Riding Old Dirtbikes | A Disinterested Observer

I like progress, so I guess you could call me coldly unsentimental. My only interest in old bikes is sort of a morbid curiosity. Were they really as awful as I remember them being? John’s offer to sponsor me on his P.O.S. Ride with one of his scruffy Ossas seemed like a no-commitment way to find out.

Once we’d consumed all the generously provided welcome donuts at John’s house, it seemed there was no alternative but to ride. Turned out I’d be on the R80 G/S for the uphill slog, then on the Ossa for the ride back down the mountain. The BMW, being only a quarter-century old, was underage in this crowd and in premium shape—aside from its nearly bald street tires and comically notchy steering-head bearings.

With morning dew still on the pavement, I proceeded with great caution, trailing John on the smoky Ossa, banking up into the charred hills high above Santa Barbara. The G/S was actually pretty bearable on the pavement, just like the last one I rode back in the ’80s. Then the pavement ended, and I found myself on a 450-lb. dirtbike with bald tires. With traction close to zero, keeping up with the group took acute concentration and an abundance of caution. Luckily we were on mostly smooth fireroads.

The first rocky climb caught me by surprise. Stopping or turning around on the slope was out of the question, so I churned uphill in first gear, looking for the line with the most bedrock and hardpack to cling to. The BMW’s massive torque carried it neatly up that climb and a half-dozen others before we reached the high peak at the end of the trail. I was amazed the big twin made it, and relieved that I hadn’t sheared off a cylinder somewhere along the way. I was also delighted to be rid of it.

Coming back down, I rode the strange little Ossa, which John offered to me with a complimentary kickstart. From an era when handlebars were wide and suspension travel was short, the Ossa made the BMW feel positively modern by comparison. Once underway, I immediately noticed that the Spanish designers had affixed various levers and pedals to the machine in close proximity to your hands and feet, but they had apparently neglected to connect them to anything of importance. It became clear that some basic maintenance had been deferred for the last few decades, and I set about reeling in yards of cable slack with the lever adjusters as I rode.

In a strange, medieval way, the Ossa worked fairly well. Power was pretty smooth and usable up through the midrange, until an engine miss (I’d forgotten about those) urged you to upshift. And you could even make the thing turn respectably, provided there were no noteworthy bumps in sight. Let even one of those things sneak under the rear wheel and you were in for a stinging slap on the ass and an unexpected change in heading. How 1970s! I don’t want to go back, but maybe I’ll consider visiting once a year—if John has a loaner bike handy.