Tyres. Good tyres are a beautiful thing. I dream of soft compounds, of steep contours, of jagged knobs that tear at the ground. And when I have good ones, I protect them fiercely. Back when I’d switched to knobbies on the 690 to ride Laos and Cambodia, you’d find me at the beginning of every stretch of bitumen airing up the tyres with a bicycle pump to make them last that little bit longer. At the beginning of every stretch of dirt, I’d be sweating inside my goggles as I let them down with one fingernail.
Anyway, it is in the name of hard enduro that I found myself doing something which I never do – riding a scooter. Yes, I know that scooters are the work horses of Asia but no, I have never been able to trust them. Those tiny wheels? Those little brakes? No clutch? Every fibre in my being protests. But in the name of tyres – ah, the things we do.
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It all started with a KLX230, a CRF450RL and hard enduro. Now, rumour has it that these are not hard enduro bikes, but it would seem that we simply cannot help ourselves. My friends and I are like delinquent children. While the Gas-Gas EC300s wait and wait for new Nikasil coatings, it seems that we are somehow incapable of staying on the easy path. And so it happened that we were riding through the forest outside Pai when we came to an intersection in the single track. My friend looked at the detour and said, ‘I think I’ve been here before…’ The new path went straight up the mountain and I, not helping at all, suggested that ‘it might be fun’.
Anyway, that’s how we ended up spending an hour and a half zigzagging tortuously up a stupidly steep hill, one far too steep to ride straight up. It was a constant exercise in controlling bikes that wanted to nothing more than backflip and throw themselves back down the mountain. It was hard. And my goodness, it was fun.
As we gasped for air in the dry heat, my friend clarified his memories further: yes, he’d definitely been here, with his hard enduro friends, riding the Gas Gas two stroke, and even then he’d fallen down many times. I watched him wrestling the CRF450RL up the mountain – big and tall and heavy – and envied him not all. Sure, my KLX230 is small and cheap, but today the emphasis was on the small not the cheap.
We made it up the hill and I was pretty stoked with myself. What I’d done today, I couldn’t have done a year ago. My riding is improving, little by little.
I was basking in the reflection of this private glory when my friend on CRF450RL made it to the top of the hill and told me that we’d better abort mission and coast all the way back down again: his clutch had started to slip.
So abort mission we did. We rolled back down to Pai. My friend had a truck to rescue the bikes, but it was 60km away by road. My bike was completely fine, and theoretically I could have ridden it to fetch the truck, but… I have Michelin Enduro Medium tyres. Do you know how much they cost?? Do you know how much easier they make my life on the side of a mountain? These tyres are to be cherished and babied.
And that’s how I ended up on $10 rental scooter, kitted out in full enduro gear, riding the Mae Hong Son loop all the way to Tam Lod.
I am happy to report that all bikes were rescued, all scooters returned to where they came from, and everyone lived happily ever after. Well, everyone and everything except for the clutch on the 450RL, which I feel kind of bad about: it is my well founded suspicion that using this bike to tow the KLX230 out of the mountains a couple of weeks ago was instrumental in that clutch’s untimely demising. Sorry bike.
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The sensation of doing stupid things on motorcycles with friends and backup available still feels revelatory to me. For so long, I traveled alone and could rely only on myself. That means a constant niggling in the back of your mind – like a rat chewing quietly at the edge of your confidence – which always reminds you: be careful or you might get stuck and die.
I still love traveling alone, but it stopped me from improving my off-road riding. It kept me imprisoned within my pre-existing skill zone, a place where I felt confident enough to manage risks alone. Now, with backup – and with people who can teach me – what was once impossible is coming within my reach. When I get back on the road with my KTM, traversing country after country, my zone of exploration will have expanded further into the backwoods, into the remote villages, into beautiful places I could not have reached before. I can’t wait.