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
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
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.


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.


“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.



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

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

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

So you don’t.

Or at least I don’t, anyway.

These things can be substantial. Or strangely trivial.

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

I’m so not into entropy.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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

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

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

But it didn’t always work that way.

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

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

I expected Pavarotti.

I got a 43 year old choirboy.




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

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



Back in the garage, troubleshooting was pretty straightforward.

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

No problem there.

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

I was treated to a comically pitiful and failing bleat.

Yup. That’s your problem right there.

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




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

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

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


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

I pressed the button.

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Go, Bud

Sometimes the universe does not go your way.

Sometimes it does, though.


There are times when, no matter what reality throws in my direction, a ride on my motorcycle, wheels spinning beneath me and wind rushing around my body, is enough to restore me, to set me right.

It doesn’t take an epic ride — no laps of Lake Superior, no runs to Santa Monica for a cup of coffee. On a perfect central Maryland sunny day, half an hour that most people might waste on a take-out sandwich is enough time to banish all the chaos and noise and distraction of the rest of the world, and restore balance, restore peace to my soul.

That this is true, and that it works that way, is a deeply personal thing.

Folks that understand the meditative, spiritual place that the ride is for me are pretty thin on the ground, although if you’re here reading this, my chances improve pretty dramatically.


I’ve been working way too hard lately, and the emotional and karmic tank was well into Reserve.

And, in keeping with the patented Shamieh luck — where I could fling myself at the ground and miss –when I most needed a break, I got one.

A large group of people with whom I been working to complete a project were suddenly rendered collectively unavailable, suddenly wiping my schedule for a few hours. Having not been across the threshold of my house for several days, some sunshine and fresh air were absolutely in order.

I wandered into the sunroom of our house, where Sweet Doris from Baltimore was working on finishing one of her paintings, and youngest son, new rider and aspiring Architect Finn was stylishly draped with a book across our black leather Mies Van der Rohe loveseat.

“I’m going for a little ride.”

Some people need to speak to communicate.

Finn, in this case, did not.

Fans of Spongebob Squarepants would recognize Finn’s expression — unworldly large, shining eyes combined with a subtle smile that asked the unspoken question — “Can I come, too?”

Message received.

“You comin’?”

“Well, yeah…”


My ressurective rides have always been a solo act.

Looks like that’s changing.


After getting some boots and gearing up Finn and I rolled our bikes — his Buell and my Toaster — to the bottom of the driveway.

“Sweet day, Dude. I’ll lead. You follow. Going to do some teeny tiny one laners. Be sharp. Questions? Good.”

The Toaster is the ideal bike for riding with Finn. Its light, has a low end-biased power delivery — thanks to its boosted displacement and stock heads — and doesn’t have enough top end power to easily shake off the Buell’s 500 cc single. This way, its fun for both of us, and keeps us together on the road.

We ran up Old Middletown Road, and Finn was clearly comfortable and in command out on the road. My initial anxiety of having him out there learning was — after multiple training sessions and lots of solo miles — all but gone.

What replaced it was the joy of riding with my son, and being able to share with him this thing that is so central to my experience of life and the world.


It was a good day for crossing ‘The Bottoms’ — those one lane farm roads that lead into the center of the Middletown Valley, and that used to serve as elongated driveways for the larger farms hereabouts.

So cross them we did, spending more going back and forth across the farms and streambeds than heading for anyplace in particular. It was one of those classic rides where we never got more than 5 miles from home but spent 27 miles doing it.

We made a left down Bussard Road, which has great hills and corners, and ran it down to Roy Shaefer Road. I love riding Roy Shaefer, as it runs in the shade in the woods, and holds Catoctin Creek close by the right side of the roadside for several good miles.

From there it was Paul Rudy Road, across open farmland, and back to a left at Sumantown…which clears a large farm — which is now for sale, if you have the hankering — and then runs a long downhill straight that takes us back to the backbone of the valley, and Old Middletown Road.

A quick left right dogleg has us running Cherry Lane, which is notable for a lovely set of Left Right Nineties that allow one to work on line and lean well over. After two quick rights at the Stop sign at Holter, we were out in open pasture on Poole Road.

I’ve written before about Poole Road. Its one of those nearly untouched magic places where the land is just and still the land. In early spring before the corn has grown in the sightlines are better, and the whole Poole experience is much less claustrophobic.

Still, the topography is tricky to read, with an uphill corner that almost completely obscures any line to the apex.

As I got the Toaster stood up again on the exit, I got a good look at Finn attacking the day’s trickiest piece of pavement.

He was attacking the corner — not getting behind and chasing his tail. His posture was good, with just a little forward lean — his shoulders were pointed right and he was looking through the corner and gassing the Buell toward the exit.

Finn looked more comfortable and in command after nine weeks of saddletime than I’d probably looked after nine months.

I fully appreciate what a gift, a hard won prize it is to demonstrate mastery of the ride.

I am a man who seldom experiences, and more seldom expresses, pride.

You can all cut me some slack if I take strong and quiet pleasure in this shared gift.


If you can cross The Valley three times, you are likely not to feel any shame about going for four.

Two lefts at Old Middletown put us back on Richard Remsburg Road — an old one lane farm road, with hedgerows and challenging corners and whoops.

We hit the stopsign at Holter and Finn pulled up alongside.

I turned to face him and shot him a Thumbs Up and a Question Mark.

He didn’t even take his hands off the bars.

For the second time in a short while, the expression in that helmet’s eyeport said all he needed to say.


Don’t Eff With Electricity, Man

My R90S is, I am ecstatic to say, back on the road.

At the risk of further offending the motorcycle Gods, who have already demonstrated in no uncertain terms that they have both the tools and desire to use them to punish moto-hubris, the bike is running even better than it did before its little tussle with electricity.

A top gear blast up MD17 this a.m. had it pulling top gear with an authority that is downright shocking for a motorcycle of this age.

Folks may recall that when I found myself beside the road with a mass of smoking wiring, I briefly considered whether, had I been on a roadside in Tibet, I would have been able to effect repairs in-situ to save my own life.

Subsequent developments have illustrated that had this been the case, I would have made a lovely chewy snack for the Snow Leopards, and someone would have discovered my frozen bones come springtime.

This perhaps requires some further explanation.


I’ll admit that when I first got the bike back to its position beside the workbench in my garage, I had no desire to leap feetfirst into what I suspected was going to be a depressingly large and complex repair. The fact that much of the repair work needed to occur inside the confines of a badly lit 7 inch diameter headlamp shell working on tiny components wasn’t doing much for my enthusiasm.

So after a trip to the house of Manny, Moe and Jack to gather all of the things I knew would be required to repair existing or fabricate new wiring harnesses — flag connectors, heat shrink tubing, and several colors and gauges of primary wire — what became most important was to quiet my mind and achieve the inner peace required to remain calm and mindful in the battle that was to come.


Ordinarily, when any bit of mechanical kit belonging to me blows springs, I become temporarily insane.

This assumes, of course, that one believes I am not permanently so, but I digress.

The ‘I cannot rest until I fix it’ fugue state involves a sort of mono-mania. My mind at rest becomes filled with schematics and engineering diagrams. Where there might ordinarily be thoughts of poetry there are checklists of repair parts and UPS ship tracking data. More complex problems that don’t yield immediately to diagnosis manifest themselves in dreams. I become nervous and jerky, furtive, distracted.

I have, obviously, a more than understanding spouse.

It’s easy to understand why one wouldn’t want to welcome this state of being with open arms.

So I did what any self-aware, mature and responsible person would have done under the circumstances.

I embraced denial.

This, frankly, required all of the effort and self-control of which I am capable.

For 10 days, I didn’t go in the garage.

Other people had to take up the slack with taking out the garbage and the recycling.

The beer fridge sits on the end of the workbench next to where the S was waiting, so for those days we inhabited the Oat-Soda-Free-Zone.

Then, after those days of introspection and purification, I was ready.


One of my favorite new tech tools is an LED-based worklight. It looks exactly like the Halogen worklights of old, but is superior in a couple of major ways.

First, it generates absolutely no heat. Compared with halogen tubes of yore, which ran hot enough to be a source of ignition, and threw enough heat to limit their use in close to a work item, these lights can be placed wherever required — no matter how goofy — without any discomfort or hazard.

I set up a comfortable work area directly in front of the S. I positioned an old-fashioned 33 gallon galvanized steel trash can to my left. I have a field electronics repair bench made of a curved and tapered piece of 3/4 in plywood that I fabricated and used to great effect during the construction of my teardrop camper. The shape and taper allows it to be positioned in confined spaces to support the work during crimping and soldering. I placed the field bench atop the can and positioned my soldering iron, linemans pliers, primary wire assortment, connectors and heat shrink tubing where they were conveniently within reach. I also borrowed a camping chair of Doris’ that she uses for Plein Air painting — it’s a basic canvas folding directors chair but with an important twist — it has a 1 foot by 2 foot table that pivots up from the frame and locks into place on the right side of the chair.

With all of the tools, materials and shop manuals/wiring diagrams at the ready, I took a deep, cleansing breath, and began the work.


Anything that had been connected to the ignition switch had been effectively vaporized. I took a few pictures with my phone, made a few notes, and removed the switch connectors one at a time — fabricating replacements with the appropriate gauge, color and connector types. The main hot wire which carries juice from the switch to the rest of the bike — ignition, etc — was originally a 14 gauge wire — I replaced it with a heavier 12.

Some conductors that were not connected to the switch were also damaged. Ones where the wires were still ductile I reinsulated with heat shrink tubing. Where the wires had been mechanically or electrically compromised, I cut the damage out and spliced and replaced the damaged areas — insulating both the splices and new connectors with heat shrink.

All told, this portion of the work was proceeding far more smoothly than my initial anxiety had indicated. After a few sessions of 40 to 90 minutes, everything in the headlamp shell that had been damaged had been repaired or replaced. It was time to see if it was going to be that easy.


It wasn’t, of course.

I reconnected the battery, although I didn’t crank the negative terminal down given the statistical possibility I might have to remove it again in a hurry. The dashboard clock started. No explosions of smoke occurred.

I turned the key. The dashboard lights came on.

I pressed the starter. The right cylinder fired. I went to roll the throttle open slightly, as this bike does require slight throttle to start.

The throttle wouldn’t move. I heard a slight arc. I kill switched it and turned off the key and disconnected the battery.


My workbench has a holding fixture made of 4×4 that is used to support airhead tanks. The fixture allows me to place the tanks on the bench without having any weight resting on the fuel petcocks. I pulled the saddle and tank and placed the tank on the bench.

Upon returning to the bike, it became clear that the switch wasn’t the only return address for electrical havoc.

Sitting on the left side of the frame backbone is the Starter Protection Relay. The relay, in the /5 and /6 motorcycles sits in the middle of the positive power bus that energizes the entire motorcycle. The connections to the starter protection relay were all roasted — the relay itself has a masonite bottom which is sealed with vinyl — most of the vinyl had melted as well.

Trouble radiated outward from there.

The multiple layers of protection on the tachometer drive cable — a mechanical linkage in these bikes — both the cable jacket and a second layer of vinyl protective sleeve, were vaporized. It looked, to my eyes, like during the earliest stages of ‘the event’, that the relay had overheated, then melted through the tach cable — which then provided another route of conductivity — and the trouble kept going from there.

It was clear where the tach cable had touched the throttle cables — there were burn marks on their jackets as well, showing exposed metal sleeving. It was clear why my throttle wouldn’t open — the cables were welded internally to their jackets inside the cable.

My R90S does have a few non-standard performance modifications. One of the most important ones is an on-handlebar brake master cylinder to replace the weird alice cable operated under-tank unit that was stock on these motorcycles. Where the original master cylinder and brake light sensor sat, there is a hydraulic junction which uses the original sensor and wiring.

Although the dealer that sold these kits advertised them as a stainless steel brake line and master cylinder upgrade kit, for reasons I’ve never understood, they supplied a OEM-type rubber line to connect the master cylinder to the junction. Using rubber in this application turned the stainless steel lines that went to the calipers from performance kit into dress-up parts, as the resistance to expansion under pressure that steel provides was negated by an expanding rubber line upstream.

During the dance of the electrons, that rubber brake line had picked up a nearly dime sized deep burn. Although the front brakes were still working, the first time I was hard on the brakes entering an 80 mph corner that burn was simply my death waiting to happen. I’d need to obtain a replacement brake line.

Seeing how severe some of the second layer of damage was, I knew I needed to take a deeper look. After a brief peruse of the wiring diagram, I pulled the alternator and starter covers of the motor.

I’m so glad I did.

The wires coming off the starter relay go to the diode board and starter solenoid.

Those wires, as well, were in bad enough shape to warrant replacement.

The main wiring harness of the motorcycle, thankfully, didn’t show any signs of heat distress. These harnesses are not easily or affordably located any more, so it was some solace that I wasn’t going to need to snipe hunt up one of those.

I did have quite a list of things I was going to need though, so I cleaned up my work space, closed the garage doors, and took to my computer to locate and buy the next layer of parts I was going to need.


First order of business was the list of things that only the dealership network was going to be able to supply. A few moments with the online fische, and a new tach cable, set of throttle cables and the associated cable boots — which these days seem to have a life expectancy of about 4 months — were on the way. A few seconds of further contemplation added a complete set of headlight retaining springs — remember how this all started? — to the mix.

That was just the beginning.

Remember that the connectors on my diode board looked like they came from Salvador Dali Engineering? Stories, now suspect, relate diode boards that were reduced to useless slag by having a front engine cover graze by them while the main battery ground was still connected.

Surely mine was slagged, right?

My bike also has a period hot rod part in the form of what was then called an ignition booster. The ignition booster essentially uses the original ignition points as a low voltage switch and then puts the dwell and condenser functions into solid state stuff where the spark peak and duration is stronger and better controlled.

Of course, the unit sits right next to the melted relay and right between the Dali Rectifier and the melty stuff coming off the starter solenoid.

Given how my luck had been trending recently, I didn’t feel great about the likelihood this unit was not an ex-parrot.

I’m the sort of tech that wants to have every single part I’m going to need right at hand when I start a job. Now purchasing both a replacement diode board and ignition booster are easy, but throwing $200 at a problem I wasn’t sure I had seemed too much to appease my inner mental person.

My buddy Al, who knows a little about airheads, dropped by the garage and examined the patient, dropping a few “Hmmmmms” and “I sees”.

After consultation with Al, I resolved to fix everything we were sure was roasted — the folks at Euro Moto Electrics had a better than OEM quality engine electrics harness — and then see if these antique electronics still actually worked.

If they didn’t, replacements were just 2 Franklins and another 2 days away. I’d survive another two days, if need be.


I just didn’t like the look of my ignition switch.

While the switch was working, It had some sort of lube dripping visibly from the rear of the housing. The base of the switch, which I believe is Bakelite, was loose on the back of the lock housing — moving visibly.

It has been the one component that had taken the biggest blast of a dead short.

It was not the sort of thing you wanted to have to wonder about when running in the meat of top gear.


BMW motorcycle dealers cannot get you this switch.

BMW Mobile Tradition, the business unit set up to make sure you can get classic motorcycle parts that the dealers cannot get for you, cannot get you this switch.

Even the small population of European suppliers of ‘pattern parts’ don’t have this switch, or even reasonable facsimile thereof.

So I would need to find a used part.

Al had recommended Larry “Stoner” Stonestreet — owner of an independent California BMW shop.

Stoner was able to supply a fairly good condition used switch, and at a fairly reasonable price, especially considering the supply/demand thing.

I would need to find a skilled or adventurous locksmith, later, but was trying to break the overall problem down into single, bite size pieces.

That was going to be a different mouthful.


I didn’t really like the look of my headlight ring, either, come to think of it.

In the entire time I’d had the bike, it had always been kinda flaky.

My bike was an early 1975 — and it had the /5 type spring retaining clip at the bottom of the headlight ring. It had always had a propensity for not fitting as deterministically as I’d prefer — and either popping lose or rotating on the headlight.

BMW, of course, had redesigned the part to use a screw driven clamp, which pointed the way to he possibility that mine was not the only one that behaved less than admirably.

Add to its list of sins that this one had spit the spring that nearly incinerated the bike and one can understand why I might not have fond or confident feelings about it.

The nice folks at Wunderlich had an OEM quality part of the new design for almost half what the dealers were asking, so we PayPaled up on of those.


When the next group of packages were received and arranged on the workbench, I went back down for another dive.

I pulled the fairly crispy tach cable — it broke in half during removal — and replaced it with a new one and its matching rubber engine grommet.

The throttle cables were next. During the miniature spring wrestling match that is installing new cables in a DelOrto carb, one of the needle retaining clips popped loose. I quickly checked a few technical sources to see where it was supposed to be.

“Third from the top of four grooves.”

My needles have three, of course.

I went with the center groove. If I proved to be wrong, it would take 10 minutes to set right.

The wires on the rectifier and starter solenoid were replaced — the new ones all looked like they were one wire gauge heavier than the ones which had failed.

After everything was connected, I reconnected the battery and — using the old switch — turned the key. I checked the basic systems of the bike — no smoke leakage and everything I could test — turn signals, brake lights, horn — all appeared to be working. I quickly tested the starter and it spun over.

So I replaced the fuel tank, reattached the fuel lines and wished there was some sort of approved entreaty to a motorcycle deity.

I set the choke, pressed the starter and waited through what seemed like way too many compression strokes.

“Easy, mate. The fuel system had been dry, the carbs have been apart, it’s going to take some time to get the jets primed, it’s just going to take a bit longer….”

At this point, the left cylinder fired, and engine stumbled to life, then took throttle cleanly and revved. The alternator light went out, and the voltimeter swung reassuringly and deterministically to the right — a nice solid 14.2 volts.

We might not be there yet, but this was going to be all right.


With things coming back together, I needed to source and install a brake line for my suspect burned one.

Since this application was a non-stock one, I was resigned to contacting the dealer from whom I’d originally purchased the upgrade kit, figuring that was the path of least resistance. I called them on the phone to discuss it several times without success. I’d either be placed on hold and then dumped to voice mail or get routed straight to voice mail. Having left messages twice without a return phone call I concluded this was another sign from the MotoGods that said entity was neither interested in either me or my little problem.

The guys at Adventure Rider had, as always, the solution. They fingered Bud Provin, a very skilled tech that had formerly worked in my area, and his business, The Nickwackett Garage, as the best source for any kind of custom stainless steel brake or clutch lines. I shot Bud an email, and, true to his ADV-reputation, he knew the kit, the dimensions, and fabbed and shipped exactly what I needed within about 2 hours of the initial contact. Heck, as a former customer, Bud even shipped it before I’d made payment arrangements.

In a world filled with distrust, assholes and hacks, both Bud and his work stand out as examples of integrity and sterling craft.

At lunchtime the next day, I met the mailman coming up the driveway and took the box directly to the workbench.

Bud’s stainless steel line was a nice an example as I’d ever seen — small diameter, beautiful fittings, and a unique setup for rotating and positioning the main banjo fitting for the master cylinder connection. The entire stainless steel line between fittings was covered in a transparent vinyl jacket to keep the braided line from buzz-sawing anything it might rest against.

After about 20 minutes with the 12 and 13 mm box end wrenches from the bike’s stock tool kit, and my trusty 7 liter hand pumped beast of a MityVac fluid evacuator, the new line was in place. I could tell, even before any road test, that with the reduced line volume and expansion, that power and feel from the antique single piston brake calipers was markedly improved.



The next order of business was to get a trustworthy ignition switch installed. It would be better still if I could get it rekeyed so it matched my steering stem and saddle locks.

With my replacement used switch in hand, I started calling locksmiths around Frederick. Telling a shaggy dog story about an old german motorcycle, a fire and an oddball lock scared a few off them off. After a few calls, though, we had a live one.

The guys at Able Locksmiths are motorcycle enthusiasts, and they were able to develop a plan on the fly.

“Pull the damaged switch from the bike and bring both it and the new one up to the shop. We can use the burned switch to figure out how it works — its expendable — and as a source of lock wafers or mechanism if we need it.”

As a plan, it seemed pretty solid, so I pulled the suspect switch, threw the ziplock bag of parts into my topcase of my K bike, and scooted off for Frederick.

The guys at Able were better than their plan.

The smith that drew my job took the old switch and placed it on a no-rebound work mat. This work surface had little miniature trays to organize tiny parts and long rubber fingers that ensured that work stayed where one placed it, and if parts flew loose, they would be arrested and kept from bouncing free. The Smith had the old switch disassembled in 3 minutes or so — immediately lit up with a smile and then went after the good one. While he was working he talked with me about the 1947 HD Servi-Car he rode, and the Ural sidecar rig he planned to buy. Anybody that scores this consistently high on the Moto-wierdness scale is completely cool by me.

After 10 minutes, the undamaged lock of my burned switch had been transplanted to the new switch, and I was $15 dollars lighter and back up the road towards the garage.

After 10 minutes or so in the garage, the hybrid repaired switch was back in the bike and functioning perfectly.


A confident man might have begun thinking that we were in the home stretch of this job.

When it comes to vehicular electrical work, I am not a confident man.

I started out by looking for some good quality restoration pictures of BMW electrical systems of similar vintage. As they did many times during this job, my fellow inmates at Adventure Rider were able to shed light on what needed to be done. Factory and factory quality wiring had some qualities that were notably missing from my headlamp shell.

All of the harnesses that enter the shell are — in stock condition — routed around the outside of the shell and held in place with ductile metal clamps that are provided for that purpose. The connections to the circuit card which forms the core of the electrical system are the achieved by fanning out the individual connections from the harnesses and fastening them to numbered and color coded connections on the card. This arrangement makes all of the headlamp wiring easier to access and repair, but also opens up a needed void space in the center of the headlamp shell, and ensures that the headlamp wiring and associated connections are not pressed into the rear of the headlamp assembly.

In my case, where a non-stock LED headlamp’s heatsink needed about a half an inch of additional clearance, this arrangement was even more important. It is possible that some ‘negative clearance’ had helped the significant errant spring in its errant springing that had started the whole unseemly chain of events.

So I spent some time ‘grooming’ the existing wiring — inserting extra slack wire of the main harness through the bottom of the headlamp and routing the harness around the outside of the shell. I disconnected and reconnected wires where necessary to detangle what was there and instill a sence of general order that the S likely hadn’t seen since it left the factory.

It was time to knock off for the evening, so I closed up the headlamp shell and briefly road tested the bike.

It was immediately obvious that the change in the needle jet positions was significant. The bike had reverted to the wheezy, indeterminate operation at small throttle openings that it had exhibited back when I first purchased it. I rolled the bike back into the shop and resolved to fix it during the daylight tomorrow.


After work the next day, I grabbed my trusty offset straight blade ratchet screwdriver, and pulled the tops off the DelOrtos, removed the main jet needle and dropped it to the bottommost position. Making the adjustment on both sides took all of 10 minutes.

I took the bike for a short ride as the sun went down. If you ever find yourself thinking that a single millimeter can’t make a significant difference, you’ve never had a DelOrto carburetor. Throttle response was tremendously improved, and I began to think this really was the end.

I kept right on thinking that until, about 3 miles from home, a friendly motorist pulled up beside me at a light and told me my taillight was out. Now that he mentioned it, my instrument lighting — which had always been at least a tad indeterminate — could now been seen in the darkness to be MIA as well.

I skedaddled back to the garage, nervously toeing my brake pedal now and then to keep some light showing to the rear.


It seemed we had a world-class puzzle.

I hate those.

Upon reopening the headlamp shell, I slowed my breathing and started working my way through the various wiring diagrams and photos, and began to trace conductors one at a time.

Things got weird pretty quickly.

Starting with the ignition switch wiring, it was clear that the bike had been running with two of the switch conductors reversed. It was also clear that Good Old Ham Fist, the previous owner of legend, had, during his installation and removal of his Windjammer fairing, reconnected some things in decidedly non-stock configurations.

For example, where switched hot came from the ignition switch, Ham Fist had actually managed to wire AROUND the fuses on the board. He had taken the outbound connections from the switch, which should connect to a fused bus on the right side of the circuit card, and connected them directly to the distribution connections on the other side of the fuse.

After correcting this little surprise, I started to look to see how the tailight and instrument wires were supposed to be energized. The basic chassis lighting circuit in these bikes is made up of grey wires with black stripes, and those were all connected exactly as they are supposed to be.

These gray and black conductors are energized by three possible methods.

The ignition switch has a ‘Park’ position which can energize the lighting directly. The diagrams all agreed on this point, and when I turned the key to the first ‘Park’ position, the taillight lit, exactly as it should. The second method is another grey wire, also for the park position, that comes from the European-spec switch that allows one to turn off the headlamp, and that worked exactly as it should.

But turn the headlamp on, and the taillight would go out.

I stared at the wiring diagrams for more than a long time. I was missing something, but what? Every wire I could see was in the correct place.

That was when the flash of inspiration hit.

This flash of inspiration, I should add, for those of you that may come here just for your daily dose of irony, was delivered without smoke, ozone, and smell of burning insulation that characterized my previous flash of inspiration. Or flash of the gods punishing hubris. Or flash of whatever the heck it that was that nearly vaporized me and my favorite motorcycle in the middle of Northern Virginia rush hour.

This flash was a fairly simple, but significant thing.

I wasn’t looking for something that was there, but wrong.

I was looking for something that wasn’t there.

The wiring diagram showed a third conductor to energize the taillight coming off of the headlight relay. I looked at the headlight relay, and there was an unused terminal. The diagram listed it as number 87b — with a little convolution and light in the right place I could see the number — 87b.

After two frantic moments at the workbench, I fabricated a connector with a straight blade at one end and a flag connector at the other.

I clicked the connectors into place, and then turned the headlamp on.

Houston, we have a taillight.

Now observant folks will wonder — I know I did — how in Sam Hell the bike managed to work properly before all if this electrical havoc occurred.

And I’m forced to conclude that knowing this is one of those things I’m just never going to possess — its one of the mysteries of the universe.

I replaced the headlamp ring and screwed it firmly into place.

I started the bike and tried all of the electrical system — headlight, parking light, instrument lighting, turn signals, horn, tail and brake lights. This time, we were clean and getting 100% on the QA.

It was time to take the bike back to the road.



In old motorcycles, electricity, and the quality and quantity thereof really drives the performance of the entire system. Ignition coils, capacitive discharge ignitions, resistor spark plug caps and spark plugs all respond subtly but positively to any increases in available juice. It’s what moved the change from 6V to 12V electrics, and it’s what drove the increases in alternator output and better storage batteries.

The best and most recent example I can provide was after the recent replacement of the main ignition switch in my /5 and the upgrade of the battery to a high tech — for a /5, anyway — AGM Deka battery, the whole motorcycle was transformed. The motor ran noticeably smoother, throttle response was better, and the behavior of the motor at top end and its willingness to rev — not that I need to do that with the very bottom end biased delivery of the 900cc motor — were all noticeably improved.

Upon taking to the road, the R90S was similarly transformed. The motor was smoother, throttle response was better. One of the first motorcycle stories I ever wrote was called ‘Stronger Through Adversity’, which was a tale about how breaking things inevitably drove better performance, and that was clearly in evidence here.

The change to the new brake line was also a bonus — there’s much more power available and I’m able to one-finger brake on corner entrances for the first time.

I can only speculate about what may have been sub-optimal in the configuration of the motorcycle electrics before the catastrophe — the ignition switch may have already been compromised, either through worn or burned contacts. Some of the misrouted wiring may have been responsible for choking off the amount of available current to ignition components. The strategic changes I made — by increasing the wire gauges of critical hot feeds, both from the ignition switch to the main board and from the starter solenoid to the diode board, may have allowed more current to the entire ignition system.

What ever it was, though, the change was staggering. With my /5, there really is no top end. The small valves of the 750 cc heads and small carbs can’t really move enough mixture to snap that engine to redline.

This engine, though, is a different beast. The heads are set up for top end operation. The carbs are large and there are long aluminum intake venturies designed to move mixture at maximum load and flow.

After tiptoeing through several brief heat cycles and riding with my fingers crossed for a few days (really hard to open the throttle that way) I got out on one of my favorite stretches of straight road — Md 17 between Brunswick and Burkettsville, and coming out of the traffic circle, went up through the gears WFO. The top end behavior of the bike was transformed — the last 1500 rpms before redline had a brand new snap — there was clearly better fire in those big holes.

There’s a dogleg about 3/4s of a mile from the circle, so we didn’t grab top gear until the exit from that corner. Before the meltdown, it always felt to me that the theoretical top speed of the bike — roughly 125 to 130 mph — was a long way from the ton where I usually begin to lose interest.

It doesn’t feel that way anymore.

Throttle response used to be strong — but in top gear acceleration used to roll off around 90. Today, the calibrated butt accelerometer was pegged — no roll off even in top gear, as the revs came up, so did the power. It was a laughing inside the helmet moment of the first order.

So do I recommend or endorse bursting into flame as a motorcycle tuning method?


But it’s sure hard to argue with the results.


It really is the best part of summer.

Warm, in a moistly tropical kind of way.

Bare skin, in these conditions, feels no sensation of anything at the you/otherstuff boudary.

It is definitively not All-The-Gear-All-The-Time weather.

But it is absolutely the best time to fire up my oldest and bestest motorcycle and go forth to do what for me comes closest to meditation.

And that is to head for the smallest roads that I can find, and disappear into what Maryland’s woods and farms provide tonight.


I’m not such a hopeless romantic that I havn’t been forced to begrugingly admit that peak summer is also peak insect, in these parts.

And while summer’s softest weather would seem to cry out for an open face helmet, several thousand mosquitos and blue bottle flies plastered on one face, combined with a couple of 60 mile-an-hour japanese beetles and brown marmorated stinkbugs striking one in the eyes will quickly disavail you of that notion.

Having collected an 11 tenths shiner from being struck by a stinkbug on the bridge of the nose I can tell you that a Shoei Quest with a visor that closes and locks is worth several whole summers of romantic reverie.


04262009_003Armed with exactly such an eyeball-saving device, I rolled the Slash 5 up Holter Road and out into the heart of the Middletown Valley. The Valley, ringed as it is with the foothills of the Catoctin Mountains, is an amazingly fertile zone of working agriculture, which centers around Cactoctin Creek, which runs right down the valley’s fecund middle. The best agricultural land hugs the creek in what the old guys wearing overalls and funny hats call ‘The Bottoms’.

‘The Bottoms’, with their many winding dirt roads, occasional stream crossings and tight paved one laners is where my Slash 5 feels most at home. This bike, with its dirt tires and bottom-heavy torque delivery — looking all the world like a 70’s vintage Yamaha Mini-enduro on The Juice — was busy being a scrambler long before the current crop of millennial customizers and random hipsters ever contemplated the term.


Can a whole evening be distilled down to 11 seconds?

If they’re the right 11 seconds, you can sure bet they can.

If every picture tells a story, two pictures can be epic.

Poole Road is one of those paved one-laners, and at this time of the year it seems like a footpath through a impenatrable world of green. Once the local sweet corn crop goes past 4 feet tall, Poole Road is a shortcut straight to gone.


I was trying to absorb the goneness of Poole Road one night, and on a short straight stetch with corners at both ends I had stopped and turned off the motor with 7 foot tall walls of green on all sides.

While I was sitting there, without any warning whatsoever, a young buck walked silently out of the corn about 10 feet in front of me. He wasted about a third of a second checking me out and without stopping, slowing down or speeding up, proceeded to dissapear into the corn on the right side of the road as stealthily as he had appeared out of the corn on the right.

Since that evening I run a gear lower on that road, at least in the Summertime.

Tonight it was a soft, green and quiet as it had ever been.

The Slash 5, running just above 40 mph in third gear, added its own, unique aeromotor drone to the overall hum of a summer evening.

The folks that own and work the farmland have a cluster of homes where Poole Road leaves Holter Road, but once clear of their backyards, its out here in the fields.

<Sound of Camera Shutter>

The sun had set about 10 minutes before, and as I plunged into the Greenwalls of Corn, the entire field lit up with more fireflies than I have ever seen in one place in my life. The greenish yellow soft light of hundreds of thousands of fireflies — all orbiting each other, making seemingly random circles, each around the other — lit up the entire green of that cropfield.

I rolled out of the throttle — drawing breath — not wanting for this suspended moment to pass, knowing full well it must. I remember smiling, thinking it was as if someone had taken VanGogh’s Starry Night, and flipped the image upside down around the horizon — what had been sky was now fields and fields become sky.

My sense of wonder knew no bounds.

<Sound of Camera Shutter>

Poole has a little dogleg in it, which, if one had not already ridden the road before the corn came in, might prove tricky.

As I exited the dogleg, it was clear I had snuck up on something that was preoccupied.

A mature redtail hawk was wrestling some small prey, and seeing me, grabbed it is his beak and took wing. He looked under his wing very clearly to size me up, and then put the jets on. He rose to exactly the level of my head, and at a distance of about 8 to 10 feet directly in front of me, jinked left then jinked right. I saw tonight’s meal — which looked to be a mole — thrashing about trying to get loose.

Again, everything seemed to go super slow-mo.

With this drama pausing right before my eyes, the Redtail deployed all control surfaces hard. I saw his tail with the alternating red and white feathers fan to its full width, and the wings flared for Red’s best turn.

The hawk, with mammal still firmly held in beak, banged an absolute hard right turn, and disappeared instantly into the corn.


Coming to the end of the road and the stopsign at Old Middletown, I don’t beleive I had yet breathed.

I toed the Toaster into neutral, raised my visor and tried to slow my thundering heart.

How in the middle of an unremarkable day, and what began as an otherwise unremarkable ride, 10 seconds can serve up the concentrated magic that is being alive, is something I don’t claim to understand.

Can a 42-year old chrome-tanked motorcycle be a magic wand?

Tonight, anything seems possible

Was This Part of the Plan, Colonel?

Do you ever get up on a sunny morning, look out at the sunshine and think, “God, I would really love to change the fuel filter and bleed the clutch and brakes of my flying brick motorcycle today.”?

Didn’t think so.

Me either.

Sadly though, that had been my cloudily concieved plan.

With a little unallocated time on my hands, it seemed like the perfect time to take care of moto business.

Of course, nothing even remotely like this ended up happening.

So much for plans.


Thursday night here in Central Maryland was one of those jewels of a riding night. Temp in the high 70s with a tropical moistness to the whole experience. The wind on one’s skin feels just good.

I decided that after a barn burner of a day at work, and a scheduled 11 pm meeting with some co-workers of mine in Australia, I really just needed the relaxed, slow lope of my oldest alloy girlfriend and a few minutes to get out of myself.

I geared up, got down to the garge, swung a leg over the Toaster, set the controls, and pressed the starter button.

And was greeted by the sound of.


What a buzzkill.


The next day I managed to score a nice Deka AGM battery at a local shop after work, and came back to wrench central.

Battery in.

Button push.

Absolutely freaking nothing.

ThinkThinkThink, Pooh.

Some caffinated Googling, some communication with the Big BMW list, and I am much smarter.

Its a starter switch, or a starter protection relay, with a remote chance of an alternator rotor blown.

I find a troubleshooting procedure.

I walk out to the garage, rig the test wire for the starter switch test, connect it, touch it to the right terminal, and she fires right up.

So we need a switch.

I call every dealer for a hundred miles and the one I do the least business with is of course the one that has one.

They pull the part, and I get on my K bike.

50 miles of intersate and US highway are seemingly vaporized.

Part bought. The same 50 miles are reverse-vaporized.

Some sweating in a hot garage ensues while seven conductors are traced and written down, and seven conductors are removed.

The new swich harness is installed, and the battery ground goes back on.

Button push.

THWAKKK. WHAMWhamWhamWhamWham PuttPuttPuttPutt….

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard this bike start which such authority in the 30 plus years I’ve owned it.

Course I’m thinking if we threw a new switch and battery at you, you’d prolly start pretty good, too.

Do you think its possible that motorcycles are like lovers, and become somehow jealous of each other, and the attention we pay to the others?

This way madness lies.


Tonight, I got Thursday Night’s Ride.

And it was better cause I earned it.

It was still 78 degrees and moist. The air coming through my ventilated leather jacket felt like a caress.

I hit a pizza joint in Frederick that is renowed for their tapline, and put out several hours of fire and sweat with a cold session IPA.

I took the scenic route home.


Do I really feel like putting in a Fuel Filter in the LT tomorrow?


Frigid Flashback — Riding On Black Ice Redux

Its really poor form to quote oneself, but sometimes one just can’t help it.

I’ve been thinking for a while about the fundamental changes that our reliance on vehicle electronics have helped cause in the automobile and motorcycle design fields. All of the so-called electronic driver or rider aides have allowed us to create a kind of ‘artificial stability’ which has taken the place of creating fundamentally stable vehicles.

That mediation is in the process of being written, but this piece, which appeared on the Internet BMW Riders listserv more than 10 years ago, was the first time I dealt with the issues of tractability and fundamental stability under less than optimum conditions.  

Maybe it was the fact that my ride home from work Thursday night involved significant amounts of sleet and light snow. Or maybe it is the fact that Maryland’s weather report is looking at something like a 40 degree temperature drop across the next 20 hours or so, and that I haven’t felt my fingertips since I got out of bed this morning. 

Whatever it may be though, taken all together this just seems like the right story for this slippery, freezing day. And it will give us a place to start when I talk about the physics behind ‘Rolling Physics Problem’.




Riding On Black Ice Redux

(or how i learned to quit worrying and love the beemer…)


Generally, you can’t teach people anything.

Oh, you can attempt to impart information, sometimes even useful information, and in rare instances, you can even attempt to impart wisdom. But when it comes right down to it, there are some folk for whom only first hand experience teaches and everything else just bounces off.

Now we’ve had some heated conversations around this campfire lately about how to ride motorcycles when traction conditions don’t seem to favor same. In fact, with all the heat, one would think that all of the ice would have melted, but no matter.

These conversations, when they weren’t causing me to spit coffee out my ear — Thanks, Chip! — caused me to flash back to how I learned that riding on black ice is ill-advised. I will state for the record that all of the herculean feats described here were performed under uncontrolled conditions, in the middle of a busy public highway at rush hour, using not-quite-enough-safety-equipment-for-my-tastes-thank-you-very-much, and that their description here should not be interpreted as any type of endorsement or inducement to attempt same as crunching, disfiguring injury, maiming and/or death can reasonably be expected to result.

Whatever would we do without proper legal advice, eh?

I’ve spent most of my adult life in Maryland, a state that folks will quickly point out doesn’t really have a true winter. I won’t dispute that claim, having earlier lived in upstate New York and New Hampshire, both of which clearly do.

But therein lies the attraction of the state to motorcyclists, and the danger, as well. It rarely goes below freezing for extended periods of time in Maryland, and far more customary in our “winter” months are nights below freezing and days in the mid forties.

Freeze. Thaw. Freeze. Thaw. Freeze Thaw. Sometimes 7 times a day.

A perfect recipe for black ice formation.

The Toaster, as it appeared at the time.

The Toaster, as it appeared at the time.

Back in my poverty rider days, my toaster tank Slash 5 was daily transportation come hell or high water. I discovered that the high water part was nearly as ill-advised as the black ice on the day after Hurricane Agnes came through Maryland, but that is another story.

My daily commute then took me from my apartment in Cockeysville, a northern Baltimore suburb, to Linthicum Heights, a southern suburb with a location placing it at the intersection of I-95, the The Beltway and the Baltimore Washington Parkway — if you were trucking anything in or out of Baltimore, this was the place to be.

It was mid-February, and the previous night we had likely had several of the previously mentioned freeze and thaw cycles. I was probably less than a mile from my destination, having flailed the toaster down the Jones Falls Expressway into the city, jogged a few blocks west across the city center, and run down Russell Street onto the Baltimore Washington Parkway. I had done 20 plus miles on a freezing morning, and was happily lost in thoughts of a warm cup of coffee once I got to the office. I was a big Kenny Roberts fan at the time, and as I hit the ramp from the BW Parkway onto the Beltway, I was heeled over and smoking, hanging off just a little to the inside. The ramp ahead looked clean and dry.

Appearances can be deceiving.

As I hit maximum lean, something strangely disconcerting began to occur. The rear end of the bike began to gently, but firmly walk out. I know, that in me, anyway, huge doses of adrenaline make everything go into slow motion, so that may have been happening here. But the rear end headed toward the outside of the corner, and the further around the corner we went, the further left the rear end went.

“DO….NOT…..GET…..OUT…..OF…. THE GAS…..”, said the little riding instructor that lives in my head.

Listening intently, I stayed well into the throttle and shifted my weight back to the bike’s centerline, and slowly panned my head to the left as the bike’s forward progress began to appear more progressively sideways. Finally, by the top of the ramp, the toaster was at full left steering lock, the rear tire was spinning to beat the band and together we were doing a great impression of Grand National Dirttrack legend Gary Nixon, right down to my adrenaline locked jaws looking like GN’s race face resulting from several too many broken/wired jawbones.

As the ramp straightened back out, something wonderful began to occur. Just as the bike had sloooooooooowly walked out from under me, now, it slooooooooowly walked back into line. At the point where I’d normally be looking over my shoulder and accelerating into beltway traffic, the wheels were all pointed in the general direction of travel, and I was looking over my shoulder and accelerating into beltway traffic.

My office location was at Hammonds Ferry Road, whose exit is less than a 1/4 mile from the thrill ride I’d just completed.

My corner entrance speed on that ramp was, understandably, somewhat more conservative.

My workmates were accustomed to poking at me for my hard-core winter riding habit.

“Hey Hotshot, you need a cup of coffee?”

“No thanks, I AM AWAKE.”

So, in an AEsop fable, this would be the point where someone with baritone voice intones, “SO, what have we learned?”

And that question cuts right to the core of why I ride BMWs. On a tactical level, I now understand that pavement that looks dry doesn’t necessarily have to be. The BW Parkway ramp in question was a particularly porous mix that is unique to Baltimore, in my experience, and from the perverse mix of stick and slide, i would say was a 50-50 mix of dry pavement separated by black ice — the spaces between the pavement grains were filled with water that then froze.

On a more fundamental level, though, it was an object lesson in applied physics, and underscores why they should continue to stress that subject in public education, especially for folks who might want to drive someday, and doubly so for folks who might take up motorcycling. Does anyone remember their lesson in phenomenon called gyroscopic precession? Gyroscopic precession is the strange force which pushes a spinning object 90 degrees from its axis of rotation.

The Honda CB750/4 that I owned right before I bought my /5 had a transverse motor with an engine flywheel that spun inline with the wheels. When one lost any combination of front or back wheel traction, the precession of the engine flywheel would almost instantly push the front tire off line, wash it out and put you down on the pavement before one could even give voice to the “Oh, shit” that the situation demanded. After this happened a few times….”ouch!” ….. “ouch!”……”ouch”…..etc…. most folks will start looking for a better way. I know I did. (Ouch!)

The boxer and classic K brick engines have transverse flywheels — the flywheel spins across plane of the wheels. When one loses any traction, the precession of the engine flywheel has a much less dramatic effect on the alignment of the bike — the whole machine may slide towards the outside of the corner, but absent other upsets, the wheels basically stay in line — in effect, one gets an extra fraction of a second to gather it up and correct things — a second chance at it. This transverse flywheel layout is a much more forgiving type of platform, from a basic physics and stability perspective, than most other motorcycle engine configurations — most V twins, L twins and inline transverse twins and fours. Just BMW, The Gold Wing and ST1300 and MotoGuzzi seem to have built their bikes around this realization. For competition, the extra turning effort is a competitive negative — but for thousands of miles on the street, that extra chance can have you ahead by a lifetime.

So personally, I have stuck with transverse flywheel BMWs, and they have helped me save my own bacon more than once.

Oh yeah, and I try to avoid riding on black ice.