Sunday, May 31, 2009

Lil Red Bird Ride Saturday May 30, 2009

I rolled into my driveway last night after 15 hours in the saddle, exhausted and excited. No -- make that exhilarated. Few things wind me up like Lil Red Bird ride and I'd just followed LRB (the charming fella in the red and black jacket in the right side of this first photo) on his circuit of 840 kilometres of northeast Ontario twisties, along with 22 other riders. Some riders broke off at the halfway point in Maynooth, but at least half completed the whole ride.

The ride was scheduled to leave at 8 a.m. Saturday, so I got up at 5 to get to the ride meet-up point at Haugens BBQ on Highway 12 north of Whitby by 7:30. Only two things will get me up that early: a track day or a Lil Red Bird ride.

Lil Red Bird organizes these rides for members of several times a year. Lynn's his given name, but Lil Red Bird, or LRB for short, is his monniker on GTAM, a discussion board for bikers in the GTA area. During riding season there are dozens of rides posted each week on GTAM, but his rides are the stuff of legend because they cover so much territory -- and no one knows the roads of northeast Ontario like he does. Outside of organized riding groups, LRB has initiated more new riders into the wonders of Ontario twisties than anyone else.

GTAM is an incredible resource for local riders. I belong to more than one riding group, but GTAM provides most of the benefits of a regular riding group with none of the obligations. If you're up for a ride, and one's posted, you're usually welcome to join them. Some rides -- usually posted as "spirited" -- are best left to very experienced riders, because that means the pace will be quick. But lots of "noob-friendly" rides are posted and these rides give new riders a chance to meet other riders and get some experience riding in a group under their belt.

That's been the subject of a lot of debate on the board in the last year, because several rides ended with someone crashing. A lot of finger-pointing goes on when that happens, some got aimed at inexperienced noobs and others at hooligans. Circumstances varied, and I'll leave the discussion of hooliganism for another time. There are people I've met through GTAM with whom I will never ride again. But for the most part, I've met a good combination of eager newbies and careful, caring veteran riders. All noobs have to start somewhere. And GTAM is a good place for them to meet people who can informally mentor them.

Of all the GTAM rides I've been on, LRB's are always the best organized. He's been doing this for years and his safety record is amazing, considering how many new riders are being introduced to technically challenging roads for the first time. That's largely due to his insistence on everyone riding their own ride, at their own pace. The more experienced riders just wait at the turns until everyone gets there. Simple, but effective rule. This pic is the group waiting at the turn in Gooderham at the top of the 507, before we headed west on the Loop before looping back to Elephant Lake Road, which led to Maynooth.

LRB doesn't live in Toronto and rides an hour and a half west to the Haugens BBQ meet-up point, because that's more convenient for GTA riders. The riding community owes a lot to LRB.

Saturday's ride started out chilly; the bit from Haugens to the 507 and up around Elephant Lake was bracing, to say the least. But once we got to Maynooth, where we had lunch at a chip wagon at the gas station (the photo above and below), things warmed up and the rest of the ride was absolutely perfect: sunny, enough wind to keep the trees whispering their secrets to each other and just cool enough to keep us from getting too hot in our leathers. Baby's engine loves weather like that. Perfect riding weather.

The stretch after Maynooth over to Calabogie and the Ompah (the northern curve of the 509 east of Calabogie) was awesome. I lost track of where I saw them, but we rode through sections with jagged rock faces on one or both sides of the roads. LRB had warned us that there might be sand and gravel in unexpected places on the turns, because a big thunderstorm had dumped large quantities of water on the area in a very short time the night before. We were lucky and only a few turns had enough loose material under our wheels to worry about.

There was a big lineup at the next fuel stop -- I think it was after Calabogie on the way to Ompah -- with a group of about 30 cruisers waiting at the pumps ahead of us. That turned into a long break. After we left that stop there was a bit of a wait on the road, while emergency crews directed us past an accident. Couldn't tell exactly what happened but the road was filled with what looked like the group of all the cruiser riders who had left the fuel stop ahead of us. Wondered if one of the bikes had gone into a ditch - but we weren't there long enough to get the story.

And we were the only ones on the road for miles after we headed toward the Ompah. It's been two years since I've done that stretch, the last time I made it to one of the rides organized by LRB.

That's two years too long. We covered 840km from Haugens to where the main part of the ride ended at the Marmoraton Mine Reservoir, all of it through gorgeous countryside on winding, twisty roads. That is some of the best food for the soul imaginable.

And the Marmoraton Mine Reservoir, the last stop on the route, was stunningly beautiful. It was hard to pick which of the dozens of photos I took there -- the rest on this page are all from that last stop. Vlad (on the far right of this next photo), who along with El Zilcho (both screen names - I'll let them identify their real ones themselves in the comments, if they wish) met me downtown to head to the main meetup spot, said people swim there when it gets warm. Like The Gut, the remains of a logging operation south of Bancroft, the Marmoraton Mine Reservoir is one of Ontario's best-kept secrets. Much easier to get to than The Gut, too - because the last 10 kilometres to The Gut is sandy dirt, boulders and rocks - not easy to transverse without knobby tires.

Vlad volunteered to show a particularly nice stretch of Lakeshore to those of us heading back to Toronto after that. I was keen, but cars kept breaking up our group on the 401 and I missed the exit he took. The skies to the west -- the direction of Toronto -- were starting to darken, so I took that as a sign I should head home. The Weather Channel had forecast thunderstorms to hit Toronto around 8 pm that day, and it was now 8.

As I rode west on the 401, the skies were increasingly menacing. I didn't have enough gas left to get to Toronto, so I pulled off the highway at the Nickelby's rest stop about an hour out of town and topped up the tank while I put on my rain gear.

Got back on the highway and booted it, hoping to make good distance and time before the rain hit. Ten minutes later it was pouring buckets; cracks of lightning lit up the sky as I watched jagged fingers of electricity repeatedly snake down to earth, followed by the deafening boom of thunderclaps.

And wind. In spades. The wind had picked up so much that it could have blown me into the next lane, had I been riding any supersport but Baby. The ZX7's 515 pounds comes in handy in high winds. The new generation of supersports weigh less than 400 pounds for the most part, and even a passing transport truck can generate enough of a gust to blow them sideways. But Baby hugs the road like ... what was it that reviewer once said? Like a well-behaved bull rhino.

Even so, the gusts were strong enough to force me to grip the bars much more firmly than usually necesssary. I was no longer having fun.

Then the rain REALLY started coming down. Could barely see 20 feet in front of me.

I was now about 30 minutes outside of Toronto. The sky was a fantastic show, the air smelled fresh and electric, and the booms of thunder were boosting my adrenalin levels to new heights. I love storms like that -- when I'm not on a bike. But yesterday, I couldn't really appreciate it because I was too busy trying to see tailights in front of me through the sheets of water.

Visibility was so bad that I was afraid to try to take an exit because I couldn't see much in my mirrors. Even a shoulder check to see if someone was coming up beside me in the right-hand lane wasn't a guarantee in those conditions. I couldn't see the vehicle in front of me -- just his tail lights -- never mind one behind me. There are still older cars on the road where lights don't come on automatically -- and I don't trust motorists to remember to turn them on.

After a number of shoulder checks *seemed* to indicate the coast was clear, I was thinking maybe I should risk changing lanes so I could pull over or take an exit ... when suddenly the rain slowed down enough that I could see more of the car in front of me than just his tail lights. Almost simultaneously, the sun broke through below the clouds in a glorious burst of red.

Sunset was upon us. It was an incredible feeling: riding through pouring rain toward one of the most beautiful sunsets I'd ever seen, a big red ball taking up the stage between the earth and the clouds. Heaven. That's what heaven looks like, I thought.

I was almost at the Toronto city limit now, and the rain had slowed enough that I was longer worried I'd miss my exit for the DVP because I couldn't see the sign.

My almost perfect record of timing a ride around rainclouds is now tarnished a bit. But better at the end of a ride than the beginning or the middle. And the sky at the end was breath-taking. I really wish I had a picture of that.

It was an interesting -- and dramatic -- end to a wonderful day.

It was 70 kilometres to the ride meet-up point from my house in East York, so Baby logged just under 1,000 kilometres for the day. I'm surprised I wasn't sore this morning. I needed a new pair of wrists at the end of my first LRB ride three years ago. More surprising: I didn't get that fire burning between my shoulder blades that I usually get by hour eight. I think my Pilates classes may have helped with that. I consciously kept relaxing my shoulders and arms and "pulled my ears away from my shoulders" just as the instructor kept reminding us. Seemed to do the trick.

I'm now ready for a longer road trip. Not sure how to fit one into this summer, because this year I'm working regular shifts at the Yahoo! Canada offices on Queen's Quay and am already scheduling time off for track days. The last three years I'd been freelancing from home, with a much more flexible schedule. It's easier to fit road trips in when you can do interviews during lunch and write at night.

For now, I'll feast on the memory of this perfect ride, perfect day. Thanks, Lil Red Bird!

Route note: For those who'd like to duplicate this ride, LRB and Vlad have put route coordinates with GPS data you can download online. And here's a link to a Googlemap with the gas stops (very important if your tank has a range in the neighbourhood of 200 kilometres).

Gear note: Got to try out my new Joe Rocket "rainproof" gloves with the squeegee on the left thumb. They worked pretty well. The outside soaked through and still had to be dried out when I got home, but the inside stayed dry and the squeegee, although not as effective as I'd hoped it would be, was still a big improvement over not having one. Don't know how the inside dryness would hold up to several hours of rain, but they withstood a half an hour of downpour. My FroggToggs kept the rest of me dry. They don't last as long as most rain gear, but when rain protection weighs ounces instead of pounds, I'm willing to replace it every five years or so. I can keep FroggToggs tucked in Baby's tail with the toolkit without adding any weight or taking up room in my tank bag, they're always there when I need 'em.

Also: Last time I rode in the rain, my Alpinestar Goretex water-proof touring boots leaked. Which upset me no end, because it was the end of only the second season I'd worn them. For boots that cost in the neighbourhood of $260, I think you should get three seasons, minimum, out of them. It's not like you wear them all the time. The waterproofing should last at least as long as the tread on the soles will.

But they held up this time. My feet remained perfectly dry. Go figure!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Ganny May 10, 2009

Have been up to the Ganaraska forest three times now this spring on my lil red zinger (CRF230). This has been a big gap in my biking education, and I'm finally filling it. The first two pics are of one of the entrances where you park to access the trails. Finally bought a season pass - a bargain: $130 for the whole summer. It's the most wonderful experience to be riding through the forest -- I love how beautiful it is. One of the single-track trails we rode was blanketed on both sides by a carpet of trilliums; a feast for the eyes.

I think I'm going to buy a winter pass, too - so I can go cross-country skiing there next winter.

The next two pic are of Ty with his KTM505. He LOOOVES that bike. I swear he'd marry it, if he could. I've never seen him grin as wide as when he's on it. And the smile stays for hours afterward.

I still want to try my YZ250F, even though my feet dangle nine inches off the ground on both sides. Moto Marta, who rode a KTM with racing tires on it on the track, assures me that I'll get used to that. But I'm increasingly convinced I'm going to prefer the CRF on the trails. Now that I'm used to an electric start, I sincerely doubt I'm going to want to work up a sweat kicking the YZ over, when I stall. And, given how awkward stops are going to be on the YZ, I think stalls are inevitable.

The CRF is more than enough bike for me and is giving me a lot of valuable experience throttling through loose materials with a squirrely rear wheel. The first time we went up was before the end of April -- we didn't know that you're not supposed to enter the forest on a motorized vehicle until after April 30. And there was still snow on the trails. I hate riding on snow, even with knobby tires. You can't get ANY traction, like you can in mud, and can't correct your direction, either, or you slide and go down. Even sand lets you steer. Snow is weird.

The Busa ride May 3 (well, it was a LOT of Busas!)

The pretense for this ride down to Buffalo was to munch on wings, which the rest of the riders dutifully chowed down on. Being (mostly) vegetarian, I opted for the portabello stuffed ravioli - a strange, but delicious, find at a wing place.

There were 20 bikes on this ride - a pretty large group. Suzuki predominated (lots, and lots of Busas - but gixxers, too) but we had a small complement representing Kawasaki. It was amazing to me that we rode together in one group that large. Most of the riders were fairly experienced, but it's novel to me that we all managed to stay together.

Even at the border, where it seemed to take forever. Bikes don't take up as much room as cars so our line, although it looked small, took quite a while to process.

I find it interesting that U.S. customs didn't ask me to take my helmet off, but Canadian customs did. That's the third time I've seen that now. I'm sure it's harder to see whether the person on the passport photo is the person on the bike when the helmet's on, but when you're juggling passports and driver's licences, it's an incredible juggling act to also have to remove gloves (so you can take the helmet off) and the helmet - all while you're handing them and they're handing back your papers.

International Female Ride Day May 1 2009

Last year Mother Nature rained on the International Female Ride Day kickoff in Toronto, so despite the fact it was still COLD ... we were pretty happy that this year the morning was dry. Race girl Vicki Gray (the blond in the first pic) launched this annual event three years ago, and it gets women out on their bikes to celebrate the fact there are more and more of us every year.

It gives me a real sense of pride to see so many women on two wheels in one spot. That's my friends Brandi Jacques (a Duc rider) and Lindsay Cai (another Ninja comrade) in the second pic with Vicki.

What a wonderful way to kick off the riding season!

First ride of 2009

It was COLD ... but went for my first ride of the season on April 5. My friend Wally, who'd joined my chapter of the Southern Cruisers for a brunch that morning, our friend Ann, and Goldie, who was still breaking in her engine, all went for a ride after the brunch up along Mississauga Road and around the Caledon area. That's the three of them in the first pic.

The second pic shows some of my SC chapter pals leaving after the brunch.

I stubbornly didn't even use my heated vest or gloves that day. It really feels like it took forever for spring to arrive this year. Here we are, almost June, and temps still aren't staying above 18C for more than an hour or two at a time.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Spring 2009 is finally here!

OK, you can stop emailing me now about how long it's been since I've updated this blog. Now that it's spring and I've been trail biking and on my first three rides of the season, I'm all out of excuses.

This year's spring was long coming, and I seem to have lost my tolerance for cold. Baby was stuck at TO Cycle for the winter after that woman hit us in November, and between forecasts of snow and ice and sand still on the street I didn't go pick her up until the end of March.

Meanwhile, the second weekend in March, my friend Goldie, who was a new rider last year, upgraded to a brand-new 2009 Ninja 250 and needed a lift to the dealer in Burlington to pick it up.

I drove her there in the car, since I hadn't picked Baby up yet from TO Cycle. It was REALLY windy that day and it was Goldie's first time on her new bike, so we went to the parking lot down the road from the dealer for her to put it through its paces and get used to how it felt.

She did great. It may be only her second year riding, but she has good form and is careful. Her friend Fiaz (see last pic of him on the gixxer) met us there to ride back with us. What a nice guy!

Meanwhile, my new YZ250 is still in my kitchen because I don't have a garage -- nowhere I can lock it up. I'm still a bit leery of it, to be honest -- my feet dangle nine inches off the ground on both sides when I sit on it. Marta (who's at least three inches shorter than I am) tells me I'll get used to that -- and to propping it up on chain link fences to kick it over, but I'm still somewhat dubious.

So I bought a CRF230. At least I can get a toe down on both sides. I'll get my trail legs on it, and THEN try the YZ250. I took it up to the Ganaraska two weeks ago with Ty, and really enjoyed zooming around in the forest. There were still patches of snow, though, and I hate trying to ride on snow, even on knobby tires. You can't get any traction on it, unlike mud, and can't change direction at all on it, or you'll go down.

Ty just bought a KTM505. He's wanted one forever, and finally found one in fantastic condition at a price he was willing to pay. We both had two dirt bikes this spring, he bought a CRF450 and rode it a couple of times before he sold it - see him below with it outside Chesterman's indoor MX track, where we went in March. The last pic is inside Chesterman's. It's a small track, but when there's still snow on the ground... you're happy just to be able to ride. Anywhere.

I don't mind how dirty I get on the CRF. It's part of the fun. But ... I gotta tell ya, having to wash her down every time I take her out is going to be a drag. I might wash my Ninja twice a season. Maybe. If she's lucky. So having to wash a bike down every time I ride her ... groan. And Ty tells me I need to rebuild her top end every season. Some people do it every time they RIDE.

Mind you, those are the folks who really push their bikes. MX people are the craziest riders of all.

Still. Kinda crazy!

More pix from my first rides later. It's bedtime, now.