Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Part Seven

One never means to buy a new motorcycle. As we’ve seen before, it just sort of happens.

I had put nearly 200,000 miles on my two airheads, and it seemed like I could be getting to a point where I might have been spending more time keeping them running than I spent riding them. It didn’t help that one day, as I was crossing DC’s American Legion Bridge, right at the peak of morning rush, that I grenaded a set of gearbox bearings in the S’s five speed box, which created a symphony of breaking metal sounds that I’ll be able to hear in my head until God’s own sidecar carries me home.  That I was somehow able to drift and steer the bike out of the traffic stream and down the ramp to the Navy’s Carderock research center before the adrenaline really kicked in is something I still can’t completely reconstruct.

I’d pulled the gearbox and sent it back to Massachusetts. A few days later, a beautiful custom constructed gearbox carrying wooden crate appeared back on my doorstep. Inside was a note.

I just replaced the bad bearings. It will get you going again. Go easy on it.

                                                                                                Darryl

This was kind of peculiarly out of character for a guy that was detail oriented enough to build engine building equipment.  I read into this that Darryl felt that this gearbox needed more attention than he thought I could afford, or that the parts that were required were going to take weeks to scare up, and that this was the best solution.

He was right though. The box was never right from that point forward. It would jump out of first gear when it was cold, and there was a vibration that seemed to speak of a gearset whose lash wasn’t properly set – in top gear it never seemed to pull as hard or spin up the way it had previously.

One day I was talking to my wife about this crisis of motorcyclic confidence – remember, I rode my bike everywhere on business, covering geography from Boston to Charlotte, DC to South Bend – and she just put paid to the whole thing.

“Why the hell don’t you do something for yourself for a change? You got a good job. You just paid off our truck. You ride everywhere. Go buy yourself a new motorcycle.”

Is there anyone here who would argue with this?

Didn’t think so.

BMW had just released their K1200LT. For a guy that had broken more BMW saddlebag latches and mounting frames than Doan’s has little back pills, the steel superstructure for the subframe and built in cases fitted to the bike spoke of a strength, practicality in my application and longevity that had the potential to carry me a long way down the road.

Apart from that, the love of my life is a full six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than me, and airhead passenger accommodations were not exactly cutting it. The pillion on the LT looked like the answer to a question we’d been asking fairly frequently.

The essential question though, was, did it suck as a motorcycle? I had ridden a few Gold Wings, and a Harley Dresser or two, and all of them were dynamic disasters – soft floaty suspensions, too much mass too far away from the inertial center, and handling characteristics that were total wrestling matches. In short, they did suck – would this?

Five minutes out of the dealership, I had my answer. The test loop that was identified by my local dealer has a series of bang-bang 90 degree left right combinations that are really common in the original 13 States. Historians I know tell me this road pattern is a direct result of following Colonial era property lines.  Coming out of the second set of bang bangs, I was leading over further than I think I ever had previously, and rolling the throttle gently as the bike passed its power peak in third gear, as the bike straightened up I looked down at the speedo and watched as the needle swung through 85 mph.

My first impression of the drivetrain on the K12 holds true today…. eerily glass smooth with torque that starts huge and continues to build until the very top of the rev range. Riding this motorcycle with the revs up is the most un-touring bike like experience imaginable. That powertrain, combined with a frame that has simply crazy amounts of structural rigidity, radial tires and swingarm suspensions front and rear, provides insane amounts of roadholding and rider confidence.

“Sold!”, was the thought that echoed inside my Shoei.

That didn’t keep me from putting another 50 miles or so of mixed interstate and back roads on the bike, just to make sure.

Or keep me from 10 minutes of utter confusion at a gas station as I tried to locate the fuel filler so I could avoid the limit the dealer had tried to set by sending me out with only three quarters of a gallon of fuel in a bike that was supposed to be good for getting from here to San Francisco.

And it didn’t keep me from thinking that the intake shriek that the bike made with the throttle wide open – something that I did more than a few times during the test ride — sounded exactly like Darth Vader’s Tie Fighter from Star Wars.

Did I mention I’m a bit of a nerd?

Consider it mentioned.

Buying this bike, I thought, would be like joining the Dark Side.

I shared the idea with a few friends of mine, thinking the idea was too parochial and arcane to ever stick.

Little did I know.

***

Upon my return to the dealership, I asked some hard questions about what it would really take to buy this bike.

The salescritter informed me that everyone that rode one wanted the loaded models, and that they already had 4-5 months backlog. Nobody, salescritter said, wanted the Standard model, in fact they couldn’t give those away, and had even lent one that hadn’t even been prepped to a local BMW Car Dealership to use as a visual aid.

“That one,” quoth the Salescritter, “you could have today!”

I will never understand a universe in which car and bike salespeople always have exactly and precisely the most wrong thing imaginable to say so readily at hand.

I wrote the dude in question a check after I was able to identify and leave myself an out.

“I’m going to come back on Saturday with my wife. We’re going to test ride the bike again, two up, since that’s really the entire point. If she likes it, and I still like it with her back there, we’ll take it. If any of those things aren’t true, you tear up my check.”

“Deal.”

***

Saturday, we went back. We headed out on the same test loop, two up.

Same corner, same result.

I picked the big girl up on the gas, and saw Doris smiling breezily over my shoulder.  She looked down to the instrument panel and her eyes got big.

With the power windscreen raised she was able to ride with her visor open and it was quiet enough to converse.

“Are we really going that fast?”

I nodded.

“Let’s go write it up.”

So we did.

newklt

***

I’ll admit that joining the Dark Side – owning a K Bike – has a way of changing one’s perspective.

Road trips that used to seem unnaturally long start to seem just about right.

Those trips to Boston, that seemed like Iron Man events on the R90S, start to seem like yawning warmups for something more substantial. My first ride to New England after breaking in the new bike I encountered one of those patented frog-strangling gully washer thunderstorms that, wearing a first generation Aerostich suit, leave one feeling like a friendly passerby had slipped a garden hose into one’s collar and then turned it on for about 5 minutes.  On the K bike, I just adjusted the shield, shut the air wings, and didn’t even slow down. After the sun came out, I noticed that just the ends of my elbows were wet.

<cue maniacal laughter – up and under>

The bike, after scoring a secondhand set of Ohlins dampers, was no slouch on a backroad, either.

I’ve only ridden in a BMW 7 Series sedan once, but the two experiences are pretty close together. Torque like it came straight from the hand of god, and a peculiar combination of taut-yet-comfortable suspension that allowed one to manage the road without having one’s ass kicked by it.

For reasons that are not important here, I ended up having two of these bikes, and just kept twisting the grip, replacing tires, and repeating, until I’d ridden close to 150,000 miles on them.

***

It seems funny, in retrospect, but if the R90S is a German Shepard – fast, high strung and requiring a firm hand on the leash – a K1200LT is a cat.

The K–bike just doesn’t need you.

On familiar back roads, in corners where at 65, the R90S makes me feel like a MotoGP hero, the K-bike is yawning at 80. The frame is so rigid, the tires, brakes and suspension work so well, that it just feels like the K-bike doesn’t need any of your skill and attention.  Where the R90 is moving around on its suspension, requiring constant minute corrections at the bars and the throttle, the LT is just going. If its needs anything, it will send you an e-mail.

Its works so well, it’s dull.

And it took me a while – 150,000 miles of while – to figure that out.

***

During that time, the S did a lot of sitting.

If I wanted to ride somewhere local for fun, it came out, usually on sunny Sundays. Because of the suspect gearbox, I did go easy on it. Big throttle openings were reserved for 2-4th gear, where the bike would always reward with big power wheelies on backroad straights. I stayed out of top gear and kept the whole thing under 75 most times, because I knew that maximum horsepower up on top was where that gearbox was just waiting to explode again.  The bike looked somehow sad and neglected, and like it needed something from me that I hadn’t quite figured out yet.

I’ll admit I even considered selling it.

You may yell “heresy!” and throw tomatoes if you would like.

We all have our weak moments. This was mine.

I’d started a new job down in Northern Virginia, which is not exactly the friendliest environment for an 850 pound motorcycle that is happiest at a sustained 80 miles an hour.  I was spending a lot of time with my boots on the ground, and the fix, which was a little unseemly, was to start looking at these rides as combat missions, with as much shoulder use, lane splitting and dirt as the enemy – in this case, congestion – required.  And while the K-bike is good at a lot of things, this wasn’t exactly a core competency.

Don’t get me wrong – with someone skilled at the bars, the bike will do it, but its high stakes gambling, and not the sort of thing you’d want your women and children to witness.

I did some cost modelling. I played some scenarios. I even test rode some motorcycles.

What it came down to was I couldn’t even trade two motorcycles – the S and the LT – for enough to end up without a loan, even on a 2 or 3 year old used bike.  With two kids concurrently in college, it just wasn’t my turn for any financial extravagance.

No one saw any value in these bikes, it seemed, but me.

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