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.