It was thirty-eight degrees F outside, with a light misting of rain, as I pulled my newly-purchased 1975 Honda CB550 up to the stoplight, next to my ex-wife’s 2012 Edge. My son waved cheerfully from his monstrous child seat.
“We only have eighty-two miles left to go,” I shouted through my chinbar, “and I want to beat the worst of the rain. I think I’ll be okay taking the freeway.”
“It’s fine with me, either way,” she replied. This didn’t suit my opinion of the risk I was taking by chucking an unproven, thirty-seven-year-old motorcycle into high-speed tractor-trailer traffic at near-freezing temperature, so instead I pretended that she had given me the response Trinity gives Morpheus when he suggests taking the freeway: “You said it was suicide.”
“Then let us hope,” I told her, ignoring the completely confused look on her face, “I was wrong.”
I’ve been riding motorcycles off and on for more than twenty years now, but I don’t think of myself as a motorcyclist. I don’t compete on a motorcycle. I don’t read the web forums, or buy expensive gear, participate in “poker runs”, do cross-country touring, or videotape myself doing 130-mph wheelies past cop cars. In the year 2000, I put 10,700 miles on a new Yamaha YZF600R, and that was the biggest year I ever had on a bike, by far.
The bike the YZF ended up replacing my was old 1974 Honda CB550, the third motorcycle I’d owned, after a 1986 Ninja 600R and Eighties Honda CM250.. I’d bought it on a whim from Dana Marshall, the drummer from almost-made-it indie band Scrawl. He’d modified the bike in a style intended to vaguely approximate the “cafe racer” look. I paid fifteen hundred bucks for it and rode it all through the winter of 1999. I liked the fact that the bike had a kick starter, which meant it would reliably start, even if I had to blow my knee out doing so. It was slow and didn’t stop well, but it was stable and forgiving. I also thought it looked cool. I will leave it to you, the reader, to decide.
The white square on the side, if you must know, is a sticker from the GNU Foundation, with this graphic on it. I also thought that was cool. What can I say?
After a year or so of riding the old CB, however, I decided that cool wasn’t nearly as important as comfortable and fast, so I sold the CB to a local hipster-ish bike shop for a grand and bought the YZF to replace it. The day afterwards, I began a twelve-year pastime of bitterly regretting having done so.
Fast-forward to the present day. My inability to get my Neon’s new engine-control computer programmed appropriately before the 2012 season-opener race meant that I found myself with some extra cash in my pocket and a general sense of resentment against the world. A long night of free-association eBay shopping brought me to a pair of CB550s. One was $2500, located 801 miles away in Abilene, Kansas, and boasting a complete selection of restored parts. The other was $1900, just 103 miles away in southwestern Ohio, and listing new tires and carburetors to go with a one-owner history.
The romantic in me liked the idea of flying to Abilene and riding across the Midwestern plains; the realist looked at my schedule and realized that I had exactly one open day in the next month to close the transaction. Saturday found me in a makeshift garage behind a trailer home off a rural road, pulling the cover off a handsome and well-preserved example of what they used to call the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, or UJM for short.
It was a solid bike with a clean title that started easily. The owner put about a gallon’s worth of gasoline in the bike and counted the money carefully before permitting me to put me to put my name on the title. It was raining steadily when I pulled out of his gravel driveway and headed for home.
There are very few things which inspire less confidence in me than riding an unfamiliar motorcycle on rain-slick roads in near-freezing temperatures, so I struggled to keep the bumper of my ex-wife’s Edge in view on the twisting country two-lane. I gained more and more confidence in the old Honda’s friendly handling until a little bit of front-tire slippage in a downhill left-hander stole it all away and dropped my pace back to somewhere around the posted speed limit. Finally the freeway entrance came into view and I decided to try to make this a ninety-minute trip home instead of a three-hour slog on more backroads.
Ten miles in, I ran out of gas. My left hand, stiff and numb from the cold rain seeping through my gloves, didn’t readily operate the reserve switch. I was down to thirty miles per hour by the time the Honda caught and surged again. Upon filling up at the next station, I discovered that the gas tank had multiple pinholes in it through which fuel could escape. Best to get back on the road before it all evaporated.
The cold wasn’t just freezing me; it was choking the little bike’s ability to maintain freeway speeds. I had to drop to fourth gear to maintain seventy miles per hour. The ribs of the cylinder heads weren’t hot to the touch. It put me in mind of the long winter training rides I endured as a young road cyclist. One mile at a time, through chattering teeth, head down against the wind, conserving energy. On a motorcycle, you don’t get the roadie’s gravel-fine view of the pavement, but you see things that don’t even appear to a “cager”. The wave of the pavement. The oil-dark center line on every road: that’s deadly when it’s wet. The ragged edges of every paint stripe. You’re involved with the road
There’s also no radio and no phone. Dutch cyclist and chess grand master Tim Krabbe once wrote that, although one expects to do serious thinking on a bicycle during a long ride, that thinking never really takes place. Instead, one simply wears one’s mind smooth on trivialities until it feels like a ball bearing, round, featureless, containing nothing. As the rain made its way into every part of my helmet, I focused on nothing and the mile markers appeared one after the other. The temperature gradually climbed into the forties. The Honda woke up. I shifted into top gear and twisted the throttle until the wobbling, hopelessly optimistic speedometer passed the “85” mark. I’d covered eighty miles with about two gallons; the pinholes weren’t that bad.
Off the freeway, up the hill, and into my garage. Half an hour later, I was still freezing from the inside out, but I had the satisfaction of righting a decade-old wrong. I was a motorcycle owner once again. Not really a motorcyclist, but a motorcycle owner. For now, that’s enough.