With all the planning for the North Coast 500 trip you’d think that I would be relaxed about my preparations. With four days to go its not until I ride off the drive that I’ll truly say that’s it, I’m done.
I couldn’t have done more. I’ve researched the NC500 routes with the help of members of the UKGSer forum and had some tips from friends who have lived up in Scotland. It even looks as though the weather will be kind to us, not that we expect any favours on that front when travelling in Scotland. I can only say that the Motorrad Rainlock kit that I bought from Chester Motorrad has been tried and tested in some pretty abysmal weather both on my last trip to Scotland and across the Alps. One of the best purchases I have ever made.
Follow our progress
I hope that you will follow us on our NC500 journey via the posts I will be making. I’ll look forward to doing a full write up on our return.
All that is left to mention is a reminder to where you can follow us.
With 19 days left to go I thought it would be appropriate to post an update as to how the route planning was going. The truth is that the planning was pretty much done at the time that I booked the accommodation. Sure there are a few variables and side trips but how much planning do you need when you are following the coast. We’re going anticlockwise so keep the wet stuff on the right and you can’t go wrong.
What is worth mentioning as a record to those who have had similar experiences is the use of MyRoute-App, Garmin Basecamp and the BMW Navigator V. Much of this has been played out on various forums but I’ll try to summarise the outcome.
Much of what I do with the Nav is have it take me to my destination via the fastest route, a concept familiar with anyone who has ever used a sat nav. I also use it to record where I’ve been. Occasionally I use it to load up the routes I’ve planned. The last time I did this was in the Alps which went wrong and I ended up manually entering routes based on numerous village waypoints from a map. At the time I never did a full post mortem nor was I in a position to until I could load some test routes. With our imminent departure on the NC500 I wanted to avoid a repeat of the Alps situation so I set out some routes for a short run.
I have mentioned that I was trying MyRoute-App, an online routing system, and it was this that I used to do my test routes. Straight away things started to go wrong. I missed a turn it recalculated but took me an alternative way the intended. When I got to my destination and then set off for the next leg I was given a route of straight lines between each waypoint and since I was not familiar with the area I aborted and went straight for the destination. This was not going well.
In hindsight I now know what was happening. I could give you the long post but that is covered elsewhere, by myself and others. Here is the abbreviated short version. What was happening is that my route was made up of waypoints and silent shaping points that pin the route to the road I want to travel on. As soon as I deviated and the Nav 5 was allowed to do a route recalculation it went straight for the destination and ignored the route defined by the shaping points. So to keep it simple here are my top tips in the form of short bulleted sentences. Follow these and you can’t go wrong (unlike me in the Alps).
Make sure that you are using the same map on Basecamp as you are on the Nav5
Make sure that all your route preference match on Basecamp and Nav5. Here we are talking settings such as avoid motorways, u-turns, etc
Have recalculation off or prompted. If prompted its easier to spot when you are off route.. but press no when asked to recalc
If you have imported a route into Basecamp, make sure you have sufficient shaping points and do a recalculation before transfer
Don’t use tracks. The Nav5 often ignores anything other than the final destination. Your route should be in Trip Planner.
If you have used MyRoute-App and the trip on the map of the device has straight lines you can force a recalc by flicking from fastest to curvy and back.
If you follow a route and skip a section it should automatically pick up on the next navigation prompt. If you press skip it will bypass the next waypoint (note – this is not the next silent shaping point. You could lose a large chunk of your route)
Follow the above points and chances are you will be ok. But then again, is this the blind leading the blind? I’ll be better informed when I return from my next trip. Good luck!
There are many great helmet manufacturers out there but I’d got myself into thinking there was Arai and then there was everyone else. And so it was when I decided that I wanted a more adventure styled helmet to match the bike and my other touring gear I instinctively turned to Arai. At the time I was at the NEC Motorcycle Live show and was browsing the new range of helmets while my current helmet, a Quantum ST Pro, got a free service (another good reason to buy Arai). At the time I had my eye on the Tour-X 4.
The show was in November and the Arai wasn’t in the shops until the following March so I had time to look around. Not that I needed to as I’ll remind you of my opening statement suggesting I need not look any further than Aria, however in the months following I kept seeing a lot of recommendations in the touring community to the Schuberth helmets.
The Schuberth E1
I took a look out of curiosity and was quite impressed with the specs. It was a flip up helmet, had an internal visor, came with a pinlock fittedand could have an optional integrated comms system. Sure it also came with a price tag closing in on £700 but all of these extra features gave me a reason to change rather just on styling.
A year went by and another NEC show came around. This was the perfect opportunity to try one on for size, thus opening up the ability to buy online with confidence. One I’d confirmed that my head was still large and that the Schuberth large conformed to my large head I came home to do some browsing. It was a further four months on when I stopped searching but in that time I’d found an E1 in an older livery for £399 from Helmet City. I liked the colour and I was making a £270 saving!
Out of the box the helmet felt great. While some people made reference to some head shapes not liking it, I must fall into the bracket of skull compatibility that suits the Schuberth. It was immediately comfortable and the convenience of the ratchet closure rather that the double D ring was a welcome addition. As with most helmets I took a few minutes to work out where all the vent positions are while wearing the helmet and also the switch for the internal visor that, while immensely practical, also gave you a Top Gun jet fighter look.
Out on the road I found that in its delivered position the peak was a little intrusive in my line of sight so I lifted this one notch up. The adjustment was simple with the release of a locking lever. I’ve yet to ride on a wet day but I have noticed a bit of internal condensation that immediately clears when the visor is cracked open in its ‘urban riding’ position. Perhaps I need to open up a vent? Either way the pillock did its job and there is nothing in the main field of vision. It is possible that with everything closed it has less ability that the Arai (in a good way) to vent out any moisture from my breast as the next skirt is quite snug. This also has the ability to reduce noise considerably and I’m finding that it is a very quiet helmet. I certainly look forward to touring in it.
Can you hear me now?
When I ordered it I had agonised long and hard as to whether I should be buying the integrated SC10U comms based on the Sena system. Long story short, yes the integrated system would be neater than retaining the UClear but everyone I need to communicate with has the UClear. If this changes at a later date I can get the integrated system to fit. It is good that the helmet is prepared for comms as it gave me an ample recess to mount the UClear speakers.
Over the years I’ve collected a number of boots and while my Alpinestars Supertech R race boots were great on a race bike I needed something a little bit more rugged for use on the GS. I had been touring with a set of Alpinestars SMX-3 boot, and while this was comfortable and easy to live with being a low boot, it was a bit too sporty and have very little in the way of grip on the sole. I had seen a very favourable review of a Forma adventure boot but I didn’t want a full height boot. Having looked for alternatives I was informed that the boot I had seen reviewed was available in a low version, what’s more the online link I was sent was a local outlet meaning I could go and give them a try before committing.
The Forma Adventure Low boots certainly look the part. Available in black or brown, I opted for the brown Full-grain oil treated leather. The low boot has two adjustable quick release buckles and a velcro closure. When open the boot flap has an internal gusset to give them the waterproof capability that my old boots struggled with in extreme rain. For when the ground gets rough the sole has ample tread that looks like it can handle the hardiest of terrain.
I was reliably informed that they would bed in very quickly but from the off they were extremely comfy with a good padded interior. As you would expect from a boot of this nature they are very sturdy and it took a minute to mentally adjust to where my foot needed to be on gear shift. The boots are solid and while I might want more protection if I was doing some extreme off road riding, I’m not and these are a significant upgrade in terms of what I was wearing for touring.
Spec wise this is what you get for your 170 British pounds…
Full-grain oil treated leather upper
Specific adventure/enduro/ atv-quad double density compound rubber sole
Injection moulded plastic protection
Plastic gear pad protection
Adjustable velcro closure
Replaceable/adjustable GH plastic buckles
Personalized Forma Drytex tubular lining (waterproof and breathable)
Ankle TPU moulded plastic protections
Soft polymer padding with memory foam
PP Mid Dual Flex with anti-shock EVA midsole
Anti-bacterial replaceable footbed with A.P.S. (Air Pump System)
After an initial flurry of activity to get something down on paper, I’ve since not touched the itinerary, although the trip has always been in the back of my mind. I’m hooked into various sources of information and Facebook groups and I see the occasional reference. I pay it fleeting consideration as to how it may influence my planning before getting on with whatever task I have currently occupying my thoughts. Now with 66 days left to go I’m considering getting back to the plan since the initial draft was inherited from a document sent to me on a GS forum. I modified it but to the extent that it now feels disjointed. Having said that I do want to keep it as guidance rather than a rigid set of instructions and directions to be executed to the letter. That in itself seems a contradiction to the GPS route planning that I’m going to refer to later in this post. Its like adventure with someone holding your hand.
There have been many suggestions over where we should go, what we should see, what to avoid and what road would be unmissable. At this stage the trip is now defined by a few simple factors, most notably accommodation. There will be four of us taking the trip and at each stop we will be needing four single beds in reasonable accommodation (typically two twin rooms). I’ve never camped and while I wouldn’t have a problem pitching a tent there are members of the party who would be horrified at the thought. So accommodation type, and more importantly availability, dictates the start and end of each day. From our meeting spot on the M6 services at Forton we will travel to Inverness, and then from here we will skirt the northern coast of Scotland hopping between B&B and hotel with the official NC500 route being our guide if not our mistress.
I needn’t go too much into the detail of the route. Before anyone reads this I’ll probably be posting the ride report which hopefully will be much more use to anyone hoping to embark upon a similar tour of the North of Scotland. What I wanted to cover in this post isn’t much of a product review, but a couple of products that I intend to use.
Wunderlich 3D Ergo screen deflector
Since moving to the GS I have enjoyed the benefits of comfort over longer touring distances. While the screen does its job in reducing wind and buffeting, I do feel that despite being able to adjust it to its highest setting there is a little more improvement to be had. On occasion I had dipped my head down a couple of inches and found that the wind noise dropped considerably. This was nothing that would bother me while hacking around on A and B roads but a benefit, I felt, would be desirable on longer motorway stretches. Since the dipped position wouldn’t be one I would want to ride in, not without neck strain at very least, I thought I’d try a screen deflector.
After looking at my options I settled on a Wunderlich model from Nippy Normans. The reviews were good and I didn’t want to change the whole screen since I don’t like the look of these tall aftermarket options. It also looked like something that I could easily take off and throw in the luggage if I didn’t need it.
The build and fit look fine. It clamps to the top of the existing screen without looking out of place and while I have yet to fully test it and find an optimal position, visually it looks like its going to do the job. The benefits will be felt on the run up to Glasgow and beyond.
MyRoute-app Online Route Planning Tool
Garmin BaseCamp is the default option for planning for the Motorrad Navigator and it has its lovers and haters. I can take it or leave it. It can be a bit unwieldy but it does a job. I mainly use it for publishing Garmin Adventures on my ride reports. I did use it extensively on planning my trip across the Alps. That’s not to say that I didn’t make a lot of mistakes with it and had to reprogram a lot of my routes on the hoof mainly from letting Basecamp remove a lot of my route shaping points which allowed the GPS to re-calculate on the fly rather than going where I had planned to go. The source of many of the routes in the Alps had been provided by a forum member who had sent them to me in TomTom format. They had suggested that I use the TyreToTravel application to convert them into a format I could use on BaseCamp and on the Garmin based Navigator V. It did a very good job but being a Windows based application it wasn’t a long term option on the Mac.
A couple of weeks back I saw a recommendation of an online route planning app that was compatible with TomTom and Garmin and the suggestion was that it was a good alternative to BaseCamp. The website for MyRoute-app seemed to be pushing all the right buttons and I noticed it was from the same people that did the TyreToTravel application.
While I am keen to give this a go I have been waiting to get a little closer to my NC500 departure to draw up the final GPS routes and I want to take advantage of the free trial but I have a sneaking suspicion that I will end up with a Gold subscription if it does indeed meet all expectations. I might even consider the one off lifetime membership. I think that it would be money well spent since I usually have one large annual trip and numerous planned weekend outings to make it an investment.
Half the enjoyment of a tour is, for me at least, in the planning. While there is a lot to be said for heading off with no idea what adventures lie ahead, the expectation of knowing where I am going and where I intend to be lets me relax and enjoy the ride.
I have spent much of my life travelling to Scotland’s west coast but I have only done it the once on two wheels. On that occasion I didn’t really have the correct tool for the job. Don’t get me wrong, it was a blast on the S1000RR but boy did I feel the effects of so many miles in sports bike position. When it was suggested we return to do the North Coast 500 I relished not only the possibility of doing it on an adventure bike but also I would be going further north that I had previously ventured.
I dived into the forums and spent a few hours on Google maps scoping out the route. I quickly realised that there was a sense of urgency due to the popularity of the route and the availability of accommodation, or lack of it. I had bought a North Coast 500 guidebook and took a look at their suggested tour itinerary but the advice I got was that I was undercooking the mileage. The suggestion was that there was little going on with the east coast and that I should be cracking on to Durness where the best of the west coast starts. With this in mind I’ve drawn up my initial plan and will continue to revise in in the coming weeks.
Or is it slain? Its important to get ones English correct when you are the only Brit in a group of Americans.
And so it was, I had boarded my Virgin Atlantic flight to Atlanta and was once again in the US of A. Those of you who have read my previous words will know all about the US129 ‘Dragon’ and its tail so hopefully I can find something new to tell you.
Things were a lot less stressful this time since I was retracing my steps from 2015. There was the horrendous immigration queue at Atlanta but I managed to fast track myself with my British charm. Actually, it was more like standing in the right place at the right time. I said I was on the same passport as last time with the same ETSA. This wasn’t entirely true as my ETSA had expired and this was a new one, but I managed to win over the immigration official with tales of my last visit and my local knowledge. I think he appreciated that my travel intentions weren’t that of the usual tourist.
Four wheel transport
Ok, so I’ve done the Camaro thing and I didn’t want to do the obvious Mustang tourist thing again so I opted for a inconspicuous Mercedes. I had briefly flirted with the idea of a truck but came to my senses. I think my choice of car had confused the local Sixt agent when collecting the keys as he had assumed I was German and was a little surprised when he realised I wasn’t. Maybe I should have been renting a Jaguar? (Don’t say Tata!!). Did I mention it was Friday around 5pm? Really not the best time to be heading through downtown Atlanta at rush hour! My first destination was visiting my friend Zachary in Knoxville and this traffic was seriously eating into our drinking time.
I arrived at Knoxville with enough time to hit a bar. I’d been up and travelling for well over 20 hours at this stage and the beers were very welcome. The following day we get breakfast and headed out to a brewery. Hey, you ask. I thought this was a bike blog, about bikes and adventure. Well, yes it is but equally beer is important. We will be back with the motorcycles very soon, the next day in fact. On Sunday morning I said goodbye to my weekend hosts and headed to the Tennessee/North Carolina border and to my cabin in the woods just outside of Robbinsville on the Cherohala Skyway.
Onto the mountains
The group was a large one. We had over 20 people from Florida, Tennessee, Maryland, Iowa, North Carolina and Indiana. And one bloke from England, yours truly. Thankfully the cabins are set up for just a group with all the trucks, trailers and motorcycles that go with the ensemble. For those that aren’t constrained by the costs of Atlantic flights this is an annual pilgrimage, and while other accommodation has been suggested I don’t think you could better the Tail of the Dragon Vacation Rentals. There are large communal areas in both the cabins we rented, large garages, plenty of beds, and most importantly… hot tubs!
Renting a car in the US can be inexpensive. The same cannot be said where motorcycles are involved. The R1200GS I rented on my last trip cost nearly as much for the three days as the cost of the car I had for the entire two weeks I was out there. Luckily I was to be loaned a ride. Not just any ride, but I was about to be reunited with a BMW S1000RR. This was home turf for me and I was glad to be getting on the bike that I always felt I sold too soon. My only concern was how my aching bones would handle wrestling a super bike around the tight switchbacks on the TotD but I needn’t of worried. I soon remembered the RR is a precision instrument.
There has been much talk and focus on the Tail of the Dragon itself, and while Deals Gap is a focal point there are so many great roads and routes. I was determined to see much more on this trip. Once again we rode the Tail of the Dragon, The Foothills Parkway and the Cherohala Skyway but I added to that list the Moonshiner 28. “Stretching from US 129 at the Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap, Moonshiner 28 winds its way southeastward 103 miles through Franklin and Highlands North Carolina before turning southward into Georgia and South Carolina ending at the sleepy town of Walhalla.”, or so the website states. We incorporated a section of the Moonshiner 28 in a number of our rides, either riding out to Gatlinburg or Bryson City, including a notable ride in the extreme wet. Luckily the weather was mostly dry.
What to wear
As with any travel dressing for the weather is key. My tour of the Alps was a no brainer. It was adventure suit all the way. In this case it was a little more difficult. My one piece race suit was out of the question. I did have a leather two piece RST. While others were wearing full leather I thought this may just be a bit much for my suitcase. In the end I opted for my Motorrad armoured jeans and my Spyke ‘cafe racer’ jacket. The jacket is good enough to be worn down the pub so it was a good choice to wear while travelling.
To complete the look I had my Alpinestars baseball style boots. Even with my choice of protective clothing I’m glad I don’t have that heat to deal with all the time. Don’t get me wrong, I love to fly of to places in the sun as much as the next man but its usually shorts on the beach and a cocktail in hand.
Drawing to a close
And so we bring the trip to a close. Great rides, great company, great friends. While I spent much of my time on the RR, I did jump on the other bikes occasionally so my final words will be to list the other rides. Kawasaki Z1000, Suzuki GSXS750, Kawasaki Z900, and Kawasaki ZX6R (no, I don’t like GP shift).
In a few days time I depart to the US to ride the Dragon. In a previous post I talked about my last trip and had promised some information on what the Tail of the Dragon is, and this is the purpose of this post. If you like your motorcycles but are not American you may know of the US129. If you are American you will almost certainly know of it. Forgive me for what follows is a blatant cut and paste job. I promise that my next post on the subject will be my ride reports.
The Tail of the Dragon
Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap with 318 curves in 11 miles, is America’s number one motorcycle and sports car road.
Designated US 129, the road is bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains and the Cherokee National Forest, with no intersecting roads or driveways to hamper your travel. It is considered “the destination” for thousands of motorcycle and sports car fans throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
The 11-mile stretch of the Dragon in Tennessee is said to have 318 curves. Some of the Dragon’s sharpest curves have names like Copperhead Corner, Hog Pen Bend, Wheelie Hell, Shade Tree Corner, Mud Corner, Sunset Corner, Gravity Cavity, Beginner’s End, and Brake or Bust Bend. The road earned its name from its curves being said to resemble a dragon’s tail. The stretch bears the street name “Tapoco Road” in North Carolina and “Calderwood Highway” in Tennessee and is signed entirely by US 129
The nearby Cherohala Skyway is quickly becoming a destination too, with its remote 60 miles of breathtaking scenic mountain highway.
The Cherohala Skyway (sometimes called the Overhill Skyway) is a 43-mile (69 km) National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee, to Robbinsville, North Carolina in the southeastern United States. Its name is a portmanteau of Cherokee and Nantahala, the two national forests through which it passes. Along with multiple vistas and overlooks, the skyway provides easy vehicular access to various protected and recreational areas of the Unicoi Mountains, including the Citico Creek Wilderness, the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the remote interior of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.
The skyway gains over 4,000 feet (1,200 m) in elevation, rising from a low point of just under 900 feet (270 m) at Tellico Plains to a high point of just over 5,400 feet (1,600 m) on the slopes of Haw Knob near the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. The North Carolina half of the skyway terminates near the south shore of Lake Santeetlah.
The area also has other incredible roads like the Moonshiner 28, Devils Triangle, Diamondback 226, Six Gap North Georgia, The Snake and Great Forest Service Dual Sport and Jeep Roads.
Foolishly, I thought our planning would magically weave a path around any incoming weather, and as I prepared to set off from home there was a possibility that would be the case. By the time I was 100 yards up the road it became clear that this was fanciful thinking and I was getting wet. My initial stop for fuel was also going to be an opportunity to get the wet weather gear out of the panniers. I wishfully checked my phone for a text calling off the trip. Nothing.
We had arranged to meet at Llangollen in the car park of the Royal International Pavilion. Heavy rain largely dominated the journey so I tucked in behind the bikes windshield and turned on the heated grips. The rain had subsided by the time I pealed off the motorway near Chester, heading west towards Wales. An initial 7ºC had climbed to an almost balmy 11.5ºC, small margins but it was noticeable. Once at Llangollen we headed for a much needed hot drink. Sitting opposite a card shop drinking our coffee we amused ourselves trying to pronounce the name of the shop, YSIOPFACHGARDIAUWRTHYBONTDROSYRAFONDDYFRDWYYNLLANGOLLEN. We gave up.
Although we were passing many of our usual locations, today’s main event was Barmouth and I punched the destination into the (now behaving) Navigator V. Ever since I came back from Switzerland I had been trying to fix a problem with the Sat Nav. Even a whisker over a speed limit on any given road would cause it to give an audible warning every 20 seconds. It had been driving me crazy and I couldn’t find a solution. It became a long story but It needn’t have been. I had inadvertently turned on Audible Speed Alerts and having assumed nothing had changed in the settings I didn’t check them. Instead I was Googling and being lead on a merry goose chase about speed camera databases, and picking through the file system while ignoring the solution that was right in front of me.
On the topic of satellite navigation, we encountered another of those little misadventures you get when you refuse to use a good old map. Having set Barmouth as the destination I was advised that there would be a toll, and I accepted the warning without taking up the offer of an alternative route.
The toll in question turned out to be Penmaenpool toll bridge. It is a Grade II listed wooden toll bridge built in 1879 to replace the then ferry crossing across the estuary of the River Mawddach. The earlier rain showers had left the wooden surface a little slippy but we crossed without incident for the princely sum of 50p each. If we had not turned off the road to cross the bridge then we wouldn’t have encountered traffic that we have earlier passed. They were not following the same navigation goals as we where and were on a more direct but slightly longer route. But hey, that’s the adventure right?
We crawled into Barmouth through narrow streets behind your typical caravan and motorhome selection of day trippers. Barmouth was built up from the ship building industry but is now a seaside resort. We found a nice spot to park up on the promenade. The tropical trees lining the promenade looked out of place despite it warming up a little. However, not to that extent. We found a cafe. I had a full English, my riding companion had a stack of American pancakes and syrup. We were living the Welsh dream.
We left Barmouth and followed the coast road towards Harlech. We turned inland and shot over the excellent A470 from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Betws-Y-Coed with its long sweeping bends. At ‘Betsy’ we pulled into the recently resurfaced car park and slotted into the newly painted motorcycle bays. Betws-Y-Coed is a regular stop and a hub of many routes in Snowdonia. Its not uncommon for us to fuel up both bike and belly. Having just fuelled the bike, and with bacon, sausage, black pudding, egg, mushroom, beans, tomato and toast still working its way down my innards from the cafe in Barmouth, it was a quick cup of tea before heading for home.
There were a few light showers but nothing to have me reach for the now stowed wet weather gear. Fortune had favoured the brave. Faced with the possibility of a soaking we’d gambled and had a great ride out. Chalk up another 250 miles.