Sunday, March 28, 2010

Easy Rider I'm Not

Something must have stirred my memory today. I keep thinking about a chopper. As long as I can remember, I've wanted a Harley chopper. I can trace it back to a purple and lace painted panhead that my older brother had when I was little more than just a tot. If the picture in my head is anywhere close to reality, it was a rigid framed, glide forked, high barred scoot with upswept megaphone pipes and a P-pad. He took me for a ride on it once and that was all she wrote. I couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 and I can't believe Mom let me go but somewhere along there, I got hooked. I longed for a mini-bike converted to a chop every day on the playground at the elementary school. It would be complete with extended forks, a tall sissy bar and a 5 horse Briggs. I even imagined I could ride it to school somehow, even though I was a lot of years away from a learners permit of any kind. It wouldn't be a Harley, but it would be a chopper. Such were the dreams of some of my earliest memories.

As time went on, the dream stayed alive and my Junior High notebooks were covered with the number 13, even though I had no idea what it meant. I knew who Sonny Barger was and a catalog from an outfit called A.E.E. Choppers showed up in the mail. They had custom parts and as a sideline, built bicycle chopper kits that you could order if you could come up with enough coin which I unfortunately, never could. A.E.E. built leg-powered choppers long before the upstart O.C.C. (who offer a pedal chop or two of their own) was even a gleam in the Discovery Channel's eye, and actually before Discovery Channel was a gleam in anybody's eye. Choppers were decidedly not cool and not mainstream then and the guys who built and rode them weren't particularly welcome at the local Harley shop. This was before the leather and long hair look became the cover photo on H-D's catalog and their poster children all wore ties and slacks with a crease. Hollis was still on a lot of people's minds. The Hells Angels were the symbolic anti-Christ's of motorcycling and no self-respecting Harley-Davidson owner would desecrate their ride by removing the crash bars and fringed saddlebags. In that atmosphere, I still pined for a chopper of any sort.

The years rolled on and somewhere around the time I was 16, I made the choice to buy a used Honda SL-100 on/off road bike instead of spending my savings account on a class trip to Europe and Russia. We brought it home from the shop stuffed into the back of a station wagon.

That decision led almost instantly to 30 or 40 stitches in my left leg, a lengthy stay in the hospital with a roaring infection, a nice scar that I still carry and absolutely no lessening of the love of bikes. Eventually, a broken left thumb, a bent wheel and assorted other front end damage came about in a head-on collision with a fancy (expensive) race bike when we came together on a single trail in the woods. I saved for a month to buy a tire, get the wheel trued up and in June I took my high school finals in a cast. That one-lung baby bike and I went everywhere, learned to hillclimb, do donuts, pull wheelies, do cross-ups off a jump and chased cows to the barn about a million times. A gallon of gas and a twist of the wrist and away we went to parts unknown. I signed up for the road test for my license on the little scoot (mine had lights so it was hi-way legal) and passed on the first go. I promptly sawed the muffler off and ran the thing until the timing chain ate up the top sprocket and the piston hammered the valves to death at about 60 mph. I pushed it home and that was that.

The blue 100 led to a brand-new Honda MR 175 enduro bike which I again rode nearly to exhaustion after I put on a lighting kit, poked out the baffles with a big screwdriver and learned to mix gas. The MR was also my first experience with a payment book. Dad co-signed a loan with the warning that a missed month was unacceptable. It's off to work I go.

I dipped my toes in the competition world a time or two but found out I just liked to ride without having to chase anyone. My deal was taking a turn whenever the idea crossed my mind instead of following hay bales and arrows stapled to the trees. I kept the racing stickers but left the enduros and never went back.
The MR took me further and faster than the old 100 could and we picked up more scars and bent stuff, including a nearly broken neck when some creep propped a sapling at chin height across a fast downhill turn. That one peeled me off the back and dropped me on the ground wondering if my head was still attached.
That was the last Honda I owned and by the time I wore it out, most of my friends had moved on to bigger, badder (or weirder) things. One guy had an Ossa (what the hell is an Ossa and why would you have one?), somebody else had Hodakas with goofy names like Combat Wombat and Road Toad. I got to ride all kinds of oddballs like a BSA that shifted on the wrong side and a belt-driven Rotax that didn't shift at all. The MR and I outlasted a bunch of them but eventually, the road called and I left the dirt and the 175 gathered dust. I loved that little bike but it was never a chopper and even though we went all over the countryside, for the time being, it was a substitute that I could afford.
From there, there was a string of other bikes including a Kawasaki 400 that was just as plain as elevator music, odds and ends of other dirt bikes and a Yamaha 650 twin that had pretensions of being a British bike with a Kerker header. Like a true Limey, it was loud and fast but ultimately short-lived.

Eventually, my first Hog came along. A 1980 Roadster which was Harley's updated take on a Sporty with a bigger gas tank, 1000cc's and factory drag bars. It arrived with another fat payment book and no kick starter. It was fast and heavy for carving corners. I rode it straight into a swampy ditch trying to keep up with a Suzuki 550 on a twisty road when the tonnage overcame available traction. By some miracle, we emerged from the steam-cloud intact and upright; even the horn had mud stuffed in it but neither one of us got a scratch. A set of Dunlops replaced the rock-hard Eagles and after that, we got along much better. I slowed down some though and decided it was time to go for distance instead of running full-bore all the time. I sort of figured that you only get just so many times to screw up before it kills you. So my rides got a little slower and quite a bit longer. I rode that one to Florida a couple of times, once even after I'd put 4-over front forks and Z-bars on it. It handled like a log skidder with it's stock Goodyear Eagle tires and those skinny bars but it sure ate up I-95 and some long stretches of local strip in the middle of warm nights. The XLS still holds my record for the most mileage in day. Over 1000 miles with only gas stops between the southern border of PA and Cocoa Beach. It got so hot the valves tightened up but it ran fast and strong until I turned the key around midnight and we both shut down for about 12 hours. We went a long ways together but it still wasn't a chop.

The 'baby Harley' got traded for a screaming red '82 Superglide with a big inch shovelhead and a four speed. The odometer was a blur for the first 10 years or so after I threw a leg over it. Chris and I rode away from the church after our wedding on it and burned up blacktop all over the east coast until the kids came along. We've been cooked, frozen, parched and drowned, windburned and bug-plastered, terrified and ecstatic on that bike over the years. And still it fires up when I push the button and heads on down the road just like it knows where it's going. It's basic black now instead of fire-engine red but I still have it (see previous references to it's winter parking spot in the breakfast nook) and we've been over 105,000 miles since the spring of '83. It's as comfortable as an old boot and I can't imagine getting rid of it but still, it's basically stock and the custom of my dreams eludes me.
I got close once with a Kawasaki Z1 in a rigid frame that I picked up somewhere along the line. That monster was green, mean and as dangerous as a loaded shotgun with the safety off. It had an 1100cc kit in the motor and a Chevy Vega distributor, a gawd-awful long girder front end, no front brakes or speedometer and rode about an inch off the ground. It was like riding a projectile fired from a bazooka. You couldn't steer it or stop it but it would peel your eyelids back when you hit the gas. It was fun but I sold it before it could kill us both. Another Hog came and went with an early Evo motor in an FX frame that I probably should have held onto just because it was such an oddball. Odd yes, but still not a custom.

And so to this day...through years of teaching motorcycle ed. to a boatload of novices, to all the rides that have come and gone, to all the assorted brands and sizes that have passed under my roof, from A.B.A.T.E. and my days as a Road Captain, through the commutes in the snow and highways in the rain, the bugs and the sunshine, all the way back to that long ago playground in Caroline where I first dreamed a dream, the chopper eludes me still. I've been a million miles on two wheels but still hang on waiting for that long, low Sunday-go-to-meeting bike that never quite makes it to my driveway. If it ever shows up, it'll be old-school like me. None of that ugly Arlen Ness or Orange County nonsense. Just a shovel with drag bars and some chrome. Maybe a jockey shift and a belt primary. Who knows, I might look at a disk wheel but spokes are just fine with me too. Front brakes would be a plus after the Z1 but that ridiculously big back tire that's all the rage these days is just plain out of the question. I know it won't be purple with lace spray-painted on it and the upsweeps most likely will be a turnout instead. But that long gone old panhead will still be in there somewhere. It's a little piece of my soul.

Someday, if I live long enough, there'll come a time.

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