Sunday 17 November 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part X - Heading Home

Ducati 916 Motorcycle Louisiana Coast

Part X of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IVPart VPart VIPart VIIPart VIII, Part IX.

Tuesday morning I get up early and take the Bandit to the USPS office in downtown New Orleans to grab the coolant sensor. I cut through the morning traffic and narrowly avoid getting T-boned by an asshole in a hulking SUV who has apparently decided that right of way is determined in inverse proportion to penis size. Here is where the Bandit is at home - it's a bit big to call it a city bike, but it does the job admirably considering it's an oil-cooled 1152cc stump puller. Rough roads are absorbed well by the slightly squishy suspension. The wide bars give lots of leverage and the steering it surprisingly quick. The brakes are strong once you get past the mushy lever. Having had a set of six-piston Tokicos on my Suzuki SV650, I'll say that with a set of sintered pads, stainless lines, and DOT 5.1 fluid they can work damned well.

Ducati 916 Motorcycle Louisiana Coast

I return to Bienville Studios where JT helps me swap out the offending widget. He slathers the thread of the sensor with some aircraft grade sealant, overkill but at least I know that won't be leaking on the way home. I picture Elwood Blues pulling a deus ex device out of his briefcase: "Strong stuff."

I wheel the 916 out to the entrance and start packing my gear. JT takes a seat on it, clearly in admiration of the machine. He looks a little out of place - I vaguely recall someone describing the 916 as an 8/10ths scale replica of what you expected it to be, and that's a pretty accurate description. For a mid-1990s 900cc superbike it is ridiculously compact and narrow. Period reviews compared the dimensions as being closer to a 250 than a litrebike. Seeing a 6'4" rider perched on top of one, contorting himself  into a crouch to fit into the tight dimensions, you start to realize why they got a reputation for being uncomfortable. I have no such problems, being 5'7" and pretty slim. I am the "Mid-size Italian pimp" these bikes were designed for.

Ducati 916 Motorcycle Louisiana Coast

JT had told me a few months back to knock off my 916 fanboy routine, referring to the numerous articles I had written on the subject. He prodded me while I was visiting - I must like the image, the idea of having a 916. He seemed to assume there was an element of vanity in my love of the machine, that I praise it because of what it is, not because of how it is. But that isn't the case at all. I simply adore that bike and nothing I've ever ridden gives me the same rush, and despite being a young punk I have ridden quite a few machines over the years. I write a lot about the 916 because A. it's the only vehicle I've owned for the past seven years, B. I know it pretty well, and C. I genuinely fucking love it. If something comes along that does it better and has the same emotional impact, I'll buy it. But I still haven't found that machine.

Watching JT sit on the Ducati and look over the details, I think he has more respect for the 916 than he lets on. He certainly has high regard for Massimo Tamburini - he is one of the few motorcycle designers who has actually built bikes and chassis, rather than simply styling them before handing the sketches off to a committee of workers to do the dirty stuff. Tamburini has paid his dues with hands-on work and this gives him a unique insight into the design process that many stylists lack.

Ducati 916 Motorcycle Louisiana Coast

 I've often said that the only bike I would consider trading the 916 on would be an MV Agusta F4, the "other" Tamburini masterwork. There are some days when I actually mean it, usually when I'm elbow deep in the 916 hunting some elusive electrical gremlin. During the dead of winter one year I attended the Montreal Salon de la Moto. MV was present and I had a seat on the F4. My heart immediately jumped into my throat. The seating position and controls were instantly familiar - it was the only bike I've ever sat on that had the same ergonomics as my 916. The connection between the two designs was readily apparent in a very physical way. It may seem silly but that instant recognition, of feeling immediately at home, almost made me cry. If you don't understand why I got choked up sitting on a bike at a dealer stand, then you probably also don't see the appeal of Italian bikes. 

I am sorely disappointed I didn't have the opportunity to take JT's SB8R for a spin. He had offered me the chance last night but I don't have time, I need to get to Birmingham and my morning repair session has set me back. Hopefully someday in the future we will have the opportunity to swap bikes and compare notes. Sitting on the Bimota revealed that Ducati has nothing on the boys from Rimini when it comes to building a staggeringly uncomfortable machine. The narrow clip-ons felt like they were attached somewhere around the front mudguard, and you can't move them higher without hitting the massive arched intake snorkels which are jammed up into your face.

Ducati 916 Louisiana Coast

I load my luggage and start warming up the bike. It seems to be running well, though it isn't cold enough to reveal the flooding issue I was having earlier. JT notes that my front brake lights aren't working. Without thinking I give the standard response: a wave of the hand and the "It's Italian" excuse. It's like a reflex, I can't help it. Later on I hunted down the loose connection that was causing the issue and restored some peace of mind while riding through traffic. It wouldn't be the first time I've ridden through city traffic with no brake lights. I've gotten into the habit of doing a pre-flight electrical check before each ride because "It's Italian."


I hit the road and make my way to Birmingham. Once again  I endure the dull Mississippi Interstate, but this time I don't make the mistake of stopping for lunch at a crappy off-ramp fast food joint. Nope, I'm going to be sensible and stop at a crappy off-ramp quasi-homestyle food joint - Cracker Barrel. If you've never been to the US you might not be aware of the chain of "Southern country theme" restaurants-slash-gift shops that dot the country, which are not to be confused with the equally phony Kraft cheeses. They are as ubiquitous as they are contrived. They are all identical and designed to vaguely resemble a country store, walls loaded with old-timey nostalgic nonsense. They combine a tacky gift shop crammed with cornball seasonal items with a quote-unquote "homestyle" restaurant. They have two redeeming features - they sell something other than greasy hamburgers, and they have a cheap lunch menu.

I order a "homestyle" (of course) meatloaf and a cup of coffee. It's surprisingly tasty, but I can't get over the goofy decor and overly-friendly staff. It feels totally manufactured. Authentic it is not. I stare at one of the supposedly vintage advertisements on the wall. How would I know they didn't invent all these defunct brands? How do I know Nichol Kola actually existed? Maybe it was just the product of a Cracked Barrel boardroom meeting, the brainchild of a committee of Madison Avenue suits who were attempting to concoct some vaguely old-fashioned sounding wall decor.

The waitress breaks character to reveal she rides a motorcycle as well. A GSX-R750. With nitrous installed. And it's her first bike. She really wanted a 600 (to be sensible) but ended up with this instead, but it's OK cause she never uses the NOS.

Cracker Barrel doesn't serve calamari, but they apparently hire them. Sorry if you happen to read this Ms. Nitrosevenfifty, but in a couple of years you will understand why I find your choice of starter bike absolutely ridiculous and totally appalling. Maybe sooner if you happen to test out the nitrous.
I reach Birmingham around 5.30 and get lost trying to head straight for the Motus factory to see if I can stop in for a visit before they close. Again I'm stymied by the city's awful planning and end up going to the right address, but on the wrong side of town. I get back onto the Interstate and head towards where I think Winslow's house was, but get lost - again. Fuck. I pull over and call Winslow to make arrangements to meet him so he can lead me around - again. While I wait for him to finish work I pick up a toothbrush to replace the one that Rivet commandeered in New Orleans.

Finally I am reunited with my guide. Following Winslow to his house I realize I was even more lost that I originally thought, and that if I had made any attempt to figure out my way around town I would have ended up somewhere around Tuscaloosa. This is the problem with being an old fashioned luddite who refuses to use GPS. I can read a map and I can plan a route, but if I go even slightly off course I'm properly fucked until I can hassle the locals to get me back on track.

Jim N Nick's BBQ Birmingham Alabama

Once again I ask Winslow to take me to the barbeque. This time we head to a more upscale joint, Jim 'N Nick's in downtown Birmingham. It is upscale by virtue of not being a smoke-filled box with broken windows out front. The food and beer is good, but I can't help think that I would have been happier going back to Saw's Soul Kitchen. In terms of the actual food, Saw's has this place beat and it was half the price. Who needs atmosphere or clean tables when you can have the most magnificent slab of meat ever crafted by human hands?


Wednesday arrives and it's time to continue heading north. I'm not interested in the dull Interstates of Georgia this time around: I've decided to head up through Tennesse and cut across the Great Smoky Mountains into North Carolina.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Winslow helps me plan a rough route before I leave. I'll take the Interstate up through Chattanooga towards Knoxville then head east along the secondary routes until I reach the mountains. The route looks like a tantalizing ribbon of road that is filled with switchbacks, hairpins and sweeping curves. On the other side of the Smokies I can get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway for some more twisty bits. I'm looking forward to doing some real riding for the first time in about 2500 miles.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I ride through the remainder of Alabama and into Tennessee. Once again the landscape starts to change. I climb into higher elevations along ever-more remote stretches of Interstate lined with hills and thick greenery. The forests are reminiscent of the thick woodland of my home province of New Brunswick, but the lack of winter weather promotes the growth of vines and shrubs that envelope the tree trunks and give the scene a slight jungle vibe. It's lush and beautiful, as green as green can be even in the late Fall.

Southern Powersports Honda Chattanooga Tennessee

After my throttle hand falls asleep for the 837th time I finally snap and decide to locate a Throttle Rocker. I follow some billboards for a Honda powersports dealer and head into Chattanooga. After meandering through a rough-looking industrial park I am relieved to discover a modern, well stocked dealership that is packed to the walls with motorcycles and ATVs of every description. If I'm going to find my throttle aid anywhere, it's going to be here among the racks of chrome dress-up baubles and chain lube. Sure enough they have them in stock and with I hit the road again, feeling somewhat embarrassed that I have resorted to installing a duckbill on the grip to continue the journey. I'm the sort of masochist who prefers to maintain absolute control at all times, comfort be damned - I don't even like using cruise control when I'm driving a car. Maybe it has something to do with my perverted desire to use the most inappropriate equipment for the most difficult jobs. But riding a 916 for anything more than 50 miles will cut the circulation to your hands to the point where you can't feel the controls. Try working the brakes when your fingers are completely asleep. Not fun or safe, so sissy duckbill it is.

Ducati 916 Motorcycle Throttle Rocker

I turn off the main Interstate onto a secondary road that cuts east into the mountains through Lenoir and Marysville. As I pull off I am getting psyched up for some nice roads. I gas up and have a snack, relaxing a bit and preparing myself for some twisty routes.

So you can imagine my anger when I get stuck in a series of tiny communities with lazy traffic, heavy road work, absurdly low speed limits, and generally boring roads. It's still a ways until I reach the Smokies, and to get there I need to ride through these infuriating 30-55 mph zones littered with State Troopers, slow drivers, and construction.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Once I approach Townsend the road starts to get interesting. The route climbs steadily higher into the Appalachians and the mist-capped peaks of the Smokies are coming into view. The corners are getting tighter. I enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which leads a fork in the road. Not remembering which way I'm supposed to go, I take a gamble and head right towards Cades Cove. Not far after the fork the road narrows and twists through a beautiful untouched forest, bright fall foliage shining bright against the cloudy grey afternoon sky. It's a treacherous route, with no shoulder and surprisingly heavy traffic. There is more traffic here than there was on the Interstate. I am not in my element at all - after a long day of riding I'm now dodging traffic on a tight mountain pass and I'm losing focus.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Stone Bridge

The bike still isn't running quite right, with very snatchy throttle response in the midrange - probably a combination of E10, high altitude, and slightly out of balance throttle bodies. I'm pogoing through the corners like a green rider, desperately trying to keep the revs in a range where the bike doesn't buck and surge. I keep telling myself "commit to the turn and keep on the throttle" but I'm not having much luck. Add the steady flow of traffic, with hulking SUVs and minivans crowding into my lane around sharp turns, and it is clear I need to stop before I screw up. I pull over at a scenic stop to take photos and have a snack. I'm too tired to continue and I'm not even sure I took the right way at the fork, so I decide to turn around and head back to Townsend to stop for the night.

Ducati 916 Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I ride back to the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center to get some info and pick up a map. The Center's guide, a fellow rider, shows me the correct route to get to the Blue Ridge Parkway. He notes that the heavy traffic is due to the fact that the National Park was reopened today, after having been closed as part of the Federal shutdown. He warns that it is too late to head through the pass - after dark it's far too dangerous to ride, what with the lack of lighting and the prevalence of wildlife. I heed his advice and ask for a local motel that won't rip me off. He seems surprised by the question, and answers vaguely that they are all clean and fairly priced. I figured that seeing how he was a motorcyclist, a brother, he would give me the inside scoop and tell me which place I should go to and what the secret code was to avoid the naive tourist markup. But he was apparently in on the scheme.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I head down the road to one of the motels he mentioned. I pull into the parking lot and note a rather steep incline. I stop the bike and flip down the sidestand. The bike is standing bolt upright on the sloping ground. I wiggle a bit and think to myself "should be fine". I had my kickstand break a few years back and I replaced it with an item off a Streetfighter. The mount is the same but the bracket holds the bike at a higher angle. Fine on level ground, but tricky on slopes.

I hop off to the right and the bike topples onto me. I try to catch the bars but it's too late, the weight of the machine hits me in full and knocks me backwards into a wooden fence. I hear the sharp crack of the fence post nailing the side of my helmet just behind the visor. My first reaction is "it's a good thing I still have my helmet on." My second reaction is "holy sweet mother of fuck I just dropped my 916."

I leap to my feet in a flurry of panic and pure uncut rage. I'm angry at myself for not paying attention and parking the opposite way so that the kickstand would have been going down the slope. I'm angry that I've dumped my baby. I did knock it over once, accidentally bumping the rear wheel with a car in my parent's garage and tipping it into the snowblower that was parked next to it. There is still a 4 inch scar on the left side of the tank from that incident. But this is the first time I've ever properly dropped it. And to make my feel even more inadequate at that moment, I can't pick it up against the slope of the parking lot.

To make me feel better while I relate this awful experience, here's a picture of a pretty brook.

After a minute of straining to get it lifted, I run over to someone who seated on the porch in front of the motel. He hasn't flinched since I pulled in, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that I just dropped my fucking motorcycle and bashed my head against a fence post 30 feet in front of him. I momentarily suppress my rage and calmly ask if he would help me lift it up. He agrees, then asks the dumbest question he could have possibly mustered at that moment: "Why did you drop it?". I refrain from telling him what I really thought of his catastrophically idiotic question and set about righting the machine.

Ducati 916 Damage

I turn it around and park it properly before surveying the damage. I am lucky. There is a scuff on the lower fairing and some marks on the bar end and brake lever. The saddlebags have cushioned the tail and kept most of the bike off the ground. My helmet has a scuff from the impact against the fence and will need replacing, but is intact. I thank the unnamed fellow for his help and he returns to surveying the main road from his rocking chair. I wonder why he didn't come over and check to see if I was alright when I fell. Sometimes I forget that the prevailing attitude among non-riders is that I'm just a faceless, nameless biker, an extension of a loud and unpleasant mode of transportation that clutters up their blind spots. I'm certainly not a human being as far as they are concerned.

Bad Mojo Motel

There is no one present at the motel office. Another visitor pulls in and calls the owner, who sounds quite uninterested in coming out to greet us. 85$ a night, plus tax, take it or leave it. This for a run-of-the-mill motel that looks like it hasn't been refreshed since about 1978. The other visitor and I agree that is pretty steep considering what is on offer. I decide that based on my mishap this place has bad mojo and I will not be staying here. I head to the Best Western down the road.

Overprice Motel

Once again I overpay for a room in a mediocre hotel. In fact the rate is even higher here in the middle of nowhere than it was in Pennsylvania. It immediately becomes clear that all the lodging in this town rips off us hapless tourists - they are the only options for miles along a busy route right ahead of a major National Park, so no surprise there. That explains why the guide at the Heritage Center sounded kind of cagey when he responded to my question. Given my present state of mind and the fast setting sun, I'm in no mood to hunt down a better deal or camp for the night. At least the clerk gives me some fresh cookies - that totally makes up for paying 120$ for a room in Dolly Parton land. I vow that from here on it's going to be Super 8s or nothing.

Because of course.

I take a well deserved shower before walking over to the local supermarket to grab some food. I pick up a roast beef sandwich, some pork rinds, and a tallboy of Miller Light before settling in for a night of Discovery channel reality shows. "When in Rome."

When in Rome


  1. Glad the damage wasn't too big on your bike. People like that guy that helped pick you up really aggravate me.

    Good article, cheers!

  2. Sir, I love your writing style when you are speaking about motorcycles, especially those that bring tears to your eyes. You are a talented writer, no doubt. But your cynicism about people, business, and at times society as a whole becomes tiresome and really takes away from your stories. I will continue to read your post though as I love the bike content and ride descriptions, but when you start the other stuff I simply speed read through to get back to the good stuff.

    1. There is good and there is bad in the world. I call it like I see it. If you want to read a 100% positive outlook you are looking in the wrong place.