Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The countdown begins

I've made a slight change to my plans -- or, more precisely, to my route.

On the advice of Mara Miller, an Ottawa native and incredibly nice woman in Amsterdam whom I've connected with through a colleague here in Toronto, I will be stopping for a night in Brugge in Belgium before continuing to Amsterdam. Mara's been very helpful, setting me up with a hostel room in Amsterdam and providing oodles of great advice. Although it's only a five-hour drive from Paris, Mara assured me it would still be too much for the first day after a long overnight flight. I do sleep well on planes, but don't want any vestiges of jet lag dogging me while I'm on two wheels. Safety comes first.

Brugge is less than three hours from Paris, so even if I get horribly lost trying to get *out* of Paris I'm still sure to be pretty fresh when I get there. I've decided I'll probably stop in Brussels on my way back to Paris, too, to make sure I'm not overextending myself and allowing enough time to stop and take photos when something strikes me.

My plane lands in Paris 6 a.m. local time, which gives me three hours to make my way to by 9 a.m. They are setting me up with a full-face helmet, a tank bag and a tail bag. I'm bringing my own saddlebags and a small backpack.

It's less than 24 hours until my flight leaves for Paris and so much still to do. Here's what's left on my checklist:

1) Buy health insurance
2) Buy euros
3) Confirm second bike rental
4) Pick up boots from shoemaker
5) Hem new leathers
6) Confirm transit points on my route to Brugge and Amsterdam.
7) Learn how to use my iPAQ

I'm going to be busy tonight.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yay! My passport's here!

Just finished dancing a jig around my dining room to Jock Cocker's Feelin' Alright...

Carol's efforts must have paid off -- my passport just arrived by Priority Post. Now, if I can just make it out of Paris traffic alive, I'm on my way!

So, today I pack, learn how to use my new iPAQ, and start to figure out my route.

Thanks, Carol!

Monday, January 29, 2007

It's sunny in Amsterdam!

This is the rainy season in Holland, so I am packing along a rain suit and packing everything that will go in my saddlebags in zip-able bags.

But since I will be heading straight for Amsterdam the day I land in Paris, I checked the weather tonight and so far the forecast for Friday is sunny with a day-time low of 6C. The Gerbing's gear may not get much of a workout on the ride there.

But I'll gladly take the dry roads. I'm calling tomorrow to tie up a few details, such as whether they'll supply a full-face helmet (so I'll know whether to bring mine) and whether they'll rent me a tank bag and saddlebags.

I'm excited. It's starting to look like I'm going to pull this off.

Oh Carol, can you see my passport?

Woke up at 7:30 this morning to go to Passport Canada office in Scarborough. Arrived at around 8:30, prepared to sit on the floor and wail piteously until they agreed to get help me get my passport before my plane leaves on Thursday.

Turned out that Carol from that very same Passport Canada office had called me at home while I was en route, saying that she had received my fax on Friday and was expediting matters. When I got there, there were only three people lined up ahead of me in the main application queue. When it was my turn, a friendly young lady in the booth quickly directed me to Carol, who was very reassuring.

My passport was in production, and would be sent to me by Priority Post before Thursday, she promised. If I hadn't gotten it by Thursday at noon, she told me to call her directly and she will make sure I get it before my plane leaves. She gave me the phone number for her direct line. I clutched the piece of paper with her phone number on it as if I were afraid it would fly away.

And discovered I needed to call her the minute I got home. I realized that my flight leaves at 3:25 Thursday afternoon. That meant that if my passport hadn't arrived by noon Thursday, there wasn't going to be a whole lot of time for Carol to do very much expediting.

"Don't worry," she said when I called. "If you haven't received it by Wednesday afternoon, call me then."

I thanked her and apologized for being a nervous Nellie.

"I know this makes you nervous, she said, "but it will be OK. We deal with this kind of thing all the time."

I noted that her job resembled a high-wire act to a civilian like me. I'm not sure she thought that was funny.

But, somewhat reassured, I hung up the phone and went to go spend some more money.

Want to consolidate devices: calendar, phone, email, quick Web hits.

I liked the trim look of the Pearl (which is almost half the width of the other Blackberry models -- there are fewer keys and you tap them twice for certain characters) and had used a Blackberry before, so the interface would be familiar.

But the iPAQ had WiFi, which the Pearl didn't have. Because of the WiFi, I could probably use it for almost everything I'd need my laptop for while on the road. That would allow me to leave my laptop at home. Since it doesn't have a spinning drive like the laptop does, the iPAQ would have a better chance of surviving the bike vibrations on the road, too.

So, I decided to spring for the iPAQ: $799 with a $50 rebate, for a three-year plan.

Brought the iPAQ home and started charging it. I've never used a PDA except the Blackberry, not even the Palm devices. But the iPAQ uses a trimmed down version of Windows, so I hope the learning curve isn't going to be too steep. And that the iPAQ's version of Windows doesn't share my laptop OS's propensity for locking up at the most inopportune moments.

My friend Terry Fong is far more patient with hardware/software glitches than I am, and has promised to look at what I'd need to do if the iPAQ resets itself and loses all its data. He said my best plan may be to back up the software and data I need on a memory stick so I can repopulate the iPAQ with my data at a cybercafe, if necessary.

Next, I checked email while munching an eggplant roti from Island Foods. Browsed some material I will use later tonight to update my Media Gleaner blog. I'm going to try to maintain it while on the road -- entries will just be more sporadic than normal.

I settled in for the night, knowing I have no choice but to leave the fate of my trip in Carol's hands.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Data, data everywhere -- but how to sip it?

I was going to go look at a Blackberry Pearl today and decide if I was going to get one before going on the trip, but the roads here in Toronto were so bad after freezing rain and then snow that I decided to wait until tomorrow. The news reported 200 accidents by mid-day today.

I've also decided to look at the HP iPAQ hw6955, which, unlike the Pearl, has WiFi. The HP uses a trimmed-down version of a Microsoft OS so, combined with a real-sized keyboard, it would act much as a tiny laptop would.

The HP is a pint-sized dynamo that would allow me to test for free WiFi access in Europe without the bulk of a laptop. But I won't have enough time to chase down a holographic keyboard I've been lusting after.

It would have a better chance of surviving the trip intact, though. As a friend pointed out very early this morning, the vibrations from more than 1,400 kilometres of bike travel might not be very healthy for my laptop's hard drive, even if I pad it carefully with foam and bubblewrap.

The HP, unfortunately, is $650 with a three-year plan, and the Pearl is only $249. That's a pretty big difference.

The moon must have been in klutz yesterday. I was so upset over Passport Canada's redial queue hell and conflicting information from Passport Canada employees that I forgot to mention the weirdness that resulted in reserving the bike I'm renting by fax and phone.

About half a dozen emails I sent to Frederick at went into a black hole instead of his In box. They failed to reach him at either of the email addresses posted on their website.

So yesterday I faxed Frederick a printout of the most recent of those emails, along with the instructions for installing the Gerbing's battery harness.

Not long after noon, their technician read the description of the installation and confirmed that he will attach the harness, so I booked a Honda CBF600 for the Amsterdam leg of the trip.

I've always owned cruisers and this will be the first time I've driven a sport bike. My son Shawn has been trying to convince me I should try a sport bike for my next bike, so this will be a good test to see if I like them.

From the information I've found on the Web, it doesn't look like Honda sells this bike in North America. It and the Yamaha FZ6 Fazer are the two 600cc bikes rents in the size and seat height that I want. The Fazer seems to be a popular offering with some of the other motorcycle touring companies, as well.

Apparently the Fazer and the CBF600 were designed for riders who, like me, are transitioning from cruisers. I've been told that the torque on sport bikes make them twitchier than cruisers, but the riding position is probably the biggest difference.

On a cruiser, the sitting and foot peg positions allow you to sit straight up and place your feet in front, much the same as if you were sitting in a chair. The pegs, brakes and clutch shifter on most sports bikes are positioned further back and you have to lean forward over the gas tank to reach the handlebars.

This is a more aerodynamic position than sitting straight up, as you do on a cruiser, but it changes the centre of gravity and your legs end up angled toward the back of the bike. The peg position on both the CBF600 and the Fazer is not as extreme as on most sport bikes, so although you still have to lean over the tank a bit to reach the handlebars, there isn't as big a change in the foot position to adjust to..

I want to get past my skittishness about sport bikes. This, I think, is a confidence issue that should resolve itself (or not) by the time I've gone a few dozen kilometres. Kind of like driving a three--tonne truck for the first time instead of a car. It takes a little while to wrap your brain around the size and how you fit in traffic (and parking spots) but you accommodate and your body memory soon adopts the different handling.

And if 20 kilometres down the road from the rental agency I'm still freakin' out over the bike's weird ergonomics, I can always turn around and drop another $200 on the weekend by renting a Honda Scrambler, an antique cruiser they have in their fleet.

The only other cruiser alternative is a Harley 1450 Roadking, which weighs in the neighbourhood of a honking 700 pounds and will cost more than $800 for three days. Ouch.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Passport Canada blues...

I still haven't received my passport and this is starting to get scary. It was supposed to be mailed by Priority Post by today. But because Canadians flying to the United States after January 23, 2007 need to have a valid passport to enter the U.S., Passport Canada is "experiencing a high volume of passport demand."

A woman I talked to at Passport Canada last week said that if I hadn't received it by today I should call and get them to give it a little push. The line to Passport Canada is (surprise) always busy. With some persistence and the use of my phone's redial button, I eventually got through to the voice response system.

But once I navigated to the "inquire about an application" option, I got a message saying that my call is very important to them, all their agents are busy, and they have reached the limit of the number of people who can be on hold. They then ask you to call back later.

It took 30 minutes of hitting redial and punching in the numbers that navigate back to that option before I finally got into a queue to talk to an agent. Then I waited on hold for another 40 minutes. Total wait time: 1 hour and 10 minutes. You really have to be determined.

But once I finally got through, the person I talked to laughed when I told him what his colleague had told me last week, and said she couldn't promise that. He then explained to me that the only way to get it in time for my Thursday flight would be to get them to halt mailing it to me and initiate a pickup at the Passport Canada office.

I had suggested exactly that to his colleague last week, who had told me it wasn't possible.

Since I don't have an alternative, I'm following his advice. I sent an "urgent" fax to the Scarborough Passport Canada office, telling them that I need the passport for business travel, along with emails or letters confirming I am writing about this to provide proof for reason of travel.

I'm wondering if I'm going to have to reschedule my flight.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Hoy, matie! Amsterdam's back in view

Spoke to someone named Frederick at in Paris this morning and happily found out that he had no objection outright to one of their bikes driving to Amsterdam for a weekend.

Frederick was somewhat concerned about the current temperature being at or below zero, however. Insisted I'd be dead from hypothermia before getting to Amsterdam. Probably worried about me marooning the bike somewhere in Belgium.

He was most dubious about Gerbing's Heated Clothing keeping me warm enough.

And you're travelling "tout seul"? he inquired.

"Yes, that's right," I said.

"And you're a girl?"

"Yes," I said. "Yes, I am."

That elicited some tsk-tsking and barely hidden amusement.

Good thing I'm always happy to provide entertainment for my menfolk.

Frederick asked me to email him a picture of the wiring harness that would need to be attached to the battery to power the Gerbing's wear, and I did. I've inserted a copy of the picture below, if anyone's interested in what it looks like. I told Frederick I could fax installation instructions if he preferred for his technician to install it instead of me.

Hope to confirm the price and other details tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

How to get to Amsterdam without leaving France?

I finally located a BMW dealer just outside of Paris, but the helpful fellow on the other end of the line (who switched to English the minute he heard my French delivered with a Texan drawl) referred me to, one of the motorcycle rental websites Kirk Ratzel had referred me to.

The other site Kirk recommended, MotoRail is providing the best rental rate -- €69 per day ($106 CDN or $90 US), and €349 for seven days ($536 CDN, or $453 US).

But they put a large kink in my plans by telling me that their insurance won't allow me to drive a bike I rent from them anywhere but inside France. No exceptions can be made. They've been firm about that.

Unless I can convince the powers that be to move Amsterdam inside the French border, that's simply not going to work.

So, today's research is focusing on confirming which of these other rental agencies carry insurance that covers their bikes outside of France. I'll rent a bike from one of them for the Amsterdam leg of the trip. Then I'll come back and pick up a bike from MotoRail for the remainder of the time.

That's the new plan.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Where, oh where, is my motorcycle rental?

Renting a touring bike in Paris has turned out to be a bit more complicated than anticipated. The motorcycle rental industry isn't as well established as the car rental industry.

Initial Web searches seem to indicate three main European motorcycle touring businesses that rent motorcycles in France; Adventure Motorcycle (AdMo) Tours, 2wheeltravel, and

None of them are based in Paris, however. And getting a bike delivered to the Paris airport would add considerably to the cost.

I want a bike no bigger than 800 cc and no smaller than 500 cc for highway driving. And because I'm 5'4" with a 27-inch inseam, I don't want a seat height higher than 31.5 inches.

All three tour agencies averaged about €120 ($182 CDN, or $155 US) a day for rental of a 600-650 cc size bike, which would cost about €840 ($1,290 CDN, or $1,088.8 US) for seven days.

AdMo's charge of a €395 ($607 CDN, or $514 US) each way to deliver a bike to the Paris airport seemed especially steep. An email from them confirmed that, including delivery, a four-day rental would cost €1,258 ($1,912 CDN, or $ 1,630.64 US).

So I kept looking.

I found a post on Craigslist from someone looking for a BMW dealer in Paris. Perfect, I thought. A dealer might know of more local ways to rent a bike. So I wrote the author of the Craigslist post, telling him about the trip I have planned and asking if he'd gotten any responses to his post.

He took it one better, and connected me to Kirk Ratzel, who's active in the BMW air-head group in Paris.

Kirk wrote back very quickly and was very gracious. While noting that it's a lot easier to rent a scooter in Paris than a real touring bike, he pointed me to and MotoRail. And he said he'd make some other inquiries for me. Both those had rental sites in Paris, which meant no delivery fees.

So, now I'm waiting on replies to emails I've written to 2wheeltravel, and MotoRail, asking for information and prices on bikes that fit my parameters.

Fingers crossed.

If I don't hear from them tomorrow, I'll have to start phoning.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A European temperature test

Having successfully tested Gerbing's heated clothing at highway speeds in subzero temperatures for short jaunts around Toronto, I've decided to give it a real test and combine some business with a little pleasure.

My friend Sherry Wasilow, with whom I've stayed in touch since she and I graduated from Concordia University's Journalism Diploma Program in 1988, is spending the winter in Dijon in France. So I've started making plans for a bike trip from Paris to Amsterdam. Want to pitch it as a winter European touring piece to a couple of motorcycle magazines, reviewing the Gerbing gear. That gives me an excuse to visit her.

So I booked a flight to Paris for Feb. 2.

That meant I'd need a passport, so I had some passport photos taken, took them and my application to my GP so she could sign them, then took both to the Canadian Passport Office in Scarbourough on Jan. 12. They said it should arrive well before Feb. 1.

Some initial research also indicated that an international driver's permit (IDP) might help speed up certain things such as rentals -- and accident reports, should there be any. So I picked one up at CAA. Cost: $15 for the IDP plus $9.50 (member price) or $12.50 (non-member price); taxes not included, for two passport-size photos for the permit.

I started planning the trip. I've always wanted to see Amsterdam, which is about 500 kilometres from Paris, which would be a nice day's drive. The plan so far is to rent a touring bike in Paris and head to Amsterdam.

I don't want to return by the same route, so on the way back to France am considering veering a little west into Germany, probably stopping in Luxembourg, where I might stop and stay the night before heading south again to meet up with Sherry in Dijon.

How to keep warm on two wheels

Having to put my bike (currently a 1983 Honda Shadow 500) away for the winter is always hard. My bike is more than a vestigial rebel flag (although it is that, too). There's something very calming about it; even a 10-minute ride can cool my jets when I'm stressed. It connects me to living in the moment the way little else has.

I get pretty cranky without it, so I've always pushed the envelope when cold weather hits.

When it became apparent in December 2006 that the first snowfall of the season was going to be late and the streets were going to be mostly free of ice, I investigated ways of staying warm and extending the season.

Found the Gerbing's website, where they sell heated clothing for motorcycle enthusiasts. Their gear is adapted to run on a 12-volt bike battery and they even sell a lithium fanny-pack battery.

The market is so small, however, that I was unable to find a single retailer in Toronto, Canada 's largest city, that carried the full suit components. A few carried vests and heated grips, which would be a less expensive option but without the head-to-toe "surround warmth" (thanks to Steve Hueston for contributing this term) that I lusted after.

Snow City Cycle Marine offered a 10 per cent discount and free shipping when I put in a special order for the whole suit, however, and my order (everything but the socks, which were on back order) took only three days to arrive at the shop. This was pretty good, considering it was Christmas week. If I had ordered directly from the Gerbing's website I might still be waiting for my order to clear customs.

The installation of the lead from the battery is as easy as installing a battery tender lead. Just remove the two battery bolts, slide the loop connectors over the bolts matching red to positive and black to negative, and re-install the bolts.

The bike must be ON and the thermostat OFF when you plug any of the Gerbing's
gear into the lead from the battery. And you should unplug the Gerbing's gear before turning the bike off, to avoid energy spikes and potential damage to your alternator and battery.

I had worried that the pants liner would make any pants I put on over them too tight for the knees to bend comfortably and thought I might have to wear one size larger to keep from feeling bound. But my fears were unfounded. The liner is of a slippery synthetic that is very thin and fit inside a regular pair of jeans or leathers just fine -- although I did have to kick out my legs and shake them a bit once mounted to settle it all comfortably.

The recommended configuration is to plug the gloves into the jacket liner sleeves, the pants into the bottom of the jacket liner, and the socks into the pants liner legs. This is by far the tidiest way to do it, requiring only one dangling lead from the battery that connects to the jacket liner.

There are three flaws with this system:

  1. with this configuration, the pants liner and gloves don't get as warm as the jacket liner, which gets too warm. So warm, in fact, that if you buy it without the heat controller -- which is really nothing but a thermostat -- you'd be constantly turning it off and on to keep from baking. So, if you're using the jacket liner, the heat controller is an important component.
  2. the wire leads from the jacket liner that plug into the gloves poke out awkwardly, making it difficult to pull the gauntlet part of the glove up over your jacket -- especially with both gloves on, which is the only way you can pull up the last glove to go on. Poking the connector up your sleeve before pulling a glove up helps.
  3. if you hook it all together in one continuous loop (as recommended) with the thermostat controlling everything, you have to turn the jacket liner up all the way to get maximum warmth from the gloves and the pants liner.
You could jack the gloves in separately with their own lead to the battery without the thermostat, so their default would be maximum heat, allowing you to use the rheo to keep the jacket liner from browning you like toast.

This can be done at no additional cost, since battery leads come with each component. But it will also require yet more wires to dangle from the battery and off you, which can be a bit cumbersome and distracting and will require more de-plugging before you dismount.

In practice, my hands didn't get cold even when I turned the thermostat down so the jacket was comfortable. But so far I've tested it at highway speeds at only -2 temperature. More tests are required to confirm whether that remains true once you get into more minus territory.

Having driven through double digit minus temperatures with only insulated clothing that still left me chilled to the bone (and bulked me up uncomfortably) , it was quite exhilarating to be zipping along in sub-zero temperatures while remaining lithe, flexible and quite toasty. "Whoo-hoo!" escaped my lips a few times during the test run as I reveled in how well this gear worked, allowing me to be zooming about on a day I would normally be house-bound.

I really wish I'd had this gear when someone dared me to ride my first motorcycle through a Montreal winter in 1979.

This stuff is expensive, however, for what is essentially clothing shaped heating pads adapted to run on 12 volts. Jacket liner, pants liner, socks, gloves and the rheo came to about $934 CDN. Prices of individual pieces are listed on the end of this report (the gloves alone are almost $190 CDN).

At almost $81 CDN, the thermostat in particular is a bit of a money-grab. That's a lot of money for components that likely cost less than $10. If you build your own you'll void the warranty on the liners and gloves, however. And you better know what you're doing, since you could fry all the other components.

The Canadian Gerbing's distributor is in Vancouver, so Canadians can avoid paying customs duty by ordering it through a local shop instead of through the Gerbing's website, whose head office is in Washington . Depending on the local shop, there might be some markup so you'll have to compare the price the shop quotes to the website quotes (and calculate the duty on your own) to determine your best deal.

Component price list:

Gerbings heated jacket liner list price: $ 299.96
with 10 per cent discount: $ 269.96
Gerbings heated pants liner list price: $ 249.95
with 10 per cent discount: $ 224.96
Gerbings heated gloves list price: $ 189.95
with 10 per cent discount: $ 170.96
Gerbings heated socks list price: $ 79.95
with 10 per cent discount: $ 71.96
Gerbings controller (rheostat) list price: $ 89.99
with 10 per cent discount: $ 80.99

Total $909.79 plus $127.137 taxes: $ 1,037.16
Total with 10% discount: $818.83 plus $114.66 taxes: $ 933.49