Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Greatest Hit

(click for larger)

It was a little over six years ago, November of 1999, to be exact, that I first dipped my toe into the retirement waters. I took early retirement from the company I'd spent 14 years with, bought a brand-new motorhome and a brand-new motorcycle to go with it, sold everything that wouldn't fit in the RV, loaded up the remainder of my possessions, and hit the road. I left Rochester, NY for points unknown and with adventure in mind. The extended road-trip lasted until July of 2000 (not even a complete year) before I went back to work. In the interim, I traveled from coast to coast and border to border, managing to find a little adventure in the process.

I maintained a journal of my travels during this period of time and shared parts of the journal with friends via an e-mail newsletter I called "The Trailer Trash Report." What follows is a rather longish piece on motorcycling that was originally an installment of the TTR. This piece got the greatest positive reaction from readers of the Trailer Trash Report, so I thought I'd share it with both of my "new" readers. Here it is, in its unedited entirety.

June 5, 2000

This week's Trailer Trash Report is all about motorcycling and moderately anti-social behavior on the back roads of Oregon's wine country. I've had a life-long, on and off love affair with motorcycles. I began at age 19, with a Triumph 500cc twin road bike. From there I went to off-road riding and racing, owning a succession of Yamaha 250cc enduros and motocrossers. Somewhere during the early '70s I bought my first sport bike, a 350cc Yamaha two-stroke twin. This was when I found my niche, and between 1975 and 1985 I owned about three RD-350s (I bought 'em used and fixed 'em up), a 1977 RD-400 (which is still in the family; my son Sam is restoring it), an RD-350LC, and a Suzuki GS-750 (an aberration, but a nice one). I rode fast two-lanes all over the West Coast, Japan, and the UK, but I hung my helmet up in 1987 after surviving a pretty bad accident. My bike was totaled in that accident, and I suffered two compression-fractured vertebrae...that hurt...for quite a while!! I decided biking's risk/reward ratio leaned decidedly toward the risk side of the equation, so I gave the things up for quite a while. Until this past year.

Bikes get in your blood. Every spring after I quit riding I'd see guys out for that first ride, and I'd be envious. I'd go into bike shops, look at the new models and think "Yeah, they're good looking, but...too much money, not enough time to ride...and I'm getting too old for this stuff, anyway..." Truth be: I missed it. A lot. So, when I decided to run away from home, I also decided to get back on a bike. This time I opted for a 225cc dual-purpose bike, something I could putz around town on and go trail riding on when the opportunity presented itself. My bike is small, light weight and does all of 80 mph, flat out. I decided against getting back into sport bikes because they're simply too advanced now days. Your typical 600cc sport bike will do nearly 150 mph, box-stock, right off the show room floor. Liter bikes (1000cc) are capable of 180 mph today. Too fast for an old man! Which brings us to today's tale...

In my last report, I told you my buddy Lee has three sport bikes: two of which are an RZ-350 two-stroke twin and a 400cc sporter. Saturday Lee, another friend named Dave, and I went for an all-day ride in Oregon's wine country around McMinnville. Dave rides a Harley Sportster, and Sportys are cruising bikes, not back road burners. I rode Lee's RZ, and Lee was on the 400. We took it easy on those nice two lane roads with the good twisty bits, and it was a safe and sane day. I don't think we broke 80 mph once. We stopped often to admire the scenery, had lunch in a nice pub, and took another break for a pint in the Oregon Hotel in McMinnville, which is The Official Location of America's First UFO Sighting, which is celebrating it's 50th anniversary this year, by the way. All in all, it was a good day out.

Now Lee has another friend, Steve Clark, who is a road racer with a garage FULL of bikes; I think I counted 12 of the things in various states of running order. Steve is in his mid-40s, has been riding all his life, and races 600cc modified production class on a VERY highly tuned Yamaha four. This bike puts out 89 rear-wheel horsepower, which moves that 425 pound bike (wet...with fuel) down the road at a damned fast clip. The bike's top speed is in the 150 mph neighborhood, or slightly above. Steve also has a lightly modified Honda CBR 900RR, which puts out 130 hp and weighs a bit over 440 pounds, wet. It's blindingly fast, and so quick it'll make your ears bleed. "I have s***-box cars," sez Steve, "but nice bikes!" He is absolutely right about the bikes. Lee, Steve and I went for a ride Sunday afternoon, and I'll not soon forget it.

We rode Steve's favorite road today... a road that leads out of Albany through farm land and up into the mountains...headed west toward the coast. The road is posted at 55 mph, and the State of Oregon was kind enough to post "suggested speeds" (warnings) at each corner, which range from 10 mph hairpins up to 45 mph sweepers and all points in between. The warning signs do double-duty as brake markers, of sorts. You hold your entrance speed constant and really hit the binders about 100 feet beyond the sign, downshift, snap the bike over on its side, hold the power steady for a moment then roll on the throttle, spinning it around 10,500 rpm while accelerating out of the turn...but, I'm getting ahead of myself, AGAIN! 

Back to the road...it begins in farmland, with wide sight lines down the road and from side to side. The road gradually increases in elevation, with gentle up and down hill sections that are increasingly wooded. The road tightens up a bit as you go higher, and the turns are a little tighter. The air gets cooler the higher you go. The day is bright, cloudless and about 80 degrees in the valley. This is a good time and place!

Every sport biker has his favorite road, usually very lightly traveled, well maintained, with good visibility and lots of twists and turns...from very tight turns to fast sweepers. The road is the challenge: you try to master it, find "the line" through all the corners (the line can change, but that's another story), and ride it as quickly and skillfully as you possibly can. You score extra points for form. When you're "on," when you put it all together, when you get it absolutely right, it's a glorious feeling that's nearly impossible to describe. It's exhilarating, and it can make you laugh right out loud in your helmet. You walk around for days with a goofy grin on your face after one of those rides where you get it right. Those rides don't happen that often, though. "Getting it right" means matching engine speed and road speed perfectly through the bends, holding the right lean angle, hitting the right brake points at the right times, clipping the apex of each curve perfectly, dialing in the right amount of throttle at the right time, and not missing a single shift, up or down, all while trying to stay out of jail and stay glued together the way you came out of the box, more or less. The activity demands total concentration...anything less than total concentration means a sloppy ride, at best. At worst, you could win a ride in a large Ford van owned by the Fire Department or someone like them.

We left Steve's place with Steve on the 900, Lee on the 600, and me on the baby bike...with the 14,000 rpm red line. Five minutes or so and we're out into the country, and Steve picks up the pace. We head into a series of right-left-right sweepers posted at 45 mph. I look down at my speedo going into the first turn and I'm doing 70. Steve and Lee are pulling away...quickly. I dial it up a bit and I'm doing 80 coming out of the last turn. Steve and Lee are dots down the road. The first twinge of fear hits...these guys are fast! I wind that little Yamaha out to it's red line in fourth, then fifth, and shift into sixth at 125, indicated. Those guys are still pulling away!! I have VERY brief thoughts about insanity, medical insurance, life insurance, and my kids...but hold it open. I keep it at 125 for what seems like a minute or so then throttle back, hit the brakes and downshift for the next corner, a 35 mph left hander. I'm feeling a little more confident at this point, so I lean a bit further, get a bit more aggressive with the throttle, and exit cleanly, pulling to red line once again through third, fourth and fifth. The bike is an absolute jewel above 10,000 rpm. Below that, there's next to no power at all, but in between 10K and 14K it goes pretty good for a 400. Up ahead I see Steve and Lee have slowed, waiting for me to catch up. I catch up and we repeat the process all over again for the next 20 minutes or so. They run away and hide, I get a bit quicker, they wait for me to catch up. I'm feeling better and better as every minute goes by. Finally, we go through a little town and stop on the outside of town for a break and a root beer. We bench race for about 20 minutes, and then we switch bikes and head out again.

This time I'm on the 600, Lee's on the 900, and Steve's on the 400. I understand IMMEDIATELY why Lee was pulling away so quickly. This 600 is a beast, a weapon. The power comes on around 7K and explodes to its 12K red line. Wheelies are no-brainers on this bike; it takes serious concentration to hold it on the ground through the first three gears. Steve is in the lead, and his road racing skills are such that he can stay comfortably ahead of Lee and I, even though we're on much more powerful bikes. This guy is amazing...smooth AND fast. We head back into the country, reversing our route back home. This time I'm more familiar with the road, but I'm on a bike with a steep learning curve. The bike is a pure racer with a tacked on license plate, and it's intimidating. I'm probably only using 50 percent of it's capabilities and it's awesome. Make that awe-inspiring. You don't want to screw up on this thing...you better know what you're doing. Five miles down the road and I think I have the brakes figured out. They're powerful and allow for serious late braking into turns. The throttle response isn't as easy to dial in as the brakes...the power is either on or off, with little or no ability to modulate the throttle. I'm riding pretty conservatively (it's not MY bike, after all), but I'm also riding a LOT faster than I was on the 400. I'm keeping Steve in sight, and we're losing Lee. I'm establishing a rhythm now, the road ahead is clear, and the bike is a willing and eager accomplice. The speed picks up, I look down and I'm doing 135 on the straight. OK...that's too fast...throttle back. A few minutes later I back it down to 75 or so for a moment or three and Lee catches up. He waves me over, asking if I want to trade bikes. I say "OK," we stop, swap mounts and head back out.

The 900 is a revelation. Where the 600 is brutal, abrupt and hard-edged, the 900 is smooth, comfortable and deceptively fast. It has gobs of torque and is incredibly quick...so much so it's scary. You twist that throttle and you ACCELERATE...no ifs ands or buts...pure, raw acceleration. Keep in mind, this bike puts out 130 hp at the rear wheel...and the bike and I together weigh only 575 pounds...or about one horsepower for every 4.5 pounds of mass to move. That sort of power-to-weight ratio is normally found in race cars, or sports cars costing six figures. It's more power than I can use, but DAMN did it feel good to let that sucker wail!!!

So anyway...we motored back on in to Albany. I explored the Honda's capabilities on the way back in, being respectful of its sheer presence. I'm not sure I'd want to own one of these things...nice place to visit, but ya wouldn't want to live there. It's an amazing piece of machinery, though. Quick, fast, light, comfortable, good looking, and, no...I'm not going to tell you how fast I went on that thing. I'm thoroughly impressed with how far the manufacturers have taken the product in the last ten years. It's been at least that long since the last time I rode sporting machines. Today's bikes perform as well as pure racers of comparable size did ten years ago. It's the motorized equivalent of the computer industry, I guess.

Safely back home after a great ride, and a good dinner (ribs and beer), I'm wondering how I can arrange frequent visits to my Buds and their impressive stable of sport bikes. I really, really, really like the company and the riding! This weekend was a tremendous amount of fun, but it taught me a bit, too. My personal state of tune isn't really high enough to be riding with these guys. It's been a long time since I was out carving up back country roads, and it was obvious I'd been away too long. You never really forget HOW to ride, but you need a lot of practice to keep the skills sharp, especially if you're going to ride at supra-legal speeds. I think I should probably stick to my little 225. Getting on my bike after riding the sport machines this weekend is...uh...boring. At least it's boring on the street. I just have to keep telling myself that 45 mph on a fire road or a logging trail is just as good or better than 135 on a sport bike, now, don't I? ;-)

So...it's Monday morning here in Oregon and I still have this goofy grin on my face...how was your weekend?

1 comment:

  1. Great description of what makes people love cars, bikes or whatever... and what makes those machines more than just transportation.


Just be polite... that's all I ask.