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.

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… 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.

Kaleidoscope

It seems like my life lately has been like the grittiest part of a hockey game — reality has thrown down its gloves, pulled my sweater over my head, and been wailing away with the free hand putting big bruises on anything and everything it can reach. They say bad things come in threes — nobody ever told me whether that extended as far as the threes themselves coming in threes, but based on direct observation of a small data sample, I think that is a logical corollary.

I’m sure after some sutures and a few hours iced up, everything will be just fine.

In this kind of ‘No Fun’ environment, my motorcycle rides have taken on increasing spiritual and mental health importance. Fortunately, with the K-bike down pending repair of it’s lost exhaust stud, and the Toaster running suboptimally pending completion of a full tuneup, at least my R90S is in perfectly fine running order.

That my most highly tuned motorcycle — and one with Italian carburetors at that — would prove to be, well, reliable, might be the first concrete sign that my luck might be taking a positive turn.

Last Wednesday – at a break in between ‘thump’ mini-blizzards and ice storms – the clouds slid cinematically back like scrims in some Wes Anderson movie, the sun came out, and the sky went brightest blue. There’s only so much end-to-end power-networking and extreme job search one man can possibly stomach, and the sun coming in the office window was like my Pavlovian Bell – I started leaning forward in my chair, right wrist twitching. I accepted the instant message from the universe to my autonomic nervous system, grabbed the cute piston and connecting rod keyring that holds the S’s key, and headed for the door.

Swag for a Charter Member of The Piston Broke MC

The S has likely been sitting for six to eight weeks — between bad weather, the residency of the Royal Enfield 650 twin, and a bad case of the blues. I’d had the foresight to put her on a charger a day or two back, so we had at least a fully charged battery to count on.

The S has become zero drama. On the second press of the starter, the big twin fired and went straight to a solid high idle. I spent a few moments wrestling the cuff and straps of my insulated textile winter gloves — they’re not quite fully broken in yet — and then swung a left over, rolled her off the stand, and rolled out of the driveway and turned into the sunlight.

I’ve had my fill of grey, cloudy, overcast, breezy, low, dramatic scudding clouds, borderline British riding conditions — it had been so long since I had seen the sun from the saddle, that I almost didn’t recognize what it was. It took more than a few minutes for my dazzled, too much computer eyes to recalibrate to non-simulated, totally analog reality. As the big twin finally got some heat in it, the lovely, also analog intake growl when I rolled open the long throw throttle slides helped to focus the mind and firmly cement us in the now.

If you’ve been hanging with me long enough, you probably have a pretty detailed mental map of the maze of riding roads that spiral around my house. After running 383 down into Burkittsville, I ran back up the mountain to the War Correspondents Memorial, and then gently made the hairball 45 degree right turn back down Arnoldstown Road.

Trees, in The Valley, have not yet started to get their leaves. I have a weeping birch in my back yard that is spring’s canary in the coal mine — it has produced some early buds that support the notion that Puxantawny Phil might actually know a thing or two.

In the bright early afternoon sun, the leafless tree branches were producing clear shadows on me, on my bike, and on the surface of the road. And as I rolled the big S bike methodically up through the gears, in blasts of acceleration — punctuated by the solid, tuetonic steel thonks of the S’s 5 speed — the images of the tree branch shadows on the road combined with the flashes of sunlight on my shield — rolling at us at ever-increasing speed — became hypnotic, almost psychoactive, in a way which just might be contraindicated while motorcycling, depending on one’s perspective and values.

Coming off the side of the mountain, there is a stop sign before one plunges the rest of the way down the grade. Keeping the big twin’s revs up, we were launched down another seeming monochrome, greyscale tube, with the shadows of the branches flashing by and blurring the boundaries between rider, bike and road. We did the stairstep dance of speed — accelerating then going neutral for a second as the bike slid to the next gear — three big thonks punctuating the pauses between the G forces of big torque. The black and grey of the branches in shadow rolled at us and over us faster and faster until — hitting the top of fourth gear — we blasted out of the shadows and shot into the sun and into endless blue.

Just like being shot out of a gun, Bubba.

I’m an old New York City rocker — all I could hear in my head was the climax of the giant jam that is Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ — which sounds exactly like breaking free, becoming weightless — with Tom Verlaine’s guitar sounding like little stars floating down all around you. If you don’t know the song, go listen to it — it’s a rare kind of sonic gem.

Upon my return to the shop, I did feel lighter, looser. The tension, the anxiety of what I’ve been going through had been excised by those brief, psychedelic blasts.

Once again, my motorcycle proved to be a machine that is designed to move its rider. It’s just endlessly surprising that the most dramatic movement sometimes has nothing to do with one’s position in time and space.

Sloppy

One of the reasons I like living in Maryland, is that mosttimes, we really don’t get Winter here.

Sure. It might get cold. It might even snow a little.

But tell a rider from Michigan, or Wisconsin, or somewhere up in Northern New England that You, as A Marylander, are experiencing Winter, and those riders will laugh right in your face.

The flip side of that bummer though, is a day like this one.

It had snowed a few inches two days ago — it was dark, cloudy, cool and grey out. I’d been at home by myself, head down in my office, doing various forms of energy sucking focus, when all of a sudden, the Sun. Came. Out.

I hadn’t expected that at all.

I had actually wrapped the things that had me in the office, so I accepted this as a sign from the universe, grabbed my helmet and split.

The temperature out was 38 degrees f., and headed for 40. All of the pastureland hereabouts would be shedding snowmelt, and most roads would be doing a passable impression of one of the nearby creeks. It’s days like this — and many other kinds of days — that make me glad I have an Aerostich — no amount of road spray is going to get past my suit.

The Royal Enfield INT 650 test bike that still lives here fired right up coming off a few nights of disuse and deep freeze.

The cold air felt great, snapping me to full awareness until the tearing and blast of cold air on my cheeks forced me to close my helmet’s visor until it was only opened a click. The first pastureland I passed by, right as I picked up the Pike, had water streaming out of it, right where I’d expected, setting the theme for what would prove to be a wet and sloppy ride.

After crossing 340, heading west on the Pike, each successive farm had at least one new stream cutting across the roadway, making riding this motorcycle, with its scrambler bar and riding position, far more scrambley that most previous rides had been. I rode in a horseman’s position — standing up yet knees and back bent — keeping my weight positioned forward and over the bars — able to steer with hands, legs and feet.

Headed to the back roads there were spots in the treeline where it wasn’t clear that ice had all melted out — where those spots of flowing water also looked somehow skaty — we’d go to neutral throttle and take the frame straight up and down just to minimize the potential of one of Mother Nature’s Unpleasant Little Surprises.

But in all of these snotty wet, dirty and maybe frozen intersections and stream crossings — little baby stream fords — the Orange Menace never so much as put a wheel out of place. In only a few hundred miles, this bike has gained my confidence to do exactly what it has been told and no less and no more.

These kinds of conditions are where too much power is just not your friend. Where too much of anything — mass, power, entrance speed in a corner, too much drive coming out — translate instantly to sparks and a sickening scraping sound.

But balance — where there is just enough of what one needs without there being too much — can turn what could be a whiteknuckled wrestling match into just another zen ride — dancing on the razor’s edge while smiling all the while.

 

I’m going to have to figure out how to wash this bike in January before giving it back.

Cold

There was a ring of ice fog around the sun.

Those of us that have grown up in snowy climates know what comes next, and if you are a motorcyclist, it isn’t good.

Never mind that it was 31 degrees out. I’d needed a ride since Wednesday, and I wasn’t going to let what was going to begin in about an hour keep me from some fresh air and acceleration to clear my head.

I reached into the very small library of very thin excuses for a ride and selected a trip to Frisco’s — one of my favorite artisanal beer sources. I probably needed a drink, too, given conditions, but of the available options, the ride was the more restorative and healthy of the two.

I told Sweet Doris From Baltimore I was going for a ride and would be back in about an hour. I was out the door with my helmet in my hand before there was time for any discussion.

 

***

 

The temperature had fallen to about 23 during the previous overnight — in the garage it was closer to that temperature than to the rising thermometer outside. I’d taken the opportunity to put my K1200LT — which is the best inclement weather motorcycle I know — onto the charger while my morning coffee was brewing. I knew I’d need every cold cranking amp we could muster to wake up the fat girl — who had been spending a lot of time sitting idle while I’d been riding the Royal Enfield test bike — and since I still hadn’t managed to catch up with Mark The Mechanic to repair the exhaust stud that had inexplicably committed suicide.

With my helmet pulled on and my gloves still sitting on the pillion, I turned the key, waited a few seconds for current to flow and stabilize, and then pushed the starter. The engine turned over – very slowly — for three or four compression strokes without firing. It’s at times like this I consider swapping this motorcycle to 10W40 oil year round, in place of the 20W50 I’ve traditionally used. On the second attempt the Flying Brick fired, and came immediately up to a nice steady high idle.

I pulled on the new pair of elkskin gauntlets I’d purchased with my Christmas gift money from Doris’ mom, and pulled the LT off the main stand, backed out of the garage, and headed down the driveway. After a few weeks exclusively riding a 430 pound air-cooled parallel twin, the contrast was a little hard to ignore.

 

***

 

For the most part, we all have to work. Some of us have the supreme luxury of doing something we love, while most of us have to do what we must to take care of our families.

I’ve struggled for years to try to make the jump from the second camp into the first without success – ending up in between with a foot in both camps. I’ve kept my technology and IT services careers paying the bills — mortgages, putting kids through college — while my Motorcycle writing and journalism have kept me going — able to do the draining work of commercial reviews and contract negotiations — it’s a delicate balance designed to keep me centered and alive while I continue to see many a younger man’s number come up from being unable to manage the stress of a loveless business.

Tuesday night, the e-mail account for my job popped up an early morning meeting request that I hadn’t expected.

“Meet Bill,” was the subject line.

“How thoughtful,” I thought. Bill was a new Division General Manager — the biggest of big dogs — and although I had been providing him with detailed opportunity analyses — a pretty high value task, which allowed him to direct our new business development process – we hadn’t actually been introduced or had any direct interaction.

Anticipating a video conference, I cleaned up some of the clutter on my desk, and chose a nice, neat oxford cloth button-down shirt for the morning.

When I dropped into the videoconference at precisely the appointed time the next morning, I was greeted by the face of a blond woman who I did not recognize. She clearly looked highly stressed and uncomfortable.

My personal awareness relay closed with a solid thunk.

Bill dropped into the call a few moments later, calling from a mobile phone with no video capability.

“I am sorry to inform you that your position has been eliminated. Your employment with Big Ass Company, Inc., has been terminated, effective immediately.”

Bill dropped from the call. He had not even addressed me by name. He was doing what he had to that day, and would have to do it several hundred more times before he could call it a day’s work.

I asked a few cursory questions of the HR Droid – not really being able to fully function intellectually given the ice cold shock of the situation. After dropping off the call – having been informed that Corporate IT would remove my system access and wipe my devices as soon as they had been informed of my termination — I had to switch gears fast to compose and send an email to the few co-workers who were my friends — it was a race between locked up brain, frozen fingers, and the guys that would kick off the script which — after nearly 6 years — would simply make me disappear.

 

***

 

Rolling the LT down the road, I had to reacclimate to the bike’s size and weight which was in the range of full double the size of the Royal Enfield I’d been riding for the last few weeks. The bike’s controls – hydraulic clutch and shifter – were stiff from the cold and disuse, and the Ohlins suspension units were almost solid from the viscosity of the nearly frozen damping fluid. I’d need to carefully warm the motorcycle for a while before things would acquire any sense of normal control feel or compliance – I also had to assume that both the engine and gearbox oils would be similarly useless.

After skirting around Jefferson, I rolled onto US 340 East, and kept the application of throttle gentle and the revs firmly in the middle as the LT slowly made progress up the ridgeline and headed out of town. After cresting the ridge – never having changed into top gear – I was all the way back down the other side before the Temp gauge hit the point where the thermostat finally opened, indicating the first stage of warm up had finally been achieved. I finally rolled up into top gear and gently accelerated the bike up into its cruise point at 3900 rpm and 82 mph indicated. Some real heat was finally coming into the heated grips, and the air coming into my helmet through the cracked visor was fresh and bracing — getting some fresh air in my lungs and some bracing delivered to my brain was the only close to sane reason for being out here on a grey, overcast sub-freezing day.

I exited 340 West at Mount Zion Road – which cuts across the South County on a wonderfully technical, twisty route that follows Ballenger Creek up towards Frederick. There is a pair of banked, decreasing radius corners that climbs away from the creek, and by the exit of the second one the shocks were working and it was clear why this motorcycle has been one I knew I could ride almost anywhere — the Telelever might not be BMW’s most modern piece of kit, but after three or four easy, precise transitions from left lean to to right lean it clearly works well enough for the on-road needs of most riders.

I did my stop at Frisco’s, where I took on some Victory Sour Monkey Sour Belgian Triple Ale and some Saranac S’more Porter. I’ll admit that I occasionally indulge in some Off Center beer styles, but looked at objectively, this had to be the oddest combination of brews I have ever left any store with. I threw a few polishing towels I had in the top case over the bottle tops, and then closed and latched the case, and headed back for the road.

My check of the weather radar before leaving showed I perhaps had about an hour and a half before the storm was scheduled to arrive, so I plotted an inefficient route home to make the most of the opportunity I had availble. With the engine and transmission finally warmed, I could now really open the throttle to enjoy what I came here for.

Rolling down New Design Road towards the south end of the county and the Potomac river, I was able to sustain the fat stuff towards the top of 4th gear – spinning at about 4200 rpm and about 70 mph. Despite its relatively advanced age – 19 years old and just under 100,000 miles – the bike felt solid and assured with the lovely intake roar taking me back to how Darkside was initially named.

At the river, I picked up Maryland 28 West and cut for Point of Rocks. 28 rolls over hills and farm fields in a lovely chase that give one plenty of opportunities to use the sides of one’s tires. From 28 I picked up US 15 North, where I quickly accelerated to cruise until the Point of Rocks traffic circle came up. Fortunately, traffic was clear so I dropped the Big Girl onto her left side, carved around the circle and headed up the big grade on MD 464.

464 is a straight, clear climb with good sightlines, and except for the extremely occasional wandering black bear is as close to devoid of hazards as any road in Maryland. I assumed a modest forward lean and gentle tuck, lowered the windshield to just below my sightline, and focused on my technique as we shrieked up the big grade — taking each gear out to around 7000 of the 8500 available, preloading the shifter, feathering the clutch and engaging the next gear cleanly with its characteristic BMW ‘Thonk!’.

By the time I’d cleared the top of the grade and engaged top gear – as we were headed back down towards the intersection with Lander Road – I was grinning in my helmet, mind cleared, spirit elevated.

If there was something bothering me when I left, I’ll be darned if I can remember what it was.

img_20190113_174248151

 

Responsibility

Before the winter Holidays overran everything else in life, I needed to go for a ride.

No matter how cold it may have been out, a blast of bracingly cold air what just what my body and spirit needed, so I ‘Stitched up, grabbed my Shoei and insulated gloves, grabbed the key to The Interceptor, and headed for the road.

I’ve been putting a lot of miles on the new 650 Royal Enfield, and the harder I ride it, the better I like it.

In the long run, we’ll see whether that’s a healthy mindset to take into every ride, but no matter — giving it the whip would be what we were going to be doing today.

While both the bike and I were warming up, we backroad danced over Lander Road – a one lane twister in the woods — tight, bumpy, technical and a lot of fun at any speed. In the tighter stuff the INT 650 felt exceedingly taut, narrow and nimble — the best line though any corner started late and cut hard. Riding this way got both the bike’s and the rider’s muscles loose and operating quickly.

Once warmed, we emerged onto US 15 South, where it was only a mile to Point of Rocks, The Potomac, and one of my favorite pieces of pavement anywhere, Lovettsville Road.  For most of its length, Lovettsville is an open sweeping country highway — the kind of place where a motorcycle’s handling is front and center. At the Lovettsville end, there are a pair of really challenging slightly off camber 90s that are at least half the reasons I love this road.  It is still remotely possible to have the road all to one’s self, and if both the motorcycle and the rider are working well that day, one can ride into the back side of Lovettsville, Virginia, feeling as a wing-footed riding god.

Lovettsville RD

Lovettsville Road

Even the turn off of 15 is kind of hairball — it’s a more than 90 degree right, and its literally off to the races from there. I ran the Royal Enfield’s 650 twin up to 6000 in every gear, and worked to keep my upper body loose to keep from feeding bad input into the front end — to relax enough to let it work.  And work it did — we were on one of those rolls.

As I cleared the ridgeline where the road runs away from the river, I came up — quite expectedly, given the pretty brisk conditions — on another rider.  Based on what I could see, my fellow traveler was slight of stature, likely female, and was riding very precisely and very conservatively — she was on the right part of the road in every corner, was looking in the right places and keeping speeds down. Sensing the possibility of a relatively new rider, I slapped myself about a bit to lower my overall levels of testoster-enaline, and adopted a respectful following distance. I wouldn’t be applying any pressure that might force a bad decision.

Remember, this is my road, and I knew well there were several safe and legal passing zones past the midway point of the run.  So I rocked back on my heels, stayed well back, and waited for the shot.

In the first passing zone, we had an inconvenient car. In the second, solitude.

I put on my left turn signal, clicked the Enfield’s passing beam twice, and then rolled the throttle wide open.  I ran the 650’s fourth gear all the way out — shifting at about 6600 RPM of the 7100 available — and stayed deep in the throttle after shifting up into fifth.  I left lots of room before completing the pass, and concentrated on opening up  the largest gap possible before the road tightened back up coming into town.

So gap we did, and after another half minute or so, I started to setup for the sharp corners where Lovettsville Road comes into Lovettsville.  One of the things I’ve been enjoying about the Enfield is its slipper clutch – which allows one to shift down — even through several gears — and the hardware will manage two-stroke like levels of light engine braking without upsetting the chassis on corner entrance.

Lovettsville Bang Bangs

The Big Right Hander That Bites

With the big right coming up I flicked down from fifth to third, loosened up and then rolled the bike hard in. I got the throttle starting to open just before the apex, and then rolled open and motored out. Just at the point where I was setting up for the second corner, I saw something in my rearview mirror that you never want to see from your motorcycle — I saw a headlight trace that moved straight and smartly directly left.  The only headlights that move in straight lines on motorcycles are on bikes that have crashed.

I’d rather not discuss how I know this.

You probably have a personal favorite unprintable strong Anglo-Saxon oath. I know I applied plenty of mine, and loudly.

Having wrapped my intermediate level cussing class, I took the front brake up to max – determined the road was clear, and did a rolling 180 and headed back toward the corner.

By the time I rolled up, the owner of the house on the corner was already trotting across the left lane, and our rider was up and brushing dirt off of newly abraded knees.  I parked my bike in my lane with the turn signals on, while talking to the rider, who was stating the subjective opinion that she was uninjured.

I’ve been that rider. I’ve told people who were trying to help me some pretty goofy shit that was pretty demonstrably not true.

These assertions appeared to be a bit more grounded in fact than some of mine were, so all three of us set about righting the motorcycle and getting it across the road into our helper’s driveway.  He pointed out — and rightly so — that this spot in the chute between two corners was very dangerous.

“Folks,” he said, “just don’t pay attention.”

Point taken.

After a bit of wrestling – the bike was in gear, and one fork leg was roasted — we got the bike across the street and out of the line of fire.  I trotted back to the Enfield and got it into the driveway.

Our downed rider was checking her Kawasaki’s aftermarket GP style short exhaust canister.  It may have had a slight scuff, but its position directly under the bike seemed to have shielded it.

“Just dropped $600 on this. Uh!”

“You better tell me you weren’t chasing me.”

“No! I’ve been riding the speed limit. I just got these tires — it just stepped out.”

I looked at the new skins – the back tire wasn’t scuffed in at all – brand new virgin rubber — mold release compound and all was everything off the center of the tire.

“Oh, yeah. Until new tires have been gradually scuffed in, these things are treacherous.”

“You mean I have an excuse? It wasn’t just me?”

“You got an excuse. You got a way to get out of here?”

“Yeah, I got a truck. I got people. I got three weeks before I got to go back to college to get this fixed. Thanks for coming back, though.”

“No thanks required. I wouldn’t leave any rider in the road.”

She dialed her cell phone.

“Hi Mom. Is Dad there?”

I know full well that if Finn were ever to find himself in this kind of predicament, his phone call would play out exactly the same way.

I pulled my gear back on as the phone call continued, and then mounted back up, and continued into town.

I don’t know how I could have felt more terrible.

Protestations to the contrary not withstanding, I keep thinking that had I not come along, our rider would have entered that corner a few ticks slower, and wouldn’t be out some fork tubes, some plastic, sore knees, an upset Mama and a pair of jeans a few days before Christmas.

We all ride our own ride. I get that.

That crash can simultaneously not be my fault, yet I can still be responsible.

I have a college age son that rides. I have too good an appreciation of what this had to feel like from the other side.

I was a bad example on the road, and a patronizing asshole for thinking you got sucked in chasing me.  I got nowhere to hide.

I hope that you really are OK, and that you (and your Mom — Dad sounds cool) get past this so this can be one of the mistakes you get lots of chances not to repeat.

Hey, Hey, My, My

So, it’s been raining.

And raining.

And raining some more.

Yeah. Raining.

And because of my recently completed teardrop trailer build, all the Shamieh motorcycles lived outside through all five months of it.

An lest you think I am exaggerating about the experience of sustained rainfall rates, judge for yourself from this view out my shop door on an average day in May.

When the project wrapped, and the bikes came back inside, my K1200 showed no ill effects, with the possible exception of the LCD display on the bike’s radio, which absorbs moisture and becomes opaque. A little strategically applied alcohol pulls the moisture back out and the display becomes clear again.

My R90S — even with it’s Italian carburetors — pretty much shook it off.

My oldest alloy girlfriend – the R75/5 – really did NOT appreciate the experience. Either its Bing carburetors, simple fuel tank vent or some other secret route was admitting rainwater into the float bowls, and both carb jets and tune seemed to be suffering from deposits being left by the water. As if that weren’t enough, after low annual mileage and a bit of benign neglect had decided to pile on by having the valves decide they really needed to be adjusted as well.

If one looks up “Symptoms of BMW airhead needing valve adjustment” on the Adventure Rider forum , the first answer is: “Won’t Idle. Runs Like Crap.”

Yup. I got that.

Its not like an airhead valve adjustment is any kind of big deal, but it just meant the Old Girl was demonstrating her displeasure in every manner available to her.

The Toaster was going to need a full service — engine oil, transmission, final drive, forks, valve adjust, time and carb sync. First step was a thorough fuel system and combustion chamber clean – run a tankful of fuel with a strong concentration of good old Seafoam. Once that was done, the absolutely filthy contaminated oil could be changed, and the rest of the service could be completed.

Maybe, at the end of that, we’d return to having this be a fine running airhead.

And maybe she’d forgive me.

 

***

 

So, to move this along, the Toaster has been primary transportation. Anywhere I needed to go, the R75 is what I’d ride.

So its been to a lot of grocery stores, beer stores, autoparts joints, and delivered more than a few packages to the UPS terminal, given the nice flat parcel area described by the saddlebag tops and in between the short police saddle and the front of the luggage rack.

One day, while trying to fudge the idle adjustment – just to get the bike to idle, even badly, in the meantime — I made the mistake of pulling the bike’s toolkit. My airheads share a factory-ish toolkit — a third party oversize Cordura roll pouch, and all the stock BMW tools which were purchased grey market though Capital Cycle’s DC Storefront back in the early 80s – you know, so long ago that they all say “Made In West Germany”. There’s also a bunch of specialty tools and other little tricks of the trade — a four blade multi screwdriver, a Channel Lock expandable pliers, different feeler gauges, and some electrical bodge bits — a wire nut or two, spare Euro fuses.

The tool roll, though, had gotten wet. Really wet. Prolly more than once. The wet Cordura had then held the moisture up against the tools. The tool roll itself was mildewed and covered with mold. The tools themselves looked like something that had been pulled up from an ancient shipwreck – vague shapes trying to emerge from the rust.

My heart sank.

That tool set has been with two motorcycles, and kept them both fettled and running for a quarter million road miles and more than 30 years. Many of these exact tools would be hard to find — BMW fork cap pin wrench, anyone? — I could see ending up with a insufficient recreation courtesy of Harbor Freight.

I suppose that to make this story closed loop, I should have taken pictures of them in their unspeakable state. But it never occurred to me. It felt like some sort of hideous crime scene — there are some things that perhaps should just not be seen.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore set about running the Cordura tool roll though the washer, while I hosed down the tools with WD-40, and then spent a little time researching rust removal products.

 

***

 

According to fellow Internet users, what I needed was something called Evapo-Rust — an allegedly miraculous product that would set everything aright.

I’m from Brooklyn, so I’m skeptical, but one Slash 5 ride later, we had 32 ounces of the stuff. I cleaned the WD-40 off the metal surfaces, laid the tools out in a paint roller pan, and submerged everything in the cleaner, and waited for time to do its thing.

 

***

 

24 hours later, the less rusted tools had been restored to like-new condition. I rotated the remaining tools in the solution, and after another 24 hours, almost everything had been completely restored.

From Marine Archeology, Back to Usable Tools

There were a few small things that didn’t survive. After fusing all the blades together, I needed to replace the micro-size feeler gauges that I use to gap airhead pointsets. Fortunately, with both bikes equipped with Dyna Ignition Boosters, I don’t need to do that very often, and more fortunately, the exact same gauge I bought in 1985 is still a Pep Boys stock item at $2.79. I also had fabricated a special tool to remove oil filters – a small wire hook to reach in a get a hold of the filter — the wire I had used turned to dust once the rust had all been removed. I have a great deal of leftover wire from the teardrop project — I made one, and I’ll just have to make another.

Having been washed and reconstituted for the first time in 30 plus years, I rolled the toolkit back up and placed it back under the saddle of the /5. And while a day in the mid 40s might not seem like the ideal naked bike riding day, with the sun out, I couldn’t resist — I still had a some fuel system cleaner juiced fuel that I needed to burn off before I could take tools in hand and set this old motorcycle back aright.

The old girl fired right up on the first compression stroke as it always had — although coming off of choke it was a tad finicky — it took a little extra throttle to keep things spinning. Once on the road, and with a little heat coming into the motor, the Old Girl seemed to be genuinely enjoying her resurrection. I kept the revs up and the throttle open, and headed towards one of my favorite roads — Elmer Derr road — a tight, twisty, technical road that runs along a stream canyon for about half its length, and then becomes more fun when it climbs away from that stream.

Follow the Twisting Line

BMW Type 247 air-cooled engines do run like crap with tight valves — at idle and transitional low engine speeds. There is a flip side, though. With the revs up, those tighter clearances translate to more lift and better breathing — right up to the point where the valve will no longer fully close into its seat and quickly self destructs. Trusting in an Aluminum German God that we were not yet that far down the road to destruction, I kept my 900ccs happily spinning in the fourth gear of its transplanted five speed box — coming through the Multiple Bang-Bang 90-90s coming out of the Elmer Derr canyon the /5 just ate it up — lightening the front wheel on throttle on every corner exit.

Its hard to explain, to the uninitiated, how a very old motorcycle can somehow never get old.

I spent a good bit of time, winding around the south end of the county, before my road bent back in the direction of the shop. With a choice between my secondary roads towards home and the highway, I did the opposite of what I normally do, heading up the ramp onto US 340 and toeing the old boxer up into top gear. It’s only after years of burning up highways on a more modern, faired machine that it really sinks in just how comparatively narrow and tiny my /5 really is.

With no plastic to intercede with the wind, I sought out distant muscle memories to find that perfect aerodynamic tuck — where my mass and the wind zeroed each other out. Taking the old boxer up to about 4200 rpm, the Toaster found a serenely smooth 73 mph — this was still the motorcycle that had carried a much younger me to New Mexico and Arizona from Baltimore and back again.

Heading up Dynamometer Hill, the Toaster even had enough steam to accelerate crisply in top gear, which is not shabby for a 45 year old motorcycle with nearly 200,000 miles on the clocks, and its factory original bottom end.

Looks Pretty Good For Her Age

Back in the driveway, the cold air had my head cleared and my heart high in a way that I don’t know any other way to find. Soon the air will be too cold for this bike to see the road on anything but a freak warmer day. Until then I’ve got some shiny wrenches to spin, fluids to change, heads to retorque and valves to adjust. After the freakishly stormy weather and all the time outside, it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if my air filter housing conceals some leafy, furry or feathery thing that does not belong, either. I’ll go through the long-familiar tool-in-hand motions, and get everything back in tune and running sweetly.

I may not be able to make her pretty, but I sure know how to make her sing.