Three Rides Three Lessons

Picture of Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret
Screen Shot 2022 09 09 at 11.07.38 AM

I have done three extended (multi-day) motorcycle rides this past year on three different bikes and in three different locations, Vermont, Texas, and Montana. In addition to being great adventures, they served a purpose. Each was an experiment in preparation for the big one, the Pacific Coast Highway(PCH). A six-day journey from Seattle, WA to Los Angeles, CA, 1,700 miles right down the pacific coast. Tomorrow is the day of departure. I often advise the principle of “fail early and fail fast” in product development. That method works just about anywhere, and those three trips were intended to serve that purpose.

Let’s start with the three main takeaways from each trip, the failures.

 

I have always ridden bikes. My first motorcycle was a motocross bike at age 14. At about 9 years old I started wearing my parents down with a ruthless campaign. One Christmas I even gave them a brochure on the type of bike I wanted and a summary on why it was a good idea. This was of course just to help them get next Christmas right. I’ll give you my Mom’s number if you want to verify it, she loves telling the story; I think she still has the brochure and summary.

My parents are lovely people, but mercy was not a factor when a 9-year-old has a dream, and everyone has a breaking point. Four years of propaganda and gymnastically complex arguments eventually worked. In recent years, I have chosen not to own a bike and to instead just rent them when needed. Why? Simply, it is a key part of my “acceptable risk life style” manifesto. Bikes + cars + time = serious injury or death. If you are riding on busy roads as a mode of transportation in congested areas, it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” and every hour in the seat is another hour closer to it.

So I needed to come up with a strategy. I planned back-country and open area rides on rented bikes. Mainly because it’s less riding hours; I’m not going to grab the bike to run down to the store real quick. The destinations meant that I was riding with focus and not in my head, distracted by whatever was going on that day. I was in riding mode and the entire day(s) was about that. Plus, I could pick the roads; big open roads with little traffic and high visibility are a big factor in risk reduction.

I then upped my safety gear game; no more young twenties with a T-shirt and flip flops riding to class. I mean, it was a cool look but priorities have changed. I now only ride with all my gear, which is head to toe. My boots, pants, gloves, and jacket all have high abrasion material and padding. The helmet is the best you can buy, and my jacket has an airbag built into it. Yup, an airbag like a car but I am in the middle of it like a hotdog in a bun. It’s amazing technology. When it activates, a split second after I leave the seat, I am encased in a hard shell around my entire torso. My spine is locked straight, ribs and back protected by a couple of inches of inflated firm rubber. My neck is locked in place with the creation of an inflated collar that reaches up to my helmet, it extends to my hip to minimize side impact. The statistics of reduced injury are in line with automotive airbags.

The Pacific Coast Highway trip came about because a close friend of mine had the chance to ask his terminally ill father if there was anything in life he wished he had done but never got the chance to. His father, a rider, said “I never did the Pacific Coast Highway.” This is truly one of the greatest rides in the world for a car or motorcycle enthusiast. It covers the entire West Coast of the United States right against the ocean. You have seen it many times in movies. It’s used over and over decade after decade whenever a beautiful ocean drive scene is needed. So, my friend told his father he would do it for him. When he told me this, I asked if he wanted a partner. I got a big “Yes.” We planned the trip for the summer of 2020. Covid changed that, so we pushed it to the fall of 2021. Covid+ then pushed it out another year to today, September of 2022. So far, the world has held together enough for the plan to still be on, so here we go! Technically, there are still 24 hours left for something to blow up, meltdown, catch fire, or mutate in the world, but fingers crossed.

First Ride early failure lesson: I was pushing it with the selection of the BMW S1000R. That bike is a slightly calmed down version of BMW’s SRR super bike. Slightly is the key word. All they did was raise the handlebars so you weren’t leaning totally pressed over the gas tank, put the suggestion of a back seat on (effectively foam the size of an index card) and adjust some of the aerodynamic bodywork for more variability of seating position and gear. Oh, and they limited the top speed to 170mph so you don’t accidentally set any speed records. So a solid sport bike with the “suggestion” of being able to ride to the track instead of just trailering it there, i.e. not intended for long distances. But I wanted to see what would happen if I tried it for extended rides, two plus days. Could I get the joy of hammering some tight turns while on long trips without dying of fatigue from sitting poisition?

I did a solid 9 hours on it the first day and was ok. However, on the second day I really wasn’t that keen on getting back on for a ride; I needed some recovery. Day three I did about 8 hours and I knew that was about enough. That completed the trip as planned, but I for sure would have bailed if further days had been planned.

From this, I learned that stress margins matter. In this case literal stress. Yes I did it, yes I knew I was going to be pushing it when I planned it, but why do that? Margin matters. If I had really gotten stiff or cramped up it could have been dangerous. I probably had so little margin that if I was a little dehydrated I would have cramped up bad enough to need more breaks. It also could have ruined the trip entirely.

A five or six day trip has way too many opportunities for variability that could drive me over even a well-planned body stress limit. The early failure lesson here led me to not mess around with trying to get a bike for squeezing every last bit of fun in the twisty turns. Instead, go for a purpose-built touring bike. Achieving a high margin in comfort matters. I will be riding a BMW 1200 GS Adventure on the PCH. The GS is the bike of choice for just about every cross-country or world overland trip, every aspect of this bike has been optimized for mission success. It’s the motorcycle equivalent of a fully decked out Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Defender.

 

Second Ride early failure lesson: Get the gear right. Specifically, respect that your phone is your navigation system and that the way you are carrying gear, like cargo, is a part of the bike when it is mounted on it. Historically, I would keep my phone in my pocket. It was easy and didn’t look dorky having it on the handlebars. The Austin ride wasn’t in Austin; It was in the open countryside North of Austin. It was amazing and far exceeded my expectations for fun terrain. I was expecting more dessert style riding, big open flat chilled out cruising. However, I found more rollercoaster-like sweeping roads with more drops, ups, downs, lefts, and rights than I could handle. I found creek beds I could ride on and all kinds of unusual terrain and vistas.

But all those unexpected options forced quick decisions on my end when there would suddenly be a split in the road or unexpected intersection. Stopping to check my navigation system (which was in my pocket) made the entire experience way less enjoyable. Changing routes meant stopping or sometimes even back tracking.

The bag I used was a large dry bag (duffel bag). I bring straps that I have made to tie it to just about any bike. If a bike has even the smallest of a back seat and rear foot pegs, I can strap the bag down with the same three points of contact a passenger would use, butt and feet. The bag is easy for air travel and getting it around while walking, plus it has backpack straps. Although, it is a precarious setup on a bike that requires frequent checking and can shift around. In the end, it is a highly adaptable system to any bike, but stressful because it requires frequent PM (preventative maintenance) and does fall out of spec. For carrying gear, it needs to be a purpose-built bag that is intended to fit on a back seat or a frame. This adaptation of a carrying (duffel/backpack) bag doesn’t work. Simply to much variability and maintenance.

 

Third Ride: Humans are a big variability in reliability. The Indian FTR had a really small gas tank, 2.5 gallons. That’s about 150 miles before you run out and a 120-mile planned distance between stations. A small tank and the big open canyons of Washington, Idaho, and Montana is not a great mix. So I planned my stops in advance since I was doing back country roads, but humans are emotional and emotions can surpass process and logic. About mid-day of the first day of my ride, I saw a road that I hadn’t planned to take but knew I must once I saw it. A hilly twisty road that followed a river for miles and miles. It would add some time to get to my evening destination, but no problem, I felt good.

The problem was, I just made the change and didn’t think to go back through everything again, like how much gas was in my tank. So, I was in a blissful state enjoying the amazing scenery, inertia, and g-forces, when I caught an orange light out of the corner of my eye, the gas tank empty light. I stopped and looked at my phone to check how far I had to go before even the possibility of civilization. It didn’t look good. I hadn’t seen even a driveway since I got on the road, no cars passing either. I had maybe 30 miles to go before I found something, if that next cross road had a gas station or even a general store. Ok, so what are my numbers? For a 2.5 gallon tank to show empty and flash the warning light, I must already be using my reserve. Maybe that tank (small) had a rserve of a ¼ gallon. I’m getting 50 mpg so I have approximately 12 miles left.

I’m probably screwed. I have no cell signal, no one knows where I am and it’s late in the day. Daytime tomorrow would probably bring one or two sightseeing cars through. So am I starting to prepare for sleeping in the woods? Ughh! Ok, let’s just optimize for the best odds of finding an unknown variable. I set my cruise control to 20 miles an hour so my fuel mileage got to be a little higher, around 70 mpg. The bike trip computer didn’t have a range estimate, so at that point, it was just hoping for the best.

I’m riding along slowly, just figuring out how to make the best setup from my available gear for “camping” when a beautiful site emerges. Trailers, recreational trailers and RV’s with boats parked next to them. OMG, it was a launch site and campground for recreational boating on the river. I coasted in on fumes to the first RV I saw. It had a beautiful new Nautique Wake Boat next to it. I went up to the door and in my best kind neighbor impression said, “Could you spare a cup of gas?” Hoping for a laugh to start that strange interaction. I watched the thought process of the man who answered the door evolve across his face, “Am I being robbed,” “Is this a scam,” “Did this idiot not check how much gas he had before heading out into the deep countryside.” He smiled, so clearly he had settled on option three. I looked stressed, dirty, and it was evident that if he didn’t help, he may need to see if he had more meat for the grill because he might be having a dinner guest.

Luckily, he said, “ I got gas, it’s over here.” We chatted about wakeboarding. He told me his son did all the cool tricks these days and he just enjoyed cruising around. I shared my old guys trick for wakeboarding. I told him how I change the laces in my board bindings to elastic bungee cords so they release on hard falls. I think that secret was a fair trade for a cup of gasoline.

 

So the PCH trip has been robustified by a strategy of failing early and failing fast before launch. Of course, I still left some things unplanned to make it a real adventure. But now the critical factors are locked in and fully accounted for.

Let’s see how it goes. But just as in product development, failing early and failing fast tends to get great results when we go into production. In this case, it’s six days of repeated performance with no easy way out when things go wrong.

-Adam

PS – The trip update.

The trip was amazing. 1,700 miles from Seattle to LA on two wheels.  Camped all but one night in wild places.  No big issues or problems with the motorcycle, local animals, telephone poles, sheer cliffs, or locals. Just miles and miles of smiles.
Here is an album with some highlights.

Share this post