Monday 21 October 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part II - Setting Out

Ducati 916 Fall in New England

Part II of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part I.


Now that the OddBike USA Tour has been completed, I want to extend my thanks to everyone who contributed and supported the idea. I couldn't have done this without your help. 

Contributors to the campaign:
Luc Allain
Dr. Jeff Buchanan-Dorrance
Jeanne and Dennis Cormier
Alexander Cusick
Alicia Elfving - MotoLady
"Dr. John"
Niklas Klinte
Andrew and Adrienne McIntosh
Dennis Matson
James McBride -
David and Jennifer Morales
Andrew Olson

And five other contributors who preferred to remain anonymous. Whoever you are, a profound thanks.

Special thanks goes out to a few folks who were kind enough to offer their help and support along the way:

Lee Conn and Brian Case - Motus Motorcycles
Denis and Chuck - Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
JT Nesbitt - Bienville Studios
The guys at Baker's Garage in Lacey Springs, Virginia
Scott -
Winslow Taft
Michael Walshaw - Kriega USA 
Dale Walksler and the rest of the folks at the Wheels Through Time Museum
Alan Wilzig and the gang at WRM

Thanks again to everyone who made this happen!

Ducati 916 New York

Setting Out

I have a strange relationship with motorcycle riding. I have an absolute, unmitigated passion for the sport and I’ve been riding since I was 17, but I still get pangs of apprehension every morning before I hit the road. You would think I should be accustomed to it by now, and yet each journey is preceded by intense bouts of anxiety. It’s not the danger or the risk, which has never factored into it for me. I simply don’t worry about such things. It’s something else, like an intense excitement that builds into this climax of fretfulness and physical discomfort. When I learned that Formula 1 legend James Hunt would often throw up right before a race, I immediately understood. Contrary to what you might think, it wasn't because he was scared, though he had a healthy appreciation for the danger involved in his sport. It was the energy and intensity of the coming event building up inside him to a literal bursting point.

Once I am on the bike, this unease and discomfort immediately melts away and I become part of the machine. My mind settles and my body relaxes. The act of riding becomes soothing, in spite of the fury of the machine and the heightened awareness necessary to pilot it. It’s an addictive routine – your body vibrating with anticipation, followed by a wave of intense calm and serenity washing over you.

I wake up early on the morning of October 6th, an hour before sunrise. I down a cup of coffee and have a light breakfast, my stomach turning at the thought of food. I rarely eat anything before noon, but I force down a few nutritious items to sustain me for the morning ride. I slowly zip into my gear and check over my luggage, making my last minute checks. I maintain a calm demeanor as I pack and adjust my armour, moving slowly and deliberately while my torso burns with the anticipation of the journey that lies ahead of me.

Ducati 916 New York

I descend into the parking garage, helmet in hand with my gear slung over my shoulder. I walk around the bike, performing a final check of the lights, tire pressure, fluid levels. I secure my luggage and roll the machine out of my parking spot.

My anxiety has built to a fever pitch at this moment. This is just part of my routine before every significant ride.

I turn the key and flick on the fast idle button. I turn my eyes to the dash and instinctively watch the oil pressure light as I stab the starter button. After a few characteristically lazy turns the engine fires into life and booms in the confines of the garage, the thundering exhaust offset by the clattering and pinging of the dry clutch. The oil light promptly flicks off and I begin to relax. I click the throttle forward to turn off the fast idle, allowing the engine to lope along as it warms up - the staff isn't fond of my Ferraci pipes so I keep noise to a minimum until I leave the building.

I slowly slide my helmet on. The bike stalls, as usual, and I pause to tap the starter button again. The Ducati warmup routine is always the same, and stalling is part of the process. Something about two big pistons in a high state of tune that makes most Ducatis stall happy – sometimes you can get the throttle bodies balanced perfectly and it will never cut out, sometimes the balance is off by a gnat’s ass and it will die at every other stoplight. Part of the charm, I suppose. I define those elusive clichés of  “character” and “soul” in inanimate motorcycles as consistent inconsistency. Even when perfectly tuned a 916 will still occasionally cough, hiccup, misfire, or stall. No rhyme or reason, and no predictability – they just do. You come to accept it as the "personality" of the machine, and it makes the thing far more endearing than your typical Yamondazukawa, once you are able to put the spectre of imminent mechanical catastrophe out of your mind. You get the sensation that you are riding a barely-tamed stallion, a beast that you alone are capable of keeping reigned in. T.E. Lawrence had one of the finest summaries, which I won’t attempt to better:

“A skittish motorbike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.”

I put on my gloves and throw my leg over, sitting on the machine and gently blipping the throttle as the temperature needle creeps up off the peg. My anxiety is melting away now as the thrum of the engine vibrates through my body. The basso profundo sound of a barely muffled Italian twin reverberates around me, bouncing off the concrete walls. The intake pulses are channeled through the fuel tank into my stomach. The temperature is over 140 now, time to go. I pull in the clutch, flip up the sidestand, and click the motor into gear. I am at complete ease now as I roll out of the garage into the sharp autumn air.

My anxiety is gone and I feel at home.  My journey begins.

Ducati 916 New England


Before I set out on this trip, I encountered a few naysayers. The whole "asking people for money to ride my bike" bit ruffled some feathers and incited some minor backlash from people who didn't understand the "funding articles" element of the campaign - a backlash which I anticipated but still didn't enjoy. It's the principal reason I was reluctant to even start a crowdsourcing campaign, because I expected nothing but negative feedback. In the end I got far more positive support than negative, but hearing cutting remarks from Internet Tough Guys is still unpleasant and weighs more heavily on your conscience than the dozen or so pats on the back you received prior to that. Motorcycle culture has long had a dichotomy behind the scenes - on one side you have massively friendly folks who will give their left fork leg to help out a rider, on the other you have the self-absorbed aloof jackasses who play up the outmoded antisocial outlaw biker image. There is an easy litmus test to determine which category someone falls into - the former waves, the latter doesn't.

I've learned not to mention my motorcycle adventures to my colleagues at work: misguided and patronizing advice based on ignorance gets real old, real fast. I made the mistake of sharing my cross-USA trip plans and was promptly bombasted with tales of terror about how I was going to be run off the road and murdered in the USA, and how I couldn't set foot outside after dark, and I was going to be stabbed in the ass by gangs of roving ass-stabbing muggers who prowled the back streets. These are the typical Canadian fears and boogeymen: there is a genuine sense that as soon as you cross the border things turn into a cross between a Wild West frontier and Mad Max lawless dystopia, with certain death awaiting innocent Canadians who made a wrong turn at the Seven Eleven. I rolled my eyes and kept quiet, as I knew it probably wouldn't be worth mentioning that this isn't the first time I've ridden my bike through the US, being the dumb-punk-kid-who-doesn't-know-any-better that I am. I've always found it funny how people who don't ride are just brimming with bad advice for motorcycle riders.

I'm exaggerating for the purpose of storytelling, of course, but the ass-stabbing caution did come up in earnest. As did dire warnings of hurricanes and hillbillies the moment I crossed the Mason-Dixon line.     

Once again I am reminded of Peter Egan's adventure by Norton: 

"Skeptics, heretics and hooters were everywhere, like some chorus in a Greek tragedy, portending ill for their flawed and heedless hero. I finally quit telling people about the trip and made plans with my wife in the privacy of our own living room."

So it was that I kept my plans to myself, sharing only with the loyal readers of OddBike.

New York State

New York

Pulling out of the parking garage I'm greeted with the low sun of dawn and a piercing 5 degree (celsius) morning. It takes a few moments for the icy fingers of cold to begin poking through my gear after exiting the warm garage, but the fog on the inside of my visor leaves no doubt - it is fucking cold out. Not that I haven't ridden in colder temperatures (I think every Canadian rider has done at least one sub-zero jaunt. Or at least I hope I'm not the only idiot who has) but it is something that I will never get used to. No matter how many layers of gear I wear, or how thick my gloves are, I will never feel at ease unless the temps are above 15 degrees. All the more reason to ride as far south as I can manage as quickly as possible.

The US border into New York state is only about 40 miles south of Montreal. Many local riders will head over to NY or Vermont to take advantage of the perfectly manicured US backroads through the Adirondacks. I certainly don't blame them, the roads in Quebec are legendarily awful, carefully maintained in a perfect state of disrepair by half-assed union workmanship, municipal corruption, and mob skimming. 

Passing through US customs, I understand why the locals frequent the US. The agent takes my passport, types my name in the computer, stares at the screen for 15 seconds before handing me back my documents and wishing me a good ride. No questions, no "what is your business in the USA?" or "how long is your stay?" or "are you now, or ever have been, a member of the Al Qaeda network?". Just a quick check and off you go, have fun in our land of freedom and cheeseburgers. A lot of Canadian provinces could learn a thing or two from the process - like welcoming riders and their tourist dollars, instead of alienating them with draconian law enforcement and noise laws.

Ducati 916 in Autumn Upstate New York

The weather is clear for the first 100 miles into New York but soon gives way to a light rain. Fortunately I was smart enough to pack a rain suit. Unfortunately I'm not smart enough to take my boots off before slipping the pants on, and I promptly tear a hole in the left leg. A seasoned touring rider I am not. I do my best to look dignified on the side of the Interstate, hopping around on one foot while I stretch the slightly-too-small rain suit over my pants, all while cursing the shoddy material that ripped like crepe paper the moment I put my leg in it.

I veer off the Interstate near Albany to get gas and end up on a secondary road that runs parallel to where I was heading... Time to modify the route and take a scenic detour. The rain is subsiding now, leaving a dark sheen on the brightly coloured leaves that are unmistakably of the "Northeast in Fall" colour palette - vibrant but subdued, and stunning in mid-autumn at the moment the leaves begin to fall. I ride through Hudson and the surrounding towns, passing through some of the most pitch-perfect New England neighbourhoods you could imagine. Stuff straight off the pages of Martha Stewart Living: Colonial and Cape Cod architecture preserved in a sympathetic but authentic way, surrounded by a flawless fall landscape. A few people have put out early Halloween decorations. Pumpkins dot the picturesque front porches. Burnt orange leaves falls gently and swirl around me as I ride though small communities that are simultaneously beautiful and eerie, like the opening of a horror movie where the idyllic community and its blissfully ignorant denizens are introduced before things turn into a bloodbath. I imagine Michael Myers hiding behind a tree, knife at the ready. Maybe I've been watching too many slasher flicks.

Fall in Upstate New York

My destination is a private residence owned by a wealthy motorcycle enthusiast who retired from banking before the capital-C Clusterfuck in 2008 with enough cash to live out his dreams. I knew of him through a friend and had heard tell of his private motorsports wonderland in the rolling hills of upstate New York, but I still didn't really know what to expect. I had never met him before, but my friend had given me a good recommendation and the fellow was kind enough to offer me a place to stay for the night.

I arrive at a motorised gate, just in time to meet the full-time mechanic, Peter, as he returns from a parts run. He quizzes me to a bit, having not been informed of my arrival. Apparently I seem harmless enough, and he leads me into the property. A one-lane road forks and runs to the various buildings - the main house, a guest house, the garage and workshop, the private 1.1 mile racetrack. Oh, I forgot to mention that part. This man has built a racetrack in his front yard. Now that he is retired, he has dedicated himself to a career in racing - his passion began with bikes but migrated to open-cockpit cars once his first daughter was born and he wanted something a bit safer. I won't pretend to understand the intricacies of the categories he races in, but suffice to say he has some impressive four-wheeled equipment at his disposal and he is doing quite well as a privateer. His ultimate goal is to race at Le Mans, a noble endeavour that I salute. The world needs more enthusiastic privateers nipping at the heels of the factory efforts, but it is becoming increasingly difficult given the level of technology and funding needed to participate in modern racing. He has the advantage of private wealth, but money isn't a substitute for proficiency, and he hones his skills right here in front of his country house.

Private Race Track

Peter brings me to the main motorcycle building. We enter through the workshop where a few machines are lined up - a couple of race-prepped GSX-R 600s, a half-assembled shifter kart, a Ninja 250. He hands me a legal waiver to sign. Having a racetrack on your property presents its own set of legal challenges, apparently.

Dream Garage

He flicks on the lights in the adjacent room. I instantly set eyes upon a pristine Bimota V-Due. Around it was a room full of obscenely rare motorcycles, with a few interesting cars slotted in among them. I think I stood there frozen for nearly a minute, unable to react to what I was looking at. It took me a while to regain my composure and start wandering through the rows of bikes. I realise what I am looking at is my personal dream garage, with almost every bike I have ever desired sitting in front of me. I realise that here is someone who has almost the same taste as I do, but who has earned the wealth to fulfill his dreams.

Bimota Tesi 1D

Bimota is one of my favourite brands, but they have never been homologated for sale in Canada. I have only seen one Bimota in my life, a restored KB1 that was being exhibited in a Toronto vintage bike show. Now I am looking at nearly all of them in a single room. I can barely take it all in. The V-Due is one of my all time favourite machines and was the first bike I profiled on OddBike. But there is also a Tesi 1D, tucked in beside a Ducati 851 Tricolore.  Here's a DB1, DB2, even the infamous Mantra. Most of the SB, YB and HB machines are represented as well. And there are the perfectly restored Ducati bevel head singles and twins, and the Honda RC45, the Dakar-prepped Cagiva Elefant.

Cagiva Elefant Dakar

Then you go upstairs, where you find more Bimotas lined up with Laverdas and a few odd machines, including a first-series Hesketh V1000. I run around madly snapping photos and taking in the details of machines I'd only ever read about, barely able to process what I'm seeing. The owner, Alan, has been profiled in the past but mainly for his four-wheeled endeavours. I was floored by his collection of motorcycles, which had always been ignored by the car-centric press who wouldn't know a NR750 from a Gold Wing.

Honda Oval Piston NR750

I chat with Peter for a while, sharing the usual motorcycle shop talk. Swapping stories, talking bikes. Peter is a seasoned motorcycle mechanic who worked mainly on Japanese machine before being hired by Alan. He still runs his own repair business on the side, while working as Alan's Crew Chief and Motorsports Director. While his speciality is bikes, Alan has slowly introduced more and more car-related work into his schedule, much to Peter's dismay. There is a big disconnect between cars and bikes when it comes to mechanical work, and it is rare to see a professional mechanic who can do both equally well. Bike guys usually look at cars with disdain, and vice versa. Since getting into motorcycles 10 years ago I've become less and less impressed with cars, a contrast to the youthful enthusiasm I had as an adolescent reading the buff mags and rags. In fact I haven't owned a car in 4 years, and have zero desire to get another one.

Hesketh V1000

So I understand Peter's position perfectly, and I feel a little sorry for him - particularly considering the calibre of machines sitting in front of me, most of which are static and would need some significant prep work to get running. There are only three or four that are in a ready-to-ride state. I was disappointed that most of the bikes weren't being used regularly, but not really surprised given the quantity on hand - there is only so much riding one man and a few of his friends can accomplish, even with a private racetrack in your yard.

Motorcycle Dream Garage

Alan arrives. He is a flurry of energy, going madly off in all directions. I introduce myself and sheepishly compliment him on his facilities, and thank him for hosting me. Between unloading his car and firing off questions at Peter (I think the topic of the day was gearbox options for an LMP car, but they lost me pretty quickly), Alan takes a few moments to begin describing his passion for Italian machines and how he began collecting bikes. He has an infectious childlike enthusiasm. Here is a man who is having fun and living out his dreams, with every toy he has ever wanted at his disposal. He is passionate, friendly and lively. I cannot picture him in the banking industry.

Guest House

He sets me up in the guest house, a beautiful open building set on the shore of the private lake adjacent to the main house. The bedroom I am staying in is only slightly smaller than my entire Montreal apartment.

As quickly as he arrives, Alan is gone, off running errands around the property. I drop off my stuff and  get a tour of the property from Peter. We hop into a side by side Polaris ATV and ride around the wooded trails surrounding the estate, then up onto the ridge overlooking the lake and the track. We drive around the track, which is a tight and technical circuit that has no real straightaways. It was designed by Alan with some input from Keith Code, and was intended as a bike track - the cars came later, but were equally at home. It's basically a perfectly maintained canyon road in front of your house, with zero traffic and safe runoffs. In fact Alan has given up street riding entirely for the safety of the track, something that might seem surprising to non-riders (A track? Safe?) but is quite common among sport riders who get sick of close calls, rough pavement, absent minded drivers, and LEO attention.

Guest House

I retire to the guest house in the evening, feeling a bit ill at ease in this environment. While I work in a luxury industry I come from a simple background. Aside from the race track and the motorcycle collection Alan's property is reasonably modest and not at all ostentatious, but still intimidating for a simple person like myself. I also feel slightly guilty - I don't know Alan personally and don't want to be an ungrateful mooch taking advantage of his hospitality. I am extremely grateful that he has opened his home to me, but I am not entirely at ease. The beautiful but awkward furniture doesn't help - everything is "form before function" where the pieces looks impressive but weren't designed to be sat upon by human beings. I suppose you could say the same thing about a lot of bikes.

Private Lake

The well-stocked beer fridge in the guest house helps me relax. I forgot to bring anything for dinner and don't dare ask my hosts for food, so I resign myself to Rolling Rock and beef jerky from my snack stash. I take my notes for the day and do my online business, updating my readers on the journey through Facebook on my iPod. This will become my nightly ritual - relaxing, scribbling out the days events and thoughts, and tossing a few pictures onto Facebook to let everyone know I'm still alive. I manage to figure out the impossibly complicated centralised media system and spend the evening watching a Military Channel documentary marathon on fighter aces. A good start to the OddBike USA Tour.

It was fortunate that I had this opportunity to unwind in luxurious surroundings, given what I had in store the next day.

Dream Garage Ducatis



  1. I just found this site recently; and it is the most well written (cycle) blog I have ever come across. Outstanding job on the trip wrap up. Count me in for support on the next project.

  2. "the former waves, the latter doesn't" Ha Ha...
    I generally don't read long articles on the internet, but Odd-Bike is different. Its well written and shares my passion about motorcycles. Coming from a small town in India, I love to read your articles. I followed you on every part of the journey on facebook.
    Keep up the good work, and thanks for the peek at JTs latest creation.

  3. What an amazing start to the trip! Must have been a truly unreal experiece to be guided thru such a collection. Glad you made it back ok, looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip.
    /Niklas K

  4. Jason,
    Excellent write up on your trip. You don't know how lucky you really are. I met Alan about two years ago and now we are the best of friends. He is truly a generous and thoughtful guy with a shit load of enthusiasm for life. It's not often in life that paths are crossed that yield so much return. Safe travels on your next adventure.
    Pete B