Gravity Is a Bitch

Just because you can think something, doesn’t mean that you should say it.

In fact, there are entire hierarchies of thoughts whose vocalizations — the giving of objective reality through the medium of breath — are highly inadvisable.

I am not a superstitious man.

But the universe craves balance, and pride seems to lead directly to and be causally linked to every fall.

Consider the following thoughts, if you will.

“I can’t remember the last time my wife and I had a fight about something.”

“This motorcycle has never run better”.

“What could possibly go wrong?”

“I can’t even remember the last time I fell off a bike.”

Each and every one of these ill-advised utterances assumes an abundance of good fortune which, frankly, based on my experience, you simply do not have.

 

***

 

Now fear not, because no motorcycles were harmed in the making of this story.

Which is good, because they were about the only thing that weren’t.

 

***

 

Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I have been more than passing busy lately, for a multitude of reasons. The most significant reason, though, has been her design and construction of an ultralight teardrop camper that is intended to be pulled behind her recumbent pedal trike. The trikedrop is engineered – through use of 1 x 2 framing and coroplast — a corrugated polyethylene product — to end up at a total mass of under 60 pounds, and to provide a sybaritic bicycle camping experience with comfortable, off the ground sleeping accommodations and some cargo and cooking capability for a cyclist seeking to cover long stretches of the C&O Canal bike path, which stretches from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown in the District of Columbia.

What is significant about the Trikedrop project is the spacial stress it has exerted upon Shamieh’s Shop facilities, which are now having to support three motorcycles, two campers, one bicycle and one recumbent trike, which are making things more than a tad cramped, and necessitating frequent rearrangements of things with wheels in order to get the work space and access required to move projects forward.

Two Teardrops, One S and a Nanticoke Nectar

It was on one of these projects that I found myself having to move Sweet Doris’ prized recumbent. I don’t get too much saddle time with it, so I tend to wax enthusiastic when the opportunity does arise. While moving it from the Shamieh Shop Storage Annex — ok, my shed — to the back of the pickup, I took the recumbent for a brief sprint down our suburban street.

Thee Evil TerraTrike Sportster, Which Apparently Hates Me

It bears mention that it had been my deep conviction that the TerraTrike Sportster was the most stable and good handling recumbent trike of the many I had test ridden. My mission profile for any trike was one that wasn’t going to tend to spit off Sweet Doris From Baltimore, because well, she’s my Sweet Doris. On the dead level test course available at the bike dealer, I had deliberately thrashed every single machine to see how many Gs it could pull in a corner, how easy/hard it was to pull a front wheel off the ground, and whether the bike had any tendency to stoppie or endo under hard braking. In every measure I had available, the Sportster had been dead stable and theoretically uncrashable.

Had been.

After a few strong strokes and an upshift or two the trike and I were carrying a little speed down toward the end of the block and the cul-de-sac. As I got set up for the turn, I noticed my neighbor’s dog who was beginning to evince an interest in the low red speedy thing that was running at the edge of his lawn. Dogs, for motorcyclists and traditional bicyclists, are a hazard, but that hazard changes dramatically when one is piloting a recumbent, which places the pilot’s face at the exact same level as the dog’s. If a dog decides he wants to rip a recumbent rider’s face off, that dog has a straight, unimpeded shot at it.

To her credit, my neighbor Kim was pretty perceptive in detecting that condition and getting the dog moving smartly back into the house. With maybe three and a half seconds of total distraction wrapped up, as the sound of the slamming screen door reached me, I set up for the U-turn in the gently sloped cul-de-sac.

Motorcycles that start to go bad – handling wise – or at least my motorcycles, do so in a way which telegraphs that the limits are being reached, and then do so in a way which is tractable and allows the rider to correct before certified bad things happen.

Maybe my distraction was a contributor, but it sure didn’t seem like that was what happened here.

I started my turn, began to lean in toward the inside wheel, sensed the inside wheel coming up, and then everything snaprolled putting me near instantly on my ass, sliding down the road as the Sportster cartwheeled, clanging noisily against the pavement.

Being as how trikes were clearly uncrashable, I was wearing none of the gear – no gloves, no helmet, nothing. It was a lucky accident I had some Keen work boots and canvas pants on.

I took the brunt of the impact on the heel of my outstretched right hand, although the next day it was clear that I’d hit my right hip and shoulder as well. My right workboot now has some gnarly road rash patina to it as well.

As all of the formerly kinetic elements came to rest, with me on my back on the pavement, surrounded by the former contents of the trike’s rack bag, contemplating the blueness of the spring sky, all I could think was “How the feck did this happen — these things are supposed to be uncrashable……”

I sat up slowly and did the inventory all of us unfortunately know all too well — checking for broken bits, blood and parts of myself hanging off — not wanting to jump up overconfidently only to discover that I’d have been way better off sitting down.

I passed the inspection and slowly rose to my feet — becoming slowly aware of just how pulverized my right hand was.

I had a business trip the next day that had me planning to ride my K-Bike to Charlotte, NC., over four hundred miles distant. A hand in this kind of shape was going to make that somewhat more challenging. Thank Bosch for cruise control and the Two Johnsons for Ibuprofen.

I became aware of neighbor Kim headed back down her lawn in my direction.

“Are you all riiight? Are you hurt?”

“Thanks Kim — I think most of the damage is to my pride.”

“Thass ’cause you’re a speed demon…Glad you’re Okay….”

I spent a few minutes shaking and flexing my hand, then flipped the trike back onto its wheels and gathered up the contents of the top bag and buttoned things back up.

More than somewhat chagrined, I headed back up to the street towards my garage. Because Sweet Doris was deeply engaged in Kreg jigging, gluing and screwing camper bits, he hadn’t really noticed that I was a little overdue on my return.

“Oh, hey hun…where ya been?”

“Oh, I’ve just been crashing my brains out on your bike….”

“Oh NO!…. Did you hurt……MY BIKE?”

There are a lot of reasons why Sweet Doris and I have been together thirty years. Somewhere further down the list of her virtues is that she shares my biker perspective on the universe.

How many time have you seen someone dump a motorcycle, or been that guy that dumps a motorcycle, and the following little drama plays out.

“Holy cow, man, are you all right?

“Yeah, I’m fine (dragging obviously broken leg) but …LOOK AT My BIIIIKE…”

Heck, early in my riding days, I had a left turning motorist remove my motorcycle from underneath me, forcing me to jump his car. After walking back up the road from where I completed my Superman impression, I was that guy.

“Did you hurt……MY BIKE?””

That’s my girl.

LTO

How do you quantify something that is completely and utterly subjective?

It’s admittedly a fool’s errand.

Fool? Errand?

So this seems like the perfect setup, eh?

I’ll get my helmet.

 

***

 

I’ve been working my way back from an unplanned riding layoff.

And since life’s little unpleasant surprises prefer to play tag team, that experience was superimposed on one of those character revealing all-out maximum effort sprints in my worklife that make the other parts of ones life go all blurry until it’s over.

On Wednesday, my work team of 9 mothers delivered their one month baby. On Thursday, my workplace seemed preternaturally quiet. The mental image I had was more than a few people coming to face down on a carpet somewhere, panting shallowly, and finding the silence — and unaccustomed absence of ringing phones, multiple computer inbound instant message and e-mail klaxons, and mobile phone Hmmmmmmmmnnnn Hmmmmmmmmmnnnn vibrations — strangely disconcerting.

Later in the afternoon, with a clear calendar, and a life that had been on hold for several weeks, I decided to head up to the bank to take of some urgent business. The sun was out, the temperature had finally broken into the 17 minutes of Maryland’s Spring, and my emotional batteries were showing red and in need of a charge. I Vansoned up and headed for the garage.

 

***

 

If I had a truly modern motorcycle, like a Yamaha YZF-R1, the engine control unit’s electronics would have at least a dozen ways of measuring the absolute rush of proper motorcycle operation. On a modern bike, the ECU is integrated with an Inertial Management Unit, which, through a combination of accelerometers, gyroscopes and wheel speed sensors, can model acceleration, deceleration, roll, pitch, yaw, bank angle, wheel spin and whether one or both wheels are off the ground and headed back towards or further away from the pavement. The motorcycle is essentially self aware and self-protective, and will do whatever is necessary to keep overall machine dynamics inside the envelope prescribed by the IMU’s mathematical physics dynamic model. And while the control electronics will occasionally — like a 1000 times a second or so — consult the position of the ride-by-wire throttle to monitor what the rider is requesting, that throttle position sensor is just one of many inputs, and can be considered merely a suggestion, to be ignored if required, rather than the deterministic order that it represents in the motorcycles to which I’ve grown accustomed and enamored.

Thankfully, though, I don’t own a truly modern motorcycle, so the number of operational parameters available to describe the ride is reduced, for all intents and purposes, to one.

The throttle.

If the slides on the Del’Orto PHM 38s are up, we’re accelerating. If the slides are down, we’re slowing down.

Do it right, and it’s as if you’re dancing with angels. Do it wrong, and those selfsame angels will be taking you home.

It’s the most fundamentally analog of systems, and it makes a far simpler way to represent that tightrope walk between that laws of physics and the demands of the rider’s emotion.

 

***

 

Things in my life, generally, have suddenly become a great deal more vivid.

Seems I’d been looking straight at things that I had just not been seeing.

So a sunny day, an R90S, and a ready, receptive soul was a recipe for motorcycle enlightenment.

Running up the Jefferson Pike, I found myself far more deliberate, far more aware and far more prone to use of Large Throttle Openings than my customary riding style employs.

The S, in stock form, is known for its long travel suspension. Mine, modified not for the track or for some museum, has fork gaiters which, while not pretty, do make it more likely that the fork assembly will cheerfully survive tens of thousands of bug and road filth infested miles.

Running the up through the gears was an adventure in big gestures, big movements, and big pieces of metal in motion. Roll the throttle to well open and let the bike pull the gear up through six thousand RPM. As the power comes on, one can see the fork gaiters stretching out as the fork unloads and the front wheel gets light. Preload the shift lever and finger the clutch while simultaneously snapping the throttle closed. In the seam between applications of power the gaiters settle back down as the fork compresses. A firm toe in this gearbox — freshly rebuilt with the updated shift cam — yields a uncharacteristicly solid and deterministic shift when compared with most BMWs of this vintage. After the “Thokk” of engagement reaches my ears, I feather the clutch back in while rolling the throttle open again. In every gear the cycle repeats, with the bike doing its best to keep the front tire skimming the ground.

After a ride like this, it makes perfect sense that I’m wearing out two rear tires for every front I replace. One doesn’t wear out tires that are barely ever on the ground.

 

***

 

A test of the aforementioned YZF-R1 I saw recently did analysis of the data that was provided by the bike’ s IMU and yielded the data that the bike was able to make use of more that 50% throttle application roughly 18% of the time it was in motion.

Absolute power means almost nothing if, like the nuclear deterrent, one can never use it.

Taking the S up the National Pike into Gambrill, in contrast, was an extended meditation on Large Throttle Openings. 67 horsepower might not seem like a lot, but in a world filled with hypersports that knock on the door of 200 horses, they were 67 horsepower all of which I could freely use. Gears could be run all the way out. The intake howl created by the S’s liberally ventilated airbox housing was singing out and playing against the machine gun exhaust report — echoing back off the rock cuts on either side of US 40 — of the boxer running in it’s peak power zone.

This vivid and completely engaging experience encapsulates what I most love about this 42 year old motorcycle.

Nobody, not even me, is disconnected enough to argue that an R90S is an objectively fast motorcycle in 2017’s motorcycle arms race. Forget BMW S1000RRs and Suzuki GSXR1000s. It is likely that a Kawasaki 650 Versys — hardly a manly-man expression of sporting prowess — could wipe it up in a straight line test of acceleration.

While a suspension-enhanced S can hang with or even embarrass a inexpertly piloted modern 600 class Sport bike on a tight or technical enough back road, it isn’t because the motorcycle is objectively fast.

What enamoured me to this motorcycle is not that it is fast, but that it feels fast.

Lots of modern BMWs and lots of other manufacturer’s motorcycles are so refined that they lose any sensation of personality.

The S, in contrast, makes every moment spent with throttle slides rising feel like the fastest thing in the world. One can feel every explosion in the cylinders — they ring the tubular steel frame like hammers ringing on a large bell. The frame squats, the front end rises and the bars go loose in your hands.

There is no electronic minder. The bike clearly needs you, and the overall experience is one of barely contained mechanical brutality where the rider’s skill and ability to read the road ahead is what frankly, is the margin that separates a completely immersive motorcycling life from a short and violent exit from same.

I’ve moved well past my brief look straight onto the eyes of death.

On this green sunny day, working Large Throttle Openings on this old classic motorcycle, I have never felt so alive.

The Greatest Show On Earth

its probably
good for you
to have a brush with death
every once in a while
these white hot flashes
of mortality
serve to clarify the mind

its not
why i ride motorcycles
but riders
accept
that these things happen
sliding tires
you gather up
no one the wiser
how near a thing that was

after surviving
your vision sharpened
everything shining
a new focus
on what counts
learning to ignore
anything that doesn’t propel one forward

the thing about death
is that it just doesn’t manage very well
showing up from random places
at random times
and usually not
while doing the things
conventional thinking
would accept should kill you

so you can ride the wall of death
everynight my friend
you can smoke camels
drink jack
wrangle the big cats like Gunter
or be shot out of a cannon
like The Human Cannonball

none of the things
that should kill you will kill you
there’s way more than a million ways
to be struck or missed by the lightning

i know that you want
gunpowder
explosions
lurid twisting orange fireballs
of exploding hightest gasoline
what you get though
is blue light
a dark spot on your arm
and a silent doctor
with a concerned look
on his face

 

***

 

I’ve got to tell you, I get the worst PMS.

I can tell from that look on your face that you have no freaking idea what I mean.

PMS, or Parked Motorcycle Syndrome, is a debilitating condition. PMS leaves sufferers irritable, depressed, and prone to seemingly impossible extremes of emotional volatility.

And so it is with me, too.

After two days or so, I’m nervous. Jumpy.

I make these inexplicable spasmodic rolling motions with my right hand and wrist.

After about five days, I can be observed sitting rocking in the center of the rug in my den, quietly making little motor noises with my lips and tongue.

After about 7 days, I am reduced to staring out the window, insterspersed with brief spasmodic weeping.

After about ten days, I’m queing up to be fitted for that nicely tailored snug natural canvas sportsjacket with the arms that tie together in the back.

It had been thirteen days since I had ridden a motorcycle.

 

***

 

The fact that my lay up was a result of Doctor’s orders wasn’t making it any easier.

In fact, it was making it particularly harder.

A trip to my Dermatologist to have a bad looking spot on the back of my upper right arm examined had resulted in a nearly immediate return for some outpatient surgery.

As a full-blooded American — which is to say a 50% Irish Catholic, 25% Christian Arab and 25% Polish Jew (although there could be more stuff in there for all I know) — my fair skin is prone to hocking up all sorts of bumps and oddballs. Squamous cells, Basal Cells — a Carcinoma or two.

Considering none of my outside has ever seen the sun-containing world outside an Aerostich suit, this is puzzling, but nonetheless true.

I ought to qualify for some sort of high volume scrape ’em and 4 suture club discount.

All of these things are a tad annoying, but 98.8% harmless.

This wasn’t one of those.

This was why we needed some fast lab work, and a post haste return visit.

After spending 90 minutes making surgery can-we-please-talk-about-something-else-smalltalk with my Doctor which was supposed to be 30, a much bandaged and still more sutured me was toweled off, propped up, and sent home with the instructions “not to lift anything heavy for 4 or 5 days”.

In my slightly stress-goofy state, I remember thinking “Well, I guess that rules my K1200LT right out.”

 

***

 

My first notion that something was amiss came after the local anethetic had worn mostly off, and a nice beer seemed like something that might have therapeutic uses.

I decanted a Nanticoke Nectar, leaned down to enjoy the fresh hop bouquet, and then took the glass into my right hand. Everything was preceeding swimmingly until the glass — moving delightfully in widescreen slow motion — got about 6 inches from my achingly thirsty lips. As the glass got closer and closer, it moved with increasing resistance, running into the new limits of my arm’s flexibility, which apparently contained a great deal less arm than it had this morning.

Friends I’d spoken with about the the diagnosis and precedure had warned me about this. The protocol involves being very conservative, and that translates to removing a fair amount of additional tissue.

I muttered a favorite oath — one I suspected would get a good throttle stretching run over the next three weeks or so — set the glass back on the counter, and resolved to learn to drink left handed.

 

***

 

So there I was, stuck on the couch, comtemplating my own mortality while snared in immobility.

It was pretty dark.

And I was going absolutely nuts.

For the first week or so I was too beat up to even consider escape. If we went out Sweet Doris from Baltimore was behind the wheel.

On or around day 5, I regained enough flexibility that I could split time between drinking left handed and drinking right handed.

Having discovered this, I immediately walked out to the garage, swung a leg over the Slash 5, and assumed the position.

Given that motorcycle’s almost custom fit to my body, it was heartening that I could sit astride the bike comfortably — there was no pain to rest a portion of my weight on my arms.

Then I tried the throttle.

This was going to take a while.

 

***

It wasn’t the last such trip I made to the the garage and to my Toaster Tank.

Progress was slow, but it was progress.

Day 13 after the surgery dawned sunny, cold and windy.

My arm, though, seemed like it could stand to be wound WFO without too much discomfort.

At lunchtime, I went back to the garage, and sat back on the Slash 5. I took a few tentative rolls of the throttle. No klaxons.

I walked over to the garage door, and gently raised it.

I rolled the bike forward off the stand, and then rolled it backwards into the open door, and gingerly placed it back onto the Reynolds Ride-Off stand.

It was go time.

I wandered back inside and gathered up a set of boots, my Duluth Trading Blacktop jacket — notable because of its built in fleece lining and lack of any armor — and a fresh surgical adhesive dressing and some of the prescription antibiotic ointment my doctor had provided.

I went into the studio where Sweet Doris from Baltimore was working a new painting.

“I’m going for a ride, Baby. Could you please put a dressing back on my arm?”

“I don’t think that’s….”

Folks that know me well know that I never get like that.

This one time, I got like that. Sue me.

 

***

 

Out in the driveway, I snapped the collar of my jacket shut and pulled on my gloves. I swung a leg over, opened the left fuel petcock, and pushed in the ignition pin. Having sat for a while, the boxer swung through two or three more compression strokes than was customary before the engine fired. I swing the choke off before it was smart to do so, and had to repeat the drill. Afer 15 seconds or so, the engine was taking throttle, and assumed its steady near-human heartbeat of an idle.

I pushed off down the driveway, toed the gearbox down into first, and banked left up the street.

Motion!

I took the long way around the neighborhood — gently rolling the bike left and right — a baby-step version of the racer’s tire warming manouvre — checking to make sure I could position the bike without running into the lowered limits of my flexibility and strength. Thanks to boxer balance, what little I had was enough.

At The Jefferson Pike, I made the right down towards The Brookside Inn, and deliberately thockked the old girl up through the gears until I shifted into fourth.

With temperature in the low 40s, the sun was shining bright in a clear sky, the wind blowing hard, this old school ride — no windshield, no heated grips, and just a set of elkskin gloves — was letting me experience the day with an unparalleled vividness.

It was bright. It was cold. It was great.

Never has such an old slow motorcycle made me feel so alive.

 

***

 

As much as I didn’t want to overdo it, I didn’t want to stop, either.

After a brief run up The Pike, I made the right up St. Marks Road. St. Marks leads down into The Bottoms — I just wanted to just be alone next to the creek, feeling the wheels working underneath me and being kissed by the broken sunlight coming through the trees. Where the road comes down to Catoctin Creek, it follows the streambed closely, making a series of gentle lefts and rights, with the ancient road surface providing endless contours for the suspension to follow.

After a long time as a wallflower, it felt oh so good to be dancing again.

St. Marks has a medium long straight, and feeling good, I gassed it.

I wasn’t the only one that was feeling good, apparently.

Old boxers love cold dense air, and 50 horsepower never felt so powerful. The Toaster’s sleeper motor — with its big bore kit and small valves — was right in the sweet spot, and it hit with everything it had.

I didn’t need an action cam to know about the smile in my helmet.

At the creek sits an old iron framed one lane bridge. I got up on the pegs and gassed it again — getting just a little air as I left the bridge deck.

Away from the creek St. Marks climbs steeply. The sightlines are restrictive and the road twists, snakelike, as it rises up the hill. I gassed it again and was pleasantly surprised as the front wheel lightened up and lightly skimmed the pavement over 60 or 70 feet.

Slash 5 power wheelies don’t happen very often, but today was clearly a special day.

I might hurt later, but right now that front wheel wasn’t the only thing that got lifted.

 

***

 

Back in the driveway, I remarked that my gear removal speeds had recorded better split times.

Then again, today wasn’t about speed, it was more about simple existance.

My Toaster is clearly a motorcycle that gets used. Its got dirt. And gear oil. And mud. It hasn’t got any ‘pretty’.

Today, though, it was a thing of beauty.

I grabbed my phone out of the phone holster that is built in to my favorite brand of cargo pants to check for messages. I had a voice mail.

“Hmmmmnnnnnnnnnn.”

“Mr. Shamieh? This is Jennie down at Dr. Han’s office. Just wanted you to know that the biopsies and labs came back, and they’re all clean. You have nothing to worry about. Call if you have any questions. ”

Seemed like a pretty good time to reacquaint myself with drinking beer right handed.

Angry Bees

I guess its time to admit that I’ve been living in the past.

It might be an idealized, nostalgic past, but its the past just the same.

I don’t want to generalize too much though, its not the entirety of the past that that I’m living in, its just the motorcycling past.

My newest motorcycle, a K1200 series longitudinally mounted inline 4 — is a 2000 model — it can’t already be 17 years old — which itself is a refinement of a basic design that debuted in 1983.

My Toaster tank /5 BMW — a bike I came by when I got out of college and the bike on which I wooed Sweet Doris from Baltimore — is a 1973 model — 44 years old. If one is honest, the Toaster really represents late 1950s state of the art motorcycle chassis design — Featherbed Knock-off! — as embraced by the conservative German designers after 20 or so years to make sure the basic idea was sound.

Drum brakes.

In defense of the conservative German designers, they are the best street application drum motorcycle brakes I ever used, but.

Drum brakes.

Such a motorcycle is a lot of things, but modern is not one of them.

***

It’s not to say that these old motorcycles are bad motorcycles, because they’re not.

My /5 is narrow, agile, torquey and simple. Hell, it’s still here and running reliably at somewhere indetermanistically north of 170,000 miles.

Indetermanistically because the motorcycle has turned out to be far more reliable than the odometer in its Motometer combined instrument.

But the /5’s two cylinder pushrod motor — originally designed with bushings in its valve rockers — only revs to 6900 rpm, and made barely 50 hp on its best day. It is an elemental motorcycle — but everything happens with a certain deliberateness of pace.

***

Its not like I’ve had no exposure to modern machinery.

I’ve had some seat time on a modern KTM — an 1190 Adventure — that was a real eye opener, and at the same time, was clearly connected with the classic large displacement roadster twins of the past. One had a broad spread of power across the rev band — it was a clearly a road motorcycle, full stop. The refinement of the chassis, suspension, yes, and electronics was the present, but you could still see the motorcycling past from there.

***

 

wp_20170213_08_28_49_pro

 

So there I was, looking at a tachometer face. A face that showed redline to be at 14,000 rpm.

This was going to require at least a little adjustment.

Sitting in my driveway was a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR-600. ZZR was Kawasaki’s Marketing speak for “We used to call this the Ninja but we redesigned a faster bike and still want to keep selling this one”. Arms race and branding aside, the ZZR carried a four cylinder, water cooled, dual overhead cam short stroke motor of vastly oversquare dimensions. Engines like this are meant for the race circuit — to be spun hard and made to howl on the straights.

The ZZR has a steel frame of a hybrid perimeter and beam type, one that is shared by all modern Kawasaki sporting motorcycles. Its an elegant design where the frame rails bulge around and envelop the cylinder head — simultaneously compact and strong. The ZZR has a conventional telescopic cartridge fork, a monoshock rear, substantial Tokico 4 piston brakes, and 17 inch radial tires. The riding position is two clicks shy of the racetrack, but bars are still low, and saddle and footpegs high.

This ZZR is one in which I have a small investment of time and troubleshooting effort.  It belongs to my daughter’s boyfriend, and after a fair amount of effort to return it to good operation and the road, I had never really had the opportunity to fully test the results of my work.

wp_20170109_20_45_37_panorama

When the weather had turned filthy, he had asked if he could store the bike here, so we squeezed it into my garage. The deal was, if I had possession of the bike, I would ride it. It hadn’t really been winterized, and had been sitting there for the better part of a month, when nature served up a freak 65 degree day.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m still here.

***

Pulling on a Vanson racing jacket is somehow both comforting and strangely calming — its as if this leather exoskeleton, which exerts a whole body compressive hug, works like one of those yippy dog calming vests.

At least it works that way for me.

Think of that what you may.

With my helmet and gloves all strapped in place, I swung a leg over the red machine, and settled into the saddle. I spent a few quality moments adjusting the fairing mounted rearview mirrors — which had been folded in for storage — into a position to be hopefully useful. I turned the bike’s bodywork-integrated fuel petcock to its ‘on’ position, turned the ignition on and slid the handlebar mounted choke lever forward.

Upon activating the starter the bike fired immediately. Being impatient, I tried to work the throttle, and gently slid the choke back open, whereupon the bike stalled immediately.

A second try was better — I let the bike run on full choke for 30 or 40 seconds and then slowly dialed the choke off. And then what we has was a cold, lumpy but running idle — given a little more time and a little more heat, everything would be fine.

I pushed the bike off the centerstand, and flinstoned a K turn until I could drift down the driveway. Taking care to locate and remember the new footpeg position, I selected first gear, which occurred way more deterministically than I am accustomed to — it was almost as if the box was designed to use input power to engage the dogs — once the shift was started it kinda went power transmission on you.

I took the long route around my neighborhood — coming to terms with the bike’s low speed handling, behavior on and off the clutch, and braking.

At the intersection of Jefferson Pike, I made the left and headed up towards town, and past that towards Frederick.

***

It was pretty clear right off that my habit of sometime shortshifting a cold engine wasn’t going to work here. While the engine would take throttle at under 4000 rpm, things down there happened pretty slowly — it was going to take some heat, and way more revs to move things forward smartly.

Apart from that, the riding position that appeared ridiculous at first glance actually worked pretty well once in motion.

Although I have to imagine that the sight of me, with my youthful and trim rear end pointing up in the air may not have been the type of thing that is frequently seen in our little village.

I am under no illusions that chicks dig this.

At Jefferson, I had to stop for the light.

When it turned green, I gassed it.

180 heading east out Jefferson is a winding two laner that follows the contour of the ridge that divides Frederick and Jefferson. I ran the ZZR through the gears, shifting conservatively — for this bike — well below the real power, although it should be noted that my shiftpoints were higher than redline on both of my boxer twins.

The sound of this engine was a racetrack fantasy — the sound of a million angry bees — a raucous, metallic shriek in the middle of its rev band. Hard to imagine how many more bees it might have at its 14,000 rpm limits.

On the other side of the ridge I made the left into Mount Zion Road, and the entrance to one of my most cherished bits of twisty Frederick blacktop. If the ZZR 600 was a well-handling motorcycle, we’d know in the next three minutes.

Mount Phillip is the sort of road where only familiarity can let you run it — roadcraft is of little help where corners apex blind off the tops of hills, and crazy elevation changes obscure the road ahead. Top end power is also of limited use as there’s almost nowhere you can use it — this is a handling test, not a speed event. Even the initial right onto Mount Phillip is tricky — the intersection is a 110 degree turn, usually with a little loose stone, that leads into a very steep and immediate rise — too much throttle and too many revs too soon, and hairy wheelies can easily result. Folks that wish to remain rubber side down are advised to move well forward on their motorcycle here.

Coming off the top of the rise, the road makes a textbook racetrack left 90. I entered well outside, and with the revs up at about 7000, engine braked into the entrance, leaned the bike over and rolled the throttle out. For someone still learning the bike, the entrance was sharp, deterministic and bred confidence. The combination of relatively light weight, very centralized mass, and serious structural rigidity made cornering taut, precise and controllable. The riding position, as well, with the rider located far forward, weighting the front wheel, gave perfect leverage and control to work the front end.

The next several corners, another 90 leading into a sharp uphill right, leads to a hairball double apex that leads down off the other side of the hillside. After 4 real corners, and about three really good minutes, I felt as if I’d been riding this motorcycle most of my life.

***

After running the rest of Mount Phillip up to my bank in Frederick, gearing back up in the parking lot there was no question of taking the shortest route home. The only question really was “Had I bought enough gas?”.

US 40 West out of Frederick – The Old National Pike – is really a treat. It climbs up the mountain (Eastern US version) that sits between Frederick and Hagerstown, where the road immediately enters the forest of Gambrill State Park right outside of town. It’s green, it’s uncongested, with broad, sweeping curves on the climb. The sightlines are stupendous.

If you needed a place to stretch things out, 40 through Gambrill would be the place you’d need.

After clearing the I-70 interchange, I rolled the throttle open and surfed the big wave as the small four spun up into its happy zone. I was focused and comfortable enough to be monitoring both the tach and speedo intently, basically plotting a little dyno chart in my head as the Kawi loosed the bees, made tremendous MotoGP invoking, howling noise, and pulled third gear up the grade.

Around 9000 rpm things were happening as quickly I felt they needed to be happening, so I thokkked the bike up into fourth — noting that the higher one spun this engine, the better it seemed to shift. I rolled the throttle back on and took a brief draught of fourth gear. As much room as I had, it was running out quickly, and the speedometer needle was well into ‘unsafe for conditions’ on a public highway. I thokkkked up into top gear and commenced giving back throttle until I was doing a reasonable impersonation of a socially responsible cruise.

Up here at highway speed, I was impressed how comfortable this motorcycle really was. The airflow off the fairing and windscreen was surprisingly smooth — weather protection surprisingly good. The ride was taut, but not punishing. One could sense the action of the four cylinder engine, but it was mere mechanical character, and not objectionable in any way.

Both the bike and its rider were utterly at ease, and adapted for speed.

***

The rest of the ride was backroad riding school.

From 40 I turned left down Harmony Road – a little snake of a road that lets one work the sides of one’s tires.

Then down Maryland 17 South towards Middletown — the entire route stringing together elevation changes and combinations of technical corners. The ease with which the ZZR entered corners, and the precision with which it held exactly the desired angle and desired line was an illumination.

17 leads towards home, so I didn’t take it.

zittlestown

At Middletown, I went west on Alternate 40. Alt 40 heads up another (eastern variety) mountain. With so few mountains available, I was going to hit every one that presented itself.

Alt 40 is a very old roadway, and where it goes over the ridge is a series of decreasing radius, banked switchbacks that look intimidating but are a gas when properly executed. The ZZR was able to turn in harder and deeper and carry about 25 mph more than my antiques with absolutely zero drama — at the apexes the bike was planted, on line and with tons of ground clearance remaining.

As we came down into Boonsboro, I was held up behind a minivan that indicated its intention to turn left onto Maryland 67 South which was also my intended route. Trolling south out of town, we came to a legal passing zone, and I indicated left, and rolled on to play another game of Third Gear Rocketry. I shifted up as the front wheel got light, with the shift setting the front back on the pavement.

At Reno Monument Road, I made the left back towards the ridge, and worked the tight technical climb with the revs up in 2nd and 3rd gear, setting speed in and out of corners with the throttle.

Marker Road took me toward home. The decreasing radius corners and hilltop apexes which are dramatic on the airheads were dead boring and nailed down on this Kawasaki — roadgear working so well to make it almost seem like mind control.

On the last leg of Gapland road, the ZZR dissected the bridge corners, and did it with style and a wonderful howl of IC exhaust.

On the final straight before home I rolled fourth gear open and the 90 or so my S will make was quickly vaporized — 45 or so more horsepower into roughly the same weight does have some effect.

***

Back in the driveway I found myself listening to the tink tink tink of the ZZR giving its heat back to the atmosphere, and quickly concluded that our 40 miles or so of road had barely scratched the surface of this bike’s capabilities.

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I don’t think I ever revved the ZZR’s motor past 10,000 of those 14,000 rpm — leaving much of the bike’s power potential untapped and on the table. When riding this Kawasaki with its engine spinning up there, it simply ran out of room nearly instantly on any public road that I usually ride, well before it ran out of acceleration, ran out of speed.

The ZZR’s handling made my customary best twisty roads nearly trivial exercises — centralized mass, chassis rigidity, good geometry and sticky radials allowed me to place the bike exactly where I wanted it with minimal to absolutely no drama.

I’ll admit I’d found minimal use for the brakes, but the few times I’d deliberately ‘braked for effect’ they’d been pretty impressive — clearly more than enough power was available from the twin four piston Tokicos to overwhelm the front tire’s contact patch, if one was dumb or unskilled enough to put in a request for same.

Everything about the bike — from the howl of its engine, to my position on the bike that made attacking corners like breathing in and out, to the rush of its high end power delivery, to the big negative G’s on the brakes — sucked one in, encouraging more, harder, faster.

And while its cool to envision myself, wearing bright leathers with a waist size about three sizes smaller than mine actually is, swimming in the sound, slicing across corners with front tire skimming the pavement, dicing with Vale and Marc, its a fantasy with its home on a racetrack — on the street the bike is just out of its element, leaving too much on the table, yawning at anything remotely close to legal speed operation.

Its not even like the ZZR is some bit of 2017 vintage, European literbike exotica — there’s no EFI, no power delivery modes — not yet even a future wet dream of Inertial Management Units controlling lean angle sensitive traction control and antilock braking. This Kawasaki is a small displacement, commodity sportbike — an inexpensive, mass produced motorcycle that was actually an obsolete design when it built by a manufacturer that was just trying bleed out its investment in its tooling.

With all that going against it, its still a motorcycle that — transported back in time — would have probably walked away and won convincingly in any production-based class or even GP Racing until around 1977 when the design of the Yamaha TZ750 was finally debugged.

Modernity — in motorcycle form — means frames, tires and suspension that just work. It means engines that are designed to be routinely revved to ten and twelve thousand rpm and brakes that can pull the rear wheel clear of the ground again and again and again.

Its amazing, frankly, just how good an average modern motorcycle is.

Amazing, but simultaneously useless, at least when used on the road.

While it’s an absolute gas to validate that my years of roadcraft can instantly make the jump to more capable machinery, and to experience firsthand how far the bar has been raised, I’m not sure the temptation is enough to make me leave the motorcycling past for the future.

I’m OK with a run through the gears to the ton feeling like a thrilling trip to the edge, instead of that ton seeming like merely the starting line.

Venting

Man, have I got some stuff I really need to get off my chest.

I know you know what I mean.

It starts with the small stuff that gets under your skin — worn shoelaces on your boots, bits of software that don’t work and have never worked, the endless number of people who you don’t know who are happy to call you to ask for your money on the phone.

And if it was only the small stuff, that would almost be OK.

But it’s not the small stuff, it’s the big stuff, and its got everyone that I know in a constant state of fully clenched and ready to blow.

I mean, look around you.

I’ve never known a time when there was so much on the line, with so little sensation of which way it was going to go.

But that’s really not what I really meant to talk about, it just has a way of creeping in.

***

“Dad, I got a problem with the bike.”

“Oh? What kind of problem?”

“It doesn’t run.”

“That seems kind of non-specific. How doesn’t it run?”

“Well, it had been backfiring, and it seem like it’s always going to stall.”

“Does it get better or worse when the bike warms up”

“Neither. It sucks all the time. It got so bad last time I didn’t think I was going to make it out of the parking lot. I parked it.”

“Ok. I guess we’ll have to get it back to the shop and see what’s what with it.

Do you think its ridable enough to make it home?”

Keep in mind that the ride home bisects the most trafficked roads of the whole greater Baltimore-Washington metro area. If you have doubts about power delivery it might not be the right mission profile.

“No way.”

“Ok, then we’re going to need a Plan B.”

***

Plan B came in the form of my new good friends at U-Haul.

U-Haul, it seems, makes Serious Bank from Motorcyclists That Like To Trailer Motorcycles.

And while I have always been of a bent to avoid joining that club, I think there is some sort to ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card when the motorcycle in question cannot move under its own power.

At least, that’s my rationalization and I’m sticking to it.

Anyhoo, the nice folks at U-Haul mave designed a rental trailer whose only job is to move motorcycles. It’s a 5′ x 9′ all-aluminum utility trailer, with a built-in loading ramp an a neat front wheel chock that is part of the trailer’s structure.

About 5 minutes on the laptop reserved one — in real-time, on a Sunday afternoon — located in Gaithersburg about halfway between Jefferson and College Park.

If you’re in a Jam with a motorcycle that won’t motor, its hard to imagine a more convenient way out, at least if you own something with a trailer hitch.

***

While I waited for U-Haul to call me back to confirm, I called Harley-Davidson of Frederick. HD of F — it should be observed — is the only motorcycle dealership that I know of that is cheerfully open seven days a week. This feature has already saved a few Sundays and Mondays for me and the Blast already.

I had a list of parts that followed my lines of thinking given very minimal available troubleshooting information. One or two, or maybe three things was going on here. We were either running crazy rich or crazy lean.

The statistically least likely thing, and hence not worth buying parts for, was that the Blast’s teeny weeny electronic ignition box had tossed it.

The crazy rich option would involve the predicted death of the electro-mechanical auto choke unit, and I already had parts for that.

If you were willing to move past that then we were wither dealing with a completely clogged carburetor — which also seemed unlikely, given that the bike had been running reasonably well immediately before it’s untimely mid-stroke demise, or with a fuel system that wouldn’t flow any fuel — which was either a clogged petcock…

or Venting.

Now I have been driven beyond the bounds of distraction by fuel systems that wouldn’t flow fuel.

The Blast, fortunately, is a bit more modern motorcycle, with better coverage from its Internet user forums. User forums which thoroughly document the frequent failure of the tank’s venting system, whose key component is an EPA-mandated rollover valve that has been known to cut off flow when the system was demonstrably straight up and down and in no way rolled over.

So I ordered a complete set of carburetor jets — slow speed, main and needle — a tank petcock, some vent line and a rollover valve. A rollover valve, it should be noted, that has had its part number superseded by a redesigned part at least five times, according to Shell, the HD of F counterperson.

You may or may not find that noteworthy, but I did, anyway.

HD had three of the six parts in stock — the others would be available in a day or two.

5 minutes after I got off the phone with HD of F, U-Haul called me to confirm that the trailer was available, so Finn and I grabbed our jackets and headed for the pickup.

***

Fast forward to a parking lot outside College Park.

Finn tossed me his keys. I threw a leg over the Buell, turned on the fuel, and hit the starter. The bike fired on the third stroke, and came right up to its high idle.

It was enough to give one a false sense of security.

I blipped the throttle a few times. The first two times, we got response, and revs. The third time we got boggage. When I let the throttle go, it stalled in deterministic and terminal sounding way. I waited a few seconds and tried the starter again. The bike fired, stumbled and quit.

“You were right. Never would have gotten out of the parking lot. Let’s load her up.”

***

Back at the shop, The Blast took up a spot on its swingarm stand, with my LT temporarily exiled outside to the driveway.

The next afternoon, when the opportunity presented itself, I test fired the bike on the stand. The previous pattern repeated, except when the bike first started to stumble, I reached forward to the fuel cap latch, flipped it open and pulled. The cap didn’t want to come out — there was vacuum in the tank. A bit of a more determined tug liberated the cap, and three quarters of a second later, the engine returned to full song.

Venting it was. Gasoline engines don’t run well when they can’t get any, apparently.

***

A day later HD called to let me know they had received most of my order, but were short three of the carb internals — those would be coming in in a couple of days.

I swung by on the LT at lunchtime, and resolved to find the hour or so it would take to drain and refit the Blast’s fuel tank.

On my way back inside I yanked the Blast’s wierd-alice conical air filter — a reusable dry gauze type. I grabbed a small tin container, and set the filter in dishsoap to soak inside in the worksink.

***

When the weekend rolled round, it was time to make this bike run.

The Buell’s fuel tank is on the less complex end of the modern “how-hard-can-we-make-it-to-remove-this-motorcycle-fuel-tank” spectrum.

I know this, because my K-bike is all the way on the other, wrong end.

A single 10mm bolt and the oil dipstick retain the tank’s plastic cover.

Two more 10mm bolts under that cover and some cylindrical rubber bumpers get you down to the single screw on the fuel line and your tank sitting happy on the workbench.

Somewhere along the line, I inherited a little Black and Decker Workmate folding workbench and lightweight vise. It’s an ingenious little thing, with the two halves of the worksurface driven and located by two hand operated jackscrews.

For a job like this, its perfect.

I opened the surface of the Workmate all the way up, and sat the tank on it so that the petcock sat between the halves of the table.

I grabbed the gas can for my lawnmower, pulled the filler neck off it, and sat a funnel in its place. I opened the tank’s petcock to ‘Reserve’ and then just let time do its magic.

While it was draining, I removed the old tank vent line from the frame, in preparation for its replacement. Predictably, an attempt to blow air through the line produced — in addition to giving me ‘HighTest Breath’ — wholly unsatisfactory results.

One of two things was going on. Either this was another one of those ‘dang bugs’ stories — with a spider having engineered an effective blockage of the line — or it was observable manifestation of the apocryphal stories about modern alcohol-laced fuel turning soft fuel system bits to mush — with the line having melted and welded itself internally.

Either way, the tank hadn’t been able to flow fuel, and with no fuel, well…

My thoughts were that if one bit of rubber had possibly been mushed, then all of them were suspect, so we’d clear out everything so we wouldn’t have to back here for say, another 15 years or so.

Fortunately, I had a really good mental image of how all of the tank components worked, because when one of my son, Apprentice Architect Finn’s professors assigned a cutaway drawing — of anything the student chose — Finn had drawn this.

v__d72f

The shop manual might be good, but for me anyway, this was way better.

I’ll never quite understand why the Blast’s designer’s did this, but they did. The fuel tank’s rollover valve stem is just long enough that — once the vent fitting that retains it is unscrewed — it is too long to be removed from the tank unless the tank’s cap retaining ring is removed first.

Which, if you think about it for a second or two, represents a bit of sleight of hand, both to disassemble and to put back together.

No matter — I managed to remove the top ring and get the old rollover valve out without dumping it into the bottom of the tank. My shop manual indicated that the rubber seal and tank ring needed to be coated with a thin layer of Hylomar aviation sealant.

Two things occurred to me concurrently as I was looking at the disassembled parts in my hand. The first was that I actually had some Hylomar, because as an impressionable youth I had been (unwillingly) instructed by Ted Porter, who had impressed upon me that using anything else for several critical BMW Airhead assemblies constituted some kind of wrench malpractice. The second was that these parts weren’t the original factory parts — someone had replaced this valve before — because the sealant was nowhere in evidence. And that the person that did this clearly didn’t know Ted, because they didn’t have any Hylomar.

After a very thin coating was applied to the rubber seal, I replaced the rollover valve and carefully retightened the eight allen bolts holding the top ring in place. I reinstalled the valve’s top fitting on the outside of the tank, making sure to point the barb to the 11 o clock position so it would be able to accept the rubber vent line.

I then removed the two phillips head screws that held the petcock to the bottom of the tank and removed it. The petcock’s nylon screening looked very discolored when compared with that of the new part. Being easily amused, I giggled a little at the sight of the ‘Made In Italy’ script on the petcock’s valve handle. As someone wrestling with a motorcycle that was inexplicably dealing with niggling reliability issues, this is just the sort of confidence builder one needs, eh?

A new o-ring, and retorquing the two phillips heads yielded a fuel tank whose entire fuel flow path was now completely new.

I took a few minutes to look at my laptop to check the shop manual to see how the fuel vent line was supposed to be routed. The routing was fairly elaborate – following the left side of the oil-in-frame backbone, crossing in front of the carb and then ending inside a frame recess in the frame’s rear section. While probably a good idea in terms of protecting the vent from road debris or water, it did make me wonder about how good an idea it might be to have fuel vapors hanging out in close proximity to the battery and fuze blocks.

Of course, that hadn’t been how the line I had removed had been routed — it had been routed down the front frame downtube so that it exited near the riders left footpeg –a spot that was prone to sucking up water or debris from the roadway. I took a few minutes to thread a new vent hose in the factory position, engaged the OEM frame ties, verified that the hose wasn’t kinked or pinched, and then cut the front to length.

I replaced the tank on the motorcycle, and reattached the fuel line, hold down bolts and the tank retaining bumpers. I replaced the clean and dried gauze air filter, snapped the airbox closed, and replaced the plastic tank cover. I refilled the tank with about a half gallon of fuel from the lawn mower gas can, waiting a few seconds, then checked the new petcock and o-ring for leaks.

Dry as a bone.

I turned the fuel tap to ‘Reserve’, waited ten seconds, and fingered the starter.

After three or so Whoooomps, the big single lit up and came up to a solid high idle.

Starting, though, had never been the problem.

I gave the bike some gentle throttle, verifying that we had response, and working to get some heat into an engine that had been sitting for more than a little while.

After a few minutes the autochoke came off — causing some minor drama as the carb’s internal enrichment port was slooooooowly closed. The Blast’s single took up an even slow idle — smoothly taking blips of the gas — and continued to do just that and nothing else.

Which, considering the relative scarcity of that a few minutes before this, was beginning to look like progress.

After a few minutes of running on the stand and giving her an occasional blaat of throttle and then letting the engine idle, there was no sign of the fuel starvation that would have formerly rendered the Blast dull, lifeless and inert.

It was time to get this little bike off the service stand, out of my garage, and tested on the road.

***

It didn’t take more than ninety seconds to be absolutely sure that something significant had changed with the Blast.

Where it had formerly been a tad fluffy off the bottom, but pretty good when the revs came up, now it was …almost punchy.

Ok, well that might be overblown, but drivability was much improved, and opening the throttle was definitely fun and encouraged you to do that some more.

***

I ran the bike through a few more heat cycles over the next couple of days, and except for the rough moments each time the autochoke finally closed, the little bike was running like a champ.

Now I’d have to look for an opening to get it back to College Park.

***

Saturday came and Finn was using every communications medium available to him to let the Home Office know how much he’d really like to have his motorcycle back.

Call it an opening.

Of course, it would a sunny 35 degree day opening, but an opening is an opening.

Doris hopped in the pickup and headed towards Finn’s place while I layered up for the ride.

This is one of those days where a good fleece top and an Aerostich suit can make 50 plus miles of what could be uncomfortable pretty comfortable.

I also had a new pair of cold weather gloves to break in, so this seemed like an opening for that, too.

***

The Blast started pretty well, especially considering the overnight low had been just under 20 degrees F.

As I rumbled up into Jefferson, I remembered I’d been wondering how far this bike would run before hitting Reserve, now that it would actually flow fuel.

Whereupon, three quarters of a mile from home, and showing about 80 miles on the trip odo, I promptly ran out gas, and turned the petcock to Reserve.

I wouldn’t have to wonder anymore.

After a brief stop at Jefferson’s BP, to purchase $4.51 of premium fuel, I pointed the Blast over Mountville Road, cutting across the southern end of Frederick County to miss Frederick City traffic and use a few miles of backroad dancing to make sure the little bike was running fully on song. Mountville and Maryland 80 are both delightfully technical, with lots of grades and corner combinations to string together. With the Blast’s 500 single up in fourth gear it was eager to carry momentum, turning sharply in to each corner and torquing out in a single cylinder machine gun symphony.

Singles are cool.

Apologies to Dr. Who, and to bowties.

After merging on to Interstate 270, it was clear that the bike had been subtly starving for fuel long before it had failed completely — this had been a problem that had been degrading slowly for a very long time. Before the fix, the Blast hadn’t really made usable power in top gear until about 75 miles per hour — post fix there was good power from about 63. Rolling fourth gear on at lower highway speeds actually produced a reasonable rush of power.

34 horsepower doesn’t sound like a lot, unless you’ve been spending some time riding the same bike around with it making 27 for a while.

I’ll also admit that BMW S and LT fairings make one spoiled when transitioning to the Blast’s tidy flyscreen — its hard to imagine how doubled over I’d have to get to gain any coverage from that. Still, other than two or three numb fingers on each hand, and a couple on each foot, it was a pretty nice day and a pretty nice ride.

Greenbelt came up a bit too fast, really.

Finn seemed glad to see his motor.

We locked the Blast up and headed out in search of a burger.

***

The next day I was reading my Sunday paper, when I heard my phone vibrate.

A text from Finn.

Just took the bad boy out for a spin. Feels much better. Better acceleration from a stop and it doesn’t feel like it is sucking wind just to carry me lol

Nothing I didn’t know.

The things that make us worried and sad can be complicated and seemingly impossible to straighten out.

But the things that make the riders among us happy can be the simplest things in the world.

Castrati

When one has old motorcycles, one gets in the habit of not letting things go.

Letting things go is to surrender to entropy, and that way randomness and oily, rusty, non-functional wreckage lies.

This mechanical wreckage puts me in mind of how I’d look with similar mileage and neglect.

So you don’t.

Or at least I don’t, anyway.

These things can be substantial. Or strangely trivial.

But when they break, I fix them. Because one is a freak, but two is a trend.

I’m so not into entropy.

 

***

 

I was out riding the Slash 5 a while back, enjoying my favorite one laners out in the farm bottoms.

All was sunny, green — boxer drone omnipresent — I was in the zone.

My green reverie was dispelled by green and yellow menace — a big boy John Deere lawn tractor being operated with boundless enthusiasm and questionable situational awareness.

Tractors are not uncommon hereabouts, so my tractor interaction and avoidance skills are well developed and frequently exercised.

Most of them, though, are great big slow moving things which are pretty easy to detect and, except for their operator’s visibility challenges, behave in pretty predicable ways.

This one, though, was small, quick and had the distinct appearance of one that was being operated in top gear and at full throttle. While most lawn mowers — and despite the John Deere green livery, this was just a very big lawn mower — turn when they reach the end of their lawn to make the next cutting pass, this one was flaky.

It might make the customary turn. Or it might just blast straight out into my path and end up requiring its owner to replace its pretty yellow seat.

I don’t use my horn very often, but when I do…

So I resolved to announce myself, and pressed the Toaster’s left button, bracing for the customary gut punch percussive report of the trusty Italian-made Fiamm dual horns.

“Wheeeeeeze-bleep….”.

That couldn’t be right. So I pressed it again.

“Bleeee…wheeeze…..”

Sigh.

Being a recovering Catholic means one carries a lot of really bizarre images around in your head.

Upon hearing my horn, or more precisely the lack thereof, the image that flashed across my mind was…..’Castrati’.

In Catholic liturgical music, the most delicate soprano voices are provided by Choir boys who today serve their faith in this way until they hit puberty, and their voices crack.

But it didn’t always work that way.

In modern times, we’ve (mostly) concluded that one’s life and future family win compared with one’s expression of faith. But at one time if you sang beautifully enough, that choice went the other way. You’d get….altered … for Jesus, so that your voice could continue to sing his praises, and your life, well….

So cut back to the button, where my expectations were of power, of ‘A Fullness of Sound’.

I expected Pavarotti.

I got a 43 year old choirboy.

 

***

 

Fortunately, and likely not because of my thundering horn, Deere Man noticed me, and braked to a stop before entering the road.

The potential for our paths to intersect having been reduced to zero, I rolled back on the throttle and sped on up the road.

 

***

Back in the garage, troubleshooting was pretty straightforward.

Standing in front of the bike, I cupped my hand over the low tone horn of the low/high pair, inclined my head toward my hand, and pressed the Toaster’s left button.

No problem there.

I repeated the drill with the high tone horn of the pair.

I was treated to a comically pitiful and failing bleat.

Yup. That’s your problem right there.

I went into my office and Amazoned up a Fiamm ‘Freeway Blaster’ high tone horn.

 

***

 

Fast forward several days, and my postman provides me with the horn.

That evening, I popped it out of its plastic clamshell and learned a thing or two. Unlike my existing ‘Made in Italy’ horn, this one was made in a plant in Cadillac, Michigan. It was missing the cute chrome grille that probably hasn’t been made for 25 years. And it was designed to operate with two wires, not the ‘hot and frame ground’ method used by my antique example. To allow it to be used, the Fiamm guys had included a nice pre-wired terminal and jumper which would work in one terminal applications. After a few moments unsuccessfully searching for some “+”s and “-“s, I reviewed the minimal documentation, which stated that the horn “was not polarity sensitive”.

I walked out to the garage, a pulled a 10mm wrench out of the tool chest. I spun the nut off the existing horn, pulled the wire terminal off and removed the horn. When I went to drop the old horn in the shop trash — how many miles had this thing seen since 1985? — a full two tablespoons full of dirt fell out of the horn’s mouth.

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I had prewired the jumper inside, so wired up the hot wire, tightened up the nut and was done — total elapsed time about 25 seconds.

I pressed the button.

The walls shook — we had Pavarotti, The Mighty Hammond Organ and The Mormon Tabernacle Choir all at once.

It might be a Cheezy Physics Trick, but it is a good one.

Each of these two horns is audible, but by itself nothing special.

But put two of them together, and the interference patterns made by the two selected notes create the kind of din you really want if someone is trying to kill you with their vehicle. 1+1 equals the sonic equivalent of the 5:19 to Moline.

Entropy temporarily vanquished. Bring on the John Deere Lawn Tractors.

9090

I woke up Monday morning with the sound of sleet hissing softly on my bathroom window.

Continuing to pretend it ain’t happening will not fix the Slash 5 snapping sideways under throttle on a subtly icy road.

Its Winter, baby, and time to reflect on another gone riding year.

And, depressingly, it hasn’t really been one for the books.

 

***

 

I just can’t remember a year that has simply disappeared like this one has — it made drops of water disappearing off a hot exhaust header look downright sluggish.

Between crazy amounts of overcommitment at work, helping my daughter purchase a home and move, and making arrangements for youngun Finn to live at College, it seems that everyone — both work and family — got taken care of with the possible exception of me.

By the time my scheduled summer vacation came around, I’d dipped so far into my personal reserve tank that the day I was supposed to leave, I came down with pneumonia, and spent four of the planned five days off flat on my back clutching a daisy on my chest.

I’ve had that nagging feeling I’ve missed a day, a week, even a season, but for whole year to just disappear is just unprecedented.

 

***

 

I’ve felt the end coming on, of course.

I knew that every mile — every rotation of the engine — was bringing me closer to the this riding year’s horizon. This feeling brings on a certain desperation where any chance to hit the road is to be seized and exploited without thought.

So last Thursday, when work went inexplicably silent, even though it was cold and grey out my office window, I went for the keys and headed for the garage. With a layer of GoreTex and the LT’s weather protection on my side, a 35 degree cloudy day was just a virtual visit to any day in Bavaria.

Even with a fresh battery, cold weather and a crankcase full of 20W-50 means that the LT doesn’t exactly leap to life when the starter button is pressed. Still, sluggish though it may be, the bike fires on the second compression stroke and settles into its electronically controlled idle, with the many metallic sounds of a cold valve train rising up towards the saddle.

With all skin covered somewhere under layers of leather, goretex and velcro, I roll down the driveway as the bike’s ABS system executes its characteristic trash can lid clang to arm the system. At the entrance to my neighborhood, I roll to the right, headed down Maryland 180 and towards The Brookside Inn and Catoctin Creek.

It never ceases to amaze me how different my older BMWs and this KBike feel from the saddle. The twins are traditional tech — 1950s vintage knockoff Featherbed-style frame made of round and oval section tubing. They’re structurally compliant — things do move around under cornering and suspension loads. Just the comparison between my R75 and the R90, where subtle updates were made to the frame — longer headstock gussets, for example — are significant enough to be felt from the saddle.

This fully framed KBike, however, is just a different animal altogether. The motorcycle’s aluminium beam structure is several levels of magnitude more rigid. Where many modern motorcycles have a tubular cross member bracing the two sides of the frame, the Kbike has an 11 inch wide and 2 inch thick hollow alloy box structure sized to support the pivot loads of the single sided rear swingarm — it’s the single biggest piece of metal I’ve seen outside of a military weapons system.

The designers of this motorcycle, clearly, were just not that concerned about weight reduction, and given the mission profile, I’m OK with that.

Between the absolute lack of any kind of structural flex as the starting point, add the proprietary weirdness of BMWs Telelever and paralever suspension, a set of nice aftermarket Swedish damping units, and lower profile, wider radial tires, and the sensations of piloting the thing couldn’t be more different.

On the R90, one enters a bend with the biker version of a slow motion wet dog shake — one stays loose in the shoulders, gives a gentle direction to the bars, and then does a little dance as the roll moments, undamped spring movements and structural flexes work their way like a big wave moving from the front to the rear of the rider and the bike.

When it’s perfect, one hears the single ring of the bell.

The KBike, however, is a single metal thing. Decide and its happens instantly, which is weird, because it’s approaching double the mass of the old Airhead. Double the mass and its four times faster settling down on corner entry.

Funny math. Good, but funny.

So rolling down the steep grade that leads to the creek, I’m gently rocking the bike over and back to warm up the sides of my Avons — poor thing is cold, gearshifts and shock actions both stiff until the oils get some heat in them.

Maryland Route 180, where it crosses Catoctin Creek, is a classic American roadhouse roadside.

As one hits the bottom of the grade, one makes a sharp left onto a 1930s vintage reinforced concrete arch bridge.

You probably wouldn’t drive across this bridge had you ever walked underneath it.

Still, its arches are scenic, the view to the wide and shallow fast flowing creek is attractive, and today is apparently not the day when this bridge and you are to die.

As you ride to the creek’s other side sits the Brookside Inn, a tavern inside a 1700’s vintage white chinked log cabin. That cabin has probably been a tavern as long as there as been a way to cross that creek. On summer Saturdays there are many Harleys parked alongside the white stripe on the edge of the roadway.

Today, there’s just a lone dude forced to the bench outside for a smoke.

Just past the Brookside the roadway widens to two lanes, and then makes a dramatic decreasing radius right up a very steep grade — the second lane necessary to provide a climbing and frequently used passing lane.

I catch third gear just a little early, and — with some heat finally showing on the temperature gauge — roll the throttle slowly but surely all the way open and surf the big wave. The torque peaks around 6000 rpm just as we crest the big hill — we’ve got enough momentum and drive going that we briefly take air at both ends and then settle undramatically gently back down. A solid shift into fourth and I have to concentrate to smoothly but rapidly giving back throttle to bleed road speed back in the general direction of something prudent. Both the smooth landing and shift bespeak hydrocarbon fluids that are gradually thawing out.

I’m feeling the conscious need to seek out roads I don’t normally ride, so I flow though the circle at Brunswick and continue east down the series of flowing sweepers that bring me back down to Knoxville, the C&O canal, the railroad and the Potomac.

On the other side of Knoxville is a crazy hairball interchange where the 340 West onramp winds under the eastbound roadway of the divided highway and then rises up from in-between the median of the elevated highways and merges into the left lane of the westbound road. This by itself would be stimulating enough, if one didn’t need to cross both lanes in less than a quarter mile to hit the Maryland Route 67 North ramp. When the road is congested it can be quite dramatic — today, though, all is serenity.

67 is the choice because of its wide open sightlines, low populations, and more or less straight route that beats north to Boonesboro. It’s kind of like riding Arizona, minus the 4000 miles to get there and back. If you have a K1200LT, and you’d like to use your fifth gear — and I do and I did — then 67 is your road.

67 begins at 340, so the onramp is normally uncontested. The highway climbs a long shallow grade, and I let the K12’s big four cylinder spin high up its rev band, taking each new gear around 7000 rpm. At the top of the hill I toe up into fifth, and let the engine settle into its sweetspot just under 4000 rpm.

In this gear, at this speed, entire tanks of fuel and entire states just disappear.

Just perfect.

 

***

 

It’s the whole set of sensations — the wheels and dampers working, the barely perceptible thrum of the motor, the intake shriek and the cold wind spilling over the top edge of the shield that just takes me outside myself. Outside myself here in the present, and back to all the times I’ve found myself inhabiting this parallel riding space before.

Blasting west on Ontario Provincial Route 17, The Trans Canada Highway, doing a set of corners, up a ridge and back down again to the sight of another blue Lake Superior bay on the left of the road over and over again for 300 miles of beauty and moose warning signs.

Running long sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway with the revs way up in third gear, and covering a hundred miles at a clip without a touch of the brakes — roll off, set an entry, pick up the throttle before the apex, and dial up peak power on the way out, over and over and over through the sun and shade tunnel of green.

Coming home from the Barber Vintage Festival, and running hard with a group of other riders — The New York Boys — carrying triple digit speed across much of I-81 in sunny southwestern Virginia. Trading my normal 3900 rpm top gear cruise for 5000 rpm provided a peek at the racing engine pedigree of the ‘flying brick’ motors  — combining a raucous full time intake shriek with immediate power in response to throttle. Sedate touring bike my ass.

On one trip I’d made to the BMW Georgia Mountain Rally I’d struck out on my own to do a little Saturday riding in what everybody agreed was one of motorcycling god’s backyards. I lucked out with a cool day with high clouds that looked like they’d escaped from the title sequence of ‘The Simpsons’. I’d assumed that on such a Saturday, with the BMW Rally happening nearby, that the Cherahola Skyway would be a busy place.

Instead, I had the entire road completely to myself. It was downright spooky.

The Cherahola feels, from a rider’s perspective, like it was the next revision of the roadware brought to you by the Nice Folks that Built The Skyline Drive. The idea is the same, but the mountains of the Cherahola seem higher, the sightlines and corners far more open, sweeping and the land around more rocky, less forested. If the old Park Service Parkways — the Skyline and Blue Ridge — are third gear roads, the Cherahola is a fourth gear road.

That day the revs stayed mostly up, and we just flowed.

I was instantly in that focused place, that place of grace. I saw no one.

No pickups. No tractors. No campers, cars or even other bikes.

 

***

 

So many travels, so many cool destinations all organized around a K1200 motor thrumming like an overdriven electric guitar string.

None of them this year though.

I really have no developed skills in the area of regret. So I’d have to devote my energies to plotting and executing my revenge against this inexplicable void of moto adventure.

Next year has to be a better year.

 

***

 

As the mists of revery and regret disappeared from the cockpit, I phased back in to the reality of the cold grey day I had to work with.

The good news is that the K1200 Brick motor loves colder air — denser intake charge and cooler operating conditions makes for a more powerful and higher revving brick. I might be a dog on a short leash today, but this motorcycle felt like one could ride it until one ran out of road and one’s wheels dipped into a distant sea.

I looked down at my odometer. I’d been aware the big girl had been sneaking up on 90,000 miles, but the sneaking was over. We were about 2 miles out, and even if her century was still a ways off, I wanted 90 to be at least a little party. With little time to think about it, I felt the need to go multi-dimensional. Going 90 turning 90 seemed easy enough. So I rolled the throttle enthusiastically and wound her up there.

In the very little time I left myself I briefly contemplated if there were any other vectors left that could provide another ninety. Altitude, while achievable, seemed ill advised. This timeline wouldn’t see me Being Ninety for more than three more decades, so that was right out.

So two nineties would have to do.

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***

 

The rest of the ride was meditative, running the tight technical roads that come back over the mountain — Reno Monument, Marker, Arnoldstown, Picnic Woods, Burkettsville and home. My approach was one of restraint and balance — work the throttle in a very deliberate way, be situationally aware, plan ahead, and ride as is if one had no brakes.

Placing the bike on the main stand had an air of finality.

Three days later, the ice and snows came.