Monday, April 21, 2014

Day Three, Four, Five and Six in France: The Mulsanne Straight and the calling of a race track.

The last few days haven't exactly been productive on the blog but there just isn't always time to really put pen to paper. Having a limited amount of time with my girlfriend here means that I sometimes just need to cast this aside and let it wait. That can be a good thing though. Thoughts percolate a little longer and sometimes more meaning is derived from things when given some time to stew. I may have even managed to forget the irrelevant bits so that you don't feel the need to bring a very big bag of popcorn to the computer with you. Still, it might be a good idea to get a cup of tea.

The four days previous to this have really flown by with me engaging in two French meals with two very welcoming French families. I've ridden the VFR along the Mulsanne straight and as much of the Le Mans 24 Hours circuit as possible without going into the Circuit Bugatti. I've strolled through a busy racing paddock and eaten in a cafe with various Le Mans race suits pinned to the walls around me. I've seen a large old castle in a small village called Le Lude and even eaten in a Dutch-themed restaurant. There was a lot in those few days.

Keeping things on track for this blog and the audience that tends to read it lets begin on the Mulsanne straight.
The VFR by the armco that runs along the Mulsanne Straight
I had intended to run the VFR around the Circuit de la Sarthe, the famous 8.47 mile circuit, which is mainly composed of public roads. Having planned my route I set off and it didn't take long to see exactly where I was. The names on the signposts conjured up the ephemeral feelings of watching Le Mans races on the TV and hearing the commentators guide you around the circuit...Mulsanne, Arnage...they all seemed so familiar but in a very unfamiliar way. It is hard to put it into words but the overall feeling was one of real excitement and amazement. This was the place. And here were trucks and buses and cars just ambling by, using the roads as it was intended. No prototype racers here, no exotic Ferraris. There was the odd Renault 5 I grant you but that was about it! The amount of traffic actually made it relatively difficult to take any good pictures but the feeling of just riding along that straight and seeing the chicanes (and how well blocked off they were for obvious reasons) was very special. Going through a couple of the roundabouts on the straight (a couple of which are actually cut right through by the track for the week of 24 hour racing) I thought it fitting that the VFR was able to prowl along the Mulsanne straight and head out then toward Arnage and the Indianapolis bend. Many of its roots go back to Honda's endurance racers in the 80s and indeed the 90s too and so it seemed right that the VFR visit the home of endurance racing and take a peek around.

Stopping outside the stands on the main straight of the Bugatti circuit, where all of the races start from, I simply wanted to sit down and take it all in. I'm not used to this at home. Motorsport is very much a niche sport in Ireland and there is only one purpose built track in Ireland (Mondello Park) and, while I had fun there on the trackday I did on the VFR, it cannot provide the variety that a selection of different tracks could offer. On top of that it is not nearby, located near Naas in Kildare, it is about 3 hours from Cork. Not that far in the scheme of things but not altogether close either. Especially so when you consider that in another 3 hours you can be at the other side of the country! And so, having such a historic track so near where I was staying, together with motorsport being considered an equal with field sports (in fact more important in many senses) made this whole experience almost surreal.

Upon parking outside I had noticed some very highly pitched engine noises, something was definitely happening inside and so I ended up buying a weekend pass for the VdeV endurance series. €9 with paddock access was an absolute bargain I thought. Leaving the VFR behind I walked in to sample the atmosphere. While there was but a scattering of people in the stands I felt like I had the whole place to myself in a way and after watching some of the GT cars make their way along the straight and up towards the Dunlop chicane I ambled towards the paddock. Mondello had not been very busy for the trackday I had been at and on my previous visit to the Le Mans circuit it had been all but empty. Today however it was buzzing with activity. Michelin tyre technicians were working on small production lines, mounting wheels with tyres, balancing them and sending them off to various teams. The team trucks were neatly lined up with the backs of the trucks facing into the rear of the garages. Team personnel walked about with a purposeful air, some wheeling tyres or other equipment around the paddock. Having read about racing paddocks for a long time, and hoped to visit as many as possible in my lifetime, this was exactly what I had been expecting. It looked and sounded productive and yet, perhaps this depends on the race series, it was friendly and convivial as well. I am sure that for a lot of these people racing is not a job but a hobby that they pursue at the weekend. It didn't seem to make the action on track any easier, even during practice laps cars were running each other quite close into the corners which was interesting to see. The competitive spirit, whether it be amateur, semi-professional, or fully-professional, burns brightly at the track and it was clear that these were people who were thoroughly enjoying what they were doing. 

I would not be back at the circuit again until Sunday but riding the VFR back to La Ferte and hoping that I would not be in too much trouble for staying out much longer than I had originally planned ("I'm just going to bring the bike around the Le Mans circuit is all"...I hadn't known any racing was going on on the Bugatti circuit at the time) I felt that an important milestone had been reached. The VFR had seen the home of its roots. I had seen, and ridden on, miles of history. And my technical belly had been given quite the feed after all of that paddock access.

The next day was spent on a road trip but this time in a car as Denise, my girlfriend, and I, were chauffeured by fellow World Motorcycle Community member Frédéric Barré and his family on a Saturday drive to La Lude which is a big old mansion/castle about 30 minutes from Le Mans. The stately presence of the old building and fine grounds of the estate were a remarkable contrast from the noisy race track although what was also remarkable were the similarities. The estate was so well preened and perfectly laid out and this correlated with a well surfaced race track and a well organised paddock area. The Circuit Bugatti is far from the most interesting in the world, being a little bit of a cookie-cutter track with no real distinguishing features bar the uphill right turn toward the Dunlop bridge, but the paddock was very tidy and held a certain charm. I suppose it is a sense of history, something newer and better laid out circuits cannot quite capture yet. Le Mans has had a bit of a head start in that regard.
More like a race circuit than you might first think...
After an entertaining Saturday night with one of Denise's work colleagues and her family it was time to head back to the circuit to see some of the racing itself on the Sunday. Arriving in late I was sure that we had missed most of the action as a lot of the teams were packing up but there was quite a bit of racing still to be done in the various different classes. Not being a French speaker myself it was difficult to keep track of all that was going on as the entertaining PA-commentator, well to me at least, was keeping the locals up to date but not the one English-speaking Irishman in the midst of the other few hundred French people attending. Fair enough. Endurance racing is funny though because when the novelty of the sounds and sights wear off the nitty gritty is not quite as fun as more fast-paced races which end sooner. The delight, in endurance racing, is in the details so paddock access helped as you could roam through and see what was happening in the garages. Even hopping into some of the photographer posts around the track gave a good focus, haha, on the cars themselves as I pointed my camera and turned down the shutter speed. 

In a way, what was more interesting, was the Le Mans Legends Cafe/Restaurant in Le Mans city centre. After a day at the circuit it was the natural place to go afterward but this was not a crap eaterie which had latched on to the fame of the local race and hung some tacky souvenir-shop memorabilia on the walls to catch the unawares. This was the real deal with various items of car and bike bodywork, racetrack scratched and all, hanging by tables. Driveshafts rested on a shelf at the side of a stairs. A full Suzuki Endurance Racing Team GSXR1000 is in the front window. Race suits adorn glass cabinets around tables, one of which is made from an old Moto Guzzi. Recognising that both cars and bikes do the 24 hours at Le Mans was very endearing but more so was the originality of the place. This was authentic, and the food was good too. 
Race suits hanging up alongside gorgeous Le Mans race photos

Bodywork from an old Gulf WEC Le Mans car

Bodywork from a Corvette Le Mans car along with a drive shaft and brake disc. Stairs is on the right!
The thing I found fascinating about the Le Mans Legends Cafe was that it really normalised racing. I don't drink and have never found myself at home in a pub as such but I did in this one. Yes it's not a real pub in the sense that its main business is really food but it is also a bar. I felt at home because for me, racing, and all that comes with it, is a normal part of life. In fact it is a part of life that I very much enjoy. I enjoy watching it, analysing it, investigating the technical sides of it, and indulging in some of it on the local go-kart track about twice a year! In a world fairly dominated by mindsets, and media, that see only see field sports as sports, this place made me feel happy that I was interested in motor sport. While I undoubtedly gravitate to the two-wheeled variety, of course, I can appreciate and enjoy four-wheeled motorsport too and this place allowed me to mix both. If you are ever in Le Mans, or near it, then make sure you pay a visit. 

That all just about sums up the last few days here and today I packed my stuff in anticipation of leaving tomorrow for the ferry. There are some thunderstorms on the way it seems so the dream of riding through sunny France is postponed for now but at least some rain will keep the dust down. At about lunchtime today, it's after midnight here now, I will be on my way back to Ireland having enjoyed a few great days in France in the company of my long-suffering girlfriend who puts up with "vroom" noises from me and being dragged to the race track. I am sure that the journey home will provide many stories for this blog!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Day Two in France: "Tell me when you see a petrol station..."

I usually see my VFR everyday. It stays right outside the front window so even if I go for a walk I can never avoid a wuick glance. I thought about it as I had my breakfast in the apartment here in La Ferte Bernard. Would I see the bike today? There was a lot of blue sky around, almost perfect weather for a spin. A light breeze to keep things cool. Yeah, the feet were becoming itchy, it was time to get out on the bike for a while.

This time Denise would be coming on the bike with me and although we were going out for this spin by ourselves there were more stunning examples of why, when you are on a bike, you really are not ever on your own (which is kind of funny when you consider that a lot of biking, for some people, is the feeling of just striking out by themselves and being independent, it's a contradiction that has yet to be resolved I suppose). Denise is lucky in that fellow Google+ World Motorcycle Community (WoMoCo) member Frédérick lives very close by and was kind enough to lend bike gear, from boots to gloves, to Denise to enable her to come out for the spin as all of her own gear was back home in Ireland. However Frédérick went one better than this the previous night in allowing me access to his garage to store the VFR safely while I am here. And more touching still was the present of a Le Mans 24 Heures Moto mug from him and his family to me on completion of my journey to La Ferte. Yes in most racing classes you get a gold or silver cup but this porcelain one was the perfect reward for my trip from Cherbourg, especially when later filled with some nice Barry's tea. So while my journey was supposed to be a solo one, there was always people on the other end willing for me to get here safely and interested in my tales from the ride and who were willing to accommodate requests for help to make the time here even more fun. You really are not that alone when on a bike.
My victory cup for making it to La Ferte, along with a small Eiffel Tower that Denise brought from Paris!

Hitting the road later we took the VFR north-west to Mamers along the D2, we cruised along at a gentle pace, this being Denise's first time back in the saddle for a few months. The roads were relatively quiet and the gentle pace fitted well with the breeze which just about managed to keep temperatures comfortable. Getting out of the familiar areas of La Ferte, and traversing a road that I had already covered, but at a more frantic pace, was refreshing which was a lot more than can be said for our travails in Le Mans, but I will get to this later. In Mamers we stopped for a cold drink, took a look around and snapped a few photos as I saw various junctions that I had negotiated on Monday as I made my way to La Ferte originally.
The VFR parked in the sun in Mamers

At Denise's request we sat out in the sun while we drank some Coca-Cola. It was all a bit paradoxical really as drinking the Coke was supposed to cool us down but here we were sitting in the sun. My legs were beginning to roast underneath the bike trousers and I could feel my skin beginning to tan but the people-watching from the outside seats was interesting all the same. It is so easy to see the roots of small French villages such as Mamers and see how the villages grew and expanded. Sitting where I was the church was behind me, but providing no shade unfortunately, and in front of me was a large square where a market would usually take place. On this particular day it was either a very large car sale or else it was being used for car parking - I never asked. Eventually we made our way back to the bike and Denise carried the camera to try and snap some shots on the move. I didn't expect much to come out of this but it was worth a try. This area of France doesn't seem all that spectacular, scenery-wise it is not like the Alps or perhaps the Ring of Kerry at home, but you can really get a sense of what life is like here. The wide open fields and broad horizon make this perfect farming country and you can see all of that work in action. It's quite endearing. Not to mention that it makes it very easy to see far ahead on the roads. There are some hills though and some gorgeous castles and abbeys as well, one of which Denise was able to capture from a passenger point of view that I really am not used to!
Taken from the passenger seat as we went around some bends on a small hill.
Looking at the map we had decided to make a bit of a triangle and go south towards Le Mans. The only problem was that it was nearing rush hour. As we approached Le Mans I recognised the old town to the left of us and a river shot from the great TT Legends TV series that was on ITV a while back (now on Youtube). Denise took some more pictures while we were stuck in traffic but I was much more worried about the temperature gauge on the VFR rather than the traffic as such. Looking at the dashboard as we were stopped at traffic lights I could see the fuel gauge showed we had half a tank left, although it is never accurate anyway, and the temperature gauge was now climbing to half way. Now this might not seem like a problem but this is when the thermostat decides the fan needs to come on to cool the radiator, and thus the engine. I needed a fan myself really, sitting atop a roasting V4. Being a VFR owner my thoughts turned immediately to the regulator/rectifier located not far from the rear bank of cylinders. It was going to be boiling. If all came to all I could have probably fried a waffle on it, it even has the griddle markings for cooling. Or in this case waffles. Or steak. I was getting hungry now. Hungry, hot, worried about the bike's electrical system. All going well then. Keeping the revs down I pulled away from the lights and into more traffic but at least this was in the shade. The temperature gauge didn't budge. I hoped that the VFRness wiring harness that I had fitted would cope. Filtering up through traffic it became clear that we had no plan of action, no idea of where we were going, and no knowledge of Le Mans as regards riding around it. Instinct told me get to the centre, stop the bike, allow it to cool, use a loo, eat an apple, get back to La Ferte. I tried to follow signs for Gare SNCF, the train station, as I knew that location, but missed a couple and just followed my own sense, accompanied by inputs from Denise. A couple of bouts of anger at car drivers who didn't seem willing to give me a break, unusual on the trip so far, and worried glances at the temperature gauge, saw me finally end up outside the Irish shop in Le Mans.
It as time to sit down and relax for a moment before we moved on to the main square at least where we, coincidentially, parked next to Frédérick's gorgeous NSR125 and a plethora of other bikes. The square was busy with a lot of people outside drinking coffee and meeting friends. There was a real buzz about the place but before we could actually go over to talk to Frédérick, who was seated nearby, we went to McDonald's to find some macaroons. Nothing fancy but just something to bring back for the night. A fight outside however delayed us and when we came back the NSR125 was gone. At this stage it was also time for us to make our way.
Doesn't that NSR look like an NR?
Getting out of Le Mans was quite an experience though as the temperature gauge and I became best friends. Traffic was still heavy but at least I was learning how to ride in a French city along with other traffic - it is certainly a different experience to driving on the quieter country roads and motorways. After numerous wrong turns I finally decided to just point the bike south and follow the road until the city came to an end. Eventually it did, with signs for the Le Mans circuit coming up fast. And then "Le Mans" with a red diagonal line through it. We were out. At last. Where to go from here was another question. Searching for the D323 we ended up in Allones which is as close to Le Mans as Ballincollig is to Cork. They are practically the same place it seemed to me. Fuel was also becoming a concern at this point but not a huge one. Finally making it on to the D323 we were on the right road but going in the wrong direction so I pulled in to a layover and checked the map once more. It indicated that we had to head back to Le Mans and then follow the ring road towards the east. To be honest it was useless, it had no detail for urban centres so we were pretty much on our own. Just as I was about to ignore a "no U turn" sign at the layover two police bikes rode by. I could see the FJRs slowed down and the two gendarmarie had a good look at the VFR. Not in the best of moods at this point and with a very empty stomach I didn't want to have to deal with them so pointed the bike south again and found a roundabout to turn around at. Signs for the D323 were now plentiful with La Ferte Bernard even being marked. We had done it. The last problem was fuel. 

The VFR's tank is 21 litres with an approximate touring range of about 200 miles. It was about to be tested. The fuel gauge was now dropping in to the empty portion but no warning light had yet come on so we were ok for now. Converting kilometre signs to miles in my head and then calculating remaining fuel I was sure it was going to be close one. The odometer ticked over to 200 miles (I reset it at every fill up). Then orange "Don't make me tell you again" fuel light came on to join the chorus of nagging that the fuel gauge itself had started earlier. Oh dear, it was getting serious now. Seeing a sign for a Carrefour with petrol pumps I pulled in to a small village, rode around, saw a Carrefour with no petrol pumps and had to make my way again. Great. I just wasted precious millilitres of fuel. Getting back to the D323 I stuck the bike in 6th gear and toddled along at 60mph at 4500rpm. This was real economy territory, with me certain sure that it would have to be. Every movement on the throttle would have to be as smooth as butter. The kilometres ticked down as the miles on the odometer rose. 210 miles. 215 miles. The orange "FILL ME" light was now bright and on permanently but finally we entered La Ferte Bernard. At least if I had to push the bike the distance wouldn't be too bad here. We saw another Carrefour and swung towards it, coasting in to the pumps. 217 miles. Preparing myself, and my wallet, for 21 litres of monetary pain, I stuck the SP98 nozzel into the tank and filled it up. I had to look twice at the display however as it indicated that the tank was now full at 19 litres. I withdrew the pump a little and continued filling. The most I could get in was 19.5 litres. I still had 1.5 litres in the tank. I could hardly believe it and felt stupid for thinking we were going to run out at the side of road earlier. Calculating how economical, or not, that the last 217 miles had been saw that the VFR had returned a very respectable 50mpg (21.26 kilometres per litre). Considering half of this was done two-up and half of it was done at much greater speed than the gentle cruising of the day, it was impressive. Especially for a 17 year old bike. Who said carbs aren't efficient?! Using that average mpg figure of 50 there were another 13 miles left in the tank before it was properly empty. A touring range of 230 miles?! Not bad...

Tank filled it was time for home. Today had been a good one.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Day One in France: Be careful, the ferry exit is slippery...

On approach to Rosslare Harbour there are a lot of pubs, shops and petrol stations claiming to be the "last pub/shop/petrol station" before the ferry whisks you off to a land, apparently, without pubs, shops, or petrol stations. That's how it sounded to me anyway as I rode past on the VFR, another VFR behind me, in time for the ferry to France. Following advice dished out elsewhere I did actually find what I think is indeed the final petrol station before the ferry and filled the VFRs tank there so enable me a clear run from Cherbourg without too many worries about fuel. It would be the second stop in a petrol station that day for the first stop saw me hanging out at Waterford's old port facilities at Ferrybank where I had arranged to meet Paul on his red VFR. Paul's VFR is so clean it looks like it just came out of a showroom and while we debated whether or not his bike may have arrived in the UK, and then Ireland, from the US (I thought so due to the different colour of the switchgear markings, being red rather than white), the nearby car wash was misting both of our bikes. In between cars being washed we were able to grab a coffee, have a chat and even take a picture of the two us looking at MCN's recent new VFR800 review in front of our two 750s.
Paul and I looking at MCN. I think I may have been laughing at the lack of gear-driven cams in the new VFR. And the last ones.
Paul kindly gave me his copy of MCN for reading on the ferry and it came in very useful too, for which I offered him a bar of Cadbury's Caramel which had been packed into my tankbag the night before for the journey. With caffeine now in the veins we decided to move on towards Rosslare. Not to get all romantic about two-wheeled travel here but there really was something special in being accompanied down to the ferry by someone with whom I could talk about VFRs, shoot the breeze as regards bikes, and just have a great bike-related catch up with. While I was supposedly going to ride to La Ferte Bernard alone, it seemed that I was never far from a friendly person on another bike and this proved true on the ferry as well.

Boarding the ferry after filling up was a simple enough process, I followed the car lines, stopped at the checkpoint and handed over my documents and passport, was given back the passport and 3 tickets (not unlike cinema tickets in their look) and was instructed to follow lane 9. At the top of the lane a guy in a hi-viz instructed me on where to go next but really I was just following the bike in front of me. I thought it was a BMW but actually it turned out to be an MZ Mastiff, the first time I had seen one in real life! I was extremely gentle with the bike along the slippery ferry floor and kept my fingers well away from the front brake but the ramp on to the second floor of the car deck was good fun. My next encounter however saw me struggling with the strapping to tie the bike down. In the online videos it looks so easy, a monkey could do it. And a monkey could. But I am no monkey and I failed! After asking the MZ guy if he could help me out, which he did, I thought I was in business but the strap just kept taking up more and more room on the ratchet without really tightening on the bike. To top it all off my personal sauna was now up to temperature. Sweating underneath the layers of bike clothing and attempting not to breath in the fumes of cars surrounding me, it felt as if I had installed a small furnace of sauna coals inside my suit with each drop of sweat sending steam flying in all directions. To say this was less than comfortable would be quite the understatement. Obviously struggling and, being the only one left, I approached the lady who was helping to load the ferry by standing about in a hi-viz jacket and chattering on a radio (perfectly legitimate work perhaps). She was less than helpful and not terribly enamoured with the feminism which had changed men-women relationships over the last decades. "I am woman, you wait for man to come". "Em, ok, thanks", and off I went to continue my personal sauna session. When a man did finally come along he saw that the strapping I was using was faulty and found me a new one before lashing the bike down in a gentle fashion, asking me along the way if I were happy with the position of the strap and such. He couldn't have been more helpful.
Not a whole load of room...

Local bomb site after my "sauna"

One tip I should pass on to others here is that, if you are on an overnight ferry, keep a seperate set of overnight gear in a plastic bag in the topbox so you can just grab that gear (jeans, shirt, jumper, shoes, washbag) along with your tankbag (documents, camera, reading material, some munchies). Grabbing that stuff I found my cabin, dumped my stuff and had a post-sauna shower (the shower was remarkably good!)

It was my first time on a ferry so everything was a bit of a novelty for me but looking back on it, it's not a bad way to travel at all. Looking at people carrying whole bed clothes with them from their cars made me think of the lengths we go to conform to airline baggage regulations! This was a whole other kettle of fish. After my shower I rang home to say a proper goodbye having not left on wonderful terms. A lot of it was my own fault, I had wanted to "get in the zone" to begin thinking of the long journey ahead and plan through it one last time in my head but everyone (all 3 of them) was very closely watching, questioning what bike clothing I was wearing when usually not an eyelid would be batted and I felt like I was not being given enough space to get myself ready. There had been a whole morning for the questioning and general curiosity, now was not the time for it. I thought about it on the ride to Rosslare and had decided a phonecall was needed to clear the air and it doubled as the first phonecall from the deck of a ferry as I watched us steam out of the harbour.
Bye Bye Rosslare!

 Now it was time to go and explore the boat but I also had a few things to do, I had my route to plan over again, dinner to think of, the night sky to see, MCN to read and also some PhD books to read through. All was going well until just before dinner as the water became a little choppy. For most it would've been no issue at all but I was cursing myself for not bringing sea-sickness tablets and also becoming increasingly annoyed with the French schoolkids who thought that they had inherited a ferry and were now free to annoy everyone else. Then there were the small kiddies who were so excited at the prospect of being on a boat that they were running around between everyone and generally acting fearless. As my stomach churned a little and my head became light I felt more as if they were running on me, not around me. Thinking some dinner would fix this I made my way to The Left Bank brasserie, one of about four dining options onboard. Fish and chips for about €14 didn't sound as extortionate as it could have been but it didn't even come with peas. Maybe it was to stop excited kids throwing them at one another, or adults from throwing them at the staff due to having to suffer through a James Blunt album (yep a full album on the speakers in there...). Full, but not in a satisfied way, and not in a healthy way either, I retired to my cabin and lay down to watch a funny movie on the old heavy TV. The cabins are en-suite but the toilets flush like aircraft ones so there were times when a nearby toilet would flush but I thought, the first few times, that these were noises from the car deck. Visions of a VFR crushed up against a Ford Focus flooded into my head before I fiinally realised these were toilet flushes and the car deck was way too far down...I mean it'd have to have been a monster-truck destruction derby to hear it this far up the ferry. Funnily enough I had the best sleep I have had in a long time once the film was finished and I was after working out the source of the noises.

Reading the VFR review in MCN near the table-service (expensive, very) restaurant on board.

The next morning I woke up properly refreshed, something I never really feel when I wake up, and went in search of breakfast. Again it was fairly oily and expensive but I had it anyway. I could have been wiser in my choices, it's not necessarily a criticism of Irish Ferries. A coffee later and I could see land so I sat down to go over my route again, circling the towns I would go through on the way to La Ferte Bernard and writing the route on a piece of notepaper. Disembarkation from the ferry was like the queue for the last helicopter out of Vietnam as people rushed to the lifts and stairs. With less bike gear on this time (no bodywarmers) my sauna was turned off and I just observed the frantic mess going on about me while then remembering that I had no idea which car deck I was on. Therefore it was time to jump into said frantic mess. Meeting the guy on the MZ again we struck up a conversation about riding in France, bikes in general and I think there were times when neither of us understood the other due to noise and helmets but we were happy enough to agree on whatever point the other person was putting across. Then came the warning as the bikes lined up to get off the ferry, "it's very slippery at the end of the exit, be careful". Oh Oh. One by one the bikes went down the long ramp on to the slippery deck but everyone made it out ok. The wheels turning on French soil, the blue sky, the Gallic surroundings, all made for an incredible experience as the VFR left behind the shadow of the ferry.

Another tip, keep your passport in your tankbag as you will need to present it to exit the port facility. The French police woman examined it, looked at me through the helmet (wonder how she could tell it was me?) and then waved me on. I was in. Or at least I thought I was. Having put the sidestand down, when I put the bike in gear it cut out...embarrassing!

Stopping further up the road, following some advice given by the good people at, I pulled in to the roadside and watched the traffic to adjust myself to it. Mr MZ was there as well and we chatted a bit more before my insulation tape came in handy to fix his charger for the GPS he was using. Within the conversation it came up that he had ridden a 125cc bike to Mongolia with a group of friends a couple of years ago and it was being featured in an adventure bike magazine this month. It made my own journey seem all the more small. I took a quick picture and soon we were both on our respective ways.

The MZ!
Once the MZ had pulled off it was time for me to crack on. The road to St. Lo was easy to negotiate and not unlike a motorway in Ireland and, so far, driving on the right, had proven relatively easy to do. Overcoming initial doubts about the route in St. Lo which necessitated a quick stop to check the map more thoroughly and for me to watch the temperature gauge climb up and me to picture some images of burnt electrics, I was on my way to Vire and then Flers before becoming very familiar with Alencon and finally making it to La Ferte Bernard. The roadsigns were always very clear, except for within some of the larger towns which is understandable given the amount of streets there were and the fact I was using "D" roads which are similar to regional roads in Ireland. Patience was the main thing, and besides, this was part of the experience, I was getting to ride in different towns and not simply bypass them as if they didn't exist. My one regret is not taking more pictures of this but I was becoming a little worried about my timing and whether or not I would arrive before dark as I was pretty sure the roadsigns wouldn't be half as useful when I would struggle to see them!

Once I arrived in La Ferte Bernard I made sure to send my long-suffering girlfriend a text massage to let her know I was just minutes away. On the verrrry empty D3 road that I had taken to get me to LFB I had practicing my standing up and waving routine. Any farmers in the area that I failed to spot must have thought it very strange indeed but at this part of the journey I was both hysterical with excitement, full of amazement that I was actually riding in France, and struggling to keep in mind that most accidents happen near the destination as the mind switches to think of other things. Once the bike was parked and I made my way into the apartment these are the things that were stacked on the table for me...

A few of my favourite things from the last time I was over

 I had become a real fan of Banania, baguettes and Speculoos the last time I was over, along with the rest of the pictures items. After riding 300 miles from my house to La Ferte Bernard it was a very good welcome present!

If you have read this far, thanks, and I hope you enjoyed it. I know this post had no real coherence to it really but it was a stream of thought/memories more than anything. Stay tuned to see if they improve...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Post 7 - 67000 miles young

This is post 7 in a series of posts detailing preparation for my upcoming trip to France. Seeing as I will be leaving for France tomorrow this will be the final blog entry of preparation but once in France I will do my best to keep the blog posts going. I hope you've all enjoyed the reading and the pictures.

It is fitting that as 67000 miles rolled by on the odometer that the VFR is luggaged up to bring me to the ferry in Rosslare tomorrow and then on to France. Those that know me know that I have a pretty special bond with my bike and its gear-driven cams (those that know me better will no doubt laugh at that part in particular!) and it gave me a lot of pleasure to see that figure ride on the odometer. This is a very mature bike, 17 years old now, but yet it seems it is in the spring of its years. Even fully loaded tonight with luggage it felt sprightly, never out of breath, and handled well. Yes the rear shock is probably at the end of its life, it needs a rebuild, but the front is very comfortable and confidence inspiring after its own rebuild and spring change. The engine is perfect, the torque of the vee combined with the revs of a four cylinder. It does it all. And I am relying on it to bring me to France, and back. 
The old one had become fairly squared off after about 6000 miles

I've no doubt the bike will play its part but I've my own part to play of course so today, with substantial help from Eddie and Martin in the University College Cork Motorcycle Club, a new Metzeler Z8 was fitted to the rear wheel. Then began a wild goose chase to find somewhere that could actually balance a VFR rear wheel, the single sided swingarm hub within the wheel making a normal wheel balancer useless. This really ate into the day. Starting the job at about 12, it didn't end until about 5pm! And then of course I had to wash the bike when I got home to make sure it was nice and fresh for the trip and that I hadn't missed out on anything in my checks. I used Vulcanet wipes for this, a product that has really impressed me, notably because I got it as a present from my brother so I didn't have to spend my own money on it! Therefore there was no pool of water under the bike afterwards which kept all happy. 

Putting the tyre on the manual bead breaking machine. This was all tough work.

In between these jobs I have managed to buy an AA glovebox road map of France. It was a nice size and has a flipboard ring to enable the pages be turned easily and will fit nicely into the map pocket of the tankbag which is good. I checked over my proposed route again, came up with an alternative, just in case, and printed this off of Google Maps too for good measure. In fact, once home I laid out everything on the table in the kitchen and found a lot of documents indeed. I've photocopied everything as well so there are two copies of each document that I am legally supposed to bring with the copies being stashed under the seat of the VFR and the originals staying in a folder in my tankbag. Here's a photo of the documents and books on the kitchen table. Some are maps of course but there are also four books which I am currently using for a chapter of the PhD so they have to come too!
Some of the paper luggage
With dinner now finished it really was time to get moving on the packing. I had said it yesterday that I would take ages doing it but actually I didn't. The problem lay in how late I started considering the issues with having the rear wheel balanced. Being gone for ten days meant it was time to whip out the panniers, soft ones, and use these for some clothes. The tankbag would carry my camera, a book for the ferry, my documents and some munchies. Always important. The panniers would contain the clothes for my stay in France and the topbox would have 3 books, a small folder of college stuff, and a plastic bag with a set of clothes for the ferry. The logic here is that once the bike was strapped down on the ferry I could just grab this bag from the topbox, along with my tankbag (where the toiletries are), and walk to my cabin. There'd be no messing with opening panniers and lookinAdd captiong for clothes and wasting time AND messing up how I had set it all up. Someone mentioned this idea on the Bikersoracle VFR forum and whoever it was they deserve the thanks. The result of it is that my topbox is fairly empty once that overnight bag for the ferry is removed but this is ok as the weight of the luggage is kept low in the panniers. 

The important items in the tankbag!
Fully loaded and ready!
From the top - bulb kit in the white sock, tool kit in the black sock wrapped in bungee cord, photocopied documents in a plastic pocket, spare bungee, multimeter and disc-lock. The seat even went back on!
There was also the issue of a toolkit, the compulsory spare lightbulb kit, the multimeter, the disc-lock, and the photocopies of my documents. The VFR is not blessed with tons of underseat storage but I made the best use of what I had available. I used a sock as a tool bag, packing the essentials into this and wrapping it with a bungee cord. I also wrapped the bulb kit with a sock too and squeezed that in directly behind the rear lights, making use of that space. At this stage the bike is fully ready to go, the tank bag and panniers are packed and attached to the bike and it even got a small test run too. The viffer will clock up another few miles tomorrow on the road to Wexford to bring it well over the 67000 mark but, I am sure, they will be miles that it will brush off and make some fun of too. All I have to do it make sure that I play my part!

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Post 6 - Who Says Photocopying and Mapping are old school?

This is post 6 in a series of posts detailing preparation for my upcoming trip to France. It's getting close now so get in while they're hot!

It seems that today GPS rules the roost when it comes to making your way around different countries but for the purposes of my own trip to France it very much looks like I will be using good old-fashioned paper maps supplemented by a route that I made on Google Maps and subsequently printed. Having used GPS through my phone on a couple of previous locations in Ireland, where I am, it has proven handy but then I don't have to worry about data charges here. I do if I am abroad and have not even looked into things such as offline maps yet. And I don't think I will either. People have been using paper maps for a long time and road signage is supposed to be decent in France so surely I can get by. There is also a certain romanticism to using paper and planning it out well beforehand. But why is this?

I would think that this is all especially prevalent on motorbikes. After all, the cliche of "it's not about the destination, it's about the journey" has been developed almost specifically for bikes! This post is not supposed to be a criticism of GPS, I have stated that it is very useful, but I have found it extremely exciting to be studying maps on screen and on paper, checking a road on Google Street View, counting roundabouts, noting the name of towns that I should pass and imagining what they look like. I'm sure I will be in for some shocks as I pass by a prettily named town that's actually falling down around itself! With a GPS unit I could just set the destination and follow it but, in a certain way, that would mean removing some control of the process from myself. I would be following what the machine tells me and while I acknowledge that I set the machine to not send me on toll roads or motorways, and thereby control aspects of it, there is something about physical maps and good old paper that really make a trip like this special. They will bear the crumples and tears of some hours in the saddle, the portray places in your mind, they allow the imagination to run a little wild. They also consume no battery power!

Today I spent a few minutes on Google Maps, perhaps contradictory to what I am saying above about GPS, and printed off a routing for myself to study before buying a proper map later. And studying the bits of paper made me pretty excited about the whole escapade, it's becoming real now. On top of this I had to make sure to photocopy my driver licence, my bike registration cert, my insurance cert, and I made a copy of my ferry tickets as well. Just in case. Seeing them strewn on the desk in work was interesting, they were concrete items which showed that the trip, indeed was real. It was happening. It will be.

Old school as photocopying is (why not take a digital picture of the documents?) it just added some reality to the whole trip. I had to make a conscious effort to get into the university library and use the photocopiers, not much effort mind you, but more than just clicking a mouse or directing a web browser to some site or other. It made it into a physical reality. I don't know am I conveying this properly but it is late here at this stage and I still want to watch the MotoGP practice before I fall asleep!

The plan for Saturday is to fit the new rear tyre, which should be a gym session of a time considering I will be doing it manually (but with help and direction from Eddie on the SV650). With that out of the way it will be time to consider packing. I say consider because I have never been the best packer. THe suitcases will look neat and tidy once I am done but the time in between consideration and actual action is always verrrrry long. I tend to make a list, take some stuff out and throw them on the bed and then wait. I make a "maybe" pile and allow it to become substantially bigger than the "definite" pile or "no" pile thus ruining the whole idea of this! I sit around a little more. There is the inevitable moment where I think "why didn't I throw this out before?" I am sure that tomorrow will be little different but, again, it is part of the fun. It is manual, it is slowish but it addes reality to the whole thing. Obviously I will need clothes but I will also need to bring a few folders and books for working when in France. My camera is coming with me as well. Sounds like I'll have to notch up the preload a few bits already...

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Post 5 - Smelling tyres and setting the sag

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts detailing my preparation for a trip to France on my VFR. 

Roads in Ireland are far from what they should be. They are often bumpy, badly laid out, full of potholes and areas which are sinking into bog, are cut up, gravel strewn and plain bad. Over the last 15 years a modern motorway network has developed throughout the country. Well, actually, a network which connects the major cities to Dublin but seldom to one another, has been developed and the surface and lay out these motorways is pretty good. But then motorways are pretty boring places to be. When on two-wheels you want there to be glorious sweeping bends, hairpin turns, elevation changes, and, importantly in terms of keeping your fun safe, visibility. Many of the hedges that go along Irish roads are not cut back to allow a rider or driver to see through a bend. You're simply expected to have x-ray vision and know. Perhaps road designers have some form of telepathy going on. Or radar. Whatever it is I don't have it and blind corners are often the order of the day here. 

New Metzeler Z8 waiting to be fitted before Sunday.
In planning this trip I have been looking at routes and using Google Street View to get an idea of what I will be looking at as I exit Cherbourg on Monday and set off to Le Mans. Coupled with knowledge from a previous trip (where I flew over) the roads look pretty bloody good. I find it hard to see any giant, bike-swallowing, potholes (there are at least two on the approach road to my house here) and most of the corners I have seen are easy to see through. I have promised myself that I will stay off of the toll roads unless it is absolutely necessary to use them, they don't look like fun over there at all and while they would get me to the destination a little quicker, the time difference is actually not that big. Either way I need to put 4 hours away to cover what I need to cover. The other thing to consider is that I will be driving on a different side of the road than usual and the extra concentration required will no doubt leave me feeling tired at the end of my trip despite the lack of a huge amount of hours in the saddle. 

And this is where we come right back to it. The hours in the saddle are hours that you want to spend being comfortable and having fun. I read somewhere before that the best suspension is one that is as soft as possible whilst still allowing the greatest amount of control. You essentially want the best of both worlds. When I first bought the VFR I wanted to try and keep it as standard as I could but the front forks had been crying out for some sort of attention for a long time. About two months ago I embarked on an adventure which involved trying to pull one of the fork legs apart using a car. Surprised at how easy the job seemed, for a first timer, I seperated one fork and emptied it of the smelly fork oil inside and then began working on the other leg. However it seemed that the bushings inside jammed into one another and there was no way of seperating the leg from the stanchion without serious heat. We tried a car first, tying one end to a caego container and the other to the two-hitch on the car but that didn't do anything bar snap some rope. When all was said and done I had new seals, new bushings, new Progressive Suspension springs and new 10wt fork oil to boot. The front was now a lot more refined, not diving heavily under braking as it had done (particularly annoying with a pillion) and yet was still supple enough to soak up imperfections on the surface. I had even painted the fork legs as I was at it and was very pleased with the whole job. However, one thing that was not done, and which I bet a lot of motorcyclists have never done, is set the static sag of the suspension.

You do this in order to ensure that the suspension is working in the middle of its range, the optimum part, so you get a full use of the whole spring. Many are riding around using just the top of the spring due to incorrect sag and so are not getting the benefit of the full suspension components. There are plenty of online guides as to what to do if you search and I would recommend you do. Wanting my bike's suspension to be as good as it can be for the trip to France I was helped, very graciously by Martin and Eddie and Gary, with setting my front sag. Apparently it had been too soft. We did not go near the back as we had run out of time at this stage but with luggage being loaded up I wonder what the damper will make of it all. I reckon the Showa OEM part is past it's best at this stage and is due a rebuild. From various readings the Showa kit is actually decent quality but the oil inside breaks down over time and needs rebuilding. Having ridden a Bandit for a good while anything feels harder after that but over long undulations on the road you can feel the shock becoming a little boingy and overworked in the damping compartment. I suppose the best I can do with the luggage on the back of the bike is keep the heavier stuff, whatever that stuff will be, low down in the soft panniers and put light stuff in the top box. I tend to put clothes in the topbox by default in order to keep things dry and might do likewise this time as well. Once all loaded up I think I will just wind the preload to the max and that should see me through. For the next trip I hope to have the shock rebuilt and good as new to match a completely revitialised front end.  

In other news the Metzeler Z8 rear arrived today and it looks very big. Tyres always do when off the rims. This will need fitting before Sunday, I don't think they allow tyre fitting on the ferry and I think I'd have trouble fitting it into my tankbag anyway (!), but tyre fitting isn't as bad as it might seem. Although the times I have seen it done manually involved a lot of sweating and swearing. Still, a bit of shouting can be therapeutic

Seeing as I only have one picture on the blog today I will leave you with this promotional video which Honda made for the fabled NR750 in the early 1990s. The looks of the RC36 VFR 750, my one, was very much influenced by the NR. The air ducts are a direct relation, the dashboard as many similarities as well as the general shape of it. They also share gear driven cams and a design attitude of "all-roundedness" which is great for some but others don't like the lack of a particular flair for one small area of biking. Each to their own. One thing we can all agree on though is just how much of an engineering triumph the NR was. Oval pistons which worked everyday and a basic heads-up-display in 1992... If you cannot afford one then buy an RC36, it's not far off it in terms of design anyway and if you want to changer the screen you won't have to mortgage the house. Even a screen for an NR costs several thousand euro as they are titanium coated. And if you need another spare part Honda locate the original worker who made the original part and have him/her supervise the making of the replacement to ensure it is exactly as it should be. That is a level of precision, not just on an engineering scale, but on a human scale, that is typically Japanese. If I end up on straight miles of road at least this gives me something to think about!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Post 4 - Such a far away dream (or is it?)

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts detailing my preparation for a trip to France on my VFR. This one is 
less personal than post 3 but I think it contains some interesting observations on the idea of an adventure, or a dream, and the control of that. And some comments on a soft rear shock.

I messaged a fellow VFR rider who I count as a friend a few hours ago to let him know that I would be having something to eat in Rosslare before catching the ferry after that on Sunday. Hitting 'send' and thinking of what I had just typed out seemed to bring the trip all the closer and remind me of the things I should do before I can say that I am fully ready. I know I could just forget that and not worry but then I did say in the first post of this series that I would do my best to over-complicate things! Still, today wasn't a bad day by any means in that my new tyre has been dispatched and I bought a 10mm hose joiner as well. This might seem like a strange acquisition but the fuel pumps on mid-nineties Japanese bikes are often a little unreliable. While I changed the points on mine in September I am ever wary of it jamming up and when it does jam up it jams up in such a way that the pump is closed so fuel cannot even flow by force of gravity. My worst nightmare would be to have to post up a story of how my fuel pump failed causing me to miss the ferry so a 10mm hose joiner was a must to carry under the seat. If the worst was to happen all I would have to do is use the joiner to bypass the fuel pump and, as long as the tank was kept over halfway full, I could ride on. The thing is though, at this point in time, I have no tool kit with which to dismantle bits and pieces at the roadside. Well I do but it would be much too large to fit to the back of the bike! Or under the seat! Like the tyre and hose joiner though it is something I am working on and I even managed to type out a short list on my phone last night of what documents would need to be photocopied before Sunday. The organisation then, is slowly taking shape.

Shiny in the sun after washing, polishing, and waxing the day before. 17 years old and 67000 miles.

Some people will never have to organise and prepare this much for a holiday in their lives and while this is not really a holiday as such (as work will be coming with me) it still applies. When we think of a holiday we think of a plane taking us to a sunny beach, all we need is a beach towel, passport and bank card and maybe some sun cream. You don't become intimately involved in preparing the aircraft yourself, you don't decide on the route (just the destinations on offer), you don't tend to consult with locals to ask for their opinions (although sites such as Tripadvisor are changing this to a certain extent I suppose). With the preparation for this trip I have become involved on all of these levels and use this blog to express my thoughts on it all. I have, and still am, preparing the bike, planning my route and consulting with various people, including readers of the blog, on what I do when in France etc. It's a gratifying experience really because it empowers me and shows me that, in a world where control is increasingly taken away from the end-user, that I still have a good deal of control over my own little dream trip. Yes, as I have said before, this is not a round-the-world adventure, I probably will not have to hike across tundra to find water (!), but it is a big adventure for me. 

The reasons these thoughts came to mind today was because I happened to talk to a couple of people briefly and mentioned I was taking the bike to France. They seemed amazed and it coupled nicely with my theory that there are many many people out there who dream of having a bike, and the freedom that supposedly comes with one, someday but, for whatever reasons, have put it off and may never get one. The overburdened fathers in the B&Q carpark on a Sunday morning who crane their necks at the sound of an approaching motorbike are the type of people I am talking about in this instance. Many would love a bike and the freedom it can bring but many will never make the time for it, busy as they are. That's not to say I am not busy, I am, but I have no kids to worry about! Instead a lot of these people will go to the travel agent and sign up for a package holiday which will allow them to relax but which, in the process, takes away a lot of the control they would otherwise have over their break. One is not better than the other but there are virtues to taking control of your own little break and one of those virtues is in the preparation such as the ordering of a new tyre, the cleaning of the machine, the ordering of a fuel hose joiner "just in case". In a sense it also stretches out the break because it forces you to think a little more about it and, for me anyway, I envision things ahead and that just makes the anticipation all the better. Overall though it proves that you can be independent and that you can make your own pathway.

To wrap all of this up I think it might be wise to note that to do this properly a list will soon be needed and so, tomorrow's post might just include a list of things I need to do as of yet. We'll see what comes into my mind...

 By the way, today's post was actually going to be about the suspension set-up of the bike in preparation for the trip but that might just have to wait for another day. As I was riding home from university through the city I was noticing, and have been noticing a lot lately, the back end of the bike is getting pretty soft. It's become worse since putting 10wt fork oil in the front and installing Progressive Suspension springs in place of the OEM ones. Now the front does not dive as much and is very controlled and I think it might be showing up a tired rear shock. With the weight of some luggage going to France it might be time to play around with preload and damping settings. I can add it to the list!

Until next time, thanks for reading!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Post 3 - Clean machine, clean mind???

This is the third in a series of blog posts detailing my preparation for a trip to France on my VFR. This one is a little personal, perhaps too much so, but I hope it gives you an idea of the depth of thought I get into when washing the bike.

"You missed a spot". "There's a little bit of dirt still there". These are mainstays of those who poke fun at someone who spends hours cleaning something. I've used them myself many times and, indeed, have had them used at me too. I've always considered myself to be a very neat person because tidiness allows me to get on with whatever I have at hand, whether that be work, thinking, reading, looking. A tidy space allows, for me, a tidy mind. This all feeds into the stereotype of the predictable person who has everything in order, is punctual, doesn't defy authority and fits into neat stereotypical boxes. The thing is, although I love having things neat and tidy, I have never been known as being punctual (I've become better but I see myself as adhering to a more Italian way of timing rather than, say Germanic). I probably am a little predictable but then if I think of some of my former classmates in school I doubt any of them predicted, based on my behaviour in school, that I would love motorbikes. Perhaps some of them predicted that I would go on to do a PhD in university, and specifically, in history based on my love of that subject in school. I may have predicted that I would go on and do this as well (I originally wanted to be a history teacher) but I am not sure if I would ever have predicted some of the mindsets that I have entertained and considered throughout my two and  half years in the PhD. Where am I going with all of this?

Setting up the powerhose (I know, I know, never use one on a bike...I think you can as long as you are very careful and never spray too close, otherwise bearings and electrical components and seals become unhappy), bringing the car shampoo, polish, and wax out to the front of the house, I began to think about all of this. Not far across the road was a guy, same age as I am, who now has a kid and is married but who had kinda bullied me back in my primary school days. I never had a huge circle of friends in school but he was a constant bugbear until one day I finally decided to take him on. He ran away. I didn't get the satisfaction of really hitting him but still... Anyway as I saw him I wondered did he have any idea where I am now in my life and would he ever have thought that a softy like me would have a motorbike. As I wondered I set the powerhose up and began to shower the bike with water to loosen any dirt particles before applying a sponge to it. I used Farecla's G3 range of paint detox, paint renovator and resin wax which I can heartily recommend even if the wax is hard work (smells nice though). Having thoroughly wet the bike I applied my clean sponge and, one panel at a time, worked in the paint detox shampoo. This stuff is supposed to take off prior layers of wax to leave a bare surface for a polish and wax afterwards and you can almost feel that when you run a finger on the paint afterward. Also the water dries off in a different way than it would if you used a wax shampoo like Turtle Wax Car Shampoo. 

The Honda logo from the fuel tanks reflects on a polished panel.

The RC36 model of VFR has many little vents and sections in the plastic which require attention when cleaning and as I got further into the details I began to think of where I was right now in my life. The bike then, while its paintwork was being reconditioned by me, was, in a sense, also reconditioning my mind and forcing what had previously been ingrained and unthought to come out and be examined like the bits of dirt that stick to paintwork over time. The bike wasn't dirty by any means, most would have said it did not need washing but as for my mind, well it's not been as neat and tidy as I would like for quite some time. On the surface everything looks fine but underneath there are torrents of thought which scatter whatever order I have managed to find. The PhD is the central part of this and while I love history and love studying it, the PhD has changed me and I find myself more irritable, much less relaxed and stressed out. Cleaning the bike allows you to think about these deep inner thoughts, or so I think, because you concentrate on the action of cleaning. You are not distracted and therefore have space to think. And space to clean out the mind and try and bring order to the disorder inside. These were deep thoughts for me but the act of cleaning the bike allowed them to come to the surface, it may actually have brought them right up to the surface. Here I was doing something I really love, paying close attention to a motorbike, while thinking about something else I love but am having real difficulty with. 

There are two frames of view for both aspects both the cleaning and the thinking. Today as I cleaned every nook and cranny of the VFR I was up close to it, examining each and every bit, with every small thing contributing to the bigger picture. There are many who wash their bikes with a garden hose and some shampoo from the shower and as long as it looks decent from ten or twenty feet away they are happy and the VFR could be looked at similarly, I could stand back and admire it but in doing so overlook the smaller things which annoy me up close like scratches or a rusty fastener or two. My thinking today, about my life right now, went in a similar but opposite way. The closer, short-term, image looks decent. Doing a PhD is something many have said to me that they'd also love to do (not sure if I would recommend however), I have gotten to research in the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and see Atlanta, give a conference paper in Newcastle in the UK, can pick my own hours and I even get to teach (which is my real passion I think). However if you step back and look at the longer-term, twenty feet, image, things seem different. There is no end date for my PhD, I have research plans which never seem to stick, I feel lost in space at times, by the time I have my foot on a career ladder I will be nearing 30, there is no serious funding readily available for my research so I can never treat it as a full-time job as such and money must always be watched carefully. Not to mention points where I have felt mentally and emotionally drained to the point where I feel sick. These are right dichotomies. 
Researching in a Presidential Library. Nice in the short-term image...sorry there is no bike here!

As I put the powerhose away and began to rub the paint restorer (which is basically a polish) onto the paintwork (starting with the tank), I had no idea of what to make of what was going on in my head. The paint restorer gently abrades dirt from the surface and smooths out the surface for the wax. It, essentially, prepares the freshly washed and freshly bared surface for a protectant coating and I wondered if it were possible to use some of this on my brain to smooth things out inside. I'm not bald so it would be considerably more difficult to rub in though. Neither is my skin metallic, this particular stuff is for metallic paints. Hmm. While there was no more order to the thoughts in my head at this point, I did feel that, since taking the cleaning stuff out to start, that there was more substance to the thoughts jumbled up inside. I had more to say about them, if not what order to say that in. The bike itself was beginning to look rather dapper again, the metallic flakes in the green paintwork were really to the fore now, the rare sun making them dazzle. For a 17 year old bike with almost 67,000 miles on the clock the paint really does look well, to the point where there were moments when some of the metal flakes seemed to be floating within a pool of thick paint. The resin wax added to the shine and smoothed out the surface but was difficult to put on what with it being quite thick. All that was left from here was the black plastics which I use WD40 on in order to restore there proper colour. And then a quick spray of it into the control switches to get rid of excess water which may have crept in. The devil is in the details in these little jobs, overlook them and see your electrics eventually turn to dust. At least that is what I think. 
Done, the photographer's reflection is to the left of the visible front indicator!

Standing back at this point and admiring the bike from ten feet back the little scratches that are evidence of 17 years of use on the road were much harder to see. The little bits of dirt in tiny nooks that I simply could not reach were invisible now, the overall sheen of the bike capturing my eye and preventing any deviations. Being honest, I was happy with that day's work, I could be proud of the VFR again. As for my own mind the overall sheen of the clean VFR made me focus a little more on the nicer short-term, closer image, of my own life. Such things as cleaning the VFR are part of that more short-term picture (cleaning a VFR is hardly up there with mortgages and careers in terms of life events is it? Maybe it is...) and it had brought me a lot of satisfaction today so perhaps by concentrating on these more short-term bits then I could bring myself that little bit more satisfaction. As I tidied the cleaning products away and parked up the VFR the thoughts in my head were no more in order but they were certainly "cleaner", they were a little more defined. It might seem a little mad but in cleaning my bike I often think I am cleaning my own mind, or at least allowing it some space to shake off some of the deposits that rest and stick over time. 

As an aside, if an important one, I bought a new rear tyre for the VFR today. A Metzeler Z8 which I will have to fit during the week. I also have a mini compass on the way which I will stick to the cockpit of the VFR for navigation (I will be using maps I think as I cannot afford mobile data roaming for navigation through Google Maps on my phone) and I even took out my set of freebie panniers and hosed them free of dust so they will be ready for the trip too. Also, thank you for reading this far, I know this has been a long one and a very personal one too, I just hope that I managed to convey the connection between cleaning the bike and time for personal thoughts that I recognise!