New Year resolution check-in part one

At the beginning of the year, I stated that I intended to spend all my earnings on travel this year. So far, the spending all my earnings part is right on track, but while much of it has been on travel, much of it has also been on dentistry and dog surgery and tedious (and expensive) travel to the US for said things above, plus fun tasks like renewing passports and collecting tax documents.

But the trips for enjoyment and improvement have been numerous and yes, enjoyable and improving. So far this year, outside of two trips to the US for the above listed reasons, I’ve made some trips. Let’s start with…

Madrid, where I essentially ate my way through the city until the final day when we rented bikes from our hotel and rode through the fabulous and giant park that goes along the Manzanares river. This is the first thing we should have done, and I will return with a proper mountain bike and spend at least two full days exploring the awesome expanse that is the Casa del Campo on a bike that does not weigh 75 pounds.

Fried octopus and calamari in Mercado Sant Miguel. Where I ate a lot of food.

Fried octopus and calamari in Mercado Sant Miguel. Where I ate a lot of food.

My favorite dish: Tapa of tiny, pickled green eggplant.

My favorite dish: Tapa of tiny, pickled green eggplant. Discovered in a 150 year old bar.

GP offroading the hotel bike.

GP taking the hotel bike on an excursion.

Barolo, Rivarolo Canavese, Agliè and Oropa (Italy) to see various stages of the Giro d’Italia. Impressive and I’ll do it again next year. We saw the time trial stage between Baresco and Barolo, the end of stage 13 in Rivarolo Canavese, and the start AND finish of stage 14 which was from Agliè to Oropa. We rode our bikes between the towns via a ‘shortcut’ that took us 5 hours through the backyards of tiny hillside farms, roads so steep that deep cuts in the pavement were needed for vehicle traction, and up hills where even the triathletes of the group (there were three of them) had to push their bikes.

Somewhere in Northern Italy

This is steeper than it looks. And full of holes.

Riders cheering on the real racers at stage 12. It had hailed–hard–40 minutes before the stage passed through.

We also spent a day spectating an off road team endurance race–for scooters. I have some video of this here. This was not quite as spectacular as the Giro, but it was possibly more entertaining.

Offroad scooter endurance racing.

Off road scooter endurance racing.

France: Paris and Cannes (Disclaimer: Cannes was not my idea). I met up with a dear friend for a repeat trip we did last year. She flew from California to Paris and I from Barcelona. We planned to meet in the CDG airport as I would be arriving 20 minutes after her. Of course, phones did not work so we spent 2 hours trying to find each other until I got smart and bought 15 minutes of internet and called her through Skype. We stayed in a tiny (what else?) hotel in the 10th arrondissement and had a fabulous time, as always. I love that city and would live there if it were near the sea. Forget about the old reputation of rude Parisians – people are lovely there: friendly, helpful, playful and engaging. Quite the opposite of how the locals treat non-locals where I live…that’s another topic though. We went to a classical concert the first night in a beautiful cathedral. It was fabulous- except for the dang nuns blocking my view. We crashed a fancy party next door afterwards. I have no idea what it was for.IMG_0588We used the awesome shared bike program Velib and road all the way to and through the Bois de Boulogne where we saw hookers on their lunch break. Then we rode through “Little Africa” and along the river and damn near everywhere in Paris.

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Velib steed in the park. Shh, don’t disturb the hookers.

We ate good food our few days there, spent a lot of time walking around Le Marais and then went South to Nice and over to Cannes where it was really boring. I did find us some bikes and we rode up to the old town which was the only cool thing about Cannes other than some great food and spending time with my friend. Oh and all the old men smiling at us, I guess.

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Old village on the hill above Cannes. The bikes were partially electric so really, we cheated on the climb part.

Riding to the top of the old town hill, a workman flirted with up asking if we were training for the Tour de France.I answered that yes, in fact, I was (in a sense).

Next up: A weekend riding motos in Aragon and our Tour de France bike adventure.

 

Some racing around town

There is a famous 24 hour race that happens just outside of Barcelona in a village called Lliça D’Amunt. This race has been going on for 32 years and it has put this little village on the map. I’ve been meaning to check this race out for four years. This year, I finally went.

What’s unique about this 24 hour race is that it is an offroad race on 50cc MX bikes, primarily single speed two strokes though a few with gears and 4Ts thrown in, and a course is built every year because there is no track in the town. Teams of four riders begin the race at 7pm on Saturday and end at 7pm on Sunday and are required to switch riders every hour. It’s approached as a “fun” race, and indeed the atmosphere is that of a big party and there is lots of drinking and live music…hence the Saturday evening start. But what happens in between is pretty heavy duty stuff.

Racing is taken pretty seriously here. Sure they have a lot of fun and there is the camaraderie you find in any paddock, but it’s always full of professionals and teams who put it all on the line. This race is no exception, and for as lighthearted and crazy as the race sounds, it is seriously tough. There were 41 teams from all over Europe and a few heavy hitters in the ranks, including  the Spanish MX Championship multi, times champion Javi Garcia Vico, MotoGP (and Gabri’s former) rider Aleix Espargaró and other famous Catalan Motocross and Enduro riders. There was a conspicuous lack of media, (what I thought to be a news helicopter circling at the start was in fact present to give helicopter rides to attendees) which could be explained by saying that a race like this is unique but racing events like this are common.

I did nothing more than spectate, but that in itself was an experience. Here is a little pictorial for you all, enjoy.

24 hours lliça d'Amunt

A quarter of the pit lane.

GP’s rider Aleix from last year was raced it for the first time. And probably the last. He could barely speak on Sunday at the finish.

Team Italia’s camp.

 

Team Italia crew and riders. They quit at noon on Sunday due to fatigue.

Some of the team camp area.

View of the course from the pits. This is normally a flat field and part of a park.

Riders waiting for the start

Did I mention it was a Le Mans start?

First lap.

First lap mud pit.

Long shadows in the first hour.

Hay bale tree bumpers.

I’ve come full circle-I’m leaving my job.

Contrary to the current lifestyle rage of quitting your blood sucking job for a life of adventure, after (and actually during) college, I pursued and accomplished all my dreams of adventure before the age of 25-I swam with wild dolphins, climbed glaciers, spent a year surfing the south pacific, show jumped horses, snowboarded all over the world, lived in three different countries, learned a foreign language (German) and supported it all by living a total minimalist lifestyle working on boats and ships, in restaurants, in youth hostels, as a SCUBA diver, as a dressage instructor or whatever worked at the time and fit into my travel schedule to support myself. I read a ton of books and never had a TV–to this day I have never seen an episode of Friends–nonetheless, after a while I felt like my brain was disintegrating.

So in a really backward move, in view of others’ dreams of chucking it all and moving to an island, I moved from the island I was living on at the time (Maui) back to my roots (California) to pursue more difficult ventures than vagabonding around the world on nearly nothing: I went to graduate school and pursued a professional life, something I had never had. I had never even worked in an office before. The usual stuff followed-I bought a house, adopted pets, had a successful career, and got married. Which were all dreams of mine (actually the marriage thing was optional), and gave me more purpose than just trying to live an easy and carefree and sometimes meaningless life.

But also during that time, and this is kind of where this long story begins, I started racing motorcycles. And this changed my life more than anything–More than home ownership or money or marriage.

Racing became the center of my and my husband John-Mark’s life. All of our goals, travel, money,
focus, effort, sweat and tears went into racing. It brought me the highest highs and lowest lows I had ever felt in my life. Even spectating was exciting I discovered- being up close to the bikes and the noise and the competition was something surprisingly moving and emotional, with an added bonus of it being something I could share with my dad. He and I attended every World Superbike and later MotoGP race at Laguna every year for ten years.

I even attribute racing to pulling me out of the fog of shock and trauma I was in for months–after racing took the life of my husband. Somehow, two months after his death, I landed a gig at the annual MotoGP round at Laguna Seca in 2008, working as a tire and fuel tester in the Fiat Yamaha garage of Valentino Rossi and Jorge Lorenzo. The bikes and the excitment and the newness of the experience pulled me out of my autopilot survival mode and into the moment. I did it again at the Indianapolis GP, in the same garages, and again – I felt totally alive.

I had already been forced to see that very, very few problems or stresses in life truly matter, and so in a move that also allowed me to escape dealing with others who would not, or more probably did not know how to, acknowledge my loss and sadness, I left the US to pursue my new dream career–to work in MotoGP.

After several false starts, flash forward to last year when I was offered a job as a journalist at the MotoGP headquaters in Barcelona, my home for the last three and a half years. It was my second try for the job, so of course I took it. And it has been exciting and interesting and also a lot of hard work with some very long days and nights in the office. But I have gotten to experience things like today–Participating in a dirttrack race with Jorge Lorenzo, fans, journalists and pro riders at the ex-Kenny Roberts track after my cameraman and I first interviewed him for a story. Awesome opportunity and great experience–which may, though I hope it won’t be, be my last like it.

interview with Jorge Lorenzo

This is my final week at Dorna. It was a tough decision and I’m quite sad about it, but I am leaving. After learning there would be almost no work at the races for me this year, and the fact that I am already burning out on office hours and a daily commute, I gave notice. (Missing the first race in ten years in 2011 because I was working in the office in Spain didn’t sway me the side of staying either. I don’t want to miss another year of being with my father and brother and friends for our annual summer ride together to and from the races in Monterey.)

I am so grateful to have had this experience, though I have now come full circle and want to leave office life, even if it means leaving the most popular, exciting and pretigious motorcycle racing organization in the world. Though I’m not leaving my dream job to laze around on beaches or travel the world-I’ve already done that. What this move means is that I can go back to being directly involved with what I love and not just writing about it from an office. And that is the thing that has turned my life around so many times-  racing.

Farewell #58…

We watched on the live feed as it happened, we saw all the angles, rewatched and gasped when we realized the gravity of what had just happened, and kept working, keeping our eyes glued to the screens everywhere, watching the feeds, the crawl, twitter, email. We heard some false positive news from twitter, ere was a reschedule, and we prepared for a race restart.

The next thing we knew it was canceled, and watched as the big boss went around to each team, one by one. We saw the nodding grave faces, bowed heads and clenched jaws – it became apparent that the worst imaginable was likely. And minutes later we had to clinically announce it to the world, in so many words:

Farewell #58…

No reflection, just get the words out right- but it was hitting pretty close to home for me. I made a few trips to the bathroom and pulled myself together and kept working.

11 hours after I arrived at work, I climbed aboard my scooter and cried all the way home, slowing when tears blurred my vision so much I could no longer see.

In this sport, most of us have experienced the loss of someone close at some point. But familiarity might just make it that much harder to accept. When I say my heart goes out to the family, friends, collegues and even 58’s rivals, it’s not a platitude. There just isn’t any other way to put into words how sorry I am for the shock and sadness those close to him now face and will continue to experience for a long time coming…

I went home and looked at photography of abandoned swimming pools. They resonated a hollow sadness and an absence of a thing once grand. Then I looked up and out my window, and in the fading evening, saw a rainbow appear in the sky.

Solo Moto bike test

There are a couple of moto related things I have been meaning to write about. It wasn’t so much procrastination that stopped me, but more that I already posted some pictures on Facebook, so posting them here would seem like my life is so boring that I need to post them twice. Or maybe it would seem like I don’t have anything else to write about. Based on my sporadic posts lately, that would seem to be the case.

But it isn’t!

I am just trying to decide if I should start an entirely different blog with another theme. Or maybe choose one theme for this blog and stick with it.  Because lately my blog posting goes something like this: I sit down to write with an idea in my head. I type a paragraph or two. I start to wonder how what I am writing fits in with my current blog. I realize what I am writing doesn’t fit at all, that it would seem more out of place than half the many themes already on this blog. I save the draft and get up and do something else.

But one thing that this blog always revolved around in motorcycling and, more to the point, my experiences in Spain (and the rest of Europe) in the moto world. So, without further ado, here is some moto content.

I did a comparative test between the new BMW 1000 and the new CBR 1000 for Solo Moto magazine last November. I wrote a 600 word article that was included within the 7 page article, and, much to my surprise, my photo was on the cover. Remind me next time to wear a clear visor….

We did the comparative test at Castelloli, which you may remember was where I rode supermoto for the first time. It’s about 30 minutes outside of the city of Barcelona. I showed up at the offices of the magazine at 8:30am , the designated meeting time. This being Spain, I should have known this was merely an implied suggestion that 9am would be an acceptable time to arrive. I do believe I was the first person in the building that morning.

Around 10am, I piled into a van with the photographer and a journalist to head to the track. We would meet the test ride organizer and other rider there. Around 10:15 we stop at a roadside station for…breakfast. Which is usually quite small, as it’s normal to have two breakfasts like this per day, once before you leave home, and another at work: coffee and a brioche or tiny bocadillo (bread with  jamon or cheese or egg tortilla). The breakfast break is a regular daily work break. I have had Spanish teachers ask me how long the break for breakfast is in the US. Then they usually ask me what is so funny.

We arrive at the track. As it was November, it was cold and the track was green and damp. But not to worry, the first order of the day was the cover shoot, where we followed the van as close as possible, with its back doors held open with tie downs and the photographer strapped down so as not to topple onto the pavement as he leaned out over the track.  We had to ride close enough so that the van doors blocked any view of the track. A little uncomfortable, but we were going pretty slow so not it was nothing to pucker your butt.

Then we got to ride two laps of the track, while they chose a corner for some riding shots. Then another corner, then another. I switched between the CBR and the BMW with the other rider and journalist, Albert, back and forth a few times. Then they took some photos of me standing with both bikes.

Then the main part of the test began: the anti-lock brake system (ABS) comparison. We accelerated at speeds of 60, 120 then 180k per hour up to two cones, grabbed the front brake as hard as we could (in my case, as hard as my brain would allow) until we stopped. Finally, we did a shorter distance, lower speed similar test on concrete using both brakes to get some photos of the tire marks.

The track was only rented until 2pm, so naturally, at 2:30, we were finished. I didn’t get to ride the entire track again unfortunately, but from what I was able to ride….wow.

Here are my impressions that were published (in Spanish) as an inset article. Please try to stay awake, I wouldn’t want you to hurt yourself if your face smashes into your keyboard as you fall asleep:

BMW S1000RR

The last BMW I rode must have been a GS 650 about 6 years ago, therefore climbing aboard the BMW S1000RR was a very pleasant surprise. Despite being an in line four cylinder 1000cc machine, it felt very narrow. The ridged chassis planted the bike in the corners, and while the stock fork settings were at first a bit stiff for me, after a few easy suspension adjustments I was quite comfortable on the bike. In truth, the BMW chassis geometry was so agile and quick to steer that it felt closer to a 600 than a 1000cc bike. But the engine reminded me that this was no 600 – the speed of this engine and the power at the top end of the revs was awe inspiring.

A slipper clutch enabled fifth-to-second-gear downshifts (I never did get to sixth gear) with no rear tire chatter on a cold track.

The brakes were surprisingly good, some of the best stock brakes I have felt, however, as I had never ridden an ABS-equipped motorcycle, the unique feeling of the ABS took a bit of getting used to.

Honda CBR 1000

I am far more experienced with Hondas in general and CBR’s in particular, so after a ride on the BMW, the CBR felt like a comfortable, though less exciting, old friend. Hondas are great all around bikes but I have always found them lacking in the personality department, and in comparison to the strong aggressive engine and agility of the BMW, it seemed even more mild. That is not to say that the CBR 1000 is a slow bike, because it is not, but the power delivery is so smooth and linear, its speed almost creeps up on you. In fact, everything on the Honda is delivered smoothly: the engagement of the slipper clutch, the engine braking and the power delivery. The chassis is flexible which adds to the feeling of smoothness, though it tends to feel less planted while cornering.

The Honda’s brakes provided a decent feel, but to me, lacked initial bite. This could be due to the fact that the C-ABS bikes have several more centimeters of braking lines and parts, which might cause the slightly mushy, less reactive braking sensation I felt.

Braking Comparison

Our tests consisted of a series of progressively faster approaches (60, 120, then 180kmph) to a set of cones, where I was to stop as fast and as hard as I felt my skills would allow once I passed between them. I was to let the anti-lock braking systems take over until I came to a complete stop.

Without more than a few laps to get used to not only the brakes, but new bikes and a new track, I suppose it wasn’t quite enough to fully get my brain to trust the ABS. Though I tried, I never could never quite hand over complete control to the ABS technology. I found myself automatically letting up off the brakes after the ABS kicked in, at around the point a wheel lockup would naturally occur or shortly thereafter.

Upon seeing me do this with each run through the cones, one might conclude that letting off the brakes was intentional. While I am a fairly independent person, and thus usually rely on my own abilities to get myself out of trouble, this phenomenon was entirely automatic. In fact, it was so automatic that I had a very hard time not letting off the brakes.

Part of this was due to muscle memory – with a locked wheel, any disturbance, no matter how small, can be disastrous. Most riders have learned that the correct procedure after the front wheel has locked is to release the brakes enough to get the wheels spinning again, and then re-apply them. But the other part of this was that the first hard braking with ABS is a strange sensation indeed.

After braking hard, the ABS on the BMW feels about the same as if you manually eased off the brakes and then reapplied them, only faster: The suspension unloads, bringing the front of the BMW up. Then the system is back on the brakes, compressing the suspension again and moving your weight forward, until the bike finds traction. The BMW continues this fast back and forth motion several times per second. In addition, the ABS causes the lever to pulsate back into your hand. This was distracting at first, though I can see where it could be a positive point in that it gives you direct feedback that the ABS has engaged.

The C-ABS on the Honda, when engaged, was far less obvious than the ABS system of the BMW. There was no pulsing at the lever, and it had otherwise normal feedback from both the hand brake and the foot brake. What I did notice however, was enhanced traction and handling when applying the brake in compromised traction environments. During our hard-braking trials that would have other bikes sliding back and forth, the CBR system kept the bike totally composed. With the addition of just a slight amount of rear brake, the chassis settles and it feels as though the entire bike has lowered itself 5 or 10 mm, front and rear.

For the last test, we compared how the braking systems would react when encountering a poor braking surface, such as you might find on a typical street ride. We went on to attempt to stop as quickly as possible on slippery concrete, leaving the ABS to manage the poor traction of the surface. This is where the braking systems were the most evident, and when they finally started to inspire confidence in me. And this is where the Honda’s C-ABS really shined. Instead of sliding, the Honda felt like it just sat down and slowed to a stop. While it did not stop as fast as the BMW, it felt more in control and effortlessly remained in a completely straight line when it should have been sliding all over the place.

I finished the day feeling curious as to how these brakes would function on water or gravel covered surfaces, and in fact I am looking forward to my next encounter with either of these braking systems.

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I have a couple more moto topics to post about, though I cannot promise they will be more interesting than the above post. But they will be related to Spain, motorcycles, and my expat perspective of the whole enchilada. (I might throw in some more pictures of food too. I can’t help myself)

DIY motocross races

It’s a crisp cold autumn day in Northern Italy. Summer is over, the fields have been cleared of all the corn, it isn’t raining nor snowing yet, and everyone wants a last hurrah before the motorcycle season is over and the cold winter arrives.

Why not throw an impromptu neighborhood motocross race in one of the neighborhood fields? If you get the word out soon enough, a few volunteers will step forward and before you know it, you’ll have everyone in the neighborhood racing. Just follow these simple guidelines:

  • Erect signs so that people will know where to find the race.

  • Tape off areas for spectators, or find a natural barrier to separate spectators from the track.

  • Tape off a starting grid near the main spectator area for maximum impact.

  • Make sure your volunteer race director wears a timer around his neck to look professional.

  • Hire a food truck for hungry participants.

  • Put a few seats out so elderly spectators can enjoy the races comfortably.

  • Tape off a course tight enough to create some racing action.

  • Provide a jump or two, even if you need to build them by hand.

  • Don’t forget the kiddie class.

 

Valencia Moto2 test

I went to the Moto2 test in Valencia the end of January. It was cold, the first day so cold that no bikes went out. But I had a warm place to sit and work. And that’s what I did the entire first day. Which was fine with me because I was freezing.

My work computer, in the truck in front of the heater.

A few World Superbike teams including BMW and Aprilia, joined the test. Since the Moto2 bikes are all new everyone is curious about them. Xaus and Corser and a couple of BMW engineers stopped by the Kalex/Pons Moto2 garage to check out the bikes.

Corser couldn’t help himself, he had to climb aboard.

And then pretend to ride it. The only thing he didn’t do was make vroom vroom noises, (though I bet he did in his head).

That's Alex, the German engineer and co-designer of the Kalex bike observing Corser on his creation.

Speaking of the BMW Superbike. The swingarm is glued together. I don’t know about you but this wouldn’t inspire riding confidence in me. Evidently this is now common, shows you how much I know.

Second day bikes went out on the track. I took a scooter and observed from inside the track.

And from the hillside opposite the garages.

And then from pit lane.

Checa down the front straight.

The Moto2 bikes are … different. They sound great. Some are squirrely exiting the corners. The 250 riders are still learning how to ride them. But their times are all pretty close. By the way, the published times you may have seen for the Valencia test? 80% of them are false.  This is because they were recorded by someone walking into the boxes and asking for the best time of each rider. How hard is it for a mechanic be not to shave off a second or two? Very.

We went to one of the worst restaurants I have ever been to in my life. But it was convenient, being attached to the hotel. I ordered chicken and received a reconstituted, breaded, frozen and refried, patty of some sort. Now, I’ve been known to eat and even enjoy things that taste similar to cardboard. I’m not too terribly picky as long as whatever I’m eating isn’t greasy. But this place, I seriously would have been better off slathering a piece of cardboard with ketchup and digging in. And we went not just 0nce, but twice. Because you can never have enough chilled red wine.

This was the first test I have been to as a guest of a team- no messages to deliver, no people to meet, no agenda for me, and frankly, I felt a little awkward being there without anything to do. In fact, you could say I pretty much suck as a spectator.  I’m sure some people would be more than content to ride around on a scooter, drink espresso and wander around looking at bikes. While I am generally lazy, when it comes to motorcycles, and especially racing, I want to be involved.

Unless I have something to do, I’m skipping the rest of the tests before the season begins.