I was working on something else when what I was writing slowly evolved into an history of my motorcycling life. When that fact finally dawned on me I was quickly closing on three thousand words. And nowhere near done. I knew I needed to edit everything out from where I’d made that wrong turn up the tangent, but I was now more interested in the history than my original theme. Thus this series of pieces documenting my stumbling motorcycle life from novice to codger.
Now, I am not at the end of my life. Nor do I view my motorcycle life over. I do however think I am at a point I’ve not been prior. I truly believe I am riding my last motorcycle. A combination of age and circumstance lead me to think this is true. First I’ve managed to survive to where 70 is closer than 60. On top of that retirement has closed the commuting chapter in my life. Those chapters comprised the bulk of my life aboard two wheels for greater than four decades. This year for the first time since the early 90’s I’ll have ridden more miles on my bicycle than I have on my motorcycle. And driven more than twice as far in our car. While to many those may not seem significant metrics from which to derive the above thesis of last motorcycle, that car driving is a big tell. Since the late 90’s I’ve not owned a car for my exclusive use. In fact, I’ve mostly ridden my motorcycle when I needed to get anywhere alone. Commuting, errands and simply entertainment. The motorcycle got the call. Since retiring I’ve walked more, cycled a lot more, hardly driven outside of vacation travel and almost never ridden the motorcycle. On top of all that, this year I went to the International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, California with some friends and of course rode my motorcycle there. I didn’t sign up for any demo rides. I only sat on a couple of bikes while at the show. I didn’t see any bike that looked or felt better than the one I’d ridden there. My bike is paid for too, so that adds to the inertia that must be overcome. So, the bike I’m riding is my last. And that leads me to think about the bikes I’ve owned and ridden along my 46 years to get to here.
This will be a series of pieces, each devoted to each bike along the way.
I bought my first motorcycle in May of 1974, but, the beginning of motorcycling for me began a couple of years before after crashing an Italian wedding reception, meeting my soon to be wife and important to this narrative meeting her father and learning of his project in the basement.
In 1972 the Indianapolis 500 was shown on television later in the evening after it had taken place live. A delayed broadcast. I’d arranged my beer and popcorn and was just about to sit down to watch on a 13″ portable black and white TV, when a friend called. He wanted me to get dressed in coat and tie and meet he and his wife at a wedding reception because there was a girl there I had to meet. Well, I borrowed my dad’s car and drove down. We hit it off and ended up having a great time. This young woman would later agree to marry me. But, that is later, the motorcycle connected bit of this was her dad. Her dad was rebuilding a 1965 Norton Atlas in his basement. My motor experience was Briggs and Stratton go-carts minibikes, couple of line controlled gas powered model airplanes and our families Volkswagens. By that point I’d been on five motorcycles in my life. The first as a toddler with an uncle and a friend of his aboard a Harley in the 50’s, a Honda minitrail, behind a high school friend on his dad’s Triumph Bonneville, a Vespa and a 500 single desert sled. My to be father in-law and I spent a lot of time together in that basement talking motorcycles.
At about the same time, I began a new job. I worked 13, ten hour days then had a Sunday off. For the first two months I was on day shift, then went to third shift, 9:30PM to 7AM. A fellow I worked with rode a BMW R60/5. He had an old BSA 441 Victor when we first met, but sold it for the BMW soon after. We soon moved to two of us on a later split shift and one guy on days. I began subscribing to motorcycle magazines and read them each cover to cover. I learned a lot, listened a lot and walked through a lot of dealerships.
I made my first mistake.
I listened to the advice against starting with the CB750 Honda. I went for a smaller bike. Still Honda, but the first year update of the CB350, the CB360. It was awful. Well, it was OK at first, but soon. Very soon, it became lame. The bike lasted six months with me. Six thousand miles. I commuted, we took one trip. The vibration from the motor was so much of a buzzing it would put our butts to sleep. It was horrible at speed. Wobbling spaghetti chassis. I very quickly got to where I could easily drag the pegs and make the bars row. Top speed was an indicated 88 mph full throttle, laying on the tank.
Edit: I had to add the part where I teach myself to ride.
I’d picked the motorcycle up on a Friday afternoon. The salesman rode it back to our apartment for me since my experience with it consisted of circles and figures of eight in the shop parking lot. I figured rush hour across half of Denver was a bad idea. It began raining just as I dropped the salesman back at his shop and I headed into work. It rained all night and all Saturday, but I had to work anyway so no big deal. I read and reread the manual. A buddy at work with a BMW had been my primary riding mentor. Me not riding, but reading everything I could find and we discussed each tip and technique.
The basics were down to learning where all the controls were, learning to operate them smoothly and then masting the balancing skills to pass the riders test at the DMV. I’d of course memorized the written test, so that was a breeze. But, I still needed saddle time and my DMV was 28 miles across town. My license having not yet changed addresses to our new apartment.
Sunday morning we were up early and I was excited. Clear blue skies and damp roads. 6AM around the university was quiet with only me and my new motorcycle puttering along to break the silence. I shifted up and down through the gears, practiced braking front and rear brakes at each stop sign. I slowly inched my way to balancing on the pegs, seated at each stop, then putting a foot down. I shifted to neutral at a stop, then engaged the gear and smoothly moved away. I found an empty parking lot and practiced tighter and tighter circles and figures of eight until I could ride full lock, and shift up and down while turning. Not a waver or dab of a toe required. At that point and as I noticed more traffic, I figured I was ready and headed back home.
Monday morning I rode north to my old home DMV. No appointments in those days, you simply show up. The written test flew by. Then off to the riding course. I was confident and doing well until the bike stumbled and stalled. I couldn’t restart it. The officer noting I’d been doing so well, told me to figure it out, practice and he’d retest me later.
I soon discovered I’d had the petcock on reserve this whole time and run the tank dry. There was a gas station just next to the DMV, so I pushed the bike there, filled the tank and rode back. Nobody around, so I practiced on the test range. I’d stop at the intersection in the figure8 cones, turn the bars to the opposite lock and ride that loop of the figure. All without putting a foot down. I rode the straight bit, shifting up three gears and back down, stopping, then turning round and coming back, again without putting a foot down. The testing officer came out and handed my signed off test. He asked how long I’d practiced and was surprised to learn I’d only begun riding Sunday morning. I’m certain I had just over 40 miles under my belt. I had to ride back home, change to work clothes, pack my supper and off to work. My motorcycling adventure had well and truly begun.
Over the course of owning the little Honda, I had to reset the valve clearances once a month or about every thousand miles. I could feel the running getting poor. I never balanced the carburetors as I did not have access to those tools at the time. The shop supposedly doing this for me after that initial 600 miles. The buzzy motor never stopped. As we neared our first Christmas as a married couple, the little motorcycle got traded for the next bit of this adventure.
… to be continued in Part II – The Norton Rides