Old School Touring

Getting from here to there on a motorcycle sure didn’t start with your brand new WunderWasserBoxer, FJR, Concours14 or Gold Wing. Push button adjusting, electronic dynamic active suspensions, 5 mode power control, hill start control, speed shifters and leaning anti-lock braking might be impressive, but they sure are not core to the motorcycle travel experience.

So what is core to the motorcycle travel experience?

Its pretty basic, really.

A motor. Preferably one that starts every time you give it the boot or the finger. It should have been doing this consistently and reliably over a long timeline.

It should have a cylinder. Or maybe even two.

That motor should have a sweet spot somewhere in its RPM range where it seems at ease.

It doesn’t really matter whether this happens at a road speed of 50 miles per hour or 150 miles per hour, so long as it has one.

It needs two wheels, a place to sit your ass, and a handle to hang on to.

That’s it.

(Ok, you Ural Guys get get an extra wheel, if that’s how you roll.)

If Robert Fulton could carry enough go around the world and cross the Sahara in 1932 on a 350cc Douglas, and today Ed March can through travel places like Tibet and Iran on a Honda C90 (Ed probably has more power – scary thought), you are going to have a tough time convincing me you need more.

Want maybe. But not need.

But what about the aluminum expedition cases, you will ask? The crash bars, the giraffe rammers and jerry cans. The Cibie desert lamps?

Shameless vanity, needless mass and unnecessary complexity. Things that will weigh you down, make you less able to ride through poor conditions and things that will break.

If the entire ‘touring continuum’ has Ed’s C90 at 0 and a brand new R1200GSA at 1, the loci of what you need to motorcycle tour is a lot closer to 0 than it is to 1.

 

***

 

I’ve been having this kind of conversation lately with Finn.

“You can’t tour on a 500 cc single, Pop.”

“Sure ya can. You just have to tour slower. You just have to ride where its happy.”

I tell him about Pirsig’s CB77 — all 350 ccs of it.

I tell him about all the people I ran into out on the road in the early 80s that were still crossing The American West on Honda and Kawaski 450s.

I’m grasping at ideas for a first Father and Son tour for the boy to get his touring feet wet, hopefully figuratively speaking.

An initial idea of the run to MidOhio for Vintage Days didn’t make the cut after uncomfortably high temperatures, Saturday rain and violent storms entered the weather picture.

I’m all for experience but ya gots to start slowly, eh? Keep something left in the bag for next time, you know?

So it was funny when the opportunity to drink my own Kool Aid was presented, I kinda jumped at the chance.

 

***

 

Sweet Doris from Baltimore and one of her teardrop camping trailer club buddies had departed midweek for an unimproved campground located in a Maryland State Park about 60 miles from Jefferson.

Me, I had to work, and so work I did.

But by the time the end of the post-July 4th holiday short week began to wrap up, I was seeing some signs that lots of other people I needed to drive work forward were going to be not working that day.

Catching up with the campers and camping some, too, seemed like a pretty good idea.

Now the weather had been sticky and hot to a dangerously uncomfortable degree.

Doris had called me to say that the circulating fan on our homebuilt camper had been being flaky and she couldn’t diagnose the trouble. She suggested if I came that I bring a 3 man Kelty tent we own as a contingency plan if it was just too stinking hot to sleep in the trailer.

“No prob,” quoth I, “all of that stuff will fit.”

Now it should be stated for the record that I own a touring motorcycle — a big beast of a Flying Brick motored full dress full mass touring motorcycle.

But the idea of making a one hour ride on a stinking hot day behind that full fairing felt like hammering in nails with 500 pound bombs.

Sure, you can do it, but was it really the right tool for the job?

I wanted to feel the wind on me, feel the motor throb, feel the rush of acceleration, and also wanted something that wouldn’t feel like wrestling the entire Chicago Bears when I hit the several miles of dirt roads that lead to the remote campground.

I’d been planning to take the R90S to Ohio. I’ve scores to settle, as I ridden the bike to Ohio twice and arrived home riding it exactly nonce.

Big Pool wasn’t exactly Ohio, but it was a chance to test the theory.

 

***

 

So I put myself back in the mind of my earliest motorcycle travels.

I went looking for my trusty WalMart duffle bag. I found the nail in the garage where the elastic bungies were hung. I got my old folding rally chair — very small and lightweight — and went to the bottom drawer of my chest where I’ve got a bunch of old Jeans belts that are too wide to use.

Those belts, now that I consider it, are likely perfectly comtemporary for my bike.

I put my air matress and the tent into the duffle bag. I threw in a fresh T-shirt, a pair of socks and a pair of clear underweat for good measure. I used the belts to fasten my chair to the top of the duffle.

Five short minutes and three long bungies later the whole roll was firmly secured to my passenger saddle.

Into one case I placed a soft sided cooler, which contained a lot of ice I was sure I was going to need, and a few cans of suemmery beers — Union Craft Old Pro, anyone? — at least one of which I was also sure I was going to need. Beers 2-6 were strictly optional, but I do like to be prepared.

The other bag took 3 more quarts of ice water in an insulated jug — it was 96 at ride time — and my normal 24 oz water bottle. I threw in my air bed inflator, a set of technical sandals — which, being an adoptive Baltimore guy, I must wear with socks — and a Flying Dog ball cap, because, well, I’m increasingly cranially reflective and aerodynamic, and sunburned scalp sucks.

I found an old fanny pack I bought for my first ride to the Pocono Cycle Jam, and since my ventilated summer gear is a tad pocket challenged when compared to a ‘Stich, loaded my wallet, phone and home keys in there with some Ginger hard candies I like when I ride.

I rolled the bike to the driveway, pulled down the door and geared up.

I was happly to discover I could still swing my leg over the duffle. The alternative could have been less than graceful.

The R90S engine boomed to life and in the heat, immediately took throttle without needing any choke. I rolled down the driveway, toed the bike into first, gassed it and banked left for the highway.

 

***

 

It took about 5 seconds to figure out that the R90’s default rear spring preload setting — selected more for ride height and front end rake than for compliance — had been a tad oversprung.

But with some serious additional mass on board — water, ice and oat soda are plenty heavy — the bike was sitting far more level on the road, and felt a great deal more planted. As I headed up Maryland 180 towards Holter Road, I rolled the bike rapidly left and right, like racers on their warm up lap, just to make sure the heavy load hadn’t in any way compromised stability or maneuverability.

It hadn’t.

Holter Road leads up through the Valley to Middletown, and features as many S-friendly corners as you can stuff into 6 miles. I had quickly been able to find and slide into complete focus, and as I left Jefferson and headed north in The Valley, I was surrounded by the roar of the S’s intakes, the thunder of the exhaust’s echos coming back from the ridgeline to the right of the road, and the steady Thock-Thock-Thocks of my preloaded and perfect shifts banghome up through the gearbox. When you get to Middletown and pick up Maryland 17, the game repeats, with a ribbon of winding back to back 90s, hills and grades.

It was just a lovely green dance at the end of a ferociously hot day — rolling off the throttle on entries and on again for the exits with nary a touch of brake. For a very old motorcycle the S felt willing — eager to turn, rock solid and planted.

From 17 I swept right onto Harmony Road, which chases through a farm bottom and follows Little Catoctin Creek west to US 40, The National Pike. If they’d built another corner and a way back to where it started they could have had a nice racetrack here. Careful, those inviting looking corners are actually decreasing radius ones — its trickier than it first looks. Even loaded up the S felt comfortable leaned way over — there was good heat in the tires and no tar snakes today.

I headed west on 40 — cut into huge grades where the road crosses the Appalachian Trail. With my speed slightly up my ventilated gear was flowing good air — it felt relaxing, comfortable — where the forcast said it shouldn’t be. After a few brief blasts of throttle over these giant grades I came back down to Hagerstown and the new National Pike, Interstate 70.

 

***

 

Now if you’ve been really paying attention, you’re gonna say, “Wait a minute. That ain’t no 350 Douglas your ass be sittin’ on. No 305 SuperHawk, no C90 Adventure. That be purebred big bore aero engine power.”

And you’d be right.

But that ain’t the point and here’s how you know.

I’d already covered about 25 miles from the house and hadn’t seen top gear yet.

The ramp onto the Interstate is a place to check the rotation available from one’s right wrist.

On the old airhead the movement required is pretty large, and on the S’s Del’ortos works against pretty good springs.

But if you are practiced, focused and deliberate, the run up through the gears is thrill after thrill, the chassis rising as each gear thocks home and the throttle is wound on. After entering the highway, and working through three lanes of traffic to the leftmost lane, came that last shift up to 5th speed. I loaded the shifter and banged it into top.

Most time, that shift is workmanlike. Today it was textbook perfect.

I sat up straight, closed my Shoei’s visor, and got my head above the blast from the S fairing and into clean air.

The tach showed 4750 rpm — its needle just a degree to the right of pointing straight ahead. The speedometer read about 77 mph — its needle just a degree to the right of pointing straight ahead, dead parallel to the needle on the tach.

This strange confluence don’t seem like a coincidence to me.

It looked like if you’d put just the mildest countersteer into the throttleside bar, that you’d have taken off in that direction and just kept on that way till you ran out gas.

Welcome to that aformentioned sweet spot.

I recognized this place.

This was the bike I commuted from Jefferson to Boston on for a few months one summer. Out on Sunday afternoon — back on Friday.

Me and thunderstorms gots to be friends.

The bike didn’t seem to mind, though.

Don’t be thinking that the sweet spot be smooth.

There are two big pistons down there, and you feel them when they fire.

The sweet spot is just where everything in your motorcycle feels its at its natural place, where it is now and could go on forever, even if the steel of the frame is ringing like a bell.

This confluence of big impulses and their harmonics is why I first became really fond of big closed cell neoprene foam grips — Johar makes the ones I like — because they alow you to feel all of this and still be able to use your smallest two fingers at the end of a long riding day.

Covering ground like this is soulful, old school.

The bike and me, we ran out of highway way too soon.

 

***

 

Maryland Route 56 leads from the highway down to Big Pool and Fort Frederick State Park.

The road and the farms along it have been in the same place since the end of the 18th century and the French and Indian Wars. All the buildings are German lap siding painted white, and the fields around them all brightest green.

That stretch of road like the most precious things in my long life — sweetest moments over far too soon.

I rolled easy though the entry road into the park, past the amazing star fortifications of Fort Frederick, and then down onto the dirt road that lead to the campground.

I rose up and stood — knees well bent like a horseman — as the S ate up running on the dirt road.

As I rolled into the campground, I could see my teardrop and the other tiny campers off to the right, with Doris and her teardropping buddies — Robin and Kenny –waving from the picnic table.

I rolled up behind my pickup, killswitched and dismounted, and swung the S up onto her main stand.

It was hot. Time for about another quart of cold water and then maybe one of those cold Old Pros.

WP_20160707_20_11_11_Pro

***

 

After engaging bodge mode, and mucking about with the teardrop’s vent fan for a few minutes, I was able to produce motion in the system.

How did you do that?” demanded Sweet Doris from Baltimore.

“Don’t know really. Its prolly just scared of me.”

So my well packed contingency plan was for naught.

No matter. Eilenberger’s Law says I was only able to render it servicable because I had a full coterie of replacement components. Had I left the tent home, we’d have been screwed.

No matter though. I’d managed to moto-tardis my way back to the 70s, analog motorcycle, jeans belts, duffles, bungies and all.

I had seen old school,and it was freaking groovy, man.

Ohio and back this time, too, didn’t seem so far, after all.

 

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