One last ride

So, new motorbike. What about the last one? Unlike owning a car, one of the many great things about motorbikes is that there is a very active second hand market, so it is easy to change bikes often and experience some variety. Not only that, it also means that there are lots of good bikes out there for sale and it is easy to sell yours and pay for a good chunk of the price of the next one.

The trouble was that mine was very special to me. It had been my first big motorbike and even though it started as a commuter bike it quickly graduated to weekend bike, short holidays bike, long holidays bike and finally adventure bike. It took me across Europe into Russia and Kazakhstan. To the Nordkapp and back down to the Adriatic. Across the Alps. Across the Pyrenees. Around Spain and Portugal…

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By the time the Yamaha came across and I decided to retire it, she had become a travelling companion and I had no intention of getting rid of it. I told myself that she was too old, that she had no real market value at almost 140,000 km, but that was just a poor excuse. I could break it apart and sell the parts, there is strong demand for V-Strom parts in Spain. I could also sell the accessories, I had spent a small fortune turning her into an adventure bike. But the truth was I just did not want to part with her. So I did what I knew I was going to do from the beginning – keep it.

So by the end of June I got her ready for her last trip – a trip down a route she had done many times before, a trip I had done countless times before her by car, a trip which had always been the very definition of driving and riding pleasure to me.

My late grandparents were born in a remote village deep in the countryside in a region that is very sparsely populated. Their house is still standing and we sometimes spend long weekends or holidays there, it is a wonderful place, quiet, beautiful and most importantly, with no main roads around. There are a thousand different back roads to get there from Barcelona, I have taken from five hours to two days to make the trip, and more than the time I spend there, what I really enjoy is the getting there.

My first long bike trip was there, it took me about six hours at a time I had not spend more than one hour straight on the bike. I had just bought her, and such a long trip was a daunting prospect, I had no idea how I would cope, or what I would do if I got too tired halfway. It was a blast. I fell in love with the bike, with riding, and I have not got off a bike ever since.

So with a place to keep her and a new excuse to make the trip from time to time to go visit her, we set off along those familiar roads one last time with her.

She did not feel old at all. Loaded with luggage for the weekend, all the spare parts and tools that were specific to her and I would no longer need for the Yamaha and a passenger, she could still keep a decent cruising speed and be fun on the windy bits. It was as if she was telling me ‘see? I can go on another 100,000 km, no sweat, I’m made for this’.

11888054_936788876382659_5627847432064108372_nI know V-Stroms can last longer than 140,000 km, but I did not want to ride her to the ground. I knew she still had a good few thousand kilometers left in her, my idea was to take her there and put her on long-term storage until I decided to use her again for future projects, and this little village was perfect – the climate is very dry, so I did not have to worry about rust.

Getting her into the house was a different matter… There is no garage as such in the house, just a basement that is accessible from the street through a backyard. Oh, and the house is not finished either… It is what you can call an ongoing project, it is not my grandparents house, but another one we bought some years ago. So when I got there I opened the old wooden door leading into the backyard to find it overgrown with weeds waist high. I paddled the bike across to the back door, the back tire spinning on the grass until I finally got her into the basement, only to find the next obstacle. I inched my way past construction tools and materials to reach two high steps that led to the only clear space where I could keep the bike, at the end of the basement. We used an old wooden plank with a brick under it to prevent it from snapping in two under the weight of the bike and succeeded in getting her up there.

Now, there are a series of procedures that have to be done to a bike in order to keep it store for extended periods of time, but it was a normal weekend which meant that we had get back to Barcelona the following day, and this time by bus, which takes much, much longer than by bike, so I just disconnected the battery and propped the bike up so that there was no weight on wither wheel. By mid August I would come back with everything I needed and prepare her for hibernation.

The following morning we called a taxi and it dropped us at the village where the bus stopped. It was more than ten years since the last time I had done the 8-hour journey back home by bus, and the combination of teenage memories and having let my bike behind made me feel quite melancholic as I enjoyed the views as a passenger again.

The bridge to nowhere

The town of Riba-roja in Spain is virtually at a cul-de-sac when it comes to road connections.

The C12 is a main road that leads up the river Ebro past Ascó, with its two nuclear plants, and reaches Flix, which a decade ago infamously made the news when it was revealed that the chemical plant there had been polluting the river with highly toxic mud, prompting a cleaning operation from which a dike built to try to contain the mud is still visible today. From there and to the north, the C12 eventually leads to the motorways connecting Barcelona and Madrid, the AP2 and the A2. To the northwest, a narrow road follows the river and the tracks from the Tarragona-Zaragoza train line up to Riba-roja.

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The nuclear emergency plan for Tarragona, PENTA, called for an evacuation path to the north in case of an incident in the nuclear plant of Ascó. Flix has the C12, but the town of Riba-roja has nothing else than a narrow winding road leading west up the Serra de la Fatarella mountains, where driving faster than 30-40 km/h is impossible, meaning that the only escape route for the people of Riba-roja is to double back towards the nuclear plant to Flix to take the C12.

In order to solve this safety contradiction, a new road was planned. It was to cross the river Ebro at the far end of town and then lead north to Maials, from where main roads connect to Fraga and Lleida.

In 1997 a new bridge was opened. At a cost of 800 million of the old pesetas, it span 350 metres across the river Ebro to… nothing. Absolutely nothing was built on the other side of the river, meaning that the only practical use of the bridge was for the farmers to cross the river and easily access their fields on north bank without having to drive down the river to the nearest bridge in Flix. Handy if you live in Riba-roja and your apple trees are on the other shore, not so handy if you want to get the hell out in case of a nuclear meltdown in Ascó.

I had driven past that bridge several times, but as my route always took me to the small road up the Fatarella mountains, I had never paid any attention to what was at the other end of the bridge, until some months ago I heard about it on the news. Being the curious type, I checked out some maps and decided that the next time I was in the area I would cross this bridge to nowhere and see if I could somehow connect to Maials and then on to Mequinenza without having to go all the way around to Fraga. On the maps there seemed to be a network of paths and dirt roads on the other side of the river, the kind of thing that connects different farms and crop fields, so I figured that if I found the right way through them, I could make it.

So a few months later, here I was, on the northern shore of the Ebro, looking back at the bridge I had just crossed and taking some pictures of it for the blog. Standing under it, I fully appreciated what a huge thing it was, and what a huge waste of money it had been to build it and not finish the road connection on the other side.

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To my surprise, the road did not immediately end after the bridge as I had always heard, but it went on for about 500 metres where a road sign warned that the road was unpaved from there on. Strangely, it was not, it was just really bad tarmac, the kind that disintegrates into gravel and a bit further down the road I saw a sign that confirmed my suspicions that it was possible to connect to Maials – a sign that read ‘Almatret’ which according to the maps was a tiny village in the middle of the maze of dirt roads I had seen before.

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But things were not going to be so easy, after some kilometers of narrow desert road, the tarmac ended, and from there on it was only a kind of fire service road, the kind you need a proper four wheel drive to negotiate, not a car. I made my way carefully, as I was alone, on a heavy bike and with no phone signal on a road that barely anybody seemed to use.

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The path became steeper and steeper as it moved away from the river valley and up the mountain, and I was wondering how much further I would have to go before I found the village or things became too complicated and I had to turn around and go back to the bridge. Fortunately, the path seemed to have reached higher ground and it leveled off. In front of me I saw a farmhouse with a regular car parked in front of it, which meant that the road ahead had to be easier.

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It was. A few corners later I found good tarmac again, a road starting just outside the village I had been looking for. In the centre I asked an old shirtless man with a great round belly whether it was possible to connect to Mequinenza from there. I was glad to hear it was, and listened carefully to his directions, trying to remember the details. I left the village on a good road, heading for Maials, which I imagined was the road to which the bridge had to connect someday.

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There I was supposed to turn off to the left and find a dirt road leading to a place called La Granja d’Escarp. On the GPS the dirt road I was supposed to take seemed to be one of many between Maials and where I wanted to go, so before I got to Maials I decided to take a chance and turned into the first dirt road that looked in good condition.

Bad idea. I went into a maze of dirt roads that only deteriorated until they turned to small paths no matter which one I took. None of them seemed to lead anywhere, least of all the village I was trying to find. Not wanting to double all the way back because I had had to take the bike across some nasty bits of path, I followed the map the best I could to get back to the main road just past Maials.

To my delight, before I got there the dirt road led to a paved one and a bit to the west I came across a sign that pointed to La Granja d’Escarp. This was the road I had been looking for, I should have ridden past Maials instead of turning into the dirt roads before.

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Even though it was paved, it was little more than a dirt road with some tarmad on it, but it was way better than the paths I came from. After riding down a gentle slope for some kilometers, I arrived to La Granja d’Escarp, on the shore of the river Segre, which I followed south for a short while until it connected to the Ebro and I found Mequinenza.

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It had been an exciting ride, but I could not imagine that the route I had followed on dirt roads would be much help in case of a nuclear emergency, no matter how big the bridge was. Fortunately, the reason I had heard about the bridge on the news was that a project to complete the road had finally been revived and terrain and the environmental studies needed for the approval of the project carried out. Let’s hope Riba-roja is not in a cul-de-sac for much longer.

New baby

Ever since I finished the original Stroming the World trip I had been saying that I needed to change my motorbike. I bought my V-Strom second hand, thinking that it was my first big bike and it was going to get heavy use as my daily commute and sleep on the street, so it was a good idea to buy something cheap and reliable. It had about 40,000 km and at that time I had no idea that it was going to take me to so many places. By the time the trip was over the bike soon passed the 100.000 km mark back on her daily role as commuter bike and I was taking it everywhere – out on weekend trips, holidays in Corsica, pretty much everywhere in Spain… and I kept thinking that I needed to start considering a new one, for the old trusty V was already piling on too many kilometres.

What do you replace a V-Strom with? Usually the answer is “another one”. Nothing is as cheap, reliable and versatile as these bikes. Nothing. But I was now doing most of my trips two up, and I wanted something more powerful. For months and months I spent hours reading tests and reviews, trying to figure out what the best replacement was. I wanted something a bit more powerful, comfortable, just as reliable and with the off road ability that the V lacked, that is, better suspension and a bit more ground clearance.

I first looked at the same manufacturer – I had a very good relationship with my Suzuki dealer in Barcelona and I trusted the brand, after all my V had proven to be 100% reliable. I took a look at the 1000cc V-Strom, but a few things put me back. It was a new model, so there were still no second hand deals, which meant that it was just out of my budget, and it was quite road-biased – cast alloy wheels, not much ground clearance and not enough suspension travel increase over the 650. And not the prettiest girl in town, either.

The GS was another obvious answer to many, but the asking prices for second hand ones were just ridiculous, and the ones within my budget has astronomical mileage. And despite all their round-the-world, Long Way Round fame, a GS just did not inspire as much confidence as my V when it comes to reliability. Too many reports of final drive failures, electronic gremlins and lower general quality than my V. I kept reading a lot about “quality components” on the specialised press, but when I looked at how the plastics aged on a GS that had spent its life on the street compared to the ones on my V, I just did not perceive that famous quality. My bike is a workhorse, not a garage queen that is only ridden on sunny Sunday mornings, and I need it to live up to that task.

The 800 GS was interesting – much better suited to off-road duties, more power than my V for two-up riding, not as heavy, cheaper to buy and with a huge range of aftermarket extras. However, it suffered from three main problems. One – same patchy reliability record as her big sister. Two – ugly as hell; I did not fall in love with her, and you have to love your bike, it cannot be something you look at and think “it’s OK”. And three – the Porsche Boxter phenomenon. No matter how good it is, it still looks as if you couldn’t afford the real thing, a 911. This is the same, it’s just not a 1200 GS.

If I wanted more power, more off road ability and more fun, orange seemed the way to go. I had had a taste of Ilya’s 990 Adventure in Moscow and fallen in love with it. Second hand prices were very good too, at least in Spain, and it is definitely the queen when it comes to rough terrain. The problem is that Katies are 100% adrenaline 100% of the time. Great for adventure trips or attacking twisty roads at the weekend, not so great for everyday traffic, and while relatively cheap to buy second hand, they are frighteningly expensive to run. Fuel consumption can be ridiculous in heavy traffic (I have to commute in and out of Barcelona every day), and a valve check is due every 12.000 km, which means taking half the bike apart every few months. No thank you.

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The 1200 Triumph Tiger Explorer was also out of the question, too expensive, as was the Moto Guzzi Stelvio, not only too expensive to buy new (very rare and therefore difficult to find one second hand) but with abysmal depreciation if I wanted to sell it on later.

That left two candidates that looked good on paper – the Triumph Tiger 800XC and the Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200. Both had wire wheels, good suspension travel and ground clearance, enough power for two people plus luggage and were easily available on the second hand market. The problem with the Yamaha was that it was still out of my budget, and the few units that I could afford were over 50,000 km – not such a high mileage as the GS, but still more than I wanted, and I was also worried about weight. The bloody thing weighs just over 260kg wet!

So, Triumph Tiger it was. I went to the dealer where I had found my second hand V and asked if they had any for sale. It turns out they did – an ex demonstrator, practically new, in black, very good deal. I was almost convinced that I had found my future bike, but then I took it for a test ride.

What a disappointment. I really liked the bike, it looked great, had good suspension, very good brakes compared to my old one and the legendary triple engine was smooth as butter. What did not live to the legend was the low-end torque. Everybody said that this engine was the best of both worlds – low end grunt like a twin, exciting at high revs like an inline four. Well, it wasn’t. Despite having 27 more horsepower it only had 16 more nm torque, and I kept stalling it in start-stop traffic in Barcelona. Some people argue that you just have to adjust to the clutch and the power delivery, and to be fair, when I was back in the city after a ride in the hills I did not stall it so much, but it still required more work and attention to ride in traffic than my V, and I just did not see myself using that bike daily, let alone negotiating difficult terrain. My feeling was that Triumph had designed a very good trail bike and then completely ruined it by fitting it with a road bike engine.

Back to square one, then… I kept riding my beloved V and started considering just replacing it with another one when it got too old, until I was invited to a wedding.

I once read some statistics somewhere about how many people find their future partners at weddings, and seems to be true. During lunch we were sat at the table with a friend of mine who has a 660 Ténéré and is good friends with one of the mechanics at the dealer he bought it from. We were talking bikes and he mentioned that they had a Super Ténéré for sale there. Only two things had put me off that bike before – price and weight. Other than that, it was the perfect one – Japanese reliability, powerful, very torquey, shaft drive (no more chain maintenance) and relatively economical to run. He told me the bike had been bought and serviced there and they knew it had a good history, it only had 13,000 km and they were asking the same as for the ones I had seen with over 50,000 km, so I went to see it the following weekend.

It turned out that the previous owner was a dentist and had bought the bike on a whim and only used it to go between his two clinics and once a year for a holiday in Mallorca. It was in mint condition and had all the accessories that came with the First Edition – aluminium engine guard, headlight guard, hand guards, heated grips and three original Yamaha cases, which unlike the Tiger, it meant that I had to spend nothing getting it ready to travel. The guy had decide that it was too much bike for that task and put it up for sale. So far, so good. Only one thing to do – test it. I needed to see how the engine delivered its power, if it vibrated much and how it handled its considerable weight.

I took it for a ride in the Collserola hills and fell in love with it within minutes. This was it. My new bike.

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I paid a deposit, and a few days later picked up the new baby. A week later I went for a 4-day ride in the Pyrenees that combined roads and tracks to see what she was capable off and I was very impressed, but that is a story I will tell on a later post, together with a full review.

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So now, what about this blog’s name? It is based on the V-Strom name, after all… And what about the old bike? Well, the old bike is not retired yet… more to come soon.