Kawasaki KDX 450 - Perspectives

Out In It

I had my chance to appear respectable, even suave, in the world's eyes. After all, I started my adventures in motojournalism as a car guy, in which role I got to cruise around in some very fancy four-wheelers. Think of it, carving through the freeway traffic hoi polloi and cruising the boulevards in a Ferrari or Aston Martin, delivering ego-buffeting smirks to the parvenu drivers of mere Cadillacs from the elevated seat of a Rolls Royce.

The job even had a sporting side. Ripping around the old Riverside Raceway course in Carroll Shelby's first Cobra, for example. Driving the dragster that had just won the Winternationals. Driving for British Leyland's International Rally Team. I tell you, the whole thing was the first act of a sophomore's wet dream.

There was just one thing wrong with all this wonderfulness: It wasn't motorcycles. For me, the attraction of motorcycling has always been the intensity of the experience. You smell and feel things perched on a motorcycle that never penetrate the tightly enclosed interior of a car. And speed on a motorcycle feels every bit as fast as it is, which is a big plus for me. My love of speed led me to many memorable adventures on the go-fast side of motorcycling. But speed hasn't always been a part of my motorcycling adventures. One of my truly memorable rides was one on which speed actually was not a primary consideration.

The last of the Cycle "Dirt Donks" rides shines in my memory as one of my most enjoyable motorcycling days. Off-road travels had for me always been mixed enjoyment and humiliation. I'd roadraced all over the country as an AMA Expert and foolishly believed that experience somehow qualified me as an off-road racer as well. I knew better for maybe the first half-mile of trail, but then the urge to get out in front would take over and I'd be caught up in serial disasters. A big difference this day was in the motorcycles the Dirt Donks were riding. In earlier outings we'd ridden little trailbikes, figuring anything better would be wasted on a bunch of off-road incompetents. This time we went for the good stuff, for me a big Kawasaki KDX450.

The Kawasaki quickly proved to have enough competence for both of us. The trail we followed took us high into California's Inyo County sierras and featured enough sand, broken rocks and steep uphills to be challenging. The main trail ended in an alpine meadow, from which we ascended along a narrow track to a bowl atop the mountain, above the timberline, where the sky was a darker blue, and there was very little air in the air.

Getting down from a mountain is always a little more strenuous than the ride up, so I was plenty sweaty and tired by the time we arrived back at our transporter. I was ready for a hot shower, but there was better on the schedule. We went to a place where underwater hot springs join the flow of a cold creek. It was just wonderful, soaking away the soreness and reflecting on the fact that I hadn't crashed once that day- an unprecedented event in my off-road history. I think there was a lesson in this, which is that it's best to ride motorcycles that are better than you are.

Another kind of memorable motorcycle adventure came to me when I was invited by BSA to join a team of riders at Daytona to demonstrate the speed and high-speed endurance of the then-new BSA 750 Triples. Yvon Duhamel was on the team, with Ray Hempstead, Dick Mann and me. Don J. Brown was there to oversee the affair, which had no fixed goals because nobody knew what the Triple would do circling the tri-oval.

We first learned that street gearing was wrong for the job at hand, making the engine spin past its power peak and limiting the BSA's speed. A change in sprockets, which lifted the Triple's top-speed above 130 mph, brought us eyeball to eyeball with a second, unfixable problem. Dunlop's excellent K81 tires were not quite equal to sustained 130-plus speeds on the tri-oval's sun-heated paving and load-multiplying bankings, and abruptly shedded their tread when their thermal limit was exceeded. So we could run wide open in the hour postdawn, but were limited to not much more than 125 mph as the sun rose higher.

Mann was not greatly taken with this exercise in brinkmanship, remarking that "This is the dullest thing you could do and still be doing something dangerous." He was right, in a sense, but I was taken by the uniqueness of the experience, which I'd have missed had I stayed with cars.

I could have driven to that hot springs, of course, but it was the sweaty exertions of the day on a motorcycle that made the experience so sweet.

I invite readers' comments, suggestions and even criticisms. My e-mail address is gj@wheelbase.com; call me at (805) 239-2192, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. PST, or fax (805) 239-0855.