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 1

My mother told me, “The day you get a motorcycle, is the day you move out of the house!” Some years later, I was looking for my first apartment, and lo and behold, the previous renter—my friend Wes—had a motorcycle to sell: a 1967 Honda CL350 Scrambler. So, after making a deal for the apartment and the motorcycle, I told my Mom, “Well Mom, I got an apartment.” She was happy for me, knowing that at 22 years old, it was well time for me to move out on my own. I then said, “And…” while springing out a helmet from behind the end table. She started to cry, then stormed out of her house, into her car and drove away—leaving me in the street feeling like an asshole. Well, I told myself, if you’re going to learn to ride a motorcycle, you need to learn really well.

My first ride: Honda CL350 Scrambler

My first ride

I have dim recollections of starting subscriptions to five motorcycle magazines, buying a Clymer manual for the Honda, and getting my DMV permit. I have even dimmer memories of a few terrifying sessions in Montgomery Ward’s parking lot, trying to stay on the Honda while dodging light poles. But after a while, I got pretty good at kickstarting the two-cylinder beast and avoiding all of the cars who were waiting to take their shot at killing me.

I rode my Honda everywhere, but mostly from my apartment to work where Steele, a co-worker of mine who also rode, gave me pointers. It’s a strange and beguiling thing, the love affair with motorcycles. One that cannot be explained to anyone who has not experienced it themselves. Looking back at those days, having a bike was a great way to 1) have fun, 2) save money on gas, 3) get a parking space anywhere, and 4) be cool with the ladies (…oh yeah!). It was also a very easy way to seriously hurt or kill yourself. So all I had to be careful of was not falling off, and not allowing a car to take me out.

Some time later, another friend of mine, Terry, told me, “It’s not a matter of ‘if’ you will fall off, it’s a matter of ‘when’.” I didn’t want to believe him, but I secretly knew he was right. And sure enough, one day with a light rain that had brought all of the road oil to the surface, I met my match on a boulevard cloverleaf. I went down like a ton of bricks even though I was being ridiculously careful because I knew the oil would come to the surface. But it didn’t matter. Being on a downhill curve with oily pavement means only one thing…YOU’RE GOING DOWN! I probably fractured my foot that day, and my rear brake pedal was bent like a pretzel. But, outside of that, the Honda was none the worse for wear. But as for my psyche, she and I were no longer virgins and my wandering eye started lusting after larger displacement machines in my cycle mags from then on.

The saga continues in part 2.