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.

Me and MyConnie: Abalone or Bust! – Part Two

[ Continued from Part One ]

The author back in the dayBigRed back in his ab diving prime — circa 1982

It had been 25 years since I last dove for abs at Salt Point. Back then, it wasn’t a casual pastime, it was a major passion. Tom and I both worked for the same dive store and we took all of our classes to Salt Point for their first ocean dive. I had been ab diving at least a hundred times over the years and had achieved the ultimate badge of ab-diving honor: being an “Ace.” Becoming an “Ace” means that you could get your limit of abalone—it was four back then—on one dive. And in Northern California, than means on one breath because no SCUBA is allowed for Ab diving north of Point Conception. In truth, I was in much better shape back then, and last time I remember “Ace-ing” it was flat calm with great visibility and bright sunshine…in other words, perfect.

This trip was just about the exact opposite. Oh, the water was pretty calm. But the visibility was the worse I had ever seen. You literally could not see your fins if you looked down. There was a strange kind of particulate in the water that made Ab diving almost impossible. So much so, that I remembered the hard way to keep my arms in front of my face when diving into low visibility water.

“Haliotis rufescens” the elusive red abalone

Yup, I found the rocky bottom with my head first. But the worst part was how dark it was just ten feet below the surface. It was pitch black, like a night dive. Due to the heavy particulate, no doubt. So even if you successfully made it to the bottom where the Abs were, you had to stay there for a good 30 seconds to let your pupils dilate enough to see anything. I wish I had a flashlight with me, it would have helped a lot. Suffice it to say that even though I have “Aced” this day I was “skunked.” But I didn’t care. I wanted to know if I could still Ab dive, and everything went just fine (except for finding any of the elusive critters on this particularly low visibility day).

After a scrumptious abalone lunch (my best friend Tom wasn’t skunked!) we lounged on the bluffs until it was time to head home. We repacked the dive gear in MyConnie’s saddlebags, traversed the harrowing dirt and gravel road, and headed back down Highway One.

On sand, it’s fine. On a curve…trouble!

Not a mile outside of the park, we came across one of those incredibly deep turns that are common on the Sonoma Coast where the road makes a big hairpin curve inland ringing a deep cove inlet. At the apex of the first hairpin south of Salt Point, there was a long blade of slippery kelp right in the middle of the road! If you’ve never tried to walk across a rocky Northern California “beach” then you don’t know what slippery means. And slipperiest of all are rocks that have kelp (seaweed) on them. I swear it is slipperier than ice, and when placed in the apex of a hairpin turn, it can be quite exciting indeed. Luckily, MyConnie and Bonnie avoided the first instance of this banana-peel-o’-the-sea but we came across a few more. It wasn’t long before we found the culprit: a pickup with a kayak on top that was shedding kelp. We passed the offender and decided to eschew River Road and continue down the coast when presented the opportunity.

Abs and Bikes…mmm, mmm good!

We took the Bodega Bay road inland towards Highway 101 and were subjected to almost uncomfortable heat which enjoying the rolling west Marin countryside. The heat was made more tolerable once we reached Highway 101 and were traveling at freeway speeds. But it turned out that the heat, and speed, would be short-lived. Once we started climbing Waldo Grade on our approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, we were once more “treated” to 50-degree blowing fog, but this time it was more like light rain accompanied by bumper-to-bumper traffic. The San Francisco Bay Area is famous for its micro-climates and today was a perfect example of that. To go from a full sweat to bone chilling cold with only 30 miles and minutes in between is definitely an experience.

One parting shot before the end of our Abalone adventure was initiated with Rich pointing wildly at MyConnie and trying to tell me something. At the next light he said, “Your fins are gone!” I was momentarily crestfallen. I’ve owned my treasured duckfeet since the 1970’s and there are irreplaceable. At the next stop light Rich flipped up his helmet and told me he saw them fall of a few blocks back. I can only imagine what was going on in the minds of the drivers who saw a man in a blue Icon motorcycling jacket walking into traffic with hands raised in a gesture for them to stop—helmet in hand—to pick up his odd-looking, brown swim fins that were laying in the roadway. Yet in the context of all other oddities available for view in San Francisco, this was just another one added to the mix.

What started out as a lively jaunt to combine two passions—motorcycling and ab diving—ended up being a significant test of endurance. Most importantly, this attempt to recapture some favorite activities of my youth proved to me that I still have the endurance and skill to pursue these passions, and more importantly, that they were every bit as much fun as I remember. This day left me energized for my next motorcycling adventure and looking forward to the next time I could stalk the wily abalone.

Epilogue: Interestingly, the terrible visibility I encountered turned out to be an ecological anomaly called a “red tide.” This explosive bloom of toxic algae ended up killing hundreds of abalone and resulted in the state of California closing down abalone season for the rest of the year. So much for retrying my luck later this fall. I’ll just have to plan a trip next Spring when the season opens up again. Maybe this time I’ll invite all of my motorcycle buddies to come along for the ride.  


Me and My Connie: My First Overnighter

Not mine, but I’m generally an over packer.

A few weeks I joined my riding buddies on a modest 300 mile overnight trip to the Northern California town of Cloverdale where my rock and roll band was playing. This was my first way-out-of-town trip on MyConnie, and before the trip I was wondering about what I should check on the bike, and how I should pack. Generally, I’m an over packer, so I knew this will be a challenge. Luckily, the Concours Owners Group Forum had some great resources that suggested what to pack in terms of tools and spares.

The interesting conundrum for me was that since my band was playing the first night of my ride, it was mission-critical for me to arrive on time, and unscathed. Now, it’s not like our band’s performance is on par with a space shuttle launch, but an ill-timed flat tire would mean that I’d have to leave MyConnie on the roadside and ride on the back of someone else’s bike to the gig. Ugh! And then face riding back to the scene of the crime the next day to deal with the problem. Double-Ugh! This might lead those of fainter hearts to drive their cars to the performance, but not me. Our group was going for broke. With a bike that I had less than 500 miles riding at the time, I just hoped that “going for broke” didn’t mean…well…“BROKE.”

We were staying overnight in a hotel, so I didn’t need to carry camping gear. I was more worried about something breaking that I could fix on the road, but not if I didn’t have the tools, parts or the time. Reading all about common broken solder joints on the Concours fuse block, or “weeping” petcocks, or sidestand interlock switch failures had me a tad spooked. But I just needed to think good thoughts and bank on good karma points to carry the day.

On the first day of the trip, my brother-in-law, Rich, and I rode off on his “Bonnie” (2011 green Triumph Bonneville T100) and my “Connie” (2001 blue Kawasaki Concours) to meet up with the other two members of our group at a Starbucks off of Interstate 80 in Hercules, CA. In the end, I opted to travel light and only pack a couple of crescent wrenches, a tire plug kit and electric air compressor. That’s all that could fit after I put my band clothes and toiletries in the MyConnie’s saddlebags.

We arrived a bit late to the Starbucks, much to the consternation of Mr. Triumph Speed Triple (Des) and Mr. BMW R1150RT (Jim), but after a quick and justified chastising session, we were off. Without making this post a turn-by-turn travelogue, I’ll just give you the highlights.

The Bikes
The Bonnie was a champ, doing a brief spurt over-the-ton on I-80 just to see if it could. The Speed Triple is an awesome machine, especially in the twisties. And the Beemer is an extremely civilized, yet capable, sport-tourer. MyConnie performed exactly as I expected her to…flawlessly—plenty of power, very comfortable, equally capable in the twisties and on the superslab.

The Concours 1000
It’s precisely what it claims to be, a compromise bike that isn’t highly tuned for one kind of riding. In fact, some criticize the Concours for not doing any one thing extremely well. But the Connie’s shining value is that it does it all. It’s motorcycling’s “liberal arts degree.” And, it is a platform that has not changed much since it was introduced in 1986, with only one major upgrade in 1994. That is until the Concours 1400 was introduced in 2006, which is a completely different bike. That means that there is a huge community of Connie owners whose base of knowledge of the bike and its idiosyncrasies provides new Connie owners with a wonderful support group. And, there are many aftermarket manufacturers who produce upgrades and accessories that are tailor-made for the Concours. I don’t mean to go all fanboy on you. But for the bike I needed to get back into motorcycling after 25 years absent, MyConnie is the perfect blend of cheap, good and easy.

The Ride
All in all, we rode about 370 miles and a total of 8 hours in the saddle. It was a great success and really proved out MyConnie as having been a great choice for my get-back-into-motorcycling ride. Highlights of the ride were Hwy 178 from Kelseyville to Hopland. Wow! What a ride!! Coming home on Hwy 12 through the Napa wine country couldn’t have been a nicer end to the trip. We are so lucky to live in close proximity to so many wonderful and varied roads. But, instead of writing more about them just now, I think I’ll go plan the next ride!

Our route: San Mateo to Coverdale and back

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.