Isle of Man, 1994

In 1994, we made our first motorcycle trip to Britain, renting a Honda ST1100 near London and setting out to see what we could see. In addition to wandering around the three countries, I had to make a pilgrimage over to the Isle of Man, an iconic, perhaps THE iconic, place for two wheeled culture. Or at least it is if one is like me, steeped in the traditions of the European motorcycling world and the many legends of the Isle of Man TT races. Our visit was a week before the fabled races begin, when preparations are in the final stages but the enormous crowds have not yet arrived. We found our way down from Scotland to England’s west coast to meet the ferry, the King Orry. Heysham is a coastal town, of course, and they all have a certain look to them, one of the many places in this sceptered realm that I look at and say, “yes, I could live right here.”. After locating the dock, we are about an hour or so early so go back into Heysham Village for gas and another tea break. The older lady at the Shell station tells us that she’s the first and last chance gas from the boat so during TT weeks she gets thousands of bikes and stays open extra hours to accommodate them. Our pre-ferry snack is tea cakes and “Toasties” which are grilled cheese sandwiches, at a little Bayside tea shop. As we are sitting there looking out the window, an older couple, maybe 50s or early 60s, comes in, both dressed almost formally, looking like a retired headmaster and schoolteacher, but the man stops for a long time in the parking lot to look admiringly at the Honda. He comes over to our table, saying “are you the proud owner of that dream machine”? He tells us of the motorcycle travels he and his wife had in their youth. The wife says they’ve been over for TT week many times and find it “smashing”. She urges us to ride the race course while we’re there.

The ferry is a huge ship that swallows row upon row of cars, lorries and our Honda without even a burp. We take our place in the summer lounge on board waiting for it to depart.

It was a long wait. The captain made several rather nervous sounding announcements regarding engine trouble and got underway three hours late, arriving on the Isle with daylight all but gone. It was a “smooth crossing” according to a local resident who befriended us on the boat, meaning that waves only occasionally splashed over the C- deck windows as we neared port.

Our hotel, the Castle Mona, was easily found right here on the promenade. It is a good deal fancier than our usual local B&B lodgings since this visit would coincide with our anniversary, calling for special accommodations. It literally is a castle, built originally as the home for the Duke of Athol. Now a few centuries later, it is a five-Crown hotel with a lounge for “smart dress only” and uniformed staff at every turn. Still, as in most places we have been in Britain but especially here on the Isle, the sight of leather clad motorcyclists causes nothing but smiles. They treat us as honored guests and tell us that we are a bit early for the TT but hope we will stay for it. If not, they hope we will ride the course and enjoy it. Try getting THAT at a US Holiday Inn. We change clothes, rest up for a bit and walk down to a nearby Indian tandoori restaurant for excellent dishes I cannot now recall the names of, washed down with Boddington’s bitter and Stellar lager.

In the morning, while Brenda slept in,I set out at 6 AM to take my first lap of the TT course. The hotel clerk gave me directions to the start and cautioned me to mind the speed limits in small towns, but adds that there is no limit between towns. He recounts the story of Phil Reed one of the all-time greats, being banned from the Isle after a spot of early practice, before the course was closed to do so, when he was clocked  by the local police at something around 150 mph in a 30 zone. I won’t do that, I assure the clerk.

I am in a cold mist as I take the outside coast road, spectacular, with views of the sea, green fields and village homes, all seen from eagle’s eye perspective. At Ramsey I joined the course markers and sandbags put up in preparation for next week’s competition on these public roads. Everywhere are signs saying “Links Fahren, bitte”, there to remind the German tourists that here one drives on the left side of the road. Apparently, it’s a recurring problem.

From Ramsey, I start up the hill, through the Hairpin, (incredibly sharp turn, uphill, how do they do that at speed?) and on toward Snae Fell, the highest point on the island. The temperature drops noticeably and I can feel my ears pop as I rise. Up there, through Bungalow Bends and the Verandah, the scenery is stark, beautiful, and dangerous. Though sunny down below, it is gray overcast up here and the cold wind blows hard across the bare landscape that has no trees to slow it. If a racer went  off here, there’s nothing to impede a launch into an awful lot of empty air to the valley floor far, far below. Again how do they do it? At the aptly named named Windy Corner, the blasts can come off the open bay, through a natural funnel to the corner in just the right place to blow a bike sideways.

I am riding very carefully, somewhat erratic, because I’m timid with this large rented bike and the exotic conditions. These races have been going on here since 1903, but I won’t break any lap records, no matter from what year. Down the hill, past Kate’s Cottage and straight on into the hard right hand corner at Craig-ny-Baa where if one was too enthusiastic, one would wind up in the lobby of the hotel standing at the apex. I hear that it has been done more than once, including the story of a racer who slid his bike through the doors on its side, got up leaving the smoking wreckage on the floor and casually went to the bar to order a beer.

I have seen many photos of riders leaning hard through the corner at Governor’s Bridge which I see now is nearly as sharp as the Hairpin, but downhill and bumpy. They made it look so easy.   Brenda isn’t up yet back at the hotel, so I go out for another lap. There are hundreds of turns, some gentle, some severe, most lined by stacked stone walls and curbs that would ensure a high side penalty for a slightly too wide line. The good racers have memorized every one of these curves on the 37 and a half mile course. I haven’t. On through Kirkmichael, up through Ballough Bridge (with both wheels firmly on the ground) and down into town.  Now it is filled with normal traffic, kids going to school, etc but in a week there will be motorcycles here traveling at insane speeds through these city streets. Soon I am back in Ramsey, around the Hairpin and headed up onto Snae Fell for the long mountain stretch.

This time I open the throttle a bit more, hitting 100 mph at one point just to see what “doing the ton” feels like. It is cold and terrifying, actually.

I’m soon back at the Castle Mona, where I pick up Brenda and we head out, starting on the course, but soon veering off toward the town of Peel, an old fishing village on the coast with very, very narrow streets and a huge old castle on the promontory that stretches out into the bay. We stop for tea and breakfast at a beachside tea shop. Though it is after 10 AM, they’ve just begun the opening up process. Folks don’t get in much of a hurry here on the Isle.

We wander on along the western coast road with scenery almost like the California coastline …if the California coast was lined on the sides with ancient stone walls and populated everywhere with sheep. We rejoin the race course at Kirkmichael and roll on into Ramsey where I stop in at a motorcycle shop to browse. It is a real working shop, not a tourist spot or boutique, catering to riders, not shoppers. On the floor, they have MZ’s and Royal Enfields, among other fine old used machines.

From Ramsey, again through the Hairpin (my performance no better this time) and we climb the mountain to stop in at Murray’s Motorcycle Museum on the top of Snae Fell. It is a low building, mostly green inside with a cold dampness from the nearly perpetual fog that stays up here. We are greeted by one of the owners, given all kinds of information, pamphlets, free stickers and Brenda gets a pair of gold “3 legs” earrings. (The symbol of the Isle of Man, noting that they have never been fully conquered, though many have tried. The symbol means, “whichever way you throw me, I will stand”). John, the bearded assistant in his gray coveralls, shows me around and tells me some little known routes to take, urging me to return for the vintage races at Castleton later in the year.

We head off following his route down the right hand turn out of the museum and are quickly on a very steep downhill switchback run, single lane, into the bottom of a glen. We stop briefly at the Celtic craft center where the young lady proprietress greets the leather dressed cyclists like they were the most important people she’s ever met. And then on to more of the single track,  through outstanding scenery. We come finally to the TT course again, near Kirkmichael and proceed down to Ballough bridge and turn toward Druidsdale. We end up again on a narrow lane, some places the “road” is barely wide enough for the bike, a kinked path across the hills back towards Snae Fell. It is wild and desolate, populated only by sheep and the view is magnificent. I took no pictures because my camera could not even begin to encompass what we see. We rejoin the course near the museum and follow it back into town. We had been advised to stop on our way over to Castletown, to stop at Fairy Bridge to say hello and give good wishes to the “little people” to assure our continued good fortune. We did, and it appears to have worked so far.

Castletown is another ancient, narrow-streeted town, with a huge foreboding castle, but all we can do is ride through it.  There is no vacant place to leave a vehicle this morning, even a motorcycle.  We press on toward Port Erin, the southernmost tip of the Isle and the “home of the 4 horned sheep”

There we stop for snacks, bran loaf and some sort of Manx cake bread with tea, and the café clerk gushes over us, the motorcycle and the TT week. It’s so nice to be in a country where motorcyclists are treated this way! Onward, down the coast—I’m running out of adjectives and superlatives for the scenery—through the medieval village of Craigneish and down to the very end, the cul-de-sac where one can see the Calf of Man across a short stretch of water. There is a tiny road visible on that island and I have no doubt that some hardy Manx soul lives over there, stiff-upper-lipped to the circumstances that would make a Spartan seem Sybarite.

Then we take a back road, actually a semi paved path, across the top of the (heath? moor? I’m never sure which), and down a winding lane with more wonderful views of the bay and village below, back into Port Erin. The huge Honda is capable of negotiating these tiny trails, but it would be much easier on a smaller dual sport. (If only we could have one of the bikes in the movies that converts instantly, scene to scene, from heavy touring machine to nimble dirt bike and back again, with the sound track of a big V-twin coming from what is obviously a two-stroke single.) Finally it’s back to Douglas, to our Castle and a stroll down the Strand in search of a pub. The first two we find – many are closed since the tourist and TT season isn’t open yet—are loud with a big rugby match on the TV. We do have to stop in at “Bushy’s”, the legendary TT week pub, for a beer.

That pub is now gone, I hear, torn down in the name of progress. The Castle Mona is up for sale and probably will never offer us a room again. I do hope to return to the Isle before I hang up my riding gear. I suspect my performance on the race course will not have improved and my capacity for trying the local food and drink in the evenings is much diminished. But I still want to be there.

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The fourth, and probably final, installment of the emails I sent to my grandsons on the occasion of their taking up street riding.

Managing any risk involves an assessment of the upside and the downside, the consequence and reward. There is no such thing as a risk-free life and if there was, it would be relentlessly boring.

I recently listened to an interview with the guy who “free-solo” climbed the 3,000 foot high vertical face of El Capitan in Yosemite. That means without ropes or any protective device, just his skill and the friction of his climbing shoes and fingertips. Any…literally any… mistake would have been fatal. He said it took him seven years of practicing with rope assisted climbs, mental visualization and preparation, knowing every single hand and foot hold he would use, every move he would make all the way up, so that when he finally went to make the ascent, he felt that there was, in his mind, no risk. He didn’t make any mistakes in executing his plan and he survived. Those who are amazed at his feat typically don’t know about or emphasize the seven years of preparation for a 4 hour climb.

Operating any mechanical device has risks. (For example, picture getting the strap on your bathrobe tangled in an electric mixer). Operating any motorized transportation device among other people doing the same increases the risk exponentially.

In very broad, simplified terms, the risks come in a few categories.

1) Inherent risks.

2) Environmental risks

3) Self induced risks

Whether you make it home from your next ride smiling, upright and functional depends on your assessment and managing of those risks.

The inherent risks are those the machine itself presents. For motorcycles those include

1) balance: it falls over if not balanced, 2) traction: it only has two small contact patches of rubber connecting it to the surface, 3) mechanical reliance: you have control of the few things the motorcycle can do, (turn right or left, go faster or slower down to a stop), but the controls have to be in good working order and you have to know and constantly practice how to use them. And, by the way, cars have the same situation, though with far less emphasis on balance (it won’t fall over, we hope, but balancing the weight in a curve is important) and two more contact patches.

Environmental risks are much broader and less predictable, meaning the control that you do have becomes more important. They include the other vehicles around you, driven by imperfect humans or now, perhaps, imperfect AI, as well as the usual things like temperature, weather, and surface conditions. Such things as paying attention to the sun: if it is behind you (your shadow is in front of you) the oncoming traffic can’t see you well, if at all, and this increases the prospect of someone turning left in front of you among other errors. In rain, cars will tailgate and they can’t stop as quickly as they think. They can hydroplane and be in your lane. I represented several truck drivers, 18 wheelers, and they have told me that when the road is wet, they can’t stop quickly and once a 40 foot trailer gets out of control, the tractor it’s attached to is just along for the ride. Know the seasonal hazards: grass clippings in summer, farm tractor mud in any rainy season and in the fall, leaves, walnut goop under trees, and deer anytime but particularly in the fall,

Self induced risks are the easiest category, but since we are all humans with the complicated mental processes that status entails, one of the most difficult and trickiest to control. It should go without saying that you never ride impaired by drugs or alcohol, or by extremes of fatigue, heat or cold. Riding or driving requires that we have confidence in our abilities and it is normal for most of us to want to test the limits sometimes, but overconfidence is hazardous to your health. We must be brutally honest with ourselves about our abilities, always practicing to improve, and use only yourself as the standard. Don’t worry about what someone else might think, don’t burden yourself with thinking about the “judgment” of others. The ones who are loudest in judgment usually are covering up their own inadequacies.

When I was a trials rider, I was pretty good, but I was not ever going to be in the first rank. I still had a marvelous time doing what I could do. In my brief motocross career, I was average at best and overestimating my abilities brought me to a hospital ER and a sadistic dentist, neither of which do I want to repeat. On the street, I was a fairly quick rider, not fast, not slow, but I hope I came across as more of a smooth and competent one. Going too fast on the street ramps up all of the risk factors I have mentioned way over onto the “downside” end of the scale. As my friend Boone used to say, “the best thing that can happen is you get there a few minutes sooner. The worst thing is you die”. I would add that there are, in my experience and opinion, far worse things than dying and they too are high on the list when going too fast on the street.

Riding motorcycles and driving cars are extremely satisfying and fun activities, which I have enjoyed for nearly 60 years. I want you to do the same. None of these things I write are meant to scare you, but rather to keep you aware of what it takes to consistently make it home with a smile on your face for the next 60 years or so and so you can pass this marvelous experience on to your next generation.

Your parents and grandmother have been pretty cool about letting me expose you to motorcycles from an early age. All of us, me included, have been worried about the time when you would start riding on the street. If you are going to crash and get injured, wait until after I’m gone so that I won’t have to face your parents and grandmother after it happens.

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(The third installment from a compilation of emails I sent to my grandsons when they began riding motorcycles on the street)

Riding a motorcycle on the street is not a “safe” thing to do. But neither is living. Both require us to make a lot of decisions, every day, every minute and sometimes we don’t make the correct one. After a while though, riding a motorcycle, we begin to trust our decisions because we have to and I think that makes us better at both riding and living.

Riding requires all of our senses, all five of sight, hearing, smell, taste (some smells, like diesel fuel and agricultural chemicals have a taste associated) and touch, and what some folks refer to as the “sixth sense” which is, in my opinion, just pattern recognition….that feeling you get when something just isn’t right even though you can’t put your finger on exactly what. Pay attention to what these are telling you and ask yourself what it is if you don’t recognize it immediately.

Motorcycles crash for a reason. In the movies and TV shows, they often crash for the silliest of causes, or no observable cause at all except that the plot required it to happen, but that is not real life. They crash because something failed…a tire, a suspension component, a mechanical part….or because someone did something wrong…you or someone else.

Always dress for the crash: helmet, gloves, boots, jacket with armor, preferably riding pants as well.

When deciding what to wear, picture yourself sliding down the asphalt and decide which parts you don’t want protected from the impact and abrasion.

Practice your braking and swerving yes, but also practice your mental skills. As you are approaching an intersection, ask yourself what you would do, what sequence of controls and movements you would make, if that oncoming car turned left in front of you. Or if that car passing another coming toward you doesn’t get back in his lane soon enough. Or if you had a flat tire right now. Or if the speed you set for that next curve turns out to be too high for your comfort. Having thought about it ahead of time gives your brain a template to follow when it does happen.

Surfaces. In a car, watching the surface is important, but not nearly so much so as on a bike. Cars have four big contact patches separated by a lot of bracing steel and, often, independent suspension, so that what happens to one wheel isn’t all that important if the others are on relatively good pavement. It won’t fall over if one wheel slides. Bikes don’t have that. There are two small contact patches, often less five feet apart, and the physics of the machine count on them to keep it upright.

A rear tire skid, within reason, can be dealt with, often scary but recoverable. Front wheel slides can be dealt with, but the “within reason” margin is much, much smaller. There are lots of cool videos showing Moto GP rider Marc Marquez casually using his elbow to lever the bike back up on its wheels in a front wheel slide at speed…but like 99.999% of the world’s population, you are not Marc Marquez.

That said, most of the time, on good pavement, a tire at either end isn’t going to just suddenly lose all traction and drop you on the ground. Old tires, “back in the day” sometimes would do exactly that if one exceeded their traction, but modern tires almost always will slide predictably and give you some warning…again noting that the front tire’s margin for error is small. But any kind of lubricant, traction reducer, can change the timeline on the warning drastically, perhaps even with your young reflexes and information processing, so that the first you realize that something went wrong is when your butt is on the pavement and you are watching the bike slide away in front of you. I have been exactly in that spot more than once.

Things to watch out for: Painted stripes when they are wet. Loose gravel (a very rough rule of thumb is that if you can count the pieces, it probably isn’t any problem to run through, but if it’s too numerous to count, slow down and stay upright). Broken asphalt, places where the pavement has deteriorated back into a fine grained gravel-like situation that gets spread out in the spots where pressure is applied by car tires….often in the middle of turns (leaning into a shaded turn, particularly with sunglasses on, makes this stuff nearly impossible to see. Ask me what happens next), tar snakes particularly in the summer when they are greasy, pavement just after the rain starts when the dust and oil and tire residue becomes a slippery paste until it gets washed off, gravel dust near quarries, mud from tractors or trucks entering the road from a muddy field, particularly in spring, horse poop in Amish country (you really don’t want to crash and be sliding down the road in that stuff…the EMT’s might say “no way you’re getting in my clean ambulance, Dude !”) , oil spills, diesel fuel spills,

Grass clippings in season (though despite what the internet memes may say, it isn’t that bad if you don’t lean into it or brake hard while on it…just riding through grass clippings while upright at a reasonable speed isn’t usually a problem).

In general, stay in the left or right wheel track on the road, avoiding the middle where the black stripe of accumulated oil can be a bit slippery, particularly when wet.

The list can go on and on. Many, if not most of these things will announce themselves through smell or sight, but some are more subtle, requiring experience to learn the signs.

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Riding the Street: Part 2

(This is the second installment of a compilation of emails I sent to my grandsons as they, after years of dirt riding on motorcycles, began to venture onto the street)

Now that we’ve talked a bit about getting stopped, lets see about riding.

Curves are, in my opinion, the fun part. They also account for the largest number of single-vehicle motorcycle crashes, typically when the bike runs off the outside of the curve rather than following the intended path.

Many of those are explained by the crashing rider as “it just wouldn’t turn”. Yes, actually, it would, but you, Mr. Crasher, didn’t turn it.

Motorcycles turn, above a walking pace, by countersteering, by “out-tracking” the front wheel briefly in the opposite direction from the desired path. There are lots of treatises about why this happens and how, but suffice it to say for now, that is how it works. When you are approaching a curve to the left, you will turn the bars briefly to the right and the bike will lean left and go around the curve. You can affect the motion some with “body steering”, using your weight, but that is more fine-tuning than a turning technique. You turn with the bars.

I find it easiest to push with one hand on the bar in the direction I want to turn, leaving the other arm relaxed. This tends to reduce the “survival instinct” of tensing both arms when you think you’re getting into trouble. That is what leads to the “it wouldn’t turn” explanation, because the rider was fighting one arm with the other, both tensed, and neither bar got enough pressure to make the lean. Push right to go right, push left to go left. Leave the “upper arm” the one that is now on the “high side” of the turning bike, relaxed. And no, this routine isn’t an absolute. You may come to another way of dealing with it, but the principle is the same. Countersteering is what causes a motorcycle at speed to turn at your command.

A motorcycle on modern tires will lean a lot farther than you are comfortable with. Again, as long as the pavement is relatively clean, the bike will lean over until hard parts start grinding on the asphalt at which point that will lift one wheel or the other off the pavement and you will crash. The rider can almost always use a folding footpeg or the toe of the downside boot as a feeler to tell you how close to the hard-part-grounding you are coming. But you won’t need to worry too much about that. Such a lean angle is extremely rare on the street and you’ve probably already made a mistake estimating your corner speed when you get to that point.

The important thing to remember is this: the bike will lean farther than you think, so if you are in a turn at a speed you suddenly aren’t comfortable with, overcome your “instinct” to straighten it up (which will put you off the road or in the oncoming lane) and lean some more. Keep your eyes up to where you want to go and keep leaning. That way, if you are going to crash, it will be a “lowside” with your actual impact with the pavement starting from a few inches high. We will address braking in a turn, usually not a good idea, but sometimes it is, later.

The far better course is to learn to set your corner speed where you want it.

Entering a corner, keep your eyes up to the “vanishing point”, that place where the edges of the road appear to come together. The farther out you can look, the better off you will be, because, among other things, you will go where you look. I like to use the “late apex” line in most curves, where I’m on the outside of the curve until I can see deeper into it, see the exit, then make my lean. The “racing line” works great on the track, but not so much on most backroads. On a motorcycle, you don’t have to be going at maximum speed for curves to be exciting and fun.

There will be more of this, and I may revise the above for completeness and clarity, but this will get you started.

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This is a compilation of a series of emails I sent to my grandsons when they began transitioning from riding motorcycles off road to street riding.

Dirt bike riding is fun and can be done casually for the most part, without a great deal of harm done from mistakes. Typically there is only oneself to worry about, since trees don’t pull out in front of your path.

Street riding is a different concept, one that has more in common with piloting an airplane than driving a car if one stops to consider the number of variables involved and the consequences of inattention to them.

There are very few “absolutes” in terms of “never do this” and “always do this” (well, ok, never grab a handful of front brake on ice, never get your country involved in a land war in Asia and never play cards for serious money with a guy called “Doc”.)

Getting hung up on absolutes reduces your riding or driving to a checklist of rules and since reality doesn’t read the rule book, you often will find yourself scanning the mental list for a solution that isn’t there. Understanding what you are dealing with and using that knowledge to apply to the situation you are in is the key. In riding, as in life, deal with principles more than rules.

Motorcycles can do only a few things and those are always in your control. It can go faster, go slower (including down to a stop), it can turn right or left. And it can do more than one of those things at the same time. (Yes, it can fly briefly, do wheelies and stoppies, but if you think about it, those are just extensions of the basics.)

You control those movements with the handlebars, the throttle, the brakes (front and rear together or separately) and your body weight.

Everything that controls the motorcycle is important, but if one has to assign a rank, the brakes are paramount. In a car, it is easy to just step on the pedal and the consequences of getting too much may be embarrassing, but not usually too harmful. Bikes are different.

You need to practice braking every time you go out. What you are looking for is the ability to apply smooth pressure to the brakes to the absolute maximum for the conditions you are in and do it as a “muscle memory” so that it is happening before the conscious thought forms.

Riding, or driving a car, is about weight control and the physics involved. The machine is a weight connected to the road by rubber traction. The weight, once set in motion, wants to continue going and to go straight (See Mr. Newton and his basic laws of motion). The weight must be made to turn or stop by applying an external force.

On a bike, you have two contact patches, ovals of rubber about the size of a quarter or two laid on the pavement. Everything you do affects how those two patches are connected to the road.

When you are sitting on the bike in the driveway or at a stoplight, the weight is pretty evenly distributed, with a slight bias toward the rear tire. When you shift your body front or rear, side to side, or if you add a passenger, you change that distribution.

When you move away from a stop, the acceleration moves the weight back to the rear, lightening the front. When you back off throttle or apply brakes, the weight moves back to the front, making the rear lighter.

When you lean over to turn, the contact patches shift from the bottom of the tire to the sides.

More weight equals more traction…up to the point where you have asked more of the contact patch than it can handle, then the tire will begin to slide. Unless there is some lubricant on the pavement (sand, gravel, oil, water…even chocolate milk, as a good friend of mine once found) the slide will be predictable, something you can feel and deal with, though this takes a lot of experience.

Nearly all of your effective braking is on the front wheel. Take your bicycle down from the wall and push it along the driveway, then apply the front brake. It will stop. If you apply the rear brake only, you can continue pushing it with relatively little resistance. Motorcycles aren’t that dramatic, but the principle is the same. Applying deceleration force moves weight from the rear to the front and can, with some bikes, even lift the rear wheel off the ground, giving that wheel zero traction.

The best braking uses both, but with modulation taking into account what I’ve noted above.

You want to apply the brakes smoothly, not jamming on the front before the front suspension has settled just a tiny bit to put weight on the front wheel. Squeeze, rather than grab. If you just grab the front brake as hard as you can all at once, you can (not always, but can) stop the wheel from turning before the tire has attained the necessary weight for traction. If that happens, without ABS, you need to become your own ABS and modulate the pressure to get back some traction. Ideally, you would want to apply just a tiny bit of rear to settle the front down and then continue putting increasing pressure on the front until you’ve stopped. That ‘s the textbook way, but seldom is what actually happens in a panic stop on the street. Practice squeezing the front in a controlled fashion. I don’t care if you wear out a front tire in 1,000 miles practicing hard stops. Tires are cheap compared to the results of not knowing how to do this.

(To be continued)

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In the Beginning…

I’m 71 years old. I’ve owned more than 30 motorcycles and have ridden them, on and off road, more than a half million miles, by my own rough calculation. I have raced them on the streets, on drag strips, motocross tracks and competed in Observed Trials in several states and twice at the national level. I’ve ridden them in all but two of the continental US states and in 16 foreign countries, in both northern and southern hemispheres on both sides of the world. They have in many ways defined my life over six decades.

I first was exposed to such things by an accident of fate, by a whim of my brother Fred, eleven years older. I was a tow-headed kid in shorts and canvas tennis shoes, playing in the front yard when he pulled up on the black bike with the huge white seat. He had borrowed the British 500cc single from a friend as a lark and had come by the house to show Mom & Dad, but encountered me instead. He took me for a short ride and I can to this day, 60 years later, recall where on that brief trip I felt the change in me that would last a lifetime. It was like the tumblers of a lock finally receiving the correct key to turn them to their pre-set positions.

It would be several years before I could actually throw a leg over the saddle and operate the thing myself, but for those ensuing years I was motorcycle crazed, a pint-sized fanatic haunting the magazine stands in my little eastern Kentucky town for anything related to two wheeled motorized transport. I swiveled my head so often to follow a bike’s progress that I probably started then the neck arthritis that plagues me today. I read everything I could get my grubby little hands on, which wasn’t much in 1950’s eastern Kentucky. By accident of fate, the local newsstand in Ashland, a narrow corridor between two stores by the old Mayo Arcade, had in the back, near the magazines a kid my age wasn’t supposed to see, some issues of foreign motorcycle papers, the newsprint type things that were intended for local news in England among motorcyclists. I devoured those on the rare occasions they were available and began reading Floyd Clymer’s Cycle magazine. This one was a thin slick paper publication that reflected the interests (and prejudices) of its publisher, whom I later learned was a giant among the early US motorcycling scene. It featured mainly paeans to American brands, chiefly Harley Davidson, but also dabbled in some foreign makes as well. There seemed to be a requirement that ever so often a photo appear with Clymer performing his signature “riding while sitting backwards on the seat ” trick.

Then in 1962, a new publication appeared, Cycle World, published by Joe Parkhurst, and the horizon truly opened in front of me. This magazine covered everything related to motorcycles, everywhere in the world it was happening, or at least so it seemed to me at the time. There were articles about GP racing in Europe, bringing me names like Hailwood, Agostini, Read and Surtees, and about ice racing in Finland and speedway where alcohol-burning 500cc singles went round in circles with the back end passing the front, and about flat tracks and even road racing in my own country. There was something called Observed Trials that interested me from the first time I saw it in the magazine, though I wasn’t to experience it in the flesh for another 12 years.

The summer of my 14th year, Sears mo-peds began to appear in the ranks of people I knew. These were Puch 50cc motorcycles with bicycle-like pedals to start them and to assist when the little shot-glass sized piston just wasn’t enough to get it up the hill. In Europe, I’m sure these were used for family transportation and were taken somewhat seriously. Here, though, they were considered toys, sold by Sears through the catalog for boys like me to lust after. And lust I did. Steve McComas had one, a used-and-abused model his father had picked up somewhere. Then others appeared as if by magic and the teens who had one drew instant status and respect. I wanted the bike more than the status (though I’m sure the latter wasn’t entirely absent from my thinking…those girl creatures were beginning to become interesting, after all..) I pestered my parents as only a 14 year old boy can do and soon, they (well, my father mostly) relented. My dad was older than the parents of my peers, born not long after the beginning of the 20th century and 43 when I came along, closer to a grandfather’s age than a father’s in that era. He was the product of an eastern Kentucky family, a culture where boys operating machinery wasn’t a matter of when the law allowed, but when they were big enough to reach the controls. I found a used model appropriately cheap and then, simple as that, I arrived. I was a motorcyclist for real, not just in my fantasy-filled magazine reverie.

The little Puch served me well, introducing me to the principles of mechanics when the shifter cable mechanism required constant repair, the benefits of teamwork (getting 4 guys downtown with one moped) and to the law….since I didn’t have a driver’s license. I made my first court appearance, foreshadowing my later career, on driving without a license charges, and learned about the obligation of candor to the tribunal when the Police Court Judge asked me how long it was until my birthday. I told him it would be in just a few weeks, at which point he seemed inclined to cut me a break….then I added, “I’ll be 15″. Since this was still a year shy of the requirement for legal driving, he fined me and told me not to drive, but complimented me on my honesty.

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The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989 and much of what had been closed-off Eastern Europe opened up to traffic from the west.

In September of 1990, my wife Brenda, her brother Jay and I made a motorcycle trip around Western Europe and decided when we were close, that we had to go over into Czechoslovakia to see Pilsen. The three of us are fans of various kinds good beer, of which there is no shortage anywhere in Germany, and legend has it that the origin of Pilsner, “pils” in German, was in the this town. We had the idea that we would go over for the day, stop at a little cafe and have a ceremonial Pilsner with our lunch and head back into Germany for the night.

At the time, though the border was open, there were still many restrictions. We were told that we could not purchase gasoline with currency, only fuel vouchers, and that lodging still had to be approved for western visitors. No problem, we would fill the tanks at the border, go over and back in a day.

We spent the night in a little gasthaus at the border and the next morning bright and early we made our way to the crossing station. We got through easily and stopped on the Czech side to exchange a bit of money for food. The equivalent of $15 American brought us 400 Czech Kroner. (On the wall in the exchange station was a poster advertising what appeared to be a “Bluegrass Music festival”)

Though the countryside was still much the same across the border, the towns were shocking. Like the scenes in Wizard of Oz where it switches from color to black and white, everything seemed devoid of color. The architecture of the houses and older buildings was similar to that on the German side, but nothing had been done, no paint, no maintenance, for 40 years or more. The full colorful flower boxes that we saw on nearly every German house were completely absent. In the villages we went through, we seldom saw anyone out on the streets. When we did, their clothing was from the 40’s era and they walked with a slow pace as if the act of moving forward was just too difficult. Everything, and this is not exaggeration, was filthy, coated with a patina of dust and grime. Every truck seemed to have a short, open exhaust down at road level belching unfiltered black smoke. As a motorcyclist, I was keenly aware of the coating on the pavement, a mix of diesel fuel, dirt and oil. I did not want to be here if it rained.

We made it into Pilsen, which was not the quaint beer-making village we had pictured, but an industrial town marked by rows of Soviet-era white apartment towers, most of which had at least some portion falling off. On one we could see inside an apartment because the whole outside wall of the unit had tumbled onto the ground several stories below. Nevertheless, there was laundry drying on the balconies of the adjoining units, indicating that the place was still occupied.

There seemed to be no restaurants or cafes open in the downtown area, though it is possible that we just didn’t recognize them. We stopped briefly at a market in the town center, to ask for directions. Inside it looked like a country store from an old western movie, with wooden plank floor, rough wooden shelves on three sides and at the far end, a low wooden counter behind which sat a single bored looking clerk. All of the shelves were empty, except for one small bag of potatoes sitting forlornly by itself.

We paused at an intersection to look at our maps, and were approached by an animated smiling man who explained that he and his companion realized we were western tourists and wanted to practice their English. Their English was far better than our pronunciation of the Czech place names, which was our downfall. After greetings and a brief discussion, we told them that we wanted to head toward Klatovy, south of Pilsen, back toward our intended border crossing. Instead, he gave us directions to Karlovy, which must sound in Czech more like whatever it was we said, going north away from the border. The sky was so steel-gray heavily overcast that we could not see any sign of the sun to orient ourselves and the road signs may as well have been in Sanskrit. So we set off, 180 degrees off course.

By late afternoon we were quite hungry and passing through a village we spotted what appeared to be a cafe.

Not the pleasant little roadside eatery we had seen everywhere in the west, this was a low building, little sign of paint or care, windows dirty and a small parking area dotted with clumps of grass. It would not have looked terribly out of place as an abandoned storefront on an eastern Kentucky backroad, now being used as a weekend flea market stall. Inside, the air was heavy with acrid tobacco smoke. There were several round tables, rough wooden tops with mismatched chairs. Conversation stopped and all eyes turned briefly to as we walked through the door. A young waitress showed us to a table and stood, soldier-like, to take our order. She spoke no English or German, the two languages we had some use of, and we had no Czech.

By mime and pointing, we managed to order meals, though we had no idea what. Brenda was able to sample a local beer, since she was not driving, but Jay and I made do with what we thought was a soft drink but turned out to be more like a Kool-aid from our youth. When the plates arrived, there was a large amount of food , fried meat and limp vegetables, for each of us and as we looked at it and around the restaurant, we could see that we were the only ones that had such large portions. The waitress helped us with our map, showing us by firmly pointing her finger on Karlovy, after we had showed her Klatovy as our destination, convincing us that we were far away from where we intended to be.

When the bill came, Jay looked at it for a moment then smiled and said “I’ll get this one” and paid the entire check with a generous tip for the waitress, with a stack of the Kroner bills we had received at the border, still leaving us with the majority.

Outside, a group of children had gathered around our bikes, holding out their hands as we mounted up. At Brenda’s suggestion, we opened our tank bags and began handing out the German chocolate treats that we often picked up at gas stations, wonderful stuff that would have been premium in the US but in Western Europe as common and inexpensive as Hershey bars.

Back on the road, we could see that the sun was getting lower and we were a long way from a border crossing we could use. We had no fuel vouchers and had been told that we could not have overnight accommodations without prior approved reservations. We picked up the pace, rushing through the forests and small villages headed west as fast as we dared in the fading light. Though there was no real danger, other than wandering wildlife, it took on the image of a film in which the protagonists must flee to the border just in time. I still recall passing a roadside refuse dump where the remains of one of the ubiquitous East German Trabant automobiles had been hoisted into a dumpster.

As the sun dropped behind the horizon, we made it back into Germany. At the crossing station, we exchanged our Kroner back for Deutschmarks, receiving after the exchange fees both ways, about $10 worth for our $15 investment. Jay’s largesse in buying our meals and tipping the waitress magnanimously had cost him about $3.

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In the mid 1970’s, I learned that a motorcycle shop in Wurtland, Ky was going out of business. The shop sold a Spanish brand, Montesa, that made mostly off-road type motorcycles, including trials bikes. Motorcycle Observed Trials competition had become my passion in those days and I was competing in events on a bike purchased from the shop. At the time, I was employed as a rehabilitation counselor, working for the state and not exactly rolling in spare cash. But the lure of owning a business, particularly one involving motorcycles, was irresistible. The fact that I knew absolutely nothing about operating a business, and had no place to put it, and no non-working time to operate it was no deterrent to my young self.

I purchased the remaining assets of the shop from the two guys, who were grateful to be getting out of it, for if memory serves, $700. What I got for that was a few boxes of parts, some manuals, and the transfer of the dealership from them to me at the manufacturer level. I rented a storefront in Russell, Ky near the foot of the bridge over to Ironton, Ohio, on a corner across from the hardware store. The building was one large room, maybe 600 square feet or so, partitioned a bit with a sort of temporary wall, one small bathroom and a damp, musty smell that never went away. There was an old sales counter left over from whatever had been there before, roughly the size of a kitchen island, but glass fronted suitable for display. Two large windows flanked the door, with display space built up about waist high. I hired a local sign painter to put the name, “Strictly Dirt” on the window and on the sides of my old Chevy van.

My open-for-business hours were 6 to 10 in the evenings and 9 to 6 on Saturdays, since I also had my full time job to maintain, but I was in my 20’s and sleep was seen as less necessary in those days.

Within a few days of my opening, there was a general labor strike in Spain. Among other things that were shut down, no motorcycles were being built, no bikes or parts being shipped. I was limited to whatever was in the distributor’s warehouse in New Jersey.

I was able to get one new bike, a Cappra motocrosser, displayed in the shop window. One Saturday afternoon, a Cadillac parked across the street and a teenage boy, perhaps 15 at most, came in accompanied by his mother. He was fizzing with excitement, his body in constant motion, as he examined the Cappra, telling me of all its various features and his plans to make it faster and louder. It was already one of the fastest, most powerful -and certainly loudest- bikes of its genre on the market. It was a full-on race bike, intended only for motocross racing, the European version of off-road racing that was at the time sweeping the country. I could easily see that the boy’s information had come from magazine tests, memorized figures and opinions. His mom, dressed more for a society luncheon than a motorcycle shop, stood off to one side, holding her purse in front of her like a shield. It was equally clear that she had heard this litany of praise for the machine ad infinitum and that her resistance had been worn to the point of collapse. She was here to get this over with.

I asked the boy about his riding history. He told me, almost breathlessly, that he had ridden a friend’s mini-bike once, one of those tiny-tired, single speed things sold in hardware stores, powered by a lawnmower engine. Well versed in magazine articles, he had never, it seems, actually ridden a real motorcycle but he was, with all the confidence of youth sans experience, certain that he could do it just like the heroes in the glossy pages.

The mother asked me, somewhat impatiently, “how much is it?”. I took a deep breath and said, “I won’t sell him this one. It is the wrong bike for him now. He’ll get hurt badly.” Though I didn’t have anything else to sell, I began to tell her and her son of the other options that would be coming when the strike ended, but I had lost them. The boy looked as if I had slapped him and the mother was indignant. I cannot recall what she said as they exited my little shop, but I know it wasn’t complimentary.

The strike in Spain did end. I did sell the Cappra to a local motocross racer who did quite well on it, until he crashed a few times too many. My dealership struggled on for a couple of years, with no real success because I wasn’t much of a businessman. I learned a lot about trying to make a profit out of one’s passion, mainly that I wasn’t the kind of person to be able to do it, at least not then. I’m glad that I tried, though, and I’m glad I didn’t sell that bike to that boy.

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I have spent much of my motorcycling life riding in the rain. If you travel a lot, it will happen (though, like many riders, I tend to think it happens more often to me.) People who learn that I ride always ask “what do you do if it rains?” My usual reply is “I let it”.

Good riding gear helps a lot, but even after decades of improvement, none of it is perfect. Something will get a bit damp, if you’re out there long enough, but it is perfectly tolerable. There are things to know, the difference in traction for wet pavement, the foreign substances on the road that turn to grease with water, the reduced sight…yours and everyone else’s….the possibility of ice when it is cold and a thousand other things that experience teaches you eventually.

But there is also the sense of calm that the focus engenders, the sense of doing something special that not everyone can do well, and the sense of endurance, the knowing that this thing nature has thrown at you won’t stop you. There is an optimism in rain riding.

Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot”, we are told, is a storm as wide as the diameter of the Earth, that has been going on continuously for at least 200 years. I am sure that In the middle of it is a motorcyclist saying “ it’s going to clear just over that next hill, I know it will”

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The Harley Experience

Why not a Harley ? The M 50;story followup.

A friend read my previous post about the M50 Harley-Davidson, actually an Italian Aermacchi, a company Harley bought in the 60’s in an attempt to broaden its appeal in the era of the Honda takeover of America. He seemed surprised that I had owned a Harley, even if one in badge name only, because he had only known me to like European, and the occasional Japanese, motorcycles.

Harleys seem to be a point of division in motorcycling with some riders feeling that they are the only “real” bikes worthy of consideration and others just as adamant that they are overweight, underpowered, anachronistic garage art, not suitable for riding other than down to the bar.

Neither of those attitudes has much traction with me.

(There have been lots of jokes about HD’s leaking oil, but as a past owner of several British bikes and an MG car, I cannot take a position against owning a leaker.)

In my early youth, I hung out at Jim Stewart’s Harley shop in Ashland, one of several teenagers who roamed tentatively around the edges like feral dogs at a Neolithic campfire, hoping for a scrap of motorcycling knowledge to be thrown our way. If I could have afforded anything Harley offered in its American built line back then, I’m sure I would have bought one. Even then, though, it would have been a Sportster, the lighter, more nimble bike with a spare, lean profile. I am drawn to that sort of thing, lightness and handling over huge displacement and weight, and that is what drew me into the European orbit from my childhood until now.

In my 50’s, Brenda and I made a trip to Las Vegas for a meeting I had to attend and while there, we rented a Harley Electra Glide for a few days of exploring around the western deserts. At the time, it was the only thing offered for rent in town and anyway, I wanted the experience.

We picked it up early in the morning at the lot outside of the Strip. It was an imposing thing, enormous and dark blue, with color matched saddlebags and a huge top box on the back. (Once years ago while I was riding through Tallahassee Florida, I encountered a man motoring through town on a similar bike with a full-size German Shepard, wearing goggles, sitting in bottom half of just such a top box). It had a wide “bat-wing” style fairing across the handlebars with speakers for the stereo system (an option that remained unused on our trip).

After clearing the city traffic, we headed for Red Rock Canyon as our first tourist spot. As we neared the park, I noticed that a large number of Harleys were converging on the road leading up to the visitors center, pulling off and parking in a line. We proceeded on to the Scenic Loop Road through the spectacular rock formations, with the winding low-speed park road providing me a good opportunity to get used to the weighty motorcycle. We left the park and headed back down to the highway, now seeing what appeared to be an endless line of Harleys of many styles, from cruiser to chopper, etc. parked along the shoulder, front wheels all turned the same way, obviously waiting for something. We reached the stop sign at the T-intersection and turned west….and I watched in my rear view mirror as the entire line of bikes began filing out behind us.

We proceeded on for a few miles, the long queue of motorcycles stretching out of sight in my mirrors, until I pulled off into a gas station. Several of the bikes came in with me and as I got off to pump our gas, one guy ran up to me asking where was the next stopping point. He seemed puzzled, then a bit miffed when I told him I had no idea, I wasn’t part of this group.

Freed of our tour-leading duties, we proceeded on for a few days, experiencing the Harley in the deserts (an excellent mount for cruising across the open flat country, the big V-Twin just loping along, completely unstressed), over the twisting mountain passes on old Route 66 through Oatman, AZ (heavy bike squirming on the the slippery tar snakes, wrestling around the tight switchbacks, rider somewhat stressed) and through Death Valley (iconic views and, in keeping with my superpower of bringing rain to any ride, a brief thunderstorm in one of the driest places on the continent ). The bike never faltered, didn’t leak oil, or at least not very much, and served as an extremely comfortable passenger accommodation for Brenda.

I enjoyed the experience. I can see the attractions, but they are not for me. Like golf, gin, and wearing ball caps backwards, it is one of those things that I understand other people like very much, but I just don’t feel the pull.

That does not mean that I think others shouldn’t enjoy them (well, maybe golf might be an exception), just please don’t make it a personal failing if I don’t share your particular form of the passion and I’ll do the same for you. I love motorcycling, it has been a constant, defining part of my life for nearly 60 years and I hope to keep doing it, in some form or another, as long as I am able. I like smaller, more nimble, purpose-focused motorcycles and the travel on and off road they allow me to do. And if you like something else, more power to you.

We motorcyclists have enough approbation from the non-riding public to sow such division within our own ranks.

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