Author Archives: cindysowden
I had one of the most exciting motorcyle rides of my life this past weekend — in a parking lot.
My husband had signed up for the Advanced Rider course with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF).
Six of us gathered in the parking lot at North Hennepin Technical College on Sunday morning for an eight-hour course on the finer points of riding a bike. The weather had cooled off and a nice breeze blew over the parking lot, which was dotted with orange traffic cones laid out in various formations. I tagged along so Ralph could practice the maneuvers on his own and with a passenger on the back. It was a blast!
Our chief instructor was Rich Jackson, a Minneapolis motor
cycle cop who has the bearing and voice of a Marine drill instructor combined with effervescent enthusiasm and encouragement. He was assisted by Suzanne Greer, whose poise and posture on a bike is incredible. She, too, is a very encouraging individual.
The students included a retired engineer, a VW mechanic, an electrical engineer (Ralph), a retired actor, and a motorcycle safety instructor who wanted to improve her own skills. And me, the crash test dummy. These are the skills we learned:
Eye and body position.
The Intersection (Iron Cross).
J-turn and formation riding.
Slow and 30 mph offset weaves.
Tight and locked turns in confined spaces.
After doing a few slow exercises, the motorcylce engines were hot. That’s when Suzanne took us on a wild ride throughout the technical college campus to “breeze out” the bikes. We rode up wheelchair ramps and across sidewalks, made U-turns in tight spaces and, essentially, performed all the skills we’d just learned. We circled around and rode figure 8s in front of the Basic Rider class, who stopped to see what we were doing. The kicker was the final turn. (Suzanne said afterward, “I was thinking, should I go for it? Yeah, why not!”) Suzanne made a 90-degree turn onto a sidewalk right next to a parked, bright-yellow Camaro and a black Lamborghini, and proceeded to drive down the walk. Only one rider put a foot down, and no one missed the turn or hit the cars. I think my eyes were the size of dinner plates.
After lunch we worked on 30-mph offset weaves and emergency stops. After all the low-speed work, 30 felt like 60. Fun!
Riding a motorcycle is about more than going fast. There are a lot of little things that can make a big difference in your driving. As a passenger, I learned how I can help the driver.
A good thing to know as we prepare for our summer vacation.
Highway maintenance people must have a cruel streak in them. Have you ever noticed how the bumps in the road that they tell you about are always less of a challenge than the ones they don’t?
MN 38 from Grand Rapids to Effie is a case in point. It’s a state-designated scenic byway, so you’d think they’d maintain the pavement a little better. But then, this is Minnesota, where the Democratic governor and the Republican legislature can’t agree on anything, including transportation funding (don’t get me started!).
We first rode the Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway five or six years ago as part of my research for Ride Minnesota. It’s a beautiful hilly, twisty road edged with lakes and the Chippewa National Forest. The pavement has deteriorated seriously since then. There are long, rough tire grooves in some places. Patched cracks in others. The designated bumps. And the one they don’t tell you about.
We were south of Marcell, heading north. Ralph saw the crater and knew he wouldn’t be able to miss it. He stood up to lessen the impact. I didn’t have time to react. In a half-second, I was airborne. My feet flew off the pegs and there was light between me and the seat. In the next half-second, I slammed down hard on the seat. I landed with a loud, “UNH!” Twin bolts of pain shot up from my butt, along my back and up both sides of my neck. It took me a couple of minutes to recover. I wondered if there was such a thing as vertical whiplash.
That unexpected carnival ride took some of the joy out of day, which was clear, sunny and in the 80s. Don’t get me wrong. Edge of the Wilderness Scenic Byway is still a beautiful ride. Just watch out for the bumps.
There’s nothing like a sunny June morning for a motorcycle ride, especially if you’re heading out for breakfast. Minnesota has many little small-town cafes where you can get a plateful of soul-satisfying goodness for a nominal amount of money. Hunting for breakfast can be a sport in itself!
Ralph must have been hungry, because he didn’t dawdle on a backroad leaving town, but headed straight up 35W. He fooled me when he took the Taylor’s Falls (US 8) exit. I thought maybe we were going to the Chisago House, where the great 19th century orator, Stephen Douglas (you know, the guy who debated Abe Lincoln), once visited. However, he turned north on Old US 61, and I knew were were going to Harris, Minnesota, about half-way between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
After an hour of riding, we were ready for breakfast. Church bells were ringing out old hymns as we dismounted and walked to the Kaffe Stuga, which mixes knotty pine paneling with traditional Swedish decor and generous portions of homestyle cooking. I ordered my favorite, the apple fritter French toast with ham. This isn’t a skinny little shaving of deli ham, it’s a slab. A meal in itself. I noticed a woman at the next table nibbling on the Stuga’s version of an egg McMuffin, and that looked mighty good, too.
The service was quick, but no one pushed us to leave. Ralph had a second cup of coffee, then we strolled out the door and back to the bike. The antique store next door was closed, as were most of the businesses in town. We continued north on 61 to Rush City and took a left on 4th St. We came upon the “world’s largest walleye” just before we crossed I 35. Supposedly caught by Paul Bunyan, its much smaller than the walleye statues in Isle and Garrison. We drove out into the country. I soon smelled water. The road wrapped itself, snake-like, around the curvy shores of Rush Lake.
There is a huge old farm house standing where Rush Lake Road/Rush Lake Trail/Greeley Road tees with MN 70. Its paint is weathered, cracked and peeling. A newer home stands nearby. I wondered why the farmer left the old house standing. It seemed like he didn’t love it enough to take care of it or pull it down.
We followed a zig-zag southwesterly course through Mora and Ogilvie until we hit MN 47, where we turned south for home. Our hunger and our wanderlust were satisfied for another day.
We haven’t decided where or when our next vacation will take place, but this past weekend was a fantastic chance to get our long-distance riding muscles in shape. With temps in the low 80s and clear blue skies, there was no reason to stay at home!
We rode MN 3 down to Faribault, one of the oldest cities in Minnesota. We latched onto the highway in Inver Grove Heights and had a ball riding the curves around little lakes and not-so-little houses. Farmers were out plowing their fields or moving equipment from one field to another. The air was filled with the fresh scents of newly-turned earth, apple blossoms and lilacs. Magnificent!
After passing through Northfield, we stopped for lunch at Bernie’s in downtown Faribault. I would have liked to have stayed longer and poked my nose into the antique shops, but the day was about the ride. After paying our bill, we saddled up again and headed east out of town on Hwy. 60.
As you leave Faribault, you also leave the flat prairie behind. The countryside begins to roll more, and the road becomes curvier as you approach the Mississippi River and bluff country. Limestone outcroppings pop up here and there as you pass through Zumbrota, Mazeppa, and Zumbro Falls. As you approach Wabasha, the road climbs upward past the Coffee Mill Golf Course. Suddenly, you look out over the broad river valley below. After a brief stop at the pullout to take a better look, you get back on your bike and swoop into Wabasha.
We spent a good hour at the National Eagle Center learning about eagles and just enjoying the view of the Mississippi from the deck. Then we climbed aboard our Road King again and crossed the bridge into Wisconsin, where we turned up WI 35 toward home.
It was an absolutely perfect day. The only thing that would have made it better was if I’d put an SD chip in my GoPro camera. It would be so fun show those curves on this page!
I’ve been doing some traveling lately, and I’ve noticed some interesting differences between drivers in Minnesota, Texas and California. As much as I love my home state, I have to admit California has better drivers.
We were sitting in traffic on “The 5” about 40 miles north of San Diego. The morning fog was beginning to dissipate. I glanced into the rearview mirror and saw a motorcyclist coming up from behind us, riding quite confidently between the lanes.
The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) advocates lane-splitting as a way to promote motorcycle safety. A 2014 California study showed that riding the white line prevented motorcyclists from being rear-ended in heavy traffic. If you’ve ever been in southern California, you know that freeways are clogged morning, noon and night. The ribbons of headlights and taillights stretch for miles.
Lane-splitting is legal in California. It’s verboten in Texas and Minnesota. It’s easy to see why.
In California, car and truck drivers tend to stay in their lanes whether they’re moving at freeway speed or at a stand-still. Texans and Minnesotans, on the other hand, are enthusiastic lane-changers. They change lanes often and don’t bother to signal their intentions. In freeway backups, it’s not uncommon to see a Minnesotan wrench his steering wheel left or right and stick his nose into the next lane . . . right into the would-be path of a whitelining motorcyclist.
Texans and Minnesotans also like to “park” in the far left lane, which should be reserved for faster-moving traffic. This causes other drivers to pass them on the right. On our way south through San Antonio, we observed several “bats out of hell” come up behind us, cut across three lanes of traffic from the right and zig-zag back the other way at speeds far above the posted limit (which, I will admit, we were not observing, either, but these guys were smoking!). The crazy driving, in fact, began shortly after we crossed the Oklahoma-Texas border. There’s no hope for a lane-splitter there!
The AMA’s rationale for lane-splitting makes sense. But it can’t be done safely in the Lone Star or North Star states.
Keep the shiny side up!
News that Polaris Industries is shutting down the manufacture of its Victory motorcycles is roiling the small but loyal group of Victory owners across the U.S. Yet, in a way, it comes as no surprise. It’s hard to find a Victory dealer when you’re out on the road. Polaris never really made owning a Victory a cult thing.
I have spent many hours in motorcycle dealerships, selling and signing my books. What impressed me most was the way Harley-Davidson not only enforces its brand, but encourages it. Walk into a Victory dealer, and you may encounter a jacket or two, some motor oil and some T-shirts. The motorcycles may share space with ATVs, snowmobiles or other motorcycle brands. Walk into a Harley dealer, and it’s all Harley. H-D clothing, motor oil, bar stools, drinkware — that Harley-Davidson shield is on everything! If there is a competing bike brand on the showroom floor, it’s probably been traded in for a Harley.
Two summers ago, we attended the national rally of the Victory Motorcycle Club in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Our Victory, a 2002 Deluxe Touring Cruiser, was easily the oldest of the thousands of bikes parked at the hotel. There was a distinct “underdog” camaraderie among the riders. We all knew Victory motorcycles were good. But, like car-rental firm Avis used to say in its advertising, there was also a feeling of “We Try Harder.” We all wondered what Polaris’ acquisition of the Indian brand would mean.
And now we know. Indian will once again go head-to-head with Polaris, and Victory will be no more. Indian will still have long way to go to take market share from H-D. Even if the Victory dealerships are replaced with Indian dealerships, they will still be too few and far between. Which is why we traded our Victory last summer for a Harley Road King. Harley dealers are much easier to find when you’re a long way from home.
We said goodbye to our 2002 Victory Deluxe Touring Cruiser this past weekend. “Champ” (named for his champagne-and-cream paint job) had taken us 48,000 miles since we picked him up second-hand in 2007. He went to the Grand Canyon via Route 66, climbed Colorado’s “Million Dollar Highway”, visited all four corners of the state of Minnesota, drove around Lake Superior, followed the Mississippi River from its source in northern Minnesota to New Orleans, and took us safely through the Black Hills. He also served as a weekday mule, transporting my husband to and from work.
It was sad to see him go, but he was an orphan. Polaris made that particular style only one year. Parts were had to find. At 52,000 miles, he had given good service.
We went down to Harley-Davidson of Winona last Saturday to take part in a pre-Sturgis bash and promote my books. (The photo of Champ, by the way, is on the cover of my new book, Ride the Black Hills.) We took the opportunity to test-drive a couple of Harleys and wound up trading Champ for a 2016 Road King.
The ride home from Winona on Hwy. 61 was highly enjoyable. The weather was beautiful and the Road King handled the curves so smoothly! We’re heading out soon for Glacier National Park. It will be fun to discover how the “new kid” handles the mountains.
It’s what you get after spending seven to ten days riding a motorcycle. Similar to jet lag, it persists for a couple of days after you park the bike in the garage. The sound of an open throttle brings it all back — the wind, leaning into a curve, the hum of a well-tuned engine, the vibrations under the foot pegs.
Traveling by motorcycle is far better than going by plane. There are no TSA inspection lines. No two-hour waits at the airport. You just get on the bike and go.
We just returned from a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s early; motorcyclists were few and far between. So were the other tourists, in fact. Compared to a sunny day in July, the viewing plaza at Mt. Rushmore was practically empty. And we had many roads all to ourselves. A great way to get away from meetings, deadlines and political debates. In a couple of months, Spearfish Canyon and the roads leading to Sturgis will be filled with the rumble of Harleys, Victories, Hondas BMWs.
By then, I’ll be well over my motorcycle lag and ready for more adventures. The motorcycle season is open! Get out and Ride Minnesota!
Throttle fever is a common malady among motorcyclists, particularly those who live in northern climes. It’s like cabin fever, but a lot more insidious. You can go outside and walk off cabin fever. But when the snow is on the ground, the streets are full of sand and salt, and the temperature threatens to dive below zero, a biker with throttle fever is stuck indoors.
I never thought I’d get throttle fever. In high school, I was the poster child for Goody Two Shoes. Then my husband started riding. And then I hopped on the back of his bike. Two weeks ago, I tried riding a Harley at the International Motorcycle Show in Minneapolis.
Omigod, omigod, omigod.
It always amazes me how much more you can feel speed in a car vs. a truck. You feel it more on a motorcycle. I didn’t think I’d feel it even more, though, when I moved from the back of the bike to the front. And I wasn’t going anywhere!
Harley-Davidson is smart. They know the best way to attract new riders is to get them to try it. They had a small motorcycle (like the ones they use for training) set up on a stand. After giving H-D all my info (including my driver’s license number), I was allowed to throw a leg over the bike and receive a driving lesson. The instructor showed me how to start the engine, rev the throttle, how to shift with my left toe, and how to apply the brakes. I couldn’t believe 30 mph felt so fast! I also learned that you can’t really back off on the throttle or you’ll quickly lose speed. I spent a majority of my five-minute session watching the speedometer.
I wonder how long it takes for shifting and driving to become second nature. Perhaps I’ll find out this spring. I’m really thinking about taking the motorcycle safety course so I can back up my husband on our long road trips.
The International Motorcycle Show is coming to Minneapolis next weekend. Can spring be far behind?
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a concert in Lanesboro, Minnesota, and decided to book a stay at Iron Horse Inn and Outfitters. The Iron Horse is the newest place to stay in what is known as the “bed and breakfast capital of Minnesota”. A nod to Lanesboro’s railroading past, it’s specifically geared to motorcyclists.
Downstairs, Pat Shanahan has filled his old storefront on the corner of Coffee Street and Parkway Avenue with custom bikes and motorclothes. Upstairs, he’s built a beautiful four-bedroom inn. Each room has a comfy king-size bed, a shower, flat-screen TV, mini fridge and microwave. One room also features a loft. A large room facing the corner is the Gathering Place, where groups can chill out after a long ride. There’s a coffee maker and a big refrigerator where you can store your beer. Just down the hall, there’s a washer and dryer. Biker nirvana!
In keeping with the “iron horse” theme, the walls are decorated with old railroad photos. The handles on the kitchen cupboards are made from old railroad spikes, and pressed tin ceiling tiles have been used to decorate the headboards.
Of course, “iron horse” also refers to motorcycles! In the store, you’ll find jackets, belts, gloves, head wraps and Iron Horse t-shirts. (And maybe even a copy of Ride Minnesota or Ride Lake Superior!)
If you’re out riding Minnesota this summer, visit Lanesboro. If you’d like to stay at the Iron Horse, book well in advance. Lanesboro, about 45 minutes south of Rochester, is one busy little town!