9090

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny math. Good, but funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just perfect.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

None of them this year though.

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

Next year has to be a better year.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

So two nineties would have to do.

wp_20161202_15_42_23_pro

 

***

 

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

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

Three days later, the ice and snows came.

Time to Ride

Folks that know me know I’m not much on planning.

Some parts of life are better like jazz or a rocking jam band — improvisational — you know when to go big when the universe’s currents seem to be running your way.

When I woke up on Sunday morning in the Hampton Inn in Leeds, Alabama, one look out the window changed everything.

The previous two days had dawned grey and misty — allowing for a slow rise to awareness.

Today, the sun was starting out strong.

After two days of looking at and thinking and talking about all kinds of motorcycles, all I wanted was to feel the wheels gyroscopically spinning underneath me — the wind rushing around me.

It was time to stop looking at motorcycles.

It was time to ride motorcycles.

***

I had actually been hoping to swing by my Mom’s house for a surprise visit.

She lives just south of Charleston, South Carolina, and a visit would have done her good.

Nature, though, had sprung some unpleasant surprises, and those gifts had kept right on giving.

Most of South Carolina had experienced unprecidented rainfall the previous week when a tropical system had come onshore and remained in place for several days.

Columbia, the State Capital, located in the central part of the state was still mostly under water. There were two bridges on Interstate 20 in Western SC that were closed due to structural damage from the floods. And the single road that leads from Charleston to the shore islands south of town was still washed out in three or four places. With much of my potential route cut off, and one crucial bit of it with no detour possible, Mom was going to have to wait for another time.

***

I got my single saddlebag liner — an old Compaq computer freebee shoulderbag that just happens to fit the LTs cases like it was made for it — repacked and checked out of the Hampton. My local duty vintage-y riding gear — the Bell 500 open face, work boots and my denim jacket — went into the top case, along with the lightweight performance fleece I use for layering under my Roadcrafter, and my camera.

It felt good to be back in a pair of proper tall motorcycle boots, and my fully armored riding suit. The weather report showed sunny skies and a projected high somewhere in the lower to mid 70s along most of the route.

Like any pilot, I did my preflight inspection — checking tires, fasteners, and making sure we didn’t have signs of any new fluid leaks. This looked and felt like a day where the only limits were all internal.

I fastened the chinstrap on my Shoei, swung a leg over, and fingered the K12’s Flying Brick motor back to life.

***

There were lots of motorcycles coming the other way as I accelerated up the ramp onto I-20 west back towards Birmingham. Although it was still a little cool — in the high fifties — the air was crisp and dry, and it felt awfully good to take big handfuls of throttle again and let the Brick wind out in each gear and get some wind into those four long stroke lungs.

I turned north on I-459, the Birminham spur, and then north again on I-59, settling the LT in at a fairly immoderate 4000 rpm and and indicated 86 mph, gently stretching my legs, back, arms and shoulders to loosen my personal machinery up for the long run ahead.

There were more than a few well dressed folks on the road early that Sunday morning, no doubt headed for church.

I guess in my own way, so was I.

***

It was just so relaxed out there, with the sun pushing gentle warmth into my Roadcrafter, that I was back blasting through Gadsden, the previous nights stop, before the virtual blink of an eye. The deep green pine forests and roadside sandstone rockfalls were less spooky, downright pretty in the sunlight, and we were able to stay in the gas and well on the boil, comfortable at speed.

Coming back to Fort Payne, there was signage everywhere for the worship of some of Alabama’s favorite sons — the country band Alabama. There were signs for the Alabama Fan Club, Museum, Gift Store, Theme Park and Dee-votional Center. Ok, maybe I imgagined one or two of those, but it would have been an easy mistake to make.

On another day, or even later in this one, I might have been tempted to sing a little of that good old mountain music, but this morning’s theme was the easy roll, and roll and roll I did.

***

One of those things I’ve always noticed is that there is a often a clear visual indication of when one is moving from one state to another because there is a clear differerce between the one you’re in and the one you’re going to.

Far from being just lines on a map, surprisingly, different places are actually different places.

Western riders know this well — hit the border between Arizona and Utah, and the whole world changes colors. In that particular case, its kinda of a chroma slide from a whole bunch of reds through pinks to a whole different palette of creme and darks greys. Same sort of thing at the edges of West Texas and New Mexico, except the break is from sand-colored to things involving a lot more purple.

You get the idea.

A freaking long winding road of a way to introduce the notion that the same thing seemed to occur at the border of Alabama and Georgia. Might be a tad subtler than the Arizona-Utah segue, but its there nonetheless.

Running north from Birmingham, the forest lands are darkest green, marked by frequent outcrops of mostly crumbling shales, with an occasional sandstone incursion.

Hit the Georgia border just north of Hammondsville, Alabama, though, and its like somebody hit a light switch. Alabama’s hardwoods — Oaks and Maples and Bays and Polars and Elms — change over to Georgia Pine. And the roadside sedimentary shales and sandstones change to harder igneous rocks — what you might assume to be Granite but is actually a quartz monzonite. The harder stone means the land aquires more topography, more elevation — what had been little 40 and 50 foot roadside bluffs are now 400-600 foot igneous ridges.

Did I mention that my favorite teacher when I was in middle school taught Geology?

***

Travelling via Flying Brick does mandate taking a longer view. With a few hundred post breakfast miles already dispatched, I finally had some heat worked all the way through the powertrain, and Darkside smoothed out and indicated its willingness to head into higher speeds.

Dialing in a few more degrees of physical throttle opening — remember those? — I swept on across northwest Georgia. Interstate 59 runs in the bottom of a canyon between two of the aforementioned quartz monozonite bluffs, and with little wind and warm sun I was free to stay in the rapid transit zone and get into the meditative state where I spend my best travelling days.

Its hard to explain how something some completely immersive as motorcycling could somehow facilitate deep thought about life, the universe and everything, but for me it does. Its as if the portion of my mind that manages the complex physics and situational awareness of the ride somehow gets pushed to background — let’s call it virtualized — while higher cognitive functions find themselves operating in another level — a field now completely cleared of daily life’s distractions.

What are the things most important to you?

We each have a short list of the things that make us go, and on rides like this I can take all of those things and hold them before my perception and turn them over, take them apart and really get comfortable with them in my head.

Whether its just life, or love, or art or work, the ride helps me get to the bottom of things.

With my life running WFO — and multiple levels of consciousness humming along — its not to say that I don’t have enough cerebral capacity left to come up for long enough to consider that landscape the ride takes me through.

Looking at the massive stone domes rising above the roadway, I could see exactly why an artist might have seen the ghosts of the Confederacy living in the stone. These mountains had stood witness to more than one war — to our so-called Civil War, and the wars against the original Americans — and one could feel all of the souls in the stones.

***

With the revs up and the LT on big cruise, there’s almost not enough of Georgia to be worth talking about. Interstate 24, Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga are on you before you know it. The rather substantial Tennessee River spreads a whole buncha water off to your left as you curve yourself around the city. As I grabbed I-75 and shusssed northeast across Tennessee, the weather went back to that flat contrastless grey overcast that I’d seen mornings back in Birmingham. Coming out of Chattanooga’s extended metro area, I was somewhat struck by how developed the area was. There was a VW assembly plant, and plenty more accompanying industrial and commercial development. The road, was, on a Sunday noon, congested, and a made frequent use of my agility and acceleration in traffic. A few miles up 75 though, my nemesis, the bright yellow Gas Pump icon telltale came on, and managing reserve and range meant a stop for fuel in Athens, Tennessee.

I’ll admit I didn’t feel much like stopping, but Physics does impose some absolute limits, and taking on more liquid energy was a much better option than pushing an 800 pound motorcycle.

So a Shell station was found, and the ground stop ritual was repeated. 5.8 gallons of VPower. A trip to the comfort station, to see a man about a horse. 16-20 ounces of hydration — my fave, a diet Snapple Peach tea — and a few handfuls of nuts and raisins, and it was shields down, stands up and running back through the gearset, winding each gear out till I was back on the pipe in top gear running North again on I75.

***

Its at a time like these one can be forgiven for thinking — however briefly — that it was BMWs boxer that was the aberration, and that this Brick Engine, this Darkside, was truly their destiny. A Flying Brick K12 Motorcycle, in its powerband in top gear on good pavement, was as close as I’ll get to my own bespoke Space Program.

The thing is so long legged, so smooth quiet and comfortable at speed one could almost forget the raggedness of the concrete spinning by at closer than not to one one hundred miles an hour mere inches beneath my boots.

The traffic congestion slowly thinned out, but I spent much of this stretch passing and then being passed by folks for whom velocity management was just a theoretical concept.

I-75 intersected I-40, which heads East and runs through and around the City of Knoxville till it comes back to the base of the Mountains at White Pine and to I-81. From that point forward 81 does what it does for many hundreds of miles — running in a valley between the western and eastern arms of the Appalachian Mountains — following that rift from southwest towards the northeast.

Northeast towards Virginia, towards Maryland, and home.

***

There are a few places, at least on the southern end of the route, where 81 isn’t so bad, really.

Remember this, when we have contrasts available for your comparitive pleasure later.

The road is surrounded by scrub pine, and there’s enough topography and corners which are interesting at elevated speed to keep things interesting. The sun decided to break back out, and the temperature came up to the low 70s. I was able to open the closures on the neck of my riding suit, and with the LT’s windshield properly trimmed, run quietly and comfortably with the Shoei’s sheld racheted open.

This wasn’t half bad really.

It was starting to feel like a roll that could go on, well, for as long as I wanted it to.

***

It seemed like every exit was indicating ways over the mountain to Asheville.

I like Asheville.

There’s art, and good food, good music and fresh beer.

After the second offer I’ll admit I thought about it.

I mean I had no plan, and I wasn’t due back at work until midweek.

After brief consideration, I concluded I just wanted to be back with Sweet Doris, back in my own bed, wanted to get back home.

***

So my long legged smooth-aired top gear roll continued, threading between Kingsport and Johnson City, until my belly decided it had something to say.

As I rolled into Bristol — the city astride the Tennessee and Virginia borders — I was half way through the LT’s fuel range, and it was as good a time as any to fill my own tank. We’d have as much running time in the second half of the tank and we’d had in the first. It had the potential to be a very long day, and the LT wasn’t the only machine that needed to be kept running.

A billboard advised of a Subway sandwich shop — ‘Easy On, Easy Off’.

It was just as advertised, and I was able to steer straight of the bottom of the offramp and right into a parking space right outside the Subway’s front door.

It was the smallest Subway shop I’d ever seen, but heck, I only needed one turkey sandwich.

It’d do fine.

***

After 10 minutes of snarf, drainage and remount I was running right back up the ramp and enjoying the sensations of an entusiastic full power run through the LT’s gearbox. As I made the shift up to third, a tight group of four loaded travelling motorcycles swept past in the left lane, carrying what appeared to be lots of camping gear and significant speed.

By the time I got the LT into the the meaty part of top gear, that pack had put a fair amount of distance on me. Well, a mind with only six or eight concurrent things to do will seek opportunities for amusement, and reeling the rocketmen back in seemed like one way to do that.

So, on a bright sunny day with a well running bike, I lowered the windshield slightly, adoped a moderately leaned forward riding position, and started gently rolling into the throttle to see what it was going to take to stop these guys from just walking away from me.

At about 4100 rpm, the gap stopped growing.

On Darkside, that equates to about 90 mph.

Over the next 5 or so miles — miles that pass pretty quickly — I closed the gap to the point where I was allowed to take up a position at the rear of the column.

All my new friends, here, had New York tags. That destination would pack a minimum of 3 more hours further than I had to go, and depending on what part of New York, maybe a whole ot more.

Their riding appeared expert. They were running in a properly staggered column, with enough room between bikes to protect them from each other and close enough to at least attempt to keep other road users from cutting the column. They were all wearing proper all weather gear, and each bike looked to have full camping kit securely stowed aboard. The bikes — a few big GSs of modern enough build, and one guy with a Yam SuperTenere thrown in for spice.

To me, it seemed more than likely these four had started their day at Barber with me.

And so for a while 5 guys on fast motorcycles rolled together on a sunny day on Virginia Interstate.

And that was when it hit me.

All this dynamic rearraging of the time-space continuum was just too damn goal oriented.

The wanton destruction and disposal of mileage for the sole sake of re-writing velocity times elapsed time just freaking stuck in my craw.

A man without a plan is a man in search of a journey, and this was clearly a plan that was all about destination.

Besides, in Southwestern Virginia, where 20 over is a criminal offense, what kind of attention could five guys doing their best impression of a Blue Angels flyover reasonably expect?

After a brief Hollywood flash-forward that involved flashes of Helicopters, wreckers, Oceans of Blue lights, and a purple-faced Virginia Trooper callng me “Son”, I decided that it was time to embrace my inner Lone Wolf once again.

So with some small regret I rolled back out of the throttle, gave back about 7 miles an hour, and watched as the New York Boys, over the next several miles, opened that gap back up and sped out of sight.

***

Having decided to join up with the Anti-Destination League, I was looking for a way to demonstrate my allegiance.

Being an author of a sometime academic or conceptual bent, being arguably ‘the best part’, I wrote that first.

So sue me.

***

So having just completed sacremental and simultanously useless miles, I found myself on the other side of Roanaoke, looking for a tankful of Hi-Test, a light meal, and the highway north towards home.

I hadn’t really planned to cover the entire ground in a day, but I was feeling good — energized — and the pull of my own bed and waking up beside Doris started taking on a certain authority.

And at the very point when one might be most in a hurry, the Goddess of the Roads is most likly to liberally strew manifold adversity directly in your way.

And so she did.

***

And on a very dark rural interstate, somewhere between Harrisonburg and New Market, Virginia, things went horribly wrong.

And didn’t show any signs of getting better.

Cresting a rise on I-81, I was greeted with the sight of the entire downside of the grade and then across the valley and up the next grade totally filled with the redness of taillamps.

Stopped taillamps.

After more than 700 miles of riding — most of it at enhanced velocities — my boots were resting on the pavement.

Stopped.

***

The backup — an awful, hellish mass of tractor trailers, RVs and me — proved to be about 12 miles long, and — working stop and go on a 850 pound motorcycle, took close to two hours to clear. The surrealness of the situation was maddening — Sunday night at 11 o clock at night in a very rural section of interstate — essentially stopped with hundreds of thousands of other sufferers.

I’ve been known — in DC congestion — to lane split or run shoulders for short distances, but this was different. The lanes and shoulders were narrow, and the stress of other drivers was palpable. People were moving out onto the shoulders and then finding them impassable at the overpasses. Other road users were not sympathetic about their plights.

We were probably about 3 minutes from widespread gunfire the whole time.

So, as little as it suited me or my state of mind, I just resolved to slog through this — measuring reality in cycles of the LT’s cooling fans clicking on and off, and hoping for the survival and preservation of my clutch hand.

***

Never has a man been so simultanuously overjoyed and furious to see the control lights of a highway work crew. Joy, cause this shit was over. Fury, because this overpass renewal had caused the single biggest highway backup I’ve ever seen — on one of the busiest interstates in the United States, at the rush at the end of a weekend.

As I finally cleared the construction control zone, my soul came back to the light as the revs gently rose and I tiptoed the heat soaked machine back to cruising speed — pulling precious cool air through the fairing ducts and radiators. After a few minutes I fell back into the groove – standing on the pegs, stretching, and the settling back down onto he saddle and the quiet air inside the fairing’s pocket.

***

Every one of my long southern motorcycle trips ends the same way.

I finally leave I-81 at Stevens City, and then run US-340 right to my Jefferson front door.

Runs from Memphis, Georgia Mountain Rallies, and now coming home from Birmingham, 340 late at night takes on the quality of some Thompson-esque savage flashback — the same curves, the same hills in the late night mist, and same sense of unease in the falling temperatures — knowing full well that that the road’s familiarity, combined with some level of fatigue, was what made it most dangerous.

***

Berryville, Virginia is a quaint little country village. Its quaintness suffers a bit, though, when they decide that right before your visit is the best time to run a massive road removal machine through all 6 miles of town in preparation to repave the day following.

Roads that have had the scraper run across them to remove the macadam are particularly treacherous. The grain pattern made by the machine traps and steers a motorcycle’s front wheel. Debris left by the machine creates ramdom gravel patches. And its all invisible just after Midnight, in the dark.

The Highway Goddess — known to be sometimes grumpy — was just trying to make sure I was still on my game.

I was.

***

The last minutes are just a blur. Charlestown, West Virginia. Crossing the Shenandoah and the Potomac, and then the wide clear highway through Brunswick and back to Jefferson.

I rolled into my driveway, rolled up to the garage door, and just killswitched the bike and leaned it onto the sidestand. It was stopped. I could put it away tomorrow.

I did some quick math after a look at the odometer.

832.

In more than 30 years in various saddles, it was my biggest single day ride.

Take I-81 out of it, and I can see over the horizon to how the 1000 mile guys do it.

Good to leave at least something on the table.

***

I’ve been to race meetings and rallies before.

But the Barber Vintage Festival is something else entirely.

The bikes are one thing, but its the spirit of the place that blew me away. The folks that come all share a love of the art and engineering and sensations of motorcycles — that grace at speed — from today stretching all the way back to the Roper.

That love encompasses knowledge, it encompasses craft, and it encompasses the skill to see things and make them metal that moves.

This crowd of people isn’t a faceless crowd — its a gathering of my tribe.

I waited a long time to come back to Birmingham.

I won’t wait so long again.

 

Memphis Again

This piece is a blast from the past. There may be some signs of an immature writing style, but its still clearly me talking. Folks will have to excuse the photos, but they were close to state of the art for Digital in at the time they were taken.

This story describes A Fly-and-Ride trip from 2002 when I bought the K1200LT motorcycle that I still ride for long-distance travels. While I might have been preoccupied by a few things — a brand new motorcycle that was replacing an nearly identical one that had died, Beale Street and all its attendant boozy, bluesy distractions — what’s important here is my first destination was downtown Birmingham and the original Barber museum, back when it was still located in a decommissioned dairy processing and bottling plant.

During that visit, I offered my services to the Docent on duty to work on completing a catalog for the museum’s collection. 

All of their bikes were talking to me. Each of them had stories, and they needed to be told.

I’m sure that guy thought I was a nut.

That offer still stands.

***   

I hadn’t planned on buying a new motorcycle anytime soon. And l certainly hadn’t planned to go to Memphis again, either.

But there I was, booming up US78, with John Hyatt puttin’ down “Memphis in the Meantime” on the box, 13 miles From Lamar boulevard and the city limits.

I laughed a healthy and hearty laugh in the plush privacy of my helmet.

Two intense experiences, not soon repeated.

But the wheel had gone round a few times, and here we were all over again. I’d be on Beale Street after a much needed shower in about an hour and a half, and balance had come back into the ways of the force – all I could do was smile at the thought.

Losing a good bike- a riding partner- a friend of the road – can be tough to explain to someone who doesn’t live in the wind. It has elements of the death of a beloved pet, or the loss of a lover.

“But it’s just a machine” and you can tell that you’re thought of as a bit daft.

But its the places you’ve been, the genuine people and the amazing things that you’ve seen, that pure high that you’ve shared on a perfect corner exit on a warm late spring day that forms a set of associations, a bond that’s real enough that one can feel real loss when its gone.

So I buried a good friend. But one has to move on.

I spent a lot of time on Walneck’s cycle trader online. I put together a list of bikes, their VIN numbers, their mileage, and where they were. And then I spent a lot of time on the phone.

Mitch was a guy that took good care of his equipment. Clean was the rule, and maintenance had been done exactly by the Berlin factory book. And really, at 7000 miles on a big K motor, it was way too soon to be properly broken in, much less broken or worn out. This was the right guy, who was selling the right bike, so a deal was cut. It would take a few days to transfer titles, and release liens, so a date was selected, and a plane ticket was bought.

Mitch picked me up at the airport, and we rode home in his SUV, telling bike stories all the way. Atlanta traffic was hellish, and it was pouring down rain. Great weather, I thought, to pick up a new bike.

After a 45 minute ride, we got to his house, rode right around back, and threw open the garage. The LT was under cover, which was promptly removed. The bike appeared to have a visible aura that lit up an area for about four feet around the machine.

When one buys a used vehicle, you have visions of a million ways in which things can be less than one had hoped. None of those were apparent here. Maintenance records were provided. Everything appeared to be absolutely optimum.

“I can’t say there isn’t a mark on it, cause there is one.”

Is it possible that Mitch had been winning his bracket on “run what you brung” night at Alpharetta dragway? Can you seriously damage a motorcycle by keeping it entirely too clean?

Both of these were risks I was willing to take, although I resolved right there to make sure to check that the wheel bearings hadn’t been degreased dry when the first tire service rolled around.

We got paperwork done and plates bolted on, and I thought I saw Mitch get a little misty-eyed as I latched the cases and pulled on my Shoei.

He got back into his monster Ford, and kindly led me across 20 miles or so of backroads to get me back to the interstate. The rain had lightened up considerably, but we were in rural, lush county, with trees overhanging both sides of the roadway, and lots of vegetation that the last storm through had put down on the pavement. Things looked steamy, and slippery, and treacherous and very, very dark.

I felt exceedingly small as I tiptoed up gently through the gears, as the big red truck and I started slicing into the mist.

A few corners in, I knew we were cool — the bike was a bit stiff shifting from having been sitting around, but as the temperature came up, everything fell in the groove. The whining sound, the smoothness of the access to power, it was all as it should be, and increasingly familiar. The ride had its weird moments — hairball steam clouds whiting out corner entrances, Mitch’s truck clipped a possum, and a bat, which one-hopped and I hit too.

We pulled into a connivance store right across from the on-ramp, and got out to say our goodbyes.

He looked at me funny.

“You got it dirty.”

“I feel bad about that, Mitch, I really do. But its gonna happen.”

The weather report I’d seen last called for up to four possible days with at a least a chance each day of some rain.

He didn’t look happy.

Regardless, he gave me directions to get around Atlanta — which of course proved to be spot-on perfect — We shook hands and he walked slowly into the store.

I began to shuffle the bike out of the parking space, accidentally dumped the clutch, and stalled her out.

“Tired. Tired. Get your shit together, boy.”

I turned left up the ramp, rowed up through the gears, and slid into I-475’s traffic stream spinning in the top of fourth gear.

The highway was wide, well lit and the surface was fine but for an odd rough joint or two.

In Atlanta, folks tend to drive fast.

I found an open spot in a more leftward lane, reached a really conservative speed compared to selected elements of the surrounding traffic, and tried to gain a detailed understanding of this new, technological motorcycle.

 

***

 

By just after ten o clock at night, Atlanta traffic had dialed back from total madness to merely light congestion.

The city’s spaceage skyline was coming back into view as lights in the mist left behind by the now-ended heavy rains. As we came up on the city’s beltway, Atlanteans were hissing through that mist at about 75, and I settled right in and tried to be uncharacteristically inconspicuous. I was having a tough time shaking my mental image of southern law enforcement — “You in whole heapah trouble now, boah.” — and decided that discretion was probably the better part of valor, at least for this evening.

Tonight’s plan was simple — get Atlanta in the rearview mirrors and start Friday off with nothing but clear highway ahead. I had seen Atlanta traffic during its rocking hours, and wanted to be nowhere near anything remotely like morning rush.

The big K arced through 2 or three hours worth on the clockface that was the beltway. Destination was Interstate 20, the road that cuts straight out of Atlanta to the west, towards Alabama, and towards the Mississippi. I wanted to make at least 50 miles outside the city, and the first hundred on this bike wouldn’t feel bad, either. Anyplace out by the Georgia-Alabama border would be fine, and wouldn’t get to be too much at the end of waaay too long a day.

Tomorrow morning would bring a short run after breakfast to get to Birmingham, and the Barber Vintage Motorsports museum. I didn’t get down this way very often, and with the best collection of rare and competition motorcycles in the world less than 200 miles from Atlanta, and with a new motorcycle to break in… well, how could you not?

I had spotted a town on the map 9 to 10 miles short of the border, and Mitch – who drove on business a lot – confirmed that there were motels, gas and food out there.

I swung the ramp onto I-20 west, and Atlanta did the “get real small in the rearview” thaang. The bike slipped a perfectly shaped envelope of quiet and dry around me in the noise of the wind and the light rain and mist that continued to drift across the roadbed. I kept the velocity down, but the new horse stretched those long legs anyway and hummed the mileage away just like that. It’s at these moments that one is really tempted to keep the groove going and put a few more hundred on, but it wouldn’t have been safe and it wouldn’t have been responsible. I’d been in motion for nearly seventeen hours, and some sleep was the right thing to do.

The anticipated town showed up at the anticipated time, turned out to be called Bremen, Georgia, and contained one waffle house, three motels, a Wendy’s and a gas station/convenience store. This would take care of most of our short-term needs, anyway. I swung down the ramp and into the Chevron.

You sort of forget, after six or so months on smaller motorcycles. How big one of these things can feel on a dark interchange, on wet gravel, after a long day. I tiptoed across the median and up to the pumps.

Going into the station after fueling, I say hi and acknowledge the customary slack-jawed look that comes on at K12 ground station stops. That look comes, I think, from the combination of my vintage NASA style — grey Aerostitch with black armor and an all white helmet — and from having your own rocketship parked out at the pumps.

“Maaaaan. I ain’t NEVER seen no motorcycle like that before.”

I know the feeling. It’s what keeps my spirits up while I’m writing monthly checks for the thing.

Anyway, I got a few things I needed. A one quart bud. This is NOT my style but I was thirsty and tired, and it was all they had. Budcoorslightbuschmiller. I took the Bud. Its hell going through this world as a beer snob.

I had also had forgotten to bring a keychain. They had one – blue metalflake plastic with a Georgia peach.

So be it.

 

***

 

I got a take-out salad and rode up the hill to the motel with the plastic carrier bag hanging off my forearm.

I checked into the motel, got parked, locked, into the room and then got my gear off. I was pretty hungry by 11:30 at night, so I downed some water, the whole salad and a first glass of the beer before I drew breath a second time. After these several minutes or so, the need to go look at my new bike again was inexplicably compelling, so I went back out into the parking lot.

Apparently I was not the only one that felt the compulsion, because I was far from alone when I got there.

There were four guys – obviously riders, with the right boots, jeans and dewrags – all with bottles of beer and some variety of stunned look on their faces. We got to talking and they told me they had ridden in from Little Rock that day – at a tick shy of 600 miles, it was no small piece of riding. I could see, down at the other end of the parking lot, four parked cruisers, all relatively new, all well customized and well maintained, all of which looked to be Hondas with maybe a Yamaha thrown in. They wanted to know about the K’s engine, which isn’t really clearly visible in this bike, so we did details.

Everybody had at least one tale to tell of a quirky friend with airhead R75’s or R90’s of one sort or another.

“Bike ran smooth, lasted near forever.”

I know that guy. Heck, I am that guy. Those bikes were what had gotten me to this bike and this road tonight.

We had all spent some time riding in the rain that day, so they all wanted to see the windshield adjuster and the air control wings in action. I talked about how well the lowers kept one out of the slop, and talked about ABS, radials, and confidence in the rain. We had a real good time talking bikes and then we all turned in. They were headed, it seems, to Myrtle Beach for the weekend, and were, like me, gonna need some sleep.

I wished, in retrospect, we hadn’t talked about the rain quite as much as we did.

When I’m out on the road, all I watch is The Weather Channel.

L’il Abner, the famous comic strip by Al Capp, had a unique character called Joe Btsfplk, I think. Joe’s visual symbolism had him walk around under his own personal thundercloud, which rained, just on him and him alone, all the time.

Each morning and evening, as I watched The Weather Channel, and in the many miles where I had room to think, I thought about those four guys from Little Rock, and about Joe Btsfplk. My route from east to west and then back to east again appeared to jive magically with the motions of the rain fronts – I might punch though one going the opposite direction, but any incursion was going to be brief.

The boys from Little Rock though, were going the other way. Heavy rains followed them from Bremen to Myrtle, where the weekend storms were bad enough to make the news headlines. When they left Sunday, they may not have hit sunshine until they hit western Alabama or eastern Mississippi. Those four guys were the Joe Btsfplks of the road, with their own personal deluge attached to them as if by Velcro.

I know it can’t have been any kind of beach weekend for my buds, and it sure can’t have been any kind of ride other than a real tough one. I felt as bad as one could feel for a bunch of guys one had only just met. I sure hope they got home safely and that they didn’t spend too much time thinking about fairings with lowers or radials and ABS, just to make things feel worse than they already did.

 

***

 

As I was loading up in the morning, the four guys from Little Rock rolled out past me, and waves were exchanged.

They were dry then. That would be a state they would not see again for quite some time.

I rolled down the hill to the Waffle House, and did their signature breakfast, with a pecan waffle, two sage sausage patties, and two scrambled eggs, grapefruit juice and coffee. I figured if I did this, I could skip, say, the next seven or so meal stops.

Time to ride.

I got onto the ramp to I-20 at the top of third gear, and upshifted and gassed it. The day was bright, and there was the smell of earth and pines that snapped me back to full consciousness better than the coffee could ever hope to. I just hooked back into the K whine, and with the sun out and the pavement dry, I just wicked it up.

I had noticed during my morning walkaround, that my oil level looked a tad high, and my coolant level looked a tad low. This could be the sort of thing that was insignificant, or it could have been reaaaal significant. I figured I’d go through a full heat cycle and just take the time to stop and make sure that they levels were not continuing to “lose” coolant and “find” oil, which would have been a more or less immediate call for the truck for the nearest shop, which was in Birmingham.

As I figured I’d run long enough, the exit sign read Talladega Superspeedway, and I decided to combine new bike paranoia with 2 minute tourism. Besides, this track had quite the aura surrounding it, and I’d just want to see if I could feel the raceday buzz hanging in the air. On a more practical level, any place that is designed to support the vehicles needed to bring in more than a quarter million fans on NASCAR weekends was likely to have a nicely paved, secure spot for me to do my inspection.

roadtrip_0001

I zipped up the state highway that lead to the gate, and rolled into the scenic spot right under the monumental signage at the main gate. The scale of the place was huge, and you could feel the buzz as you took in the sweep of race flags and steel supports that literally filled the horizon. I got a picture of the new bike at the gate  –  SUPERSPEEDWAY!  – and completed my diagnostics. Although the oil level was unchanged, the catch bottle of the cooling system was again lower – nothing critical, but something to keep an eye on to see if we had a coolant leak.

Jam on.

 

***

 

With Talladega receding in the rearviews, I did my best to groove on pine smell and keep the four on the boil.

The time/distance computation had me rolling milliseconds later right into the parking lot at the Barber Motorsports museum before I could even conceive of wanting to stop riding for any reason.

roadtrip_0003

Note to self: Do not plan on morning runs on tour of less than 150 miles. With this bike it leads to profound feelings of ridus interruptus – like you’ve only had a half a candy bar or something – a eerie sense of something left maddeningly unfinished.

There were three more bikes in the lot – all BMWs. Another K1200lt, a R1150GS, and a R1150R. I guess BMW ownership somehow selects for owners clipping work on Fridays to ride long distance and hit bike museums.

roadtrip_0004

The Barber is a former dairy processing plant in an industrial neighborhood just east of downtown Birmingham. They’ve used a sweet 30’s Ariel single for their signage, but the place truly looks utterly unassuming from without.  One has almost no clue of the Biker Nirvana which sits just past the split door combination ticket window and leather jacket checkroom.

A nice fellow with a well managed white beard took my $5, and asked if he could take my helmet and Aerostich. I felt a little funny about having my riding gear checked – hatcheck girl style – and I was having real problems trying to imagine this burly rider as the hatcheck girl, too. There was a folding table in view with a few helmets sitting on it so I declined in as cheerful a manner as I could muster, and sat my stuff down over there with no help whatsoever, all by myself.

I rolled to my left and didn’t get any further than the first bike before my new diet of airborne bugs began. This time I did the slack-jawed idjit thing as I eyeballed one of Bubba Shobert’s competition RS750 Honda flattrackers. It wasn’t displayed in a case, or up on a pedestal. It was just sitting out in the open, on a pit stand on the linoleoum floor, just the first of about 25 or so race motorcycles that are lined up fairing to bar right inside the front door. A discrete sign asks that one resist the compulsion to stroke tanks, twist throttles, and bounce on the seats. With a large number of the bikes sitting where they could be touched or adversely affected by one’s dribble puddle, one does need to keep reminding oneself not to just reach out and lay hands on these unique and irreplaceable icons.

The next several hours are a blur of smiles of recognition, “OHMAHGAWD”s, and saying “ummm-ummm-ummm-ummmmm-ummmmmm” sounding just like BB King finishing a particularly spare and tasty solo. Too many motorcyclic holy grails can, frankly, give a guy a headache – and about two and a half hours of Barber had me seriously overstimulated.   It makes a certain sort of sense – think of it as the gearhead-specific version of heat stroke. The cerebral oil gets hot and thin, the cooling system stops keeping up, the system temperature starts to spike, and then you’re on the mental crash truck, done for the day.

I can’t begin to tell of all the wonders in this place in anything less than a whole book of its own. But I can hit a few personal high spots just to give you a taste. If you’re ever anywhere in say, the entire southeastern quarter of the US, and don’t scorch wheels to get inside the doors, you have no-one to blame but yourself.

They have a running, unrestored FN that is stuffed in a gallery which is closed to the public, having so many bikes in it one could not safely walk, but is completely surrounded by floor-to-ceiling glass so one can stare in at the wild stuff in the fishbowl.

They have a factory Bimota Tesi Hub Steerer, complete with what must have been display stands built for the Milan or Cologne shows. The frame fabrication work on that machine looks better than that of some sculptors I’ve seen.

There is a grouping of five Daytona winners, just stuck fairing to fairing in the middle of the floor, no ropes, no nothing.

There is MV Row – 5 MV Agusta Racing motorcycles representing 13 FIM World Championships between them. I stood with them and one could hear the howl of the DOHC Fours, feel the rush of acceleration and adrenaline, imagine the good weight of the trophy in your hands, taste the champagne. Talk about an out-of-body experience.

There is a small dual display of old enemies – matching Harley and Indian 8 valve board track racers from the earliest part of the last century. These were machines designed for all out speed with no thought for anything else – not steering, not stopping, not even living to race another day, if it meant losing. These machines have fixed carburetors – there is no throttle plate, no slide. The carb is designed to run WFO all the time. There are no brakes whatsoever – no fronts and no rears. What control there was was provided courtesy of an ignition kill switch similar to what was used in the radial rotary engines of the aircraft of the First World War. To modulate speed, one pressed on a piece of spring steel mounted on the handlebar. When the spring grounded on the handlebar, it turned the ignition circuit off, and the bike would slow. Take your finger off the spring and it was WFO again. Truly the earliest manifestation of the digital motorcycle – either on or off, everything or nothing, with nothing available in between.

Think about that for a while, then re-evaluate any tractability concerns you may have about your present motorcycle.

Of Course, those who could know tell me that the racers of the time never used that switch anyway. It’s not surprising that lots of people got killed, on a very regular basis, racing boardtrack.

Those bikes would be rude enough, if that was all there was, but that’s just the beginning. Neither bike has anything you’d really call an exhaust system. The Harley has the exhaust port in its cast iron cylinder head just dumping right into the atmosphere through an oval hole in the casting though which both exhaust valve stems can be seen with no exertion whatsoever. The Indian, always a more refined breed, has a set of slash cut pipes that are maybe 2 and a half inches long – just long enough to turn the flames downward the necessary 60 degrees to keep from setting one’s leathers on fire every second that the sucker was running.

Both bikes are hardtailed, with spring leather saddles like a racing bicycle’s. All of the valvegear – pushrods, rockers and valvestems – is outside the engine cases, and lubricated by a total loss oil pump that was operated by the rider with a plunger.

It’s no surprise that boardtrackers were in one big hurry to get to the checkered flag. Between having your hearing permanently shattered, being sprayed with hot oil, having a leather plank pounded up your ass, and having yellow and blue flames shooting right out the left side of the motor into your lap – getting to the line first was a matter not of competition, but of not wanting to spend one more second astride the beast than one had to, regardless of what anybody else on the track might have been doing at the time in question.

There are British bikes galore – ancient, rare and one-offs – Vincents, Nortons, Triumphs, Scotts, Norvins, Panthers, Brough Superiors, Sunbeams, Douglases, Ariels, Matchlesses and so it goes.

There is an entire room full of Yamaha race bikes, dozens of TZ250s and 350s, a handful of TZ750s, all stuffed into three display cases ten feet above the floor.

There are “Investment Biker” Jim Rogers’ around-the-world motorcycles – he’s a local boy. The bikes look completely spent and like if their wheels had gone round one more time they would fallen into their individual atoms.

There is a stunning complete and perfect condition collection of nearly every small displacement Ducati ever made. Of course the Barber has the Big Bore Ducs we all know, too. Tossed in for Italian spice are gem-like bikes made by Mazerati, several Moto Morinis, and the expected Motoguzzi Falcone and all of its later cousins with the twin that the company reused from a lightweight military 4 wheel drive contraption.

Beemers? Yeah, they got beemers. I suspect that the Barber and BMW NA have some sort of cozy relationship as a byproduct of the many unique bikes the museum supplied to BMW’s “The Art of the Motorcycle”. In addition to all of their classics – singles, sidecars, and many old twins – there are also two brand new bikes which exemplify the “beat of a different drummer” design theory the company now cleaves to – a checkerboard K12RS and a new R1150GS.

But enough, go visit the place. Or wait for me to write the book. But I keep raving on and on, I’ll never get my new K12 back to its garage.

The previously mentioned hirsute hat check girl was kind enough to take a picture of me with “my favorite bike”. When he asked me pick one, I had a sort of petit-mal seizure at the mere thought of having to select one from the hundreds there. I pulled my Aerostich on, and eventually got a portrait using MV Row for a backdrop.

roadtrip_0005

When I got outside, I got a brief look at the rainstorm that was heading for its rendezvous with the guys from Little Rock. It looked genuinely threatening, but I just had the feeling if I could beat it out of town, it might be the last I’d see of it. With the sssshripp of a few strategic pieces of Velcro located on my suit and my gauntlets, I got back in the saddle, slammed through downtown Birmingham, and found US78 headed out across Northwestern Alabama and from there into Mississippi. I hit a few brief sprinkles while headed out of town, then broke clear into a unexpectedly and unseasonably cool and cloudy day. Birmingham quickly dissolved into seeming endless green rolling hills. I found a CD with some Allman Brothers Band on the changer, cued up Ramblin’ Man, and put that hammer down.

I ran till I ran out of gas – the tank I’d taken on with my peach keychain in Bremen, Georgia. The sign said Tupelo, Mississippi, and I coasted off the interchange and into a gas-and-convenience-store joint. I tanked up, and got my road usual.

That’s something which I guess bears some explaining, and along with that, the proper assignment of blame.

The first time I ever went traveling on a motorcycle, I took an R75/5 from Baltimore to Albuquerque. In the middle of day 2 of a three-day transcontinental blast, my riding partner and I stopped at a McDonalds in Okhahoma City, right across from tinker Air Force Base. Eating one’s lunch looking out the window at a B-52 that’s been mounted like a kid’s model airplane and looks like its coming right at you is not the sort of thing that says “whyncha relax and set a spell.” So we pounded fast food and boogied back for the bikes.

For lunch, I think I had something like two quarter-pounders with cheese.

And some fries.

And a Coke.

What happened next was extreme, and bike-life changing.

Riding across Oklahoma does not have to be a relaxing thing. In this particular case, headed West on I-40, with a constant 35 m.p.h. wind coming out of the southwest, it certainly was not. Our bikes were having to maintain a 25 degree list to maintain a straight heading against this quartering wind, and frankly, we were getting the living shit beaten out of us by this road, this day.

Exertion, massive amounts of ground beef, and caffeinated drinks are an optimally lousy combination. Although I know this now, I didn’t know it then. The amount of blood and energy that one ties up in the gut trying to digest a coupla these gut bombs is sufficient to starve off other important muscles and oh, also, your brain.

At the border between Oklahoma and Texas, there is a rest area that says that Interstate highway engineers know that this place was notable because of wind. The picnic tables had wind deflectors made of stone and corrugated steel. We rolled in, killed switched ’em, yanked our helmets and lay down on the benches behind the stone wall.

There have been very few times in my life where I have seriously considered suicide, but this was definitely one of them.

We didn’t take our own lives, and we didn’t die, either.

So after a long time without moving or speaking, listening to the shriek if the prairie wind, my riding partner and I slowly came back to ourselves, and the reality that our destination was still 400 or so miles to the west, and that those motorcycles were the only way to get there from the godforsaken here.

Once we got west of Tucumcari, the environment eased up on us, spirits raised a bit, but the lesson of those West Texas stones never left me.

Hence, “the road usual”.

When riding long distances, I never eat anything that I need to work to digest. A good breakfast in the a.m. just feeds into light snacks like nuts, cheese or jerky and lots of fluids – juices, iced tea – never Cokes. So “the road usual” is usually a small pouch of cashews, some cheese and crackers and one or two Snapple Peach Teas. Fill up the bike, eat a “road usual”, empty the rider, and ride another 250 miles.

It’s a system.

Anyway, there I was, in Tupelo, Mississippi, finishing off the “road usual”, and then throttling up and rolling the Big K back toward the highway.

On the shoulder opposite the gas station entrance was a state highway marker.

“Elvis Birthplace. 2.5 miles”

“Aw, heck,” I thought. “I’m on nobody else’s schedule, and to pass it by must be some sort of criminal act.”

So I rolled under the interstate, and through the village of Tupelo. After passing the two gas stations, the diner and a grocery, there was another State Highway Tablet pointing me left onto a side street. I slowed to a walking pace as the street led though a residential neighborhood to small, green park. In the middle of the park, among several weeping willow trees, was an absolutely tiny, stark white little building.

roadtrip_0006

A front porch, an open door, a front room, a back room and you were out in the back yard again. When those who would tell the tale of Elvis’ life say humble – speaking of the house in which he was born – they do the house a favor it does not really deserve. I’ve spent a little time with travel trailers – we joke about being trailer trash – and trailer trash looks like a big step up from this little house. That from this beginning, this man could end up as a king in this world is a surreal story. And looking though the windshield at this tiny little house really drove the message home in a way that reading about it – even here – never can.

I sat there for a few minutes – drinking in the place, savoring the flavor. There’s a small bronze of an 8 year old Elvis with a first guitar – a sweet fantasy. I shook myself back awake from the reverie, and decided it was time to catch my mystery train.

Memphis was calling.

So we come right back to where we started.

We’ve done it right here. And we do it every time.

So I’m rolling up Lamar Boulevard with “Memphis in the Meantime” pumpin, the big river just ahead, and the end of the day’s ride in sight. I pulled into the Days Inn on the river where I had made my reservation. I pulled my bike under their porch, next to the end of a line of Harley Glides – Wide, Low and Cow.

“No worries, here. This will be the last bike stolen, if they start to go.”

A nice lady with full southern twang processed me in, gave me the scoop on the day’s “Memphis in May” activities, and told me how to hook up with the free shuttle that ran between the joint and the base of Beale Street.

Forty minutes or so later, I’d had a nice hot shower, a smoke, pulled the top level kinks out of my neck, and found a fresh polo shirt and a clean pair of jeans. I hopped the elevator downstairs, glid out the door into a waiting van, spent 40 seconds or so in reverse appreciation of Memphis pavement and the related happy thought of my $800 magnesium wheels parked safely elsewhere, and then alighted on the End of Beale Street its Bad Self.

I know what I like, and BB King’s Beale Street Blues Club is on the short list. The food is good, the bartenders know why you ordered your drink and pour accordingly, and the waitresses represent the frothy whipped crème skimmed from the top of Memphis’ Genie Bottle of Female Beauty. I don’t want to belabor the point, but I shudder to think about the hiring process for hostesses and waitresses at BB’s – it seems like everybody that works there is built to the same formula. These lovelies are tall, with long, long legs. Curvy – voluptuously so, wonderfully spherical everywhere it’s desirable. Long hair, smooth faces… These dark honey colored maidens are almost enough to keep your attention off the music, but not quite.

roadtrip_0011

The music is always top notch, whether its local boys or national touring acts. The instrumentation is pretty consistent – there’s a big Hammond B-3 on the right side of the stage, and the vibrato chording is at the heart of my understanding of the Memphis sound. There’s horn guys – saxophones, trumpets, trombones — wailin’. One or two guitar players – having to share the space with many framed photos of the boss in his transports of the blues, and replicas and precursors of “Lucille” – BB’s guitar – hanging on the walls everywhere. And a constant parade of singers – Men, Women – all excellent, with the guts and the gravel that also are the Memphis hallmarks. I have never seen anybody in that club that didn’t give it everything they had and a little more besides, and that didn’t leave me wrung out, sweaty and breathless when it was over.

So it was another night in BB’s on Beale Street – I was seated in the corner window overlooking Beale to the right of the stage, and there was as much goin’ on outside the window as there was inside. The singer that night was wonderful, a woman that liked to swap outfits and musical genres with equal regularity and startling facility. She was dripping wet with exertion and spent a lot of time wading into the audience, dancing with and hugging the patrons and talking with folks on-mike in between numbers. After she had done this a half dozen times, and the average age was about 78, and the average home zip code worked out to just west of Oslo, Norway, I had something I like to think of as “an aversion experience”.

The aversion experience occurs when the essential incongruity or distastefulness of the situation looms larger than the situation itself. If the “AE” has a motto, it would be “Icky, Icky, Icky!”

BB King, the man, is someone that I admire and love in the same way that many look at folks like the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa – he shows the obvious sign of the operation of the divine spirit in the material world.

But in BB’s that night, I ickyed.

“Oh my god,” I thought, “BB’s isn’t a blues club anymore… it’s become a theme park for strange old white people who speak Scandinavian. I gotta go.”

roadtrip_0015

I paid off for my steak and crawfish and the few beers, and headed down Beale towards where the street performers were working an impromptu stage under the marquis of a movie theater. Two guys were getting’ gritty with a steel top guitar, a harmonica and some spoons. They sang a few numbers in a way that tolerated some help from me, and a I felt real good after dropping a few bucks in the guitar case and heading back towards the end of the street where I could catch a ride back to a bed that was starting to seem like a good idea to the body that had ridden 500 plus miles that day.

I spent a few minutes looking in the windows of “Elvis Presley’s Memphis” at a rockabilly band that brought the Ickies back in one big hurry. It was time to sleep, and be ready for the road in the morning.

 

***

 

Cheap hotels all do the same thing in the morning. There’s a table somewhere off the lobby with some coffee. Some Orange juice. A few boxed doughnuts. And if you’re lucky, maybe some yogurts, some cereal and some fruit. This one was cheap, this one was no exception, and two danishes and some juice and coffee later my bike was headed up the onramp again.

Today was a day for making tracks, and western Tennessee is good for that. I beat feet up US79, another sterling example of a 4 lane US limited access highway. Flat to rolling green country, very few and gentle curves – good for bringing the bike up on the pipe and running up top. The bike was now showing about 8,000 miles on the odo, and after one evening and one day of gentle running, it was time to really seat those rings.  On acceleration onto the highway, fully warmed, I started shifting the bike at about 7,000 rpm, letting the big K show off the whole rush that it had available, and then settling in at a cruise RPM of around 4200 – good for about 95 indicated BMW miles per hour, or about 85 real miles per hour.

A bit more than an hour later, I came to the cut-off for the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. The skinny on this place is that the Army Corps of Engineers now runs a pair of Hydroelectric Dams on two formally parallel rivers that became two huge hydro lakes. When the lakes were created, they turned the land between them into an isolated wilderness, and the Federal Government paid to have the families there relocated because it had become too inaccessible. Their loss is our gain, as the wilderness area is now where the National Park Service has its mother herd of breeding bison for supporting the rest of the parks. So if you elect to take your bike there, just be aware that there are several corners towards the southern end of the park where you could conceivably pick ‘er up out of a corner to see a thundering herd of bison in view. SO keep your cool and hold your line, they are behind fences to keep you from having to tangle with the tonnage, but the sound and the dust are real.

The LBL road – there is only one and could really only be one – is about 40 miles of gently curving road that is a touring or sporting rider’s delight. It connects the historical areas – old farms, a church and graveyards – and the many camping and fishing locations that now make up the park. On my trip, I had the experience of coming up behind a huge double column of Harleys at the southernmost entrance to the area. The troop contained perhaps 60-80 riders, running nose to tail, side by side, and at maybe 45 miles per hour. I stalked them for 5 or 6 corners, and when a long straight came up, I shifted down to second gear and rolled her WFO. In less than a second, I had done almost half of them, and by the time the count of 3 came up, I had already swing the K back into my lane, shifted up to 4th and was trying to gradually scrub off speed while at the same time ensuring that a meaningful gap opened up between myself and my gleamingly chromed yet agonizingly slow riding brethren. I have no doubt that some of them gave me colorful new nicknames that day, and I understand how that might have happened, but had I not done the 80 hawg pass, I might be somewhere in Kentucky, still trying to get home.

As rolling thunder slowly disappeared from my rearview mirrors, I settled into a wonderfully relaxing rhythm of lefts and rights, punctuated by an occasionally tighter corner that would make me have to apply a little more English, obtain a little more lean, and the gas it, grin, and start again. Despite the mass of this motorcycle, I felt like the wing-footed God of so many motorbike magazine stories. All in all, I likely averaged higher than the 50 MPH speed limit that I remember, but it was safe, sane and plenty of fun. It was a little jewel that shone in the middle of this day, and it was not a happy sight when the dams appeared in the distance ahead.

Right outside the top of the Federal area, one picks up the Western Kentucky Parkway, which is a wonderfully maintained, scenic, fast and safe road. The goal was to make miles that day, and miles were made. I achieved that wonderful zen-like state with the “aooooooooummmmm” coming from the sound of the motor echoing back from the lands we were traveling through.

The Western Kentucky becomes the Blue Grass Parkway at one point but little else changes about the road. I remember coming out of warp long enough to do a short stretch of controlled access roadway coming through Lexington, and being sore amazed by the farms, buildings and lands owned by the breeders of thoroughbred horses. Round white and green painted barns, bright in the sunshine, standing out from the background of the bluegrass. The animals themselves – looking mythological with impossible mixtures of grace, speed, awareness and power. Brilliantly white painted rail fencing stretching out to the horizon.

I suspect this is an okay place to be a horse.

Back out of Lexington, it’s Interstate 64, and it’s a race to the Ohio River, to Huntington West Virginia, and to beat the sunset to the parking lot. As 64 beats east, the terrain gets more mountainous and technical – big sweepers start making their appearance. Its maybe a hundred and twenty miles up to Huntington, and coming after the first 500 miles of your day, its going to tell a lot about what kind of motorcycle this is, and what kind of rider I am. But I feel loose and relaxed in the saddle, the bike is handling with precision and agility in this fast curvy mountain terrain, and my constant time/distance mental math tells me we’ll beat the sun to the Ohio river by about half an hour, give or take.

The nice folks at the Huntington Holiday Inn are kind enough to let me pull the bike up on the sidewalk just outside their main entrance, where it is visible from the reception desk. I check the odometer — its 600 miles in round numbers for the day. The desk folk recommend a pub which is right across from the hotel. I grab a quick shower and cross the street.

I am no stranger to the town of Huntington, West Virginia. By one of those strange violations of the laws of probability and space/time, my high school roommate’s – a man from Huntington, West Virginia — best friend was the roommate of my best friend in College. So this guy, that I had heard tales about for 2 years, shows up coincidentally in my first dorm party in college. A small world moment. People from Baltimore take these small world moments in stride though, ‘cause in Baltimore — jokingly referred to for this reason as Smalltimore — the social threads are always coming back together in weird, unanticipated and sometimes distasteful, disquieting ways.

So I grabbed a booth in the aforementioned pub, which was a temple to the athletic prowess of hometown Marshall University. I had a small steak and a salad and Two Bass ales which I must admit felt real good going down. I went back to the room, phoned the girlfriend and the kids, and thought about getting home. There is a tiny bit of West Virginia less than ten miles from my house, but there was nearly 400 miles of West Virginia in between that point and this. John Denver was right about West Virginia, tomorrow’s ride would be heaven, and getting home was starting to sound pretty good. I slept the sleep of the righteous that night.

 

***

 

The next morning’s Weather Channel gab looked a little unsettled. It was going to be a question of luck and timing as to whether I’d get drowned wet this day. There was a strong set of storms along a front that was moving east to west, on a track that ran roughly from Myrtle Beach to Little Rock. Given what I’d seen this far from the Joe Bltsflks of the Road Motorcycle Club, it just figured.

I-64 East from Huntington to Charleston is just like I-64 west of Huntington, except that one is climbing back away from the river, instead of heading down towards it. Once one rounds Charleston, though, things change rather markedly, and this change is altogether positive, and frankly why we came home this way.  Interstate 79 is a relatively recent addition to the Interstate Highway Inventory – only having been completed around 1980 or so. It is a high tech road design, and if someone didn’t know, one might think you were in Switzerland, with north and southbound roadbeds, in some places, built on opposite sides of mountain and stream valleys.  There are marked grades, and wonderfully designed corners that, in the fat part of the K-bike’s top gear, are as close to a racetrack handling experience as any sane person should ever attempt on an 800+ pound motorcycle. The bike and I were achieving wondrous leans at speed, and it felt perfectly stable and perfectly rigid at these high levels of cornering load. After about 40 miles of this high intensity Interstate, I hit a rest area to admire the view and to check my equipment.

At the rate of speed I had been maintaining, my brand new front tire was getting absolutely shredded – there was a visible zone to the left and right sides of the tire where the cornering loads were just vaporizing the tire – folks that go to racetracks know exactly what this looks like, with rubber shedding off the tire like black lint at the tread edges. I resolved to adopt a bit mellower pace, on the grounds that conserving a new front tire was probably advisable. After backing off about 7 MPH, and checking again 20 miles up the road, the rapid erosion had stopped. Unknown to me, tire temperatures were about to completely stop being a problem.

At Weston, West Virginia, I left the interstate highway system for the rest of the trip, and got into what was the most pleasant and technical riding of the road so far. Mid-atlantic bikers all know about US33, and the wonderful roads that run off from it in the Monongahela National Forest. Now that I’ve told you, of course, I am going to have to kill you. The mountains here get as high as they ever do east of the Mississippi, and the old National Forest Roads with their motorcycle friendly bordering stone walls have grade after grade, switchback after switchback, and views that if you succumb to gazing at them, will surely result in you’re becoming part of them permanently and your immediate demise, in that order. These are assuredly not roads for the inexperienced or the timid, that is for sure. There were several times that after working through a sequence of several corners I’d end up set up for the 7th or 8th one in a way that just wasn’t going to work, and I’d end up mentally dope-slapping myself, jamming the brakes and a downshift, and rolling the throttle and trying to mentally clench myself back into the proper state of total focus.

A few miles before 33 runs out of steam at Seneca Rocks, it opens back up into a straight open road. As I boosted off the top of one hill, the sky above the next one went suddenly black, and the cars coming in the other direction went suddenly very wet. When the road entered a small town, there was 2-3 inches of water running in the streets, but the rain had already stopped. Coming in off the highway into town and hitting the standing water produced a bow wave and roostertail just like a water skiing tow boat, very scenic and unnecessarily exciting. And that’s how I spent the rest of my day…chasing rainstorms. The rains were localized, heavy, and whenever I got to one, it had already gone. After a while, it got downright spooky. I mean, one expects that in a day of scattered showers, you’re always going to do some serious getting rained on — it just is part of the deal. When it goes just the other way – I never did get rained on – it just seems unnatural, is all. So I spent a lot of time on wet or extremely wet roads that day, but never did get rained on.

The road, as it comes into Seneca Rocks, starts to really tighten up. The highway follows an old creek bed, and it winds and winds and hardly makes any headway in a specific direction. It sure is fun on motorcycles, but I suspect it isn’t much good for actually getting places, at least with any kind of efficiency.

When I got to Seneca Rocks, it was really time to stretch some, so the bike went on the sidestand in the parking lot that sits at the base of the rocks, I fished out a cheesy digital camera that a vendor at work had dropped off, and walked the trail, saw the rocks and took some shots. I think I even smoked a cigarette, which is something I hardly ever do, but stimulants seemed to be something that might prove increasingly necessary as the road took me towards home.

West Virginia 55 is a lovely little road that I also probably shouldn’t tell you about, but I’ve blown it now. It’s a tight, technical road that follows streams and canyons through Pendleton, Grant and Hardy Counties. For at least 60 miles, I never got into top gear, and was spending most of my time with the revs up in third. 55 hardly ever straightens out, and I did get into the zone, just enjoying the road, my lines, the fact that the sun had finally reappeared, and not wanting this run to ever end. Given that speeds were down, and that this little snake of a road probably takes 10 linear miles of switchbacks and sweepers to cover 4 crow-flies miles, for a while it seemed like it never would, too.

55 finally crosses over into Virginia at Middletown, near where Interstates 81 and 66 meet. I went up 81 for one or two exits to pick up US340, which leads though Frederick, Clark and Loudoun Counties straight to my front door, Every great bike trip I’ve ever had ends up on this road –I end up decompressing and playing back the road joy as home and my sweet girl come back into focus. That last hour on 340 – my first run to Memphis, my trips to the Georgia Mountain Rallies, the Skyline Drive rides, my day out with Glen and the sportbike crew – they’ve all ended here. I’ve done this run so many times I have pet names for individual bumps and bits of gravel. Now if you ride more than a little you know familiarity is not your friend – you’re more likely to get whacked someplace you feel comfortable and secure – so after 1700 miles of mountains, these straight runs through meadowlands were probably the most hazardous of the trip.

Then, the sidestand, the driveway and an amazing and total quiet after the kill switch. I walked around the bike, which after its pristine cleanliness at the beginning of this ride was hard to see in the road grime, mud and bugs of the last few days. Badges of honor, all, and surely signs of more to come. A large puddle of water formed under a vacuum line under the right saddlebag – a K-bike quirk that was a mystery to me at the time. The line pulls vacuum through the fuel evaporative emissions system canister. It’s a great idea in a car, where the inlet can be shielded from the weather somewhere. But on a BMW motorcycle – which inevitably involves a stupid BMW bike guy that doesn’t know enough to stop riding when it really starts to rain – its probably not such a great idea. Said Stupid BMW bike guys inevitably shitcan the entire system as soon as the bike comes out of warrantee. What has happened to mine subsequently is something we shall not discuss.

Anyway, having been running in standing water for at least 300 miles of the day, my new K bike had snuffled up quite the snorkleful of water, and looked like nothing more than a really big dog marking territory – “sssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss”.

“Geez,” I thought to myself, “I hope it doesn’t always do that.”

But that driveway was its territory, and the appropriateness of the gesture had a certain resonance and humor for me. Both me, and that bike, were home.

The big K, which I now jokingly refer to as “Darkside” is out there still, has been down 30,000 miles of road since that day, and is likely to be out there till hell has its own hockey team unless some misfortune befalls one or other of us, for it has turned into another trusted and faithful friend of the road.

And just in case you were wondering, you can keep a bike too clean – the front wheel bearing sets were degreased dry and had to be repacked at the first tire change.

Now that one story is written, another story needs to be ridden, to be lived. I’ve put in my time, tweaking wheels and brakes, changing fluids and making subtle adjustments. Tires are fresh, oil is clean, the tent checks out and the machine is as ready as I am for the road.

BB’s does make a mean fried peanut butter and banana sandwich, and one is starting to sound awful good right now. Is Colorado on the way to Memphis?

It’s Go Time….

WP_20151006_09_41_22_Pro 1

My K Bike is completely fettled.

We’ve got fresh tires, clean oil, flushed brake and hydraulic clutch circuits, clean gear oil in the trans and final drive and a new battery.

It’s at times like these I find myself wondering why German motorcycles have soooooo many separate fluids that require maintenance.

Heck, I even sprang for a new farkle-let on what is a very largely farkle-free motorcycle — a USB charging port that plugs into the BMW power plugs, to keep the smart phone working.

Thursday morning, I go wheels up to make the blast from Jefferson to Leeds, Alabama — home of the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum and home to the Barber Vintage Festival.

Don’t know if I’ll manage to make the 700+ miles in one day, but I aims to find out.

The FIM-approved Racetrack at Barber will host a full calendar of Historic Racing, the Century Race for motorcycles older than one hundred years, Vintage Bikes on display, a swap meet the size of Delaware, and more old motorcycle fun than Doan’s has little back pills.

I’m completely stoked.

Expect lots of pictures and a few ripping yarns in the coming days.

Stay tuned.

Lovesong of the Flying Brick

1999_BMW_K1200LT_VD70677__Engine__id_215588_04

Is it wrong to love an engine?

If you’re a BMW motorcycle guy, is it an even bigger sin if that engine isn’t a boxer twin?

Are Airhead engines sufficiently sentient to know if you’re ‘cheating’ on them?

“Dude”, you’re thinking, “You’ve got an awful lot of questions.”

“Got any answers?”

The only job of a motorcycle engine is to move the motorcycle its installed in down the road. Seems obvious enough, but how it completes that task is an ingredient that could be used to bake a baker’s dozen motorcycle books.

Now there are lots of guys that will tell you that way too much is never enough. These are guys that think that tire-shredding, burnout producing, ‘wheelies-in-all-five-gears’ power is the only kind of power.

I’m not one of those guys.

Don’t misunderstand me. There are lots of sporting applications where too much and then some is exactly what you want.

Prostock drag racing?

Check.

AMA superbike?

Possibly.

But for motorcycles operated on the street, especially for transportation, rather than sporting applications, its not so much how much power an engine can deliver, but the quality of how that power is delivered.

Hold on to the hate mail, peoples — I know this zip code doesn’t have a lot of neighbors.

***

Its funny how a single extended family of engineers can be so damned consistent.

I’ve ridden briefly in other people’s BMW automobiles, and my limited sample supports the notion of a ‘corporate standard torque curve’.

The CEO of a small company I worked for long ago had a very anonymous looking grey BMW sedan parked outside his office window. The Big Boss was a very conservative management type who had gotten to the corner office as the finance guy. One day, after I had seen him eyeballing my R90S out in the parking lot, he uncharacteristically asked me and one of my managers to lunch.

“So,” he asked coyly, “So you know about bikes. Do you know anything about cars?”

As we walked up to the car, he stuck his key in the trunk lock, and it was just as the lid started to rise I noticed the discrete “M5” badge against the grey paint.

Inside the trunk, it was like F1 Disneyland. There were color anodized aluminum bracing structures everywhere — all with holes of various radii cut into billet. The battery was in the rearmost portion of the right fender — there was a dry sump oil tank and color coded lines in the same position on the left. The strut towers were connected with more billet bracing, and I remember more color — mostly Gold — on the strut units themselves.

“Let’s go for a ride. Buckle your seat belt.”

Never let the countenance of someone who appears to be The Alpha Accountant throw you off the scent of a motor maniac. As the very junior member of this crew, I was in the back seat. Our offices were in a part of Northern Virginia that still could be called rural at that time, and as soon as we left the parking lot and the wheels were straight, The Boss took the accelerator smoothly to the floor.

God is not directly involved in the action of internal combiustion in this world.

But if he was, he would be paying particular attention to the straight six motor of that M5. I don’t recall any wheelspin, but I remember thinking that this was likely a lot like what the Space Shuttle felt like on the gas — I was pressed back into the seat with what felt like several Gs, and I couldn’t get away from thinking that this was the Hand of God himself felt like if he was into acceleration — omnipresent, omnipotent, and getting bigger the longer one engaged with it.

Our company’s Big Guy was customarily an all-bidnizz, humorless sort, but as we made the shift into third gear, and with it, hyperspace, he was in full kid-at-Christmas, laughing out loud, full being joy mode — a man completely transformed.

It was my first drink from the well of Big Bavarian torque.

After many years of trying to get it sorted, that R90S that bossman had been eyeing finally came 100% on the pipe, and I found it lived there , too.

A buddy of mine scored a leased car for a steal — a gorgeous jet black /7 series. It had an M series set of factory widened rear wheels that cost more than both my airheads combined.

Another lunchime ride, another Millenium Falcon experience.

These “Legendary German Engineers”, it seemed, had a thing for “Torque Directly from the Hand of God” that seemed to inhabit and animate their products across models and even across different vehicles. I have no question that their former Aircraft engines and their marine engines all tap into this when they’re in their happy zone and on the gas. Folks have also told me stuff about their European market performance diesels that seem to support this idea, and perhaps take it to another, incomprehensible level.

***

And that is what brings me to the K1200 longtitudinally oriented, transversely rotating, sideways mounted 4 cylinder engine — lovingly referred to as the last of the ‘Flying Brick’ motors.

BMW Motorcycles are famous for many things. They are also be infamous for a somewhat smaller number of things. One of those things is that the first version of a product that hits the market is never perfect. Another one of those things is that development of that intial concept continues — doggedly, methodically — until it has been brought as close to perfection as anyone could possibly expect.

The BMW K series engines and motorcycles were first introduced to the market in 1983. The design was, in almost every way, revolutionary. There are tales of a test mule that used a Peugeot automobile engine mated to the driveline of a BMW boxer twin that was used to test the basic design concept. Once the basic configuration was found to be sound on the road, the design of a BMW engine and driveline could begin.

The starting point for the engine design was BMW’s Formula 2 4 cylinder racing engine, which had a reputation for bulletproof reliability when being run near redline for long periods of time. The Formula 2 engine — which displaced 2 liters — was scaled to 50 percent to acheive a displacement of 1000 ccs.

The K100 motorcycle’s 4 cylinder, water cooled engine was inline in the frame, with the engine laid over 90 degrees to the left, so that the cylinder heads of the engine were next to the rider’s left boot, and the crankshaft next to the rider’s right boot. This orientation, with the engine rotating transversely to the frame, unlike all contemporary inline fours, whose flywheels rotated inline with the wheels, maintained the roadholding and stability characteristics of BMW’s twins.

The engine, also in contrast to many of its contemporaries, was undersquare, with a longer stroke than its cylinder bore — this was a design necessity as every millmeter of bore added several millimeters to the overall length of the motorcycle, which was already long to begin with. This design imperative — make the engine short enough to fit in the motorcycle, even if it means an undersquare design — ended up creating the K-engine’s most significant feature — torque at every RPM.

Instead of a traditional frame, the engine was used as a stressed member, with steering head and rear subframes mounted directly to the motor. Power transmission was, as with BMW’s boxers, via a 5 speed transmission via driveshaft running in line with the engine crank down a swingarm on the right side of the motorcycle. Unique to the K-bike, though was that the swingarm was single sided – first via Monolever, and later via Paralever, which added an anti-torque reaction link, which controlled the rise and fall of the suspension under drive. Induction was via electronically managed fuel injection, which fed a very conventional 2 valve overhead camshaft cylinder head. Exhaust was via a one piece stainless steel exhaust system, with tuned headers and a catalytic converter.

Cars of this period were seeing such features coming into widespead use, but in motorcycles the combination of liquid cooling, fuel injection and catalytic exhaust was at the time completely unprecidented. The subsequent model year BMW introduced a three cylinder varient — the K75 — that used the same components and engine internal dimensions, with an added balance shaft, to acheive a 750 cc displacement.

Revolutionary advances almost always bring with them unforeseen consequences, and the K-motored motorcycles were no exception. The stressed member construction meant that any engine vibration was transmitted directly to the rider. The 3 cylinder K75s, with their balance shafts, became noteworthy as the smoother operating engine of the family.

The bike’s fuel injection system used an overdelivery and return line system where fuel that was not injected was returned from the injection rail to the fuel tank. In this process, unused fuel served as kind of a secondary coolant, with the fuel picking up more and more engine heat the longer the motorcycle was operated. Given the K-bike’s single wall aluminum fuel tank, filling it with hot fuel, combined with some less than optimum airflow coming from the bike’s cooling system radiators, made the bikes uncomfortably hot to ride, espcially in places like Texas and the American Southwest. It’s easy to understand how this might not have been noticable in the cool, damp German development test environment, but it didn’t make having one’s privates roasted if you were operating the bike in an American summer any more enjoyable.

The original K’s K-jetronic fuel injection used a mass airflow sensor — which placed a flap into the manifold airstream — to measure the velocity of air entering the engine. In practice, the sensor, expecially when dirty, became an impediment to air actually entering the engine, further slowing throttle response that was already not entirely thrilling.

17 years — which is the length of time between the introduction of the Flying Brick and the production of my K1200LT’s engine — is a virtual eternity in terms of engine development. And that eternity was more than sufficient to take the faults of the first K100 engines and correct them. The result, in my humble and completely biased opinion, is one of the most excellent motorcycle engines ever produced, and likely one of the most unappreciated.

BMW went after the faults of the orginal bikes and slayed them one by one. The 1988 introduction of the K1 — an oddball bike that was part top speed streamliner and part sport bike — introduced a more modern 4 valve cylinder head. Bosch components introduced a new FI system — the Motronic — to replace the K-Jetronic — and went to a more modern closed loop with hot wire air sensor system that ditched the mass airflow sensor flap. The combination produced an engine with markedly better throttle response and a really noticable power step when the flow impacts of the 4 valve heads kicked in at about 5500 rpm. All these improvements — as well as a new AntiLock Braking system — were then adapted from the K1 and shared with the rest of the K-bike line.

Engineers kept revisiting the engine’s displacement and internal dimensions, and continued to eke increases out of the tiny spaces with which they had to work — using methods like thinner cylinder walls and higher speed coolant pumps to shrink the dimensions of the cooling jackets until the original 67mm bore and 70mm stroke of the K100 had been maxed out to the 70.5mm x 75mm of the K1200 series. I remember reading an analysis of the K12 engine in a motorcycle magazine — it might have been Kevin Cameron — who observed that the long 75mm stroke, combined with the bike’s 8750 rpm redline, produced a piston speed that was the highest one that had ever been measured in any production street engine, car or bike.

history3

The K12 series engineers also made several additional changes that took the Bricks from quirky machines to fully developed, optimized products. As appealing as the frameless design had been, it was simply not sufficient for the increased power and suspension loads made possible by modern radial tires. The K12 motorcycles adopted a cast aluminium frame that was rigid enough to do anything that was asked of it — and with it the amount of vibration that reached the rider was reduced to effectively zero. That frame was combined with modern full wrap bodywork that engineered both the flow of heated air from the radiators away from the rider, as well as allowed for an insulated shroud around the fuel tank that also kept cockpit temperatures comfortable.

history4

BMW’s engineers, in short, spent a decade and a half completly developing the K-series engine, which simultaneously creating motorcycles that made the best of that powerplant while shielding the rider from their negative personality traits.

Which brings me back to that engine.

An old racer I knew once told me, “It doesn’t make any sense to make more power than you can get to the ground.”

And its exactly that thinking that defines how the K12 LTs behave on the road.

At any sensible engine speed, opening the throttle produces as much torque and acceleration as is possible to use outside of a short, police officer induced trip to jail. A total of 90 some foot pounds isn’t huge, in an ultimate sense, but it is more than sufficient to move these bike’s significant mass in a pretty authoritative manner. The evenness of the torque delivery is also striking — at no point in the curve does it produce less than about 72 foot pounds. These characteristics, when combined with the smoothness of the engine and frame unit, makes the bike sneaky fast — there’s very little sensation of speed, but there definitely is speed.

I posted a ride report to the Internet BMW Riders after my initial test ride. Reading it again today its clear that all of this was gobsmackingly obvious after about five miles in the saddle. Being a bit of a geek, the combination of a very pronounced intake shriek and the sensation of being launched made me think of Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter from the first Star Wars movie. I spoke of being seduced…..by the Dark Side. Apparently, a lot of folks understood exactly what I meant.

Overall, it is that sense of effortless fitness for purpose, refinement and huge thrust that marks the whole K12 experience. The length and mass of the engine and its placement forward in the frame loads the front tire to a degree that makes the bikes extremely sure footed. The evenness of power delivery and careful selection of flywheel mass create a power delivery character that is tractible in every way — one is completely in control of what is happening at the rear contact patch — and the bike makes complete use of all the power it puts out.

I’ve ridden K12s in LT and RS configurations back to back, and I’m not going to tell you that the RS isn’t fun, because it sure as hell is. There is more power and more torque, but it is located further up the powerband. The rider can go from things happnening fast to what-just-happened-there-crazy-fast, but you have to have the skills and discipline to keep your revs up to enjoy the whoosh. The LT trades some of the top end for a flatter curve, and for more thrust off the bottom. For a Sunday sport rider, the RS is a treat — for everything else — the torque tuning of the LT engine is more flexible and more versatile. There is no wrong gear on a backroad — its just twist and go whereever you happen to be.

The cruise behavior of the engine is a revelation, as well. There is a designed in ‘sweet spot’ at the engine’s torque peak just under 4000 rpm. At this rpm there is almost no vibration, making tank-to-tank riding possible, yet as everywhere else, a turn of the throttle makes everyone else on your road select relative reverse, and brings the horizon up stat. If you’re in more of a hurry than that, a smart downshift gets one instantly to the very top of the engine’s output, and then one gets a dose of the motor’s signature intake howl and had better have a long stretch of open pavement firmly in view, because the here/there transition will occur with Sci-fi abruptness.

Cruising at 5000 rpm in top really brings out the engine’s inner racing monster… engine sound is full-on racetrack, throttle response improves, and counterintuitively, the fuel economy improves as the 4 valve head hits its flow happy zone. Problem is, if you’re going to do this a lot, you’re going to go through a lot of tires, and you should make sure that your bail money is stashed at home where someone can easily find it, because any subsequent conversation with the constable is going to be somewhat unpleasant.

The Flying Bricks possess one other quality, and that is a nearly impossible degree of mechanical robustness and stability. In the more than 100,000 miles I’ve had these bikes — I know I am but a mere K-bike lightweight, a no0b — I’ve been under the engine covers a few times and it always strikes me how the engine internals look like they’ve factory new — having never been run. All of the casting faces are clean — there’s no sign of any sludge, carbon or staining anywhere in sight — hard plated surfaces are shiny, with no wear patterns on the visble valve train components, cams, buckets. I’ve seen that kind of mechanically halo-producing ‘eternal life design’ a few places before — ususally in old Mercedes engines that have already been through more than three-quarters of a million miles and are found on the workbench to not need anything.

The K12 engines look like that with no miles, and they look like that with 100,000.

My current ride has just over 85,000 miles on it. I do let professionals work on this valve train. Their worksheets indicate only 2 of the 24 valve adjustment buckets have needed to be swapped in that time.

My K engines have not used a a single atom of oil.

I don’t know anyone who has worn one of these engines out. Good men have tried. The three people that have tried the hardest to wear flying bricks out have had their bikes killed violently at that hands of others at very advanced ages. Paul Glaves had a K75 that had well over 300,000 miles on the clock when it was struck and totalled by a car. Another mileage big dog from the DC area — Don Arthur — had a LT that was just coming up on 300K when it too was struck by another automobilist. Paul Mihalka had traded in a K75 to a local dealer that used it for a service loaner — it was well beyond 300K when a customer totalled it.

How far might these bikes have gone? Its like the Tootsie Pop and their “How Many Licks?”

Reality keeps biting so that we never get to find out.

***

Don’t misunderstand me, these bikes are far from perfect to live with.

They’re kind of tough on tires.

There are certain maintenence procedures which, due to some of the ‘semi-planned’ nature of the K12’s engine and frame packaging, are a little challenging.

Removing and replacing the fuel tank — even with some high tech pressurized bronze fuel line disconnects installed — is harder than it should be.

Changing the front shock is fun.

Getting to the upper bolt of the rear shock is also fun.

Changing the crankcase breather hose — which is a rubber part which is exposed to enough heat to make it fail repeatedly — is still more fun.

Did I mention the factory shop manual recommends the use of a shop crane to assist in lifing the frame off the motor for that job?

I changed the ABS Controller on one once.

I can say without fear of ridicule, that it made me cry.

More than once.

***

But that stuff is complely forgotten the minute you roll the throttle open.

The clouds part. The Hand of God emerges. He places his hand on the small of your back.

And deftly shoves your ass straight out your left ear.

And does it again, every time you ask, for a half million miles or until you lose interest, whichever comes first.

I’ll freely admit that the seeming ease with which it does this somehow strips the experience of some emotional component.

A full throttle run through the gears on my R90S is ecstatic, soul stirring — every sensory input, every power stroke colludes to make you feel deeply: “I am going hella fast.”

The same experience on the K is all Joe Friday: “Just doin’ my job, ma’am”.

And that’s how, I think, that what is objectively a magnificent motorcycle engine gets given universally short shrift by riders and moto-scribes.

By makeing whatever you ask of it just seem too damn easy.