Healing Up and Rolling On

About four months ago, I had a freak accident that required total shoulder replacement surgery (technically a reverse shoulder arthroplasty). Severe shoulder fractures are quite painful and in all candor, the surgical procedure and lengthy recovery process that follows are no picnic, either. My total recovery time has been guesstimated at six months to a year but unless I reinjure that joint, the hardest part is now behind me.

I have endured many weeks of physical therapy, investing countless hours and no small amount of dollars in regaining as much range of motion and strength in my left arm and shoulder as is realistically possible. After six weeks, I was able to begin driving again, albeit with some difficulty and a good bit of physical discomfort. That same week, I parted ways with a new employer that I should never have joined in the first place. That certainly didn’t help financially, but because I had wholeheartedly agreed with the decision to separate, I couldn’t exactly mourn the loss. Enough said.

At that point, I also set a personal goal for being able to ride my motorcycle again: Thanksgiving weekend of 2018. This was a fairly aggressive goal and let me tell you why. At the six-week mark, I mounted my motorcycle, but could only lift the 885-pound beast off its side stand with assistance from my son and without using my left arm, which was still under substantial restrictions at the time. Merely setting my left hand on the grip took some effort and I knew I could reach no further forward that day.

By late September, I could stand the bike up by myself, though I was still compensating substantially for my weak left arm. I could also turn the handlebars lock to lock and work the clutch lever without difficulty. Still, it would have been foolish to try riding so soon. Given my stage of healing, there was simply too much at stake. Besides, based on my informal survey of the available internet chatter, I hadn’t heard about anybody riding a heavyweight motorcycle any earlier than four months after a total shoulder replacement. So I bided my time and continued to push myself at physical therapy.

My patience and effort paid off. On the morning of November 22, with an ambient temperature in the mid-thirties, I rolled Miss Scarlett out of my garage and accompanied by my son and his motorcycle, took a brief jaunt through the neighborhood before pulling back in and moving on to our Thanksgiving Day festivities.

The ride lasted only a few minutes and told me everything I needed to know about preparing for my 2019 riding season. For openers, after a four-month layoff, my skills were as rusty as they are after a full winter season of not riding, and then some. Every spring I work on removing that rust by running specific exercises—mainly emergency maneuvers and slow-speed handling—over and over until they become fluid again. Unfortunately, my son and I were a day away from putting our bikes up for a long winter nap. So my riding skills, which had already deteriorated from four months of non-use, were about to be set aside for another four months or so, save for the occasional warm, saltless day.

But what could I do with only one day, a cool and windy one at that? The answer was clear: go ride a little more.

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The following day, we saddled up and rode out to Silver Springs State Fish and Wildlife Area on the outskirts of Yorkville, IL. It was cloudy and cool, but dry and not cold, with winds gusting up to 30-ish mph. The route we chose allowed us to periodically run the bikes at highway speeds or better, with a few opportunities to take sweeping curves, sharp turns, and stretches of moist debris left on the road by farm implements. Let your imagination be your guide. By and large, I did okay and my shoulder caused no issues at all, but I did commit some awkward errors that are typical of novice riders. I noted every one of them for future reference and will work on those, even before I get the chance to ride again, through visualization exercises, followed by actual practice once the warm weather returns.

My son and I discussed these things as we took a walk around Loon Lake at the state park. It was quality father-and-son time for us, though we couldn’t help but notice certain telltale signs, such as residual snow on a shaded path and some floating ice on a slough, all this despite an ambient temperature in the mid-to-upper forties. We knew this would likely be our last run for a while. Ah, but it was golden to me!

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We stopped at the Crusade Burger Bar in Yorkville, where my wife Karen met us for a delicious lunch (try the fried cheese curds appetizer, you will thank me). Then we headed back to Plainfield, stopping to top off our tanks after adding the usual measures of gasoline stabilizer. Afterward, we took a brisk ride through the neighborhood, allowing the stabilizer to mix in and get into our respective fuel lines. Finally, we pulled into the garage, rolling the bikes onto layers of cardboard, to protect the tires, and hooked up our smart chargers. The bikes are, for our purposes, winterized, though they still remain available and ready should an off-season riding opportunity present itself.

If I were to end my story here, very few people would question my gratitude on this Thanksgiving holiday weekend. But there is more. When I lost my job in September, a handful of friends I had made as business acquaintances took it upon themselves to go beyond the usual lip service—”good luck” and “I’ll keep my eyes open”—and actively sought out potential opportunities for me. These were extraordinary gestures on their part and I am still humbled by their endeavors, one of which resulted in a new job that I started last Monday, at the start of Thanksgiving week.

Diaz Group LLC is a growing force in landscape design, enhancements, and maintenance, as well as snow and ice management services. Located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood of Chicago, this family owned and operated organization has experienced tremendous growth over the past decade. We did business with each other for eight years during my tenure at Cherry Logistics, a national facilities maintenance company, so in effect, we have already known each other for years. When a mutual friend of ours saw the potential and encouraged us to meet, both parties moved on the opportunity. Now I am a member of their management team and I can proudly say without reservation, “I am Diaz Group.” What a rush!

Early on after my injury, I devoted a measure of time to feeling sorry for myself. At some point, I realized I could go further by embracing my healing journey than by mourning my losses. Please think about that for a moment. Right now I could still be wondering why I lost my left shoulder by trying to get my poor, frightened dog home. Right now I could still be mourning the loss of a job that I should have never pursued. Instead, I am back on two wheels and planning my 2019 riding season and I have a new and wonderful workplace that I can call home. What changed? Me.

Embrace the journey! And as always, thanks for hanging with me.

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I Like Big Bikes and I Cannot Lie

IMG_0513Some of you may recall that when I attended the International Motorcycle Show in Rosemont last February (see My Good Day at the 2018 Chicago IMS), I had come away quite smitten with the 2018 Yamaha Star Venture and commented that I would need to ride the bike in order to understand what it really has to offer. Well, earlier today I did exactly that and now I’m here to tell you about it.

IMG_1478Despite having been planned months in advance, my demo ride very nearly didn’t happen. Rich’s Yamaha in Lockport, Illinois hosted the factory demo truck for three days, Friday through Sunday, from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and they’d been promoting the event on Facebook since last winter. I work all day Fridays and until noon Saturdays, so I pulled in at the demo location at 2:00 Saturday afternoon. The bikes were out on a demo run and there were only a few people hanging around, so I walked up assuming my chances of throwing a leg over a Star Venture that afternoon would be good. Well, no.

“Hi! Where do I sign up?”
“You can’t. We’re all booked up.”
“Huh?”
“I said we’re all booked up. We open again at 8:30 tomorrow. First ride goes out at 9.”
“Can I sign up for tomorrow?”
“Nope. I can’t even access the sign-up screen until tomorrow morning.”
“Okay, well, I guess I’ll try again tomorrow.”

I gotta’ admit, I was a little sore about not being able to ride yesterday, mostly due to a lack of understanding on my part about how Yamaha USA structures their demo events. And I do mean structure. Up until now, the only demo truck events I’d been to were put on by Victory Motorcycles and their events were set up to accommodate as many riders as possible. There was no rigid schedule of excursions. Rather, the bikes went out for 15 minutes at a time, as many times as they could for the duration of the event. I would arrive at the event site, sign up, wait for the bikes to come in from a run, and place my helmet on whatever bike I wanted to ride. And riders could pretty much repeat this process as many times as they wanted.

IMG_1471By comparison, Yamaha has a set schedule of demo rides for any given day and riders are assigned to specific bikes by appointment, created on little digital touchscreens, for a given time slot and model. By setting everything up electronically, Yamaha USA collects my contact information, current bike brand, etc. and in return, I get a demo rider card that can be scanned at any Yamaha demo event for the rest of this year.  It’s just a different way of doing things, but one of which I was not aware. Until today.

For fear of not getting a chance to ride a Venture this weekend, I arrived at the demo site a few minutes prior to opening this morning and managed to be first in line when registration opened. This is when and how I learned about their scheduling methodology. I even got a donut out of the deal.

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I spent the next fifteen minutes looking over the bikes, especially the one I was going to ride, and chatting with a Yamaha USA rep who had been cleaning and polishing them. I do not recall the gentleman’s name, but he was exceptionally helpful. As soon as this rep had learned I would be taking the Venture out, he spent a fair amount of time with me, explaining some of the features—like the starting sequence for the keyless ignition and how to toggle between the “sport” and “touring” power modes. I was grateful for the one-on-one orientation session, believe me.

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After a brief pre-ride talk, we mounted our assigned machines, started them up, and headed out. The first thing I noticed about the Venture was its low seat height, which is odd because at 27.4 inches, this seat should have been several inches higher than that of my Victory Vision, which boasts a nominal seat height of only 24.5 inches. But the lowest point of my Vision’s slanted seat is indeed a single point whereas the lowest part of the Venture’s scooped seat occurs over a much more prominent area. So you see, the Venture’s seat is nominally higher than mine but in practical application—that is, where the tush meets the cush—it is indeed lower.

What positively floored me was how effortlessly the Venture comes off its side stand and how weightless the bike feels almost as soon as it is underway. Why? Because again, the numbers indicate that it should have been otherwise. My 2012 Victory Vision Tour, not a minibike by any means, has a wheelbase of 65.7 inches and an estimated wet weight of 869 pounds. Imagine my expectations when I read that the Venture has a 67.3-inch wheelbase and, in its Transcontinental (premium) configuration, a wet weight of 963 pounds. But once again, the numbers do not tell the entire story.

Without getting into a physics lesson, which I am not qualified to give, we know that a bike’s center of gravity, rider placement, and steering geometry (aka rake and trail) each play a large part in its handling characteristics. All I know is that when I first acquired my Vision Tour, riding it at parking lot speeds felt a lot like piloting an ocean liner. By comparison, on my very first time out on the Yamaha Star Venture, I was leaning into slow corners with confidence. The bike feels extremely well-balanced at any speed and to the extent that a bike weighing almost half a ton can feel agile, this machine felt agile and very responsive to my rider inputs.

IMG_1481About mid-way through our demo run, the rain began to fall. While I could complain, I was actually glad for the opportunity to see how the Venture handles in wet surface conditions. She handles beautifully! Sure, I kept the bike in touring mode and went easier on the throttle during the downpour, but the fact is this bike felt downright planted to me from the time we left the parking lot until the time we returned.

Let me share a few final observations and opinions with you. First, this bike has a lot of features I did not try out, mainly because I didn’t know how. There are a lot of controls in that cockpit. At one point, I had inadvertently activated the satellite navigation system and while I did play the radio while underway, I did not try to learn the entertainment system while I was riding the bike. Just like my Vision, there are a lot of handlebar-mounted controls that are not intuitive to the uninitiated. Some quiet time with the operating manual would prove very helpful in that regard.

The trunk and side bags are quite generously sized and there are additional small storage compartments as well. One of the few complaints I’ve had about my Victory Vision is the relative lack of luggage capacity. Definitely not a problem with the Venture.

The 113 cubic inch (1854cc) V-twin engine moves the bike fine, but I wouldn’t race a sportbike (or even a Gold Wing) for papers. The vibration factor is just enough to let the rider know there’s a big V-twin at work, but it was never intrusive or annoying at any speed. The exhaust note is downright muted by American V-twin standards. Refined seems to be a good word to describe this powerplant.

IMG_1480The bike I rode lists for over $27K in its Transcontinental trim. Asking whether it has to be that expensive is a lot like asking whether it has to weigh over 900 pounds. It is what it is. Right?

Finally, I regret that my favorite pillion passenger/photographer Ann was not available to join me for this demo ride. Had she been there, you would be enjoying far better photos—and maybe a video or two—from this outing. Ann’s presence would also have enabled me to evaluate the Venture’s handling characteristics with a passenger on board. By the same token, Ann is not a fan of riding in the cold rain. So maybe next time. After all, I have a Yamaha demo rider card that’s good for the rest of the year.

As always, thanks for hanging with me.

My Good Day at the 2018 Chicago IMS

IMG_0496There are relatively few things I look forward to doing in the dead of winter. Going to the International Motorcycle Show when it comes to Chicago is one of them. February may seem like the worst possible time to put on a show like this. What were they thinking?

In warm weather states, the IMS features outdoor activities, like demo rides, in addition to the indoor expo. That isn’t very feasible here in the frigid, snowy Midwest—although every year you will find at least one snow-capped motorcycle parked in the remote lot. We do have our diehard riders. For most of us, though, the IMS is as close to riding as we can get in the dead of winter.

IMG_0522Such was certainly the case this year. Thanks to my unemployed/self-employed status (see Ups and Downs – Part 2 of 3), my wife and I were able to attend this year’s show on opening day. The entire area was under a winter storm warning that morning, but that didn’t deter us. I shoveled several inches of snow before we left and off into the storm we went. The drive was slow and visibility poor, but we eventually arrived safely at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. I’m sure the show’s organizers, UK-based UBM, weren’t too choked up about the lighter attendance that afternoon, but Karen and I thoroughly enjoyed the uncrowded aisles and displays.

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I have gone to the IMS every year since 2003 for two reasons. First and foremost, I want to see the new models up close. Sit on a few bikes. Talk to the reps. Dream. Other motorcycle enthusiasts will understand. I am always drawn to “retro” models, that remind me of what motorcycles looked like back when I was a kid, and also new concepts and trends. These days, however, my tastes run heavily toward “full dresser” touring bikes because I enjoy taking road trips on two wheels. Now truly any motorcycle can be utilized for long distance travel. Indeed, people have proven the point by making coast-to-coast journeys on small displacement dual-sport motorcycles, 50cc scooters and even mopeds. Me, I like to travel in comfort, often with a passenger, and do not (intentionally) ride off-road. I like a bike that can be ridden for hours on the interstate, comfortably, but that also handles well on curvy backroads.

I saw a couple of interesting new touring bikes this year, both imports. The all-new Honda Gold Wing Tour packs a lot of technology, power, and comfort into a fairly compact package (relative to the last two iterations of this machine). The unconventional double wishbone front suspension drew a lot of attention, as did all the onboard gadgetry. Compared to the previous GL 1800, which seemed truck-like up front in my eyes, this year’s model looks positively svelte. My greatest concern, apart from the prospect of going back to a Japanese bike from my current American-made mount, is the reduced luggage capacity. The touring model (i.e. with trunk) offers 110 liters total or about 29 gallons of cargo space, 40 liters less than the previous model. That’s a concern for someone like me, who has never been one to pack light.

Yamaha also upped the ante this year with their all-new Star Venture. While no slouch in the technology department, the Venture doesn’t have quite as much high-tech punch as the does the Gold Wing. What it does have is a new air-cooled (!) V-twin powerplant, a comfortably low seat height, and ample luggage capacity—38 gallons, give or take, depending on trim. As with the Honda, I’d have to put this bike through the paces, with and without passenger, before passing any real judgement. But I must say, this bike felt good beneath me. So much so that I went back for one last look before leaving the show that day.

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Ever since I bought my Victory Vision, almost five years and 50,000 miles ago now, I’ve had an ever-growing appreciation for American-made motorcycles. I can say without boasting that my current ride is the biggest, heaviest, sweetest sounding, most comfortable road machine I have yet owned. But following Polaris’ decision last year to cease production of the Victory brand, my domestic choices have been reduced. Although I have never owned or even ridden a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, I have a great deal of respect for the brand as well as for the company behind it. I won’t rule out the possibility of owning one sometime in the future, but I must admit that compared to some other choices, the H-D models feel a bit cramped and just don’t seem to “fit” me well. Then there’s Indian. I’ve never owned one but have ridden their Chief and Chieftain models. Still not as roomy as my Vision (I’m not sure what is), the big Indians have a nice ride and a sweet sound. They are also quite expensive and although the touchscreen display on their Chieftain and Roadmaster models is the largest in the industry, I can’t get over the likeness of that big, boxy dash to a 1950’s television set.

The other reason I enjoy attending the IMS every year is to walk the merchant aisles. This year had a better mix of vendors and promoters than I’d seen in a while. For one thing, there were more “destination” exhibitors—tourism departments, event promoters, etc. I love those because their maps and brochures give me something to look over and ponder while I wait for the snow to melt. The apparel and accessory booths are always fun to browse, too. There is one vendor in particular called Cyphen Sportswear that Karen and I look forward to seeing each year. We have been buying T-shirts from Steve and Ronnie for many, many years now. They watched our children grow up, back when we used to take them along. We’ve gotten to know each other well enough that we no longer just shop, but actually stay at their booth and visit for a while.

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Custom builds have become a big part of the IMS in recent years. I have no mechanical aptitude to speak of—I break things—but I have an eye for aesthetics and a deep appreciation for custom bike builders who know their craft. Of particular note this year was “Porterfield,” a board tracker custom by a group called Motorcycle Missions, “a 501(c)3 Non-Profit Corporation helping individuals who deal with PTS(D) and suicidal ideation find hope and healing through motorcycles.” I am intrigued by this organization, which deserves more attention from the media as well as the public at large. Motorcycle Missions in fact won the J&P Cycles Ultimate Biker Build Off Championship and was declared the 2018 “King of the Builders” at the Chicago show.

And so we drove home with our souvenir bags filled with literature, freebies, and whatever merchandise we’d purchased at the show. The snow had stopped and, presumably due to the storm having kept so many people at home, the roads were wide open at what should have been the height of Chicagoland’s afternoon/evening rush.

I know motorcycling isn’t for everybody, but it’s clearly a thing for me. There is nothing else quite like it. Thanks for hanging with me.

My Rock River Wind Therapy

With my Rendezvous Run coming up in just a few days, I felt compelled to spend this weekend doing more than just riding to the store and back. Besides that, my motorcycle goes in for her 50,000 mile service interval first thing Monday morning and I want her to have as close to 50,000 miles on the clock as possible (we were at only 48K and change this morning). And if those two reasons weren’t enough, I just needed to get out in the wind, alone, and take stock of myself. So I rolled Miss Scarlett, my 2012 Victory Vision Tour, out of the garage, picked a direction, and started riding.

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What a great day to be alive! The sky was reasonably blue and clear, with just a few white, fluffy clouds up there as I set out during the noon hour. The warm sun felt fantastic as I motored west on U.S. Highway 52 toward Mendota, Illinois. Traffic was quite light, my bike was running beautifully, my tunes were blasting on the stereo… and then I felt a drop.

At first I thought it might have just been a juicy insect meeting it’s demise on my face as I rolled on down the highway. But then I felt another drop, and another. Yes, despite there having been only a 20% chance of rain this day, I had apparently found myself motoring under part of that 20%. So I hunkered down and motored on. There was no need to pull over and don my rain gear because I could see clear skies just beyond the perimeter of the dark rain cell under which I was passing. By the time I reached Mendota, the sun was shining on me again.

Mendota

As I stopped for gas and a quick bottle of tea, to rehydrate myself, I couldn’t help but notice another juicy-looking cloud mass developing in the distance. I used my phone to check the weather radar and surmised that as long as I didn’t gulp my tea too quickly, that pesky cell would have moved on to the east as I continued north and west on 52, toward Amboy. And that’s exactly what happened.

Amboy

The warm sun was shining once again as I rolled into downtown Amboy, Illinois and pulled up in front of the historic Amboy Pharmacy… or what used to be the Amboy Pharmacy. My heart fell as I saw the empty storefront windows, adorned only with some real estate signs. This place used to be the real deal, with a working ice cream and soda fountain inside and some interesting old-time pharmacy items on display. I had entertained hopes of grabbing a hot fudge sundae there. Instead I took a photo of the empty store, got back on my bike, and motored on out of town.

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The next part was my favorite of the entire day. I ran out to Dixon and picked up Illinois Highway 2, a neat, curvy little road that roughly follows the Rock River into Rockford. I stopped in Grand Detour and again in Oregon to take a few photos of the river. I wish I could have captured a few shots of the road itself, but the best parts of this route have no place to pull off and dismount. Perhaps another time. Oregon, Illinois is where you will find the Black Hawk Statue on a bluff overlooking the river. As I understand it, this statue was intended as a tribute to all Native Americans, but over time came to be associated with the Sauk leader, Chief Black Hawk.


I had intended to ride up to Rockford before heading home, but Mother Nature had a different idea in mind. As I coninued north along Highway 2, dark clouds once again began to form ahead of me. I took this as an indication that perhaps I should be heading for home, so when I arrived in Byron, I turned east on Illinois Highway 72.

Hightail

At that point, it became a bit of a race. As I headed east on 72, I left dark clouds to my north/northwest. When I reached Interstate Highway 39, I got on and headed south. Long before I reached Interstate Highway 88, I could see a larger, darker cloud mass developing just west/southwest of me—and this baby was definitely dropping substantial rain in places.  When I reached 88, I took the exit and began to head east in earnest, stopping at the DeKalb Oasis only long enough to rehydrate myself (I had begun feeling the effects of dehydration about 30 minutes earlier) and to snap a photo of what appeared to be chasing me home.

As luck would have it, Miss Scarlett was more than capable of staying ahead of that isolated cell. About an hour later, I was home safe, sound, and dry. According to my trip odometer, I had covered 216 miles, not bad for an afternoon run.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I’ll make another run in preparation for my longer trip, which begins Tuesday, June 6. Needless to say, I’ll let you know how it goes. Until then, thanks for hanging with me.