LTO

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

It’s admittedly a fool’s errand.

Fool? Errand?

So this seems like the perfect setup, eh?

I’ll get my helmet.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

The throttle.

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Greatest Show On Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

And so it is with me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

In fact, it was making it particularly harder.

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

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

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

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

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

This wasn’t one of those.

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

It was pretty dark.

And I was going absolutely nuts.

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

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

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

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

Then I tried the throttle.

This was going to take a while.

 

***

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

Progress was slow, but it was progress.

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

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

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

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

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

It was go time.

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

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

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

“I don’t think that’s….”

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

Motion!

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

Today, though, it was a thing of beauty.

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

“Hmmmmnnnnnnnnnn.”

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

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

Angry Bees

I guess its time to admit that I’ve been living in the past.

It might be an idealized, nostalgic past, but its the past just the same.

I don’t want to generalize too much though, its not the entirety of the past that that I’m living in, its just the motorcycling past.

My newest motorcycle, a K1200 series longitudinally mounted inline 4 — is a 2000 model — it can’t already be 17 years old — which itself is a refinement of a basic design that debuted in 1983.

My Toaster tank /5 BMW — a bike I came by when I got out of college and the bike on which I wooed Sweet Doris from Baltimore — is a 1973 model — 44 years old. If one is honest, the Toaster really represents late 1950s state of the art motorcycle chassis design — Featherbed Knock-off! — as embraced by the conservative German designers after 20 or so years to make sure the basic idea was sound.

Drum brakes.

In defense of the conservative German designers, they are the best street application drum motorcycle brakes I ever used, but.

Drum brakes.

Such a motorcycle is a lot of things, but modern is not one of them.

***

It’s not to say that these old motorcycles are bad motorcycles, because they’re not.

My /5 is narrow, agile, torquey and simple. Hell, it’s still here and running reliably at somewhere indetermanistically north of 170,000 miles.

Indetermanistically because the motorcycle has turned out to be far more reliable than the odometer in its Motometer combined instrument.

But the /5’s two cylinder pushrod motor — originally designed with bushings in its valve rockers — only revs to 6900 rpm, and made barely 50 hp on its best day. It is an elemental motorcycle — but everything happens with a certain deliberateness of pace.

***

Its not like I’ve had no exposure to modern machinery.

I’ve had some seat time on a modern KTM — an 1190 Adventure — that was a real eye opener, and at the same time, was clearly connected with the classic large displacement roadster twins of the past. One had a broad spread of power across the rev band — it was a clearly a road motorcycle, full stop. The refinement of the chassis, suspension, yes, and electronics was the present, but you could still see the motorcycling past from there.

***

 

wp_20170213_08_28_49_pro

 

So there I was, looking at a tachometer face. A face that showed redline to be at 14,000 rpm.

This was going to require at least a little adjustment.

Sitting in my driveway was a 2004 Kawasaki ZZR-600. ZZR was Kawasaki’s Marketing speak for “We used to call this the Ninja but we redesigned a faster bike and still want to keep selling this one”. Arms race and branding aside, the ZZR carried a four cylinder, water cooled, dual overhead cam short stroke motor of vastly oversquare dimensions. Engines like this are meant for the race circuit — to be spun hard and made to howl on the straights.

The ZZR has a steel frame of a hybrid perimeter and beam type, one that is shared by all modern Kawasaki sporting motorcycles. Its an elegant design where the frame rails bulge around and envelop the cylinder head — simultaneously compact and strong. The ZZR has a conventional telescopic cartridge fork, a monoshock rear, substantial Tokico 4 piston brakes, and 17 inch radial tires. The riding position is two clicks shy of the racetrack, but bars are still low, and saddle and footpegs high.

This ZZR is one in which I have a small investment of time and troubleshooting effort.  It belongs to my daughter’s boyfriend, and after a fair amount of effort to return it to good operation and the road, I had never really had the opportunity to fully test the results of my work.

wp_20170109_20_45_37_panorama

When the weather had turned filthy, he had asked if he could store the bike here, so we squeezed it into my garage. The deal was, if I had possession of the bike, I would ride it. It hadn’t really been winterized, and had been sitting there for the better part of a month, when nature served up a freak 65 degree day.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but I’m still here.

***

Pulling on a Vanson racing jacket is somehow both comforting and strangely calming — its as if this leather exoskeleton, which exerts a whole body compressive hug, works like one of those yippy dog calming vests.

At least it works that way for me.

Think of that what you may.

With my helmet and gloves all strapped in place, I swung a leg over the red machine, and settled into the saddle. I spent a few quality moments adjusting the fairing mounted rearview mirrors — which had been folded in for storage — into a position to be hopefully useful. I turned the bike’s bodywork-integrated fuel petcock to its ‘on’ position, turned the ignition on and slid the handlebar mounted choke lever forward.

Upon activating the starter the bike fired immediately. Being impatient, I tried to work the throttle, and gently slid the choke back open, whereupon the bike stalled immediately.

A second try was better — I let the bike run on full choke for 30 or 40 seconds and then slowly dialed the choke off. And then what we has was a cold, lumpy but running idle — given a little more time and a little more heat, everything would be fine.

I pushed the bike off the centerstand, and flinstoned a K turn until I could drift down the driveway. Taking care to locate and remember the new footpeg position, I selected first gear, which occurred way more deterministically than I am accustomed to — it was almost as if the box was designed to use input power to engage the dogs — once the shift was started it kinda went power transmission on you.

I took the long route around my neighborhood — coming to terms with the bike’s low speed handling, behavior on and off the clutch, and braking.

At the intersection of Jefferson Pike, I made the left and headed up towards town, and past that towards Frederick.

***

It was pretty clear right off that my habit of sometime shortshifting a cold engine wasn’t going to work here. While the engine would take throttle at under 4000 rpm, things down there happened pretty slowly — it was going to take some heat, and way more revs to move things forward smartly.

Apart from that, the riding position that appeared ridiculous at first glance actually worked pretty well once in motion.

Although I have to imagine that the sight of me, with my youthful and trim rear end pointing up in the air may not have been the type of thing that is frequently seen in our little village.

I am under no illusions that chicks dig this.

At Jefferson, I had to stop for the light.

When it turned green, I gassed it.

180 heading east out Jefferson is a winding two laner that follows the contour of the ridge that divides Frederick and Jefferson. I ran the ZZR through the gears, shifting conservatively — for this bike — well below the real power, although it should be noted that my shiftpoints were higher than redline on both of my boxer twins.

The sound of this engine was a racetrack fantasy — the sound of a million angry bees — a raucous, metallic shriek in the middle of its rev band. Hard to imagine how many more bees it might have at its 14,000 rpm limits.

On the other side of the ridge I made the left into Mount Zion Road, and the entrance to one of my most cherished bits of twisty Frederick blacktop. If the ZZR 600 was a well-handling motorcycle, we’d know in the next three minutes.

Mount Phillip is the sort of road where only familiarity can let you run it — roadcraft is of little help where corners apex blind off the tops of hills, and crazy elevation changes obscure the road ahead. Top end power is also of limited use as there’s almost nowhere you can use it — this is a handling test, not a speed event. Even the initial right onto Mount Phillip is tricky — the intersection is a 110 degree turn, usually with a little loose stone, that leads into a very steep and immediate rise — too much throttle and too many revs too soon, and hairy wheelies can easily result. Folks that wish to remain rubber side down are advised to move well forward on their motorcycle here.

Coming off the top of the rise, the road makes a textbook racetrack left 90. I entered well outside, and with the revs up at about 7000, engine braked into the entrance, leaned the bike over and rolled the throttle out. For someone still learning the bike, the entrance was sharp, deterministic and bred confidence. The combination of relatively light weight, very centralized mass, and serious structural rigidity made cornering taut, precise and controllable. The riding position, as well, with the rider located far forward, weighting the front wheel, gave perfect leverage and control to work the front end.

The next several corners, another 90 leading into a sharp uphill right, leads to a hairball double apex that leads down off the other side of the hillside. After 4 real corners, and about three really good minutes, I felt as if I’d been riding this motorcycle most of my life.

***

After running the rest of Mount Phillip up to my bank in Frederick, gearing back up in the parking lot there was no question of taking the shortest route home. The only question really was “Had I bought enough gas?”.

US 40 West out of Frederick – The Old National Pike – is really a treat. It climbs up the mountain (Eastern US version) that sits between Frederick and Hagerstown, where the road immediately enters the forest of Gambrill State Park right outside of town. It’s green, it’s uncongested, with broad, sweeping curves on the climb. The sightlines are stupendous.

If you needed a place to stretch things out, 40 through Gambrill would be the place you’d need.

After clearing the I-70 interchange, I rolled the throttle open and surfed the big wave as the small four spun up into its happy zone. I was focused and comfortable enough to be monitoring both the tach and speedo intently, basically plotting a little dyno chart in my head as the Kawi loosed the bees, made tremendous MotoGP invoking, howling noise, and pulled third gear up the grade.

Around 9000 rpm things were happening as quickly I felt they needed to be happening, so I thokkked the bike up into fourth — noting that the higher one spun this engine, the better it seemed to shift. I rolled the throttle back on and took a brief draught of fourth gear. As much room as I had, it was running out quickly, and the speedometer needle was well into ‘unsafe for conditions’ on a public highway. I thokkkked up into top gear and commenced giving back throttle until I was doing a reasonable impersonation of a socially responsible cruise.

Up here at highway speed, I was impressed how comfortable this motorcycle really was. The airflow off the fairing and windscreen was surprisingly smooth — weather protection surprisingly good. The ride was taut, but not punishing. One could sense the action of the four cylinder engine, but it was mere mechanical character, and not objectionable in any way.

Both the bike and its rider were utterly at ease, and adapted for speed.

***

The rest of the ride was backroad riding school.

From 40 I turned left down Harmony Road – a little snake of a road that lets one work the sides of one’s tires.

Then down Maryland 17 South towards Middletown — the entire route stringing together elevation changes and combinations of technical corners. The ease with which the ZZR entered corners, and the precision with which it held exactly the desired angle and desired line was an illumination.

17 leads towards home, so I didn’t take it.

zittlestown

At Middletown, I went west on Alternate 40. Alt 40 heads up another (eastern variety) mountain. With so few mountains available, I was going to hit every one that presented itself.

Alt 40 is a very old roadway, and where it goes over the ridge is a series of decreasing radius, banked switchbacks that look intimidating but are a gas when properly executed. The ZZR was able to turn in harder and deeper and carry about 25 mph more than my antiques with absolutely zero drama — at the apexes the bike was planted, on line and with tons of ground clearance remaining.

As we came down into Boonsboro, I was held up behind a minivan that indicated its intention to turn left onto Maryland 67 South which was also my intended route. Trolling south out of town, we came to a legal passing zone, and I indicated left, and rolled on to play another game of Third Gear Rocketry. I shifted up as the front wheel got light, with the shift setting the front back on the pavement.

At Reno Monument Road, I made the left back towards the ridge, and worked the tight technical climb with the revs up in 2nd and 3rd gear, setting speed in and out of corners with the throttle.

Marker Road took me toward home. The decreasing radius corners and hilltop apexes which are dramatic on the airheads were dead boring and nailed down on this Kawasaki — roadgear working so well to make it almost seem like mind control.

On the last leg of Gapland road, the ZZR dissected the bridge corners, and did it with style and a wonderful howl of IC exhaust.

On the final straight before home I rolled fourth gear open and the 90 or so my S will make was quickly vaporized — 45 or so more horsepower into roughly the same weight does have some effect.

***

Back in the driveway I found myself listening to the tink tink tink of the ZZR giving its heat back to the atmosphere, and quickly concluded that our 40 miles or so of road had barely scratched the surface of this bike’s capabilities.

wp_20170208_13_55_53_pro

 

I don’t think I ever revved the ZZR’s motor past 10,000 of those 14,000 rpm — leaving much of the bike’s power potential untapped and on the table. When riding this Kawasaki with its engine spinning up there, it simply ran out of room nearly instantly on any public road that I usually ride, well before it ran out of acceleration, ran out of speed.

The ZZR’s handling made my customary best twisty roads nearly trivial exercises — centralized mass, chassis rigidity, good geometry and sticky radials allowed me to place the bike exactly where I wanted it with minimal to absolutely no drama.

I’ll admit I’d found minimal use for the brakes, but the few times I’d deliberately ‘braked for effect’ they’d been pretty impressive — clearly more than enough power was available from the twin four piston Tokicos to overwhelm the front tire’s contact patch, if one was dumb or unskilled enough to put in a request for same.

Everything about the bike — from the howl of its engine, to my position on the bike that made attacking corners like breathing in and out, to the rush of its high end power delivery, to the big negative G’s on the brakes — sucked one in, encouraging more, harder, faster.

And while its cool to envision myself, wearing bright leathers with a waist size about three sizes smaller than mine actually is, swimming in the sound, slicing across corners with front tire skimming the pavement, dicing with Vale and Marc, its a fantasy with its home on a racetrack — on the street the bike is just out of its element, leaving too much on the table, yawning at anything remotely close to legal speed operation.

Its not even like the ZZR is some bit of 2017 vintage, European literbike exotica — there’s no EFI, no power delivery modes — not yet even a future wet dream of Inertial Management Units controlling lean angle sensitive traction control and antilock braking. This Kawasaki is a small displacement, commodity sportbike — an inexpensive, mass produced motorcycle that was actually an obsolete design when it built by a manufacturer that was just trying bleed out its investment in its tooling.

With all that going against it, its still a motorcycle that — transported back in time — would have probably walked away and won convincingly in any production-based class or even GP Racing until around 1977 when the design of the Yamaha TZ750 was finally debugged.

Modernity — in motorcycle form — means frames, tires and suspension that just work. It means engines that are designed to be routinely revved to ten and twelve thousand rpm and brakes that can pull the rear wheel clear of the ground again and again and again.

Its amazing, frankly, just how good an average modern motorcycle is.

Amazing, but simultaneously useless, at least when used on the road.

While it’s an absolute gas to validate that my years of roadcraft can instantly make the jump to more capable machinery, and to experience firsthand how far the bar has been raised, I’m not sure the temptation is enough to make me leave the motorcycling past for the future.

I’m OK with a run through the gears to the ton feeling like a thrilling trip to the edge, instead of that ton seeming like merely the starting line.

Movement

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I headed for the garage at my first opportunity.

 

***

 

Don’t get me wrong.

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

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

I knew just the place to do it, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

Never had 30 minutes been so restorative.

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

Harp Hill and Harmony

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

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

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

‘Cause black is how it feels, man.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

Did I mention this the third time this year?

 

***

 

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

In the last six days, we caught up.

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

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

Is the sun ever going to come out?

 

***

 

Have you turned on your television news lately?

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

You will thank me, of that I am certain.

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

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

Apparently, that memo was not widely circulated.

Of this dark thing, we shall speak no more.

 

***

 

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

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

Twice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

I have been routinely bugsplatted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It it really so far from here to the Nordschleife?

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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For No Good Reason

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

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

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

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

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

The ones that appear compelling are running short.

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

Dilithium Crystals.

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

And you don’t even smoke.

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

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

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

Yeah, humans are funny critters. Mosttimes.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

So ride I did.

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

I do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

Today, though, no blimp, no message.

Everything was big boxer smooth sailing.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I take the ride.

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Separation Anxiety

My ability to foresee my future is subject to several rather significant limitations.

Starting with the limitation that I just can’t in any way do that renders the other limitations less significant.

Anyway.

I have a long list of things that I would like to indulgently spend a great deal of time doing because of how much I would deeply enjoy them.

On that list nowhere does it appear that I should love to spend hours upon hours ministering to a small motorcycle with a powerplant consisting of exactly half a Harley.

So, both predictably and surprisingly, here we are.

 

***

 

I don’t know where the time went, really.

When we bought the Blast home for Finn, there was still a foot and a half of snow left in the shaded parts of my front yard from this year’s DC-area snow-related disaster, ‘Snowzilla’.

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What was that, six months ago?

Hell, I remember the night Finn was conceived like it was yesterday.

What was that, 19 years ago?

I keep getting ahead of myself.

 

***

 

When the Blast was acquired, one of the reasons for its selection and acquisition was that Finn was expected to use it to navigate the University of Maryland’s College Park Campus, where he would enter their Architecture School in the fall.

Finn remarked, when we first toured the campus, that U Maryland’s campus appeared to be roughly fifty times the size of the town of Jefferson, where he’d grown up.

For an 18 year old country kid, it was a bit of a shock.

In observing how transport worked or did not on the campus, it became clear that the folks that had easy access to mobility and parking were the ones on two wheels, and the smaller the better. I kept seeing blond preppy coeds on pink or red Vespa-style scooters and they uniformly looked like they hadn’t a care in the world.

A car parking permit ran 5 Franklins plus a semester, and that pass was a license to hunt but no guarantee of success — parking was sparse on the campus and citations were frequent. The main parking lots were at the back of the campus where access to the rest of campus was so remote that one might have to grab a bus to get to your class from your car. A car at College Park was, in short, like the frog with a bicycle.

The motorcycle or scooter permit runs about $80 a semester, and every major building on campus has a small dedicated moto-lot behind the building. Those lots run about 20-30% utilization — you can always get a spot.

The Architecture building has 18 motorcycle spaces located beside its loading dock off the Studio level of the building.

Even Finn’s Momma Sweet Doris From Baltimore didn’t need to be sold on the idea.

It was as plain as the nose on each of our three faces.

 

***

 

So at one point a few weeks back I found myself contemplating the Blast, and trying to think of everything it would need if it was going to become a truly useful engine and exist without drama far away from the confines of Shamieh’s Garage and Decrepit German Motorcycle Museum.

It was going to need its brakes flushed and serviced, and a spark plug, as both were likely OEM factory 2002 Original Equipment.

The OEM rearview mirrors were a joke — their selection was based, I suspect, more on their ability to support the bike when it was dropped on them on the training range than it was for any consideration of seeing things behind the bike. And with 34 horsepower, seeing thing behind the bike is material.

It was going to need some sort of luggage, to allow the transport of lunch, of a book or two, and a bag or two of groceries. It was going to need some sort of U lock. The bike had come with the normal complement of absolutely zero tools. And since my charger was staying here, it would need some form of battery trickle charger for use in the event of Snowzilla’s return.

It turned out, unsurprisingly, that it would also need a new battery, which it considerately requested from within the comfy confines of its garage.

The brake service, given the bike’s compact and naked design, required more time to get my Bleeder down from its box on the garage upper shelf than it actually required to perform.

The spark plug,  a nice new NGK, replaced what really turned out to be the OEM Harley Davidson plug that had been in there since the first time that motor was started in 2002. Getting the tank off to access the plug — given that it had never been off before — was a bit more baroque than pulling the /5’s tank, but then again everything else is. The difference in the bike’s throttle response and overrun behavior post plug was as dramatic as anything involving a Blast ever is.

For bags I played specsheet junky, as is my wont. Space is kind of at a premium on a motorcycle with 16 inch front and rear wheels. I ended up ordering a set of Ogio soft bags — they appeared to be the right size and shape, and had some cool features like a two inch expansion zipper and built-in hidden rain covers.

When the bags came out of the UPS and were fitted, my fettler’s brain was spinning at high RPM.

On cruisers, soft bags are always accompanied by a fender mounted bracket that keeps the bags from swinging inward into the spinning bits.

On the Blast, that interface was far more limited, but not totally impossible. I realized that the Buell’s unusual subframe structure placed the passenger pegs in exactly the correct position so that a strap run over the top of the frame and between the passenger pegs would effectively close off that space. One Helen@Wheels packing strap mounted under the bags, and the front bag strap under the saddle and the rear strap on top of it yielded soft luggage that was solid and effectively locked in place. As a bonus the Ulock we procured fit like a glove in the small compartment inside the lid of one of the Ogio bags.

Putting a tool kit together for a Blast is a non-trivial excercise, given that the bike was assembled from both metric and SAE versions of the parts bins, making identifying the proper wrench sizes a matter of some unnecessary drama. A trip to the Harbor Freight catalog yielded a combo Metric/SAE wrench set which would be filtered down to the sizes required, a multibit screwdriver, and adjustable pliers, and some allen wrenches.

Undersaddle space is at a bit of a premium, and trusty BMW vendor Kathy’s Journey Designs made the only tool roll compact enough to fit in the space.

I also ordered up a miniature Battery Tender trickle unit, which came complete with a weather-capped connection pigtail that could be wired to the battery and left hidden but accessible wherever the bike provided cover. These things are so sanitary and efficient I found myself wondering why none of my motorcycles had them.

I thought of silly details — a top up quart of oil, a small shoprag. Into one of the softbags went my Grandfather’s – Finn’s Great Grandfather’s — rolled steel Connecticut-made funnel that was the only one we owned narrow enough that would allow us to add oil to the Buell’s in-frame backbone oil tank.

So these little projects consumed much of my time — evenings, weekends. It didn’t feel so much as racing a deadline as it did that as long as there were projects left to complete that this motorcycle, and more importantly, its rider, wouldn’t yet be ready to go.

So I wrenched on, not so much in hopes of finishing but in the hope against hope I actually never would.

 

***

 

But I did finish, a day or three before Finn was scheduled to move his clothes down to College Park to move into his new place, and get ready for the start of school.

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Both Finn and I put miles on it, making sure all the new additions had a chance to go past acceptance test or infant mortality failures.

The bike was starting well, running well, stopping well, and was as ready as it was going to be.

Now we were going to have to see what we could do to get me ready, if such a thing was possible.

I’d hoped that Finn and I would have had the chance to take a longer trip this summer. Events like the difficulties we’d had finding him a place to live at school, lousy weather and illness had conspired to see that that hadn’t happened.

Doris and I discussed me moving the bike down to campus, since all of the available routes involved at least 60 miles of threading the middle of the DC-metro area’s most congested interstates. We ended up with them taking a stationwagon load of clothing and personal effects down to College Park in the morning, with me planning to ride down and catch up with them when I’d finished with work for the day.

 

***

 

That day, would of course turn out to be a total end to end frenzy of continuous meetings that never gave me so much as a minute to think.

I have a vague memory of Doris and Finn waving to me from the house’s front door as they headed out towards our Ford. Several hours later my phone finally hit the proverbial cradle and I finally had a moment to consider my little journey.

Finn had remarked to me at one point that he really wanted to wash his motorcycle. As the Blast had been spending more than its fair of time being wrenched upon and serially disassembled it did look a tad greasy and a little the worse for wear.

Being a motorcycle of very very little surface area indeed, it took me all of 15 minutes to pull out a hose, a bucket and perform the miracle spitshine.

The Blast looked more confident for the effort. An effort which Finn would no doubt appreciate.

The day was another in a series of those DC Summer Days. It was right around 90 with a relative humidity of about 70%. I got my favorite pair of Sidi City boots — an unlined leather boot that breathes pretty well. Mine are on their second life, courtesy of an old Italian cobbler that works out of Damascus, Maryland — he put on a set of Vibram soles meant for Law Enforcement Officer boot applications which has rendered them totally suitable for my usage.

I grabbed some mesh riding pants, my Vanson ventilated jacket, and chucked a drinking water bottle full of ice and a little water into one of the Ogios. I locked the front door, buckled in, and headed for the BP up in town.

I wanted to make sure I had a full fuel load for my extended journey. I was glad I had finally removed the lawyer-placed “Do Not Overfill The Tank” Ikea-style warning graphic sticker from the top of the tank because it allowed me to feel a whole lot better as I willfully and gleefully overfilled the tank with an entire gallon of premium fuel. I figured since my immediate intention was to go straight out and consume fuel at the maximum rate allowed by physics that whatever small problem that overfilling might entail was going to be a problem that would be of very short duration.

After that very brief delay I was rolling up the ramp onto US340 and ‘Dynamometer Hill’ that leads out of Jefferson. With a full fuel load and some heat in the engine I slowly rolled the big single through each of its gears towards the east and the Interstate.

 

***

 

It’s funny how making progress is just somehow different on big single. While things happen objectively somewhat more slowly there is an inexorable torquey quality to the way revs and road speed inevitably build.

Riders I talk to assume the Blast isn’t really suited to road speeds.

I explain to them that it’s geared seemingly impossibly high, with 5th gear being useless until well above 70 miles an hour. It really finds a comfy spot in top at 77-80 miles an hour. Which really isn’t bad for a sub-400 pound motorcycle with little tiny wheels.

Finn has put on a little over 1200 miles since we brought the bike home. With just over 3K showing on the clocks I can’t help but get the feeling, beating down the highway, that this motor isn’t really fully broken in yet, still feeling tight and not yet freely spinning. I’m here to do my bit in seeing it gets there.

 

***

 

Having made it east of Frederick I headed up I-70, happy for some open space in traffic — everybody’s headed west in the afternoon — and the air moving through the venting in my gear.

In the zone in top gear I was free to let the mind wander.

I can’t believe that Finn, everybody’s buddy, kid most likely to wander off into stand up comedy had essentially already left home, his sister and brother having gone before him. It will be spookily quiet back in Jefferson, with all of our children and their friends and their lovers eerily missing from our space and from our life.

I can’t believe our littlest one will be living on his own, near a huge college campus, working on learning his own art and trade, with this motorcycle to carry him around.

That he will leave that place an architect — which is good, because I already strongly feel I will need a smaller new home.

I can’t believe that much time has gone, with three lives started and into full flight.

It will be somehow sad, a time of change, with Doris and I alone with each other again. We put everything we had into our children, and although I’m not silly enough to think we’re ever done, we’re mostly done with setting their course through an uncertain world.

I have no doubt Doris will cry when we have to drive home.

Me, I can’t cry because I can’t see in the dark with tears in my eyes.

 

***

 

The Blast gets more comfortable the longer it spends at speed. I lope across I-70 then pick up Maryland 32. 32 cuts through former farm country — a two laner with no traffic lights — a shaded relaxing 50-60 mph run though fields and woods. I cross greater Columbia and cut towards I-95, where I Blast up onto the US East Coast’s Maine-to-Florida monster mother road. It’s probably just before 5 o clock and while congested, its moving, and I even spend time — amazingly — left lane passing and working through traffic down the road. While there’s not much available up above 80 I never feel like I’m a sitting duck, never feel exposed on this or by inference, I suppose, any road.

When we hit the DC Beltway, the world predictably ends.

Volume spikes amazingly and traffic slows to a crawl. In the stop and go the Buell quickly demonstrates an unsuspected strength. Its lightness and silly torque mean that it rumbles along off the throttle, rolling at silly slow speeds and never needing the brakes. Where my BMWs are a handful this bike is a laugh — practically threading traffic with both hands folded behind my head.

In the lanes to the left of me were two high strung performance critters — a big dude on a custom painted copper-colored Suzuki Hayabusa and a member of the Vanity-Tagged-More-Money-Than-Sense-Club in a brand new winter white colored Ferrari 458 Cabriolet. I can’t possibly imagine a single place on earth where either vehicle could have been more impractical, more uncomfortable and more out of place. If you love a car the way a 458 deserves to be loved, this is the last place on earth you would ever take it.

I could see Busa-dude eyeing me, wondering what that miniature sportbike was that made this traffic look easy, when his shoulders and clutch hand were already well along in their burn.

After a few miles of the slow roll, Kenilworth Avenue came up, and I finished my run — about 65 miles in all — down to the entrance of Finn’s new place. I got into the empty parking garage, and ran up the ramps to the fourth floor where he lives. I’ll admit that gassing it going up the garage ramps made me come to understand why The Motor Company will never die.

I pulled up next to my Ford, kill switched it and shed gear as fast as I could.

I put my leathers, gloves and helmet in the back of the wagon, and downed much of the water from my bottle.

I walked around the Buell to make sure it was still buttoned up and shipshape after having been blasted across the state but I needn’t have worried — everything was cool. I’d need to put my faith in Eric Buell, Willie G and the Motor Company that this machine would continue to look after our precious son.

 

***

 

The rest of the evening was kind of blur — some diner food, some groceries, and some driving around, trying to find the best routes to school.

And before Doris and I knew it, we were dropping Finn off and back together in the Ford.

“I can’t believe he’s all grown up, Greggie. He hade fun of me for crying in the car most of the way down.”

“I can’t believe it either, Girlfriend. Don’t get me started, too. Somebody here’s gotta be able to see.”

In my Ford on the dark highway I felt strongly the fabric of time. My hand holding Doris’, with a blank page for our future — waiting, expectant.

 

***

 

I spoke to Finn on the phone the next evening.

“Took the bike over to campus today, Pop. Parked in the architecture lot and got my student ID and my parking pass. This bike is perfect for this — I’m not going too far and I’m not going very fast. I love this motorcycle. Thanks for setting me up, Dad.”

“No problem, Snorky. Ride safe. Learn good. Somebody’s got to design me a greener smaller house.”

Doris and I have done everything and all we can for him. We will miss him in ways I cannot imagine and cannot describe. May he have nothing but blue skies, trailing winds open roads and smooth pavement ahead of him.