And if it's not, don't blame the bike

It's All About The Ride

My Editor at the time was the best writer ever to put words in a motorcycle magazine. So I listened to what the man said, even if he did have the sort of austere, mid-western work ethic that kept him awake nights worrying that somewhere, someone was having fun.

When it came time to plan our 400-mile pilgrimage to Laguna Seca for the annual AMA National, the Editorial We were to forsake faster, more comfortable mounts and ride our test bikes du jour or forgo travel on the Editorial Nickel and ante up. My personal nickel shortage made that an easy one.

The flip side was it put me on an 883 Sportster; your basic 45-cubic-inch Milwaukee hair shirt. In the office next door, Sports Editor Ken was saddled with a Kawasaki EL 250 Eliminator; acutely humiliating when you’re on a first name basis with Ed Lawson and faster than everyone but the guys we were riding up to watch. At least riding up together would minimize painful public scrutiny. Maybe misery did love company. We would inflict as much mechanical misery on these things as possible on the way, which revealed an interesting phenomenon.

As genuinely weird as they looked in front of Denny’s, the XL and the EL were essentially equals on the road. The Harley was 140 lbs. heavier. But coax the right gears together and it was at least a second quicker to 60 mph and 4 mph faster at the end of a quarter-mile. Ken was faster everywhere, but the EL ran out of steam exactly one tick north of 100 mph. Given enough straight pavement, the 883 was good for 110. Downhill. With a tailwind. It and I also ripped a hole in the atmosphere big enough to ride a 250 Eliminator through.

Breaking the draft was tricky, but Jay Springsteen would have been proud. And vaguely sick to his stomach. Shaking the little aerodynamic parasite put a few hundred yards between us until Ken pulled The Obligatory Ed Lawson Late Braking Maneuver and disappeared into the first set of corners. Braking would be a strong word for the Harley’s slow erosion of forward motion, but I tried, praying for another long straightaway to reverse the order. And so it went until I came across a phenomenon only Kevin Cameron could have predicted.

I could keep the Eliminator in sight now. Ken still disappeared around right-hand bends, but I ground every time the road turned left. What gives? His left foot. Cranked over at progressively impossible lean angles, Ken’s boot was caught between a rock and a hard place: the battered remains of the Kawasaki’s left peg and a steel loop intended to keep the hot engine at a comfortable distance. Deciding whether the next left would blow his toenails clean off was finally too much. He backed it down.

We needed gas anyway. The 883 fuel tap called went to reserve after 50 hard miles. This time there was maybe a cup of unleaded left after 40. By the time we stumble into the Last Chance gas station on one last combustible gasp, engine heat has been roasting the bottom of the fabled peanut fuel tank since breakfast. Before you can say fill er up, sir there’s a geyser of rapidly expanding unleaded in my crotch and all over the engine. Great gnashing of teeth turns to laughter and a profound gratitude that Ken’s lighter and cigarettes were still in his pocket.

The good news, and there’s always good news, was that those sounds emanating from the Ninja’s crankcase were louder and scarier than they were at the last gas stop. Not scary enough to stop us, but the chances of it’s returning to L.A. under it’s own power were shrinking fast. By the time it rolled into our hotel parking lot, the death rattle from the little twin’s bottom end guaranteed it and my friend an air-conditioned ride home in the company van.

The Harley wasn’t exactly running like a Swiss watch at the end of the day either, but my Swiss watch wasn’t running at all. A day on the Milwaukee paint-shaker had done something evil to the antique Rolex I’d inherited from my dad. My Godfather – part-time watch smith, full-time prison guard and keeper of the family time pieces – would not be happy. Aside from that, I was in surprisingly good shape. After a couple of days at the track, the prospect of another 400 miles on the thing, at least I’d never have to worry about kidney stones.

There may not be anything so profound as a moral buried in all that. You only get so many chances to ride like a certifiable lunatic and live to tell about it. Save the self-righteous emails. I don’t anymore and neither should you. But time has a way of erasing sheer terror from the hard drive between my ears more readily than it does fond memory. May the latter always outnumber the former in your personal recollections. If not, don’t blame the bike.