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 runningĀ 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.