The Universe is constantly sending us signs.
Me, I might be overly sensitive in my hunt for sign and significance, but always being open to them has lead me down some pretty interesting roads.
I was trying recently, as I apparently frequently am, to explain one of these signage mechanisms to Sweet Doris from Baltimore.
“The Featherbed-framed racing Norton is one of the only motorcycle frame structures so significant that it has its own name. The McCandless brothers of Belfast created a foundational motorcycle chassis design – with one of the first applications of a twin shock absorber rear swinging arm suspension – that its development rider said rode so comfortably it was like ‘riding a feather bed’.”
“It’s a stupid name.”
“I guess it does kinda sound stupid, now, but in the context of 1949, when most motorcycles had kidney busting, back belt requiring rigid rear frames, it prolly made a lot more sense.”
You’d be entirely within your reader’s rights to inquire what on earth could possibly motivate an otherwise thinking male human to attempt this conversational topic with his beloved life partner, who was more than likely in no way impressed or compelled by the subject or its presenter, at that particular moment.
And having made that sensible inquiry, I’m more or less compelled to unravel the strands of the tale for you.
Having received my new Heidenau Scouts for my /5, it was time to get them mounted and try ‘em out.
Fortunately, the traumatic experience I’d been through changing the rear tire on my R90S was nowhere in evidence here. The rear axle and tire – with my customary pit crew help provided by Sweet Doris from Baltimore – were off and leaning against the garage wall in under five minutes flat. And thanks to the assist from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department of the University of Michigan, the front wheel and drum brake assembly joined them five minutes later. The Toaster might be 47 years old, but properly torqued fasteners and proper lubrication made the entire exercise absolutely trivial.
I felt almost moistened by a rare flood of something approaching mechanical confidence.
I stacked two tires, two wheels and two new tubes in the back of my wagon in preparation for my run up to Fredericktown Yamaha in the morning when they opened.
Two days later, my phone rang with the news that the tires were ready to be picked up. After quitting time, I blasted back up to Frederick and re-loaded my newly mounted and balanced tires.
It was a little hot out, but I wasn’t going to let any time elapse before trying these new and different skins. I subjected both brake drums to a washdown with brake cleaner and some clean shoprags. I greased up the drive splines, inner wheel bearing races, spacers and axles, and went to work. The front wheel was back in place in under five minutes – I torqued the axle bolt, pinch bolt and both ends of the brake stay rod to spec – bang done. I gave the wheel a gentle spin, and the bearings spun smoothly with no noise or binding – the shop had clearly done an accurate job balancing my wheel, as well.
It was then that I realized I had a little problem.
We motorcyclists are far from the only enthusiasts who have found themselves going outright stir-crazy during the lockdowns caused by the pandemic.
Right after I had dropped off my wheels at the shop, Sweet Doris from Baltimore had loaded up her recumbent pedal trike, her camping gear, and had headed out to complete the final section of her C & O Canal National Park Towpath end to end though ride. She’d had a crawful of being stuck inside yelling at the television news, and was set-jaw determined to do something about it. Cumberland to DC is 184 miles, most of it in pretty remote country, and if you’d like some space to air out one’s head, it’s a prime location.
In this partnership, when either one of us makes a definitive statement like, “I just gotta go for a long ride,” we both know what that means, and cut each other the space to stretch out until its feels like time to come home. Sweet Doris might prefer pedals to my handful of throttle, but it’s exactly the same urge.
Net/net – freaking great for Sweet D, camping out solo amongst the bears and the bobcats – but I’d apparently lost my pit crew.
I am an engineer – I live to solve problems.
Looking around the garage, I grabbed my trusty Greenspring Dairy milk crate and a mover’s blanket.
I slid the milkcrate under the Toaster’s left cylinder head, folded up the blanket until there were about eight layers of fabric there, and then went back around the right side of the bike and slowly leaned the bike over until the head was resting on the padded crate. I took my hands off, and everything remained in place – the whole amalgam looking for the world like a motorcycle that had decided to fall over and then had a crisis of motivation exactly halfway though. Trying hard not to giggle maniacally, I grabbed the rear tire, steadied the bike by grabbing the lift handle with my left hand, and slid the tire over the drive splines and into place on the hub with my right. I pulled the frame back upright off the crate and sat the bike back down on two nice newly rubbery contact patches.
Please permit me about three and half minutes of feeling pretty smug.
The next five minutes had the rear axle reinstalled, torqued and pinched. I broke out my small rechargeable air compressor and set the proper pressure in both tires. The last five minutes saw the fuel tank put back in place, fastened with its bronze wing nuts, and fuel lines reconnected. I dropped the bike’s toolbox in place and replaced my German police saddle.
It was time to go find some dirt.
My initial response as I rolled out of the driveway was not overwhelmingly positive. The sensation the front tire gave off was one I can only describe as ‘clumsy’ – the steering effort was all off, and lean in and lean out wasn’t linear. At speeds under ten my operation style felt like it was drunk. Now I haven’t ridden on knobbies that I remember since a childhood Honda Trail 90 – the ones with the chunky upper frame bar – and funky low speed handling on pavement might just be a characteristic of riding on dirt purpose tires, but it was definitely different and something that would require some getting used to.
I rambled around my neighborhood, working the bike from side to side, and then stopped down by the park to check that nothing had fallen off or was in danger of doing so. Having cleared that checklist I turned up the pike and headed for town.
As speeds rode, steering funkiness decreased. It didn’t leave entirely, but things got more normal with increasing velocity. Grace on the pavement wasn’t what I bought these tires for, though. What I’d bought them for was Furnace Mountain Road.
I rolled across the Route 15 Bridge across the Potomac, and hung my customary right into Lovettsville Road. But instead of gassing the bike hard and bombing up the next straight, I made an immediate left that cut straight into the side of the Mountain, that turned immediately to gravel and rose sharply up the face of the grade. I stood up low on the pegs, got my weight just ever so slightly forward, and gave the 900 cc boxer good throttle – blasting up Furnace Mountain Road.
Drive traction was not going to be an issue with the Scouts.
On the gas, using levels of immoderate throttle that previously would have resulted in hairball conditions I had only bite and deterministic and rapid forward motion. About three quarters of the way up the extended grade, I startled an enormous white new Ford F150 and its associated human, who was wrestling a bit with the surface and had probably left a bit less room on the narrow road than we both would have preferred. With the /5 right in the meat of its torque band, and weight transferred pretty far forward with the shaft drive topped out, I cut hard toward the edge of the road, and with the bike on the gas, it went right where I told it. A half minute later we cleared the top of the grade, and flicked right into the hairball decreasing radius downhill bowl that sits just below the top. The front tire that had me scratching my head on the pavement was working here, brothers and sisters.
Furnace Mountain wanders from the bluffs over the Potomac southwest across the highlands, working in a series of dirt switchbacks – lovely conditions for getting familiar with constantly changing mixtures of acceleration, braking and cornering and a brand new traction model. After four or five miles in the dirt, Furnace Mountain dumps out in the tiny village of Taylorstown, Virginia. Taylorstown is tiny enough that there are only two choices for a road out of town, and one called Loyalty Road – which I remembered vaguely continued southwest towards Waterford – got the nod.
All tires actually need some break-in, and after a few miles, the Scouts were starting to show improvement in that process – a blast through the gears up Loyalty Road brought on a much smoother 65 mpg cruise and much more normal feeling cornering dynamics. As I worked my way to the top of the grade, an intersection came into view, with an older, off-road modified Toyota pickup sliding to a stop, visibly trailing dust. As the street sign came into range, I finally made it out – ‘Featherbed Lane’.
I immediately clicked on my turnsignal and provided a demonstration of the effectiveness of properly adjusted drum brakes.
Within a half second of standing the bike back up again, I knew I’d made the right choice. A short straight led to a nineteenth century iron truss bridge — a type that’s fairly common close to my Maryland home but is somewhat scarcer in Northern Virginia. The John G. Lewis Memorial Bridge was named for a local historian, and was actually relocated to this location after it was scheduled for demolition when its original location was being modernized. Here on Featherbed Lane though, the old iron truss made a perfect frame for the graded crushed limestone dual track that lead off towards the horizon.
I love old iron truss bridges – in my home Valley they’re usually constructed a fair height above the stream bed they’re crossing, in order to give them a fighting chance of surviving flood events which are perfectly normal in streams like these. For the motorcyclist, though, that height means some kind of steeply sloping ramp, which allows one to flirt with playing Knievel, coming off the top flying, unloading the suspension and then compressing it coming back down. This temporary aviation is always a thrill, and serves to illustrate my BMW /5’s original engineering use case as an International Six Days Trial prototype competitor, designed to be tractable and predictable in truly unspeakable offroad conditions. Truth be told, BMW’s engineers had done a pretty transparent recycling of Mr. McCandliss’s frame design, so there was a kind of appropriateness for me on this old motorbike, off in search of dirt roads to ride, and serendipitously stumbling on Featherbed Lane.
Even if Sweet Doris from Baltimore did think it was a stupid name.
Catching my equilibrium after the short flight off the bridge deck, Featherbed was serving up long straight stretches with gentle corners as the road threaded the property lines of old and expansive horse farms – checking the satellite maps after my return home even showed a seemingly unused half mile horse racing track tucked unseen inside one of the larger back yards.
I might need to go back and see if I can divine their opinion of Flat Track Motorcycle Racing.
I thonked the /5 up into third gear, and managed to take on a nice 50 to 55 mph cruise – the bike’s long throw suspension working hard and in its element – I had better steering control in the crushed limestone surface than I was accustomed to, and I was getting enough drive traction to lighten the front wheel on the gas.
I’d been spending some of my time quarantined at home rewatching Bruce Brown’s ‘On Any Sunday’, and the mental picture that had most stuck with me was the aerial footage of Malcolm Smith – absolutely hauling ass across Baja, or the Barstow to Vegas desert, or the relative chaos of the Catalina Grand Prix – riding dead smooth, sitting down when anyone else would be standing up, and making every other motorcycle within a hundred miles look like it hadn’t even been started up yet.
If I could just be going another 50 miles an hour faster, I’d be nearly half the way to Malcolm.
Roads like Featherbed should go on forever – but for a road I’d happily stumbled upon – every bit of it was more than enough. I was able to cruise on this crushed limestone road for close to 10 miles – before it dumped me back out about 2 miles out of Lovettsville and the curves of the Berlin Pike back down to the Potomac. The on-road gap between this bike and my /S had grown a bit – I found myself thinking that it might be time to retire the ‘S’ bars that I put on this motorcycle when it was being used as a faired sport tourer in favor of some dirty bike bars with a little more width and a little more rise.
I was back across the river and in the Valley before I was ready. I had one more detour in my reverse GPS that I could take to keep from getting home too soon.
Not everybody has a great stream ford on their back yard. Sorry about that, everybody else.
Siegler Road cuts off from Fry Road – south of Jefferson – and pops up on Horine Road about a half mile from Shamieh’s Shop. Siegler is about a mile and a half of gravel that climaxes at a local creek where a bridge seemed excessive. My old Avons used to skate a bit on the polished stones of the stream bottom – these Heidenaus seemed like they rode on octopus tentacle suckers – on wet stones they were absolutely nailed down.
Crossing the creek was so much fun and so undramatic it was the sort of thing one just wanted to do again and again.
I didn’t though – didn’t want any of my neighbors to think I’d finished cracking, riding back and forth roosting across a stream all day.
I popped around the corner, into my hood, and rolled up the driveway and onto the stand.
The Scouts, at least, had acquired enough rock dust and mud that no one would think that this was a motorcycle that didn’t get ridden.
Actually, based on the patterns of contact and wear that my body and boots have worn into 36 years of riding this motorcycle, nobody would ever even consider the possibility this bike didn’t get ridden.
After a few minutes admiring the form of this old motorcycle, I headed inside to look for some dirtbike bars.
I purchased my BMW R/75 motorcycle on an epic train-and-ride over an Independence Day Weekend in 1984. It seems to be a motorcycling story that has no end. Folks that want to catch up with the beginning of the tale can find it here.
Happy Independence Day, sisters and brothers.