RTW on 100cc underbones - Underboning the World
In December of 2010, I floated the idea of riding around the world on motorbikes past my wife. Fun, excitement, the open road, oh, and crooked border agents, rain and stifling heat, and “It’s gonna cost how much?!?” After some discussion and basic research, we decided that it was a dumb idea. We had recently completed a nearly 9 month backpacking trip in SE Asia and were getting antsy to go somewhere again, but where? We settled on backpacking around India and then revisiting our favorite places in SE Asia with the idea of finding a place we liked and settling in to teach English for a few years. Plan decided, we started doing the research but never could get really excited about it. No other plan had the excitement, challenge, or potential epic nature of the motorbike trip. So in the end of May, we once again returned to the RTW idea, but with a twist.
We would do it on underbones. We were, of course, inspired by nathanthepostman and Dabinche and our own travels through SE Asia. We had rented scooters and underbones in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Indonesia and had enjoyed the slower pace that they enforced. We’ve found that 35 mph is the perfect pace for much of the developing world. Parts are widely available, mechanics know how to work on them, tires are easily available, and we wouldn’t look like invaders from another planet. They are also inexpensive (better for Carnet) and lightweight (better if they decide to take a nap or need to be loaded in a boat). We also chose underbones for more personal reasons. We had considered going 2-up on my V-strom, but Re (my wife) is too small (and short) to ride it solo if I was ever unable to. So we looked at taking two bikes. Most of the advice suggests taking identical bikes as to only have to carry one set of spares and tools. So what then? We considered CRF-230s and XT-250s but finally settled on underbones for the reasons mentioned above.
So which underbone? Initially I had thought of the Honda CT-110s, but eventually settled on the mighty SYM Symba! Our local dealer was having a sale on Symbas ($1999 each) and they were about the same price as a good CT-110 but with the advantage of being 30 years newer. Some basic research into the Symbas showed that they are (probably) capable of the miles and hours we will be requesting of them. Another advantage is that there is a SYM importer on every continent we plan to visit (hopefully eliminating the 3-month wait other riders have encountered for a new final drive or other such nonsense). Additionally, they are just good old motorbikes, no ABS, no EFI, no computer of any sort - just a carb, a piston, a backup kickstarter, and one fuse. I can fix these with hand tools and a shop manual. All that and about 100 mpg!
These bikes will hopefully be our trusty companions for the next twelve to fourteen months as we wind our way across the USA (from Oregon to North Carolina), up to Toronto (where our bikes get on the plane), to Capetown, South Africa and through India, SE Asia, and (if our money and butts hold out) Indonesia and Australia, before flying back to Los Angeles and riding up the coast back to Portland.
I guess we should tell you a little bit about ourselves and how we ended up at this point. I (Colin) am 44 years old, have a professional degree, and have been an avid motorcyclist for many years. My parents always forbade motorcycles and it took me a few years to realize I was old enough to do whatever the I wanted to, so at 25 I took the MSF course and never looked back. In the past 19 years I have racked up over 180K miles of street, dirt, and road racing with WERA and CCS. I have wrenched on and rebuilt both motorcycles and cars, both two and four stroke, and my wife has been my “tool monkey’ all along. Re is 42 and has less riding experience but is an MSF grad and has lots of miles on her (former) KLX650C ‘motard that we built for her.
A few years ago we had an epiphany of sorts, realizing that we really don’t have to do anything we don’t want to. At the time, we had been married for 19 years and had always lived as if we might someday have kids. Working two jobs, buying homes in good school systems, climbing the ladder, moving for better jobs, and saving for the proverbial “rainy day”. We, however, found ourselves childless and forty. So why were we doing what we were doing? We had just moved to another town we didn’t want to live in, farther from friends and family, for a job I didn’t really want and it suddenly hit me - why? Why be here? Why not just do what we wanted to do instead? No kids, no responsibilities, no reason to leave a legacy - why wait any more? Honestly, it was kind of staggering - if you didn’t have to do anything for at least a few years, what would you do?
When we were in high school, I would get the new copy of the “Lets Go Guide to Europe” every year and sit down with a highlighter and we would dream of where we would go. But after college there were jobs and houses and careers and friends and family and never any time to go anywhere for more than a two week vacation. That pesky “Let’s Go” memory came flooding back, and we decided to quit our jobs, put everything we didn’t sell or donate into storage and just go. We settled on SE Asia (as we love the food and we really just travel to eat!) and started planning. It took about 10 months to disentangle our lives and shoulder our packs, but we were off with a one-way ticket to Vietnam. After about 9 months of bumming around Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, and Singapore, we found ourselves in Portland, Oregon. We once again tried to get back into the daily grind but it didn’t last long. The genie was already out of the bottle. We found ourselves cruising ADVRider, HUBB, and various “Teach English Abroad” websites. (One of our traveling companions said to never fly first class, that way you don’t know what you are missing - we now know what we are missing) Perusing the RR section of ADV led us to nathanthepostman’s trip, Dabinche’s Alaska adventure, and to Brian and Marie’s 2uprtw story and off we go again!
So what are we taking?
For luggage we decided on a Pelican Storm iM2600 topcases, topped by an Ortlieb 49L waterproof duffel, all mounted to Carter Brothers’ rear racks and secured with a pair of Rok-Straps each.
We also installed stock SYM front racks to carry our spare 1 gallon gas cans on. We also made a set of “custom” bike covers to attract less attention when parked.
We are carrying a fairly complete tool kit including wrenches that can turn every fastener on the bikes as well as spare wire, JB Weld, zip-ties, rags, rubber gloves, a funnel, and more. We were also able to get some spares from the new SYM importer and have a spare set of cush rubbers, a brake lever and cable, a complete set of wheel bearings, an air filter, spare chains and master links, inner tubes, and spark plugs, spare tires and a set of stock sprockets. We also have tire irons, a Lezyne micro pump, Dupont Teflon chain lube and a fairly extensive patch kit. All of our bikes and luggage will be secured by a couple of Krypto cables, Pacsafe covers for the Ortliebs, and a couple of alarmed cable locks and a bunch of padlocks for the Pelicans.
For riding gear we are each wearing Darien Light jackets and pants and Nolan N90 helmets. As we plan to do a fair bit of walking and hiking, we went with Vasque Goretex hiking boots in lieu of dedicated riding boots. We are also each carrying 5 sets of underwear, socks, and shirts and three pairs of convertible pants. A lightweight Marmot rain jacket, set of Smartwool micro weight base layers, bathing suit and pair of sandals each rounds out the wearables.
For camping we have a Mountain Hardware Drifter 2 tent and footprint, Big Agnes Yampa bags and Air Core pads, and silk bag liners. A Coleman Expedition 442 stove (runs on unleaded) and MSR Quick 2 cookware will provide us some snacks and a First Need XL water purifier (and a spare cartridge) and two 4L MSR Dromedary bags should give us safe drinks. Two Big Agnes Easy Chairs will give us a place to plop at the end of the ride.
Our first aid kit includes the usual potions and plasters as well as some dermabond, suture closures, needles and syringes, doses of malaria meds, Cipro and azythromycin (apparently Dehli Belly is now Cipro resistant). For toiletries we have the usual bathing, brushing and shaving stuff but are using Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap for most things and Re is trying the solid shampoo and conditioner from Lush Cosmetics.
For electronics, we have an iPhone, and iPod touch, a GoPro Hero HD video camera, a laptop (complete with the Symba shop manual), and a Panasonic DMC-ZS1 camera, and a Garmin 60CSx, and a ton of cables to plug this into that.r
Add in a poop trowel, kite, a Frisbee, a compass, storm lighter, a headlamp, a tent lantern, a couple of flashlights, some clothes drying stuff, and a Swiss Army knife or two and we are good to go.
More trip preparation
When we decided to actually go on this trip it was nearly the end of May. The lease on our apartment was up on July 31st. This made August the natural starting point for the trip, but it only gave us 13 weeks to plan the trip and get everything else done.
Excited about the idea, we went to the travel section of Powells Books and pulled out the Lonely Planets. We quickly came up with a list of countries we’d like to visit and of those we wouldn’t. Central and South America are natural destinations for North Americans, but given the security concerns, we quickly crossed them off our list. We had traveled in Southeast Asia a couple of years ago and loved it. We wanted to return to see the places not easily accessed via public transportation, so we put it on our list. We had already done a bunch of research on India and Nepal, so they went on the list as well. Also on the list was riding across the US from Portland, Oregon where we lived, to Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio, where we had family and friends. This left the question of how to connect the east coast of the United States and India. We briefly considered Europe but nixed it due to the expense and relative cultural similarity.
That left Africa. But where? Central Africa was never on the list- visiting active war zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia was not an attractive proposition. Northern Africa also seemed iffy with the unrest of the Arab Spring and recent relocation of the Dakar Rally. That left Southern Africa. So we filled our shopping basket with the Lonely Planet Southern Africa, India, and Southeast Asia on a Shoestring and headed home.
The next day, we consulted weather charts on the internet, which pretty much set our schedule. Our route will (hopefully) hit the dry but not too hot path around the world. We also made a list of countries that require carnet, visas in advance, and made a quick list of comparative costs by country. After doing some ciphering on the money, we decided we could afford the twelve to fourteen months of travel our trip now encompassed.
So, decision confirmed, I headed down to Classic Scooter and Cycle in Portland and purchased two brand spankin’ new, baby blue Symbas. I spent the next couple of weeks glued to the computer screen scouring ADVRider, HUBB, and Symforum for advice on gear, the bikes, and travel planning. We soon started making decisions on gear purchases, and boxes began to arrive at our door. It was like Christmas every day! At the same time, I started working to arrange Carnet du Passage for the trip. This was a relatively easy process; Suzanne Danis, at the CAA, is great to work with. The only hitch in the Carnet process was a strike by the Canadian Postal Service, but a digital camera and email got our documents to Canada without trouble.
Re was in charge of medications and vaccines. She did the research as to what we needed and set up the appointments. We added yellow fever, polio, and our final hepatitis shots to our list of immunizations. We also got prescriptions for Cipro, Azithromycin, and curative doses of Malarone (for malaria) to include in our first aid kit.
The bikes were prepped for the trip- we had a blast putting on the break-in mileage. We installed various racks and a 12V charger to keep our electronics juiced up on the road. Spare parts were difficult as SYM has recently changed importers, but Michael at Alliance Powersports came through for us in a big way. Because of the lack of spare parts in the country and the time involved in getting them from overseas, Alliance actually pulled our spares off of the last new Symba they had in stock.
Shipping the bikes was a nightmare all on its own and almost stopped our trip before it began. It turns out that getting bikes to Europe is easy, but to Africa, not so much. Re spent untold hours on the internet and telephone trying to find anyone who would even give us a quote for shipping to Africa. I also spent hours scouring HUBB and ADVRider for any possibilities. Re finally got a quote from a US shipper of around 4200 USD for a 20 foot shipping container, which would take a mere 50 days to get to Durban, or 8500 USD!!! by air to Johannesburg. That seemed like an awful lot for two tiny, little 199 pound bikes. But Re persevered and out of a call to Royal Air Maroc, the idea of shipping from Canada arose. Re then researched route maps from eastern Canada to Africa and discovered that British Airways has service from Toronto to Cape Town, South Africa. She definitely didn’t have her hopes up when she called British Airways Cargo in Toronto and was connected with our new best friend, Savio. When asked about shipping our bikes, Savio said, “Sure, when do you want them there?” He followed this up with an email quote and an explanation of weight by volume. Basically, if we pull off the front wheels and fenders, detach the handlebars, and stuff both bikes into a crate, the rate will be approximately 2000 USD. He also recommended a crating company and a company to handle the dangerous goods paperwork.
With most of the trip planning done by the beginning of July, we turned our attention to making arrangements for being on the road for a year or more. We sold our cars, other motorcycles, and a variety of household goods with the assistance of eBay and Craigslist. We also had to quit jobs, cancel utilities, and pack all of our worldly possessions for storage. Arranging to have our few bills paid, mail answered and taxes completed took a bit more doing (thanks mom and dad!). We also had to arrange to maintain our professional licenses while we are gone. Paperwork out of the way we then had to pack up everything we still have and move it to climate-controlled storage. Over the last two trips we have pared our possessions down to a minimum and now all our stuff (including a Honda Minitrail 50 and a Honda RS250/CR500 race bike) fit in a 7.5ft x 10ft x 10ft storage unit with room to spare. With two days to go before departure we were camping in our now empty apartment. While Re cleaned the apartment (hopefully we will get our security deposit back!) I did final prep on the bikes and made a run to the hazardous waste disposal. The final night saw one last trip to the Horse Brass for fish and chips and a pint of deliciousness before our departure. Tummies full, we crawled into our Big Agnes bags and tried to sleep.
July 30, 2011
After a surprisingly decent night’s sleep, we awoke before the alarm even went off. It was kind of like Christmas morning, we were wide awake and ready to go. I had estimated that we should be able to make 300 or more miles per day, but this was based on nothing more than a guess. Around town we had seen speeds of 50mph or so, but we had never ridden our bikes fully loaded and had no idea what kind of speeds we’d be able to maintain as we headed up over the mountains with 50-60 pounds of gear. As our first stop was about 275 miles into the center of Oregon, I figured we should be on the road at 8am. We quickly showered, drank our coffee, and got busy loading the bikes and taking out the trash. We soon found that we didn’t have nearly as much luggage space as we thought, so the 1 gallon Ziploc bag of Corn Chex and almost full bottle of whiskey were unceremoniously chucked into the dumpster.
After shedding a quick tear (for the whiskey), we heaved our little piggies off of their side stands and headed out for the first stop of the day. Which was about 5 miles down the road for a bagel and coffee. Now we were ready to roll. It took us a few miles to get used to the effect the added weight had the bikes and stop looking like a couple of drunken sailors weaving down the road. We made our way through urban Portland into the suburbs and eventually found ourselves facing the first real climb of the trip - Mount Hood. Highway 26 (our route for the next couple of days) winds its way around the side of Mount Hood and we soon found that while we could comfortably cruise at about 43-46mph in fourth gear on level ground, third gear and 35mph was our best pace on anything steeper than a moderate hill.
It was on this stretch of road that we discovered that images of cars and trucks in our side mirrors as they jockeyed to pass us were to be our constant companion for most of the trip. As we neared the pass at the top of 26, the sun broke through the gloom that has been winter, spring, and summer in Portland and we both started smiling inside out helmets. Re let out a whoop that I could hear from 50 feet away - we were finally on our way. The rest of the trip that day was fairly uneventful, we had to stop and refuel from our fuel jugs, we met some nice people who were interested in our trip, and we rode into the high desert that is central and eastern Oregon.
I also discovered that I had a lot more time to look around and enjoy the scenery at 45mph than I ever had on my Concours or Strom. We also both found our flinch at being passed way too closely began to subside by the end of the day. At the end of a beautifully warm and sunny day, we rolled into the Clyde Holliday state park in Mt. Vernon, Oregon. The sign said that the campground was full, but the camp host quickly pointed us to their “Bike and Hike” section where motorcyclists, bicyclists, and hikers can pitch their tents for $5 per person.
We set up camp and then rode into John Day for dinner at Subway. We used to live and work in John Day a few years ago and also ran into a few old friends and acquaintances. We then headed back to the campground for a good night’s sleep.
293 miles today, bikes ran great except that Re’s bike made a “funny sound” once.
July 31 and April 1, 2011
We woke with the sun, we are going to have to learn to adjust to the new schedule of going to bed when the sun goes down and rising this freaking early. This was a rest day as our friends were throwing a BBQ later that afternoon. After a leisurely morning around the campsite, I broke out the tools and gave the bikes a once-over. The tire pressures on both of our bikes were inexplicably low (operator error, I’m sure) and I set them to my preferred 30/34. Chain tension was still correct (for what would probably be the only day of the first half of our trip), so they each got a shot of chain lube and were pronounced good. Oil levels were also good and fasteners were also tight except for Re’s swingarm nut that was an RCH loose. After a quick brunch of fried chicken and local peaches from the grocery store, we toured a few of the places we used to live and wandered to the BBQ in the early afternoon. We spent the rest of the day eating, talking and laughing before heading back to Clyde Holliday for another night.
The next morning we rose early (again) and exchanged pleasantries with a couple of Harley-mounted riders who spent the night there as well. We struck camp and were on the road by 8am, and we reluctantly stopped at the local McDeath to eat a breakfast of Sausage McMuffins standing next to the bikes. Little did we know that those greasy, pork-like handfuls would be our only food for the next 12 hours. The day started out warm and quickly turned hot; by noon the bank signs read 96 degrees. I know that this is cool compared to the summer many folks had, but we were living in Portland - which just experienced the third coolest spring ever. We were pleasantly surprised by the venting in our Darien Lights- hot temperatures and low humidity weren’t too bad. Riding out of Prairie City, Oregon, we faced our first 5000 foot pass over Dixie Mountain. We made it, but again found ourselves in third gear and cruising at 35mph. Throughout the morning, we wound our way through the sagebrush and scrubby junipers that dominate the landscape in eastern Oregon and western Idaho. Over the next several hours of riding, fuel stops, and water breaks, we hop-scotched back and forth with the Harley riders from the campground.
Because we can’t legally travel on interstate highways (anything with a blue sign is a no-go) we have to take the “scenic routes”. While they do provide some nice scenery in places, we also found them to be lacking in services. Bringing extra gas cans turned out to be great planning as in many places, gas stations were father apart than our 100 mile range. We also learned to shake out the fuel nozzle on our fuel cans, after we stopped to refuel and watched helplessly as a beetle that apparently crawled inside the tube spiraled around in the refueling funnel before disappearing into Re’s fuel tank. Doh! The “scenic” nature of the route also meant that there were few places to eat along the way. This combined with the heat led us to skip lunch and simply press on. We finally arrived in Bliss, Idaho (after missing one turn and subsequently backtracking) after 8pm with no campground and no dinner. We finally ate at a café inside a local gas station (it was pretty good) before hot-footing it south to Hagerman, Idaho and our campground for the evening. We set up the tent by the light of the headlamp and crawled inside to pass out.
359 miles in about 12 hours of riding. The bikes ran pretty well but don’t seem to like the altitude, I had to adjust the idle speed higher a couple of times.
8/2 Hagerman, Idaho to Hoback Junction, WY
We awoke to an overcast morning, and the lack of sunlight coupled with the hard ride the previous day made for a slow start to the day. After firing up the Coleman 442, I unrolled my tarp and got to work on the bikes. Both bikes needed a chain adjustment and quick lube. The oil level was still mid-dipstick on both bikes, but Re’s exhaust header nuts were slightly loose. Re also needed a couple of psi in the front and rear tires. We eventually got everything packed up, and a shower and coffee gave us the necessary kick in the pants we needed to get back on the road.
We rode back to Bliss, Idaho and fueled up at the gas station where we ate the previous evening. We also enjoyed another breakfast standing bikeside, but this time of some pretty damned good breakfast burritos from the same place. Re also took the opportunity to add a couple of Clif bars and some trail mix to her daypack so we would at least have something to snack on if we couldn’t find lunch again. Suitably provisioned, we pulled out once again onto Hwy 26 and headed east. The central and much of the eastern part of Idaho reverted back to the sagebrush, juniper and rocks that dominated much of our Oregon leg, but without so much elevation change. Some people would describe it as starkly beautiful, the less romantic might call it monotonous.
One interruption to the monotony was the Craters of the Moon National Monument area that we encountered. Lava fields stretched on in all directions for many miles before giving way to… more sage. Sigh. Our other constant companions for the day were huge rain clouds visible to the south of us nearly the entire ride, but we never saw a drop. We eventually stopped in Blackfoot, Idaho for a late lunch and fuel stop, and both of our bikes refused to idle. After Re’s bike stalled and refused to re-start quickly while sitting at a now green light in front of a cement truck that was impatiently honking at her, I had to turn the idle screw 1.5 turns to have any semblance of an idle. I also fattened up the A/F screw .25 of a turn to try to reclaim some of our lost power - when you only have 6.7 hp to begin with, you can’t afford to give much of it up! After a few more hours of riding we found ourselves in the beauty of the Targhee National Forest and were very happy to have the change in scenery (even if it did come with a whole new set of long, slow climbs).
As the sun started to get low in the sky, we wound our way into Wyoming and into the Bridger-Teton National Forest. This area is south of Jackson, Wyoming and the Grand Teton National Park and was absolutely stunning in its beauty. The bikes wheezed up and coasted down the roads on our way to Hoback Junction and the KOA that would be our home for the night. While Re checked us into the KOA (and scored a $5 discount with her storytelling skills) I again richened up the A/F mixture by another .25 of a turn; the bikes were not happy with the thin air at all. While I set up camp for the night, Re ran to the grocery store for the eggs, cheese and tortillas for dinner (and breakfast). As a special treat, she also came back with a couple of big bottles of Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid Ale. Yum! We spent the chilliest night of the trip so far- I had to put my fleece on in the middle of the night, but Re was OK as she had opted for the insulated Big Agnes Aircore mat.
326 miles in about 12 hours of riding, bikes not at all happy with the altitude and hill climbs and were punishing their chains.
8/3 Hoback Junction, Wyoming to Alcova, Wyoming
After a chilly night we awoke to a hot breakfast of eggs and flour tortillas and coffee all fixed by my lovely riding companion. It’s so nice to wake up to a familiar face in an unfamiliar place (and to curl up with a familiar form when sleeping in an unfamiliar place!). I once again set upon the bikes while Re began striking camp. The chains were a little loose, but I opted not to adjust them but instead to give them a squirt of lube. The tire pressures were still good, but our oil levels were both nearing the bottom of the acceptable fill level. We rode out in the still surprisingly chilly morning air and headed south on 191. The route across Wyoming was perhaps the least direct of all the states. Not being able to ride on I-80 really forced us into an odd route. The day’s trip zigzagged us south on 191 from Hoback Junction to 28 in Farson, north to nearly Lander and then south on 287 to Muddy Gap where we would finally head east on 220 to Alcova, our destination for the night.
Western Wyoming is a truly beautiful piece of the world. We have traveled all over the US (and the world) and we both agreed that western Wyoming is one of the prettiest places we have been. It’s what we always imagined the west to look like before we moved there. The high mountains, prairies full of wildflowers, and beautiful blue sky made today’s ride one of the most scenic of our trip so far. The roads were also nice and smooth, with very little traffic - truly and enjoyable day’s ride. The central portion of Wyoming is more stark than the west but was still enjoyable.
The bikes, however, were not enjoying the altitude. We struggled up and over a few 8000+ foot passes and cruised through several prairies that were at over 7000 feet. The bikes ran OK at full throttle but completely lacked any midrange, and no amount of adjustments to the A/F screw seemed to help. We are going to have to figure out a better solution before we get to India and Nepal! On the plus side, the lack of midrange and looong climbs up the many hills did allow us to hone our drafting skills. If our speed fell below 45 mph, it was a quick trip to 35 mph and third gear. Re scoffed at the idea, but when I came by at about 5 mph faster than she could maintain, she quickly adopted the full TZ250 tuck as well. We spent much of the rest of the day swapping the lead and sniffing for the draft. These higher speeds and more time at WFO may have also contributed to our big problem for the afternoon.
Throughout the trip so far, we refueled whenever our main tanks would get low if fuel was available. If it wasn’t, we would share one of our gas cans and begin to look for fuel in earnest - keeping the second can for real problems. Toward the middle of the day, we stopped in Farson, Wyoming for gas and a Clif Bar. I figured we would be able to get fuel in Lander, about 80 miles up the road. When we arrived at the crossroads for 287 (the road we would take east) we found that it was about 10 miles short of Lander, so we pressed on without getting more fuel. We dipped into our first gas can shortly after we turned onto 287 and began to look for fuel. Now, we realized that Wyoming only has about 564,000 people, but what we didn’t know is that apparently only about 5 of them live on Hwy 287. After emptying our second gas can into our thirsty little piggies, we started to get a little more than a little concerned. Miles of nothing rolled by, and we lowered our average speed in an attempt to conserve what fuel we could, eyes straining to see around the next corner or over the next hill. When our fuel lights started flashing to warn us we could only ride about 15 miles before we’d need to start hoofing it, we stopped and pulled out the GPS to try and locate the nearest town and (hopefully) fuel. The GPS showed that Muddy Gap was a mere 3 miles farther down the road and that there was a gas station there, too. Yay! We hot-footed it down the road and whooped in our helmets as we pulled into the station. As I rode up to the pumps, my excitement quickly turned to dread when the meaning of the hand-lettered signs on every pump that either said “Out of Order” or “Empty” sank into my brain. I went inside and asked the cashier if they really had no fuel and he replied that “Maybe tomorrow we will get some more”. I then asked where the nearest other station was, and he said either Rawlins or Alcova, both about 45 miles away.
I slowly walked back to the bikes and broke the good news to Re. While we sat there contemplating draining all the fuel into one bike and going for it, the cashier came outside and suggested that we might try the fire department across the highway. I spied the large fuel tanks behind their building, so we rode over prepared to do many kinds of things in exchange for some fuel. We, however, found that it was a volunteer fire department and no one was there. While our thoughts started turning to larceny, a pick-up truck pulled in carrying our new favorite people, Jim and Donna Sheridan. They asked what we were looking for and we explained our plight. They then invited us to their house up the road a mile or so, and Jim was gracious enough to give us each about a gallon of liquid love (it was actually 85 octane unleaded) and refused to take anything for it. We thanked them and quickly headed up 220 towards Alcova as BIG thunderstorms moved in our direction from the south.
They finally caught up with us as we arrived at the outskirts of Alcova and drenched us for 10 minutes or so. We arrived at the only gas station in Alcova at 7:30pm only to find that they closed at 6! Unable to easily find camping, and wet from the rain, we spent the night at the Riverview Motel (where you pay the bartender at the bar/restaurant out front for your room). It was a very nice mom-and-pop type motel and we ate at the bar before heading to bed for a great night’s sleep.
334 miles in about 11 hours, bikes had altitude related problems but otherwise ran fine.
8/4 Alcova, Wyoming to Sterling, Colorado
After a good night of sleep at the Riverview Motel, we awoke to a our usual routine of bike maintenance and packing up stuff. It was a nice change not to have to pack up all our camping gear for a change, and this allowed us to get on the road a little earlier than normal. The bikes, however, did need some extra attention. Forgoing the chain adjustment the prior day was a mistake- both of our chains were swinging pendulously inside the chain cases. The spec is for .66 - 1 inch of play but our chains had nearly 2 inches of play! After they were adjusted I also found that our oil levels were at the minimum on the dipstick, my swingarm nut was slightly loose, and Re’s tires again needed about 2 psi each. Our first stop was the gas station that closed at 6 pm the prior night, where we fuelled up, got some hunormous breakfast burritos and a quart of oil. With everyone topped off, we headed out for Laramie and Colorado beyond.
This was the worst day on the road so far (hopefully it will turn out to be the worst of the trip), bad roads, bad weather, aggressive drivers, and sore butts to boot. The ride started out OK but it started to rain on and off after we got through Laramie. The rain stopped by the Colorado border but would return with a vengeance later. The roads today were punctuated by expansion joints at what seemed like 10 foot intervals and our butts and spines took a pounding (something was said about feeling like Mike Tyson’s cellmate at one point). We also encountered the most aggressive drivers of our trip so far, and the peaceful pace that we had experienced up to that point evaporated south of Laramie. Traffic was flying and even though we were on a divided highway, drivers crowded us and passed extremely closely. I had a couple of instances where I could have slapped the back of a pick-up truck as it cut in front of me. No fun. The common denominator seemed to be Colorado license plates and trucks. We then had the misfortune of reaching Fort Collins at around 4 pm and traffic got worse, I guess it was early rush hour as we hit 14 East. Here we had people swerving at us as they passed and had to take to the shoulder a couple of times. This was usually accompanied by a driver flipping us off. Nice. Better roads and calmer driving resumed as we put some distance between us and Fort Collins and we soon forgot about those troubles when we spotted a huge thunderstorm in our path.
While it was sunny and clear to the north and south of 14, directly in our path was a storm that must have been 50 miles wide. There was no light visible through the storm, just solid blue-black from cloud to ground. It looked like Mordor from The Lord of the Rings, and I half-expected to see Sauron’s eye peering out at us as we rode closer. It seemed like we rode towards it for hours. As we neared the edge we stopped and zipped up all of our vents and said good-bye to each other (in case we didn’t make it through!). When we got to the edge of the storm we both waved to the three lifestyle riders on a side road who were watching us ride by. They pulled out and roared around us and we noted that they were wearing jeans and t-shirts - no jackets, no helmets, and no eye protection. (As an aside, while we are ATGATT riders, we normally don’t care what other people wear - not our business) They disappeared into the blackness before we hit the pea-sized hail followed by the huge raindrops and eventual downpour. The hail and rain pounding on our helmets made quite a racket and stung where it hit our jackets. I honestly have no idea what it must have felt like to our fellow riders. We rode on through the storm for about 30 minutes or so and eventually came out the other side about 20 miles from Sterling, Colorado, our destination for the night. Our Darien Lights did a great job. Despite the downpour, we both came through perfectly dry and so did the rest of our gear.
We rode into Sterling with one eye on the sky and started looking for a place for the night. The sky was dark in the distance but was clear overhead. We found our way to the tourist information center and used their wifi to check the radar and scout for campgrounds. The radar showed the storm we had just ridden through, but it appeared to all be passing to the north of Sterling, so we opted for camping. We found a campground about a mile out of town and set about putting up the tent before Re took off to find something to cook for dinner. While Re was gone, I continued to set up camp and watched the sky slowly turn darker and darker. About the time Re returned, the lightening began and the rain soon followed. We ended up cooking dinner under the overhang of the bath house and ate inside the laundry room while the storm raged outside. We have never experienced lightening striking that close to us or rain that hard. By the time the rain stopped 45 minutes later there was about 2 inches of standing water outside. We waded through the water to our tent and dove in for the night. One of the reasons we chose the Mountain Hardwear Drifter 2 tent was because it was guaranteed to be waterproof and we now believe it, not a drop of rainwater made it inside.
335 miles in about 11 hours, we could hear the chains dragging inside the chain case by the end of the day. Fuel mileage so far appears to be about 91 mpg.
8/5 Sterling, Colorado to Belleville, Kansas
We again had a great night's sleep but awoke to a soaking wet campground. After unzipping the rainfly and crawling out of the tent, we surveyed the damage. The water that surrounded the tent the previous night had disappeared but left behind a high water mark on the tent and our Ortliebs. One factor we didn't consider when we chose our lightweight and highly packable backpacking tent was exactly how little space we would have inside. We can get ourselves, our helmets, our daypacks and some odds-and-ends in the tent, but out other gear overnights in the vestibules of the rainfly when it is on the tent and hides under the partially attached fly when it isn’t. Our Darien Lights, however, have spent nights cable locked to the bikes. Hey, they're Goretex, they don't get wet, right? Wrong. The torrential rain and high wind of the previous night combined to completely soak our jackets and pants. Fortunately the laundry room/romantic dining spot was only about 100 feet from our front door, so we pitched the Dariens and our Yampas into the dryers for a quick tumble. We also moved our tent and footprint into the sun to speed their drying while we ate a breakfast of leftover bread and peaches and coffee. The bikes required some attention, too. Both bikes again needed a big chain adjustment, literally the chain adjusters had to be moved about half of one of the set of notches on the swingarm. The adjustment, a squirt of lube, and a quick prayer to the gods of tensile strength would hopefully get us to the middle of Kansas that day. All tires were about 2 psi low, and one of Re's exhaust header nuts was loose. After fixing those issues, I also adjusted both of our front brakes and pronounced them good. Both of us seemed to be working in slow motion all morning. Between the wet camp and the unpleasant ride of the previous day, neither of us felt very enthusiastic about getting back on the road (or doing anything, really). But with everything finally dry and packed up, we eventually got on the road at about 9:30 am.
Once we started riding, our moods began to improve. The roads were smoother, the traffic friendlier, and the morning air was cool and sweet. We could both feel our spirits lightening and were soon smiling in our helmets once again. As we headed into the morning sun, we both appreciated the tinted sunshields in our Nolan N-90s. As the morning went by, we found ourselves at the Nebraska border and were glad to put Colorado behind us. Nebraska was a welcome surprise- the roads were even better, the other drivers gave us room to live, and the gently rolling hills were much more to our Symbas' liking. In fact, the mighty SYMs were now cruising at an indicated 50 mph or better, up from our previous cruising speed of 45 (which is actually about 43 on the GPS). We were happy to see the better speeds as we had set for ourselves the ambitious goal of 750 miles in the next two days. We didn't realize the effect our higher speed was having at that time. Nebraska gave way to Kansas as we rode down US 83 towards Oberlin where we headed east once again, this time on US 36. US 36, our constant companion for the next 440 miles, was a revelation to me. We have driven all the way across Kansas a couple of times on I-70 and always found it to be eye-gougingly boring. This route, however, was made up of rolling hills through varied farmland, punctuated by small farm towns every 30 miles or so. Early in the afternoon, we stopped for a lunch of Clif bars and apples on a bench in front of a grocery store in one of the pretty small towns (whose name I forgot to write down). The afternoon turned warmer, but we unzipped all of our vents and were comfortable enough as long as we were moving. Mankato, Kansas was our original goal for the evening, but because of our new found speed, we reached it earlier than expected. The sun was low on the horizon, but we decided to head for Belleville which was about 35 miles farther down the road.
We rolled into Belleville sometime after 8 pm and started hunting for a place for the night but soon found there was no room at the inn. The two campgrounds that we found were both full?? We discovered that Belleville is the home of the “Belleville High Banks – The World's Fastest Half-Mile Dirt Track. And it was a race weekend. Whoops. Re soon spotted the billboard that let us know that this was also the weekend of the free County Fair. Double whoops. We split up and started canvassing all the hotels and motels in town, but there was only one room available – and what a room it was. The room was at America's Meth Value Inn, but the A/C was broken. We were offered this room and a fan for the low, low price of $51+tax (and that price included the AAA discount!). At this point, Re asked the manager if there were any other campgrounds in the area and I watched his eyes glaze over as he gestured towards an employee by the pool. She wasn't much help- she was obviously tweaking hard, as evidenced by her constant hopping form one foot to another, arms flailing in random directions, and inability to string five words together coherently. Meth – not even once. Our rapidly sinking hopes were suddenly buoyed by a man in a pick-up truck who was watching this bizarre spectacle. He called out to us to follow him to a campground and we fired up the Symbas and chased him into the fading evening light. A few twists and turns later, we arrived at Rocky Pond County Park and a beautiful campground near the lake. We waved our thanks to this kind stranger and quickly unloaded the bikes. It was extremely humid that night, but the temperature rapidly dropped to a more comfortable level and, thankfully, there were no mosquitoes. As I began setting up the camp for the night, Re took off to find dinner. It was already about 9:30 pm, and her choices were limited to Dairy Queen and Pizza Hut. When she returned, she had a large pepperoni pan pizza strapped to her topcase and two oil cans of Foster's Lager hanging from her handlebars. I love this woman. We sat down to dinner and only saved one piece each for breakfast the next morning (which she hung in a tree in case of marauding raccoons). Manna from heaven! Stuffed with food and beer and exhausted from the day, we happily crawled into the tent and crashed.
375 miles in about 11 hours. The bikes are running better and better, I fattened up the A/F screw and additional ¼ of a turn and had to adjust the idle higher a few times. It seemed like we stopped for fuel more often than usual. The chains are audibly dragging and the clutches are grabby.
8/6 Belleville, Kansas to Columbia, Missouri
After not getting to bed until sometime after 11 the night before, I had set the alarm for the comfortable hour of 7 am. The sun, however, had a different idea and woke us up nearer to 6 am. I looked up to see condensation hanging from the inside of the tent roof and remembered how amazingly humid it had been the previous evening. We rolled out onto the damp grass and saw that our tent looked like it had been rained upon. The sunrise over the lake and morning breeze made for a pleasant walk to the loo before we began our morning routine again. We once again had to put the tent and footprint in the sun so they could dry while we ate and began packing up.
A long row of picnic tables under a pavilion made a good place to lay out our stuff while we rolled and repacked our bags. Cold pizza and coffee finished, I set to the bikes. The chains were again dragging in the chaincases and had over two inches of play. Sigh. It was at this point that I knew they would need to be replaced once we reached Columbia, Missouri. At least all of our fasteners were tight and air pressures were still good. I also adjusted both clutches as they had become increasingly grabby, particularly when downshifting. When I record the adjustments made to the bikes, I also tote up the amount of fuel purchased the previous day and other costs. Yesterday's fuel purchases amounted to 10.2 gallons, which seemed awfully high – but maybe we started empty and filled up late in the day? And we did cover 375 miles, our most miles in a day so far. Huh.
Bikes sorted and repacked, we turned back onto US 36 for another few hundred miles. The morning was still damp and soon the temperature began to climb. Today's weather forecast called for highs in the mid-90s and a heat index of 105. Good practice for India and SE Asia, we both thought as we unzipped all our vents and loosened our wrist velcro for that extra bit of airflow. With lots of miles to cover, mostly flat roads, and a good place to be that night, we continued our faster pace through the day. Stopping for fuel on the outskirts of St Joseph, Missouri we noted the change between the less populated and more relaxed west and the more crowded and busy midwest. More towns, more cars, more stuff, less space between that stuff – not bad, just different.
Sometime after 1 pm we stopped for fuel at a station that had an attached Wendy's and decided to sit for a while and cool off with a drink that wasn't warm water from our MSR Dromedary bags. We, of course, walk in wearing our gear and again fail to blend in. We ended up chatting with several sets of people about our trip and the bikes, of course. Re has heard me give the spiel about SYM and the Symbas so often that I'm sure she could recite it verbatim. Talking about the trip can get a little tedious sometimes, but it can also be the kick in the pants that we need. It can occasionally be easy to forget what we are really doing when all we can see is another 150 miles before we can take off our gear and sit somewhere comfortable, but talking about it and seeing the reactions of others never fails to remind us. Feeling re-energized, we rode US 36 to Macon, where we stopped for gas again (haven't we been stopping for gas a lot today?) before heading south on US 63 for the final 60 miles into Columbia, Missouri, our destination for the night.
As we reached the outskirts of Columbia, I found myself once again watching our fuel lights rapidly go dark. When we finally stopped for dinner, I pulled out the figures for the last two days and discovered the price of our faster pace – our fuel mileage had dropped from an average of 91 mpg at 45 mph to something nearer to 75 mpg at 50mph. Ouch. The real concern with this much higher rate of usage is our range. With only a maximum of two gallons each, our range just fell from 180+ miles to 150 miles. We are going to have to watch this carefully in the future, especially in countries where fuel isn't so readily available. We stopped for dinner at Lee's Fried Chicken, and our chicken and ribs soon arrived to distract me from this new issue. It's amazing how good food can make other problems seem much less important. Totally stuffed, we waddled back to our bikes and hefted them off of their sidestands for the last 8 miles to the home of Glen and Martha Heggie, our hosts for the night. Re and I are both graduates of Mizzou and Dr. Glen Heggie was one of Re's professors. He and his wife were both avid motorcyclists before their children were born and graciously insisted that we stay with them and make use of their fully equipped garage(!) while we were in Columbia. Martha whisked us into the shower and fed us more and we spent the remainder of the evening chatting and laughing. A nice ending to a hot but good day.
372 miles in under 10.5 hours. The bikes are loving the lower altitude and are running great. The chains, however, are toast – snatching all the way through Columbia and I swear I heard Re's chain skip a tooth.
I'm enjoying your post. I can tell that you spend some time writing them. Keep it up. I like the light weight approach.
Great read! Thanks for taking the time to share your story. Look forward to more. Keep up the good work!
+ 1 for enjoying this RR, I can't believe the amount of miles you are doing each and every day, maybe you will slow the pace down once out of the US ?
8/7 Maintenance Day
It was hard to get up this morning as after our long ride of yesterday and then staying up late with our hosts. Plus we spent the night in a comfortable bed and, with shades on the windows, no sun to wake us. After coffee and a delicious breakfast of ham, eggs, and potatoes we headed for the garage. After 2400 miles of hard riding and noisy chains it was time for some much needed maintenance beyond the daily fettling. With the very kind assistance and advice (and garage, and tools, and rags, and enthusiasm) of Glen, we set to work on the bikes.
The first order of business was the chains. After we removed the chain guard on my bike, I discovered what poor condition the chains were actually in. My chain had tight spots to where one run had an inch of play and the other was drum tight. Re's chain actually had a kinked link. I don't know why they degraded so rapidly, we knew they wouldn't last the trip but had expected to get more than 3000 miles out of them. While we are carrying heavy loads and running the bikes pretty hard, the chains have been well maintained. Since we purchased them, the chains have been adjusted and lubed every 300 to 400 miles with DuPont Teflon chain lube. Our bikes, however, did sit on the showroom floor for over a year before we purchased them, so I am unsure of their condition prior to sale.
Regardless of why, they needed to be changed. While I removed the old chains and inspected the sprockets, Glen got out his Dremel and cut the new chains to length. The RK o-ring chains that I had purchased prior to the trip only came in a 120 link length but the Symbas only need 96 of them. The new chains went on easily, but after the chain guard went on, we quickly discovered that the o-ring chain is wider than the stock one, and it was dragging on the chain cover. We removed the covers, spread them slightly, reinstalled them, and everything was quiet once again.
It was also time for an oil change, so while the oil drained and I checked other fasteners for tightness, Glen was kind enough to run to the auto parts store for two new quarts of 10w40 Castrol GTX. The used oil was somewhat discolored but neither black nor burnt smelling, and the oil screens were clean. While the bikes' oil was drained, Glen and I took the opportunity to adjust the valves. I have the Symba shop manual on our laptop and was able to use it to muddle our way through my first valve adjustment on this type of bike. Screw adjusters are certainly easier than shims but finding TDC on these was not very intuitive. We did learn that my bike lacks many of the timing markings on the A/C generator that are present on Re's, too bad we started with mine first! The valves on both bikes were slightly loose and were easily put back to spec. In my visual inspection of the bikes I found that the tires were still in good shape and appear to have enough rubber to make North Carolina at least. I also discovered that we had donated three bolts to the road along the way – Re had lost one countershaft sprocket cover bolt and we both were missing one leg shield bolt each. With inspection done, valves adjusted, new chains installed, and fresh oil in the crankcases, the bikes were once again ready to roll.
I have said since the beginning of the trip that in my toolkit, I have a wrench to turn every fastener on our bikes. But while changing the chains and adjusting the valves, I discovered there were three fasteners on the bikes for which I lacked an appropriate tool – a deepwell 14mm socket to turn the crank, a big washer to unscrew the cover to get to the crank bolt, and a stubby crescent wrench to turn one rear axle fastener (that must be a 21mm or so). Many thanks to Glen, who donated those tools to our cause and was a great help in getting the bikes fit.
Re also took the opportunity to clean up the bikes a bit and we spent the rest of the afternoon and evening eating and swapping stories before heading off to bed again.
0 miles today. Topped off the oil in both bikes and added a couple of psi to all the tires.
8/8 Ride to the Lou
After another easy morning, rising late and enjoying a home cooked breakfast we bid our goodbyes to our hosts and started down the road again. No maintenance this morning after the marathon session of the previous day. Our time at the Heggie's was a nice break from the road and the bikes seemed to appreciate it as well. The new chains were quiet and smooth and I no longer feared the damage that they might wreak if they broke at speed. We cruised around some of our old stomping grounds and rode to the outskirts of town to see how our old house was fairing before heading back into town for coffee with another old friend. The bikes were parked on 9th Street, a fairly busy street, and we could see them from our table. We smiled at the many passersby who paused when they spotted our steeds and their Oregon plates. At least three people took multiple pictures with their cellphones, but we were enjoying our coffees too much to visit with them.
Jazzed on caffeine, we soon set out for St Louis. The bikes were purring right along, enjoying the lower altitude, smooth roads and relative lack of hills. We marveled at how silent and smooth the new chains were; the clutches were still very grabby, though. It is approximately 120 miles from Coulmbia to St Louis on I-70 and takes less than 2 hours. We, on the other hand, couldn't take I-70, so once again we found the “scenic route” and headed south to ride east along the Missouri River. It was a pretty ride- we'd forgotten how picturesque the town of Hermann was. While it was a nice ride, it also added about 40 miles to the trip and took nearly 4 hours as we soon found ourselves winding our way through the St Louis suburbs on surface streets during rush hour. We spent the warm afternoon idling in traffic and were quite happy to finally make it our destination for the night. We stayed with Michael, another old friend we knew from our days in Raleigh, NC and St Louis. We spent the rest of the evening catching up on life and love and business over Racanelli's pizza and Schlafly Kolsches. We were up well past 1am and finally collapsed into bed for the night.
159 miles in about 6 hours of intermittent riding. The bikes are running good with exception of the clutches.
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