In my fifty-plus years of riding motorcycles, I’ve been fortunate enough to take many bike trips, short and long, here in the US and in several foreign countries, but one of the most enjoyable–and one of the shortest–was right here in Central Kentucky. It took 13 hours, covered about 250 miles and spanned more than 30 years. It started when I got a flyer for the British Bike Rally in Miamitown, Ohio one August nearly 15 years ago. It occurred to me that the only proper way to attend would be by British bike. At the time, I didn’t want to risk the old Ariel single in such a journey and the Norton was still in bits, so the 1969 Triumph Daytona 500 got elected. I didn’t do much in the way of preparation, since the ways in which old English iron can fail are so numerous, one can’t plan for all of them, so why bother? As the Brits would say, Press On Regardless.
I left from Winchester about 6am on a Saturday, headed out by Lucas-light (i.e. not much at all) into the pre-dawn darkness for the BMW club Breakfast at Frischs in Lexington. My colleagues there assured me of the foolishness of my errand, but wished me well as I set off North. On Old Frankfort Pike, I could easily imagine the bike…and me….back in its natural habitat–a tree-lined narrow lane bordered with stone walls and hedges, the little twin pottering along easily with that wonderful sound only Triumphs can make. I took Route 227 from Stamping Ground, a local racer road known well by sportbike jockeys, the narrow, rough, blind curves keeping up the illusion of rural England. I’d been quite cautious with the bike, not wanting to risk mechanical trouble this early, but here I needed to slacken the leash just a bit. I had done this road a good bit quicker on BMW’s, but I can’t recall ever enjoying it more. With marginal brakes and clattering suspension, the speed for curves had to be adjusted carefully and far in advance, lean angles (not much, really, by today’s standards) considered at every point in the turn…all things we’re supposed to do anyway, but modern bikes dull the sensation by providing so much margin for error. I felt like I was pushing myself and the bike more than I had in quite a while, but I’m sure I seldom was in danger of breaking the nominal speed limit.
Even with stock mufflers, the sound of the Triumph twin backing off throttle and then rising with acceleration was pure pleasure….the noise these twins make is both aural and visceral….like the low growl of a large carnivore, something that stirs an atavistic part of the nervous system and sets the senses to full alert.
Somewhere along the route, nature called rather urgently ( RIDING TIP: never drink six cups of coffee at breakfast and then straddle something that vibrates like a 60’s era Triumph) so I took advantage of the Triumph’s light weight and off-road heritage to dive over an embankment into a grove of small trees. Mission accomplished, I thought briefly about zooming up over the hill like Steve McQueen on a similar bike in “The Great Escape”. I realized several things almost immediately:
The bike was then more than 30 years old and I was then more than 20 years older than it .
I’m no Steve McQueen,
That wasn’t Steve McQueen either, but famous racer and stuntman Bud Ekins, and,
I’m even less like Bud Ekins than I am Steve McQueen.
Humbled, I motored slowly back up the bank and onto the highway.
All too soon I was nearing I-275 and the real world of traffic that couldn’t care less about the historical value of a 500cc Triumph. I tucked my tail, pulled in my horns and joined the throng, motoring across the Ohio River in the slow lane at 60 mph as cars and more up-to-date bikes whizzed by without looking at their progenitor. I stopped for lunch and was quickly joined by a father and son, roughly equivalent in age to me and mine. They rode in on modern sportbikes and were amazed that I’d ridden “that thing” all the way from Winchester. They said that about 30 minutes of saddle time in a sportbike crouch was all they could take at a single stretch. As I left, they followed me out to the lot. The father explained that his son wanted to watch me kickstart the motorcycle….he had never seen anyone do that before. The ritual of tickling carburetors, freeing clutch plates and ramming a kickstarter down with leg power was as strange for this young man as someone cranking a wall telephone and asking “Hello Central?”. Fortunately, the little bike obliged me by starting on the first kick.
The rally was a relatively small affair, with a few vendors of swap-meet type merchandise and a decent bike show of British and European antiquities. Two Vincents were there, but like most examples of that legendary marque, had no price given. If you have to ask…. There was one example of a Daytona, in much better shape than mine. In the swap meet, I found a used tachometer and a clutch cable and some other bits and bobs. I needed replacement instruments for the 500 since I was pretty sure mine weren’t accurate….according to the old British gauges it was wearing, I had made most of the trip at 90mph turning 2000 RPM. Both instruments adopted those positions as soon as I started out and refused to change their opinions despite my applications of throttle and brake. I think they were each off by a factor of two, in opposite directions.
I left about 3pm and headed home. A few miles down the road, the bike stopped as if it ran out of fuel. I tried reserve as it coasted to a halt, with no success. When I opened the cap, it did look like there was only a little there, so I sloshed it over to one side, tried the kicker and she started right up. I pulled into a gas station a mile or so away and filled up. Five or six miles later, it starved out again. I took off my helmet to begin the search for the problem, then heard the telltale hissing sound. I had purchased at the swap meet a new cork gasket for my leaking gas cap….it seems that the vent hole in the cap had never been functional and it was only the leaking gasket that had allowed the necessary air into the tank…and I’d just sealed that up. For the rest of the trip, I rode until the bike began to die, reached down to loosen the cap, then proceeded on. Somehow it all felt properly British. Other than that, the bike ran well, without a glitch. I kept reminding myself that people have ridden these around the world without more than the occasional side of the road complete engine rebuild, so surely I could make it to and from Cincinnati.
I stopped at an abandoned Farmer’s Market site with an inviting expanse of green grass, parked the bike in the shade of a large maple and stretched out on the grass for a short nap. The old machine looked perfect, inclined there on its stand with the sunlight dappled across the tank and seat as I looked at it from ground level. It could have been 35 years ago, an ocean away….motorcycle as art, as time machine.
I arrived home, back to my “normal” life, back to the present century, about 7pm. Except for the brief fuel problem, easily solved, there had been no mechanical drama ( it would be better if you didn’t ask about oil consumption) and though my hands and feet were a bit numb from vibration, I was not physically much different than at the end of any day trip by motorcycle. My mind however was spinning with the sensation of having touched the roots of this passion of mine, of having been back briefly to where I came from and being reminded of why I started doing this so many years ago. After all this time, the magic is still there in the basics.