Feb 17, 2008

#16: They Are Not Men, They Are Bikers

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.

Winter 2001

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