Ride Map: A Great Day to California’s North Coast

There is definitely something to be said for spontaneity. Last Sunday morning, I received this text message from my friend Dan whom I worked with back in the early 1980s:

I had been following Dan’s journey of getting back into motorcycling on Facebook with some interest, especially when he built his own café racer from a sweet ’77 BMW R100/7 which was featured in Iron and Air Magazine [ link to article ].

So when I received his text message, all I could think about was how fast I could install the new Motion Pro speedometer cable I got from Murph’s Kits and get on the road. I checked in with my boss (the wife) and responded to the text that I would meet him at a local watering hole parking lot in Novato in a couple of hours.

The previous Monday I had noticed that the cable had come loose from the speedometer gearbox on the front fork and apparently the inner rotating cable had fallen out somewhere along the road. So I temporarily reconnected the dangling cable but was left with no working speedometer. I read my Kawasaki and Clymer manuals and found no reference to the speedo cable, so I resorted to searching the Concours Owners Group Forum pages, where I should have gone in the first place. There I found a treasure trove of information that told me what to buy, where to buy it, how often it breaks, and exactly how to replace it. I have easily gotten more utility out of my $30 annual COG forum membership than what it cost for the manuals.

Having no indication of miles per hour made for an interesting commute that week. I found that needing to know my precise speed was largely unnecessary and interestingly…freeing. I could estimate my speed closely enough by reading my tachometer, following the flow of traffic, or just using the ol’ Mark I Eyeballs. But I also found that I was more relaxed and instead of fixating on maintaining a precise speed, I just kept my concentration on the traffic around me being sure to go neither too fast, nor too slow. It could be that I had been so intent on not getting a ticket that I had lost the feel for the road. That’s funny since I’m the guy who is always in the 3rd lane watching the other bikers fly by at 80 miles an hour in the fast lane.

Whether or not I would continue to monitor my speedo as closely as I once had, I followed the advice of my fellow Connie owners which made the new speedo cable installation a snap. After snugging up the new cable ends, I buttoned up the fairing, packed the saddlebags with various and sundry items for a day ride, and headed north.

One thing that must amaze visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area are its micro climates. I left my home in San Mateo where it was overcast and between 55 and 60 degrees. As I headed into San Francisco, it was positively wet from heavy drizzle…actually, very heavy fog. There were large drops of water dangling from the upper lip of my face shield and I had to use my forefinger as a wiper blade. Luckily, the MyConnie’s more than ample fairing kept my legs and torso dry as a bone. When going across the Golden Gate Bridge the weather could be best described as 50 degree sideways-blowing pea soup fog. And it wasn’t until Novato that it cleared back up to 60 degree overcast without any undue wetness. Soon enough, it would become sunny on the way to the coast, followed by a foggy coastline, and then 85 degrees and sunny heading through the redwoods back to Highway 101. Vacationers not use to these wild swings in temperature and wind chill have funded an entire industry of novelty sweatshirt manufacturers and vendors on Fisherman’s Wharf. But when on a motorcycle trip to Northern California, suffice it to say that a vented jacket with thermal liner plus extra layers in your saddlebag are an absolute must.

After an hour’s trip north through San Francisco and then through Marin, I arrived at Moylan’s Brewery in Novato, about 23 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I filled up with gas across the street and then Dan rolled in and did the same. After admiring the touring bike he decided to choose from his stable, a ’70s-era BMW R100RS, we headed north on Hwy 101 towards Russian River Road. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Upon entering the freeway, we immediately ran into traffic that was completely stopped for as far as the eye could see. We later found out that there was a fatal accident from someone who ran off the road about five miles ahead, and the CHP were taking measurements and cleaning up the mess while holding back the traffic to a crawl. All I knew was that Dan made a snap decision, which was really the only one for us to make, which was to split lanes and head up the road. What he didn’t know is that I don’t really split lanes. MyConnie is pretty wide with her saddlebags, and I believe it just infuriates motorists to see motorcyclists make progress when they can’t. So I don’t like to create even more pissed-off drivers bent on killing me, therefore, I don’t split lanes.

However, in this case, I really had no choice. If I decided to not split lanes I would have lost Dan, left him waiting for an hour up the road, and been branded a moto-wimp worthy only of a Vespa. And, MyConnie would surely have overheated and then I would have been stuck on the side of the road in the midst of a five mile long bumper-to-bumper nightmare. So, I screwed up my courage and headed forward between the stopped cars.

A view of what lane splitting looks like to the motorcyclist

What lane splitting looks like from another rider’s viewpoint.

What surprised me is that it was easier than I thought. I just had to keep a loose grip on the bars and stay incredibly focused on the obstacles ahead which included pickup trucks with dualie rear wheels, a bus, a truck, and innumerable SUVs with extremely wide mirrors. I found that the trick was to not move too fast in relation to the surrounding traffic. Also, to keep a keen sense of what the people in front of me are doing, like which ones will move left to see around the car ahead or the ones on their cell phones. This is what I usually do while riding on the freeway, but in this case it was even more important since I was less than a foot away from the traffic on both sides.

I made it through the entire five-mile jam without any problems and moved into a lane when I approached the CHPs at the front. Although lane splitting is not illegal in California, it is also not expressly legal, either. So, not being one to push my luck, I became a full member of the traffic jam for the last 50 yards. Once past the horrendous skid marks and crumpled guard rail, I saw Dan waiting on the roadside and we both continued on to Russian River Road.

River Road has a number of small towns that dot its length which are reminiscent of ’50s-era beach resorts. These are the resorts that San Franciscans visited to beat the summer chill (yes, you read that correctly) and many had second homes along the flood-prone Russian River. It was an idyllic ride with long sweeping curves, quaint and picturesque towns and sunny temperate weather. It took us about 45 minutes to travel the 29 miles from Hwy 101 to Jenner where the Russian River empties into the Pacific ocean.

Photo of downtown Guerneville, California by Dennis Goedegebuure

Downtown Guerneville – photo: © Dennis Goedegebuure

Once at the coast, we took Highway 1 north along the Sonoma coast. This is a truly breathtaking road that will challenge your cornering skills while providing incredible views of the Pacific ocean far below the bluffs. On the day we made this trip, riding was made a bit more challenging with the addition of fog.

Highway 1 on the Sonoma Coast – photo: © Herb Lingl

However it wasn’t too soupy, and without any problems, we made our way to the Timber Cove Inn for a sumptuous lunch. After the requisite photo standing next to our bikes taken by a kind stranger in the parking lot, we decided to head much further north and cut back over to Highway 101 via Highway 128 through the redwood forests along the Navarro river.

Peter and Dan at the Timber Cove Inn

Highway 1 along the North Coast is a combination of challenging curves mere inches from 100 foot cliffs and meandering roads through windswept ranch land. It’s hard to explain its rough-hewn beauty. On the few days that are without overcast, it is a wonder to see and a great place to gain further skill in cornering on a motorcycle. Recently, I purchased Keith Code’s “A Twist of the Wrist II” instructional DVD. It is nicknamed “the cornering bible” for good reason. Watching it before, and after, this trip helped me better my cornering technique and made me realize some things I had been doing wrong. Practicing and improving my cornering skills is one of the reasons I love riding the North Coast.

The other, is for the sheer beauty of the ride. I had never ridden north of Salt Point State Park, my favorite abalone hunting ground, so I looked forward to the next jaunt up past Point Arena to the Navarro River. What I didn’t expect was to be in the middle of a redwood forest on an idyllic motorcycle road. As this GoPro Hero2 photo of Dan on his R100 shows, the stately redwoods filter the light coming through the canopy and produce a surreal landscape.

Dan in the Redwoods

As we continued on our journey back towards Highway 101, the temperature started to heat up the further we got from the coast. We passed through the cute little burg of Boonville and ultimately passed by Cloverdale on the way to Healdsburg to gas up our trusty steeds. Although Dan’s Verizon smartphone had enough service along the route to post and tag trip photos to Facebook, my AT&T iPhone did not. It wasn’t until I reached our gas stop that I checked in on my phone and found that a dear friend of mine saw the photo above of Dan and I at Timber Cove and he left me a message to come visit him in Sebastopol, a mere 30 minutes away. Dan and I parted company after topping off our tanks and I headed toward my friend’s ranch.

It’s funny the tricks that fate can play on a person. I woke up that morning without having a clue what the day held for me. Then a text message arrived and I found myself at the start of what would become a 369 mile ride. I also found myself enjoying the company of a dear friend I had not seen in many a year that by happenstance was going into the hospital to receive another course of chemotherapy the next day. The five hours I spent with him that night were very special to me and served as an important reconnection with a person who has been my advisor, mentor, dive buddy and friend. A person who has played a significant role in shaping the arc of my career. And to think I would not have enjoyed that reconnection without a text message, a photo tagged with my name, and a return Facebook message. This is the value of social media…along with the company of great friends, good roads and our two-wheeled thunderbeasts beneath us.

Ride Map: Click here for Google map

 Ride Report:
– Date: July 1, 2012
– Roads: Well-paved throughout with a few moments of interest thrown in for good measure such as expansion grates on the Golden Gate Bridge plus cattle grates and periodic handfuls of gravel mid-apex on the numerous180° turns throughout the North Coast section of Hwy 1.
– Scenery: Rustic towns along the Russian River, breathtaking views from the winding cliff roads along Highway 1, and sunlight-dappled redwood forests along the Navarro river. An amazing variety of scenery in one day.
– Weather: Highly variable between 55° with dripping fog and 85° heat–and everywhere in between.
– Ride: Nice sweeping curves along the Russian and Navarro rivers. Numerous and sometimes tight twisties above precipitous road’s edge cliffs along Highway 1. Be careful and ride within your limits!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (doable for beginners but in parts you need to take it S-L-O-W)
– Food: Various towns make bringing your own food unnecessary, but a picnic on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific ocean can be a real treat.
– Gas: There is plenty of gas available in the small towns that dot this route. However, don’t push it—some stretches are 30 to 50 miles between gas stations, so don’t get caught waiting too long to fill up.
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment and variety. The ride is challenging but not overwhelming while being incredibly beautiful.
– Additional Fun: Points of interest along the way include the Russian River resort towns of Guerneville, Monte Rio, and Rio Nido–great spots for a dip in the river. On the coast, stop for a tour at Ft. Ross, have lunch at the Timber Cove Inn, or bring your snorkeling gear to stalk the elusive abalone at Salt Point State Park.

Ride Map: High Sierra Tour 2011 — part one

Incredible! That’s all I can think of to say about our 2011 High Sierra Tour. It was as if God had decreed: “Traffic…begone! Roads…repave thyself! Aspens…thou shalt turn unto Gold!” This 230 mile trip went from Manteca to Arnold the hard way, over three mountain passes that top 9,600 feet.

It’s hard for me to imagine that it was only one short year ago that I rented a BMW R1100RS from Dubblelju in San Francisco and started my journey of getting back into motorcycling after a hiatus of 20 years [see previous post].

What a difference a year makes

Jumping on that rental after not riding for two decades and immediately heading off for a 600 mile tour that included three steep and twisty mountain passes earned me a new nickname from my riding buddies: “Stones.” Apparently I demonstrated intestinal (or lower) fortitude on that ride. From my perspective, I was merely suppressing sheer terror and channeling my riding expertise from days gone by as best I could.

Well, that was last year. Since then, I’ve put about 4,500 miles all over Northern California on my very own Kawasaki Concours as frequent readers of this blog well know. And this year, we decided to repeat our High Sierra tour but this time conquer Sonora Pass, Monitor Pass, and Ebbetts Pass in one day.

Our initial rally point was a Starbucks on Airway Blvd. in Livermore. From there, we rode out Interstate 580 and then onwards to Hwy 120 via the I-205 cutover. After gassing up our four steeds in Manteca—Kawasaki Concours, BMW R1150RT, Triumph Speed Triple & Triumph Bonneville T100—we headed down Hwy 120 and continued on Hwy 108 which goes all the way over the Sierra Nevada mountains by way of the Sonora Pass.

National Hotel in Jamestown - a great place to eat

Riding on the Sonora Pass Highway was phenomenal. The roads had all been freshly paved and on this Friday in October were completely devoid of cars. We stopped for lunch at the National Hotel in the historic gold rush town of Jamestown and were treated to great food and a sparky waitress. After leaving Jamestown, we wound our way through the foothills and started our climb up and over the Sierra Nevadas.

We started to wind through mini passes and secret valleys tucked away in the mountains. Words fail me in how to describe just how beautiful it was. When we started to gain significant altitude near a spectacular lava formation named the Dardanelles, we rounded a corner and came upon an amazing sight — all the aspens had turned to brilliant yellow-gold. It was breathtaking. So much so, that the biggest problem I had was balancing the competing goals of keeping up the pace necessary to reach our destination before dark, and wanting to walk around taking photos of the scenery. I will definitely be making a trip back here next October and camping overnight with the primary goal being to fill a few memory cards with photos.

We continued on up, through, and over Sonora Pass, stopping for a few minutes at the summit. Seeing the elevation made me reflect on the fact that if we were airplane pilots instead of motorcycle riders, we would be mandated by law to be breathing from oxygen masks if only a scant 376 feet higher than the summit elevation. Thinking of this, and knowing that a mere three hour ride south would bring us to the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States, helped me put the sheer majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains into perspective. I feel fortunate to have this world-class scenery in my own (relatively) back yard.

Moving down the back side of the Sierras brought us towards the Owens Valley, an absolute high-desert jewel shared by California and Nevada. From here, Interstate 395 goes north past Lake Tahoe and Reno all the way to the Canadian border, and south towards the Mojave desert. If you haven’t traveled down I-395 and seen Mono Lake, or the ghost town of Bodie, Tioga Pass the gateway to Yosemite, or the 14,505 ft. Mt. Whitney…you haven’t seen one of the most incredible parts of California.

The view east towards Owens Valley while heading up to Monitor Pass

Heading up I-395 from the Sonora Pass takes you alongside the Walker River which is beautiful all by itself. Many fishermen were trying their luck on its meandering banks. This part of the Interstate feels much more like a back country road than the 65 MPH superslab that it actually is—although the speed limit dips to 55 MPH or lower as the road gets curvier or as it passes through local townships—watch out for local Highway Patrol cruisers armed with radar. Soon enough, though, the turnoff to Monitor Pass came along and our trek up and over the Sierra Nevadas began once again.

One of my favorite parts of the ride was the climb up to Monitor Pass. Once you climb above the valley floor, you get a phenomenal panorama of the Owens Valley. This high, there are scant trees, and only mountain peaks on the horizon as far as the eye can see. But once on top of Monitor Summit, you pass through a dense copse of all-gold aspens that are only interrupted by the road cutting through their midst. More breathtaking scenery and worthy of stopping to explore. Alas, it was getting late and we needed to scoot.

After Monitor Pass, the road winds down towards Highway 4 which winds along the north fork of the Stanislaus river. Along this road are a number of small lakes that are gorgeous alpine gems. Kinney Reservoir, Mosquito Lake, and Lake Alpine are wonderful places to stop and picnic or try your hand at fishing for rainbow trout. But the shadows were getting long as we headed up towards Ebbets Pass—our final of three mountain pathways that were discovered when California was first settled—so fishing had to wait for a different trip.

The aptly-named Alpine State Highway—Hwy 4—is quite steep and twisty, providing a healthy challenge for riders on two wheels. More than one steep uphill hairpin turn resulted in unanticipated mid-turn downshifts, and less than elegant riding. Throw in a few handfuls of dirt and rocks in the turn’s apex, and you get pucker-marks on your saddle (sort of a man’s version of doing Kegel exercises). Ebbets Pass road provides about 30 miles of this riding, and it’s all one-lane, meaning no reflectors or centerline painted on the road. Not knowing if some vacationing family’s 6,000 lb. Yukon Denali is coming around each corner just adds to the suspense of the ride.

So, after getting chased by a high sierra rancher’s dog when slowing to reconnoiter a photo spot, we made the final hour ride from Ebbetts Pass to our cabin in Arnold—where we peeled our near-frozen fingers from the grips. But of most important at that point was emptying our saddlebags (and bladders) so that we could ride to the store in Arnold and fill up with vittles and beer. We found that the Saddleman saddlebags on the Bonnie were able to each perfectly hold a 12-pack of Budweiser, leading us to wonder if they were designed that way on purpose.

That evening was polished off with too much food, too much beer, and finding a neighbor who would drive two of our members to the local bar to check out the nightlife…and yet more beer. It’s always good to have a four-wheeled friend as a designated driver because if there is ONE rule in motorcycling—especially in the mountains at night—it’s that bikes and beer don’t mix.

The next day we had a great ride over backcountry roads to check out the local towns and scenery, but more about that in part two of this story. For now, it’s enough to bask in the glory of a ride well done over scenery almost too beautiful to imagine.

Ride Map:  Click here for Google map

Ride Report:
– Date: October 21-23, 2011
– Roads:
 Fresh paving, smooth and well-cambered the whole trip
– Scenery: Mountains, canyons, valleys, aspen groves, conifer forests
– Weather: Perfect: mid-70s in the valleys, mid-60s on the mountain peaks
– Ride: Rolling highways, sweeping curves, mountain twisties…the whole enchilada!
– Challenge: Intermediate to advanced (not for beginners)
– Food: Bring your own for during the ride, long distances between food availability
– Gas: Easily available, but plan well to not get caught dry between towns
– Rating: 5-stars (out of 5) for overall enjoyment

Stay tuned for part two: our Saturday ride on the gold country backroads

Additional Ride Photos:

Connie Fever?

I don’t know if I meant my blog to have this effect on people, but I received an email from an old friend of mine who said “he was looking to get back into motorcycling.” He was looking at a used Kawasaki Vulcan at a dealership because he wanted to not invest too much until he proved to himself that this was something he wanted to get deeply into.

I told him all about my adventures with MyConnie, including buying it without taking a proper test ride (see previous post), and the consequences thereof. About a week later, he told me that the Vulcan was sold out from under him, and that he found a Connie on CraigsList. A few days later, I received this photo of the red Kawasaki Concours with him saying, “In taking a lesson from you, I have purchased the bike sight unseen.”

Mike's Connie on the left, that's me on the right

Oh Lord, have I started a wave of “Buy first, ask questions later?” I certainly hope not. But I welcome my friend Mike to the ranks of Connie ownership and look forward to seeing his journey back into riding alongside my own.

Kawasaki Concours: Hot Links

Here are some great links that I’ve found in my research that led up to my buying a Connie. However, this will just get you started. Be sure to join the Concours Owners Group for the definitive body of knowledge of all things Connie. (I will update this post as I find other notable links)

Performance Parts and Upgrades:
Murphs’ Kits (upgrades and parts)
 Holeshot Performance (upgrades and parts)

Conversions and Upgrades:
• Shoodaben Engineering (specialty carb & drivetrain upgrades)

 Rider Report review of the 2005 Kawasaki Concours
Motorcycle.com review
Powersports Network Rider article

Connie Photos:
 winner of the best engineered Concours award
• Elvin Rivera’s fantastic Connie photo site

Me and My Connie: The First Week

Okay, down to business. The shine has come off the first few days of commuting back and forth to work. Not because I am unhappy with my Connie — far from it — I am smiling ear to ear. No, now I am experiencing the reality of the daily commute on a motorcycle: wind, noise, road debris, people trying to kill you…you know, the usual stuff.

Mind you, I don’t have to commute on my bike, I want to commute on my bike. I’m reminded of Dennis Quaid’s great line in the movie, The Rookie: “You know what we get to do today, Brooks? We get to play baseball.” Well, for me, “I get to ride a motorcycle twice today!” Even with the nuts on their cell phones trying their hands at vehicular manslaughter, it’s a great deal. Especially with northern California weather on the world’s most beautiful freeway, Interstate 280.

A quick photo at the vista point en route to the office

I’ve done some experimenting in the past week riding with the luggage on and off. I am happy to report that the rear luggage is essentially invisible from a riding perspective. I couldn’t detect any difference at all. Now, I don’t split lanes, and I haven’t been dragging my knees, either. I would imagine the width of the luggage could compromise either of those activities a bit. But for normal commuting, I’m glad I don’t detect any difference. It’s very convenient that the side luggage will hold a helmet and a lot of other stuff as well. I do admit that I prefer the clean lines of the Connie sans luggage. But realistically, on any trip longer than a Saturday morning romp, having the storage is really a necessity.

I’ve also compared the stock windshield against a taller/wider one (custom-made) given to me by the previous owner. Although I plan to address windshields more thoroughly in a future post, I can tell you that I like the stock windshield best. This may seem counter to the prevailing sentiment amongst other Connie riders, but here is my rationale. Most of all, I don’t like looking through a windshield while riding. If I wanted to do that, I would drive my car. I might change my tune on an extremely long tour, but for twisties or commuting, being able to look over the windshield to ride is very much preferred. There is definitely more wind noise with the shorter and narrower stock windshield, but I think rider’s comfort level all depends on where they are coming from. If they are Gold Wingers at heart, then the stock windshield is probably little more than a underperforming bug screen. But, if they come from the world of naked bikes, then the stock Connie fairing/windshield is pure luxury.

After a few days shaking out the cobwebs commuting at 70 miles per hour, I accompanied my brother-in-law Rich on his brand new Triumph Bonneville T100 on a Saturday morning trip through the twisties to Alice’s Restaurant and then onwards to the coast. My Connie handled like a dream — smooth as silk and held back more by my still-conservative riding style than from any inherent limitation. I donned her sporty persona: no luggage and the stock windshield.

Alice’s is a great place to eat…

…and a great place to ride.

Amidst the various superbikes arrayed in Alice’s parking lot, my Connie and my partner’s Bonnie may have looked a bit misplaced without one bit of carbon fiber or titanium between us. But the only sentiment that I could muster was, “It’s all good!” — especially Alice’s breakfast.

Continuing on to the Pacific took us through the misty coastal redwoods on Highway 84 ending at San Gregorio followd by a quick trip up Highway 1 to Half Moon Bay and then the final jaunt home on Highway 92 to San Mateo.

So the first week on my Connie was a resounding success. I know my machine better than I did at the beginning of the week, and I know myself better, too.

Me and My Connie: My First Ride

Ahhhhhhhh. I don’t know what is sweeter, the sound of my newly carb-sync’d engine purring away underneath me, or the feeling that’s I’m riding on the back of my own rocket-on-rails. For anyone reading this who is considering what sport touring bike to buy, you would do well to consider a Kawasaki Concours. After getting expert, reasonably-priced and friendly service from David at Autostrada in San Mateo, CA my new 2001 Connie rides like a dream. I now know what my ex-Chippie friend Julio was talking about. The Connie is a beautiful blend of nimble sport bike, and comfortable tourer. I’m writing this after only riding it back and forth to work twice, less than 50 miles. But…wow!…what a ride.

I did a really odd thing as readers of my previous blog entries already know, I bought the Connie without taking a test drive. I normally would never do such a thing, nor do I suggest it to others. However, a confluence of factors led me to know that I wanted a Connie in the first place—the right price range, readily available used inventory, lots of aftermarket parts and knowledge, the right blend of sport and cush. The rest was just “details”—like finding one that was reasonably priced, without too many miles, no detectable flaws, etc.

Once I got it home, I was dismayed to find that although the bike started up right away, it would not run. My mechanic said that the carbs “were loaded with green gunk” and needed thorough cleaning. I was getting more and more disappointed that I wasn’t riding my Connie even though my brother-in-law Rich correctly counseled me that I should expect to have some start-up glitches getting a 10 year-old bike to be ship-shape.

Well I am now thoroughly happy. Happy that I chose a Connie. What a smooth and powerful machine. It is the perfect bike for a 54 year old rider getting back into motorcycling after a twenty year hiatus. Happy that I found David at Autostrada. A fantastic mechanic who knows what he’s doing, who is honest, and who gives a damn—a great combination. Happy that I have a new activity to do with my friends who have also recently gotten back into motorcycling. For all of us, this is less a “mid-life crisis” solution, rather, a “relive our youth” activity. So as far as I can tell, it’s for the right reasons. My final happiness is that I’m getting back into motorcycling, an early passion in my life that I am thrilled to rekindle.

So far, so very good in regards to my new affair with Connie. I have a wealth of old motorcycling experiences to relive on the roads around the San Francisco Bay. And now I have a trusty steed to get me there. I’ll let you know about my ongoing adventures as they unfold.

Me and My Connie: Caveat Emptor?

Ugh! My new friends in the Concours Owners Group gave me plenty of advice of what to look for when buying a used Connie. But after I drove 325 miles to pick up the bike I sure as heck was not coming home without it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t plan to take it for a spin when I arrived, but when I arrived I found it on the owner’s porch atop a long, rutted DIRT HILL!

Now, I’ve only ridden a 1000cc class bike on one 600 mile trip a year ago. So the thought of manhandling a big Connie down a relatively steep rutted dirt hill was not my idea of fun. Nor was dumping it right in front of the current owner. So I did the unthinkable, I started the bike, checked it over, evaluated the mileage vs. cost, and went for it.

And now, here it is a week later, and I have yet to take my first ride. Ugh! I don’t know what’s worse, not riding my new Connie, or seeing my wife’s raised eyebrows. Let’s break down the issues.

First of all, the bike starts just fine, just as it did in Tehachapi. It runs a little rough, but nothing that new gas wouldn’t fix. But idling for five minutes, nothing I could do would prevent it from stalling once I put it in gear. And then, starting it became more and more difficult because I was draining the battery. Hmmmm…what to do? I figured I wouldn’t want a battery that was on its last legs (been there, done that) so I bought a new sealed Yuasa YTX20L-BS. Lo and behold, my Connie now started up immediately. So far so good. But it still wouldn’t let me transition from idle with lots of choke to the satisfying “vroom-vroom” of the throttle. Very frustrating.

Knowing that the gas was old, I filled up a can with 92 octane, put in some Sta-Bil additive, and filled the tank. I don’t know if this would help any varnish deposits clear out of the carbs, but like chicken soup, it couldn’t hurt. Unfortunately, no joy, only now my Connie would start right up, but she wouldn’t take off. Clearly I needed professional help. So, what does one do in a situation like this? There’s an App for that!

I pulled out my trusty iPhone, opened the Yelp App. It told me that the few motorcycle repair shops around me were given a three-star “meh” from their Yelp-using customers. Looking deeper into the reviews, what I didn’t find was a mix of five-star reviews from some people coupled with a few irate customers who bring the average down to 3 stars. What I found was ambivalent customers who actually rated the places three stars. Not a stellar endorsement in anyone’s book. There was one shop in Redwood City that stood out with 14 five-star reviews, Autostrada RWC! I’m thinking that this is either a fantastic place that engenders love from their customers, or somewhere that knows how to expertly shill on Yelp. Either way, I’m impressed.

I call Autostrada’s phone and find that they are in the process of moving their business. Arggggg! What bad luck. But then I call their new number and find that they have moved to a location that’s about five blocks from my house! I’m reminded of Humphrey Bogart’s line to Claude Rains at the end of Casablanca, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” David, the owner, was very free with advice over the phone. I tried a few things, but realistically, he needed to work on the bike at his shop. My dilemma was that the bike was at my house, not his shop. I loathed the idea of renting another trailer to haul my Connie five blocks. Although working like a maniac to move his business and get his new shop into shape, David took time out of his schedule to drive his F-150 Ford over to my house and take a look at my Connie.

He schooled me in how having her idle on full choke was like having her run on a mini-carb, but that the main carbs weren’t kicking in. He tried a few tricks to get them to kick in, but again, no joy.

So, he and his assistant rolled her up into the truck bed and took my Connie to the bike hospital. So much for my first weekend ride. I’m hoping against hope that this will be an easy (and inexpensive) glitch in what otherwise will be a long and glorious relationship between man and machine. The saga continues…

So, the weekend has gone by and David at Autostrada tells me that the carbs are completely gunked-up with green stuff. So much so, that they require another night with the parts soaking in carb cleaner. I can‘t tell you how much anticipation I am experiencing not even having taken my first ride. I’ll give you a full update tomorrow evening–hoping against hope that it will be after my first ride! 

Me and My Connie: the Pickup

No one will criticize me for only talking the talk and not walking the walk when they find out I traveled 650 miles roundtrip to buy my new Connie sight-unseen. After weeks of searching Craigs List and other online marketplaces, I knew where every used Connie was in the United States. The marvel of the Internet also told me how many miles were on each bike, how much the owner was asking, what it looked like, and what extras came with it. At any one time over a one month period there were about one to two dozen used Connies for sale.

Craigs Pro for the iPhone/iPod Touch

About a third were 1980s vintage, a third were 1990s and a third 2000s. There are a plethora of tools available to aid a search including oodles.com, cycletrader.com, yakaz.com and searchtempest.com. Some of these are aggregator search engines which scour Craigs List and Cycle Trader for ads and present them to you. What I found particularly helpful was an iPhone App named CraigsPro. The “Plus” version which costs a few dollars allows you to set alerts triggered from parameters that you choose for price, distance, etc. I remember being at more than one evening event and getting a buzz from my phone that told me that another Connie just went on the market.

But most importantly from the ads, you could get a sense for which owners were true motorcyclists who doted over their Connies, and which did not. You could tell this by the way they talked about the extras they had purchased, or when the machine last had its carbs synced, or the fork brace they installed, etc. What they didn’t say, said that much more. The lack of any obsessive details made me feel that this was someone who didn’t maintain their machine, or they crashed it or other bad karma.

I found my Connie in Tehachapi California, about 325 miles from my home town of San Mateo. Reading between the lines on the Craigs List ad it seemed that the seller was someone who would be interesting to meet, and someone who shared my passion for motorcycling. That’s one of the nice things about Connie owners, they reek with enthusiasm for the sport and the open road. But buying a bike sight-unseen can be REALLY dicey, especially making a decision prior to test riding the beast.

The venerable KZ1000P Police Interceptor

When I first started my search for a new ride, I consulted an expert, my good friend and ex-California Highway Patrolman, Julio. I told him I was looking for a sport touring bike like the Bimmer I rented last year, but one that I could get for a really good price and that wouldn’t eat me out of house and home in terms of maintenance costs. Julio currently rides a Bimmer, but for years he rode a Kawasaki police interceptor. He suggested that I look at the Concours because it is known to be bulletproof, the shaft drive is virtually maintenance-free, and it is a very capable bike that can be found at a great price.

I certainly have seen my share of Kawasaki police bikes in California, so I started doing searches on the bike I came to find out was nicknamed “Connie.” What I found out echoed what Julio had told me. Moreover, what I read was that the Connie’s are known for being the best value in a sport touring bike. And, seeing that the Concours has been in production since 1987 with only one major upgrade in 1994, there are a ton of accessories available, not to mention a lot of expertise and things written about this well-loved machine.

All lashed down and ready to ride

It only took the recommendation of an ex-Chippie, a plethora of good karma online, and a wonderful organization like the Concours Owners Group to convince me that the Connie was the bike for me. I knew from what I read that the risk of me disliking it would be remote. So I did the unthinkable, I arranged to drive 325 miles to buy a used bike sight-unseen and without as much as a test ride. Of course from my research I knew that if I hated it for some reason, I could most likely sell it for what I bought it for, so the downside risk was really not too bad. And, it was a great excuse for a couple of brother-in-laws to pack up the Chevy Tahoe with rented trailer and embark upon an adventure!

A footnote: It killed me to not ride my new Connie the first day, but it’s a much better idea to check a used bike out thoroughly before riding it any distance. Plus, there is the little nuisance of getting registration, insurance, buying a new helmet, gloves, etc., that all conspire to make it a week before my first ride. More on that in the next installment.

Rekindling a Life Passion — Part 4

I’ve heard it said that the best two weeks of owning a Porsche are the two before taking delivery. I’m writing this post two days before buying my first Connie knowing what the Porsche owner feels. Now at 54, I’ve been away from motorcycling for 20 years and the anticipation of rekindling a passion that what was such a huge part of my younger life is palpable.

I re-dipped my toe in the water last year when two close friends bought bikes after not having ridden for decades. They invited me along on a ride through California’s High Sierras. I looked around and then finally rented a BMW R1100RS from Dubbelju in San Francisco (highly recommended).

Driving the Bimmer away from their shop all I could think was, “Don’t dump it in front of the shop!” which was quickly replaced with, “Oh God, I’m in traffic!!” But that was quickly replaced by me thinking, “I’M GOING 65 MILES AN HOUR ON THE FREEWAY WITH NO METAL AROUND ME!!!” I think it was accurate to say that I was freaking out – at least a little. I had to remind myself that I am the same guy – albeit 20 years ago – who raced at Laguna Seca and hung with The Sunday Morning Ride crazies. Still, I had to will myself to keep going.

That's me on the naked Bimmer

I arrived at my riding buddy’s house ready to kiss the ground, only to hear, “Okay, let’s get going!” I guess it helped to have to choose between fear and shame. I chose fear, and we were on our way. My buddy Des owns a new Triumph Speed Triple. A beautiful bike in all its nakedness (he refuses to disgrace its muscular lines with saddlebags). My other riding buddy Jim has a Bimmer boxer similar to my rental, but with a full fairing. We set off towards Yosemite from San Francisco and all I could think of was Samuel Jackson’s most famous line from Jurassic Park, “Hold on to your butts.

Otherwise known as Interstate 280

I have to say that the first short segment on the world’s most beautiful freeway, the Junipero Serra (I–280, wasn’t too bad. Wide lanes, rolling hills, beautiful scenery and sparse traffic lend themselves to a nice freeway ride. Even the jaunt over Highway 92 towards the San Francisco Bay was okay. But then Hwy 92 turns into the San Mateo/Hayward bridge, and this took some getting used-to. It has a 300 ft. high “hump” near the San Mateo side and when you are new to, or re-familiarizing yourself with, motorcycling the high winds on top can be a pretty scary. We quickly transitioned from the bridge and into busy mid-morning traffic…at freeway speeds.

The ride east on Interstate 580 through the Livermove Valley, over the Altamont Pass and towards the central valley was congested with big, noisy trucks. I had forgotten how scary they are when you are right next to them. After an hour more riding, we transitioned through Manteca towards the Sierra Foothills which are winding, beautiful and rural. Now THIS was the riding I remembered 20 years ago!

The High Sierras as seen from Hwy 395

We continued onto Highway 120 through California’s Gold Country and into Yosemite National Park. We then turned east before reaching the world famous Yosemite Valley and headed over Tioga Pass towards Nevada. A word to any motorcyclist reading this, put this ride on your bucket list. Transitioning from the stately pines of the Yosemite highlands, to Tuolumne Meadows which is the highest elevation sub-alpine meadow in the world, and then over the pass to the barren hills that lead down to Lee Vining and Mono Lake in Nevada is one of the most spectacular rides in all of motorcycling. And, the road is in excellent shape, with brand new blacktop from the 5,000 summit, all the way to Highway 395 on the valley floor in Nevada. Awesome.

After spending the night in Bridgeport – a quaint, if cell and WiFi-challenged, town a few miles north on Hwy 395 – the faster two buddies went to get their ya-yas out on long, straight roads in the Nevada desert while I took a more leisurely pace alongside a meandering river and then up and over Monitor Pass and Ebbetts Pass back towards my sister and brother in law’s cabin in Arnold, California on Highway 4. This is where I learned how nice it is not not feel pressured to keep up with riders who are faster than me, rather, to enjoy my own pace and the scenery around me. I also was finding out that getting my confidence and skill back after 20 years was going to take more than this one trip on a rented Bimmer. After two days of rest and frivolity at the cabin, we returned home, enjoying the Sierra foothills, but not the freeway ride back to the San Francisco Bay Area so much.

But one thing was clear to me, this “test run” of whether or not I wanted to get back into motorcycling had a definitive answer: “YES!” In fact, I can’t imagine why I had such a long hiatus. On this trip, I regained my understanding of how motorcycling allowed me to better understand myself. The intense and immersive experience allows me to see the rest of the world, and life, in a difference perspective. So, with that, I’m off to buy my first Connie the day after tomorrow, rekindling a life passion in the process.

Rekindling a Life Passion — Part 2

After my first fall, it was with a bruised pride and renewed vigor that I wanted to heighten my skills riding. Some of that could come from having a higher performance bike, but I knew that no amount of performance could replace riding skills. So when I saw an ad in one of my bike mags it spoke to me: “Come to Keith Code’s California Superbike School at Laguna Seca Raceway.” I didn’t know who Keith Code was, but clearly if he ran a super bike school at Laguna Seca, it was something to check out.

There was no “online” in those days, so I picked up the phone and called the school. I found out that for a few hundred dollars, I would be let loose on a Kawasaki GPZ550 in full leathers, boots, gloves and helmet along with a bunch of other crazies racing against the clock on the same world-famous raceway that had also hosted names like McLaren, Andretti, Stewart, McQueen and Roberts. I was getting chills, and the sweats, just thinking about it. I bucked up my courage, signed up, and rode my little 350cc Honda down to Monterey about a month later.

I should have known that something was amiss when the other students snickered at my “beginners bike.” I didn’t care (although after having ridden 2-1/2 hours at 65 MPH on a naked bike that morning I was already a bit tense). The day started with our morning orientation. We learned about planning our turns ahead, knowing where the apex was, braking into the turns, and putting on the power to come out of them. I was hyper-attentive so as not to make a fool of myself at the afternoon track session. We were fitted with leather and plastic from head to toe and after a lunch break, we headed for the bikes.

The bikes used at Keith Code’s California Superbike School in the early 80s

Pre-Ninja Nirvana: the Kawi GPZ550

It’s funny how one’s perspective changes. I remember seeing that line of red Kawi GPZ550s and thinking, “I hope I can handle that much power.” I rented a Bimmer last year (30 years later) that was double that engine displacement…DOUBLE! And I had no trouble at all. But at that time in my learning journey, a hopped-up 550 seemed like the pinnacle of performance. Luckily, all of the student bikes were exactly the same, and they all have rev limiters on them. “Perfect,” I thought, “This will be the great equalizer between me and the other, more experienced students.

We were sternly admonished to not race each other, but to race the clock instead. And, if anyone dumped their bike, the day was immediately over for them. This happened to one poor soul early in his laps on turn 11, the last before the finish line. All I could think was, “Don’t let that be me!” We would be timed on all laps and would take off one-by-one with a space between each rider—taking ten laps before resting. We would then do another ten laps, and that was it for the day.

The world-famous Laguna Seca raceway
            Track map for Laguna Seca

I straddled my high-performance beast and moved up to the start line in turn. When I was given the go signal, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t perceived as a candy-ass, so I went flat out. I remember thinking to myself as I headed towards the gently curving Turn 1, “This will be great not battling for space with other bikes.” Just then a bike passed me on my left like I was standing still. He must have been going 20 MPH faster than I was. And here I was thinking I was going “flat out.” Just after him, another bike passed me on the right going just as fast as the first, and this was when I got the message that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

Warning edge at Laguna Seca (that’s not me)

I have to admit that the two speedsters passing me shook me to my core. And I think I did exactly what you are never supposed to do on a bike, tense up—especially at Laguna-Frickin’-Seca!!! So I have to say that my first lap was more of a survival tactic than a series of artfully-crafted turns. I also learned about something else they didn’t teach: tunnel vision. As my speed and focus increased, I noticed a prominent cone of blur that infringed on my peripheral vision to where I only had a clear focused circle of the road ahead in front of me, and everything outside of that small circle was an intense blur. I think this was my mind’s way of eliminating extraneous information that was less likely to get me killed, while focusing on the road ahead. Interestingly, another thing that surprised me was how close my head got to the red and white painted track warning edges. And when in full blurred “tunnel vision mode” passing those stripes at high speed would actually make a “sound” in my head—something like “brtbrtbrtbrtbrtbrt.” I wonder if other racers experience the same phenomenon.

Getting through the first half of the course was okay, but I knew I was headed for one of motorsports’ most challenging chicanes: The Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a devilishly designed set of left, then right, turns that incorporate an immense elevation drop. At the apex to turn 8 (the left-hander and entry to The Corkscrew), the elevation change is a 12% drop. By the time a bike reaches the apex of turn 8A (the right-hander), the elevation is at its steepest—an 18% drop. The Corkscrew falls 59 feet between the entrance of Turn 8 to the exit of Turn 8A – the equivalent of a 5-1/2 story drop – in only 450 feet of track length. From Turn 8 to Turn 9, the elevation falls a total of 109 feet. To say this was challenging to someone who rode to the class on his CL350 Scrambler was an understatement.

The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca

The Corkscrew at Laguna Seca

We had learned in class how to take the correct line through The Corkscrew, but nothing prepares you for the precipitous drop that’s more than a ten story building. You literally go over the top and then hang on for dear life preparing to make an immediate counter-steer to a full lean on the opposite side the moment the weight comes back down on the suspension. It is exhilarating when you’re past it, though, even if you do have a hairpin corner ahead.

After doing this for ten laps and almost twenty miles, it was time for a rest. I got off the bike in the pits and I swear the seat had a pucker-mark from too much butt squeeze. I had never had so much adrenaline rushing through me before in my entire life. This was definitely the most fun I had ever had. But more was to come, round two – the next 10 laps. We were given our lap times and not surprisingly, mine was not very impressive. But, I did get better on each successive lap and I was pleased with that.

The next ten laps were pure joy. No longer did I need to worry about what it would be like to get through The Corkscrew, I was a veteran.  Nor was I tensed up anymore. In fact, I was loose-as-a-goose, which improved my lines and times immensely. When I received my times for the second round, not only did I continue to improve through each of the ten laps, my first lap of the second round was TEN SECONDS BETTER than the last lap of the first round. Anyone who has ever watched racing on TV knows that a one-second lead is an eternity. Ten seconds was a massive improvement, and I was thrilled, to say the least.

Climbing off of the Kawi, out of the school’s leathers, and back onto the 350 Honda was a huge letdown. I spent the whole 2-1/2 hours buzzing back home saying, “I need a bigger bike. I need a bigger bike.” The love affair with my first ride was over. My eyes were opened and I had seen the light. And within a couple of weeks, I had purchased my brother-in-law Ron’s Suzuki 750GL. The Superbike school honed my riding skills immeasurably that day at Laguna Seca. It made me a significantly more skilled, and safer, rider. And I needed to be now that I had a 68 horsepower double overhead cam 16 valve inline four under my butt.

If the Honda was my first girlfriend, the Suzi was my first love. We rode everywhere for over ten years, day or night, rain or shine. But that’s a story for Part 3.

Note: while doing research for this article, I am thrilled to find that Keith Code’s California Superbike School is still going strong, some 30 years after I dragged my knees through The Corkscrew. Thanks, Keith, for making me a much better rider.