Me and MyConnie: First Year, First 10,000 Miles

One Year Down, 10,000 Miles in the Mirror
This week I’ve reached the one year anniversary of my getting back into motorcycling with the purchase of a 2001 Kawasaki Concours which I named “MyConnie.” Over the past year I’ve learned many things. Not the least of which is how much enjoyment I’ve been missing in the intervening years since 1990 when I sold my Suzuki GS750LX. I thought this would be a good time to reflect back upon the last year and what I’ve learned about motorcycling…and myself.

What I’ve Ridden
I’ve only owned three bikes in my life: a 1967 Honda CL350 Scrambler, a 1979 Suzuki GS750LX Cruiser, and my current ride, the 1,000cc Kawi Concours. I’ve only ever ridden three others: a 2010 BMW R1100RS that I rented, an 80s-era GPz550 I rode at Laguna Seca during Keith Code’s California Superbike School, and my friend’s 2009 Triumph Speed Triple. But it was the advice of an ex-CHP friend of mine that steered me towards the Concours, and I’m so glad he did.

My limited experience with different motorcycles hasn’t allowed me to have much of an opinion about other bikes like v-twins, dual-sports, or the like. In fact, all I really know is Japanese iron with one luscious weekend on a German boxer. So when I reflect on the specs of the rides I have owned, it shows me the following:

What this also tells me is that in terms of power-to-weight ratio (HP/LBS), my Honda was loads o’ fun—something I already knew. But even at a more sedate PTW ratio of 0.16, MyConnie will still impress any Porsche Carrera driver off-the-line, considering their PTW ratio is 0.19. Still, comparing motorcycles to cagers is a fools game as any biker knows. What got me thinking about the past year’s travels was more what I’ve learned, where I’ve gone, and where I’m going.

What I’ve Learned
One think I learned was how healthy it is riding a motorcycle. You read that correctly…healthy! That is, of course, assuming that I keep the rubber side down and don’t get too near the surrounding traffic. What I mean is that when I’m on MyConnie, I’m not trying to make my commute productive by scheduling conference calls in the car. Nor am I stopping on the way to work at Mickey-Dees to get a coffee or whatever other concoction passes for breakfast. And whenever I’m riding, whether on my commute or on the weekend, with helmet on head I’m not likely to be stuffing my face. Plus being in a tuck in the cool morning air does wonders for my abs while burning calories to keep warm. All in all, I’ve found that riding is quite an effective weight management tool.

I’ve also learned that the old saying that “you’ll never see a motorcycle parked in front of a psychiatrist’s office” is really true. Spending a minimum of 1.5 hours a day riding to the office and back has given me the ability to shed tension like no other activity. Seeing the beautiful sights and smells when I take the back roads to the office has put me in the best frame of mind of my entire working career. I can’t even believe I’ve missed out on this for the past twenty years.

And I’ve learned—no…remembered—how great it is to take up an activity that has a huge learning curve with resulting stellar rewards, and also serious penalties. There is no greater learning than putting yourself in a situation where you will be tested. I think it is that, more than all the rest, that I enjoy the most. To challenge myself and see whether I will rise to the occasion, or fall down trying…only to get up, and try all over again. Call it my own “hero’s journey” of sorts. But one where there is no brilliant flash of heroism, only the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from mastering a complex endeavor.

Where I’ve Gone
I’ve spend the last year exploring the wonders of Northern California including the golden passes of the High Sierra, the windswept bluffs of the North Coast, and the twisty backroads of San Francisco Bay. The sheer magnificence of our natural surroundings is something that you take for granted when driving inside a cage of steel. Air conditioning masks the smell of eucalyptus, tinted glass dulls the glow of aspen groves, and soft suspension separates us from the hand-hewn roads originally carved by rough men across our great land. More than just a vehicle, my motorcycle has been the vehicle through which my five senses have been reignited.

How I Learned
I’ve approached re-learning the craft of riding through friends, through practice and by reading and watching the experts in print and onscreen. If I had the time and money, I would have preferred to take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation course…and may still. I would also like to repeat the course I took at Laguna Seca with Keith Code. But with the realities of budget and workload, I’ve settled for a do-it-yourself course of learning which has taken some discipline.

There has been an incredible amount of information that has helped me from an unlikely source, the Concours Owners Group. Besides being the quintessential knowledge bank for the Kawasaki Concours motorcycle, the group also represents hundreds of years of riding experience through its members who share their wisdom freely, with good humor and camaraderie. Their motto: “Join for the bike, stay for the people” couldn’t be more true. And besides the colloquial wisdom of serious amateurs, there is also a potent community of motorcycle professionals within the ranks of COG, both vendor companies like Murph’s Kits and regular people like Shoodabeen Engineering who have raised the level of home wrenching to an art form, and a business that Kawasaki could learn a few things from.

The Path Ahead
I have found in life that it is never good to drink your own bathwater. Meaning, all of the skill I have regained in the past year has really only served to make me more dangerous by potentially becoming too cocky. Now that a year has passed, it’s time to take stock and plan for the next year of learning, and trying to get rid of that last inch of chicken strip that defines my contact patch like bookends. A few predictions…

I predict that I…
– will watch Keith Code’s A Twist of the Wrist II DVD another 4 times…at least.
– will re-read David Hough’s book, Proficient Motorcycling to bone up on what I missed the first time.
– will continue to take my secret commute to Silicon Valley to work…every once in a while,  taking the long way.
– will start doing overnighter rides where I camp instead of staying in a motel.
– will do a dozen farkles to MyConnie.
– and I predict I will only increase my love for riding and hopefully my skill level, as well.

Until then, I’ll be the one flashing two fingers to you as we pass each other by…but only if you are on two wheels.

That’s Me on MyConnie

Let’s ride.

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 3

I’m not a “cruiser” guy. My motorcycle self-image had more to do with full leathers rather than a leather vest and chaps. More about Moto Guzzi and less about Harley Davidson. However, although my eyes might have been on a Ducati budget, my wallet was more aligned with a Vespa. So after I had my epiphany of speed at Laguna Seca (see previous installment), I needed something bigger and badder but still within budget. I fell onto a target of opportunity in the form of my brother-in-law Ron’s Suzuki GS750LX.

The venerable Suzuki GS750LX

The venerable Suzuki GS750LX

The timing couldn’t have been better, plus he offered a safe buying experience and easy payment plan! What more could I want? But the LX?! This was Suzuki’s cruiser model and all I could be thankful for was that the Japanese didn’t try too hard to emulate a Harley back then, so all I had to deal with were pullback handlebars, a two-step seat and the giggles of all of the guys on The Sunday Morning Ride pointed in my direction.

A few things that were nice about this Suzuki cruiser was that it had a very low seat height. My 28.5″ inseam usually precluded being able to put feet flat on the ground, but on the Suzi, it was no problem. The pull-back handlebars forced a sit-upright riding position which is both good and bad. Without any kind of fairing, the wind blast is substantial and it put a lot of strain on your arms. But for short, low-speed trips around town, it was quite civilized. Out on the open road, however, that upright posture was murder on my butt and spine. So clearly I needed to do something about this to make this bike my own.

The first mod I undertook was to change my riding posture. I did this in the most cost effective but probably least ergonomic way: I bought new flat drag bars and a bolt-on mini fairing. Hindsight and experience tells me that doing this without making any modification to the foot pegs or brake/shift controls was probably folly, but I’ve found that an empty wallet overcomes ergonomic needs every time. In point of fact, the riding position wasn’t that bad, and on long freeway jaunts, I would just put my feet on the passenger pegs to give my knees a rest.

Little did I know that I had stumbled into an incredibly sweet deal. I was looking for a bike with more power that didn’t cost me a fortune and what I got was a 16-valve, double overhead cam, inline four superbike that was all dressed up in country duds. The GS750 was bigger, faster, and more powerful than the Kawasaki GPZ550s I had just ridden at Laguna Seca. Humm-baby, this was going to be fun!

Anatomy of a 200 mile ride

It’s safe to say that that bike and I became one. Wherever I went, it took me there. Whether that be the 54 miles roundtrip to work every day, or the frequent 200 miles weekend trips around California’s Northern coastline. The twistier the better, just as long as I could ride my Suzi.

One of my favorite things to do was to participate in The Sunday Morning Ride. This is a legendary ride from Tam Junction in Mill Valley, California up Highway One to Stinson Beach. It’s been going on since the ’50s and is still a staple for adrenaline junkies from all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

However, my skill level was not on par with the leaders of that pack, so I would incorporate The Sunday Morning Ride within a full day of other merriment. I would leave 15 minutes before the main riders and then stop a few miles before the breakfast stop at the end. I would pull out my trusty Nikon and take photos of them hanging butts and dragging knees. I would then not stop for breakfast, but continue on another 75 miles up the coast to Salt Point State Park, where my best friend would be conducting a skin diving class and abalone cookout for the dive store where we both worked. He would bring my wetsuit and other gear for me and we would free dive for those underwater delicacies and then clean and cook them for the class.

I would then leave about an hour before dark and go back down Highway One but this time turn inland on Russian River Road, a beautiful ride although tremendously “buggy” right at dusk. My sister owned a restaurant in Cotati, so I would stop there after the 50 mile ride from Salt Point. After a scrumptious dinner, I would drudge home the remaining 50 miles and fall into bed completely exhausted.

I did that 200+ mile trek fourteen times one year (one of the advantages of living in mild-weathered California) and I still can’t believe I used to pack that much fun into one long day. Through the years, I became expert in surviving The Sunday Morning Ride as well as a busy rush hour commute. Those were the days. Over ten years in fact. But as with every life, change is inevitable, and I happily spent the next twenty years concentrating more on putting baby seats in SUVs instead of dragging knees. But a time come in every man’s life where he wants to revisit the things that bring him joy, and motorcycling is one of those for me. As I start this new journey and love affair with “Connie” it always is good to remember the ones who helped you along the way. For me, that’s my trusty Honda CL350 Scrambler, Keith Code’s fleet of GPZ550s, my Suzi GS750LX…but most of all wife Joan for putting up with me all along the way. To my three wonderful kids, be sure to marry well. I did.

Here’s part four of the story.

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.