9090

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny math. Good, but funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just perfect.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

 

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

None of them this year though.

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

Next year has to be a better year.

 

***

 

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

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

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

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

So two nineties would have to do.

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***

 

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

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

Three days later, the ice and snows came.

Billy Joel, The Barn Job and the Long Highway — Conclusion

It is pointless for me to bore you with tales of manly man adventure involving bulging biceps and tire irons. Or how for as long as I’ve owned airheads, the only way to get rear tires removed has required my sweetie Doris to pull the wheel while I leaned the bike over. Tales of manly man adventure hardly ever involve folks named Doris.

It is similarly unimportant for me to regale you with tales of how unskilled I am at the fine art of installing innertubes in an undamaged manner, having already established my bona fides as a well-intentioned but semi-skilled mechanic.

Suffice it to say though, that after no small perturbation, the bike found itself with new Michelin Pilot Activs where it required them.

And it was no small sense of anticipation that I fastened the Shoei’s chinstrap and tightened the retaining straps of my elkskin gauntlets when approaching the final checkride. I’d been working, more or less continuously, to return this bike to mechanical wholeness for the better part of 7 months, to get this motorcycle back to a state of mechanical perfection which, frankly, I had never known.

I volunteered to run to the supermarket for some ingredients we needed to make the next two evening’s planned meals.  With Frederick about 8 miles away, and some creative indirect routing, we could really run the beast through its paces, and know what we really had. With a completely refreshed driveline that worked, fully functional lights, instrumentation, luggage and fairing, and fresh rubber, it was go time.

Horine Road leads away from my house, and down towards the Potomac River. Like all of our local roads that follow streambeds, the road has flat, technical twisties that are great if you know ‘em, and can be hairy if you don’t.

I know ‘em, fortunately.

The last few corners before the road T-stops into MD 464 start as sweepers and then progressively tighten up. It’s a good way to triage one’s skills and see if this has the potential to be your day or it definitely isn’t.

So far, this was seeming like it was my day.

Even with the reserve one sensibly leaves with new rubber installed, the S was just eating it up. The new skins were allowing the bike to change lines like a bicycle – rolling in and rolling out was absolutely effortless. Once on line, the bike held it.  Drives out had a new authority – torque was getting directly to the contact patch without the waste that the now remedied transmission bearings, bad lash and slipping clutch had been squandering.

A brief blast up through the gears on 464 put me on the top of Lander Road. Lander is another one laner that leads down to the C&O Canal, and is incredibly technical. The game here is elevation — all of the corners — 120s, 220s — have apexes that are either at the bottoms or the tops of hills.   The trick here is to manage drive and make sure one’s lane position doesn’t put you too far out into the lane where you could become a pickup truck hood ornament on one of the many blind spots. You also need to be prepared to take an occasional whack in the shin or a forearm with a small errant tree branch in order to play this game.

This is really one of my favorite roads. On a modern supersport, especially any kind of multi, you’d be in way over your head – it would be too much bike on way too little road, and that kind of big power would be a more of a hindrance than a help. But on this little goat path of a road, the S is in its element – changing speeds and directions constantly – the agility and torque of the S was made for this. After about the fourth or fifth hairpin with a little wheelie punctuation on a low speed exit, reality itself seemed to take on an other-worldly quality, with all of the things within my sight seeming as if they were lit by some light from within.

Lander Road is only a short ride, and was too soon over.

Maryland 464 leads from the top of Lander down to the Potomac River and US15. There was a time, back before Frederick County became another poster child for bad planning and overdevelopment, when US 15 was one flat, arrow straight perfectly smooth piece of pavement with nobody driving on it between the Point of Rocks Bridge and US 340.  Before I left Baltimore to move here, I spent a few months commuting over this road, mostly on my /5, but once in a while in my departed 1971 8.0 Liter V-8 Cadillac. I can remember being behind one car out on this stretch of highway, taking the pedal to the floor for a two lane pass, and feeling the Gs as I got pressed back in the seat heading for somewhere well north of where the 120 mph speedometer ran out of numbers. I had that road to myself, and lots of room to stretch out.

Things are assuredly not that way anymore.

Congestion and development have dropped a few traffic lights where there weren’t any, and even a traffic circle is now where MD 464 drops in. There are still some straight stretches with great visibility, but one usually has lots of company.

But today, remember, was shaping up to be my day.

When I hit the traffic circle I had to sit for quite a while waiting to get my opening. When the gap finally appeared, I got in the gas, beat the northbound traffic to the entry to the circle, and found open pavement ahead as I shifted up and straightened the bike out headed up the highway.

I took third gear out to about 7000 rpm – thonk!

Fourth gear bit hard and I shifted to top at about 4200 – thonk!

I leaned forward slightly to get the bottom of my helmet inside the protection of the fairing, and went to the stops.   The hammering of each power pulse smoothed out as the rpms rose through 5000. With the revs up, instead of feeling like it was straining for every additional ounce of speed, the power and acceleration of the bike picked up momentum. Things got smoother, and the power and acceleration continued to build.

As the speedo quickly swung through 105 mph, and feeling like there was more than plenty left, I rolled out of the throttle.  This was, after all, a 40 year old motorcycle, and how much there was left in there was something I just really didn’t need to find out.

I already knew everything I’d come here for.

***

I’m sitting at my desk looking at an old Maryland MVA Title Certificate. It lists the date of issuance as July 7, 1994, and the mileage at time of issue as 74,115 miles. It has taken more than 20 years and close to 60,000 miles for this bike to finally close back in on the potential perfection that it had in it when it left the pen of Hans Muth and the Spandau assembly line in Berlin back in November of 1974.

It has been liberating to move beyond spinning wrenches in anger. I’ve spent most of my free time since putting them back in the toolbox stacking firewood.  I’ll admit I did do some wrenching, but it was to disassemble and regasket the woodstove that keeps my house warm in the wintertime. My biker intuition tells me that I had no time to spare in completing that job, as compared to the pace of the work to complete the R90S.

It was 47 degrees yesterday morning when I rolled the S out to go to the office. For a guy that thought it was still summer this was kind of a shock to the system, and made the cup of coffee I skipped a lot less important. As a refurbishment that started out with the notion of having a great bike to ride through this summer, I get the sinking feeling I’ll be lucky if I sneak in 5 good rides on it before I’m looking for Heidenau Knobbies and some snow chains for my LT. But seven months of productive work to get this bike where I always wanted it seems pretty insignificant over the 20 years of road we’ve shared.

***

There are lots of ways that one can get high.

One way is for me to really kiss my mate Doris, who still playfully loses her cool with me when the rush she provides proves overwhelming – even after 30 years – and I end up knocked down to my knees, sputtering, gasping and giggling because she’s just still too nice for me to fully process.  Lots of folks don’t get to have that for 30 days, much less 30 years. I appreciate it for the unique blessing that it is.

The best champagne in the correct amounts can bring on a feeling that transcends mere alcohol. I have champagne and its cousin, cognac, to indirectly thank for some of the more fun, poorly considered (if considered at all) and transformational moments in my life.

As someone who deeply loves music and poetry I know that they, too, can be transformative – playing back whole universes and multiple lifetimes of memories and emotions that can also fully sever one’s relationship with the ground. There are songs and poems that I find so powerful that I cannot hear them without being moved to tears.

Heck, even a little herb, and getting all irie, mon, will sometimes do the trick.

All of these highs are perfectly right in their correct place and selected time.

But then there are those days.

Those days of grace where this story started, and to which now we come full circle.  Those days marked by runs down stretches of winding road where time itself slows down almost to the point of stopping, and where an old machine – now made new – and I communicate seamlessly with no intermediaries, no filters and no boundaries.  Where what skill that I have developed in my years in the saddle turns the physics of acceleration and braking, the edges of tires, footpegs and bars into something that is so close to flight that local raptors sometimes fly alongside to play as I ride. Where my emotions, my spirit, fly freer and higher than anything else I know.

And instead of being the end of the long highway, the very next time this boxer motor booms to life is really just the beginning.