Progress

It was the kind of day that most riders wouldn’t have chosen as a good day for a ride.

Unless, perhaps they were Englishmen.

Chilly, dark, and misty with low, steel-colored scudding clouds, propelled along the green of the ridge by an insistent wind.

Today, though, I saw the riding possibilities – I felt the compulsion.

Call me Nigel.

My new gig has proven to be both engaging and stimulating – both things that translate into demanding of one’s time, focus and energy.

At the end of a work week, I’m tired.

On a Friday afternoon when I didn’t leave early and got stuff done, after I finally shut my computer down I pulled the Slash 5’s ignition pin out of my desk drawer, pulled on my race weight Vanson jacket, and headed for the garage.

With all of the days I’ve been K-Biking in and out of Baltimore for work, my Oldest Alloy Girlfriend hasn’t been getting run all that much. She’s prideful though – she spun over hard on the starter, firing quickly and coming right to an enrichened fast idle.

I gave a few blips of the throttle to make sure the engine would take it. I pushed the bike down the driveway, toed the transmission into first, banked left and headed for the dirt.

Since my family has been working hard to sell our house and leave this place, my visits to the most rural of our country roads had taken on a certain poignancy – these green lanes are easier to see with fresh eyes, to appreciate as the blessing they are, given the proximity of their loss. Think of it as jumping the gun on a full Joni Mitchell – “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone…”  These unpaved vectors back to a simpler past weren’t lost to me yet, but I knew and felt acutely what it was that I’d got.

Poffenberger Road has been closed for several months. One of our extreme rainfall events had washed out the bank from under the road at the point where it’s at its highest height – instant deadly cliff, just add too much water. Where the collapse occurred, the road is no longer wide enough to accommodate a pickup truck, although it is wide enough to accommodate a /5. How I know that is something that we should probably not further discuss.

Not wanting anything more complicated tonight than some crushed limestone and some throttle, I did the next best thing, which was head for Harley Road.

A few miles of smooth pavement, a big hill or two, and a blast past our family’s former old farmhouse had me exiting Sumantown Road on Harley’s grey dirt – the rear tire of the /5 skating ever so slightly as I backed it in under a little engine braking to set a sane speed on the loose surface. A closer look at that surface suggested there was fresh stone spread out here – depth might prove unpredictable – so I got up on the pegs and scanned hard up ahead.

As I came over the first rise on Harley Road, where I expected the road to truly go gnarl – with its usual off-camber bits, wheel ruts and washouts – I saw something else instead.

What I saw was Turn 3 at the Frederick Fairgrounds – Home of the Famed Barbara Fritchie Classic – Frederick County had apparently brought a grader and a bunch of stone here, and significantly widened the road — adding maybe a new 10 feet on either side of the old road – and then graded it smooth and put down new stone. Where there had been a tiny twisting snake of a road was now a wide, smooth level surface.

With all of the new construction and population growth around Jefferson, Roads like Harley were carrying too much traffic to be allowed to remain in their antique state. Public safety demanded a more modern construct.

In short, they ruined it.

Progress is a constant, although not every change is a step in the right direction.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would mean to leave this place, with its farms, dirt roads and lonesome spaces.

With the new homes, new people and spaces filling up, I also wonder if Jefferson may have left us before we even managed to pack up the truck.

For a guy that has demonstrated – time and again – that he fully embraces narrative discontinuity, I have a pretty contradictory belief in the unbroken forward motion of progress.

You know – you get up every day, show up for work, or for school, give things your ideas, and your energy, and the people and things around you – your family, your colleagues, your home, your community – get better. You persevere, you put one foot in front of the other, and things move forward.

These days, though, I have my doubts.

The city that I’m trying to move to is not a paragon of peace and tranquility. Of course, yesterday we had a murder at our County fair here, with a case that looks likes it will shine a light into some really dark and ugly corners of how we all treat each other. So no place is perfect, I guess.

In the last week of commuting to the city I had to contend with a work van completely filled with diesel fuel that was treated as a terrorist threat – watching police, Secret Service and federal agents, helicopters, bomb squad guys and ten thousand miles of crime scene tape out my office window – another water main breakage on my route that caused a street collapse, and widespread public demonstrations because of a presidential visit, all in the space of three days. I no longer get surprised by being passed in traffic by whole squadrons of the 12 O’clock Boys – I’ve learned to associate what sounds like a zing of single wasp as the first overtone that reaches my ears of a whole herd of wrung-out 2 strokes. You think you Adventure Tour? What do you call this?

Instead of the Rider’s focus – the Boxer Rider’s Ohhhmmm – that I’d normally be exhibiting out on an old motorcycle in the dirt, with my favorite dirt road essentially erased, my mind accelerated around the gravity well and then got sucked into the maw of a modern woe hole.

Selling my house is not turning out to be the gimme putt I thought it would be. What historically had been 3-4 days to contract in my neighborhood has turned into 60 days with only a single showing. When my agent called the showing agent looking for feedback she cussed him out. Neighbors that listed their homes four months before me are still hearing crickets. To me, it seems like something is causing people to not want to make big moves right about now – there’s a level of societal anxiety that is making people demonstrably nutz.

You can also see it in the behavior of people on the road, too. Any notion of social responsibility behind the wheel of a car is just an arcane, antique notion.

Our political sphere is a rambling wreckage. We seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other or to work together to get the people’s business done.

Some of the communities we looking at moving to are close to the water that surrounds Baltimore. With the seeming acceleration of increasing atmospheric entropy, that water starts to look increasingly like an enemy instead of a friend. I wonder whether the gallons of gasoline that I continue to burn to ride, to get to work, makes me as much a cause of what now appears to be a climate spiral as any other guy. Would parking these Engines and getting an electric motorcycle be the first one of a journey of ten million steps?

Will moving to the city – lightening our financial load and living closer to work and family improve our lives, or somehow make them worse?  In event of some sort of societal upheaval, which all of a sudden seems strangely possible, would we be better off in the city or the country?

So does pushing though one day to the next really move us forward, produce progress? Why does putting one foot in front of the other seem so much like some Escher drawing – moving forward while going backward?

Most mental breakthroughs – those Eureka moments when the synthesis of all the information you’ve ingested lights up the cortex and it all comes together – usually occur either when you’re deep in REM sleep or when waking up in one’s morning shower. If you were expecting one to occur out here on the newly smooth-surfaced Harley Road I am sorry to disappoint you.

Fortunately for me, I’d come to the end of the newly smoothed Harley, and taken Bennie’s Hill down towards the creek. There was no room for the grader on the side of a cliff like this, and there never would be. After crossing the creek on the old iron bridge, only a few seconds sliding alongside the creek in the dampened dirt brought me back to an immersive, all-consuming present – chill air pulling tears from my eyes, and awash in the drone of the old boxer motor — one that just didn’t give a rat’s ass which direction it was going, so long as it was going.

Enlightenment

There is very little about my BMW K1200LT motorcycle that I do not like.

The LT is unstressed and composed at elevated speeds – ergonomics and aerodynamics are both optimized. For a machine of frankly prodigious bulk, its cornering behavior is surprisingly precise.

There is this one little thing, though, that has always bothered me.

Bothered, though, really doesn’t quite cover the piquancy of my discomfort with this oddly incomprehensible defect.

Hang with me, here. I’ll try and walk you through it.

I use my motorcycles as day to day transportation – going to work, to the bank, the market, the hardware store and, critically, the beer store.

This is a German motorcycle. Germans, viewed wholly in a statistical context, like beer.

If I, in asserting this, have offended any Germans or any people who are advocates for the rights of Germans I heartily apologize and raise a beer to their health – Zum wohl!

So if Germans like motorcycles, and Germans also like beer, why, for the last 20 years been I been having this same conversation with every person that ever rang me up any beer store.

“Hey man, you want me to put these six-packs in a case for you?”

“No man – I need them in bags, because the beer case won’t fit in my top case.”

I just could not fathom how a beer-loving people that made this Starfighter of a motorcycle could have possibly built it so it would not carry a case of beer. The top case was about ¾ inch too short for a beer case to fit. It made no sense to me that it never would have been considered.

But it didn’t, and it hadn’t, so I bought my beer in bags, and went along with my life.

A life that was proceeding most unremarkably until Wednesday night.

Frederick has a brand new, pretty groovy craft beer store over on East Street. They not only have a staff that are well informed enough to serve as ‘Beer Stewards’, but a staggering inventory, as well as a small draft beer tap head that they use to provide growler and crowler fills.   Sweet Doris from Baltimore just loves the place – Daughter Wallis does as well. With this utter lack of any familial disapproval of one of my few vices, I tend to end up there about every other payday.

So after everyone got done rambling around the store grabbing packs of bottles and cans, my favorite ‘Beer Steward’ rang me out. As we had come by car, I watched as he packed our beer into a case.

For some reason, my guy was struggling – the cans just wouldn’t seem to fit. He’d try ‘em one way, and then another, and he was getting rattled.

“Oh,” he said, “let me get you an American beer case… this is a Weihenstaphaner case – these German cases are subtly smaller.”

“Wait! ‘These German cases are subtly smaller?!?!????’. Oh no no no no no no no… I’ll take that one. Its just fine. Just lob those cans in there… neatness does not count. ThanksverymuchWe’llseeyanexttime.”

I’ll admit that on the drive home I may have seemed a little overstimulated.

We were home in a flash, and I took my German beer case out to the garage, where both the beer fridge and the KLT live.

I walked to the back of my bike, slid the beer case into the bike’s top case, and it dropped right in like it was made for it. I pulled the case lid down and the latches swung shut with a resounding ‘Thaakk’.

“Brewed in Bavaria” huh?

Angels Singing.

I don’t know why I ever doubted.

It wasn’t that a BMW K1200LT will not carry a case of beer.

It’s just that I, the user, was doing it wrong.

The BMW is not designed to use American Beer and their cases. It is designed to only use good German Beer and their subtly smaller cases.

Case closed.

Beside the Road

So you’re out on a country road – road dancing, self-contained, in the zone.

But something blurs by – in your peripheral vision – that seems to insist you give it your attention.

It’s got wheels and a seat – and the mind sees a shadow of a sign…. it says ‘For Sale’… but you need to set up for the next corner and the moment is past. I make a mental note – next time I ride this way back it off to see what’s sitting on that front lawn. Noted and the road once again requires my full attention.

A few days later, hitting the same spot I’m out of the throttle – what was it I missed?

Mostly it’s Harleys, and Japanese cruisers, and things that aren’t worth having slowed down for.

But every once in a while, it’s something…. interesting.

It might be a CB360T. Or a nicely farkeled VeeStrom 650 with expedition cases. Or an early naked GoldWing.

At least where I ride, one doesn’t see old Ducatis on the lawn, sadly.

Some of these yard sale motorcycles are even enough to have me hammering the brakes and looking for a driveway in which to turn around.

Put a modern Triumph Bonneville on your lawn, and you get to see me demo my moto-u-turn skills. Haven’t had a single adverse outcome anytime lately, if you were hoping for drama. VT500 Ascots, any kind of Buell (even though I ought to know better), or a MotoGuzzi Ambassador, and I’m executing that turnabout like a charter member of the Victor McLaglen Motor Corps.

But on this ride, I run into something entirely new.

For the sake of discussion, let’s call it The WTF.

I’d slowed waaaaay down. I’d gotten a good eyeful of the thing. It did indeed have a ‘For Sale’ sign. But in trying to identify the silhouette, my processor had pegged, I’d run the entire catalogue, and after what is probably an objectively life-threatening cognitive lockup, error code processing, coredump and reboot, I concluded I had no freaking idea what that thing was.

And even at 25 miles an hour, once active guidance had been restored, I was already about a third of a mile up the road. I go by that spot in Jefferson nearly every night. I gave a classic Loony Tunes Humminna Humminna Humminna shake of my helmet – this was going to remain a mystery for at least one more night.

The next evening, I needed to pick something up at my daughter’s, so headed past the location of the thing with my pickup. I had my phone out and came to the spot in the road opposite it, and I stopped. It became quickly obvious why I had been unable to ID the thing – this was a refugee from the chopper and dune buggy mad 70s – a completely oddball one-off created by somebody way braver than me if he’d actually ever ridden that thing.

Under the patina of rust and Cherokee read paint was a small part of the structure of a Volkswagen Beetle – the transmission shifter tunnel and the supports for the rear axle and suspension. The transmission and the VW’s aircooling fan manifold were there to see. The boxer engine, sadly, was not. The floorboards and the body had been cut away and discarded, and then someone had started welding things onto other things. There was a headstock that carried the basic dimensions of the transmission tunnel up to where a set of steering head bearings needed to be. Someone had apparently liberated and repurposed what looked to be a set of forks, front brakes and wheel from a Yamaha Venture touring bike. Some of the suspension linkages were cross connected with what looked like plumber’s steel strap. If there had once been a fuel tank, it seemed to be AWOL chasing the motor.

Lawnmower? Dirt Drag Terror? I got nothin’.

A kid in a muscle car appeared on the road behind me, so I snapped a shot or two and moved on up the road.
“Holy Shit,” I thought to myself. “What a suicidally insane monstrosity. They’ll have a hard time finding a home for that. I gotta go back tomorrow and talk to that guy.”

The next day, of course, that thing was gone.

I don’t know if I’d have bought the thing. I’m not sure there was a place in my life right now for chasing down a Beetle engine and fabricating a lot of missing stuff to see if that was as bad an idea as it appeared to be. Truck like steering swapping cyclically with hairy wheelies caused by questionable weight distribution? I certainly would have wanted to hear its caretaker tell me whatever story there was to tell of it.

But it’s another illustration of the oldest rule in the book. He who hesitates is lost. Carry cash, and get really comfortable with that two-lane road turn around. Go look at whatever it is right now because tomorrow – unless you have angels riding on your shoulder – is almost always too late.

Supercommuting

I hang with a lot of IT Strategy types – you know, the type that are prone to pronouncements that are intended to sound like harbingers of an inevitable future.

These types are prone to utterances like “Work is something you do, not somewhere you go.”

Strategy types are correct about as often as weathermen.

So, I’ve been putting on a lot of miles.

I’ve found a new gig, with a new outfit – one that will let me work directly with clients to solve their technical problems. And while I’m learning the ropes, and, more importantly – learning my new teammates – it is in my best interest for work to be somewhere I go.

That somewhere is in the center of Baltimore city – about 60 miles from my home in Jefferson.

It’s not like I haven’t got the perfect hammer for that nail – my K1200LT vaporizes intercity distances effortlessly. But adjusting – after several home based work years – to the time required, to the changes in circadians, and frankly, to get my best high-speed distance riding form thawed out – has sent a slight judder through the overall system.

 

***

 

It’s July in Maryland, which used to be something that produced fairly predictable weather patterns – patterns that apparently don’t hold, anymore. In the early mornings, when I leave The Shop, it’s been sunny and in the low 60s. I troll easily through the neighborhood and the new informal Jefferson Bypass through Roundtree Road, trying to get some heat in the engine before reaching for the whip.   By the time I roll onto 340 East, the thermostat is opening and I roll each gear well out to around 6500 rpm under light throttle before shifting up. I don’t get top gear until the very top of the hill, and then thonk into top around 80 and then hit the tunnel of trees on the shaded side of the ridge.

The short US 340 sprint downhill though Frederick and over to I-70 and 270 has become surprisingly crowded – at the interchange, the majority of those people elect for 270 towards Washington – at which point the road to Baltimore really opens up and lets one open the throttle too. A few miles east of The City of Frederick one finds that rolling, high-speed groove, and enters the state of the perfect meditative Ohmmm. Just under 4000 rpm shows what for a K1200LT is a loafing 82 mph that makes the green and rolling countryside a thing of joy.   Sometimes I carry a few more revs on cruise than that.

A K12 is in its element here – unstressed at speed, with tons of passing power available – it could do this for days and days. Unfortunately, it can only do this on this particular run for a little over 40 miles, until the US 29 interchange comes in range. US 29 is one of Greater Baltimore Washington’s Mother Roads – it was one of two primary North/South roads though the region – running through Northern Virginia, DC and Columbia, Maryland, before I 95 was built. 29 carries 3 lanes of traffic in each direction, and where it ends as it meets the Interstate, I-70 is only two lanes wide.  I may not be a certified math genius, but I’m pretty sure 2+3 is NOT 2.

29, predictably, is where the trouble starts in the morning on the way in, and where it ends in the afternoon on the way home.

As I get to the 29 interchange, brake lights come on, downshifts are blipped, and depending on my timing, we either troll along at about 30 mph in second gear – or its drop down to first to find the slowest steady speed one can manage without working the clutch. Once clear of the merge at US 29,  speeds come back up for just a little while, until get to the Baltimore beltway.  The Beltway connects 70 – that comes in from the west – with I-95 – which runs either through the Fort McHenry tunnel towards Philly and New York, or straight into downtown Baltimore.

There’s only a mere five miles of Beltway between those two routes. All five of those miles are under construction. In both directions.

So add peak rush hour insanity to some demoed paving surfaces, toss in Jersey Barrier or two, and you have all the ingredients required for a relaxing ride in the country. It only took a day or two of this for my agility and mobility skills within the traffic stream to come roaring all the way back to peak function.

After the short Adventure Ride ™, one picks up I-95 that leads straight up into the city.  95 has six lanes in each direction, and despite the volume is always moving briskly, which quickly brings the downtown Baltimore skyline into view.  With its cluster of skyscrapers, its pair of Stadiums for the Orioles and Ravens, The Bromo Seltzer tower – a sponsored copy of the Campanile of Florence — and the harbor all in view, all of the good things I’ve ever thought about Baltimore come rushing back every time I make this run. The 395 spur takes the ride right into the heart of downtown – I’ve only got 6-7 blocks to the Baltimore Street office – although those blocks can be congested. By this time of the morning the heat of the day is starting up, and being stuck in surface traffic with a half-scale formula racing engine riding in my lap does not necessarily represent that which most fun about motorcycling.

Calvert Street North dumps me right at the entrance to the office’s garage – an older ramp design inside the office tower itself, which, on a larger motorcycle is another kind of adventure ride.

One of the officers of my new company saw me on my way from the garage, still accoutered in my Roadcrafter Suit, and wanted to know if I regarded my new job as so dangerous as to require full armor.  I cheerfully responded that were that the case, I would certainly also be wearing my helmet.

The new job is engaging, and there is lots for me to learn or adapt – it demands my focus, and time has been flying by.

So most days it seems I am pulling back on my gear and velcroing stuff to other stuff with almost not being aware of any time in between.

At quitting time, with temperatures up into the 90s, and people carrying some ‘tude after a day at work, reversing those 6 or 7 blocks is a tad more hellish.

People will try to tell you that inner city Baltimore motorcyclists have a complete and utter disregard for the extent to which traffic laws apply to them. Those nameless people that are always trying to tell you things would, in this case, be largely and materially correct.

One of those stylish riders – combining shorts, a tank top, a Sportster with drag pipes and a Chromed German Military-style helmet – pulled a racetrack inside pass on the shoulder on the big SUV behind me while making the right turn into Conway Street, which leads back to 395 and the slab outta town.  He was pretty pleased with himself as he flicked back in front of that SUV, at least until the millisecond he discovered that one cannot actually see through or around massive SUVs, and that he had failed to see the fairly large object that already occupied the space – in this case, LT straddling me.

His eyes got real big. I communicated to him that I held a dim view of his intelligence. He made no significant effort to refute my assertion.

Summer in Maryland has always meant thunderstorms, but storms lately are more localized, stronger and potentially more violent. Given how well the current generation of Aerostich suits has implemented waterproofing, I really don’t ever worry about getting wet at all anymore. Hitting any storm means closing the vent zippers, closing the LT’s cockpit wind deflectors, setting the electric windshield’s height to just below my eyeline, and jamming on. The Avon Storm tires I run handle rain like you’d expect from a British tire. If there’s ever been a better foul weather motorcycle, I have no experience or even news of it.

Coming home yesterday, I intersected the path of one of these violent downbursts.  I buttoned up for rain, and didn’t even feel the need to back my road speed off – the Storms were perfectly planted, under both power and braking. I know there are people out there that already question my rationality when it comes to motorcycling, but given a choice between making this run in 95 degree heat, or cooled off by the rain and running a wet 77, I’ll pick the rain every time. In the western portion of the run, on open Interstate at speed, the LT didn’t provide even a single moment of drama, even in conditions that had the more timid automobilists pulling off the roadway.

And in the time it takes to pass a few cars, and think a few things, I found myself rolling back up my driveway at home again.  Time and distance vaporization indeed.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I are looking for a house somewhere substantially closer to that Baltimore street office. With Finn having moved to the City after being hired by an architecture firm there, my job there, and her parents, who increasingly need her help, there, there is a confluence of forces that should be sufficient to finally get her back home.

Until we figure it all out, though, I’m content to keep trying to wear out a K12, one hundred twenty miles at a time.  I’d be the first one, I think, to be successful in that.

The Circuit

While we live, we learn.

At least that is what I keep telling myself, and what I keep trying to demonstrate to myself and others.

And while I admit that a partial fear of the converse – If we stop learning, we’re dead meat – may be a component of my motivation, I’d like to think that stubbornly driving forward under any and all conditions is just a crucial part of my DNA.

So I embrace the new.  Or, more precisely, new knowledge and new experiences.

Everything short of bungee jumping – which strikes me as a pointless kind of sticking a pin in one’s adrenal system – if I have not yet done it, bring it on.

So, it is in this context of seeking and embracing all forms of personal growth, that I am almost embarrassed to admit that until yesterday, I had never ridden a motorcycle on a racetrack.  I’ve ridden nearly a half million miles on the street and on the dirt – crossing the continent and lapping the Great Lakes — but had never turned so much as a wheel on a closed, competition course.

Yesterday, though.  Oh, yesterday.

One of my better pieces of self-made luck has been a relationship with Royal Enfield USA – the US Importer/Agent for Royal Enfield Motorcycles of Chennai, India.  A long time back I had seen some details about new motorcycles that Enfield had in their development pipeline, and it was very clear that the company wanted to show it could do way more than build 350 and 500 cc Bullet Motorcycles. Those bikes would turn out to be the Continental GT 535, The Himalayan, and the 650 cc INT and Continental GT twins.  I wanted to write about the Himalayan, but a rash of technical problems kept the timing from working out. When the arrangements started to finally gel, most writers had already had a chance to review and write about the bike, and I felt very late to that party. So I stuck my neck out and proposed instead of being late to the Himalayan Party, I’d prefer to be early to the 650 Twins party.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

I got.

All of the early coverage for the Royal Enfield 650 twins had been the result of an invitation-only press junket in Carmel California. You can assume from the construction of this description that I was not invited. All those present got a presentation, a nice meal, and 50 miles or so of Northern California roads to roll under the Enfield 650’s wheels.

I don’t know about you, but 50 miles is just about enough to have me know what questions I want to ask about any motorcycle, but nowhere close to enough to have me have any answers to those questions.

It’s a tease, but it isn’t an understanding, and it certainly isn’t any kind of relationship.

So, having asked and having got, I ended up with one of the Enfield 650 demo fleet in my garage, and got to be the first guy outside of India that would be able to really live with the motorcycle for a while, and see if it was something that could be bonded with, and much to my amazement and enjoyment, it was.

When I had to return the Enfield, I’ll cop to being kinda bummed.

A bumming that came to an abrupt end when Enfield USA decided to take their collection of demo bikes to a series of Road and Racetrack locations across the country. Enfield’s stop in my neck of the woods was at West Virginia’s Summit Point Motorsports Park, a legendary collection of 3 different racetracks that is such a brief blast out US 340 West out of Jefferson that I’m not sure it’s even far enough to fully warm up a BMW airhead.

All my family and friends had arranged for something else to do that day, Nature served up a perfectly sunny 76 degree afternoon, so there was no conceivable reason to do anything else other than pull on my seldom used Vanson perfed pants and jacket, throwing a few liters of cold water and some towels into the R90S’s cases, and BOOOOOMPing towards West Virginia at enthusiastically elevated speeds.

After some lovely road dancing on the last 5-6 miles into Summit, the Racetrack was awash in the sounds of Enfield’s 270 degree crankshaft vertical twin – with a bark and a power delivery much more like a Vtwin than the British twins the Enfield 650s most resemble. One dedicated fan had even ridden in on a 1969 Royal Enfield Interceptor 750 – the only one I’ve ever seen running and on the road.

A Royal Enfield Continental GT 650, with chrome accessory tank, flyscreen and S&S pipes

In the paddock of the Summit Point’s Shenandoah Circuit, Royal Enfield was set up large and was clearly ready to party. Their Black Tractor-trailer transporter, with artwork of the 650s served as a backdrop for the whole event, replete with DJ, Foodtruck, and a small army of photographers, videographers, and a few artists thrown in for additional color.  Running the whole show and clearly busier than a one-legged woman in an ass-kicking contest was my contact at Royal Enfield, Bree Poland.  Bree and her crew were wrangling riders through the sign up and release processes, checking gear, giving safety talks, and marshalling groups of roughly 25 riders around the Circuit.

Bree had recruited Melissa Paris – a successful professional Superbike racer – to be our lead Track Marshall.  And before I knew it, I was astride a white Continental GT 750, blipping off a few revs, fumbling a bit to adjust to pegs that were higher and more rearward than the INT 650 that I’d tested, and following an AMA Pro Roadracer out onto the Shenandoah Circuit.

And then the black and white curbing was sweeping by.

Now a Continental GT is not a modern technology track missile. The 47 horsepower of the bike’s stock configuration is probably right in line with my BMW /5’s stock output when it was new.  The GT is a perfectly responsive classic motorcycle that has the virtue, though, of doing absolutely what it is told. My experience of it had indicated that the harder it was pushed, the better it liked it.

And then the black and white curbing was sweeping by.

Feel free to go ahead and mock, but the feeling that lifted me up to another place that sunny afternoon was one I’d never want to have not experienced. Looking down Shenandoah’s long subtly kinked backstraight, with its sharp left hander at the bottom by the treeline, I could simply see my riding playing out several moves ahead… a string that got longer in terms of playing though the rhythm of multiple corners the more laps I put in.

I was able to cut harder, with confidence, than I would ever do on the street – Summit’s racing surface was perfect – clean, grippy, and even where there were patches, the edges of the repairs had no effect on the Enfield’s grip or handling. Being able to focus like this on line and on mass management, without having to factor in errant aggregates or traffic, was a soul stirring illumination of an experience. I mean, I heard Angels singing. Now my Angels sound suspiciously like a large assemblage of 250 CC Two Stroke GP bikes, but they are angels.

The Royal Enfield continued to impress. It could be wrung out through about a 4000 rpm wide powerband, and had good acceleration and engine braking on the slipper clutch entering corners. Leaned well over and taking drive out of corners, the bike felt unstressed and comfortable on the sides of its tires, with plenty of chassis performance left in reserve.

So with a compliant and trustworthy mount, it all became about the riding.

There are several sections of tighter corner combinations where going from edge to edge of the tires and the transitions were absolutely dancing – I felt like I could put the bike almost exactly where I wanted it, and like I could always do it just a little better, and just a little bit faster.

And that is perhaps the most single dangerous statement in the motorcycling universe.

It’s why every racer that ever lived does it. And why I really never wanted to stop.

I get it now why people get completely obsessed over riding CB160s. Or how someone who has better skills and bigger stones than I lay claim to can see their entire life telescoped down to that pinpoint perspective that you get at the end of the straight on a 600cc or 1000 cc four cylinder superbike.

Yeah, even with my Continental GT’s 47 horsepower, the straights are still fun. WFO is still and always WFO. At those points, the stripes on the curbing blur by… faster.

Just at the point when my racetrack virgin self was really starting to internalize the oneness of the circuit, we ran out of laps.

This too, I suspect is a universal motivator for the racetrack-addled.

“Please, Sir…just one more go?”

Fortunately, today’s party permitted getting back in queue, and, after a suitable delay, heading back out again with what turned out to be the last group of the day to hit the track.

Perhaps I’m sensitive, but the Last Group was giving off less than subtle ‘Fast Guy’ vibes. The Enduro Coats and open face helmets were gone… these guys had helmets with spoilers.

Remember guys – this is not a race.

The Ever Efficient and tidy rider Ms. Paris – who was pretty used up after lapping all day – did notice that this group seemed to be a bit more comfortable, and increased the previous pace just enough to make things a bit more interesting. I had a few places on the course now where braking was the proper tool, and my progress through the corner combinations and the verve with which the long straights were greeted took me to a place where my mind was shiny and bright, my body performed in a state of grace, and my heart sang high in my chest.

I can’t understand for the life of me why I waited so long to do this.  And I can’t wait for the next time I get to do it again.

To lean way over, roll open the throttle, and watch the black and white striped curbing go sweeping by.

Forty Six

I went up to Summit Point yesterday, and I learned a few things.

Why I went to The Track and what I was doing up there will have to wait till later to fully relate, but a trivial thing I did learn is that hanging out in The Pits in full leathers – even on a not that hot sunny day – is a hot, sticky business. There was room for a lot more potable water than I carried in the hard cases of the R90S – I should have made better use of it.

After an enthusiastic R90S blast over the 30 miles of backroad twisties and US Highway that lies between Summit and The Shop, and after an equally enthusiastic shedding of my Vanson pants and jacket, and a perhaps more enthusiastic glugging of about 2 to 3 quarts water and some foodstuffs, my increasingly cogent thoughts – resulting from non-negative blood sugar levels – turned to some way of really cooling off a body that was still running marginally hot.

With the sun finally having set and the temperature having dropped just below 70 degrees, I grabbed my perforated jacket, helmet and gloves, and the ignition pin for the Slash 5. As my only bike without a windshield, The Toaster was the best way available to catch a much needed full body breeze.

As I threw a leg over, and turned on the ignition, I found it nearly unbelievable that my oldest motorcycle had somehow come to be forty six years old. If this bike was somehow old, then I was, too. Forty Six years old didn’t seem to have any effect on a motorcycle whose starter motor slammed into place like a light sledgehammer and heaved the big bore twin to life on the third compression stroke. And Forty Six years old didn’t stop an engine that came off the enrichener after only 10 seconds or so, and that settled into an absolutely even 1100 rpm idle. Some of this motorcycle’s seals might be a little seepy, but the hard parts were still as fit for purpose and almost as tight — 180,000 road miles later — as when they were designed.

There is almost nothing modern about a motorcycle like this, though. Ride-By-Wire? Only if the wire is a 16 strand steel Bowden control cable – which on the Slash 5 connects a gear-driven throttle cartridge to a pair of Constant Velocity Bing throttle butterflies. There isn’t a micro- or even a macro-processor, or anything digital, for that matter, anywhere in the machine. Everything – Ignition, Fuel Delivery, Instrumentation — is Analog – an ancient world where all of physics was continuous change – instead of a series of discrete values snapshotted every few milliseconds or so – there was this world which consisted of all the time in between that the digital world has dropped. If we ever have one of those Electromagnetic Pulse events that destroy all of our electronic technology, the /5 will be one of the few motor vehicles that will be left to run. Brakes? Both ends by drum, actuated by cables. People will joke that these brakes are ‘anti-lock’, but those people do not know how to properly adjust these brakes, and they would be wrong. The handlebars have two multifunction switches. Two. That’s it. Ignition – rather than by Bluetooth or even by key, is by a Bosch ignition pin that would have been common to every German motorcycle, scooter or moped made during a two decade postwar period.

You could look at such a machine as ‘obsolete’, but that would be missing an important point, which is that this 1973 BMW is still as much of a balanced thoroughbred of a motorcycle today as it was when Bob Lutz was pitching it and was pictured wearing tan-colored leathers on this exact model and paint color bike outside the Berlin Factory Gate sometime in 1972. Turning from neighborhood streets up the state highway towards Brunswick, in each successive gear the motor provides a lovely crescendo of thrust which combines with the bike rising front and rear under acceleration – each gear being literally onward and upward. Each gearshift is deliberate and percussive, with the suspension falling as the power is dialed off, and then rising once more as the power comes back on again.
Most BMWs I’ve ridden seem to have a really serene, unstressed spot in their rev bands right around 3900 rpm – in top gear the bike is loafing, and just riding that little aeromotor hum blithely along. Tonight the goal is to stay in that sweet spot – to just cruise along and drink in this perfect evening. The original mufflers on the /5 — are tuned to allow the tiniest bit of the low frequencies of the exhaust to rumble, while keeping overall sound pressure levels at societally responsible levels. The longer I’ve ridden motorcycles, the more I’ve come to appreciate the ability of a quiet exhaust not to rat one out when one is riding like a total knob.

Original Zeppelin-shaped Mufflers — there’s a lot of exhaust tubing in there…

I resolved to stay out of the bottoms and on the county’s straighter roads – this spring we’ve had a very active deer population, and lots of black bear incursions as well. These slightly bigger roads give me the best chances to see and react to these little potential deer or bear hugs that have a bad tendency to end badly. 180 West, 17 up to Middletown, US 40 Alt over Braddock and down to Frederick, and then Butterfly Lane and back to 180 West, coming back to Jefferson from the east. Forty miles of feeling the just cool enough to be pleasurable air coming through the perf on my leather jacket and listening to the boxer’s little aeroplane sounds.

Halfway up MD 17 to Middletown, the cooling temperatures must have hit the dew point, because suddenly the road was bordered by swirling wisps of fog, which grew as each mile rolled past. Far from being uncomfortable, the slight chill was entirely welcome – helping my elevated core temperatures back in the direction of nominal. Coming over Braddock Mountain is one of my favorite Slash 5 rides – at 60 mph the big sweepers that mark both the ascent and descent are challenging enough to let one know one is motorcycling without coming anywhere close to the Toaster’s handling limits – one can carry good speed and lean angle mid corner and enjoy instant punch from the meat of the bike’s midrange on the exits – if Disneyland had a ‘motorcycle attraction’ it would probably be a lot like this.

Coming back into Jefferson along MD 180 the evening temperature drop became more pronounced – the lowspots in the highway announced themselves with noticeably cooler air blasting through the perforated leather and standing up the hair on my arms and with slightly foggier spots necessitating the use of the tiny faceshield wiper blade built into the left thumb of my Aerostitch elkskin gauntlets. The /5’s boxer motor loved the cool, dense air – the exhaust thrum was a perfect meditative ‘Ohhm’. Three quarters of an hour of this top gear roll had cooled me down perfectly, and brought a nearly perfect state of calm to my spirit. Had this been an amusement park ride I’d have likely been asking Dad to ride it again.

It wasn’t of course, and the ride ended too soon. As I trolled back into my neighborhood I closed the fuel petcocks and stayed out of the throttle. My neighbors likely curse at the teenager with the drag piped Sportster that lives next door – those same neighbors would never know I’d been here. As I rolled into the open garage I pulled in the clutch and reached forward and pulled out the ignition pin before I came to a stop – in 1973 the ‘kill switch’ was still a new, or in BWW’s case, a future technology.

I rocked the bike up on her centerstand, and sat my helmet and gloves on the saddle. I walked over to the ‘Adult Fridge’ on the workbench, and grabbed a Real Ale Revival Grapefruit Nectar – a bracing cold one that would serve as a big exclamation point on what had been a perfect day. Before going into the house, I turned back to look at this old motorcycle – my ‘Alloy Girlfriend’ — time hadn’t done anything to make her less beautiful. Forty six years is nowhere near long enough to make this motorcycle anything but fun to take for a cool, relaxed evening ride.

… and Dirt Under The Fingernails

Having one motorcycle away in someone else’s shop and another one in grimy bits all over the shop floor is just mentally destabilizing enough for me to render me certifiably insane.

Now under normal circumstances, I probably hover just underneath the threshold of being certifiable — think of it as ‘unofficially and tending towards insane’ — but having two of my three motorcycles rendered simultaneously non-functional is just enough to push the mental tach needle into the red zone.

These little technical challenges find me nervously and compulsively surfing motorcycle parts sites and Ebay, making useless trips into the garage to look at the patient and then return to the office shaking my head, and pulling out my old Clymer manual — which is now essentially an unbound collection of formerly bound pages — to check my memory of long mastered clearances and torque values.

Until all of my alloy mistresses are back together and returned to function, my sleep is fitful and hard to come by — serenity is nowhere to be found.

 

***

 

After more than a few days of waiting for George Mangicaro’s phone call, the phone finally rang. The next day Sweet Doris from Baltimore and I hopped in our Ford and rolled down the 60 plus miles of country road between us and George’s shop, Gridlock Motors.

Upon arrival at the shop, Darkside was sitting outside, minus the lower fairings I’d removed to get them out of the way before my abortive attempt at repairing the broken exhaust stud.

At the shop counter, George produced the other, more troublesome bit of the stud that had proved too much for my skills.

A Troublesome Stud (or what’s left of it)

“Yeah, this really turned into a pain to get out of there — we resorted to a Dremel mini-grinder to get the broken EZ-out broken up, and then had to use heat and drill clear through the other side of the stud to get enough purchase to remove it. You’d have never been able to get it out of there – it was welded in place and chewed up the threads coming out. I ended up having to Dremel away a bit of the bolt hole shoulder, and then put in a TimeSert thread repair insert — it will be plenty strong.

By the way — how long has your rear main seal been leaking?”

“Since 2011. Once I saw moisture show up at the back edge of the bell housing, I drilled the drain hole in the bottom of the case. I’ve never had a lick of problem with it since.”

“That’s funny. I’ll tell customers once they start leaking, they might get ten minutes out of it, and they might get ten years. Once I saw the drain hole, I wondered if I’d worked on this bike before – I didn’t think anyone else knew that trick.”

“All the older BMWs had an opening at the bottom of the bell housing to let any leaked oil escape. They didn’t really change the design of the rear main but they left out the drain. I just put back what they left out.”

George’s bill was more than reasonable – a little over 4 hours labor to remove and replace the exhaust system, remove and repair the failed stud, and to install the other seven studs and the new oxygen sensor I’d supplied. The parts bill for eight new style studs, new style stud nuts and the copper exhaust seals was less than $50.

“You know,” George told me, “it probably wasn’t your fault, pushing a cold engine too hard, that this stud failed. Notice that the new stud lengths are shorter than the original parts, and that the nuts are also smaller and lighter. BMW’s computer modelling software found that the old type longer studs and heavier bolts – would actually oscillate at high rpms. If it went on for long enough, eventually that oscillation would snap the studs in half, and that’s what happened to yours. The new ones will not do that.”

For a guy that had been feeling more than a little embarrassed, along with a few hundred bucks poorer, I felt a little better knowing that.

I pulled my ‘Stich, elkskin gauntlets and Shoei on, threw a leg over Darkside and chased Sweet D, who had left after dropping me off, back north towards Jefferson.

 

***

 

Back out on US15, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the new Denso oxygen sensor had made a noticeable difference in both operating smoothness and throttle response. I was fairly gentle and measured in taking the bike through warm up — especially given the new thread repair. My experience with this bike is that the entire driveline doesn’t really reach full thermal equilibrium — with motor oil, gearbox oil, coolant and final drive oils at constant temperature – for nearly 100 miles. Traffic conditions, on a mid-afternoon in Faquier and Loudoun counties of Virginia, on a workday, aren’t really amenable to any kind of elevated pace anyway, so I tried to focus on maintaining some buffer from surrounding traffic, and just keeping things smooth and unstressed.

About 40 miles out of Opal, a few miles north of Haymarket and I-66, though, I got a look around the two tractor-trailer units I’d fallen in behind and saw broken yellow lines in my lane and at least 3/4th of a mile of open highway.

Failing to succumb to temptation has never been a problem I have.

Darkside had been loafing along at about 3400 rpm in fourth gear — I thumbed the turn signal, rolled the throttle wide open, pushed on the right grip and hit the passing beam switch twice. In less than a second, I was clear of the first tractor-trailer, and bathed in the Flying Brick’s signature intake shriek which was rising in intensity as the torque and acceleration continued to rise. I stayed in the throttle through the next second which saw me clearing the second truck. When the cab was a safe enough distance behind I gently began giving back some throttle and initiated a smooth roll back into my lane. As I shifted up into top gear I checked the speedo, which showed a speed well over the ton and a rate of acceleration that was only now gradually slowing. By my math a 55-110 split in about 3 seconds flat.

‘Sedate touring motorcycle’ my fuzzy Irish-Arab ass. Does anyone wonder why I love this motorcycle?

 

***

 

Back at the shop, I dropped both the motor oil and gearbox oil from their cases. Reviews of my maintenance logs showed that, as a result of time spent on the teardrop construction project  and the parade of OEM test bikes last year, that I’d only put a paltry 1500 miles on Darkside over more than 16 months since the last oil change. My logs showed motor oil that had aged out rather than failed on mileage.

My shame knows no bounds.

I completed the oil and gearbox service — changing the gearbox to a Valvoline 75-90 SynPower – and spent a few minutes replacing the lower fairings and bellypan.

During the road test the gearbox was shifting much better than the aged out conventional gear oil had permitted – shifts were faster, more positive.

I suspect that my near term working life will require me to be a great deal more mobile than my prior gig, which placed a premium on chaining me to my home office desk. At 19 years old and 95,000 miles on the clocks, this Flying Brick is ready to take me absolutely anywhere.

 

***

 

Now we were two up, one to go.

My replacement seal for the leaking ignition cam and the points, seal puller and replacement allen head hardware had arrived, so it was time to dive back in to getting the /5 back together.

I set up out in the garage and discovered the seal that had failed was actually loose in the seal bore – poking at it tentatively with one of my dental picks had it rocking visibly. Heat and time, it seems, had caused the material to shrink to the point where it was no longer effective. Even without heating the cases, the new Lisle Seal puller had the old seal in my hand in a flash.

When I went to clean up the points plate in preparation to reinstall it, though, it quickly became clear I had another problem.

My two airhead BMWs run a weirdo ignition setup that was a transitional technology between points and a full electronic ignition — the Dyna Ignition Booster. The Dyna setup is almost identical to their aftermarket electronic ignition except for one small detail. Where the full electronic units use a Hall Effect sensor to trigger the spark, the Boosters use the original points to trigger it. These units — which were common when these bikes weren’t museum pieces — have two benefits. The first is that the Hall Effect sensors are the most failure prone component of their electronic systems. The second is that in the event of a failure, the bike can easily be returned to stock points operation with the swap of two wires. Between my two airheads, these systems have provided hot, reliable spark for over 200,000 miles.

The negative, is there is one, is that some of the oddball characteristics of the stock points systems are also retained – such as the mechanical advance unit and the points timing plate. And with the timing plate in my hand, it was clear that this one was no longer serviceable in its current condition. BWM had, since dinosaurs ruled the earth, placed a small felt pad on a steel spring on the timing plate whose job it was to manage the delivery of an appropriate amount of ignition cam grease to the ignition cam. This one, it seems, had shuffled off its mortal coil. The spring was still there, but the business end of the felt pad was nowhere to be seen.

We Don’t Need No Steenking Ignition Cam Lubrication Felt…Oh, Wait, we do, actually.

And of course, brief research finds that no dealer or aftermarket supplier, US or European can supply either a complete points plate or the felt wiper. The Studs on Adventure Rider have, of course, found sources for just the raw felt for industrial applications, like knitting machines, and cut some to fit and riveted in place. The wrong felt though, at 6000 rpm, could do quite a bit of damage, so that wasn’t my first choice. I checked eBay, but the few available were either mad spendy — I am unemployed, remember — or in just as bad shape as the one I had.

The wipers for the older /2s are, of course, still available, so I spent a few hours trading e-mails with the estimable Craig Vechorik at Bench Mark Works – a Vintage BMW supply and restoration specialist – who pulled and measured one for me, but it was too wide to fit without further modification — in stock form it would foul the mechanical advance unit in the /5.

At the point where my anxiety was starting to creep up, fellow sufferer Al Browne took another look at eBay, and found a bike breaker in Wisconsin who had literally just listed one. It looked like it had only been on the road for 10-20,000 miles, tops, and was reasonably priced.

Thanks Al.

I jumped at it.

Three days later, the postman showed up, and I was back in the shop.

I cleaned up the new plate, greased up the felt, and reassembled the ignition system. I gapped the points — which, I gotta say, is a lot harder to see at my current state of chronological giftedness than it was as a 25 year old pup — and went to time the engine.

My first shot was nowhere close. Closing the gap from the .016 inch I had initially selected to a middle of spec .014 retarded things to closer to spec but the engine was still too far advanced. Closing down to .013 had me 2-3 degrees overadvanced but the timing plate was out of adjustment range – I couldn’t retard the timing any further. This isn’t an unknown problem – the original German-made Bosch points are NLA. The best repros are made by a German company named Noris, and their rubbing blocks are known to be a few fractions of a millimeter too large, which causes the timing to be too advanced.

After a suitable ThinkThinkThinkPooh, I pulled the plate and points back out of the bike and chucked it up in the vice on my workbench. I grabbed my cheap Dremel knock-off and the smallest diamond abrasive point, and went after the two slots in the plate which permit timing adjustment. Using this micro-grinder, I lengthened the timing slots from 4mm to roughly 5.5 mm, and then cleaned the parts off and reinstalled them. Upon restarting the bike, the timing was bang on.

(Break arm patting self on back)

I disconnected the battery negative lead, replaced the front engine cover, and torqued the cover fasteners, tightened the bronze tank retaining wingnuts, made sure the fuel lines were securely installed, and then reconnected the battery.

I trolled the bike around the block to warm it up, but the funky behavior on trailing throttle was still present, so I grabbed a 10mm box end wrench, my favorite Husky carbon steel miniature flat blade screwdriver, and prepared to perform the time-honored airhead carb synchronization ritual.

I loosened the throttle cable locknuts, and backed them off until there was freeplay at both ends. Then I started the bike and adjusted the carb butterfly stops until we had some semblance of an even idle. Then I lay down on the ground and engaged the idle air mixture screws, which I first closed, and then opened to about 1/2 turn. As I cleared 1/2 turn, the idle speed rose dramatically, so I had to back off the idle stop screw and then take another pass at the mixture screw. Clearly, for some reason I can’t fathom, the air mixture settings must have been way, way off. After 2-3 iterative passes on both Bings, I finally located the optimum air mixture setting and was able to fine tune the idle stop screws.

I gave the bike throttle from idle a few times – pickup was smooth and even. Letting go of the throttle I stood there and wondered at a perfect Putt-Putt-Putt-Putt-Putt 1000 rpm idle. I turned the bike off and locked the cable adjuster nuts down.

You have to love a motorcycle that can be tuned entirely by ear with a small flatblade screwdriver.

I went inside to grab my gear, leathered up and headed for Poffenberger Road.

 

***

 

Poffenberger Road is one of The Valley’s most notable unpaved roads, and home to several of the founding members of our ‘Friends of Rural Roads’ – http://www.ruralroadsfrederickmd.org/. Poffenberger follows Catoctin Creek for several miles and is the fastest way to get back to our slower history here in Frederick County. Ask why my /5 wears semi-knobby tires and Poffenberger Road is why. If my family must leave this place some day, this road is one of the few things I will absolutely miss.

Upon turning onto Poffenberger, it was clear that the county road crew had just been here for their spring visit — the road had a fresh layer of crushed limestone that had just been graded. The Flat Track racers that come to the Frederick Fairgrounds every Fourth of July for the Barbara Fritchie Classic would likely kill for a soft, tractable racing surface exactly like this.

This perfect dirt surface is the pass/fail test for carb sync on this big twin. Having started life as a 750cc engine, its 900cc cylinder barrels, combined with the small valves of the original 750cc heads, make for a low rpm-biased motor that is happiest in the dirt. I built this bike to be a true scrambler before ‘Scrambling’ was a thing.

Today, post screwdriver alchemy, all is right with this motorcycle and the world. Power is stong and even right off the bottom, and at 4000 rpm the engine is as smooth as its 4 cylinder cousin. I can pick my slides with the throttle, and back into corners off the gas. I run out of dirt – first on Poffenberger, then on Harley and Bennie’s Hill – long before I run out of desire to ride.

 

***

 

So now, there are three motorcycles in the garage, and three that are ready to ride anywhere. Many other things in my life might be presently out of balance, but I can take some small solace, satisfaction and fulfillment in my ability to take tools in hand and render machinery fully and properly operational (with certain previously noted exceptions).

If, in future, though, you happen to overhear me planning to take a year off from maintaining my machinery to pursue some other enthusiasm, please smack me about a bit until I recall the conservation of wrenching, and that there is inevitably a reconciliation that involves the completion of all the routine work that one incorrectly thought you had put off.

Sure, there are some small things that remain to be done. Both airheads need their gearbox oil changed but on naked or almost naked motorcycles, that operation is about a 20 minute job that involves the removal and replacement of two bolts. And after the little improvisation with elongating the adjustment slots on the /5’s timing plate, I think that making the same modification on the S’s timing plate is likely in order — that motorcycle is carrying perhaps 2 degrees of additional advance which helps under wide open throttle, but can be observed as some reduction in low-end torque and smoothness at steady rpms.

None of that is critical though — all of it can wait.

What the spirit needs most right now, though, is the quiet inside my helmet and in my soul that only a few hundred miles of a sunny day ride can provide.