At first it was embarrassing. I'm talking bikes - always it's with a non-biker. Not someone like Steve. Steve will understand immediately. With the non-biker it comes out that I have two motorcycles. "Whaddaya need two bikes for?" "Two" is pronounced "too" in this case. As in "too many." Straights can only figure that anyone crazy enough to ride a motorcycle might indeed be crazy enough to have more than one. Any biker knows that if one is good, two is better, as are three, four, or fifteen. Hell, the sky's the limit. Or your wallet. Or your old lady.
See we're looking at one bike, maybe my Beemer, and then it comes out that I have got this other machine - my '97 Harley Davidson Road King, or among the cognescenti, a '97 FLHRI. Not stock. It's got leather bags, and various other official HarleyÒ and unofficial doo-dads that cost more than a sane person would spend on anything short of a cure for cancer. And that's just for the buckles on the saddlebags.
And so they ask again, "Whaddaya need too of em for?" Mom put it differently: "Ya only got one beehind!"
So we're admiring my 1996 BMW R1100RT motorcycle. It's fantasy-bike sleek. Something from Babylon 5 or the Space Oddesy. Everything is sort of bent-backwards and rounded, so the bike looks like it must go at least nine hundred miles an hour. There's this electric windshield goes up and down and changes its angle as you push a button. Sometimes at a stoplight I wiggle the windshield just to tickle the kids who peer out from an adjacent station wagon. They grin and wave. I wave back. This waving happens on both bikes.
Lights and mirrors are all built into sleek fairing or other plastic parts. Unlike a Harley, there is no real chrome except the exhaust, but the metallic Icelandic glacier green paint is so cold it's painfully hot - dry ice! Instruments are serious. A jet pilot has a less streamlined cockpit. Under a keyed panel is an AM/FM Stereo tape deck controlled from more handlebar switches. More panels pop and wave to open to various adjustments and compartments. It's all very high tech, ultimate engineering, hot handling, a fast rider's bike.
Just back from Sturgis by way of Cleveland, Wooster, Toronto, and Wooster, I park the new Beemer on Market Street outside the old Bardavon Theatre in Poughkeepsie. I cross the widest street in Poughkeepsie and head into the NY Division of Motor Vehicles to register the new bike. I pay an absurd amount of New York sales tax. I come out squeezed but resigned. What's that crowd across the street? Did I miss been another drug shooting? I tell tourists "Poughkeepsie" is a Dutch translation of an Iroquois word that means "gunshot wound."
There is this crowd on the sidewalk, but it's quiet! Even boomboxes are turned low in rare reverence, and the crowd is hushed. People surround my bike. I push through to for a look at the body and to see if there are bullet holes in my machine.
There's nothing. Just the bike. I know what to do. Swaggering, cool in my chaps and vest, shades and helmet, I stand up tall, moving as BMW seriously as possible and throw a leg over the machine as I slide my key into the ignition as sexually as possible. (It's a hot bike. It's not a sex machine.) Two women moan a low throaty howl from deep in their throats. A couple of guys slobber and whimper, and skinny gray-haired lady leans out so far for a look that she topples over into her shopping cart and spills off of the curb in a clatter of soda cans. I'm still on the kickstand. The bike is very tall and I'm very aware of how embarrassing it is to tip over in front of a crowd, so I get on before folding up the stand, ignoring dealer's instructions to lift, kick, straddle, and ride.
The bike starts. (Of course! It's a BMW.) The crowd steps back. I ooze off the kickstand, glide around the lady and her shopping cart, slip from the curve, and hiss up to high speed down the arterial, a green bullet fired from a silenced-weapon. Suitable to Gunshot-wound, New York.
Actually, after Steve and I rode our Honda 750's all around Cape Breton up in Nova Scotia we rambled down through Mexico in the hot months of 1976. I decided I needed a "real" touring bike. In 1977 I bought a new BMW R100/7, installed the Vetter faring from my Honda, rode the BMW off an on for a few years, got married (again), raised kids, wrote computer programs, renovated houses, became a carpenter, got a big dog, and stored the /7 for more than a decade. I also had this lovely Norton 850 Commando that I bought from Ray Wicks when he transferred to England. I had just bought the BMW but Ray invoked my standing offer to buy. The two bikes spent at least twelve years mothballed in my garage.
Kids get big, take the car, take the savings, go to college. Computer programmers burn out. Carpenters work full time. Marriages sometimes don't survive tragedies./P>
Back on the road again! Sold the Norton. Used the proceeds to update and return the /7 to the road. Amazing! Tires are so much better in 1996 than in 1976 that it feels like the bike is glued to the road. The /7 is completely reliable, and simple to work on. You feel like you could ride it to Alaska for lunch, then head down to Tierra del Fuego. Or so it seemed. I will keep it forever. That's the plan.
But Carl Conti and his totally charming brother Tom Conti and I ride to Daytona in '96. At Bike Week I ride this Road King at the Harley Factory demo tour. I don't want to get off. It's alive. This is exactly how I always imagined a motorcycle is supposed to feel. The first time I twist the throttle I feel as if there's going to be a rooster tail of asphalt spewing up into the air behind me! The bike is crude compared to my Beemer. At first glance. Actually Harley hides improvements and sophistication as much as possible, keeping that 50's look. Lots of chrome, heavy, solid. No sleek fiberglass. Rumble. At idle the bike shakes so much that the exhaust pipes attached to the rubber-mounted engine have slides to allow more than a inch of movement. At highway speed the bike is smooth, as comfortable as an arm chair. It's an animal. Some riders call it their horse. Indeed it has its quirky personality, and might spook like some horses. It'll also bite anyone who has no business poking at it! I am enthralled. My Beemer has obvious engineering. Harleys , quite obviously, have soul.
Back in Poughkeepsie I visit Harley dealerships. Some want $1000. over list, and $100. just to add your name to a waiting list of "maybe you'll get a bike." But outside of Kingston, Woodstock Harley Davidson is run by women. Jan is tough enough to ride Harleys, but she doesn't need that testosterone-based obnoxious quotient that I found in the Savannah dealership when I stopped by for a quart of oil. At Woodstock Dee takes my order. It's about a two-year wait for a Road King. That's OK, I have my old '77 /7 that I intend to keep forever. That's the plan.
Carl and Tom and I head out to Sturgis the next Fall. They're on big Hogs, full-dressers. I'm on my '77 R100/7. Carl has no idea how to travel other than full-speed from point to point, stopping only for gas, and barely to sleep, eating some greasy intestine-cramping metafood close to the motel. Haute cuisine is Kentucky Fried. Roadside signs, little villages, people, canyons, rivers, trees, bars, women, children, dogs, all pass in a blur. Carnivals, county fairs, apple orchards, wheat fields are experienced by smell as we speed by, rain or shine, sun or snow. Carl, a pilot, flies over rather than through roadside attractions. It's an experience to have, once. Carl does it this way,always. Carl makes clear that it's Carl's trip. Anyone else is just permitted along for the ride.
We are intact at Sturgis, where Hogs fill the state to overflowing. South Dakota Harley rumbling overflows into Wyoming and North Dakota. We ride one day more than a hundred miles out of town to look for Tom's cousin. Bikers are everywhere. And in a trip of more than a thousand miles I see only two obnoxious riders on a single day out of maybe 20,000 Harleys and a month on the road.
Having a Road King on order, and riding a BMW, I feel comfortable enough to buy a Harley T-shirt and later a wallet. More would be embarrassing. On the ride home we ride, eat, sleep, repeat until my /7's front wheel bearing starts grinding. I pull over. Carl and Tom join me for an evaluation. We pull the wheel easily. The bearing is shot. Carl speculates that the damage is as bad as it'll get, so we may as well try to ride on to our destination - Tom's sister-in-law's place. I agree. Mistake. We ride another tenth of a mile and the wheel is screaming. I pull off at the next exit and when we stop the front end is frozen solid. Solid. Park, cover, pull out some stuff into a backpack, ride with Carl to Diane and David's in Lodi Wisconsin.
Carl Conti, shows his kind and patient side (it's big, always there, and sometimes hard to see) as we drive back to the bike, borrow a hammer and pound and beat the shit out of the front end to get it apart enough to take to Mischler's in Beaver Dam for repairs. It takes all day.
Riders on the road are usually treated well by dealers, who give priority to travelers' needs. Mischler's is no exception. Expert, competent service. New bearings and races, repaired axle, new axle nut. Mischler's sells both BMW's and Harleys. I look for a sample Road King, I admire new BMW R1100RT's (no waiting list, no over-list pricing) and I ponder the quality of lubrication done on my BMW front end during the bike's road-prep last year.
While I'm waiting I start a list of things to fix up on my beloved old bike. There's that jumpy speedometer, sticky carb floats, seats, needles, final drive oil seal at transmission, funny clutch operation (new clutch just installed), pull those old petcocks and check for flakes of tank paint that clog the gas line screens, replace the worn out steering damper, check that loose front turn signal housing, change the oil and filter again, check the front wheel balance, check for an oil leak at the pan, and for an oil leak at the oil pressure unit, find out if any other gaskets and seals need replacement -- the usual stuff for an 18-year old motorcycle.
Leaving Lodi Wisconsin Tom and I stop for gas on the Interstate. A young Indian woman is looking over her shoulder at her Dad who beckons to her to back the car to a better position at the pump. She is lovely, but looks barely old enough to drive. While looking backwards she lurches forward, slamming me and Beemer down and running a bit over us. We're not hurt, but very pissed. I am pinned on the ground under her car, gas leaking out of my tank and across my crotch. Upon reflection I express myself with careful eloquence, screaming instantly and at nice volume "Are you out of your goddam stupid mind?"
Tom has the quiet gentleness and calm of a man who has known real danger and who knows how to handle himself. Tom is also not reluctant about confrontation. After making sure I'm unhurt he hurls insults at a rate and of a quality that I could not think up in a contest. They're not in any dictionary. They're not even in print! Tom is world-travelled and creative. Cops come. Young woman's father, having had time to reflect, recants his original apology to me and says to cop that I ran into their car and then threw myself and motorcycle beneath their wheels in an act of braggadoccio. I say the driver was looking backwards at her dad and drove forward over me when he waved her to move the car.
They are offended, and want us arrested for using insulting language. Actually considering Tom's insults I don't blame them one bit. But hey, I was the one getting squashed due to incompetent driving! I want driver to get a warning from cop to watch where the hell she is driving. Cop says this is America and that yelling when run over is not illegal. I say I'd just like the kid to look where she's driving next time. Look out for their white Dodge, VA License 2LV-1680 and be sure to give lots of room at the gas pumps!
I think the Beemer and I are fine and I head into Ohio. Carl accelerates into the distance and I never see him again. Tom and I split at Cleveland where he stops at lovely sister Joan's place. I share their hospitality for the night and brood about old Beemer parts and sticky speedometer cables. Tom says if I had a Harley with loud pipes the "girl" would have heard me and might not have run me down. I do not correct his language.
I think the impact did no damage. The next morning we head out. The bike doesn't feel right. We've been together longer than I lasted with either wife! In fact longer than with the sum of both wives. There's some odd vibration in the tranny. I get out my BMW Anonymous and call some local riders who send me to the best dealer in the state, All Seasons in Wooster Ohio.
Ed and Bob in All Season's service department take the /7 right in with unequalled road courtesy. Bob pulls the drain plug for my tranny. Actually it's the /7's tranny but we're nearly melded into one at this point. Oil and a pile of metal shavings fall into his hand. Bob looks at me and holds out the evidence. "This is going to be really expensive," he says in a low, serious voice. I know it.
These guys can fix anything. They start taking the bike apart to see how badly things are busted. (Bearings, big gear. They agree that my maintenance was right on target. There is no clear explanation for this failure except maybe age or maybe in some obscure way, that impact at the gas pumps.)
Joe Wright sees me looking at a R1100RT in the showroom. It's sleek. I've been reading about this new bike for almost two years now. I looked this bike over at Daytona but unlike Harley Davidson who had a factory-sponsored demo-ride setup, the BMW people had no interest at all in letting anyone try out their machine. I studied it further at Mischler's in Wisconsin. In Ohio Joe at All Seasons has a different view from the Daytona BMW folks: "Who would buy a motorcycle without trying it out?" he agrees. He tosses me keys, gives instruction, and asks questions until he thinks I know which brake stops the bike. "Wait until the road dries out a bit, then take it out for a ride."
I do, and I do, and I wow! I do indeed! This is incredible. Eighteen years of engineering improvements have been made to a bike that I already thought was te rrific. This new machine is nothing less than amazing. Handling and performance are effortless and perfect. We twist and turn up and down Ohio back roads for about fifty miles and hop back to the dealer. I have just sprinted the 400 and am not even out of breath!
Joe sees a dangerous gleam in my eye. "Take it out again," he suggests. "You haven't really ridden it long enough to have a good feel for it." Another fifty miles is more effortless and more exciting than before. Riding back I start rationalizing. "Well maybe the cost of repairs on my baby-bike will be just ridiculous," I think hopefully. Well I'm exaggerating, but then you get the idea.
In fact the repair costs will be a lot - maybe half the book value of the bike. Joe offers me full book - they'll rebuild my /7 as a winter project, and I can take a new RT if I want. Four have come in this morning and are still in the crates.
Joe and I walk out to a large steel building where crates are stacked two-high. I peer through slats at a blue bike, at a red one, and then I see this hot ice-green. Jumping off a rock high over the Colorado river was not a random act nor a move made without thought. Excitement and fear, thought, determination and ok, to be honest, a dose of impulse. But I've been looking at new bikes for a couple of years now. I jump. "Let's do it!" I say. Joe smiles knowingly. The shop guys box up my /7 parts and start assembling the RT. I'm not sure what'll happen to my Road King order, but then, I can always let it come in and decide which bike I want to keep. Hah!
I'm transferring stuff from old to new bike and I walk past some junior mechanics in the service area. They don't see me. "Can you imagine," one of them says. "Here's this guy riding down the road, 500 miles from home, and it's morning, and he's thinking, and he says to himself: 'Hell, I think I'll get a new bike today.'" Well not quite, fellas. But I can understand that it looks that way.
I walk back into the shop and look one final time at my /7. It's all guys around, so I keep my face turned away from them so they won't see the tears. It's sad leaving an old friend. I will mail Joe my records, spare parts, service history. Months later I'll speak with my /7's ecstatic new owner who is no less thrilled than I am to be up and out on two wheels.
Later, on my new RT I ride out at cautious break-in speed, detouring back to show the bike to Tom and Joan in Cleveland, up to Fredonia and Toronto, back through Ohio for an initial service, and finally back to Poughkeepsie to the Division of Motor Vehicles and Market Street and registration. BMW riders, and real Harley riders are the same. They think nothing of a 900 mile detour, in fact the detours are the object of riding. Carl hasn't got this yet. Who needs two motorcycles? Hell who needs one motorcycle? Once you've got that clear, two or more is incidental. So I do ride a BMW. I also ride a Harley. Just one at a time. So far.
January 2008 update: ask me to write about "How I busted my Knee rather than let my Road King bust a turn signal" and "What the Doctor Said" and "How my Harley Dealer Bent my Bike".
This article series contains poetry, prose, short fiction by Daniel Friedman. For more of Daniel's writing see this link: Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories. Any relationship of text in these materials to persons living or dead is probably not a coincidence.
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