Friday, January 15, 2010

North Brunswick, NJ; January 10, 2010

North Brunswick, NJ; January 10, 2010

bright but cold, 11 degrees to start, 26 to end

Maybe it was the challenge. A bitter cold Sunday, coldest of our Polar Bear motorcycle season so far, brought a big turnout among the Connecticut bears. Maybe too, the character of the CTPB is changing, or just broadening.

Core riders who make most every Sunday are still here and grow by a bear or two every year. Warm weather bears remain on my e-mail list, and so are presumably interested still. But the newest bears seem more hardcore this year. Fonz and Pogy are real riders. Bart quickly became one of the core. Jim, of all things, rode up from New Rochelle, N.Y., Sunday only to turn around and head back south with us.

Whatever the reasons, we rode down to Jersey with 10 bikes Sunday.

We even picked up an unexpected rider, Jim from Bridgeport Harley-Davidson, on his first ride with us. His plan was to ride up from his home in New Rochelle to meet us at the Dunkin' in Stratford and then turn around and ride back south with us. But he saw us headed southbound on I-95 as he was still headed northbound. Jim got off the next exit, looped around, gunned his beautiful old Harley (FLH?) and caught up with us in Fairfield.

By the by, the wrong way riding record is still held by our adopted bear big Jersey Matt. On more than one occasion, he has started out uber-early, ridden north from his home in New Jersey to meet us at the Dunkin' in Connecticut and then turned around and done the distance back down to Jersey with us.

I was sweep on this ride. (John Jackson took the lead, albeit with a bit of prodding.) Soon after we started out I saw a single headlight coming up from behind us, did not recognize the rider. His New York license plate threw me off too. But I figured nobody but a Polar Bear would be out here this morning headed south. So I slid over a lane and waved him into line. It wasn't until we got to our destination that I knew it was Jim from Bridgeport H-D.

We fooled Pogy too. He called me Saturday to ask if, where and when we were going. He had just returned from Shanghai, yeah Shanghai, and was anxious to go riding. Pogy works for Sikorsky helicopter and whatever his specific job is, it seems his territory is the world.

Anyway, Sunday morning, as arranged, I called his cell and told him we were feet up in 10 minutes. Typically he slides into formation from the Darien rest stop. We must have left a bit early because just a past Norwalk, where Pogy lives, he was suddenly there in the right lane looking to drop into our line.

As he settled in, it occurred to me that our leader John J. still would be looking for Pogy at the Darien stop just ahead. I switched to the passing lane and rode up to the front. John J. must have been intently focused on leading because it took some time before he noticed me next to him. I was right there, right next to him, matching his speed, and thinking about giving him a little kick, when he finally, finally looked over.

Next we engaged in repeated bouts of hand gestures, head shakes and nods. Bike-to-bike communication at speed is challenging any time of year. In winter shouting is not an option with full face helmets, balaclavas and face masks layered over our mouths and ears.

I gave what I thought was the universal signal for proceeding straight ahead. John J. promptly moved from the middle to the right lane. I held my left lane and again signaled straight ahead. Meanwhile, confused riders behind us started to scramble. Some were half in one lane, others held position, still others merged right. I'm amazed nobody exited the highway.

Finally John J. caught my meaning, tipped back into the middle lane and resumed apace. Successful, I slowed to let the line of bikes pass me so I could resume my sweep position.

Meanwhile, Pogy had figured on gassing up at the Darien rest stop. But we showed up early. So he grit his teeth and was on fumes when we finally got to the turn-in to Sir John's. We darn near ran him out of gas all the way down to Jersey. I'm kinda sorry we didn't. Running a Gold Wing out of gas is no easy task on Harleys. These Honda guys have more fuel capacity and get better gas mileage. It would have been something to run a Wing out. But Pogy did the distance by the hair of his chinny, chin, chin.

When we went to leave for home after lunch we all figured to gas up at Chez GSP, all except Bart, that is. Bart has a longer ride to join up with our group in the morning. So he was low. Too low. So we deferred to Bart and all gassed up at the two stations right outside Sir John's.

I got one of those crappy, plastic guard covered nozzles at the Getty and could not for the life of me get the handle to deliver anything less than full blast; got gas all over me and the tank.

Meanwhile our other guys gassed up at this and the other station. Filled up, we formed up, and blasted up the highway for home . . . without the one guy who needed gas now instead of waiting for Chez GSP. Fortunately for Bart, Token took time to count. He shot up the line and got John J. to hold up the race for home. Meanwhile poor Bart looked around and asked the gas attendant, “Did you see which way all those motorcycles went?”

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back to morning, we rolled southbound in the incredibly cold air. I was quite comfortable. My legs were cold, but they tolerate it well. My torso was plenty warm. I was dressed at my last level of cold riding protection. That meant my electric liner was under my electric jacket. That combo works so well, I never even called for more than half capacity from the thermostat.

It also meant hippo hands were strapped onto my handlebars. Snuggled inside them, my new Gerbing electric gloves performed admirably, so long as they were protected from the wind.

The new Shark helmet worked fine too. It took me a few miles to figure out the visor stops to get it cracked just enough to clear the condensation, but not so much so as to freeze my face. At one point, I swear I was seeing ice buildup inside the visor.

On my feet my heavy snowmobile boots had not one but two chemical heat packs apiece inside, one under each set of toes, another under each arch. Heat pack warmth lasted the full day.

Our other guys were well prepped too. No one complained about being cold. In fact as we suited up for the ride home, the parking lot in Jersey, under full sun, seemed balmy by comparison. “By comparison to what?” you are probably asking yourself! Well by comparison to that morning of course. Certainly not by comparison to any other season.

The primary difference between winter and summer riding is that you don't just jump on the bike and go for a ride in winter. It takes a good half-hour to get dressed.

Sunday morning I had on extra, extra layers. I was teasing my wife Cynthia, telling her I was like knights of yore suiting up for battle in vestments and armor. I suggested maybe she wanted to be my squire, you know, help pull up the too-tight third layer long johns, lace my big boots, maybe at the very end hand me up my helmet and gauntlets from bended knee. She snapped back, “I do more than enough for you on bended knee. You're on your own with this Polar Bear nonsense.”

Protected in full wind armor, you mount your steed, ready to ride, nearly impervious to the cold, nearly impervious.

Arriving at your destination you then must remove some of the armor. Otherwise you would sweat buckets into your protective undergarments. These would then act as evaporative chillers when you went back outside. Unfortunately you cannot remove all the layers. It would not be polite to eat in your underwear. So lunch is still decidedly less comfortable than sitting in jeans and a sweatshirt on a summer day, chillin' at your favorite biker bar.

Everybody is clomping about in heavy boots, their overstuffed nylon pants thighs voop-vooping as thighs rub together with every step.

Then when you go to get back on the bike, there is a 10 minute ritual of resealing Velcro straps, pulling helmets over balaclavas, tucking in neck gaiters and plugging in electrics. The tucking in neck gaiters is something you just cannot do yourself. So we walk around like chimps grooming each other, helping to get that last flap under the jacket collar of a fellow polar bearer.

Once you're settled on the bike, most of the pleasures of motorcycling are there. Oh, we may miss riding with the wind in our hair and on our faces. And we certainly won't earn any suntans. But you ride with full protective gear in the summer anyway, don't you?

Sir John's treated us well. The romantic aspect promised on their web site was absent, But that was not the restaurant's fault. There are so few lady Polar Bears. And the ones who do participate, it's often very hard to tell if they are women or men because all clothing layers tend to fill out everyone's figure to a homogenized lump. Sometimes you can guess by fringe on the lady's jackets or chaps.

The maitre'd put three tables together for us. We were 11 when Jersey Matt joined us.

As we prepared to order, we were made aware that Bernie was buying lunch. Wo hoo! Steak and lobster! Turns out Bernie won member of the week, a Polar Bear 50/50 type deal. Even though Bernie wasn't there to enjoy with us, we were sure he would have wanted to buy us lunch with his winnings if he had been there with us. Thanks Bernie! What a guy!

Captain and Grumpy stridently protected the newcomers from making any chicken salad mistakes.

If you are not a longtime blog reader, it was maybe three years ago (or four?) that the chicken fiasco occurred. Captain and Grumpy both typically order a chicken sandwich for our brief Polar Bear feasts. (Grumpy orders a hamburger when he can be assured of getting one that meets his high standards.) At Sir John's the chef interprets a chicken sandwich as being made with chicken salad, rather than a slab or slices of chicken flesh.

When the mayonnaise hit the fan at that lunch several years ago, you would have thought the earth stuttered in its rotation.

Grumpy, in particular, is particular about his meal. He won't drink Pepsi when they don't have Coke. He has some very specific instructions in preparing hamburgers for his consumption. And he does not accept that a chicken sandwich can be made with diced chicken and vegetables, thickened with mayonnaise.

On a summer group ride years ago, we were all out to dinner at a rather nice restaurant in Vermont. When it was Johnny's turn to order he gave very detailed instructions as to how his steak was to be prepared: well done, and what, exactly, “well done” meant to Johnny B. He warned the waiter that if it wasn't done right, he wasn't paying for it. He then bragged to us all about how he was not grumpy, just particular.

So after we all gave our food orders I slipped away on the pretense of going to the restroom. I sneaked outside and from the landscaping picked up three of the biggest wood chips I could find. Then I intercepted our waiter, handed him the chips, and told him to serve them on a covered plate to our intolerant riding buddy.

Our steaks all came on covered plates and when Johnny B. removed the cover from his plate, his face went dangerously dark. If his wife Margaret had not been there, he might have killed us all. Instead he sputtered a bit, and very begrudgingly came around to the notion that it was a joke, on him, and that bashing someone's head in was not an appropriate response. As the rest of us all laughed, Grumpy worked very hard and finally managed a smile.

Lest you get the wrong impression, I should add that big, grumpy Johnny Bowlan has a heart of gold. He shared his campsite with me on my first Daytona ride when the campground proprietor wanted to put my tent next to the pump out station over the septic tank. Johnny shared without hardly knowing anything about me, except that I was a fellow HOG. (That's another whole story.) He showed me how to change the oil on my bike. He is as quick as any Bear to offer assistance and buy a round of coffees. Except Grumpy drinks hot chocolate, and not the mix with water, but made with milk . . . .

Pogy brought party favors. Everyone at our table, except Fonz and yours truly, got a side stand coaster and key chain. The items of largess are for promoting safe motorcycle riding and Fonz and I being ConnRep Rider Coaches already have a set.

With 11 at one table, it was hard to keep one conversation going. Generally there were two or three, so I cannot report on what was being discussed at the other end of our table. Down at our end, as sweep, I was campaigning for breaking the group into two sets of five, instead of a long group of 10. It took multiple suggestions, the group finally came over to my way of thinking, but then Jim discovered one of his former girlfriends was also a Polar Bear. (He must have spotted her fringe.)

So Jim decided to ride on south with her. Being nine the group voted my motion moot and we rode home in one big group of nine bikes, thresholds being what they are.

And maybe 10 is the magic number, because going back we had not nearly so many cars cut through or into our line of bikes as we did on the way down.

Leaned over in the 360-plus degree corkscrew on-ramp for the George Washington Bridge, an idiot cut into our line from a stop sign. I mean, I could see if it was a yield. But we clearly had the right of way. He clearly had a S-T-O-P sign. Guess he couldn't wait. Gotta love those New Yorkers. No quarter given, none asked.

A similar, but more predictable, aggression occurred approaching the Turnpike on-ramp. A driver realizing at the last minute that she needed to be over “there” to get onto the turnpike simply pushed into our line without a signal, without so much as a “by your leave.” That was bad enough. It happens. What was worse, however, was her not having the good graces to get out of our line when the opportunity presented itself. Thank heavens she did not have EZ Pass, otherwise she may have stayed in our middle all the way to North Brunswick. Fortunately she suddenly went slicing out of our line and across multiple rows of oncoming traffic to get her turnpike card from a toll attendant as we rolled on through the express pass lanes.

John Jackson was taking no prisoners as lead rider either.

We picked up Token and Bart at the I-287 and Hutchinson Parkway intersection (Token called it a “junction”) with nary a pause. John J. leaned into the on-ramp and cranked it down the Hutch.

As sweep I tried, when traffic cleared, to send John J. a signal to slow down to let the two new riders catch up. I held the right lane open for our guys to move over. But John J. just cranked away.

Bart finally caught up and slipped into line ahead of me. But Token must have found a wormhole or exploited a gap in the space-time continuum.

Actually he probably over-revved his brand spankin' new BMW. Yeah, new BMW.

Can you believe it? Token must have been wanting to protect his nickname. He went out to buy a new motorcycle after an egregious ass whooping from Erik Buell. He suffered a nearly yearlong odyssey of tow truck rides, replacing all sorts of parts, including the wiring harness, and the bike never ran right. John H. finally had to invoke the Connecticut Lemon Law against being saddled with shoddily manufactured vehicles. To their credit, John H. felt well treated by his dealer, Danbury Harley-Davidson. We all disavowed Buell as being anything like Harley-Davidson. And of course Harley has finally dropped that failed experiment.

Despite the fine demonstration of chrome and camaraderie by his fellow Harley-equipped Polar Bears, John H. still went and bought another foreign machine. A BMW for chrissake. I mean really, what do a BMW and a motorcycle have in common? One of our Harley guys described Token's new ride as a, “carapace of a futuristic insect morphed with a Star Wars vehicle.”

I thought the British did not like the Germans. Maybe all is forgiven. After all we had a falling out with the Brits too. Every time I see Mel Gibson in “The Patriot” I get hungry for some payback. (Nothing personal Token.)

That reminds me of a story from my Chesapeake waterman friend Buddy. His father was called “Geesey” on account of he hired out as guide for goose hunters over to the Choptank River and such.

One night Buddy, his dad and some other fellers are having a few beers at a bar out on Tilghman Island. Buddy is a very outgoing type guy and as he goes up to the bar to retrieve another round, he meets two young German guys. Only in their twenties, they had just sailed over to Maryland from Germany.

Buddy figures they must have some good stories and so invites them back to his table. Well they're all having beers and talking up a storm with their heavy German accents, the locals having a good time hearing about the Germans' adventure. All except Geesey. He's not saying a word.

Suddenly Geesey drains his beer and slams the mug on the table. The bar goes dead quiet. Geesey looks over at the German guys and says, “We had a little trouble with you fellas a few years back.” He's not kidding.

There is a very long pause.

Finally one of the German guys says, “Yah, yah, zat vus a long time ago.”

Geesey responds, “We kicked yer ass too!”

The German replies, “Yah . . . let me buy you another beer.”

Geesey says, “Nah, I'll buy you one.”

And all is jovial once again.

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