes glaze over in that moment of realization that they are about to waste the next 30 minutes filing an application that will go nowhere.

In other words my idea of flying across Canada by Blackbird was shot down in short order.

All the 916 owners reading this just winced.

I was explaining my desire to travel across the land to a friend of mine who lives in Louisiana. Then I had a lightbulb moment and brought up Google Maps. Louisiana is about 1500 miles from Montreal. 3000 miles isn’t that crazy on the 916 – I’ve done nearly that much on it in the past, as long as I paced myself it would be a relatively easy journey. I asked him for a couch to crash on, and he agreed. I told him I’d be coming in summer of 2014, to which he asked why not this year? I explained my financial bind, and that I would need time to put money aside. He gave me a verbal kick in the ass: “I laid out a plan for you a few months ago”.

What he meant was that several months prior he had proposed a new concept to me – crowdsource funds to write OddBike articles. It was something that had never been done in the motorcycle blogosphere: propose a topic and canvas for funding to pay for the research and travel expenses from the readers themselves, rather than sponsors or advertisers. I didn't take it seriously at the time, and put his advice on the back burner. But as OddBike grew and my writing became more involved, the idea became tantalizing. It would enable me to write better articles and pay for some of the considerable time I invest into the site, without resorting to whoring OddBike out to sponsors and advertisers. I would go direct to my readers for help, and I would only have to answer to them. And having funding for travel and research would allow me to reach out and meet key industry people face to face, something that is virtually impossible to do while living in Montreal.

Anti-touring bike.

I was reluctant to ask anyone for money - I would make a terrible entrepreneur, as I feel guilty asking anyone for help. But I had nothing to lose. So I sat down and did some thinking. To make it worthwhile to my readers and myself I’d need to maximize the possibilities for content gathering along the way. The Barber Vintage Festival was coming up in October, and Birmingham is on the way to Louisiana, so that became one of my first destinations. Motus and Confederate are two independent American brands I've been meaning to profile, and they are both located in Birmingham as well. Former Confederate designer JT Nesbitt has a studio in New Orleans and is working on a cool new design that I was interested in checking out. Later I heard tell of the mysterious Traub V-twin at the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina so I added a stop there to investigate. I now had a series of articles laid out. I could ride down and gather information, conduct interviews, and take photos (an important consideration - one thing they don’t tell you about motorcycle journalism is that everyone demands top-quality exclusive images, regardless of how good your content might be). I’d also have the opportunity to make myself known to a few key people in the industry and spread the word about OddBike and my writing. And of course I’d have fodder for an interesting travelogue.

Everything you need for an adventure.

Pretty soon my “vacation” was looking like more work than my soul-sucking day job. And that was immensely appealing: this would be an intense journey that would allow me to move forward with my passion and take OddBike to the next level. So I set to work and hammered out an Indiegogo proposal. Much to my amazement the contributions started trickling in. I had gone into the campaign expecting nothing to come of it. But now I had backers putting down cash to see me on my way, and I owed it to them to make sure the trip happened and that I followed through on my promises. The OddBike USA Tour was on.

I began getting equipped for the trip. To keep expenses to a minimum I’d camp in state parks most of the way, with a few couches to crash on along the way offered by generous OddBike fans. I picked up a cheap set of soft saddlebags and some backpack camping gear. I planned a route and organized my stops. I was able to confirm visits with everyone except Confederate (I will try to organize something but as of this moment nothing is confirmed). Finally I gave the bike a once over to make sure everything was in order. I spent most of last season sorting out issues and chasing gremlins - while most people might be put off by a season full of problems and repeated breakdowns, a seasoned Italophile sees it as an extended shakedown run where you have the opportunity to sort everything out before next year. Optimism is a required outlook when owning an old Italian motorcycle, as is a philosophy of masochistic fatalism (I resign myself to my immutable fate, and I will enjoy it).

When touring by sportbike simplicity is key. I don’t like elaborate touring gear, and I think it is silly to pay thousands of dollars for boxes that weigh more than the widgets you will be putting inside them. I use lightweight sport saddlebags, my trusty 20$ tankbag which has accompanied me for 8 years, a low-profile backpack, and some cold-weather touring gear to keep comfy. Clothes, tent, sleeping bag, a few snacks, toolkit, a handful of zip ties – good to go.

I practiced my usual style of trip planning – sketch out the broad strokes but leave the details open so that I’m not adhering to a strict schedule. About 300 miles a day, which I can do comfortably without rushing - I also have a tendency to miss exits and take wrong turns so I like to leave myself some leeway in my scheduling. I made no advanced reservations so I can modify my route as I see fit. I’ll be passing through New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana. It will be a total of two weeks on the road, mostly on the Interstate with the odd excursion onto some backroads.

Come Sunday, October 6th the OddBike USA Tour begins.

Be sure to follow OddBike on Facebook to get regular trip updates.
GPS is for pansies.


  1. A wonderful article looking forward to more. Love from your Mom Jason.

  2. Sweet, looking forward to updates.

  3. Great, thanks for your efforts and good luck;)

  4. Looking forward, my friend.

  5. Hmm, seems pretty quiet. Jason undoubtedly was picked up at the border and is now working on his tan in Guantanamo.

    1. Rumours of my stint in Gitmo are greatly exaggerated. After 4050 miles I have completed the tour alive and without any felonies that I'm aware of. Will be publishing the rest of the travelogue as soon as I regain the feeling in my arms.

  6. "I ride a 916 thousands of miles because I can, and because I like to be an iconoclast in my poor choice of equipment."

    I road my Monster S2R 10,000 miles from California to Alaska and back, and I can say, Amen to that, brother. Looking forward to reading your account of your journey.

  7. Great writing and great story! So cool that you got to meet Dennis on his trip, too. I have to catch up with the rest of your posts. Thanks for sharing!