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Sunday, 21 June 2015

Unknown Roads- Baby's First Attempt At Travel Writing

I’m not a travel writer. I’ll give you my ass-ignorant ill-considered on videogames, movies,  books,  and automobilia, whatever trash is on my mind, or half-assedly turn out a short story or grossly exaggerate my plans for novels, but I never tried that noble genre that people actually like to read- travel. There’s a good reason for this- I studiously avoid travelling anywhere for any reason. My sincerely held belief is that everywhere on the Lord’s earth sucks ass, and going anywhere to experience the local suckiness is a waste of valuable time and resources that could be better spent on doing nothing at all. However! I sincerely enjoy motorcycles, and because they have wheels, travelling is a necessary function of using them. So when a trusted associate of mine informed me he was planning a camping trip with some trusted associates of his, I promptly invited myself to ride up and join them for a day, and since this has now happened I will, in fact, write something about the experience for you.

My associate assured me that I would be welcome to join in, but that the intended destination, Loch Morar, was too far for a mere jaunt. Consulting the map, I found this was true- it was about 150 miles, which meant a round trip would be a 300 mile day in the saddle. My poor ass quivered at the thought of such punishment- this would, after all, be my first ever proper long-distance two-wheeled tour. Overnight, then. I’d bungee a tent and some beer and the less essential stuff to the back, ride up and camp with the boys, then return the next day. Far better idea.

However, it did raise issue of cargo. My newly-acquired 2003 Suzuki SV650S, the steed for this mission, had only one small storage space beneath the passenger seat, big enough for the toolkit and a small bottle of Pepsi at a push, so creativity would be required. The instruction manual for the throwover panniers I was able to dig out of the garage was apologetic straight away, whining about motorcycles being a “hostile environment for luggage”, but with inventive use of the straps and hooks provided I was able to affix them fairly securely. The tent was another story- a huge relic of the seventies that my father dragged out of some dusty spider den in the attic, the monstrous thing had to be perched on the pillion seat and optimistically wrapped up with bungee cord and hope.
The route, complete with quite optimistic estimated travel time.

Things got easier when my contact revealed that poor weather conditions had kiboshed the camping notion, and that the team had retreated to a house to which he had a family connection and accordingly keys. The bulky tent was immediately ditched, and the panniers and rucksack more readily carried were filled with what I deemed myself to need (beer, junk food and a sleeping bag). At this point, I was not at all concerned by the ominous phrase “poor weather conditions”. Later, I would be.

The route, at least, was simple. Pick my way across Glasgow city and get on the A82, then follow that up and up and up all the way to Fort William, passing Loch Lomond and Glencoe on the way, then hop on to the smaller A830 towards Mallaig until reaching the town and loch both named Morar. Fast roads and killer scenery all the way. North, north, and some west, into some proper Highland shit, through places with names like ‘Achallader’ and ‘Ballachulish’.

It was windy and drizzly as I prepared to leave, but not at that point frighteningly so. I backed the bike down the driveway, zero’d the trip computer and checked the luggage hadn’t already fallen off, and set out. I got across the city of Glasgow without incident, no mean feat in itself, opting to cross the river via the Clyde Tunnel rather than Erskine Bridge due to the wind. I passed Dumbarton with little more than drizzle, but as I approached Loch Lomond the rain really started. Really, really fucking started. It’s an unpalatable truth of all outdoor activity that even the best waterproof gear is eventually permeable, and rain this hard found the cracks in my own outfit in mere minutes. Worse, the combination of rain in the air and on my visor was nearly blinding, and water was standing on the road, decimating grip and concealing potholes. Bunched up with tourists and trucks, I trooped on through the downpour.

It rained hard the entire length of Loch Lomond, and that’s a long damn loch. Very cold and very wet, I broke off the main route to stop in the village of Crianlarch. A vile mini-mart coffee reinvigorated me somewhat as I tried to dry sodden gloves with a public bathroom hand-dryer, and, sheltered in a bus stop, I tapped out a text to mother that glossed over the full horror of the weather.

Despite the load of luggage and my flabby body, the punchy Suzuki climbed past Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy without a murmur of complaint. Acquired only a couple of weeks previously, the SV was my first large capacity bike, with my previous 125cc machine only sold the day before, and it was refreshing to ride a bike with this kind of easy torque. Even in top gear, opening the throttle gives an urgent surge of acceleration, and above about 6000RPM things start to go quite bananas as you approach the redline at 11,000. Attack-mode high revving wasn’t appropriate, of course, but at a cruise the chilled out 650cc v-twin motor sounded great and ran better, happy to sit on most of the sweeping A82 in fifth or sixth gear, only once attempting alarmingly to grab a mythical gear in between. As I moved onto Glencoe,  weather soured once more, spoiling the magnificent road and scenery somewhat and adding challenge to the constant task of passing dawdling tourist traffic without obstructing the occasional very enthusiastic big-BMW touring bike as they passed my dawdling ass.

Christ, there were a lot of big BMWs. Slowed up by traffic after Glencoe, I pulled into the McDonald’s at Fort William for a well-deserved cheeseburger and startlingly decent coffee behind an R1200GS, and it’s easy to see the appeal. The ultra-rugged Paris-Dakar design with heavy duty weather protection and inbuilt hard luggage openly declares its unburstable long distance ability. I hear they have heated damn seats- for rider and passenger! They call these (and their many imitators) “adventure bikes”, and their drastic overcapability for what a normal rider needs has made them a huge sales hit. For the kind of ride I was doing, that’s the tool to have, all right- but for the kind of budget I have, the SV is a more realistic (and, it was turning out, perfectly capable) choice.

Knowing I was getting into some real Deliverance type backwoods shit from there on, I topped up the tank before I left Fort William, though the high-gear open road cruising was not thirsty work. I wasn’t sure what the final leg would entail- I knew I’d be following signs for Mallaig but not going all the way there, and my father had advised that his recollection of the A830 was of a very narrow, very country road. The reality was a little different. The road had undergone some renovations in the (many, many) years since Dad had last traversed it, and was now a wide, smooth highway sweeping up the coast with branches out to various villages en route. Aside from the still iffy weather conditions, the only hazard came from the death defying overtaking antics of locals- when a tiny hatchback and large van simultaneously blazed past me as I progressed at an indicated two over the speed limit, I knew they were not fucking about.

Eventually I found the exit for Morar, which turned out only to be before Mallaig by about two miles. The weather had relented, and I rolled into the quiet village in some very pleasant evening sunshine a mere two and a half hours later than planned (most of which could be attributed to my lengthy stops, but I value the skin on my body enough to reduce my pace in such hellish conditions). The boys welcomed me as a hero, partly because my sodden clothing betrayed my trials, but mostly because I had beer and they did not.  We ate and drank and I recuperated in the really very pleasant house, and I found that my trash bag luggage waterproofing system had been, surprisingly, one hundred percent effective. As we watched a ridiculous Ray Mears DVD, I took a moment to reflect on what had been a tricky day- a long, wet ride through unfamiliar places, and realised I was already looking back fondly, and looking forward to the return leg.

After a few hours of fitful (and according to the other chaps, very snorey) floor sleep, Wednesday brought clear skies and dry roads. We tidied the house and convoy’d over to the lochside for a quick walk; the SV’s easy handling allowing me to dodge cyclists, sheep, and sheep shit on the narrow single-track. With the sun shining, the sweeping A830 back to Fort William was the kind of road a biker dreams of, and I got the hammer down enough catch and pass the rest of the guys despite their headstart- though given they were in a rented Vauxhall, that was perhaps not some Tourist Trophy shit. I was under the impression we’d be rendezvousing for lunch, but the bastards passed straight by while I waited at the supermarket, bleating that they had to get to car back to the rental place on time. No matter, I realised. With a dry and sunny Glencoe ahead, the ride home was going be magnificent- and so it proved.

And the real truth is that the ride is what’s important. My first ever tour, though a reasonably short one, was a blast despite the very worst efforts of the weather. As obviously, unmistakably awesome as a top of the line BMW is, “adventure motorcycle” is something of a redundancy. Any ride is an adventure- any bike is for touring, especially one so user friendly as my SV650. And while there are pastimes other than touring a motorcycle, I’m confident that none can match the feelings of freedom and exploration coupled with the simple thrill of riding- so, I don’t give a fuck about any of them.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

On First Bikes and Next Bikes



My current bike, a Yamaha YZF-R125
I love my motorcycle. Let me introduce you- it’s a 2008 Yamaha YZF-R125 in the slightly unfortunately named “Impact Yellow” colour scheme. Yamaha saw a gap in the L-plate suitable small-displacement motorcycle market for something that was actually desirable, and promptly filled it with a bike that sold tremendously. The bike combines noob-friendly handling and power output with the look and feel of a proper big-engine motorbike. As a first bike, it comes highly recommended. But! Alas, that little engine isn’t enough to keep a bike fiend entertained forever, no matter how much he thrashes it, and sooner or later I’ll sadly part ways with my beloved little Yammy for something with a bit more grunt. The question is- what?

My lizard brain immediately answers- R1. Small wonder that the atavistic part of the human psyche that wants only to fight, fuck and devour (in that order) everything it sees is attracted to Yamaha’s ferocious 180 mile-per-hour race-bred 1000cc superbike flagship, but the more developed primate brain feels differently. An R1 is far too much for someone with just one year’s riding experience to handle, it says, you’d die and lose your licence (maybe not in that order). Such a fierce machine would be a bit wasted on the fifteen mile commute to university. Plus, once there, such a predatory bastard thing slouched indifferently on its sidestand by the gate might frighten the more sensitive female students.
The widowmaking Yamaha YZF-R1.

So an R1 (or any of its similarly mental litre-class stablemates from the other manufacturers) is not really an option (yet…). Much as I dig the race-bike aesthetic, the less powerful 600cc supersports bikes are probably still a bit much, in their aggressive, track-focused handling setup perhaps more than raw power, and used examples are likely to have been thrashed relentlessly by horny lizard-men. And, let’s face it- they’re compact and uncomfortable and not really for massive fat bastards like me. What's to be done?

Believe it or not, there are some bikes I’m drawn to that aren’t insane, that might even be sensible. The Suzuki SV650 has a very manageable power output from its fruity V-twin engine, and, while on the budget end of the spectrum, can still call itself a proper sportbike with a straight face. Plus, in half-faired “S” form, it’s a jolly handsome bike. This is important because people judge a man based on how good his bike looks. It’s not just, but that’s life. The SV is cheap, though, in more than just list price, and there are more thrilling rides out there.
The playful Suzuki SV650.

A Kawasaki Ninja 250R would be a decent shout. The wee green machine (or black, if the first owner didn’t understand the fucking point of a Kawasaki) is a new-biker favourite in the US and with good reason- it looks good and inspires confidence. With only a little bit more poke than my current bike, the Ninja is available to me right now, unlike more powerful machinery which would really have to wait until the two-year probationary period on my licence had elapsed in December. A 250cc bike would still offer much of the economy and usability I’ve grown used to from the 125cc- good, since my primary use is commuting through town to university. However, it’s only a kind of half-step, and I’d still want to make another upgrade once it was available, and they’re
expensive, too.

A Ninja 250R in the correct lime green.
Perhaps the most promising upgrade prospect comes not from one bike, but a class of them. Prior to the current trend for really hardcore racetrack focused sports bikes, there were 600cc all-rounders that combined comfy seats and road-friendly design with more than enough speed to thoroughly upset the constabulary. These bikes, notably the Yamaha YZF600R Thundercat, the Honda CBR600F and the Kawasaki ZZR600, really fell from fashion once the (admittedly far sexier) race replica bikes came on the scene, and as a consequence can these days be picked up for not really much money at all- I’ve seen roadworthy examples for £800, and shite but redeemable ones for under £500. But there’s nothing wrong with them! They’re quick, reliable, good looking (except maybe the ZZR which is a bit of a land-barge) and less harsh to ride than the bikes that succeeded them. And they’re not complete pussycats either- before the new racier bikes hit, these were what were used for racebikes, and they’ll give you 150mph and 11 second quarter miles. However, one of these would still be a considerable leap up in performance from the R125, with all the bastarding running costs associated with that, and even the final models released are old now, with all the bastarding repair costs associated with that.

Left to right- A CBR600F, ZZR600 and YZF600R Thundercat- each overlooked in favour of their sexier but higher maintenance younger sisters.
Difficult decisions, eh? It’s probably worth remembering that modern Japanese-built motorcycles are basically quite good, and that it’s hard to get one that’s just shite- there’s not really a wrong choice to be made here. But it still weighs heavy on my mind, occupying brain function that really should be devoted to nobler pursuits, like passing my law degree and convincing a nice young lady to go out with me. Fucking motorcycles! Dangerous even when you’re out of the saddle!

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Note On 1990 Era Performance Cars



This is a third generation Nissan Skyline GT-R, and I am about to rap to you about why it should make your little dick hard like frozen diamond. What, it look like a respectable saloon? That’s its fucking secret. This is a straight up fucking weapon with the perfect disguise, like a six year old girl packed with dynamite and Soviet ideologies. How does a 2.3 litre inline-six cylinder engine sound? Awesome is the answer, it’s all snarly and sharp like a 150lb wasp. Also, there are two turbochargers. Two, you punk, because forcibly cramming  fuel and air in the combustion chamber for the wildest possible explosion once is simply insufficient when your goal is to make Sonic the Goddamned Hedgehog weep at his relative lack of speed. Nissan claimed about 280 brake horsepower, but this was modesty, and really it was over 300 when the car was running good. It was the late eighties when the car they would call Godzilla was conceived. Some Nissan engineer was all like, “shit, let’s make a car that will make every race series in Japan look stupid as hell by walking over the top of them” and his boss was like “haha yeah ok bro do it” and then it actually happened.  We got this fucking magic all-wheel drive system, I don’t know how the fuck it works, that lets the car cling to the track like Spiderman to a naked tit but still corner like the magic bullet that killed JFK. The whole car is overengineered as shit, too, so the fast and furious tuner boys can’t get enough of it. You can, in theory, tune this engine to produce a power output approximately equivalent to that of twenty-one supernovae, and thanks to the torque-splitting-centre-differential traction sorcery all that power will just be delivered with no fuss, and uproot the nation’s entire fucking road system, spooling it out the back like in a Looney Tune, as you rocket off, pulling 0-60 figures that cannot be measured by modern science en route to a top speed comparable to that of light. For real- can you imagine some smarmy shit of an investment banker’s face when his brand new Porsche convertible is smoked away from the lights by a fucking NISSAN!? Nissan, like who made the Sunny! That’s the kind of range they have as an engineering company- like Bryan Cranston is equally convincing as goofy dad and as crank kingpin, Nissan are equally skilled at making boring hatchbacks for boring people to cart their ugly kids around, and howling performance icons like this beauty. It’s not that beautiful, actually. The later models looked a lot better. And went faster. Shit.  Whatever- the GT-R was a Goddamned revolution.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Seeing Things Differently



Have you ever come to see someone you thought you knew in a different light? Like, you’ve got this female friend, right, and you’re close, but just friends, you know, she’s in a relationship, whatever. You can finish each other’s sentences, laugh at each other’s jokes before the punchline, know all each other’s favourite snacks- but you’re just friends, no more. You’ve never even considered her romantically, not even once- totally platonic. And then, suddenly, she’s single, and she’s starting to get back into dating again, and you start to think differently about her. Look at her differently. Suddenly you’re seeing something completely different when you look at this girl you knew so well; the lines of her face, the way she walks, the curve of her hips, even. All of a sudden, it’s almost like you’re checking her out, noticing her for the first time. You think about that time she hugged you at the ice cream place, when you felt something- something unfamiliar and strange, but thought nothing of it. It’s like when you played the shit out of Mario World as a kid, know it like it’s your own house, and it’s only when you dust off your old SNES that you realise you only ever played world 1. Suddenly, there’s so much- more, it’s a goddamn revelation. It took just a subtle change for you to realise what you hadn’t been seeing, and then it was there all along, staring in your stupid face. End of the Sixth Sense, you know? There the whole time, but you just didn’t see. It took this perfect moment, this sudden flash of light, this epiphany for you to realise just how fucking fat she’s gotten.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Vive la Différence: How GT5 and Forza 4 Prove the Industry Wrong

We gamers, and this site not least, often lament how modern games have ever less variety- how modern action games are clones of one of Call of Duty, Uncharted or Gears of War. We often complain that seeing something different is far more unusual than it should be, and we get perhaps over-excited when we see something that is- see Watch_Dogs. On the face of it, one might think that racing games would be the most guilty of this- the premise of driving a car around a track is identical for damn near every one of them, right?

Well, maybe. As a car fan without money for cars, I’ve been spending a lot of time with the two biggest names in console race sims- Polyphony Digital’s Gran Turismo 5 and Turn 10’s Forza Motorsport 4, and it turns out that the variation between two outwardly similar games is greater than it appears; it seems to me that there is a fundamental difference in design philosophy, pervading every aspect of the games, that sets them apart from one another to attentive eyes.

GT5 presents a simulation experience, pure almost to the point of harshness, but deep too, with multiple disciplines, a huge range of cars and meticulous attention to detail. Over a thousand painstakingly recreated vehicles make up the roster, and each one drives differently. Real world and virtual tracks are included, all with their own subtle nuances, and the player can race at night, in the rain, or on snow or dirt tracks to their heart’s content. Career progression and menus, however, can be very clunky at times, and AI opponents often seem oblivious to the player’s car- it’s clear that this is a game that is all about the driving simulation, with no room for compromise.

Forza, on the other hand, is a far more player-focused experience, offering a more structured campaign and the polish for the smoothest possible player experience. The career mode is smooth and well-designed, menus slick and car customisation intuitive. The online suite offers the ready usability of a Call of Duty game, and carefully planned DLC offers new cars and tracks that add to an already complete experience. For all its polish, though, it lacks GT’s range and depth of cars and experience, not to mention a little of its character.

Everything from menus (slick in Forza and intimidating in GT) to race physics (with GT’s lending each car more personality but Forza’s superior feedback) to my mind illustrates that these games, supposedly interchangeable, are in fact two very different creations born of very different but equally worthy visions. Which is better? I couldn’t possibly say; Forza seems to represent the console ideal of challenging gameplay accessible to all, while Gran Turismo’s unwavering focus and clear passion are admirable. As a car fan and a game fan, I like both very much; both sold well and received praise from critics, despite taking very different approaches to the same basic formula. Neither game releases annually, either, and both are receiving impressive post release support in the form of patches, DLC and community events.

Why, then, do so many developers seek to follow trends and copy the competition? Here, surely, is proof positive that visionary and talented game creation yields a truly worthwhile (not to mention marketable) product, distinct from the competition. Forza and GT are franchises with unique identity and vision; trends come and trends go, but I believe that a game with that identity can stick around for a very long time.

This article was originally posted on www.invalidopinions.com - check it out- it's great and actually gets updates unlike my stupid goddamn blog.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

More Cars I Could Never Afford: Mclaren Reveal MP4-12C Spider



Mclaren last week announced and showed off a new model of their slickly named MP4-12C supercar, this time with up to 100% less roof. Presumably in a bid to silence those claiming the car looked a little tame for a £170,000 all-carbon twin-turbo supercar, the spider looks fucking amazing. Mclaren claim the coupe’s blistering performance is largely intact, thanks to design wizardry and carbon fibre- most cars converted to convertibles as an afterthought end up heavy and lame thanks to the compromised structure and necessary reinforcement, but the MP4-12C’s carbon tub chassis neatly sidesteps these issues, and there’s only a relatively minor 40kg weight increase from the folding hardtop. With the twin-turbo 3.8 litre V8 kicking out 631 horsepower, I suspect you won’t notice. I recall reading that some TT-veteran bike racer reckoned the hardtop McLaren would give a superbike a run for its money- with the roof gone, it might also match the sensory bombardment terror. The spider comes with all the same performance sorcery of the hardtop and will retail for a cool £195,500; pricier than the coupe, but if you’re in the market for one you can probably afford it. 


Though I’m not entirely sure why I’m qualified as a supercar pundit, I think the Spider is a welcome addition to the McLaren stable. Obviously, no one was questioning the MP4-12C’s pedigree- between the legendary F1 and decades of motorsport excellence, McLaren are assuredly top-flight when it comes to fast cars- but for such an exotic machine, it did seem a little bland (especially when the alternative is the outrageous Ferrari 458). The beautiful new Spider ought to reassert McLaren as a maker of cars that are not only technically marvellous, but impassioned and desirable; they’re going to need that if they hope to give Ferrari serious competition on the road as well as the track. I may have a little trouble securing a test drive, but when I do I’ll be sure to report on it. If any rockstars or CEOs are reading this and fancy picking one up, the first cars are expected to reach customers around the end of the year.