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Carrying on a motorcycle

by , February 3, 2014

We’d like to extend a big Carryology welcome to a new contributor, Grant Forbes. Grant is the original adventurer. The guy has lived the life we all dream of – achieving loads professionally, creatively, familiarly, and always with an adventure nearby. Over the coming months Grant will be sharing some of the carry insights won on these adventures. This first post is about carrying on a motorbike…

Long-range motorcycle touring can be a tough gig, and has its very own set of rules. While this is obviously a “vintage” photo, the same rules still apply today.

All of your stuff has to go on the bike, and survive crazy vibration, weather extremes, sometimes up to 100 mph wind blasts (if you happen to touch the magic 100 mph/162 kph every now and then), the odd little bingle and the essential rules of physics – you don’t want a top-heavy load. Security is also an issue. You don’t want your stuff pinched when you’re getting warm inside that funky roadside bar or cafe.

The load. If you’re on a tight budget, camping gear’s probably part of the mix. I’ve never seen a giant swag looking happy on a moto, but a simple little tent and sleeping bag works okay. Mattresses? Nah, a double folded blanket just has to do the job. Pillows? Pffft! That’s what folded-up clothes are for. Then there’s all the bits to fix the bike in breakdown mode: tools, spares and maybe extra fuel and oil.

Plus, of course, comfortable clothes for when you’re off the bike (you do get some strange looks inside a restaurant when you’re wearing a greasy riding jacket with a coating of bugs). For an extended journey you need to be carrying clothes for all weathers and, if it’s International, all of your and the bike’s paperwork, money etc. You need a waterproof riding jacket with tons of pockets. Mine was a waxed cotton Barbour jacket that was probably the most functional piece of clothing I’ve ever owned; it had pockets big enough for a gloved hand to reach in for tollway money too.

In 1973, lots of stuff we have today didn’t exist. So no credit card, just a wad of cash and a few very archaic travellers cheques. No mobile phone. No GPS, so a dog-eared bundle of maps. Analogue 35mm camera and film. Sketchbook, ink and a clutch of rOtring Rapidograph pens (I’ve attached some of those original sketches for anyone who’s interested by the way).

The bike below’s my faithful T500J Suzuki 500, a comfortable two-stroke twin cylinder, on the side of the road in French Basque country. This was a few weeks into a six-month journey from the docks of Southampton, England, through France, Spain, Portugal and to the deep south of Morocco. And then back north to London (the Australian N.T. plates kept more than one Euro-cop amused and confused and I got away with murder…but that’s another story).

In 1973, off-the-shelf Krauser hard motorcycle panniers only existed for the uber-wealthy who could afford a BMW (which I lusted after heavily, of course). I was a 20-year-old with a freshly-minted passport and “You’re excused from the Vietnam draft” card in my pocket. The military helped actually. In those days, Army disposals stores actually disposed of Army surplus, so my panniers were two stitched together ex-Army canvas webbing shoulder bags, which I slung over the pillion seat. They made excellent saddlebags!

To keep the weight low, one side held tools, spares and an oil can, while the other held my little Camping Gaz stove, fuel, tin billy, plastic cup and bowl, and a big bottle of the cheapest red vino I could find, plus a small bottle of water to make coffee.

Flat on my seat was my aluminium-framed nylon backpack, which made its own extended luggage rack for the plastic-wrapped sleeping bag. The tent, an awkward thing to tie on with its hard poles, was tucked inside the backpack’s flap, and left a comfy spot for me to sit with a bit of support for my lower back from the top of the pack.

Mostly, everything was held on with rope and the odd Ocky strap. I don’t like Ocky straps, and the right rope has a good, secure feel to it when it’s snugged down tight. A lot of modern riders wear a daypack on their back (daypacks have definitely evolved a lot) but I don’t like that either, and would much prefer the one-unit feel of everything being compacted down on the bike.

Despite some very lucky escapes, both myself and the Suzuki survived that trip and we didn’t have any luggage pinched, although I did leave a trail of tent poles down the road at one point. And somebody did knock off the front mudguard, but won’t go into that.

And I did eventually get my BMW, which took more than a few years…and again, that’s another story. Stay tuned.


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