Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Another Boys' Grand Adventure Weekend.

Two summers ago a couple friends and I undertook a three-day, 1,500 mile motorcycle trip around Lake Superior. Departing from Appleton, the trip was a mostly rural undertaking. We passed through Duluth and Sault Ste. Marie and a host of smaller towns, but most of the riding was on two-lane secondary highways, and the North Shore of Lake Superior is justly famous as a place of rugged, isolated beauty. We had a fabulous time on that trip, but concluded that life would have been a bit better if we had spent another day at the endeavor. In order to complete the circumnavigation in three days, each day's distance--a full 500 miles per day--was enough to keep us from getting off the bikes for anything except gas and food stops.

This time we aimed to rectify that. The initial plan was to ride up to Tim's family cabin in a remote part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula on the first day. Day 2 would involve shoreline riding down to Traverse City and Harbor Springs and Petosky and Charlevoix, and back up to the cabin. Day 3 would get us back home. Alas, 24 hours or so before departure the weather was looking like all rain, all the time. It was my dad's suggestion that we head Southwest from Appleton to the Mississippi river and ride North along the river from there.

This ended up being a fantastic suggestion. Not only was the weather much more cooperative--we had nary a drop in all three days of riding (though an impending blustery storm dictated the end of our first day) but the riding along the river, and then across rural backroads of MN and WI ended up giving us three perfectly spectacular days on motorcycle.

Our tour again embarked from Appleton, both because two of the three members of our little group live there (Tom and I are literally next door to each other), but also because the third member, Tim, was taking delivery of his newly-acquired motorcycle, which happened to be in my garage in Appleton (where it had just happened to live for the last three years).

Day 1 involved a 4-lane dash diagonally across WI from Appleton thru Madison and onward to Dubuque, IA. Then the pace slowed a bit and we began heading North along the river, having decided that we'd ride as far as we felt like or until weather stopped us. With a stop for lunch at what was billed as "the oldest bar / restaurant in Iowa" and a ferry ride across the Mississippi and as many sightseeing stops as we all felt the need for, our first day ended at LaCrosse, WI. We found a roach motel not far off the beaten path, and had a good dinner and called it a day. The day's tally was approximately 365 miles.

(The ferry at Cassville.)

Day 2 continued North along the water, up thru Hudson, WI and Stillwater, MN, up to Taylor's Falls and then West into MN a bit, stopping at Ruttger's for lunch. Then Northward up beyond Brainerd to my brother's place in Jenkins. Dinner with the family there and a fabulous night in a friend's guest cottage in the woods completed another fantastic day. The day's tally, with all the running around in Brainerd, amounted to about 400 miles.

Day 3 was the getting-home day, and it looked like a solid 500 miles for us. But the weather was really glorious and we had good luck finding excellent roads. Traffic was light, and we made really good time, stopping in Eagle River, WI for lunch. The stretch of 55 heading South from Eagle River towards Appleton was some of the best motorcycle riding I'd experienced, and we even had a spirited Harley-riding guide (who evidently knew the road well) to lead our little train along the twists and hills through the beautiful WI woods.

As it turns out, the only motorcycle on this trip to have made the last one was my old Buell Ulysses, now in Tim's possession. My neighbor Tom, who last rode a BMW 1200GS, upgraded at the start of the season to a new 1200GS Adventure, kind of the quintessential do-everything motorcycle. Like everything BMW, this one is beautifully made and supremely capable. It has an absurdly huge gas tank (he needed to fill up only every third stop for Tim and me), big rugged saddlebags and enough ground clearance to jump fallen logs and ford deep streams. And it manages to be roomy and comfortable at the same time. On the downside, it's quite tall and heavy with a high center of gravity. And the price is not for the faint of wallet. But if you can afford one, there are few if any other machines that will do what it's able to do.

(The '09 BMW GS Adventure.)

Tim bought my old bike from me, a 2006 Buell XB12X Ulysses with just over 9,000 miles on it. On our last ride he rented a Harley Heritage Softail from the Appleton H-D dealer ("Softail" referring to the breathtaking innovation--novel in, say, 1934--of having suspension on the rear wheel so that every minute contour of the macadam is not transferred directly up one's spinal column to the brain stem), and he'd been talking about buying a bike for about 7 & 1/2 of the 8 years I've known him. After a number of test rides he decided the Buell fit him quite well, and I made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

(2006 Buell XB12X Ulysses.)

And me, I bought another Ulysses, a 2009 XB12 XT. The XT differs from my original X in a number of mostly small ways, almost all of which tailor the bike toward how I actually use it. Primarily, the XT sheds any off-road pretense and commits the Uly to the tarmac. The original X is more on / off road in theory than in practice, being not nearly as specialized for off-road use as BMW's GS. I have no interest in riding off-road, but I bought the Uly originally because it was roomy and comfortable. The XT keeps exactly the same ergonomics, but it has a more normal street suspension and sits a couple inches lower. And the XT comes standard with a trio of hard bags. And more generally, Eric Buell has made a number of evolutionary changes to the Ulysses during its first four years, among them: revised suspension, stronger bottom-end bearings, higher redline, revised ignition and fuel injection, heated handgrips, increased steering lock. All of these things polish and refine what was already a very capable and surprisingly satisfying machine. This has been a subject which has often occupied my mind, and my Uly has continually surprised and delighted me with its snorty personality and unexpected competence; so that when I contemplated its replacement I found myself drawn almost inevitably toward another Ulysses, the deal being firmly sealed by these refinements being so perfectly targeted at the changes I'd like to have made myself.

(The 2009 XB12XT Ulysses.)

My quick review of the new bike, after these first 1,400 miles, is that it retains all of the original bike's merits (naturally enough), but it benefits from these well-targeted refinements. The lower suspension and decreased turning radius make the bike easier to maneuver. The slightly decreased suspension travel (with triple-rate springs) makes for less suspension movement under braking, with noticeably less front-end dive. The heated handgrips are now standard across the Uly line, and well they should be. We had quite cold riding in the mornings, and the handgrips do wonders to keep one's fingers functional. (I think Tim is planning a retrofit.) Buell have changed something about how the bike breathes, as the 2009 motor sounds quite different from the 2006 one (even though the HP and torque figures are the same); it's a bit louder and much throatier, sounding almost like it has a custom exhaust on it, at least from the driver's seat. I think my new motor vibrates a bit more than the old one at almost every RPM. Tim and I swapped bikes for a while during the second day, and this was confirmed to me; the 2006 bike has no vibration whatsoever except at idle, while the 2009 motor has a bit of shake all the time. But this motor is still very new, so I suppose a bit of time should be given to let things settle in. In any case, it's not intrusive, but I note the difference. Lastly, the black motor and wheels look awesome. I've always felt that Eric Buell and crew got the styling of the Ulysses (all the XBs, really) exactly right, and the XT hits all the same marks. The bike looks to be a single concept, compact and slightly menacing; the styling is quite in line with the little dash of hooliganism that lives in the core of every Buell.

(Reason enough to go to Iowa.)

In sum: this was three of my best motorcycle days ever. And the trip was extra fun for being, for each of us, our first long ride on our new bikes. I would very happily do the exact same ride again on my next free weekend.

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