Friday, December 25, 2009

Tread Life Is Making A Pit Stop

It’s been a year and a few days since I tripped and fell face-first into the blogosphere. Before then, I wouldn’t have used the word blogosphere; now I have a summer house there.

I started this blog because the market in the print media for my kind of work is shrinking. I’ve already written about how the very medium through which you’re reading this is largely responsible for that, so I won’t try to reanimate the dead horse. Suffice it to say I have seen the future, and is it virtual.

Tread Life was originally conceived as a sort of online resumé for anyone who might want to hire me to do paying work. But over time TL has become something more, a place for me to unwind and write the kind of things I want to write, as opposed to the things that might earn a buck.

It’s been good practice; every good writer writes almost obsessively. It’s also been good for me to expand my horizons and poke my nose into topics that wouldn’t have interested me previously because there was no market for them.

At the same time it must be acknowledged that you, the reader, have played a vital part in the process. Based on the comments you leave, and the emails I get, TL is more than a venue in which I can muse, rant, wonder, posit, and bloviate without fear of some editor standing over my shoulder, suggesting this post is a bit too harsh, or that post might piss off some of the readers.

So thanks to all of you who read this stuff. Next year I plan to liven up the mix a bit, with product spotlights, interviews with industry people, and maybe a travel story or two. I’m also going to see if I can scrounge together the equipment to make videos and post them on YouTube.

For now, however, Tread Life is going on a break, mainly because I don't figure many of you plan to spend the holiday season on the computer. Also, I feel another novel coming on, and I want to fool around with the outline some more before I get started on it.

So have a happy whatever it is you do this time of year. I’ll be back in 2010, and I hope you will, too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why Are Motorcycles So Hard To Work On?

I drove into town this afternoon to the Honda shop to pick up a bottle of coolant so I can finally put the V-Strom back together after the Great Valve-Adjustment Fiasco of ’09. While I was there I went around back to talk to the mechanic, who has done all of the work on my bike that I haven’t done myself, despite him working for a Honda shop and me riding a Suzuki.

He was sitting on a stool beside a lift on which sat the filthiest old quad I’ve ever seen. There was so much mud caked on it I wasn't sure what brand of quad it was. I joked that it was nice when the customers cleaned their bikes before they brought them in for service. He said this one wasn't bad, and I should see one of the really dirty ones.

I congratulated him on having the patience to sit there all day and work on mutts like that quad, because it had taken me three weeks just to adjust the valves on the V-Strom. He knows me well enough to realize I wasn't talking about three weeks of eight-hour days, but rather an hour here and an hour there, often with several days between those hours to wait for parts or let my aching knees and back recover.

We got to talking about how hard it was to work on some bikes. I told him some of the horror stories the V-Strom valve adjust had generated, and he trumped every one with a tale of his own about newer Hondas, especially the sportbikes, some of which are so compact that you have to remove the injector bodies to adjust the valves.

On the drive home I thought about this, and wondered when and why motorcycles got so hard to work on. When I started riding, it seemed like you were practically expected to do your own maintenance. BMW motorcycles came with toolkits so complete you could almost strip the bike down to the bare frame by the side of the road. Even low-dollar Japanese bikes came with a little blue plastic bag crammed so full of tools you could never fit them all back inside once you took them out.

Now? Not so much. Some of the test bikes I’ve ridden in recent years came with a spark-plug wrench, a screwdriver, and three wrenches made of steel as hard as old cheese. Harleys, which for years had a reputation for stopping dead due to factors like a change in humidity, still don’t come with tools of any kind.

All I can figure is the manufacturers don’t want me messing with the bike at all. That’s understandable, I guess, in the age of emissions standards and corporate liability, but dammit, if that’s the way they want to play it, they ought to make sure every shop selling their brand employs mechanics who can use tools for something other than scratching their asses.

Some years back, I stopped by a Suzuki dealer to ask about a valve adjust on the bike I was riding at the time. The only guy in the shop looked about 20, and had on a T-shirt with the name of some heavy-metal band across the front. He was holding a torque wrench the way a monkey would hold a violin.

This did little to instill confidence in his mechanical ability. Still, I was already there, so I asked him if he’d ever done the valves on the model of bike I had, and he said, “No, but I’ve done the valves on my CBR600, and that’s the same kind of valves, right? With the little round things?”

I thanked him for his time, rode away, and did the job myself. It only took me two weeks back then. I guess I’m slowing down in my old age.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Motorcycling Lessons Learned

On one of the forums I visit now and then, someone started a thread by asking for responses to the question, “How old are you and how has your riding changed, or has it?”

I jotted down a few things that came to mind right away, then the more I thought about it, the longer the list got. This was my answer:

I'm 57 (for a couple of months more), and I’ve been riding for 41 of those years.

Yes, my riding has changed.

I no longer ride at night.

I no longer have to be the first guy there.

I no longer care about anyone's pace but my own.

I no longer try to keep up with anyone who passes me.

I no longer feel the need to prove anything to anybody.

I'm 100 percent ATGATT. (For the uninitiated, that’s an acronym for “all the gear, all the time,” “gear” being riding gear—helmet, armored jacket and pants, gloves, boots.)

I'm convinced that most motorcycles need much bigger and brighter taillights.

I'm intrigued by big scooters and sidecars and I don't care who knows it.

It's more fun to ride a small bike as fast as it'll go than it is to ride a big one way too fast.

It's more fun to stop for coffee or to stretch and sightsee every 50 or 100 miles and arrive in time for a late dinner than it is to ride 400 miles in one shot and get there by lunchtime.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Lord of the Ring-Dings: Return of the King

No Elves or Orcs in this version, but a Wizard does battle with a shrieking, fearsome, and deadly fast four-cylinder beast from his past.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Inside Lines: Loud Pipes Equal Terrorism?

"'Instead of honoring noise terrorism, our representatives should protect us from the awful noise of Harley riders,' said George Atwood, a Noise Free America member from Milton, Wis."

Here inside the spacious Tread Life compound, the roar of Harleys on the highway down the hill can be heard clearly, and loudly, and often. It's annoying as hell, it turns the non-riding public against all the motorcyclists who don't have crippling inferiority complexes, and there's no real excuse for grown men and women to behave like a pack of five-year-olds whose clueless grandparents gave them drums for their birthday. Still, comparing obnoxious dimwits with loud pipes to fanatics who randomly blow up people is a pretty big leap.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Alex Zanardi, Roll Model

On September 15, 2001, Alex Zanardi, a veteran Formula 1 and Champ Car driver, was merging onto the track after leaving the pits late in a race at the EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany when his car spun and veered onto the racing line. The car driven by Alex Tagliani T-boned Zanardi’s car, splitting it in half and severing both of Zanardi’s legs above the knee.

After a long recovery, Zanardi continued to compete in cars specially equipped with hand controls until the end of the 2009 World Touring Car Championship season, when he announced his retirement from racing. His next goal is to qualify for the Italian handcycling team and compete in the 2012 Summer Paralympics.

According to report on Axis of Oversteer, last week Zanardi put in a few laps of Monza on a BMW HP2 modified with an automatic transmission, a brake splitter, and supports for his artificial legs.

The next time you go for a ride and feel like turning back because your ass hurts a little, or you're too cold, or too hot, just think about Alex Zanardi, fearless and legless, bending that HP2 around Monza at a buck-sixty.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Reevu Helmet: Eyes In The Back Of Your Head

With the stock mirrors on most bikes falling somewhere between marginal and useless, seeing what's going on behind you is a challenge. Here's the most promising take on increasing rearward vision on a bike since the Visor-Vu. Read more about it here.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

V-Strom Valve Adjustment: Welcome To My Nightmare

I make it a habit to do all the work I can on my bike using only the tools in the toolkit. If there’s a routine job I need to do that requires a tool I don’t have, I buy the tool and add it to the kit.

Some jobs, however, render that plan impractical. For example, I’m in the middle of a valve adjustment on my V-Strom. By “in the middle” I mean I just completed the rear cylinder, and am ready to tackle the front one tomorrow.

To do this job using only tools that fit on the bike, I’d have to add a shim set, a torque wrench, a tube of gasket sealer, a shop manual, a two-foot-long socket extender with a universal joint at both ends, half a bottle of Tylenol, and a phrasebook of blistering profanity with which to excoriate the motherless pinhead who designed the bike so as to require the removal of the tank, the fairing, the air box, countless tubes and hoses and electrical gang plugs, the radiator, the rear brake pedal and master cylinder, the seat and seat bracket, the right-side passenger peg bracket, and several square inches of skin from my knuckles just to check—never mind actually adjust—the freakin’ valves, a task the manual has the balls to call “routine maintenance.”

I am consoled to a small degree by the knowledge that the valve clearances on 650 V-Stroms don’t change that much as a rule. I checked mine for the first time at 14,000 miles, and they were all in spec, though at the very lower end. Now, at 27,000 miles, I have found one tight exhaust valve in the rear cylinder, and the other three valves right where they were last time I checked them.

Now the front cylinder is all that stands between me and the road. Barring any catastrophes on the way to exposing its mysteries, I’ll have everything buttoned up by New Year’s Day, in time for a long-distance rider lunch run up the coast to Florence.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Speed in Super Slow Motion

The problem with speed is it happens so fast you can't see how neat it really looks. This video shows cars and bikes going really fast, really slowly. Nice soundtrack, too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Harry Hurt, 1927-2009

"He was a bulldog at finding the facts and making them public even if some people were unhappy when the facts he reported didn't support their pet theories."

Read more here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A Lifeline for Buell?

From a press release dated November 20:

New Venture Will Build Buell 1125R-based Racing Motorcycles and Supply Parts

Milwaukee, Wis. (November 20, 2009) - Harley-Davidson, Inc. (NYSE:HOG) announced today that following the company’s recent decision to discontinue the Buell motorcycle product line, Erik Buell, Chairman and Chief Technical Officer of Buell Motorcycle Company, will leave the company to establish Erik Buell Racing, an independent motorcycle race shop.

Erik Buell Racing will specialize in the supply of race-use-only Buell motorcycle parts and race preparation services for engines and motorcycles, and the building and sale of Buell® 1125R-based race-use-only motorcycles under license from Harley-Davidson, as well as providing technical support to racers of Buell motorcycles.

“I’m looking forward to helping Buell racers keep their bikes flying,” said Erik Buell. “We’ve got some exciting race development projects in the works and it will mean a lot to me personally to see Buell racers competing for wins and championships in the 2010 season and beyond.”

“I’m pleased that Harley-Davidson is assisting Erik in establishing this business to continue supporting the racing efforts he has had so much passion for over the years,” said Buell President and COO Jon Flickinger. “Harley-Davidson and the Buell Motorcycle Company will always be proud of their affiliation with Erik, and we wish him well in this new endeavor to support Buell racers.”

Erik Buell Racing will be based in East Troy, Wisconsin and will be staffed by Erik Buell and a veteran team of personnel. For more information, after December 1, 2009, contact:

Erik Buell Racing, LLC
2799 Buell Drive, Unit C
East Troy, WI 53120

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cooking With Gas(oline)

How to make a Smartuki: Add one GSX-R1000 engine to one Smart Car. Stir until ingredients are blended. Bake at 12,000 rpm until tires are smoking hot. Serves one or two.

More recipes here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Unpopular Opinions: Be Careful What You Wish For

Sometimes well-intentioned actions produce an outcome that’s the opposite of what was originally intended, or they solve one problem while creating another that’s just as bad. Let’s say you drive a gas guzzler and you’re feeling guilty about your contribution to global warming. So you sell the guzzler and buy a smaller, more fuel-efficient car.

But have you really made a difference? You sold your old car to someone who will go right on driving it, and you bought a new car to replace it. Now there are two cars on the road where there was only one to begin with. You haven’t done anything to reduce global warming; if anything you’ve made it worse. All you’ve really done is sell your guilt.

You can see the potential for this sort of backfire in the effort to promote motorcycles as a viable transportation alternative, and convince people to leave their cars at home and ride bikes to work, to school, to the grocery store...well, maybe not the grocery store. As someone who didn’t own or have access to a car for about a year back in the 1970s, I can tell you the number of round trips I had to make to Safeway on a CB500/Four just to keep the cupboards half full was more than enough to offset any savings on gas.

There are more good reasons why riding a bike instead of driving a car just doesn’t pencil out. If the price of gas is putting a serious hurt on you, what do you think the monthly payments on a bike will do? Then there’s riding gear—a helmet, a jacket and pants, gloves, boots—none of which you need in your car. Throw in another insurance policy, and the price of maintenance and tires, then factor in the number of days each year when it’s too hot, too cold, or too wet to ride, or the task at hand demands a device with a trunk, seating for more than two, and some weather protection—days the motorcycle sits in the garage unused—and it’s obvious why you’re never going to get Joe and Mrs. Suburbia to trade in the Tahoe for a couple of scooters.

But suppose they did, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, making one of the motorcycle industry’s fondest wishes come true. That would be a good thing, right?

Wouldn’t it?

More riders will inevitably result in more crashes and fatalities, no matter how well trained those riders are. That will attract the attention of legislators, regulators, insurers, a national media already convinced that motorcycles are death machines, and—you might want to send the children out of the room now—lawyers.

This will inevitably lead to more restrictive laws—mandatory DOT-approved fully armored protective jacket and pants laws, anyone?—more public backlash as a few bad apples suddenly become entire orchards of them, and in general the kind of governmental scrutiny on the local, state, and federal level that motorcycling has so far escaped by virtue of being too small an insect to bother swatting very hard.

Currently motorcyclists can argue that they should be exempt from emissions regulations because they constitute a small minority of road users. But if the number of bikes on the road gets high enough, that excuse won’t fly. If you laughed when you saw the optional air bag on the latest Honda Gold Wing, you probably won’t think it’s very funny when it’s a government-mandated requirement on your dual-sport, along with a roll cage, arm restraints, and any number of half-assed “safety” features thought up by know-nothing politicians.

The sad thing is I’m pretty sure I’ll live long enough to see some of this stuff anyway. So why hurry it along? Next time someone asks you why you ride a motorcycle, tell them it’s because you’re too poor to afford a car. Don’t let on how much you enjoy it. The longer we keep the secret, the longer the fun will last.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Motorcycle That Builds Itself

Cool, but what we really need is a bike that makes its own payments.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Craigslist Motorcycle Ads Decoded

“It ran when I parked it.” ...six years ago under the awning on the side of my motorhome with the gas cap open so the bad gas would evaporate.

“No title, but I have a bill of sale.” ...written on the back of a Taco Bell napkin. The seller’s handwriting wasn't too good, so you can tell the DMV you bought it from me. I’ll back you up if anybody asks.

“Very rare.” Nobody bought them when they were new.

“Classic.” They don’t make parts for them any more.

“Starts with no problem.” Unless kicking it over for 30 minutes is a problem.

“Minor surface rust.” All minor surfaces are rusted.

“Don’t need it any more.” Don’t want it any more.

“Will consider trades.” Anything has got to be better than this.

“Great commuter bike.” Slow and dull.

“Gets great gas mileage.” Uses a quart of oil every 100 miles.

“Perfect Christmas present.” For me, if you pay cash.

“No time to ride.” Had to get second job to pay speeding tickets.

“Never been dropped.” Fell over by itself a few times.

“Tags good until 2011.” As soon as you pay for them.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Leap of F#$%!

I wrote a while back about smells, and how they can conjure up memories of places you thought you’d forgotten. Tonight, I heard a sound that did the same thing.

I was watching Masterpiece on PBS’s website. The current series is about Inspector Robbie Lewis, who in an earlier series—and a series of books before that—was the sidekick of Inspector Morse, an Oxford, England, police detective created by Colin Dexter.

At the end of the episode, when Lewis and his sergeant had unraveled a murder so convoluted that I gave up trying to figure out whodunit and just went along for the ride, the uniformed coppers arrived to cart off the guilty party. They put her in a police car, and as they were doing it, an extra walked through the foreground of the scene, wearing a yellow jacket and a flip-up motorcycle helmet. In the final scene this extra rode off on a police version of the Honda ST1100, which is called the Pan European over there.

In a lot of movies and TV shows I’ve seen that have motorcycles in them, they often add the sound of the bike later—and they often get it wrong, either by not bothering to match the rise and fall of the engine revs to the scene, or by making everything from two-stroke 125s to four-cylinder sportbikes sound like Harleys with straight pipes.

This time they got it right. I heard the unmistakable whir of the engine as the starter turned it over, the quavering idle, and the staggered power pulses of the V-four engine pushing gas through the stock exhaust, and bingo, there I was aboard my old ST1100 again.

I’ve been thinking about that bike a lot lately. I did a lot of fun stuff on it, and had a scary experience that was almost the last experience I ever had.

I was riding north through Tacoma, Washington, on Interstate 5 near the Tacoma Dome, or whatever it’s called, in heavy traffic. I was in the hot lane, and some joker in a Dodge pickup was right on my ass. We were going maybe 75, and I was too close to the car ahead for comfort, so I glanced over my right shoulder at the number two lane, saw it was clear, and signaled to change lanes. As I leaned the bike into the open spot, I turned my head forward again and looked at the car ahead of me, and out from under it, as if on a conveyor belt, came a four-by-four wooden post sitting in the middle of the lane, perpendicular to my path.

I yanked the handlebar as hard as I could, steering left to try to get as upright as possible before I hit the post. There was an almighty whack that nearly wrenched the grips from my hands as the ST smacked the post and took off like a 600-pound gooney bird, first the front end and then the back; at about the same time my butt and the seat parted ways; for a harrowing second or two the bike and I were pretty much flying above I-5 at an altitude of about two feet; and then the bike came back down with a thud like a dumpster full of doorknobs, still going at least 65, and the front wheel almost shook itself off the bike.

I assume some of the drivers around me saw what had happened and reacted quickly enough to give me room; all I remember is bulldogging the bike across two more lanes of traffic and onto the shoulder. The front rim was bent, but miraculously, the tire had held air. If the rim had bent enough to break the bead, I would never have made to the shoulder. There’s no doubt in my mind that if I’d gone down in traffic that heavy I’d have been reduced to a paste by the time anyone stopped to see what they had run over.

That could be why ST1100s continue to appeal to me; you come through something like that without a scratch and you develop a great deal of respect for the bike you did it on.

I sold mine because my wrists would no longer tolerate the weight the riding position put on them. I know if I got another one I probably wouldn’t ride it enough to justify the purchase.

But I have a feeling that if I ever needed a bike that would get me where I was going come hell, high water, or posts in the road, an ST1100 would be my first choice.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Six Things That Annoy Me

1. Celebrities Who Ride Motorcycles

I don’t have a problem with the celebrities themselves. Well, not with most of them. What I have a problem with is news stories about celebrities who ride motorcycles. They appear to be based on two false premises: (a) it’s news that celebrities ride motorcycles (news to me being defined as an important or significant piece of information), and (b) I care. It's my guess that most of these stories are generated by the celebrities' publicists and aimed directly at motorcyclists, because I almost never see one in a mainstream magazine or newspaper, and yet they infest motorcycle publications like termites in the attic. I'm not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be; if I ride, and so does Brad Pitt, then I...what? Feel validated because a movie star has the same hobby as me? Feel like he's a kindred spirit whose next movie (probably a remake of an infinitely better original) I'll want to see? Sorry, no sale. I’m not 14 years old, and I don’t need someone to tell me I’m cool every minute of the day. I ride because I like to, not because Brad does. If he quit riding, I wouldn’t. In fact, I’d almost prefer it if he did quit riding, because then I wouldn’t have to wake up one morning to read that he’d gone out on a bike in an open-face helmet and a T-shirt and jeans and gotten his ticket punched by a soccer mom in a Hummer talking on her cell phone, and I’d be spared the inevitable shitstorm of righteous editorial outrage against motorcycles that flares up only when something bad happens to someone famous while he was riding one.*

(A special note about Jay Leno: I met him once at a photo shoot for Cycle Guide. He invited me and a few others to his house to look at his bikes. He was a really nice guy, knowledgeable and full of genuine enthusiasm for all things internally combustible. But by now even the most solitary bushman in the remotest corner of the Australian outback knows Leno is a major gearhead with enough cars and bikes to take everyone in L.A. for a ride on the same afternoon. This is no longer news in any sense of the word. So please, enough with the Leno already.)

2. Formation Riding

Where the whole idea of a group of motorcyclists riding in a staggered formation came from, I have no idea. But I do know it’s a crappy idea. It’s dangerous for them and annoying for everyone else. If something happens—a deer, a left-turning car—the bikes are too close together to react without taking out every other bike nearby. It’s impossible to pass them when they’re strung out for a hundred yards, weaving back and forth trying to maintain their position while traveling at a speed dictated by the slowest, least experienced rider in the pack. If you and a dozen friends were all driving your cars to the same place, would you line up nose to tail, bumper to bumper, and drive all the way there like that? Of course not. So why do it on bikes?

3. Loud Pipes

See here. ‘Nuff said.

4. Anti-Helmet Groups

If you don’t want to wear a helmet on the grounds that you feel your personal safety is your own affair, not the government’s, that's fine, I suppose, although I’d be interested to hear what your spouse and your kids have to say about the increased likelihood of you dying or becoming a vegetable if you fall off and try to punch a hole in the asphalt with your head. But where some anti-helmet groups forfeit their credibility is their insistence that helmets don’t work. That’s bullshit, and there’s abundant data to prove it. Stick with the libertarian argument and stop spreading lies about the effectiveness of helmets, lies that could convince someone not to wear one who might otherwise choose to if he knew all the facts. Consent is one thing; informed consent is another.

5. Bluetooth-Enabled Helmets

They let you listen to music and make and receive calls on your cell phone while you’re riding. They’re operated by taking your left hand off the handlebar and groping for tiny buttons you can’t see on the side of the helmet. Mark my words, the day will come when this will be seen to have been a very bad idea.

6. Motorcycle Poetry

Read some. You’ll see what I mean.

*UPDATE: Did I call it or did I call it?! (Okay, a photographer and not a soccer mom, but still, I'm buyin' a lottery ticket.)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Inside Lines

"Bob Klein, Harley's director of corporate communications, reiterated that Harley is 'discontinuing the Buell product line rather than selling the business because of how deeply integrated Buell is into our business systems and distribution network.'"

Harley's not interested in selling Buell.

But some riders are interested in buying them...

...and this might be why.

Monday, October 19, 2009


I was contacted through this blog a few months ago by a woman who worked for what was then Buell’s advertising agency. She had read a post here in which I wondered why roadracing wasn't more popular in the U.S. For some reason she thought I might be able to tell her why, given Buell’s recent successes in AMA roadracing, sportbike riders weren't flocking to Buell showrooms.

She was aware that Buell’s wins were tainted in some race fans’ eyes by virtue of the 1125cc twin running in the same class as 600cc fours. I wasn't too sure there was any real basis for that resentment—the Buells weren't exactly walking away with every race—but it certainly had to be thrown in the mix.

I then shifted into full bloviating mode. Buell’s real problem as I saw it was more complex than resentment at its roadrace wins against smaller bikes. First, although they were tricker and faster than anything Harley had ever put on the street, they weren’t any faster—and were a lot less trick—than your average 600cc four from Japan. Sportbike sales live and die on performance, and Buells didn’t outperform the competition sufficiently to make them a viable alternative.

Also, in order to buy a Buell, in most cases you had to go to a Harley dealership. For years now Harley has been selling the sizzle instead of the steak. A lot of veteran Harley salespeople didn’t know what to make of an actual steak sitting on their showroom floor. They were unprepared to answer the kind of questions sportbike riders asked, and had little or no interest in the Buell line of motorcycles except insofar as they took up space where another blinged-out Big Twin could have been sitting. A lot of them just didn’t care about Buells, and equated selling them with some tedious community service they were obliged to perform, like picking up roadside litter after a DUI.

It has to be said, too, that most of the “innovations” Buell loved to crow about—fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm, the rim-mounted front brake, the underslung muffler—had all appeared first on other bikes. Buell collected them all into one package, for which he deserves some props, I suppose, but it smacked of the “because we can” school of engineering. None of those things made the bike substantially faster or better handling than its competition, just different.

One huge thing that held Buell back was there from the very beginning—that engine. Sportster engines, like steam locomotives and Stearman biplanes, are charming devices in an antediluvian sort of way. But sportbike powerplants? Please. Stuffing one in a purported sportbike is like breeding a thoroughbred and then breaking one of its legs before the race. By the time Buells got the engine they deserved from the outset, it was way too late.

The nice lady from the ad agency listened patiently to what I said, thanked me, promised she’d be in touch, and never called back. Later I read that her agency had been dropped by Buell. It probably wasn’t the first messenger to be shot that way, and likely won’t be the last.

In the press release announcing the closing of Buell, Keith Wandell, the new, non-motorcycle-riding CEO of Harley-Davidson, said, “We believe we can create a bright long-term future for our stakeholders through a single-minded focus on the Harley-Davidson brand.” Wandell hasn’t been with the company very long, so perhaps he can be forgiven for not knowing that this “single-minded focus” is a strategy of convenience, easily set aside when there’s a shiny bauble within reach. Harley is subject to fits of compulsive shopping, often followed by deep bouts of buyer's remorse. In the last 25 years it bought and discarded Tri-Hawk, Holiday Rambler, and now Buell and MV Agusta. Each of these purchases was hailed as the beginning of a bright new partnership; each of these corporate marriages ended in tears.

So when news of Buell’s demise broke last week, I was shocked but not surprised, except perhaps by how long Harley stuck with Buell before casting it aside. Anyone who comes under the Harley umbrella, even willingly, has to be thinking, night and day, that he could be the next one thrown out of the sleigh.

Maybe that was Erik Buell’s fatal mistake—ignoring history.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Inside Lines

"But with a limited sample size of approximately 300, we believe the study will not provide sufficient statistical significance of the OECD identified study variables and the MSF Board of Trustees has determined that MSF must continue to make its commitment of funds contingent upon a sample size of at least 900 cases."

What price safety? Depends on who you ask.

The AMA is happy about a new study into motorcycle crashes.

The MSF is unhappy about that study being underfunded, and is keeping its money.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bye Bye Buell, Arrivederci Agusta

“Buell Motorcycle Company officials thanked the company's customers, employees and dealers for an unforgettable ride, following today's announcement by Harley-Davidson, Inc. that it will discontinue the Buell product line as part of Harley-Davidson's go-forward business strategy. The new long-term strategy aims to drive Company growth through a focus of efforts and resources on the Harley-Davidson brand.”

Shocker from Milwaukee: H-D discontinues Buell, sells off MV Agusta.

A video message from Erik Buell.

A press release from Buell.

A press release from H-D via the AMA's website.

The XS Files

When I first got into bikes, there was an engine tuner named Jeff who worked at McCoy Motors, the Kawasaki dealership where I bought my first bike, an F3 Bushwhacker. He later went out on his own, rented a wing of a machine shop next to his house, and did two-stroke porting.

A number of people—many of them kids like me—hung out at his shop. Some of us brought our cylinders and heads for him to work on, while others just wanted to soak up the backyard speed-shop ambience and talk bikes. Most times when I stopped by, I’d find Jeff bent over like a big question mark above a cylinder clamped in a wood-jawed vise, poking a Dremel tool into a port, the metal chips bouncing off his safety glasses. He worked day and night; one time he invited me to his house, and as we entered the kitchen his wife looked at both of us with the same puzzled expression: Who are you, again? He seemed to subsist on Camel straights and chocolate milk; at least that’s all I ever saw him ingest.

Jeff loved Yamahas. He rode a 180 twin for a while, then got a 350 twin; both had ported cylinders, of course. Two-strokes were his passion, and so the day he bought a four-stroke XS-1 Yamaha 650, the world almost spun out of orbit.

In those days, moving from a 90cc bike to a 125 was considered a big step up. A 350 was a middleweight many riders toured on. A 650 was a big bike. A really big bike. We were in some serious awe of Jeff’s 650 Yamaha.

Now and then he liked to take off for a few days and ride. He’d come back with tales of running his 180, or his 350, wide open for hours at a time, of re-ringing the engine by the side of the road, of all the bigger bikes he passed. Those Yamahas, he’d say, they’re great.

One day after he got the XS, he left his shop in San Jose, California, and headed for Twin Falls, Idaho. (Why Twin Falls? Shrug.) He bungeed a slab of that yellow foam rubber they put in cheap sofas onto the seat, lit up a Camel, put on his sunglasses, buttoned up his denim jacket, and left. No helmet, no gloves, no luggage except an extra pack of smokes.

He came back several days later, looking like a strip of beef jerky, sunburned and wind-burned and bug-stained from head to toe. He hadn’t had to rebuild the engine, or work on the bike at all, he said, except to lube and adjust the chain. This Yamaha, he said, is great.

In subsequent model years the XS-1 morphed into the XS-2, with a disc front brake and an electric starter, and eventually fell victim to the nascent custom craze. The clean and classic Triumph-looking model vanished, replaced by what to my eyes was a hack job, an abomination with a buckhorn handlebar, a stepped seat, and a chopperesque gas tank. The original versions remained, to my eye, what real motorcycles looked like. The others were impostors, of no importance.

One of the perils of trying to recapture the thrill of bygone motorcycles is that when the fog of nostalgia that surrounds them burns off, as it eventually does, sometimes you find yourself in possession of just another old motorcycle; slow, crude, and kind of sad. So when I learned my friend Larry had an XS-1 with 15,000 miles on it, a bike he'd bought new 38 years ago, mixed in with my desire to see it was the knowledge that I’d probably be disappointed.

I wasn’t.

I got to the coffee shop before Larry, and as he pulled up I recognized the sound of the big twin even before I saw it. The bike wasn't perfect, but it was in exceptional shape for one that old. Larry said he was thinking of selling it, and that someone had told him $4,000 was a good asking price. If I’d had that kind of money to spend that day, he might have had to take a taxi home.

After coffee and a chat we parted, and on his way home the XS died on him, right at the end of his driveway. He suspected an electrical problem, which I guessed might be traced to the local mechanics who had tuned it up never having seen a set of contact points in their short lives, and who probably left a wire loose somewhere. Or maybe the unbalanced twin shook the battery to pieces.

That’s another one of the perils of getting snared by an old motorcycle—sometimes they just up and leave you stranded. But I can’t think of a classier bike to be pushing along the highway when the fire goes out.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Thanks For Sharing

The Aerostich catalog isn’t just a catalog. That’s because Andy Goldfine not only has a sixth sense when it comes to making and selling the most practical motorcycle gear around, he has an offbeat sense of humor, too. (Yes, it's a real product.)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The One That Got Away: Honda CB550

At the Honda dealer in Sunnyvale, California, where I worked for a short time, there was a loft above the service department where they stored parts that had been taken off wrecked bikes. Most of these parts—dented gas tanks, ripped seats, a bent fork tube with a usable slider, a dinged rim laced to an intact brake drum, an engine that had miraculously emerged unscathed from the accident that completely destroyed the rest of the bike—had been damaged badly enough to replace under the rider’s insurance policy, but not so badly that they wouldn’t work if you didn’t care how they looked.

Every now and then some pimply-faced kid trying to cobble together a bike to ride to school or work would come in looking for used parts. He had little or no money, of course, which meant it wasn't a question of beating the parts department out of a sale, so someone would trudge up the stairs and dig out the dinged pipe or the bent lever that would get him on the road, accept a token donation for the Six O'Clock Beer Fund, and send him on his way before the boss got bored enough to wonder what was going on in other parts of the store and come snooping around the service department.

One day the service manager was looking for something for the latest hard-luck case when he realized there was almost enough stuff up there to build an entire motorcycle. So he did. It was a CB550K/F/WTF, with some parts from the four-pipe K model, others from the sportier F, and a few that appeared to have come from a lawnmower.

I was without a ride just then, and when he offered it to me for $600, I took it. Then as now, I was not sufficiently ruled by vanity to turn down a good deal, no matter how homely. But eventually I decided a few small cosmetic enhancements wouldn’t hurt.

There was a big dent in the tank. I filled it with putty and spent hours sanding and refilling it to a contour that stubbornly refused to match that of the surrounding metal, dispelling any illusions I might have had about a career as a body-and-fender man. I painted the tank in what turned out to be the ugliest shade of orange ever—the color on the can was probably listed as Ugly Orange. The resulting finish had the same texture as the peel of an orange, so in the end it was an inspired choice.

There’s something gloriously freeing about riding a mutt. The hours you would ordinarily spend cleaning and polishing a nicer bike can instead be spent riding. You don’t have to worry about anyone stealing it, because it’s so ugly no one would want to, and even if someone did boost it, the other bike thieves would make fun of him until he brought it back.

I don’t remember how many miles I put on that bike, mainly because I don’t remember how many speedometers from the loft I put on it until I found one that worked for more than a week. I do remember one odd trait it had—the quietest idle of any bike I’d ridden before or since. Most of the time, if it hadn't been for the tach needle twitching like a frog leg hooked up to a car battery, I wouldn’t have known the engine was running at all.

In 1984 I was offered a job at Rider, which required moving from the Bay Area to L.A. Since I’d presumably have access to new and infinitely nicer-looking bikes in my capacity as features editor, I sold the CB550 to a friend of a friend before I left, for the same $600 I’d paid for it; the paint job didn’t add any value to the bike, but at least it didn’t subtract any, either.

These days, when I think about getting a project bike to putter with during the long, wet winters, I always seem to search online for CB550s. If I ever find the right deal I might have to find a few cans of Ugly Orange, too.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Carpe Doggem

Winter's coming. Every sunny day is a gift. Treasure each one.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On The Job

Most people have no idea what it’s like to be a writer. I know this because every time someone asks me what I do for a living, and I say I’m a writer, they say, “Oh, you’re a writer? That must be so interesting!” Or “fun.” Or “exciting.”

Being a writer and working from home is, in fact, almost always none of those things. It’s mostly work, like any other job, except you don’t have to pick up heavy things, deal with the public, or wear a tie—or pants.

And if you think working at home is cool, just remember that also means you live at work.

I originally got into the writing business because I wanted to get into motorcycle races without paying for a ticket. I wrote a letter to Cycle Guide, offering to take photos at the San Jose Mile and Laguna Seca if the magazine would get me a press pass. To my astonishment, the sport editor took me up on that offer. Eventually he asked me to write stories to go with my photos, and I more or less backed into my current career.

For the past 21 years I’ve been a full-time freelancer, which means I hire myself out to various publications on a per-story basis. I come up with an idea and pitch it to an editor, or an editor comes up with an idea and asks me if I’d like to write a story about it. Either way, my livelihood depends on a constant supply of fresh ideas, mine or someone else’s.

Sometimes the ideas don’t come. That means checks don’t come, either. That’s when I do one of two things. Plan A is stare a hole in the wall until an idea crawls out of it. Some people can make things happen this way, by sheer force of will. I’m not one of them. Plan B is to go do something else and let the ideas come in their own time, a method that paradoxically combines work with the avoidance of work. In other words, I can ride to a coffee shop, spend the afternoon there reading the paper, and still be technically on the job. I love Plan B.

Some of the work I do is behind the scenes. I edit and copyedit for one of the magazines I write for, and now and then for a book publisher. Writing a magazine or a book is, or should be, a collaborative process. The more eyes that see a story or manuscript before it goes to press, the better the chances are of ferreting out errors of fact, style, grammar, and usage. (The more attentive among you will no doubt find some of these scattered around this very blog. To which I can only reply, where were you when I needed you?)

My own eyes have seen some pretty terrible things in the course of editing, like a recommendation of the Honda Gold Wing as the perfect bike on which to circumvent the globe; the fact that an injured racer took a year off to coalesce at home; the assertion that earthquakes are caused by Teutonic plate movement; an exhaustive review of a book about Buells that the reviewer read all the way through without noticing that Buell’s first name is spelled Erik, not Eric; and the words publically, desparate, and preformance (which of course should be publicly, desperate, and performance), a clear indication that some writers who pride themselves on an intimate knowledge of the intricacies of automotive and motorcycle technology have not yet figured out how to work their computer’s spell checker, or a dictionary (hint: the words are in alphabetical order).

Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Either way, it’s my job to fix it. This process has been referred to as “making someone else’s resumé look good,” because when the writer whose story you’re working on wants to impress another editor, he’ll seldom offer the story as it was submitted—known as raw copy—as proof of his skills, but rather the version someone like me labored over for a couple of hours to turn into something approximating English.

Hey, it’s a living.

Actually, it’s less of a living now than it used to be, thanks to the internet, which has been siphoning advertising away from print magazines for years, and the current economy, which has only made the internet effect worse by making advertisers afraid to come out from under the bed until the scary monsters go away. Fewer ads mean fewer pages per issue of your favorite magazine, and that means fewer stories an editor needs each month, and that means some really good ideas—some of them mine—die quiet deaths before their time.

I realize that by this point I’ve painted a grim picture of writing for a living, and you might well be asking yourself why I don’t get out of the business. It’s a question I’ve asked myself often as I sat at my desk, losing a staring contest with a blank screen on my laptop, and there’s only one answer that makes any sense.

You’ve heard of people who say they love their job so much they’d do it for free? I’m one of them, and you’re reading the proof. There’s something about starting with a bunch of unconnected thoughts, and then lining them up in the right order so they make sense, that appeals to me in a way that goes beyond mere enjoyment. When everything is going right, my conscious brain almost steps out of the way, as if something is writing through me, using me as a conduit. You’d think that as a writer I’d be able to convey that feeling more clearly, but I can’t. It’s indescribable, and it makes me feel very alive.

Still, I have to consider the practical side of all this. It takes money to keep the lights on around here, and to keep Daisy supplied with tennis balls. There might come a time when I give up writing as a full-time occupation and get a job someplace where I have to wear pants to work.

But I get the feeling that if I ever do, I’ll miss the interesting, fun, and exciting life of a freelance writer.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Of Mice And Muck

During the time I worked at Cycle Guide, my then partner, Mary, worked in the art department of Road & Track. R&T and Cycle World were in the same building, and Peter Egan wrote for both titles, so he and Mary often worked together.

One year Egan bought a new toolbox, and Mary bought his old one and gave it to me as a birthday present. Because she knew I admired his writing, she got him to scratch his autograph in the paint under the lid.

I brought the toolbox with me when we moved to Oregon in 1988. After a couple of years in a house in town, I bought a three-and-a-half-acre property outside of town, which we shared with two dogs, some deer, the occasional owl, and a million small rodents.

About half a million of those rodents took up residence in the toolbox, which lived in the unfinished half of the basement. I discovered this one day when I pulled open a drawer looking for a 5mm hex key, and instead found a clump of dryer lint with a depression in the middle big enough for several generations of mice to snooze in. The drawer under that one was stuffed to capacity with another nest. The bottom drawer was carpeted with mouse crap.

I cleaned out the toolbox and a month later they were back. The smell was horrific, and eventually I left the squatters in possession of their home and moved my tools elsewhere, fully intending to get in there someday and reclaim it for its intended use.

I never got around to it, until tonight. I’m in a new house now, and for the first time in more than 20 years I have an enclosed garage where I can work on bikes in comfort, and by golly, I want my toolbox back. So I removed the drawers, held my nose while I pried out the urine- and crap-soaked felt pads lining each one, and took the drawers outside where I sprayed them with S-100 and then hosed them down.

After taking the drawers out I found several things that had fallen down behind them. I found a 10mm wrench I thought I’d lost years ago. I found a receipt from a Snap-on dealer for a tool of some kind sold to “Elroy’s” sometime in the 1960s. I also found out that dried mouse pee smells just as bad almost 20 years later as it did the day it passed through the mouse—bad enough to make my eyes water. I might have to burn the clothes I was wearing.

This job might take a while. Hell, it might take a hazmat team.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Scents of Wonder

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived.”—Helen Keller

One of the more frequently cited reasons for riding a motorcycle instead of driving a car is that the car isolates you from your environment, while the motorcycle makes you part of it. If you’ve ever ridden through farm country and inhaled the rich, earthy aroma of a freshly plowed field, or sniffed the moisture-laden air that precedes the rain long before the first drops hit your faceshield, you know this to be true.

This evening I sat out on the deck tossing the ball for Daisy, Tread Life’s editorial assistant and morale officer. It had rained in the morning and showered on and off into the early afternoon. Thick clouds bowled along overhead on a breeze that brought with it the first hint of the change of seasons.

Something about those clouds, and the wind, and the slant of the sun, made me a little sad. The summers here are too brief, and this one is almost over. The rain is coming back soon, and with it days of gray skies, morning chill, and early nightfall. Time to dig out the electric vest and the heavy gloves, and put a fresh layer of Sno Seal on my boots.

But the breeze brought something else—a memory, one of Helen Keller’s “potent wizards.” A memory, almost a palpable sensation, of the desert in late autumn, with tentative patches of green scattered across the sandy monotony, a warm wind blowing, that feeling of the riding season slipping away, and a motorcycle ride I took almost eight years ago.

For a number of years, around this time, the word would go out on the long-distance riders mailing list announcing the Chiliburger Run, held around the first of October at the Riverside Inn in Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. What began as a couple of people meeting there for lunch eventually morphed into a full-scale invasion of the restaurant by LD riders, who lived by the motto, “Live to ride, ride to eat.”

In 2001, I bought a Honda ST1100 from Dale “Warchild” Wilson, a former Iron Butt Rally rider and currently the Iron Butt Association’s technical inspector, etiquette adviser, and fool frightener. It was tricked out for rally riding, with fearsomely bright driving lights and an auxiliary gas tank that brought the total fuel capacity to 11 gallons, giving it a range between fill-ups of more than 400 miles.

The Chiliburger Run was accurately—and bluntly—billed as “the last chance for a ride before the weather in the Northwest turns to shit.” By that time of year the eastern Oregon desert, which lies between me and Horseshoe Bend, could in the course of a single day serve up the entire weather menu, from searing heat to blizzards. One year I rode through a rainstorm like a car wash, and an hour later sat gasping in the shimmering heat under the stingy shade of a lean-to in a rest stop where the only amenities were a trash can, and a sign prohibiting dumping trash in it.

The ST was the perfect sport-touring mount, an immensely capable bike whose limits I never discovered, mainly because I couldn’t exploit the 400-mile range with my 150-mile butt. Still, while as a rule I have no use for the desert, I approached the edge of it with a sense of anticipation. I was on a great bike, and I had all day to get to my hotel in Boise, and nothing to do the next day but get myself to the Riverside Inn and go mano a mano with a chiliburger the size of a catcher’s mitt.

As I recall, the weather that year was particularly fine. It wasn't too hot, and the few hardy things that bloom in the desert, however fleetingly, were getting on with doing just that.

Huge, brilliant white clouds floated overhead, spanning the horizons, blotting out the sun one minute and scudding out of the way the next. The air sometimes smelled like that peculiar odor of dust and moisture that means rain, but none fell. The season was turning in the desert, and I was alone on a motorcycle in the middle of nowhere, miles from help if I needed it, with nothing between me and disaster but a couple of improbably small patches of rubber and the laws of physics.

If you ever find yourself in that position, and you don’t feel more alive than you’ve ever felt, then you’re already dead.

I got to Boise that evening, defeated the chiliburger fair and square the next day, and the day after that headed home. Between Burns and Bend I hooked up with a trio of 18-wheelers barreling along nose-to-tail at 80 mph. I tucked in behind the last one in line, close enough to get a tow from the draft but far enough behind and to the side that I could see up ahead and drop back to safety in time if I needed to. I arrived home late that night by the blazing light of a pair of PIAA tree-burners.

Where I live now is about as much like the desert as a horse is like a turtle, so I can’t really explain how the smell of a breeze from the Pacific Ocean this evening reminded of a ride across the eastern Oregon desert eight years ago. All I can say for sure is it conjured up the past, and gave me a part of my life to live all over again, a part I’d all but forgotten.

Maybe that’s why Helen Keller called smells “wizards,” because if that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Moto Retro Illustrated

I don’t normally run press releases here without editing them down, or making fun of them in some way, but I’m making an exception for this one.

Moto Retro Illustrated, a new vintage/classic magazine focusing on moto culture from 1965 to 1985, has released its first issue, which begins shipping to subscribers and dealers this week.

Conceived, written and published by long-time motojournalist and racer Mitch Boehm, Moto Retro Illustrated is a unique spin on the vintage/classic magazine. “Moto Retro covers a more recent slice of the classic landscape,” says Boehm, “the late ’60s, 1970s and early ’80s. As a result we feature a lot of Japanese bikes – streetbikes, dirtbikes and minis, the motorcycles most baby-boomers grew up with.”

Moto Retro Illustrated’s roots stem from the three issues of Motorcyclist Retro published in 2008, which Boehm edited for Source Interlink. “Motorcyclist Retro did pretty well for a start-up,” Boehm says, “selling more than 20,000 copies of each issue. But upper management closed it in December, wanting to concentrate on core products with the economy tanking. It was a bummer. But when I saw how popular it was, I decided to take the concept I’d nurtured and publish it myself.”

Moto Retro’s premier issue includes a wide array of back-in-the-day feature stories, including the “Eddie Lawson and the Replica” cover story, which covers the genesis of the ’82 and ’83 KZ1000R Eddie Lawson Replica, Eddie’s Superbike career on the green machines, and also the famed S1 production racer sold to privateers. “I'd wanted to cover that bike and Eddie's racing connection with it for a long time,” says Boehm. “We shot Eddie and his personal ELR at Auto Club Speedway, and Kevin Wing did a great job on the photos. The story runs 12 pages, and included are vintage photos along with interviews with Eddie, Rob Muzzy, Superbike collector Brian O'Shea and ex-Kawasaki man Mike Vaughan.”

The issue also includes a story on Boehm’s first-generation CB750 for the 750 Four's 40th Anniversary. “I'd written a piece 17 years earlier in Cycle World called ‘West By CB750’ about riding CB750s on Route 66,” Boehm says. “CW Editor David Edwards and I bought a couple of first-gen CB750s from a guy in Illinois via Walneck's Cycle Trader, flew there and rode them home on Route 66. We had a pretty wild time; my bike holed a piston in Tulsa, and David's bike holed a crankcase from a thrown chain in the middle of Arizona. I wanted to revisit that story and that motorcycle, and since my current first-generation CB750 is pretty close to the bike I’d bought back in Illinois, I figured now was the time.”

Also featured in the issue: A piece on Tom White's amazing motocross museum and collection; a story on the 1975 Unadilla Trans-AMA motocross event by Dexter Ford; a piece on Yamaha’s first monoshock motocrosser; a short story on Hodaka’s Super Rat; a feature on American Honda’s 50 years in the U.S., complete with rare marketing images from the ’60s; and short pieces on Wes Cooley and Team Yoshimura from 1981, Darryl Bassani, Jeff Ward, and more.

Moto Retro Illustrated is pricier than your standard monthly bike book ($9.95 per copy), primarily because it’s oversized and printed on thick, luxurious paper, but also because the magazine’s business model doesn’t rely solely on advertising for revenue – as do the majority of other magazines, many of which are experiencing hard times in this down economy. “We’re relying on the reader more,” Boehm says. “We don’t need huge numbers to survive; just enough hard-core readers who’ll pay a bit more for a beautiful, glossy magazine jam-packed with good stuff from Motorcycling’s Glory Days.”

Yearly subscriptions (four issues) are $39.95, and single copies ordered via the website (which include shipping) are $12.95. Right now, subs and single copies can only be had via the website, though dealers and shops across the country will eventually stock Retro.

“We’re all about a higher-end experience,” Boehm says. “So not only is the magazine thick and glossy, something you’ll want to keep, but we mail it in a protective polybag so it arrives as fresh as the day it came off the press. And with only about 15 pages of ads, issue one contains about 85 pages of great editorial, which we know our readers are gonna love.”

For more information:

Moto Retro Illustrated

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Inside Lines

"I work in motorcycle safety all day. I look at accident data. I look at accident avoidance data. I'll respect anyone's opinion, but until I see the data, I'm not going to believe it."

The assertion that "Loud pipes save lives" is still lacking any data to back it up. Meanwhile, the backlash continues.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The One That Got Away: Honda CB750 Nighthawk

In 1994 I walked into my local Honda dealer to get some parts for the Honda CB400F that was at home in the basement. At the time my daily rider was a well-used ’79 Suzuki GS850 that I’d fixed up for an article in Rider. I really liked it, but the engine was starting to make ominous noises way down deep, and I wasn't sure how long it was going to last.

So when I saw the brand new 1992 CB750 Nighthawk on the showroom floor, I stopped to look at it. I’d read about it a while back, and the specs impressed me. Air-cooled inline four, with hydraulic valves. Simple twin-shock rear suspension. A single disc up front, a drum in the back. It appealed to my practical side like no bike had since...well, since the GS850.

What really appealed to me was the price—$4,000 out the door. Which is where I rolled it two days later.

The Nighthawk kept on impressing me for the next 27,000 miles. It was a joy to work on, not that I ever had to. Wait, I take that back—a turn-signal bulb burned out around 17,000 miles. (So much for Honda’s legendary reliability.)

It had a few flaws that could be fixed—a mushy seat, no wind protection, and a wooden front brake—and one that couldn’t, a range of about 160 miles on a full tank. I added a Corbin, a Hondaline screen, and DP brake pads, and lived with the smallish tank. A set of Givi hard bags came later, which turned the Nighthawk into a middleweight tourer.

Someone once asked me if I went to work for motorcycle magazines because I was fickle about bikes, or if I got that way because I had worked for motorcycle magazines. I couldn’t answer the question, but the fact is I tend to get tired of even the best bikes after a while. And so it was with the Nighthawk.

When Suzuki introduced the 1200 Bandit in ‘97 or ’98, I fell hopelessly in lust with it. Rider arranged to get me one for a long-term road test/fix-up article. Suzuki’s only proviso was that someone had to buy the bike at the end of the test. They didn’t care who, they just didn’t want a modified bike back. That was fine by me.

The time eventually came to settle up, and Suzuki made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. The problem was the Nighthawk had to go in order to finance the Bandit purchase. By then I was so besotted with the 1200’s eyeball-flattening power that I was blinded to everything else, and decided to take the Nighthawk back to the dealer where I bought it to sell on consignment.

I almost didn’t make it there. As I rode into town, a voice in my head kept screaming, “What’s wrong with you?! This is a great bike! Keep it!”

Had I had any other way to buy the Bandit I would have. And there are still days when I wish I had. My current ride, a 650 V-Strom, is a great bike, too. But the amount of time it look me last year just to check—not adjust—the valves and replace the air filter added up to more hours of service than I put into the Nighthawk in the entire time I owned it. And I honestly can’t say I’ve had more fun on the Suzuki than I had on the Honda. About the same, maybe, but certainly not more.

Every now and then I get all misty about the Nighthawk, and go looking for used ones on Craigslist and Cycle Trader. About $2,500 would buy a really good one these days; a slightly scruffier one might set you back $1,900.

In today’s market that’s pocket change. Not my pocket, sad to say, but someone else’s for sure. Still, if a good one came my way, and the price was right...well, I wouldn’t throw the V-Strom aside for it, but it might be nice to have something to ride next time I have to dive into the Suzuki’s inner workings.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Live To Ride, Ride To Work

This is what happens when your company doesn't have motorcycle parking.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Inside Lines

"It's immeasurably manly."

You can't make up stuff like this.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

And You Thought Racing Was Hard

Clutching At The Future

It’s not easy to know what motorcycle manufacturers are thinking, because they tend to think years, sometimes decades, in advance—that’s how long it takes to bring some ideas to fruition. We can, however, use hindsight to see what Honda has been thinking about in recent years, like ABS on sportbikes, the Human Friendly Transmission, and now a dual-clutch transmission for the soon-to-be-released 2010 VFR (read about it here, here, and here). Is Honda trying to turn motorcycles into cars? Is the company taking all the fun out of motorcycling, or changing the playing field in a way that will catch the competition flat-footed?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Clothes Call

I met up with my buddy Paul last week during the waning days of the 2009 Iron Butt Rally. I’d been tipped off by IBA staff to the location of a bonus near me, and I passed on the tip to Paul, who rode the ’07 Rally. We rendezvoused in the tiny town of Langlois, Oregon, at a book store called Crime Scene Books—which judging by the gutted and cobwebbed interior had long ago been the scene of the crime of burglary—to wait for what we assumed would be a steady stream of riders coming to claim the bonus.

Paul was already there when I arrived. Other than the single northbound Rally rider I passed on my way south—a rider Paul had met at Crime Scene—we saw no others for the next three hours. We called it a day at about noon and rode to my favorite coffee shop.

There we talked about the sort of things motorcyclists talk about—bikes, trips we had taken, bikes, great roads we wanted to ride, bikes—and eventually the topic turned to riding gear.

I can go on and on about this, since so little riding gear fits me well. To begin with, I’m six feet tall, but have a 30-inch inseam, so most of my height is from the waist up. I’m also...let’s see, how can I put this...a touch more stout around the middle than I should be. There, I said it. Oh, and I have big feet.

Buying regular clothes isn’t a problem. I can buy jeans with the right waist and inseam just about anywhere. Ditto shirts and sweaters; also shoes. But if it’s riding gear I’m after, things get a little more complicated. No—make that a lot more complicated.

Despite the majority of riding gear being made overseas, I’m told it’s designed here in the U.S. I can only assume those designers live and work in windowless offices, cut off from all human contact, because based on the specifications they send to Bazookistan or wherever, they’re never seen a live male American.

I base this on the fact that motorcycle clothing designers seem to operate on the principle that if you have a large waist, for example, you also have freakishly long legs, and that if your girth exceeds the norm, so does your neck size.

I’ve tested a lot of motorcycle gear for magazines, and more often than not when I order a pair of riding pants in my waist size, they come with legs so long the kneepads hang down around my shins; if I sewed the cuffs closed I could wear the pants like footy pajamas.

Jackets made in my size all too often come with neck openings so big I can put them on without unzipping them, like sweaters. The only way to seal up the enormous collars is to wind a dozen yards of bandanas around my neck and stuff them in the gap.

And boots? Phooey. There’s no direct translation for “EE width” in the language of any country that makes really good armored and waterproof riding boots.

I guess it’s my fault that bike gear doesn’t fit me. After all, the manufacturers can’t be expected to make what is essentially specialty clothing in sizes to fit a wide variety of riders (that’s what they tell me, anyway), and if I were really worried about it I’d lose some weight.

Or grow longer legs, and a shorter torso. Or bind my feet like a 19th-century Chinese courtesan.

Yeah. I’ll get right on that.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

But how do I do a wheelie on it?

If you're as...uh, let's say as seasoned a rider as I am, you might remember that in the 1960s Cycle World ran a series of cartoons about the mythical Uno-Guzzi one-wheel racing bike. Now, it seems, reality is catching up with the U-G concept.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Distraction Control

"The issue has become even more important in recent years as advances in mobile technology have made it easier than ever to become momentarily distracted by operating the controls of a cell phone, stereo system, a global positioning unit, or some other device."

The above is excerpted from an AMA press release dated August 6. It begins: "The AMA Board of Directors adopted an official position on the issue of distracted driving and inattentive vehicle operation at the Board's July 27 meeting."

It shouldn't surprise you to learn that the AMA's position on distracted driving is that they're against it. (Read the entire release here.)

What might surprise you is the proliferation of devices designed to fit motorcycles that are just as distracting to motorcyclists as any gizmo you'll find in a car. Stereos have been around for donkey's years. Ditto CB radios. Lately it's Bluetooth headsets that, among other things, let you make and receive cell-phone calls while riding.

In early 2006 I tested a couple of Bluetooth headsets for a magazine I write for. I dutifully tried out all the features, including the cell-phone interface, and determined they worked as advertised. Then I phoned the editor. "I have a philosophical problem with these products," I said. "They do what they're supposed to do, but they're distracting as hell to operate. Talking on the phone while riding is bad enough, but you also have to take one hand off the bar and grope around on the side of your helmet for tiny buttons while listening to a sequence of beeps that tell you which button you've just hit."

"Why not just pull over to the side of the road first?" the editor asked.

"If I'm going to do that, I might as well just take the cell phone out of my tank bag and make the call," I said.

"Hmm," the editor said.

I finished up the evaluation with a caveat, which to his credit the editor printed: "But we...have to wonder if that’s something bikers really need, or if it’s just a way for us to become part of the epidemic of inattentive driving."

At the time I worried I was going out on a limb by saying that, but now I sound downright prophetic.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I received an email this afternoon from the editor of Rider about an article I sold him last year, a touring story about a ride down to Sonoma, California, for Harley’s 2009 model intro. He had just now gotten around to reading it in preparation for running it in the next issue, and mentioned that he liked it—“Great story!”

Distant as I am from the nuts and bolts of magazine production, I don’t typically get much feedback about my work. I write a piece, I email it to the editor, and a check arrives at some indeterminate point in the future, by which time I’ve long since moved on to the next assignment. So when the email arrived today, I searched the folder on the computer marked "Morgue" and punched up the Sonoma story, curious to see what made it stand out.

I still don’t know, because I got to a certain point in the piece and was stopped cold by a rush of memory:

“On the way back through San Francisco I stopped at the Golden Gate Recreation Area north of the bridge and climbed the winding road until I found a place to pull over that was more or less free of tourists. As I do every time I pass this way, I stood a while looking out at the city where I was born. It’s a beautiful, almost magical place, and, perched as it is on the San Andreas Fault, maybe a doomed place, as well. That’s why I make this pilgrimage to the high cliffs above it every chance I get.”

Although I was born in San Francisco, I lived there only for three days before I was taken across the bay to an orphanage in Oakland, where I was adopted by my parents. It’s fashionable these days to differentiate adoptive parents from biological parents, but I never did, and I still don’t. They were my parents. End of discussion.

In 1973 or so I moved to Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and it was from there that many of the misadventures of my motorcycling youth were launched. I got a job as an apprentice machinist at an aftermarket motorcycle accessory distributor and manufacturer, and lived for a month in my dad’s camper pick-up in the parking lot, driving it home to Santa Clara on the weekends, until I found an apartment in San Rafael.

The apartment had no garage—it barely had walls—so I stowed my Honda CB-500/4 street bike and my TZ250 roadracer in the back of the warehouse. I became a regular on the Sunday Morning Ride, an appallingly dangerous and occasionally deadly street ride/outlaw race/lemming march up Highway 1, where—to shamelessly rip off one of Jeff Karr’s most memorable lines—I saw Jesus so many times I started using him as a brake marker.

Life on two wheels was very different back then. I rode a 900cc Ducati Darmah SS dressed in jeans, Full Bore roadracing boots, and a Bell Helmets down jacket that would have evaporated in a red puff of nylon dust had I crashed in it. I was particularly proud of the buckskin gloves I had bought at Orchard Supply Hardware for 14 bucks a pair.

I continued to ride south to visit my parents every weekend, taking Highway 101 over the Golden Gate, through the City on 19th Avenue, and on to Highway 280. In summer the ride was spectacular, thanks to a dense gray tunnel of fog that would barrel in from the ocean, blanketing the towers of the bridge, and roll across the bay until it broke apart on the Oakland hills. Pouring through the Golden Gate, hunkered down on the water like an enormous slug, it looked like a blind, remorseless, world-swallowing monster in a Norse myth.

It was cold, too. I’d start out in Marin in light gear and be shivering and damp by the time I got to Golden Gate Park. A few miles later the fog vanished, and the bright sun beat down on me again, turning the cold dampness to sticky sweat.

In the folly that was my youth, I never took the time to wander around San Francisco much. I was too eager to get somewhere else, with no appreciation of where I already was. And I didn’t have any real connection with the city then, except the accident of my birth there.

It was only later on, after moving to Oregon, that I started feeling that odd tug that seems to pull some people back to their place of origin. And so began the ritual of never passing through San Francisco without pausing to ride up the narrow road on the north side of the bridge to look down on the shining city by the bay.

A while ago, before I sat down to write this, I went out to the backyard to play fetch with Daisy, Tread Life’s editorial assistant and morale officer. Daisy’s version of fetch involves a lot of chewing the ball, and rolling around on it, and sniffing the spot where she rolled, so I bring my iPod along to fill the interludes between throws.

As I scrolled down the playlists I came to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, an album that got a lot of airplay during my time in Marin, and has since become for me a touchstone of those years. I clicked on the title track, and just as the guitar started strumming, a cool breeze out of the south swept over the backyard fence, bringing with it a whiff of what I could have sworn was salty air, with a hint of cool, damp fog, and before I knew it I was standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a brick-red bridge, its towers framing a shining white city in the distance.

Ain't nothing but a stranger in this world
I'm nothing but a stranger in this world
I got a home on high in another land
So far away, so far away...

I hope you enjoy reading the Rider story as much as I enjoyed living it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Physics 101 (degrees)

There are lots of reasons to question the standards of education in America, like the fact that commercials actually sell useless products (no logic or critical thinking taught in schools); that anyone believes either Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann are anything but cynical, hypocritical fear-mongers (see previous); and every segment of “Jaywalking” ever shown on the Leno version of The Tonight Show.

The reason to despair for our educational system I’ve been noticing most lately is that a lot of motorcyclists seem to think when the weather gets hot enough, the laws of physics are suspended. The evidence for this belief is clear, judging by how many of them I saw today riding around in T-shirts—those that are actually wearing shirts at all—and shorts. The more safety-conscious wore high-top sneakers instead of flip-flops.

Then again, maybe I’m the one guilty of an incomplete education, because I believe if I fell off at speed on a 90-degree day wearing a T-shirt and shorts, it would be very much like being tossed onto a belt sander that’s been heated with a blowtorch.

In all fairness, as a product of the American educational system myself, I’m forced to admit I could be wrong. It might not hurt that much at all. In fact, it might actually be warm and cuddly instead of horrific and disfiguring.

If you know, or if you are, someone who’s riding a motorcycle with nothing but a few square yards of thin cotton between you and the pavement, and you crash, and you don’t die as a result of third-degree burns or massive infection, I’d like to know what it was like. Call me when the morphine wears off.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Signed copies $200 extra

I was browsing just now, looking for a few items (Amazon carries a lot of motorcycle stuff now) and thought, what the hell, let’s see if they’re still selling my Harley book, which if you’ve been a regular reader you know is now out of print.

So I looked up Harley-Davidson Bolt-On Performance and up came the page. And that's where it got weird.

The price of a new copy varies from a low of 79¢ (how depressing is that?) to a high of $57.21. Fifty-seven bucks?! Holy crap, I’m sitting on two cases of this book that I haven’t even opened.

I think I’ll contact the seller and see if I can unload them for, say, $25 a copy. I won’t be holding my breath waiting for a reply, but meanwhile I can fantasize about what I’d do with the money. Like actually order all the motorcycle stuff I found on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcyclist Maintenance

I wrote a while ago about back problems keeping me off the bike. A talk with my chiropractor convinced me the solution was to sell my V-Strom and get a cruiser. Well, the financial climate being what it is, that’s not going to happen. So I started thinking about other ways to deal with the situation.

I did some research on the web and found a number of exercises designed to help torn back muscles heal, and to help weak ones get stronger. The kind of injury I had was common among athletes, not just former motojournalists who had pushed the envelope to the point of tearing once too often.

I actually found this information several months ago, but hadn’t followed the exercise plan. Or rather, I had followed it too diligently. I got some weights and started using them every day. That, as it turned out, just created another problem. The pain got worse.

I know now that I overworked the injured muscles, and didn’t give them time to recover between workouts. So it was back to the chiropractor for a couple of lengths of something called Theraband, essentially a flat strip of stretchy rubber used for light, low-impact muscle and joint rehabilitation.

I’ve been using it every other day—no more often than that—for about a month now, and the improvement has been remarkable. Not only are my arms and back stronger, I can ride farther without pain than I could six months ago, and I feel less fatigued at the end of the ride.

The point of all this is that I’m finally learning, at the ripe old age of 57, to take it easy on myself. It’s usually my tendency to charge straight at any problem with all guns blazing; that’s what got me through the injuries I sustained after the Willow Springs crash in 1986, and the car crash of 2006. I was a rehab fiend both times, and my reward was the astonished look on the faces of several doctors at how fast I bounced back.

But some problems can’t be solved by full-frontal assaults. You have to creep up on them, and nail them when they aren’t looking, especially at my age. You’ve heard that saying about how “old age and cunning beats youth and enthusiasm”? It’s true.

There’s also a bit of Zen going on here. As a freelance writer, I’m always looking ahead—to the next story, the next interview, the next paycheck. The now tends to get lost in the concern over the later. In my imperfect understanding of Zen, however, the now is all there is; the past is gone, and the future isn’t here yet, and when it arrives, it’s the now.

Lately I’ve been working on being mindful of what’s going on right now. When I ride, I try to think about how the ride is going right now, and not about how much it’ll suck if my back starts to hurt; that hasn’t happened yet, and it might not happen at all. And if it does there’s not much I can do about it anyway—why let it affect what’s happening now?

So I’m keeping the V-Strom. I have it set up just the way I want it, it’s paid for—a huge plus for any bike—and the Sargent seat, well-shaped but originally pretty firm, has finally broken in completely. Either that, or I have permanent nerve damage in my ass.

I’m even thinking of taking another trip to Canada before the summer is out, this time on the bike instead of in the car. When I first entertained the idea, I immediately thought, What if my back starts hurting? What if the bike breaks down? What if...?

Then I stopped, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought, What if it’s the best ride ever?