Motorcycle Times just published my Road Test of the Indian FTR1200 S Race Replica.
Head on over to see….
Motorcycle Times just published my Road Test of the Indian FTR1200 S Race Replica.
Head on over to see….
I’ve always been at least a little out of step.
Maybe more than a little.
Being a motorcyclist, on a fundamental level, is a primary indicator of out-of-stepness.
“I’m completely normal,” you protest.
You’re not fooling anyone, and you know it.
Maybe for you, the motorcycle is a toy.
For others of you, perhaps a sport.
To me, though, its both a tool and a way of life. My motorcycles need to have utility – to provide a capability to get you and your stuff – whatever that might be – from here to there. When work was a place you had to go, a motorcycle was the way to get there. Getting groceries, or goodies, or beer are all great reasons to go for a ride. If the beer needs to be picked up in Wisconsin, so much the better.
Business travel provided me with opportunities to tour the Carolinas, Georgia, Indiana, and New England. Need to go to Texas? When do I need to be there?
Generally, the riding I like to do best involves distance – time in the saddle, and days at a time worth to quiet the clamor of so-called modern life’s wireless phones and inbound e-mails.
You say it’s a toy, I say it’s a lens though which enlightenment can be brought into focus.
I’m not fooling anyone, either.
The Indian Motorcycle Company dropped a FTR1200 S Race Replica here last week.
This motorcycle is absolutely useless. I love it.
Like a lot of you, I followed the early reports that Indian was plotting to seriously contest the American Flat Track Racing Series with a certain rabid quality. For very many years, Flat Track had been a series of companies who felt they could slide in the dirt better than the venerable Harley Davidson XR 750, and, with occasional help from the series rule makers, ultimately couldn’t, lost interest, and just wandered off. With Indian, though, there was emotion and history involved. From the earliest days of the sport, and even before the dirt when the bikes were raced on the deadly dangerous boardtracks, Harley and Indian had been deadly enemies. Harley had not always been victorious. At times it got so ugly that fists were thrown – an Indian Racebike with technological advantages – the first 4 valve overhead valve heads – disappeared under suspicious circumstances, no doubt shortening the enemy’s development process.
This shit was personal.
And it might not be 1912 anymore, and today’s Indian Motorcycle Company might not be able to draw the straightest line back to the Indian Motocycle Company, but there had been bad blood, and there was money to be made, races to be won and bikes to be sold, and memories turned out to be surprisingly and vividly long.
The bike that Indian designed to put it back in the hunt – the FTR 750 — proved to be worthy of the legend and the history.
After an embarrassingly short competition teething period, the FTR flipped the script on Harley’s XR and was sweeping podiums, and they never really stopped.
To win, Indian had acquired SwissAuto, an engineering firm with a long history of building winning grand prix automobile and motorcycle racing engines, and went to work. The engine was a clean sheet of paper design using modern powertrain tech – water cooling, double overhead cams, 4 valve heads, EFI, counterbalancing, short stroke in a 53 degree V configuration with Indian’s traditional gear primary drive. The result was good for 109 horses and a top speed over 140 miles an hour. Soon the only view anyone got of the FTR was a roost’s eye view that just got smaller and smaller as it just kept pulling away.
For Indian not to produce a street legal version of that motorcycle would have been professional malpractice.
So it wasn’t too long after the podium roundup began that the rumors, and the renders, and eventually a concept bike appeared. By May of 2019, pre-production motorcycles were in the wild and in the hands of the moto-press. By September, the Motorcycle Shows had production examples, including the Race Replica S models, with higher spec electronic rider aides, brakes, suspension and a competition exhaust. Oh, and the same black red and white colorways – complete with the billboard sized old-school Indian Script on the tank and red trellis frame – as the dominant FTR 750.
The bike stone looked the business.
I really wanted to see if riding the bike delivered what the looks promised.
Indian and I talked about the FTR for a long time. I’d been inquiring about the Rally Model, which looked like it might be a more practical and versatile everyday ride.
Boy am I glad that didn’t work out.
As the first hopeful movements towards unlocking the pandemic lockdowns began, Indian advised me they had a bike coming open on the east coast.
Did I mind that the motorcycle was an ‘S’ model?
Oh, no. Not at all.
We settled on a date for delivery. The delivery date was designed to help me make a publication deadline – it was tight, in terms of having time to ride the bike, do my analysis, and actually write an article. Two days before that date Indian’s PR Contractor checked in to tell me that the previous journalist had allowed the motorcycle to take some form of unintentional nap and it would need to be transported to a dealership to have the damage repaired.
So much for my deadline.
Another long time with minimal to no contact ensued.
Forgive me if I confide that I was beginning to think they were just messing with me.
Then, without warning one recent Friday afternoon, my phone started blowing up. The first call came up on the caller ID as Santos – I was on another call and couldn’t pick up – Santos left a message. In rapid succession I got e-mails and then a phone call from Billy Tinnell, who manages the Press Fleet for Indian’s PR Contractor.
Did I mind if they dropped the bike off today?
Oh, no. Not at all.
After I got off the phone, I called Santos back.
The Gentleman that picked up the phone wanted to know if I wanted my motorcycle delivered this evening – GPS was telling him he was about 45 minutes away.
Sure. Bring it by.
Then the nice gentleman asked if I could give him a check for transport of the motorcycle.
“No. That is not my motorcycle, it belongs to Indian. You need to work any issues of payment out with them – if you expect me to pay you, you should not bring the bike here.”
“Ok. I call them. GPS says I’ll be there around 6:05.”
Turns out our man had already been paid. He got to my house at 7.
When the truck pulled up, our man had nothing at all to say.
He had a professional transport trailer – a tandem axle beast of about 30 feet, with three different loading ramps. There was a very early GPz 1000 in the bed of the truck which looked a little rough. I asked him if he knew a lot about motorcycles. He didn’t answer.
When the front door came down, the trailer was clearly fully loaded with bikes. On either side of the FTR was a vintage Bonneville and a Yamaha 250 2-stroke dirtbike. He unstrapped the FTR and rolled if off and onto the pavement. He produced the key, inserted it into the motorcycle, and armed the ignition. He pressed the FTR’s starter button, and the engine swung though 5, then 7 compression strokes before the engine finally caught. He revved the engine several times, then turned off the key.
He produced a clipboard from the truck, with a delivery receipt in place – he pointed to the signature line and handed me a pen.
I signed the receipt. He got in the truck, reversed the huge rig out of the end of my cul de sac, and turned off down the road.
Between the attempted shakedown and the contactless/wordless bike drop, never have I been so entirely creeped out by a motorcycle delivery.
Is there a Yelp! for motorcycle transport services?
Perhaps a ride would help me clear my head.
After gearing up, I swung a leg over the FTR and turned the key. Like the Roadmaster I had tested previously, the S Model FTR has a full color LCD touch screen display that it calls Ride Command. Upon power-up, the display does a little animation featuring the Indian logo and then comes up to a liability waiver screen – “Motorcycling berry Dangerous – OK?”. While I eventually learned that, if ignored, the screen would clear on its own, this time I touched the “OK” button, and then pressed the FTR’s Autostart button – which will keep the starter activated until the engine starts. This time the engine fired on about the third compression stroke, and came up to a slightly elevated, if somewhat lumpy idle.
The motorcycle’s electronic dash is bright, clean and informative. In the default mode, it displays a round analog tachometer, digital speedo, along with gear position indicator, fuel gauge, and a temperature and compass display. For digital natives, a quick swipe brings up a more techno bar graph speedo and digital speedo combo. The display is capable of providing additional layers of customization, switching between Rain, Street and Sport control modes, along with the ability to disable all of the rider aides in a protected ‘Track Mode’. It also provides the ability to display and potentially clear diagnostic information coming from the engine and chassis management systems.
I’m not much on many motorcyclic electronics, but a bike that tells you where it hurts is something I think I’d find useful. Let’s hear it for technology.
Toeing the FTR down into gear produced a precise and deterministic thunk. Rolling down the driveway I released the clutch and only the bike’s rolling momentum keep me from stalling it.
Ok – a 1200 cc twin with minimal flywheel or low end torque – a cruiser this clearly wasn’t. Trolling through the neighborhood, being tentative with the throttle, trying to come to grips with the bike’s behavior, the FTR was a cold blooded, hunting, unhappy thing. Being accustomed to old carbureted, analog moto-things that provide nice linear response to throttle from ridiculously low RPMs, and that deal gracefully with low speed, even throttle operations, this high strung, digitally managed performance motorcycle was going to take some getting used to.
Turning down the hill toward Brookside, the FTR began to make sense. For a 5 foot 8 inch tall guy, the seating position was standard motorcycle perfect – the wide, flat ProTaper Tracker bars were exactly so – providing lots of leverage with just the tiniest amount of forward lean. The front end – despite the dirt track pattern Dunlop tires – felt solid and planted, without a hint of knobby tire handling weirdness. The footpegs – which are aluminum waffle castings the likes of which I’ve never before seen – sit directly and just a tad rearward of the rider. The riding position is classic sit-up-and-beg – if you’re out to slide around the blue groove on a dirt oval, or, as it turns out, if you’re going to storm the corners on the mountains of the Blue Ridge, the rider is in command of this motorcycle.
The frame of the FTR – which is painted a genuinely stunning shade of ‘Are You Sure I’m Not Italian’ Red – is of a trellis design not unlike those of Ducati, and more recently, those of KTM. The swingarm is also a well braced, asymmetric trellis, with a ZF Sachs monoshack mounted on the right side of the bike. As we cleared 50 mph, and I worked the bike back and forth underneath me, the structure of the bike was somehow rigid but communicative, with just the right amount of flex – it felt alive underneath me.
Coming out of Brookside, and back up the hill across 340, some heat started to come into the engine, and coolant temp leveled off at an indicated 176 degrees F … a fair amount lower than my four wheeled vehicles, which usually have 195 degree thermostats. There’s a long straight on the other side of 340 with good sightlines and no side roads, and as I cleared the highway I rolled the throttle open.
Long habit had me moving my weight forward – despite knowing the FTR’s Bosch Motorcycle Stability Control provides ‘wheelie mitigation’ in its core feature set – to guard against the power wheelie that never came. Once the tach cleared 4500 rpm, the big twin came absolutely alive – the handlebars were ringing with the individual power pulses, and the Indian just went into Millennium Falcon mode – the harder the bike accelerated, the harder it accelerated – once into the powerband, the big twin delivered as much huge, torquey power as it is possible to use (mostly) legally on the road. I’d vaporized the gap between 45 mph and triple digits in a little over a second – my Zero SR/F testbike did that same relativistic jump thing with no vibration and only a tiny motor whine – while this FTR 1200 S was a full immersion internal combustion total sensory overload.
I took the right at St. Mark’s Road, and headed down the hill toward the bottoms. St. Marks is one of the county’s one lane little goatpaths – the surface is rough and uneven, and the road can scarcely stay straight for more than three bikelengths. Agility is what St. Mark’s selects for, and the FTR was in its element down here. The climb back up from the creekbed is steep, bumpy and curvy, and on the gas the FTR just ate it up.
Five miles doesn’t tell one very much about a new motorcycle, and as it sat back on the stand on my driveway, making every heat dissipating sound known to science, the FTR had told me enough that I knew I had homework – I had more questions that only more miles could answer.
Saturday night, I got a text.
Most Saturday nights, I don’t get any texts.
It was Triumph Paul.
“Skyline Sunday Morning?”
I leaned over toward Sweet Doris from Baltimore.
“Paul wants to know if I want to ride Skyline Drive tomorrow morning.”
“Hell yeah, you want to ride the Skyline tomorrow morning.”
There are days when I have no questions at all about why I share my life with this woman. This would be one of those days.
At eight am the next morning, Triumph Paul and his 1200 Tiger pulled into the driveway. It was sticky out – fog was everywhere, and the weather report was not looking real great. We did a little route debrief in the end of the driveway, then buckled in, and headed for the highway.
After the right turn out of my neighborhood, one has the nearly immediate choice to ride Maryland 180 – the Jefferson Pike – or to afterburner onto US 340 – a four lane divided highway that blasts west into West Virginia and off towards Front Royal, where The Skyline Drive begins. As soon as I had some heat in the engine, I gave the FTR some throttle and found myself adopting an absolutely effortless 85 mile an hour cruise. Most naked motorcycles would thrash you at this kind of elevated cruise speed, but between the abbreviated headlight streamlining and the riding position I was in clean air with the minimal bodywork keeping most of the wind pressure off my chest. The bike’s ZF Sachs monoshock and inverted fork were taut, well controlled and working perfectly at these road speeds – working the bike back and forth underneath me I had the sensation of being positioned to make the bike respond to my every gesture.
Triumph Paul and I kept up a nice fighter plane stagger as we crossed the bridges on the Potomac and then the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry. Climbing up the big grade towards Charles Town, Paul and I topped the ridge and then punched into something the weather report said shouldn’t be there – sunshine and clear blue skies. My glasses and visor, which had been nearly misted over mere seconds before, cleared nearly instantly as Paul and I stopped for a traffic light.
Triumph Paul slowly scanned the skies around us, then looked over at me and gave a comically large shrug. For every ride skunked by a rainy day no one saw coming, this was revenge – sometimes everything does go your way. The light changed and we gassed it, hammering up through the gears.
340 West of Charles Town is a lovely mix of four lane highway and winding rural roads. Paul and I kept the pace up, and rolled into Front Royal in no time flat. With only 70 miles on the clocks, and no services up on The Drive, I still needed to call for the first of my gas stops. Gassing the FTR is a bit of an oddball exercise – unlocking the cap removes it from the opening, leaving you with a cap in your hand and a very spartan and spare motorcycle with no obvious place to put it. Inside the fuel filler opening is a white plastic funnel that leads into a plenum that flows to the underseat tank. Filling it completely – and with this kind of restricted capacity and range, you’d better be filling it completely – requires patience, time and aim.
After some gasoline and caffeine added, we saddled back up and headed up the hill. Just outside of town a nicely banked left has one entering Shenandoah National Park. At the top of the park’s driveway is the CCC era log cabin tollgate, where a genuinely extravagant toll will be extracted. Extravagant, yes, but the Skyline Drive is worth it.
My Weather.com outlook had said today would be mostly cloudly, with showers starting just after noon. Here at about 10 a.m., it was cloudless and sunny, with temperatures in the lows 70s. After a snotty night like the one we’d just been through, it can be slick on shaded mountain roads like these, but the pavement was surprisingly dry, except for the slightest of damp bits in between the wheel ruts of the road.
The first few miles inside the gate are usually littered with seemingly disoriented tourists, so it’s a good place to go slow and acclimate to one’s surroundings. The sightlines and rhythm of the Skyline Drive – like its sister road the Blue Ridge Parkway further south – are unlike any other riding I do. Skyline is like a moto-amusement park, with mile upon mile of forested mountain road, shady technical curving stretches broken up by occasional blasts across a ridgeline, with stone walls separating the road from the mountain valleys below. And that little jazz figure just keeps coming back around and coming back with subtle but exquisite variations. It’s a song you can play till you run out of gasoline, which happens well before you run out of road.
Triumph Paul lead initially – I had this muscular beast of a motorcycle I’d just barely gotten acquainted with. As we worked our way towards lower tourist density, he picked up the pace a bit which his 1200 cc triple certainly let him do. I found the FTR’s desired jockey position – balanced on balls of feet with a comfortable forward lean – the big Indian responded transparently to my every request. I’d expected the Flat Tracker to be a tail happy, sluggish steerer – instead it was demonstrating a road racer’s poise. After several miles of letting Paul set the pace while I got acclimated, we came through an intersection for one of the Campgrounds and as we swapped positions, I found myself and the FTR in clean, open air.
I’ll admit I got a little immoderate with the throttle, and apparently that is just what the FTR prefers, and it isn’t shy about telling you so. Going through the lower gears and shifting at a very conservative 6500 rpm against the bikes 9000 rpm hard redline was making things telescope into the future – the bike simply consumed miles of corners thrown at it with minimal drama – keeping the RPMs in the bike’s happy zone in 4th gear allowed the FTR to be completely managed on the gas… occasional typical Skyline hairpins required dropping to third…. using engine braking to set speed to the corner and brisk throttle just before the apex producing this grin-inducing blast of thrust that powered you out. No levels of aggression I was willing to exhibit on someone else’s motorcycle seemed to phase the FTR in the slightest – both the front and rear suspension were working well to keep the bike precisely on line albeit with perhaps a bit too much compression damping – if it were my motorcycle I might back an adjuster off in favor of some compliance – whatever about the rest of me, my spine is not 29. At no point did the faux dirty Dunlops issue any sign of distress no matter how hard they were pushed in the corners. Entering corners on hard engine braking was absolutely drama free between the bike’s slipper clutch and the Bosch MSC system, which will cut trailing throttle (accelerate?) to keep an engine braking tire well and truly hooked up. Open the throttle as hard as you care to and the problem reverses as the FTR’s twin comes on the pipe, makes a lovely racebike roar, with only the occasional slightest wiggle from the back tire under power indicating that MSC’s lean sensitive traction control was working to keep the bike in between the physics model’s guardrails.
After a few miles of sporting corners, it isn’t at all hard to understand how Indian’s Current factory race team – Jared Mees, and Brothers Briar and Bronson Bauman — have been able to string so many podium finishes together if the street going FTR is even a shadow of the Racing Motorcycle. Every corner exit with the FTR’s 1200 ccs on the boil makes one feel like you’re being propelled by the steel shoed boot of God himself – if one has the bike pointed in the right direction it doesn’t feel physically possible that someone might outsprint you to the line.
The exit from the drive for US 211 at Thornton Gap came up unspeakably fast.
“My god that went by quick” said Triumph Paul.
“Well, we could turn around and run it in the other direction.”
Triumph Paul was clearly of the opinion that there was no honor in riding a backtrack. We headed down the entertaining mountain descent of US 211 in the direction of Sperryville and eventually home.
There’s lot of US211 and 29 heading across Northern Virginia – expansive four lane divided highways all — and I continued to be pleasantly surprised how comfortable and unstressed the diminutive FTR felt at elevated speed. There is never any doubt that there is a big motor working down there – there’s a thrum in the bars that is noticeable but never crosses into downright objectionable. Paul and I swapped positions and played hopscotch across the counties – occasionally blitzing an errant automobile that had blundered into our playground. Opening the throttle wide, hearing the blast from the exhaust, and rolling up and spitting out a passed vehicle was a thrill – it might have been too easy but it just never got old.
Our route took us through some of NoVA’s riding highlights – up US 17 though Delaplaine and Sky Meadows State Park to Paris, and my personal favorite – VA 255 that cuts back to US 340 and comes back out in our backyard. 255 is a goat path of a road that strings together colonial period churchyards, stone walls and villages with shaded straights and 90 degree paired colonial property line corners. When 255 dumped us back out on 340, Triumph Paul looked distinctly distressed.
“I could definitely ride that one again…”
I slapped my helmet visor shut, and gassed it hard and ran east through the gears.
At Charles Town I called time again – the Indian’s fuel gauge had just turned an angry red. At the Shell on 340 I took on another three gallons of premium. A little hydration for the attached human seemed like a good idea, too.
Paul and I didn’t ride 340 for very long – we exited at Maryland 67, which is a road that is well adapted for top speed testing – an opportunity we flirted with a few times, but didn’t actually avail ourselves of. We cut toward home on Gathland Road toward Burkettsville, on roads that are my home roads.
On the other side of the village, Burkettsville Road slices back toward Jefferson, making huge changes in elevation and combinations of 90 degree corners every time the road crosses the wandering Catoctin Creek. On one of the crossings the pavement cuts hard up a hill – staying to the right and then pitching the FTR against the hillside had me coming up against the wheelie control with the rear squirming for traction.
And then it was quiet – save the many sounds of metal quickly cooling – as the FTR and Tiger sat on their stands in the driveway.
Sweet Doris from Baltimore appeared in the front door.
“You boys look like you could use a sandwich.”
That sandwich sounded like a really good idea.
With the FTR sitting in my garage, I rode it at every opportunity, including for a few missions for which it was wildly unsuited. Pressed into service as a grocery getter – me with a backpack on — seemed downright undignified – kinda like riding Secretariat to 7/11. It was a flimsy excuse to ride the thing though, and there was absolutely no requirement to take either the shortest way there or the shortest way back either, so sue me.
On one 20 mile 5 mile ride to the Weis Market, I dismounted, removed my helmet, and was accosted by ‘The Enthusiast’. I’m fairly confident you’ve had these little encounters, or if you haven’t, you soon will.
“Oooooooooooh, is that an Innnnndian? My pee-paw down in Texas had an Indian when I was just a little bitty….”
My new best buddy was slight of stature, and spoke in a high, reedy Texas twang. I started to get the strange and disorienting impression that I had broken through television’s fourth wall and was face to face with ‘Big Bang Theory’s’ Sheldon Cooper.
“…After the war he bought all the parts from Army Surplus and put it together himself. I rode with him everywhere we looooved that Motorcycle. Do they make these again now? That is sooooooo cool…”.
After providing some context and good fellowship with The Enthusiast, I bid him adieu and went within to fill my backback with frozen dairy products.
On the way back the FTR did its level best to accelerate hard enough that we got home before we left – a nice feature when delivering Breyer’s.
When Indian had told me they were providing the Race Replica model, I immediately had a flash of inspiration as to how I wanted to photograph the bike. Frederick Maryland, until this pandemic year, has run an annual 4th of July Flat Track – The Barbara Fritchie Classic. The Fritchie, which until 2020 was the longest continually run flat track event in the United States, is run at the Frederick County Fairgrounds, which are all of 8 miles from the Rolling Physics Problem Top Secret HQ. I’ve seen some extraordinary racing at those fairgrounds, and I knew the crushed limestone of the track, the inside rail and the old covered grandstands would look like the natural habitat of the free range FTR.
I’d gone to a fair amount of trouble to work through people involved with the race who I knew had access to fairgrounds management, and the plan felt like it was coming together until it felt like it was coming apart. The Fairgrounds, under Maryland’s public health orders, was technically a crowd event location that was closed by order of the Governor. As the planned date approached, the orders were lifted to allow the Fairgrounds to open – serendipity was in flight.
My arrangements went down the tubes when one of the participants flaked out.
Getting the FTR on roads with which I was better acquainted did help to raise my comfort levels with what was a pretty challenging motorcycle. I got crisper and more demonstrative with the throttle, and the bike’s ECU translated that into better response. On my favorite stretch of Arnoldstown Road, I was able to gently loft the wheel under power three times in close succession , with the knowledge and confidence that I could keep accelerating, and the MSC would keep the bike from over rotating, which was strangely comforting.
I experimented with the bike’s ‘Sport’ mode – which is supposed to change the power delivery and disable the ‘wheelie mitigation’ function of the MSC. If there was a difference in power delivery, I couldn’t feel it, and given a choice with this muscular critter, I found the ‘wheelie mitigation’ was something I’d rather leave engaged, thankyouverymuch. ‘Road’ mode it would be, then.
Having got my FTR pictures, I now felt liberated to get the bike dirty with impunity. Let’s face it, with this motorcycle, limestone dust should almost be required. Frederick County still has its dirt farm roads, and the FTR really likes it there. Making fun of loose surfaces is what the FTR was built to do, so we made fun of them together at every opportunity. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle that was as easy to break loose and slide in the dirt as this FTR – it was entirely too easy. I haven’t tried the Siegler Road stream ford with it – that battery case fits a little bit low out there in front of that engine – but there’s always tomorrow.
In my garage right now I have an embarrassment of motorcycle riches. There’s my airhead BMWs – 90S and R75 – my son Finn’s CB500 – which is GTd out with a Givi screen and hard case set – this Indian FTR and a newly arrived MotoGuzzi V85TT. Which bike gets the nod is a function of my mood. If relaxation is the goal, though, the FTR does not get rolled out into the light.
The Indian FTR 1200 S is a motorcycle enthusiasts have been begging American motorcycle manufacturers to make for as long as I have been a motorcyclist. Despite the Flat Tracker backstory, the FTR is the most unapologetically muscular sporting standard motorcycle that any American OEM has made in my lifetime. No other motorcycle both embraces and seeks to move forward from this uniquely American genuine motorcycle performance history. No bones about it though, riding the FTR requires intensity and focus. This is no posey sniffer of a bike.
With its 1200 ccs of DOHC twin putting down, you’d better know just where you are and just where you’re pointed. Running out of room happens in one big hurry with this kind of top end snap. At peak output, its extreme, its violent, its scary.
The bike’s Ride Command system has a ‘Nuclear Launch Code’ sequence that allows one to unlock ‘Race’ mode, which completely disables the bike’s Motorcycle Stability Controls. I have a realistic view of my skills as a motorcyclist, and I wouldn’t find that to be an attractive option. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
You’re not going to go cruising, or touring, or commuting, or grocery getting on an FTR 1200S. The bike has no usable fuel capacity or range. The pilot is profoundly aware of the thousands of explosions that power the beast – at peak output there is tons of heat, the bars thrum on the power. The FTR is not polite – its delightfully raw and unrefined. Its horn sounds like the voice of Tweety Bird coming out of the mouth of the Incredible Hulk.
But you’re just not going to care, and neither do I.
Come launching out of a corner at 7000 rpm in third or fourth gear and you’ll be cackling like a certified madman. As the bike squats on the power and makes the background blur, it blasts forward in search of its next corner to vaporize.
We asked American motorcycle companies to make us a monster, and with the FTR 1200 S, they did.
Hunter S. Thompson used to joke that the story he was about to tell you couldn’t possibly be true – that his job as a writer was construct an epic tall tale around the scarcest tiny shred of truth, and make it all but impossible to pick that shred of truth out of the gumbo of blarney that made up the rest of it.
As a writer’s stratagem, it’s a genius move that recalls a hall of mirrors.
You don’t know whether he’s shitting you about the story, or shitting you about shitting you.
You take it all apart, and you got nothing.
And since this is a story about crime, it might as well start with a theft – I’ll brazenly steal HST’s technique of telling you that although there might be some shred of truth to this tale, it couldn’t possibly be objectively true.
We motorcycle writers, you know, are prone to embellishment, to spinning ripping yarns – it’s not like we’re journalists or anything.
The whole deal didn’t go the way it was supposed to.
After much anticipation, I finally got my hands on Indian’s FTR 1200 S Race Replica – their performance flat track replica.
After riding it for a very short time, I had a very clear picture in my head of how to capture a picture of what Indian was driving at with the FTR.
I’d spent some time on the phone lobbying a man we’ll call Richard – who, in his normal role as the Promoter of the Barbara Fritchie Motorcycle Flat Track Race, has some contacts at the Frederick Fairgrounds – to get me into The Track for a photoshoot.
Richard was a sport about the whole thing, made a few calls, and arranged to have someone meet him at the Fairgrounds and shepherd us around. Richard ended up delivering a bike he’d sold, we ran late, and the guy stood Richard up.
After hunting around for the fairgrounds for a few minutes, and not being able to get in, Richard gave up and said he’d call his guy and shoot for a re-do later next week.
He left. I didn’t.
I kept lapping the outside of the fairgrounds, and finally saw one entrance being misused by a work crew, dove in and headed for the track entrance up the other end of the compound between turns 1 and 2.
I followed the golden rule – look like you know what you’re doing. I was completely inconspicuous on a hot rodded, carbon fiber flat track racebike – nobody gave me a second look.
Got the bike out onto the track (!) – the racing surface was surprisingly soft – set the bike on the Start/Finish line and hustled through getting my shots.
I remember telling Richard at one point that I didn’t want to do any laps. At this point I’m thinking, though, “Well, I’m already trespassing, I mean WTF.”
There was a long period of consideration before I elected not to push my so far good luck.
I ran the FTR back around and off the track, and past the same work crew that hadn’t taken any notice of me on the way in.
Crime DOES pay.
Indian Motocycle dropped this off at the shop last Thursday night.
Sunday morning Triumph Paul and I headed for the Shenandoah National Park and The Skyline Drive. The day was stunning and we put on a tick over 200 miles.
This FTR 1200S showed me some things I completely didn’t expect.
You can expect a full road test to appear in a future issue of Motorcycle Times, and extended riding impressions here in Rolling Physics Problem.
Until then, I’ll be riding that thing.
I was talking to Ian up at Fredericktown Yamaha/Triumph, and he’d mentioned to me that people had been ordering more motorcycle parts from his dealership than any time he could recall.
It seems being ‘Restricted to Barracks’ – as we’ve been since the appearance of The Disease – can have the non-trivial effect of kicking off an entire universe of “When We Get Around To Its”.
Think about that for just a second.
Almost every rider you know has some motorcycle project – something where heart has told the head to head in – that’s been sitting in some corner of the garage waiting for a chance to get around to it.
You know what these projects look like.
Big KZs under an army surplus tarp and a whole lotta dust.
37 Green Spring Dairy green plastic milk crates with all of the parts to a 42 Indian.
The XS650 Marty had back before he got married, that he thinks he could get running again.
If he just had a chance to get around to it.
We all got a chance to get around to it sometime in the beginning of April.
On my way out of the shop, I stopped to admire a bike in the service queue that looked to be a 68 Bonneville. It was sitting on some flattened Dunlops of a type I’m pretty sure they stopped making sometime in the late 80s. The bike was startlingly original – there were a few subtle club and ‘Sponsor’ type stickers – ‘Champion Spark Plugs!” — that would have been applied when the bike was new – even the passenger peg covers – made of white rubber – were original, and safety wired on when they cracked in use so that they wouldn’t rattle off.
That bike had been sitting in some garage corner for a good long time waiting for someone to get around to it.
And now here it was – headed back to the road. And here we all are. Headed to someplace we don’t really know and with no way of knowing when we might get there.
So we all have a universe of time on our hands. Whole motorcycles are getting built. Old motorcycles are getting fixed. And any hot rodding or customization projects that anyone has ever considered are all happening as people realize that the garage is still inside their personal quarantine zone, and if not now, when?
I’ve thought about ‘Scramblerfication’ of my R75/5 motorcycle for a long time. It spends much of its life now on dirt roads and dual tracks, so it really ought to be optimized for that. It is somewhat amazing that, after 36 years of owning this motorcycle, it’s personality is transforming again – having been a naked standard, a sport tourer, a sport standard, and now becoming a genuinely dirt capable full-on scrambler. That this R75 has enough soul to still have other things to show me after this time is inspiring – we humans should all aspire to have the ability to keep changing and growing over this many years.
I’d started out at the most obvious place, which was to put some genuinely dirt worthy tires on her. And been genuinely pleased with how that went.
It quickly became clear – once back out in the dirt – that there is a pretty good reason why Desert Racers and Flat Trackers do not have BMW ‘S’ Bars – little sporty bike tucked in riding bars – no, they have wide bars with a little pullback – bars that give one some leverage over a sliding wheel and work well when riding standing up.
The motorcycle that became the BMW /5 motorcycle had started out as a prototype intended as an entrant into the International Six Days Trial – an endurance rally event requiring serious Enduro racing offroad chops. The BMW factory ISDT bikes are famous for some seriously odd farkels like 8 day duration mechanical chronographs, on-board fire extinguishers and axles with the tire change ‘tommy bars’ welded in, but all had standard crossbar equipped dirtbike style bars, so that was definitely something on my list.
I spent some time perusing the online marts, and found exactly what I wanted posthaste – an Emgo ‘Universal Vintage 7/8th in Dirtbike Handlebar.’ Rise was perfect, pullback dimension was perfect. They were a little bit wider than optimum but I had an easy fix for that.
A little more clicking through the Emgo catalog found some nice, very vintage looking chromed steel round rearview mirrors. These had the perfect period look, seemed stout, in addition to having the virtue of attaching to the bike with clamps. Since a much younger and not much worse of a mechanic Greg had stripped out the mirror threads on the rather spendy original Magura perch sometime in the 80s, clamps were good. A check of the vintage BMW ISDT bike photos unexpectedly confirmed the use of clamp-on mirrors, although the Factory Team riders demonstrated more than a little creativity in where they mounted same.
I also ordered up a set of USA-bar spec throttle and clutch cables – the cables on the bike were probably 30 years old, and swapping from S-spec to USA spec cables would provide extra length I was definitely going to need.
A couple of mouseclicks later, we were waiting for the postman.
We’ve spent a lot of time lately waiting on the deliveryman. Or the UPS man. Or the FedEx man. Or the USPS man. People that disappear into their garages to work on stuff need supplies, so thanks delivery/UPS/FedEx/Postal Service persons. You’ve helped make a lot of stuff in the last six months.
After some time elapsed, some metal showed up, and I went back into the garage.
You have to love a motorcycle whose fuel tank can be removed in about three minutes. Two bronze wingnuts – they have a lovely heft to them – and two fuel lines connect the tank. Freed, the old toaster sits on its holding cradle on my workbench.
It was not challenging to spin the four bolts out of the bar clamps and have all four bits of the bar clamp assembly in my hands. I loosened the allen bolts that held the control assemblies on the bar, and then the old S bars were freed. It is kind of sad to see a set of bars that has probably seen 150,000 miles of road with me finding a resting place under the workbench.
After sliding the control clusters back into place, I set the lower bar clamps back on the upper triple tree, and threaded the bolts back into place by hand. The BMW S handlebar is just a tick over 24 inches wide – the USA specification high handlebar is just a tick over 29. I knew if I wanted to use stock BMW control cables I’d need to stay at about 30 inches or under. My vintage dirtbike bars were just over 32.
Fortunately, the tool chest has another one of my grandfather Wadi’s vintage tools – in this case a plumber’s rotary pipe cutter. I measured where I wanted the new bars to end, spent about five minutes spinning the rotary cutter, and had neatly cut bars of exactly the width I wanted. A few stokes with my favorite big bastard file – that isn’t a pejorative, BTW, that’s technical nomenclature. Check me. – and the bars were cleanly trimmed and ready for use.
I spent a few minutes swapping the cables, which is ridiculously easy given the position of the carbs out in the open, and then tightened up the bar clamp and control cluster clamps. I did a quick visual synch of the throttle cables – the carbs had been previously synced nearly perfectly, and one can see the exact point where the throttles open when the grip is rotated. I dropped the tank back in place, and reconnected the fuel lines.
I’ll admit that I stood there for more than a few minutes with one of the mounting clamps from the first rearview mirror in my hand. In my mind’s eye, the handlebars had appeared as literal acres of chromy tubing – reality, on the other hand, seemed a lot more crowded. There were wiring harness pigtails for the controls, throttle cam gears and cable perches to work around, and it ended up being a kind of visualization puzzle to make all of the bits that had to cohabitate cohabitate, all the while allowing for the possibility that when you’d finally accomplished that that you’d actually be able to see the road behind your motorcycle. The cerebral oil got pretty warm.
The plug eventually fired, though, and the mixture ignited.
I placed the saddle part of the clamp over the bars from the top – making it so that all of the nut and bolt action would be mostly out of sight down below. The position would allow the mirror to sit directly inside of the end of the bars where it was in a both effective and somewhat less exposed and hence protected location.
I fiddled with it for a while, and then ran the bolts down most of the way – enough torque that things wouldn’t straight fall off, but that the fine adjustment that would undoubtedly be needed would still be possible.
I went and grabbed my Shoei, jacket and gloves.
The old boxer fired up without issue or complaint – once the oil pressure was up I gave the bike a little throttle – my eyeball carb sync had been surprisingly close. I gassed the old girl and headed straight for the Siegler Road ford.
The revised riding position was exactly what I’d wanted – sitting nearly upright, with a straight up roomier riding triangle, and a lot more leverage on the bike’s steering. The Royal Enfield INT650 that I’d tested had very similar ergonomics, and I’d gotten verklempt when RE insisted that I give it back.
I hit the stream ford standing up, knees bent, and a bit more on the gas than had been my wont. The Toaster actually kicked a bit sideways off a rock in the middle of the streambed, but with the wider bars, it was not in the least bit dramatic. The old boxer gave a bit of a wet dog shake as it hit the other bank of streambed, scrambled for traction, and then boosted up the hill on the other side.
The Toaster, it seems, had evolved again.
To check my work, I headed right back to <link Featherbed> Furnace Mountain and Featherbed roads. Thank god for Loudoun County Virginia, that hasn’t yet realized it should take better care of its few remaining dirt roads. People in cars might curse them and question their parentage, but guys on dirty motorbikes certainly don’t.
After a few deterministic turns in, and a few slidy corner exits out, I was testing the limits of physics by trying to ride motorcycles one handed while simultaneously patting myself on the back.
In the loose stuff, the /5 was balanced and planted – the rider’s weight was in the right place, riding position was relaxed, and there was plenty of control over what the front wheel was doing. Climbing grades with the rear wheel spinning and steering with the throttle felt as natural as can be. Small changes – big impacts.
I couldn’t have been more pleased.
Another meditation on the future of motored cycling.
Even I seemed to be surprised on just how fast the riding landscape is being transformed.
I know I’ve been paying for a lot of motorcycle tires lately, but I hadn’t remotely considered this as a possible solution.
The Universe is constantly sending us signs.
Me, I might be overly sensitive in my hunt for sign and significance, but always being open to them has lead me down some pretty interesting roads.
I was trying recently, as I apparently frequently am, to explain one of these signage mechanisms to Sweet Doris from Baltimore.
“The Featherbed-framed racing Norton is one of the only motorcycle frame structures so significant that it has its own name. The McCandless brothers of Belfast created a foundational motorcycle chassis design – with one of the first applications of a twin shock absorber rear swinging arm suspension – that its development rider said rode so comfortably it was like ‘riding a feather bed’.”
“It’s a stupid name.”
“I guess it does kinda sound stupid, now, but in the context of 1949, when most motorcycles had kidney busting, back belt requiring rigid rear frames, it prolly made a lot more sense.”
You’d be entirely within your reader’s rights to inquire what on earth could possibly motivate an otherwise thinking male human to attempt this conversational topic with his beloved life partner, who was more than likely in no way impressed or compelled by the subject or its presenter, at that particular moment.
And having made that sensible inquiry, I’m more or less compelled to unravel the strands of the tale for you.
Having received my new Heidenau Scouts for my /5, it was time to get them mounted and try ‘em out.
Fortunately, the traumatic experience I’d been through changing the rear tire on my R90S was nowhere in evidence here. The rear axle and tire – with my customary pit crew help provided by Sweet Doris from Baltimore – were off and leaning against the garage wall in under five minutes flat. And thanks to the assist from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department of the University of Michigan, the front wheel and drum brake assembly joined them five minutes later. The Toaster might be 47 years old, but properly torqued fasteners and proper lubrication made the entire exercise absolutely trivial.
I felt almost moistened by a rare flood of something approaching mechanical confidence.
I stacked two tires, two wheels and two new tubes in the back of my wagon in preparation for my run up to Fredericktown Yamaha in the morning when they opened.
Two days later, my phone rang with the news that the tires were ready to be picked up. After quitting time, I blasted back up to Frederick and re-loaded my newly mounted and balanced tires.
It was a little hot out, but I wasn’t going to let any time elapse before trying these new and different skins. I subjected both brake drums to a washdown with brake cleaner and some clean shoprags. I greased up the drive splines, inner wheel bearing races, spacers and axles, and went to work. The front wheel was back in place in under five minutes – I torqued the axle bolt, pinch bolt and both ends of the brake stay rod to spec – bang done. I gave the wheel a gentle spin, and the bearings spun smoothly with no noise or binding – the shop had clearly done an accurate job balancing my wheel, as well.
It was then that I realized I had a little problem.
We motorcyclists are far from the only enthusiasts who have found themselves going outright stir-crazy during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic.
Right after I had dropped off my wheels at the shop, Sweet Doris from Baltimore had loaded up her recumbent pedal trike, her camping gear, and had headed out to complete the final section of her C & O Canal National Park Towpath end to end though ride. She’d had a crawful of being stuck inside yelling at the television news, and was set-jaw determined to do something about it. Cumberland to DC is 184 miles, most of it in pretty remote country, and if you’d like some space to air out one’s head, it’s a prime location.
In this partnership, when either one of us makes a definitive statement like, “I just gotta go for a long ride,” we both know what that means, and cut each other the space to stretch out until its feels like time to come home. Sweet Doris might prefer pedals to my handful of throttle, but it’s exactly the same urge.
Net/net – freaking great for Sweet D, camping out solo amongst the bears and the bobcats – but I’d apparently lost my pit crew.
I am an engineer – I live to solve problems.
Looking around the garage, I grabbed my trusty Greenspring Dairy milk crate and a mover’s blanket.
I slid the milkcrate under the Toaster’s left cylinder head, folded up the blanket until there were about eight layers of fabric there, and then went back around the right side of the bike and slowly leaned the bike over until the head was resting on the padded crate. I took my hands off, and everything remained in place – the whole amalgam looking for the world like a motorcycle that had decided to fall over and then had a crisis of motivation exactly halfway though. Trying hard not to giggle maniacally, I grabbed the rear tire, steadied the bike by grabbing the lift handle with my left hand, and slid the tire over the drive splines and into place on the hub with my right. I pulled the frame back upright off the crate and sat the bike back down on two nice newly rubbery contact patches.
Please permit me about three and half minutes of feeling pretty smug.
The next five minutes had the rear axle reinstalled, torqued and pinched. I broke out my small rechargeable air compressor and set the proper pressure in both tires. The last five minutes saw the fuel tank put back in place, fastened with its bronze wing nuts, and fuel lines reconnected. I dropped the bike’s toolbox in place and replaced my German police saddle.
It was time to go find some dirt.
My initial response as I rolled out of the driveway was not overwhelmingly positive. The sensation the front tire gave off was one I can only describe as ‘clumsy’ – the steering effort was all off, and lean in and lean out wasn’t linear. At speeds under ten my operation style felt like it was drunk. Now I haven’t ridden on knobbies that I remember since a childhood Honda Trail 90 – the ones with the chunky upper frame bar – and funky low speed handling on pavement might just be a characteristic of riding on dirt purpose tires, but it was definitely different and something that would require some getting used to.
I rambled around my neighborhood, working the bike from side to side, and then stopped down by the park to check that nothing had fallen off or was in danger of doing so. Having cleared that checklist I turned up the pike and headed for town.
As speeds rode, steering funkiness decreased. It didn’t leave entirely, but things got more normal with increasing velocity. Grace on the pavement wasn’t what I bought these tires for, though. What I’d bought them for was Furnace Mountain Road.
I rolled across the Route 15 Bridge across the Potomac, and hung my customary right into Lovettsville Road. But instead of gassing the bike hard and bombing up the next straight, I made an immediate left that cut straight into the side of the Mountain, that turned immediately to gravel and rose sharply up the face of the grade. I stood up low on the pegs, got my weight just ever so slightly forward, and gave the 900 cc boxer good throttle – blasting up Furnace Mountain Road.
Drive traction was not going to be an issue with the Scouts.
On the gas, using levels of immoderate throttle that previously would have resulted in hairball conditions I had only bite and deterministic and rapid forward motion. About three quarters of the way up the extended grade, I startled an enormous white new Ford F150 and its associated human, who was wrestling a bit with the surface and had probably left a bit less room on the narrow road than we both would have preferred. With the /5 right in the meat of its torque band, and weight transferred pretty far forward with the shaft drive topped out, I cut hard toward the edge of the road, and with the bike on the gas, it went right where I told it. A half minute later we cleared the top of the grade, and flicked right into the hairball decreasing radius downhill bowl that sits just below the top. The front tire that had me scratching my head on the pavement was working here, brothers and sisters.
Furnace Mountain wanders from the bluffs over the Potomac southwest across the highlands, working in a series of dirt switchbacks – lovely conditions for getting familiar with constantly changing mixtures of acceleration, braking and cornering and a brand new traction model. After four or five miles in the dirt, Furnace Mountain dumps out in the tiny village of Taylorstown, Virginia. Taylorstown is tiny enough that there are only two choices for a road out of town, and one called Loyalty Road – which I remembered vaguely continued southwest towards Waterford – got the nod.
All tires actually need some break-in, and after a few miles, the Scouts were starting to show improvement in that process – a blast through the gears up Loyalty Road brought on a much smoother 65 mpg cruise and much more normal feeling cornering dynamics. As I worked my way to the top of the grade, an intersection came into view, with an older, off-road modified Toyota pickup sliding to a stop, visibly trailing dust. As the street sign came into range, I finally made it out – ‘Featherbed Lane’.
I immediately clicked on my turnsignal and provided a demonstration of the effectiveness of properly adjusted drum brakes.
Within a half second of standing the bike back up again, I knew I’d made the right choice. A short straight led to a nineteenth century iron truss bridge — a type that’s fairly common close to my Maryland home but is somewhat scarcer in Northern Virginia. The John G. Lewis Memorial Bridge was named for a local historian, and was actually relocated to this location after it was scheduled for demolition when its original location was being modernized. Here on Featherbed Lane though, the old iron truss made a perfect frame for the graded crushed limestone dual track that lead off towards the horizon.
I love old iron truss bridges – in my home Valley they’re usually constructed a fair height above the stream bed they’re crossing, in order to give them a fighting chance of surviving flood events which are perfectly normal in streams like these. For the motorcyclist, though, that height means some kind of steeply sloping ramp, which allows one to flirt with playing Knievel, coming off the top flying, unloading the suspension and then compressing it coming back down. This temporary aviation is always a thrill, and serves to illustrate my BMW /5’s original engineering use case as an International Six Days Trial prototype competitor, designed to be tractable and predictable in truly unspeakable offroad conditions. Truth be told, BMW’s engineers had done a pretty transparent recycling of Mr. McCandliss’s frame design, so there was a kind of appropriateness for me on this old motorbike, off in search of dirt roads to ride, and serendipitously stumbling on Featherbed Lane.
Even if Sweet Doris from Baltimore did think it was a stupid name.
Catching my equilibrium after the short flight off the bridge deck, Featherbed was serving up long straight stretches with gentle corners as the road threaded the property lines of old and expansive horse farms – checking the satellite maps after my return home even showed a seemingly unused half mile horse racing track tucked unseen inside one of the larger back yards.
I might need to go back and see if I can divine their opinion of Flat Track Motorcycle Racing.
I thonked the /5 up into third gear, and managed to take on a nice 50 to 55 mph cruise – the bike’s long throw suspension working hard and in its element – I had better steering control in the crushed limestone surface than I was accustomed to, and I was getting enough drive traction to lighten the front wheel on the gas.
I’d been spending some of my time quarantined at home rewatching Bruce Brown’s ‘On Any Sunday’, and the mental picture that had most stuck with me was the aerial footage of Malcolm Smith – absolutely hauling ass across Baja, or the Barstow to Vegas desert, or the relative chaos of the Catalina Grand Prix – riding dead smooth, sitting down when anyone else would be standing up, and making every other motorcycle within a hundred miles look like it hadn’t even been started up yet.
If I could just be going another 50 miles an hour faster, I’d be nearly half the way to Malcolm.
Roads like Featherbed should go on forever – but for a road I’d happily stumbled upon – every bit of it was more than enough. I was able to cruise on this crushed limestone road for close to 10 miles – before it dumped me back out about 2 miles out of Lovettsville and the curves of the Berlin Pike back down to the Potomac. The on-road gap between this bike and my /S had grown a bit – I found myself thinking that it might be time to retire the ‘S’ bars that I put on this motorcycle when it was being used as a faired sport tourer in favor of some dirty bike bars with a little more width and a little more rise.
I was back across the river and in the Valley before I was ready. I had one more detour in my reverse GPS that I could take to keep from getting home too soon.
Not everybody has a great stream ford on their back yard. Sorry about that, everybody else.
Siegler Road cuts off from Fry Road – south of Jefferson – and pops up on Horine Road about a half mile from Shamieh’s Shop. Siegler is about a mile and a half of gravel that climaxes at a local creek where a bridge seemed excessive. My old Avons used to skate a bit on the polished stones of the stream bottom – these Heidenaus seemed like they rode on octopus tentacle suckers – on wet stones they were absolutely nailed down.
Crossing the creek was so much fun and so undramatic it was the sort of thing one just wanted to do again and again.
I didn’t though – didn’t want any of my neighbors to think I’d finished cracking, riding back and forth roosting across a stream all day.
I popped around the corner, into my hood, and rolled up the driveway and onto the stand.
The Scouts, at least, had acquired enough rock dust and mud that no one would think that this was a motorcycle that didn’t get ridden.
Actually, based on the patterns of contact and wear that my body and boots have worn into 36 years of riding this motorcycle, nobody would ever even consider the possibility this bike didn’t get ridden.
After a few minutes admiring the form of this old motorcycle, I headed inside to look for some dirtbike bars.
I purchased my BMW R/75 motorcycle on an epic train-and-ride over an Independence Day Weekend in 1984. It seems to be a motorcycling story that has no end. Folks that want to catch up with the beginning of the tale can find it here.
Happy Independence Day, sisters and brothers.
One has to love the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan.
Well, maybe one doesn’t have to, but I do.
It has been said, perhaps too many times, that BMW motorcycle riders are nerds.
I, myself, am perhaps unwittingly helping to perpetuate this stereotype.
You know the drill. The BMW motorcycle is the official commuting vehicle of tweed sportsjacketed college professors everywhere. The two wheeled equivalent of a Volvo. Not hairy chested or powerful enough to pull the skin off of a bowl of Jello Instant Pudding. The selected ride of Bow Tie wearing, coke bottle glasses-affecting Professor Frinks everywhere.
I mean, contemplate the BMW K75.
Heck, many of my best friends in the motorcycle community have come through the Internet BMW Riders Club, who were collectively such Uber Nerds that they had figured out how to use the Internet to talk about bikes before most people even knew what the Internet freaking even was. Physicists, Mathematicians, Deep Computer Science guys that had still had ArpaNet e-mail aliases – eleven-tenths nerd cred.
But then BMW made the S1000RR, and all that nerd shit went straight out the window.
No matter. So BMWs aren’t just for nerds any more.
Still, the aether continues to spit out evidence to the contrary.
Like, for example, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan.
Ever experienced vehicular synchronicity?
Vehicular synchronicity is an unfortunate condition where maintenance items across multiple vehicles come into a synchronous condition – the more vehicles one owns the more dangerous this can be.
Oil changes are concerning, but ultimately not that serious.
Registration renewals are a bit more serious.
Tires, on the other hand, punch right through the seriousnicity barrier. Tires are big ticket, big commitment, screw-it-up-and-you’ll-be-living-with-it-for-a-while, complicated logistics, preparation and installation items, and I saw from a long way back that a great many vehicles that I owned where coming into a perfect storm of alignment, mounting, balancing and disposal. This might be a ‘first world problem’, but it was still a problem nonetheless.
Awareness of an impending problem does not necessarily render it any easier to deal with when it finally arrives.
Arrival was one set of all weather radials for my Ford station wagon. Many pictures of Benjamin Franklin wave and say goodbye.
My R90S needed a rear tire, that, due to the evil intervention of The Motor Gods, ended up requiring a total overhaul of the rear axle and wheel bearings and ended up taking more time than some complete motorcycle custom construction projects. More Bens leave home to find their way in this mean old world.
My pickup truck raised its little aluminum A-arm. The tire on the end of that axel – factory original after 7 years and 45,000 miles – didn’t look quite as off road capable as it did at one time. After Sweet Doris from Baltimore had a drifting experience with the unloaded truck on a wet road, I was on the computer to my increasingly good friends at TireRack for four more donuts. At this point enough Ben Franklins had left my domicile to form a small All-Ben army unit.
Surely we were done now, right?
Most assuredly, we were not.
My R75/5 – which has spent most of its life recently trying to become a Yamaha DT-1, which is admittedly an odd aspiration for an old boxer – has been shod with a set of Avon Distanzias, a sort of meek road-biased dual sport tire that hasn’t been made for at least several few years. Mine – originally badass knobbyish appearing – now looked more like street bias tires for a Rambler American – skinny and nice and square. Handling had been veering towards the evil end — aw heck, does buying tires by the dozen count as some sort of economic stimulus effort?
Truthfully, I’d never been that happy with the Distanzias – their appearance wrote a dirt check that the tire couldn’t actually cash. The Middletown Valley does have lots of dirt roads and easily accessible trails, and the tire was never that confidence inspiring once the bike stepped out – the front had barely more grip than a street tire. I’d had a set of Pirelli MT 60s on a Zero DS/R test bike and those tires, though nothing fancy, had way more grip on the crushed limestone of the Valley’s dirt roads. Given how this motorcycle was used, I resolved to find something that provided higher levels of grip and capability in the dirt when the time finally came, and now was apparently that time.
When you restrict a search to the 1973 original tire sizes, or very close to them, one doesn’t have a lot of options. 4.00 x 18 and 3.25 x 19s are not exactly a hot mover these days, even though there was a short window in time when that was essentially the standard. Continental – given their historic support for BMW motorcycles – had both the TKC 70s and TKC 80s in the sizes I needed. The TKC 70s were no better than the tires I had – in terms of offroad grip – and the user feedback on them was filled with tales of bizarre and borderline unsafe uneven front tire wear. The TKC 80s – if I was heading for Ushuaia would be great – were manly-man full on knobbies, and just excessive for my light duty use. Metzler – again, a BMW loyal tire maker – didn’t make anything with off road intensions that fit. Avon’s replacement for the Distanzia – the Trailrider – was a 90/10 on road tire that had close metric equivalents – but again, was a traction zero out. Their Trekrider didn’t come in my size. I looked at lots of tires – Michelin Anakees, Pirellis, all manner of Shinkos, Mitas E07s, the new Dunlop Trailmax – and all of them weren’t available in classic sizes.
One manufacturer – Heidenau – seemed to be the ticket, however.
Heidenau is a German designer and manufacturer of motorcycle and scooter tires that only in the last several years started providing their tires to riders in the USA. Their catalog is filled with offroad and dual sport tires for BMWs, Zundapps and NSU cycles and sidecar outfits. The rise of the Adventure Motorcycle – started by the BMW GS series – shone a bright light on Heidenau, whose claim to fame is the K60 Scout, a true 50/50 onroad/offroad tire. The Scout is available in classic motorcycle sizes, and can also be obtained in both cold weather and snow-rated variants, which starts to give you some insight into who is buying them and how they are getting used.
Online reviews were generally positive and informative. BMW guys had pictures of them mounted on other street-intended Airheads, and they fit and worked well. They might not be perfect, but they were a great deal better offroad than the tires I had, and several folks were effusive about their on pavement performance and treadwear. Guys that had been riding with them in The Great Outthere and had been forced to do roadside repairs observed that – as a result of a reinforced, bias ply carcass — dismounting them and mounting them manually with tire irons was a bit of a high effort wrestling match.
Thank the Moto Gods for Fredericktown Yamaha and their Coats 220 Tire Machine.
Their skills and records with having innertubes survive their efforts is better than mine, too.
At least, if it isn’t, they’re not telling me about it and are eating their mistakes.
We’d definitely be giving them a call.
So, you’d be well within your reader’s rights to ask, what in the Absolute Fuck does this have to do with the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan?
Being as it been a while since I had to change a front tire on a drum-braked /5, I turned to the Googling Machine to see if my recollection of how to perform that task was anywhere close to how to actually do the task.
We are all hybrid-androids, now, Brothers and Sisters.
I entered my search string – “BMW R75/5 motorcycle how to change front tire” – and the aether provided this —
The image is clearly of a page from the Owner’s Manual for the R75/5 – cutely titled “What To Do When…” – with details on how to perform customary roadside repairs like tire repair and changing headlight and turn signal bulbs. Because I’d obtained my motorcycle second hand – purchased as the result of its prior owner having died while exhibiting the rare bad taste of owing the State of New York substantial sums of tax money – niceties like the Owners Manual and the cute little BMW-labeled shop rag and stock toolkit shown in its photos had been understandably missing in action. Heck, niceties be damned, basic items like the stock saddle and handlebar clamps had also been missing, but I digress.
I spent a few minutes poking around the website trying to find the entry point for the whole manual, and was eventually able to see the entire factory guide to how to live with the motorcycle I’d been living with for the past thirty six years. While I didn’t learn much, it did make me smile to see back into a time when the motorcycle’s manufacturer provided a serviceable toolkit with its motorcycle, and assumed not only that owners would use it, but that most of what might need to be done to that motorcycle could be done with only those tools.
I didn’t need that vintage black and white manual to tell me that, though. I’d learned that all on my own.
So, reverie levels abating, I found myself wondering, “Who are the Nerds that felt compelled to make a web site out of a 1973 BMW R75/5 Users’ Manual?”
I typed in the base URL into my browser — “www.eecs.umich.edu….”.
The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan.
BMW-riding, html-coding, Uber Nerds All.
Pass me my bow tie, Professor Frink.
Several days later, both the tires and the tubes arrived from points north and west.
I spent some time to wash the bike and then more time with the degreaser and a ScotchBrite pad to get the wheels cleaned of the nice admixture of motor oil, gear oil and limestone dust that running the dirt roads hereabouts tend to create. I have some consideration for the tech that will help me with some work on my motorcycle and so won’t provide them with a bike or a part that they need to spend 15 minutes cleaning up in order to find the part requiring service underneath the filth.
I rolled the bike to the rear of the shop, and pulled the saddle and fuel tank to make manhandling what was left lighter and less error-prone while removing and reinstalling both wheels.
Sixty Four is the number of pints of Ben and Jerry’s that will fit in the topcase of a K1200LT.
Some people respond to stressors with ice cream. It’s better than some alternatives and worse than some other coping mechanisms.
Given the number of stressors currently being experienced, somebody is going to have to go get at least one of those pints.
There are some bits of routine motorcycle maintenance which, at least theoretically, are associated with minimum mechanical risk and potential for drama.
These are the jobs you’ve done a hundred, or a thousand times – oil changes, tire changes – wrenching you could do in your sleep. In the dark. In the rain.
If, however, one is working on an original, unrestored 45 year old motorcycle, the No Drama Principle apparently expired about a decade and a half back.
My R90S is half tough on tires. This motorcycle simply vaporizes rear tires. The big bore 1000 cc motor delivers big, throbby power pulses to the rear contact patch, and, if one rides it like I tend to, with the right grip rotated most of the way around most of the time, that behavior tends to result in pretty diminished rear tire life.
On the flip side, the front tires last nearly forever because they spend so little time bearing any of the motorcycle’s weight.
Lose some, win some.
Losing this one, though, meant ordering up a new rear tire as my favorite Michelin Pilot Activ was doing a creditable impersonation of a racing slick.
My buds at Fredericktown Yamaha Triumph have helped me out with mounting motorcycle tires for years, which is pretty swell of them considering they don’t technically work on my brand of motorcycle. Since it seemed to me at the time we were all destined for some form of non-trivial commercial disruption – which, knowing what we know now, we were – I rang ‘em up and had them order me a tire, tube and while we were in there, a new rim strip. The day before my stuff was supposed to arrive, I went out into the garage to pull the rear wheel from the bike.
For folks that haven’t had the pleasure of changing a drive wheel tire on an old BMW, all I can say is that when things go smoothly, it makes pulling the wheel from a chain drive bike look like the messy, finicky, dirty nightmare that it really is.
On the Beemer, one loosens the axle pinch nut, removes the bolt from the end of the axle, pulls the axle out of the wheel, and then pulls the wheel off the drive spine and off the bike. It’s fast, it’s neat, and it’s relatively idiot resistant.
During the construction of Teardrop Camper V 2.0, the R90S had sat outside for about four months – four months during which it rained and rained and rained.
At the time, I had ventured the opinion that the R90S had survived that indignity with seemingly no impact.
That opinion was not correct.
When I went to pull the wheel, I removed the axle nut, loosened the pinch bolt, inserted the ‘tommy bar’ from the stock toolkit into the hole in the end of the axle, gave the customary twist, and the axle …. didn’t come out. I twisted a little harder, and it still didn’t come out. I applied some serious force, and the wheel walked off the drive splines…. but the axle still didn’t come out.
I know, sadly, from experience, when I am tiptoeing up to the threshold of doing something really boneheaded, so I elected to withdraw.
We are always stronger together, so I sought the advice of many wise and experienced people that I was pretty sure had been here before. With their information and less wisdom in my head, I at least had a good idea of how the whole bearing stack worked, and what I was likely going to have to replace to get it all back together.
I spent several days soaking things down in penetrating oils, heating things up with torches, whacking things with punches, including some things I actually wanted to be whacking… to absolutely no effect whatsoever.
On or about Wheel Gone Awry Hostage Crisis Day 10, I made exerted myself to remount the wheel on the drive splines and secured it in place with one of the carpenter’s clamps that is part of the Teardrop Construction Toolkit. A final circuit of penetrating oils, heat, and some whacking with a punch finally got the axle the remaining 30% or so out of the wheel, and revealed what had been driving me nuts.
One of the jauntily named Top Hat spacers – the one on the side opposite the final drive – had rusted, and in that rusting, had essentially welded to the wheel bearing’s inner race. It had also corroded internally so that the clearance between it and the axle had been so reduced that it wouldn’t let the axle slide through it – when the axle finally came free it brought the spacer and the attached bearing roller cage with it. One could also see where the spacer had been riding on the axle – which was visibly burned.
I used a propane torch to heat the wheel and then drove the rest of the bearing assembly out of the wheel hub.
Of the Beemer Yodas I had consulted, The One Tom Cutter’s advice had proved to be the most prescient – he’d told me to just take the reciprocating saw to the axle because “everything in the wheel was going to be trash anyway”.
Trash was clearly what we had. That saw would have saved about 10 days.
The day before I started working on this bike, I’d briefly kissed one hundred miles an hour while out riding the S.
Clearly I ride with some form of celestial rider aide.
Before this bike would roll again, everything inside this wheel hub would need to be replaced.
I spent the normal hour or so looking for all the bits I would need, and whether I had any options as to where I could buy them. I needed a new axle, washer and nut, a bearing set, seals, gasket, inner and outer spacers, and both top hat outer spacers.
Ebay found me a vendor that majored in selling stock he’s purchased from dealers that were liquidated – he had a new axle, washer and nut for $79 – BMW NA price would be over $150. All Balls Racing has a kit with both bearings and all the seals for a fraction of dealer price. I’ve used their bearings before in the LT and was very happy with the product. The bearing sets BMW has in stock – clearly visible in their online catalog pictures — are offshored Asian-manufactured bearings, so are not worth the large cost differential they carry.
I did go to a trusted BMW dealer to get the spacers and gaskets that only they could provide.
Then, there was the small matter of the ‘wedding band’.
This older BMW wheel bearing stack design is about one thousand times stronger than is required for operation of a solo motorcycle. German engineering has a reputation for being extremely robust and somewhat ingenious – these roller bearing wheel assemblies are an easily analyzed object lesson in engineering overkill.
The older BMW wheel bearing assemblies were originally designed with the massive side loads required for sidecar use in mind – but when the sidecar lugs disappeared from the frames of the first /5 motorcycles – this wheel bearing design stayed behind. Two wheeled motorcycles have dramatically lower side loads on their wheel assemblies – cornering loads are converted largely to straight up and down, or ‘normal’ loads because of the lean of the motorcycle – the load always goes straight down through the center of the wheel and into the tire’s contact patch.
To manage the dramatically higher loads and side loads of the sidecar, though, BMW used precision tapered roller bearings in wheels where most other manufacturers use ball bearings. In order for these tapered roller bearings to provide durability in service, the spatial relationship between the moving components of the bearings need to be set to a defined preload, and BMW accomplishes this though an ingenious arrangement of an outer, fixed dimension spacer – that supports both bearings’ outer races – with an inner spacer whose dimension can be adjusted though the use of a circular insert that looks exactly like a wedding band, if our wedding bands were made of tool steel. The BMW parts catalog lists, I believe, thirteen different wedding bands all differing in thickness by .25 of a millimeter. For the home mechanic, this is a little inconvenient and ungainly, unless you think you are going to be doing a lot of these, and want to buy the entire set. Personally, this is the first one I’ve done in 35 years and over 200,000 Airhead BMW miles, so that seems like a stretch.
Fortunately, there is Cycle Works, a classic and antique BMW motorcycle tool supplier. I’ve had several of their well-built custom tools – an alternator rotor puller, and a clutch centering arbor – in my tool roll for years, and this job was an opportunity to add another, along with one of their ingenious solutions. In order to set the preload on the bearing stack, one needs a precisely made spacer to replace the final drive on the axle. Cycle Works had figured out that thirteen wedding band sizes was another kind of overkill – two strategically selected bands and many thin shims were sufficient to obtain the full needed range of adjustment. Another internet order was placed, and I and my cat set about waiting for the UPS man to come.
On the third day, the Cycle Works order showed up, and their spacer tool – used to set the preload on the bearing assembly – was the type of precise, robust and long lived toolmaking exhibited by the tools I had purchased from them 30+ years previously.
My BMW parts order – normally received in one or two days – was nowhere to be seen a week after the fact.
I made a call to my FNSLD*, and asked them what was up with my order. Under duress, they admitted that several of the parts I’d ordered were not stock items, and had needed to be ordered from Germany. It seems, rather reasonably in retrospect, that the internal wheel spacers I’d elected to shitcan in my wholesale replacement of everything that had been stressed by this failure, were so robustly built that no one had ever needed to replace one before, ever.
Best case was that they expected to receive my spacers from Germany in about 10 days, and then all would be right with the world.
Has anything you can think of been going best case, these days?
On the Twelfth Day, I phoned them again.
On this phone call, the dealer informed me that BMW’s North American parts warehouse had experienced an outbreak of The Disease, and had been closed for decontamination. The dealer anticipated that the warehouse would reopen the beginning of the following week, and that my backordered parts would arrive at their location a few days following.
Have you ever had a tire change drag on so long that you were starting to regret not having added fuel stabilizer to your gas tank before beginning?
I now apparently had.
On the Friday of the week following, my UPS man showed up with a small box. The box contained all of the spacers required to reassemble the bearing stack for my rear wheel. Courtesy of Illinois BMW Rider Trig Haroldson and his instructional video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXj01hUKJBg – I now had as thorough an understanding of the BMW tapered wheel bearing stack as it is possible to have for a man that has never worked on them before. It took all of about 20 minutes to set up the bearing preload, and another 10 minutes to grease the bearings and reassemble the stack. I then wrapped the entire assembly in a one gallon Ziploc bag, and put in in my freezer overnight.
The next day, I took my trusty propane torch in hand, and set about heating the hub back up to the required 250 degrees f. I use a glass of water in place of fancy measuring gear – when a drop of water dropped onto the casting boils off on contact, it’s hot enough. I pulled the axle and bearing stack assembly out of the freezer, sat it in the wheel hub’s opening, and gave a single tap on the end with a hammer. The bearing stack dropped smartly right into its proper position. Thirty minutes of cooling off and simultaneously warming up later, the races were held firmly in place.
One has to love thermal expansion and contraction. Physics is your friend.
A few more moments of wrenching reattached the bearing retainer, its gasket, and inserted the top hat spacers and the external seals. I marked the wheel’s direction of rotation on a bit of painters tape, and hopped into the wagon to run the rim up to Fredericktown Yamaha.
The next morning, I got my call that the new mounted tire was ready to be picked up. A few minutes’ drive, a few much needed minutes of moto-banter (at a socially acceptable distance, natch) with Ian Riley, Fredericktown’s GM, and a few more minutes’ drive and I was finally in position to put this motorcycle back on the road.
I spent a few minutes with the brake cleaning spray and some clean shoprags to make sure the brake drum surfaces and pads were free of any of the goo that might have resulted from my initial penetrating oil frenzy. Ian had related that the oddball setup of the airhead bearings and their captive asymmetrical spacers had confounded the shop’s spin balancer, which necessitated a few more minutes with my Harbor Freight static balancer, which is worth every one of the nineteen dollars that it cost.
Professional shops install BMW airhead tires with a motorcycle lift that has a removable rear platform section that allows the tire to be inserted from beneath and remounted on the bike’s final drive splines. Shamieh’s Shop uses a different method – thirty plus years ago Sweet Doris from Baltimore learned to hang wheels on the drive splines of a bike that I would lean over to the right and support while it rested on the main stand. My recently obtained wisdom to only use tires that are available in the stock 4.00 x 18 sizes have made that job so easy she looks like an endurance racing team pit pro – 4 seconds and she’s wrapped up and back over the wall.
My brand new lightly greased axle went back together more easily than any other tire change I can remember. Now armed with better knowledge of how these wheel and bearing assemblies work, I was careful not to overtorque the axle nut, and then cinched down the axle pinch bolt, and reinstalled the left side muffler that I’d dropped when things had started their decent towards the pearshaped. This was now, shockingly, a road worthy motorcycle.
I moved the Slash 5 out of the way, and then rolled the S out into the driveway. I swung a leg over and pushed the bike down the driveway’s gentle slope – with the clutch pulled in, it rolled smoothly and easily down the hill. At the bottom, I stopped and rolled the bike back and forth, forwards and back. Since everything seemed to be nominal in unpowered mode, I put the bike up on the main stand, and went back inside to get my helmet, gloves and jacket.
There had been times – given the emotional and mental health stressors of the previous 6 weeks spent under quarantine – when I genuinely wondered whether my R90S would ever see the road again. I’d questioned whether parts would ever be obtained, having to come through an international supply chain that had been closed at least once for decontamination. I questioned whether the dealership where my tire, tube and rim strip were waiting for me would remain operational. I even questioned whether my health would remain unaffected so that my heirs wouldn’t inherit a do it yourself classic motorcycle kit after my demise (some assembly required).
I’d managed to persevere though all of that, though, and now the small hurdle was the same as it always way – had my own skills as a mechanic been sufficient, and had the job been completed correctly? A few yards of road would, as always, hold the answer.
I opened the petcocks, set the choke lever, and turned the key. The S was a little down on battery – the last time I’d charged it to full had been a week or two back. The engine swung through five or six compression strokes before firing once and stalling. I waited another ten seconds or so, and then went for a second run at it, giving the engine the tiniest bit of throttle this time. On the third compression stroke – just before my doubts blossomed into full blown concern – the engine fired, then fired on the other cylinder, finally coming up to a lumpy idle. I gave the engine throttle a few times, backed off to half choke, then no choke, and then gently revved the engine until there was enough heat in the system to allow a smooth idle and to take throttle off the bottom. I toed the transmission down into first gear, gave it a little gas, and expressed tiny gratitude as the clutch bit and the bike moved smartly down my street.
I trolled around the streets of my neighborhood, short shifting between first and second gear a few times, gratified at what seemed to be a very smoothly rolling motorcycle. My neighborhood has a small park, and I stopped there briefly to visually inspect everything to make sure all the fasteners were still there and nothing was barfing any fluids – all was well.
It was the moment where knowledge would turn to understanding.
I gassed it, and turned right up the highway.
It didn’t take more than half a mile to know that this motorcycle and my work were good.
Tires that wear out affect handling far more than they affect traction. The new Pilot Ativ’s profile was absolutely round where the replaced one’s had been largely squared off. That square profile causes absolutely awful feeling stuff every time the tire drops to lean. And does it again when it comes back.
The new tire, though, with a perfect profile, was allowing me to lean and straighten up the motorcycle in a completely linear fashion. As I did the racer boy weave, gently working the tire back and forth to break it in, the handling ickies had been completely banished. The complete feeling of precision as the bike went onto the sides of the tire meant that the new bearings were set up at least well enough to fool me – there was no play in the rear suspension and nothing that felt like it wasn’t rotating freely. There is something about a BMW motorcycle that is has been set up properly that makes it feel like the entire bike has been made out of a single piece of metal, and that feeling was back.
Technically, my reason for being out of my house didn’t comply with the Governor’s quarantine order – I wasn’t out for work, food or medicine. I’m not sure that ‘being in pursuit of understanding’ would have cut it with the trooper.
Fortunately, I did not get the opportunity to try that one.
It did feel better than I can explain, though, to be in the saddle of this old motorcycle, with the thrust of this motor pushing me forward, and the wind washing over my body.
I kept speeds, lean angles and throttle openings easy as we broke the tire in and my confidence in the service rose. One never wants to fall off and go to the hospital, but in the time of The Disease, that preference goes at least double. I ran The Pike down into Knoxville, Mountain Road back up to MD 17, and then sat at the intersection, looking north and south and seeing absolutely no one else on the road. I was having a hard time adjusting to this present dystopia – the Disease had created a world where it was possible to imagine that there was only you – too many places I had been when on walkabout it had been only me.
I made the left to head up 17, back towards Burkittsville and back towards home. I got under the bubble and turned my left foot in towards the engine – a position that seems to increase the precision of my shifts – and took the bike up through the gears. About two thirds throttle and 6500 rpm seemed restrained enough to take the new rubber and new parts into account but enthusiastic enough to manage a few seconds of feeling free.
Banging through the 90-90s into Coatesville, and running the two decreasing radius right handers heading out were enough to convince me that all was right with the 58 inches of the world that lies between this bike’s two contact patches.
Now all we got to do is take tools in hand and fix what’s wrong with the rest of it.
* FNSLD — OK, If it is bugging you that much — Friendly Not So Local Dealer