Monday, October 22, 2012

The Quick Run Up

Recently I've been needing some additional photos from up on Pikes Peak for a painting I'm working on. (It's a secret) So I ran up the Peak late in the afternoon. Late partially because that was when I could get away and also because I needed photos with the late afternoon shadows. I'd tried going up the day before but the winter hours for the Highway closes at 3pm. So I came back the next day and arrived just before 3. You have to be off the mountain by 5pm so two hours isn't much time to get to the top and back. The ride up was pretty good although when your on a bike you catch up to people pretty quickly. I got held up by some guy in an SUV. He kept a pretty good pace so it wasn't too bad. Finally just after Glen Cove he pulled over and let me by. Rather than go all the way up I stopped at 16 mile to get the pictures I needed. While I was at it I snapped a picture of the 748s sitting on the small run off on the out side of the corner.

Behind the bike is the corner where Jeremy Foley crashed his Evo this year. Behind that is 6000' down to Colorado Springs. Behind that is Kansas.

The ride down was epic. I had almost no traffic or patrol. If you've never been on the Pikes Peak Highway it really should be on your bucket list. From the bottom to Glen Cove there are almost no straightaways. One lovely curve after another. Yum!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Cafe Racers Pt.2

So in my previous post I'd mentioned a CB750 I once owned and terrorized the world with. It was my first street bike. I had been riding dirt bikes for many years. I don't remember quite when I purchased the bike. Sometime in the early Nineties. If I remember right, I had gone over to a friends house and found it sitting out behind his shed. It had been out there for 3 or 4 years. He had originally bought the bike, rode it a few years and then sold it to a soldier. About a month later Fort Carson called my friend and said his bike was sitting in a field down on the base and he needed to come pick it up. Apparently the soldier hadn't bothered to get the title changed over before he abandoned the bike. So my friend got the bike back. No longer feeling the lure of the open road, he parked the bike behind the shed until I found it. I traded a pair of waders for it.

Once I got the bike home I set about cleaning the carbs, added a new battery and plugs, and then promptly began riding it around like a regular, "Mike the Bike." I did some crazy stuff on it. CB750's are like big friendly dogs. They're not particularly fast but they are fairly indestructible. Just what I needed. We have a street nearby that goes uphill and then flattens out rather abruptly. If you go over the top at about 65mph the front wheel of your Honda will come off the ground and shake like a Pitbull killing a bunny.

The first thing I had to do was get rid of those goofy ape hanger stock handle bars. Level of customization number one; Drag Bars! They actually looked pretty good. I remember doing a lot of hanging off the seat as I carved up the streets here in town. The stock pipes hit if there was any kind of bump in the corner. Second level of customization; trade stock pipes for a used 4 into 1 header. Now we're talking. It surprised me how willing the guy was to trade me those clunky old stock pipes for a header. He let me choose between a flat black turned up MAC style or a racy looking header with a little reverse cone that barely reached the rear wheel. I knew how loud the cone would be so I chose the MAC. The sound it made was music to my ears.

The only ticket I got on the bike was for reckless driving. I was leaving work one afternoon and it was starting to rain a little. As I reached the 3rd intersection on the way home, I saw the light turn yellow. So I did what every young man does when they're on a motorcycle faced with a yellow light and it's starting to rain. I gassed it. On entering the intersection I suddenly realized that all the cars that I thought were moving through the light in front of me were actually stopped right on the other side.

If you've ever ridden a CB750 you will notice that the lack of efficiency of the front brake has been made up for with the on/off action of the rear drum brake. As I grabbed every brake I could find, the front disk started siphoning off speed, but my back brake just locked up due no doubt to the light layer of moisture on the pavement. Having spent plenty of time on out of control dirt bikes gave me the ability to keep the bike upright while the rear end tried to pass the front. However, I suddenly had a new problem. The lady's car directly in front of me was coming up way too quickly. Instinctively I let off the rear brake just enough to get the rear wheel back where it was more or less suppose to be and aimed the bike toward the right side of the car. I got past but my rear blinker made a little mark down the back fender of her nice Buick. I thought, "rats, I almost got away with that" instead of, "wow, I almost lost my leg." That's why they send young men off to war I guess. It cracked the blinker but I didn't care. It was time to take those "police lights" off the cafe racer anyway.

Well the blinker tweeking incident convinced me to start slowing down with my hand on the brake at intersections. Even if the light is green. But the desire to Cafe was still strong. Once again my memory fails me but some how my brother and I wound up at a place called "The DUMP" in Denver. DUMP stood for Denver Used Motorcycle Parts. They had a building full of shelving lined with labeled used bike parts and in the back was a black Cafe kit. It consisted of a fiberglass half faring, giant bread loaf tank, a stubby seat/tail piece, rearsets, and clipons. Cool. I briefly considered buying what ever bike I needed to so that I could put that cafe kit on it. Then I checked the label and low and behold it was for a Honda CB750. The only problem was that I didn't have the $375 to buy it. The story of my life. After 24 hours of wanting I called them and asked if they would trade my tired Husqvarna for the kit. "Bring it on up" they said. I remember unloading the Husky and trying to get it started out in front of their shop. It refused to fire even after the owner came out and gave me a new spark plug. I went in dejected, dripping in sweat and told them it wasn't going to start. They said that's OK and traded me anyway.

The truth was I really didn't like the shape of the faring and tank very much. I kind of felt that the faring was too big, the tank chopped off oddly and the seat was strangely molded to finish off the back end of the tank. On the bottom of the tank was the apparent brand name, "Kings." I have never seen another Cafe kit like it. Everything seemed to be pretty well made and it certainly made my bike stand out. Now when I look at the old picture it doesn't seem so weird. The truth is that I was judging it against the styling of the Ducati 750SS and the Laverda 750SFC.

Eventually I tried selling the Honda as a cafe racer in the classifieds. I couldn't get anyone to come look at it so I took the kit off and just sold the Honda as a stock bike. Later I sold the Cafe Kit on ebay. I believe it was the first thing I ever sold on the internet. My goal was to get at least $175 for the kit. The bidding started off at $10. It reached $200 with a day to go and sat there until the last 15 seconds when a full on bidding war broke out and the price shot up to $650.

And so the river flows.

Zen and the Art of Riding in a Straight Line

On the road back from San Isabel last year I was privileged to live through something that every motorcyclist should experience, the dreaded high-speed wobble. Now anyone who has been around motorbikes for a while will probably not be surprised when I say that the bike I was riding at the time was a 1975 Kawasaki Z1 900. These motorcycles have a reputation for such antics. The Z1 formerly belonged to my neighbor across the street who was more of a Harley/cruiser type. He had Harleyfied the bike with shorter rear shocks, a sissy bar (for all you sissies out there who make a big deal about flying off the back of rapidly accelerating motorcycles), tall handlebars, and a color coordinated windscreen. The bike ran well with a 1050cc kit, oversized valves, pod air cleaners, and an obvious lack of baffles in the stock mufflers. I say obvious because it was loud. I was assured that the roar melts away behind you as you speed down the road. However, after trying several times I concluded that even though the bike was fast, it was not quite faster that the speed of sound.
I had been eyeing his Z1 for a couple of years. My street ride at the time was a 1975 Norton 850 Commando in a box. So every time the roar of that Z1 would fill the neighborhood I would look up from staring at my box and run to the front corner of the house to spy on him and his bike. I’ve always loved Z1’s. They are hairy chested bikes for real men. The motorcycle equivalent of a Big Block Camaro. When Sheryl Crow sings about Steve McQueen and fast machines she’s talking about Z1’s. So when my neighbor said it was time for him to let the Kawasaki go, I was there like a puppy waiting for his treat. 
I am by nature a mild modifier. I find wildly modified motorcycles interesting but not really my style. I like bikes that maintain the original character of the machine but with a few performance mods to bring out the true nature of the beast. So I set about swapping the handle bars for a set of Superbike bars, and removed the sissy bar and the faring to clean up the bug splattering aero dynamics. On ebay I found a set of orange piggyback Marzzochi shocks. They were in great shape and the correct length having come off the previous owners Z1. I thought they aided the sporting nature of my new bike so I snapped them up. When they arrived I realized they were the Exon Valdez edition as the box was soaked in shock oil. Fortunately rebuild kits were still available at that time and the shocks turned into some fairly decent equip. I’m not sure if they contributed to the aforementioned high speed wobble. I doubt it as they seemed firm and controlled enough. Actually they may have contributed to my living through the high speed wobble in that they probably gave me enough control over at least the back end of the bike that simply slowing down saved my bacon. Slowing down is sometimes surprisingly good at saving your bacon.
Compared to my 1975 Norton 850 Commando in a box, the new Z1 Kawasaki was a dream. It ran better than my Commando in a box. It handled better than my Commando in a box. It didn’t seem to get as good of gas mileage though. However, when you’re trying to impress Steve McQueen and Sheryl Crow you just can’t be worried about stuff like gas mileage. The best part though, really, was that it started up and ran when I wanted it to. I love the idea that I have a bike sitting in the garage ready and waiting for the next adventure. 

Then the cam chain broke. Fortunately the only damage to the motor was a bent valve. The bad news was that in order to change the cam chain the cases had to be split. As of yet, in my motorcycling life I had yet to do the dreaded case split. I promptly set about to putting it off for most of the summer. Finally it was obvious that if I didn’t get busy, the riding season was going to be over and I then be the proud owner of a 1975 Kawasaki Z1 900 in a box. Wrong direction. So I got out the credit card and I got on the internet and started ordering parts. Fortunately the Z1 is a bike so popular around the world that someone could probably just build a brand new bike by just ordering new parts. It’d cost $120,000 but you could do it. Long story short, after much trepidation, sweat, busted knuckles, and a couple stupid mistakes, I fired the Z1 up and it ran, kind of

What motivates the shade tree mechanic through those projects is the moment when you climb on the bike and insert the key and she roars into life like a tiger released from its wooden crate. The reality is that the final phase is usually a drawn out process of debugging to get the bike running like it should. But persistence is the mother of having stuff you want, so I kept at it, completing the task with just enough time to take that ride down to San Isabel. 
Now if my Ducati 748s is a high speed precision cutting tool, then the Z1 was a wood chipper. It was loud and liable to chew off your hand if you didn’t pay attention. On the one end you would throw in chunks of road and it would chew it up and spit it out the other end at deadly velocity. It definitely earned its reputation as a road burner. From 30 to 80 mph it felt right in it’s element. I have a little curvy mountain road I like to tear through, not too far from my house. I call it the Mountain Loop. The Z1 just ate that road up. I definitely could ride that loop faster on the Z1 than I can on my 748s. The Ducati is a road course bike and isn’t really comfortable until I’m not. Here’s the problem though, previous to my trip to San Isabel I thought of my Z1 as an all around fast bike. Not an all around fast bike up to, but not to exceed 80 mph. My riding partner that day was my friend Steve who owns a Yamaha RZ500 V4 2 stroke which he drove to Canada to buy since they never sold them here. His RZ was developed after Japan figured out what makes Z1’s wobble. It has that classic two-stroke power band times four and feels pretty comfortable going around high speed corners.
Our road trip took us from Colorado Springs down through Penrose, Florence, and Wetmore, which is the dry part of Colorado. From Wetmore (insert joke here) the road climbs up through the Wet Mountain Valley (joke pt. 2) to the lake and town of San Isabel. That’s where you have lunch and talk about Bishops Castle which you ride past just before getting to San Isabel. Bishops Castle is actually a castle which Jim Bishop just decided to build out of cement and rocks on his property. The main tower is now around 160ft tall and it includes such accessories as welding cables, broken glass, and chickens. Climbing up to the top makes you think about doing things that are safer, like riding motorcycles. The road, however, is why you ride from Wetmore to San Isabel. It was a gift from the motorcycle gods. It curves and rises from one gorgeous Colorado scene to the next like ribbon candy. It weaves its way through tall Aspen trees, Ponderosa Pines and green willow lined meadows. Yummy.

Steve and I had eaten our lunch and discussed why I’m not going back up that tower again. We were back on the bikes and carving up the road back through the valley and on to Wetmore. From Wetmore to Florence the road travels through 11 miles of sagebrush flats. There are four gradual corners. This allows you’re friend to build up speed out of shear boredom which in turn invites you to illustrate to your friend that 87mph is nothing to your Z1 and passing him is mere child’s play. The passing was not a problem. It was the curve to the left, times the wind, times the bumpy road that put the Z1 into a head wagging fuss. If you haven’t guessed by now, it got my attention more that climbing Bishops Castle and stepping on broken glass only to reach out and realize that the railing is actually a welding cable at 160 feet above the ground. I’ve watched enough Isle Of Man and Bonneville videos to know that simply slowing down doesn’t always work, but it did in this case. I certainly didn’t have to worry about getting any speeding tickets for the rest of the trip.
After that episode of “new found respect” I discovered a new road. I called it the Hanover loop. Colorado Springs sits on the edge of the Great American Desert. To the west of the Springs are the Rocky Mountains, but to the east of us are a lot of flat straight roads. The loop consists of a trip down toward Fountain Colorado and on to the old Pueblo Highway. Once you just about reach the road to PPIR you turn left on the Hanover road, which eventually turns left on the Peyton Highway and then Highway 24 back to the Springs.  It was there about 5 miles past Hanover that I discovered the fine art of riding in a straight line. 
When I was a kid growing up in Colorado there were a lot of little two lane roads that meandered along from one point on the map to the next. Along the way were all the elements of the American West. We would ride along with the windows down, watching the landscape for hawks or antelope or dead rattlesnakes on the side of the road. These were Sunday afternoon adventures that I loved as a kid and long for as an adult. While the roads in eastern Colorado are straight, they are also somewhat hilly. You bounce along on the patched pavement till you reach the top of the rise, pull as far to the right as possible and then sit up high in your seat to try to see what may be coming over the rise toward you. As Colorado has become more populated the roads have become improved and widened. Safer for John Q. Public, but the old mystique of the Sunday afternoon adventure has been white washed. The Hanover loop and probably plenty of other old roads out there in eastern Colorado are relics, complete with patched pavement and dead rattlesnakes.
The art of riding in a straight line, I found, is performed on these roads. The Z1 finally convinced me that we both were longing for the same thing. Long flat patchy two lane roads out in the middle of nowhere, where we could weave in and out of the road kill and have plenty of moments to scan the horizon for Hawks soaring above the dry buttes. The hills in the road took on a new role as reality checks giving us a distinct feeling of vulnerability. But we’d slow down a little, move to the right, and do the Prairie Dog thing as we looked for farm truck predators coming our way. At 75 mph the Z1 just growled with delight. On one end I’d throw chunks of two-lane asphalt and it would chew them up and spit them out the history end of the bike. There is a certain Zen element to the art where you find your center during these moments of rapid consumption. You speed things up just to slow things down.
I believe what made the Z1 ideal for the art was the confluence of a number of motorcycling attributes. The first necessary element is the fact that the Z1 was a proper combination of standard and power bike. It’s stance and layout made it comfortable for some extended trips but at the same time it had that brutish nature about it. Also, the Z1 vibrated through the handlebars, pegs, and seat just enough to let you know serious things were happening. Its abundance of torque gave you a command of the road. And lastly, the road burner growl from those four pipes, which (with ear plugs) would melt away behind you as you sped off down the road. 
So, yes in the end my Z1 and I found our Zen. And yes I’ve let the Z1 go. And, yes I have some regrets. Thus the river flows. I have since taken the Hanover loop on my Ducati 748s and…. yeah, no Zen. The red bike does not share this ideal with me. It does not understand. Rather than it meeting me at a place of Zen, it is teaching me about its Zen. Not a place from my childhood but rather in the theater of the gods; a place close to the sun. Moto Icarus.
Come to think of it a Ducati Darmah SD900 would probably eat that road up pretty well, minus the head wag.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Cafe Racers

If you've found this Blog it is because you love Ducati motorcycles like I do. Many years ago I picked up this little book by Rich Taylor called, "Cafe Racers." It was published in 1976 by Golden Press, the makers of Little Golden Books that you may remember from your childhood. Cafe Racers looks a little like a children's book. At least on the cover. Inside is a well written text by Rich Taylor; an author who knows his motorbikes. The book is only 46 pages long and covers 30 motorcycles ranging from Yamaha RD350's with road race fairings to a Seeley Matchless 500. It is written as an introduction to what makes a cafe bike. I remember spotting it as I was walking by a bargain table at a book store. It was probably laying between the books, "Loving Your Pomeranian" and, "Cooking with Tofu." It's cover sported the picture of some guy in full leathers wearing a Bell full faced helmet all hunched over and tearing down the road on a Laverda 750 SFC. Stopped me dead in my tracks. One look through it's pages and I developed an instant love for rearsets and clip-ons.


Now I love pretty much any kind of motorcycle. But what makes a person develop a passion for one make over another is anyone's guess. I've own Japanese, Spanish, and British bikes, but it's the red bikes that get my blood to boil; anything Italian. I always say, "You know your in love when you fall in love with a person's (motorcycle's) faults as much as their virtues. If you can look at a Ducati wiring loom and say, "those nutty Italians have all the wires the same color" with a grin on your face, your a goner.

As I looked through Rich's book I came to a page with a certain motorcycle on it. The 1974 Ducati 750 Super Sport. No one had to tell me that it was the holy grail of Ducati motorcycles. I figured that one out all on my own. I used to dream of how to make my CB750 look look kind of like that bike but I knew it was pointless. It just wasn't going to happen, and even if I did the Honda just wasn't ever going to be a Ducati.

Recently I came across a Craigslist ad that said someone out there was interested in trading a clean high mileage 2001 Ducati 748s for a classic Japanese motorcycle. Yep, that's what I thought too. This is a scam. I had a 1975 Kawasaki Z1 900 which was indeed a classic Japanese motorcycle. It was a little long in tooth, but I had it running pretty well. I figured, the worst the guy can say is no, right. So I gave him a call, and it turned out that he really was interested in my Kawasaki. I dragged my feet on meeting him still thinking it was trouble. Finally the guy brought his bike over for me to look at. Turned out he was a really nice guy that had a lot of bikes including this sweet little 748s. He didn't like riding fast on the street and was really into Z1's. Well it took my Z1, a nice Bultaco Alpina, and a 94 Honda CRE260 to seal the deal. I was suddenly the owner of a classic Ducati. It honestly took about a month before it really sank in. But I am head-over-heals now. Yep, I find myself saying stuff like, "man, my hands go to sleep after like 15 minutes of riding this thing" with a big grin on my face.