Tease: Skully Beta Testers Meet in San Francisco

Sorry to be such a tease, but I wouldn’t be doing my job reporting what’s happening with the Skully AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet if I didn’t share this. Full disclosure, there are no new details in the post that I haven’t mentioned already. So send your questions about price, release date and how you can become a beta tester directly to Skully.   : )

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff

On July 22, 2014 there was an event at a hip location in San Francisco for local riders who had been chosen as beta testers. For the first time, we beta testers were able to meet one another, ask questions of the Skully team members, and spend more time with the AR-1 in a group environment. For some of the beta testers, I believe this may have been their first time to fondle, I mean drool-over, that is to say, “try on” (yeah, that’s it, “try on”) the AR-1.

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff

So there we were: the few, the proud, the frickin’ Beta Testers! We were sipping on good wine and beer, snacking on excellent hors d’ oeuvres, and frothing at the mouth to learn more about Skully’s plans for the AR-1. One thing we did find out was that there have been over 100,000 beta tester applications. Wow! As a marketing professional I can say that few companies have engendered so much anticipatory excitement for a new product and it portends good things for Skully and the launch of the AR-1. It also humbled us as the chosen few and instilled in us a responsibility to do a good job for Skully in terms of feedback back to the development team and promotion to the riding public at large.

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff

Skully’s CEO, Marcus Weller, kicked off the meeting in his usual passionate and humble style. He talked about Skully’s mission to bring added safety to humanity and his feelings of how the beta testers could bring real value to the project. Without too long of a wait, Marcus invited us to feel what it was like to wear the AR-1 while sitting on one of the bikes they brought in for the event (one of which was Marcus’ own Ducati 999).

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter RadsliffSkully’s Director of Business Management, Mitchell Weller (and Marcus’ brother) helped beta testers evaluate how easy it was to transition between looking at the helmet display, back to the road, and back to the display again. Because the AR-1 uses an infinite focus display reticle, having your eyes make the leap from inside the helmet to outside and back is not troublesome at all. In fact, it started to feel quite natural once you spent a little time with the helmet.

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff

 [ note: click on thumbnails below to launch gallery viewer ]

I watched intently as all of the other beta testers tried on and experienced the AR-1. As with my first AR-1 try-on, they expressed surprise and delight at the extremely wide view of the rear-facing camera and how easy it was to see the display, with the visor up or down. I was glad to see a few glasses-wearers trying on the helmet and spoke with two of them after they were done. Each that I spoke with felt that wearing glasses with the display would not be a problem for them and the infinite-focus display worked well.

Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff Skully Beta Meeting - © 2014 Peter Radsliff

I heard consistent comments from testers who said they really liked the electro-chromic visor. One very excited rider I spoke with felt that this unique push button on = dark, push button off = clear feature should be considered a primary feature in and of itself.

It was very interesting speaking to the beta testers about their views on the helmet. As you can imagine, everyone was very excited to be there and couldn’t wait to take one home. But alas, that was not the intent of this night’s meeting. It was a meet-and-greet between the beta testers and the Skully team members and it was a great success. Here are more photos of of beta testers and me trying on the AR-1 for your tease-ment. I will let you know more when I know more.



Preview: Skully AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet

I was invited by Marcus Weller, CEO of Skully Helmets to visit their headquarters for a private session to check out the Skully AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet. What I didn’t know was that by the end of the session, Marcus would invite me to be one of the official AR-1 Beta Testers. Of course I was thrilled. Getting the chance to be on the front end of developing a new technology that has far-reaching consequences is an exciting thing—one that I have been a party to many times in my career as a Silicon Valley product development professional. So it is with this context that I approach the AR-1. Not only as a motorcycle enthusiast who rides every day, but as a veteran developer of hardware and software systems that has ranged from wireless scuba diving computers, to THX-certified loudspeakers, innovative digital storage devices, and home automation systems to name a few. What follows are my first impressions of the helmet and my perceptions on the impact it will have on riders. Here is my best attempt at chronicling what it was like to try on the AR-1 for the first time and experience the impact of what Skully has invented.

What's in that black box?

After chatting in the Skully offices that are located in San Francisco’s SOMA district, we headed downstairs to where Marcus’ Ducati was parked next to a table draped with black cloth that held a large protective case. By this time my mind was racing with anticipation of what wearing the AR-1 would be like. Six months ago, I heard Marcus speak at the Piston & Chain motorcycle club and saw a prototype of the helmet [see post]. But no one was allowed to try the prototype on at that early stage, so my preconceptions of what the experience would be like were all over the place.

CEO Marcus Weller and the Skully Helmets AR-1 Augmented Reality Motorcycle Helmet

When Marcus first took the AR-1 out of the case, I was at first struck with how “normal” it looked. It was attractive, for sure, but it was not at all odd which I attributed to the understated all-satin black color scheme. I liked this, because one thing I would not want is to have a helmet that looked like it was festooned with expensive electronics. The moment of truth then came when Marcus asked me what size helmet I wore. Like many riders, I opted for my current 2XL helmet size because it was more comfortable and the next size down was too tight. However, after seeing videos online on the importance of having a properly sized helmet, I have always wondered whether I was sacrificing safety for comfort by choosing that size. And I was also worried that I would not fit the AR-1 that was handed to me because it looked pretty compact.

First try on

As I put on the AR-1, it slipped over my big noggin with ease and I was happy that it’s shape did not result in undue pressure on my forehead like some leading helmet brands have done. The padding seemed luxurious and the fit was excellent. I usually use a modular flip-up style, so adopting a non-modular full-face would be a big change for me. It had a quick-release strap system, but frankly, I was so interested in the optics, I hardly even noticed.

Looking over and through

The display was already activated when I put the helmet on and it seemed to be in a mode that transitioned between the rear-facing camera and a navigation screen. Because this was just a first experience session, it didn’t really matter to me what was on the display. I was just fascinated with—and amazed by—the brightness, deep saturated colors and sharpness of the text on this little reticle that sat at my 4:00 o’clock in front of the right eye. As I got over the initial shock of feeling like Tony Stark inside his Iron Man suit, I settled down and started to evaluate what Skully calls their “advanced situational awareness system.”

Tony Stark looking through the Iron Man heads up display

photo: © 2008 Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures

Skully’s goal for the AR-1 as stated on their website is to “show navigation and blind spot data, allowing you to stay focused on the most important part of your ride – the road.” It’s easy to get embroiled in the technology and whether a rider CAN effectively use a heads up display (more correctly stated as a Helmet Mounted Display or HMD). The more important question is really whether a rider SHOULD use an HMD and WHAT it is actually displaying. Unlike the myriad of information presented to Iron Man, Skully is focusing the AR-1 rider experience primarily on a near-180° view behind the motorcycle and turn-by-turn directions. Both of these features are aimed at preventing the rider from taking their attention away from the road ahead to check mirrors, look over their shoulder, or down at their GPS.

Looking over and through the AR-1 HUD optics

I have heard and read some concerns from people who worry that the display would distract and thereby endanger the rider. I had precisely the opposite feeling when I donned the AR-1 for the first time. The HMD reticle is positioned far enough to the side and low enough to allow sighting over it just as if you were riding with a standard helmet. Looking at the display is akin to looking down at the motorcycle’s instruments with one huge exception: you don’t need to tip your head downwards. I perceive this “heads-up” posture as the first aspect of Skully’s augmented reality: i.e. you no longer need to take your eyes away from the road. The experience is further enhanced when you realize that you can see through the bright little display. When I put my hand behind the image, I could see my fingers and my brain registered that there was no interruption in my vision. It was then that I realized the display felt immersive and the opposite of a distraction.

Bitchin' electro-chromic visor

One very important attribute of the AR-1 is that you can see the HMD reticle equally as well with the visor down or up. This is something I will have to verify under different riding conditions, but I found little difference in the readability of the display either way. For me this was a game changer since I like to ride with my visor open most of the time and with sunglasses or clear safety glasses underneath. But I may change my mind about how I ride because the AR-1 comes with an elecrochromic visor. I’m trying hard to be cool and professional writing about my experienced with the AR-1 but I just have to say, IT HAS A FREAKIN’ ELECTROCHROMIC VISOR!!! One push of a button: dark visor. Another push: clear visor. Although this has nothing to do with the true underlying value of an augmented reality display helmet, it is an extremely cool feature that is very handy.

Similar to Skully's Rear View

photo: Google street view

When I ride, I ride paranoid. I don’t only think that drivers can’t see me. I think that they can see me and are just waiting to take their shot at killing me. It’s a sad, paranoid world inside my helmet, but it has helped me avoid any altercations with cagers in well over 50,000 miles of riding. The downside of riding like this is that I am constantly checking my mirrors to see who is around me or coming up on me too fast. And like the crash Marcus experienced that was the original impetus for founding Skully, I always worry that in the interest of preventing someone behind from hitting me, I will inadvertently crash into the person in front of me when they slam on the brakes the same moment I decide to look over my shoulder. This leads me to what I perceive is the second aspect of Skully’s augmented reality: the rider has complete situational awareness at all times. This may seem to be the same as not needing to take your eyes off the road, but it’s not. It’s the mental picture a rider has at any particular moment of what is happening around their bike and how it affects their safety. The photo above is not the view from the AR-1’s rearview camera, but it is close. I stitched it together from two Google street view photos based upon what I saw behind me while standing in front of Skully’s building. I was able to see both of those buildings in the AR-1’s rearview image and I was only standing about 60 feet away across the street. The width of the view is amazing. And the way I can describe the spherical distortion from the wide angle lens is that it is…just right. I’ll know better from more testing of the AR-1, but from what I perceived standing on the sidewalk, the AR-1 would allow me to know who was behind me and who was in both blind spots, and who was coming up on me too fast.

Approximate angle of Skully AR-1 rearview camera

Approximate angle of AR-1 rearview camera – photo: Google Maps

Another important thing to understand about the situational awareness that the Skully AR-1 may be able to impart is that it could be like the difference between video and still images in your brain. When you take a fleeting glance at your mirrors or over your shoulder, it’s as though your brain took a snapshot of the situation the moment you glanced there. But with the AR-1’s ability to allow you to keep looking forward, your brain and peripheral vision may be able to see continuous motion from the cars behind and to the sides of you in the HMD reticle. This is more like having a video playing in your brain of what’s going on around you while you are still watching the road ahead. I would surmise that this effect is enhanced even more so at night where the motion of headlights tells the story around you.

Of course without extensive road testing, this is all just conjecture. But I am starting to believe that the value of wearing a Skully AR-1 will not be its ability to provide directions, or play music, or make phone calls, or even see behind you. And I don’t believe it will be a feeling of being even more connected (which is what we want to get away from by riding in the first place). I believe that riding with a Skully AR-1 will be a completely new and immersive experience. One where you can actually enjoy yourself more, because…
• You already know all of the threats in your immediate environment
• You don’t need to fumble with the iPhone or GPS on your dash
• You can focus on enjoying the road ahead
• And you can use enhanced features to stay as connected or disconnected as you wish

So I see why Skully calls this an “augmented reality motorcycle helmet.” It hold the promise to provide access to information and control of electronics in a way that helps you focus on the ride and enhance safety while keeping it real. And isn’t that what riding a motorcycle is all about?  


I want to thank Marcus Weller for inviting me to beta test the AR-1. History may show that his innovation and the hard work of the Skully team could be the greatest enhancement to rider safety since the invention of the helmet. But the promise of Skully is so much more than just safety. The enhanced riding experience that will be made possible through the software platform Skully is building will eventually transform motorcycling. While technology has marched forward and created motorcycles with electric motors, variable valve timing, fly-by-wire throttles, and onboard diagnostics, helmet design has remained virtually the same since the 1970s except for incremental improvements in comfort and impact resistance. Today’s leading helmet manufacturers should be ashamed that it takes an innovative upstart like Skully to bring true innovation and enhanced safety to the riding experience while they have invested their profits in new color schemes. I have no doubt that the eyes of the helmet manufacturers are focused on Skully’s every move. It will be up to us in the riding community to provide as much support to Skully as we can in this David vs. Goliath struggle. Stay tuned for more as my discovery of the Skully AR-1 moves forward.

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All photos © 2014 Peter Radsliff 


Review: Why We Ride – The Movie

Why We Ride Movie

Yesterday I saw the new documentary movie “Why We Ride” at the AMC 14 theaters in San Francisco along with a hundred or so other motorcycle fanatics. I’ve never seen so many helmets in a theater at one time.

I thoroughly enjoyed the movie which walked in the footsteps of Bruce Brown’s 1971 classic “On Any Sunday” and many of Warren Miller’s ski films. The cinematography was outstanding and the flow of the film worked well.

But recently, I have been watching a lot of motorcycling documentaries and it seemed to me that what Why We Ride lacked was why a non-motorcyclists would enjoy the movie. A few months ago, I discovered Evan McGregor’s “Long Way Round” and “Long Way Down” mini-series. I recommended those to my sister who has no interest in motorcycling whatsoever. She was captivated by the story, partly because of the adventure, but mostly because of the incredible friendship that comes across onscreen between Ewan and Charlie. That was the real story of Long War Round, the phenomenal bond between two blokes, who happen to ride motorcycles and who embark on an incredible adventure. By contrast, Why We Ride seemed to be more of a public service announcement for motorcycling, especially for the family-friendly aspects of the sport.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the film and think that a love letter about motorcycling is something that is needed. The only problem with Why We Ride is that it will only be seen by people who already ride. There is no overarching story that would cause a non-motorcyclist to care about the movie.

And maybe that is okay. Maybe that is the way that all enthusiast documentaries about a specific sport our activity end up. Maybe this movie will play well with the seven million or so motorcyclists in the U.S. and maybe that’s enough. But I can’t help but wish for a deeper story that would keep me coming back to the movie time and again, or to recommend it to my non-moto friends. Why We Ride, is not one of those movies. It will remain as a beautifully shot and well told story about motorcycling, for motorcyclists. Or, for a husband to convince his wife that it’s okay to get mini-dirt bikes for the kids. There is a LOT of that message in the movie.

So congratulations to the director and producer. And know that I, and many others, will indeed buy the DVD. But please also take this as encouragement to keep going and take your prodigious cinematography and moviemaking skills and tell other, deeper stories about the human condition on two wheels. In my opinion, only then will you really get across the story of Why We Ride to those who don’t already know the answer.

What did you think? Please leave a comment below.

Me and MyConnie: First Year, First 10,000 Miles

One Year Down, 10,000 Miles in the Mirror
This week I’ve reached the one year anniversary of my getting back into motorcycling with the purchase of a 2001 Kawasaki Concours which I named “MyConnie.” Over the past year I’ve learned many things. Not the least of which is how much enjoyment I’ve been missing in the intervening years since 1990 when I sold my Suzuki GS750LX. I thought this would be a good time to reflect back upon the last year and what I’ve learned about motorcycling…and myself.

What I’ve Ridden
I’ve only owned three bikes in my life: a 1967 Honda CL350 Scrambler, a 1979 Suzuki GS750LX Cruiser, and my current ride, the 1,000cc Kawi Concours. I’ve only ever ridden three others: a 2010 BMW R1100RS that I rented, an 80s-era GPz550 I rode at Laguna Seca during Keith Code’s California Superbike School, and my friend’s 2009 Triumph Speed Triple. But it was the advice of an ex-CHP friend of mine that steered me towards the Concours, and I’m so glad he did.

My limited experience with different motorcycles hasn’t allowed me to have much of an opinion about other bikes like v-twins, dual-sports, or the like. In fact, all I really know is Japanese iron with one luscious weekend on a German boxer. So when I reflect on the specs of the rides I have owned, it shows me the following:

What this also tells me is that in terms of power-to-weight ratio (HP/LBS), my Honda was loads o’ fun—something I already knew. But even at a more sedate PTW ratio of 0.16, MyConnie will still impress any Porsche Carrera driver off-the-line, considering their PTW ratio is 0.19. Still, comparing motorcycles to cagers is a fools game as any biker knows. What got me thinking about the past year’s travels was more what I’ve learned, where I’ve gone, and where I’m going.

What I’ve Learned
One think I learned was how healthy it is riding a motorcycle. You read that correctly…healthy! That is, of course, assuming that I keep the rubber side down and don’t get too near the surrounding traffic. What I mean is that when I’m on MyConnie, I’m not trying to make my commute productive by scheduling conference calls in the car. Nor am I stopping on the way to work at Mickey-Dees to get a coffee or whatever other concoction passes for breakfast. And whenever I’m riding, whether on my commute or on the weekend, with helmet on head I’m not likely to be stuffing my face. Plus being in a tuck in the cool morning air does wonders for my abs while burning calories to keep warm. All in all, I’ve found that riding is quite an effective weight management tool.

I’ve also learned that the old saying that “you’ll never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office” is really true. Spending a minimum of 1.5 hours a day riding to the office and back has given me the ability to shed tension like no other activity. Seeing the beautiful sights and smells when I take the back roads to the office has put me in the best frame of mind of my entire working career. I can’t even believe I’ve missed out on this for the past twenty years.

And I’ve learned—no…remembered—how great it is to take up an activity that has a huge learning curve with resulting stellar rewards, and also serious penalties. There is no greater learning than putting yourself in a situation where you will be tested. I think it is that, more than all the rest, that I enjoy the most. To challenge myself and see whether I will rise to the occasion, or fall down trying…only to get up, and try all over again. Call it my own “hero’s journey” of sorts. But one where there is no brilliant flash of heroism, only the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from mastering a complex endeavor.

Where I’ve Gone
I’ve spend the last year exploring the wonders of Northern California including the golden passes of the High Sierra, the windswept bluffs of the North Coast, and the twisty backroads of San Francisco Bay. The sheer magnificence of our natural surroundings is something that you take for granted when driving inside a cage of steel. Air conditioning masks the smell of eucalyptus, tinted glass dulls the glow of aspen groves, and soft suspension separates us from the hand-hewn roads originally carved by rough men across our great land. More than just a vehicle, my motorcycle has been the vehicle through which my five senses have been reignited.

How I Learned
I’ve approached re-learning the craft of riding through friends, through practice and by reading and watching the experts in print and onscreen. If I had the time and money, I would have preferred to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course…and may still. I would also like to repeat the course I took at Laguna Seca with Keith Code. But with the realities of budget and workload, I’ve settled for a do-it-yourself course of learning which has taken some discipline.

There has been an incredible amount of information that has helped me from an unlikely source, the Concours Owners Group. Besides being the quintessential knowledge bank for the Kawasaki Concours motorcycle, the group also represents hundreds of years of riding experience through its members who share their wisdom freely, with good humor and camaraderie. Their motto: “Join for the bike, stay for the people” couldn’t be more true. And besides the colloquial wisdom of serious amateurs, there is also a potent community of motorcycle professionals within the ranks of COG, both vendor companies like Murph’s Kits and regular people like Shoodabeen Engineering who have raised the level of home wrenching to an art form, and a business that Kawasaki could learn a few things from.

The Path Ahead
I have found in life that it is never good to drink your own bathwater. Meaning, all of the skill I have regained in the past year has really only served to make me more dangerous by potentially becoming too cocky. Now that a year has passed, it’s time to take stock and plan for the next year of learning, and trying to get rid of that last inch of chicken strip that defines my contact patch like bookends. A few predictions…

I predict that I…
– will watch Keith Code’s A Twist of the Wrist II DVD another 4 times…at least.
– will re-read David Hough’s book, Proficient Motorcycling to bone up on what I missed the first time.
– will continue to take my secret commute to Silicon Valley to work…every once in a while,  taking the long way.
– will start doing overnighter rides where I camp instead of staying in a motel.
– will do a dozen farkles to MyConnie.
– and I predict I will only increase my love for riding and hopefully my skill level, as well.

Until then, I’ll be the one flashing two fingers to you as we pass each other by…but only if you are on two wheels.

That’s Me on MyConnie

Let’s ride.

My “Secret” Commute to Silicon Valley – Part Two: Mountain Ridges

In part one of my series on “secret” commutes to Silicon Valley, I focused on taking country roads from San Mateo to Los Altos through Portola Valley. Doing this made me realize that half the fun of going to work really is getting there! So I looked for ways to venture even further away from the freeway in search of the perfect motorcycle commute.

I found it on Highway 35, known locally as Skyline Drive which tops the mountain ridges that separate the San Francisco Bay to the east from the Pacific Ocean to the west. Long fabled as a tremendous weekend motorcycle road, Skyline Drive is also home to the storied “Alice’s Restaurant” in Woodside, California.

You can get anything you want, ’cept’n Alice…

Not the Alice’s Restaurant of the famous Arlo Guthrie song—that one is in Massachusetts— but the one on Skyline Drive has been a local haunt for motorcyclists, writers and poets since the 1960s. Alice’s is not only a great place for coffee or a meal, but it is the juncture of a number of roads that lead off to their own versions of motorcycle nirvana. But for me, since I was just trying to find a new way to get to the office, I kept riding south past Alice’s towards Page Mill Road.

Just before reaching Page Mill, there is a great vista point that looks out over all of Silicon Valley. I love stopping here to think about the cornering technique I just exhibited—both good and bad—while looking down on Stanford University and the rest of the land of startups below. This particular day, it was foggy when I first arrived on Highway 35 and then cleared up into beautiful sunshine atop the ridges. From the vista point, however, I could see that the entire valley was covered in thick, wet fog—waiting for me to descend down into on the way to my office. The fog layer was about 500 feet below the vista point elevation and it looked like I was in a plane flying high above the clouds.

Silicon Valley vista point on Hwy 35

What a difference a day makes: photos from my AM & PM commutes that day.

A Highway 35 vista point overlooking Silicon Valley

It was sunny atop the Highway 35 vista point both morning and afternoon.

I took the same route home that day so that I could compare A.M. and P.M. commute photos from the same vista point. The San Francisco Bay Area is famous for its many microclimates. Layering in mountain elevation into the mix helped me encounter fog, sunshine, drizzle, and high overcast all within a forty mile ride in ninety minutes. Crazy.

Page Mill Road gets very twisty for about nine miles, throwing in a few 15 mph decreasing-radius blind curves just for fun. That’s better than any Starbucks Coffee for getting your heart pumping in the morning! As I headed down into the dense fog, getting into a back-and-forth rhythm to match the turns, I reflected on how great it was to get a ride like this in before starting my work day. It reminded me of how TV’s Flipper would save Bud and Sandy from whatever underwater mishap befell them—and it was always over before school started!

After a while, Page Mill Road’s curves straighten out as I emerged out of the hills and down onto the floor of Silicon Valley in Palo Alto. I decided to go straight down Page Mill to El Camino instead of taking my normal route on Arastradero Road and then through residential streets, just to mix things up. After a quick jaunt down The King’s “Highway”—now festooned with traffic lights every few blocks—I arrived at my office: 41.2 miles and 88 minutes after starting. Considering this “secret” mountain ridge commute to Silicon Valley only took an additional 16.6 miles and 37 minutes than my normal backroads route, it provided  some great morning meditation in preparation for slaying the daily dragons at my workplace. Ask yourself, might you have a “secret” commute that could help you shed stress and arrive at your desk with a smile? Open up Google Maps and check it out. You never know what you might find.

Another Cautionary Note:
These are mountain and backcountry roads and are not ideal for motorcyclists who always feel the need for speed. I’ve seen plenty of CHP on this commute and they take a dim view of knee draggers while they are sipping morning coffee in their cruisers. You can have a great time staying within the posted speed limits while enjoying the back-and-forth rhythms of twisty mountain roads. Since this route adds significantly to your commute time, it fails as the shortest distance between point A and B. But if you are looking to feed your inner chi before having your chai tea, you might just look into adding to your commute instead of splitting lanes to make it shorter.

Ride Map: Click for Google map

Taking the long way home: motorcycle commute nirvana

My “Secret” Commute to Silicon Valley – Part One: Country Lanes

Every day, I ride to work from San Mateo on San Francisco’s peninsula to Los Altos in Silicon Valley around 20 miles away. I’m lucky enough to have multiple ways to get to work, and up to recently, I thought I had tried them all. My primary route uses Interstate 280, known as the world’s most beautiful freeway. It’s a 26 mile jaunt one-way that has rolling hills, lots of gentle curves, wide lanes and beautiful scenery (for a freeway, that is). But when the freeway is flowing, if you’re not going 70+ mph, you’ll get run over. Or, if the traffic is heavy, you’ll spend more time with your feet on the pavement in bumper-to-bumper traffic than with feet on your pegs.

My secondary route uses Interstate 101, 70% of which has motorcycle-friendly HOV lanes (high-occupancy vehicle—a.k.a. carpool—lanes) on my 21 mile commute to the office. It’s an ugly freeway hemmed in by ivy-covered sound walls, narrow lanes, and plenty of highway patrol officers looking for cell phone and carpool lane offenders. On Interstate 101, if you don’t get killed by someone changing lanes, you’ll experience a near-miss from another motorcyclist splitting lanes at 15 mph faster than the flow of traffic. To say it’s a “heads-up” route is an understatement.

The shortest route for me follows highway 82, the venerable El Camino Real (The King’s Highway). At 14 miles door-to-door, it’s the most direct of the three, but by far the slowest and least enjoyable because of its many traffic lights. On the bright side, it has plenty of places to stop for breakfast or coffee, but it is also the route I name most likely to result in a premature death because of someone running a red light or making a left turn without warning.

Now I’m certainly not afraid of the freeway, but being required to exceed the posted speed limit by 10 miles an hour just to stay ahead of traffic pressure is not my idea of a leisurely commute to work. And, lately, the density of the morning commute on I-280 has all-too-often devolved into 25 mph bumper-to-bumper traffic which is definitely not enjoyable. Some motorcyclists enjoy white-line fever, splitting lanes and leaving slower congestion in their wake. I, for one, believe that you decrease your good karma significantly every time you split lanes. I also wouldn’t be at all surprised if the daily motorcycle accidents I hear about on the radio weren’t directly correlated to aggressive lane splitters.

About three months ago, I started wondering if there were options other than Hwy 101 or 280 and started to go exploring. I started carrying my camera rig in one of my saddlebags because the weather was exceedingly beautiful and if I could get some good shots on the way into work, well, so much the better. And although I never anticipated that one of my favorite bicycle roads that paralleled I-280 could be a serious candidate for a new motorcycle commute, it did run alongside a miles-long reservoir and provided very photographic scenery. So without further ado, I hopped onto State Route 92 and turned left onto Cañada Road.

The typical morning view of Crystal Springs Lake from Cañada Road

The typical morning view of Crystal Springs Lake from Cañada Road

On this first day of exploration, I saw that Highway 280 up ahead of me had very heavy traffic, so I was glad to be venturing out onto an alternate route. I had only traveled on Cañada road on my bicycle up to that point because they close the road to cars on Sundays. Along this route is the Pulgas Water Temple, the Filoli Estate and Crystal Springs Lake which is where San Francisco gets its water—pumped all the way from Yosemite’s Hetch Hechy reservoir. Cañada road contains beautiful scenery and a few very nice sweeping 50-mph curves before straightening out. The road crosses under Interstate 280 and then runs parallel to it, so you can see just how bad the traffic is on the Interstate. The final few miles degrade to a 35 mph speed limit with three stop signs terminating on Woodside road. A nice distraction at this junction is either the Woodside Bakery or Buck’s Restaurant, where commonly you can hear an entrepreneur pitching a venture capitalist over breakfast.

The wonderful food and funky decor of Buck's Restaurant of Woodside

The wonderful food and funky decor of Buck’s Restaurant of Woodside

There are a couple of ways to proceed towards Silicon Valley from Woodside. My favorite is to turn left onto Woodside Road and then make a right onto Big Whiskey Hill road after two blocks. Alternately, you can go straight past Roberts Market onto Mountain Home Road which is a picturesque 25 mph road through expensive Woodside estates. I usually opt for the 35 mph Big Whiskey Hill route because it is faster and has more sweeping views of horse farms.

A photo of the Horse Park of Woodside

The Horse Park of Woodside

Two miles later, you turn right onto Sand Hill Road which becomes Portola Road a few hundred yards further on. The speed limit increases to 40 mph and you wind through a nice two-lane country road bordered by ranches, farms, estates and vineyards. After about three miles, you enter the quaint and quite wealthy town of Portola Valley. I say quite wealthy because I looked online and found that in 2009, the aggregated income per household was almost half a million dollars annually. Portola Road tees into Alpine Road where you want to turn left and head back towards the direction of Interstate 280.

The Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto

A walking trail on the Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto

After a few miles, I saw a sign for Arastradero Road which I know crosses El Camino Real near my office, so I took it. What I found was a tremendous road that crosses the Arastradero Preserve. Not only does this road provide enough twisties to be interesting, it dead ends on Page Mill Road which is a major artery into Palo Alto. This is an area where you need to go slow, however, since there are hikers, horses and wildlife. On Page Mill Road I turned left—northeast—and found that Arastradero Road continued off to my right once again just before reaching I–280. I made the right turn back onto Arastradero Road and found that it wound through Los Altos Hills and offered me multiple final routes to my office, either by continuing all the way to El Camino Real, or by turning right onto Foothill Expressway and then winding through residential streets to my office.

On first blush, this was an unlikely commute route. But after taking it a few times, I came to appreciate how it allowed me to…
– traverse a 20+ mile commute without touching an interstate freeway
– avoid inner-city boulevards, stop signs and red lights
– incorporate gorgeous country scenery, sweeping curves and a few interesting twisties
– and only add 10 minutes over the Interstate 280 route when it’s crowded during commute hours

What I also got by taking this “secret” commute to Silicon Valley was less anxiety, more ability to think about my workday ahead, and the incredible smells of country roads including eucalyptus, grass and pine. I heartily advocate seeing if there are back roads like these that could spice up your daily commute. I would have never thought I could have found a plausible alternate commute if I didn’t open my mind to go exploring on a workday. So leave a few minutes early. Don’t schedule any meetings or conference calls for the beginning of your day. Learn how to use your motorcycle to turn an ugly commute into a great ride. The real “secret” is that you get to make this ride every day…twice! Shhhhh…don’t tell your coworkers why you are smiling.

A Cautionary Note:
These are country roads and are not ideal for motorcyclists who always feel the need for speed. I’ve seen plenty of county Sheriffs on my commute and a couple of CHPs, as well. They take a dim view of side-road shenanigans. So if you can stay within the posted speed limits and truly enjoy the beautiful sounds and smells these roads can offer, give them a try. If you are merely looking for a short-cut, stay on the freeway and split lanes like all the other biker banshees.

Ride Map: Click here for Google Map

Here is how I commute from San Mateo to Los Altos in Silicon Valley

I wrote most of the post above only a few months after I got back into motorcycling. As I reread it prior to finally finishing and posting it I remember how much more anxiety I had back then cruising the freeways during commute hours than I do now. For others of you who are considering getting back into motorcycling after a long hiatus, I can tell you now after a year back in the saddle: it gets better.

Ride Map: A Great Day to California’s North Coast

There is definitely something to be said for spontaneity. Last Sunday morning, I received this text message from my friend Dan whom I worked with back in the early 1980s:

I had been following Dan’s journey of getting back into motorcycling on Facebook with some interest, especially when he built his own café racer from a sweet ’77 BMW R100/7 which was featured in Iron and Air Magazine [ link to article ].

So when I received his text message, all I could think about was how fast I could install the new Motion Pro speedometer cable I got from Murph’s Kits and get on the road. I checked in with my boss (the wife) and responded to the text that I would meet him at a local watering hole parking lot in Novato in a couple of hours.

The previous Monday I had noticed that the cable had come loose from the speedometer gearbox on the front fork and apparently the inner rotating cable had fallen out somewhere along the road. So I temporarily reconnected the dangling cable but was left with no working speedometer. I read my Kawasaki and Clymer manuals and found no reference to the speedo cable, so I resorted to searching the Concours Owners Group Forum pages, where I should have gone in the first place. There I found a treasure trove of information that told me what to buy, where to buy it, how often it breaks, and exactly how to replace it. I have easily gotten more utility out of my $30 annual COG forum membership than what it cost for the manuals.

Having no indication of miles per hour made for an interesting commute that week. I found that needing to know my precise speed was largely unnecessary and interestingly…freeing. I could estimate my speed closely enough by reading my tachometer, following the flow of traffic, or just using the ol’ Mark I Eyeballs. But I also found that I was more relaxed and instead of fixating on maintaining a precise speed, I just kept my concentration on the traffic around me being sure to go neither too fast, nor too slow. It could be that I had been so intent on not getting a ticket that I had lost the feel for the road. That’s funny since I’m the guy who is always in the 3rd lane watching the other bikers fly by at 80 miles an hour in the fast lane.

Whether or not I would continue to monitor my speedo as closely as I once had, I followed the advice of my fellow Connie owners which made the new speedo cable installation a snap. After snugging up the new cable ends, I buttoned up the fairing, packed the saddlebags with various and sundry items for a day ride, and headed north.

One thing that must amaze visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area are its micro climates. I left my home in San Mateo where it was overcast and between 55 and 60 degrees. As I headed into San Francisco, it was positively wet from heavy drizzle…actually, very heavy fog. There were large drops of water dangling from the upper lip of my face shield and I had to use my forefinger as a wiper blade. Luckily, the MyConnie’s more than ample fairing kept my legs and torso dry as a bone. When going across the Golden Gate Bridge the weather could be best described as 50 degree sideways-blowing pea soup fog. And it wasn’t until Novato that it cleared back up to 60 degree overcast without any undue wetness. Soon enough, it would become sunny on the way to the coast, followed by a foggy coastline, and then 85 degrees and sunny heading through the redwoods back to Highway 101. Vacationers not use to these wild swings in temperature and wind chill have funded an entire industry of novelty sweatshirt manufacturers and vendors on Fisherman’s Wharf. But when on a motorcycle trip to Northern California, suffice it to say that a vented jacket with thermal liner plus extra layers in your saddlebag are an absolute must.

After an hour’s trip north through San Francisco and then through Marin, I arrived at Moylan’s Brewery in Novato, about 23 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I filled up with gas across the street and then Dan rolled in and did the same. After admiring the touring bike he decided to choose from his stable, a ’70s-era BMW R100RS, we headed north on Hwy 101 towards Russian River Road. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Upon entering the freeway, we immediately ran into traffic that was completely stopped for as far as the eye could see. We later found out that there was a fatal accident from someone who ran off the road about five miles ahead, and the CHP were taking measurements and cleaning up the mess while holding back the traffic to a crawl. All I knew was that Dan made a snap decision, which was really the only one for us to make, which was to split lanes and head up the road. What he didn’t know is that I don’t really split lanes. MyConnie is pretty wide with her saddlebags, and I believe it just infuriates motorists to see motorcyclists make progress when they can’t. So I don’t like to create even more pissed-off drivers bent on killing me, therefore, I don’t split lanes.

However, in this case, I really had no choice. If I decided to not split lanes I would have lost Dan, left him waiting for an hour up the road, and been branded a moto-wimp worthy only of a Vespa. And, MyConnie would surely have overheated and then I would have been stuck on the side of the road in the midst of a five mile long bumper-to-bumper nightmare. So, I screwed up my courage and headed forward between the stopped cars.

A view of what lane splitting looks like to the motorcyclist

What lane splitting looks like from another rider’s viewpoint.

What surprised me is that it was easier than I thought. I just had to keep a loose grip on the bars and stay incredibly focused on the obstacles ahead which included pickup trucks with dualie rear wheels, a bus, a truck, and innumerable SUVs with extremely wide mirrors. I found that the trick was to not move too fast in relation to the surrounding traffic. Also, to keep a keen sense of what the people in front of me are doing, like which ones will move left to see around the car ahead or the ones on their cell phones. This is what I usually do while riding on the freeway, but in this case it was even more important since I was less than a foot away from the traffic on both sides.

I made it through the entire five-mile jam without any problems and moved into a lane when I approached the CHPs at the front. Although lane splitting is not illegal in California, it is also not expressly legal, either. So, not being one to push my luck, I became a full member of the traffic jam for the last 50 yards. Once past the horrendous skid marks and crumpled guard rail, I saw Dan waiting on the roadside and we both continued on to Russian River Road.

River Road has a number of small towns that dot its length which are reminiscent of ’50s-era beach resorts. These are the resorts that San Franciscans visited to beat the summer chill (yes, you read that correctly) and many had second homes along the flood-prone Russian River. It was an idyllic ride with long sweeping curves, quaint and picturesque towns and sunny temperate weather. It took us about 45 minutes to travel the 29 miles from Hwy 101 to Jenner where the Russian River empties into the Pacific ocean.

Photo of downtown Guerneville, California by Dennis Goedegebuure

Downtown Guerneville – photo: © Dennis Goedegebuure

Once at the coast, we took Highway 1 north along the Sonoma coast. This is a truly breathtaking road that will challenge your cornering skills while providing incredible views of the Pacific ocean far below the bluffs. On the day we made this trip, riding was made a bit more challenging with the addition of fog.

Highway 1 on the Sonoma Coast – photo: © Herb Lingl

However it wasn’t too soupy, and without any problems, we made our way to the Timber Cove Inn for a sumptuous lunch. After the requisite photo standing next to our bikes taken by a kind stranger in the parking lot, we decided to head much further north and cut back over to Highway 101 via Highway 128 through the redwood forests along the Navarro river.

Peter and Dan at the Timber Cove Inn

Highway 1 along the North Coast is a combination of challenging curves mere inches from 100 foot cliffs and meandering roads through windswept ranch land. It’s hard to explain its rough-hewn beauty. On the few days that are without overcast, it is a wonder to see and a great place to gain further skill in cornering on a motorcycle. Recently, I purchased Keith Code’s “A Twist of the Wrist II” instructional DVD. It is nicknamed “the cornering bible” for good reason. Watching it before, and after, this trip helped me better my cornering technique and made me realize some things I had been doing wrong. Practicing and improving my cornering skills is one of the reasons I love riding the North Coast.

The other, is for the sheer beauty of the ride. I had never ridden north of Salt Point State Park, my favorite abalone hunting ground, so I looked forward to the next jaunt up past Point Arena to the Navarro River. What I didn’t expect was to be in the middle of a redwood forest on an idyllic motorcycle road. As this GoPro Hero2 photo of Dan on his R100 shows, the stately redwoods filter the light coming through the canopy and produce a surreal landscape.

Dan in the Redwoods

As we continued on our journey back towards Highway 101, the temperature started to heat up the further we got from the coast. We passed through the cute little burg of Boonville and ultimately passed by Cloverdale on the way to Healdsburg to gas up our trusty steeds. Although Dan’s Verizon smartphone had enough service along the route to post and tag trip photos to Facebook, my AT&T iPhone did not. It wasn’t until I reached our gas stop that I checked in on my phone and found that a dear friend of mine saw the photo above of Dan and I at Timber Cove and he left me a message to come visit him in Sebastopol, a mere 30 minutes away. Dan and I parted company after topping off our tanks and I headed toward my friend’s ranch.

It’s funny the tricks that fate can play on a person. I woke up that morning without having a clue what the day held for me. Then a text message arrived and I found myself at the start of what would become a 369 mile ride. I also found myself enjoying the company of a dear friend I had not seen in many a year that by happenstance was going into the hospital to receive another course of chemotherapy the next day. The five hours I spent with him that night were very special to me and served as an important reconnection with a person who has been my advisor, mentor, dive buddy and friend. A person who has played a significant role in shaping the arc of my career. And to think I would not have enjoyed that reconnection without a text message, a photo tagged with my name, and a return Facebook message. This is the value of social media…along with the company of great friends, good roads and our two-wheeled thunderbeasts beneath us.

Ride Map: Click here for Google map

 Ride Report:
– Date: July 1, 2012
– Roads: Well-paved throughout with a few moments of interest thrown in for good measure such as expansion grates on the Golden Gate Bridge plus cattle grates and periodic handfuls of gravel mid-apex on the numerous180° turns throughout the North Coast section of Hwy 1.
– Scenery: Rustic towns along the Russian River, breathtaking views from the winding cliff roads along Highway 1, and sunlight-dappled redwood forests along the Navarro river. An amazing variety of scenery in one day.
– Weather: Highly variable between 55° with dripping fog and 85° heat–and everywhere in between.
– Ride: Nice sweeping curves along the Russian and Navarro rivers. Numerous and sometimes tight twisties above precipitous road’s edge cliffs along Highway 1. Be careful and ride within your limits!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (doable for beginners but in parts you need to take it S-L-O-W)
– Food: Various towns make bringing your own food unnecessary, but a picnic on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific ocean can be a real treat.
– Gas: There is plenty of gas available in the small towns that dot this route. However, don’t push it—some stretches are 30 to 50 miles between gas stations, so don’t get caught waiting too long to fill up.
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment and variety. The ride is challenging but not overwhelming while being incredibly beautiful.
– Additional Fun: Points of interest along the way include the Russian River resort towns of Guerneville, Monte Rio, and Rio Nido–great spots for a dip in the river. On the coast, stop for a tour at Ft. Ross, have lunch at the Timber Cove Inn, or bring your snorkeling gear to stalk the elusive abalone at Salt Point State Park.