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?

 

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