Monday, January 5, 2009
We all have little secrets we’d prefer no one else knew. Maybe your iPod is full of Clay Aiken songs, or your nickname in high school was Crater Face.
Me? I like sidehacks.
I really should know better, too. When I worked at Rider I had a chance to put some miles on two sidehacks, one a factory-built Harley Electra Glide rig and the other a BMW K100-based EML. I learned that sidehacks combine the very worst traits of cars and motorcycles into a single machine that lacks any of their virtues.
The EML outfit was made in Germany, and as you’d expect, it was a lot more technically sophisticated than the Harley. It had fuel injection, shaft drive, a leading-link front end, and a sidecar that looked like it had been stolen from the German Olympic bobsled team. It rolled on what appeared to be a car tire in the back, and had a similar square-edged tire up front.
It’s my guess that the front tire accounted for why the EML was so little fun to ride. Sidehacks are known for heavy steering, but this one was awful. Even with the leading-link front end, the front tire leaned slightly from side to side when I turned the handlebar. Each time I did, it felt as if the bike was resisting being tilted up on that square edge. A rounder profile might have solved the problem, but the rig had to go back before I had a chance to find out.
Compared to the EML, the Harley was about as trick as a claw hammer. They even left the sidestand on the Glide when they bolted the sidecar up to it. The fork was the same telescopic unit found on all the other baggers, and the sidecar had that nose-wrinkling fiberglass smell, as well as a number of sharp rivet heads poking into the interior, like an Iron Maiden with a windscreen. It was a thing of beauty, though, with a timeless style that made me grin every time I thought about anyone still making something that weird and wonderful.
The Harley was even harder to ride than the EML. Every time I turned the handlebar the entire rig felt like it was winding itself up like a big spring. The sidecar lagged on acceleration, pulling the rig to the right, and although the sidecar wheel had a brake, the sidecar tried to pass me whenever I braked, pulling to the left. At first it was all I could do to ride it a block without veering into oncoming traffic or colliding with parked cars.
But the Harley had something the EML didn’t, and probably never would have. It had the same effect on people as a string of circus elephants marching down Main Street. Adults stopped and stared, little kids pointed and laughed. I felt like I ought to be wearing jodhpurs and a pith helmet, with a comical sidekick named Bud or Stumpy in the sidecar. Every ride was an adventure, and after a while I forgot what a peg-legged goat the thing was, and grew to like it.
I rode it from Southern California to Las Vegas to attend the auction of the Steve McQueen estate at some garish casino on the strip. I’m usually a frugal packer when it comes to bike travel, but with the Harley I filled the sidecar with all the luggage I owned and still had enough room left over for a beach ball and a grandfather clock.
When I got to the outskirts of Vegas and hit the first stoplight, I put my foot down. Then I started laughing. The man in the car next to me glanced over at me as if he thought I was losing my mind.
What I remember best about the Harley, though, is how my old dog Steve took to it. Steve didn’t care for motorcycles one bit. He stayed in the garage during the day when I was a work—the landlord’s rules, not mine—and every time I brought a bike home he’d hide in the corner behind the workbench until I shut off the engine, then come creeping out to see me.
He did the same thing when I brought the Harley home for the first time, and every time after that—until the day I picked him up, all 60 quivering pounds of him, and put him in the sidecar.
I could almost see the cartoon light bulb go on over his head. Huh. This isn’t so bad.
I clipped a short leash to his collar and tied it off to the grab rail in the sidecar. He just about tore it loose when I stared the engine, but by the end of the driveway he had settled back into the padded seat. Okay, maybe once around the block.
That’s all it took. He was hooked.
For the rest of the time I had the Harley, as soon as I opened the garage door a big red dog would come charging out and leap into the sidecar. Then one day I came home with just another motorcycle, and he ran and hid behind the workbench until I shut it off.
Steve was a great dog, and lived to be 15 years old. He came with me when I moved to Oregon, where he traded a fenced back yard for five acres of wooded land where he could run and dig and chase deer and quail and do all the things dogs were born to do. I believe he was a happy dog right up until the end.
But I don’t think he ever forgave me for giving back the Harley.