Test-riding. Oh My God!

Back in London for 4 days, and on the third, after picking up my long-awaited UK driving licence (I swapped my French one for it and the whole shebang was biblically complicated), I headed straight to Metropolis in Vauxhall. My motorbiking mecca. So many bikes to drool over, and again and again. And again.

While a London resident, I’d never test-ridden there, first because I didn’t have the license, second because the staff didn’t impress me with their kindness and readiness to help, and finally because I didn’t see why I should pay 25 GBP per test-ridden bike. Now I’m in Laos, I couldn’t care less about the money: I needed to reconnect with good roads and great bikes.

OF COURSE, it turned out that the nice guy I talked to, whom I thought at first was Chinese, is from LAOS!!! Ah ah ah! Why is life so funny?

Long story short, I decided to testride the Monster 1100 Evo and the Kawa Z1000 SX. First up, the Duke. Being a quarter Italian and a fan of twins, it was a bit of a nonsense I’d never ridden one. In fact, I rode a friend’s Monster 900 last year, and it was very lovely. But I’d never tried the latest ones, and the 1100 Evo, what with ABS and TC and 100bhp, had my vote over the two small ones.

The sales attendant fired it up, and I thought, hum it’s nice, but I wasn’t bowled over. In fact, it took me a while to come to appreciate its beautiful, deep gurgle. To me it’s best at 3000-4000 rpm, after that it’s a bit too much like a bag of nails going round in a washing machine on LSD.

Apart from the sound, the Monster is stupidly light, and the power is very nicely delivered, there straight away. Starting at the lights or coming to a stop was always a pleasure. The deep serenade accompanying both actions is extremely pleasing. I went to Greenwich, then back another way. A short hour of sugary pleasure. On the way back I stopped at FWR and ordered a set of tyres for the Ten. Won’t be fun carrying them all the way to Vientiane.

I picnicked by the river, then went back for the Z1000 SX. It’s a bike I’ve always thought of as attractive since its launch two years ago. From all I’d read, it was comfy, powerful, nice to use. It’s a sports tourer. Now, I’ve tried other sports tourers: the Triumph Sprint ST and the BMW K1300. I loved the ST, its engine that is, creamy as melted butter, instantly fast and so on. But the riding position killed my lower back after 30mins or so. Lights, stop, lights stop and so on: in town, the punishing position told very quickly, and for that reason only I couldn’t have bought it.

The BMW is hellishly fast, less tiring on the body, but something didn’t work for me. I remember saying something about the sound, which I found too omnipresent and not that nice. Maybe I’m just unconsciously biased against BMWs (why though, I loved my R1200R). Or maybe there is something to the widespread notion that BMWs lack character, lack sparkle.

Anyway I sat on the Z1000 SX open-minded. I noticed straight-away that the exhaust note was very muted. It’s a low inline 4 gurgle, quite nondescript, but first I knew it from the reviews I’d read, second aftermarket exhausts often remedy this kind of problems, and third I wanted to see how the ride felt.

What can I say, but holy shit! As eye-openers go, this test-ride went at it with a pair of fat pliers and connected them to 66-ton trucks.

I’m quite annoyed to say this but it eclipsed the Monster. Or rather, it eclipsed pretty much everything I’ve ridden to date. The power is monstrous. True or false I have no idea but it felt so much quicker on acceleration than the Monster. It felt incredibly light and natural to lean with, whereas it wasn’t exactly innate with the Monster. It was so so fast, my god! And it’s also true that the sound does get a lot more distinctive after 5000-6000. In fact at first I thought I was near the red-line at 6000 rpm given how acute the engine scream. I looked down at the tacho, and it shouted at me: ‘I’ve got 4000 rpm left before you red-line, you naive man.” Insane, insane stuff.

It’s a lot comfier than the Monster too: the back is straighter, the legs less rear-set. Less weight on the wrists then, less tiring, and just natural. That’s the word: natural. The Z1000 SX is natural. Nothing hurts with it, everything is smooth, yet open the throttle even a bit and the thing catapults you forward with the eagerness of a diving hawk, and it’s an incredible feeling.

Coming back onto the motorway at Heathrow, I found myself at 95mph in second gear without even realising anything. Second gear at 95… Second… It’s the kind of bikes that gets you licence-free pretty rapidly if you’re not very careful with not realising stuff.

The power had another, completely unpredictable effect on me: it made me look at the muted sound at tick-over with a kind of perverse satisfaction. A stupid one at that. The satisfaction of the one who knows he can eat up pretty much anything that moves. Don’t sound amazing, don’t impress? Wait until the Kawa goes, screams past you and disappears into the sunset. I know what they mean by the term ‘missile’ to describe certain bikes now. Even though I’ve never seen the word “missile” linked to a bike with a “paltry” 134 bhp. To me, whether it’s the bhp or something else, the Z1000 SX is a hell of a benchmark.

Plus, wind-protection wasn’t bad at all. Okay, I probably didn’t ride long enough at speed to really know, and besides I was too busy coming to terms with everything the Kawa offered and proposed to redefine to surely notice something as mundane as wind-protection.

Anyway, it was pretty surreal as test-rides go. I thought after giving the Monster’s keys back that that was it. Now I know I won’t look back at it much. Sure it’s a very nice bike, but the Kawa is a complete package, more natural, more aggressive in the end, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an unprepossessing bike that doesn’t need to shout its qualities because they are unequivocally apparent to anyone once you open the throttle. Yeah the visual signature of the Duke is unmissable, but a baby-faced assassin is more efficient than the assassin-faced baby.

What a day!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First trip out of Vientiane

Health problems kept me from taking the Ten on its first trip out of Vientiane for about three weeks. But lately things have improved and last Friday, out of the blue, I decided to take my chances and go.

Every time I take the Ten for a short ride in town, I feel guilty as I don’t want to damage its engine. Also, this coming Thursday I’ve got to go to the South of Laos, where we’re spending a few days in an apprently lovely lodge, across the river from Wat Phou. And I needed a dry run to check that my clothing options are the least worst heat-wise.

I’d elected to do a shortish loop: up route 10 to the Nam Ngum reservoir, then connect with route 13 at Phonghong and come back down. Leaving at around 10.30am, I’d estimated I’d be back for a late-ish lunch.

It took me a LOT less time to get to the point along the Ngum river where we’d driven for lunch one weekend with Alex. Got past it, opened the throttle a bit as the roads cleared. At Keun I got lost, zigzaged back and forth until someone told me how to find Thinkeo, on the way to route 13.

It was all going well. The heat was intense, but it is not that noticeable while riding. My meshy enduro-style body armour was doing a good job at letting air through, and the engine heat didn’t affect my legs as much as usual since I was wearing jeans this time. Still, I stopped regularly to drink, and every time I was downing large quantities of water.

So I was pleased with my gear, and happy to note that I was withstanding the extreme weather quite well too. Nearing the apex of my loop, I was about to go to go back to Vientiane satisfied.

But then, after Keun, I hit a short section of twisties. Aarrgh. 4 or 5 at the most. But that planted a vicious seed in my mind. I tried to dispel it, honest. I tried. Until I got to Phonhong and its round-about, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my loop.

Actually, I think I was going to follow reason and head back, until a sign reading ‘Vientiane 70km. Vang Vieng 80km’ appeared on the side of the road. That was the end of reason. Left or right? Well…

Something in me reminded me with alarm that I was still weak and we were driving to Udon Thani at 5pm. Left or right? RIGHT, shut up!

The Cornellian choice that was put to me made me realise something crucial: why I do biking. There’s a number of important factors to choosing a bike (for me): first sound, then character, then comfort, then looks, then the rest. But why do biking? Not to be with mates or anybody else – like surfing and other sports in that mould, biking is for me essentially an individual sport that can be enjoyed at its most when by myself -, not to show off, but to have fun. And fun on two wheels, for me, means not crazy speeds but twisties.

And twisties do not exist in and around Vientiane. Vientiane is in the middle of a huge plain where you get ten suns to a curve.

So yeah, the Phonghong-Vang Vieng section was, in retrospect, a honey trap waiting to catch me. Might even be that I laid it myself.

Anyway I turned right at the round-about and feasted on a great hour of twisties. And another on the way back down, before re-hitting Phonhong and the straights.

A number of caveats prevented me from really giving it the beans. First was the state of the road. With 38 degrees in the shade, the asphalt had melted in a lot of places, and it gave it an eerily worrying look of being covered in black ice. It took a few minutes to get comfy with the idea that there was still some grip to be had there.

Second, there’s the sand and gravel hiding at various spots. No big deal in a straight but hit those in a curve and you’re gone in the trees. Knowing that the closest emergency service is a good 2 hours away, and that the one time I had to resort to it no one was at hand, you think long and hard about those issues.

Third, lorry and car drivers like to take a blind curve very wide. In fact, it was a near miss on two occasions. Luckily I was not going too fast then and the road surface was decent.

Fourth, cows and goats and pedestrians and scooters and tuktuks and farming engines and buses and cars and trucks and chickens may suddenly cross your path without any warning.

Fifth, my bike is a Ten, with mixed tyres, not a Street Triple with race tyres, or even an R1200R with PR3s on.

So, kind of conservatively, I had a ball. I pushed the single cylinder a bit, shifted my bum, stuck the knees out, pushed and shoved the handlebars, and it was a delight. In fact, a few days earlier I’d watched Nicky Hayden test-ride the new Hypermotard in Italy and I was impressed by how he dealt with the handlebars, it was vigourous, determined, strong-armed and not subtle at all. I don’t know if the same level of strength is used on racebikes (and we wouldn’t be able to see it because of the bikes’ ergonomy?) or if Hayden what using a known supermoto style of changing directions, but that left a mark and, at my own little level, I remembered that and was trying to emulate him.

I didn’t see much of the scenery. Well, I did in Vang Vieng at lunch time, where I ended up in the same restaurant as last time: the Lao-Austrian place at the end of the main backpacking street, up over the river with a great view of the island and the karst peaks. Always empty, not cheesy at all and good food.

Not having ABS is constantly on my mind when braking coming into a curve, and the lack of traction control when opening the gas on the exit. So it’s all done with as much subtlety as possible. These two would have made me feel a lot better, but at least it refrains me from going mental. Good. And bad: my best biking memories are of the afternoon I spent riding the Vosges’s roads with both the ABS and TC shrieking at every twisties.

As a result, I’m not sure I’ll ever get a truly awesome twisties experience here, due to the local conditions and the Ten. But this time was great in other ways, and others will be too: I’ve never been as conscious of and hungry for bike feedback as last Friday. It’s like other senses suddenly show up, or rather that your whole being becomes part of the operation instead of a select few stuff. There’s so much that can jump in front of you or appear on the road, there’s so little that will be done for you if you crash, that you savour things in a different way.

I’ll do it again, 100% sure, and more. The old Kasi-Luang Prabang road is next on my list: 4 hours of twistie silliness – but 3-4 hours away from home.

Another thing that is sure, and that I am happy to report, is that the Ten is a great bike here. I kind of expected it while getting really annoyed and frustrated with it in London, but it’s good to have confirmation, and even better to now know clearly why you were expecting it to do a good job. Well it does. In fact I can’t think of a better bike here: the suspensions dealt really well with every road imperfection, fractionally losing contact only a few times, i-e the Ten never got upset. The 660cc engine is still a bit overkill in the sense I can never use it to the full, but at least it picks up speed decently enough with its torque at the low-end. The brakes are progressive and tolerant. In short, yeah, I love the Tenere here. Through the earplugs, its Leo Vince cans also make it sound nice. When not paying attention, I even thought I could hear a supermoto, rooh!

Apart from missing two trucks by a big whisker, the moment that scared me most was when, lo and behold, I tried to emulate again something I’d seen on Youtube. Not Hayden this time, but a guy racing a Hornet around a track in the south of France. He’d give the engine the beans, then brake hard, and in this film it was very obvious that he was dropping two or even three gears everytime. Pop, pop, pop, then  big lean and gas it.

So I tried. I chose a good section of road to do it, pushed the Ten then braked quite hard, with a bit of pressure on the back brake too. Then I popped down two gears. Problem is that my left foot kept the pressure on the brake, or even increased it, and I lost the back a fraction of a second. Boo-ooh!

Stupid reflex. Without it, I’m sure all would have been fine. Of course I’d better guard against locking the wheel as I pop the gears like that.

Luckily, I’d taken the Ten along the Mekong in Vientiane a few days earlier: sand, mud, water and the rest. It was also scary, my first time on this kind of non-roads, and for the 20mins it lasted or so I learned a lot about how the bike behaves in extremely shifty and crumbly and sliding comditions. So I didn’t panic when the back wheel lost friction, I released all brakes, closed the throttle and wriggled the bike up.

In three days’ time I’m off to Champassak. First stage on Thursday is, according to Googlemaps, 466km to Savannakhet. Next day 275km. My trip to Vang Vieng was 363km. And I’m looking forward to it. Twisties will be few and far between as I’ll be following the Mekong, but the sights, villages and adventure should be amazing anyway.

Then it’s Europe for 6 weeks. I’ve booked myself a GSR 750 for 9 days in the south of France. I’m looking forward to giving an inline 4 a good go. About 1300 km are in the pipeline, from Avignon to Biarritz where I’ll see my friend’s newborn and, hopefully, catch a wave or two. Then back.

The naked won’t be great on  motorways, but once in a while one has to suffer for his pleasure.

What I just said about TC and ABS now seems to apply to my next bike. In short, I’d feel more comfortable with both. And right now the strongest contender seems to be the new Hypermotard, maybe in its Hyperstrada form for protection. But who knows what my long week aboard the naked inline 4 will do to my plans?

 

Knock knock

The phone rang this afternoon. It was the importing agent letting me know that I should (should) be able to collect my Ten tomorrow.

I dropped it in North London on January 13. Tomorrow is April 23. That’s 3 months and 10 days.

I was going to write a lot in the meantime on this blog, about biking in Laos. Remarks on what they ride, how they ride etc.

But I just couldn’t. I guess it was too painful.

Yeah, I’ve been badly frustrated at not having a motorbike. I bought a scooter to fill the gap upon arriving, and don’t get me wrong it has done its job very well. In fact, in all honesty I can say that a scooter is the best form of transport here. Very light, enough power to overtake most drivers, and brakes so squidgy they wouldn’t pass even a bad MOT in the UK. But squidgy brakes are a good thing here: when the ground is not drenched in tropical downpours it is covered in dust and sand. All in all, things are slipperier here than on a wet bar of soap.

But it’s an automatic. It’s convenient and all, but interesting? Forget it. It’s boring, not involving, soulless. It’s a thing with an engine. You forget who you are on a scooter, and even why you ride one.

I didn’t think I’d miss my Ten so much. Well, I guess I’d have missed any motorbike, but the one coming is the Ten…

In fact I was starting to think that buying the Yam had been a mistake. Spending my time in Vientiane, and once or twice going to Vang Vieng, the naked option seemed like a much better choice: character, sound, all that.

A friend let me ride his 15+old Honda Super Four for 10-15 mins, and it was heaven. The Honda doesn’t exist in Europe: it’s a 400cc inline-4 engine! Sounds AWESOME, redlines at 12.000 rpm, creamy as cream. The bike was a wreck and yet I nearly wet his tank.

In 3 months here, I have also spotted a number of other yummy bikes: a Z1000 (latest gen), a Ducati Hypermotard, a Monster or two, plus quite a number of Harleys. There’s also a KTM 990 Adventure (with rally mudguard) and a hordes of 250/450off-roaders, including an Africa Twin.

At the border one day, an S1000 RR was crossing back into Thailand after touring Laos. An S1000 RR. Touring. Laos. Seeing that, I thought either everything I’ve read about the roads in Laos is BS, or the guy is nuts. But hey, some people walk around the world, so I guess you can tour whichever way you want.

Still…

250cc is the highest limit by law. All those I mentioned above are grey imports. So most bikes/scooters are in fact 125cc. There’s a number of 150cc ‘sportsbikes’, as well as 250cc. Lately, the Z250 has started appearing in ‘dealerships’, and I even saw one on the road a few days ago.

It really looks good, mimicking very closely the brand new Z800. But it’s a single cylinder engine, although it doesn’t sound too bad. For the market that is. Because that’s what happens when the bikes on the road are all small capacity. You start fantasising about the sound of a 250cc!

Things I’ve noticed about riding here:

- there IS a clear logic to rules (not like in China). Even if they are pretty different from those in Europe.

- cars are pretty conscious of two-wheelers.

- gear-shifting is done very early. The guy on the Z1000 seems to shift at 1500, it’s painful. He must be in 3rd gear at 40 km/h. To me, that’s an insult and cause enough to confiscate it.

Anyway. After riding the Honda Super Four, I thought maybe what I need is a naked. Like a Honda Super Four.

But first the price of bikes here is painful. I came across a 250cc Suzuki Bandit in a shop one day. It was between 15 and 20 years old, looked its age in all respects. And I was quoted 4700 USD! The Z250 I mentioned, new, is about 8000 USD.

Second, I drove to Luang Prabang for Lao New Year last week. And now I know buying the Ten was a very wise choice indeed. Even the best roads have ruts and bumps, all of which would be very uncomfortable on tight suspended bikes. The saggy Ten’s suspensions will love it here.

It’s a shame I won’t have ABS or TC though. I could have done with those, given how unpredictable the road surface can be: sand, gravel or dust in corners, rain and mud in the upcoming rainy season, all that.

The main avenue (rather: the only one) in Vientiane is not in asphalt, it’s a weird smooth surface that gets super slippery as soon as a drop hits it. Yesterday, I nearly lost the rear of my scooter after taking a very slight angle into a 15km/h turn just because someone had watered a plant a while back and there was residual water on the road.

Since arriving, I’ve also discovered something that bothers me: the Ten is not imported in Thailand. That means parts and servicing won’t be available there. I had bought the Ten partly for that. But they only import the Super Ten. That’s my luck.

On the plus-side bikes are so expensive here, if I decide to sell it when we leave, I should be in profit. And being ripped off over my R1200R won’t feel that raw anymore.

The way I tried to address my frustration was watching Youtube. I’m not sure there’s any film on the tube about my favorite bikes that I don’t know.

Also, I’ve planned the motorbike after-Laos. Kinda. Depends on where we’ll be of course, but first I’ll lobby for a country with good roads and proper dealerships and a wide range of bikes and no restriction on cc. Second it’s still a bloody toss-up between heart and mind.

If the heart spoke, it’d be either of those:

- Street triple

- Z800/1000

- any supermoto (Husky, Aprilia, Ducati)

If the mind spoke:

- Z1000sx

- KTM 990 SMT

I’m not sure I could ride a bike just in and around town. One of the great joys of motorbiking is in touring, and touring on a naked is hell. It was hell on my R1200R when it had a sports screen on. It only became great when I fitted the touring screen instead.

I could get another R1200R. I could. But I won’t. I want a bit more purpose, I want a different sound, a tad less mass. I’ll probably miss the supreme comfort.

I love twin engines. But riding the Honda Super Four made me realise that inline-4s are a joy. Very different, but lovely. I love the whistling up top.

Ideally, what I’d do is buy the KTM and a Honda Super Four. I’ve discovered 400cc isn’t bad at all when it sings that well. A grunty twin and a screeching 4? That wouldn’t be half bad.

If all else fails, why not the Austrian and an old Hornet?

Ok, I’m getting about 2 years ahead of myself. For now, let’s pick up the Ten tomorrow, get it working after its 3-month rest, and avoid accidents.

The future will take care of itself.

The ‘nasi lemak’ of motorbiking

 

Been in Vientiane for a week now. And had three days in Bangkok before that. In one apt word: waw (as detailed in my other blog, laoconfidential.wordpress.com).

The biking scene in the Thai capital surprised me, I have to say: a LOT of scooters and semi-automatic two-wheelers. As in a LOT. Anything between 125cc and 250cc.

I heard/saw two Harleys, walked past a parked Ducati Hypermotard Corse, and glimpsed a battered Hornet, and that’s about all in the class above. Given some of the posh cars that drive along, I was really expecting more on the biking front. You live and learn don’t ya.

What I saw there gave me a good indication of what Vientiane would offer. And on that one I wasn’t mistaken. The choice is between plasticky automatic scooters and shabby-looking ‘manuals’, meaning a strange Asian mix of a pedal for going up the gears with the toes and another for downshifting with the heel but NO clutch.

Lots of roadside ‘garages': dusty and rusty building fronts where someone sticks a spanner in the fairing under the guise of a parasol.

Quite a few dealers as well, either ‘official’ or not. How do you differentiate? Take a coin out of your pocket and toss it.

Given that my Ténéré is 3 months away, I knew from the start I’d get a cheap something in the meantime. Especially since I don’t fancy spending even 60,000 kip (or 5 pounds) a day for a properly dreadful Kolao scooter with no rear suspension, no lights, an engine that either stalls or is stuck above 3,000 rpm, no mirrors and working clocks of any kind. I do really hate to be ripped off.

Question is, which? As in which brand and which kind should I go for.

I did my market study. But eventually, in my case at least, it’s often the human element that counts. The human adventure. The personal contact.

So last week I stopped at one of these building fronts with a colourful array of two-wheelers parked. The brand is, apparently, ‘Demak’. News to me. I knew Lifan, Kolao, and of course all the Japanese brands, but Demak?

Anyway I stop and there and then, on this dusty old busy road, sandwiched between a clandestine petrol station and a sorry flat, after spending the day trying to decipher what each and every would-be seller was telling me, I meet Wei Ling.

Wei Ling is a lovely woman, smiling, helpful, funny, with brilliant English. Surprising, yet unsurprising when you know she’s from Singapore. She got her first job in Vientiane 20 years ago, loved the place as it reminded her of the Singapore of old, in the 60s, a quiet backwater where life’s sweet, slow, and serene. It’s changing. Still, her and I agree that there’s few capital cities as chilled as Vientiane, even now.

So she stayed. Married a local. Worked for Honda. Then a year or two ago quit and opened this Demak dealership. Didn’t have a coin, so can’t tell you if it’s an official one, but in a country like Laos, official doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning as in the UK, where things are pretty black and white. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about communist dictatorships and other third world countries.

Demak, she tells me, is a Malaysian manufacturer. They’ve got quite a cool ‘Combat’ model, a sort of plastic-covered Minsk-like bike. 150cc, with cruiser-like passenger footrests, big engine guards, a weird look in between a bloated fish and a green bin bag.

A few days later, I try it. It moves forward, and the clutch feels like it’s going to break any minute. And the brakes are very lazy. All in all, it makes the Ten look like the most brilliant bike ever. But it does the job, and anyway anything resembling, even vaguely, the quality of the Ten is 250cc Ninjas, which are about 8000 dollars and for which I don’t see much point in a city where only the main streets are tarmac-ed.

Then I jump on the Demak 150cc supermoto. Actually, I quite like it. Not breaking news since I’m a supermoto fan, but it’s got a lot more punch than the Combat, and sounds pretty okay, considering.

The exhaust note is, in passing, something else where my Ten will be so far ahead of all of the bikes here! Oh man. It’ll be both embarrassing and orgasmic.

In the end, the supermoto is useless as I want to take Alex on the back and the seat is tiny.

Today I went back. I thought I was going to sign for the Combat. But hope and reason prevailed. Reason because the automatic scooter I’m collecting tomorrow is cheaper than the Combat, and will sell easily. And hope because the plan is to get Alex to ride. The Combat would have been useless for that with its weird and ultimately confused and annoying hesitation between auto and manual.

Alex has never ridden a motorbike. Doesn’t have a driving licence either. Traffic scares her. But she took control of that battered Kolao I mentioned for about an hour on Sunday, riding it on country roads with barely any traffic. And she did well.

I also am convinced that it would come in SO handy for her. It’d give her massive freedom and independence, which also means we could get a house a bit further from the centre than without an engine.

My take on biking is it’s empowering. Do it at your own pace, it doesn’t matter, but be free as the river innit.

At any rate, it’ll carry me around until the Ten arrives. If after that Alex can’t be asked and really is reluctant, then I can sell it on, or even keep it as a spare in the event of something going wrong with the Ten. At 1,150 pounds, it’s not like I’m selling a lung.

 

 

The wheels of life – in Thailand

So far, the pain of carrying my helmet around hasn’t paid off: I’m still walking around Bangkok on foot. I don’t mind, though. Instead of riding, I look at the 2-wheeling scene, and it’s pretty drab. Which is not reassuring for Laos.

In two days, the biggest bikes I’ve seen are 2 Harleys. A kind of Hornet fizzed past this morning, but after that it’s scooter and small capacity bike paradise. The strangest thing, to me, is how silent most of them all are. In fact, the loudest vehicles around are the tuktuks, which all seem to have sporty exhausts, and some taxis.

On my Ten, I’ll be spotted a mile away here. Again, that says a lot about how conspicuous I’m going to be in Vientiane, not to mention rural Laos.

There’s a lot of Toyota Fortuners around – slightly altered Land Cruisers. As far as roads go, they are straight, long, very busy, and in decent nick in the centre at least. Sticking to speed limits doesn’t seem to be a main priority.

The police ride 200cc ‘boxer’ bikes with a bit of front fairing and a screen.

Weather’s grand, mild when the sun is down, people are nice enough, with so far none of the hassle were given in China: no finger pointing and laughing for instance. We shall see if the same applies to rural Thailand later, when I get hold of a bike and visit Thailand from across The Mekong in Vientiane.

The centre of Bangkok consists of a collection of big shopping malls, and yet the impression is different from China. I won’t complain.

Walking around day and night, I’ve seen a number of older white men doing just like me. Funny how I always wonder whether they are pedos on the prowl.

Bye bye Ténéré

With temperatures dipping, I had to ride to the opposite side of London yesterday and drop off the bike in view of it being shipped to Laos some time in the future. I was hoping the mild winter weather would accompany me there, but I must have pissed someone off.

In the end, I never had time to prise the pannier with the broken key in the lock open, so I rode in my summer gloves, and my fingers were mighty cold. Every time I stopped at lights, I stuck my hands under the fairing near the engine. Didn’t do miracles, but it helped a bit.

The offending pannier, I decided to ship with our normal stuff so that customs didn’t break it open. Heard stories.

Having also shipped my tankbag and left the A to Z in storage, I was travelling virtually blind and, OF COURSE, I ended up riding past the Ace Café London, a place I’d been mildly interested in visiting without ever caring to find out where it actually was. So I stopped. For directions. Can’t say I was taken by the smiles and openness of the crowd I met there, and although an Irishman gave me the right directions, I felt a bit like a black man in a small mid-West American town’s saloon.

Anyway I enjoyed the coincidence.

Then I went for my last climb at Mile End, and obviously HAD to forget my helmet there. So today, I gotta go back there. But then I can start riding in Bangkok as of Sunday. Oh yea.

One of ‘em days

 

Once in a while, nothing really works for you. Without warning, without any rational explanation as to why, it’s as if you’d just spent the night in a bad luck bed and it sticks with you all day long.

For me, 28th December 2012 was one of ‘em days. A weird succession of little mishaps and pixellation, surprisingly all relating to motorbiking. Or is it to Yamahing?

I was due to play tennis with Mike from my climbing centre, who lives in Bromley. Picked up the Ten and rode off. At the Lewisham roundabout, exiting on the A20, with light green for traffic, two late teenagers decide to cross the street. They’re a good 30 metres away, but as I ride towards them one of them slows down to a near stop, eyeing me down defiantly. His mate is safely on the pavement, and to avoid his cunt of a mate I brake hard and swerve.

Is it me ageing and I’m missing something there, or did he have a death wish, or did he just mistake the Ten for a bull even if he didn’t have a red jacket?

Whatever the reason, it transported me straight to Laos. In Laos as in China and most developing countries I have visited, traffic and pedestrians work to different rules. But for a donkey here or there in Europe, people and cars follow a set of shared standards, there are dos and donts. Out in Laos, my bearings will take a big big beating, and this idiot staring me down acted as a potent reminder: ‘expect the unexpected’ goes the expression, a cliche, but a useful one.

All my senses will have to be on alert from the very start, a bit like when I started biking back in 2010 on my Vanvan.

We had a great hit with Mike, and I can’t thank him enough for that. Also met his wife and kids, who all seem very nice, which one would never believe knowing the man (eh eh).

After a drink at his place after the game, Mike dropped me back off at the club’s carpark and I set to dress for the ride back. The Metal Mule panniers’ locks had been given me grief virtually from the moment I mounted them, and as I prepared to wrestle for another minute or so to prise the pannier open, the bloody key snapped right off. One half in my hand, the other stuck in place in the lock.

G-R-R-R-R-R-E-A-T.

My winter gloves and balaclava were in there. So I rode home with bare hands and my scarf wrapped up tight around my neck. Thank god for the handguards.

Back past the Lewisham roundabout, having been followed by a fuzz car for a few minutes, I elected to turn right at a light. Which was the way I’d come. But just as I got into the road, I saw three painted white arrows pointing towards me on the tarmac, and only three lanes. Oops, wrong way then!

Just as I stopped and started backing off with a big apologetic smile under my helmet, I heard the police car siren. Cue the car in my mirrors. Oh dear…

I turned around, they turned around, and we stopped 20 metres further into a side street for a chat. Luckily they only told me where to go: no paper check (all my papers being somewhere in Wales at the DVLA’s offices), no glove check (in the out-of-bounds pannier), and no fine. I guess the fact I’d already started backing when they turned up put their mind at rest I was not a one-way-street thrill seeker.

‘Alright’, thought I, ‘they come in 3s don’t they’. I was wrong.

Pitlaning home to fetch my summer gloves and necktube, I parked by our flat. Returning with my gear, I tried to turn the ignition back on. And it wouldn’t. I just couldn’t get the key to hit ‘on’, it was stubbornly refusing the turn that wee bit more. So for the next minute or so I fought with the fucker, playing with the handlebars and the barrel until, thankfully, I was able to get back on.

Now I know they might also come in 4s.

Anyway it stopped there, the rest of the day came and went, blissfully uneventfully.

In 6 days’ time, I’ll be dropping the bike at the removal company HQ in Wembley. I’ll spend 3 months or so in a crate, and the next time I’ll see it will be in Vientiane, Laos. No doubt I’ll have a few surprises there, but we’ll see in due time.

In the meantime, I’ll have to get my brains in gear for moving around in that fabulous country.

 

The peacock’s wheels

Sometimes, past achievements and successes get eclipsed by a deed so off the scale that one wonders if he’ll ever see the day when these Olympian heights can once more be attained.

Yesterday was the day when everything I ever did paled into oblivion. For yesterday, people, is the day I fitted the panniers and pannier frames to my Ten.

After a quick look on Sunday, I knew I was missing a tool (a torque wrench) and zipped down to B&Q Woolwich to buy it yesterday morning. After that, it took me 2 solid hours of sweat, shouting and bad knees to finish the job. But finish I did.

This morning I rode to Metropolis Vauxhall to check (and buy earplugs and coolant liquid): no rattling, no shaking, no dropped box, just a job – if I may – well screwed together. How good does it feel!

Yes I have a PhD, and I had some photography shows, and write books. But to be honest I was never proud of these, just happy, or relieved. Since yesterday, I’m proud of having overcome decades of practicality-denying. I’m proud of my own lil’ odyssey from the navel-gazing spheres of concepts and introspection to the strong-scented and humbling island of DIY.

My path to betterment might seem to be going the wrong way. But you know what they say: if you don’t have the right, take the left.

Betterment is a two-way street. It all depends where you’re coming from.

 

Niggling problems

 

This morning, I received the Touratech tankbag I ordered. Made by Kahedo for them.

Fitting the Touratech tankbag on the R1200R had been a doodle. The strapping had been very well thought-out, minimum fuss, bag on and off the bike in a second.

I should have know the same was not going to apply to this new one. Don’t know who’s to blame, whether Touratech or Yamaha. I think that the Tenere is fiddlier to deal with than the BMW, if only for the Telelever suspension of the latter, which made strapping to the frame a lot easier.

On the Ten, you’ve got to stick three velcros on the fairing. Then, when strapped, the bag prevents you from accessing the ignition key, as you do. The additional straps are at a proper stretch if looped around the frame, and I think I’ll use the engine guards for the job instead.

The bag itself if a tad smaller than the BMW one, and as a result the map holder extends length- and width-wise from the top. Bit weird.

My previous laptop fitted just about in the previous bag. The new one being a wee bit larger, it won’t in this one. But believe it or not, I don’t blame Yamaha for that.

The underside of the tankbag is a shiny latex-like black, quite out of keeping with the adventure theme. Apart from that, the two side pockets seem quite flimsy. All the zips don’t look like they can withstand a monsoon, but we’ll have to see. It would be a bit of joke if the adventure bike tankbag was not as resilient and waterproof as the one on the posh roaster.

I like the strings along the sides, although I don’t know yet how to use them and why.

But what caused me distress appeared when I removed the seat to fit a fixation of the bag: the back fifth of the underseat was full of accumulated mud and water. Frighteningly close to the electrics.

Not hard to guess what caused that: having removed the catalyst in order to fit the Leo Vince pipes, a gap appeared just above the wheel, and since that wheel has no hugger, a lot of the road grime sprays up and in.

Rubbish.

Ever since cutting the back part of the rally fender in order to fit the engine guards, I’ve been worried about crap getting into the radiator, let alone road salt.

That will have to change before the Ten sails to Laos.

 

 

 

How horsepower impacts sheeppower

 

Last night, it was about 4am when I finally fell asleep.

Could be down to the very good doppio ristretto I had at Fix at 3pm. Or to my overland Vientiane-to-London trip planning in the evening.

 

I started by leafing through our oversized atlas. Looking for the best way through Asia and Central Asia. Spotting the amazing things to see along the road.

Then I realised two things: that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are in the way; and that, since I want to avoid China (I’ve already given it three years of my life, and my upcoming book might not go down well), I may have to go pretty high up in the Himalayas.

 

I wouldn’t mind avoiding either.

Which is a problem, because there’s no way out of Laos other than through either China, Afghanistan or Pakistan (without mentioning Myanmar) and the highest mountain chain in the world.

The only solution, as far as I can fathom, is to ship the bike on a train to somewhere and fly there. I’ll have to work out where to find info on railway freight. And which place is best to start from.

 

Oulan-Baator is a possibility. Or one of the Central Asian capitals, like Dushanbe.

 

To get a better idea of distance, I then googlemaped my prospective itinerary. It goes a bit like this: Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, France and the UK. A lot of border crossings, and a hell of a lot of miles.

Piece of cake, really.

 

Was it the excitement that kept me awake? Or was it the fear?

Anyway, that is still a way away. What will very soon be a reality though, is trips in South-East Asia. Alex is desperate to go to the Singapore zoo since she heard its director on TV. So that’s one. About 3500 miles in total, a trip encompassing Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

And when you’re in Singapore, let’s face it, you’re just a short ferry ride away from Indonesia.

 

 

 

Then there’s Vietnam: she wants to visit Da Nang.

Then Laos: the north, the centre, the south.

South which leads to Cambodia, and south of Cambodia still the Mekong delta back in Vietnam.

There’s also the Pattaya racetrack, which for some reason I fancy giving a go at. My first track day could be in Thailand. How weird.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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