After a long, awful winter that seemed like it would never end, it's time to go racing again. The World Superbike season starts this weekend. Check your local TV listings.
I checked mine, and Speed, the channel that’s carrying the series in the U.S., is showing the first of the weekend’s two races on Sunday, but isn’t showing the second until Tuesday, when it will repeat race one and then show race two.
It’s been suggested that Speed is cutting its own throat by doing this. Net-savvy race fanatics already know where and how to download the entire race the day it happens, I’m told, or even stream it live, both from sites of questionable legality.
It doesn’t bother me to have the weekend’s races shown over several days. Unlike most race fans I don’t actually care who wins. In fact, my interest in who wins is so slight that the day after I watch a race I’m often unable to remember who did.
That’s because all I want to see is good racing. I don’t care who’s doing it.
This is why I enjoyed watching the 250 and 125 MotoGP races last year far more than the premier class. In the smaller classes, the bikes are more evenly matched, and the riders really have to work hard to get an advantage. This is especially true in the 125 class, where several times I saw races with a dozen lead changes among six or seven riders in the last five laps, with nose-to-tail drafts and totally hairball up-the-inside moves that made me cringe, and then whoop with joy.
So I’m going to tape the two World Superbike races on Tuesday, and later that evening sit down and watch them, probably knowing full well by then who won.
When I started riding motorcycles they all had point/coil ignition that could barely keep a spark plug hot enough to prevent fouling, skinny rock-hard tires with nail-attracting tubes in them, and wet-cell batteries you had to refill as often as the gas tank or they’d boil dry and die.
This combination of sub-par systems meant you never really knew if you were going to get where you were going on time—or at all. You don’t get that with modern bikes, and that takes something away from the adventure that is riding motorcycles.
But every time I look at a Royal Enfield, the possibility of getting stranded and having to push it home is the first thing that enters my mind. And for some perverse reason that makes me want to swing a leg over it and tempt fate.
The Bullet 350 has pushrod-operated overhead valves, and puts out a claimed 18 horsepower at a leisurely 5000 rpm. The spark is lit by points, and top speed is 62 mph. Even at that the 7-inch front drum brake and 6-inch rear are probably overmatched.
There was a Royal Enfield dealer in a city about 125 miles from here, and I used to stop in when I was in the area to look at the bikes. The first time I saw one I spent 10 minutes looking it over and discovered maybe five things that looked like they’d break or fall off in the first 100 miles. Every part on it appeared to have been designed with the phrase “more or less” in mind. It appeared not to have been manufactured as much as carved; it wouldn’t surprise me to discover anvils on the factory floor.
So why would I like to ride a Royal Enfield Bullet 350?
To once again feel that old thrill that attracted me to bikes way back when. To once again feel like I’m part of the rider/bike equation, and not just another accessory the engineers had to accommodate.
I got an email today from someone asking if I was all right, since I hadn’t posted anything for a few days. All’s well here, if a bit hectic. The business of writing for magazines is an unpredictable one because deadlines overlap; one magazine I work for is a monthly, another is a bi-monthly, another comes out nine times a year, and yet another has a schedule I haven’t really figured out yet, but it seems like I always have a story for it in the works.
I’m not complaining, especially in an economy in which a lot of people don’t have jobs to complain about. But there are times during the year when all the deadlines seem to coincide, and when that happens the blog has to take a back seat to work. That’s what’s been going on for the last two weeks.
Also, with the bike down for parts I haven’t been riding, so I haven’t been thinking about motorcycles all that much except to the extent that my work demands it.
All the same, I’m taking a minute to ask regular readers of Tread Life to drop me a line (treadlifeblog at yahoo dot com) or post in the comments section about what you like and don’t like about this blog.
I decided at the outset not to turn Tread Life into an online diary, mostly because I don’t think anyone really cares about the minutiae of my life, and because the day-to-day stuff isn’t really all that interesting anyway, not even to me.
Instead, I’ve tried—with varying degrees of success; nobody hits a home run every time at bat—to make each post entertaining, informative, and relevant to motorcycles and the people who ride them. I’d like to know if I’ve succeeded, and if that’s what you really want.
If I haven’t, and it isn't, then tell me what you want to read here, and I’ll see what I can do.
I’ve never much cared about appearances when it comes to the motorcycles I ride. If a bike makes me grin, I’ll ride it. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the gear I wear, either, as long as it protects me. Just ask anyone who’s seen my bug-stained Hi-Viz yellow Darien jacket.
Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about getting a second bike, not to replace my V-Strom, but to complement it. One of the bikes on my short list is the Ninja 250R, a front runner in the bang-for-the-buck sweepstakes.
As trick as this little screamer is, it got me wondering—exactly how silly would a 270-pound rider look on a 374-pound motorcycle?
I raced a TZ250 Yamaha in the 1970s. Even then I was big for a 250 rider—180 pounds, and 6 feet tall—which probably played no small part in my failure to set the AMA Novice class on fire.
Time and genetics are harsh mistresses, and the terrible twins have done a number on me since my racing days. Imagining myself straddling a 250R invariably brings to mind a colorful phrase having to do with a monkey and a football.
Still, lately I've been dialing up the 250R page on Kawasaki’s website and going over the specs at least once a day. Suggested retail is only $4,000; the same money would buy me any number of good used bikes more suited to my size. But they’d all need some work—a chain and sprockets, or tires, or brake pads—that would add up fast. And not many of them would look as zoomy as the 250R.
The only thing saving me from myself right now is that I’m about as likely to rustle up a spare four grand as I am to drop 100 pounds any time soon. So for the time being I’m spared the embarrassment of seeing myself reflected in a store window, doing the monkey thing with a 250R.
There’s a Ducati in my past, a gorgeous Darmah SS that I remember as having the best engine and the worst ergonomics of any bike I ever owned. It came with clip-ons that bent my wrists at an angle the human wrist was not designed to achieve much less sustain, and the rearset footpegs were high enough to leave heel prints on my hip pockets.
The engine was a work of mechanical art, full of whirring gears and fiddly little shims. I wouldn’t have sworn there were springs in the fork, the ride was so harsh, and the rear shocks seemed designed to work only on Jupiter; Earth’s puny gravity couldn’t compress them noticeably, even two-up.
Like any dopey kid with a new, fast motorcycle, I trashed the stock air box and replaced it with a pair of K&Ns. The bike rewarded me for this kindness by refusing to idle smoothly for as long as I owned it.
But oh, when it ran, it ran like the hounds of hell were after it, and bellowed fit to make the small hairs on the back of your neck stand up. And that was with the stock mufflers. With Contis, it was like porn for your ears.
I’ll forever associate that bike with Marin County’s infamous Sunday Morning Ride, on which I nearly met my end when, cresting a blind rise an imprudent speed, I forgot whether the road on the other side went left, right, or straight. I gambled on right, and the Duc and I lived to ride another day.
The Sport 1000S is the closest thing Ducati makes to that old Darmah, and the one that tugs the hardest at my heartstrings. Claimed horsepower is about 30 more than the Darmah put out on its best day, and fuel injection means never having to fuss with a set of sullen Dell’Ortos. There are still those desmodromic valves to fiddle with if you’re so inclined. I’ve done it, and I’m not inclined to do it ever again.
So why would I like to ride a Sport 1000S? Because it reminds me of my Darmah SS. Which reminds me I was younger and dumber once. Which reminds me that being older and smarter isn't such a bad thing.
And just look at it, for crying out loud. How the hell could you call yourself a motorcyclist and not want to ride it?
I rode to the coffee shop yesterday afternoon, and when I got to town and hit the stop-and-go traffic, I noticed what I thought was brake surging. Nothing major, but just enough to get my attention.
When I got home I discovered the left fork seal had blown; there was oil all over the tube. It wasn't the brakes that were surging, it was the suspension.
I called the Suzuki shop to order two new seals and dust covers. I figure if one blew, the other might be getting ready, so I might as well swap them both out at the same time.
It’s been a long time since I did any major repair work on a bike, and this is the first thing that’s gone wrong with my V-Strom in more than 17,000 miles. So I was unprepared for the news that two seals and two dust covers would cost me $57.
I know if I’d shopped around I probably could have bought them cheaper somewhere else, or on the net, but the next closest Suzuki dealer is 125 miles from here, and maybe if I spend a little money with the local one it’ll be less likely to go belly-up like the Suzuki dealer that used to be only 80 miles away.
Call it my own personal economic stimulus package.
The seals will be here in a few days. I’ve already made an appointment to have them replaced, but that’s two weeks away. That will give me some time to do a few other things to the bike I’ve been putting off, things I need to do before I go on any long rides this summer. Given the time of year I probably won’t miss out on too many good riding days in the meantime.
So I’m on four wheels until further notice. The only one who’s not even slightly bummed about all this is Daisy, Tread Life's editorial assistant and morale officer, who gets to go with me on my afternoon coffee runs for the next two weeks.
I read the other day that Boise, Idaho, is cracking down on speeders with the publicly admitted intent of boosting city revenues. It’s news to nobody that many towns and smaller cities depend on traffic fines for a significant portion of their operating budgets, but given the current economy don’t be surprised if it gets worse.
It already has here, if my travels around the area today are any indication. First I spotted a local cop parked on a side street behind some bushes, using radar on a 30-mph section of four-lane highway that goes through town. Unusual, but not unheard of.
About three miles later I saw a state cop ticketing a pick-up truck. In the next 25 miles or so I saw two more state cops on the prowl, another unusual sight since state budgets cuts drastically reduced the state police’s manpower levels years ago.
But when I got to my destination, I saw something so astonishing if I’d had a camera I would have taken a picture—a state cop ticketing a log truck, and not only that, but giving it a safety check.
Until about 15 years ago, logging was the main industry here. A loaded log truck might as well have been a busload of senators on the way to a session, with the same constitutional immunity from detention or arrest while in transit. If you drove a log truck, you pretty much had to drive past a school playground while firing a shotgun out the window to get pulled over.
So don’t be too shocked if you pick up a citation for 59 in a 55 sometime this riding season. Law enforcement is probably going to be a lot less tolerant of riding 10 over the limit in more parts of the country as the recession continues to hammer municipalities’ budgets.
Yesterday I spent a couple of hours in the garage re-tuning my motorcycle’s riding position. I have some back problems, and when they flare up the only thing to do is change the handlebar position, or add a seat pad, or both, to change the ergonomics slightly.
While I was doing this—with an aching back, by the way—I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that I'd never had to do this to any of the cars I've owned. If the seating position wasn’t right, I just moved the seat. And if the steering wheel was too high, or too low, I moved it.
It doesn’t really matter what kind of car you’re driving. Sports car, truck, SUV, minivan, they’re all adjustable. How weird would it be if a Porsche came with the seat bolted to the floor, and the steering wheel in whatever position Franz back at the factory decided was correct?
But if you buy a sportbike, you get the racer’s crouch along with it. You buy a cruiser, you get the laid-back, feet-forward position.
Car designers would see that as the tail wagging the dog. Motorcycle designers don’t, so if for example you want a bike with the performance of a sportbike and the relaxed seating position of a tourer, or a big thumping V-twin engine without the hurricane-force wind up your pant legs, you’re out of luck.
And don’t tell me it can’t be done. Just take the time and money engineers spend making streetbikes go 160 mph—which we all need to do on the way to work, right?—and put it toward designing adjustable footpegs and handlebars. It’s been done before—on some Laverda, if my memory is correct—but the range of adjustability was small.
I want a handlebar that can be raised or lowered 5 or 6 inches, and tilted forward and backward. I want a seat with several inches of height adjustability. I want footpegs with a usable range of positions to take the kink out of my knees on long rides.
And I want them now. Please. Because I’m running out of combinations of handlebar risers and seat pads.
"Under the stimulus legislation, purchasers of new cars, light trucks, motor homes and motorcycles will be able to deduct the sales tax they pay through the end of this year, a provision with an estimated cost of $1.7 billion."
It's a good time to buy a motorcycle. Good luck finding financing, though...
If there’s one bike I have absolutely no business riding, it’s the XR750 in mile- or half-mile trim. It has no front brake, it shifts on the right, and it's built only for left turns. The only place you can really appreciate it is on a dirt track lined with hay bales if you’re lucky, and a wooden fence if you’re not. Either way, the penalty for screwing up is not insignificant.
And yet these bikes have fascinated me since the first time I laid eyes on one. I knew the guy who wrenched for Steve Eklund the year he won the Grand National Championship. I used to go over to the guy’s house and watch him work on the bike. For something so lean and elemental, it took a lot of work to keep one running at the front of the pack. Setting it up for each track was part science, part art, and part black magic.
Hearing it run was...well, if you’ve never heard an XR750 blasting down a residential street at full throttle at 2 a.m. the night before a race, you haven’t lived. Even people who had no use for motorcycles would come over to see what sort of thing made that unearthly sound.
In 1982, at the Houston Astrodome, I watched Scotty Parker launch an XR750 off the jump and almost into the balcony seats. When it came back down it made a sound like a dumpster full of hammers.
So why would I like to ride an XR750? Just to say I did. Just to get the faintest notion of what it would be like to pitch one into a corner at over 100 miler per hour. Just to get one last whiff of that intoxicating perfume of hot Castrol, burning rubber, and hard-packed dirt before I die.
Just because I have absolutely no business riding one.
"...the biggest culprits are cut-rate subscriptions that discourage casual readers from picking up a copy on the newsstand…Magazines that are giving their subscriptions away are committing mass suicide."
Want to help save your favorite motorcycle magazine? Cancel your subscription. Buy it on the newsstand.
There was an automotive machine shop next to the place where I used to have my two-stroke crankshafts rebuilt. One day I was hanging around outside waiting for the crank guy to come back from lunch, and I started talking to a man who was having some work done on his car’s engine.
The car was a Funny Car, a nitro-burning drag racer with an enclosed body. Back then Funny Cars were pretty new on the scene, and they were still working out the bugs. As in, how can we make this car run a complete quarter-mile without exploding in a huge ball of flame and showering pieces of itself and its driver all over the area code?
I listened, slack-jawed, as the man told me what it was like to race a Funny Car. Then he asked what I was doing there. I told him I was picking up the crankshaft of my race bike, a Yamaha TD2B roadracer.
“You roadrace motorcycles?” he said, his eyes wide. “You guys are crazy!”
Just in case you didn't get the full import of that, here's a guy whose idea of racing is basically two guys, each sitting on an open barrel of gunpowder and smoking a cigar, seeing which one can blow himself up the highest.
And I'm the crazy one.
Today, however, is my 57th birthday, and I’m starting to wonder whether he was right after all.
If you don’t count riding motorcycles, I’m a pretty cautious guy. I like my skin and intend to keep it intact for as long as I can. There have been a couple of occasions where the stuff inside my skin took a real beating, which is why I walk a bit off-kilter, and my handwriting sucks, and I sound like "Flight of the Bumblebee" played on cracking knuckles when I get out of bed first thing in the morning.
I don’t race any more. My worst racetrack crash happened in 1986, and it was a bad one; I spent a couple of weeks in the hospital, went through a couple of surgeries, and spent months recuperating.
The day I finally got back on a bike, I still had a stainless-steel pin holding my collarbone together; the end of the pin was sticking out of a hole in my shoulder.
I still live with the after-effects of that crash. The only good thing that came out of it was the instant and complete annihilation of the burning desire to go really fast on a bike at all times. That alone probably added years to my life.
But I still ride on the street, and as many street riders who have raced will attest, the street is by far the more dangerous place to ride.
In January of 2006 I was driving my car when a pick-up truck came around a blind corner, veered across the double yellow, and hit me head on. (My buddy Paul was in the passenger seat.) That bought me another six days on hospital food, two more operations, a bone graft, a titanium plate in my wrist, five months of healing and rehab before I could ride again, and another set of permanent reminders of my mortality.
So if even I think it's not entirely sane to keep riding motorcycles given what might happen the next time I fall off of one, you can understand why. At my age you just don’t heal up as fast as you used to. Sometimes you don’t heal up at all.
And yet...and yet...
Give me a sunny day, and a full tank of gas, and a halfway decent coffee shop to ride to, and I’ll be out in the garage and on the bike as fast as my gimpy knees will allow.
Because you just never know what’s going to happen. Could be good, could be bad. Flip a coin. And maybe that’s why we ride—the unexpected, the adventure. We ride even though we could get hurt, or killed. Some of us ride because we love to ride, others because we just have to, for reasons we can’t explain and don’t want to think about in case that leads to a reason not to.
So happy birthday to me, and if there’s a break in this crappy weather this afternoon, I’m going to ride the V-Strom to my favorite coffee shop and think about what that Funny Car driver said, and how prescient he was.
"Many publishers would like to forget 2008 ever happened."
Here is why your favorite motorcycle magazine has been looking a bit thin lately.
Here and here is why your favorite motorcycle magazine might get harder to find on the newsstand. (I won't even pretend to understand the nuts and bolts of this, being a simple word guy, but it doesn't look good for the long-term health of the already ailing print media, which I wrote about here.)
Economic realities are beginning to affect MotoGP travel plans.
The last scooter I rode was a small, skittish, downright terrifying wheezer with wheels the size of the ones on my riding lawnmower. Its steering made a MotoGP bike feel like a chopper; thinking about turning was the same thing as doing it. Sometimes it even turned when you weren't thinking about it. At anything over a walking pace it darted one way and then the other, like a squirrel crossing the road. The engine could, on a good day, and with a stiff tailwind, pull the slack out of a dirty T-shirt. At the time I couldn't imagine a single reason why anyone would ride a scooter. Ever.
That was a long, long time ago. I'm told scooters have changed some since then. Boy, have they.
The Burgman has a fuel-injected, liquid-cooled, eight-valve, 638cc twin-cylinder engine, and a dual-mode continuously variable transmission. It has twin disc brakes up front, and a 41mm fork. You can get it with ABS. You can't get it without the angry-insect styling, but you can't see it while you're riding it anyway.
So why would I like to ride a Burgman? Because it's goofy, and goofy has always appealed to me. (Read more about that here.) Because it's different from what I'm used to, and yet not so different that I can't relate to it. Because I'd like to ride a two-wheeler I don't have to shift, just to see what that's like. Because the seat has an adjustable rider backrest (ahhh, that's the spot).
And because that angry-insect look is sort of growing on me.
I’ve written about the Iron Butt Rally several times in this blog, and every time I do it strikes me how hard it is to put this unique event into words. That’s not something a guy who makes his living putting things into words should admit, I suppose, but at least I’m honest about it.
There is, however, someone who was able to put the 2007 Iron Butt Rally into words, and that’s my good friend Paul Peloquin, who not only rode in it, finishing 18th, but also posted audioblogs throughout the 11-day ordeal.
Paul’s FJR1300 was equipped with a dizzying array of electronic gadgets, among them a cell phone hooked up to a helmet headset, which allowed him to call in his reports while on the road—while actually riding, in fact, which is why the audio quality of some of the reports is less than wonderful.
But the story comes across with crystal clarity. The anticipation, the elation, the fatigue, the disappointment, the determination, the relief—it’s all there in Paul’s voice as he racks up 10,001 miles in 11 days, visiting bonus locations from Perce Rock, Quebec, to Las Vegas, Nevada, from Lombard Street in San Francisco to Campbellton, New Brunswick, in what is rightly billed as the World’s Toughest Motorcycle Rally.
Paul’s blog is here. Go to the archive and click 2007, then listen to the posts from Friday, August 17 through Friday, August 31.
The man has a way with words. He's a damn fine rider, too.
"The effervescent Moto GP great may have no trouble throwing his Yamaha motorbike around the world's fastest racing circuits at death-defying speeds, but this simplest of domestic chores proved beyond him."
It used to be standard procedure when you bought a new bike to replace the stock tires and rear shocks as soon as your finances allowed. The tires—known as rim protectors—became yard swings for the kids, and the shocks made great doorstops.
The bike I own now—an ’05 650 V-Strom—came with decent tires and suspension. I left the tires on long enough to wear them down to the tread-wear indicators and replaced them with Dunlops. The rear shock is still working tolerably well. That, or I’ve grown insensitive to its shortcomings; ditto the front fork.
The seat, though—the horror...the horror.
Here's one of the ugly truths of the motorcycle industry: the seat of a motorcycle is not meant to be comfortable. It’s meant to look good so you’ll buy the bike. Only later when you actually ride it will you discover it’s like being ridden out of town on a very fast rail.
And so it was with the V-Strom.
The rider’s portion of the seat was shaped sort of like a horse saddle, but without the firmness that would have otherwise made it slightly bearable. It did terrible things to parts of me I only ever want pleasant things done to. By the time I got home on the day I picked up the bike, I had already decided it had to go.
I’d have gotten rid of it sooner, but there are littering laws.
It was another Suzuki, a GS1100 I had on loan from Suzuki for about a year in the early 1980s, that showed me how good a stock seat can be when someone at the factory cares more about how it feels than how it looks. I’ve heard it was made by a Japanese sub-contractor called The Perfect Seat Company. This might be apocryphal, but I’m inclined to believe it’s true. Because if that seat wasn’t perfect, it was as close to it as I’ve ever sat on.
It was broad, and flat, and composed of a foam the density of which was, I’m certain, exactly the same as that of the clouds in heaven. Now and then I see a used GS1100—or the almost identical 1000 or 850—for sale, and every time I’m tempted to buy it just for the seat.
Many years after I turned the GS1100 back in to Suzuki, I bought a well-used GS850 for $800 from someone whose garage had shrunk and needed it gone. Rider assigned me to do a story about fixing up the old crock with aftermarket parts, and even though the stock seat was fine except for missing the trim rails, I replaced it with a Corbin.
Sad to say, some time later the engine started making scary noises way down deep in the crankcase, and I sold it to a mechanically inclined friend for what I’d paid for it.
I kept the stock seat, though, and it hung on a peg in my garage for years. I figured if I ever did get another GS Suzuki someday, I'd already have the Perfect Seat for it.
I first heard about long-distance riding about a dozen years ago. Someone said something about an event called the Iron Butt Rally. I asked what it was, and frankly didn’t believe the answer. Eleven thousand miles in 11 days? No way. Can’t be done.
And yet it had been done, several times. It still is, every other year. (The next one is this year, in August.) And not by a bunch of wild-eyed crazy people, but by regular crazy people, which is to say motorcycle riders like me.
Well, not exactly like me, obviously. Because they knew something I didn’t. They knew how to rack up the big miles, day in and day out, and by all accounts safely. I really wanted to know how they did that, so I started looking into long-distance riding and its competitive offshoot, rallying.
And even though I had no intention or desire to ride the Iron Butt Rally, what I learned still made me a better, smarter, safer rider.
Today many of the things I learned from LD riders are second nature. I keep water in my saddlebag, and a first-aid kit, and a tire plugger and an air pump. If I’m riding and I get tired, I pull off the road and take a quick nap on a picnic table or leaned up against a wall. On hot days I wear a hydration pack and drink water constantly, and on cold days I wear a heated vest and gloves. I know the early signs of both heat stroke and hypothermia.
There’s a lot more, but most of it is here. It's all good information, compiled by people who know their work, and you don't have to be riding in the Iron Butt Rally to benefit from it.
Read it, print it out, learn it, put a copy in your tank bag. Who knows, it might just save your next ride if things get ugly. It might even save your life.
I'm Jerry Smith, a full-time freelance writer for consumer and trade motorcycle magazines since 1988. From 1984 to 1988 I worked at Rider, Cycle Guide, and Motorcyclist. In the 1970s I roadraced with the AFM and the AMA. I've been a member of the Iron Butt Association since 2000 when I rode 1,073 miles in 22 hours on a Harley Heritage Softail. I've been riding motorcycles for more than 47 years, and I like to think I've learned enough about them and the sport in general to have something worthwhile to say. You are, of course, welcome to disagree with me on that point. It's a free country. I might also write about writing now and then, especially about being a freelancer and writing for motorcycle magazines. Dogs, too. And don't rule out the occasional curveball.
Comments? Dinner invitations? Job offers? Contact me at treadlifeblog at yahoo dot com.
My contributions to the genre of motorcycle-themed mystery novels. It's not a very big genre. In fact, I might define it all by myself. That alone is reason enough to own these books. They're both available from Whitehorse Press, www.whitehorsepress.com.