Sunday, December 14, 2008

Turning riders into mechanics: Part II - Beemer and Duc

In the previous post I described the bookends of ownership experience represented by the 1968 BSA 441 Shooting Star and the 1970 BMW R50/5. Forty years later, I have been riding for ten years each a 1999 BMW R1100RS and a 1999 Ducati Superspot 750. They were both purchased new.

The Beemer is my daily ride and touring bike. My commutes are very short (6 miles each way) and the touring infrequent. The Beemer has an embarrassingly modest 39,000 miles after a decade of riding. The Duc (Americans say "Duc", as in "duck"; the Brits call them "Dukes" - I suppose because they have dukes and we don't) was purchased new a few months later as a trackday bike. Just a month after buying the beemer I went to my first trackday. It was clear the hulking Beemer would lead to trouble on the track and Teri generously suggested I buy a bike for the track, which she didn't need to say twice.

I put 600 miles on the Duc the first weekend and took it in for it's 1000 km dealer service, then stripped it and safety-wired it for race school the next weekend. I club-raced for five seasons and have been riding trackdays since. The Duc hasn't had a speedometer in almost nine years so I don't have an accurate odo reading. Recently I tried to estimate the miles on the Duc by looking over my trackday notes. Most of my riding is at two tracks on the west side of Michigan, and occasionally at other tracks, and I come up with a little more than 4,000 laps - say 8,000 miles - plus the original 600 as a street bike. Most of these tracks are a hair over 2 miles/lap - call it 9,000 miles. Racing and trackday miles are hard miles.

The saying "Turning riders into mechanics since 1946" may have been coined to describe the experience of owners in the early years of Ducati. My last ten years of riding reflect a very different one. The Duc has been used hard and I have crashed it several times on the track. I've tweaked the engine so it delivers 50% more power than stock (from 58hp to 86hp - measured on the dyno at the rear wheel). It's not uncommon to bounce the engine off the rev-limiter at least once in a lap (which is now 10,250 rpm vs, the original 8,500 rpm).

Braking, turning, gear changes all are much more stressful for the bike under track conditions than on the street. For example, with racing pads in the calipers there is at least one straightaway at each track where braking is so hard that 100% of the braking force is on the front wheel alone - the rear end goes light, the rear wheel just clearing the track surface and waving back and forth in the air in the face of the rider behind you.

I recall all this after writing an earlier post about finding a clogged fuel injector on the Ducati. It occurred to me then, that this was the first mechanical issue I've had with the Duc in almost ten years. And even this was caused by neglect; I hadn't drained the oxygenated race fuel and flushed the injectors. Sure, I have spent hundreds of hours on the Ducati - upgrading, installing performance parts or repairing crash damage. But I have been much harder on the Duc that it has been on me.

The BMW is a versatile, tough, solid machine - generally. I'm quite devoted to it. And it gets the same reasonably diligent maintenance as the Duc. But over ten seasons, I've learned to interpret "Legendary BMW Quality" in new ways (try Googling that phrase). The fuel gauge has been repaired and stopped working so many times the chief mechanic at the dealer suggested I just use the odo, like in the old days. It's not so bad I guess.
The front wheel bearing has failed, the rear drive seal failed - covering the rear wheel in hypoid 90. The Hall sensor (crank position sensor) failed at 32,000 miles. I've had to replace the right cylinder head studs (no small job) - stretched no doubt by overtightening during the first dealer service. There is a persistent small oil drip from a bolt near the cam chain tensioning access cover that won't yield to RTV or thread sealant. It's negligible, but maddening.

Worst of all, the bike developed an electrical intermittent that cut out all the electronics, including the engine, at lean in a left-hand turn (OMG). The problem: the bundle of wires that exit the ignition switch had been crimped so tightly with a zip-tie at the factory the wires had sheared. This necessitated one of those memorable "my-fingers-are-too-fat-and-the-space-is-so-friggin'-tight-I-only-have-two-hands-and-I-can't-see-at-that-angle-through-bifocals" sessions to repair (full details and pix here - expressions of sympathy welcome).

That last repair only cost me the evening and about a $1.00 in connectors. The dealer had already tried to find it once and missed it. I only found it because of the good people on the BMW oilheads forum. It's not a common problem, but apparently BMW wiring looms of that vintage (1999) are known to suffer from brittle copper stranded wire.

Maybe this is not a typical experience. I don't think I own a lemon - but it's also nothing like my first Bemmer. BMW forums have been rich with stories like mine and the BMW Owners News recently had a long article about BMW quality issues. I think BMW engineering is top drawer, but something has apparently gone missing in the sourcing/QA/QC culture in Munich.

Almost any motorcycle made today is of exceptional quality. Japanese, Italian, German, Austrian, American, British (my friends tell me their new Triumphs don't even leak oil) - they are great values and reliable machines, all things considered.

"Making mechanics out of riders since 1946" vs. "Legendary BMW Quality." Your early reputation sticks - for better or worse. My advice: hang-out in the on-line owners forums. Take what you read there with a grain of salt - but it's another data point alongside old sayings and advertising tag lines.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Turning riders into mechanics: Part I - Beeza and Beemer

"Turning riders into mechanics since [date of company founding]" is an aphorism most often reflective of the Ducati experience, but is appropriated by just about any group of frustrated riders commiserating in a brand forum thread.

I've only owned five bikes in my years as a rider. In the 1960s and 70s these included a Moto Guzzi 125 Sport single, A BSA 441 Shooting Star, and a BMW R50/5. I stopped rising for about 20 years and then purchased two new, off the showroom floor bikes, both 1999 models. A BMW R1100RS boxer twin for commuting and touring, and a Ducati Supersport 750 as a trackday machine.

Like most consumers, I'm only too eager to justify my selection of one brand over another by selective filtering of its many positive attributes over its shortcomings. An associated phenomena is revealed by studies of automobile advertising conducted in the 1980s which showed that ads for car models and marques were most read by recent purchasers of same. Perfectly natural behaviour - to seek positive reinforcement as justification for what is typically life's second largest purchase decision. And unlike buying a home (at least till recently) an object that will only lose value in 99.99% of all cases.

I have no uncertainties that the 1968 BSA 441 Shooting Star is the most memorable ride. My youth and the knowledge that I possessed a lump of British legend outshone the certain evidence of my folly... for about 3 months. Even before the theory of blackholes had been proposed I awoke to an honest assessment of my relationship with the Beeza... and who was possessed by what. This was hard to accept. I loved the sound of that thumping exhaust and the gaudy blazing star (not just a decal) sculpted on the tank. And there was the long ritual passage to mastery of the start sequence. I passed among my peers on campus confident in my mastery of kick-starting the one-lunged 441, a dark, ninja-like art, that few imagined let alone had attempted.

The Beeza black-hole was sucking virtually every dollar (not just spare dollars), spare moment, and layers of knuckle skin from my life. The engine leaked oil in great quantities, the electrics were easy victims of Michigan's climate (my college roommates would not have it in the house - leaking oil in the hall...). I've owned nightlights brighter than the headlamp. The carb was subject to freezing on cold mornings. The big single piston bashing to-and-fro loosened nuts in large number and with great frequency. One morning having just to come to idle in a parking spot after the 50 mile ride from my parents to campus, the exhaust note changed abruptly from "thob-thob-thob" to "fwuph-fwuph-fwuph." The exhaust header pipe had fallen out of the exhaust port. Brit engineers had welded a flange to the exhaust pipe and bolted the flange to the frame. The single down-tube frame flexed with every bump, and the motor torqued the connection on every firing cycle till frame, flange, pipe and engine parted ways. A few weeks later, a main seal gave up, and so did I.

By good fortune the shop where I had purchased the BSA also sold BMWs. They actually took it as a trade-in. I have wondered, uncharitably, how many times that 441 had been sold in advance of a conversion to the Bavarian marque.

I justified the extravagance of a new BMW by tallying up the hours and parts the 441 had consumed in the previous eighteen months. It didn't disappoint. For the nearly 60,000 miles we (Teri and I) rode over the next four years The R50/5 was daily commuter, tourer, and wore a sidecar for our honeymoon and first three years of our marriage. With the homebuilt (hand-crafted) hack the Beemer was ridden 365 days of the year, including my commutes in foot deep snow. We brought our first Christmas tree home, stuffed into the sidecar with some groceries, Teri riding pillion.

In that time, with normal maintenance and fluids, the only unexpected mechanical was the light-bulb which burned out at about the 50,000 mile mark.

Even so, I wouldn't mind a second shot at mastering the Beeza.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

It's usually the simple things

My father was a fuel-systems R&D engineer for General Motors' Rochester Products division (now part of Delphi) for more than 35 years. Now retired, he worked on or led many product development projects, including Rochester's innovative "Quadrajet" four-barrel carburetor. Unlike most high-performance four-barrel carbs (e.g., Holley, Carter) the assymetrical Quadrajet had two barrels of smaller diameter, and two larger than those of a typical four-barrel. At low to moderate throttle positions it used just the two small barrels for fuel economy; punch the throttle and the two large barrels opened providing the combined air-flow of a typical four-barrel.

Dad also co-owns the patent for the first multi-orifice, flat-plate injector nozzle producing radially and axially offset fuel streams. Fuel passes through the injector body out of six incredibly small holes drilled at angles between 81 and 84 degrees from the vertical, creating six fine streams intersecting to atomize the fuel in the intake port.

The genius of the design was to maintain fuel velocity through the orifices, preventing injector clogging common to GM's other primary injector supplier. In the early 80's the competing injector supplier was costing GM millions in warranty repairs.

Dad was very much hands-on; his co-workers called him an engineer's engineer.
Out of the complex projects he worked on during his career he learned early-on that when problems cropped up it was usually something simple. A lot of time got wasted, he would admonish, looking at the most complex part of the problem first, when it was usually the simple things.

He gave this advice to me... often.

My second bike was a 1968 BSA 441 Shooting Star - the road version of the 441 Victor trials championship bike. In 1970 at age 19 it was a piece of work. It could be an entire cold-morning's assignment to start if you didn't have the choke, the feel for TDC, compression release, and the timing of that mighty downthrust perfected (you didn't "kick" start it. You hurled your whole body, stiff-legged onto that little floppy lever). Addictive, thumping torque at low revs and matching exhaust note were the reward.
But it leaked oil like hell.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Larson)

I remember a particularly unrewarding sequence of weekends spent fixing the primary leak - at the join of the cases. I rode the Shooting Star from campus to home, where dad had a great shop. I spent a three-day weekend disassembling, cleaning, polishing, fitting new gaskets and cement for a sure-fire cure to the damnable leak (in the end, it did). But on reassembly it wouldn't start. I tried a good many things and determined I had no spark. Nothing would restore it. I was convinced I must have managed to damage either the magneto or the primary coil. Dad was away on a test trip, and I was on my own.

Out of ideas and time, I borrowed mom's car to get back to campus and spent the next few days calling around for a new coil. I drove 50 miles the following weekend to get the coil, installed it, no spark. I drove the 100 miles to return the faulty coil and the dealer was good enough to test it and the old one - they were both fine. Return the new one, reinstall the old one and back to campus. Two weekends.

Dad is home from his Arizona Proving Grounds trip and I meet him on the third weekend. He spends a patient Saturday lunch listening to my successful repair of the oil leak, followed by the longer tale of frustration and deterioration into self-doubt over the electrical problem.

In the garage, he crouches next to me by the bike. Take off the points cover, he instructs. This takes 30 seconds. He pauses for just a moment and asks if I wrote down the order in which I removed the nuts and washers that hold the points to the inside of the case. Well, it seemed pretty straightforward so, no, I didn't. Pointing to a phenolic washer I have just removed, he suggests that I put it under the plate that holds the points, where it will keep the points from grounding out. Gosh. Not even five minutes and the Shooting Star is burbling happily in the garage.

This came to mind this fall when, on the last lap of the last day of the track season, my Ducati developed a horrible stutter and then mis-fire. So bad, I had to shut it off and coasted into my pit. It's that stutter a fuel-injected bike develops when its out of fuel and the injectors are firing dry (bad).

In the pits, plenty of fuel. Got spark. Maybe a broken timing belt. A broken timing belt might mean any number of expensive imported mechanical bits to cry over. But the timing belts are okay, the timing dead-on. Now what? I have visions of pulling the engine, finding, god only knows what.
It would have to wait for another weekend. We packed up and left.

Late fall had come and being lazy, I managed to summon the lesson of the simple things. And dad's fuel injectors. Maybe I really should be draining the race fuel out of the bike after every weekend at the track. Maybe the injectors are corroded. Maybe I'll have to buy damned-expensive new ones. Well, let's start with something simple.

Out comes the oxygenated fuel. In goes premium and injector cleaner. Every couple of days for the last month I turn the engine over with the plugs out to drive pump gas and injector cleaner through the fuel system.

Yesterday I put the plugs in and hit the starter. Not five minutes, and the Duc is booming away in the garage.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


A year ago, December 2007, as I was putting the beemer up for the winter, the price of regular gas had been bouncing around the $3.00/gallon range. I was not looking forward to a winter of driving the Jeep at those prices. In prime riding season I usually take the bike to work, maybe 75% of the time. As much as I enjoy riding, I've also let convenience enter the picture in the decision to ride. Need to pick up something bulky on the way home - take the Jeep. Rain predicted all day? Need to arrive at some meeting looking not-too-rumpled? 98 degrees predicted for the afternoon? All have been good reasons to drive instead of ride.

So last winter, as I was making some repairs to the beemer (more on that soon), I thought I could plan better, be less of a wuss and commit to riding all the time in the coming season.

I put the bike away about the time commuting begins and ends in the dark - end of November, early December. Despite the modulating halogen taillight, 85W headlamp, and Scotchlite (tm) covered saddlebags and riding gear it's hard to convince my family (maybe even me) that other drivers (many of whom are fully distracted in the summer) will see you through the rain, snow, mist, fogged and spray-covered windshields.

Even daylight riding ends at the first salt. We use salt on the main roads in Michigan and it is hard on a bike. More so when it's a dry day in the winter and pulverized road salt is in the air like fine dust - it gets into everything, around every recessed hex-head bolt, the intercom connectors under your seat, into cable ends, the horn... So the beemer gets winterized and covered until we've had a couple of good early spring rains to wash the salt out of the porous roadway. Usually that's about the advent of daylight savings time at the beginning of April.

Come mid-April 2008, regular gas is running about $3.39, and I'm back on the bike - a couple of weeks late because last fall's repairs hadn't fixed the real problem. But now that the bike is running well, I've changed the frame of reference to always ride unless there is a really good reason not to. Being more intentional about riding changed my default routine for commuting. Instead of deciding to ride each morning, I just rode.

It was now a competition. Wuss vs. Road Warrior.

Teri tells me I'm the fussy type. I need to at least imagine I am prepared for what may come. So for day-in-day-out riding, no excuses, this results in a planning ritual that begins with the night-before weather check, the morning weather-check, wardrobe and riding gear selection, and the packing plan for the day. BTW, if you're not using Weather Underground <> you don't have access to a truly useful weather planning tool. Among all their systems the animated, regional radar display they deliver is in my opinion the best short-term weather prediction tool. Try their site for a month and tell me if I'm not right.

The modern mesh riding suit with lightweight waterproof liners in the jacket and pants has made it possible to be comfortable and wear full body armor coverage every ride. I like the Olympia line. I've added an extra layer of soft armor in the hip area based on the location of the last two hematomas I gifted to myself (one was a street crash on a post-rain sandwash across a curve, the other a 100mph get-off on the track when another racer took us both down). The high-density impact foam is velcroed into the full-length side-zip pants, and split so it parts with the zipper. If you're going to glue velcro to foam or heavy fabric "Shoe GOO" is highly effective.

A change of attitude and a few tools to give me the illusion of preparedness made me very comfortable regardless of conditions. More than having good rain gear, my biggest insight was to wear all my riding gear into the office on 95 degree days, rather than to stow it in the black plastic side cases. That kept the suit at A/C temps until I could get underway on the bike. Much better than standing in the hot sun while donning riding gear that had been stored in a bake oven.

So for me it was a pretty decent accomplishment to ride everyday from April 14 - November 13, with just 4 days in the car (ferrying visitors around campus and hauling things too big to hang on the bike). I envy those who either by geography or fortitude ride year-round. I have had one year where I rode at least a few days every month of the year (the year I learned to appreciate the powers of road salt).

The beemer is in the middle of being winterized this weekend. I need to make room in the garage for my son's car, which needs a couple of months of love to get it running again. The Ducati needs a refresh before next year's trackdays and there is just room for one bike and two cars. In summer, two bikes and one car

Gas peaked around here at $4.39 in late summer. Wednesday evening it was at $1.99, the lowest around here since late 2004, early 2005 <>. I am looking forward to next year, having changed my baseline for riding - no matter what the prices are.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

BMW Twins

My daily ride is a 1999 BMW R1100RS, purchased in April 1999 and ridden home in a driving rain for my first ride in almost 20 years. The RS, the half-faired "sport"-tourer of the first generation oilhead boxers, was never a big seller in the U.S. I think they imported less than 200 that year. More people were buying the full fairing and touring package of the RT model, or the cafe racer-esque styling of the just-introduced R1100S.

The half-faired RS was my preference. I love to see the engine out in the open, but enjoy enough fairing and windscreen to make a 600-mile day a pleasant ride. I like air-cooled engines for their simplicity, and the boxer's twin lumps hanging out in the breeze make for easy servicing. You can change the plugs or even pull a cylinder head without removing the tank or a fairing panel (not true for changing the fuel filter, which is a non-intuitive hours-long adventure).

I have also harbored a small-ish secret pride in the exclusivity of this RS. In almost 10 years of riding mine, I've only see a half-dozen or so on the road. In Ann Arbor, I had seen two: one red and one in midnight blue. I've seen them each just once while driving a car, and each time I thought the least I should do is turn around and follow them, to where I don't know, introduce myself and assure them their RS' have a long-lost cousin who'd like to meet them.

This past spring, I left a meeting on campus and crossed the street to my bike, when I saw my RS, or what looked exactly like it, turn out of the bike lot and head up the street. By the time I looked to confirm that my bike was still where I had parked it and attempt a friendly wave the other RS was gone.

This left me just plain goofy. There was another black R1100RS in town. I had that one ephemeral chance to make contact with a previously unknown RS next-of-kin and missed it again. A black one too.

How goofy is that?

The next week I pulled in and there it was again, parked in the lot. I parked next to it and gave it a good walk-around. I pulled out my business card and wrote "Cool. I've got the same model." and tucked into the gap between the rider's seat and the pillion. But I never heard from the other rider. Over the next few weeks I would arrive for a meeting in this part of campus, park in the bike lot next to the other black RS and still be a little amazed at this coincidence.
At home, Teri was feeling increasingly sorry for me that my big report for the day was "It was there again."

When I finally met Wes, the owner of the other black RS, he was leaving for the day and I was just arriving for a meeting. I introduced myself, to which he replied "Oh, the guy who left the card. Yeah, I noticed our bikes look alike." Wes' RS is also a 1999. I'm calculating the odds on two black, 1999 BMW R1100RS' being in the same town, no, the same parking lot... at least 1% of all the 1999 RS models in the US are parked here right now. It would be an even higher percentage if I knew the color breakdown.

"Yeah, it's kind of cool," says Wes. "Same color, year, everything. Looks like you wash yours, though. I'll have to try that some time."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Starting all over again

It's been a long time since I logged into this Blogger dashboard. A few days after my last post at the end of February (!) our youngest son had a serious solo bicycle accident and we almost lost him. On his way to the community college just two miles from our house, he high-sided on a patch of black-ice on an otherwise dry road just 100 feet from home. He was wearing a helmet, but the weight of his heavy back-pack (38 pounds on my fish scale) must have added greatly to the impact which was directly to the forehead. His modestly priced helmet split in two. He hit hard enough to sustain a closed head injury that left him comatose and unable to breath on his own for the next 36 hours. The accident happened on the very first day he had ever worn a cycling helmet - ever. That was the first in a string of amazing events that returned him healthy and whole again. It's been 8 months now, and he's been 100% for a while. We are truly thankful.

We've also passed through a season of parents passing on, leaving for what all hope to be something even better, and children getting married. It's a full life in every way. But it's been a long time since I had the time or the desire to write about riding, or anything else.

I have huge respect for those bloggers that keep bringing us into their worlds week-in-week-out for
years. Dean Adams ("Soup" news from Superbike, Cecilie Hoffman ("Cecilie's Moto Journal"), Steven Munro ("loudbike"), Paul Crowe ("The Kneeslider") - are my all-star list.

Today the hours of daylight must have fallen below a threshold that triggers some synaptic rhythm I need to begin writing. If the moving parts aren't seized up from neglect maybe I can kickstart this thing back into a rough idle.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: Tune up Your iPod/PMP

I tried listening to music, just once, while riding. We have an Autocom rider-pillion intercom installed on the beemer which Teri and I use to simplify those short, necessary on-bike conversions about which of the last four gas stations we've passed might have the cleanest restrooms. Or whether "bear right after fruit stand" means taking the dirt lane up the hill between the cottonwoods, or that long cambered sweeper that branches off 50 yards further down the road.

The Autocom on-bike communications system, by the way, is superb. Ours is almost 10-years old, lacks Bluetooth capability, but delivers remarkable sound. In addition to the things you'd expect like (fast) voice-activated microphones and expandability to integrate multiple audio devices, the sound quality of the volume-compensating, noise cancellation is remarkable. We have clear communications with visors cracked open at 85mph, and when you slow to a stop, the volume is adjusted automatically. The firmware was, after all, designed for battlefield use by helicopter crews. BTW Autocom now has plenty of Bluetooth-capable systems, but for some things I prefer wires anyway.

The one time I tried in-helmet music, using one of the open ports on the Autocom it was distracting as hell. Whether touring, commuting or riding on the track, a large component of the riding experience for me is total engagement with the bike. I read somewhere (okay, so this is HIGHLY anecdotal) that the complexity of environmental assessments, multiple control inputs and fast-cycle feedback loops, makes riding next in line to flying combat aircraft in demands on operator engagement. The music accompaniment experiment lasted about two hours, during which I drove too fast, too slow, daydreamed or was otherwise out-of-synch. Do fighter pilots listen to music in the air? Maybe I'm just easily distracted.

But during our Michigan season of little or no riding, the car audio system gets a full workout. Some tunes about biking would be fun. Unfortunately, music about motorcycling is just as scarce as are good books about riding. To the rescue come Cecilie Hoffman and Carolyn Bierman. Cecilie (Cecilie's MotoJournal) has published an updated list of motorcycle-inspired music, a list that was first begun by Carolyn Bierman (BluepoofBikes Motorcycle Adventures) in 2006. They even have compiled lyrics for the 34 songs listed. Cecilie's site is organized in frames, so I can't give you a direct link to the song list, but as of this post (February 28, 2008) the list is accessed on the current-entry page. In the future you should be able to navigate to it by going to Cecilie's site and under 2008, click through the February listings to the entry on February 16th.

Thanks Cecilie and Carolyn.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: What's on your wall?

Part I - My back wall
Somewhere -- in the garage, your den, living room, home office, basement workshop -- is where you wear your motorcycling heart on your shirtsleeve.

During the university's winter break, I took a week off work to, among other things, get in some motorcycling "head" time. I'd been off the bike for six weeks by then. I went with Dave and Tim to the International Motorcycle Show near Detroit, read "Top Dead Center" and "Riding with Rilke," and updated my home office with some new images.

If you're like me, and many of my riding friends, you collect posters, books and photos on a regular basis -- and store them on a shelf till they turn yellow and brittle. Living in a riding locale where winter means snow on the ground and salt on the streets, this is a great time to see the riding on the wall.

This past fall I discovered an eBay store (Classic Motorcycle Ads) that sells vintage motoring ads. These are ad pages cut from original magazines, not photocopies. In high school, I had two bikes, a 1966 Moto Guzzi 125 Sport and a 1967 BSA 441 Shooting Star that I had never taken pictures of. So, for old-times sake, and for less than $10 apiece I found a mint-condition ad for each and put them under glass on the left side of the wall behind my desk.

If you've never seen the work of motorcycle artist Kendge Shibata (Seevert Works Gallery), you have to visit his site. Although my interests favor European singles and twins, his paintings of landmark Japanese GP bikes parallel the precision of the machinery he paints. When you visit his site observe his process in creating a single image. One of Shibata's newest and most remarkable works is a large-format poster of 21 Honda GP bikes from 1959-1967 titled ""The Legendary Attempt to Dominate the Road Racing World Championship: The Glorious Years of Honda Screaming Multis." You can see an image of the poster on Shibata's site, but he does not sell them to the U.S. I purchased mine from the "Soup Army" store (a.k.a. Hardscrabble Media), who have them available from time-to-time. This became the center-piece of the back wall.

Finally, two pictures, among several black and whites from the pages of the British publication "Bike" went up on the right. This was a series run in 1999 of "Bike" editors and their rides. A lot of character is expressed in these images. Top: one of the editors and his crew with their race bike -- race faces on. Gritty looking guys, these. Bottom: An image we can identify with - one of the editors, lying on his back on what we presume to be a cold damp shed floor, tearing into the vitals of his bike, by the eye-straining illumination of a single, old fashioned drop-light. No heated garage, no fluorescent lighting, no epoxy-finish floor (no space either from what I've seen of the typical UK bike shed). Just desire to be back on the road.

I wish I could dig up the names of these guys. Come to think of it, I bet I still have those back issues on the book shelves in here...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "Top Dead Center" by Kevin Cameron

This is the book that made my winter, January 2008.

In retrospect, Kevin Cameron's adult motorcycling life, at least the glimpses recounted in "Top Dead Center," is the life I would have liked to have fallen into. I just had no idea that such a life was there to fall into. I grew up in Michigan, bought a used Moto Guzzi 125 in high school and when it wasn't snowing, rode around with a pal who owned a Honda 305 Scrambler. We daydreamed about racing motorcycles. That there were actually amateur roadracers on real roadrace circuits in these United States was as unimaginable to us in the late '60s as was getting a date with Joan Baez.

The book jacket describes "Top Dead Center" as a collection of Kevin Cameron's columns and feature writing beginning with a 1973 article he contributed to Cycle Magazine. His writings as technical editor for Cycle became the column "TDC", and continued when Cycle was absorbed (... or "was disappeared") in 1991 by then sister publication Cycle World. "Top Dead Center" the book is much more than a collection of Cameron's articles and columns. It's a core sample through 30 years of motorcycle technology exposing an ecosystem in which racing is the drive that surfaces what biologists call "evolutionary fitness."

Cameron's account of this ecosystem is personal and anecdotal - but he has been in the places, lived alsongside the people, tested the technology and ridden the machines that qualify his observations as candid and authentic, if not comprehensive. This is an entertaining and insightful read. About everything from what racers eat, to what they think and do when they crash.

What is a "day-in-the-life" of young privateers challenging multiple factory racing teams? Describe Erv Kanemoto in the day before his teams won 7 world championships. What gumption does it take for a New Zealand glass artist and his small team to think they can push the edge of motorcycle engine and chassis technology out by almost 20 years (John Britten)? How does one man and his economic vision transform a post-war American market from a tiny, nearly homogeneous two-wheel culture to a diverse competitive global marketplace where more than one-million new motorcycles are purchased every year (Soichiro Honda). What's it like "Being Ben Bostrom" and just how smart is Kenny Roberts Sr?

It's all in there. Inside Kevin Cameron. In his head, in his heart, in his hide. 30 years in the telling. We are all lucky he'll put this much between two covers for less than the cost of an oil-change.

In closing, a bit of serendipity. I was Googling for more Kevin Cameron bio, when this turned up. I don't know whether it is more remarkable that it was prescient of Dean Adams (founder and head mole at to ask this question, or that he interviewed Kevin Cameron at the 1994 USGP and published this interview, in what we used to call a webzine, in 1994. Here with Dean Adams' gracious permission:
"Q. Do you see a time when you might publish a book of TDCs?

A. I think it would be an interesting thing to do. I’d like to run it up the pole once to see what response I was given. It’s probably better to self-publish something like that and I just don’t have the money nor can I see myself fumbling off to the post office each morning with twenty-eight little packages or loading my computer memory with address or cutting my tongue with uncountable stamps. But if I could turn everything over to a publisher - sure. Nice thing about books is they stay written whereas magazine articles have to be written every month."

copyright 1997 by Hardscrabble Media

For the complete interview: "The Interview: Kevin Cameron"

Friday, February 08, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "The Perfect Vehicle" by Melissa Holbrook Pierson

If "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop is the latest personal riding journal I've enjoyed, then "The Perfect Vehicle (What it is About Motorcycles)" was the first. In 1999 "The Perfect Vehicle" was the first motorcycle enthusiast book I'd read since recounting the adventures of Ralph S. Mouse in "The Mouse and the Motorcycle" to our children at the dinner table.

As a young rider in high school and college I don't recall books on motorcycling adventure. The exception was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which I borrowed from a friend my last year in college when it was first published. I discovered too many parallels between Robert Pirsig's first life (as Phaedrus) and my own, and gave it up to return to my own manic scholarship. I did read the 25th anniversary edition - 30 years after the first attempt.

I came across Melissa Holbrook Pierson's "The Perfect Vehicle" browsing in the original Borders Book Shop (Tom and Louis Borders started with a small used bookstore, here in Ann Arbor, in the early '70s). I had just ordered my first bike in more than 20 years, with the generous encouragement of my wife, Teri, and was feeling self-conscious of this classic mid-life behavior. Maybe it was pre-delivery buyer's remorse.

I had lots of questions. Would I enjoy riding? Was this a smart idea? Could I do this? Could I ride again - would it come back to me? I was registered for the Motorcycle Safety Foundation "refresher" course, so I had the right plan, just not the refresher.

I admit that the deciding factor in buying the little paperback was the cover. A finely detailed rendering of the Moto Guzzi 500cc V8 GP bike of 1954. Maybe the most exotic motorcycle to that time. Only two were built. My first bike had been a 1966 Moto Guzzi - a 125cc single, with only a little more engineering sophistication than a lawn mower, but Italian styling - which is why I bought that as well.

In many ways this was an ideal starter "first-person" account by a beginning enthusiast. Enthusiasm in all caps. Melissa Holbrook Pierson recounts her personal journey through passions for bikes she hungers for, bike she owns, failures mechanical, spiritual and romantic. Her first encounters with track days and motorcycle racing, and stories of a legion of fellow riders that even literati can admire, women motorcycle racers, sensitive and silent mechanics, and friends who ride skillfully and joyfully with prosthetic limbs.

The telling of these tales, and the many anecdotes, historical perspectives and statistics outside the frame of the author's voice, could be interpreted as urgent, almost frenetic in pace and amplitude. On further reflection, it mirrors much of my early days of motorcycling. The self-doubt before mastering a new skill (the slow mid-parking lot U-turn at 5 mph - riders know what I mean), the calming endorphin rush after a long ride "in-the-flow" or a fast, safe day at the track. And the regular reminder that most things that break on a motorcycle are the simple things - the ones we look for last.

If you are new to riding, or contemplating owning a motorcycle, Pierson's book is one enthusiast's (all caps, again) personal journey into a life of new priorities, new friends and cautionary realities. Pierson's insistent voice is sometimes a distraction in the diary-like recounting of her journey's astride "The Perfect Vehicle." All the same, in 1997 it was something of a landmark in the compact history of motorcycle literature. Read it like you learn to ride: a chapter at a time. A new lesson learned. More surprises ahead.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Winter Riding Tips: "Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop

Last week a group of riders on the "oilheads" list
("") -- owners of boxer-engine BMWs from 1994-on -- discussed salted and sanded roadways, and cold tires and pavement as possible causes of a minor spill by a fellow rider out on a 40 F degree day. It became clear, after looking over the origins of the posts, that these opinions reflected one group whose local climate requires a more or less clear end of the riding season for 2 - 5 months, and another who ride year-round. The latter able to ride, not out of bravery or lack of sense - but by choice or luck in geographic location. This was reflected in the sentiments of a Florida member who opined that he has no time to clean his bike at the end of the season because the last riding season ends on December 31, and the new one begins on January 1.

The hidden tragedy of mono-seasonal riding will be lost on this fellow rider. Having no time even to clean and polish his steed also means he lacks an appropriate season for reading and reflection on the experiences of others. I do, aplenty. Here are a few of my favorite books on the experience of riding. Maybe another time I'll share favorite books on the technical side of tuning bikes and riding technique; racer biographies; coffee table books...

"Riding with Rilke" by Ted Bishop
For fans of the German romanticist poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose compassionate poems of angels inspired Wim Wenders' haunting film "Wings of Desire" (US release 1988), you may be disappointed to find Rilke gets just a page in the Epilogue. But Bishop, by trade a professor of English at the University Alberta, Edmonton, cites one stanza of Rilke to capture what I think all of us ride for. That moment in a ride when the bike disappears beneath us and we cease to ride but to fly like the shaft of light from our headlights, "...when I seemed to be riding that beam, to be that beam, streaming down the open highway. Pure motion. Pure space."

Although Ted Bishop is a scholar of modernist writers Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, his writing is evidence again that when PhD's or pipefitters get on our bikes, we all meet in a parallel universe of shared experiences. The desire to get to the byways of the heartland. To sense the change when the road dips low into a pool cool moist air at the edge of a marsh. To smell the air we cut through - a damp forest, a barn of ripe manure by the road, the scent of fabric softener streaming from a dryer vent somewhere - all insensible to the occupants of a passing car. Planning for a trip, aren't we all overtaken with that irrational justification of needful purchases to make the trip safer and more comfortable: accessories for the bike, a new helmet, boots, gear and maybe... a new bike.

Bishop's scholarly interests coincide with the unique physicality of riding the open road as it transform the journey into the most revealing component of the destination. He's an archive junkie. Diving into the physical archives collected from a writer's daily world and those close to him or her, are to him, like a weeks-long ride rich with the unexpected: tangible, physical delights and disappointments.

So convincingly does Bishop illustrate the parallels with archival scholarship and the road trip, that he received an arts grant to describe the experience he acquired riding his Ducati Monster from Edmonton to Austin, Texas on a research trip. To make the telling of the trip even more meaningful, Ted Bishop wrote his book while convalescing from a massive highway crash that left him in a body cast for several months. The book begins and ends with this experience. The road trip is the memory recounted from inside that suit of
plastic armor.

I met Ted Bishop a week ago at an author reading in an independent bookstore here in Ann Arbor. A wet heavy snow was falling hard and the audience was small. His animated reading, personal anecdotes and long friendly chat with others after the reading were evidence of how much he cares about riding, his profession and sharing both with anyone in range of voice or pen. I have several friends who are distinguished scholars and who have been enthusiastic riders. I enjoyed Ted Bishop's literary insights as much as the ones from behind his windscreen. I'm not a person of letters, but this was one of the best road-trips I've read since Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley." "Riding with Rilke" is a best-seller in Canada. Read it and tell a friend about it.

I meant to write more. Coming next:

"The Perfect Vehicle" by Melissa Holbrook Pierson (1997);
...which I selected because of the cover illustration - the 1954, 500cc Moto Guzzi V8 GP bike

"Top Dead Center" by Kevin Cameron (2007)
... because I've always wanted to be a curmudgeon with a racing pedigree and an engineering degree from MIT who writes for Cycle World.

"She's a Bad Motorcycle" edited by Geno Zanetti (2002)
... because this is a compilation of classic motorcycle lore culled from the writings of 25 different gifted rider-authors.

The First Post

Ulrich ("Uli"), a fellow biker, born and educated in Germany, and who now does learning technology research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, recently expressed my own sentiments about blogging (paraphrased): "I don't understand you Americans. What on earth could you have so much to say about that any of us could have the time or interest to read?" Exactly.

So what hypocrisy is this?

Ostensibly, I'm writing this for me. During a recent stressful season at work, a friend suggested that I write something, anything, every day. The topic didn't matter, the length of prose didn't matter. Just express something. So I am. We'll see if there's benefit.
I picked my favorite topic: motorcycling. The two-wheeled adventure, at whatever pace, is solitary with a bit of thrill factor - like doing timed crosswords.

On standardized personality profiles, I'm always a borderline introvert/extrovert. As an introvert, I am re-energized by solitary pursuits like riding and writing. Many extroverts need an audience just to think clearly - thinking and expression happen at the same time.

So there needs to be a "you" out there - imagined or real - for this expression to emerge. You are another vehicle on which my rational thinking rides - perhaps even some thread of my sanity. I make no apologies - like the riding, I'm doing this for me.
You are welcome to ride along.

John Merlin Williams