Time Traveler – 2018 Indian Roadmaster

Into the Green

My buddy has an Indian.

Or, to be completely truthful, he has a do-it-yourself Indian Motorcycle kit.

As long as I’ve been visiting Al’s shop, he’s had a collection of boxes on a baker’s rack next to the roll up door. Bright blue, deeply valenced fenders. A set of obliquely finned, flathead cylinder heads. Linkages and levers for the hand shift and foot clutch. Sheet metal for the drive chain and alternator covers. The lower engine cases, with the connecting rods small ends poking out the base gasket openings. A tan leather ‘Chummee Seat’ with fringed rear skirt. A set of matching saddlebags with conchos and jewel glass appliques. The spring sets and covers for the rear suspension’s plunger units.

I haven’t ever been down to the very bottom of those boxes, but if there isn’t a cut glass Indian head wrapped in a chrome Headdress down there, there certainly needs to be.

The Warbonnet Rides Again

That 1952 Chief has been a project awaiting the time and resources needed for an extensive and total restoration, and so that classic motorcycle – at ease at speed gliding down some highway – has always been something that lived only in my imagination, and forever hung just out of reach.

Because the original, Springfield, Massachusetts-based Indian Motorcycle company went bankrupt a full six years before I was born, their motorcycles have always seemed to exist as something sadly lost to the past.   And while the company had spent the early part of its History earning a reputation for engineering leadership and competition success, mental pictures of the Indian were all sepia-toned black and whites, men wearing their competition Indian-script sweaters on motordromes and dirttracks, the Big Chief trailing flapping fringe as it disappeared into history, a superior machine that had inexplicably just vanished.

Lots of companies felt the pull of that legacy, but no one had the engineering or the capital to build a motorcycle worthy of it. Before Polaris Industries bought the remains of those companies in 2011, lots tried. Lots failed.

Which makes the Motorcycle sitting in front of me – a 2018 Indian Roadmaster — one of the most unlikely formerly assumed to be fantasy things to ever actually exist. It’s all there – the Art Deco fenders, the obliquely finned V-twin cylinders, the jeweled, lighted Warbonnet on the front fender. Underneath that skin, however, is a thoroughly modern motorcycle that is functionally as far away from that 1953 Chief as one could imagine.

The heart of the Roadmaster is the Thunder Stroke 111 engine – a new from the ground up motor that was designed solely to power the Indian Big Twin motorcycles, and to appeal directly to Indian’s History and Fans. Unlike the predecessor Indian companies, that used existing third party motors that they could purchase, Polaris correctly concluded that this shortcut was simply not acceptable. If their motorcycle was to be embraced by riders as an Indian, it couldn’t be, as the predecessors had been, powered by anybody else’s engine and dressed up with full fenders.

A Very New Engine With A Very Old Look

The Thunder Stroke does use the architecture and appearance of the old Chief’s motor as it’s jumping off point, but is as modern internally as any air-cooled motor can be. The engine carries over the oblique cooling fins of the vintage bike’s heads, its larger head and smaller barrel finning, and its downward pointed exhausts and parallel pushrod tubes. The new motor continues the vintage Indian’s use of a gear driven primary drive, and combines this with unit construction, a six speed helical cut gear transmission, three cams, an automatic starting decompression system, pushrod overhead valves, EFI, and a belt final drive. Engineering details are thoroughly modern – using slipper pistons, fracture split connecting rods, and wedge combustion chambers like those in the Corvette LS7 engine. The 49 degree V-Twin displaces an immodest 1811 ccs, and produces 119 ft-lbs of torque at peak.

The rest of the chassis and running gear are similarly new tech. The entire motorcycle is hung from a cast aluminum chassis, which provides serious strength and rigidity with relatively low mass. The Roadmaster is suspended by a cartridge fork in the front, and an air adjustable monoshock in the rear – both working through about 4.5 inches of travel. Rear air preload is adjusted via a nice little aluminum hand pump with integral pressure gauge through a Schrader valve under the left sidecover. Brakes are high specification – dual 300 mm disks grabbed by 4 piston calipers in front with a single unit in the rear.

The Roadmaster’s touring equipment is road ready – a fork attached fairing with electrically adjustable windscreen and fully adjustable lowers as well – air routing through the lowers can be tuned to allow lots of air in warmer weather, or to close off both direct and spill air overflow when Mother Nature loses her temper. The fairing houses a full complement of information and entertainment gear – trip computer, stereo, Bluetooth phone integration, GPS, all controllable from either the central touchscreen or from bar mounted controls. Saddlebags and top case are centrally locking – with the side case lids swinging outward from stoutly made chrome-steel hinges, and the deepest, most commodious top case I can remember. The topcase also features a usable chrome steel luggage rack – useful for a small tent and bedroll – that many touring motorcycles no longer provide. Foot controls are far forward on spacious footboards.

Vintage…with Touchscreen

“How”, you ask, “does all that work on the road?”

For a motorcycle whose visual appeal is a wholehearted appeal to motoring’s past, this motorcycle rides like something straight out of the future. Suffice it to say if – in a world increasingly filled with talk of all-electric transportation – you are someone who prefers your motorcycles enthusiastically internal combustiony – the Roadmaster will push every single one of your buttons.

The Roadmaster makes use of keyless ignition. If the ‘Intelligent fob’ is secreted in one’s leathers, when one mounts the bike and presses the large, Apple-like ‘Power’ button, the bike’s onboard information and entertainment systems boot up with an animated rumble and flames sequence on the dash display. Starting is accomplished by rocking the kill switch from ‘stop’ to ‘run’, which allows the bike’s electronics to manage the motor start process.

The bike’s clutch has a very light activation – once underway the Thunder Stroke motor revs far more quickly than other twins of this size, and provides a very broad spread of thrust everywhere in the rev range. Although the torque peak occurs at 3000 rpm, while covering small, technical backroads I was able to make use of usable power from as low as 1300 rpm. The combination of gear driven primary and the output shaft cush drive mean that power at low rpms is smooth and snatch free. At larger RPMs and throttle openings, power delivery is immediate – backroad passing power is always available. Throttle response from the ride by wire fuel injection system is smooth and progressive – unlike most ride by wire systems with which I am familiar, I never found myself wishing for a cable and carb. Fuel economy is what you’d expect for a very large displacement twin — in mixed highway and backroad use during our test, the Roadmaster returned 34.7 miles per gallon. On the interstate, the engine transmits just enough throb to reinforce the sensation of being on a classic American motorcycle without ever crossing the line into being objectionable or uncomfortable.

The helical gear transmission shifts positively, with just the right amount of ‘thonk’. I had nothing even remotely resembling a missed shift in my entire time with the bike. The exhaust note of the stock exhausts is absolutely perfect – a mellow low tone with that narrow V syncopated beat. That combination makes running the bike up through the gears on big throttle so pleasurable that the proper descriptive terms aren’t available for use in a family publication.

The Roadmaster’s handling is both surefooted and agile. Part of our test route included some miniscule, single track byways that wandered through West Virginia’s Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area, on a day when nature served up a cool, misty day. The bike’s turn in behavior, and ability to deal with slippery surfaces, limited sightlines and a fair number of 270 degree switchbacks was low effort and relaxed – the chassis worked together with the engine’s broad power spread to make all of these roads a one gear, wind it on and wind it off affair. Credit needs to be given to the Thunder Stroke’s designer – it was striking how gentle and controllable the engine’s compression braking was – for a motor with such large drive torque, one would expect dramatic and over-strong engine braking – and that wasn’t what one gets.

The Roadmaster’s braking is nothing short of amazing, when one considers this is a 900+ pound motorcycle. Give a firm pull on the lever, and give a boot to the big, pickup-like pedal way out there, and stopping just happens. Cornering clearance is also spot on – not one part touched down during our test.

All this combines to provide a ride that – in its sweet spot at about 75 mph in top gear – feels like one that could take one relaxedly from coast to coast.   The Roadmaster’s electronic cruise control saves one’s throttle hand, and with the electrically adjustable windshield in the fully raised position, the cockpit is quiet and still enough to run with a full face helmet’s visor open. Drop one’s road speed down to 60 or so in top gear, and with the low revs and rumble it’s easy to imagine the ghost of that old Flathead Chief rolling just off your six.

There are, as always, things that could be better. Polaris’ big twins have always used a combination of a radial rear tire and a bias belted front – the Roadmaster is no exception. The front tire has a slightly nervous feel during certain tentative cornering lines – it seems to be more easily knocked off line by pavement imperfections that are parallel to the line of travel than radials I have used. The horn, frankly, made me laugh. When a motorcycle feels and looks like a New York Central Streamliner locomotive, its horn shouldn’t sound like a Honda 90.

The Indian Roadmaster is not intended to be a motorcycle for everyone. The aesthetics of the bike – the fenders, the tank, the footboards, the chrome, the embossed leather and concho badges – are clearly intended to compel folks whose tastes run toward the history and tradition of American Motorcycles. If your idea of the word “motor”, conjures up images of the B-17 Bomber’s Wright Cyclone – a massive, obliquely finned, roaring air-cooled monster of power and torque – then this may be the motorcycle you’ve always dreamed of. There’s a certain deterministically massive mechanical quality to all of it, from the deep rumble of the exhaust, to the solid thonks of the transmission shifting, to the unmistakable sounds of the massive valve train working in your lap while on cruise on the highway.

The Roadmaster truly is a time machine, but one that somehow manages to travel into both the past and the future at the very same time.

 

***

 

Portions of this piece originally appeared in the July/August Edition of Motorcycle Times. Thanks to the folks at Twigg Indian Motorcycles of Hagerstown, Maryland, who worked with Indian to provide our test bike.

An extended riding impression of the Roadmaster can be read in here in Omps, The Indian and The George Washington Heritage Trail.

 

***

Indian Roadmaster Specifications

 

Engine & Drivetrain

Bore x Stroke     3.976 in x 4.449 in (101 mm x 113 mm)

Compression Ratio     9.5:1

Displacement    111 cu in (1,811 cc)

Drive/Driven ClutchWet, Multi-Plate

Electronic Fuel Injection SystemClosed loop fuel injection / 54 mm bore

Engine TypeThunder Stroke® 111

ExhaustSplit Dual Exhaust w/ Cross-over

Gear Ratio (1st)      9.403 : 1

Gear Ratio (2nd)     6.411 : 1

Gear Ratio (3rd)      4.763 : 1

Gear Ratio (4th)      3.796 : 1

Gear Ratio (5th)      3.243 : 1

Gear Ratio (6th)      2.789 : 1

Horsepower            N/A

Peak Torque           119 ft-lbs (161.6 Nm)

Peak Torque RPM   3,000 rpm

Transmission/Final Drive2.2 : 1

Transmission/Primary DriveGear Drive Wet Clutch

 

Dimensions

Fuel Capacity5.5 gal (20.8 L)

Ground Clearance5.5 in (140 mm)

GVWR1,385 lb (628 kg)

Lean AngleN/A

Overall Height58.7 in (1,491 mm)

Overall Length104.6 in (2,656 mm)

Overall Width39.4 in (1,000 mm)

Rake/Trail25° / 5.9 in (150 mm)

Seat Height26.5 in (673 mm)

Weight (Empty Tank / Full of Fuel)897 lbs / 929 lbs (407 kg / 421 kg)

Wheelbase65.7 in (1,669 mm)

 

Brakes

Front BrakesDual / 300 mm Floating Rotor / 4 Piston Caliper

Rear BrakesSingle / 300 mm Floating Rotor / 2 Piston Caliper

Tires / Wheels

Front TiresDunlop® Elite 3 130/90B16 73H

Front WheelCast 16 in x 3.5 in

Rear TiresDunlop® Elite 3 Multi-Compound 180/60R16 80H

Rear WheelCast 16 in x 5 in

 

Suspension

Front Fork Tube Diameter46 mm

Front Suspension Telescopic Fork – Cartridge Type

Front Travel4.7 in (119 mm)

Rear Suspension Single Shock w/ Air adjust

Rear Travel4.5 in (114 mm)

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The Stories You Tell

You are the stories you tell.

Or at least I am, anyway.

What one choses to relate really reflects the path one has chosen to get through this world and the direction one’s head was pointed in — to the heavens or at one’s muddy boots — while doing it.

Wheelying Sweet Doris around Mount Vernon Circle on our first date, or seeing the Biker Genie emerge from the walls of Saint Alfonso’s Canyon at sunset, I personally have a million stories, and haven’t even scratched the surface of them all yet.

Your stories describe the energy you are, and actually become you when your flesh and blood have finally left this earth.

 

***

 

The stories of groups of people — sports teams, military units, companies — are more complicated mythologies.

The legends of the Motorcycle Industry are manifold. Harley and Davidson out at work in the shed. Honda Engineer Kiyoshi Kawashima successfully using Honda’s first 4 stroke motorcycle engine to crest the Hakone pass. Burt Munro clipping 200 miles an hour at Bonneville on a 1920 Indian when the bike was over 40 years old.

If you happen to be Polaris Industries – the current owner of Indian Motorcycles – the story of Burt Munro is your most precious jewel.

Polaris — in purchasing Indian — had the unenviable task of trying to convince the marketplace that their company — and their motorcycles — were the continuance and legitimate inheritor of the Design, Performance and Competition heritage of the Springfield, Massachusetts Indians — a much beloved motorcycle that hadn’t truly existed since 1953.

That the Indian Legend still seemed to have enough heat left in it to draw buyers — to draw the faithful, the believers, after a 60 year dead — is one of the miracle stories of a brand that flat refused to die, even after having many, many chances to do just that.

But if you are Polaris — those legends of Indian — and especially that of Burt Munro — are the stories you absolutely must wrap around yourselves if people are to imbue you with the good will and dedication of a long-lost past to which — objectively — you are only most tenuously connected.

I recently had the opportunity to write about Indian and their Motorcycles, after a much-anticipated test of an Indian Roadmaster Motorcycle. Being a bit of a geek, I was doing all I could to learn about the history of the Marque — even having asked, without success, if there was a corporate archives or historian I could use to help with research. Having failed that, I resorted to Internet-based research, where Indian enthusiast clubs helped out tremendously.

While looking at the Company’s online history, I saw something that immediately struck me as odd. On the Indian Motorcycle Company’s History page “The Story of a Legend”there is a section entitled ‘Burt Munro’s Historic Ride’.

 

 

There are two pictures  — One of Burt Munro on his streamliner with the shell removed.  The other picture is of Hap Alzina’s Indian Arrow streamliner.

Burt Munro’s first visit to the US, and to Bonneville, was in 1962. He ran again there in 1966 and again in 1967. His 1967 Record Run at Bonneville is absolute legend, the subject of A Ripping Yarn and Barn Burner of a Hollywood movie – ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ .

The ‘Indian Arrow’ only ran once, in 1938, with its rider Freddie Ludlow. The Arrow was kind of a spectacular flop, becoming aerodynamically unstable at a single mile an hour less that the Harley Davidson-set record they had come to beat. Ludlow was born in 1895, and had been a Champion Boardtracker in the 1910s, so by 1938 he was 43 years old. An uncropped version of this same photo is on the AMA website at :  http://www.motorcyclemuseum.org/halloffame/detail.aspx?RacerID=51

These two pictures were taken almost 30 years apart. It’s easy to see from just the cars in the background and Ludlow’s leather helmet. Burt Munro didn’t come to the states until 1962. The second picture isn’t – as it is credited — Burt Munro – it’s clearly Fred Ludlow.

So some web designer somewhere was given access to a set of image files, was told to whip up an Indian History page, saw two old dudes on old motorcycles sitting on the salt and figgered well eff it, that’s close enough. And no one that worked on it, or that reviewed or approved it, or anyone that has looked at it since, knew enough or cared enough to get the story right.

And if they can’t get this story right, then the claim that this is their hallowed past – that they are ‘America’s First Motorcycle Company’, rings as hollow as hollow can be.

I’ve reached out to the company every way that a resourceful man can think of.

Three weeks after that, the ‘Definitely Not Burt Munro’ photo is still posted.

That, I guess, tells a story, too.

 

***

 

On July 2nd, 2018, Indian Motorcycle updated their corporate website’s history page. Where there had been two photos of Burt Munro and Freddie Ludlow, there is now a single picture of Burt.

It’s a much better picture of Burt.

Omps, The Indian and the George Washington Heritage Trail

Some where due east of Omps – The Indian on The Trail

 

During Daytona Beach Bike Week in 2013, Polaris Industries, the owner of Indian Motorcycles, unveiled the Thunder Stroke 111 engine, a brand new design that they intended to use to power the then soon-to-be-introduced Big Twin Indians. Indian, at that point, didn’t yet have a motorcycle, but they did have that engine — an 1811 cc , air and oil cooled, electronically fuel injected, gear driven primary, six speed helical cut gear transmission unit construction motor. The Thunder Stroke looked like an old Indian PowerPlus or Chief motor, but was filled with current tech engineering — it was a stock motor whose specs threw shade at Hot Rodded Harley-Davidson CVO motors, and looked bigger, better and shinier while doing it.

I remember thinking, as Indian’s presenter rolled that throttle open a few times, that while I never much was drawn to the notion of being a Harley Davidson man, that the sound that motor was making was enough to make me at least wonder whether I might somehow be an Indian man.

It was absolutely an open question, and there was only one way to get an answer.

And now that answer was sitting right there in front of me.

 

***

 

Folks that know me well know that in Biker-stuff, my demonstrated tastes have been a sort of gumbo of Eurotrash sporty touring and Techno Geek Road Warrior. I will ride my BMWs — some old, some less old — anywhere, anytime, and in conditions that make some folks question my sanity, as if that was ever even a question.

This means I eschew excessive ornamentation, I am alergic to both excess mass and motorcycle cleaning, and that I like my motorcycles simple, smooth, revvy and good in the corners. Anything beyond that — like outright speed, or weather protection — is just a bonus. I do have a minor fetish for mileage vaporization — the ability to comfortably maintain high sustained speeds for point to point transportation, but that is such a fringe enthusiasm that I hesitate to publicly admit to it.

So when I finally arranged to test a 2018 Indian Roadmaster, it was with a frothy mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm, and just a small seasoning of chagrin.

My oldest and most loved motorcycle — after sleeving up and hotrodding the motor — displaces 900 ccs and weighs about 450 pounds.

The Roadmaster’s specs — 1811 ccs and 920 lbs — completely double that.

I’m used to revs. This wasn’t that.

All my motorcycles have — to a greater or lesser degree — balanced seating positions where one’s arms, legs and haunches equally share the load of the rider’s weight.

The Roadmaster has long floorboards and far forward controls. One morning when starting out with the bike I Charlie-horsed myself reaching forward to toe the bike into gear.

It wasn’t helping that my good, good friends were randomly texting me pictures of objects with ever increasingly comical amounts of conchos and fringe. When I told one of them I had ridden the Roadmaster in my Aerostich suit, he laughed right at me. For a long time.

He may be laughing still.

I, on the other hand, am not laughing at all.

 

***

 

The reason for my lack of mirth is because, despite its ever-so-slightly tacky, over the top horseback cowboys gone chrome aesthetics, the Roadmaster is a very good motorcycle. The saddle of the Roadmaster has a rear Saddle Jockey – a leather skirt at the rear of the saddle — exactly like a good Western horse saddle. Don’t get me wrong — the Roadmaster’s motor, for example, is pure moto-porn – all finning with edges milled, the shapes of the barrels and heads. It’s just some of the details — things like the ‘Indian Motorcycles – 1901’ Indian Head badge on the clutch cover, or the ‘111’ script on the air cleaner — that is just a bit too big or a tiny bit too much in one’s face. I completely understand why the designers might have gotten very worked up at the prospect of Indian’s return, but let’s just say they might have gotten just a tad overstimulated in some respects. That aside, the Roadmaster is comfortable in that skin — it isn’t intended to be anything other than what it is, which is a massive, air cooled hunka hunka burning love, throbbing American road motorcycle. Rolling through the gears on my way home from Twigg Cycles, the dealership that had facilitated my Indian test, it was immediately apparent that this was a far more functional, modern motorcycle than its visuals were designed to suggest.

With its investment cast aluminum chassis, modern cartridge forks, monoshock rear and big ABS disc brakes, the bike’s roadholding punched way above its significant weight — it changed directions briskly without being a wrestling match and didn’t get bent out of shape when it did. The bike’s overall chassis and suspension performance was tight, and in the interest of comfort, about two clicks of compression damping short of taut, but still well controlled. The 1811 cc Thunder Stroke motor was a mountain of torque — travelling up the South Mountain Grade on I-70 East there was enough power everywhere to put yourself anywhere you wanted to be in the traffic stream and go there with authority. The Roadmaster’s gearbox was bank vault solid — the helical cut gears shifted with feedback and precision — a pleasure to operate. Air control in the cockpit was good – with the adjustable screen dialed all the way up it was serene enough to run with helmet visor open.

It took me only a little while to figure out that my customary technique, which involves strong countersteering and leaning inside, needed to be modified to a more lead with one’s lower body technique – which makes sense on a machine with a 26 inch saddle height — that had me comfortable rolling the corners by the time I’d finished my run down Maryland 17 and got back to Jefferson.

I spent a fair amount of time looking at the motorcycle that evening.

There was clearly a lot more to the Indian rebirth than conchos and fringe. It was going to be fun to find out what that lot more was.

 

***

 

My life, even with a test bike in the driveway, is just like anybody else’s. Saturdays have chores and shopping and runs to the hardware store, so on Saturday I do what I always do, which is use my motorcycle for any errand for which it is feasible. Overnight Friday it continued to do what it’s been doing, which was to pour raining, so when I had to grab some tools for a project up at my local hardware store, I was starting with a soaked, completely cold motorcycle.

The starting drill on the Roadmaster, given its keyless ignition setup, is exciting — one pushes the ‘Power’ button on the right side of the dash — its one that looks like it escaped from an iPhone and then spent some spare time lifting weights — and then watches while the color LCD goes through its little rumbling motors and sweeping flames animation. Once complete, one rocks the kill switch from ‘not run’ to the ‘run’ position, and the bike’s electronics manage the motor start sequence. The Thunder Stroke motor has a starting decompression system, which slightly opens the exhaust valves until the motor catches, which it does on about the third compression stroke. The motor comes up to an immediate steady idle, although from dead cold, it does exhibit a little bit of a lean stumbly character once underway, along with a slightly sticky clutch which makes selecting first gear and shifting a bit high effort until the motor begins to warm. None of this is the least bit surprising in a mammoth air-cooled motor that has a nearly 4 inch wide cylinder bore. After a mile or so, though, with some heat in the cylinder heads and the oil, the bike returns to its hard hitting, smooth shifting self.

After getting the necessary metal cutting blades I needed for my project, I rode back (the long way) to the shop, just enjoying the Roadmaster’s mechanical personality, and looking for any excuse to roll the ride by wire throttle open and shift the gearbox up through the gears. The Thunder Stroke’s exhaust note — with factory pipes in place — is just perfect, low toned and rumbly, with no burble or backfire on the overrun.

After wrapping up in the shop for the day, I saddled up again and headed over to Brunswick, which was sponsoring a Bike Night. Sweet Doris From Baltimore and I wandered around, ate some crabcakes, and quickly came to the conclusion that most of the ‘Biker Activities’ — beer, swag sales and bad cover band — were of limited appeal to us, so we took up a seat behind the Roadmaster and engaged with the many riders who stopped to look when they walked by.

One Gazillion Harleys and Just a Single Indian – OK, a guy with a Shadow snuck in somehow

Most folks that saw the bike were clearly struck by its appearance and stopped to talk. I had a few business cards from the sales manager at Twigg’s and gave them to folks that seemed genuinely interested.

After a while, I restarted the bike, and took the scenic route home – following Maryland 17 through Burkettsville – and prepared for a big ride tomorrow. It was time to put on some miles, ride through a tank or two, and really see what we had.

 

***

 

When we got home that night Sweet D looked at the weather forecast for the next day and told me, “Well, you better be ready to go early tomorrow. You’ll have one gap in the weather early in the day and the later it gets, the worse the forecast looks.”

I am never ready to go early.

 

***

 

Early Sunday morning, I was out in the driveway, taking a towel to the saddle and controls, and looking at the low sliding clouds that were off to the North and the East. And though it might not work as A Look with Conchos, I had my trusty ‘Stich on, and knew I’d be just fine no matter what the weather threw at us.

Dried off and strapped on, I lit up the Indian’s big motor. I let it idle briefly – listening to the operation of the valve train and injectors on the top end of the engine that was sitting in my lap. Despite the presence of the sophisticated electronics, the motorcycle itself had a comforting massively mechanical quality to it — every time those valves closed and one of those pistons fired, there’d be no question as to what was going on.

By the time I hit the traffic light in town – about three quarters of a mile from home – there was enough heat in the engine and oil that all was clearly well. When the light turned I made the left up Holter Road, and headed up some of the best roads in The Valley.

Where I might have been originally, I was no longer tentative with the bike in corners. I’d completely come to grips with it, and was completely comfortable with the ‘steer with your butt’ motion the motorcycle seemed to prefer. On these few technical corners spinning the engine a little between 2000 and 4000 rpm I was smiling at the way the suspension was working – keeping all that bike in line – and the thrust coming off corner exits. Running up though the gears was like Cracker Jacks – there was a free prize inside every time.

Holter Road turns onto Maryland 17 in Middletown, which gets tighter and curvier, and then deposits one at the entrance to I-70 in Myersville. I banked left into the entrance ramp, thonked up into sixth, and headed west into the mist to find the Indian.

 

***

 

Over the course of a great many miles, I’ve become a firm believer in listening intently to what your motorcycle is telling you. On my K12, at 3900 rpm everything goes smooth, and will run at that indicated 83 miles an hour until your road turns to ocean. With two 900cc plus cylinders, the Roadmaster’s motor looms larger, and it’s presence dictates everything you do. Listening to the Thunder Stroke, it told me it was happiest around 2100 rpm, which in sixth gear was around 74. It still had tons of power — with its torque peak at 3000 — and would briskly walk away on throttle, but everything up higher seemed just a little more busy, a little more blustery — 74 seemed to be the Roadmaster’s comfortable walking shoes – the driveline harmonics’ smiley happy place. Might it smooth out a bit as it fully breaks in? Maybe. But where I’m used to attacking, the Roadmaster’s take was to be taking it easy, and looking good and feeling comfortable doing it.

The night before I’d looked for the bones of a route with a couple of alternate ideas if Mother Nature got mad. I’d sat down with my laptop running Google Maps – and figured I’d head west to just past Hancock Maryland, where I’d get off the interstate and turn towards Berkley Springs West Virgina. USS 522 runs from 70 south through Berkley Springs across Morgan County and further south to Omps.

“Omps?” I thought. I rubbed my eyes, squinted a little harder, and cranked the Zoom up on the laptop.

“Omps

Omps is an unincorporated community that lies along U.S. Route 522 in Morgan County, West Virginia, USA. Omps previously had a post office that operated between 1887 to 1973.

The community was named after one Mr. Omps, an original owner of the town site.”

What would we do without Wikipedia?

Ok, so I apologize to the inhabitants of Omps, West Virginia, but I noticed your town on the map because I thought it had a funny name. I used to live in Point of Rocks, Maryland, so you can have a turnabout is fair play laugh on me just for sport.

And whether Omps is a funny name or not, what I really noticed was the Great Big Green Thing right behind it on the map — The Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area. The more I zoomed in, the more tiny roads appeared. Eventually, those tiny roads popped over the mountains and came out somewhere between Inwood and Martinsburg, which was more or less back in my backyard.

Plan: Go west to 522, head south to Omps, and then make a left and then just wing it.

“Wing it? But Greg,” you say, “that Roadmaster has an LCD screen, built in GPS and nav, why would you not use it?”

Pretty simple. I was out for a ride. Not a get there.

***

 

I’ll admit that in the first few minutes after I hit cruise on 70, I did spend a little bit of time looking at the info screens to see what the system could do. I set the bike on its cruise control, which works perfectly, and diverted some attention to the onboard systems. The bike could present four different displays on the bright color LCD, that one could toggle though with either the preset buttons below the screen or with a toggle on the handlebars. My personal fave was strictly a riding information screen – real time tire pressures and fuel range. There were also screens for GPS, for navigation, for the radio and for interface with a smart phone and bluetooth music. There was also a button which dimmed the screen down to a series of dark grays with a barely discernible Indian head. I think that screen is called “Off”.

I liked that screen a lot too.

If you want to know how the radio sounded, you’ll need to ask someone else. While it looks like a nice one, I never turned it on. Between being extra attentive to someone else’s motorcycle and the bike’s built-in music, it never occurred to me to blast some tunes.

And I might have had more time to, if the aforementioned Mother Nature hadn’t shown up pissed.

Plenty pissed, too, if the intensity of the rain was any indication.

I’ve ridden in rain. I’ve ridden in lots of rain.  On my own motorcycle, with tires engineered specifically for rain traction – Thank you, Avon! – it doesn’t freak me out.

On an unfamilar motorcycle and tires, I wasn’t in a position to assume anything, I just needed to be vigilant and listen to what the motorcycle was telling me. I did cop a brief stop on the shoulder — 4 way flashers on — to close the vents and vanes on the fairing lowers and then gassed it back into traffic, and raised the power windscreen to its highest position. Even with the gas on in this strangling downpour the Roadmaster seemed planted, so I managed my lane position to keep away from other traffic and kept the bike running at about 65.

Fairing Vents Full Open

Lower Vent Closed

Deflectors Up, Captain

 

I passed a group of HD riders that were under an overpass, struggling with raingear.

“Who’s laughing at my Aerostich, now, mateys? Anybody want to buy one of these?”

Overall the protection offered by the bike’s fairing was quite good — my hands and my elbows were a little wetter than I was used to, but my torso and lap were dry, and my feet were also out of the blast. In the 11/10th test conditions Moms Nature provided, Roadmaster’s weather protection gets a solid two thumbs up.

After about 25 miles of this, the Roadmaster and I finally punched out the other side of the storm. It was still a little damp and steamy, but at least one didn’t drown if one opened one’s mouth. We continued to cruise– Thunder Stroke 111 just throbbing along — the few remaining miles up the interstate, until we got to the intersection of I-70, I-68, and US-522. I exited on 522 and headed south towards Berkeley Springs.

522 is a perfect two lane secondary road. If you are the type of rider that does all of your travelling off the Interstate, and seeks out roads like this, then the Roadmaster is a perfect travelling motorcycle. On 522’s winding curves, handling was almost zero effort and felt totally planted, the feet forward ergonomics made perfect sense, and one could lower the power shield to below one’s sightline and still run with visor open and minimal wind buffeting. Running at around 60 mph in 5th gear on the 6 speed box, any sluggish traffic could be instantly dispatched with zero drama — the Roadmaster’s power was like one giant slingshot.

Heading south on 522 one passes the sand mines of US Silica, and then encounters the small town of Ridersville, WV. As a committed motorcyclist, any town called Ridersville is OK by me, and this is one doubly so because of Ridersville Cycles, a large, modern multiline dealership that sits off the west side of the highway. I’d have stopped to say ‘Hi’ but they ride on Sundays, so I continued my relaxed roll to the South.

Coming into Berkeley Springs, I got a demonstration of how well the bike dealt with in-town trolling — at just above walking speeds — and found the bike to be stable and comfortable – not requiring any effort to keep on-line. Leaving town I saw a BP Station, and since I meant to get lost it was best to do it with a full tank.

I rolled into the station and standed the bike. I had a few awkward moments as I eyeballed the dual caps on the Roadmaster’s tank — remembering that only one of them is functional and not being able to remember which one. I guessed wrong, of course, and ended up with a cap in my hand with a safety sticker under it that said “Cap is decorative. Do not loosen or remove.”

Checking carefully to ensure I had not been observed in this serious transgression, I replaced the dummy cap, and tried the other one, which proved to be much more satisfactory. The tank took about 4 and a half gallons of Ultimate – capacity is 5 and a half – and I was much more careful not to drip fuel on this pretty paintjob — Indian calls it ‘Bronze over Thunder Black’ — than I would have been with one of my own motorcycles. I noticed that the trip computer had recalculated my range to empty based on my actual observed mileage – the sort of thing I could come to love out on the road. I got back on 522 South, riding the rolling hills and curves into Omps.

There isn’t much to Omps, really.

Cacapon State Park, with its Lake, Cabins and Golf Course. A Country Market with Gas Station, and the building that looked like it might have been the Post Office, back when Omps had one. But as soon as Omps had come it was gone, and my attention turned to finding a likely left turn that looked like it would cut up into the mountains to the east.

A few rolling miles south of Omps the sign appeared — it was all in international symbols — Fishing, Hunting, Camping, Left Turn — but to me it said ‘Pay dirt!’. I lit up my left signal, dropped a few gears to second, braked firmly and rolled left. By the time I had the Roadmaster straightened up and shifted back into third, I was sure I’d made the right move.

We’ve got lots of roads like this around where I live — little wandering country goat paths — but the ones that are left are in undeveloped farm land, and frankly, they don’t actually go anywhere. Three miles is about all one gets before getting dumped back out on a modern highway. But in Motorcyclist’s West Virginia, these roads can go on seemingly forever. This one rolled on though forest field and cabins as it slowly climbed the mountain — it would occasionally open up briefly where it hit pasture but mostly it was one turn after another, and the higher we climbed, the tighter it got.

From time to time, we’d hit an intersection, and I’d take which ever way looked good to me at the time. And while the road kept getting smaller, and the surroundings mistier, except for a few 270 degree switchbacks which tested the Roadmaster’s driveline and fuel injection’s ability to provide tractable, smooth steady power as really low rpms, I felt as comfortable on the bike as I could be, which is high praise indeed for a very large bike on a very small road. Coming out of these slow corners the bike smoothly launched from low road speeds – the frame’s rigidity and the suspension and steering geometry made what could have been a wrestling match very low effort and relaxing. In the whole time I had the bike, not a single bit touched down.

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Leather? Check. Conchos? Check. Chrome? Check and Check. Winding Road? Perfect.

A few corners in, I was presented with another sign — George Washington Heritage Trail. It pointed in a direction, so I went that way. The Father of Our Country has never steered me wrong, and he didn’t on this day, either. The Trail kept rolling up to the summit — rocky hillsides with sparse forestation — and then broke back down the other side to the valley below. Eventually, after miles and miles of winding country roads, we came in via WV51 into the back side of Charles Town, which was frankly too close to home.

US 340 goes home, so I didn’t take it, opting instead for WV9, a twisting local favorite that took me into Loudoun County Virginia, where I picked up Loudoun Heights Road, which since the last time I’ve ridden it, has become a driveway for wineries, which is a shame, because the road itself is a gem — threading vineyard and forests with challenging turns. The vineyard tourists introduce a new wrinkle to running The Heights. It’s a road I know well, and can be ridden with verve — I did spend some time with revs up and butterflies open — the Roadmaster’s sound was superb.

Too soon though we were back on 340 North, and on a divided highway running hard for home. For the few miles left of open road, I opened it up, and spent some time running the bike at a higher road speeds. And while it never ran out of motor, and was willing to pull, there was something that just seemed unnatural spinning that big motor at those speeds. It wanted to know what my hurry was, trying to vaporize the scenery when it was clearly worth dissolving into, embracing, and savoring for a while.

 

***

 

Everybody has a travelling style – no one is right or wrong.

When I was down at the Barber Vintage Festival, a couple of years back, I found myself in the pits of the Blue Moon Cycle Vintage Racing Team. And amongst the /5s, R90s and kneeler sidecars sat a Cherokee Red Indian Roadmaster. I’m pretty sure I was Dribble Puddleing — both that Engine and the Bike are chrome candy moto art — it’s the sort of thing that is kind of difficult to ignore.

Its owner — who was slightly older than I am — saw me looking, and wanted to know what I rode. I told him and he said he’d traded in the same bike I rode for this.

“No neck pain, no back pain, It’s amazing.” He said. “I’ve ridden every travelling BMW – R100RS, 1100 RTs, K Bikes, the works… this is the most comfortable travelling motorcycle I’ve ever owned.”

I thought a lot about what he told me, from that time to this.

Then I rode home from Alabama — 835 miles — in a single sitting, thinking about it most all the way.

And having ridden the Indian, I now understand what he meant.

Ride this motorcycle in its element as it wants to be ridden, and it is an illuminating experience.

Let that big motor do exactly what it was built to do.

The Roadmaster isn’t about getting there, it’s about being there, about being immersed in the ride for as long as it lasts.

It’s the kind of motorcycle that changes you, and can completely change your perspective.

 

 

***

 

Thanks to Indian Motorcycles and to Twigg Indian, in Hagerstown, Maryland, for providing a 2018 Indian Roadmaster motorcycle for this story.

A complete Road Test and Review appears in the July/August Edition of Motorcycle Times.

That full review can also be found here.

The Pits – Part 2

Having seen a small herd of custom motorcycles I didn’t expect to see in the Barber Vintage Festival’s Racing Pits, it was finally time to ogle some racing iron.

You know how they say “Birds of Feather Flock Together”? Well, the weirder the bird, the more this is likely to be true.

And to the normal motorcycle enthusiast, there is nothing weirder than racing sidecars.

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The Number 1 Formula 1 Racing sidecar shown here is the Jay Leno’s Big Dog Garage Race team — piloted by Bernard Juchli and passengered by Kevin Kautzky.

Folks that are fans of Jay Leno’s new car show ‘Jay Leno’s Garage’ don’t need to be introduced to Bernard — who is Jay’s Chief Mechanic and restorer for his superb and massive collection of cars and motorcycles.

Diehard sidecar fans are likely light-headed from laughing at my use of the term ‘passenger’, when everyone knows the person who doesn’t have the handlebars in their hands is called ‘The Monkey’. Big Dog Racing’s Monkey, Kevin Kautzky, kind of breaks the monkey mold. Most Monkeys are like jockeys or crew coxwains – teensy weensy diminutive personages designed to maximize power to weight and minimize wind resistance.

Kevin ain’t no little girly-man-monkey, no sir. Maybe my own lack of stature is affecting my perception, but in his leathers and racing boots he must be a muscular six-foot six or six-foot seven, at least. Sizing him up I could visualize him wanting to make the chair’s tire stick at speed and being able to make it stick.

When I saw the Big Dog rig out on the circuit later, what I had imagined was easily confirmed.

***

Pitting with Big Dog is the Formula Super2 of Steve Stull and Heidi Neidhofer. Since once can safely assume that sidecarists are rugged individualists, it is not surprising that Steve and Heide eschew the conformist “Monkey” designation and prefer instead ‘driver and co-driver’.

Their Super2 bike mates the same liter class four cylinder engine of the Formula One machines to a shorter, lighter chassis. Where the Formula One feels like a cruise missile, Super2 comes across all aerobatic biplane.

Co-driver Heidi does conform to the more typical physical profile of they-who-doesn’t-hold-the-handlebars — more of a dead-serious-gymnast’s compact strength compared to Kevin’s pro-cornerback build.

The lighter, shorter and theoretically more agile Super 2 should be able to really embrace and exploit the Barber Circuit’s tighter, more technical sections.

And again, when I sat on the crest of Ace Corner later in the afternoon during the sidecar heat race — sitting in a spot where I could see the Carousel and the next two corners, Steve and Heide were like two manifestations of a single mind — Heide a constant smooth blur of motion on the rig, and Steve constantly on the gas and setting up for the next corner.

I’ll admit I was pulling for Bernard, but Steve and Heide were doing things with their rig in the corners that were rearranging the two-wheel limited perceptions of my mind. Their racer was carrying so much speed and exiting so hard that I found myself just giggling insanely just watching them and their chair as it just walked completely away.

***

In sidecar racing, one just really can’t get around ‘The Monkey’.

Their skill in controlling the traction available at the drive and cornering wheels is really what makes the whole unlikely thing go.

The sidecar chairmen and chairwomen have balls and skill I will never have.

Wandering down what seemed to be Sidecar Row in the Barber paddock, I came to something I had been expecting to see.

Unlike two wheeled roadracing, where the manufacturer had only experienced limited success, in sidecar racing BMW boxer twins had been utterly dominant for roughly three decades.

DSCN2628

Sitting out front of the Blue Moon Cycles’ shelter was this classic BMW kneeler racing sidecar. The motor in it looked like it could have been borrowed straight out of my Toaster.

One of the friends of the shop saw me deep in thought contemplating their kneeler, and walked up to chat.

“So will we see this out there running in anger today?”

“Oh, no man. His Monkey passed away last year. After 30 years together, I mean how could you?

He don’t race no more.”

You can not get around ‘The Monkey’.

***

Guys that race an old motorcycle must possess a certain level of inner strength and determination.

The older the motorcycle, the stronger that inner steel needs to be.

DSCN2630

If you’re racing a mostly unrestored 1913 Indian Scout — look at the surface rust on the frame and forks — you’re titanium.

If, in addition to your 1913 Scout, you are running 8 or 9 Nortons — motorcycles with a somewhat deserved reputation for a certain fragility when under stress — well, man, you’re Superman.

DSCN2631

***

I’d been watching a race over the pit wall as I wandered around the paddock. The class seemed to be basically ‘Classic UJM’, with air cooled transverse fours and twin shock rears. If you are a person of a certain age, these are your motorcycles.

You know who you are.

In that class, one guy was clearly smoother, faster and more in the groove than his competitors. He lead from the start, and smoothly stretched his lead so he came across the line completely alone.

DSCN2633

This guy, moto-writer Nick Ienatsch, was that guy.

“Ya gave me a great bike — all I had to do was not mess it up.”

He was visibly having a hell of a time, and was clearly as fast in the flesh as he is on the page.

***

Some people go GP Racing.

Other people like to ride pit bikes in the Paddock.

DSCN2634

Some people like to do both.

***

There are lots of people that think that the Archetype and Highest achievement of the Racing motorcycle is the Classic British Single.

A lot of those people make the trek to Alabama for the Barber Vintage Festival.

The Classic British single take a lot of different types — Norton Manxes and Internationals, the Velocettes and Matchlesses — but they all share an elemental form that is the motorcycle reduced to its absolute minimum: a single cylinder, two wheels and a place to hold on.

Being a guy that thinks about simplicity and complexity, I got no gas with people that are willing to put themselves on the line to demonstrate that these simplest possible motorcycles are somehow a higher expression of what motorcycling means.

These are motorcycles that speak loudly to me. I can feel every power hit of these big singles as the grips grow wider in my hands closing in on redline. I can feel the front tire lifting free of the track on tight corner exits, and power wheelying coming across rises in the pavement.

These are hard motorcycles for hard men. The very notion of refinement — something that might temper their essential mechanical brutality — seems utterly alien standing in front of a Norton Manx.

***

The American Historic Racing Motorcycle Racing Association’s (AHMRA) Number Plate Registry identifies number 14x as belonging to Randy Hoffman.

I didn’t get the chance to talk to you, Randy, but if i had, I would have told you something you already know — that you have absolutely exquisite taste in motorcycles.

This 1938 Velocette KTT Mk VII is just beautiful — almost as narrow and light as a bicycle, except this bicycle has a substantial single cylinder engine, a girder front end, and a shapely fuel tank with perfect black paint and gold pinstriping.

DSCN2636

 

Single cylinder Vincent Comets are extremely rare in the United States. Rarer still are The Grey Flash, a single cylinder in full racing trim – essentially a one cylinder version of the famous Black Lightning. This one is a head-turner.

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The overwhelming impression one comes away with is that this Grey Flash is almost made of more air than metal — there’s almost nowhere where one can’t see straight through the motorcycle.

The tale that Vincent historians tell is that Phil Irving was busy at the draftsman’s table and accidentally superimposed two blueprints for the Comet’s engine on top of each other and realized that there was already the space required to install a second top end in the space behind the cylinder on the Comet’s crankcases. This flash of insight produced the Vincent Rapide’s V-twin, and changed the course of motorcycling history.

Looking at this Grey Flash, I can’t help but think of my son Finn’s new Buell Blast. Feel free to scoff. Everybody else does. Faced with a completely different problem, Eric Buell removed the rear cylinder from a Harley Davidson Sportster’s engine, and ended up in nearly the same place.

One approach was additive, and one was subtractive, but the two motorcycles — with their inclined singles and monoshock rears, are startlingly close to the same elemental solution.

***

Motorcycle enthusiasm can require sustained financial commitment.

Duh.

People will tell you — why are unknown people always telling us things? — that because of that hierarchy of self-imposed enthusiasm taxes — that the finest kind of boat, or the finest kind of airplane, is somebody else’s boat — somebody else’s airplane.

People have told me — there they are again — that the same sort of logic applies to owning any performance Velocette motorcycle.

DSCN2639

Looking at this one, though, it looks like any price would be totally worth it.

 

***

 

The previous section of The Barber Tales can be read here. The story continues here.

 

Dirt

There was a time, back at the dawn of it all, when dirt was all there was.

When Daimler created Einspur, there was only dirt to ride it on.

As soon as the products of Oscar Hedstrom and William S. Harley could tension leather belts and power white rubber wheels, motorcycles were sliding through corners, flinging dirt from what then was passing for roads.

Harley-Davidson_Monocylinder

***

If it weren’t for Hoosier Carl G. Fisher — a man who was a roller if there ever was one — it might be that way still.

Carl wanted to go faster– first on bicycles, then in cars, and eventually even as a racer. And going faster and rutted mud and gravel do not naturally mix.

So Carl — enlisting some 1912 Social Networking buzz, in the form of guys like Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison — conveived of The Lincoln Highway — the Transcontinental Railroad Golden Spike Moment of the Internal Combustion Universe.

A single strip of pavement that went from New York to San Francisco. That made us one nation under a dotted white highway line.

Since then, in America. We’ve been paving over pretty much every-damn-thing in sight ever since.

***

Which makes it seem funny to me that we seem to have collectively forgotten that a motorcycle started out as a better way to get down a rutted gravel road.

Look at most of the motorcycles made in the last, say 50 years, and a dirt road is clearly the furthest thing from their minds. The UJMs that made up most of the 70s and 80s. Racetrack replicas. Anything Harley Davidson. The mission was pavement, Holmes, and getting some of the aformentioned rides sliding was a recipe for quick, sharp pain.

Adventure Riders with their Farkeled-out Battlewagons have begun to pull our attention back, but close to 600 lbs of blaster is not your friend if things start to get physical in the dirt.

When making the case for the longevity and popularity of their GS line, BMW claimed that one of the reasons that riders ensured that the company would survive was because the boxers were so capable when conditions turned to crap. In making the GS, they said, they were only really recognizing how their customers used their motorcycles already.

And while my Born-in-Brooklyn Marketing BS Detector keeps spinning the blue lights and sounding that Klaxon, part of me has to admit it’s kinda true.

Right after I got the Toaster I used to run the power lines north of Baltimore’s Loch Raven with it.

It tractored right up any hill, although down was not exactly its thing.

I camped off of it — doing miles of stone roads heavily loaded in eastern parklands and out in New Mexico.

And its why when I moved out of the city, and had more modern bikes with many less miles, that it got a set of lightweight dual sport tires, and was scrambling about a decade before a Scrambler was, like, a thing.

I know now that my next set of Toaster tires need more substantial knobs.

***

My home in Frederick County Maryland is a landscape in change. It is an historically agricultural county being sligshotted into being a bedroom suburb of distant Washington and Baltimore, and a place wondering if in that process it will lose things that cannot be replaced.

One of those things are our dirt roads — rolled pea gravel roads that run alongside creekbeds and run though farm fields, that leapfrog through forest from creek to ridgeline and back along creekbeds again. Roads with stream fords, and with one lane cast iron bridges that look no different to me than they did to an aviator-googled leather helmeted guy piloting his brand new Pope, hoping to stay in the frame with his bud’s Excelsior.

There are others who feel the way I do. I am not the only one who goes to the dirt to feel something out of time, to get in touch with the world our Grandfathers, Great Grandfathers and Great Great Grandfathers knew.

***

Due to one of those sustained periods of overstimulation at work, combined with the fact that I was still spending most of my free moments splicing wiring and control parts on my R90S after its little mishap with big electricity, more than a few days had gone by without the opportunity for a ride.

I ended up having some business to attend to in Frederick, and the day seemed perfect for enjoyment of a naked, elemental motorcycle. Suitably geared up in my Vanson mesh and some canvas work pants, I rolled the Toaster out of the garage and threw a leg over. Since the recent replacement of the starter switch and battery, starting has been a determanistic, zero-drama event.

Business was swiftly dispatched, and with it my focus turned to a wander on the way home.

Running through the woods and along the creek on Roy Schaefer Road, I felt the inexorable need to leave the pavement behind.

At the intersection of Bennies Hill Road, I made the right, and promptly headed back in time.

I’ve never had a set of aviator goggles, but these little trips into the dirt and through the fabric of time seem to demand them, even if only for sci-fi nerd hero style.

bennies hill

Bennies Hill is a gravel single track that follows the path of a creek called the Cone Branch. It runs under a dense canopy of trees – made all the greener and denser by the sustained heavy rains that started our summer here. The straight stretches are all oddly off camber, and the corners that separate them are all fairly tight, providing mutiple opportunities to play with a little flat track style sliding.

The early season deluge has given way to a recent dry spell, so the surface was dry and dusty, leading to my front end seemeing a tad more skatey and wandery than usual, despite having reduced my tire pressures slightly with the dirt in mind. Dual-sport tires like these Distanzias are more about pose than actual traction — that contemplated set of Heidenau Scouts may be closer in my future than I’d been thinking.

After one tight corner, Bennie Hill has a concrete ramp bridge, something I suspect may be unique to these parts. These bridges are placed where a steam crossing used to be, and are just a strip of concrete to keep one out of the water. These bridges are designed to just submerge when flooding conditions occur, and then pop back up when the creek goes back down. I know of at least 5 of these things within 5 miles of my house.

Riding across one of these bridges feels odd — they dont have any guardrails, curbs, visible structure or obvious support. You have water on both sides of you, but your feet stay dry.

The road passes past a home its owners call Heron Hill. This was a no-brainer for them, as I’ve never ridden past the place when there wasn’t at least one Great Blue visible somewhere on the property, and today was no exception.

At the left hander coming past the Heron, I dialed in just the right amound of gas for an entertaining slide.

For a kid that never could manage to talk my Dad into a dirtbike, I now pronounce myself fully caught up.

Bennies Hill Road then comes to what I’ve always assumed was Bennies Hill. There are no packs of buxom beauties inexplicably rushing about, and the sound of Yakety Sax is fortunately nowhere in evidence. The road actually narrows, and works its way steeply down the side of a stone face. At the bottom is a 90 degree left, and the Bennies Hill Road Bridge.

The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places — it is a single lane Iron Bowstring Arch bridge — and I beleive its one of of only two remaining that are still in service where they were built — this one in 1889.

bennies hill bridge

Coming off the bridge, the road straightens out and provides one of the few places where one can get any revs up in third gear. A short chute brings me to the intersection of Harley Road.

I have never seen any Harleys on Harley Road. Given the larger gravel surface and tight, seriously rutted corners that likly result from the heavy farm tractor traffic the road carries, I don’t imagine I ever will, either.

Now if you’re a gal or guy with a Sportster, or better still an XR, with a dirty bent, you could have some fun proving me wrong. But if you have a Softail or some sort of Ultra, this is not your road.

Harley Road is fun, with long straights, a few TT-style whoops, and the aforementioned tight switchbacks. As long as one has the presence of mind to stand up and to loosen one’s grip on the bars and let the front end do what it would like, its a fun time. On the other hand, tighten up into the so -called death grip, and you may gain some experience harvesting summer corn.

Harley Road ends with a long downhill straight, where you’re treated to a vista of the cropfields the road rolls through.

***

A quick dogleg at MD 383 puts you on Poffenberger Road.

The big white house attached to a country store building on the corner of Poffenberger is The Shamieh’s old house. It was a charming foresquare — built out of recycled lumber and building materials in 1911. The main beams of the house had obviously been reclaimed from a colonial era timber-framed barn — there were adze marks on them and a few places where there were hand forged nails that could no more be removed than the sword in the stone. I had to drop a hole in one of them once for an electrical update, and I burned up three electrician’s hole bits before I was able to declare success. 300 year old oak might as well be granite. During storms that house did-not-move, unlike my modern house which practically sways in every breeze.

When our son Finn was born 18 years ago that house was a $100,000 house that needed $200,000 worth of renovations in order to accomodate our growing family.

I did the math and resignedly bought a new house in the development on the top of the next hill for substantially less than that. I don’t miss wrenching on the bones of that old house, but I do miss my neighbors, who were social and understood the meaning of community. We shared meals, watched each others children, and if you were in a jam with something involving tools helping hands had a tendency to appear unbidden. My nice house in the development is a place where people walk about with their heads down and act as if other people don’t exist.

I’ve ridden Poffenberger road so many times it becomes almost hypnotic. After blasting away from my old house, the road makes a few nice carvable sweeping corners, then drops down a big hill that turns back to dirt at the bottom. If one has been overenjoying oneself, and is carrying enthusiastic levels of speed, the unannounced swap back to all gravel can create a few moments of noticeable stimulation.

The road snakes through the woods, with tight corners providing more opportunities for sliding throttle play, dodges a few mud puddles, and comes down to Catoctin Creek and another of our Historic Bridges.

The Poffenberger Road bridge is a Truss Bridge built by the Wrought Iron Bridge Company of Canton Ohio. We think it was built in the late 1870s. The Poffenberger Bridge is a more substantial bridge, built by Ohioans that took great pride in their work. All of the reinforcing filets where the beams join have floral patterns cut into them. 150 years old, still doing the work it was designed for, and looking good doing it. That you and I should be so blessed.

Poffenberger_Road_Bridge

Where the bridge crosses Catoctin Creek, the Creek is wide, clear and moving fast. I usually tarry, enjoying the clear view from the bridge’s wooden deck to the rounded stones on the creekbottom.

Coming off the bridge, Poffenberger Road follows Catoctin Creek. The road opens right up running straight alongside the creek, and its possible to put down some serious throttle and run up — throwing gravel and dust into the air behind you — smartly through the gears.

There’s a left hand sweeper at the end of the straight, and if Nixon rides with you today, you can set the bike on the left side of the tire and slide stylishly out of it.

A micro-straight leads you back to a major whoop and then a short stretch of pavement in front of a Heritage Farm that has been in that spot since the 1700s. Then we’re right back in the gravel and running another long stright along the creek that takes you to the Lewis Mill.

The Lewis Mill is a still functional gristmill, waterwheel and all, currently inhabited by a Potter friend of my Painter wife. The mill has been in that spot since the late 1780s, and inhabits the entire plain in a bend in the Creek. A more magical place I almost cannot imagine. Sitting out by the creek, listening to the water roll by and making company with farm geese, it is exactly the same now as it was two and a half centuries before.

Poffenberger Road very nearly takes one right in the front door of the mill, sitting as it does sandwiched between the Creek and the steep hill that rises to the left. The steepness of the hill and the sharpness of the corner provides opportunities for getting bent out of shape if your enthusiasm exceeds one’s available traction.

After the short, steep rise, the road breaks sharply to the left, working its way around a bluff before dropping back down to the creek. In the dirt, we laugh at the very thought of guardrails, and off the right side of the road is a dizzying view of the roughly 60 foot uninterrupted drop back to the stones of the creekbed. Slide off the right side of the road here and it will be the last riding mistake you ever make.

Poffenberger drops sharply down the other side of the bluff and one finds oneself running hard and straight beside the creek again.

At the end of the stright there is a right onto Corun Road, and a steep narrow climb up a goatpath in the woods marked by utterly blind corners. Bursting back into the sun I emerge onto MD State Highway Route 383, sitting at a stopsign and staring across a pasture right at the front of my house.

***

Sitting back in my driveway in the current century the Toaster wears laurels of the grey white dust of crushed limestone. There are seeps of oil on the oil pan, and smudges of gear oil mixed with rock dust on the rear rim and final drive.

These little trips in the dirt focus the mind — everything slows down and getting to the end with no broken bones, air still in the tires and the motor still turning with miles of crushed rock road stretching out behind still seems as much a technological miracle as it must have seemed in 1912. Travelling alone in the silence of the woods — feeling every bump and rut, throwing dirt and wrestling with traction — no other cars or trucks around — seems like such a necessary antidote to the oversubscription, overcrowding and underattention of the rest of the paved world.

Riding the dirt is an express ticket to a simpler past, to being self sufficient, self reliant, and being willing to take a shot.

With the signs all alround us that The World is Running Down, once dirt was all there was, and it could soon be so again.

Slide On, Brother, Slide On.

 

Dizzyland for Gentleman Motorcyclists

I just returned from a family vacation.

I spent a week under canvas in the Pisgah National Forest in the mountains of Western North Carolina. My wife, youngest son and I took our simple folding tent trailer to a lovely wooded federal campground with zero bars of service on anyone’s cel phone.

We used the camp as a base of operations to art tour, see music, eat and drink our way around Asheville, which was very civilized and lots of fun.

We also resolved to spend some time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as we Shamiehs have been touring each and every one of these National Treasures, and as one of The Great Parks east of the Mississippi, we were honor bound.

But as we motored in our white work pickup towards Cherokee, something unpredictably and inappropriately bikey spontaneously occurred.

We were rolling through Maggie Valley, North Carolina, when I saw a small roadside sign.

“The Wheels Through Time Museum.3 Miles Ahead on Right.”

“Oh,” I said, “This Place is Legendary. Can we stop and walk around?”

My wife and son looked at each other with the face of recognition that they were about to bear witness to me in the abject depths of Moto-depravity. But it was vacation, and everyone is just supposed to roll with it and have fun whenever and wherever it occurs.

It was agreed without hesitation that we should.

We rolled across the bridge into the place, and tried to find room for our Ram Truck amongst the Myriad Harleys.

I walked briskly up the ramp and into the facility.

A nice gentleman who was sitting on the porch greeted us, welcoming us to the place. I was a little wild eyed, breathing hard, and walking kind of fast, so I didn’t pay much attention to Dale Walksler, whose marvelous motorcycle collection this is.

So Dale, I’m genuinely sorry and embarrassed that I was less than social, but I was a little overexcited.

I’m sure you know how that goes.

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The Wheels Through Time advertises itself as ‘The Museum That Runs”.  The nice lady that sold me my ticket said “Everything in Here is Made in America, and everything runs.” When you have a HD service area that looks like this:

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which appears to have at least two cylinder barrels, two cylinder heads, and two pistons of every engine Harley Davidson has ever produced, and your spare parts supply has so many original OEM pistons of 1930’s vintage in Original factory boxes that you sell them for Museum Swag, keeping them running doesn’t appear to be as big a problem as it might be for the rest of us.

This is in no way to minimize what an extraordinary accomplishment and amount of work that represents.

And is in no way to even imply that Harley Davidsons are the only motorcycles Dale treasures.

There is simply too much in The Wheels — motorcycles, memorabilia, artwork, automobilia, and just plain weird shit — to even think of covering it all in anything short of a  full length book.

But I will share a few things that caught my eye, or in some cases tugged at my heartstrings. Other things might catch yours.

One of my fellow Internet BMW Riders has strongly urged me to go to Dale’s if the chance ever presented itself. I don’t remember who you are, but thank you anyway.

And if you ever get the chance, and you love motorcycles and motorcycling, you should too.

Oh, and Dale, if you can forgive my bad manners, and would like me to write that book to catalog the museum, please let me know. It would be a labor of love.

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This 1903 Indian, which is all original, may well be the oldest running Indian Motorcycle in existence.  Using a dry cell battery for ignition, it has won a race for 100 plus year old motorcycles at the Barber Motorcycle Museum Vintage Festival multiple times. Try and imagine what it was like to have to go — likely to your drugstore  — to obtain a new dry cell and a can of ‘petroleum spirits’ to get ready for a ride.

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The 1903’s Younger Brother — this one, I believe is a 1909 — is also something to be stared at for quite some time.

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This Indian, which is believe is a boardtrack racing sidecar outfit, is also exquisite.

Dale has a series of early 1900s American Fours — Hendersons, a Pierce Arrow, a pair of Aces — any one of which are pretty enough to take your breath away. Taken together, its enough to have you calling for medical assistance. The Pierce, especially, is a wonder of unique design and engineering.

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I make no bones about being a BMW guy. Accordingly, anything with a boxer engine will get my attention. During the Second World War, the US War Department — the precursor to our Department of Defense — placed orders with both Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles to produce shaft driven bikes that would be able to function on the same desert battlefields as the BMW M75s and Zundapps that had been outperforming the US’s chain driven military motorcycles.  Harley’s response to the challenge was the XA, a boxer-engined shaft drive motorcycle. The Wheels Through Time has several XAs as well a few things that were made out of XAs.

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This one is bone Army Stock.

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This one is full civilian custom, right down to the chromed springer front end.

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And this one has been transformed into a race car, where it appear to be entirely comfortable and like that was it’s intended engineering purpose.

Indian’s answer to the same challenge was their Model 841. The 841’s configuration was a transversely mounted, 90 degree V-twin with shaft drive. This configuration would be made famous by MotoGuzzi about 25 years later, but all of the Guzzi’s ingredients were present and accounted for in the 841. Harley Davidson’s XAs are rare — they were built in limited numbers and deployed into combat theaters in even more limited numbers. In contrast, the Indian 841 is barely more than a rumor — there was a short run of machines that were built and purchased, but none were ever deployed by the military. Seeing one is rare — a complete, unrestored one that runs….

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In between the hundred of bikes are — heresy! — a few cars. My first car was a 1971 Cadillac Sedan with an 8.0 liter V8, so I have a soft spot for this 1930 Cadillac V-16 Coupe. The motor is nothing short of awesome, the style of the body is elegance defined, and anything with a rumble seat and this kind of potential for velocity had to be all kinds of fun.

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I said there would be weird shit, and there is weird shit in spades.

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There is a Harley Engine in this spaceship. I’m completely bereft of any ideas as to what I would tell the motor officer if he pulled me over driving this thing.

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This is the most unusual tandem bicycle I’ve ever seen.  When one considers that fact that both sets of handlebars are linked together and steer the bike, so that both riders need to agree and coordinate where they want to go, all of a sudden it becomes a bit more obvious why you and I haven’t seen more of these.

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Weirder still is this Harley Davidson XSIS — Xtremely Stationary Ice Saw. Necessity and an HD are the mother of invention.

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On a related note, and only marginally less weird is this Indian-powered ‘MotorToboggan’, which may well have been the world’s first snowmobile.

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And holding down the perpetually weird, not-sure-if-it-wants-to-be-a-car-or-a-bike category,  A Ner-a-Car feet forward, step through motorcycle.

The second floor of the museum is devoted largely to motorcycle competition.

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This pair of racing leathers that belonged to Cal Rayborn stopped me in my tracks. Cal was one of the American racing greats who we lost too soon. Standing before Cal’s skins, I’ll admit  I may have become a little verklempt.

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One of Scotty Parker’s AMA Championship winning Harley Davidson XR 750 dirtrackers.

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And finally, one of the few Harley’s that I’ll admit being attracted to — the XLCR Café Racer. This bike is kind of like a distant cousin to my R90S — the same DelOrto accelerator pump carburetors, bikini fairing, and aero tailsection, Milwaukee style, as opposed to Berliner Style. An all-for-speed pose with solid, heavy motorcycles. Great fun.

By the end of the too short hours we spent there, I had to search out my family, who were enjoying themselves far more than they thought they would. My artist wife Doris was in love with several antique photographs and advertising art, and my son Finn, who is just dipping his toe in the motorhead water was finding all sorts of obscure gadgets and iron to ogle.

The pictures I’ve provided here barely scratch the surface of the Wheels Through Time’s extensive collection. The more you know about bikes, especially bikes made before 1930, the more amazing the collection and its correct period staging will become. I heartily encourage a motorcycle trip down to the Great Smokies, and plan for a day with my bike-addled friends in Maggie Valley.