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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Being a motorcyclist, on a fundamental level, is a primary indicator of out-of-stepness.
“I’m completely normal,” you protest.
You’re not fooling anyone, and you know it.
Maybe for you, the motorcycle is a toy.
For others of you, perhaps a sport.
To me, though, its both a tool and a way of life. My motorcycles need to have utility – to provide a capability to get you and your stuff – whatever that might be – from here to there. When work was a place you had to go, a motorcycle was the way to get there. Getting groceries, or goodies, or beer are all great reasons to go for a ride. If the beer needs to be picked up in Wisconsin, so much the better.
Business travel provided me with opportunities to tour the Carolinas, Georgia, Indiana, and New England. Need to go to Texas? When do I need to be there?
Generally, the riding I like to do best involves distance – time in the saddle, and days at a time worth to quiet the clamor of so-called modern life’s wireless phones and inbound e-mails.
You say it’s a toy, I say it’s a lens though which enlightenment can be brought into focus.
I’m not fooling anyone, either.
The Indian Motorcycle Company dropped a FTR1200 S Race Replica here last week.
This motorcycle is absolutely useless. I love it.
Like a lot of you, I followed the early reports that Indian was plotting to seriously contest the American Flat Track Racing Series with a certain rabid quality. For very many years, Flat Track had been a series of companies who felt they could slide in the dirt better than the venerable Harley Davidson XR 750, and, with occasional help from the series rule makers, ultimately couldn’t, lost interest, and just wandered off. With Indian, though, there was emotion and history involved. From the earliest days of the sport, and even before the dirt when the bikes were raced on the deadly dangerous boardtracks, Harley and Indian had been deadly enemies. Harley had not always been victorious. At times it got so ugly that fists were thrown – an Indian Racebike with technological advantages – the first 4 valve overhead valve heads – disappeared under suspicious circumstances, no doubt shortening the enemy’s development process.
This shit was personal.
And it might not be 1912 anymore, and today’s Indian Motorcycle Company might not be able to draw the straightest line back to the Indian Motocycle Company, but there had been bad blood, and there was money to be made, races to be won and bikes to be sold, and memories turned out to be surprisingly and vividly long.
The bike that Indian designed to put it back in the hunt – the FTR 750 — proved to be worthy of the legend and the history.
After an embarrassingly short competition teething period, the FTR flipped the script on Harley’s XR and was sweeping podiums, and they never really stopped.
To win, Indian had acquired SwissAuto, an engineering firm with a long history of building winning grand prix automobile and motorcycle racing engines, and went to work. The engine was a clean sheet of paper design using modern powertrain tech – water cooling, double overhead cams, 4 valve heads, EFI, counterbalancing, short stroke in a 53 degree V configuration with Indian’s traditional gear primary drive. The result was good for 109 horses and a top speed over 140 miles an hour. Soon the only view anyone got of the FTR was a roost’s eye view that just got smaller and smaller as it just kept pulling away.
For Indian not to produce a street legal version of that motorcycle would have been professional malpractice.
So it wasn’t too long after the podium roundup began that the rumors, and the renders, and eventually a concept bike appeared. By May of 2019, pre-production motorcycles were in the wild and in the hands of the moto-press. By September, the Motorcycle Shows had production examples, including the Race Replica S models, with higher spec electronic rider aides, brakes, suspension and a competition exhaust. Oh, and the same black red and white colorways – complete with the billboard sized old-school Indian Script on the tank and red trellis frame – as the dominant FTR 750.
The bike stone looked the business.
I really wanted to see if riding the bike delivered what the looks promised.
Indian and I talked about the FTR for a long time. I’d been inquiring about the Rally Model, which looked like it might be a more practical and versatile everyday ride.
Boy am I glad that didn’t work out.
As the first hopeful movements towards unlocking the pandemic lockdowns began, Indian advised me they had a bike coming open on the east coast.
Did I mind that the motorcycle was an ‘S’ model?
Oh, no. Not at all.
We settled on a date for delivery. The delivery date was designed to help me make a publication deadline – it was tight, in terms of having time to ride the bike, do my analysis, and actually write an article. Two days before that date Indian’s PR Contractor checked in to tell me that the previous journalist had allowed the motorcycle to take some form of unintentional nap and it would need to be transported to a dealership to have the damage repaired.
So much for my deadline.
Another long time with minimal to no contact ensued.
Forgive me if I confide that I was beginning to think they were just messing with me.
Then, without warning one recent Friday afternoon, my phone started blowing up. The first call came up on the caller ID as Santos – I was on another call and couldn’t pick up – Santos left a message. In rapid succession I got e-mails and then a phone call from Billy Tinnell, who manages the Press Fleet for Indian’s PR Contractor.
Did I mind if they dropped the bike off today?
Oh, no. Not at all.
After I got off the phone, I called Santos back.
The Gentleman that picked up the phone wanted to know if I wanted my motorcycle delivered this evening – GPS was telling him he was about 45 minutes away.
Sure. Bring it by.
Then the nice gentleman asked if I could give him a check for transport of the motorcycle.
“No. That is not my motorcycle, it belongs to Indian. You need to work any issues of payment out with them – if you expect me to pay you, you should not bring the bike here.”
“Ok. I call them. GPS says I’ll be there around 6:05.”
Turns out our man had already been paid. He got to my house at 7.
When the truck pulled up, our man had nothing at all to say.
He had a professional transport trailer – a tandem axle beast of about 30 feet, with three different loading ramps. There was a very early GPz 1000 in the bed of the truck which looked a little rough. I asked him if he knew a lot about motorcycles. He didn’t answer.
When the front door came down, the trailer was clearly fully loaded with bikes. On either side of the FTR was a vintage Bonneville and a Yamaha 250 2-stroke dirtbike. He unstrapped the FTR and rolled if off and onto the pavement. He produced the key, inserted it into the motorcycle, and armed the ignition. He pressed the FTR’s starter button, and the engine swung though 5, then 7 compression strokes before the engine finally caught. He revved the engine several times, then turned off the key.
He produced a clipboard from the truck, with a delivery receipt in place – he pointed to the signature line and handed me a pen.
I signed the receipt. He got in the truck, reversed the huge rig out of the end of my cul de sac, and turned off down the road.
Between the attempted shakedown and the contactless/wordless bike drop, never have I been so entirely creeped out by a motorcycle delivery.
Is there a Yelp! for motorcycle transport services?
Perhaps a ride would help me clear my head.
After gearing up, I swung a leg over the FTR and turned the key. Like the Roadmaster I had tested previously, the S Model FTR has a full color LCD touch screen display that it calls Ride Command. Upon power-up, the display does a little animation featuring the Indian logo and then comes up to a liability waiver screen – “Motorcycling berry Dangerous – OK?”. While I eventually learned that, if ignored, the screen would clear on its own, this time I touched the “OK” button, and then pressed the FTR’s Autostart button – which will keep the starter activated until the engine starts. This time the engine fired on about the third compression stroke, and came up to a slightly elevated, if somewhat lumpy idle.
The motorcycle’s electronic dash is bright, clean and informative. In the default mode, it displays a round analog tachometer, digital speedo, along with gear position indicator, fuel gauge, and a temperature and compass display. For digital natives, a quick swipe brings up a more techno bar graph speedo and digital speedo combo. The display is capable of providing additional layers of customization, switching between Rain, Street and Sport control modes, along with the ability to disable all of the rider aides in a protected ‘Track Mode’. It also provides the ability to display and potentially clear diagnostic information coming from the engine and chassis management systems.
I’m not much on many motorcyclic electronics, but a bike that tells you where it hurts is something I think I’d find useful. Let’s hear it for technology.
Toeing the FTR down into gear produced a precise and deterministic thunk. Rolling down the driveway I released the clutch and only the bike’s rolling momentum keep me from stalling it.
Ok – a 1200 cc twin with minimal flywheel or low end torque – a cruiser this clearly wasn’t. Trolling through the neighborhood, being tentative with the throttle, trying to come to grips with the bike’s behavior, the FTR was a cold blooded, hunting, unhappy thing. Being accustomed to old carbureted, analog moto-things that provide nice linear response to throttle from ridiculously low RPMs, and that deal gracefully with low speed, even throttle operations, this high strung, digitally managed performance motorcycle was going to take some getting used to.
Turning down the hill toward Brookside, the FTR began to make sense. For a 5 foot 8 inch tall guy, the seating position was standard motorcycle perfect – the wide, flat ProTaper Tracker bars were exactly so – providing lots of leverage with just the tiniest amount of forward lean. The front end – despite the dirt track pattern Dunlop tires – felt solid and planted, without a hint of knobby tire handling weirdness. The footpegs – which are aluminum waffle castings the likes of which I’ve never before seen – sit directly and just a tad rearward of the rider. The riding position is classic sit-up-and-beg – if you’re out to slide around the blue groove on a dirt oval, or, as it turns out, if you’re going to storm the corners on the mountains of the Blue Ridge, the rider is in command of this motorcycle.
The frame of the FTR – which is painted a genuinely stunning shade of ‘Are You Sure I’m Not Italian’ Red – is of a trellis design not unlike those of Ducati, and more recently, those of KTM. The swingarm is also a well braced, asymmetric trellis, with a ZF Sachs monoshack mounted on the right side of the bike. As we cleared 50 mph, and I worked the bike back and forth underneath me, the structure of the bike was somehow rigid but communicative, with just the right amount of flex – it felt alive underneath me.
Coming out of Brookside, and back up the hill across 340, some heat started to come into the engine, and coolant temp leveled off at an indicated 176 degrees F … a fair amount lower than my four wheeled vehicles, which usually have 195 degree thermostats. There’s a long straight on the other side of 340 with good sightlines and no side roads, and as I cleared the highway I rolled the throttle open.
Long habit had me moving my weight forward – despite knowing the FTR’s Bosch Motorcycle Stability Control provides ‘wheelie mitigation’ in its core feature set – to guard against the power wheelie that never came. Once the tach cleared 4500 rpm, the big twin came absolutely alive – the handlebars were ringing with the individual power pulses, and the Indian just went into Millennium Falcon mode – the harder the bike accelerated, the harder it accelerated – once into the powerband, the big twin delivered as much huge, torquey power as it is possible to use (mostly) legally on the road. I’d vaporized the gap between 45 mph and triple digits in a little over a second – my Zero SR/F testbike did that same relativistic jump thing with no vibration and only a tiny motor whine – while this FTR 1200 S was a full immersion internal combustion total sensory overload.
I took the right at St. Mark’s Road, and headed down the hill toward the bottoms. St. Marks is one of the county’s one lane little goatpaths – the surface is rough and uneven, and the road can scarcely stay straight for more than three bikelengths. Agility is what St. Mark’s selects for, and the FTR was in its element down here. The climb back up from the creekbed is steep, bumpy and curvy, and on the gas the FTR just ate it up.
Five miles doesn’t tell one very much about a new motorcycle, and as it sat back on the stand on my driveway, making every heat dissipating sound known to science, the FTR had told me enough that I knew I had homework – I had more questions that only more miles could answer.
Saturday night, I got a text.
Most Saturday nights, I don’t get any texts.
It was Triumph Paul.
“Skyline Sunday Morning?”
I leaned over toward Sweet Doris from Baltimore.
“Paul wants to know if I want to ride Skyline Drive tomorrow morning.”
“Hell yeah, you want to ride the Skyline tomorrow morning.”
There are days when I have no questions at all about why I share my life with this woman. This would be one of those days.
At eight am the next morning, Triumph Paul and his 1200 Tiger pulled into the driveway. It was sticky out – fog was everywhere, and the weather report was not looking real great. We did a little route debrief in the end of the driveway, then buckled in, and headed for the highway.
After the right turn out of my neighborhood, one has the nearly immediate choice to ride Maryland 180 – the Jefferson Pike – or to afterburner onto US 340 – a four lane divided highway that blasts west into West Virginia and off towards Front Royal, where The Skyline Drive begins. As soon as I had some heat in the engine, I gave the FTR some throttle and found myself adopting an absolutely effortless 85 mile an hour cruise. Most naked motorcycles would thrash you at this kind of elevated cruise speed, but between the abbreviated headlight streamlining and the riding position I was in clean air with the minimal bodywork keeping most of the wind pressure off my chest. The bike’s ZF Sachs monoshock and inverted fork were taut, well controlled and working perfectly at these road speeds – working the bike back and forth underneath me I had the sensation of being positioned to make the bike respond to my every gesture.
Triumph Paul and I kept up a nice fighter plane stagger as we crossed the bridges on the Potomac and then the Shenandoah at Harpers Ferry. Climbing up the big grade towards Charles Town, Paul and I topped the ridge and then punched into something the weather report said shouldn’t be there – sunshine and clear blue skies. My glasses and visor, which had been nearly misted over mere seconds before, cleared nearly instantly as Paul and I stopped for a traffic light.
Triumph Paul slowly scanned the skies around us, then looked over at me and gave a comically large shrug. For every ride skunked by a rainy day no one saw coming, this was revenge – sometimes everything does go your way. The light changed and we gassed it, hammering up through the gears.
340 West of Charles Town is a lovely mix of four lane highway and winding rural roads. Paul and I kept the pace up, and rolled into Front Royal in no time flat. With only 70 miles on the clocks, and no services up on The Drive, I still needed to call for the first of my gas stops. Gassing the FTR is a bit of an oddball exercise – unlocking the cap removes it from the opening, leaving you with a cap in your hand and a very spartan and spare motorcycle with no obvious place to put it. Inside the fuel filler opening is a white plastic funnel that leads into a plenum that flows to the underseat tank. Filling it completely – and with this kind of restricted capacity and range, you’d better be filling it completely – requires patience, time and aim.
After some gasoline and caffeine added, we saddled back up and headed up the hill. Just outside of town a nicely banked left has one entering Shenandoah National Park. At the top of the park’s driveway is the CCC era log cabin tollgate, where a genuinely extravagant toll will be extracted. Extravagant, yes, but the Skyline Drive is worth it.
My Weather.com outlook had said today would be mostly cloudly, with showers starting just after noon. Here at about 10 a.m., it was cloudless and sunny, with temperatures in the lows 70s. After a snotty night like the one we’d just been through, it can be slick on shaded mountain roads like these, but the pavement was surprisingly dry, except for the slightest of damp bits in between the wheel ruts of the road.
The first few miles inside the gate are usually littered with seemingly disoriented tourists, so it’s a good place to go slow and acclimate to one’s surroundings. The sightlines and rhythm of the Skyline Drive – like its sister road the Blue Ridge Parkway further south – are unlike any other riding I do. Skyline is like a moto-amusement park, with mile upon mile of forested mountain road, shady technical curving stretches broken up by occasional blasts across a ridgeline, with stone walls separating the road from the mountain valleys below. And that little jazz figure just keeps coming back around and coming back with subtle but exquisite variations. It’s a song you can play till you run out of gasoline, which happens well before you run out of road.
Triumph Paul lead initially – I had this muscular beast of a motorcycle I’d just barely gotten acquainted with. As we worked our way towards lower tourist density, he picked up the pace a bit which his 1200 cc triple certainly let him do. I found the FTR’s desired jockey position – balanced on balls of feet with a comfortable forward lean – the big Indian responded transparently to my every request. I’d expected the Flat Tracker to be a tail happy, sluggish steerer – instead it was demonstrating a road racer’s poise. After several miles of letting Paul set the pace while I got acclimated, we came through an intersection for one of the Campgrounds and as we swapped positions, I found myself and the FTR in clean, open air.
I’ll admit I got a little immoderate with the throttle, and apparently that is just what the FTR prefers, and it isn’t shy about telling you so. Going through the lower gears and shifting at a very conservative 6500 rpm against the bikes 9000 rpm hard redline was making things telescope into the future – the bike simply consumed miles of corners thrown at it with minimal drama – keeping the RPMs in the bike’s happy zone in 4th gear allowed the FTR to be completely managed on the gas… occasional typical Skyline hairpins required dropping to third…. using engine braking to set speed to the corner and brisk throttle just before the apex producing this grin-inducing blast of thrust that powered you out. No levels of aggression I was willing to exhibit on someone else’s motorcycle seemed to phase the FTR in the slightest – both the front and rear suspension were working well to keep the bike precisely on line albeit with perhaps a bit too much compression damping – if it were my motorcycle I might back an adjuster off in favor of some compliance – whatever about the rest of me, my spine is not 29. At no point did the faux dirty Dunlops issue any sign of distress no matter how hard they were pushed in the corners. Entering corners on hard engine braking was absolutely drama free between the bike’s slipper clutch and the Bosch MSC system, which will cut trailing throttle (accelerate?) to keep an engine braking tire well and truly hooked up. Open the throttle as hard as you care to and the problem reverses as the FTR’s twin comes on the pipe, makes a lovely racebike roar, with only the occasional slightest wiggle from the back tire under power indicating that MSC’s lean sensitive traction control was working to keep the bike in between the physics model’s guardrails.
After a few miles of sporting corners, it isn’t at all hard to understand how Indian’s Current factory race team – Jared Mees, and Brothers Briar and Bronson Bauman — have been able to string so many podium finishes together if the street going FTR is even a shadow of the Racing Motorcycle. Every corner exit with the FTR’s 1200 ccs on the boil makes one feel like you’re being propelled by the steel shoed boot of God himself – if one has the bike pointed in the right direction it doesn’t feel physically possible that someone might outsprint you to the line.
The exit from the drive for US 211 at Thornton Gap came up unspeakably fast.
“My god that went by quick” said Triumph Paul.
“Well, we could turn around and run it in the other direction.”
Triumph Paul was clearly of the opinion that there was no honor in riding a backtrack. We headed down the entertaining mountain descent of US 211 in the direction of Sperryville and eventually home.
There’s lot of US211 and 29 heading across Northern Virginia – expansive four lane divided highways all — and I continued to be pleasantly surprised how comfortable and unstressed the diminutive FTR felt at elevated speed. There is never any doubt that there is a big motor working down there – there’s a thrum in the bars that is noticeable but never crosses into downright objectionable. Paul and I swapped positions and played hopscotch across the counties – occasionally blitzing an errant automobile that had blundered into our playground. Opening the throttle wide, hearing the blast from the exhaust, and rolling up and spitting out a passed vehicle was a thrill – it might have been too easy but it just never got old.
Our route took us through some of NoVA’s riding highlights – up US 17 though Delaplaine and Sky Meadows State Park to Paris, and my personal favorite – VA 255 that cuts back to US 340 and comes back out in our backyard. 255 is a goat path of a road that strings together colonial period churchyards, stone walls and villages with shaded straights and 90 degree paired colonial property line corners. When 255 dumped us back out on 340, Triumph Paul looked distinctly distressed.
“I could definitely ride that one again…”
I slapped my helmet visor shut, and gassed it hard and ran east through the gears.
At Charles Town I called time again – the Indian’s fuel gauge had just turned an angry red. At the Shell on 340 I took on another three gallons of premium. A little hydration for the attached human seemed like a good idea, too.
Paul and I didn’t ride 340 for very long – we exited at Maryland 67, which is a road that is well adapted for top speed testing – an opportunity we flirted with a few times, but didn’t actually avail ourselves of. We cut toward home on Gathland Road toward Burkettsville, on roads that are my home roads.
On the other side of the village, Burkettsville Road slices back toward Jefferson, making huge changes in elevation and combinations of 90 degree corners every time the road crosses the wandering Catoctin Creek. On one of the crossings the pavement cuts hard up a hill – staying to the right and then pitching the FTR against the hillside had me coming up against the wheelie control with the rear squirming for traction.
And then it was quiet – save the many sounds of metal quickly cooling – as the FTR and Tiger sat on their stands in the driveway.
Sweet Doris from Baltimore appeared in the front door.
“You boys look like you could use a sandwich.”
That sandwich sounded like a really good idea.
With the FTR sitting in my garage, I rode it at every opportunity, including for a few missions for which it was wildly unsuited. Pressed into service as a grocery getter – me with a backpack on — seemed downright undignified – kinda like riding Secretariat to 7/11. It was a flimsy excuse to ride the thing though, and there was absolutely no requirement to take either the shortest way there or the shortest way back either, so sue me.
On one 20 mile 5 mile ride to the Weis Market, I dismounted, removed my helmet, and was accosted by ‘The Enthusiast’. I’m fairly confident you’ve had these little encounters, or if you haven’t, you soon will.
“Oooooooooooh, is that an Innnnndian? My pee-paw down in Texas had an Indian when I was just a little bitty….”
My new best buddy was slight of stature, and spoke in a high, reedy Texas twang. I started to get the strange and disorienting impression that I had broken through television’s fourth wall and was face to face with ‘Big Bang Theory’s’ Sheldon Cooper.
“…After the war he bought all the parts from Army Surplus and put it together himself. I rode with him everywhere we looooved that Motorcycle. Do they make these again now? That is sooooooo cool…”.
After providing some context and good fellowship with The Enthusiast, I bid him adieu and went within to fill my backback with frozen dairy products.
On the way back the FTR did its level best to accelerate hard enough that we got home before we left – a nice feature when delivering Breyer’s.
When Indian had told me they were providing the Race Replica model, I immediately had a flash of inspiration as to how I wanted to photograph the bike. Frederick Maryland, until this pandemic year, has run an annual 4th of July Flat Track – The Barbara Fritchie Classic. The Fritchie, which until 2020 was the longest continually run flat track event in the United States, is run at the Frederick County Fairgrounds, which are all of 8 miles from the Rolling Physics Problem Top Secret HQ. I’ve seen some extraordinary racing at those fairgrounds, and I knew the crushed limestone of the track, the inside rail and the old covered grandstands would look like the natural habitat of the free range FTR.
I’d gone to a fair amount of trouble to work through people involved with the race who I knew had access to fairgrounds management, and the plan felt like it was coming together until it felt like it was coming apart. The Fairgrounds, under Maryland’s public health orders, was technically a crowd event location that was closed by order of the Governor. As the planned date approached, the orders were lifted to allow the Fairgrounds to open – serendipity was in flight.
My arrangements went down the tubes when one of the participants flaked out.
Getting the FTR on roads with which I was better acquainted did help to raise my comfort levels with what was a pretty challenging motorcycle. I got crisper and more demonstrative with the throttle, and the bike’s ECU translated that into better response. On my favorite stretch of Arnoldstown Road, I was able to gently loft the wheel under power three times in close succession , with the knowledge and confidence that I could keep accelerating, and the MSC would keep the bike from over rotating, which was strangely comforting.
I experimented with the bike’s ‘Sport’ mode – which is supposed to change the power delivery and disable the ‘wheelie mitigation’ function of the MSC. If there was a difference in power delivery, I couldn’t feel it, and given a choice with this muscular critter, I found the ‘wheelie mitigation’ was something I’d rather leave engaged, thankyouverymuch. ‘Road’ mode it would be, then.
Having got my FTR pictures, I now felt liberated to get the bike dirty with impunity. Let’s face it, with this motorcycle, limestone dust should almost be required. Frederick County still has its dirt farm roads, and the FTR really likes it there. Making fun of loose surfaces is what the FTR was built to do, so we made fun of them together at every opportunity. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle that was as easy to break loose and slide in the dirt as this FTR – it was entirely too easy. I haven’t tried the Siegler Road stream ford with it – that battery case fits a little bit low out there in front of that engine – but there’s always tomorrow.
In my garage right now I have an embarrassment of motorcycle riches. There’s my airhead BMWs – 90S and R75 – my son Finn’s CB500 – which is GTd out with a Givi screen and hard case set – this Indian FTR and a newly arrived MotoGuzzi V85TT. Which bike gets the nod is a function of my mood. If relaxation is the goal, though, the FTR does not get rolled out into the light.
The Indian FTR 1200 S is a motorcycle enthusiasts have been begging American motorcycle manufacturers to make for as long as I have been a motorcyclist. Despite the Flat Tracker backstory, the FTR is the most unapologetically muscular sporting standard motorcycle that any American OEM has made in my lifetime. No other motorcycle both embraces and seeks to move forward from this uniquely American genuine motorcycle performance history. No bones about it though, riding the FTR requires intensity and focus. This is no posey sniffer of a bike.
With its 1200 ccs of DOHC twin putting down, you’d better know just where you are and just where you’re pointed. Running out of room happens in one big hurry with this kind of top end snap. At peak output, its extreme, its violent, its scary.
The bike’s Ride Command system has a ‘Nuclear Launch Code’ sequence that allows one to unlock ‘Race’ mode, which completely disables the bike’s Motorcycle Stability Controls. I have a realistic view of my skills as a motorcyclist, and I wouldn’t find that to be an attractive option. Your mileage, as always, may vary.
You’re not going to go cruising, or touring, or commuting, or grocery getting on an FTR 1200S. The bike has no usable fuel capacity or range. The pilot is profoundly aware of the thousands of explosions that power the beast – at peak output there is tons of heat, the bars thrum on the power. The FTR is not polite – its delightfully raw and unrefined. Its horn sounds like the voice of Tweety Bird coming out of the mouth of the Incredible Hulk.
But you’re just not going to care, and neither do I.
Come launching out of a corner at 7000 rpm in third or fourth gear and you’ll be cackling like a certified madman. As the bike squats on the power and makes the background blur, it blasts forward in search of its next corner to vaporize.
We asked American motorcycle companies to make us a monster, and with the FTR 1200 S, they did.
Hunter S. Thompson used to joke that the story he was about to tell you couldn’t possibly be true – that his job as a writer was construct an epic tall tale around the scarcest tiny shred of truth, and make it all but impossible to pick that shred of truth out of the gumbo of blarney that made up the rest of it.
As a writer’s stratagem, it’s a genius move that recalls a hall of mirrors.
You don’t know whether he’s shitting you about the story, or shitting you about shitting you.
You take it all apart, and you got nothing.
And since this is a story about crime, it might as well start with a theft – I’ll brazenly steal HST’s technique of telling you that although there might be some shred of truth to this tale, it couldn’t possibly be objectively true.
We motorcycle writers, you know, are prone to embellishment, to spinning ripping yarns – it’s not like we’re journalists or anything.
The whole deal didn’t go the way it was supposed to.
After much anticipation, I finally got my hands on Indian’s FTR 1200 S Race Replica – their performance flat track replica.
After riding it for a very short time, I had a very clear picture in my head of how to capture a picture of what Indian was driving at with the FTR.
I’d spent some time on the phone lobbying a man we’ll call Richard – who, in his normal role as the Promoter of the Barbara Fritchie Motorcycle Flat Track Race, has some contacts at the Frederick Fairgrounds – to get me into The Track for a photoshoot.
Richard was a sport about the whole thing, made a few calls, and arranged to have someone meet him at the Fairgrounds and shepherd us around. Richard ended up delivering a bike he’d sold, we ran late, and the guy stood Richard up.
After hunting around for the fairgrounds for a few minutes, and not being able to get in, Richard gave up and said he’d call his guy and shoot for a re-do later next week.
He left. I didn’t.
I kept lapping the outside of the fairgrounds, and finally saw one entrance being misused by a work crew, dove in and headed for the track entrance up the other end of the compound between turns 1 and 2.
I followed the golden rule – look like you know what you’re doing. I was completely inconspicuous on a hot rodded, carbon fiber flat track racebike – nobody gave me a second look.
Got the bike out onto the track (!) – the racing surface was surprisingly soft – set the bike on the Start/Finish line and hustled through getting my shots.
I remember telling Richard at one point that I didn’t want to do any laps. At this point I’m thinking, though, “Well, I’m already trespassing, I mean WTF.”
There was a long period of consideration before I elected not to push my so far good luck.
I ran the FTR back around and off the track, and past the same work crew that hadn’t taken any notice of me on the way in.
I was talking to Ian up at Fredericktown Yamaha/Triumph, and he’d mentioned to me that people had been ordering more motorcycle parts from his dealership than any time he could recall.
It seems being ‘Restricted to Barracks’ – as we’ve been since the appearance of The Disease – can have the non-trivial effect of kicking off an entire universe of “When We Get Around To Its”.
Think about that for just a second.
Almost every rider you know has some motorcycle project – something where heart has told the head to head in – that’s been sitting in some corner of the garage waiting for a chance to get around to it.
You know what these projects look like.
Big KZs under an army surplus tarp and a whole lotta dust.
37 Green Spring Dairy green plastic milk crates with all of the parts to a 42 Indian.
The XS650 Marty had back before he got married, that he thinks he could get running again.
If he just had a chance to get around to it.
We all got a chance to get around to it sometime in the beginning of April.
On my way out of the shop, I stopped to admire a bike in the service queue that looked to be a 68 Bonneville. It was sitting on some flattened Dunlops of a type I’m pretty sure they stopped making sometime in the late 80s. The bike was startlingly original – there were a few subtle club and ‘Sponsor’ type stickers – ‘Champion Spark Plugs!” — that would have been applied when the bike was new – even the passenger peg covers – made of white rubber – were original, and safety wired on when they cracked in use so that they wouldn’t rattle off.
That bike had been sitting in some garage corner for a good long time waiting for someone to get around to it.
And now here it was – headed back to the road. And here we all are. Headed to someplace we don’t really know and with no way of knowing when we might get there.
So we all have a universe of time on our hands. Whole motorcycles are getting built. Old motorcycles are getting fixed. And any hot rodding or customization projects that anyone has ever considered are all happening as people realize that the garage is still inside their personal quarantine zone, and if not now, when?
I’ve thought about ‘Scramblerfication’ of my R75/5 motorcycle for a long time. It spends much of its life now on dirt roads and dual tracks, so it really ought to be optimized for that. It is somewhat amazing that, after 36 years of owning this motorcycle, it’s personality is transforming again – having been a naked standard, a sport tourer, a sport standard, and now becoming a genuinely dirt capable full-on scrambler. That this R75 has enough soul to still have other things to show me after this time is inspiring – we humans should all aspire to have the ability to keep changing and growing over this many years.
It quickly became clear – once back out in the dirt – that there is a pretty good reason why Desert Racers and Flat Trackers do not have BMW ‘S’ Bars – little sporty bike tucked in riding bars – no, they have wide bars with a little pullback – bars that give one some leverage over a sliding wheel and work well when riding standing up.
The motorcycle that became the BMW /5 motorcycle had started out as a prototype intended as an entrant into the International Six Days Trial – an endurance rally event requiring serious Enduro racing offroad chops. The BMW factory ISDT bikes are famous for some seriously odd farkels like 8 day duration mechanical chronographs, on-board fire extinguishers and axles with the tire change ‘tommy bars’ welded in, but all had standard crossbar equipped dirtbike style bars, so that was definitely something on my list.
I spent some time perusing the online marts, and found exactly what I wanted posthaste – an Emgo ‘Universal Vintage 7/8th in Dirtbike Handlebar.’ Rise was perfect, pullback dimension was perfect. They were a little bit wider than optimum but I had an easy fix for that.
A little more clicking through the Emgo catalog found some nice, very vintage looking chromed steel round rearview mirrors. These had the perfect period look, seemed stout, in addition to having the virtue of attaching to the bike with clamps. Since a much younger and not much worse of a mechanic Greg had stripped out the mirror threads on the rather spendy original Magura perch sometime in the 80s, clamps were good. A check of the vintage BMW ISDT bike photos unexpectedly confirmed the use of clamp-on mirrors, although the Factory Team riders demonstrated more than a little creativity in where they mounted same.
I also ordered up a set of USA-bar spec throttle and clutch cables – the cables on the bike were probably 30 years old, and swapping from S-spec to USA spec cables would provide extra length I was definitely going to need.
A couple of mouseclicks later, we were waiting for the postman.
We’ve spent a lot of time lately waiting on the deliveryman. Or the UPS man. Or the FedEx man. Or the USPS man. People that disappear into their garages to work on stuff need supplies, so thanks delivery/UPS/FedEx/Postal Service persons. You’ve helped make a lot of stuff in the last six months.
After some time elapsed, some metal showed up, and I went back into the garage.
You have to love a motorcycle whose fuel tank can be removed in about three minutes. Two bronze wingnuts – they have a lovely heft to them – and two fuel lines connect the tank. Freed, the old toaster sits on its holding cradle on my workbench.
It was not challenging to spin the four bolts out of the bar clamps and have all four bits of the bar clamp assembly in my hands. I loosened the allen bolts that held the control assemblies on the bar, and then the old S bars were freed. It is kind of sad to see a set of bars that has probably seen 150,000 miles of road with me finding a resting place under the workbench.
After sliding the control clusters back into place, I set the lower bar clamps back on the upper triple tree, and threaded the bolts back into place by hand. The BMW S handlebar is just a tick over 24 inches wide – the USA specification high handlebar is just a tick over 29. I knew if I wanted to use stock BMW control cables I’d need to stay at about 30 inches or under. My vintage dirtbike bars were just over 32.
Fortunately, the tool chest has another one of my grandfather Wadi’s vintage tools – in this case a plumber’s rotary pipe cutter. I measured where I wanted the new bars to end, spent about five minutes spinning the rotary cutter, and had neatly cut bars of exactly the width I wanted. A few stokes with my favorite big bastard file – that isn’t a pejorative, BTW, that’s technical nomenclature. Check me. – and the bars were cleanly trimmed and ready for use.
I spent a few minutes swapping the cables, which is ridiculously easy given the position of the carbs out in the open, and then tightened up the bar clamp and control cluster clamps. I did a quick visual synch of the throttle cables – the carbs had been previously synced nearly perfectly, and one can see the exact point where the throttles open when the grip is rotated. I dropped the tank back in place, and reconnected the fuel lines.
I’ll admit that I stood there for more than a few minutes with one of the mounting clamps from the first rearview mirror in my hand. In my mind’s eye, the handlebars had appeared as literal acres of chromy tubing – reality, on the other hand, seemed a lot more crowded. There were wiring harness pigtails for the controls, throttle cam gears and cable perches to work around, and it ended up being a kind of visualization puzzle to make all of the bits that had to cohabitate cohabitate, all the while allowing for the possibility that when you’d finally accomplished that that you’d actually be able to see the road behind your motorcycle. The cerebral oil got pretty warm.
The plug eventually fired, though, and the mixture ignited.
I placed the saddle part of the clamp over the bars from the top – making it so that all of the nut and bolt action would be mostly out of sight down below. The position would allow the mirror to sit directly inside of the end of the bars where it was in a both effective and somewhat less exposed and hence protected location.
I fiddled with it for a while, and then ran the bolts down most of the way – enough torque that things wouldn’t straight fall off, but that the fine adjustment that would undoubtedly be needed would still be possible.
I went and grabbed my Shoei, jacket and gloves.
The old boxer fired up without issue or complaint – once the oil pressure was up I gave the bike a little throttle – my eyeball carb sync had been surprisingly close. I gassed the old girl and headed straight for the Siegler Road ford.
The revised riding position was exactly what I’d wanted – sitting nearly upright, with a straight up roomier riding triangle, and a lot more leverage on the bike’s steering. The Royal Enfield INT650 that I’d tested had very similar ergonomics, and I’d gotten verklempt when RE insisted that I give it back.
I hit the stream ford standing up, knees bent, and a bit more on the gas than had been my wont. The Toaster actually kicked a bit sideways off a rock in the middle of the streambed, but with the wider bars, it was not in the least bit dramatic. The old boxer gave a bit of a wet dog shake as it hit the other bank of streambed, scrambled for traction, and then boosted up the hill on the other side.
The Toaster, it seems, had evolved again.
To check my work, I headed right back to Furnace Mountain and Featherbed roads. Thank god for Loudoun County Virginia, that hasn’t yet realized it should take better care of its few remaining dirt roads. People in cars might curse them and question their parentage, but guys on dirty motorbikes certainly don’t.
After a few deterministic turns in, and a few slidy corner exits out, I was testing the limits of physics by trying to ride motorcycles one handed while simultaneously patting myself on the back.
In the loose stuff, the /5 was balanced and planted – the rider’s weight was in the right place, riding position was relaxed, and there was plenty of control over what the front wheel was doing. Climbing grades with the rear wheel spinning and steering with the throttle felt as natural as can be. Small changes – big impacts.