Archive for January, 2007

Choosing the “Red Pill”

Saturday, January 20th, 2007

Weather: Sunny and 8°F (-13°C)
Road Conditions: Icy spots in shaded areas, salty pavement everywhere else.

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Can you spot the philosophical dilemma here?

Assuming that some of you might not have seen the movie, “The Matrix”, I am going to provide a brief explanation here, so we can all start on the same page:

In the most rivetting scene from the movie, the main character, “Neo”, is offered a choice of two different pills by a character called “Morpheous”.

If he takes the blue pill, his life will go on as before: a comfortable routine in which he is not seriously challenged by anything, but in which he feels a nagging sense of incompleteness, as though he were missing something.

If he takes the red pill, however, he is told he will enter Reality, where there will be serious, life-threatening challenges, but he will be able to see and feel things as they actually are.

What the Wachowski brothers (creators of “The Matrix”) did, for our purposes here at RHR, was to create the perfect analogy for my winter commuting choices:

Choose the blue truck, and I can sit in a heated metal cage and enter the Freeway; a well-defined asphalt ribbon of dotted lines and tail lights, which only has to be endured for about half an hour. Stay within the lines and within the rules, and I have a relatively easy commute.

Choose the red scooter, however, and I must face the reality of poorly lit streets, slippery pavement, and random obstacles which change by the moment. I am exposed to the weather, and to the danger of collision with any of the other vehicles travelling the same roads. This route will take me an hour or more, doubling my exposure to risk and the elements.

But during that hour, I am living in reality, being a part of my environment, and not merely enduring a necessary transportation event. This is exhilarating, in that I have many options for deviating from the most efficient course.

Temptations abound! The strong smell of roasting coffee beans or frying bacon may cause me to turn down a street previously unexplored on my morning commute. A detour around road construction might cause me to ride past a previously unknown restaurant or bookshop during my ride home. The commute suddenly becomes a journey of discovery, and regardless of any physical hardship or discomfort, the long way suddenly becomes the best way.

Here, however, is where the paths of “The Matrix” and “Rush Hour Rambling” diverge: Neo only has to choose once, but I have to choose every single workday.

Every morning, at 4:59 a.m., I awaken and shut off my alarm clock, which is set to go off at five. It’s a conditioned response, and I’m sure many of you know what I mean.

If the automatic coffee maker has functioned properly, I fill my cup, and bring it upstairs to the MCC, or Media Command Center.

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View from RHR Media Command Center, on this sunny Saturday morning.

The photo above is a bit misleading, however. This was taken after nine a.m., well after sunrise on a lazy weekend. When I come stomping up the stairs every weekday morning, everything is in darkness. I press the proper buttons on the Universal Remote, and the TV and PC screens come to life, something like the CIC in a battleship. The Rush Hour Rambling Media Command Center awakens, giving me the information I need to plan my daily commute.

Weatherscan comes in on the cable TV, traffic reports on the radio, and the PC is standing by in case I have anything to add to this blog.

I seem to recall setting some parameters, before Winter actually arrived, for when I would ride, and when I would not. Those have gone out the window at this point. Scarlet has proven to be quite unmanageable in really slippery conditions, unlike her predecessor. So I have to take each day on it’s own merits.

In this, I have a luxury that Neo did not. I get to make the choice every morning, with the benefit of experience gathered during the preceding days. Although I always prefer the red option, there are days when the risks really outweigh the rewards, and the blue option is the only one that makes sense. If I lived in a moderate climate, this would not be the case.

Which brings me to the point of today’s ramble: After considering the risk of the existing weather and road conditions, the choice between driving and riding really is a choice between the blue pill, and the red pill.

Do you want to be insulated and isolated from the world around you? Do you want to deny and defy reality?

Or do you want to live, breathe, feel and taste your environment, like Man on Earth was meant to do?

If you want my advice, you already know what I’m going to say…

Whenever possible, choose the Red Pill.

Note: Inspiration for this post came from an entry in Arizona Lucky’s blog.

First Call To Grid – 2001 Retrospective

Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

This is going to be a Cafe Racer Retrospective, and it is a bit long. It is something that I never published formally, though it is probably still in the archives of the Bridgestone Motorcycle Forum. But first, a brief explanation…

Back in 2000, I fell in love with an obscure brand of motorcycle, built in the late 1960s by the same Bridgestone company who still make tires today. They were all two-strokes, with disc-valve induction and other innovations that made them unique among the motorbikes of the time.

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An ad for the Bridgestone 350 GTR, with very stylish “farkle”…

Bridgestone quit making them when the competition threatened to stop buying their tires for OEM fitment. They made much more money with tires than they did on these racy, high-quality scramblers and streetbikes, so the decision was really a no-brainer.

These machines have a fanatical following amongst a small group of eccentrics, and somehow I caught the bug. The first one I bought was stock, and not running. While I was preparing to restore it, I located a 350 GTR which had been modified for racing. It was owned by a NASA engineer down in Titusville, Florida, and it was rumored to run very well indeed.

He wanted a stock bike to restore, and I wanted a streetable cafe racer, so we resolved to make the trade. My Dad and I embarked on an epic roadtrip in my pickup truck to go and fetch it. That is a story in itself, but not here, and not now…

We brought the bike back to Minnesota, and I quickly learned that it had an expensive appetite for 100+ octane race gas. It would ping on anything less. The fiberglass tank was held in place by an old hemp belt, stretched longitudinally over the top. The expansion chamber exhausts were suitable for the racetrack, but a bit loud for riding to work at six in the morning. Still, it was a wonderfully unique ride, and I enjoyed it immensely, until I siezed the engine on a top-speed run several months after this was written…

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My Bridgestone GTR Cafe Racer, “Moriarty”, posed next to a Ford Trimotor.

First Call to Grid

I had one of the best rides of my life today. It wasn’t on a racetrack, at least not physically. It wasn’t for a very long distance either. There was nothing remarkable about it other than the fact that I was on my GTR cafe racer, the sun was shining, and it was almost 50 degrees. That’s above zero.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. All the weather pundits and witch doctors agreed that it would rain ferociously from sullen, cloud-choked skies from Friday right through sometime in the middle of next week. On Saturday, I was at work at nine thirty in the morning when the power was knocked out by high winds and falling trees.

So you can imagine my surprise when, sitting in my garage this sleepy Sunday morning, fettling this and polishing that, the sun appeared suddenly through a break in the clouds. I peered at it skeptically for several long moments. Still holding a carburetor float bowl in my hand, I walked out into the middle of the yard, and scanned the horizon for 360 degrees. No doubt about it, the clouds were slowly breaking up, and it was starting to get warmer!

A rush of adrenaline surged through me as I ran back to the garage and pulled Moriarty, my 1968 Bridgestone GTR Cafe Racer, out into the light for the first time in almost 5 months. All his control cables, chain, nuts, bolts, and tire pressure were adjusted to perfection. He wasn’t completely clean and polished, I was planning on doing that over the course of the next several days of bad weather, but it would be absolutely criminal to miss an opportunity like this.

The only nagging question was whether 100 octane race gas, with no stinking additives, had remained stable during the long winter storage. This question was answered on the seventh kick, as a cloud of blue smoke erupted from the pipes and “The Devil’s Own Chainsaw” shattered the stillness of a sleepy Sunday morning in West Saint Paul.

I had to hold the enrichener open for quite awhile, while simultaneously blipping the throttle, just to keep him running. I’m sure this really endeared me to my neighbors, but they know me by now. To complain at this point would be like somebody moving in next to an airport and then whining to city hall about jet noise.

Satisfied that he was ready to roll, I shut him down and ran into the house to suit up. No leather snowmobile bibs this time, no balaclava, just pure motorcycle riding gear today. I put on a wool scarf to protect my throat against the 40-some degree wind, and selected my full-face Arai Renegade rather than my customary pudding bowl and goggles. After informing my wife and the wee savage (daughter Emily) of my intentions, I went back out the door for the familiar take-off ritual.

I rotated the kickstart outward, but then thought better of it. Turning on the ignition, I pulled in the clutch and snicked it into first gear. Then, running a few steps down the slope of the driveway, I jumped on sidesaddle and bump-started the beast like Mike Hailwood himself.

Swinging my right leg over, I turned down the street and brought Moriarty slowly up through the gears. The air was crisp, and the raspy howl of his disc-valve twin echoed off the houses on either side of the road. Taking a deep breath, I experienced Profound Joy for the first time after many months of dreaded Winter.

Keeping to the city streets and a sedate 30mph speed limit, I rode slowly and savored every sensation. All the while I was listening and feeling for any unusual vibrations or noises, but the faithful GTR was simply chomping at the bit and waiting to be unleashed. Noting the sand almost everywhere on the roads, I decided caution should rule the day. No weaving to heat up the tires, no scraping the pegs around corners, just a simple putt past all my familiar haunts.

First stop was Dunn Brother’s on Grand Avenue, for a mocha and a blueberry scone. Parking up, right in front, we drew many appreciative glances. I always enjoy watching guys walk up to the bike, squint at it for a bit, and then seeing that cartoon question-mark pop above their head as they try to figure out just what in the heck that thing is, anyway. The only clue is the “350 GTR” badge on the left side cover, and that is on the side away from the curb.

Finally I called out “`68 Bridgestone GTR!”, and the inevitable conversation ensued. I find this interface with complete strangers one of the most satisfying parts of owning a vintage bike.

Back on the road, after another theatrical run-and-bump start down the middle of Grand Avenue, we headed down West River Road to enjoy the scenery. The Lycra-Clad Trotters were out in force on the paths along the river. I felt like a one-man parade as several of them waved, and I spent a lot of time waving back. Something about that Bridgestone sound really attracts their attention.

The bluffs along the river reflected that sound back to me, and there was no way I could hold to the 25mph speed limit along the parkway for very long. As soon as I could see about a half mile down the road, and satisfy myself there were no speed traps in my immediate future, I twisted the throttle and let it rip through a couple gears. Cresting a hill, I tested the twin-leading-shoe brake on the front, which brought me back to legal velocity with a moderate two-fingered squeeze.

I stopped at my secret source for race gas and filled the tank, on my way to Bob’s Java Hut. The price for 100 octane is up to $2.49 a gallon now, $.50 more than last season, but still a bargain for the trouble-free running, extra performance, and especially that wonderful smell!

At Bob’s I noticed a few other hearty souls had taken advantage of nature’s oversight. There was an old Yamaha 175 enduro parked up on the corner, a GS-something BMW on knobby tires and lanky suspension, and a T595 Triumph Daytona in Basic Black, with a fancy titanium aftermarket exhaust.

I got a simple cup of coffee at the counter and was very lucky to hot-seat into a just vacated table by the window. The joint was packed, mostly with the too-hip, strung-out, uptown Minneapolis crowd. But the bikers were coming back, and would soon take over for another season of bench racing and outrageous lies. I sat there only long enough to warm up and finish my one cup, then it was back down the road I knew not where…

I ended up at a local Irish pub called Molly Quinn’s. Inside, it’s like being magically transported to the Island Kingdom, with authentic accents and a choice of several different brands of Stout, Ales, and of course Harp’s bitter lager. I ordered a pint of Guinness and sat back to soak up the ambience.

This is what cafe racing is all about, here in America at the turn of the century. The agents of law enforcement have become too overbearing and technically adept for us to engage in ton-up antics on urban streets. A bike in impound and my ass in jail is too steep a price to pay for a little testicle-tightening thrill, especially when access to a racetrack is only a month away.

So I contented myself by sipping my Guinness, gazing at my motorcycle out the window on this brilliant spring day, and counting my blessings. When I got home, I would do some more work on my Cafe Scrambler project, and take the girls out for a walk if the weather held until sunset. It had been a long, cold winter here, but one day like this can erase months of boredom and frustration if you let it. The sun is shining… It’s time to ride!

Rush Hour Road Test: 2003 Kawasaki KLR 650

Monday, January 15th, 2007

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My own KLR, “Frogwing”, somewhere in the urban jungle of Saint Paul.

Since I didn’t ride to work today, I thought I would try out this new road test format with a bike that has been my faithful companion for the last four years:

The 2003 Kawasaki KLR 650 A17 is my favorite version of this venerable dual-sport, mostly because of the olive-drab bodywork. This is reminiscent of the bikes the Marine Corps was testing just before I got out of harness. The Leathernecks still use them, powered by a trick diesel engine, to this day.

2006 marked the twentieth year of production for the KLR 650. It has changed very little during that entire production run. Beyond the usual “Bold New Graphics” to distinguish each model year, mechanical modifications were minor from 1987 until it’s tenth year of production in 1996. It was the middle of that year when a host of internal engine and clutch changes were made that would see the bike through the next decade.

Externally, the bike remained the same basic, burly shape. This is a remarkable record amongst bikes of the era. But “KLR-istas”, as they are known, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Like any motorbike that tries to do so much, compromises were made in the KLR’s design that doomed it to mere competence in all of it’s operating regimes. As the bike came from the factory, it never truly excelled in any one area, except perhaps value. MSRP has remained around $5K for many years now, and that is a bargain when one considers the cost of the competition.

But add a few well-chosen farkles, and the KLR really begins to shine!

Depending on which realm of riding you want to emphasize, there is vast after-market support for these bikes. You can build it into a long-range adventure tourer, a stripped-down backroads blaster, or anything in between. KLRs have been ridden to the ends of the Earth by some of the most famous modern moto-explorers, and even competed in the prestigious Dakar Rally.

Kawasaki provides the basic platform, and then it’s up to the Rider to complete his perfect beast of burden.

Personally, I wanted a rugged commuter that could take me anywhere I wanted to go on the weekends. I wanted a single bike to fulfill all of my motorcycling needs.

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The J.C. Whitney Trunk is just perfect for Adventure Touring.

The first addition I ever made to Frogwing was luggage. The best value in a motorbike accessory that I have ever experienced was the J.C. Whitney Trunk, which I bought off their website for a paltry sixty bucks. This is priceless for the commuter, as it will hold everything from your lunch to a change of clothes, footwear, and a few essential tools as well.

If you like to hop curbs to get around gridlocked traffic, or want to ride off-road for any reason, you will want one of the many aluminum skidplates available to replace the cosmetic plastic item from the factory. My Moose plate wasn’t cheap, but it has saved damage to the bike on several occasions.

For those of you with long commutes, or who envision epic roadtrips on the weekends, that stock seat has just GOT to go! After about a hundred miles, mine felt like I was sitting on the frame tubes. For about two-hundred and seventy bucks, Corbin solved that problem for me with their KLR flat-saddle. They make a “dished” saddle too, but that pretty much locks the rider into one position, and I like to move around when I’m chasing the horizon.

I opted for soft-luggage: tank bag, tank panniers, and saddlebags, to make Frogwing capable of crossing the continent, should I so desire. I found that I could still ride rather aggressively, even with all this stuff packed aboard. Once you get used to the bike’s lanky geometry and handling quirks, it becomes a trusted companion on pavement or dirt roads, wherever you may roam.

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Loaded for bear, outside of Wall Drug, South Dakota.

Many choose hard options, including the big, aluminum “Jesse Bags”, for added security and bling factor. Personally, I can’t think of another bike out there that is more anti-bling than the KLR.

The big single-cylinder engine yields excellent fuel economy. In a daily commuter mix of freeway and city sidestreets, Frogwing averages between 50 and 55 miles per gallon, and gets a solid 60 mpg during long trips on two-lane blacktop.

Maintenance has been minimal; one valve check/adjustment per year, oil changes at 3,000 miles, and frequent chain lubrication will keep a KLR going strong for a long time. If you ride a lot in the dirt, check that air filter during every oil change. The KLR is a simple bike, designed to go places where dealerships are scarce. A dedicated owner, with the right tools, can keep it in top form with minimal hassle.

The brakes aren’t up to sportbike caliber, and the front forks have been faulted by some, but for me Frogwing has been the best single motorbike I have ever owned, at any price. Brakes and suspension can be upgraded, or the rider can simply accept the bike as it is, and accept the challenge of getting the best out of it. Frogwing and I have surprised many riders on both dirt and pavement, and all his running gear is stock.

But the best part comes when we approach one of those awful metered cloverleafs leading onto the freeway during rush hour. Cages are stacked up in two rows behind slow signal lights, their drivers fuming at the long delay. Frogwing and I hop the curb and hit the grass, making our own “off-road on-ramp”, and leaving the gridlock far behind. That alone endears the KLR to me as one of my all-time favorite motorbikes.

I wonder how the new, more street-oriented KLR is going to stack up against this legendary veteran. Come Spring, I hope to find out, and share it with you here.