Neil and the Machine versus Florence and the Machine

72 Hours, 3 days; waiting in anticipation it can seem an eternity, but a three day window of good weather to ride from Vancouver to Los Angeles with a hard and fast deadline? That can seem all too brief. And the deadline? The will call at the Wiltern for a sold out concert of Florence and the Machine. Conspiring against me the scheduling deities are cramming the ride with a border crossing, two business meetings, and pesky biological needs; eating, sleeping and washroom all take time. The direct route is 2,048 kilometers of numbing I-5 tedium, but when does a motorcyclist ever take the direct route? So, it’s Neil and the Machine versus Florence and the Machine, and in my case the Machine is the BMW R1200GS Adventure.

Why the BMW R1200GS Adventure (GSA)? If the weather turns, I need a bike that’s able to overcome with sleet, snow, gravel and alternate routes, which strikes lux-o-tourers from the list. I’ll need comfort too, and the GSA is conveniently built for a 6’2” German, or in my case substitute a Dutch/Norwegian, has an effective windscreen, a comfortable seat, a massive 33L tank for wind and weather protection, and range… lots of it.

Range minimizes cumbersome and slow gas stops. The mandatory mini-serve in Oregon, which requires an attendant by law, drop to a total of one. The inability to pay at the pump throughout California due to suspiciously “foreign” Canadian credit cards is reduced. Helmet off, gloves off, dig for the wallet, wait in line at the counter, “no, pay at the pump isn’t working because I don’t have a zip code to enter” explanations are all cut to 550 to 600km intervals. Through Washington and Oregon that’s been a tank of gas per state, which is more that my butt or attention span can handle.

Anything that reduces time is a bonus, and that includes maintenance. With the GSA’s shaft drive, I’m not wasting time oiling and adjusting chains. The 1,170cc flat-twin, however, does have an appetite for oil, which is best checked while the engine is warm. So with each rest stop comes a quick centre standing of the bike and a check or top up of the oil level.

It’s a process that gives the elderly tourists something to talk about. With the engine hot check the oil on the lefthand side sight window, run around and add some through the filler on the righthand cylinder head, repeat until satisfactory. At least the GSA is easy on and off the centre stand, which for a 256 kg. / 564 lb. bike (claimed wet weight) is a miracle of leverage stolen from Egyptian pyramid builders.

There’s other things to recommend the R1200GS Adventure on this super-slab burn. Reworked from 2009 the engine was lifted from the high performance mega-enduro HP2, with the primary upgrade being two overhead cams. In practical terms, that’s a 5% power boost, a 500RPM increase in range to 8500RPM, and a wider spread of torque across those RPMs… better for stump pulling and acceleration.

With 88 lb-ft (120 Nm) at 6,000 rpm the GSA wallops passes with a bludgeon of torque. Horsepower climbs to a maximum of 110 at 7,750 rpm, so the BMW can show its taillight to all but the more sporting traffic.

Yes, it’s fast and direct, but no great poetry will ever be composed about the I-5. The highway is an epic slash of thundering functionality slashed north to south across the west-coast. The I-5’s interesting highlights are rare. A quaint town centre, waning and dislocated from the exits. A mountain in the distance. A handful of sweeping turns through passes. These elements provide only the briefest illusion of interest. The I-5 is a thruway to your destination, never a road destination itself. Writing about the I-5 Kerouac would have long been forgotten.

There will be no time for video and only the rarest moments for pictures, which is fine. The scene revealed via my “tweet-u-mentary” is placeless; rest stops, truck stops, and hamburger joints, and the company of has-beens to be Roger Waters about it. There’s little to no sense of location to anything the 5 offers.

Nor any visceral joys. Save the occasional underpass. The bike is an air and oil cooled adventure mothership, and if the GSA had a custom horn it would share the same shine shaker base notes with Close Encounters. You may not need the horn, any tunnel or underpass will do.

A strong pull and the HP2 derived power plant plays a basso prefecto response. Hit four cords and the front wheel lifts while traffic scatters.

Stuck for tortures the US government could condemn spies and terrorists to the half-life of driving the length of the I-5 repeatedly. The road only finds redemption in the mountain passes from Ashland, Oregon through to the Southern border of Shasta National Forest.

This is the section of the road I’ve been told to fear. High mountain passes subject to rapid changes of weather and strong gusting winds. If I’m going to find trouble, it’s climbing up and over the Siskiyou Pass into California.

But this is turning into a ride of rare events. In one kilometer of highway riding through Ashland, the temperature jumps from 15 Celsius to a balmy 21.5. Even through the highest summits the temperature never drops below 17C. My biggest challenge, having to pull over and remove a few layers of clothing.

It’s telling that I’ve only ridden the I-5 in portions out of necessity, but never once its entire tedious length.

And I never will.

I swallow the sound and it swallows me whole
Till there’s nothing left inside my soul
As empty as that beating drum
But the sound has just begun
– Drumming Song

By 1350 kilometers and Williams I snap. I wave goodbye to a couple truck drivers that I’ve been falling behind and over taking, and leave the I-5 to harder men than I.

The psychological drain of riding the I-5, the constant thwap-thwap-thwap of the slab, the flow of inconsiderate traffic, the sheer tedium of the thing has me abandon the sensible route. Abandon, outright joyous shirking off of the chains of schedule, reckless disregard and lean angles… this is what’s been missing.

Charging up Hwy 20, in the oncoming convolution of roads my route jumps from 20 hours and 58 minutes, according to The Google, to 25 hours. At full lean angles, kissing the tire edges and harrying a Porsche Panamera the GSA is showing me what the big adventure can do. Select sport mode on the ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment) and for a big bike the handling is planted, compliant, confident and exceptionally grippy, even without considering the vectors and masses involved. The only downside is that the road feel is “distant”, as in 915 millimeters or 36.0 inches below you with the seat in its tallest setting.

Yes, I am 6’2” and happy for the leg room provided with the seat in its highest position. Though so sat, my exposure to the buffeting from the windscreen was increased.

Cue the chase music. No literally, I’ve set up a playlist of movie chase themes, call it motivational music for megalomaniacs and the time crunched. Diving, chasing, leaning and pounding through the corners, the R1200GS Adventure and I are on a mission. Free of the I-5 we’re adding miles and time to our route, whatever we’re doing, wherever we stop, wherever we go, it needs to be fast. That’s a challenge on the kiss-your-own-tail turns of the 29 descending into Calistoga.

And yet our luck is holding, the Audi R8 in front of me is pushing traffic along, the farm truck behind me is leaving me unharried, and rush hour traffic is rushing as only locals on a road driven every day can. My biggest danger by far is hanging over the double yellow. A tall rider on a tall bike fully kitted with BMW adventure luggage the GSA and I are taking up nearly an entire lane of the narrow convolution of road when at full lean.

It’s been a long day, Grant’s Pass to San Francisco, and by the time I hit the stall of rush hour traffic on the toll bridge into the City, I’m too weary to entertain the lane splitting through to the booths.

Not so a day later.

The dog days are over
The dog days are done
Can you hear the horses?
‘Cause here they come
– Dog Days are Over

This is it. The final charge into LA. Another day of rare events. A clean run of my favourite stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway from Carmel through to San Simeon, a stretch of road that flirts with the Pacific in a tango of sea, cliff and sky. This is one of North America’s definitive motorcycle roads, when it’s clear, and riding it in November means that there’s next to no tourist traffic to work around.

What drivers there are seem as stunned by the conditions as I am, 20 Celsius, vacation brochure blue skies with wisps of clouds, and a cold rolling pacific. The best thing about LA is the road to it, which is also the road away from it.

At San Luis Obispo, jittering from adrenaline and the bike smelling of oil and rubber, I stop for coffee before diverting onto the 101. By Ventura, darkness has fallen, and clear roads are now six-lanes of frustration filled traffic; a computer graphic flowing matrix simulation of brake lights in futile procession. Hitting LA proper, I can either sit and become a swear stew in my gear, or I can lane split.

Popping on the R1200GS Adventure’s fog lights and standing on the pegs, I shimmy the big bike and massive bags between the cars and SUVs. Just like working your way through trees, back home.

Except most trees aren’t the size and weight of a mustang or moving to cut you off. Sorry about the mirror near miss, and don’t worry you can’t even find the scratch on the BMW’s luggage. So much for Ford tough.

If there’s a worse conceivable way to reach the Chamberlain Hotel in West Hollywood, the Garmin 550 couldn’t recommend it. While I checked “fastest” for the route mode, the “navigational aid” appears to have checked most traffic and tourist attractions laden – taking me by Hollywood Bowl and down Sunset strip. A mistake of epic proportions on a Friday night.

So Vancouver to LA in 72 hours? Considerably shorter than that, even with necessities like eating, sleeping and photographing Elephant Seals all thrown in the mix, and non-essentials like stopping to armour up the BMW R1200GS Adventure at AltRider in Seattle and having a quick business meeting in San Francisco. It’s telling that our average speed is 85kph, including time in the various cities and towns.

This is a gift, it comes with a price.
Who is the lamb and who is the knife?
– Rabbit Heart

The ticket to Florence and the Machine may be free, but a there’s a cost to the ride. The droneway of I-5 grates away at you, while the constant frenetic pace and stress takes days to come down off of.

If there’s a place to come down, it should be LA. My landing pad is the Chamberlain hotel, complete with ticket gifting friends waiting.

The Chamberlain doesn’t pretend to be friendly though, motorcycle or otherwise. Welcoming is a sensibility offered by places that can dissociate your physical appearance, gear and stubble and road grime, from your annual income and the front desk at the Chamberlain apparently can’t.

An aging apartment aptly converted to boutique hotel, like any West Hollywood facelift the Chamberlain can’t escape its age; floorboards squeak, the rhino-patrons in room above tromp, the air con is Motel6 loud, the elevator sticks between floors and staff are uncaring when being “trapped for a few minutes” is reported. No matter how pleasant the contemporary roof top pool, the hotel doesn’t wear its infirmities as character or charm.

However, $30.00 of cab fare gets us to the Wiltern with time to spare.

Sitting on the floor of the Wiltern’s VIP room, I’m nodding off. Actually, I started by faking nodding off for the camera, but now it’s turning into the real thing. There’s no sleeping through the concert though. The ride may not have been the epic battle of man and machine against distance and the elements envisioned, but the concert is magnificent.

We are at the last of three sold out shows at the art deco landmark theatre in LA’s Korea town, and while I’m flirting with exhaustion, Florence Welsh and her band, the Machine, are showing no signs of flagging. The Flame-haired vocalist wails on a single silver drum and belts out lyrics with Stratford on Avon stage melodramatics that never slide into camp. Think, Lady McBeth mad, beguiling, portraying fake innocence and unleashing powerful, beautiful Celtic rage.

In the background, always there a constant companion for Florence’s pitch and moment, stands the machine. After the ride here, I know a little what that must be like. The BMW R1200GS Adventure though is having a well deserved night off.

Thanks to BMW Motorrad Canada for the use of our R1200GS Adventure, Rusty and the guys of Pacific BMW for preparing the Machine, Chris and Justine for the concert ticket, Jenny Raugh for the couch in the City, Kevin and Glenn for a few quick pics, countless people along the road for great conversations and experiences and so many other’s I have missed.

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