Newton’s Fourth Law

This is an older story, but, in my humble opinion, a really, really good one. It originally appeared on the Internet BMW Riders List, and was subsequently reprinted by Motorcycle Times, a Maryland based motorcycle newspaper.

The reason I’m republishing it is an adventure I had yesterday — one involving a lot of smoke, a small amount of fire, and a fairly long term cessation of forward motion.¬† More details are forthcoming, but this will help to provide some context.

In the meantime, if your motorcycle inexplicably fixed itself yesterday, you have me to thank for it.

You’re welcome.


Motorcyclists, generally, tend to understand the laws of physics, or they don’t exist as motorcyclists (or living humans, for that matter) for very long. I know I do, but I try to never generalize about the human experience from the extremely small sample set of my parochial experience. I also know that when I went down to the Maryland DMV to try to get “RollingPhysicsProblem” registered as a vanity tag for my R90S, the DMV folks laughed at me, and trying to make it fit within the characters available only resulted in some of those impenetrable acronym things that result either in you driving off the road or rear-ending the doofus with the special license plate, and made the DMV folks laugh at me some more, only harder.

Ok, so competent motorcyclists know Newton’s three laws of motion.

Objects at rest stay at rest – objects in motion stay in motion unless acted upon by by an outside force. Check.

Acceleration of a moving body is proportional to that outside force applied, and inversely proportional to that mass of the moving body. No Problem. Check.

When two bodies interact with each other, action and reaction forces are equal in magnitude, but act in opposite directions. Piece-a-cake. Nyet prahblema. Check.

But most motorcyclists don’t know that, like most true geeks, Newton wasn’t much on writing documentation. Newton had a few other laws, but they only got written down on napkins from Chipotle, and we all know what happens to those.

Newton’s unknown fourth law goes something like this. The amount of stuff which works in the universe, and the amount of stuff with ‘out-of-order’ signs hung on it, totals to a constant. If you fix something, something else in the universe will break so that its still totals that constant. People love slogans, so the easy way to think of this is ‘The conservation of screwed’.

At this point, I may be getting arcane, so an explanation is clearly in order.

I still ride my R75/5 toaster tank nearly every day. There are newer bikes in the garage but for daily transport the Toaster is ideal for round town excursions, occasional small dirt road adventures, and, with its solo saddle set up, it will easily carry bulky stuff like 50 pound bags of cat food over the back fender and between the saddlecases. Any bike that has been on the road nonstop since 1973 has at least a few little flaws that someone biased can just call ‘character’. Perfection, in Islam, is reserved for the lord alone – One sees these in the deliberate flaw woven into Persian carpets. My toaster tank isn’t causing the Godhead any lost sleep about the perfection franchise.

The Toaster’s flaw, of late, had been an odometer that had gone completely berserk. At some point, it seems like all of the digits in the odo had just lost track of each other… one would go out on a ride with 67,000 and some odd miles showing on the cluster, and would return home with 42,000. I’ve had to rework this instrument at least 3 time since 1983, when I bought the bike, so this wasn’t really in any way shocking.

What was shocking was what happened next, though. Yesterday in Maryland was Heat Wave Hostage Crisis day 13… we’ve had a run of 98-108 degree days that is really a tad unusual for this area. I get stir crazy if more than a day or two goes by without a ride, so I riffled through my lame excuse for a ride file, and found my daughter’s Nissan Cube overdue for an oil change, so decided on a ride to town for a few quarts and a filter. I threw a 2 quart insulated water jug in one of the saddle bags, grabbed my Vanson Way Ventilated SuperMoto jacket, and rode the Toaster up to town. While I was there, I realized our bird feeders were empty, and added a 25 of seed to the bike’s cargo area.

On the way back, I decided that the heat wasn’t really that bad with 45-50 mph of wind added, so I elected to take a slightly scenic route home.

And that’s when things got weird.

Running down New Design Road, I looked at my odometer. At that moment, I was running through the numbers to the next thousand — 998 — 999 — 1000. And when the odo turned through that thousand, the numbers in the cluster appeared to marry back up, the thousands digits stopped dancing randomly, and the whole thing went back to working as its maker intended.

“HA!”, quoth I, “How often does that happen? That sucker JUST FIXED ITSELF!”

A strange feeling of preternatural satisfaction came over me. Riding bikes is usually an exercise in things breaking, not things fixing themselves. I was probably observable to be feeling pretty smug from a distance of 50 yards.

And that’s when things immediately righted themselves and, by becoming unweird, got really weird.

New Design road is likely called that because it was the first straight road anyone ever built here. Rolling down New Design road, on a 100 degree day, was a visual feast — raptors circling in the rising air, hay balers PHOOMFing out bales every 3 seconds or so, the double yellow rolling from one bluff to the top of the next. So there I was, about 3600 RPM in the fat spot of 4th gear, enjoying my self made breeze without a care in the world. And that was when the lights on my Motometer all went black and the engine stalled as we were rolling at 50 down a arrow straight road.

Remember ‘The Conservation of Screwed?’.

Lots of things go wrong with old motorcycles. But total loss of electrical power without warning while running on a 100 degree day is almost always a battery that has decided to melt down no matter how you might feel about that.

After drifting to a stop, then pushing the bike across the road into a flat, shady spot across the highway, I did a few tests that confirmed my battery had failed. As I was standing there, literally scratching my head and weighing my options, a white Suburban pulled over and a white haired Gentleman leaned out the window and asked if I needed anything. I asked if he had a few seconds to drive me back to the WalMart I had just left. He said he did.

On the way back up NewDesign, John and I had lots of fun talking about his old motorcycles, and my old motorcycles, and the fun we’d had when things like this happened.

20 minutes after John had pulled up, I was standing back beside the bike with a new battery and tools in hand. I thanked him profusely and gave him the old Irish blessing. He accepted my thanks and just told me, “Pay it forward, man.”

A few minutes of removing the airbox later, I pulled the dead lead and was putting the new one in its place. As I’m started to reattach things, another Samaritan appeared — Patrick worked at the tree service at the end of the road and had stopped to make sure I had water. Once I said I had things under control he said he was a dirtbike guy and kept the conversation going as he got around the other side and ghosted what I was doing on my side of the bike. It was like he’d been working with me on BMWs his whole life. So after 10 minutes that would have been 20, I tested the starter and the bike fired right up. I killed it, put the tank back on, threw the side covers in my bags, put the saddle and cases back on, and shared some cold water and a handshake with Patrick, then fired up and rode home.

Having succeeded in my roadside diagnosis and repair, I was probably again observable to be feeling pretty smug from a distance of 50 yards.

So this is always the point where my inner stentorian voice asks, “So what have we learned?”.

I know that dropping a battery on your index finger will make you cry and wish you were young enough to ask for your mommy. And I also know that even if you did that and she showed up it still wouldn’t get you off the side of the road.

I also know that no matter how bad people tell you things get, that there is always at least one old biker looking out for you when things go straight to sheet. That old biker might even be me, ’cause I got to pay it forward again.

And I really know that when things start fixing themselves, you’d better sharpen up and start paying attention, because Newton’s fourth law says that the amount of screwed in the universe is a constant, and something else is just about to break.




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?


Paul Gets Oiled


Everybody has got to start somewhere.

And usually, if you’re living in America, and you are getting your start as a motorcyclist, odds are that start involves some form of slightly beat, slightly old Japanese motorcycle that nobody else wanted.

If your experience was somehow less humble than that, well good on ya, mate — kiss your keys and thank the fates but that’s how mine was.

That’s how my buddy Paul’s was, too.

Of course it bears mention that when I came to my CB750 I was 22.

When Paul came to his I’m thinking it was about 30 years or so later than that.

But no matter.

I’d been riding for close to those 30 years when Paul asked me for a favor.

“Maaan. Dave has been overseas for close to 2 years. He stored this old Honda in my garage.”

“I’ve been riding it.”

“I’ve been riding motorcycles off and on since I was in High School, but I never got a motorcycle license.”

“I figure its time to get legal.”

“There’s a special ‘amnesty’ accelerated Rider Course and Road Test program up at the DMV Saturday — could you ride Dave’s Honda up there and sign me in to certify I didn’t drive the bike to the test?”

I told Paul I’d be happy to.


The appointed Saturday arrived — a perfect clear and cool early summer morning — and Paul showed up in my driveway with The CB.

My old CB had been one of the early 70s Single Cam models — you know, one of the ones that only an idiot would have sold?

Let’s not talk about what happened to mine.

Dave’s machine looked to be about a 79 — a twin cam, but still recognizable in every way, from the slab sided tank, to the saddle with a grab strap, to the twin instrument pod, to the four into four exhaust.

I tossed Paul the keys to my pickup.

I fastened my helmet and gloves on, swung a leg over, and then callendar pages flew around my head in an invisible wind, and it was somehow 1982 again. It was magically as if I had never gotten off of my old CB.

I swear my hair felt longer.

On the 10 miles of highway headed up to the DMV everything was instantly familiar.

Kinda floaty and indistinct suspension. Really small, low effort control inputs including clutch and gearshift activation Smooth, revvy engine with just a hint of chainsaw buzz in the bars and exhaust note.

The DMV came up faster than usual, and the minute I hit the killswitch and the sidestand time telescoped forward back to 2012.

Paul and I fived and then swapped keys.

I gave a look back over my shoulder at the CB as Paul went inside to do the paperwork and classroom work, then I walked back to my truck and drove slowly home.


At about 4:30 that afternoon, I heard the sound of the CB’s 4 shutting off in the end of my driveway.

I walked outside to see Paul removing his helmet and pulling a six back out of the carrier fitted to the bike’s luggage rack.

“Did you get the paper?”


In fact of 22 guys in the class, Paul was the only one who had gotten the paper.

He was more than a little pleased with himself.

Hence the enjoyment of the beers that followed.


During said enjoyment we spent some time wandering through my garage.

We came up to my old /5, which was dusty, and dirty, and punctuated by oil.


“Damn, these things are so cool.”

It might have been that beer talking, but it seems Paul had seen the light.

“Look, man. Put some miles on, now that you’re legal, and when you feel comfortable, come take it for a ride.”

That motorcycle had changed my way of thinking once. Least I could do was pass it on.

Paul didn’t need me to tell him to put some miles on. Everywhere I went in the county over the next month I saw Paul twisting throttle and leading with his chin obliquely into the wind.

He looked like he was having fun.

A coupla Satudays later, I heard that sound of a Honda 4 shutting off, and headed outside again.

“Wanna ride your bike, Maaaan.”

“Cool. I’ll grab the key.”


Now a /5 ignition key is a bit of a visual shock if you’ve never seen one before.

I got Paul in the saddle, inserted said key and and talked him through the controls.

Lights, indicators, horn.

I told him about the dry clutch, and that was it.

“Take a real ride, man. Don’t feel you have to come back till you want to. Enjoy!”

And with that lovely little boxer twin blaat, Paul was off.


I’ve had the /5 since I was 22.

I’d be lying if I stated I was not concerned in any way.

You know what I’m talking about.

But I got myself preoccupied with something else, and some time went by.


I was sitting out on the front porch when Paul pulled the /5 back into the driveway.

Something about him looked…


It took a few minutes for my brain to slowly model the truth out of large random group of possibilities.

Pauls left leg, and Paul’s left sneaker looked, well, dark. Very dark.

Kind of an oily black.

The dry clutch of my brain finally bit as I saw the left exhaust pipe visibly smoking and the darkening of a fair amount of oil down the whole left side of the bike.

“Whooooooooah!” came out of Paul and soon as Paul came out of the helmet.

“I’m smokin! What happened?”

You can’t tell people everything, cause one has to edit for length.

When one bolts a high compression 900 cc top end on to a crankcase whose breathing system couldn’t really keep up with anything over 650, you’re going to notice some things over time. One of those things that will happen is that the dipstick handle on the left side of the motor will be vibrated loose.

You’ll be riding along, and you’ll hear something that sounds like a tiny little bell.

The ringing sound translates directly to the dipstick vibrating in the case as it begins the process of backing out.

If you look down behind your left knee to see this, one just reaches down, tightens it back up and then it doesn’t do it again for weeks, or months, or whatever.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination of course, to figure out how I came by this valuable piece of knowledge.

Problem was, I hadn’t told Paul.

We got him kinda hosed off, provided some loaner pants, and determined that there was enough oil left in the /5’s crankcase that the total downside consisted of the need to move up the /5’s one a decade wash time.

I apologised profusely, Paul Hondaed off, and I’ll admit I didn’t think very much more about it.


One could be forgiven for thinking that this narrative consists of some boring bits connecting these peak experience moments of truth and clarity that always take place in the presence of beer.

It is not your imagination.

Anyway, flash cut more than 2 years later to the grounds of Frederick’s Flying Dog brewery. They’re having a party with J. Roddy Walston and the Business, a band that bused two buses worth of fans out from Baltimore. There’s about 18 different draft beers, 7 food trucks and me and Doris, and Paul and his lady Beth.

We are having a good time.

In fact, never have a seen so many people in the presense of so much beer have such an unfailingly positive vibe kinda experience.

Everybody was on their best behavior.

At one point the talk turned to bikes, and Paul waved his beer at me.

“That time I took your bike….That was frickin’ awesome. After coming off that Honda it just felt so small, and simple, and like it was just made outta one piece of metal. It just tracked.”

“I connected immediately.”

“At a certain point, it started getting a little loose on the gas, but it was soooooo controllable. I just thought it was just part of the experience.”

“Until I didn’t”.

“Cost me a nice pair of jeans and a pair of sneakers, too. Had to throw em out.”

“After I took that ride, I had to get off that Honda.”

“I went right out afterward and bought my Bonneville.”

“I had to. You Bastard.”


I’m really sorry about that, Paul. It did it to me, too

Guess I didn’t tell you about that, either.