Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Perfect Gift

Every rider I know subscribes to at least a few of the literary - or nonliterary if you prefer glossy pinups over the printed word - rags featuring the two-wheeled life.   In the months preceding the holidays, each of these periodicals features sections previewing gifts suitable for the bikers in our lives.  Write-ups reviewing everything from heated gear to the best cloth for polishing chrome compound these wondrous wish-lists.  I sort these reviews according to my own criteria as well.  I often skip to the end of each article for those obligatory price listings.  Anything with the tag "call for pricing" typically moves to the bottom of the list.  Items under 50 bucks gravitate toward the number one spot.  Over the past few years, few suggested gifts capture my attention in a way that moves the item into the "must-have" category.  

In the past few years, my tastes in motorcycle gear that contributes to the enjoyment of riding have simplified in many respects.  Gear which requires the same ingenuity as a Chinese puzzle to enter and exit falls to the bottom of the list.  I favor protection, comfort, and adaptability to suit my style of riding.  As a result, the fluff tends to drop further down the list every year.  While I find the concept of heads-up displays projecting speed, gear, and engine rpm onto the visor of my helmet fascinating, the price for an electronic doodad which performs the same function as the gauges with which the machine is equipped outstrips my desire for such an item.  I also find most of these contraptions bulky and intrusive - nothing quite like having a half-pound of plastic hanging off my helmet to change my opinion of  the terms "essential", "practical", and "safe".  That being said, I rather enjoy my Sena bluetooth headset - a gift to myself last year - for the product's ease of use and integration into the helmet.  I could care less about receiving calls while on the road, but righteous tunes are another matter entirely.  

Despite perusing various motorcycle wish-lists and stoking the flames of desire, the best gifts - even those in the biker community - are unexpected and thoughtful.  During a company Christmas party this year, I received a pair of motorcycle cuff links as a part of the company gift exchange.  The gift startled me and demonstrated to me a unique sense of consideration and genuineness.  I was moved to the point of a public display of emotion.  Not much, mind you, I am still a rough-and-tumble biker, after all.  But my astonishment did not go unnoticed by my supervisor who frequently states that I am emotionally distant in my work relationships.  Being an introvert, even gifts where I least expect them must truly touch my spirit in order for me to outwardly express my amazement and gratitude.

Cuff links aren't exactly the most practical gift for a motorcyclist.  They certainly wouldn't place high on my wish-list and I've never seen a review of such a gift in any of the magazines to which I subscribe.  So why would a biker - more at home in black t-shirts than black ties - cherish a pair of cuff links?  From the time I began riding on the street, I recall hearing nothing from non-riders except words of caution and warning.  See if a few of these sound familiar: "Motorcycles are dangerous"; "I hope you wear a helmet at least"; "I knew a guy that went down and he ripped off his ...(insert appropriate body part)".  People who do not ride motorcycles seem compelled to offer up nuggets of proverbial wisdom for our consumption - despite a lack of personal experience.  Over the years, I've learned - like many of us for whom motorcycles emerge as central to a meaningful life - to tune out the naysayers and dire predictions.  

When one of the non-motorcycling populace - without personal interest or understanding - offers a gift to a biker that reinforces our love for the two-wheeled life, the action more than the gift carries a tremendous significance in our lives.  While the gift may not be practical, it reinforces the importance and centrality of the biker life as something profoundly sacred to the rider receiving the gift.  In my own life, reinforcement from outside the motorcycle community is rare and, therefore, something to be honored.  

I wouldn't say that the gift of motorcycle cuff links is entirely impractical.  I have plenty of time to prepare for next year's Distinguished Gentlemen's Ride.  Now all I need is a good shirt, sturdy trousers, vintage boots, a decent haircut, argyle socks, mustache wax...... 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The New Vintage

The end of the typical riding season begets some of the most spectacular weather for riding as well as some of the most splendid temperatures for wandering among gatherings of riders to ogle contemporary and vintage machines.  Earlier in the Fall, my wife and I wandered among a collection of vintage iron spread out in the shade of a parking lot along the Ohio river front in Madison, Indiana.   Situated at one of the few bridge crossings of the river marking the boundary between Kentucky and Indiana, Madison's downtown area hosts a number of pubs and restaurants, a bookstore, chocolatier, and even a movie theater.  Madison has witnessed a revival of it's local businesses attributed in part to the contributions of the number of motorcyclists frequenting the area.  During the warmer months, the streets of the town can be lined with makes and models from every major modern manufacturer.  On special occasions, specimens of the common and not-so-common vintage variety make appearances as well, with riders mingling and sharing tales over a bite to eat and a plastic cup full of beverage of choice.

Old horse.
My passion for vintage bikes arises out of events such as these, where none of the brand animosity stands in the way of acknowledging the soulful reconstruction of machines.  The resurrection and maintenance of historied iron  for most engaged in the practice will never surpass more a personal, spiritual passion.  Few will make a living at it and few would care to.  My own interest in owning a piece of motorcycling history stems not only from an inviting community of enthusiasts but from a desire to preserve a link to a simpler time in motorcycling.

Today's machines offer a higher degree of reliability, safety, and comfort, but at the price of increasing complexity.  Similar to automobiles, the systems which govern fuel and air integration, stopping power, and timing display a measure of convolution beyond the skills of many shade-tree mechanics.  In some cases - without software furnished by the bike's manufacturer and specialized diagnostic equipment - the ability to calibrate and repair a modern motorcycle becomes impossible without dealership intervention.  While my experience with contemporary motorcycles - or as up-to-date as I can afford - results in longer, more comfortable, and enjoyable riding, I also find something lacking in recently manufactured machines.  A machine I must constantly transport to a dealer for service is a motorcycle with which I have been unable to bond - and a bike I am unlikely capable of fixing on the roadside or even after transport to my garage.

1984 HD XLS 1000 Roadster
The motorcycles I recall from my early days as a rider engendered in me a love not only of riding but of the satisfaction resulting from the care and upkeep of my motorcycle.  In those early days - my late teens and early 20's - a bike was often the only transportation I could afford.  To keep costs for upkeep in the minimal range, I learn to perform the maintenance and repair of the bike myself.  As the years slip by, I increase my knowledge of the intricacies of motorcycle repair.  I possess more refined tools, ample and sheltered work space, a great deal more patience - a far cry from a young man in his late teens wrenching away on an early 80's Kawasaki in the driveway of his dorm before heading to work. I still find enjoyment in learning how each of my machines function - even the computerized BMW with its rat's next of wires and relays.  But vintage machines return me to a simpler point in my life and to a time when wrench and screwdriver outweighed the need for a computer to keep a bike in solid running condition.  

I harbor no interest in the ownership of a new Harley-Davidson - though I believe they are beautifully crafted machines.  The common complaint registered by riders of other brands asserts that HD's amount to a bundle of antiquated technology not worth the purchase price.  In reality, modern Harley's contain as much technology as the contemporary BMW - throttle-by-wire, fuel-injection, ABS braking systems, anti-theft packages, infotainment systems including navigation, heated grips and seats - all while producing that wonderful old-world Harley sound on which the company built its reputation.  

What I accept in the purchase of a 1984 Harley-Davidson Sportster is the responsibility that comes with the maintenance of a 33-year-old motorcycle.  Likely, long days in the garage will pass before I am comfortable taking this machine far from home.  For those days when I long for the open highway, miles of road, and hours in the saddle, I entrust my Beemer - albeit getting a bit long in the tooth herself - to carry me on those journeys.  For now, I am content to ride roughshod on an aging Sportster over city streets and occasional teeth-rattling jaunt into the countryside.  And return to the garage to track down the next oil leak - all while watching my reflection shape itself around the surfaces of burnished chrome.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Biker Etiquette: Is It Still Important?

I recently read that many new riders call in to question whether some of the old rules of the road - biker etiquette, if you will - remain necessary in the contemporary age.  Many of the observances typical among our kind - the wave, for instance - arose out of mutual respect and admiration for fellow bike riders.  At one time, motorcycles were not as reliable as today and help in the event of a breakdown was often hours and many miles away.  Few resources for stranded riders existed.  Towing programs attached to insurance policies rarely covered motorcycles and AAA considered motorcycles as recreational vehicles - a practice AAA continues to endorse today - requiring the purchase of additional coverage to obtain roadside assistance.  Cell phones were limited to contraptions the size of construction block and often did not function adequately outside of urban areas.  In the event of breakdown, a rider might often find themselves alone and exposed to the elements.

Two weeks ago, I took my truck to Nashville, TN to accept delivery of my latest motorcycle purchase - a 1984 Harley-Davidson XLS Roadster.  On I-65, about ten miles outside of Louisville, KY, I spotted a gentlemen on the side of the road crouched down in the stiff grass at the road's edge working on a rather rough looking specimen of the Japanese variety.  I debated whether stopping would put me behind schedule.  It was a Sunday, and I had to make the drive of almost 200 miles before the dealership closed.  I reasoned that the stranded rider likely had a cell phone and help was on the way.  I remember thinking, "But if it were me....".  I pulled over and slowly walked back along the highway's edge to within shouting distance of the rider and raised my hands to shoulder height.  As I neared, I observed the spreading pool of oil beneath the bike - a Suzuki Katana - mixed with fragments of what I surmised to be aluminum engine casing.  Clearly this wasn't going to surmount to something easily repaired on the side of the road.  
Stranded on the Roadside - I264

While I've never faced as extensive a repair as that of the young man I encountered - later identified as Smitty - that day on the roadside, my motorcycles - though mostly of the modern variety - contributed to more than one evening of frustration on the side of the highway.  Most recently, my BMW R1150RT - a wonder of modern engineering - sputtered quietly to a stop on the I-264 bypass and refused to start.  The culprit later turned out to be a short in the right-hand handlebar control switches which cut power to the fuel-delivery system.  The entire switch housing needed to be replaced as the unit is sealed - not a roadside repair by any means.  I did have a cell phone with me that day and called for help, but while hunkered down in the sparse shade behind the guardrail, no cars stopped to offer assistance and rider after rider cruised by without so much as a concerned glance.  

Smitty's cell phone had died on the side of the road and using mine, he was unable to summon assistance.  The chain on the bike jumped the rear sprocket, bunched up around the front sprocket, and ruptured the lower engine casing.  I found it a wonder that Smitty managed to navigate to the road's edge rather than being scattered down the interstate amidst shards of plastic and a trail of gasoline.  Ambient temperatures that morning were climbing into the upper 80's.  The only tool Smitty had available happened to be an over-sized crescent wrench.   While the young gentlemen was reluctant to leave the machine by the road's edge, I convinced Smitty to permit me to drive him to the next freeway exit where at least he could charge his phone and wait for assistance in the comfort of air conditioning.  On my return voyage several hours later, I noted that the worse-for-wear Katana was absent from the interstate berm.  

The question regarding whether motorcycle etiquette in contemporary times holds the same relevance as it once did is influenced by several factors.  Motorcycles in general are more reliable.  Insurance companies frequently offer roadside assistance as a component of policies which cover bikes.  The cell phone puts aid at our fingertips in all but the most remote locations.  More people own and ride motorcycles than in previous decades - although by some reports that number is again falling.  So why should we be concerned with the way in which we interact with one another?

According to the US Department of Transportation Statistics (2009), over 7 million motorcycles were registered in the United States by the end of 2007 (pp. 1, 3).  Only a fraction of the bikes registered throughout the country are utilized as a primary means of year-round transportation - 4.3 percent according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (2003).  The US Census Bureau reports that of the 130 million commuter vehicles used as a means of transportation to work, less than 150,000 were motorcycles - approximately .0011 percent of the commuter vehicle total (The Daily Rider, 2003, p. 1).  

We - as motorcyclists, bikers, riders, scooter trash, etc. - remain in the minority on US roadways despite an increase in the popularity of our lifestyle.  Even with the advances in engine design and safety equipment, and the push for awareness of motorcycles by the general public, the risk involved in riding a motorcycle - especially on a regular or daily basis - continues to be high.  We wave to one another not only to acknowledge this risk, but to express our mutual fondness for a life lived outside the norm.  We pull over to help a stranded rider not just out of altruism, but out of the sincere hope that when our time comes to stand at the highway's edge cursing (insert nationality) engineering, someone - a brother from the road - will stop for us if for nothing more than to commiserate on rotten luck.


Morris, C. C. (2009). Motorcycle trends in the United States. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Retrieved from

Ride to Work (n.d.). Motorcycle transportation fact sheet. The Daily Rider. Retrieved from

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Labor Day Twist

The roads entering and departing Frankfort, KY offer some of the most sensational curves in the central area of the state - not to mention the opportunity to explore a bit of history in the process.  Rt. 421 remains a favorite of mine, whether I'm visiting the capital for the day or following that ribbon of asphalt southeast all the way to that wondrous Mecca of the two-wheeled life at the convergence of Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina.  Unfortunately, on Labor Day 2017, I only had enough time for a ride through the local environs.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Love, Hate, Love

During my years in absentia, I've come to understand the inner workings of the R1150RT with a grudging familiarity.  While I continue to contend that the BMW motorcycle achieves the pinnacle of what I consider to be a comfortable and capable touring rig, my dedication - if not to the brand but to this particular machine - emerges challenged only by the level of frustration I experienced coping with the few minor setbacks in engine function to which I have been subjected over the last five years.  For those acquainted with the German moniker, reports of reliability are legendary - stories swapped in the gloom around campfires of machines peaking above 300K miles.  Usually, such tales begin with, "I knew a guy who knew a guy who had a cousin..."

Personally, I haven't come across such legends.  Though I don't entirely discount the existence of such rare and unique specimens - several documented accounts report motorcycles with over 200K on the odometer - I doubt the existence of an entire fleet of these machines.  My own experience wrestling with the cantankerous systems of my Oilhead leaves me with uncertainties as to the extended future of my beloved RT.  To balance the scales, a fair number of the machines I observe at vintage motorcycle shows - in various stages of resurrection - happen to wear the BMW roundel.  And many of those are Boxers.  

The trials and tribulations I experience in maintaining an aging BMW motorcycle leave me a tad cynical.  On more than one occasion, I have been known to declare from the garage following a prolonged evening of wrenching on some failed component of German origin, that this moment shall be the last I will tolerate from this infernal contraption.  I curse and gnash my teeth.  Shake my fist at the beast and threaten to strip it to the rolling chassis and sell the components to the lowest bidder.  My wife watches stoically, shaking her head at the railings of a husband driven mad with frustration and occasionally providing me a fresh cup of steaming coffee to fuel longer hours under the flickering neons of the garage.  

Despite all this - after reassembly and a quick test turned to 200 miles on a lazy Saturday afternoon - I roll into the driveway, shut down the engine, and wonder if I can find a job where someone will pay me to leave behind my career to spend my days in the saddle.  I will ride in the rain. I'll pitch a tent in lonesome places - or at least, stay in a really low budget hotel.  Eat food from gas stations, consume camp rations, and brave the sad country music infested interior of Waffle Houses.  I'll explore all these deliriously wondrous discomforts for just a few more moments behind the handle bars of that amazing machine.  

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Corydon Pike

As I purchased a new camera a few days ago - a GoPro Hero Session 5 - I thought a short run on the local roads to test the unit's capabilities was in order.  The footage depicts a short run up Corydon Pike, a connector road bridging Rt. 111 out of New Albany, Indiana to Rt. 62 in Georgetown, Indiana.  Although a brief ride, my primary interest pertained to assessing the effectiveness of the small camera's image stabilization functions.  As I gain familiarity with the device and polish my skills with the camera's use, I'll review a few more features of the Session 5.  This video was shot in 1080p at 60 fps with the image stabilization option in effect.  

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Something Old; Something New

1948 Indian Chief
As the summer nears it's end, we motorcyclists often begin to contemplate the fact that we may not have ridden as much as we'd prefer.  Many of us had plans to pursue particular rides - perhaps not far from our own backyards.  In the late Spring, I envision another pass down the Blue Ridge Parkway. I close my eyes and imagine myself standing along the shoulder of that iconic stretch of road waiting for the early morning fog to rise out of the valleys of the Virginia high country.  On some lengths of the Blue Ridge there is solitude and quiet that rivals a monastery.  While I can get a bit of the sacred lonesomeness of those mountains in the rural back roads of Kentucky - particularly the farther east one rides - I had hoped for some exposure to the cool mountain air and the scent of laurel.
1969 Ducati 

Alas, gremlin hunting through an aging R1150RT electrical system proves to be the principle menu item as Spring transitioned into summer.  Working on the BMW awakens in me a passion for maturing iron - especially of the German variety.  I've noticed a return of "things vintage" to the motorcycle world over the past few years, a yearning for the simpler machines of yesteryear lacking the complex electronic overlay of contemporary motorcycles.  Perhaps, too, we hunger for the experience those early machines brought us - the exhilaration of the ride punctuated by the heartbreak  of unreliable electrical systems, rough manufacturing, questionable stopping power.  Despite the problems I recall as inherent in those early machines of which I was custodian, my mind turns frequently to the concept of owning and caring for vintage hardware.
1973 Honda CL350

Nostalgia births those last gatherings in weather that promises to deliver a rider home in the same comfort under which one rolled away from the hacienda.  From this point forward - doubly so for those riding in northern latitudes - we're forced to ask ourselves if we must carry the liner for the jacket and spare, clear shield for the helmet.  We move into the season which often initiates the slumber of old iron through the winter - the slow shift of leaves from lush green to nature's fire.  The weather becomes fickle and the sun cannot be relied upon to predict the warmth of a weekend afternoon.  In my mind, the Autumn season encourages reflection, and I can think of no better opportunity than to gaze longingly at vintage machinery before the march toward winter truly begins.  
1964 BMW R27
On Sunday, August 27, 2017 my wife and I make the journey to Madison, IN for the first annual Thornton's Cycle End of Summer Bike Show.  The clear, sunny afternoon affords us the chance to witness some rare specimens of the motorbike world - some prime examples of restoration.  The event also showcases those machines with patina barely sufficient to hold the machine together.  Regardless of condition, each bike carries the marks of it's travels, etched into the brushed aluminum and smokey chrome.   By the time we left, having consumed a basket of chicken fingers and Coke from a can, the urge to possess and maintain one these rolling pieces of history simmers in the back of my mind.  

1975 BMW R75 and Company
That is, until I return home to the RT waiting in the garage for a transplant of starter and kill switches.  A part I order - rather than pay the ungodly price for new electrics fresh from the folks at Bosch - from a salvage yard somewhere beyond the wall of the Rocky Mountains.  I realize that all machines are in the slow process of becoming vintage.  All bikes gather the stories of their miles into their surfaces.  All a rider must do is survive and ride long enough.