Feb 25, 2008
My first pick is the 1988 Honda NT650 Hawk. Ahead of its time, the NT650 had a super cool dual spar aluminum frame frame and single-sided swingarm and was advanced for 1988 and is pretty far ahead of most sportbikes today. If there was one, the downside was the mild-mannered twin-cylinder motor. Honda over-estimated the public's ability to deal with future-think. The bike bombed. In 1992, Honda was still trying to unload 1988 models.
Feb 21, 2008
A reader in Albuquerque commented on a motorcycle noise article I'd written a few years back. At one time, Albuquerque had enough of motorcycle noise and stuck gangs of motorcyclists into the same barrell as gangs of truckers, cagers, and other noise makers. Apparently, the AMA took offense and plied some political muscle to Albuquerque's weak city government and "turned the law around." Here's a little of the discussion I had with the reader:
In an old (2006) article, you mentioned a noise ordinance in Albuquerque that may have been effective in curbing motorcycle noise. In 2002, the situation reversed itself, in response to pressure from the AMA. The allowed noise level for motorcycles in Albuquerque is an earsplitting 99 dB, 19 dB above the level for other light vehicles. It is incredible to me that the City Government would do this to the residents here. The motor vehicle portion of the city noise ordinance is attached as a pdf file.
So much for Albuquerque as an environmentally friendly place in which to locate a clean business or even in which to spend a restful night in a hotel!
I'd heard that Albuquerque had caved to pressure/money/whatever, but this is an interesting development. The noise spec they are using, SAE stationary test method J1287, requires the test measurement to be made at 20" from the exhaust outlet. With the same standard test, the city is allowing 95 dB for vehicles under 6,000 lbs (not including motorcycles). The 99dBspl standard is 1dB louder than the AMA allows for race bikes in sanctioned events and 3dB louder than their recommendation for "General Off-Highway Use." However, it is an easier to test (assuming semi-competent cops) standard than the old rule and could be easily modified for quieter standards if the city proves they employ semi-intelligent., marginally technical cops who can enforce the new rule.
Outdoors, sound pressure degrades approximately 3-4dB every doubling of distance. So, at 25' the new rule is asking for a noise output of roughly 83-85dBAspl. In the detailed noise rule description, they also state "The requirements in §9-9-9(A) apply to the total sound from a vehicle or combination of vehicles and shall not be construed as limiting or precluding the enforcement of any other provisions of this article relating to motor vehicle mufflers for noise control." Then they follow that with this piece of smoke and mirrors, "Any motor vehicle with a GVW rating under 10,000 lbs. or more except motorcycles" at "all times" "will be limited to 80dBA" "The requirements [above] apply to the total sound from a vehicle or combination of vehicles and shall not be construed as limiting or precluding the enforcement of any other provisions of this article relating to motor vehicle mufflers for noise control." With the sneaky insertion of the "except motorcycles" in the above description, they are allowing groups of motorcycles to make unlimited noise, while restricting all other groups of under 6,000 lb. vehicles to a max noise level of 80dBA.
With all the whining from motorcyclists about being discriminated against seems to disappear when the discrimination is in their favor. I wonder where the political clout to do this comes from?
Feb 18, 2008
It's hard to be current enough on the MSF cirriculum to be an effective teacher and to find enough time/energy to ride enough to be a credible one. Last year, I felt pretty confident about my teaching style and my riding cred. Year before, not so much.
I'd love to hear from some new riders about their MSF class experience. We do a "customer satisfaction" review after each class, but I wonder if the answers would be different a few weeks after the class.
A couple of days ago, the temperature in Minnesota crept above zero and I was in the garage checking battery conditions and making sure the bikes all survived their lonely life in the garage. Sunday and, today, Monday, the temperature is back near zero and miserable. I'm going to go watch Faster! and Dust to Glory just to remind myself that somewhere, someone is riding a motorcycle today.
Last spring, I loaded up my V-Strom and headed for
Aerostitch put the RAM 2610 mount on sale this month and I bought one. I mounted it today and it is as solid as the handlebars. I’m looking forward to being able to see the 2610’s screen for many thousands of miles, especially the 8,000 miles I plan to put on the V-Strom on the way to
Feb 17, 2008
Maybe this is an old age thing. Maybe I have always been a wimp. Whatever my situation, I'm not ashamed to admit that the Vikings I see on the road this time of the year are the kind of guys who have always intimidated and amazed me. If you're one of those guys who thinks Minnesota fall riding gear is a leather vest, a sleeveless flannel shirt, jeans, boots, and a protective skull-and-cross-bones bandana, you are who I'm talking about.
Last fall, I made a 40 degree late-September evening run from the Cities to Rochester, to hang with an old friend who was visiting from the left coast. On the way, I passed four bikes. Two of the bikers were "normals," wearing full-face helmets and cold weather riding gear. The third guy was a Winger, who probably had his heater going full blast, along with the grip warmers and the electric vest, while the heat generated by the Wing's helmet sound system toasted his ears. Finally, the last guy was a real Minnesota Viking on some kind of low-slung, ape-hung cruiser (sorry, I can't tell one from another). He was keeping up with traffic, which was doing about 75mph, and didn't appear to be any more uncomfortable than the guy on the Wing. Accounting for the wind chill and humidity, 75mph and 40 degrees Fahrenheit equals a wind chill of about 11oF.
How do they do that? I want to know. Seriously. This is the kind of weather that has always separated me from real bikers. When the temperature falls below 50, I wear a full-face Shoei (all vents closed), an old but very wind and water-tight Aerostitch suit, boots with heavy wool socks, winter gloves, and more clothing inside the Aerostitch than the Viking bikers probably own. Last September, by the time I got to Rochester I was close to chilled enough to serve with cheese and crackers. If I did a dozen miles in forty degree weather, without my helmet, I'd be nursing a head cold till next spring. If I went helmet-less and jacket-less for the same distance, I'd fall over like the guy on the "Laugh In" tricycle when I stopped. I'd bust like an empty beer bottle when I hit the pavement.
Riding in the cold has always been something that makes me nervous. It's a well known fact that you have to stay loose to ride smoothly. I don't know how you stay loose when you're frozen stiff. Those Viking guys don't even look uncomfortable, though.
Almost thirty years ago, I got talked into doing a 24-hour off-road race. The race was in south western South Dakota. The race was in January. The race was a two-man team deal and my teammate was a buddy who happened to own a small Suzuki dealership. We tricked out a 185cc dual-purpose Suzuki, including adding a half-dozen lights to the bike, and brought along his camper to serve as a deluxe pit.
The trick-est thing about riding this bike in that race was that, if someone tried to hang with me, I could switch off the lights and, for a few seconds, it was like the sun instantly eclipsed. Pause a few seconds, listening for the sound of crunching metal, fire up the lights and I'm back on my own.
We were clinging to first place, about 18 hours into the race, when we ran out of hot chocolate and coffee and had to switch to beer. Beer, in case you've not heard this, does not provide any useful energy. Beer will not help you stay warm. In fact, I would go so far as to say that drinking beer is a stupid thing to do during a race, regardless of temperature, but really stupid when the riding surface is covered with snow and ice.
I went down three times on my first beer-lap. Until we had made that tactical error, we had ridden about 400 flawless, fall-less, miles. My buddy not only crashed several times, on his turn, but he took out half of our lights when he went down. The last three hours of the race were miserable and we got our butts handed to us by a couple of sober guys on a Penton 175 ISDT; and whoever got second, third, fourth, and fifth place. The lesson I took away from that experience is "beer good, cold bad."
A decade later, I took a job in California. Since I figured my Omaha-rusted cars wouldn't pass any sort of physical inspection, I decided to sell my four-wheeled crap and move to the Sunshine State by motorcycle. On my very first street bike (a Honda CX500) and my first serious touring experience, I headed south toward Texas on a sunny, warm and windy April day. A day later, I was in southwest Kansas and it was snowing and 25 degrees. On the assumption that it might get worse before it got better (which it did), I decided to keep going south.
Late that evening, I rolled into Hereford, Texas; frozen, wet, and miserable. My bike was loaded with saddlebags, a large backpacking bag tied to the luggage rack, and camping gear was strapped to the passenger seat. I pulled into a 7-11 and stepped off the bike to get coffee, a phone book and a motel phone number, and whatever heat I could absorb in the store. With my right leg suspended in the air, I realized that I had forgotten to put the kickstand down. Me, the bike, and a good 150 lbs. of personal belongings landed in a heap in the parking lot.
Lying on the frozen ground, hoping someone in the store would see my predicament, I realized that the 7-11 had an "closed" sign pasted to the window. I couldn't budge the bike. I couldn't get my leg out from under it. Three hundred and fifty miles of freezing rain had sapped my strength and body heat. I lay there thinking how stupid my obituary was going to read, "Idiot freezes to death in abandoned store parking lot."
After only a few minutes that seemed like weeks, a light swung across the store front and stopped on me. A seven foot tall (I'm probably exaggerating) cowboy (they have real cowboys in Hereford, TX) stepped out of a big wheel pickup, pulled the bike up and dropped the kick stand. With the same hand, he drug me to my feet and said, "Those things get heavy sometimes, don't they? There's a motel down the road a piece," he pointed out the piece's general direction. "I think you might want to see if they got a room."
There was, I did, they did, and I spent all of the motel's hot water in a two hour shower that probably brought my body temperature up to about 80 degrees. A huge steak with trimmings and double desert got me back near 98.6F. The next day was sunny, still cold, and I held to the Texas two-lane speed limit (anything under 100mph) till I passed Lubbock, where the sun actually succeeded in warming the earth; a little. I stayed close to the Mexico border all the way to California. Again, I learned that motorcycles, cold, and me don't mix.
Now that I'm a geezer, I like being cold even less. All the places where my bones have had to reattach themselves do unfunny things when I'm cold. The joints that I abused so carelessly when I was a kid seize up and make snap, crackle, and popping noises. If it gets cold enough, I forget to breathe. I'm not a Viking. Never was. Never will be. But I envy the hell out of those guys and if I could pry my cold, cramping hands loose from the bars, I'd wave at them when we meet on the road.
A while back, some logic-inhibited wacko wrote MMM about how dangerous helmets are because he/she had a friend whose helmet got so smashed up in a wreak that the docs had to pick pieces of fiberglass out of his skull. Think about that. The helmet, which has about a zillion times the impact resistance of a bandana-protected skull, was shattered while still protecting the rider. It protected him well enough that there was a medical argument for surgically picking out the chunks. That sounds like an endorsement for helmets, not an argument against. That's the kind of "logic" I'm used to hearing from helmet-phobes.
Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that there are large numbers of riders who don't wear helmets. There are too damn many people on this planet and the more who want to volunteer to leave, the more empty highway space there is for the rest of us. Thanks for asking.
On the other hand, I hate losing friends to stupidity (or anything), so I don't use this argument on anyone I care about. Not wanting to add to the depletion of the world’s resources, I'm not one of those do-gooders who loves humanity and hates individual people. I'm the reverse, couldn't care less about humanity but hate the idea of my life without certain people in it. The rest of you can do what you want: helmet/no-helmet, seatbelt/no-seatbelt, do-drugs/don't-do-'em, drink, smoke, get fat, chew gum and try to walk, whatever. As long as you have the whole story, you can do what ever you want and I'm on your side.
The first time I spiked a pointy rock with the top of a brand new Bell -- and walked away with nothing more than a ruined $120 investment and a fat lip -- I made up my own mind for life. That was thirty years ago. Since then, I've learned that I'm not man enough to ride helmetless. I've splatted thousands of wasps and bees with my faceshield, slid along dirt trails with my head leading the way through the shrubbery, and tumbled ass over teakettle through barbwire fences and cactus and I'm still here to write about it. That’s me and you are you. I'm still riding, after almost 40 years of falling off of motorcycles, and my protective gear gets a good bit of the credit for that. Jujitsu training and learning how to fall gets the rest of the credit.
This isn't a matter of me wanting to make your lives safer. I don't care about the "cost" of a helmet-less society. Even the medical insurance argument is a wash, in my mind. Sure, you'll cost me a few bucks on the front end, in emergency services and when the ER docs chew up time and resources trying to paste your busted head together, but you won't be there to suck up the Social Security account reserves. Except for those of us who die of boredom in our cubicles, everybody's going to be a drain on society at some time in their life. It ought to be a free country and you should be able to write yourself off anytime you feel the need. The problem with the "story," told to newbies by the “a helmet restricts my freedom” crowd, is that most of that story is a fantasy.
“Helmets prevent you from hearing hazards.” Actually, just being on a moving motorcycle does that job almost perfectly. Between the wind and motor noise, you can't hear a 747 until it's a second away from your good ear. Unless you are stopped, and sitting on a Honda step-through-90, the only noises a helmet keeps you from hearing are too quiet to be dangerous. On the other hand, a good helmet (and earplugs) will protect you from premature hearing loss. Weirdly, many of us think we can better hear important things with both a helmet and earplugs. I can’t explain that, but I’m not the only one who is mystified by that psycho-acoustic phenomenon.
“Helmets obstruct your peripheral vision.” Not wearing a helmet with a face shield often obstructs your vision in all directions. (There's the reason the chopper crowd plods along at 45mph, hanging up traffic for miles behind them and irritating little old ladies on their way home from church: they can't see if they go any faster.) Between the bugs, dust and pollution, birds, flying rocks and gravel, and your own flapping eyelashes, serious wind protection goes a long way toward maintaining visibility.
“Riders sometimes die (or worse) from neck injuries received in helmeted accidents.” Without the helmet the stuff from the first vertebrae up may be all that is left intact, the skull is goo. Using your brain as bubble packing to protect your neck is seriously weird. The first motorcycling death I witnessed happened when a kid hit a stopped car at less than 10mph, rolled over the hood, and cracked his skull on the curb. His neck was in perfect shape when they buried him. A lawn sprinkler washed a gob of his brains down the gutter before the EMTs arrived.
All this said, I don't want new laws passed. Helmet laws do exactly the wrong thing. The only result I've seen from helmet laws is that a lot of helmets get sold because a lot of helmets got stolen. Rider safety probably isn't impacted nearly as much as the lawmakers might have expected because half of the helmets on the road were stolen. The stolen helmets got lifted by cutting the buckle from the helmet lock. A great helmet without a strap and buckle is next-to-worthless. After getting a couple of $400 helmets stolen, even the guys who love helmets end up buying a cheap hat. The end result is pretty pointless.
I’m sure some of you will write MMM (heck, go direct and write me at firstname.lastname@example.org) and tell us how you believe we’re criticizing your "personal choice." I'm sure you know better than the AMA and four generations of motorcycle racers who wouldn't cross the street without a helmet securely strapped to their heads. I just want to be sure you know what you're risking. I want you to be as free as you can be. Free to live or die, because it's no skin off of my skull.
A company called Mesa Engineering has recently marketed a really expensive power amplifier, called "The Baron," aimed at folks who don’t blink when they’re asked to cough up $75,000 for a home stereo rig or $150,000 for a home theater system. In The Audio Adventure's hilarious review of this big bucks toy , the reviewer wrote "The word that came to mind as I listened [to the Baron] was ‘attitude.’ This characteristic gives the Baron an attitude comparable to the attitude you’d expect from a person who rides a Harley--especially a woman. Tough but extremely attractive in a slightly dangerous way." If that doesn’t make you want to regurgitate, you’re slightly dangerous in an extremely unattractive way.
In the motorcycle world, Harley riders seem to be taking all kinds of diverging paths. A lot of the new Harley owners are really upset that many non-Harley owning motorcyclists don't cough up instant respect for their vehicle and lifestyle choice. You see this on the Internet, but that crowd of geek bikers would probably rather talk to you about Unix and stock option tax tips than Sonny Barger's trials and tribulations.
Based Harley's advertising, and the usual riding costumes, the big part of the "Harley mystique" is still about being an outlaw. An outlaw, according to Danny Webster is someone who is "a person excluded from the benefit or protection of the law." Or, if you're a mild-mannered outlaw, "one that is unconventional or rebellious." A bunch of us, who have been on motorcycles for a long time, have learned to avoid that first group because they're dangerous and unpredictable. At best, you'll get your bike messed up. At worst, you'll get yourself messed up. The second group is mostly humorous and will often buy beer if your listen to their two-wheeling and stock-brokering stories. Here's where the mud meets the crystal ball, though. A good number of the first group's old members appear to be merging into the second group.
The Angels and their offspring, being the primary importers of various illegal substances back in the free love years, were dangerous to be around even when they weren't trying to be dangerous. In Omaha in the 1970's, talking to a Harley biker at a stoplight could get you pulled over and searched, just out general police principles. In LA in the 1980's, nodding at a bandit Harley owner, while stopped at a similar traffic light, could get you shot. From 1963 until the last few years, I made it an act of self-preservation to stay on the other side of town from guys on Harleys. That was as close as I could find to being on their "good side."
Now, it seems, a lot of the new breed of Harley owners wants to dress like outlaws (or a member of the Village People) but be treated like a respectable member of the society of road-loving, bug-toothed motorcyclists. They want the rest of us to respect their choice in vehicles, simply because it happens to have two wheels. When we see them stranded along the roadside (as often happens with overweight, marginally engineered, air-cooled motorcycles), they want us to stop and offer assistance. They want us to wave at them, even knowing that, at best, one in two dozen of them will wave back.
Even more weirdly, some of the old breed are blending into the new breed. It's really confusing when a strongly held stereotype turns out to be useless information. Seeing a pack of leather-clad, Harley mounted 300 pounders getting teary-eyed over Make A Wish kids is that kind of experience. It’s impossible to calculate the label-busting that these bikers do when they spend half a year fundraising for an organization that grants the wishes of terminally ill children.
Since I like to think of motorcyclists as members of a universal good-fellowship club, I'd like to accommodate the new breed Harley owners while, still, maintaining a safe distance from the nasty guys. Like I've said, at least once, it's getting so that you can meet some of the "nicest (and richest) people" on a Harley. But I can't tell one from the other because they buy their costumes at the same store. From those safety-beanies to the shirtless vest to the black cowboy chaps, I can't make the good guys from the scary guys. Until there is some clear label for me to read, I'm marginally willing to stick out my hand because I still need all of my fingers. I'm old and can't afford any more broken bones, especially ribs.
My opinion about hate and distrust is that it is all based on fear. Humans want to ridicule, avoid, beat up, or kill the folks who scare us the most. The intensity of the reaction depends on your level of intelligence and how much fear you hold. Supposedly, the more you know, the less you fear. The more you fear, the more violent your reaction. I believe that as much as I believe anything about the human animal. Or any animal. And it's still just my opinion. Pretty early in my motorcycling career, I learned to be tense around Harleys. Ok, I learned to fear being around Harleys.
In my dirt racing days, a couple of times, a half-dozen Harley heavyweights unexpectedly appeared at the track and, uninvited, rolled into the pits. Twenty scrawny--still wasted from their last 30-minute moto--bikers would interrupt whatever they were doing and start looking for the longest, heaviest wrench in the tool box. At the same time, our wives would begin to shepherd the kids together and as far away from the scene as possible. If the odds were fairly even, we'd circle the wagons, help each other load up the bikes, and get the hell out of there before the world came to an end. Guys who ride 125cc two-strokes just don't fare well in all-out street fights with 280 pound gangsters, pumped up on coke or PCP, and wielding well-chosen and often used weapons. The valor part of discretion was in sticking around long enough to make sure all the good guys (and their families) got out alive. Otherwise, we just wrote off the escape to good sense and found another place to meet for the next race.
Those were tense times when bad things often happened. I still get a mild urge to keep a big pipe wrench under the bed when a Harley blubbers past my house at night. Just describing this ancient history has reminded me that I really need to own a big pipe wrench, in case a big plumbing job comes along. I'd love to keep writing about my 40 year love affair with Harleys, but I need to go to Sears. Ride safe and see ya on the road. Wave, if you're a good guy.
I admit that I'm unusually repelled by the idea of buying a new . . . anything. The fact that the act of driving a new bike off of the dealer's lot is economically identical to gathering a hard-earned pile of cash and throwing 10-50% of that pile into the wind may forever keep me from owning another new motorcycle. My last experience with this form of "investment" came in 1974, so I've been suffering this trauma for a long time. That's all I'm admitting and you'll have to live with any other remorse you think I should suffer.
All that said, buying used bikes is another form of self-mutilation. Over my 35 years of buying used vehicles, I've formed a collection of rules that, if I followed them, could prevent a lot of the usual used-bike/car misery. The first of those rules is "never buy a motorcycle from a kid."
If you force me to define "kid" in chronological terms, I'd have to arbitrarily say anyone under 40 is, more than likely, a kid. However, I've known 15-year-old adults and 65-year-old kids. So numbers don't do this psychological defect much justice.
Kids are destructive little monsters who think their motorcycles (and cars) are educational toys. There's nothing wrong with that logic, until the little motorcycle mangler decides to sell his &*()*#$#%@ Erector set with all the missing, stripped, bent, and broken bits "as is." It's only when a real person gets stuck with a vehicle that was previously owned by the Kid that a capital crime has been committed. Unfortunately, the capital or corporal punishment usually gets played out on the buyer, not the &*()*#$#%@ Kid.
The most fatal flaw in buying a bike from the Kid is that the little dweeb thinks he's a better engineer than the folks who designed and built the bike. If it were true, this would be a more than typically pointless Geezer rant. But it's not. The kinds of things most often "re-engineered" by the Kid are exhaust systems, handlebars, lighting, threaded holes (especially sparkplug holes), brakes, suspension parts, fuel systems, and critical bits of the power train. Not a one of these areas were easy design tasks for the skilled engineers who built the bike. Without exception, the Kid will whack away at any one of these areas without a clue in his head or a skill in his hands.
When I'm shopping for a used bike, comments made by the current owner about shade tree work done in any critical area of the motorcycle's mechanics becomes a deduction in my valuation of the bike. In my best moments, I'm ruthless about taking those deductions from the price of the bike. In my usual moments, I'm not nearly vicious enough. Most Kids won't consider messing with a motorcycle unless they have 1) already crashed it or 2) have found an easy way to really mess up the bike's operation or 3) Daddy gave them a pile of money for Xmas and they want to "decorate" the motorcycle with useless crap that suddenly became affordable. Knowing this, you can be realistic about the damage done and the resulting price deduction. However, it's hard to keep all that in mind when you just want to buy a bike for cheap and go for a ride.
Even if the seller is 95 years old and only rides the Goldwing at Shriner parades, you should probably make the paranoid, or conservative, assumption that he's the Kid. With that thought in mind, start from the front of the bike and work your way back, looking for mangled bolt heads, loose stuff, non-stock stuff, and beer cans hammered into clutch plate shims. When you finally do get to ride the bike, be critical. Don't assume that any odd quirk in the bike's performance is something you need to get used to, assume it's an introduced design flaw, courtesy of the Kid. Don't even consider hoping the quirk will go away after you ride it a while. Fix it before it fixes you.
From here, I'm tempted to go into a marginally rational rant about aftermarket pipe, carb tuning kits, and suspension modifications that turn the bike into a self-destructing, back-breaking vehicle that will cripple you in any number of ways. But I won't because I've already been there and it makes me crazy. I will suggest that every fastener between the top of the tank to the manifold clamps is probably cross-threaded. Buy stock in Emhart Fastening Technologies (the folks who make Heli-Coils) before you get started.
Even better, do what I hope I will do the next time I come upon a Kid's bike being offered for a great price; walk away and don't look back. It's not worth the hassle or hazard. Repeat after me, "I've been here before and I will never do anything that dumb again." Or do like me, forget that mantra and spend most of the riding season returning your bike to the condition real engineers intended.
Instead of indulging one of my many grievances against the universe, I want to actually try to babble about something I've learned in the last year. This is really obvious, in retrospect, but it’s something that practically escaped me for too long.
It's April 3, 2001 and I rode my bike to work for the first time this year. The world is a much nicer place than it was last week, or has been for the last five months. I've lost much of the urge to squish the life out of the first living thing that irritates me. I even skipped coffee this morning and I'm not falling asleep while I write this. A buddy came by and said he could see the Disney bluebirds circling my cube. But doing my first 2001 ride to work isn't the point of this non-rant, as nice an event as that was.
A year and a half ago, at the end of the 1999 riding season, I had whipped past a half-century of life and thirty-five years of motorcycling. I was beginning to feel someone else's age, someone disgustingly old and, practically, feeble. As you might have figured by my generally bad attitude, I am an office drone. For the last nine years, I've spent my working days at a desk, surrounded by cube walls, doing mindless repetitive tasks that could be taught to a marginally intelligent, boredom-tolerant chimp. While that brilliant career plan has allowed me the time and motivation to develop all sorts of attitude, it hasn't done much for my physical condition. In fact, it's nearly crippled me.
Until I moved to Minnesota five years ago, I'd been able to justify the hazards of my motorcycling habit by burning up fifteen to twenty thousand miles a year, commuting and touring, on my bikes. Minnesota winters, a new grandson, a house that needed more work than it will ever be worth, and general purpose laziness cut those miles in half for three years and, in the summer of 1998, I began to think that I might be getting too old to ride a bike.
I'd get up in the morning, look at my way-too-tall-for-my-28"-inseam Yamaha TDM 850 and my way-too-much-like-a-desk-chair SUV, and ride to work in the gas-guzzling desk chair. When I did ride, I made myself nervous. I was not the rider I used to be. I wasn't aggressive when I needed to be aggressive. I wasn't strong enough to deal with the bike when I got into trouble. I had my first-ever street bike accident early that spring. I started thinking about buying a cruiser, to compensate for being too fat and stiff to swing my leg over a real motorcycle. I was starting to see the point that other geezer bikers make when they claim that helmets limit visibility and loud pipes began to seem like a useful defensive maneuver. Too often, I couldn't see who was beside me, in heavy traffic, let alone what was behind me.
The problem was not that I’m getting old. It’s that I was out of shape. You can’t do anything about being old, but you can usually fix being out of shape.
Somewhere, years ago, I read that good luck isn’t something that’s happening all the time, it comes when it’s important. That’s why it’s called “luck.” In my case, my desire to hang on to motorcycling coincided with my need to get back a chunk of my life before it was too late. I love motorcycling so much that the idea of quitting, selling my bike, and doing all of my traveling and commuting in a four-wheeled birdcage scared the snot out of me. That nasty prospect convinced me to look for some kind of conditioning routine that would help me regain enough flexibility and strength to stay on two wheels. I’m lucky to have had motorcycling for motivation.
For me, the activity turned out to be cranking up a regular yoga routine. I started light and short, fifteen minutes a day, and have worked up to forty-five minutes to an hour, five or six days a week, in the last year. At my last physical, my doc called me “an owl,” when he saw how far I could swivel my head and torso. Last I heard, he was starting his own workout routine. I have rediscovered the joys and rewards of being able to bend over to pick up dropped stuff, without screaming in pain. My balance is better than it’s ever been. I lost 25 pounds and gained strength and stamina.
This isn't a yoga promotion. This isn't a for-geezers-only column. Riding a motorcycle is physically demanding, somewhat hazardous, and more fun than anything you can do on four wheels (except sex, which is nearly impossible on a moving motorcycle). Motorcycling is a sort of double-edged sword. It's dangerous, but living is dangerous. Living without a little danger, an edge, something to crank up your juices, is almost pointless. That's why we love motorcycles.
Just owning a motorcycle isn't enough to keep yourself alive on a bike. Doing the MSF Experienced Rider class every year or two is nothing more than a survival tactic. The things you learn in a racing class or off-road on a dirt bike may be the difference between riding tomorrow or getting to know your doctor really well. But that's not enough. Every racer has some kind of cross-training routine to keep sharp and fit. They don't just do those things to win races. They do them to stay alive and uninjured. Strength, flexibility, balance, and response time are all physical characteristics that can be improved. You can cover your pickup with "Start Seeing Motorcycles" stickers, but the only person watching out for you on the road is you. If you can't do the job, you're screwed.
Since this anti-rant is a complete failure at my life’s purpose in ticking off all six of the Geezer column’s fans, here’s a web-link that ought to do the job for you: www.dennisjsullivan.com/loudpipe.htm. Enjoy.
A few years ago, a friend who had just taken up motorcycles decided that we weren't getting enough out of our trips into the Colorado Rockies. He'd become a motorcyclist, mostly, to be part of a group (of which I was a member) who spent most weekends exploring the area within a day's ride of Denver on bikes. He had discovered yet another intrusive piece of technology that he was convinced we should all buy for the purpose of enhancing communication on our road trips; helmet headsets.
One of the two experienced riders, not me, was into vintage Japanese bikes. Lots of vintage Japanese bikes. At the last count, I think he has 11 unreliable, under-powered, bad-handling junkers that he loves like children. I had an almost-new Yamaha 850 TDM that made my children a bit jealous. Who'd have guessed that kids want attention, too? The third hand in our deck of mountain explorers had a Yamaha 650XS. It didn't take him too long to discover that he couldn't keep up with us on rolling junk.
Regardless of the XS's limitations, the third guy was such a cautious rider that I always took the precaution of planning our rides so that we'd have a designated place to meet at specific times, along the route. I thought this effort was an extraordinary act of friendship, on my part. He was so slow moving that he'd often be stuck in his driveway, still fiddling with his minimal riding gear, when I arrived at the first "check point" to wait. Sometimes, I waited for hours. I caught up on a lot of reading during those trips.
One day, while waiting to pick his bike up, after some minor repair work at a dealership, he discovered helmet communications systems. From that day on, every conversation we had started and ended with "I think we all ought to get these things, then we could talk to each other while we ride." I could ask him where he wanted to eat lunch and end up having to fend off a pitch for why I needed a radio in my helmet. Even the absolutely true and logical argument that I didn't need yet another voice joining the crowd in my head failed to deter him.
I admit that, purely through accidental survival and decent genes, I am a geezer. I'm not all that fond of new stuff for the sake of newness. I hung on to points and electro-mechanical ignitions longer than necessary because I understood them and could fix them. I still won't own a car with electric windows. Being a geezer isn't something that I have actively pursued, but will take responsibility for having made a few choices that resulted in my getting old rather than getting dead. Many of those successful choices had to do with keeping life simple as possible. Electronic gadgets, by definition, do not fall into the "simple life" category.
However, a lot of people have contributed to my being a geezer with a fair collection of grudges. The folks at Nady, for example, made those damn helmet communications systems so inexpensive that I could have afforded one if I were lifeless enough to want one. Which provided my friend with the ammunition to bug me about buying a set, whenever something resembling an opportunity arose. Because of that fact, I will never wish the engineers at Nady anything but uncontrollable feedback and poor fidelity. A grudge that I plan to hold till I die.
Eventually, after a year of nagging, I had to give up my feeble attempts at being a nice guy. When my buddy fired up one too many arguments on the radio-in-the-helmet thing, I admitted that I don't ride a motorcycle to socialize. In fact, I ride a motorcycle to be alone. I rarely take on passengers and I don't want a radio in my helmet because I like it that way.
I didn't quit while I was ahead, either. I told him that these things are glorified walkie-talkies and they have a range of about a mile, in perfect conditions. Since he was only likely to be able to stay within a mile of me when we were in the same parking lot, the radios would be a waste of helmet space. This is a guy who actually believes that posted speed limits are "reasonable and safe speeds," not arbitrary numbers selected to irritate skilled motorists and to control the far more common totally-inept-screwball-behind-a-steering-wheel.
After absorbing my insults, he doubled his efforts on the other member of our trio. Finally, he convinced him to waste his money on a helmet transmitter-receiver. After a couple of rides with his new electronic riding buddy, he discovered how irritating conversation can be when you're doing something fun. After a while, he started leaving the radio on, 24 hours a day, draining the battery while appearing to be cooperative. When our talkative buddy discovered that he was going unheard, he started carrying extra batteries so that his gems of wisdom wouldn't go unappreciated.
Finally, his victim gave up the pretense and bought a new helmet, sans radio. He took to wearing that helmet all the time, claiming it was more comfortable because it did a better job of muffling the "wind noise" (which, technically, was true in at least two ways).
I wish I were that diplomatic. I wouldn't have thought of that excuse in a million years. The closest I came to being subtle was, when we were all together in a bike shop listening to the helmet-yak lecture, I bought a tee-shirt with "Shut Up and Ride" silk-screened on both sides.
When I see bikers coming into a bar, obviously continuing a conversation they'd been having on their helmet walkie-talkies, I know I don't want to be anywhere near them when the road turns twisty and fun. They are just a small step up from cagers with cell phones. When radio-riders ask me if I get lonely out on the road, by myself, with no one to talk to, I remember a lyric written by an old Minnesota folk singer, "You ask why I don't live here? Man, I don't believe you don't leave." No, I don't get lonely when I'm on my motorcycle. I have the bike under me, the road in front of me, and we're all happy as two inanimate objects and one grumpy geezer can be. Thanks for asking. Was that diplomatic enough for you?
(Because of the time lag between the bike show and the first spring issue of MMM, my editor decided to pass on this column. However, I still like it so I'm putting it on my own page of Geezer articles)
Incredible, isn't it? January in Minnesota and we get to spend a weekend pawing over motorcycles that our local dealers would keep behind glass rather than expose them to every Tom, Dick, and motorcycling wannabe Harriet. As many things as they get wrong, you gotta give Cycle World some credit for being cool enough to put on that show. And the fact that Toyota pays for a bunch of the show makes me look upon my two rust-bucket Toys with a little more affection.
Having put my stuff together the night before, I don't need a lot of prep-time. So, I crawl out of bed about fifteen minutes before a buddy picks me up for a trip into the pit of Minneapolis. I'm stumbling into my boots and coat about the time he pulls into the driveway. I'm out the door before he gets a chance to even think about turning off his car heater.
We've done this trip a three times in the past three years, so we have the schedule, finally, figured out. No point in getting there early, so we head for Keys and a breakfast built for six. It's a struggle, but we do what we always do and my dog wouldn't find a scent of a past meal from our plates. We still have an hour or more to burn before the Convention center doors open, so we talk about bikes and guitars and women. The sort of guy-talk where hope never stops springing eternal.
Finally, we've worn out our welcome at Keys because a line of folks has built up at the door and they all look hungry enough to be threatening. We hit the road, aiming in the general direction of downtown Minneapolis, by way of Willie's Guitars, a shop my friend has never seen and I never tire of seeing. Willie's isn't open, but we blow ten minutes staring into the windows and fogging up the glass.
Finally, we're on the direct path for downtown Minneapolis. I'm not a fan of downtown, uptown, or around town Minneapolis. Jesse, the Gov, thinks St. Paul was designed by "drunken Irishmen" and I'm equally convinced that Minneapolis was laid out by a tag-team of drunken pro wrestlers. The highway and freeway system is about as user-hostile as Microsoft's legal team. There are only a few places in the city, which I visit as rarely as possible, where I can get in and out without getting lost. Today, the Convention Center turns out to be one of those places; at least on the way into town. I even manage to direct my ride to a parking structure, where we find a slot on the 2nd floor, just a few feet from the skywalk entrance.
At the site, I'm pleasantly surprised to find that not only did my favorite editor ask for a press pass, but the show's administration people actually issued one for me. I've obviously spent too much of my life in the rock and roll world, where you always assume that everything can and will be screwed up. Being the crude and rude guy I am, I leave my friend in the ticket line and head for the Suzuki booth.
If you have never worn a press badge to a trade show, you really need to try it sometime. All riders should be issued press badges. At least I think it was the badge that made the difference. It seemed to me that the vendors and bike reps were a lot nicer to me than usual. I, in exchange, was a lot more ruthless to them. Two victims wearing Suzuki badges were forced, as best I could tell, to listen to me rant about the center stand that is missing from the SV650's accessory options while being available for the Hyabusa.
These guys actually paid attention to my argument, or pretended to, and took notes. I caught them glancing at my press badge, every couple of minutes, as if they were trying to decide what MMM was and if its readership was worth the abuse they were suffering. I milked my moment under the florescent lights for all it was worth and repeated the experiment at every booth I visited. The Harley guys weren't particularly interested in Suzuki SV650 center stands, though, so I'm going to write something mean about them at a later date.
After a long day of exposing the limits of self-control to motorcycle vendors, we left the Convention Center, found our car in moments, and got lost finding our way out of Pro-Wrestler-ville. Eventually, we made it back to Willie's, which was now open, played a bunch of vintage guitars, bought a couple of noisemakers, and ended the evening drinking beer and eating bar food. January doesn't get any better than that.
I'm thinking that the EPA and the Federal Transportation Department are all taking the wrong approach on motorcycles. With reasonable consideration of the purpose of vehicles, the environment, and decent manners, these agencies have attempted to encourage motorcycle manufacturers to build (and motorcyclists to own) vehicles that meet these objectives. The problem is that Americans (and rest-of-world American wannabes) don't want reasonableness. To many of us, our motorcycles are not transportation but some kind of "lifestyle" icon. A nation of "born to be mild" types are buying and fiddling with motorcycles to demonstrate their individuality.
What if the government gave up on trying to manage all this stuff and just let the manufacturers ship us the absolute minimum vehicle, for us to redesign at will? Of course, at least one manufacturer is already doing this and making a bundle at it, so they might flex their powerful legislative muscle and prevent the competition from doing the same. Still, since the popular trend seems to be toward downsizing government. Imagine the whole thing getting downsized until diddly stuff like motorcycles are completely out of the federal and state viewfinders. It could happen.
This fantasy occurred to me as I took yet another step toward returning my new-used bike to stock. I know this is the exact opposite maneuver from typical, but, so far, it's been pretty successful for me.
I bought an almost new Suzuki SV650 from a kid in Michigan. The kid, like all self-respecting boy motorcyclists, had accumulated about 10 minutes of motorcycling expertise before he decided that Suzuki just hadn't built the kind of motorcycle that someone of his talent and experience deserved. So, he took some of Daddy's money and started re-engineering the SV. He had a shop install an expensive and noisy (the most critical characteristic) exhaust system. They applied a Dremel tool to the air filter, to allow "better breathing." The shop boys fiddled with the carb jetting, mashing the throttle cable between the carb housing and the frame in the process. He installed sticky race tires. He added some racer-boy cosmetic accessories. After the fine-tuning and thread-stripping was complete, he dumped the bike in his driveway and decided that motorcycling was too expensive and dangerous. He put the bike up for sale and I bought it for an extremely reasonable early-March price.
I admit, without guilt, that I have a serious bias against noisy pipes. In this one aspect, I probably have more in common with non-bikers than most bikers. I see absolutely nothing wrong with a cop firing a warning shot to the head, when said cop pulls over a biker, a jacked-up SUV owner, or a semi-driver for noise emissions from a non-stock, non-EPA, non-DOT approved exhaust system. Even more non-biker-like, I don't believe that 99.9xx% of the riders I see on the street have any capacity to manage the unlikely 1-4% horsepower/torque gains they might, on a miraculous perfect tuning day with the moon and stars just right, achieve with a "competition use only" exhaust system. I think most folks with loud pipes are just being antagonistic toward their neighbors and anyone they might muster up the nerve to pass on the highway.
In fact, I doubt that any modification made by a non-racer (or an unsuccessful racer) has a practical purpose. Having bought a few of these cobbled-up mis-engineering attempts over the years, I suspect that "buyer's hysteria" is responsible for the sale of more motorcycle junk than performance. So, what I'm suggesting to the Feds and State regulatory folks is that they might try a little reverse psychology. Allow all of the bike manufacturers to make completely obnoxious and massively polluting bikes and, in that way, challenge motorcyclists to improve their bikes in the direction that they're trying to lead us through current regulation.
After a brief burst of irresponsibility, bikers would start tuning to improve mileage and emissions. We'd would be pawing through exhaust system catalogs, comparing the systems' noise output, and trying to quiet their bikes down so that neighbors would quit keying the bikers' cars and teepeeing their houses, while they were out riding. Motorcyclist hobbyists would be involved in real engineering, rather than de-engineering. Imagine that.
One of the early manufacturing engineering gurus found that assembly folks noticed an improvement in their working conditions when he modified the plant's lighting system. Their output improved accordingly. Later, Mr. Guru change the same lights back to stock and the assemblers thought that was better, too. Again, their efficiency improved. Humans aren't very good at making fine distinctions based on memory. We're even worse about being objective regarding the results of our investments. We spend our money, put in a few hours fiddling with our bikes, and we're convinced (regardless of any real evidence) that we've improved our bikes. The results of most of our modifications are grossly subjective, for those of us who don't race. For most of us who do race, pouring money into the bike isn't any where near as productive as spending time on the track.
In my situation, I've started with a bike that's had a fair collection of hop-up attempts made and I'm working backwards toward the stock bike. When the original owner had the bike, I read his posts to the SV owner's mail list, bragging about how each pile of money and weekend of fiddling with the bike had done something wonderful to the bike's performance. I've been spending my money and time to get back to stock. Regardless of the type of investment, I'm seeing the same kind of improvement that original owner reported, except that I'm removing the stuff he put on the bike to get those improvements.
I think this experiment is meaningful (it's one I've run a few times with the same results). I'm just not sure what the meaning is. I'll bet the accessory manufacturers would just as soon you didn't think about it too much.
One of the "features" of riding motorcycles for 35 years is getting to see a lot of people pass in and out of motorcycling. Quite a few of the folks I rode with and competed against, when I was young enough to think I might grow up to be fast, haven't been on a bike since they suffered some sort of motorcycling catastrophe: the first major broken bone(s), the high price of keeping up with racing technology, a scary and expensive get-off in heavy traffic, or (most commonly) marriage. It still amazes me to see people hang up their handlebars forever.
In the last decade, I've been almost as amazed to know a half dozen 40+ men and women who, swimming against the tide of anti-two-wheeling popular sentiment, purchase and learn to ride their first motorcycle. I will probably end up with an epitaph that includes the words "MSF," "buy a good helmet," and "learn to use the front brake," if some of those folks get to write it. I think it takes a lot of guts to start something as difficult as riding a motorcycle, when it's so obviously hazardous to aging fragile bones and organs.
I've hung out with guys, like myself, who have been in and out of motorcycle ownership their whole lives and will always think of themselves as "a biker," regardless of what's in the garage at the moment. I met one of the first of that group almost thirty years ago. He was a 70-something machinist who spun wonderful tales of riding, cross-country, across north western Texas on his 1920's Indian "sportbike," before there were paved roads (or any roads) in that part of the Great American Desert.
The good stuff about riding a motorcycle, especially competitively, at some point in your life is that you will always have bench-racing bragging rights over bikers who've never experienced a first turn traffic jam. Bench racing is the spice of life when life ain't so spicy anymore. But even if you've never raced, nothing on four wheels (short of a GP or Indy racer or rail-job dragster) even gets near the kick we get from punching a bike's throttle out of a well done curve. Motorcycling is about chasing some sort of adventure, anytime you pick traveling by two wheels over four (or more).
The bad stuff is that, if you ride and pay attention to bikes long enough, the adventure can turn deadly. Stay on the road for half a century and you're likely to see a biker maimed or killed. In my life, I've seen too-many-to-count off-road accidents, a couple dozen road rash events, and three motorcycling deaths; one in rural Nebraska and two in Los Angeles. Ironically, I was sitting at a picnic bench when I saw the first fatal event and trapped in a cage for the other two. Of these awful moments, two were, without question, the biker's fault. The third, was such a pitiful excuse for an accident that, 25 years later, I'm still not sure who ought to get the blame.
The Nebraska death happened when a stereotypical little old lady in a Buick rolled through a stop sign in front of a kid on a small 1970's street bike. Any experienced rider, seeing the tiny bluehair peering over the dashboard, would have suspected she might forget to stop. I think the kid made that guess, himself, before sliding into the side of her sedan. He hit the car, just behind the driver's side door, at well under 10mph and slid over the top of the car without doing any damage to the car, his bike, or himself. He almost managed to hang on to the roof of the car, before coming off the passenger side of the car. But he didn't. When he rolled off and hit the pavement, his skull split against the curb. He was dead before the cops arrived and long before the ambulance. I read, the next day, that he was 17. Obviously, no helmet, and as little protection as a Minnesotan's Mad Bomber's cap might have saved his life.
My second dead biker was a guy who was looking down and back, trying to get his feet into the California-idiot riding position (on the passenger pegs), in heavy Newport Boulevard traffic. The traffic stopped and he didn't. He went headfirst into the rear window of the car ahead of the car he slammed into. Also, no helmet and it might not have mattered. I think he was actually accelerating, before his bike came to an instant stop and he finished his trip by air.
My last dead guy on a bike was ripping down the median lane, doing at least 70mph in a 30mph stripmall zone. He slammed into the back of a stopped van without even blipping his brakes (assuming his brake light worked). He was wearing a helmet, boots, leather jacket, and gloves and most of that stuff came off on impact. The helmet, which may have been stolen because the buckle had been cut off, flew over the van and landed in a parking lot about 100 yards away. The boots were found under the van and one of the gloves landed on the hood of a car parked across the street in the opposite traffic lane.
When the light changed, I ended up getting stuck right next to the guy and what was left of his bike, so I put on my flashers and got out to help. The woman passenger in the van had jumped out to see if there was anything she could do to help, but she was only able to flap her arms, either trying to attract real assistance or in an attempt at flight. I saw the guy's skull was drooping to the shape of the road and blood was leaking out of his ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. He wasn't breathing. The arm flapper wanted me to do CPR or something she'd seen on TV rescues, but I thought I'd do more damage by moving him. We had a pair of motorcycle cops on the scene before I had a chance to finishing explaining to her that "I've been hunting since I was a kid and I've seen dead before. This guy is dead." I know that was insensitively said, but I wanted her to stop shrieking at me and she went right back to the passenger seat when I said that.
The cops didn't do anything more than look at the shape of the guy's skull before deciding they could spend their time more productively by securing the accident scene. It took almost an hour before I could give them my statement and go home. The first officers on the scene really seemed to want to blame some aspect of the accident on the van's driver. They were still haranguing him when I escaped. I could see that he was stopped, waiting to turn, from two blocks away. I can't imagine what he could have done to avoid getting rear-ended by the bike. Still, I could see why the accident made the bike-cops tense. It bothered me, too.
I've had my bikes called "murdercycles," "donor cycles," and other fun things for all the years I've ridden. I admit that I, still and occasionally, have mild hooligan urges and have been known to "play" racer on isolated stretches of two lane. If you do some pretty simple calculations, it's easy to see how just a couple of seconds of badly thought-out vehicle management could result in a disaster. What I saw at these accident scenes has stuck with me for all of the miles I've ridden since. Maybe my 350,000+ uninjured miles of riding owes something to the example provided by these three events. Otherwise, my witnessing their deaths was pointless.
Keep riding and ride safe.
Normally, I'm paranoid. Being a sixties refugee, it's normal for me to believe that, around every corner, there is a plot to tangle up my thought processes. Lately, I've noticed that a really sinister attempt is being made to make me reform one of the central premises of my life.
For example, a few weeks ago I went to a local bike's shop's open house. These guys were dealers for the bike I was thinking about trading up to. I called ahead and learned that they had one available, although it was the last one they expected to get all season. It was even the color I wanted. So I plan to blow a Saturday morning hanging out at a bike shop, maybe, buying a new bike.
The place is pretty much a zoo, when I get there. Bikers all over the place. Sales people all over the place and some bikes for sale, including the one I want to look at.
Being the recluse that I am, I try standing next to the bike fumbling with my wallet for a half-hour, or so, hoping to attract a sales dude. Finally, I stick my foot out and trip a guy with a dealer's ID badge. He is a nice enough guy, but doesn't know squat about the bike. He tells me he'll find someone who does and send him my way. I wait another half hour before leaving the bike and hunting down the clueless but helpful guy. This time, he gives me the other guy's name and points him out for me. The guy I want to talk to is, apparently, a week out of high school and is engaged in a pimple squeezing contest with two kids who don't look old enough to buy carbonated beverages.
As I head toward the sales kid does a flanking maneuver that puts the other two zit factories and a couple of crotch rockets between us. I make two more attempts at communicating with the kid and he pulls off two more impressive block passes that put me even further from yelling distance.
I give up and go back to my bike. Nobody wants to sell me anything today, so I have nothing to lose. I pop the seat and grab my tool kit. When I get back to the bike I wanted to buy, there is a "sold" sign on the seat. Fortunately, for me, I'm no longer in the market. I just want to learn something about the bike, in case I'm ever someplace where one might be for sale. In a few moments, I have removed the seat, popped the tank bolts, propped the tank with my spark plug tool, and pulled the radiator away from the motor, so I can look at the cylinders and carbs. All I wanted to know was how difficult it would be to do normal maintenance. Since I was learning so much, I decided to stay in school and was about to play with the shock, when a sales manager appeared and asked me "what the hell do you think you're doing?" He declined my offer to reassemble the bike and I decided to move on, while he was still being polite.
A weekend later, a friend conned me into visiting his favorite Harley shop. We both rode our bikes, a pair of Yamaha's. He owns a Harley, but didn't feel like looking cool that afternoon. Many of my friendly readers are probably still grinding their teeth, remembering my ranting about past Harley experiences. All that history and animosity aside, we chugged into the lot, packed with bikers and cruisers and free hotdogs and beer, and went inside for free food.
A sales guy, who always remembers my friend's name since he bought a new Sportster last year, greeted us and aimed us at the food and the beer cooler. We talked about bikes and I gave him my "dirt bikers don't ride Harleys" routine. He told me that he was an old dirt biker and had felt the same way until a few years ago. He used to race an Ossa Phantom. I used to sell them out of a garage in Nebraska. He wasn't bothered by my disinterest in his bikes and I almost wished he had something to sell that I wanted to ride. He tried to point me toward the Buells that might be more my style of bike, but admitted that they were pretty awful on dirt roads. And so it went for my visit to a Harley shop. Compared to being ignored and abused where the bikes are more to my tastes, it was sort of scary.
My next-door-neighbor rides a huge Harley; a full faired, hard-bagged bus of a bike with a radio, an intercom, a passenger seat that probably reclines, and I'm sure there's a kitchen sink on the bike, somewhere. He's the best neighbor I've ever had, in a half-dozen states and a dozen houses. The man's a walking testimonial for "you meet the nicest people on a . . . Harley?"
Last summer, I went for a ride with my neighbor and some of his friends. A whole collection of nice people on big twins (and a couple of Gold Wings). The pace was a bit slow for me, but you couldn't beat the company.
So what's the deal here? Are all these folks putting on a show, just to confuse me? Are the rice burning dealers going full-bore jerkwad while the Harley crowd turns into mild mannered grandparents and helpful, friendly sales guys? Being painfully honest, it's hard to top those crotch rocketed packs of kids in shorts, Nikes, and muscle shirts when it comes to motorcyclists creating enemies for the rest of us. Only the real Hell's Angels did more damage to two-wheeled vehicle safety than those boys have done in the last couple of decades.
Now, it's likely that a Harley rider is your dentist, banker, or some geeky engineer who bought his bike to celebrate his first million. Even harder to comprehend, the Harley might even be the guy's first bike. If it's a woman, the chances are really good that the Harley is a first bike.
Personally, I like my stereotypes to remain predictable. I mean, what's the point in having unpredictable stereotypes? If Harley dealers and owners are going to become nice people who wave at other bikers, stop to help a fellow biker broke down on the road, and don't threaten kick over my bike when I park it at the end of a line of shining chrome works of porky art, how the hell am I going to make snap judgements about who's riding what? I have to think, a little, at work. I don't want to have to engage tired and worn out braincells on my own time. Motorcycling is supposed to be a simple, recreational activity and thinking about stuff like this is messing up my hard-earned preconceived notions.
Most of my friends are over 40. Some are over 50, like me. The most curious thing I see in an awful lot of geezers is an intense desire to collect stuff from their youth. I'm trying to understand this phenomena.
Did other, non-Boomer, generations do that? OK, my mother and her friends packed their husbands' houses with overpriced wreckage they referred to as "antiques." They'd clutter our father's living rooms with rotting, rusting junk that had a quality and finish any competent cabinetmaker would describe as "bad." But these were bored housewives with grown and gone kids, nothing but network daytime TV to watch, and no decent hobbies to distract them from turning their homes into museums. That's dumb, but understandable.
I don't remember any of my father's friends getting wrapped up in the "good old days." Hotrodders don't count, of course. Those guys take rusted hulks with under-powered six-cylinder flathead motors and turned them into roaring monsters that Chrysler would be proud to call "The Prowler," if Chrysler had engineers who could build something that hot. And I'm sure as hell not talking about guys who can only afford one bike per decade and have to cobble stuff on to that sole ride to keep it current enough to satisfy their need for speed and handling. Or guys who keep patching up the old babe because nobody seems to want to make a bike that does what we like to do on bikes (everything from canyon carving to dirt biking, all on the same two wheels).
Nope, what I'm talking about are guys who have money. Guys who buy old bikes in awful, mediocre, or showroom floor condition and spend zillions to "restore" it to original condition. Guys who spend more money on restoration than a brand new, state-of-the-art, thoroughly rideable motorcycle costs. Even worse, guys who buy a brand new replica of a 1940 motorcycle for thirteen times what it would cost them to buy a modern motorcycle.
This is a freakin' national craze, you know? We have people paying a fortune for moldy Barbie dolls, baseball cards that were less important than the bubblegum they came with, and motorcycles that don't generate enough power to avoid being overtaken by geriatric bicyclists.
There are events for these "collectors." In fact, I used to go to one of them every year in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. For me, it was sort of like visiting a re-enactment museum by motorcycle. Although, after three years, I started spending more time in the hot springs Jacuzzi than at the "races." (I put races in quotes because some heats moved so slowly that younger spectators were out-running the bikes up the hills.)
As justification, some people call this I-miss-my-childhood hysteria, "investing." Apparently, they believe our kids are going to think "I wish I had as much fun as mom and dad did when they were teenagers?" Get real. No chance. Once we've gotten over "booming" nobody's going to care if we had Barbies, bikes, or Baywatch. Our kids have extreme sports and extreme toys. They'll have as much use for a 1971 Yamaha DT-1 as you and I have for horse drawn wagons and buggy whips. Don't tell me, your wife has a planted a buckboard in your front yard and stuck a buggy whip on your living room wall?
1 Max Stauffer (the Captain), as remembered by my father.
The marketing golden rule is "perception is everything." Perception is a shallow concept, compared to history. Marketing guys are partial to shallow concepts, so if you can forgive them for all of their other faults you should have no trouble letting them live over this one. From an in-duh-vidual motorcyclist's experience, my personal history and my limited study of the broader perspective has colored my perception of our sport and the vehicles we chose to ride. I think that's a true statement for almost all of us who've been on two wheels for any length of time.
As a beginning rider, I was chased from the Kansas highways by hostile and incompetent cagers. I ended up spending so much time struggling to keep my bike vertical in the ditches that I decided to become an off-road biker. (Like I had a real choice?) That first motorcycle was a 1962 Aermacchi/Harley-Davidson 250 Sprint that actually belonged to my brother but, since he was younger and smaller than me, was mostly mine. He, more or less, passively observed as I turned his bike into a oval track scrambler and, in a few months, a hunk of junk. (See the included photo for an example of an ideal application for the Harley Sprint. Source unknown.) The only positive thing you could say about the 250 Sprint was that it had a macho (low and loud) exhaust note. It was a total wimp of a motorcycle and, like other four stroke hippos, was quickly chased from the dirt by the European and Japanese two-stroke invasion.
After a pause in riding, while I conditioned myself to tolerate the rattle of two stroke machines, I bought my first real off-road bike. A long period of motocross and cross country racing, enduros, and observed trials followed. An integral aspect of my history includes loving the smell of burnt bean oil on a cool summer morning. (I'm not kidding. I can practically drown in good memories from just a whiff of the stuff.)
In the early 80's, I moved back to the street, after a series of racing injuries turned me into more of an obstacle on the track than a racer. But my heart was still bent to places where street bikes are rarely seen. I still expect a road bike to be a tolerable performer on dirt roads. My worst and least logical prejudice is based on specially outdated experience. 1960's and 70's dirt bikers and Harley riders weren't exactly on friendly terms. That tense relationship and a general disdain for American "quality control" earned through 25 years as a technician and engineer, still colors my perception of folks who chose to ride motorcycles that look and perform pretty much like they did thirty or fifty years ago.
I expect that, today, there are a lot more Harley riders wearing ties and driving Accuras during the work week than there are hustling coke and participating in town-trashing. (The stats on today's Harley owners' incomes are pretty impressive.) Still, I remember being chased from some of America's great motorcycling events by smelly, wanna-act-like-a-vicious-frat-brat gangs. The sound of a badly tuned two-cylinder tractor motor raises my hackles.
There's also a function-follows-form aspect of cruiser bikes that doesn't work for me. Even the cosmetic aspects (color and graphics) of dirt bikes have a function (identification on the track). When it comes to all of the other characteristics of a dirt bike, if it didn't have a purpose it wouldn't be there. Racing, in general, puts function so far before form that it's almost amazing that racers bother with paint, at all.
Street bikes are considerably less restricted by functionality (read: no connection between function and form unless absolutely necessary) From my perspective, cruisers appear to be more intended to be seen than ridden. Cruisers may even be seen by their owners as being more art than bike. Similar to how Frank Lloyd Wright's construction projects are viewed more as creative works of art than reliable protection from the elements.
I've been married to an artist for 30+ years. My wife's disdain for proper material use and structural integrity has, and will, always confuse the crap out of me. I, honestly, can't figure out why you'd build something that wasn't done "right" (from an engineering point of view). The way I see it, you always have the option of designing something that will hold up to expected use and exposure to the elements. Why would you chose to ignore that stuff?
Of course, my wife and her arty friends see my point of view as "limiting" and they apply the derogative label of "artisan" to anyone who believes that artistic value and quality of construction are compatible concepts. While it's possible for me to imagine that they could be right, it's not something I am willing to spend any time thinking about. It doesn't fit within my historical experience or my perspective.
In the same light, I can't see why anyone would chose chrome over a much more durable anodized finish, leather over a tougher and more IR and weather resistant synthetic material, an airbrushed enamel paint job over epoxy powder coating, or tube mild steel over a reinforced cast aluminum frame. It's a form of blindness that I'm, apparently, permanently afflicted with.
The opposite disability is pretty easy to spot when an owner of a "rice burner" parks on Taylors Falls' main street. All of the cruiser folks act like a sacred burial ground has been turned into a toxic waste dump. It's pretty funny to watch, if it's not your bike the boys in black leather are threatening to trash. I can't claim to understand the history behind this perspective. It's not mine to share or understand. Since 1966, I've been on the other side of the fence (If you'll give me credit for owning that ancient Aermacchi. Otherwise, I've always burned Italian, Spanish, German, or Japanese rice.)
All of that is a lot of history. All mine. Ride for 35 years and 250,000+ miles (not counting the off-road, odometer-less miles) and you'll collect a bunch of history, too. With history comes perspective and prejudice. I wish it weren't true, but it seems to be.
A big part, for me, of the beauty of owning a motorcycle is the Zen of maintaining them. All through winter, while my garage is only a couple of degrees warmer than Hillary's heart, I think about the things I "need" to do to my bike come spring. When the early spring rains keep me off of the roads, I have a dry and reasonably well equipped garage to tinker in. It's one of my favorite ways to burn a weekend.
For the first 15 years of my riding career, all of my two-wheeled time was spent on the dirt. Thanks to the simple design and easy access of dirt bikes, I learned to love a good set of wrenches and a day spent getting dirt and grease so solidly absorbed into the pores of my hands that only acrylic lacquer thinner can cut it.
In my early 30's, motorcycles moved from recreation to transportation. I bought my first street bike, a Honda CX500, which was only a bit different than my car, a '67 Volkswagen convertible, maintenance-wise. The CX got a valve adjust every two thousand miles and, occasionally, needed it. While I had the top off, I changed the oil, checked the cam chain tension, and made a lap around the bike looking for leaks, loose bolts, and any sign of lazy ownership. I liked working on that bike as much as riding it, which isn't necessarily a positive comment on the bike's handling characteristics. The CX lived for more than 120,000 miles before I sold it (guilt free) to a friend.
Like an idiot, I sold the CX and the VW. Since then, I haven't owned a car that I can/will do much more than change the oil and plugs. My next series of motorcycles started a maintenance decline that will die with my current ride, a 1992 Yamaha 850 TDM. When it's running, I love the bike. It's suspended tall, it's reasonably quick and handles well on paved or dirt roads, and it's red. All important things, in my mind. However, I hate working on it.
Yamaha's evilly intentioned engineers made almost every aspect of maintaining this motorcycle a non-Zen experience. Even changing out the spark plugs costs a pound of flesh, because the fan housing was positioned to block off bloodless access to the right side plug. The fairing is a cobbled three piece affair that is held in place with a dozen irritating and fragile rubber mounted nuts. The battery, air box, carbs, and most of the electrics are covered by the tank, which has to be removed for almost any kind of service. Of course, the fairing bits have to come off to get at the tank. All that hassle just gets you to the stuff under the plastic. Other painful experiences are exposed once this routine is completed. As much as I like riding this bike, I dislike working on it.
At last year's Cycle World Bike Show, I almost fell in love with the Suzuki SV650. From a distance, it looked like Suzuki had made a bike to ride and to maintain. When I asked a salesman about maintenance, he looked at me like I might be contagious. He babbled about how trouble-free the SV would be. He wanted to talk about the hot new colors (red and blue, incredibly original), the low price, and the bike's specs. I wanted to see how the tank prop worked, how the wheels came off, how the chain adjust worked, if I could get to the plugs without major surgery.
We were both disappointed and I'm still living with my old bike. Until I find a ride that makes me smile when I think about working on it, I'm going to stick with what I have. There is no shortage of bikes that are fun to ride. I live in Minnesota. I spend as many months tinkering with my bikes as I do riding them. I want to have fun at both aspects of being a motorcyclist and, until I find a road bike that gives me that pleasure, I'm hanging on to my dirt bike.
Second, as one of your writers discussed last month, damn few of us appear to be actually riding the motorcycles we buy. When bikes are the minority vehicle at a motorcycle event (not an event occurring at the Metrodome in January), you gotta know something is wrong in two-wheeled America.
Third, the U.S. of A’s motorcycling tastes have become so unimaginative that it’s not even fun to visit the local bike shops and drool on the bikes that I’d buy if I won the lottery. The two main street bike choices are 1) Harley clones with dumbed-down motors and enough overweight chromed potmetal to build a John Deere farm implement or 2) 180hp crotch rockets with 0.25" of suspension and a riding position that would cause a proctologist’s finger to twitch uncontrollably.
If I wanted to ride something that had just left state-of-the-art when I was born, in 1948, I’d be in hog heaven (pun intended). When I was an active off-road racer, the Harley crowd ruined a collection of my favorite events (including Sturgis) and I still hold a grudge.
Fortunately, I had an active, motorcycling, childhood so I don’t need to relive my "Wild One" self-image at the same time I try to ignore calls from burial plot salesmen. If I was willing to hand over my driver’s license and, probably, my freedom for 90 days or more, the spine-pounding, more-power-than-Tim-Allen-can-imagine imitation racer bikes might trip my trigger.
I really do love the concept behind these bikes, but I like to do 400-700 mile days and take off on the occasional dirt road. Off of the race track, this is a 75mph-max world, so all that power is just trouble looking for a billfold to empty. The concept appears to be without purpose, to me. I bike-commute to work most weekdays and there just isn’t any place to safely wind out to 170mph between Roseville and Shoreview. But I do admire the technology.
I know, I’m ignoring Goldwings (and their clones) and dirt bikes. Any bike that’s so cumbersome that it needs a reverse gear is not going to do it for me. I’m not knocking them, though. I have nothing but admiration for a 70-year-old who can tote his trophy wife, pull a trailer, and crank his Wing through Montana backroads at 80mph+. I’ve seen it and it is scary.
With a 29" inseam, Japan hasn’t made a dirt bike that’s a practical ride for me since 1984. Finding a place to ride a dirtbike is harder than finding honest politicians. While rocketing around places where goats need a hand up is as much fun as anything you can do on two wheels, hauling a trailer for four hours to get there isn’t.
That leaves the Suzuki SV650, a couple of decent mid-sized "standards" that have been around as long as me, three or four equally mature dual-purpose bikes, and the Ninja 250 as the sum total of "novelty" bikes imported into the US.
How many times can a magazine write "this year’s model is seventeen pounds heavier, 3hp weaker, and provides more than forty-seven square feet of polished chrome?" The alternative is "200mph is no problem, assuming you can support your family from prison." I think the pages of praise written about the Suzuki SV tells the story. You guys can’t stop raving about how much fun it is to "ride" this bike. More than half of the reviews I’ve seen talk about going places and seeing things while the reviewer is having a great time riding the bike. I know you guys know that there are at least two dozen equally cool bikes that aren’t imported into the U.S. because the manufacturers don’t believe Americans will buy bikes that are fun to ride. We’re, on average, a freakin’ nation of posers and squids and we aren’t worth the effort it takes to run an EPA test.