Superior Circle Tour: What Makes a Touring Motorcycle?

My BMW R1200RT has been a capable vehicle. I am now more appreciative than ever of some of its features.

I usually ignore the cruise control in my car, and I never expected to find one on a motorcycle, but my RT has one! Like my car, I have almost never used it, but it has become very welcome on this extended ride.

My normal defensive riding style is to provide a vise-like grip on the throttle (note that I do not describe it as a death-grip :-), but after about 30 minutes, my hand becomes tense and numb. The cruise control lets me relax it, along with the other (clutch) hand. It is a welcome relief and I credit it with keeping me from becoming dangerously fatigued in my arms and hands.

I am also appreciative of the heated handlebar grips. During the lengthy ride in the rain on Sunday, my gloves became saturated and my hands started to chill, but the grips kept them warm enough that the fact that they were wet did not matter anymore.

Heated grips are great for the driver, as is the heated saddle. After showing Poldi how she could control the switch for heat to the pillion (with two levels: warm, and really warm), her comfort level improved proportionately.

The fairing keeps the wind blast and sting of the rain off of my hands, and the road splash from my shins, although my boots still get soaked.

The weight of the bike is a blessing and a curse. At 500 pounds, it keeps us from being blown over by wind gusts and truck blasts, but it becomes a challenge at low speeds, especially with a near-equal amount of passenger and cargo ballast.

Keeping the balance at a stoplight is easy, and riding at any speed above 10mph is completely stable, but making a slow turn maneuver in a parking lot, or to turn around, is murder. Consequently, I frequently must ask Poldi to dismount while I get the bike oriented correctly when we arrive or depart, or re-navigate, or recover from a wrong turn.

This might not seem like such an inconvenience but take a look at the configuration of storage panniers on the bike—especially the top trunk. She needs to step up on the foot peg, and then swing her leg nearly over her head to clear it, then settle into her saddle, all the while keeping her center of gravity close to the center of the bike so that the stabilizer (me), is not overwhelmed by the misbalance, and allow the bike to slip the strength of my planted foot outriggers and grasp of the handlebars.

Imagine mounting a horse, and then imagine doing it a dozen times. This is what I am asking of Poldi, and she does it skillfully, up to the point where we are BOTH too exhausted to swing that leg up and over one more time. This is the point where we probably look silly attempting the maneuver, but it is also a sign of increasing danger. Fatigue leads to mistakes.

But Poldi is one tough cookie and always manages to muster the strength to keep us both upright, stable, intact, and ready to navigate the next miles.

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Superior Circle Tour: How I Got To This

How did I get to this moment of motorcycling around Lake Superior? It has been a rather indirect path with some common elements: I acquired a motorcycle in my twenties as an inexpensive mode of transport while attending college, but eventually had to give it up and live within walking distance of campus, selling the bike in order to meet tuition. It left a positive experience however, a feeling of freedom, openness and exhilaration, everything Robert Persig wrote in his classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”.

Marriage and family commitments kept me from re-subscribing to that world, but when my son left for the Peace Corps and told me I could use his motorcycle while storing it for him, I dipped my toe back into that water. His bike needed repairs, and I then used it to commute to work, but I kept getting stranded as it broke down over and over. He described his bike as the equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, which could never reliably engage its hyperdrive. I experienced it as having the clutch fail in a busy intersection.

After repairing it too many times, I realized that I did not need to continue doing this. I could afford my own ride; I could buy my own wheels, but which? So I asked the owner of the repair shop (with whom I was now on a first name basis), “what motorcycle do you NEVER see here? Because I want one of those.” He replied that he didn’t see many BMWs in the shop.

It was unscientific but it was good enough for me. I studied the various offerings from BMW and became intrigued by the touring models. It is a romantic notion I suppose, to head out onto the open road and explore ala Pirsig’s “Zen”, so I tried one at a nearby dealer and purchased it soon after.

That was 2007. It is now 2019, and while I have enjoyed many excursions on my touring bike, few have been overnight, and none have been extended tours as I had originally envisioned. My mileage has only recently exceeded 20,000, which flags that I am a “newbie” with the same 6 months of experience ten times over.

I’m quite pleased to take on the Superior Circle Tour, but I recognize that I am still in training. Maybe I will get the hang of it. There is a danger that I will enjoy it so much that I will want to embark on other such tours!

A 50-second video clip does not fully capture the thrill of coming over the hill to an overlook, but you may be able to imagine the experience. We were not the only ones admiring the scenery. Three women from Winnipeg were bicycling to Newfoundland, about as east as one can go in North America.

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Another Chapter Ends

Preparing for a ride on my 2007 BMW R1200RT

About a year ago, with some reluctance, I put my motorcycle up for sale.  I had acquired it more than a decade before as one of those midlife attempts to try and recapture the free wheeling spirit I remembered from college, when I had a small Honda motorcycle that I used mostly to commute to school. 

My midlife motorcycle was a large touring bike, a BMW, and it offered an experience beyond just getting from point A to B in order to attend class or purchase groceries.  It offered that open air riding experience only possible from a two-wheeled vehicle, whose balance and stability derives from the thrilling lean into the curves of the road.

Although I had imagined taking it on extended trips to remote roads in scenic places, the realities of life worked against those dreams.  Instead, I found nice motorcycle-friendly roads closer to home and made many weekend afternoon excursions to enjoy them.

In recent years I have seen a degradation of driving skills displayed by the cars around me, primarily due to distractions of phones and screens.  There has also been a decline in driver courtesy, possibly a side effect of the covid pandemic.  In these same years, I also noticed that my ability to confidently maneuver the heavy touring bike has declined.  I always felt that one should not own a bike that you can’t get back up should it fall, and I suspected that, while the bike was no heavier, my lifting strength is less than it once was.

All of these factors resulted in a growing feeling of insecurity, especially in traffic or at freeway speeds alongside other vehicles.  While I always try to be in a defensive driving mindset, anticipating potentially hazardous situations with the flow of traffic, I was now bothered by thoughts of the possibilities of not surviving the ride.   This really detracted from the unique pleasures of being on a motorcycle.

I decided to retire from motorcycle riding.  I sold my bike to a BMW-riding pastor from Rochester who wanted the exact year and model I was offering.  He would have preferred blue, but was happy with silver.  I told him he looked good on that color. 

And so, another life chapter ends.  I’m sad to no longer be slipping into that natural fitting position on the saddle behind the fairing, feeling the vibration of a powerful engine, the thrill of acceleration, and leaning into the curves, but I recognize that this is the right time to move on, and I’m glad that someone else gets to enjoy the experience. 

I did manage to have one extended motorcycle trip—The Lake Superior Circle Tour, and I was accompanied by my intrepid partner Poldi, riding pillion.  I made a series of facebook updates at the time describing the adventures along the way, which I will be reprising here in the next series of posts. Some of you may recall them from three years back. Whether they are new to you or not, enjoy these recollections of a summer adventure during a time before covid.

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