The ’91 GSXR 1100 was a feral beast. It had been tame once, well “mostly tame” anyhow, but the bike’s previous owner had stripped away the thin veneer that civilization had imposed upon it and restored it to its primeval form. It hadn’t taken much, really. Larger carburetors, performance cams and a full race exhaust had transformed the bike from a wickedly fast street machine into a full-race bike that, despite the license plates, had no business being on the street. Still, it had a sort of lethal charm that attracted men like me: confident, experienced, prideful. It was a battle of wills I would not lose. I was determined to master the bike and, like a living thing, the bike was determined to kill me.
They say that most people who die in accidental shootings are killed by “unloaded guns.” I would imagine that most people who die on motorcycles are riding relatively “safe” bikes. You know the kind, usually big and slow. The ones that inspire confidence in their riders. The GSXR was the opposite of a “safe” bike. It was big, powerful and with a short wheelbase was exceedingly ill-mannered at slow speeds. On the move it was roughly sprung and, despite the steering damper affixed to the bars, prone to a bit of headshake when you laid on the power.
Still, on the smooth pavement of the Japanese expressway, the bike was a marvel of precision engineering. The slightest input translated into immediate action. A simple turn of the wrist became instant acceleration. A modest pull of the brake lever would slow even the most determined head-long rush with surprising aplomb. The GSXR was a true thoroughbred and, when it was doing what it was built to do, the division between man and machine was nonexistent. Like living thoroughbreds, however, it could be sensitive and fickle, too.
The problem began with the slightest of judders when I rolled on the throttle. The bike still surged forward upon command, but the edge wasn’t there and I noticed the change immediately. The problem was more pronounced the next time out. As I hit the gas, the bike stumbled as it came up to speed. Over time, these little vibrations became a full-on epileptic fit as the bike surged and shook whenever I added more than just a smidgen of gas. I knew I would have to address the situation and ran, one at a time, through the possible problems.
Sportbikes are a pain in the ass to work on. Like an old muscle car, the premise of a sportbike is simple – take the biggest, most powerful engine you have and stuff it into the lightest, smallest package you can. Needless to say, clearance is limited and getting to the various bits and pieces I needed to work with proved to be a problem. I started by replacing the spark plugs but there was no effect. next, I made certain the fuel petcock was working and that no lines were pinched before finally deciding to access the air filter.
I hated the idea of opening the air filter. Located behind the carbs, under the gas tank and in the area that normally rested directly between my thighs, it was easy to see but next to impossible to get open. To make matters worse, the airbox, like so many other things on my bike was modified as well. To get into it, I had to pull the gas tank and seat and then disconnect several electrical connections before pulling the battery and then the battery box. After that I had to use a stubby screw driver to unfasten several screws and then another to loosen the large clamp that held on a single, large filter element. It took time, effort and a lot of scraped knuckles but I managed to do it without losing my sanity.
Once it was out, the filter didn’t appear to be especially dirty and so I figured that I had gone down yet another false path. Regardless, I washed it out in a bucket of fresh gasoline and started the tedious process of putting the bike back together. It took time, but when it as done the bike fired right up and idled fine. Grabbing my helmet, I wheeled the bike out of its parking spot and and headed for an access road that ran along beneath the expressway close to the Port of Yokohama.
At the first stoplight I checked for the cops and grabbed a handful of throttle. The old bike surged strongly as it shot its way towards the redline. I grabbed second gear and held the throttle wide open. Able to breathe correctly for the first time in a long while, the old bike ate up the road without missing a beat. Shifting into third I got off the gas and let the bike slow before working it through a series of roll-on accelerations to make sure the problem was fully resolved. It was and I felt good.
A couple of miles out I turned around and headed home. I stayed off the gas a let the bike chug along in the higher gears. It was a relief that my notoriously finicky bike was working so well and I decided at the last moment to head through the port facility to a small park at the base of the harbor light house. The Port of Yokohama is a sprawling place and the central road is easily six lanes wide. Normally filled with idling trucks waiting to pick-up or drop-off loads at the port it is, for the most part, a featureless, pancake-flat stretch of pavement split by frequent railroad tracks. At its far end, the road meets a high cement sea-wall and curves around the barrier in a set of sweeping S-curves. Given the width of the road and the lack of traffic I hit them hard and slipped through them without a hitch.
At the lighthouse, I turned around and headed once again towards. It was a nice day and I wasn’t eager to be back inside so I went slowly, trudging along in the higher gears, the engine stumbling along just above idle. As the S-curves approached I dropped down a gear but the bike’s engine abruptly died. Unphased, I pulled int he clutch, downshifted again and dumped the clutch to bump-start the bike. The engine sprang back to life and I rolled smoothly through the first corner, righted the bike and then leaned into the next. It was there, mid-apex, that the engine died again.
Things happened fast. The back wheel locked and the tire began to slide. To prevent a “low-side,” a type of accident where the back tire of a bike slips out from underneath you and leaves you sliding on your ass, I grabbed the clutch and got the back wheel rolling again. But skidding loads a bike’s suspension and, as the back wheel regained traction, the rear spring was free to unleash its pent-up energy. As the spring sprung, the bike bucked, turning into an angry bronco as it attempted – and then succeeded – in throwing me off.
Free of its rider, the bike continued to follow its momentum over onto its far side while I was thrown, still in seated position with my legs beneath me, high into the air almost like a fighter pilot being ejected from his stricken aircraft. The odd thing was that, despite the amazing height I achieved, my forward momentum was not really that great and I had let go of the bars quickly enough that I hadn’t been thrown head over heels. I straightened my body and landed hard on my feet, breaking into a run as soon as I touched down. In a mere moment I was safe on the sidewalk looking back at my stricken bike as it attempted to disgorge the contents of its fuel tank into the street.
Adrenaline pumping, I ran back to the big bike and levered it back onto its wheels. One of the handle bars was twisted and a side mirror broken off, but otherwise the bike looked to be in decent shape. After pushing it to the side of the road, I pulled off my helmet, bent the bar back to where I could use it and tried to refire the bike. The starter growled for a fraction of a second and then clicked off, the battery was obviously dead. How odd. I pulled off the seat and looked to see if there was anything I could do. The problem was immediately obvious, in my rush to complete the project I had failed to reconnect one vital part of the bike’s charging system and had made the entire run on battery power alone. I cursed my own stupidity.
I snapped the wires back together and tried bump starting the bike. It took several runs up and down the flat street and by the time the old bike eventually fired I was nearly sick to my stomach with exhaustion. I waited to recover while the bike idled unevenly and, when the worst had passed, I clicked it into gear and limped home. It was a walk of shame.
In 20 years of hard, fast riding I had never had an accident on the street. Sure, once or twice I had put my foot down wrong at a stoplight and fallen over, but I had never been thrown or had any kind of real accident. I had been extremely fortunate. There was no real damage to the old bike and the only injury I suffered was to my own pride. You know pride, right? It’s that thing that comes before the fall. It’s the one injury that, I think, can never fully heal.
Thomas Kreutzer currently lives in Buffalo, New York with his wife and three children but has spent most of his adult life overseas. He has lived in Japan for 9 years, Jamaica for 2 and spent almost 5 years as a US Merchant Mariner serving primarily in the Pacific. A long time auto and motorcycle enthusiast, he has pursued his hobbies whenever possible. He also enjoys writing and public speaking where, according to his wife, his favorite subject is himself.