Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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.

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