Uni

Another meditation on the future of motored cycling.

Even I seemed to be surprised on just how fast the riding landscape is being transformed.

I know I’ve been paying for a lot of motorcycle tires lately, but I hadn’t remotely considered this as a possible solution.

Head on over to Motorcycle Times to see for yourself. 

Feather Bed

The Universe is constantly sending us signs.

Me, I might be overly sensitive in my hunt for sign and significance, but always being open to them has lead me down some pretty interesting roads.

I was trying recently, as I apparently frequently am, to explain one of these signage mechanisms to Sweet Doris from Baltimore.

“The Featherbed-framed racing Norton is one of the only motorcycle frame structures so significant that it has its own name.  The McCandless brothers of Belfast created a foundational motorcycle chassis design – with one of the first applications of a twin shock absorber rear swinging arm suspension – that its development rider said rode so comfortably it was like ‘riding a feather bed’.”

“It’s a stupid name.”

“I guess it does kinda sound stupid, now, but in the context of 1949, when most motorcycles had kidney busting, back belt requiring rigid rear frames, it prolly made a lot more sense.”

You’d be entirely within your reader’s rights to inquire what on earth could possibly motivate an otherwise thinking male human to attempt this conversational topic with his beloved life partner, who was more than likely in no way impressed or compelled by the subject or its presenter, at that particular moment.

And having made that sensible inquiry, I’m more or less compelled to unravel the strands of the tale for you.

 

***

 

Having received my new Heidenau Scouts for my /5,  it was time to get them mounted and try ‘em out.

Fortunately, the traumatic experience I’d been through changing the rear tire on my R90S was nowhere in evidence here.   The rear axle and tire – with my customary pit crew help provided by Sweet Doris from Baltimore – were off and leaning against the garage wall in under five minutes flat.  And thanks to the assist from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department of the University of Michigan, the front wheel and drum brake assembly joined them five minutes later. The Toaster might be 47 years old, but properly torqued fasteners and proper lubrication made the entire exercise absolutely trivial.

I felt almost moistened by a rare flood of something approaching mechanical confidence.

I stacked two tires, two wheels and two new tubes in the back of my wagon in preparation for my run up to Fredericktown Yamaha in the morning when they opened.

 

***

 

Two days later, my phone rang with the news that the tires were ready to be picked up.  After quitting time, I blasted back up to Frederick and re-loaded my newly mounted and balanced tires.

It was a little hot out, but I wasn’t going to let any time elapse before trying these new and different skins.  I subjected both brake drums to a washdown with brake cleaner and some clean shoprags.  I greased up the drive splines, inner wheel bearing races, spacers and axles, and went to work. The front wheel was back in place in under five minutes – I torqued the axle bolt, pinch bolt and both ends of the brake stay rod to spec – bang done. I gave the wheel a gentle spin, and the bearings spun smoothly with no noise or binding – the shop had clearly done an accurate job balancing my wheel, as well.

It was then that I realized I had a little problem.

We motorcyclists are far from the only enthusiasts who have found themselves going outright stir-crazy during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic.

Right after I had dropped off my wheels at the shop, Sweet Doris from Baltimore had loaded up her recumbent pedal trike, her camping gear, and had headed out to complete the final section of her C & O Canal National Park Towpath end to end though ride. She’d had a crawful of being stuck inside yelling at the television news, and was set-jaw determined to do something about it.  Cumberland to DC is 184 miles, most of it in pretty remote country, and if you’d like some space to air out one’s head, it’s a prime location.

In this partnership, when either one of us makes a definitive statement like, “I just gotta go for a long ride,” we both know what that means, and cut each other the space to stretch out until its feels like time to come home. Sweet Doris might prefer pedals to my handful of throttle, but it’s exactly the same urge.

Net/net – freaking great for Sweet D, camping out solo amongst the bears and the bobcats – but I’d apparently lost my pit crew.

I am an engineer – I live to solve problems.

Looking around the garage, I grabbed my trusty Greenspring Dairy milk crate and a mover’s blanket.

I slid the milkcrate under the Toaster’s left cylinder head, folded up the blanket until there were about eight layers of fabric there, and then went back around the right side of the bike and slowly leaned the bike over until the head was resting on the padded crate. I took my hands off, and everything remained in place – the whole amalgam looking for the world like a motorcycle that had decided to fall over and then had a crisis of motivation exactly halfway though. Trying hard not to giggle maniacally, I grabbed the rear tire, steadied the bike by grabbing the lift handle with my left hand, and slid the tire over the drive splines and into place on the hub with my right. I pulled the frame back upright off the crate and sat the bike back down on two nice newly rubbery contact patches.

Green Spring Dairy Work Stand

Please permit me about three and half minutes of feeling pretty smug.

The next five minutes had the rear axle reinstalled, torqued and pinched. I broke out my small rechargeable air compressor and set the proper pressure in both tires. The last five minutes saw the fuel tank put back in place, fastened with its bronze wing nuts, and fuel lines reconnected. I dropped the bike’s toolbox in place and replaced my German police saddle.

It was time to go find some dirt.

 

***

 

My initial response as I rolled out of the driveway was not overwhelmingly positive. The sensation the front tire gave off was one I can only describe as ‘clumsy’ – the steering effort was all off, and lean in and lean out wasn’t linear. At speeds under ten my operation style felt like it was drunk. Now I haven’t ridden on knobbies that I remember since a childhood Honda Trail 90 – the ones with the chunky upper frame bar – and funky low speed handling on pavement might just be a characteristic of riding on dirt purpose tires, but it was definitely different and something that would require some getting used to.

I rambled around my neighborhood, working the bike from side to side, and then stopped down by the park to check that nothing had fallen off or was in danger of doing so.  Having cleared that checklist I turned up the pike and headed for town.

As speeds rode, steering funkiness decreased. It didn’t leave entirely, but things got more normal with increasing velocity. Grace on the pavement wasn’t what I bought these tires for, though. What I’d bought them for was Furnace Mountain Road.

I rolled across the Route 15 Bridge across the Potomac, and hung my customary right into Lovettsville Road. But instead of gassing the bike hard and bombing up the next straight, I made an immediate left that cut straight into the side of the Mountain, that turned immediately to gravel and rose sharply up the face of the grade. I stood up low on the pegs, got my weight just ever so slightly forward, and gave the 900 cc boxer good throttle – blasting up Furnace Mountain Road.

Drive traction was not going to be an issue with the Scouts.

On the gas, using levels of immoderate throttle that previously would have resulted in hairball conditions I had only bite and deterministic and rapid forward motion. About three quarters of the way up the extended grade, I startled an enormous white new Ford F150 and its associated human, who was wrestling a bit with the surface and had probably left a bit less room on the narrow road than we both would have preferred.  With the /5 right in the meat of its torque band, and weight transferred pretty far forward with the shaft drive topped out, I cut hard toward the edge of the road, and with the bike on the gas, it went right where I told it. A half minute later we cleared the top of the grade, and flicked right into the hairball decreasing radius downhill bowl that sits just below the top. The front tire that had me scratching my head on the pavement was working here, brothers and sisters.

Furnace Mountain wanders from the bluffs over the Potomac southwest across the highlands, working in a series of dirt switchbacks – lovely conditions for getting familiar with constantly changing mixtures of acceleration, braking and cornering and a brand new traction model.  After four or five miles in the dirt, Furnace Mountain dumps out in the tiny village of Taylorstown, Virginia.  Taylorstown is tiny enough that there are only two choices for a road out of town, and one called Loyalty Road – which I remembered vaguely continued southwest towards Waterford – got the nod.

All tires actually need some break-in, and after a few miles, the Scouts were starting to show improvement in that process – a blast through the gears up Loyalty Road brought on a much smoother 65 mpg cruise and much more normal feeling cornering dynamics. As I worked my way to the top of the grade, an intersection came into view, with an older, off-road modified Toyota pickup sliding to a stop, visibly trailing dust.  As the street sign came into range, I finally made it out – ‘Featherbed Lane’.

I immediately clicked on my turnsignal and provided a demonstration of the effectiveness of properly adjusted drum brakes.

Within a half second of standing the bike back up again, I knew I’d made the right choice. A short straight led to a nineteenth century iron truss bridge — a type that’s fairly common close to my Maryland home but is somewhat scarcer in Northern Virginia.  The John G. Lewis Memorial Bridge was named for a local historian, and was actually relocated to this location after it was scheduled for demolition when its original location was being modernized. Here on Featherbed Lane though, the old iron truss made a perfect frame for the graded crushed limestone dual track that lead off towards the horizon.

I love old iron truss bridges – in my home Valley they’re usually constructed a fair height above the stream bed they’re crossing, in order to give them a fighting chance of surviving flood events which are perfectly normal in streams like these. For the motorcyclist, though, that height means some kind of steeply sloping ramp, which allows one to flirt with playing Knievel, coming off the top flying, unloading the suspension and then compressing it coming back down.   This temporary aviation is always a thrill, and serves to illustrate my BMW /5’s original engineering use case as an International Six Days Trial prototype competitor, designed to be tractable and predictable in truly unspeakable offroad conditions. Truth be told, BMW’s engineers had done a pretty transparent recycling of Mr. McCandliss’s frame design, so there was a kind of appropriateness for me on this old motorbike, off in search of dirt roads to ride, and serendipitously stumbling on Featherbed Lane.

Even if Sweet Doris from Baltimore did think it was a stupid name.

Catching my equilibrium after the short flight off the bridge deck, Featherbed was serving up long straight stretches with gentle corners as the road threaded the property lines of old and expansive horse farms – checking the satellite maps after my return home even showed a seemingly unused half mile horse racing track tucked unseen inside one of the larger back yards.

Featherbed Lane — See the Flat Track?

I might need to go back and see if I can divine their opinion of Flat Track Motorcycle Racing.

I thonked the /5 up into third gear, and managed to take on a nice 50 to 55 mph cruise – the bike’s long throw suspension working hard and in its element – I had better steering control in the crushed limestone surface than I was accustomed to, and I was getting enough drive traction to lighten the front wheel on the gas.

I’d been spending some of my time quarantined at home rewatching Bruce Brown’s ‘On Any Sunday’, and the mental picture that had most stuck with me was the aerial footage of Malcolm Smith – absolutely hauling ass across Baja, or the Barstow to Vegas desert, or the relative chaos of the Catalina Grand Prix – riding dead smooth, sitting down when anyone else would be standing up, and making every other motorcycle within a hundred miles look like it hadn’t even been started up yet.

If I could just be going another 50 miles an hour faster, I’d be nearly half the way to Malcolm.

Roads like Featherbed should go on forever – but for a road I’d happily stumbled upon – every bit of it was more than enough. I was able to cruise on this crushed limestone road for close to 10 miles – before it dumped me back out about 2 miles out of Lovettsville and the curves of the Berlin Pike back down to the Potomac.  The on-road gap between this bike and my /S had grown a bit – I found myself thinking that it might be time to retire the ‘S’ bars that I put on this motorcycle when it was being used as a faired sport tourer in favor of some dirty bike bars with a little more width and a little more rise.

I was back across the river and in the Valley before I was ready.  I had one more detour in my reverse GPS that I could take to keep from getting home too soon.

Not everybody has a great stream ford on their back yard. Sorry about that, everybody else.

Siegler Road cuts off from Fry Road – south of Jefferson – and pops up on Horine Road about a half mile from Shamieh’s Shop.  Siegler is about a mile and a half of gravel that climaxes at a local creek where a bridge seemed excessive. My old Avons used to skate a bit on the polished stones of the stream bottom – these Heidenaus seemed like they rode on octopus tentacle suckers – on wet stones they were absolutely nailed down.

Crossing the creek was so much fun and so undramatic it was the sort of thing one just wanted to do again and again.

I didn’t though – didn’t want any of my neighbors to think I’d finished cracking, riding back and forth roosting across a stream all day.

I popped around the corner, into my hood, and rolled up the driveway and onto the stand.

The Scouts, at least, had acquired enough rock dust and mud that no one would think that this was a motorcycle that didn’t get ridden.

Rock Dust and Knobs

 

Actually, based on the patterns of contact and wear that my body and boots have worn into 36 years of riding this motorcycle, nobody would ever even consider the possibility this bike didn’t get ridden.

After a few minutes admiring the form of this old motorcycle, I headed inside to look for some dirtbike bars.

 

***

 

I purchased my BMW R/75 motorcycle on an epic train-and-ride over an Independence Day Weekend in 1984. It seems to be a motorcycling story that has no end. Folks that want to catch up with the beginning of the tale can find it here.

Happy Independence Day, sisters and brothers. 

What To Do When…

One has to love the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan.

Well, maybe one doesn’t have to, but I do.

It has been said, perhaps too many times, that BMW motorcycle riders are nerds.

I, myself, am perhaps unwittingly helping to perpetuate this stereotype.

You know the drill. The BMW motorcycle is the official commuting vehicle of tweed sportsjacketed college professors everywhere. The two wheeled equivalent of a Volvo. Not hairy chested or powerful enough to pull the skin off of a bowl of Jello Instant Pudding. The selected ride of Bow Tie wearing, coke bottle glasses-affecting Professor Frinks everywhere.

I mean, contemplate the BMW K75.

Or don’t.

Heck, many of my best friends in the motorcycle community have come through the Internet BMW Riders Club, who were collectively such Uber Nerds that they had figured out how to use the Internet to talk about bikes before most people even knew what the Internet freaking even was.  Physicists, Mathematicians, Deep Computer Science guys that had still had ArpaNet e-mail aliases – eleven-tenths nerd cred.

But then BMW made the S1000RR, and all that nerd shit went straight out the window.

No matter. So BMWs aren’t just for nerds any more.

Still, the aether continues to spit out evidence to the contrary.

Like, for example, the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan.

 

***

 

Ever experienced vehicular synchronicity?

Vehicular synchronicity is an unfortunate condition where maintenance items across multiple vehicles come into a synchronous condition – the more vehicles one owns the more dangerous this can be.

Oil changes are concerning, but ultimately not that serious.

Registration renewals are a bit more serious.

Tires, on the other hand, punch right through the seriousnicity barrier. Tires are big ticket, big commitment, screw-it-up-and-you’ll-be-living-with-it-for-a-while, complicated logistics, preparation and installation items, and I saw from a long way back that a great many vehicles that I owned where coming into a perfect storm of alignment, mounting, balancing and disposal.  This might be a ‘first world problem’, but it was still a problem nonetheless.

Awareness of an impending problem does not necessarily render it any easier to deal with when it finally arrives.

Arrival was one set of all weather radials for my Ford station wagon. Many pictures of Benjamin Franklin wave and say goodbye.

My R90S needed a rear tire, that, due to the evil intervention of The Motor Gods, ended up requiring a total overhaul of the rear axle and wheel bearings and ended up taking more time than some complete motorcycle custom construction projects.  More Bens leave home to find their way in this mean old world.

My pickup truck raised its little aluminum A-arm. The tire on the end of that axel – factory original after 7 years and 45,000 miles – didn’t look quite as off road capable as it did at one time. After Sweet Doris from Baltimore had a drifting experience with the unloaded truck on a wet road, I was on the computer to my increasingly good friends at TireRack for four more donuts. At this point enough Ben Franklins had left my domicile to form a small All-Ben army unit.

Surely we were done now, right?

Most assuredly, we were not.

My R75/5 – which has spent most of its life recently trying to become a Yamaha DT-1, which is admittedly an odd aspiration for an old boxer – has been shod with a set of Avon Distanzias, a sort of meek road-biased dual sport tire that hasn’t been made for at least several few years. Mine – originally badass knobbyish appearing – now looked more like street bias tires for a Rambler American – skinny and nice and square.  Handling had been veering towards the evil end — aw heck, does buying tires by the dozen count as some sort of economic stimulus effort?

Truthfully, I’d never been that happy with the Distanzias – their appearance wrote a dirt check that the tire couldn’t actually cash. The Middletown Valley does have lots of dirt roads and easily accessible trails, and the tire was never that confidence inspiring once the bike stepped out – the front had barely more grip than a street tire. I’d had a set of Pirelli MT 60s on a Zero DS/R test bike and those tires, though nothing fancy, had way more grip on the crushed limestone of the Valley’s dirt roads. Given how this motorcycle was used, I resolved to find something that provided higher levels of grip and capability in the dirt when the time finally came, and now was apparently that time.

When you restrict a search to the 1973 original tire sizes, or very close to them, one doesn’t have a lot of options. 4.00 x 18 and 3.25 x 19s are not exactly a hot mover these days, even though there was a short window in time when that was essentially the standard. Continental – given their historic support for BMW motorcycles – had both the TKC 70s and TKC 80s in the sizes I needed. The TKC 70s were no better than the tires I had – in terms of offroad grip – and the user feedback on them was filled with tales of bizarre and borderline unsafe uneven front tire wear. The TKC 80s – if I was heading for Ushuaia would be great – were manly-man full on knobbies, and just excessive for my light duty use.  Metzler – again, a BMW loyal tire maker – didn’t make anything with off road intensions that fit. Avon’s replacement for the Distanzia – the Trailrider – was a 90/10 on road tire that had close metric equivalents – but again, was a traction zero out. Their Trekrider didn’t come in my size. I looked at lots of tires – Michelin Anakees, Pirellis, all manner of Shinkos, Mitas E07s, the new Dunlop Trailmax – and all of them weren’t available in classic sizes.

One manufacturer – Heidenau – seemed to be the ticket, however.

Heidenau is a German designer and manufacturer of motorcycle and scooter tires that only in the last several years started providing their tires to riders in the USA.  Their catalog is filled with offroad and dual sport tires for BMWs, Zundapps and NSU cycles and sidecar outfits. The rise of the Adventure Motorcycle – started by the BMW GS series – shone a bright light on Heidenau, whose claim to fame is the K60 Scout, a true 50/50 onroad/offroad tire. The Scout is available in classic motorcycle sizes, and can also be obtained in both cold weather and snow-rated variants, which starts to give you some insight into who is buying them and how they are getting used.

Online reviews were generally positive and informative. BMW guys had pictures of them mounted on other street-intended Airheads, and they fit and worked well. They might not be perfect, but they were a great deal better offroad than the tires I had, and several folks were effusive about their on pavement performance and treadwear. Guys that had been riding with them in The Great Outthere and had been forced to do roadside repairs observed that – as a result of a reinforced, bias ply carcass — dismounting them and mounting them manually with tire irons was a bit of a high effort wrestling match.

Thank the Moto Gods for Fredericktown Yamaha and their Coats 220 Tire Machine.

Their skills and records with having innertubes survive their efforts is better than mine, too.

At least, if it isn’t, they’re not telling me about it and are eating their mistakes.

We’d definitely be giving them a call.

 

***

 

So, you’d be well within your reader’s rights to ask, what in the Absolute Fuck does this have to do with the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan?

Being as it been a while since I had to change a front tire on a drum-braked /5, I turned to the Googling Machine to see if my recollection of how to perform that task was anywhere close to how to actually do the task.

We are all hybrid-androids, now, Brothers and Sisters.

I entered my search string – “BMW R75/5 motorcycle how to change front tire” – and the aether provided this —

Have You Ever Had a Motorcycle Owners’ Manual That Actually Showed You How To Work On Your Bike?

 

The image is clearly of a page from the Owner’s Manual for the R75/5 – cutely titled “What To Do When…”  – with details on how to perform customary roadside repairs like tire repair and changing headlight and turn signal bulbs. Because I’d obtained my motorcycle second hand –  purchased as the result of its prior owner having died while exhibiting the rare bad taste of owing the State of New York substantial sums of tax money – niceties like the Owners Manual and the cute little BMW-labeled shop rag and stock toolkit shown in its photos had been understandably missing in action.  Heck, niceties be damned, basic items like the stock saddle and handlebar clamps had also been missing, but I digress.

I spent a few minutes poking around the website trying to find the entry point for the whole manual, and was eventually able to see the entire factory guide to how to live with the motorcycle I’d been living with for the past thirty six years. While I didn’t learn much, it did make me smile to see back into a time when the motorcycle’s manufacturer provided a serviceable toolkit with its motorcycle, and assumed not only that owners would use it, but that most of what might need to be done to that motorcycle could be done with only those tools.

I didn’t need that vintage black and white manual to tell me that, though. I’d learned that all on my own.

So, reverie levels abating, I found myself wondering, “Who are the Nerds that felt compelled to make a web site out of a 1973 BMW R75/5 Users’ Manual?”

I typed in the base URL into my browser — “www.eecs.umich.edu….”.

Huh.

The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department at The University of Michigan.

BMW-riding, html-coding, Uber Nerds All.

Pass me my bow tie, Professor Frink.

 

***

 

Several days later, both the tires and the tubes arrived from points north and west.

Ooooh. Knobbish.

I spent some time to wash the bike and then more time with the degreaser and a ScotchBrite pad to get the wheels cleaned of the nice admixture of motor oil, gear oil and limestone dust that running the dirt roads hereabouts tend to create. I have some consideration for the tech that will help me with some work on my motorcycle and so won’t provide them with a bike or a part that they need to spend 15 minutes cleaning up in order to find the part requiring service underneath the filth.

There WAS a Motorcycle Under All That Granite Dust

I rolled the bike to the rear of the shop, and pulled the saddle and fuel tank to make manhandling what was left lighter and less error-prone while removing and reinstalling both wheels.

When One Dispenses With The Distractions, One Can Appreciate Just How Pretty That Motor Really Is

Here’s hoping that this time, the job takes less than two months per wheel.

Sixty Four

That’s right.

Sixty Four is the number of pints of Ben and Jerry’s that will fit in the topcase of a K1200LT.

Some people respond to stressors with ice cream. It’s better than some alternatives and worse than some other coping mechanisms.

Given the number of stressors currently being experienced, somebody is going to have to go get at least one of those pints.

I volunteer.  

Off The Road

Off The Road Blues

There are some bits of routine motorcycle maintenance which, at least theoretically, are associated with minimum mechanical risk and potential for drama.

These are the jobs you’ve done a hundred, or a thousand times – oil changes, tire changes – wrenching you could do in your sleep. In the dark. In the rain.

If, however, one is working on an original, unrestored 45 year old motorcycle, the No Drama Principle apparently expired about a decade and a half back.

My R90S is half tough on tires. This motorcycle simply vaporizes rear tires. The big bore 1000 cc motor delivers big, throbby power pulses to the rear contact patch, and, if one rides it like I tend to, with the right grip rotated most of the way around most of the time, that behavior tends to result in pretty diminished rear tire life.

On the flip side, the front tires last nearly forever because they spend so little time bearing any of the motorcycle’s weight.

Lose some, win some.

Losing this one, though, meant ordering up a new rear tire as my favorite Michelin Pilot Activ was doing a creditable impersonation of a racing slick.

My buds at Fredericktown Yamaha Triumph have helped me out with mounting motorcycle tires for years, which is pretty swell of them considering they don’t technically work on my brand of motorcycle. Since it seemed to me at the time we were all destined for some form of non-trivial commercial disruption – which, knowing what we know now, we were – I rang ‘em up and had them order me a tire, tube and while we were in there, a new rim strip.  The day before my stuff was supposed to arrive, I went out into the garage to pull the rear wheel from the bike.

For folks that haven’t had the pleasure of changing a drive wheel tire on an old BMW, all I can say is that when things go smoothly, it makes pulling the wheel from a chain drive bike look like the messy, finicky, dirty nightmare that it really is.

On the Beemer, one loosens the axle pinch nut, removes the bolt from the end of the axle, pulls the axle out of the wheel, and then pulls the wheel off the drive spine and off the bike. It’s fast, it’s neat, and it’s relatively idiot resistant.

Normally.

During the construction of Teardrop Camper V 2.0,    the R90S had sat outside for about four months – four months during which it rained and rained and rained.

At the time, I had ventured the opinion that the R90S had survived that indignity with seemingly no impact.

That opinion was not correct.

When I went to pull the wheel, I removed the axle nut, loosened the pinch bolt, inserted the ‘tommy bar’ from the stock toolkit into the hole in the end of the axle, gave the customary twist, and the axle …. didn’t come out. I twisted a little harder, and it still didn’t come out. I applied some serious force, and the wheel walked off the drive splines…. but the axle still didn’t come out.

I know, sadly, from experience, when I am tiptoeing up to the threshold of doing something really boneheaded, so I elected to withdraw.

We are always stronger together, so I sought the advice of many wise and experienced people that I was pretty sure had been here before. With their information and less wisdom in my head, I at least had a good idea of how the whole bearing stack worked, and what I was likely going to have to replace to get it all back together.

I spent several days soaking things down in penetrating oils, heating things up with torches, whacking things with punches, including some things I actually wanted to be whacking… to absolutely no effect whatsoever.

On or about Wheel Gone Awry Hostage Crisis Day 10, I made exerted myself to remount the wheel on the drive splines and secured it in place with one of the carpenter’s clamps that is part of the Teardrop Construction Toolkit. A final circuit of penetrating oils, heat, and some whacking with a punch finally got the axle the remaining 30%  or so out of the wheel, and revealed what had been driving me nuts.

One of the jauntily named Top Hat spacers – the one on the side opposite the final drive – had rusted, and in that rusting, had essentially welded to the wheel bearing’s inner race. It had also corroded internally so that the clearance between it and the axle had been so reduced that it wouldn’t let the axle slide through it – when the axle finally came free it brought the spacer and the attached bearing roller cage with it.  One could also see where the spacer had been riding on the axle – which was visibly burned.

I used a propane torch to heat the wheel and then drove the rest of the bearing assembly out of the wheel hub.

Of the Beemer Yodas I had consulted, The One Tom Cutter’s advice had proved to be the most prescient – he’d told me to just take the reciprocating saw to the axle because “everything in the wheel was going to be trash anyway”.

Trash was clearly what we had. That saw would have saved about 10 days.

Pretty Sure That Didn’t Used to be Attached to That

Crap Bits. Like The Nice Burned Bit on the Axle?

The day before I started working on this bike, I’d briefly kissed one hundred miles an hour while out riding the S.

Clearly I ride with some form of celestial rider aide.

Before this bike would roll again, everything inside this wheel hub would need to be replaced.

 

***

 

I spent the normal hour or so looking for all the bits I would need, and whether I had any options as to where I could buy them. I needed a new axle, washer and nut, a bearing set, seals, gasket, inner and outer spacers, and both top hat outer spacers.

Ebay found me a vendor that majored in selling stock he’s purchased from dealers that were liquidated – he had a new axle, washer and nut for $79 – BMW NA price would be over $150. All Balls Racing has a kit with both bearings and all the seals for a fraction of dealer price. I’ve used their bearings before in the LT and was very happy with the product. The bearing sets BMW has in stock – clearly visible in their online catalog pictures — are offshored Asian-manufactured bearings, so are not worth the large cost differential they carry.

I did go to a trusted BMW dealer to get the spacers and gaskets that only they could provide.

Then, there was the small matter of the ‘wedding band’.

This older BMW wheel bearing stack design is about one thousand times stronger than is required for operation of a solo motorcycle.  German engineering has a reputation for being extremely robust and somewhat ingenious – these roller bearing wheel assemblies are an easily analyzed object lesson in engineering overkill.

The older BMW wheel bearing assemblies were originally designed with the massive side loads required for sidecar use in mind – but when the sidecar lugs disappeared from the frames of the first /5 motorcycles – this wheel bearing design stayed behind.  Two wheeled motorcycles have dramatically lower side loads on their wheel assemblies – cornering loads are converted largely to straight up and down, or ‘normal’ loads because of the lean of the motorcycle – the load always goes straight down through the center of the wheel and into the tire’s contact patch.

To manage the dramatically higher loads and side loads of the sidecar, though, BMW used precision tapered roller bearings in wheels where most other manufacturers use ball bearings. In order for these tapered roller bearings to provide durability in service, the spatial relationship between the moving components of the bearings need to be set to a defined preload, and BMW accomplishes this though an ingenious arrangement of an outer, fixed dimension spacer – that supports both bearings’ outer races – with an inner spacer whose dimension can be adjusted though the use of a circular insert that looks exactly like a wedding band, if our wedding bands were made of tool steel. The BMW parts catalog lists, I believe, thirteen different wedding bands all differing in thickness by .25 of a millimeter. For the home mechanic, this is a little inconvenient and ungainly, unless you think you are going to be doing a lot of these, and want to buy the entire set.  Personally, this is the first one I’ve done in 35 years and over 200,000 Airhead BMW miles, so that seems like a stretch.

Fortunately, there is Cycle Works, a classic and antique BMW motorcycle tool supplier. I’ve had several of their well-built custom tools – an alternator rotor puller, and a clutch centering arbor – in my tool roll for years, and this job was an opportunity to add another, along with one of their ingenious solutions. In order to set the preload on the bearing stack, one needs a precisely made spacer to replace the final drive on the axle. Cycle Works had figured out that thirteen wedding band sizes was another kind of overkill – two strategically selected bands and many thin shims were sufficient to obtain the full needed range of adjustment.  Another internet order was placed, and I and my cat set about waiting for the UPS man to come.

 

***

 

On the third day, the Cycle Works order showed up, and their spacer tool – used to set the preload on the bearing assembly – was the type of precise, robust and long lived toolmaking exhibited by the tools I had purchased from them 30+ years previously.

My BMW parts order – normally received in one or two days – was nowhere to be seen a week after the fact.

I made a call to my FNSLD*, and asked them what was up with my order. Under duress, they admitted that several of the parts I’d ordered were not stock items, and had needed to be ordered from Germany. It seems, rather reasonably in retrospect, that the internal wheel spacers I’d elected to shitcan in my wholesale replacement of everything that had been stressed by this failure, were so robustly built that no one had ever needed to replace one before, ever.

Best case was that they expected to receive my spacers from Germany in about 10 days, and then all would be right with the world.

Has anything you can think of been going best case, these days?

On the Twelfth Day, I phoned them again.

On this phone call, the dealer informed me that BMW’s North American parts warehouse had experienced an outbreak of The Disease, and had been closed for decontamination. The dealer anticipated that the warehouse would reopen the beginning of the following week, and that my backordered parts would arrive at their location a few days following.

Have you ever had a tire change drag on so long that you were starting to regret not having added fuel stabilizer to your gas tank before beginning?

I now apparently had.

On the Friday of the week following, my UPS man showed up with a small box. The box contained all of the spacers required to reassemble the bearing stack for my rear wheel.  Courtesy of Illinois BMW Rider Trig Haroldson and his instructional video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXj01hUKJBg – I now had as thorough an understanding of the BMW tapered wheel bearing stack as it is possible to have for a man that has never worked on them before. It took all of about 20 minutes to set up the bearing preload, and another 10 minutes to grease the bearings and reassemble the stack. I then wrapped the entire assembly in a one gallon Ziploc bag, and put in in my freezer overnight.

Preloaded

The next day, I took my trusty propane torch in hand, and set about heating the hub back up to the required 250 degrees f. I use a glass of water in place of fancy measuring gear – when a drop of water dropped onto the casting boils off on contact, it’s hot enough. I pulled the axle and bearing stack assembly out of the freezer, sat it in the wheel hub’s opening, and gave a single tap on the end with a hammer. The bearing stack dropped smartly right into its proper position. Thirty minutes of cooling off and simultaneously warming up later, the races were held firmly in place.

One has to love thermal expansion and contraction. Physics is your friend.

A few more moments of wrenching reattached the bearing retainer, its gasket, and inserted the top hat spacers and the external seals. I marked the wheel’s direction of rotation on a bit of painters tape, and hopped into the wagon to run the rim up to Fredericktown Yamaha.

 

***

 

The next morning, I got my call that the new mounted tire was ready to be picked up.  A few minutes’ drive, a few much needed minutes of moto-banter (at a socially acceptable distance, natch) with Ian Riley, Fredericktown’s GM, and a few more minutes’ drive and I was finally in position to put this motorcycle back on the road.

I spent a few minutes with the brake cleaning spray and some clean shoprags to make sure the brake drum surfaces and pads were free of any of the goo that might have resulted from my initial penetrating oil frenzy. Ian had related that the oddball setup of the airhead bearings and their captive asymmetrical spacers had confounded the shop’s spin balancer, which necessitated a few more minutes with my Harbor Freight static balancer, which is worth every one of the nineteen dollars that it cost.

Professional shops install BMW airhead tires with a motorcycle lift that has a removable rear platform section that allows the tire to be inserted from beneath and remounted on the bike’s final drive splines. Shamieh’s Shop uses a different method – thirty plus years ago Sweet Doris from Baltimore learned to hang wheels on the drive splines of a bike that I would lean over to the right and support while it rested on the main stand. My recently obtained wisdom to only use tires that are available in the stock 4.00 x 18 sizes have made that job so easy she looks like an endurance racing team pit pro – 4 seconds and she’s wrapped up and back over the wall.

My brand new lightly greased axle went back together more easily than any other tire change I can remember. Now armed with better knowledge of how these wheel and bearing assemblies work, I was careful not to overtorque the axle nut, and then cinched down the axle pinch bolt, and reinstalled the left side muffler that I’d dropped when things had started their decent towards the pearshaped. This was now, shockingly, a road worthy motorcycle.

Fresh Rubber

I moved the Slash 5 out of the way, and then rolled the S out into the driveway. I swung a leg over and pushed the bike down the driveway’s gentle slope – with the clutch pulled in, it rolled smoothly and easily down the hill. At the bottom, I stopped and rolled the bike back and forth, forwards and back. Since everything seemed to be nominal in unpowered mode, I put the bike up on the main stand, and went back inside to get my helmet, gloves and jacket.

 

***

 

There had been times – given the emotional and mental health stressors of the previous 6 weeks spent under quarantine – when I genuinely wondered whether my R90S would ever see the road again. I’d questioned whether parts would ever be obtained, having to come through an international supply chain that had been closed at least once for decontamination. I questioned whether the dealership where my tire, tube and rim strip were waiting for me would remain operational. I even questioned whether my health would remain unaffected so that my heirs wouldn’t inherit a do it yourself classic motorcycle kit after my demise (some assembly required).

I’d managed to persevere though all of that, though, and now the small hurdle was the same as it always way – had my own skills as a mechanic been sufficient, and had the job been completed correctly? A few yards of road would, as always, hold the answer.

I opened the petcocks, set the choke lever, and turned the key.  The S was a little down on battery – the last time I’d charged it to full had been a week or two back. The engine swung through five or six compression strokes before firing once and stalling. I waited another ten seconds or so, and then went for a second run at it, giving the engine the tiniest bit of throttle this time. On the third compression stroke – just before my doubts blossomed into full blown concern – the engine fired, then fired on the other cylinder, finally coming up to a lumpy idle.  I gave the engine throttle a few times, backed off to half choke, then no choke, and then gently revved the engine until there was enough heat in the system to allow a smooth idle and to take throttle off the bottom.  I toed the transmission down into first gear, gave it a little gas, and expressed tiny gratitude as the clutch bit and the bike moved smartly down my street.

I trolled around the streets of my neighborhood, short shifting between first and second gear a few times, gratified at what seemed to be a very smoothly rolling motorcycle. My neighborhood has a small park, and I stopped there briefly to visually inspect everything to make sure all the fasteners were still there and nothing was barfing any fluids – all was well.

It was the moment where knowledge would turn to understanding.

I gassed it, and turned right up the highway.

 

***

 

It didn’t take more than half a mile to know that this motorcycle and my work were good.

Tires that wear out affect handling far more than they affect traction. The new Pilot Ativ’s profile was absolutely round where the replaced one’s had been largely squared off. That square profile causes absolutely awful feeling stuff every time the tire drops to lean. And does it again when it comes back.

The new tire, though, with a perfect profile, was allowing me to lean and straighten up the motorcycle in a completely linear fashion. As I did the racer boy weave, gently working the tire back and forth to break it in, the handling ickies had been completely banished. The complete feeling of precision as the bike went onto the sides of the tire meant that the new bearings were set up at least well enough to fool me – there was no play in the rear suspension and nothing that felt like it wasn’t rotating freely.  There is something about a BMW motorcycle that is has been set up properly that makes it feel like the entire bike has been made out of a single piece of metal, and that feeling was back.

 

***

 

Technically, my reason for being out of my house didn’t comply with the Governor’s quarantine order – I wasn’t out for work, food or medicine. I’m not sure that ‘being in pursuit of understanding’ would have cut it with the trooper.

Fortunately, I did not get the opportunity to try that one.

It did feel better than I can explain, though, to be in the saddle of this old motorcycle, with the thrust of this motor pushing me forward, and the wind washing over my body.

I kept speeds, lean angles and throttle openings easy as we broke the tire in and my confidence in the service rose. One never wants to fall off and go to the hospital, but in the time of The Disease, that preference goes at least double.  I ran The Pike down into Knoxville, Mountain Road back up to MD 17, and then sat at the intersection, looking north and south and seeing absolutely no one else on the road. I was having a hard time adjusting to this present dystopia – the Disease had created a world where it was possible to imagine that there was only you – too many places I had been when on walkabout it had been only me.

I made the left to head up 17, back towards Burkittsville and back towards home. I got under the bubble and turned my left foot in towards the engine – a position that seems to increase the precision of my shifts – and took the bike up through the gears. About two thirds throttle and 6500 rpm seemed restrained enough to take the new rubber and new parts into account but enthusiastic enough to manage a few seconds of feeling free.

Banging through the 90-90s into Coatesville, and running the two decreasing radius right handers heading out were enough to convince me that all was right with the 58 inches of the world that lies between this bike’s two contact patches.

Now all we got to do is take tools in hand and fix what’s wrong with the rest of it.

 

 

 

***

 

* FNSLD — OK, If it is bugging you that much — Friendly Not So Local Dealer

Heartbreak In Rosso

I have never thought of myself as a racer.

Heck, until recently, I’d never even been on a racetrack. 

The Motorcycling Greg, far from being a racer, had been a Traveler – someone that covered a great deal of ground, and did it stylishly, rapidly, and mostly safely.

Motorcycling is all about the edge, and the Traveler has a very different relationship with it than does the Racer — the Traveler wants his Edge Socially Distant, while the Racer gets all intimate with it. Getting All Intimate With The Edge means that you are comfortable with the notion that you will occasionally blow right past said Edge and enter the realm of unplanned vehicle/rider separation.

You know. Crash.

So if you’re going to race, you need to dress for it.

So real racers have real leathers – suits that will protect them when the long avoided and theoretically tamed inevitable finally sneaks up and bites.

Modern track leathers are a near miraculous amalgam of materials science, textile engineering and physics. The best suits – made for MotoGP heroes – include predictive electronics that know you are about to crash before you do and inflate air bags to absorb the force of what hasn’t happened yet.

I’ve seen modern MotoGP crashes – ones that make one wince – straightaway speed runoffs, big hairy highsides – crashes that in the good old days might have been terminal – that result in nothing more serious than our pilot popping back up like some rubber cartoon character providing a comically accelerated stream of (usually romance language) invective.

Adrenaline is wonderful stuff.

My first trip to the racetrack allowed me to finally come clean about my moto-porno, racer boy fantasies. I’m reasonably sure I’m not the only one that has these – they’re an extension of everyone’s childhood baseball or basketball dreams – “Smith takes the inbound pass, moves to the inside of the defender, and as the game clock counts down….”  —  except the ball got bigger, and grew a motor.

“Hailwood sets up along the tight line coming into Becketts, makes the inside pass and pulls away….”

Come clean. You know you’ve done this.

That racer boy fantasy is just a short slippery chute away from imagining oneself clad in skintight leather, armor as far as the eye can see, preferably executed in bright primary or florescent colors – looking for all the world like some superhero spun loose from DC Comics.

Motivation, meet opportunity.

I’ve been buying gear for many years from a business called Motorcyclegear.com. I have no relationship with the business other than being a satisfied customer. Their original business model involved resale of lightly used or previously owned unused riding gear, and I have some very cherished gear that was acquired this way. More recently they specialize in discontinued and ‘last year’s model’ gear that is also a great value.  But while the used gear action is something they are actively discontinuing, they still have some limited inventory.

One of those items was a set of bright red, one piece Dainese racing leathers. Red. The color of Ferraris, of Alfa Romeos, of MV Agustas, MotoGuzzis, of Ducatis. The notion of being inconspicuous disappears like water on a hot exhaust header in the presence of a set of Red Italian Road Racing Leathers. For a sometime BMW Nerd, Red Italian Road Racing Leathers turn Clark Kent into Superman.

 

No Reason Required

 

Owning such a premium set of riding gear isn’t only some form of moto-porn fantasy fulfillment. With the occasional new model track introduction or road test photo shoot, I do have a need some purposeful and photogenic kit, and this suit definitely fit that bill.  Amazingly, the sizing looked like it was actually in the hunt for my somewhat stocky build, and the price —  $349 – was absolutely ridiculous for what was probably a $1700 suit. I looked at and lusted after that suit for a good, long time.

Several times I came perilously close to pushing that button, only to hesitate, and then, usually the next day, have some family or mechanical crisis rise up and swallow the subject $349.

I never stopped looking, though.

I did keep sticking things like Christmas and Birthday cards into my desk drawer until I realized I had most of the money I needed in that drawer.

During an e-mail conversation with Dan Quick, Zero Motorcycles’ Marketing Maven, he mentioned that Zero was contemplating some spec racing events. I replied that the opportunity to go Zero Racing would finally give me a compelling reason to buy those Ferrari-red Leathers. Dan then set me straight. Ferrari-Red Italian Leathers, he suggested, required absolutely no reason whatsoever.

You only live once.

These days maybe not even once.

I pushed the button.

 

***

 

The FedEx guy slung the big carton up onto the porch outside my office while I was in a meeting.

When I got the chance, I pulled the box inside and sat it in the hall until I had the time to check out the prize. The box was heavy – this was clearly an old-tech, old-school traditional set of leathers – there is no replacement for thick, heavy leather and lots of it.

After work, I carefully cut the tape on the carton and pulled the suit free of the box.

Dianese did not get to be the choice of MotoGP champions without reason. The hides used to make the suit were thick, supple and luxurious. As a guy that grew up in a family whose business was garment manufacture, the sewing was clearly expert – straight, even and well finished. Hardware was all first rate, and the internal armor was pro-grade. The suit was decorated with Dainese’s trademark devil’s head, which on this suit, were rendered in Carbon Fiber.

The label inside the suit was itself an artwork. The embroidered label had reproductions of suits they had made for multiple MotoGP champions – starting with Agostini, Roberts, Lawson, Schwantz and Spenser. There may have been some other guys in there, but after that kinda start, it hardly matters.

There Are Champs In My Suit

I may have been getting slightly moistened in anticipation.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore raised a single eyebrow at me as I started feverishly removing articles of clothing in the middle of our den – stripping down to boxers and T-shirt – in preparation for trying on my prize.

I opened the chest zipper all the way down, and started inserting myself into the suit.

The legs were, as one would expect, snug but workable – length seemed to be ok, as well. Getting my arms into the suit’s arms was enough of a wrestling match to make me appreciate the design of my Aerostich. Length of the arms and torso was also good – elbows and arm armor worked right, and the suit’s delicate area had sufficient space for all of the things I wanted enclosed therein. Good, good and good.

The torso itself, though, was a non-starter. Understanding that the suit was meant to be snug, there was just no way to get all of me inside and the zipper all the way up without space time having to be modified in some unsupportable way.

My sadness and disappointment knew no bounds.

I guess I should not have been surprised, though.

Picture, in your mind’s eye, the GP Champions of Today.  Those guys – Rossi, Lorenzo, Marquez – slid out of the womb naturally aerodynamic. If any one of them is more than 5 foot 7 and a 135 pounds I will eat my Schott Perfecto jacket. They are slight of build and narrow of waist – one of many reasons they are fast is that they don’t begin with a built-in horsepower to weight and coefficient of drag penalty.

Not so with me.

When I was a much younger man, I hit a fork in the road that I did not at the time recognize.  If, at that time, someone had handed me a nice glass of Montepulciano or Barolo, I might be still V-shaped, and fit neatly in a set of Dainese Leathers. Instead, someone handed me a glass of Old Roger Yorkshire Strong Ale, and as a result I am now built more like a keg than a wine bottle.

“Be comfortable in your own skin,” people will tell you. They do not tell you not to be too comfortable.

No matter.

If my racer boy dreams are ever to come true, they are likely to involve custom made leathers. Both Vanson and Bates have suits that come in a nice Marlboro Yamaha red. I’ve come face to face with my own body, and it doesn’t look anything remotely like Valentino Rossi’s, and I have little choice but to be OK with that.

Those same people will tell you “To act your age”. Those people can ram that shit right up their snouts.

I tried not to get too verklempt as I taped the shipping carton back up, and put the RMA label on the outside.  I’d bungie the thing onto a bike tomorrow and run it back over to my local UPS terminal – at least, in the middle of the lockdown, I’d get a short ride out of it.

If, on the other hand, buddy, you happen to be 5’8”, and about 160 pounds, I know where you can get a smoking deal on a set of beautiful red leathers.

The Last Ride

The Governor of The State of Maryland came on the television this morning, and told us all that citizens were to remain in our homes until the disease had passed.

People who left their homes without the purpose of critical publicly necessary work, or procuring food or medicine would be subject to arrest.

No one, certainly not The Governor, knew how for how long that might be.

Given how little anyone really knew of The Disease, that confinement might be a gift of one’s life, or it might be a death sentence.

Hard to know which way it might go.

It’s the sort of message that is well within its rights to completely mess up your head, and it certainly did with mine.

Since much of the State’s population had already been politely requested, as opposed to ordered, to remain at home for between 7 to 10 days already, our air quality here has improved markedly. The sky was clear and cloudless, with a color Carolina tries to claim for itself.

The Order took effect at 8:00 p.m. this evening, which left a few hours before lockdown for one to do whatever seemed like the most important thing to do before being remanded to custody.

I took care of a few things in the office, and then went and got my motorcycle keys.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore was already off finally trying out the Pickup Camper and recumbent trike carrier combo we’d built for her over the winter. It has a slick swing-away cargo platform that we modified into a pedal trike docking station. We’d finished the rig but it had never been fully road tested after Sweet D had become ill.

But the sun had come out and Sweet D was finally feeling better so I heard the bellow of that Chrysler Small Block as it disappeared around the corners towards the C&O canal and its towpath bicycle trail.

My shop is a mess – it’s currently filled with all manner of R90S bits after a simple rear tire swap went pearshaped. It seems that the several months that my motorcycles spent outside during the construction of Teardrop V2.0 allowed some water to infiltrate the bearing pack and some things rusted and seized to some other things. Removal of the axle, normally a job that takes a solid 10 minutes, took about 10 days and a lot of patience, penetrating oil and torches to make sure I didn’t make a bad thing even worse.

It’s OK – I’ve stimulated the economy by placing at least four different orders for bearings, seals, axles, spacers and tooling, and now I have a project to help pass part of the time. ‘Course, I don’t know when my work product might meet back up with the tire that’s sitting up at Fredericktown Yamaha, but one problem at a time, eh?

After lots of short blasts on the twins, switching back to the K-bike is always a bit of a shock to the system. While there’s no denying the Flying Brick’s mechanical character, but compared to the twins it is so much more refined – structure and suspension are worlds ahead, and with broad, smooth power – just twist and go.

There are always people trying to tell you something.  Today, some of those people are trying to convince me that riding my motorcycle is irresponsible – that ambulance crews and medical personnel are too busy to treat me should I fall.

Today’s rationalization is that I’m no more likely to fall off today than any of the previous twelve thousand or so days, so I’m comfortable with my chances.

Still, I resolve to back it off maybe half a click.

If one set out to design a day just for motorcycling, you’d have likely come up with this one – cloudless skies, a gentle steady breeze, and a bike info display reading 73 f.  Normally, these midday vacations are vivid and brief – today, I felt an undeniable compulsion to stretch out a bit – to find some more open stretches of highway than my local goat paths, and just surround myself with wind and let tires sing against pavement.

I love the stretch of Jefferson Pike west of Brunswick Circle – the road is smooth with a series of increasing radius sweepers as one descends towards the Potomac – with the Brick in its sweet spot at about 4200 rpm in fourth gear the whole world suddenly felt unstressed and unhurried, and like it could stay like this forever.

At Knoxville I entered US 340 West, banging up into top gear and raising the LT’s electric shield to just above my eyeline.

There’s something meditative about top gear on this bike – another way to the infinite Ohhhhm. If I ever needed to find a contemplative inner peace, it would be right about now.

Although traffic on 340 was very light as we crossed the river, there were certain drivers in the stream whose roadcraft indicated a definite turn towards the desperate – too much throttle, too much willingness to stuff their fellow motorists – even more than usual. In every apocalypse there’s always that guy that can’t cope, that just stone freaks out. It looked like we’d be seeing a lot of that guy across the next few months.

West Virginia 230 leads north towards Shepherdstown – the road is open and rolling – broken up by a few sets of entertaining Colonial Property Line corners with their left right 90 90s. I did my best to focus on the road and let everything else take one of the offramps of my mind.  On 230 I was out there by myself, and a sunny day with the revs up help to drive home the understanding that 20 years on the road have not done anything to make this LT any less of a perfect travelling motorcycle – both contact patches were communicating perfectly as the bike worked its way up this two lane highway, and the quality of the power – being able to enter corners out of the throttle and roll back on to come out – managing the road in a single gear – got me and kept me in the groove.

The run up to Shepherdstown is about 11 miles, and it vanished in a flash. I crossed the Potomac back into Maryland and grooved on MD 34 back to Boonsboro.  34 is a cruising road – we just stayed in Top Gear and drank in the sunshine.

After passing Crystal Grottoes Caverns – I’ve been riding past the place for 25 years and never been inside; might be time to finally head below – I pulled up to Boonsboro’s single traffic light. In keeping with Social Distancing requirements, I left a bit more following distance than usual. When the light turned green, I went straight across and began my charge up Boonsboro Mountain Road.

What does one need to know about Boonsboro Mountain Road?

If your idea of a perfect motorcycling road involves occasional Isle-of-Man style full-on airborne leaps and grades steep enough to encourage power wheelies on an 800 pound plus touring bike, Boonsboro Mountain might be your road.  There was a single car out there today that demonstrated goodwill by pulling into their driveway just before the run up the grade.  There are several driveways and crossroads that are graded into the road in such a way that they form effective take off ramps. On my R90S I’ll stay towards the shoulder and the effect is very dramatic – think three full feet of altitude and 40 or 50 feet flight time. On the LT I tend to stay a bit more towards the centerline. Altitude and duration are less extreme that way but trust me when I say any ride that has one jumping and landing more than a half ton of alloy and ass is still pretty dramatic.

After cresting the Mountain, I made the right turn down US 40, heading back towards home. 40, in this geography, is arrow straight but has significant grades as it follows the topography of the Blue Ridge – up one huge hill, down another. Normally, the road carries significant traffic, but not today. I enjoyed the moto-solitude and followed the National Pike back to Harmony Road, which connects back to MD 17 and eventually, home.

Harmony is, like many roads in Frederick County, one that follows a stream, and so is a bunch of rider’s fun.  I kept the Brick down in third gear, which kept my revs up and access to power instant. 45 quality seconds had me grinning from ear to ear and headed south on 17.

Middletown puts me back on Holter Road  — running down the spine of the Middletown Valley – working the sides of the tires, enjoying the thrust of this motor, and drinking in as beautiful and green a day as I can remember. Normally these lunchtime rides average about 20 miles – this one was more like 60. Truth be told, I wasn’t going to leave any in the bottle – who knew when the next time might be.

Coming back into Jefferson and my neighborhood, I opened the visor on my Shoei and slowed well below my normal pace. I turned into my driveway, rolled up into the garage, and did my customary standing dismount and centerstand jiu-jitsu – where one rolls the bike gently backward and then uses the momentum to ease the bike up onto the main stand. After a few moments enjoying the Brick’s quiet and smooth idle, I hit the killswitch, walked to the opening of the garage, and pulled down the door.

That Door Is Closed

Greatest Hits

There are some motorcycles, that the first time you see them, tell you that they are the future.

You know what these motorcycles are.

The Vincent Black Shadow. The CB750. The 1977 BMW R100RS. The first Gold Wing. The Bimota Tesi. The FZR750. Bikes that seemed like fever dreams from outer space – bikes that were machines that were like nothing we had ever seen.

The motorcycles of DC’s 2020 International Motorcycle Show were not those motorcycles.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems to me, that for the most part, motorcycle manufacturers are looking to their pasts for inspiration. I guess I can understand why that might be happening. Motorcycling’s target market continues to age. The predictable end date of internal combustion engines is slowly coming into focus. The future of gasoline powered motorcycles is short. Motorcycling’s past, in that context, starts to look pretty good.

Let me fair. There are a few machines that do buck that trend, and either drive motorcycling forward, or change it into something else entirely.  Those bikes buck the trend, though, just confirm that the trend exists, and that it has legs.

Suzuki had their 2020 Katana – inspired by Hans Muth’s 1981 Suzuki Katana – on display at the most conspicuous possible place at the entrance to Washington DC’s Walter Washington Convention Center’s show floor.  The new Katana recalls some of the classic bike’s design characteristics – the diagonal slash of the windshield and the surrounding fairing. The more modern race style tailpiece departs from the original design, and, having to choose, I prefer the appearance of the inspiration bike to the new interpretation. From an engineering standpoint, the new Katana is simply a GSX-S1000 with revised bodywork and a much smaller fuel tank of only 3.2 US gallons. Whether one prefers the new suit or not, the resulting bike’s range is reduced to the point of near ridiculousness – this homage to a classic bike does not carry forward the utility of the original.

Suzuki’s other new bike also looks backwards, in terms of styling, but succeeds in presenting that styling with completely state of the art safety and rider aide systems. The 2020 VStrom 1050 XT borrows both styling and colorways that recall classic Suzuki Rally Racers and the DR-Big offroader – sporting the mother of all ‘beaks’ and a rally-style windscreen and handguards. In Suzuki’s traditional competition colorways – the bright yellow and blue and white and red variants – and with a set of decent knobby tires mounted, the 1050 XT really looks the part. Combining and updated version of Suzuki’s big L Twin motor with a modern ride by wire throttle, a 6 axis Inertial Management Unit (IMU), multiple lean angle sensitive power, traction control and ABS modes, and cruise control, the new ‘Strom should be a powerful and versatile daily rider and travelling companion.

Yellow, Beaky and Knobby. Score.

Kawasaki also presented several new or revised models that are designed to appeal to fans of the brand’s history.  Heck, the Big K has even created a category for motorcycles they call ‘Retro Sport’ which more or less institutionalizes this movement toward mechanical nostalgia. For you riders that never got past the Z1, one gets the 2020 Z900RS – a beautifully styled and well executed homage to the original Z1 – metalflake RootBeer paint job, flat saddle, twin gauges, round headlight and 4 into 1 header and all – a bike that somehow manages to look right while making use of the most modern tech available. It’s an amazing design balancing act – to make a bike that has inverted stanchion forks, water cooling, fuel injection, radial tires and radial mount brakes – look as all of a piece and somehow be completely evocative of a 46 year old motorcycle.

Four Jugs and Rootbeer Paint

For you Eddie Lawson Replica people, there is the Z900RS Café – in the Kawasaki Racing Green, Blue and White colorway – that, if you ride it, will help you to believe that the 1983 Eddie Lawson Replica was a much better motorcycle than it actually was.

Eddie Lawson Replica Redux?

And for folks that believe motorcycle evolution ended about a decade or two before the Z1, Kawasaki has their W800, which is intended to evoke Kawasaki’s W1, W2 and W3 of the mid 1960s, which itself was a licensed copy of a BSA A7.  The W800 – with its parallel twin, traditional styling and upright riding position — goes head to head against retro offerings from Triumph and Royal Enfield. How you want your Classic British Twin is entirely up to you.

Not every Kawasaki model, though, is backward looking. In keeping with Kawasaki’s engineering tradition of making maximum use of any platform they develop, there is also the Z900 – which takes the same 900cc 4 cylinder powertrain and dresses it as a state of the art streetfighter. A great motor, two wheels, strong brakes, a place to sit and a thing to hold on to. What’s not to love?

I don’t remember ever seeing a Kawi Monkey-class mini or micro bike, but a quick bit of research turns up the 1971 MT-1. Like anything retro, it’s now cool again, and if it’s really small and cute, it’s even cooler.  Accordingly, Kawasaki has the Z125 Pro, which, if it got any cuter – with its 70s style paint splatter paint job and matching wheel rim trims – it would need to explode in a shower of kittens and golden retriever puppies. Every motorcyclist that got within 10 feet of it was immediately consumed with notions of running the tiny bike flat out in a full roadracing tuck and began idiot grinning uncontrollably. Folks that have ridden one confirm that riding one is more fun than fantasizing about it.

Whatever it is, it looks like a LOT of fun.

And with the time continuum button mashed in the other direction, Kawasaki offers the the Ninja H2R, a 300 horsepower, carbon fiber bodied, supercharged track-only missile that takes advantage of the most current MotoGP Aero tech to give the pilot a fair chance of staying on the ground when that blower comes on the pipe.

Do You Prefer Your Wings In Carbon Fiber?

Heading in a completely different direction was Giant – the largest manufacturer of bicycles on the planet  — that was there to showcase 5 or six different lines of e-bikes – as in electrified bicycles – that were all built around a Yamaha-developed and supplied crankset, sensor, motor and transmission unit. The Yamaha E-power unit recalls, in many ways, their motorcycle engines, only miniaturized. Full on electric motorcycles that weigh 500 pounds and have to do highway speeds have to wrestle against the laws of physics  — all that mass to accelerate and decelerate works against you. E-bikes that weight 70 or 80 pounds and only have to do 20-30 mph have much friendlier math.

Yam E-Bike Power

Discover The Ride – along with Zero Motorcycles and Yamaha E-Bikes  — was at IMS doing their New Rider Evangelism thing. DTR has put thousands of people on specially configured Zeros and Yamahas and turned them into first time Motorcyclists. Discover The Ride is the sort of thing Motorcycling needs to interest new riders, and the numbers show that it’s working.

Robert Pandya of Discover The Ride Makes His Pitch

Honda, being Honda, can somehow manage to go towards the past and the future at the same time.  The two motorcycles The Honda Men were pitching this year was the updated Africa Twin – a new bike inspired by the 1988 XRV650 Africa Twin. The new 2020 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports is the lightest and arguably best offroad offering of all of the current crop of Adventure Class motorcycles – based on a narrow and tightly packaged 1084 cc parallel twin engine. The bike has well more than enough tractable power to conquer anything on or offroad, coupled with increased fuel tank capacity, and a suspension that has been lowered so that the Adventure Sports and base model have the same ride height and ground clearance. This might sound dull to you, but when I tried to sit on last year’s Adventure Sports, which was 2 ½ inches taller than the 2020, I had a full two inches of air under both boots.  It now appears to be physically possible for me to ride one, which is good, because I anticipate having a test bike available as soon as one is on the East Coast.

2020 Africa Twin Adventure Sports

“…and I can reach the ground…”

The other, and arguably more exciting, news from Honda is their new CBR1000RR-R. Apart from the fact that the CBR now comes with more ‘R’ than anything else in motorcycling, it is clear that this motorcycle is intended to provide racetrack riders with a series production motorcycle that is closer to a MotorGP prototype than anything else they can buy. To prove their point, Honda brought along one of Mark Marquez’ older RC21V-3 MotoGP racebikes, and it was clear from detailed examination that many of the GP bike’s design features – especially in the frame and chassis, had been used to guide the construction of this series production motorcycle. Taking inspiration from a three or four year old MotorGP bike might not count as retro, but in MotoGP dog years, four years is a lifetime. The ManyR’s frame is almost identical to that of its bespoke cousin – down to every weld, every extrusion, the gusset plate at the rider’s knees, the works. After the entire engineering might of Honda helped to create the RC’s controlled flex structure, it was a wheel that didn’t require reinvention. From its motor, though its roadgear which includes state of the art Ohlins suspension and Brembo brakes, to its state of the art 6 axis IMU and associated stability controls, and its GP-style aerodynamic winglets, this motorcycle is a statement of Honda’s engineering mastery, and an arms race entrant in the Superbike racing wars. Only the results on the track will tell if this is the new sporting champ.

Rs and Rs and Rs

I could really dig one of these….

One comes to the International Motorcycle Show to get a peek under the curtains and see Motorcycling’s future. This year, though, the Future looked a lot like Motorcycling’s Greatest Hits.  Enthusiasts will have to look to manufacturers of Electric Motorcycles, E-bikes and other technologies that have not yet broken cover to see what the future of single track transportation looks like. For now, it feels like we’re in a transition that makes the best of what Internal Combustion has to offer, but feels a lot like one or two corners from the end of the road.

 

Slugger

Sweet Doris from Baltimore’s Second Cousin is one George Herman Ruth.

I think of George Herman a lot these days, not because I’m some hidebound baseball fanatic, but because I’ve found myself feeling a lot like most of Babe’s driven baseballs must have felt – taking a full swing blow from 40-plus ounces of seasoned hickory will certainly get one’s attention.

And one shot would be one thing, but the universe lately has been using me for batting practice.

George Herman, I’m told, was not the kind of guy to hit people with a bat. He was a gentle soul that loved kids and to tell odd jokes, and if you were not a baseball, a cigar, or a good bottle of whisky you were likely to be pretty safe around the Babe.

Not so the universe, though.

These days, my universe is a freaking very dangerous place.

I shouldn’t presume to claim that the universe is somehow fixed on me – if you’ve been doing anything more engaging than hiding under the rug in your basement, you know Ms. Universe has taken a few cuts at everyone else, too, via small things like a potential global pandemic, economic meltdown and compete political collapse.

But that’s just my shared inbound damage baseline, and the few extra cuts the universe has taken at my people and at me are starting to feel downright personal. The universe, and the people that live in it are capable of some pretty extreme and arbitrary harm.

One can only take so much of this kind of damage, though, before something’s got to give.

In my case, the only possible relief is found out in the slipstream, in the saddle of my motorcycle. A simple machine is largely (though not completely – be real, man) deterministic, and when nearly everything else goes to hell, when it’s really needed, can be counted upon.

 

***

 

Being a cousin, apparently, does not provide any protection from the metaphorical lumber of the Babe – Sweet Doris from Baltimore has taken her share of shots, too. Come the first Eastern Daylight Time extended Sunday afternoon, at a certain point several pillows and a blanket were provisioned, and then Sweet D was, for a short time, deservedly beyond care.   After it was clear she was in deep sleep, and seeing the setting sun out the windows of the den, I got a jacket and gear together, and – shutting the front door as quietly as I could manage – walked out to the driveway to where the /5 was parked.

No one has ever been startled or sprung wide awake by the ferocious exhaust report of a /5 with a stock exhaust – I’ve seen the engineering drawings of the famous ‘Zeppelin-style’ muffler, and the almost gothic qualities of the exhaust pathways, where even the baffles themselves have still more baffles – don’t really even remotely allow for that possibility.

In my current state of mind, my scramblered-out /5 – with its overbore kit and small valve heads —  was the perfect tonic for what ails me – not in any way objectively fast, but a torquey, slow revving, deliberate ride – a ride requiring only a diffuse kind of rider’s focus.

Torque therapy – good for the soul.

Heading down The Jefferson Pike towards Brookside Corner, the entire horizon was washed with a Hollywood-perfect high production values sunset – the bands of orange and purple were so over the top I was beginning to wonder if maybe my real life and the musical ‘Hairspray’ had inexplicably been flipped in some sort of Sci-Fi swap thaang.

The /5’s motor has personality in spades. The 900 cc overbore has made it a little more throbby and a little more demonstrative than a stock motor under throttle. The modest amount of extra power makes it pretty obvious that my last improvisational jam on the carburetor synchronization – while soulful – wasn’t perfect. I’ll have to take another dance with the ear and the air and idle jets. I can play this song better.

Even with a fairly lightened flywheel, operation of the transmission is, at best, a deliberate and solid thing, whose timing is determined by the moments of significant masses in that driveline that are in motion. One thing one has to not be is in any kind of hurry. Take the time that it takes to execute that shift from second up into third, and the reward sounds like the vault closing at the First National Bank of Youberg. Try to rush it – on the other hand – and the sonic feedback is more like a 55 gallon drum full of hardware store right at the time that grenade goes off in it.

Tonight, though, I’m in no hurry, and that groove is achieved and inhabited. The Moto-Dude abides, man.

On the other side of the Brunswick Circle, headed down The Pike towards Knoxville, the sun and its bands of color settled solidly into the gap – the view up towards Harper’s Ferry, where the mountains let the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers come together.  If one’s spirit was open to The Universe, looking for signs that everything was not as bad as it seemed, this was pretty comically heavy handed. I’m not easily impressed, but this was simply staggeringly beautiful.

By the time I got down into the Gap, the Sun was just on the Horizon. I made my right into Mountain Road, and headed up the steep grade towards one of my favorite goat paths. One can make generalizations about roads named Mountain Road, and those generalizations would here be correct. Mountain is tight, twisty, with lots of elevation changes, and with a surface that was not made for sportbikes. With its long travel suspension, and what’s left of a set of Avon Distanzia dual sport tires, the /5 is right at home. Working with my feet underneath me, and sitting straight up, dirtbike style, I rode corner after corner simply working third gear, off the throttle on entry and rolling back on to torque back on out. With worn dirt style rubber, a little sliding on the exits just added some flavor.

After working my way over the mountain – setting sun at my back – I came back out into the last of the sunlight, wondering at the absolutely clear blue skies – with their discernibly rapidly dropping temperatures – and the sight of an enormous full moon risen over the farmland.

I made the right onto MD17 – being struck by the absolute emptiness of the roads. There are reasons to think that Maryland’s infamous congested roads could all end up like this disturbingly post-apocalyptic preview. As many times as I’ve comically wished that all my fellow road users would just disappear, I had not really anticipated how disturbing having all the roads entirely for myself would feel. With almost nothing but fear and an unknown virus in the air, being alone on a motorcycle might be as good and as free as anyone might feel for the next little while.

Mr. Diffuse Focus executed four, flawless, thonking shifts, and fell into a very relaxed 62 mph on an empty road, under the bluest skies with the moon riding on my shoulder. It was surreal. It was magic. It was transformative. It is just what I went out there for

I’ve had lots of people tell me – trying to be helpful – that I should give up this archaic writing thing. You know, get yourself a real good GoPro, strap the camera on somewhere, and let people see your life unfiltered as you’re living it, trying not to let the process of narrating it have you miss the thing altogether.

And rolling up 17 towards Burkittsville, feeling the old boxer gently throbbing beneath me, wheels working over the pavement imperfections, looking at my Hollywood surrealist scenery, I couldn’t help but think that that GoPro would have ruined the experience, completely and totally.

This story isn’t about the pretty moving picture, it was all about the forming of these indelible analog memories in between the departures and destinations for these rides.

And no .mp4 file is going to take you there.

With the temperature dropping rapidly, the cold air began to chill fingertips though my unlined leather gauntlets and leak around the mandarin collar of my jacket. It stung – it felt great.

I was back in the driveway before I was really ready. I usually am.

Toast After Dark

Sweet Doris was still asleep when I walked quietly back inside.

Tomorrow was a clean sheet of paper, and a chance to maybe do some slugging back.