commuting

Commuting Thoughts

I’ve been pondering motorcycle commuting. Despite perfect weather for it, I’ve had absolutely no desire to hop on the bike to go to work, opting for the car instead, despite the rental car being a penalty box. Although I’m perfectly fine and not even sore after the car accident, it’s been a wake up call to me. What if I was on the bike?

While discussing this in Facebook comments, my friend Kate made some very excellent points. I’ve quoted them here with her permission.

You’ve gotta be realistic (and you are!) about the risks of motorcycling. Every morning I plan to ride, when I put my skivvies on, it is in the back of my mind that there is a real possibility that I will not be the one taking them off that night, but instead a trauma team will be cutting them off me. That said, if motorcycling were taken away from me, I would have a tremendously difficult time adjusting. I know that my peace of mind comes on two wheels, and it’s (ZERO QUESTION) worth the risk for me. If it isn’t worth the risk for you, that’s OK — but it’s the question every halfway intelligent motorcyclist has to think long & hard about, and decide for themselves.

It’s true. And that’s why I’ll never tell anyone “I think you should get a motorcycle.” If someone chooses to, I’ll help them as much as I can, but the choice is yours, and yours alone.

I’ll set one thing straight. I am NOT thinking about giving up motorcycles completely. Not happening – like Kate, and many of you, I suspect, I just love it too darn much. But I am seriously considering giving up riding my current commute. I work in the Framingham/Natick, MA area. There’s always a lot of traffic and inattentive drivers. I already avoid riding there anytime I’m not working. Sure, I won’t get a guaranteed hour of riding in each day I commute, but the riding itself isn’t even that fun. I stick to back roads anytime I can, but even they are clogged with slow drivers who back up traffic. And some of the intersections I need to turn at require a significant burst of speed between cars if you’re going to get anywhere before lunch. It’s just not enjoyable.

So why take the risk? Allstate just released a report saying that the two worst cities for accidents are Boston and Worcester, MA, and I live and work directly between them. Is it any wonder I run away from this area to ride any chance I get? I’ll just have to work on creating more chances for that in the future to make up for the time I lose by sticking to the cage for the commute. Not that it’s such a great loss in quality of the ride.

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One Thing After Another

That’s what’s been keeping me from doing much riding lately, and any tripping whatsoever. I can’t even blame loaning a friend my tent – I’ve just been too busy. Nearly all of my recent riding has been commuting, actually. It’s nice that I’ve found routes between work and home that aren’t just a massive snarl of crawling traffic. I don’t get to “indulge myself” much, but there are some fun sections. I also find it easier to deal with traffic, mostly. The bike’s small size and favorable power to weight ratio lets me squirt into small gaps in traffic that I couldn’t do in my car. I’ve had people change lanes into me, but they do that when I’m in my car anyway. “Honey badger don’t care,” apparently.

I missed this year’s Give Back Ride last Sunday due to having to take my girlfriend to the hospital (she’s OK now). I did get out for a few hours late in the day though. It was fun, but also a tease. I’m hopeful for this weekend. We’re going to a friend’s party in western MA on Saturday and staying the night, and I’m hoping we can take the bike out there and back – the long, fun way, of course. The current weather forecast looks good, so here’s hoping.

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Getting there

Time marches on, and it is, in fact, March. Much of the snow has gone away, and my bike has stopped doing its Han Solo in carbonite impression.

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I’m going to be a little late getting it back on the road, most likely. Due to the law and the way the dashboard lights on my Ford are wired, it unexpectedly failed inspection for inoperative antilock brakes. That alone shouldn’t fail it, by the law, but because that car also turns on the red BRAKE light on the dashboard along with the ABS light, it failed for that technicality. The diagnosis was a dead ABS module, which was going to cost a four digit figure to replace to even have a chance of passing. Being an 11 year old Ford with 160,000 miles, I decided it was time to put that money toward a replacement car instead. To make a long story slightly less long, the stars aligned, and I bought this.

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It’s a brand new Subaru BRZ. I’ve been researching and pondering replacing the Ford later this year, but the inspection fiasco forced me to move much sooner than expected. The stars aligned, and I got the exact car I wanted. The downside is it took a much higher investment than I planned on – my most expensive inspection sticker ever – and I’m out of spending money until next month. That includes getting the bike ready for spring, except the battery, which is cheap and easily replaced myself. But the front tire and any other work it needs will have to wait until April.

Early April will be a big bike time, though, not only for preparing the PC800, but for Ana to take her MSF course, and to possibly revisit the Silverwing, which I technically still own. I may find myself putting both bikes back on the road – in this case, his and hers. But one step at a time.

Meanwhile, I expect I’ll be doing a lot more bike commuting this year. My new job is a 30-40 minute commute that doesn’t have much stop and go traffic – far better than my old commute to Lexington. I have a much more fun car to drive now, but I suspect I’ll commute by bike a lot more than I have since last August.

I’ve also been so busy lately that I haven’t put much thought into potential trips for this year. Some of that depends on what happens with Ana and the Silverwing. Either way I still want to take some longer weekend trips myself, both for the higher mileage I can cover than a brand new rider, and, I admit, to simply get away from it all, alone, for a couple of days. After all, that’s how it all started.

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From Touring To Commuting

Suddenly, my motorcycle usage has drastically changed. With non-motorcycle related plans the past couple of weekends, I haven’t been getting out for even day trips, which is kind of sad considering that it’s August and the weather has been mostly wonderful. But I have been riding – quite a bit, in fact.

My last job was in Boston. I refuse to ride, or even drive into Boston. I hate traffic. So I took the commuter rail to work. I’m one mile from the nearest station and three from the next. There is no motorcycle specific parking, and no discount on the fees for parking a bike rather than a car. It wasn’t worth gearing up for such a short ride. The job before that, I got to use the bike some, but it was all superslab, and during high traffic times of day. I also never knew if I was going to have to transport desktop computers or even bigger items from the office to client sites or back.  So though I commuted by motorcycle a few times at that job, I could never do so regularly because I never knew where I was going until I was already there.

My new job is a mostly pleasant half hour trip from home. I could take Route 2, but it’s a parking lot, so, no. But Route 62 takes me from home nearly all the way to the office in Lexington, with a few back roads at the end to cut the corner around some busy intersections. (I discovered them when I worked in the same building for a different company 15 years ago.) It’s a tricky area to get in and out of, but I happen to have a route that works with a minimum of traffic. And I don’t have to transport any equipment. So I’ve been using my PC800 for the purpose Honda marketed it – commuting.

I’ve been enjoying having an excuse to spend an hour on the bike each day. I’ve actually been looking forward to the ride in, despite not being a morning person, and especially the bike waiting for me in the parking lot when I leave. If I go out to lunch alone (which has been rare so far), I get a little more riding in then, too. I don’t dare deviate from my known route too much. One wrong turn could dump me into the nasty parking lot that is Route 2 during commute time. It’s not as fun as exploring amazing new places I’ve never been. But it gets me to a job that will pay me the money to do such things, and I can use the bike to get there. That’s a pretty good deal.

There are also a few other bikers where I work. One of them just got back from a tour of Nova Scotia, including the Cabot Trail, and writes her own motorcycle blog. It’s a small world after all…

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Commuting: Proof of Concept

It’s more than a concept at this point – I’ve done it, and with great success. I’m not just talking about a quick hop to Worcester, either. I was all over the place yesterday.

I pondered whether to use the bike for meeting my boss for a first meeting with a potential client. But I knew I could stash my gear in the copious amount of cargo space when I got there and still look all stylin’ and profilin’ when I walked inside, so I did. The meeting went well, and no issues with my professional appearance.

We went our separate ways back to the office, which was perhaps a little silly since only half an hour later I was back on the bike, backtracking past home and heading to a client in Andover for the afternoon. That was a quick superslab run up 290 and 495, since I was on the clock, and with no traffic it was easy.

I finished there at 4:30, and, now that I was off the clock, I decided that going home by way of Route 40 to Groton was completely reasonable. (It’s totally out of the way, but a fun road.) Cutting through the center of Lowell was much easier than expected, and far easier than sitting in traffic on 495. I picked up 40 in Westford and enjoyed the twisties until I got stuck behind a cop doing precisely the limit, all the way to the town line. Oh well – better to have him in front of me than behind me with the blues on.

The GPS planned a route I didn’t recognize to get me home on back roads from Groton, so I ignored it and took the way I knew down 111. This was a mistake, as traffic in Ayer is much worse than I remember, and it took literally 15 minutes to make a single left turn in the center of town. The GPS was right, and unlike my iPhone apps it doesn’t even have traffic data.

But once through that, it was an easy ride down through Harvard and Bolton to home, except for crossing the rock solid line of traffic on 117. I think I managed to keep the front wheel on the ground as I punched it across the intersection – barely.

So it wasn’t an epic adventure like some of my other rides. The 495 belt isn’t the most fun area to ride at rush hour due to traffic. But I got to RIDE. It was my only opportunity to get that much riding in this week, and with a full weekend and a hurricane on the way I won’t get that chance again for a little while. I got more than twice as good gas mileage as my car. Best of all, my mental health was much better than usual. Little things that would normally irritate me just rolled off my back. I already knew that a ride home from or after work helped me relax, but a ride or two DURING work was even better. Paid, no less!

And since I managed to stash all my gear on the bike during the meeting, that means I can do it for my trips to Boston. It’s already dark when my train gets back to Littleton, which means its getting a bit cold for me to ride there regularly, but I’ll be keeping that option in mind for next year. There are lots of nice back roads from there to home I can enjoy after work. Now if only the parking fee was lower for a motorcycle than a car…

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The New Wheels

I’ve been enjoying road trips, but increased hours at work have reduced my available time to take them. I’ve wanted to do more ucommuting on the bike, just to get more ride time in, so I added the larger trunk. But ever since the Vermont trip, the engine’s been making some new noises when cold. I’ve put hundreds of incident free miles on since, but I’ve been losing confidence in this 30 year old bike for anything more than day trips. Last week, at MotoMarket the day before closing (they will be greatly missed – but I scored a great deal on some nice boots), it wouldn’t crank when I tried to restart it. I got a push to the top of the hill in the parking lot, then bump started the engine and rode off. I haven’t had that issue again, but what if it happened on flat gravel with no one around near the Canadian border?

So I’ve been thinking about replacing the Silverwing for a little while. The natural progression would be to a Goldwing. After all, I’d like a little more power, more space for stuff, and room for my girlfriend to comfortably ride on the back. But I don’t want a two wheeled car, either, and that’s what I’d be getting for one significantly newer than the Silverwing. An older Goldwing is still an older bike, and wouldn’t solve my long distance reliability concerns, no matter how well it was put together or maintained.

When I asked for opinions, I got a few different suggestions – the Goldwing, VFR, V-Strom… Ironically a neighbor picked up a V-Strom while I was researching. I didn’t ride it, but looking at it I saw it was more sporty and less toury than I wanted. Same with the VFR, and other options mentioned. I even looked at the new Honda NC700X. Cool bike, but it’s a basic bike. I’d have to add the windshield, hard bags, and all that, and by the time I’m done I’ve dropped twice as much money on a new bike as my used car cost me.

But one suggestion stood out – the Honda Pacific Coast 800. It seems like the redheaded stepchild of the Honda line from the 1990s. It’s a mid-size bike with extensive plastic bodywork. This is more normal in sport tourers today, but it was radical when the PC800 came out in 1989. Some deride it as an oversized scooter. It has an 800cc version of the Shadow’s 750cc V-twin, shaft drive, and hydraulic lifters, automatic cam chain tensioner… It was made to be as maintenance free as possible. The most unique feature was the built-in trunk. The top rear half of the bike opens up like a car trunk, revealing two large saddlebag shaped storage compartments on either side of the back wheel. Laptop bags fit in there easily, as do cases of beer. Add a top trunk, and it has as much, or more, cargo space as a Goldwing, but is smaller, lighter, and cheaper. It seemed to meet all of my desires.

So I researched them extensively. The more I learned, the more I liked. There were a few available locally, including one with a matching Givi trunk, a nice seat, a Clearview windshield with adlustable vent, and a maintenance history. It was $3500, more than I’d hoped to spend, but it seemed worth it with the extra doodads and history. My girlfriend, resigned to my new obsession, said that if she was going to get one of the several I’d shown her, she’d go for this one. Really? Ok. So I made a phone call and arranged to see it.

It was all I’d hoped for, and more. It wasn’t perfect, but in great shape for being 14 years old. I was surprised how low the seat was. I can flat foot this bike. My girlfriend fit on the back quite comfortably, and liked that the Givi top trunk doubled as a seat back (with a pad for that purpose). I took a short test ride, and though the bike weighs about 600lbs. it felt lighter than my 500lb. Silverwing. It seemed smaller than it is, from a riding perspective. The seller, who followed me on this ride, said I rode it quite well. I think that’s because it fit me well.

I did notice the clutch slipping a bit. He said he’d meant to tell me about that and forgot. He’d priced out a clutch job at a dealer at $500, and said he’d knock $500 off the purchase price for it. I considered, and, well, if you read my last post, you know I bought it and rode it home.

Interestingly, the clutch has been slipping a bit less as I’ve kept riding it. It’ll still slip, but not as easily. Full throttle while in gear won’t get it to slip, but a fast, not well matched shift will. I’m looking into what I can do about this short of a full clutch job for the moment – other the obvious step of being careful with my shifting. It could be as simple as changing out the clutch fluid if that hasn’t been done lately. Yes, it has a hydraulic clutch that doesn’t need adjustment – yet another step toward the bike being relatively maintenance free. Even a Civic of similar vintage has a cable operated clutch – trust me, I’ve worked on them.

One undocumented feature is what appears to be a Powerlet outlet. This can run heated gear or any number of other things. I can get an adapter to power my GPS (which I still need to figure out how to mount), but the price of almost $50 is absolutely ridiculous. I could almost get a new GPS for that. I may end up removing the Powerlet and installing a basic cigarette lighter outlet in its place.

There’s nowhere to mount my ham radio antenna with my existing equipment. I’m not too worried about that, since APRS has become a low priority. I could put an NMO mount through the trunk lid, but I don’t really want to put holes in the bike. It’s in such good shape.

I’ve run into some minor title issues, where the seller checked off the wrong box on the back when filling it out. He’s been great about working with me on it, though. He was prepared to get a new title at his expense to fix it. That wasn’t necessary – a notarized letter explaining the mistake and what he meant to do is sufficient. He says that’ll be in the mail to me today. So I can’t legally ride it right now, but I’m busy this weekend anyway. I have this coming Monday off, so if the stars align and I have his letter by then, I might be able to put it on the road then.

Meanwhile, I’ve been putting the Silverwing back to stock form in preparation of selling it. At this point it just needs a good wash, and for me to find the stereo system I got with it and never installed to include with the sale. Anyone reading this want an 82 Silverwing?

I need to post more pictures of the PC800. The days are shorter, my work longer, and the opportunity hasn’t happened. Maybe Monday, when I hope to get pictures of the Silverwing as well to try and sell it.

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Adventures In Commuting

Now that I have my nice shiny new trunk – large enough to hold my laptop bag, which I need for work – this week I’ve started doing some motorcycle commuting. Though I intend to keep this blog mainly about my touring adventures and trips and so on, I feel like making some comments about bike commuting.

On trips, I stick to the back roads. They’re more fun, and there’s less traffic. Commuting, I use the boring but fast and efficient interstate regularly. I do this particularly on my way in to work in the morning, because I’m not a morning person and prefer to wake up a bit later than I’d need to to enjoy the back roads. On the way home, it’s a different story – sometimes, if I have nothing pressing me to get home a bit sooner. But even then, there’s more traffic, and the riding isn’t necessarily as fun.

I’m also a lot more vulnerable. Yes, this is normal on a motorcycle as compared to a car. But this is what I drive when I’m not on my bike – a Crown Victoria Police Interceptor. Yes, it was a police car in its past life (according to the full service history that came with it, it was a sergeant’s car with the Ashland, NH police department). When I get on the interstate, everyone gives me lots of space, and when I hop in the left lane everybody moves right. People generally act a whole lot smarter than usual around my car. Of course, it’s quite the opposite on a bike. Nobody tailgates me in this car, but I can be doing 75-80 in traffic on the interstate and still have someone crawling up my back tire (since I don’t have a bumper). I do have an acceleration advantage over many cars, which I use, but since it’s a 500cc bike it doesn’t have all that much get-up-and-go for merging into interstate traffic when the jerk in front of me comes to a full stop at the end of the on-ramp. Plus the car also accelerates rather well, so in comparing the two I don’t consider acceleration to be much of an advantage on the bike.

Another area in which I’m vulnerable is wind gusts, both naturally occurring and, more importantly, gusts created by semis. The area behind a truck is quite turbulent for quite some distance behind it, tossing me around a bit. Alongside I have to counteract the effect of suction pulling me toward the truck, and at the front I have to counteract the “bow wave” pushing me away from it. I go through all of these zones every time I pass a truck. During Tuesday’s commute home on the interstate, there were so many trucks on the road that I was getting blown all over the place until I decided to hop off and take back roads the rest of the way home.

These factors are no big deal on my usual rides. I specifically avoid rush hour, interstates, and highly populated areas on my road trips, because my road trips are supposed to be fun, and sitting in traffic isn’t. But I can’t control where and when I have to work, so I end up traveling in some conditions that I’d prefer to avoid. So why bother? Partly because riding can still be fun, especially the ride home, and during a busy week of work it can be the only way I can squeeze a ride in outside of a weekend. Lately my weekends have been filled with activities other than riding, so it’s the only way to fit in a ride at all. Another major factor is gas mileage. Since its tune-up, I get around 60mpg out of the Silverwing. My Crown Vic gives me about 20mpg. Three times as good gas mileage counts for a lot, and is much of the reason why I sized my new trunk specifically around the size of my laptop bag.

Still, commuting by bike is certainly less fun than my road trips. I know exactly where I have to go, and when I have to be there. There isn’t the time or flexibility to go explore some other fun road, or some attraction I find on the way. It’s still worth doing some of the time, I think, for the chance to ride and the gas savings. But I’ll still look forward to heading out on the open road on my days off, sometimes with a plan in mind, and sometimes with no more of an idea where to go than “that way.”

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