There was a ring of ice fog around the sun.
Those of us that have grown up in snowy climates know what comes next, and if you are a motorcyclist, it isn’t good.
Never mind that it was 31 degrees out. I’d needed a ride since Wednesday, and I wasn’t going to let what was going to begin in about an hour keep me from some fresh air and acceleration to clear my head.
I reached into the very small library of very thin excuses for a ride and selected a trip to Frisco’s — one of my favorite artisanal beer sources. I probably needed a drink, too, given conditions, but of the available options, the ride was the more restorative and healthy of the two.
I told Sweet Doris From Baltimore I was going for a ride and would be back in about an hour. I was out the door with my helmet in my hand before there was time for any discussion.
The temperature had fallen to about 23 during the previous overnight — in the garage it was closer to that temperature than to the rising thermometer outside. I’d taken the opportunity to put my K1200LT — which is the best inclement weather motorcycle I know — onto the charger while my morning coffee was brewing. I knew I’d need every cold cranking amp we could muster to wake up the fat girl — who had been spending a lot of time sitting idle while I’d been riding the Royal Enfield test bike — and since I still hadn’t managed to catch up with Mark The Mechanic to repair the exhaust stud that had inexplicably committed suicide.
With my helmet pulled on and my gloves still sitting on the pillion, I turned the key, waited a few seconds for current to flow and stabilize, and then pushed the starter. The engine turned over – very slowly — for three or four compression strokes without firing. It’s at times like this I consider swapping this motorcycle to 10W40 oil year round, in place of the 20W50 I’ve traditionally used. On the second attempt the Flying Brick fired, and came immediately up to a nice steady high idle.
I pulled on the new pair of elkskin gauntlets I’d purchased with my Christmas gift money from Doris’ mom, and pulled the LT off the main stand, backed out of the garage, and headed down the driveway. After a few weeks exclusively riding a 430 pound air-cooled parallel twin, the contrast was a little hard to ignore.
For the most part, we all have to work. Some of us have the supreme luxury of doing something we love, while most of us have to do what we must to take care of our families.
I’ve struggled for years to try to make the jump from the second camp into the first without success – ending up in between with a foot in both camps. I’ve kept my technology and IT services careers paying the bills — mortgages, putting kids through college — while my Motorcycle writing and journalism have kept me going — able to do the draining work of commercial reviews and contract negotiations — it’s a delicate balance designed to keep me centered and alive while I continue to see many a younger man’s number come up from being unable to manage the stress of a loveless business.
Tuesday night, the e-mail account for my job popped up an early morning meeting request that I hadn’t expected.
“Meet Bill,” was the subject line.
“How thoughtful,” I thought. Bill was a new Division General Manager — the biggest of big dogs — and although I had been providing him with detailed opportunity analyses — a pretty high value task, which allowed him to direct our new business development process – we hadn’t actually been introduced or had any direct interaction.
Anticipating a video conference, I cleaned up some of the clutter on my desk, and chose a nice, neat oxford cloth button-down shirt for the morning.
When I dropped into the videoconference at precisely the appointed time the next morning, I was greeted by the face of a blond woman who I did not recognize. She clearly looked highly stressed and uncomfortable.
My personal awareness relay closed with a solid thunk.
Bill dropped into the call a few moments later, calling from a mobile phone with no video capability.
“I am sorry to inform you that your position has been eliminated. Your employment with Big Ass Company, Inc., has been terminated, effective immediately.”
Bill dropped from the call. He had not even addressed me by name. He was doing what he had to that day, and would have to do it several hundred more times before he could call it a day’s work.
I asked a few cursory questions of the HR Droid – not really being able to fully function intellectually given the ice cold shock of the situation. After dropping off the call – having been informed that Corporate IT would remove my system access and wipe my devices as soon as they had been informed of my termination — I had to switch gears fast to compose and send an email to the few co-workers who were my friends — it was a race between locked up brain, frozen fingers, and the guys that would kick off the script which — after nearly 6 years — would simply make me disappear.
Rolling the LT down the road, I had to reacclimate to the bike’s size and weight which was in the range of full double the size of the Royal Enfield I’d been riding for the last few weeks. The bike’s controls – hydraulic clutch and shifter – were stiff from the cold and disuse, and the Ohlins suspension units were almost solid from the viscosity of the nearly frozen damping fluid. I’d need to carefully warm the motorcycle for a while before things would acquire any sense of normal control feel or compliance – I also had to assume that both the engine and gearbox oils would be similarly useless.
After skirting around Jefferson, I rolled onto US 340 East, and kept the application of throttle gentle and the revs firmly in the middle as the LT slowly made progress up the ridgeline and headed out of town. After cresting the ridge – never having changed into top gear – I was all the way back down the other side before the Temp gauge hit the point where the thermostat finally opened, indicating the first stage of warm up had finally been achieved. I finally rolled up into top gear and gently accelerated the bike up into its cruise point at 3900 rpm and 82 mph indicated. Some real heat was finally coming into the heated grips, and the air coming into my helmet through the cracked visor was fresh and bracing — getting some fresh air in my lungs and some bracing delivered to my brain was the only close to sane reason for being out here on a grey, overcast sub-freezing day.
I exited 340 West at Mount Zion Road – which cuts across the South County on a wonderfully technical, twisty route that follows Ballenger Creek up towards Frederick. There is a pair of banked, decreasing radius corners that climbs away from the creek, and by the exit of the second one the shocks were working and it was clear why this motorcycle has been one I knew I could ride almost anywhere — the Telelever might not be BMW’s most modern piece of kit, but after three or four easy, precise transitions from left lean to to right lean it clearly works well enough for the on-road needs of most riders.
I did my stop at Frisco’s, where I took on some Victory Sour Monkey Sour Belgian Triple Ale and some Saranac S’more Porter. I’ll admit that I occasionally indulge in some Off Center beer styles, but looked at objectively, this had to be the oddest combination of brews I have ever left any store with. I threw a few polishing towels I had in the top case over the bottle tops, and then closed and latched the case, and headed back for the road.
My check of the weather radar before leaving showed I perhaps had about an hour and a half before the storm was scheduled to arrive, so I plotted an inefficient route home to make the most of the opportunity I had availble. With the engine and transmission finally warmed, I could now really open the throttle to enjoy what I came here for.
Rolling down New Design Road towards the south end of the county and the Potomac river, I was able to sustain the fat stuff towards the top of 4th gear – spinning at about 4200 rpm and about 70 mph. Despite its relatively advanced age – 19 years old and just under 100,000 miles – the bike felt solid and assured with the lovely intake roar taking me back to how Darkside was initially named.
At the river, I picked up Maryland 28 West and cut for Point of Rocks. 28 rolls over hills and farm fields in a lovely chase that give one plenty of opportunities to use the sides of one’s tires. From 28 I picked up US 15 North, where I quickly accelerated to cruise until the Point of Rocks traffic circle came up. Fortunately, traffic was clear so I dropped the Big Girl onto her left side, carved around the circle and headed up the big grade on MD 464.
464 is a straight, clear climb with good sightlines, and except for the extremely occasional wandering black bear is as close to devoid of hazards as any road in Maryland. I assumed a modest forward lean and gentle tuck, lowered the windshield to just below my sightline, and focused on my technique as we shrieked up the big grade — taking each gear out to around 7000 of the 8500 available, preloading the shifter, feathering the clutch and engaging the next gear cleanly with its characteristic BMW ‘Thonk!’.
By the time I’d cleared the top of the grade and engaged top gear – as we were headed back down towards the intersection with Lander Road – I was grinning in my helmet, mind cleared, spirit elevated.
If there was something bothering me when I left, I’ll be darned if I can remember what it was.