Jan 30, 2009

Hanging on to Passion

One of the ideas that most interests me as I age is how people hang on to the drive to accomplish big things late in life. Not many of us manage that. Most humans start out with all the drive they are going to have and watch it wither away until they are middle aged (which is 30-35, not 55 you math-disabled Boomers). From middle age on, they simply hang on hoping no one will notice that they just making the motions without conviction. The closest they get to having any life in their life is when they get excited about the events in someone else’s life; i.e. sports fans. As Superbowl Sunday approaches, I’m particularly reminded of this form of lifelessness.

Last year on advice taken from his book, Top Dead Center, Kevin Cameron convinced me to look at a truly passionate character, John Britten. Further inspiration came when another friend, Martin Belair, loaned me a video tape, One Man's Dream, the movie of the creation of the Britten Motorcycle. For some reason, the depth of Britten's creativity, drive, ability, and ability to inspire others to chase the same objectives didn't really grab me until I saw the film. Sometimes words are insufficient tools, even when they are used by really talented writers. But my point here is not to talk about John Britten. Better thinkers than I have made that case and I strongly recommend you do your own research. John Britten died in 1995 at the age of 45. At the time of his death, he seemed to be still on the rising edge of the curve of his passion for life.

Another baffling person is Wilson Greatbatch, an inventor of many things including introducing implanted medical devices to lithium batteries. Greatbatch was born in 1919 and I met him in 2001 at the medical device company where I was employed. In comparison, I was a young man, but Greatbatch emitted far more energy than the half-dozen of us who had shown up to hear this man talk about invention, creativity, motivation, inspiration, and other life-giving topics. I came away from meeting Greatbatch with a new level of disgust with myself for doing work that I didn't care about for a company that was motivated by greed and corruption. A little less than a year later, I was out of that business and on a completely different life path.

A few years earlier, I was lucky enough to meet one of my old motorcycling heroes, Dick Mann, at the Steamboat Springs Vintage Motorcycle event in Colorado. Dick was a successful racer on every surface and was someone I'd followed closely when I was a kid until he officially "retired" in 1974. He set records everywhere he went. The year I met him, 1994, he'd just turned 60 and he was about to compete in the Premium 500 "vintage motocross" event on a Rickman-framed BSA. He won that event in a hard-fought race with guys half his age, as if anyone should have been surprised. Mann continued to race vintage events for several years afterwards and is probably still building bikes and riding.

I can't claim to anything near the focus and passion of either Britten or Greatbatch or Mann. Having slipped past 60 and staring into the abyss of impotence, incontinence, and incompetence, maintaining the motivation to keep getting out of bed each day is, sometimes, a major achievement. The trick, I think, is to keep chasing your muse regardless of where or when it leads.

The reason that is a trick is that the chase is financially risky. The older we get, the less recovery time we have in case we make a career misstep. After the radcons demolished the economy with their double-whammy combination of superstition and corrupt incompetence, the hope that Social Security might act as a buffer for old age and low energy is vanishing. That can make the already conservative into outright cowards; “I hate what I’m doing, but it’s better than living on the street.” That is a formula for turning every day into a carbon copy of the previous days, but it’s not an irrational economic strategy.

One justification I have for occasional out-of-the-box adventures is that it reminds me, a little, that living on the street isn’t as bad as it looks from the comfort of my home. Of course, I don’t do many Minnesota winter adventures, so that fine theory is based on mostly comfortable weather. Still, it helps me refocus on what I really care about and I’m particularly looking forward to this summer’s trip because I think it’s time for another change.

Jan 13, 2009

Cheap Bike and Me Part VI

This is the last installment of this six-part tale of victory, depression, frustration, boredom, temperature and weather exposure, and wasted resources. To read the whole story, work your way back into Geezer Blog history to the beginning of this miserable experience. If you learn to avoid such nonsense, then I have accomplished my mission in life: to make every mistake possible so that others may live in peace.

From the first trial, we headed back into Appleton toward Granite Falls. Just outside of Granite Falls, shifting became really complicated and doing the balancing act between gears got harder and harder. About the time we passed Highway 23, the bike locked into 3rd and wouldn't shift. We turned onto Petes Point Road and for the next 40-some miles to Morton I was stuck in 3rd. I guess if you have to be stuck in a gear on a 1971 Honda CB450, 3rd is the one to be in. When I came to the stop sign in Morton, the bike sputtered and died. Sev and Gus were there, taking pictures of school girls or something, and they helped me push the bike on the sidewalk and out of traffic.

I was pretty shot from 220 miles of the Challenge plus my mornings' 40 miles of wandering between my house and MMM headquarters. The constant wobble, handlebar buzz, and engine/transmission worries had about worn down my ancient stamina. It took me a few moments to get into troubleshooting mode. Eventually, I pulled out the DMM and discovered the battery had 7V of charge. Sev and my wife raced to get out their jumper cables and Elvy won. Sev appeared to be insulted and humiliated at the same time. Beaten by a girl, he was officially a cable wuss. We charged the bike from the car for a while. I checked the oil level and added another quart. Sev fiddled with the shifter, trying to see if the mechanism could be coaxed back to life. When I thought the battery was either charged or fried, I gave it a try and it started up on the first kick.

Thinking I might be able to ride some more of the route, I pushed off of the centerstand and rolled down the hill to make a U-turn and get back on the road. Turned out, Sev must have found a way to put the bike into neutral, permanently. We loaded the CB on the follow truck and Gus took a picture of me mounted and on the back of the truck. I pulled off my gear and tossed it into the back of our car. For the rest of the event, my wife and I enjoyed some wonderful Minnesota scenery from the comfort of our cage.

The the 2nd Challenge leg ended at the Harkin Store. The event was a battery removal and reinstallation. About the time the guys started removing and installing their batteries, I discovered there was more sandwich stuff in the truck and cookies. While I was making a snack, it started raining.

For the next 100-some miles, it rained non-stop between really hard to a steady drizzle. The 3rd Challenge was about 80 miles later and everyone was wet and cold for the 1/4 mile drag race on a gravel road. I loaned Lee my Stitch's liner, since his sweatshirt was drenched. I tried to loan Gus my helmet, but he seemed so zoned and frozen that he looked though me like I was speaking French. When the race was done, everyone wrapped themselves up in gear and watched me crawl into the dry, warm car with looks that were less than friendly. Of course, Vic and Tammy were in a cage, too, but they are the bosses and can get away with stuff easier than a wimpy old fart. However, I quickly forgot about their bitter attitudes when my wife reached over the rub my sore neck as she drove and I cranked up the heater. I could have taken a nap, but I behaved responsibly and followed the route sheet to keep her on course.

The last bit of the Challenge was miserable as the sun and the temperature went down as the remaining 3 competitors rode through Young America. Now, it was dark, cold, wet, and dangerous. Mike and Lee blasted ahead at their usual blistering pace and my wife and I tailed Kevin on his KLR250 and Sev and Gus on the Suzuki sidecar rig. They got to MMM's office about 9PM and everyone was wet, chilled, and worn out. I was in pretty good shape, although my hands and arms were still buzzing from the CB's fine ride. MMM fed us pizza and cookies and the winner, Lee, followed by runner-up Mike and 3rd place Kevin received paper versions of their trophies. I got a "should have spent more" award for my DNF.

When I got back home, I discovered a neat little pool of oil and a long oily skid mark where my boot had slipped in the leak from the CB's shifter that morning. Sev delivered the dead CB the next morning and, now, I'm looking for someone to take it away and give it a better home. If I'd have had a couple more days to work on the 450, I could have mounted better tires. I might have found a better way to seal up the transmission leak, which might have saved the transmission. I definitely could have revived the charging circuit. In the end, though, I'd have DNF'd. I don't ride at night, especially in the rain and cold with miserable lights.

I'd have quit about Young America, if nothing had failed on the CB. Call me gutless. Call me a wimp. Call me a quitter. Call me alive. My eyes suck. My depth perception vanishes when the sun goes down. Add rain on the face shield and I might as well ride blindfolded. The CB probably died at exactly the right moment.

As for my experience with a street bike from my own era, I learned a thing or two about "vintage." In 1971, I was as interested in street bikes as I am in seeing the "Sex in the City" movie. I rode a Kawi KZ500 triple about six blocks about that time and it scared the crap out of me. I didn't get on a street bike again until I bought my CX500 in 1981. The CB450 kind of grew on me in the 275-or-so miles I rode and worked on it. The difference between the CB450 and the 650 Hyosung is that I liked the Honda more at the end of the ride while I hated everything about the Hyosung after 140 miles. Honda was on the way to getting it right in 1971. Hyosung's long-term status is still questionable. Other than the problems previous owners had provided for me to locate and fix, the CB was rideable, had decent power, and could be made comfortable with a few modifications to the seat. If I were inclined toward messing with "vintage" machines (a distasteful term, since "vintage" means a product from my youth), the Honda CB450 would be a worthy project.

Once the CB was back in my garage, the "challenge" stuck with me. Immediately, I called the kid at Kath Brothers to see if he really wanted a project bike. He hasn't returned my call, as of mid-October. I put the bike on Craig's List: Getting rid of the Honda was as traumatic as buying it. At first, I came up with a snappy Craig's list ad, thanks to some cool pictures from Gus taken during the Challenge.

1971 Honda CB450

This old girl is in need of serious TLC. I bought it for an event, which you
will be able to read about in the Winter issue of Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly
Magazine. Suffice to say, she did not survive the trip. The bike, initially
nicknamed "The Bitch," had been in storage since 1985. It was in sad shape when I pushed it into my garage, but -- working under a limited budget and with even
more limited skills -- I managed to coax the bike back to life. After scrubbing the twin carbs, flushing and replacing all of the fluids, repairing the front brake, and ignoring the terrible condition of the tires, the bike came to life and seemed to be ready to ride a reasonable distance.

In fact, I managed to squeeze almost 250 miles out of the old, abused bike before the transmission decided to stick in 3rd. I have to admit, JB Stop Leak was tried and failed. After stopping to recharge the battery (the electric system appears to be short on the energy necessary to charge the battery when the lights are on) and to try to convince the transmission to give me more gears to play with, we managed to stick the bike in neutral and that was all she wrote. The transmission leaked oil at the shifter lever and, due to the demands of the event, I wasn't able to constantly replenish the oil level. I think that is what caused the transmission to die. The motor was running strong, even after the transmission quit working.

The brakes are surprisingly strong, for the period. The CB450 was one of the first production bikes to receive a disk front brake. The paint is what you'd expect from a 37-year old bike that hasn't always been garage stored (although it was in a garage for 23 years). There is rust on the chrome, but the exhaust pipes are in pretty decent shape. The frame is also in good condition and I didn't have any unusual complaints about the suspension. In fact, I had more fun riding the old Honda than I did when I test rode a Hyosung 650 a few months back. For sure, it needs work but if you are a vintage Japanese bike fan it would probably be worth the effort.

Don't bother to ask about a test ride, it will start but it won't go anywhere. If you want it, you'll have to have a way to transport it. I'm asking $250 for the CB, but that's negotiable. There are some serious fans of the Honda CB450 and there are lots of resources for restoring the bike. I could probably part it out on eBay for a lot more cash, but I'm old and lazy. I just want the space in my garage back.

The ad got me a lot of email replies, but practically no one actually came to look at the bike. I suspect that pictures of me jumping the old girl off of a motocross cliff didn't do much for my case. Mostly, I gave half-hearted replies to inquires because the State of Minnesota had failed to expedite my title I paid for the service, they just didn't provide any service for the payment. In fact, selling my rat bike turned out to be as big a hassle as buying it was. When Victor and the other judges gave me and the old Honda the "most likely to rot in the garage" award, I thought they were nuts. After a month, I was re-evaluating who was nuts in that transaction.

Finally, I found a buyer who was not overly concerned with the title and just wanted the bike for parts for two other CB450s he was rebuilding. He hauled it away and I cleaned up the oil spill in my garage. After he got it home, he wrote to tell me how surprised he was that the old girl would actually start. I wasn't surprised at all.

I can't say I suffered much seller's remorse. I'm back to riding my modern bikes and appreciate them all the more because of the Challenge experience. If I can avoid it, the bikes I own from here out will be the oldest bikes I will ever own. I didn't like 1970's street bikes in 1970, why would I like them now? Two months after I sold the rust bucket, MMM ran another ad "for me" along with the publishing of the Challenge results in the winter issue. This time, I got a few more emails and several calls about the bike. It, of course, was long gone. Thanks Sev.
There is still an oil stain where the Honda was parked for a month. It will probably wash out with the salt and winter muck this spring. Other than that stain, I have only this article and the money I was paid for being part of the Challenge to remind me of the Honda experience. The money and the bike are gone. Good riddance.

Jan 11, 2009

Cheap Bike and Me Part V

We got to the start about 20 minutes late and frazzled. Lucky for me, Victor and Tammy are terrific hosts and were very patient with the bunch of us. Others were also late. After sign-in, photos, official voting on a variety of topics like "least likely to be resold" and "best accessorized," and a lot of BS'ing, we hit the road toward Appleton.

The CB450's steering was really unstable at any speed under 25mph and over 55mph. Sort of like a vicious radar monitor, the headshake kept me in a tight range of speeds and my hands are buzzing and numb. It takes a constant right hand pressure to keep the bike from making a long, slow right turn. Letting go of the bars with either hand will start up a tank-slapper that will end badly. This leg of the challenge was about 150 miles long. At the first gas stop, in Litchfield, my little Honda had lost about a quart of oil and the engine was too hot to touch. I pulled the oil filler cap with pliers. Just before that stop, the transmission began to stiffen up, making shifting unpredictable and I had trouble hitting 1st gear at several stops. I had a quart of oil in my box and added all of it to the engine to get it back to full.

We headed out again, toward Murdock via US 12. At Murdock, I spotted a filling station and stopped to buy more oil, but Kevin, the following truck, and my wife blew by me and turned on a country road and headed south. I gave up on the oil and set out to catch them. My transmission was really stiff now and took careful positioning between gears to be able to shift up or down. We kept going, full tilt to Appleton. The bike was hotter than the first stop and both carbs were leaking, just like normal Kleins. In fact, before I got to the petcock, the right carb was pouring gas on the glowing hot engine. I bought two quarts of oil and a can of JB Oil Leak Stopper. Like the good American I am, I dumped the entire can of JB into the oil filler and 2/3 quarts of oil. For the first two gas stops, the Honda got 32 and 34mpg. From Appleton, we headed to the first Challenge event and a lunch break.

Lunch was fine, with occasional attempts at sabotage from various competitors. That effort was a waste of time, since we would find ways to sabotage ourselves. On the way to the first challenge, only a few yards away, Mike demonstrated his dirt bike skills, crashed on a little hillside loop and gave us a demo of how not to climb a hill with a KZ440. After disentangling himself from the hill, his bike, and such, we all proceeded to the Challenge start.

The ORV park had what Victor called "an enduro track." We were all supposed to make one practice and one timed lap around the track for Challenge 1. I watched a kid on a modern dirt bike do the track and got an idea of the track's difficult sections. My Honda wouldn't kickstart and I had to put the fuel petcock in reserve and bump start it rolling it down the hill toward the track. After Lee snapped off his custom footpegs on a jump and Mike crashed on the first jump, I took the first full lap around the track. My bike stalled on the first corner and took a dozen or so kicks to bring it back to life. It stalled, again, before a big jump near the end. Again, I kicked the snot out of the bike before it fired up. When I got to the end/start, I decided to go before anything else happened. So, I took the first timed trial.

To keep the motor from stalling again, I stayed on the gas a lot harder than I'd planned. My plan was to avoid getting any air because I figured the frame would break in half, but the stall-avoidance plan overrode the frame conservation plan and I booked a little quicker on the first two jumps than my plan, but the bike stayed together. Plowing my way through the first turn, I was embarrassed that I didn't have the balls to do any damage to the berm. Pulling out of the curve, I lined up the the first whoop and hit it squarely. I heard a crunch when the back tire hit ground and expected to come to a crashing halt on the upside of the 2nd whoop. When that didn't happen, I realized that my Sears tailbox had popped open and dumped my gear on the track. The crunch was my gear and the box lid hitting the ground. So, I kept going the way I'd been going. I suspect nobody ever hopped the track's whoops any lamer, but I managed to clear each whoop and land as lightly as a CB450 lands on the upside of the next upslope.

Through the whoops, the track took me through a trio of nicely bermed curves, which I took sitting down and at a comfortable speed, steering with the rear wheel. The exit of the curves led to a long uphill and a bigger dropoff. Again, I tried to minimize my air time, but drifted all the way down the hill before both wheels touched ground, more or less together. Not much impact, but enough to bottom the suspension and shake up the bike pretty soundly. All I had left was a bumpy straight back to Sev.

When I finished the lap, I parked my bike and walked back to pick up my stuff. On the way to the whoops, I watched some of the local guys on real (modern) dirt bikes. They got a lot of air on the jumps, but practically stopped on the banked curve before the whoops. Two of the four avoided the whoops altogether and one of the two who did take my route didn't do the whoops much quicker than me. I felt better about my performance.

As I was picking up my gear, I found three 10-12" 1/8" pieces of all-thread that had been stuck into the track. They were bent over in the track's direction of travel, so they had once, obviously, been placed like spikes to catch a tire or rider. A little pissed, I pulled them out of the track and tossed them into the grass outside of the riding area. Real dirt bikers walk the track before they ride it and this is a reminder of another reason why. I found my gear, piled it all in the box lid and hiked back to the Honda.

The other guys took their laps and we gathered at the top of the hill to hear our scores. I won. Lee came in second, Kevin was third, and Mike played it safe and came in last. Pretty cool, huh?

(NOTE: All of the in-motion photos in this entry were provided by Gus Breiland, including the in-flight photo on the right. Thanks Gus.)