Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review: Adventure Motorcycling Handbook by Chris Scott

It is no mean feat to write a guidebook that concentrates on a mode of travel instead of a destination. The focus needs to be unflinchingly fixed on how you intend to get around while the background of where you're going remains as indistinct as fog. The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook achieves a thorough description of the mode but moves outside it's brief by trying to dispel the fog with a piecemeal picture of, literally the entire world.

It is separated into three parts which may as well be two separate books they are so completely different in terms of aims, writing and usefulness - Part 1: Practicalities as the first book while the second book would be Part 2: Continental Route Outlines and Part 3: Tales from the Saddle.

Part 1: Covers everything you would expect from a book a like this: the paperwork required, choosing a motorcycle (including a great series of profiles on different bikes), navigation, what to do in medical emergencies, how to fix a flat, how to change a tire, camping and shipping a bike overseas. As well there is also sections on subjects which I had not considered before, surely the most invaluable part of a book like this. These included an extended section of what to look for when buying a tire, which modifications would be necessary and how to do some of them as well as an entire section entitled "Women and Adventure Motorcycling".

There is little room for flowery writing here (the first sentence of the first chapter is simply "Prepare.") and none is expected. They refer to a big trip as like a major civil engineering project and they clearly intend to describe it as such. This is not to say that the writing is humorless (apologies to any civil engineers that will take this incorrectly) rather it is pared back to what is absolutely necessary to get it's point across. This is important when you consider that economy of space in the book could have a direct relationship with the economy of space required in adventure motorcycling and brings the book along. That is, an unnecessary anecdote on the page, could mean another page in the book, which means more weight on the bike if the book is successful enough in it's aim as to be indispensable. Levity takes the form of dry wit. It was in the profile on the Enfield Bullet that I avidly read and found out my instincts were so fine tuned -in the "What Riders Like" section it said "can be fixed anywhere". I couldn't help laughing when when directly after it says "Don't like: Needs to be fixed everywhere, brakes".

Particularly welcome is the underlying attitude that comes through from the writers which is confident and self-assured. This is immensly comforting to most readers that would be reading this while planning a trip, excited but afraid of the unknown. I would venture to say that this fear peaks when other people say "God you're not going to Iran - you must be crazy" or when you read a government travel warning site. There is a sentence in a paragraph headed "Government overseas departments" in a "Getting information" section which says "Take everything they say with a liberal helping of salt and accept the inevitable taint of politics and convenience which colours their advice." This was like a smile and a "she'll be right mate" that served to quieten rising panic and offset the shaking finger I received when I queried government websites about places I intended to go. This is not to say that they employ a devil may care attitude, rather it was a welcome change from the ignorant doom merchants that beseech you to stay within your own realm.

Within the mix is also included a healthy irreverence for authority which is at it's most entertaining, informative and empowering when about how to bribe officials.

"...never smugly hand over your passport with a wink and a twenty folded inside. This is not how the game is played..."
Then a little fun is then had at the expense of the nations where a bribe is sometimes required.
"On a bike you won't have room to carry a disposable stash of last year's mobile phones, Madonna cassettes"

The first part is entertaining, comprehensive and most of all provides comfort and information to the wary adventure motorcyclist trying this thing out for the first time.

It is in the second and third parts that the book falls down. The second part is a list of continental route outlines. It admits that it is "as broad as a V-Max in a mangle" and indeed it is - the whole of Central Asia and the Caucasus is covered in three short paragraphs. What is there is very useful and focusing in individual routes is the only way to break down the world but the change in pace is so sharp that it was as if the reassuring hand left my shoulder and it's owner begin to run madly around the room, yelling in disjointed sentences and shoving maps in my face. In other words the steady practical plod vanished and what had been a comprehensive and reliable source began to look a little piecemeal. The gaps in information had me wondering why they would either not expand this section to be an entire book, or even series of books in themselves, or remove the section entirely.

The third part "Tales from the Saddle" is a series of trip summaries from some people that can write and some that cannot. Beginning the section with Lois Pryce's Lois on the Loose is a mistake. Not enough of her writing is allocated to setting the scene which dramatically detracts from impact of the story and I was often confused as to where she was and what was going on. I did enjoy Andy Bell's It Pours, Man It Pours especially the section in which he had to catch a business class flight in a jacket crusted with dirt and blood after he was injured. I did eventually lose interest in these people's stories not because they were not interesting but because of the summary way with which they treated their trips, anecdotes are touched on far too briefly. I would have much preferred for people to go into their favourite or least favourite days in a bit more depth. As with Part 2 I was left with the feeling that these sections should have been expanded or removed. While this might seem a little harsh - it's particularly relevant when considering economy of space of the book. Numerous sections, such as changing a tire, would be most relevant on the road but why then would I need to carry tales about someone biking around Australia on my already overloaded bike? It's a bit of a contradiction of purpose. In the books defense it does suggest tearing out sections of guide books that you would consider useful - and it is a testament to the nearly unparalleled practicality of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook that it would recommend its own destruction.

While not perfect the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook is absolutely indispensable for anyone that is considering adventure motorcycling. It's main strengths are it's comprehensiveness - it patches many of the gaps that inevitably arise from simply looking solely at posts on websites - and the comfort that this comprehensiveness and it's tone offers to someone who is trying something like this out for the first time.

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