Saturday, August 24, 2013

Florida - North Carolina & Finding My Bike

Upon completing my motorcycle safety course and getting that all important motorcycle endorsement on my new license, I began the search for the perfect bike.
Since I enjoyed the off-road adventures we'd taken throughout Australia, I determined that I needed to find a dual-sport or enduro type of bike, to allow me the same freedom and possibilities on my own.
Standing a bit under 5'4", finding a bike that I could sit on and touch the ground was a primary concern. I had found a BMW F650 in Australia that would have been a good fit. In the States, however, people seem not to let go of these pre-computer BMWs, and my personal overland advisor recommended against the post computer, fuel-injection models unless I was Ewan McGregor or had found a money tree to shake.

I am not Ewan McGregor and have not held a "steady" job for over 3 years now, so of course, my budget was of particular consideration.
The other bikes that would seem to fit me were all of a style that I did not particularly appreciate. They looked like dirt bikes. Not machines that would command a presence on the road. And neon is just not my thing.

Again, my personal overland advisor stepped in and recommended I look at the Honda Transalp, which at 600ccs happens to be the little brother of his 750cc Honda Africa Twin. Bingo! The Transalp had only been imported in the States in '89 and '90 but there were a few models that popped up on Craigslist with low miles and in excellent condition. The bike appeared to be high but perhaps just low enough for me. And appealing to my sense of aesthetics, the bike was a substantial size and was primarily white with navy, royal and red stripes. Lovely.

Tail of the Dragon: 11mi/318 curves (Tennessee/North Carolina)
There were no Transalps for sale in FL so we kept checking Craigslist as we made our way North-East from Florida. I contacted one seller in North Carolina and explained my height, asking if he thought I would be able to manage the Transalp he had for sale. He didn't think it would even be a comfortable ride for me if I was 5'8". My heart sunk. Meanwhile, Roel's Africa Twin was protesting the weight my luggage and I imposed as we toured the Great Smoky Mountains. It was clear that if we were to do this journey together, it needed to be on two bikes. And then we hit Asheville.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park
I've always heard wonderful things about Asheville and had originally intended to stop there to visit an old friend. It turned out that friend was on a 24-hour work shift the day we were passing through Asheville, but we decided to stop there for a while, anyway. We found a nice bar with a variety of craft brews on tap, free wifi and it was like we stepped into a time warp. All of the sudden it was nearly 6pm and we still needed to do shopping for dinner, get back on the Blue Ridge Parkway and find a spot to camp before dark. Trying to find the local market, we got lost several times, wound up there and almost didn't bother to go through the hassle of shopping because it was so busy. I persisted, telling Roel I'd get the shopping done quickly, and then we just needed to fuel up a block down the street before getting back on the road.

Just after we pulled into the Shell station, two guys on BMWs pulled in behind us. David and Dann were very interested in Roel's bike (with the two of us and all of our gear, it looks like something out of a circus), and I jokingly asked if I could buy one of their BMWs. David was immediately on his phone calling around to all of his friends in the bike world to see if anyone knew of a bike of my specs for sale. There was one guy in Knoxville who David was pretty sure had a Transalp, possibly for sale, but he hadn't answered his phone. Given that Knoxville was in the opposite direction of where we were headed, it didn't make sense for us to get on the road, and Dann and David graciously offered that we could stay with them for the evening, enjoy hot showers, a warm meal and laughs with their family and friends. With such a rare bike, it seemed too amazing to ignore that we had run into these guys who knew someone who might have one for sale. Throughout his travels, Roel had been invited into strangers homes and had wonderful experiences. I had yet to encounter this, but the kindness and warmth I felt from these guys left no doubt in my mind that this would be a good way to pass the evening, even if it didn't lead to my finding the perfect bike.

And boy was it a wonderful evening. David and Dann spoiled us with a wonderful dinner, wine, beer, the promised hot showers and warm bed, but mostly with their company and that of their family. David's mother, Claudia and grandmother, Alicia, who was visiting for a month from Miami Beach, made us feel right at home. Mama Alicia didn't speak any English, but through body language and my faltering Spanish, we got along just great. By the next morning, we felt like we were with our own family.
Alicia, me, Claudia & David preparing to feast!

The guy from Knoxville returned David's call that morning and said that he loved his Transalp too much to sell. Go figure. But David didn't give up and through the course of his calls the day before, he began to hear back from people about this guy named Russ who lived in North Carolina and had Transalps. TransalpS. Plural!!! Through visiting a few different motorcycle shops that morning in a hunt for ear plugs for me, we eventually happened upon a bike shop that not only had heard of Russ, but had actually had one of his Transalps on consignment for several months. It never sold. Russ lived only 10 minutes away. David called up Russ who happened to be in his garage working on his bikes at that moment, and said that we should c'mon over.

Love at First Sight
We pulled up into Russ's driveway and it was love at first sight. He had 4 Transalps, but the one he had pulled out to sell to me was the only one that I would fit on and that fit me. Two of the others were too tall and the other "short" one was red - not my color. Russ was firm on a selling price that was about $1000 more than I wanted to spend, but the situation was too perfect to walk away. The bike was in mint condition (in fact, people often think my bike is new), mechanically sound, had all sorts of lovely extras (a nice Givi windscreen, Corbin seat, heated handgrips, a throttle clamp, crashbars, Happy Trails racks) and Russ was willing to sell two solid Zega cases with luggage bags with the bike. Given all of that AND the way we had come to find this Transalp... by meeting a family who had restored our faith in humanity after our unfortunate experience in Australia... that bike was meant to be mine.

By the time we figured all of this out and had test ridden the bike a few times, it was 5pm on Friday afternoon. We needed to transfer the money from Australia to the US, transfer the title, get temporary plates and give me some time to get comfortable on my bike before we began the long haul from Asheville, NC to Virginia Beach, VA.

So we spent the next four days with our Asheville family. We continued to ride around town with Dann and David. Russ took all of us on a beautiful ride on awesome dirt roads through the National Forests around Asheville and then up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. My Spanish improved immensely the more time I spent with Mama Alicia, learning how to make Arepas, hearing about her vibrant social life in Miami Beach and eating the first red meat I've ever had in my life - venison a-al Colombiana!

David, Dann, Russ, me & Roel on the Blue Ridge Parkway, NC
We visited Russ every day, watched him reinforce and customize the Zegas to fit my bike, and every day he seemed to have some other gift to give me: an awesome magnetic tank bag, a kickstand foot, the repair manual, spare brake shoes, a spare CDI (which saved us when one of my CDIs died just outside of Gettysburg), not to mention all of the knowledge he shared with us about the maintenance and care of this bike.

Imagine all of the shoes that can fit in this box!

When it came to the day of purchasing my bike, things went smoothly. The money from Australia finally came through, the title transfer was thrilling and getting the temporary plates was a breeze. Now came the next hurdle... riding away on my bike. Up until then, Roel had done 95% of the test riding, as I was afraid to ride her until I actually owned her. And with good reason... Practicing in Russ's neighborhood, all it took was a sudden need to yield to a driver who I thought had yielded to give way to me, and I didn't get my foot down in time and down the bike and I went. I'm not sure if I was more angry with myself or embarrassed as Russ's neighbor came running to help me pick up the bike. But it was a good sign that I needed A LOT more time getting comfortable on my bike before I was to ride it confidently.

Russ was lovely about it when I walked back up to his house with my tail between my legs: "Well, you know how that feels now, so you don't have to do it again. Remember, shiny side up!"
David led the way to a nearby highschool which provided the perfect place for me to practice getting comfortable on my bike for the next 5 hours. The skies opened up and the rain bucketed down, but this was nothing new for me as my motorcycle safety had taken course during the prime days of a tropical storm that sat over Florida. I still wasn't able to do figure-8s to my satisfaction (or Roel's) but I was comfortable with clutch control, stopping and managing the weight of my bike, so we set off home. By this time, Dann had showed up, and so we rode back to their home with David leading the way, me next, and Dann and Roel blocking me from behind. Roel and I had invested in a Ceva communication system for our helmets while we were in Florida and they have more than proven their worth since I rode away from Russ's on my bike, by myself. I had Roel in my ear every moment, to answer every question, advise me on how I was taking corners, on my signalling, etc. And so this is the way we rode around for the next 24 hours... with either Dann or David leading the way and Roel blocking me from behind.

Roel, Dann, me & David

And when we eventually had to leave Asheville in order to make it to my cousin's home in VA Beach, it was with tears and hugs, and promises to see one another again. Dann and David rode along with us, in the rain on a boring highway, for three hours, just to make sure I was comfortable. I couldn't have felt more protected or confident if it had been my father and brother riding along the highway with Roel and I. These guys were truly my Asheville Angels.


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