Stiffed

I don’t know about you, but last year I got stiffed.

And in a big way, too.  

There were big trips I was supposed to take.

People I wanted to see.

Places I wanted to go. Deals that needed to get made.

And it all got shut down. It all went away.

The whole year just seems to have disappeared.

Days – weeks – months all seemed to blur. My sense of time and my place in it just drifted away.

It seemed like my entire existence telescoped down to the path between my home office and my aged and no longer comfortable Ikea couch, with an infrequent N-95 double-masked raid thrown in on my local grocery supercenter.

One day I was riding more than 500 commuting miles a week – with more travelling and sport miles on the weekend – and the next day I was couchbound, zoomblind.

Rallies, Races, Vintage Meets that just didn’t happen. The First Barbara Fritchie Motorcycle Classic that hasn’t been held in a 100-year plus run. Some events are already cancelled two years in a row.  

My Teardrop Camper Club – The TearJerkers – just evaporated, too.

What I wouldn’t give for a draft beer – with you, pal.

The Stiffed, though, is a double – or maybe a triple — whammy.

Its bad enough that one misses all of the activities, events, the people, that make you you. Its worse still that the sudden removal of all that stimulation makes one just a bit slower on the uptake – finding words or mental synthesis of available data seems to take just a tick longer than it used to.  And if you stare at it harder, even the length of that tick seems to keep stretching out the longer you look. How many hops is it from here to all the way stir-crazy? There’s no way for anyone to know.  

The Third Part of The Triple Whammy is that being sedentary takes a price that is far too high.

People ask me if I work out.

“Nope.” I say. “I work.”

All the motorcycling, camping, bicycling, splitting firewood, and maintaining trucks and bikes and campers makes use of all one’s muscles – keeps upper body, core and leg strength in tune.  Sit on the couch for a year plus though, and bad things begin to happen.

I used to suffer from sciatica when I was younger. Two things had aggravated my condition.  One was sitting on my wallet, which the discovery of cargo pants fixed forever. The second was an unplanned exit from my CB750 after it was removed from underneath me by a left turning rookie autoist, said exit causing me to fly down the road in a standing position for about 60 feet at the end of which I landed like Superman – stuck the landing! – which isn’t great, apparently, for the disks in one’s lower back. Whenever my Sciatica flared up, any lack of core fitness or muscle tone made the situation that much more dire – the only way out of it was to bull right through it – the more active one was the sooner it healed up – laying off only made it worse.  

I’m thinking that a more than a year’s worth of layoff can’t be helping my physical fitness.

Some days I am not the stiffed but the stiff – my back is sore, my overall sense of strength seems reduced, and my legs hurt.

Peter Egan used to joke that his R100RS was a therapeutic, chiropractic motorcycle – when his back went out, and he was in too much pain to even consider swinging a leg over anything else, that a ride on the RS would align him and set him aright.

Things had gotten desperate enough, after my sedentary year, to grasp at any straws, no matter how Egan they might be.

My poor, long suffering BMW R75/5 sat like me – dormant — in the garage. The oldest and most established of my alloy and non-alloy Girlfriends – ‘Mojo’ had been around even before Sweet Doris from Baltimore – we’d first dated on that bike. Lately it had been subjected to all manner of indignities – an actual stream of newer, faster — even REDDER – motorcycles. There’d been the Zero electric ones – and even an oddball Freakishly Tall newer BMW (C’mon!) that came to stay – all trying to get what the Slash 5 had always had – that place in my heart as the first one of all.

I looked at the Toaster the other day, and realized I needed to ride it – that absolutely nothing else would do.

As I moved the CB500 to gain a route out into the light, Finn OneWheeled up the driveway.

“What’s shakin?”

“You wanna witness a rite of springtime?”

“Let’s see it.”

The abject chaos and lack of any time sense meant this motorcycle hadn’t gotten any kind of winterized – no fuel stabilizer, no carb drainage, no nothing. One day it was summertime, and another day it wasn’t.

I pushed the ignition pin down, and the /5’s combo Speedo/Tach’s idiot lights all lit up. I swung the engine-mounted enrichener lever downward and then pressed one of the bike’s two available buttons and very large parts slammed together metallically and slowly began to move. The first run produced no action – the second a hesitant chuff. I cracked the throttle a little and the third time produced combustion – the old boxer swung quickly to an 1800 rpm high idle – and as some heat began to build I gently walked the choke off and worked hard to keep the engine from stalling as the mixture leaned out. After two minutes or so an reasonable idle was achieved.

Winterization is for the weak.

“It liiiiives!”

“It does indeed. I never had any doubts. Look out – we’ll see you a little later.”

Rolling down the driveway, I toed the bike down into gear, the clutch bit, and all of the years aboard this bike came flooding back and crashed on me like the biggest of waves.

The rest was as it always is – I headed for the dirt of Poffenberger Road as fast as is prudent on a motorcycle this old.  The big bore 900 with the 750 heads still produces punch that is hard to top – in the dirt it’s a bit of a hooligan with no electronic nannies – just knobs and maybe some common sense to determine whether it’s hooked up or throwing dirt. There’s something about the riding position of these old standard airheads that recalls being on horseback – one splits one’s weight equally between well positioned pegs, the old Denfield Police Saddle and supportive dirt bars – and that position works muscles in my body that apparently haven’t been worked that way in some time.  

I stretch out the ride as long as I am able – running the Heidenau Scouts I recently fitted on the pavement they finally seem to be breaking in – their turn-in behavior is either not as weird as when they were first fitted or I’m just getting comfortable with weird. I arrive back at the shop just as the sun ducks under the ridge.  

My physical pain is gone. All of my muscles are singing. This was apparently just what I’d been needing.

Give my regards to Mr. Egan.  

Not All That Scramble are GSed

Yes, Doctor

Shamieh’s Shop does not operate, on average, like a Doctor’s Surgery.

There are no bright lights, clean hands, latex surgical gloves, complex electronics, sterile fields or highly trained and certified surgical nurses. 

The average factory trained BMW mechanic – accustomed to a world of bright white pegboards with Bavarian blue outlines of factory tools, would likely throw up a little in their mouths at the sight of my workshop – replete with territorial oil stains, the large rubber-faced mallet in its place of honor, the black steel pipe cheater bar, my collection of shim and lever purposed hunks o lumber, and the tool of last resort, the factory frame jack from my long-departed 1971 Cadillac Sedan DeVille.

An actual Surgeon, requiring a still higher level of sterility and organization, would likely have a stroke.

I am a devout adherent to Kevin Cameron’s creed that an organized workbench is a sign of a disorganized mind.

Despite that bit of hard-won self-knowledge, indulge me in a little production of the Rolling Physics Problem Theater, entitled The Freakishly Tall New Baby’s First Oil Change.

“Good Morning, Team.”

“Good Morning, Doctor”

“First, we will remove the F800’s questionably effective bash plate.”

“Yes, Doctor”

“13 mm rachet drive socket.”

“13 mm socket.”

The 4 bolts that rode on rubber mounts came loose and were removed with minimal drama.

“Next, we will remove the old oil. Drain pan.”

“Drain pan”

“6 mm Allen-head rachet drive socket.”

“6 mm Allen socket.”

My first run at it resulted in a bruised hand and a very stuck drain plug. Apparently South American BMW Dealership mechanics had either not received or had been unable to interpret the rather detailed instructions contained in the Bavarian Book of Torque Settings.

“3/8 inch gymbal headed breaker bar and padded work glove, right hand.”

“3/8ths breaker and work glove”.  

A little more leverage and bit more concerted effort resulted in the drain plug breaking loose with an audible ‘Bang!’. The old oil, which was clearly pretty thrashed, flowed into the drain pan with a whoosh.

“Rachet Jaw oil filter socket”.

“Oil filter socket”

I placed the jaws of the tool onto the flats of the oil filter and started to apply torque – to absolutely no effect.

Our South American Mechanic was nothing if not consistent.  BMW specs call for filters to be applied by hand – tighten the filter until the gasket makes contact with the machined sealing surface – tighten ¾ to 1 full turn by hand – no more. One should, in theory, be able to remove the filter the same way – by hand – if it is properly installed. Not here though.

Long ago, I had a riding friend who, sadly, has become lost in the mists of time. He, it should be said, shared one truly regrettable habit with our Mystery South American Mechanic. This bad habit resulted in his name being changed into an adjective (a gerundive?!?) – any fastener or oil filter which had been so egregiously over-torqued so that it required breaker bars, tap and die sets or dynamite to remove was forever, in his honor (or dishonor, depending on one’s perspective) said to be ‘Walted’.

This oil filter was well and truly ‘Walted’. I’d run into this before – usually with newly obtained cars or motorcycles — and it required restraint, judgement and a skilled hand to avoid making things much, much worse before they got better. I swapped out my short Craftsmen rachet for the breaker, took extra care in setting the jaws, and gently started applying torque slowly, steadily and gently increasing effort. After about 40 seconds or so, the filter began – almost imperceptibly – moving incredibly slowly. After it had spun a full revolution and a half, it was finally at the correct torque value where it could have been removed by hand.   A few seconds later, it had been placed into the box from which the replacement Bosch filter had already been removed, and the rest of the oil in the filter galleries slowly joined its former co-workers at the bottom of the drain pan.

The dynamite, it seems, would not be needed this time.

Composing himself, the Doctor faced his patient, and called for the next instrument.

“OBDC-II Bluetooth Interface. Android Phone.”

Say what now?

This is where, clearly, things just get wiggy.

If you have a certain type of not quite state of the art motorcycle, one needs an ODBC-II interface and a SmartPhone App to perform an oil change. 

Yeah. There’s An App For That.

We here at Rolling Physics Problem apologize for the previous uncontrolled snark outburst. We will make good faith efforts not to repeat this poor behavior until next time.  

Let’s just say that this addition to my toolbox – after most of a lifetime with only older motorcycles to maintain – seemed just incongruous enough to spring the threshold on my irony monitor alert.

In the case of my newly acquired F800 GS Adventure, the oil service interval is programmed into the bike’s instrument panel computer, and if one exceeds the service interval on either time or mileage, the computer takes offence, which it expresses by displaying the word “SERVICE”. In capital letters. In the center of the information display.

It’s supposed to be obnoxious.

It succeeds in that.

If you had a current technology motorcycle – for example any Indian with their ‘Ride Command’ display – one would be able to use the diagnostic functions built into the display – literally mousing through a menuing system – to navigate to the service indicator and clear it.

If, though, you have any one of a more than two decade long string of BMW models, the design requirement was that you – as the user – would just throw money at the mechanism, and pay your dealer to have them do it.

Nope.

A Software Developer in Germany — Wladimir Gurskij – wasn’t having it either. Wladimir decided to create MotoScan, which is able to communicate with all or most of the embedded computer systems in most of those BMW motorcycles and read and change a surprising percentage of the stored values and settings in them.  Want to change a bike from miles to kilometers? Cake. Want to get your 24 hour clock to read like a 12 hours one? Nyet prablema.  Clear Oil Change service indicator? Trivial.

MotoScan in the first Android app I’ve spent money to get.  $27 and worth every penny. Twice.

There are other BMW-specific tools that do this. The GS-911 is the best known – but it costs nearly 4 Franklins – and the consensus seems to be that Motoscan works better, and that the developer is responsive to bug fixes and feature requests.    

MotoScan works by communicating over Bluetooth to an On Board Diagnostics II interface – in this case a OBDLink LX – that is connected to an ODBC-II connector under the motorcycle’s seat.  Older BMW’s – like my 2000 K1200LT, for example — make use of a proprietary round ODBC connector – my 2017 was the first year the industry standard connector was used – that is supported via an adapter cable.  Getting things set up the first time is a bit Tecnho-Fiddley, but Techno-Fiddley just happens to be a specialty of mine.

MotoBluetooth

Removing the saddle provides access to the ODBC connector, which is secured by a stationary socket designed to seal it away from your customary road mung. Removing the ODBC II connector from its dock allows one to connect the ODBCLink LX interface.  The ODBC Link is powered by the motorcycle, so I turn the ignition on to ensure that the unit is powered and all the bike’s systems are online.  First, I pair the unit with my phone via the Bluetooth pairing process. The ODBCLink comes with its own app, which is designed to speak to most automobiles. Configuring the included app to connect to the ODBClink allows the unit to be queried and then to download and install the most current firmware, which is a requirement for the MotoScan software.

Booting up the free downloadable – and non-functional — version of MotoScan then requires that it be configured to talk to the ODBC Link interface, and, after selecting the correct model motorcycle, the F800’s systems could all be viewed and queried. Changes, though, require a licensed version, which I was able to obtain through the Google Play store. After a slight delay of 3 or 4 minutes for Google to forward the license key to my phone – not an uncommon issue, as I understand it – I was able to both view and change the settings in my motorcycle — resetting the ‘SERVICE’ indicator and the service interval from the default 10,000 miles down to a more plausible 6,000.  I turned the ignition key off and on, and the obnoxious ‘SERVICE’ was no more.  

Tech Processes thus concluded, I replaced the F800’s drain plug and oil filter and refilled the cases with 3 quarts of Castrol 4T 10w-40 motorcycle oil. The 4T is a new oil I’m trying out – the distinctly recognizable whiff of sulfur – it’s like it wants to be Gear Oil when it grows up — clearly indicates that the Castrol has the wear metals that newer automotive oil standards have long ago removed from those formulations – and given that it’s kept in stock at most auto parts stores at less than half the price of the BMW-branded or Spectro oils I’ve been using in my K-bike, this is likely to become my go-to bike oil.  I replaced the dipstick in the Rotax’s fill port, and set about cleaning up the work area and my hands.

I always check my work.

I pulled on my jacket and helmet and climbed aboard, using the ‘California Highway Patrol Regulation Mount’ that Ryan from Fortnine demonstrated on one of his excellent YouTube videos and that several of my fellow Adventure Riders confirmed was the hot ticket for getting on and off a freakishly tall, expedition case equipped adventure bike.  If you have been throwing your hip out trying to swing your leg over your head to mount a tall bike and haven’t seen this demonstrated you really need to – the technique involves stepping up onto the right side footpeg —  the side opposite the sidestand —  and then swinging a leg over.  It sounds like a method that ought to bury you underneath the bike, but if one leans in toward the bike’s centerline, it is really tremendously undramatic in every way – and having the better part of a foot less altitude to have to step over makes it easy, no matter how altitudinally challenged one might be.

Pressing the starter button yielded a smoothly running Rotax with markedly less top end clatter than before the change.  The Rotax twin is nearly flywheelless – the response to rolling in some throttle is instant and without hesitation – tiny blips – even on a unwarmed motor – snap the tach needle upward in dramatic fashion.  I dropped the bike into first gear and headed off toward the Jefferson Pike for a short test blast.

Once there was the tiniest bit of heat in the engine it was clear how much the service had been needed. I’d received a pretty complete package of documentation with the GS, including some dealership service receipts. If they were complete, then the bike had been a couple of K overdue for service – given the slightly chaotic life the bike had lived, it was understandable how motorcycle maintenance might not have been a singular priority. With some clean oil in it, though, the operation of the gearbox was dramatically improved – shifts were crisper and more deterministic – and clutch engagement and feel was improved as well. The F800’s engine was revving faster and revving higher, vibration was reduced, and power appeared to be well up – on the charge up out of the bottoms on Saint Mark’s road the GS demonstrated a new quality of which all riders of actual dirt bikes are already aware – when a motorcycle’s riding position is already way up there, wheelies aren’t as far away – with the revs up in the engine’s happy zone any rise in the pavement was enough to have the bars go weightless as the big front wheel went airborne.

The dirtbike I always wanted when I was a kid may have made a late appearance, but it’s here now.

Coming back up Broad Run Road towards the shop I hit the measured half mile that I customarily use for roll-on testing – starting out in 5th gear before shifting up to top, the F800’s Rotax continued to build power the higher it was revved. The GS’s engine is a weird gumbo of brutality and refinement — the power delivery is a lot like a mutant overgrown chain saw – there’s a ripping quality to the exhaust note and a buzz of vibration as it revs – and it doesn’t feel like its accelerating hard – until one looks at the speedo. Given the large print top speed warnings inside the OEM BMW expedition cases, easily punching through The Ton with plenty left told me all that I needed to know. Of course, now that I think about it, every factory BMW saddlecase I’ve ever seen – going back to Airhead Krausers in the early 70s – had some sort of top speed warning decal in it, and I never gave those a second thought until right now.

I am clearly not the target audience for lawyer-mandated safety stickers.  

Arriving back at the shop, the GS went up on the centerstand, and as soon as I shucked my helmet and elkskins, I grabbed a shoprag to check the oil level. The F800 GS Adventure has more than a couple of deterministically odd personality traits  — ever hear of a bike whose fuel gauge only provides information on the bottom half of the fuel tank? – and an oil level that can only be checked at full operating temperature is another member of that oddball club.

I rested the cleaned dipstick on the edge of the fill port – it’s always been how BMW has done this – and laid it onto the rag to read. The level was spot on the ‘Normal’ mark. Nearly surgical precision.

As a much younger man, I was entertained and thrilled by the motorcycle racing tales of Jim Roche – who went by the ‘Nom de Zoom’ of ‘Dr. Curve’.

‘Dr. Physics’, I think, has a certain ring to it, and would look perfectly cool embroidered on the front of a lab coat.

My mother always wanted me to be a doctor. I’m not sure she saw this coming, though.  

All Together Now

Really, it all came down to The Hooptie.

Now, I know you’re disoriented and scrambling to understand how some old beater of a car could have anything to do with this Motorcycles-only view of the universe.

Because its not that kind of hooptie.

It’s this kind of hooptie.

It’s This Kind of Hooptie

The Prophet Zappa posited that ‘Cheepnis’ was one of the universe’s organizing principles.  I am fuzzy on the details, but have a hunch that one of Frank’s cousins worked in the Finance Department of BMW Motorrad.

You may have noticed – I certainly have – that the BMW way is to proceed in model development in an agonizingly methodical manner – slowly improving and evolving models and their features in a way which does something we call in Information Technology, “bleeding out one’s assets”.  BMW will always endeavor to reuse as many parts of a vehicle platform for as long as humanly possible. If the mission or design requirements change somewhere along the way, the Legendary Motorcycle Engineers of Germany will start with what they already have, and add on in a way which makes maximum use of what already exists.

It’s a very special and unique kind of ‘Cheepnis’.

My new F800 GS Adventure is, of course, the perfect illustration.

The F800 GS, the F700 GS and even the single cylinder F650 GS all share very similar, if not identical chassis and bodywork.  These GSs have fairly short flyscreen type windshields – think about 9 or 10 inches high – that mount to an ABS-reinforced thermoplastic frame that also supports the motorcycle’s headlamp and instrument housings. This setup works perfectly.

If, however, one decides one wants to make a GS Adventure variant – for which the design brief requires a taller shield – it doesn’t work at all – you’re boned as there’s just not enough support to keep the larger shield from flexing.

Enter The Hooptie.

To create a secure support for a much taller and wider shield, BMW created a tubular steel structure that attached to the flyscreen’s original mounting points, and extended new mounting points upward and outward to which the larger screen was attached. 

It’s brilliant, really.

Cheep, perhaps, but brilliant.

And this might have completely managed to escape my attention, had I not purchased an F800 GS Adventure that had experienced a ‘little mishap’ before coming into my possession that resulted in the motorcycle originally presenting with a new, uninstalled windshield, a ziplock sandwich bag of assorted hardware, and no steel support.     

And if you’ve ever spent any quality time looking at a BMW parts diagram, you’ll know they’re reasonably useful in identifying what part one might need to obtain, they don’t offer a lot of assist in figuring out how they come apart or go back together.

I spent a goodly long time staring at BMW’s online parts ‘e-fische’ before I placed an order for the hooptie and a handful of other hardware, erring on the side of having a few extra of any bolt, spacer or fastener I had any questions about – a strategy that BMW parts prices makes for expensive insurance. As a general principle, I’ll purchase a consumable supply of bodywork fasteners for any motorcycle I expect to hang onto for any length of time – there’s almost nothing worse than trying to button back up after routine maintenance and having some body hardware decide today is a good day to die – leaving one with a freshly serviced cycle with some fairing or other flapping around like a dying fish.  

Having sacrificed a small mammal, made the sign of the cross, and crossed all of my fingers for luck, I pressed ‘Place Order’ and hoped that this part wasn’t one of those that would need to make the trip to the RPP Skunkworks starting at some warehouse in Germany.

There was nothing to do but wait.

***

10 days later, a UPS man left an inexplicably enormous box on the RPP Skunkworks front porch.

After doing my best Kid at Christmas impression, and digging through more air bag packing dunnage than I’ve ever seen outside a Shipping and Receiving Department, and then an inner carton with still more dunnage, I finally held in my hand the long desired Hooptie.  I walked out into the garage bay where the F800 has been doing its best to wait out Maryland’s uncharacteristic actual winter, and positioned the support where I knew it would have to sit in order to support the Adventure windscreen. It was pretty clear where the support would tie into existing structures – but given BMW’s characteristic mélange of bushings, spacers, washers and clip nuts, what wasn’t so clear was exactly how it all went back together.  It’s relatively easy to reassemble something you’ve just disassembled – reassembling something you’ve never seen is another game entirely.

Unless I have succeeded in boring you into total somnambulance, you should recall that BMW produced the ‘Adventure’ variant of the F800 GS Motorcycle by engineering a support structure that tied into the existing screen support of the Regular GS. This stratagem had not escaped unnoticed by owners of Regular F800 GS and even F700 GS motorcycles. A fair number of them, as it turns out, had bought their own Hooptie, and mounted the ‘Adventure’ shield on Normal GS Motorcycles.  And one of them, Bless Him, had taken detailed pictures of the hardware and assemblies, and posted them on Adventure Rider.

What I could see, I could reassemble.  I was off to the races.  

I rolled the GS out into the driveway and the sunlight – sunlight that would allow me to see down into the nooks and crannies where all these threads needed to arrange and engage. First order of business was to fit the F800 with a battery charging pigtail, since the battery isn’t somewhere where it can be easily accessed – I removed the faux tank top panel, and the disconnected the battery to install the Battery Tender SAE ring terminal plug. After taking a look at all of the possible routes out of the battery compartment, I decided to zip tie the tender plug to the clutch cable in the center of the cockpit. I then took the opportunity to replace a plastic spacer that I had fumbled the first time I jump started the motorcycle, and replaced the ‘tank’ top panel. I had also noticed that the handlebars on this F800 seemed to be just a little out of skew – although there were no obvious signs of whatever had broken the windscreen – no scraped bar ends or handguards – I just assumed they had taken some form of shot at the same time as that damage. Search of online F800 riders’ sites yield lots of ‘my handlebars are wonky’ posts – it seems to be a pretty standard issue for the rubber mounted clamps that are used on this model. I simply loosened up all of the fasteners on the bar clamps – Torx fastener sockets are apparently an F800 Owners’ Mandatory Item – applied a little strategic thump, and then retorqued the clamps back down. While not absolutely perfect, they were so much improved that only I would be able to tell, and certainly am not going to tell a soul.

I then proceeded to the windshield mount —  lining up the two uppermost mounts with their corresponding spots on the thermoplastic arch that supports the instrument cluster and the normal GS flyscreen. With the application of minor amounts of body English – remember, the original screen and support had, at some point, gotten crunched – I was able to get the first pair of mounts lined up and partially threaded together, but not torqued. I was pretty confident that a fair number of things would also require some enthusiastic adjustment before everything was back together, and in this situation, a little slop is definitely your friend.

It was at this point that I heard faint and distant noises of distress coming from the back of the family’s Ram pickup down in the bottom of the driveway. Sweet Doris from Baltimore, it seems, was doing a little improvisational reconfiguration of the cap camper set up we had built together, which serves as Sweet D’s mobile art studio and home base for recumbent trike adventures. The camper has a twin bed with underbed storage on the driver’s side of the cap, and a teeny tiny Westphalia-style galley on the right – with small sink, water handpump and water tanks, and a place to sit a camp stove on top, with pots, pans and other kitchen what have you underneath. The door for the galley follows the model of our earlier teardrops – substituting fabric and Velcro for wooden doors. The whole build took us about 3 days, and since then, she’s taken it everywhere.

Sweet D, though, was now in the process of questioning some of her prior engineering decisions, and was really determined to move the galley forward – with the intention of creating some critically needed space around our Thetford camping toilet.  And that would have been really easy, had the galley not been essentially built around the wheel well that protrudes into the interior space of the truck bed.   This was an immediate requirement for open source co-operative (re-) engineering, and the interrupt-driven structure of that process had just quiesced whatever I had thought I had been doing a minute before.  

“I think we’ll need to build a new, shorter galley. I got some 2 x 2s…”

“If the wheel well wasn’t there, where would you want it to sit?”

The galley was repositioned. The wheel well has some distinctive flat spots built in which are designed to provide a place for lumber to be positioned when supporting a tiered load.

I had an idea.  I also have a reciprocating saw.

I took a carpenter’s crayon, marked off the height and depth of the wheel well, freehanded the curve, and then sat the galley on the tailgate – Sweet D held it in place while I revved up my cordless saw.  I hit the corner of the galley square, and went slicing through the cabinet – both the 2 x 2 framing and the plywood skin – laughing all the way. Did a pretty fair job – for a guy that prefers threaded fasteners and rachet wrenches to power tools and lumber – neatly splitting the crayon line with no major cut bobbles.  We sat the galley on top of the wheel well – it fit almost perfectly. Laughing maniacally, we refastened the lanyards that hold the galley to the truck’s bed tie downs.

I love reciprocating saws.

Winter days are short though, and as efficient as that camper mod might have been, it was beginning to look like I’d re-allocated 40 minutes of sunlight that I was probably going to need.  

Moving back to the F800’s bodywork mounts, I built up the spacer stack and, again, just pinned the assembly in place without torqueing anything down – the bolts would need to be removed to mount the shield.

The tough bit was the lower rear brace positions – one needed to position a clip nut so it was captive in a recess in the frame. This is the type of part I almost always drop, and usually lose, sometimes repeatedly.  This is why, if you were wondering, why I buy spare bits of hardware, but today was not like any other day – both rear braces threaded up with minimal coercion. I was pretty pleased with myself.

With the Hooptie in place, I picked up the Givi shield that came with the bike. There are captive rubber isolators already in all six places where the shield is retained, so it was just a matter of positioning the shield and placing and tightening the six bolts.

The first one always goes well to lure one into a false sense of competence. The second mounting location on the new bracket proved to have a minor manufacturing fault – the captive thread wasn’t properly installed when it was welded in place and the last thread of the insert was fouled by the surrounding steel. I recognized what was happening, and since I don’t have an M5 tap in my toolchest, repeatedly tightened and then loosened the bolt – without applying too much force – until the threads of the bolt finally cut through the steel and allowed me to tighten down the shield.

Moving to the fairing sides, I unthreaded the bolt and spacer stack and then threaded them through the isolator in the shield. Again, I left everything loose enough to float. Finally, I threaded up the fasteners that were in the middle of the shield, that mounted to the base GS’s original shield mount and, astoundingly, really, everything lined up and threaded in.  I completed two laps around the bike running all six fasteners down to snug, and then taking them up to the recommended torque.

We were back together.

With the entire bike finally there to look at, its really rather amazing what a protective cockpit BMW (and Givi) managed to make out of not a lot of acrylic material. The screen flares at the bottom so that the flow over the handguards and the rider’s hands is already headed away from the rider and bike when it gets there. Coverage of the lower body from the faux tank and radiator shrouds is surprisingly good. The Givi shield is a little on the tall side, but let’s see how it works in practice – I could use something beside my mother working to get me to sit up straight.

Not A Bad Rider’s Office

A short test blast around the neighborhood passed basic quality checks – nothing fell off, and nothing was rattling or loose – underway, there was nothing but the customary BMW quality – everything behaved as if it had been carved from a single block of metal.

After wrapping up the job, I went to order a further supply of the M5 x 25 torx headed bolts and M5 clip nutz to replace a few that seemed a tad tweeked, and to have some routine maintenance spares. After finding that BMW’s dealership network was going to charge $23 for 4 sets of the M5 nuts and bolts, I went to McMaster-Carr and got 50 bolts (in stainless) and 10 clip nuts for $18. When the shipment showed up the next morning, the clip nuts had been made in a small factory in Kentucky, and the box even cross-referenced the BMW and VW part numbers.  

That afternoon, it started snowing again.  Tonight, two weeks later, after we had finally melted out, we’re expecting another foot over the next 48 hours. Oh yeah, and some ice as it wraps.  

I’d very much like to change the oil and do a chain service on this new to me bike, but I haven’t been able to, yet.

Is it too much to ask to be able to ride this motorcycle?

Apparently, it is.

I will have to resort to some more of the motorcyclist’s standard acts of superstition in an effort to hasten the arrival of perhaps the most desperately needed springtime in my lifetime of riding.

Nobody will miss one more small mammal.    

Kind of Attractive, In a Deliberately Ugly Kind of Way

Zero Electric Motorcycles in Winter

I would be the first one to cop to being a Electric Motorcycle Enthusiast — my Zero test bikes have provided some of the most spirited and enjoyable riding experiences I can recall.

So I was not prepared for what I encountered when a test bike was provided to me in early December, and as I’ve continued to ride it — weather permitting — through the winter.

The complete story can be found at Revzilla’s Common Tread — Cold realities: Testing a Zero SR/S in winter – RevZilla.

Earlier Zeros — which were simpler machines without multiple computers running dash displays and stability control systems — just had to cope with reduced range and ability to deliver current in cold weather. The newer bikes use a small 12v battery to run those systems, and if it isn’t supplying stable voltage, the bike simply won’t go.

At all.

Most of the year, the new SR/F and SR/S are brilliant. Below 35 degrees though, not so much.

Hot Bike — But Maybe Not in Cold Conditions

The New Freakishly Tall Baby

So for a couple of weeks, we had more cold, more darkness, a smattering here and there of ice, of snow, and generally, as we had been doing for the last long time, we kept to ourselves, and we hunkered down.

It was even worse than being a normal kid at a normal Christmas  — I knew I had a new bike – I just didn’t really know when I would eventually see it.

On top of that, Pop Pop, whose garage the GS was sleeping in, was feeling somewhat poorly. He’d ended up having an unplanned run-in with another doctor with another set of scalpels and sutures, and it had left him laid up with a foot that was temporarily out of order.  Getting Pop fixed up and back on the road became a lot more important than what I was doing my best to avoid getting fixated about.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore even spent Christmas morning – on a holiday where we’d thought we wouldn’t get to see The Folks at all – in town helping to patch Pop up and to learn a whole pile of new medications and delivery methods while I shot the sheet with Finn and stepped up from Sous Chef to ‘Yes, Chef!’ to keep our Christmas Dinner on the rails.

All that aside, we ended the day tired, grateful for those many blessings we did have, and sharing a nice meal.

I hope you were able to do the same.

***

A few days after the Holiday, though, Sweet D needed to head into town again to help Pop get to several doctor and lab visits – she asked me if I wanted to ride along, and take advantage of the opportunity to run the GS back to the RPP Skunkworks. I yanked my phone out of my pocket and pulled up a weather report.

“Partly cloudy…. High of 36 degrees…. 15 to 20 mph Westerly Breeze… Sure, Hon, sounds like a great day to recover a motorcycle.”

I’ve got a ‘Stich, with its 11/10s GoreTex wind resistance.  BMWs have heated grips. I’ve been cold before. I’d warm back up, eventually.

***

So later that afternoon, I found myself standing in the driveway outside Pop Pop’s garage with a BMW key in my hand.  After the door went up I carried the replacement windshield for the bike and the bike cover that I’d stacked on the parked machine down to the Flex for transport back to the shop. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that a GS with aluminum expedition cases doesn’t make a wonderful shipping pallet that just happens to be mobile.

I got myself back between the GS and the wall that had caused me such grief when I’d stashed the bike, eased it off the sidestand, and rolled it backwards into the light.  Whether it appeals to you or not, one has to admit the appearance of the GS – which looks like it got loose from the flight deck of the Star Wars Resistance – is an impressive, rugged and technological-appearing thing.

It sure ain’t no R27, Brothers and Sisters.  

I spent a few minutes with my mini-compressor checking tire pressures – due to the cold they needed a few pounds. I put on my license plate – pleased with my upgrade from the previous breadloaf twist-ties to actual zip ties.

I’ll admit that I had concerns about the bike starting. When I’d test driven it, the battery had been flat enough to require a jump, and being a modern motorcycle, battery access was a lot less friendly than just turning a key and lifting the saddle.

In preparation for that possibility, I’d brought along a new BatteryTender pigtail, a BatteryTender mini, an extension cord, my jumper cables, and the few tools I knew I needed to access and service the battery. Heck, I brought everything short of a new battery and/or a complete replacement motorcycle.

I needn’t have bothered.

I climbed aboard the GS, turned the key, waited a few seconds for systems to initialize and for stepper motors to stop stepping, and then pulled in the clutch and pressed the starter. The engine spun up briskly and fired on about the third compression stroke.  I played with the throttle for a few seconds – revved gently a few times – and hrummphed as the engine stalled when I let the throttle close.

No matter.  Apparently the 30 or so miles I’d put on the bike three weeks of freezing weather ago had been enough to put a usable charge on the battery – astoundingly, a battery that despite being repeatedly ignored and mistreated, it looked like I wouldn’t have to replace.  There was clearly enough charge for the bike to start again.

It was time to gear up and head west towards home.

***

My in-law’s driveway is steep enough and its concrete busted up enough that there are certain conditions under which it’s not a good idea even on foot – A BMW GS motorcycle makes it seem trivial – I rode down at walking speed, standing up and covering the rear brake until the big front wheel rolled into the street.  I shot Sweet Doris a wave, cut right towards Harford Road, and gassed it.   

I deliberately cut through the neighborhood on the West side of Harford Road to get a little heat in the engine and make sure everything was in working order.  This neighborhood isn’t much on pavement, and the GS’s long throw suspension was tracking it well. After working my way across to Perring Parkway, I activated the heated grips and then ran through the gears as I headed out toward the Beltway.  With the GS’s Rotax twin warming, I stretched third and fourth gears out – it’s an almost flywheeless motor that just loves to rev – as the rpms rise so does the power. With the revs up the 4 valve heads move mixture, and on top there’s a fair amount of power for the 798 ccs of displacement.  BMW claims their use of a 360 degree flywheel – the parallel twin configuration favored by the shakiest of the traditional British twins – was selected to mimic the one power stroke every rotation cadence of BMW’s beloved boxer. The F800’s connecting rod type counterbalancer takes the worst of the parallel twin’s vibration out of the picture while leaving enough to still know it’s a motorcycle. In many ways, the engine behaves like a somewhat more muscular version of Finn’s CB500F – a bike I also like a lot. The F800’s claimed ‘boxer-ness’ is probably why it was talking to me enough to let it follow me home – it was pressing all of my deeply imprinted neurological preference for boxer vibration buttons.

Any Questions?

Setting up for the Beltway onramp, I snapped a shift down to third – wrangling the 21 inch front wheel through corners requires a bit more deliberation, but the wide handlebars give one the required leverage, and once on line, the GS can carve. We’re still flying, it’s just at a higher altitude.

I caught a break by catching a break in traffic, and was able to braap my way into the left lane in one big rush – only snapping up into sixth gear to after picking up cruising speed. At 70 to 75 miles an hour the GS was dead comfortable, and there was enough top gear punch to move through traffic at will.  Long leggedness is a signature BMW quality, and it lives here, too.

10 miles – seemingly vaporized in a single thought – brought me to I-70, the turn to the west and directly into that chilling headwind. Truthfully, I was a lot more comfortable than I’d thought I’d be – Aerostich gear flat out works, and my Roadcrafter was doing a stellar job of keeping the wind at bay and keeping my core temperature up without the capability to resort to electric heat. My elkskin gloves, on the other hand, were a little challenged – working in concert with the GS’s cranked electric grips — in keeping my hands warm with anything more than a 90 mph wind-chill factor. Resolved – we’d end up keeping a slightly slower slab cruise speed than usual – the bike wasn’t the hold up, though, the rider was.

Coming out past US 29, I was pleased with how relaxed the GS seemed at interstate speed. The stock saddle is firm, but supportive. The wide flat handlebar is just perfect. The bike has more leg room than any other motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. I’d be the first to admit that the bike – given its mission profile — is geared a little short for hyperspeed touring. The CB500F – for comparison — is turning 6000 rpm at 70 mph, and that feels a tad on the busy side – the GS is turning 5000 at an indicated 75, and it feels like it could run tank to tank there.  I had to dispatch a few ill-mannered four wheeled motorists at that speed, and it pulled away smartly with no need for a downshift.

A 60 mile run between cities, though, is a complete doddle. My moto-yoda Paul used to talk about performing ‘An Italian Tune-up’, which consisted of taking a stored or laid-up motorcycle to the road and basically wailing the shit out of it – this GS seemed nothing but happy about 50 miles of top gear, high speed operation – throttle response and power were both markedly improved.  When I got west of Frederick I dropped off onto the secondary roads. There was nobody waiting for me on the other end, so efficiency was not a priority – I went off in search of some curves and some dirt.   

I exited US 340 at Jefferson Technology Parkway – my absolutely favorite ironically named road – ironic because my home town, Jefferson, barely has any more technology than sits in my home office. The street name is an artifact of a venal, now soundly defeated and driven from the public field, attention-grabbing politician for whom the road’s name was part aspirational, and part pure flim-flam. If, someday in the future, Jefferson has more tech startups than it has certified dairy cows, I will gladly offer a sincere apology. For now, though, every time I see the exit sign on the highway or ride the road I will likely be on the verge of laughing so hard as to impede proper motorcyclic directional control.  JTP – ironic nomenclature aside – is very twisty and bumpy and still under construction making it a nearly ideal GS road.

Home of Moooooo.com

I sliced though the Parkway’s three traffic circles and seven or so corner combinations laughing all the way – not because of the name but because of the bike, which was going it’s darndest to convince me it was a slightly oversize Schwinn Sting-Ray that had somehow managed to escape from my childhood.  

I doglegged up The Jefferson Pike, and then headed up Teen Barnes Road to cut across the ridge and into The Valley. Teen Barnes is entertaining – climbing steeply up one side of the ridge, cutting hard all the way – and necking down to a single lane where it runs through the woods over the crest and down the ski jump crazy grade down the other side. Another dogleg put the GS on Poole Road – another one lane farm road with minimal sightlines – and I felt utterly comfortable with the bike and its handling. Poole is a road where one needs to be able to put the bike right where one needs it, and this GS allowed me to pick my inch, put it there and keep it there.  

And then there was Poffenberger Road – my most familiar bit of crushed limestone – a road my family actually lived on, before our current home was built.  I toggled the bike’s off-road ‘Enduro’ drive mode on, and rolled into the dirt.  I’ve had more than a few scrambler and dual sport motorcycles down here – none felt as sure footed on the gravel as did this GS. After going through the switchbacks by the Lewis Mill, running by the creek I was able to open the throttle a bit and to slide a corner on the gas – it felt as serene as such a thing can feel.

After one more pavement run though the woods on Saint Mark’s Road – good, tight bumpy stuff with the sun filtering through the trees – the GS finally found the sidestand and silence at its new home.

Mr. GS Goes to Jefferson

I spent a few minutes in contemplation of the new machine. Upon reflection, it really needed a wash.   

It would need to spend the night outside while I plotted a little reorganization.

***

After coffee the next morning, Sweet Doris from Baltimore was with me eyeballing the state of the shop. The state of the shop was not good.

There were artifacts and debris from camper construction, motorcycle maintenance, car and truck maintenance, bicycle projects, tool chests, power tools, camping equipment, stacked kitchen cabinets salvaged from our recently completed kitchen rehab, oh, three of my motorcycles, Finn’s motorcycle, a Zero SR/S test bike, and one 4×8 teardrop camper.  

“Let’s do this. Let’s clear it out, pull down the shelves, put the cabinets up, and get this mess right.”

“You think we can get that all done by sundown?”

“Yeah. Get me some boxes.”

And we were off to the races.

The garage shelves were demo’ed, contents and bikes moved out to the driveway. We cut and put up a ledger board to align the cabinets over the workbench, and cut a stilt to position the cabinets that would mount on the wall beside the work area.  Four hours into it, the cabinets were all securely mounted to studs, and by seven hours the new cabinets were reloaded, the motorcycles were reorganized, the doors were down, and it was past time for an ale.

I might not have been sufficiently caffeinated initially, but I had to admit the shop looked a great deal better.

And the freakishly tall new baby had a new home.

There’s One More You Can’t See

And to those friends of mine that have been suggesting that I should be able to fit a seventh motorcycle – no problem – your suggestions are in no way helpful.

It Followed Me Home

Sweet Doris from Baltimore had a question for me.

“Hey Greggie – you wanna buy Walt’s motorcycle?”

Who does this?

I mean, does your spouse or life partner find motorcycles for you to buy?

Didn’t think so.

Depending on one’s perspective, Sweet Doris is either fully invested in helping me seek and find my life’s optimum happiness, or, alternately, it’s like offering an eight ounce school cafeteria glass full of Hornitos Plata Tequila to a full-on alcoholic. 

Or maybe a strange amalgam of both.

How the heck did we get here?

(Calendar pages fly away at increasing speed.)

Well, it was just a few weeks ago, when ….

***

Sweet Doris has the unique blessing of still being friends with a few folks that she grew up and went to school with.  One of those people is a guy we’ll call Walt – which isn’t his name – who works for a branch of the Uncle Sam’s Government. If we provide any more detail about this, people will hunt us down, find us and kill us, so we won’t.  Walt recently returned from a posting somewhere in South America. Walt is a pretty serious Harley Davidson enthusiast, with tastes that run toward the Shiny, Chromey Custom Vehicle Operations side of the Motor Company.  Where he was getting posted though, such a motorcycle would have been neither practical nor inconspicuous, and both were critically important.  So Walt did something that, for him, was a little out of character. Walt went down to his local BMW dealer, and bought a motorcycle that would just work – a grey F800 GS Adventure, farkeled out with knobblish tires, aluminum expedition cases, crash bars and driving lights. Not a lick of chrome anywhere on it.

(Calendar pages fly away at increasing speed.)

Fast forward to the year 2020, where, as you have no doubt noticed, absolutely everything in the universe has gone completely to shit concurrently.

At a point no one could have previously predicted, Walt was recalled from his distant South American posting, had his personal effects moved without his direct involvement, and then found himself reassigned to a location in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for… the foreseeable future.

And with all of these people and goods flying around the planet — pell-mell, willy nilly – one material item found itself like the guy without a chair at the end of a round of musical chairs. Inconveniently, there was this random F800 GS Adventure, that found itself parked next to flower bed on a front lawn belonging to one of Walt’s offspring in Parkville. That front lawn, it should be noted, was about three quarters of a mile from Sweet Doris’ Mom and Dad’s house.   

It kinda felt like a total setup.

***

The subsequent Saturday, I threw my trusty air compressor, my riding gear, a mini battery tender, and a valid Maryland tag and mounting hardware into the Flex. Ordinarily, I’d have taken the LT, but I still had a pretty nice row of sutures in my left forearm after a very recent run-in with good buddy ‘Steely Knives the Dermatologist’, and figured I’d skip the 130 plus highway mile round trip and go easy on the arm.  In retrospect, there were definitely some other things I should have grabbed, but I was in a hurry.

Upon arrival at the flowerbed in Parkville, I was greeted by the sight of The Offspring (along with a Close Personal Friend) who were quite engrossed in removing a motorcycle cover and dropping in a gallon of fresh gas from a lawnmower sized plastic can.  I made my introductions, indulged in some small talk, and then dove right in. Upon inserting the ignition key, and pressing the starter button, the F800’s Rotax designed twin cranked though about 5 compression strokes, and then the bike’s dashboard spontaneously rebooted.

“Houston, we hass a battery problem.”

Because I am a geek, I had previously spent some quality time online with a Googled-up copy of the F800 GS Rider’s Manual, because, well, RTFM.  Which was good, because finding the battery – heck, finding any software, mode or display setting for that matter – is far from intuitive – without having researched it previously, its only about 50/50 that I would have been able to locate it going in cold.   I also knew that, unlike most modern BMWs, and almost all other modern motorcycles, the GS Adventure actually has a vestigial tool kit designed to accomplish basic field repairs when the bike is being used, you know, for Adventure.

Unlocking the saddle, removing it and flipping it over revealed about 5 Really Important Tools that were secured in a pocket underneath the seat pan by some trick shock cord loops.  In my case, there was only One Really Important Tool, and that was a T-20 Torx driver that allowed me to remove the top of the F800’s faux fuel tank, which is where the bike’s battery, electronics and intake plumbing live.  All that ‘tank’ real estate is available because the F800 carries its ‘Adventure’ sized, 6.3 gallon fuel tank under and to the rear of the rider’s saddle. The T-20 driver and 6 screws later, and the battery was in plain sight. Close Personal Friend produced a set of jumper cables, saving me a trip down the street to Pop-Pop’s to borrow the pair that, had I been thinking, I would have grabbed on my way out the door.

I rolled the motorcycle across the lawn and put it back on the side stand right in front of my Ford.   Compared to pushing my K12LT around, the GS was a relative flyweight. I hooked up the jumpers – it was a tad fiddley getting a solid connection on the moto’s small terminals – but once we were solid the bike fired up with authority. The engine sounded dead solid, and once it had some nominal heat in it, the vertical twin snapped upwards – revving easily – in response to application of throttle.  Being of stout heart and trusting in the universe – not a trait that has been consistently rewarded, of late – I went into mechanic overdrive, and disconnected the cables and replaced the tank top and saddle as quickly as I was able.  I pulled my jacket, helmet and gloves out of the back of the wagon, geared up and swung a leg over.

Way over.

If anyone has ever offered you the opinion that the F800GS Motorcycle is tall, that person would be correct.

I am not a man who is altitudinally gifted – standing at a bog normal 5 foot 8 inches tall, with a 30 inch inseam.  I was able to get the balls of my feet on the ground on both sides of the motorcycle at a stop, which was frankly better than I’d expected.  I figured I’d run the F800 up and down the side street we were on to make sure I was comfortable starting and stopping, and just to make sure the battery had taken enough charge to restart when I took the bike to a gas station to fill up the fuel tank later.

The first five or six feet felt a tad tentative — Tall! — but once my feet were on the pegs, I was instantly comfortable. The F800’s narrow width, relatively low mass, and broad handlebars and upright seating make slow speed control a doddle.  I did three or four stop signs with zero difficulty, and then even got cocky by doing an easy feet up o-turn in the middle of a narrow neighborhood intersection. I stopped back in front of The Offspring’s Flower Bed, and turned off the key. I waited ten seconds, turned it back on, pressed the starter button, and the twin barked back to life.

I shot The Offspring a thumbs-up, and headed out for a ride.

***

BMW Motorcycles can feel like they’ve machined out of a solid block of billet.  As soon as I pointed the F800 up Harford Road and snapped off a pair of shifts, I knew this motorcycle was a keeper. Although the bike has very long suspension travel – 9+ inches in the forks and 8+ in the rear – on the pavement the bike feels both comfortable and perfectly controlled.  The rider’s position – defined by low pegs, a supportive saddle, and a broad, flat set of bars – is both athletic and comfortable at the same time, and the rider’s perspective from that posture is somehow commanding and in full control.  GS folk already know this – I am but a GS noob.

At the first major intersection it felt to me that the front brake lever was engaging too close to the bar – the bike’s Brembo master cylinder is adjustable – a spin on the adjuster had the engagement point out further where it felt natural to my meaty mitts. Cutting up one of Baltimore’s arterial routes, one could sense that the bike’s 21 inch front wheel made changes of direction require a bit more deliberation, but the bike sliced through traffic and erased manhole covers and crappy pavement like they were imaginary.

My choice to head north on Harford Road was deliberate – less than 3 miles outside the Beltway, Harford crosses Big Gunpowder Falls, and instantly transitions from an urban boulevard to a winding, technical country road – complete with sections that track the creekbeds and canyon sections littered with banking switchbacks. It’s a section of road designed to see if you have a motorcycle that can bring it, because you’re already here. It took me to the about the  third corner for my internal IMU to recalibrate to how the bike liked to enter corners, and after that, we were off to the races.

Big Gunpowder Falls — How Did The Country Get Here?

The F800’s Rotax-designed and Loncin-manufactured engine and transmission is exactly what one would expect from Rotax – punchy power that seems to like it better the harder one spins it – it isn’t what one would call charismatic, but one knows it’s a motorcycle, and its all business in how it gets its job done.  Shifting is precise, and the Brembo brakes have plenty of power and modulate well.  Even though a little mishap had resulted in this bike’s windshield being temporarily removed, the shape of the bike’s faux gas tank shielding and radiator shrouds make what is a narrow motorcycle look a lot wider than it really is, and provide a surprising amount of weather protection for the rider’s legs and torso.  After a few miles of twisties, Harford straightens out and opens up, and running the bike into its top sixth gear showed a bike that was comfortable and completely at ease at speed.

I couldn’t help but think about all the other motorcycles that are aimed at this exact same spot.  I’d just come off of a MotoGuzzi V85TT, where a bum factory motor had obscured whatever quality that motorcycle may have had. Of those two motorcycles, this GS clearly hit the target where at least the Guzzi I’d tested had not. There is the Triumph Tiger 900, and Honda’s Africa Twin.  All of these motorcycles have the same mission statement, and probably have about an 8 or 9% difference in how they solve the medium displacement adventure motorcycle problem – it’s like the bikes are so close in concept and execution that mere mortals almost can’t rank them – a few pounds plus or minus here – a few horsepower here or there – preferences for 2- or 3-cylinder power – choice of electronic aids – suspension details – but all these motorcycles are startlingly close in concept and execution.  I’d been actively considering purchasing one of these motorcycles, but with a clean, very low mileage example bike – already with all the farkles I’d add – expedition cases, crash bars, metal hand guards, heated grips, driving lights – and at roughly a third of the price of a new AT, it was hard not to bite.

One thing the F800 GS Adventure has on its competitors is both fuel capacity and how it carries it. I’ll admit that my BMWs have spoiled me when it comes to touring range, and you can’t have big range without a big tank. The GS Adventure has a usable tank capacity of 6.3 gallons, and the 800 cc twin is rated at 55 mpg which should provide the kind of touring range I’ve historically made good use of.  The design decision to carry that volume under the saddle dramatically helps with mass centralization – drop close to 40 pounds of full tank weight close to a foot and to the rear nearly two feet and you have a motorcycle that is far more willing to turn and much less of a wrestling match in any kind of soft or gnarly technical offroad stuff – think about having to clear rocks or trees on the trail and how much difference moving that much mass away from the steering head makes.   

Much as I might have wanted to stretch out the ride, given that the overall condition of the motorcycle was basically unknown, and that I was taking a few liberties with how the bike was plated – the bike was known to be insured, but my Maryland registration plate was a plate for ‘A BMW Motorcycle’, just not this one – I wanted to keep my mileage down and minimize my exposure to ‘An Friendly Discussion With Thee Constable’. When Long Green Pike came up, I made the left, and started a roundabout route that would eventually take me and the GS back to Parkville.  With only a dozen or so miles under my belt, I had become completely comfortable with how this motorcycle liked to corner – it was as if I’d been riding it for my entire life.  It didn’t take a lot of imagination to think I might be doing exactly that for the rest of however long that riding life might turn out to be.  

Long Green Pike dropped me back onto Harford Road right above the beginning of urban sprawl. There was one more question I had about the motorcycle, and that was how much top gear power and smoothness existed at Interstate speeds, and getting a decent answer to that question really required some fresh fuel. I pulled into a Sunoco station – for some reason I’ve found that fuel injected BMWs really seem to prefer Sunoco fuel – and did my highwire act dismount. Upon going to fuel, I discovered that the fuel cap wasn’t latched – something that might explain the fault indicator on the dash of what was an otherwise fine running bike – and then enjoyed the fact that the fill up took nearly 5 gallons of fuel when the fuel indicator had shown over a third of a tank.

After topping up and hopping back aboard, I cut west on Joppa Road with the intention of picking up a few miles of Beltway just to check the bike’s highway speed operation.  I entered Interstate 695 at Perring Parkway, and ripped the bike up through the gears. I needn’t have been concerned. The GS Adventure’s natural cruise speed seemed to be right where it is on my LT – at about 85 mph indicated in 6th gear – and top gear passing power was there without the need for a downshift – just roll open and rip. There was no sign of the suspension porpoising that many adventure or dual sport bikes exhibit at Interstate speeds. I did one WFO top gear pull and the 800 cc twin was still accelerating hard at the point where I start to run out of interest about speed. An F800 GSA might not be ‘fast’ in the motorcycle sense, but it was a whole lot faster than any mere car.  It was smooth at speeds that allowed for defense at highway speeds, and there was plenty of punch to enable leaving briskly if that became a strategic imperative.

I dropped back off the Beltway at Harford Road. The Offspring was there right after I rolled up. I shared that I was likely going to buy the motorcycle, but even if I wasn’t, I’d be happy to store it for dad.  Getting the bike out of the flowerbed was definitely OK, so I was approved for moto- relocation. Doing a little mental freestyling, I called up my Father In Law, and asked if it might be possible to stash the bike in his garage – which doesn’t have a car in it – temporarily.  

“No Prob”, said Pop Pop.  

Offspring kindly agreed to tail me over and drive me back to my car – its wasn’t a big deal because it wasn’t very far.

After a half dozen or so blocks on Harford Road we came to a major intersection where the light was red, and there seemed to be some kind of street hassle in progress. On the other side of the light there was a man – he looked to be transported straight out of Jetho Tull’s Aqualung – he was stumbling around, screaming at random cars, striking fenders with his fists, and whose motion through the traffic stream was Brownianly random. If our man had at one time processed a brain, he’d left it far behind some time ago. The situation had the potential to escalate both seriously and rapidly – it was a bad place to be on general principles, but was a far worse place to be on someone else’s motorcycle.  I indicated a left turn, Offspring fell in line behind, and we changed to a strategic detour that took us on to my In-law’s street from the back of their neighborhood. Two rights later, we were at the bottom of their driveway.

Lots of houses in Baltimore sit on a bank that situates the house five or six steps up from the street – my In-laws’ is one of those.  Their garage sits on the rear of their lot, and is connected to street by a traditional driveway made of two parallel concrete tracks that have lost several battles over years to tree roots — it’s steep, broken up and treacherous – a perfect GS driveway. I stood up on the pegs, gassed it, and sliced right into a parking space in the open garage.  In retrospect, after a less than graceful dismount, parking a little further away from the wall might be a best practice.

I pulled by helmet off, masked up, and went in the back door.

Lynn, my mother-in-law, saw me as I walked into their living room.

“Oh, Greg, you’re here? I didn’t even hear you…”.

It’s a BMW motorcycle. No one ever hears you.

***

A few days later, I was able to arrange for a phone call with Walt across much ocean and many, many time zones.  He was able to tell me the motorcycle’s story and fill in the blanks of the things I did know. Walt was not the kind of guy that develops an emotional attachment to a piece of machinery – at this point the GS was just a complexity that needed to find a home.   This eliminated the need for me to issue him ‘An Egan’ – a right to repurchase later if his situation or regret made it necessary. That I described the practice to him and offered it was something he found hilarious.

The bike had been purchased at a dealer with whom I’m familiar. It had every option BMW made for it except the factory bash plate.  It had had annual services that coincided with the in-country required safety inspection/certification. It hadn’t provided any operating issues during its 6000 mile life.  As a result of some less-than-attentive transport services, it prolly needed a battery, but I already knew that.

Walt named what he thought was a fair price, which was better than fair, and to which I immediately agreed. All I needed to do was find a ride back to Baltimore, and I had my first BMW GS.

Whereupon we promptly had what – for Maryland, anyway – was a completely uncharacteristic early season blizzard.

New bikus interruptus.

5 days later, the temperature is still down, and all of the snow is still here.

(Calendar pages fly away at increasing speed.)

I’m confident though. The sun will come out, and The GS will come to Jefferson.

I can hardly wait.  

The New Baby

Born Under a Bad Sign

If motorcycles are metaphors for living, then The Blues are life’s combination scripture and soundtrack.

People that know me well will tell you that except for the small portion of cerebral real-estate occupied by Loony Tunes cartoons, most of my personal philosophy and values have their roots in The Blues.

Today’s sermon, accordingly, comes from the Book of Albert King.

Born under a bad sign

Been down since I began to crawl

If it wasn’t for bad luck, you know I wouldn’t have no luck at all

What in the name of all that is funky, you may ask, does this have to do with motorcycles?

Oh, plenty, fellow rider.

Plenty.

***

First, there was the small matter of my first MotoGuzzi.

I had wanted to ride a V85 TT from the first second I saw the initial concept bike.  And after nearly two years of lobbying, asking politely, begging pitifully and abjectly groveling, I’d actually managed to arrange for a press bike.

Other riders and writers that had ridden the bike reported a broad spread of power and the smoothest MotoGuzzi ever made.

That wasn’t what I got though.

What I got was a built on a Monday bike where someone had neglected to completely attach the valve rocker assembly to one of the cylinder heads. The bike ran, until it didn’t – stranding me on the side of the Interstate in South Baltimore nearly two hours road time from the shop to which I was trying to return it.

‘X’s for eyes at under 500 miles and a ride in the crash truck.

Just stellar.

***

I tried not to let my disappointment at the passing of the Guzzi color my outlook.

Heck, I still had Indian’s FTR 1200 S Race Replica in my shop, so how blue could I get?

Plenty, it turns out.

Central Maryland has had a long streak of incomprehensibly unseasonable weather lately – it isn’t supposed to be 65 degrees and sunny in mid-November, but it was, so I was all for exploiting it.  I grabbed a leather jacket and my Shoei, and rolled the FTR out into the sunshine for a brief lunchtime blast.

I swung a leg over, turned the key, and pressed the Indian’s auto-start button.

Whereupon this brand new, state of the art sportbike cranked though about 20 compression strokes without so much as the hint of ignition, at which point the battery voltage went low enough to cause the Indian’s Ride Command computer and display to spontaneously reboot.

This motorcycle wasn’t going anyplace.

Do you know of any modern fuel injected motorcycle that won’t even fire a plug once on a reasonably charged battery on a warm day?

I don’t.

Or I didn’t before this FTR responded to me with a case of Ridus Interruptus.

With a 20 minute lunchtime ride window between meetings, I didn’t have time to dick around with the FTR – which, unlike most press pool bikes, wasn’t fitted with a battery tender pigtail.

I went back inside with my full gear on, tossed the FTR’s key back into my desk drawer, and grabbed the ignition pin for my 1973 R75/5, which had been sitting at least a week longer than the FTR, and which started on the second compression stroke.

I had a lovely, if somewhat slower, lunchtime ride.

***

After work that evening, I checked my copy of the digital owner’s manual for the FTR to see how to access the battery. With that information in hand, I went out to the garage to get an SAE Allen wrench set out of the tool chest, and set about removing the plastic case that protects the battery, which is mounted in a weird-alice and peculiarly exposed position on the lower front of the frame right behind the front wheel.  My guess in that with a motor with this kind of violent and immediate power delivery, Indian’s engineers were determined to move as much mass low and forward as they were able, and this seemed to be one fairly obvious way to do that.

Just a hunch.

Three Allen bolts exposed the battery and its connections – I attached my battery charger, set to slow charge for AGM batteries, and went back in the house to get dinner.

Two hours later, the OEM Polaris battery was showing it was fully charged. I left the charger attached and powered up and tried to start the FTR again. On about the eighth compression stroke, the big V-twin fired, then immediately stalled.    I waited a few seconds for the charger to help the battery voltage to rebound, and then tried again. This time the engine fired on about the fourth compression stroke, and I was able to catch the engine on the throttle, and get some revs and some heat into the combustion chambers – after about 45 seconds of working the throttle the FTR was finally willing to idle. Fortunately, on the FTR the battery is on the left side of the engine, and all of the exhaust plumbing is on the right side. While the bike idIed, I disconnected the charger, replaced the battery case, and spun the three Allens back down. I pulled my helmet back on, and then ran the FTR up Maryland 17 to Burkittsville and back to fully warm the engine and make sure the battery was fully topped off.

Four days later, the sun came back out, and when I went to start the bike it did exactly the same thing again.

***

At this point the drill had now become familiar – remove battery case, charge battery, start bike and replace battery case.   

This time, though, the Ride Command display was showing a new fault condition.  One of the positive attributes of Indian’s LCD display, is that it allows direct interrogation of any faults thrown up by the Engine Management Unit. In a previous case, the FTR had thrown a fault indicating that it had come up on an oil-change service interval – not on mileage, but on elapsed time since the last change. In that case, being a transient/reminder fault, the Ride Command unit allowed me to see the problem and to clear the fault.

This time, though, after drilling down through the FTR’s menus, the fault was a failed oxygen sensor – being a hardware fault, the Ride Command unit will not allow the fault to be cleared. On the off chance that the fault was caused by low voltage during the power on self test, after warming the motorcycle, I power cycled the system, shutting the bike off, waiting a few seconds and then powering back up and restarting  — this trick is one borrowed from old BMW ABS units, that will show a fault condition when starting voltage drops below a preset threshold. No joy, the oxygen sensor fault was still present. 

I took the FTR out to the road briefly, and its characteristic partial throttle poor running behavior was markedly worse – in this state it was almost unrideable.   I pushed the planned ride’s ‘Abort’ key, made three rights, and put the FTR back in the garage.

The next day Indian’s transportation contractor came by, loaded up the FTR, and then it was gone.

***

So two new, modern technology motorcycles, and two cascading sets of mechanical and electronic failures that left the bikes unrideable or worse. 

How does this happen to essentially two brand new motorcycles back to back?

Maybe it isn’t them, maybe its me.

Perhaps I’ve transmogrified into the Joe Btfsplk of the moto writing world – a walking, talking (…and talking, and talking…) personification of bigtime bad karma (bad bikema?).

Such a thing has to be the result of a fevered and overactive imagination.

Would you lend me your motorcycle today?  

The wonderful folks at Zero Motorcycles will be delivering a brand new SR/S here next Wednesday. I have never had so much as a lick of trouble out of a Zero, unless one counts operator error when estimating battery range remaining.

Here’s hoping that this set of test rides is not ‘bad things come in threes’ but rather ‘third time’s the charm’.

All I’m asking is a for my next rides to be a bit more ‘Seventh Son’ and a little less ‘Bad Sign’, eh Brothers and Sisters?

Feel free to send some good Ju-Ju my way.   

My Crazy Italian Ex Girlfriend

Love is a funny thing.

We fall in love with ones that seem the most unlikely, the ones that are the most ill-advised, and sometimes for one that care for us not at all.

It’s just not under our control though.                  

One can fall with a single look.  It’s as if the image of the beloved is somehow processed by an autonomic portion of the human nervous system – the vestigial lizard brain or some node far down the spinal cord that is connected directly to a fire hydrant size valve that shoots a tidal wave of hormones right into the aorta.

And when that stuff hits you’re just not thinking any more.

And I don’t mean not thinking clearly, not thinking rationally. You’re just not thinking at all. You’ve been reduced to a great big ball of emotion, with no higher cognitive functions going on at all.  

But, I mean, how could you not?  Just look at her.

Look at the way she stands – that narrow waist – the curves….those….big, full…  cylinders.

What, you thought I was smitten by some dark and sultry Mediterranean goddess?

I guess, in a way, I am.

Her name is not Sophia, though. It’s a Moto Guzzi V85 TT.

I know that MotoJournalists are supposed to be cold, soulless, objective reporters of the motofacts, Jack. My feelings, should I have them, are not supposed to be present in these writings in any way. That whole MotoJournalist thing, I guess, is clearly not for me.

Oooooh.

You know that motorcycles’ only purpose in this universe is to make us feel things – that it is a motorcycle’s highest aspiration. The things we can feel start with simple fun, to a meditative calm, to exhilaration, to an all-consuming thrill of speed and physics at the absolute edge of human control. And if a simple machine can make us feel all those things, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that the great ones do not inspire that most complex and unobjective of feelings – love.

I fell for the MotoGuzzi V85 in the first seconds after I saw one. The thing was Greg-specific Moto Porn in every way – designed by some evil soul to push every moto-button I have and to push them hard and repeatedly.  The shape of the fuel tank is exquisite – the way it accommodates the Guzzi’s Air Cooled V Twin Cylinders with a recess on each side. The saddle – which covers the back of that tank – and its sculptural backstop continue the lines of that tank.  The pillion saddle describes a plane which the tailsection’s grab handles and the luggage rack continue. The castings which support the footpegs are museum worthy – curved organic forms which show off the alloy as jewelry – look at the supports for the pillion footpegs, The curves, shapes and colors of the exhaust headers and the way they enter the form-fitting bash plate look like refugees from some sci-fi starfighter.  Even the color scheme of this example, which combines an almost military drab sand background with an International Safety Orange slash of a stripe and a flat black center section looks a whole lot better in the metal than I make it sound on the page.

Fly. Little Birdie!

I’ve stared at an awful lot of old and new motorcycles.

The designers of those motorcycles were determined to make me – a motorcyclist – feel something. Lots have tried.

And with certain notable exceptions – The Vincent Black Shadow, the black and gold Ducati 900 SS, the Ducati 851 Superbike, and the MV Agusta F4 1000 – I have mostly remained unmoved.

But the first V85 TT Concept made that a larger club.

And if being a beautifully designed motorcycle wasn’t enough, the V85 TT occupies a functional sweet spot that has few direct competitors.  This is a motorcycle with some lightweight offroad chops – you won’t be doing the Erzberg Rodeo with it, but for everything short of that, this motorcycle occupies a large, fat sweet spot. Where a R1250GS weights over 590 lbs fueled – with a 35 inch saddle height – the V85 TT is just over 500 lbs and has a saddle height under 33 inches. Combine that with almost 7 inches of suspension travel at both ends, 8 inches of ground clearance, an air-cooled 850 cc twin and shaft drive, a large capacity fuel tank, and as a middleweight, shaft driven offroad-capable motorcycle, the V85 TT is a member of a class of one.   

So I had to ride one.

Not only because it was my duty to test, understand and share any insight I might be lucky enough to have with you.

No.

But because I was also in love.

In love with the idea of a beautiful motorcycle – one that was simple, light and dependable. Capable of grace on country roads, of power and control at extended high speeds, of surefootedness on the dirt roads and forest paths in the farm county around my house. A motorcycle that provided the updates of say, more than 45 years of technical development on the same idea that had given birth to my cherished BMW R75/5 – all things in balance, everything you do need, and nothing you don’t.   This was the kind of motorcycle that certain motorcycle traditionalists were all but sure would never be made again, yet here it was in the rubber, steel and alloy.

It was one of those rare motorcycles I could see myself buying and keeping for a very long time.

When you first fall in love one is a gumbo of sloshing neurotransmitters and hormones —  skies are nothing but blue and cloudless, everything is butterflies and flowers, and the world that contains your beloved seems filled with nothing but bright possibilities.

In that love-impaired condition, your heart is one just begging to be shattered into a million pieces. 

***

I started lobbying Shane, the PR guy at Piaggio – Moto Guzzi’s owners and importers – in October of 2018.  The production bike hadn’t broken cover yet, but I was anxious to demonstrate commitment.

Every few months I would reach out, but no hard date was planned. It’s an unfortunate fact that the US Motorcycle Industry operates with the assumption that every journalist and publication that writes about Motorcycles has magically located themselves in Southern California. It almost as if they believe that motorcycles are only operated where there is no weather.

As if.

Then, the pandemic happened. Seven months virtually disappeared.

As the most desperate days began to turn toward some odd new normal, I began to reach back out to the manufacturers who had been working on test bikes before it all began. Motorcycle manufacturers were more anxious than I was to make up for lost time. Indian got off the first shot with their FTR 1200 S.  Moto Guzzi was right behind them.

Shane only had one question – “Can you pick up a bike in West Chester, PA?”.

West Chester is a piddlin’ 143 miles from the Rolling Physics Problem Skunkworks.

“If they can store one of my motorcycles, just tell me when.”

***

I don’t get out as much as I’d like these days. Trying to follow good public health advice means that most of my going places starts and ends in the same place.  Traveling – in the way that I’ve traditionally most preferred – has temporarily disappeared from my life.

So to get out and do a couple of hundred miles of road in a day is – at least in these strange times — a notable and celebratory thing.  And my travelling Saturday started crisp and clear, with bright blue skies and temperatures in the high 50s – perfect weather for covering ground on a motorcycle.  With a little over 140 miles to West Chester, PA., my K1200LT was the right hammer for this nail – a smooth, comfortable ride with a lot of weather protection to make sure I showed up in West Chester fresh and ready to ride an unfamiliar motorcycle another couple of hundred miles.

The LT hasn’t seen much of the road, lately, and I was genuinely excited to saddle up and put some miles on her again.

It did take two runs at the starter to get fuel down to the injectors and for the Brick to awake.  Once awoken, though, it was the same as it ever was. I’d be lying if I claimed that swapping from 500 pound motorcycles to an 850 pound motorcycle didn’t take a moment or two of adjustment.  I went pretty easy on the old girl to get some heat in the engine before doing anything rash, but as I crested the ridge on US 340 and headed down the grade through the trees that were just showing their first hints of fall color, it was as if the last 7 months had never happened.  There is something about my K12 in the zone that provides a kind of wormhole that goes straight to total focus and enlightenment. East of Frederick I gently rolled up to about 90, and there we were.

I had deliberately not filled up with fuel the night before… since the bike had been sitting I wanted to burn off as much of the stale fuel as possible, and with about 25 miles of range left in the tank, I exited the Interstate at Mount Airy, MD, where there’s a nice Shell station and store right off the end of the off-ramp. While taking on just under 6 gallons of high-test, I did a little range calculation math. With my customary 270 miles per tank, the run to West Chester and the eventual return would have me looking for fuel again… right about Mount Airy.

With trip computer and odo reset, I was back on I-70 flying towards Baltimore.

Coming up to the Patapsco River crossing that marks the crossing into The City, the LT finally punched through its 100,000 mile mark.  What should have felt like a victory felt a little hollow for a travelling bike that had been stuck at home flatspotting tires and missing an entire road summer.  Still, I took a little odo-selfie anyway.

‘Bout time.

Is it 2021 yet? 

I haven’t actually ridden to my office in Baltimore since sometime in February. A Tuesday morning rush hour thrust into downtown can be a desperate, dangerous thing. A bright sunny late Saturday morning, though, allowed me to admire the city skyline from the elevated concrete curves of I-95 as we sliced back across the Patapsco river and down into the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

Driving cars through tunnels is just another day at the wheel – give yourself a 360 degree view by doing it on a motorcycle and its more of an attack run on the Deathstar kind of experience with the walls, roadway and ceiling spooling by in 3D. Coming back out into the sunshine was never so welcome.

Interstate 95 is not a place to slow down and smell the roses.  Having to pull 85 to 90 miles per hour just to avoid being turned into a rondel-decorated doormat will demonstrate this pretty quickly. For a motorcycle that just celebrated it’s 100,000 Mile ‘Birthday’, though, the Big K bike’s operating smoothness and availability of top gear passing power at 90 mph indicated still never fails to impress.

After a brief blast though northern Maryland and across the Susquehanna river, I exited the interstate and headed for US 1 north, which runs through rural Maryland and Eastern Pennsylvania right into my destination, West Chester, Pennsylvania.  Given the range of other options for accessing what is essentially the west side of the greater Philadelphia metro area – I-95, the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or US 30 – US 1 wins hands down. For most of the route 1 is a wide open 4 lane limited access highway that runs through open country – a perfect route for any kind of travelling motorcycle – whether it might be an old Luxury Touring bike, or the travelling Adventure/Enduro I’d be temporarily swapping it for.

After blasting by Kennett Square and Longwood Gardens, Pennsylvania Route 52 cuts a curvy swath through wooded country before hitting the back side of West Chester. West Chester is home of West Chester University of Pennsylvania – a former Teacher’s College that – at least based on appearances, looks like a lovely place to pursue a higher education – lots of green, tree shaded quads lying between slate-roofed stone buildings – if I wasn’t riding my motorcycle through it it would have to be imaginary.

After crossing the campus and riding though what was clearly the adjacent student ghetto, I rolled up to MotoPlex West Chester. The guys at MotoPlex clearly have a sense of romantic drama – my V85TT was parked diagonally outside the front entrance to their building.  It’s not like they were trying to show off the Guzzi’s best side or anything.

First Date

Aw, who am I fooling – of course they were. I’ll admit I walked around the V85 more than a few times – whistling softly to myself – taking in all the angles.  Some details really stuck out – like the chrome illuminated MotoGuzzi Eagle in the center of the headlamp, or the black finished engine with the milled aluminum cooling fins, or the black anodized alloy rims with red rim tape with the ‘MotoGuzzi’ script. If there was an angle from which the V85 TT wasn’t gorgeous, I couldn’t find it.

Heck, even the background against which it was staged was decorative – directly in front of the door was a Vespa 946 Red Edition – a factory custom scooter designed to raise money for AIDS research and relief.  The Vespa Red had a specially elongated and streamlined tail section with a chrome luggage rack, red turbine wheels, sport exhaust and a beautiful leather seat with a sculptural chrome body mount.  I’m not a scooter enthusiast in any way, but this was enough to make me reconsider. If a classic Vespa is a 9 out of 10 in industrial design terms, the Red is a 14.

After cleaning up the dribble puddles, I wandered into the MotoPlex showroom to try to locate my contact – one of the dealership principals named Jeremy.

The dealership’s interior continued the well-designed, aesthetically appealing theme. There were three separate bays for Vespa, Aprilia and MotoGuzzi, and each was a self-contained shrine to the heritage of each brand. The Vespa bay was filled with European-designed space age ‘Jet’-style scooter helmets – scooter styling exercises from the classic Mods vs. Rockers period, and a few beautifully restored vintage scooters.  The Aprilia zone was awash in racing leathers and carbon fiber.  The MotoGuzzi zone had one brace of new Eldorado cruisers, another clutch of V85 TTs in Road, Travel and Adventure guises, as well as some gorgeous vintage models thrown in for flavor.  

I was starting to get moistened again while drinking in what appeared to be an original, unrestored Ambassador – in its stock black paint and chrome tank panels — that was in incomprehensibly good shape. One of the dealership folks saw me, and decided to engage.

“Wanna see the original fairing we took off this one with the working 8-track deck?”

After inquiring what 8-track tapes he had that would enable that demo, we were off to the races, just two guys talking bikes. Eventually, I did share my reason for visiting, and then my new buddy gave me the operational briefing on the V85 and its controls.

After rolling my LT into a storage area between the spotless service bay and the showroom, signing Piaggio’s paperwork, and getting the bike’s spare key, owner’s manual and toolkit, it was finally time to get acquainted with my new moto-love interest.

A press on the starter had the Guzzi’s 850 brought to life on the second compression stroke. The transversely mounted, air cooled V Twin idled with a bit of a wet dog shake to it, with lots of combustion racket, top end sounds and exhaust pop reaching the rider’s ears. Engaging the bike’s dry clutch felt dead solid though, and with a gentle roll of the throttle, we were out in the street. The shift to second gear was simultaneously slick and solid in a way that my BMW airhead gearboxes never have been. By the time I was trolling back through town in the bottom of third gear, the V85 felt familiar in a way few test bikes I ride ever do – the weight distribution, balance and response to inputs recalled my Scrambler /5, with its high wide bars and upright riding position, only with the effects of more than 40 years of frame, suspension and braking development obviously in evidence.  

One thing became immediately apparent – the V85’s saddle is the firmest stock saddle of any new motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. Whether this was a better way to do things or a hideous mistake was something only a few hours of sitting on it would reveal.  Firm seat aside, the bike’s suspension was as well damped and balanced as any motorcycle I’ve ridden lately – the KYB inverted forks and adjustable monoshock are ‘Goldilocks Tuned’  — not too firm and not too soft – just right. Also of note was that this shaft drive motorcycle, which doesn’t have a second torque control link, shows no sign of shaft jacking or torque reaction.  

Clearing the other end of West Chester and getting back onto PA 52’s baby twisties revealed a motorcycle that was in its element on a two lane back road. Even with the dirt capable Michelin Anakee tires fitted, the bike’s turn in behavior was light, linear and held the selected line with no drama – a perfect backroad dancing partner.

Still, there was something in the back of my mind that was trying to tell me that something wasn’t right. Remember, this was the first MotoGuzzi I have ever ridden. The fact that my previous test motorcycle was that Indian FTR 1200R – a motorcycle with about 3 times its fair share of shoulder straining, arm muscle pulling, sphincter clenching, sledgehammer immediacy – certainly didn’t help for establishing any kind of rational context for comparison. But to my way of thinking, the new, out of the box MotoGuzzi just didn’t seem to have any power off the bottom of the rev band. Even with more rational comparisons  — like my 45 and 47 year old, carbureted BMW air cooled twins, with their displacements of 900 and 1000 ccs, respectively – seemed to bury the new Guzzi with torque off the line.  Now I’ve been told that Guzzis were always geared comparatively tall, but for a brand new, clean sheet of paper design – with engineering showoffery like aluminum connecting rods, radically short skirted, lightweight pistons, and titanium intake valves, not to mention a state of the art fuel injection system – to feel like its lunch was being eaten by a nearly 50 year old ridable museum piece made no sense at all.  

On the way back to I-95, I did what I would do during break-in for any new motorcycle, short blasts of throttle in the lower gears, and gentle roll-on and engine-braking combinations – speed up, slow down – designed to vary load and wear patterns on the new parts to properly break them in. The route back to The Interstate covered 50 or 60 miles – all at lower, continuously varying speeds.

As we mentioned before, I-95 is not a place for lollygagging – my kindness to new equipment notwithstanding, it was time to wick it up or die.

So wick it up I did. I hunted though the entire range of plausible cruise speeds – 70, 75, 80, 85 —  hunting for a sweet spot.

I never did find it.

In top gear, and at the types of speeds that might allow me to make best use of that 6 plus gallons of gasoline, the V85 TT seemed positively unhappy. The bike’s engine was just hammering – sending vibrations though the bars and saddle – and started to make me wonder why I had fallen in moto-love in the first place. It was the moto-equivalent of staring at the Mona Lisa for a decade, only to find out she sounded like Fran Drescher.

There was a lot to consider. The V85’s engine is, after all, a single crankpin design air cooled V-Twin, and other engines with that description are not all models of operating smoothness. It was a brand-new motorcycle, too, with a motor many miles from even beginning to be broken in. Perhaps, with so few miles, the motor was just unnaturally tight, and miles and heat cycles would improve things. Still, if this was a representative example of the breed, and this was the natural cruise behavior, then this was a motorcycle that could never replace my current long-distance mount – a ride that a frequently complete 600-800 mile riding days. 800 miles of this would be a claw hand producing, headache generating, exhausting slog ending at no fun at all.

The most commonly applied and least communicative adjective applied to MotoGuzzis is ‘character’.     

I sure hoped that this wasn’t that.

After doing my best to vaporize Northern Maryland, and picking my way about halfway around the Baltimore Beltway, I elected to jump back onto Liberty Road – Maryland 26 – a secondary road that parallels I-70 – in an attempt to be a little kinder both to the V85’s factory-fresh engine, but also to myself.

Getting the bike back onto the secondary roads, at lower road speeds, quickly reinforced the strengths of the motorcycle as a fine handling, balanced bike with human-friendly ergonomics. I could only hope that a few heat cycles and a few more miles would reveal a bike that was happy on cruise in top gear.

Upon arriving at home, and going to remove my personal effects from the TT’s commodious saddlebags, I found that the locking mechanism for the left saddlebag – held in place on the threaded lock cylinder with two substantial spacing washers and a spring washer – lying in bits in the bottom of the case. Using the other case’s mechanism as a guide, and applying some blue LockTite where it made sense to me some should have been used, repairing the latch mechanism was quick and easy to do. That aside, though, luggage that shakes apart was perhaps another signal that this particular motorcycle might not be precisely right.

***

Having arrived back at the Rolling Physics Problem skunkworks, my mission became riding the V85 TT as often and as far as remaining employed would reasonably permit. Each ride revealed more about the design and execution of this motorcycle that indicated MotoGuzzi had really sweated the details. The MotoGuzzi Eagle running light in the middle of the bike’s LED headlamp array does a compelling little animation – progressively lighting up from the center to its wingtips when the ignition is first powered up. The bike’s taillights do a credible impression of rocket exhaust nozzles when illuminated. The bike’s LCD instruments are clean and informative, and, as I discovered when riding through the culvert at Elmer Road, have the ability to automatically flip from a blue on white background ‘daylight mode’ to a dark blue on black background ‘night mode’ when the ambient light sensor detects operation in darkness – the Greg that finds himself on dark highways far away from home really appreciates the thought designed to spare my night vision.    The instrument panel also features a programmable shift light array – which is designed to be set lower during the engine’s break-in period – which recalls any number of sci-fi movie spaceship control panels by having a pair of color coded bars – green, yellow, red – meet in the center of the display at the programmed redline. Generally, I’m not a rider that relies on the upper reaches of my motorcycle’s rpm range, but the V85’s shift light array was such fun to look at I was negatively incented.

Thee Iggle
Engage!
Maybe The Display Could Use Some Anti-Reflective Coating?

The V85 also has a gear selection indicator, but the implementation of same left a lot to be desired. When selecting a gear, the display blanks out the number of the selected gear until the clutch is disengaged and the gearbox is transmitting power through the newly selected gear. And while that might sound ok in principle, what that means in practice is that at the actual moments when one most needs to know what gear was just selected, the gear indicator reads “-“.  Deduct one ‘informed design’ point – this makes the gear indicator all but effectively useless.

The Travel model I had been provided also augmented the bike’s excellent headlights with a set of LED driving lamps – controlled by a master light mode switch on the handlebars — that spread an even blanket of daylight color temperature light from roadside to roadside. The motorcycle’s heated grips – with three power levels – went a long way, working with the stock handguards, towards keeping the rider comfy in cooler conditions. This was good, because cooler conditions were pretty much all we had available at this juncture. The V85 TT Travel model also features an adjustable windshield, slightly larger than those fitted to the other V85 models.   Being an inquisitive guy, I made three test runs with the shield set as it was delivered, in the most upright position, then in the lowest position, and then in the middle. The adjustment is dead simple – two large headed allen bolts control the movement of the shield on its mounts. My conclusion was that the tech that assembled the bike knew what he was doing, as the highest position offered the cleanest airflow with the least buffeting.  

So the V85 TT and I blazed the two laners, dirt roads and even a few single tracks at every opportunity. In those environments, I grew enamored of the motorcycle’s riding position, the excellent clutch and gearbox, the powerful, easily modulated Brembo brakes, and the operation of the bike’s long travel suspension.  The farms near my home are all connected by a network of dual track jeep/tractor trails that run along the treelines at the edges of the fields, and never have I spent as much time and effort to meet my neighbors under less than ideal conditions – but riding the V85 standing up on these trails felt so natural it was as if I’d had an enduro bike my entire life.

Serious Radial Mount Brembo Stoppage, KYB Forkage

It was the engine, though, that continued to befuddle. The motor started immediately from dead cold. Idling and at low rpm it behaved like a cousin of my BMW boxers, with maybe a little more wiggle and a little more intake noise. On the throttle, it sounded magnificent, but usable power was concentrated in the upper midrange of the bike’s RPM range, and revving the engine out made little more power but a lot more noise and vibration.  On major highways, with the revs up, there was plenty of power, but it came at a price. I kept trying to think the best – that these engines, like my beloved boxer twins, took a long time to break in, and that only a break in service, including an intake sync, would really show what the bike was like to live with.

I did start to notice something else that was concerning. When I was stopped in traffic, I began to notice an almost floral odor coming up from the engine bay. Now during the first few miles of operation of a new motorcycle, its not uncommon for some manufacturing residues to cook off the exhaust system and crankcases of a brand-new engine. This wasn’t that, though – the more miles I put on the more noticeable it was. After one ride, I got down on the ground and looked into the engine bay. MotoGuzzis have traditionally had dipsticks to check the level of oil in the engine – the V85 is the first Guzzi to have an oil sight glass. The sight glass in this one was visibly leaking, and the smell was the result of expensive synthetic oil hitting the hot headpipes.  The crankcase, as well, was visibly overfilled. I crossed my fingers that this sight glass wouldn’t decide – like some of the first ones that BMW deployed – just to depart from its rubber mountings with no warning, and kept my eye on the oil level, which remained above the level recommended in the Owner’s Manual until I returned the bike.

Marmon Clamp. Seepy Slight Glass.

Because Piaggio had been so kind to lend me a brand new demo motorcycle – as opposed to a press fleet bike – my evaluation was, of necessity, going to be a little shorter than most – They had originally proposed a one week evaluation which I had passive-aggressively stretched into two. Sweet Doris from Baltimore had required an outpatient medical procedure towards the end of the first week which had me much more concerned about taking care of her than about making nice to the Italian Alloy Hussy that had taken up residence in the garage. Both the dealer and importer were more concerned about me putting on miles than elapsed time, so no harm, no foul.

Much too soon, though, the time to return the bike loomed large, and I went into ride desperation mode – trying to make the most of the time remaining. The night before I planned to ride back up to West Chester, I did one of my patented backroad blasts – down to Virginia to make the run up Lovettsville Road, back across the Potomac at Brunswick, up Mountain Road, MD 17 and back to the RPP Skunkworks.   The bike was a joy on these backroads – turning in easily, holding the selected line like it was on rails, and riding waves of torque on corner exits. I went to pull my water bottle out of the right saddle case when I got home, only to find that the second bag latch had decided to come apart.

We had 153 miles to cover in the morning to get the motorcycle back to MotoPlex. Hopefully that ride would be drama-free.

***

Saturday morning was another rider’s gem of a day.  It was a little on the cool side – with a projected high around sixty degrees f. – but the bright sunshine, handguards, grip heaters and my trusty Aerostich Roadcrafter suit were all that were required to keep the 300 plus mile roundtrip cool and comfy.      

The V85 TT started deterministically the way it always had – with a symphony of intake sounds, valve sound and the big wet dog shake all clearly in evidence. I have to admit, despite all the minor annoyances of the short acquaintance, this was a bike I still didn’t want to give back – it was a ride I just didn’t want to end.  Unsurprisingly, to keep the moto-affair going, I decided on the spot that the best way to do this was to start the day by riding in the wrong direction.

Sensible, no? 

The short duration of the test had consisted of more pavement than the V85’s mission statement makes natural, so I decided to hit my current favorite stretch of dirt roads – Furnace Mountain and Featherbed Roads  — which would give me another 15 miles or so of dirt road testing and only add another 20 miles or so to my ride to West Chester  — it was an easy choice.   So instead of hopping US 340 headed east towards Baltimore, I headed west towards Brunswick, where I’d cross the river back towards Lovettsville, Virginia, and the run across Featherbed Road.

Featherbed Road is a rutted, gravel country road that runs through a horse farm filled section of Loudoun County, Virginia.  The road frequently carries farm duty pickups with horse trailers that can make quite the mess of the surface – for most folks this would be a negative, but for a motorcycle guy trying to gauge a bike’s dirt chops, it’s perfect.  On the more open stretches of Featherbed, the V85 TT just swallowed up the significant irregularities of the surface, although the Anakees were down a little on traction compared to the 50/50 tires I run on my own scrambler.  Furnace Mountain Road is tighter, steeper and bumpier, and I quickly learned I should have changed the V85’s drive mode from ‘Road’ to ‘Off-Road’ when I hit a stretch of washboard on the gas and the traction control essentially had a little electronic stroke – the shift display lights on the dash were flashing maniacally as the TC intervened, which it did in a heavy handed enough way that the whole bike was pogoing up and down and completely lost headway.

Lesson learned.

Off Roading section completed, I was dropped back out onto the pavement where US 15 crosses the Potomac back into Maryland. 15 is a straight and wide 4 lane US highway, broken up by a roundabout or two. Climbing up the grade away from the river, I took the V85 smartly up through the gears, ending up at about 80 indicated in 6th gear. The engine did seem like it had smoothed out nominally over the miles – maybe I was just too sensitive.

Engine braking down for the traffic circle, I entered the circle off the gas at about 25 mph. Half way through the circle, the sound coming from the right cylinder head – changed. In my universe, top end sounds that change like – that – are never good.  I drifted over to the shoulder with the assumption that this bike was going to be calling for the crash truck. When I got into the shoulder and got a foot down, I was surprised to discover that the V85 was still running, and still holding a steady idle. I gently gave the bike a few smooth applications of throttle – the bike built revs quickly and smoothly. If the noise was affecting the way the V85 was running, it was hard to tell what it was.

It’s hard to motorcycle with one’s fingers crossed, so I had to settle for fingers metaphorically crossed as I gently took the V85 back up to cruise. Power seemed to be OK, acceleration seemed OK, and vibration wasn’t any worse than it had been all along.

Rock on.

I-70 into Baltimore – being a road I have run so often over the past 35 years, can be kind of a trance-like meditative experience – time simultaneously stops and proceeds at 10 times its normal apparent rate. I managed not only to keep pace with the normal elevated traffic speed, but was able to display good top gear passing power. I found myself and the V85 on the Baltimore beltway seemingly instantly – headed south to pickup I-95 and the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel.

The exit ramps from the beltway to I-95 are just what one would expect for one of the major highway interconnects for the east coast corridor – the ramps are two lanes wide with nearly a mile of run off to get set up for the merge. I kept my speed up as I set up for the Northbound I-95 ramp, and then rolled off the throttle when I’d set up an established and defensible position in the ramp system.

And then, running 65 mph, the engine quit – power went immediately to zero, and then the engine just shut down.

I drifted off the side of the ramp, got the bike as far off the road as I could possibly manage, put it on the stand and said bad words – under these circumstances it really is required.  I snicked the V85 into neutral and pressed the starter. The engine spun, but it clearly wasn’t going to start. A motorcycle with 467 miles on the clocks and it had ‘X’s for eyes. I turned the key off, and removed my helmet and powered up my mobile phone.  

This was clearly a good news, bad news scenario – the good news was had I made it 3 miles more up the road, I’d have been in one of the bores of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel, with 120 feet of water over my head – the bad news is I was still 90 miles from West Chester, and was stuck in one of the most dangerous places anywhere in Maryland’s Interstate highway system – this ramp was famous for collisions between people that were treating the ramp like Turn 1 at Misano, and were drag racing up to the merge and then flicking it at the last possible second. The Last Possible Second was just where this motorcycle and I were stuck, and during the next several hours I’d see more than a few of those guys that had me fleeing up the hillside and waving what was left of the V85 goodbye.

A Serene and Lovely Place to Spend Some Time, Chillin’

I got on the phone with MotoPlex. They were supportive in the extreme, and stepped up without hesitation. I texted them my GPS coordinates, described exactly where I’d come to a stop, and they had the shop van headed my way about 10 minutes later.

I spent the better part of the next two hours exchanging texts with people that could either help me diagnose what had occurred or needed to know, like my Magazine editor, who, in this case, was definitely NOT getting a traditional motorcycle road test article out of what was happening here.

The rest of the day – while an adventure – was definitely not a motorcycle story. The MotoPlex shop van rescued me and their motorcycle from the side of the on ramp, and what was supposed to be a pre-noon arrival at the shop turned into a 3:00 p.m. arrival at the shop.

My conversations with the dealership principals were, frankly, a tad awkward. I shared with them my best interpretation of the symptoms I’d observed and my hunch as to what it likely was – my suspicion was that a valve adjustor had come undone and backed off.  They did commit to being completely transparent with me about what they found when the motorcycle was serviced – even committing to video and pictures of the teardown. I went out of my way to express a desire for a retest, since it seemed unfair to all involved for my impressions to be essentially ruined by a manufacturing defect. But those conversations were weird, they were uncomfortable, and I still had 150 miles left to get home.

I’ve never been so glad to see a 20 year old, weather patinaed, slightly leaky BMW motorcycle in my life. I snarfed a few nuts and a Clif Bar out of my man purse, had a deep draught of water from the vacuum bottle I carry with me, and then throttled up and lit out for home.  My ride might have picked up a few hundred pounds in the trade, but I never considered for a second, out on the Interstate at 90 miles per hour, that I wasn’t going to make it home.   And, except for a stop for some high test in Mount Airy, I had a smooth roll of it, remaining blissfully in high speed motion until I got back to the shop just before the day ran out of sun.

***

I spent some time trying to follow up on the commitments that had been made to me by the dealership, but what I expected when I left and what I actually got turned out to be two very different things. When I’d call up to MotoPlex, I got the distinct impression that people were either literally talking behind their hands or sneaking into closets to conceal the fact that they were speaking with me, and the conversations became increasingly terse and brief.  

The picture that emerged was that MotoGuzzi’s Engineering Department in Italy had become directly involved, and that the failure had affected a journalist was perceived as quite the embarrassment.  MotoGuzzi had a choice between being transparent with me, or trying to put a lid on the whole affair, and the Italians had apparently decreed that no information should be shared.

I’m from Brooklyn, though, so good luck with that.

Lid or no lid, I was able to determine from questioning folks with first-hand knowledge – No Names, Please! – that my diagnosis hadn’t been too far off. The V85’s engine has a steel valve rocker support that attaches to the cylinder head with four, flat-topped allen bolts. During manufacture, three of the four bolts had been secured by liquid threadlocking compounds and torqued to specifications, and one had not.  The mechanic had found that bolt lying loose under the valve cover during the first part of the teardown.

With that piece of data, I’m able to speculate that my V85’s engine had the valve lash setting on one of the right cylinder’s two valves moving away from specifications in the first miles after I left the dealership. As the rocker support slowly backed out, the symptoms of a motor increasingly out of synchronization continued to deteriorate. When the sound of the motor changed on my ride into Baltimore that morning, what I heard was likely the sound of that bolt having spun completely out of its bore. It doesn’t take too much imagination to imagine the mechanical havoc that ensued – a rocker support only supported in three out of four locations continued to distort until either the rocker arm slipped off the end of the valve, the valve or guide failed, or all of the above.

I held out hope that either Piaggio or MotoPlex would get me a good V85 to test, so I could confirm the positive impressions that other motorcycle writers have reported. Phone calls and e-mails haven’t produced a commitment for either a repaired motorcycle or a different motorcycle – the last contact was over a month ago.  At the risk of never getting another Guzzi or Aprilia to test again, this story is just the story. Even bad news is a form of news, I guess, and that the importer and their dealer seem to be wishing I’d just disappear tells me something too.

I’ve been an Allman Brothers Band fan for longer than its politic to cop to. This love story seems to be like the Motorcycle Version of ‘Whipping Post’.  I fell hard for the V85 TT, and it seems like she’s stolen all my money, wrecked my new car, and is hanging with my goodtime buddy, drinking in some crosstown bar.  Being that some things have changed since Duane was around, she’s also not returning my calls and texts, and blocked me on her smartphone, to boot.

Clearly, when choosing a motorcycle with one’s heart, instead of one’s head, one had better be prepared to have that heart broken.

Maybe it’s time to check the Moto-personals section under “Honda Seeking Rider”. 

***

2020 Moto Guzzi V85 TT Specs

ENGINE

  • Type: Transverse 90-degree V-twin w/ longitudinal crank
  • Displacement: 853cc
  • Bore & stroke: 84 x 77mm
  • Maximum power: 80 horsepower at 7750 rpm
  • Maximum torque: 59 ft/lbs at 5000 rpm
  • Compression ratio: 10.5:1
  • Valvetrain: Pushrod-actuated 2 Valves per cylinder – Titanium Intake Valve
  • Fueling: EFI w/ 52mm throttle body
  • Transmission: 6-speed
  • Clutch: Dry single disc
  • Final drive: Shaft

CHASSIS

  • Frame: Tubular steel trellis
  • Front suspension & travel: Spring-preload and rebound-damping adjustable inverted 41mm KYB fork; 6.7 inches
  • Rear suspension & travel: Linkage-free spring-preload and rebound-damping adjustable KYB shock; 6.7 inches
  • Wheels: Wire spoke
  • Front wheel: 2.50 x 19
  • Rear wheel: 4.25 x 17
  • Tires: Metzeler Tourance Next or Michelin Anakee Adventure)
  • Front tire: 110/80 x 19
  • Rear tire: 150/70 x 17
  • Front brakes: 320mm discs w/ radially mounted Brembo 4-piston calipers
  • Rear brake: 260mm disc w/ 2-piston floating caliper
  • ABS: Standard

DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES

  • Wheelbase: 60.2 inches
  • Rake: 28 degrees
  • Trail: 5.0 inches
  • Seat height: 32.7 inches (31.9 inches or 33.5 inches w/ optional seats)
  • Ground clearance: 8.2 inches
  • Fuel capacity: 6.1 gallons
  • Estimated fuel consumption: 48 mpg
  • Curb weight: 505 pounds

Two Up

After nearly a year and half in my new job, I finally got to the point where a few days off became medically (or at very least emotionally) necessary. With the pandemic having simultaneously killed off any opportunity for a conventional vacation and having goosed demand for my employer’s services, the combination of no time off and higher than average work levels took me to a personal breaking point.

Snap.

So when Sweet Doris from Baltimore asked me “You wanna go for a motorcycle ride tomorrow?”, she didn’t really need to hear the answer to know what it was going to be.

For partners that courted and honeymooned on motorcycles, it’s been more than a little while since Sweet D and I have gone riding together. A combination of Normal Human Life’s little complications and complexities have conspired to bring this state of sustained ride-challengedness about.

Sweet Doris, though, wanted to see some fall colors, had found a route and a few destinations that interested her, wanted to go for a ride, and even had a new Fieldsheer woman’s armored waterproof textile jacket that I’d given her, so we were going riding.

I spent a few moments checking tire pressures and adjusting my K1200LT’s rear shock preload to make sure we were ready for two up riding. The LT also has a saddle that adjusts for height – it has a trick little mount that flips to adjust  – and I’ll usually change from the higher to the lower position when carrying an adult passenger, as it gives a more solid reach for my boots to the ground, and well as lowering my overall center of gravity a tad. Both are a fair trade for an inch and a half of legroom.

After getting gear – some fleeces, some drinking water, a camera – and our armored up selves aboard the ship, I finessed the clutch a bit and we were under way.  After the left at Jefferson’s solo traffic light — rolling deliberately and a tad aggressively up through the gears — it was instantly familiar and instantly comfortable have my former riding partner back there, and it was as if Sweet Doris from Baltimore had been there all along.  Working the curves up Maryland 17 with the revs down in the basement of 4th gear, turn-in was easy, the suspension was well controlled, bits were staying off the ground, and there was plenty of thrust for corner exits.  It hasn’t escaped my attention, and it shouldn’t escape yours, that it takes a lot of Class A Bavarian Engineering – helped out with some Strategic Swedish Support (Danke, Ohlins!) – to make nimble handling fun out of nearly 1400 pounds of combined riders and motorcycle.  It seems implausible, but here we were.    

Myersville Maryland is where 17 intersects the Interstate, so we ramped onto I-70 and headed over South Mountain towards Western Maryland.  Once on cruise I couldn’t help but notice my attitude towards speed and perception of mechanical stress was clearly more critical when I was sharing my motorcycle with my beloved.  It’s one thing to ride like a knob, blow shit up and throw myself down the road – but when Sweet D is backseating, throwing us both down is quite another thing altogether.  I applied appropriate deknobification, and adopted a nice relaxed 75 mph highway lope.  

Allegheny County, Maryland, may be less than hour’s ride west of Jefferson, but the change in the riding environment is monumental and striking.  When one gets to Hancock, Maryland, ya hang a big left onto Interstate 68, and then everything becomes all about altitude and attitude. Big grades and technical corners flow one after another – one climbs and carves though about 2500 to 3000 feet of altitude in about 15 miles. I don’t know a lot of Interstate highways I actually like to ride, but this is definitely one of them. It doesn’t hurt that the gateway to this hilly, curvy rider’s paradise is The Sideling Hill Road Cut – one of the more spectacularly scenic bits of US Highway engineering – a view made more spectacular this morning by the mountain carrying a back filled with peak fall colors.   It also doesn’t hurt that a now departed fellow rider used to begin every major riding trip watching the sun rise over Sideling Hill.  I never pass the place without feeling his joyful presence and sharing his anticipation of a great ride to come.

Autumn on Sideling Hill
Photo by SDFB

Having Joyed though, it was time to boogie, and we carved our way up the mountain until we got to the top of the next ridge, which put us on Orleans Road, headed into Maryland’s Green Ridge State Forest.  Coming off of I-68 the road cuts through open farm country, and right past the home and garages – yes plural — of my bud Moto Loco Tio Pepe. Ordinarily I’d never pass by without a social call, but it was time to ride, Muchachos. Orleans Road is a motorcyclist’s joy – increasingly curvy combinations drop towards the C&O Canal and the Potomac River until one arrives at Bill’s Place and the 15 Mile Campground.    

Sweet Doris from Baltimore wanted to go to the Green Ridge Scenic Overlooks – a series of small patios that overlook bends in the Potomac. We’d taken a group of our friends camping in one of the unimproved group camping areas years ago, and our hike to one of the overlooks was one of the highlights of a trip that itself was one of the nicest camping trips we’ve ever taken. The first mobile phone I ever owned that had a camera had the view from the overlook as the background photo – it was that nice. Sweet D also wanted to visit Oldtown – one of the few places along the C&O canal where the Canal is at its original operating width —  further south towards DC the B&O Railroad added insult to injury by putting the Canal out of business and stealing part of its width for their trackbed.

Just above Bill’s and 15 Mile, we made a right into the Little Orleans campground.  At the other end of the campground I saw a sign that read “Orleans Oldtown Road”. As seat of the pants navigation cues go, and being a man in Little Orleans, that wanted to go to Oldtown, this seemed like a pretty good choice. 

And it was a pretty good choice – if you were riding a middleweight dual sport bike.

Two up, on a heavyweight touring road motorcycle, it might have been a less good choice.

Three corners later, when the surface turned to a slick combination of packed clay, gravel and exposed sandstone, and a hot rodded Subaru slid by, hanging it out, throwing dirt rally-style, it didn’t actually seem like any kind of good choice at all.

I don’t scare easy, but I do scare, if the situation warrants it.  

In these valleys formed by the bends of The Potomac, there are ridges made of harder stone separated by little canyons defined by the smaller creeks that feed into the big river.  At first, as we worked our way down Oldtown Orleans Road, passing primitive camp sites – all inhabited – the road was pretty tame.  I entered the Sense of False Security Zone, as I almost began to believe that because the K1200LT has a sturdy engine bash plate, it must be an Adventure Bike.

This, it should be noted, is absolutely not correct.

As we topped a little ridge, my road(-less) craft had me scanning a climb around the next corner that looked like one I’d hate to lose purchase on with this much mass of motorcycle. It was right about then I realized that Little Orleans is at the bottom of one of those little canyons, and Oldtown is at the bottom of the next one up the river.    The direct route from here to there meant at least one steep climb and one steep descent, and being responsible for my passenger meant this was no time for On The Job Training.   After a brief conversation with a young family – in another Subaru, ‘natch – we doubled back to a side road we’d passed a few miles back, and after a brief thrash down a rutted stretch that seems to run on bare sandstone, pulled up to one of the Overlooks.

The view from The Overlooks never ceases to take one’s breath away.  The viewpoint sits 3 or 4 hundred feet above the river – the river’s bend fills one’s entire field of view, entering from the left horizon, rolling underneath you and exiting from the right horizon — and from that vantage point it’s as close to flying as one can get with one’s boots on the ground.

After some contemplation of Mother Nature’s Architecture as Google Maps, and one of those inevitable encounters with a small child that thought that our motorcycle and ourselves was the single coolest thing he had ever seen in his life – we need more of those kids – we were back aboard the ship and beating back out of the canyon.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore tapped me on the shoulder to communicate.

“Greggy…. I feel the wheel slippin’…I’m nervous…”

I reassured her that we’d be OK, and would be back on the pavement after a couple of slidy miles.

While at the overlook, I’d shot a look at Google maps on my phone, and had a new route to Oldtown that had some nice riding for us.  Flintstone is the next town west going up the interstate, and has, running away from it, a road called Murley’s Branch Road, that cuts south through the next valley and back down to the river at Oldtown.  Flintstone is a such small village that finding Murley’s Branch Road couldn’t be hard – Flintstone is a one road that goes east/west and one road that goes north/south kind of town – how hard could it be? The revised route to Oldtown would be all pavement, with one run up one canyon, and another run south through the next one.

Perfect. And I had as good a mental picture of the topography as any guy that doesn’t make use of GPS on a motorcycle can have.

Running back up Orleans Road back to the interstate became a bit of a sporting run – I’ve been spending a fair amount of time running up and down to 15 Mile to support some of Sweet Doris’ recumbent trike through riding and camping efforts along the C&O canal, so the road has become very familiar.  After a spirited run back up to I-68, we beat west toward Flintstone and the next canyon run back to the river.

After 12 miles or so on cruise – at the bike’s more natural 80 mph pace – we exited the slab again in Flintstone, and, as anticipated, Murley’s Branch was the only road leading out of town. Cake.

Murley’s Branch feels like a road that could be in my Jefferson backyard – it runs though farm country, with hedgerows running beside the road which — like most Mid-Atlantic Roads named after streams — twists and turns as it follows Murley’s Branch back down to the Potomac.    In a lot of places the road isn’t really a full two lanes – the double yellow line is MIA and its up to the rider to manage road position to defend against the occasional errant pickup truck.   Murley’s Branch felt comfortable to me though, so I just kept the Brick in its happy zone while I stayed in my rider’s focus happy zone, and worked our way back though the curves down towards Oldtown.  

Running hot alongside a hillside, we exited a corner to see another motorcycle coming in the other direction.  Given a closing rate somewhere around 100 mph, I only got maybe a second’s close look, but it was enough.  Round headlight, red tank with a black centerband, black sidecovers, carbon exhaust can and a lean rider wearing all black textile riding gear.

I burst out laughing in my helmet.

Somewhere around 80 miles from home, on a completely improvised ride in the certifiable middle of nowhere, and I was a sure as I could be that we’d just passed our good friend Triumph Paul with his two week old Triumph Speed Twin. I tried a look over my shoulder and saw him set up for the next corner, and then he was gone.

The riding universe sure has a sense of humor – four states within an easy day’s ride of Jefferson, and Triumph Paul and ourselves somehow end up on the same remote goat path of a road.

I tapped Sweet Doris from Baltimore on the knee, and when she opened her visor, I said – “That was Paul!”

She had a good laugh too.

Right after the Paul Fly-by, the road began to climb sharply – with steep grades and switchbacks that were a tad tight for a rig this size. My mental map knew if we were climbing next ridge, we’d missed a turn – in this case Cresap Mill Road, named for one of Oldtown’s significant historical figures – Michael Cresap, who had been a brutal guerrilla leader in both the Indian and Revolutionary Wars.  I slowed as we reached the summit, and gave thanks for another unplanned backtrack, as the vista down the mountain into Cumberland, Maryland was literally breathtaking.  We enjoyed the view for a few minutes from the saddle, then brought the ship around and carved back down the mountain to pick up our missed turn.    

Cresap’s Mill Road connects farm after farm at the south end of the valley.  Its isn’t the fastest way to anywhere, but its fun while it lasts.  It lasted a tad too long for Sweet D, who was tapping me on the back and asking me if I knew where the heck I was going.  Fortunately, Maryland Route 51 rolled up at that moment, which is the road that parallels the river — ten minutes later we were standing beside the bike in the C&O Canal National Park parking lot at the Oldtown Lockhouse.

We took a little walk to survey the canal, which at Oldtown is one of the few remaining places where it exists at its full width as it was originally designed — it’s a lot more impressive than the turtle filled ditch that exists further down towards DC.

We’d sliced though our share of cool autumn air, and a pair of gurgly tummy noises underscored that  food was starting to seem like a really good idea. Oldtown is a pretty small and remote community, and my inner planning dialogue was thinking we might need to ride as far back as Hancock to score a decent meal.  As the LT rolled back to Maryland 51, though, there was a small, hand-lettered sign that read “Food and Drink”.

The C&O Canal at Oldtown

I pointed to the sign. I got a thumbs-up in response.

When we hit the other end of town, we were greeted by the sight of the Schoolhouse Kitchen – a diner built in what appeared to be a school cafeteria.  Once inside, our theory was immediately confirmed – the walls were lined with pictures of the graduating classes of Oldtown High School stretching back into the 1920s. As I looked at the photos of the classes of 1939 through 1945, history was directly visible in the fact that those graduating classes were almost entirely comprised of women – all the men had been overseas at war — a sobering thing. Sometime after 1999, though, Oldtown had become too small to support its own school, and the building had passed into private hands, where it now supported the Schoolhouse Kitchen, an upholstery shop, an automobile repair facility, a performance space, and probably a few other things that escaped our attention.  The only thing that didn’t escape our attention was a pair of cheese steak subs and a shared order of fries that brought our collective blood sugar readings back to positive numbers and vastly improved our mood and attitude.

Thus biologically refueled, and with the sun going down, I showed Sweet Doris how to work the LT’s heated saddle control and then pulled some fleeces on under our armored gear and headed back to I-68. Heading back up Cresaps Mill and Murley’s Branch roads, I had to dial things back a notch as the deer began to make themselves apparent. I’d already had one near miss in the last several days, and had no desire to increment my Bambi count.  We made it back to I-68, and less than an hour later, we were home starting the woodstove and enjoying a Beebweepa Ale from Baltimore’s Nepenthe Brewing.

I traded texts with Triumph Paul, who confirmed he had indeed been out by Flintstone, and sent us a view from that amazing Cumberland Overlook as proof.

It was great to have Girlfriend back on the pillion behind me, her hands on my hips, moving together through the mountain curves. During the time we’d raised our three children – including one second generation Motorcyclist – Sweet D had made a decision that we risked too much to ride together, and it was not the sort of thing about which I could disagree. Time had passed, our children were now independent adults, and the remainder of our lives were now visible in the road right in front of us. I’d suspected just how much I’d missed riding with Sweet Doris from Baltimore, but this lovely autumn colors ride had confirmed it.

Its hard to imagine a better ride.

Aftermath of a Tough Day At The Office