LTO

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

It’s admittedly a fool’s errand.

Fool? Errand?

So this seems like the perfect setup, eh?

I’ll get my helmet.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

The throttle.

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Show On Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

And so it is with me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

In fact, it was making it particularly harder.

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t one of those.

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

It was pretty dark.

And I was going absolutely nuts.

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

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

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

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

Then I tried the throttle.

This was going to take a while.

 

***

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

Progress was slow, but it was progress.

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

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

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

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

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

It was go time.

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

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

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

“I don’t think that’s….”

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

Motion!

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

Today, though, it was a thing of beauty.

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

“Hmmmmnnnnnnnnnn.”

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

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

Castrati

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

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

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

So you don’t.

Or at least I don’t, anyway.

These things can be substantial. Or strangely trivial.

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

I’m so not into entropy.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wheeeeeeze-bleep….”.

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

“Bleeee…wheeeze…..”

Sigh.

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

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

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

But it didn’t always work that way.

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

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

I expected Pavarotti.

I got a 43 year old choirboy.

 

***

 

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

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

 

***

Back in the garage, troubleshooting was pretty straightforward.

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

No problem there.

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

I was treated to a comically pitiful and failing bleat.

Yup. That’s your problem right there.

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

wp_20170104_18_48_59_pro

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

I pressed the button.

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

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

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

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

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

Movement

Good riding is like dancing — to get to that magic place one needs to relax and sense and surf the flow of the road beneath you — not forcing things but becoming one with it. It can be hard to achieve the utter concentration of focus and selflessness — it sounds almost Buddhist — where as a rider you are both there and not there concurrently.

Some people can close their eyes, inhale deeply and just get there every day.

For others that place might be as remote as the surface of the moon.

 

***

 

In the middle of a stranglingly soul crushing work day, the internet bought me this.

Australian World Superbike Champion and all-round charming guy Troy Corser was racing at this year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed — piloting a 1935 BMW RSS works racer. The RSS was equipped with a rigid rear suspension and tires that were of comparable width to those on my mountain bicycle.

Yet there was Troy, piloting a more than 80 year old motorcycle, and instead of being mindful of conserving his priceless museum piece, was absolutely wringing its neck — riding it like he stole it — and keeping up a pace that appeared to be in the same zip code as a current superbike racer.

Troy was absolutely in the zone — limbs loose and graceful, body position low on the motorcycle, with the throttle mostly wide open and the bike moving around — demonstrating the unmistakable bucking movement under power of a rigid rear roadracer. If the bike had brakes Troy made absolutely no use of them. At points, both ends of the bike would completely break loose — something that seemed to faze Troy not a whit — he’d just gather up the bike with gentle inputs on the bars and go back to shepherding the RSS back in the direction of another Pole Position pace lap.

His riding was nothing less than a thing of beauty to behold.

The sound of that RSS motor spinning hard way up the rev band — that boxer aeromotor drone — was both familiar and evocative — a clear invitation.

I headed for the garage at my first opportunity.

 

***

 

Don’t get me wrong.

Troy Corser’s entire self is likely less than the width of one of my chubby legs. His worst day in the saddle no doubt eclipses my best.

But watching the old boxer moving around underneath him had me ghosting the sensations in my hands and feet and thighs, and I knew I could play back that magic I’d seen.

I knew just the place to do it, too.

I headed over the ridge from Jefferson — headed down to the Potomac and Point of Rocks. From there I rode Ballenger Creek Pike through the southern farms of Frederick County — tight technical stuff through the woods then opening up to run through pastureland.

I was headed for Cap Stein Road — a hedgerow-lined Colonial Era road that followed the property lines of those earliest Maryland estates.

Like many of these old roads, it gets right down to business, with a tight decreasing radius right hander less than 50 yards in. It’s like starting a fist fight with your best right cross straight to the face — there’s no mystery about one’s intentions after that.

Cap Stein is lovely because the next several corners combine grades and apexes — from the tops of some hills and the bottoms of others. The topography hides the corner exits, but this is by no means my first run down this road. I keep the R90’s motor spun up and on the boil — it is only for a set of bang-bang 90s that I’m forced to drop a gear to third for my entries.

The S moves around on its suspension as tires scrub and slide — I stay loose and let the wheels do what they do.

My old motorcycle and I are truly alive — straightening out a twisty roadway and making a wonderful noise.

 

***

 

After dropping back into the Middletown Valley, I rode Gapland and Broad Run at full chat back to the house.

As I stood beside the bike after shut down, I let the sound die down in my head.

Letting the bike move its way, while I moved mine — letting the road come to me instead of forcing the machine to it.

Never had 30 minutes been so restorative.

All of the cerebral noise of the day had been banished by the purity of movement.

Harp Hill and Harmony

I don’t know about you, but I am just not feeling it these days.

I can’t remember a time when my spirit has been under so many concurrent manifestations of psychic and emotional assault.

I have never really been into all black motorcycles, but all of a sudden I know where those riders are coming from.

‘Cause black is how it feels, man.

 

***

 

Last week the firm for which I work had the end of their fiscal year. Instead of the usual celebration it was a funeral.

And funerals sort of require that at least someone is departed.

So a fair number of my fellow workers involuntarily departed to satisfy that requirement.

Don’t let people tell you that it feels better to have been kept on, cause its different for everyone.

Did I mention this the third time this year?

 

***

 

For the entire summer, this part of Maryland has been lacking for rain.

In the last six days, we caught up.

More accurately caught up, did the slingshot pass coming out of the slipstream and then won going away.

Six days of gutter rattling, gully washing, roof pounding, pissing off Booosy my cat constant rain.

Is the sun ever going to come out?

 

***

 

Have you turned on your television news lately?

If you have not, please take my well-intentioned advice, and under no circumstances should you do that.

You will thank me, of that I am certain.

I was educated in a tradition which required that those with the skills should serve the greater good.

That those with the skills to lead, for example, should seek that opportunity.

Apparently, that memo was not widely circulated.

Of this dark thing, we shall speak no more.

 

***

 

I got a series of texts, pictures, and a phone call from one very cold, very wet Finn who had just discovered just how insistent gravity can be when you and everything around you are soaking wet and slippery.

Freaketh out not, Finn’s Manifold Adoptive Uncles and Aunties, as this Physics Lesson was learned at 0 miles per hour, and resulted in no injuries except perhaps to pride. Regardless of how it happened the net result was a Buell Blast lying down on its left side to take a brief nap in the parking garage of Finn’s apartment.

Twice.

It would figure when the poor kid was trying to get in a rhythm living away at school that Nature and Physics would conspire to provide a another minor bummer.

And after a brief conversation about how he was likely not the first person to whom this had happened, I pointed out there was a very good reason his old man had put that slip joint pliers into the tool kit that Buell hadn’t provided.

To wit: Anything that can be bent, can, within limits and with a little luck, be unbent.

And that this was a skill that, once developed, was likely to be used more than just this time.

So Finn set to unbending, and I set to renewing my friendship with my local Harley-Davidson Parts Counterman, to seek a more permanent solution.

Hey, if the whole economy goes loose in the rear end, I can now put One Half A Harley-Davidson Mechanic as a skill on my resume.

One never knows what the difference might be between making it and not, eh?

 

***

 

Maybe the difference might be just a slice of one sunny day.

Sunday saw Sweet Doris From Baltimore (SDFB?) headed off to one of the cluster of wedding and baby showers that seem to be happening now.

After some puttering around, and having an egg, I pulled on some armoured mesh riding pants over my cargos, grabbed my Vanson and headed for the garage.

The whole point was trying to blast out the funk I was in, so I made sure to get out of any riding rut I might be in, too.

Having not been that way for a while, I headed for the mountains of the North County.

 

***

 

Just past Middletown, Harmony Road breaks East towards the Catoctins.

Harmony is a little dance of road, starting with a series of gentle esses, then a series of lovely 90s. With some heat in the Boxer, the noise riding the throttle between 4 and 6 K, rolling off on entries and picking the bike up with revs on the exit, was just racetrack electric.

An observation: Human beings respond negatively to six days of rain. Gnats and mosquitos, in contrast, do not.

I have been routinely bugsplatted.

This, on the otherhand, was something else — insect carnage on an unprecidented level.

Harmony Road crosses US40 — The National Pike — and works its way, one sweeper at a time, up the back side of the Catoctin Mountains. With the S running 4th gear with the revs just below the engine’s best power it was an exercise in road reading — leaning over and back smoothly and just straightening out the road’s gentle curves.

Harmony drops one off in a little village that sits by Catoctin Creek. It has a name that I’ve forgotten and that Google doesn’t know. The intersection ranks as one of the screwiest and most dangerous ones that I can think of, at least from the perspective of a Motorcyclist. Harmony Ts into Maryland Route 17, which immediately — IMMEDIATELY! — breaks 45 degrees left to go across the bridge over Catoctin Creek. Upon exiting the short bridge one encounters another T — with Harp Hill Road breaking off gently up the hill to one’s left, while 17 comes in from a Sucker-punch invisible 110 degrees over ones right shoulder — and the view of the highway is blocked from the bridge by its Jersey barrier sides.

Attention should indeed be paid — a mistake here would be ugly.

But assuming you survive the intersection, Harp Hill is just a treat — it clings to the right side of a mountain stream Valley with amazing green views of the Valley’s farms stretching off to the right below you. One rides curves of the rising land on the way up — negotiates a kind of ‘reverse carousel’ with a crazy uphill grade on the exit — and then crests the ridgeline and rides the curves of the falling land on the way back down to where the road enters the Town of Wolfsville.

From Wolfsville one takes Stottlemyer Road, which continues to wind its way North down a gentle ridgeback, with the road taking you though forest shade and open farmland. Stottlemyer runs into Maryland 77, about two miles down the road from the American Legion Camp where the local BMW Club has always held its rallies.

I’m not going that way today, though, and I cut eastward down the face of the Mountain towards Thurmont. There are a few spectacular corners that run through the massive boulders — souvenirs, no doubt of some long-gone glacier — that fill the forest here. There are also too many tourists here to see the Catoctin National and Cunningham Falls State Parks, so I quickly jump back off 77 onto Catoctin Hollow Road, heading for the deepest of our deep woods.

Once clear of the Cunningham Falls State Park Lake Area, Catoctin Hollow quickly turns rough, with limited sightlines, as it runs though small farms that have probably sat on that mountain since the late 1700s. There are a lot of very large trees very close to the road. It’s the sort of road one rides with one’s weight on one’s legs, staying light in the saddle to clear bumps and to steer by selectively weighting the pegs.

I remember right then, my favorite navigational accident, and make the right onto Old Mink Farm Road. Old Mink Farm looks like nothing — a one laner that looks like it could be a glorified farm driveway — the type of road that you head down and end up having to come back. Mink Farm Road, though, takes one to Tower Road, the Frederick Watershed, and Gambrill State Park — a more or less straight shot down the mountainous backbone of the county, though its deepest forests, through Bear County, and straight back towards home.

In the deepest part of the Forest, the road goes into Wilderness preservation areas, and where there is an ‘Ecology Retreat Center’ and a Quaker Church Camp, the road goes back to being unpaved. These ancient Maryland mountain roads are a mixture of clay and crushed limestone, which after six straight days of deluge, are now an interesting riding surface. About 95 percent slick wet clay mud and 5 percent F-150 swallowing water filled chuckholes. It’s a road that keeps one’s throttle hand honest and demands ones’ full directional attention. Another road that dictates some form of horsemanlike riding standing knees bent. That road also likely explains why almost no-one come up here, so I have to be glad for that.

After about 4 miles of traction school, Mink Farm Road comes back to pavement where it changes to Tower Road, and then the fun really begins. Tower Road is uneven in a way that shakes out one’s suspension — short bumpy straights separated by serial switchbacks and then the whole thing repeats. For about 15 miles of Forest one can imagine oneself in the old public road Raceways of Europe. Just one’s bike and the road and all the hazards yours alone to manage. The S is in its intended habitat here — wheels at both ends moving/working — with the aeromotor bark and drone of the motor echoing back from forest around me.

It it really so far from here to the Nordschleife?

 

***

 

Like all time this time also goes by too fast, and I find myself back in my own South Middletown Valley — I’m cutting up Broad Run Road towards my town and my home — winding fourth gear out to 6000 before ringing the shift into top and running WFO towards the last sweeping curve before town. The S shows what it has pulling hard as 90 and 95 sweep past. The old thoroughbred touches the ton before I have to give throttle back to set for the turn.

Through town we gently troll — cooling off and shutting petcocks to drain the fuel from carburetor bowls. I roll up to the garage entry, shift into neutral and roll the throttle once — then twice. The carbs seem well balanced — response is even and swift.

Is there a bit more top end noise than perfect? Perhaps.

But when I’m as old as this motorcycle is in motorcycle years, I hope a little top end noise is all I have to worry about.

As long as this motorcycle and I both keep starting well every morning, and get to take rides like this one every once in a while, then maybe there’s just no room for the blues.

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For No Good Reason

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If you’re like me, you’ve gotta have a reason.

It doesn’t have to be a good reason — it can even be a lame, no-good, pitifully transparent reason.

It can start with the simple — “We’re outta milk — I gotta go up to the market to get some…” — but the list of things you can run out of is effectively endless.

Money. Stamps. Ice cream and chips. Beer. Maybe beer again. Auto parts. A quart of oil.

You don’t feel like cooking and you need a taco, or a sandwich.

The ones that appear compelling are running short.

Double A batteries. Number 10 1 inch long stainless steel wood screws. Flux capacitor shims.

Dilithium Crystals.

You gots to get a pack of Camel filters. From a tobacconists in Butte, Montana.

And you don’t even smoke.

Yeah, if you live with somebody, and you want to ride your motorcycle, it seems some form of a point of honor to have some form of logical and practical explanation for why you will ride your motorcycle.

It would seem far more emotionally and intellectually honest to just come out and admit that the only real reason is just because you want to and expect to enjoy riding your motorcycle, but humans are funny critters, sometimes.

So we dance around the truth, spend a lot of awkward and inappropriate time staring down at our shoes, and do everything possible to avoid talking about the important things that make us tick.

Yeah, humans are funny critters. Mosttimes.

 

***

 

So the notion of a motorcycle ride that requires no external justification — a thing that exists for no reason other than joy in the thing itself — seems like kind of a golden gift.

In in the newfound quiet of my house, that gift was exactly what I found.

Finn was newly split, in his place down near College Park.

Sweet Doris from Baltimore was consorting with hippies, protesting new and destructive proposed methods of petrochemical energy extraction, operating out of her little camper in Maryland’s Western Mountains of Garrett County.

The temperature had finally fallen — with our string of 100 plus degree feeling 90 plus degree days finally yielding to a far more moderate dry and breezy day in the low 80s. Humidity down, sun out, how could one want to do anything but ride?

 

***

 

So ride I did.

Some people set aside time in their day to go to the gym.

I do this.

I can think of nothing more restorative, more inner peace-producing.

So I grabbed my ventilated leathers — I’m noticing the cuffs of the jacket need moisturization lately from overexposure to salt — and my Shoei and gloves.

I rolled the S backwards out of the garage, swung a leg over, opened a fuel petcock, the choke, and gave this old boxer the finger.

After its recent tune-up-let the bike catches on the second compression stroke, and commences a solid idle, even as I roll off the enrichener.

I give a shove with my left leg, roll down the driveway, and toe the bike silently while rolling into gear. (Try shifting into first with a cold airhead when stationary and let me know how silent that method is.)

I bank the bike left into Brockton Drive, roll open the throttle, and head for the open road.

 

***

 

A lot of times, riding around the valley, a single car where it shouldn’t be — i.e. in front of you, daddio — can put paid to the flow and rhythm of an entire ride.

Today just didn’t feel like one of those days. My luck — with regard to the time of day I selected for this mini-vacation — seemed nearly perfect: too late for lunch and too early for commuters headed home from work. The roads seemed spookily empty on this late August afternoon — it seemed like I had the whole joint to myself.

I head straightaway for Lander Road. If you have an analog motorcycle, and are looking to see just how its feeling, on Lander the Doctor Is In. Lander is narrow, bumpy — sightlines are marginal to non-existent. There are a few positively hairball transitions. The throttle is always either opening or closing — the suspension is always moving at both ends of the bike — engine response and suspension compliance are being concurrently exercised and demonstrated.

This is probably a perfect road for a KTM 390 Duke. On a 1000cc sporting twin, it’s a matter of some delicacy and restraint.

If either the bike or the rider are even a tick off in such tight confines, it’s as easy to see as the ‘Goodyear’ on the side of that blimp, bro.

Today, though, no blimp, no message.

Everything was big boxer smooth sailing.

 

***

 

Coming back up to the highway, I made a full stop and scanned both left and right.

Desolation. Such a rare thing, a thing to be savored these days.

I ran the S deliberately up through the gears, spinning the big motor out through 6 grand of the bike’s 7K redline, me in the zone and focused hard on technique — being precise with the throttle and clutch and being rewarded with hammer on steel spike ringing thonking shifts. I reached top gear for the first time and promptly ran out of room — having to downshift back to fourth to engine brake through the signals and cross the Point of Rocks Bridge across the Potomac and into Virginia. Two more downshifts set us up for the sharp right bank onto Lovettsville Road, and the run up the river.

The high sunshine is filtered through the trees on this road, and the first 3 miles or so are well shaded, as one works sweeping lefts and rights as you climb away from the river. The rhythm of steep uphill lefts and rights encourage liberal use of throttle, and allow one to set the bike on the edges of its Michelins.

The intermediate section of Lovettsville Road cuts back and forth along old property lines — threading the edges of the old farms and estates. There are a few hilltop apexes that would be hard to read if it was your first time down this road.

As the road comes into Lovettsville there is a very, very long straight. It is the only legal passing zone and it is there I encounter the first and last 4-wheeled motorist of the day. My position, speed of approach and visibility are perfect — I line my soon to be ex-friend up, put on my turn signals, flash to pass and roll the throttle with no downshift and simply boost smoothly and safely past.

I bleed the speed off from the pass and then downshift to set up for the tight technical bang bang right left that carries the road onto the Main Street of town. My entry is perfect, I’m on the gas early and working the edge of the tires.

It never ceases to amaze me that such an old motorcycle can feel — both motor and cycle parts — so rigid and of a piece. It doesn’t make any sense that a featherbed knock-off made of steel pipes and this huge lump of alloy should feel and work so solidly, but it’s solid just the same.

I filter through the village, and make the right onto Berlin Pike. I’ve no contention or traffic at any of the Stops, and then we’re rolling back down the hill toward the river.

Professional bicycle races have been known design their courses around the next stretch of The Pike. One motorcycle run down this road and its easy to understand just why they did that. Some bicycle descents are narrow, technical. Loss of traction represents the ultimate hazard. The Pike, though, is different. The hill is steep, the highway is modern — with properly graded, wide, sweeping corners.

As a bicycle racer, this is a rare opportunity to descend as fast as one can in as safe an environment as one ever gets when one is flinging one’s ass down a macadam road at 70 miles an hour wearing little but stretchy underpants.

As a motorcycle rider, The Pike is like a moto-amusement park somebody built just for you. The only thing missing is a place to put your quarters in at the top of the ride so you could do it again and again and again.

So I take the ride.

Most days on The Pike I avail myself of the legal passing zone on the straight descent out of town but by now you know in your soul there is no one to pass.

So I find myself a comfy place with the revs up in 4th gear and give and take speed with the throttle — entrances off the brakes and engine braking and exits rolling back on the gas. The tires communicate clearly through the bars and through the seat.

Leaned well over and exiting a corner — hard on the gas — with my head sitting in the clean air above the bubble it’s as if time elastically rubberbands to an absolute stop.

This is the enlightening moment of the rider’s perfection.

 

***

 

After achieving moto-transcendance, going back to work is awful hard.

Stripping my armor off in the garage, I absorb the lines, sounds and smells of the Old Alloy Mistress — making the metallic sounds of giving back heat, seeping various lubricants tastefully and discreetly.

I remember, as a very young man, standing in the showroom of Baltimore’s Motor Sport Center, looking at what was then maybe a not quite 10 year old used R90S. My response to that spaceship of a motorcycle was a lot like it was to the Farrah Fawcett swimsuit poster that was everywhere back then — it might be fun to look at but there was just no way I was ever going to have either one.

Lately I spend more than my fair share of time thinking about how time seems to have gotten away from me in a way the front tire of my motorcycle never has. You wouldn’t think that time had a big-hairy-completetly-lose-the-front-end lurid slide that is going to decide for you what hard object you are going to hit in it, but time seems to be full of little physics tricks.

I have more than my fair share of blessings in my life, and a lot of other things to be so far thankful for that have nothing to do with motorcycles. But that aside, this timeline has me able to enjoy a motorcycle I never dreamed I’d have any time I want to whether I have reason to or not.

And what that motorcycle make me feel like — the bomber engine drone of flat twin exhaust, coming out of a corner pressed in place by the force of acceleration — is a joy that is its own reason.

The Ridge

I’ve been fixing things that aren’t broke.

It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to anticipate how that’s been going.

Now maybe to describe these things as ‘aren’t broke’ is being charitable.

Maybe they ‘aren’t broke’, but they’re not working perfectly, either.

In the days before digital control of everything — where stuff either works or it doesn’t – I believe we used to refer to these efforts as ‘tuning’.

The whole notion that ‘works’ is a continuous analog sliding scale starting at “doesn’t work”, moving on through “works, but works really badly”, to “works OK, but could be better”, to “works pretty good, but isn’t perfect”, to the goal of “Angels Sing — Motor Nirvana” is an idea that has a tough time making the transition from analog to digital controls.

In this world, how my engine runs with .012 inches of spark plug point gap and 2 extra degrees of spark advance and how it runs with .014 inches and 4 extra degrees of advance is for me to evaluate and accept or deny. Maybe software developers deep within the bowels of Original equipment Manufacturers are looking at parameters like this on dyno runs, but if you own a modern motorcycle, and don’t own a copy of your manufacturer’s Engine Control Module Software Development Kit, these micro-adjustments are unknown to you — I might as well be asking you about the detailed processes required to select the next Pope.

If the perfect is truly the enemy of the good, then the perfect has been my hell-bent foe for these last two weeks while I tried to take an R90S that was running well and turn it into an R90S that made the angels sing.

 

***

 

The last time I replaced an ignition point set on this motorcycle was likely 1999. Because the bike is equipped with a Dyna Ignition Booster unit, the point sets only run at 5-12 volts instead of 15,000, so damage and erosion due to pitting is reduced to nearly nothing. Nearly nothing, it should be noted, is not absolutely nothing, and, over long periods of time, like, for example 15 years, both the cam rubbing blocks and the miniature axle of the point sets both wear until their function deteriorates so that it can finally be detected from the saddle.

Having delayed that inevitable as long as I could, I finally decided to set things right.

A lot, it seems, has changed since 1999.

The most significant change, in this context, is that Bosch has stopped making points for BMW motorcycles in their German factories.

I can understand why this has happened, when their target market has been reduced to, well, me, and maybe you, buddy.

Putting aside the possibility that maybe, given my bike’s lack of collector value, it might be time to hang it the hell up and convert it to an electronic ignition, I set about trying to locate an ignition point set that wasn’t entirely made of finest cheese. Besides, that upgrade line of inquiry is very dangerous ground, because once one begins to think that way, the logical conclusion ends up heading towards tossing the whole bike out and replacing it with a Kawasaki 650 Versys or Honda Africa Twin, either of which requires virtually no fettling and just needs being ridden.

Clearly a subject for another time.

Anyway, I located a reproduction point set from a vendor that over time has earned my trust. I disconnected the battery, popped off the front engine case, and gapped the new points.

After setting the gap at the recommended nominal .014 inches, I discovered that even with the points plate set at full ignition retard, the overall timing was still about 4 degrees advanced over specification.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. The issue is that the points rubbing block that rides on the ignition cam is a few thousandths thicker than specifications, making adjustment to stock timing nearly impossible. As the rubbing block wears, though, the timing retards, so over time the timing will converge back to the desired value. So I set a slightly narrower point gap — which also retards the timing — buttoned the cases back up and went riding.

After 3 or 4 hundred miles of road time, the bike started to run badly, and on one trip, it felt like I barely made it back to the garage. As the bike quit at the top of the driveway I was pretty sure I could hear a faint squeak coming from the front of the engine.

I was pretty confident that I knew what I would find when I took the cover off this time.

Back when they made points, Bosch always provided a tiny capsule of specialty grease to apply to a felt pad that lubricates the ignition cam. Well, now that Bosch doesn’t make points, they don’t make the cam grease either.

I hoped that a felt with 41 years worth of grease worked into it would be close enough.

I hoped wrong.

I now, for your amusement, recommend that you go to the Internet and attempt to find some Ignition Point Cam Grease.

I’ll wait while you do that.

What’s you have no doubt found are several references to these products with “Out of Stock” messages.

The grease, unsurprisingly, is as endangered as the ignition points themselves.

A phone call to my local NAPA store — home to shadetree, pickup truck and dirt track car mechanics everywhere — yielded the fact that they have a long enough institutional memory to know what the blank I was talking about.

For anyone encountering this same issue, NAPA’s ML-1 moly lubricant – which isn’t available on their web site — is specially formulated for just this application. Those nice folks will sell you a 7 ounce tube which, by my calculations, should last me for the lifetime of about 120 BMW motorcycles. Which means that I have about 118 more motorcycle lifetimes than I will ever need.

If you come up short I’ll be glad to share mine.

Anyhoo, I asked the nice folks at NAPA to get a tube transferred in from their warehouse, and then I’d ride (a different motorcycle) over and pay them a visit.

 

***

While that was going on I spent some time in deep contemplation of spark plugs.

The spark plug in question was for Finn’s diminutive Buell Blast, which, if experience was any guide, likely still had the OEM Harley Davidson branded sparkplug threaded into its cylinder head that was placed there when it was built in 2002.

I went to NGK’s web site and found the recommended stock plug for the Blast. I don’t know whether this is true of the Sportster engine upon which it is based, but space must be at a premium in those cylinder heads. I would have fully expected the bike to use a 7/8th inch refugee plug from a Chevy 350, but instead found it used a diminutive 14mm miniature plug.

While I was mucking about in the NGK application finder, I checked the OEM plug for my S. What I discovered was that one day, many years ago, when I had walked into an auto parts shop to obtain some replacements for the Champion plugs I was using at the time, the counterman was out of stock on the Champions I used, and crossed them to an NGK number. That NGK number, it turned out, was actually one heat range colder than the recommended plug.

Net/net — for some time longer than a decade, I’d been using the ‘wrong’ plug in both my airheads. Now tuning being as much art as science, I’ll share that in my /5, the 7 heat range plug looks just fine when one takes a plug reading. In the R90S, though, with its accelerator pump carburetors, the plugs always look a little more carboned up than optimum, and now I understood why that was.

Turned out NGK also made a ‘tuners’ version of the plug, with a U shaped electrode and a grooved center, which I’ve found actually makes a better flame front in this engine. I’ve also tried their fine wire platinum plugs, which barely work at all and foul quite easily.

So I had the NAPA guys pull 8 of the proper plug for installation and spares when wrenching time came round.

 

***

 

After riding the LT over to the Brunswick NAPA on Saturday morning, I rolled the S to the sunlight in the mouth of the garage, disconnected the battery and pulled the front engine cover.

My powers of visualization had been correct. The points block had worn beyond rapidly, to the extent that they were barely opening on the cam.

Upon reflection, I don’t know how I had gotten home on that last trip out.

I regapped the points, massaged some ML-1 into the cam lube felt, and soaked a clean rag with some additional to pre-lube a thin film of the moly onto the advance unit’s cam surface. I checked the timing, which was still marginally overadvanced but closer to stock, buttoned up the front cover, and installed the new plugs.

If one believes Airhead Yoda Snowbum, the only proof of excessive spark advance is pinging under load, only the road would have the answer.

 

***

 

The road did have the answer, and the answer was the Heavenly Choir. Alternate US 40 headed up to Braddock Heights is an 11/10th mountain road, with a series of great switchbacks and sweepers going up a series of steep grades to the ridgeline at the top of Braddock Mountain.

Braddock Heights is likely the only memory of British Army General Edward Braddock, who used the ridgeline road to move his army, which included a young officer named George Washington, towards Ohio for an engagement during the French and Indian War. That engagement ended so badly that the troops needed to bury the General, who had been ambushed and targeted by a brigade of Indians and French scouts, in an unmarked grave in the middle of the road so that they could not be easily tracked in their hasty retreat. All things considered, it was a matter of some luck that the young Lieutenant Washington survived that campaign.

Going up to the Heights, the S was fully warmed up and in full song. Throttle response was instant — either at low revs or high. Pre-ignition tends to be a bigger problem in Airheads beneath the torque peak at lower revs, but low or high this was a happy engine.

My work here was done, and done well, Citizens.

At the top of Braddock, I turned left onto Jefferson Boulevard, with the intention of heading into the Valley and from there back home. As I turned onto Cherry Lane to drop back down the ridge and into The Valley, what I saw just took my breath away. I instinctively reached to the right handlebar, killswitched the bike and coasted into the grass.

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I write all the time about The Valley. I ride there almost daily, and hope that my words paint a picture that people can carry with them. We’ll leave aside whether I am successful or not in that endeavour, because these images, grabbed on the fly with the cel phone in my pocket, paint a literal picture that goes at least one level beyond what your imagination can likely provide.

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Below, with the sun setting on the Valley’s opposite ridge, was Jumbo’s Farm, one of the larger and more prosperous agricultural operations hereabouts. Knowing that my work had restored my precious motorcycle to full function is a full hearted feeling that is difficult to adequately describe — it’s an example of mind over material.

This view, though, was one of those Nature in Her Perfection illustrations. It doesn’t matter what faith you may or may not profess, but creation, whether at the top of a pass in Glacier National Park, or three miles from your garage, can still be absolutely awe-inspiring.

This bike, and her biker, were completely happy in this green and shining moment.