Tag Archives: bike-related

The current obsession

Acknowledging that I get mildly obsessed about things from time to time and that it often gets in the way of social interaction with friends, I thought I should at least share some details. I’ll warn you now that there will be details in here that will fail to interest most of my site readers, but this is where my head is right now. 🙂

Since taking the beginner motorcycle course, I’ve been keeping my eyes on various places (craigslist and Cycle Trader, mostly) for potential bikes. At first, it was really more research than anything else, with no real plans to act.

A few weeks ago, though, I spotted one bike that was located almost literally just down the road. It was a 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan 750. Jeremy knows that I have a soft spot for this particular model of bike. Because I think many of my friends will find it amusing, I’ll try to explain why.

Back in the early ’80s, Japanese-made street bikes were mostly what would today be called “standards” or “UJMs” (for Universal Japanese Motorcycles), marked by upright seating position, centrally-placed foot pegs, medium ground clearance, and usually small displacement inline engines. Harley-Davidson, on the other hand, was continuing to follow its decades-old formula of larger, lower to the ground bikes, with more relaxed seating positions and their signature 45 degree v-twin engines. The style of bike now known as a “cruiser” owes most of its legacy to Harley. At some point, the Japanese makers decided to try and get a piece of Harley’s pie and try their hand at making cruiser-style bikes (with an interesting effect being that the US government for years imposed an import tariff on all bikes whose engines displaced more than 700cc as a protectionist measure for H-D). To make a long story a little shorter, if you look at the evolution of Japanese bikes since the early 80’s, you’ll see a gradual “morph” from the standards to the present, where some Japanese bikes look more like Harleys than some Harleys do.

During the early part of that morphing period, the Japanese manufacturers actually concentrated more on performance, reliability, features, and ease of maintenance than on making bikes with a full-out cruiser look. One of the results of that focus was Kawasaki’s Vulcan 750. The bike was created in the mid-80’s and remained almost unchanged until Kawasaki discontinued it just this year. The bike started out and pretty much remained the “ugly duckling” of the cruiser market. Compare its looks to Kawa’s current midsize cruiser offering, the Vulcan 900. Even so, the 750 for its entire life remained arguably the fastest and most feature-filled cruiser in its class. Tachometer, center stand, water cooling, shaft drive, hydraulic valves, dual overhead cams, 4 valves per cylinder… you still can’t find another cruiser that comes with all that, much less back in the 80’s. So… does it surprise anyone that I would fall in love with a bike that most people think is a little bit ugly but has some of the most practical features of any cruiser made? 🙂

The price was right around what I was expecting to pay for a smaller bike, so, I talked to Amy about letting me think about the bike seriously. With the understanding that we are getting couches, she okayed it. Unfortunately, by the time I spotted the bike, it had already been on sale for over a month, and someone jumped in and snatched it up before I could get my ducks in a row. Oh well.

Since then, I briefly entertained the notion of looking for a Ninja 250 to buy. Their price makes them such that I could buy a newer bike on my self-imposed budget (thus removing some amount of worry about condition), and I could easily find one locally. Despite the sport heritage of the bike, I can actually get both my feet on the ground, and the seating is closer to a standard than a sport bike. In the end, though, I decided I was just pushing things. I’m not totally sold that I’ll always be on a cruiser, but I still think it’s the best starting place.

Yesterday, I rode up and down the owner’s driveway on a 2001 Honda Shadow VLX. That bike was so close to what I want, but not quite. The owner was asking a very good price, but it’s nevertheless more than I want to spend (it’s newer than what I’m looking for). Beyond that, though, that particular bike has a 4-speed transmission. I know that doesn’t mean much to most folks. For you manual drivers, though, 1st gear is so “tall” and the engine so unable to pull out of low revs, that it’s actually a bit of a challenge to get the right engine speed and clutch slip to get it moving. I stalled the bike probably 5 times trying it, and when I finally got it right, the bike was halfway up the owner’s driveway before I could blink. I swore I was in 2nd gear, but I wasn’t. That kind of gearing on a small engine that can’t lug very well isn’t what I need in a first bike. It would make the low speed practice I need to do very frustrating. The trip was very useful, though. It lets me cross the VLX off my list of potential bikes.

I’m keeping my eyes open. I really think what I want is either a Vulcan 500 or a Virago 535. As always, though, if the price is right, I certainly won’t turn down a Vulcan 750. 🙂 I’ll try to keep posting updates here.

Learning to Ride, Sunday

This is a continuation of a story begun in the previous entry. If you’re starting here, go back and read the first one first. Otherwise you won’t get all that drama I built up for you. 🙂 Come back here when you’re done.

Even considering the time change, I woke up at an unthinkable hour Sunday morning. Of course I used the extra time to obsess over my performance on Saturday and my self-perceived likelihood of passing the course. One useful thing: I realized that one of the reasons I was looking down was probably because I wasn’t really feeling the shift lever very well. I drove by Ye Olde MegaMart on the way in and bought some different boots in the hopes of making that better.

Sunday morning on the range was a bit warmer and less windy. The coaches were friendly and chipper. I was pretty apprehensive, and I’m sure it showed, but I tried to participate in the small-talk. Finally, the time came to crank up the bikes and start the morning’s training. Our first thing was simply a warm-up (for the bikes and for us): some laps around the perimeter and then [grumble] that danged offset weave again. Oh well, at least we weren’t being evaluated, and by some miracle I wasn’t sore (don’t know how that happened).

All I can say about what happened during that warm-up is that something clicked. The boots may have helped. Probably not a lot. Maybe sleeping allowed Saturday’s practice to soak into my brain. Maybe it was just because I wasn’t tired. I don’t know, but something clicked. The bike just felt right. I even figured out how to slip the clutch just right to allow me to negotiate the offset weave with no difficulty. Multiple times. It was fun. I think I was beaming by the time we finished the warm-up.

The next couple of exercises were fairly simple turning practices. During the debrief, one of the coaches actually singled me and one of the other guys out and said that we might as well have been demonstrating the model way of negotiating the curves. Yay!

The next few exercises didn’t go quite as smoothly, but I was still feeling pretty decent. I was finally keeping my eyes up most of the time, so my biggest problem was one of my oldest: handling the quick stops correctly. Between grabbing a fistful of front brake and not quite getting the downshift into 1st gear, it continued to be a problem.

All too soon, we were actually practicing for the evaluation. Of course THE BOX was going to be part of the evaluation. I flubbed the first try, but I finally figured out how to use the clutch-feathering technique that worked in the offset weave, and I made the second try. Then there it was.

Somehow I ended up lined up as the first bike in line for the evaluation. I’ll always wonder if the coaches did that intentionally. First thing was THE BOX, followed by a quick swerve test. I NAILED them. As I was lining up for the next part of the eval, I was breathing several sighs of relief and trying to think about the next portion. One of the coaches actually walked up and said, “Just relax. I’m not worried at all that you’ll fail this.”

That vote of confidence pulled me through the rest of the evaluation. The quick stop overall went well. I got the bike into 1st, and I stopped smoothly. One final test of something that I’d nailed earlier in the morning, and it was done. We went back to the classroom and took an easy written test. I was called into the next room, and out of the 20 points necessary to cause me to fail the skill test, I only lost 12. I got docked for 2 things: not stopping quite quickly enough in the quick stop (actually because I began my stop a bit late), and decelerating just a little through one of my turns. Woohoo!! He handed me my little completion card.

I’m quite happy. Both through my score and from talking with the coaches, I confirmed that I ended up doing quite well… especially for someone who was struggling so much on Saturday. That means that now I’m ready to start doing some real practice to build on those skills I started learning. Unfortunately, that’s probably going to be a while. Between saving up the money for the bike (which comes behind a couple of house projects that need to get done) and the fact that riding season is pretty close to being over until spring, it may be a while. I’ve decided I really want to try this, though. 🙂

So, what’s moral of all this? Probably that I need to challenge myself like that more often. That, and giving up is rarely the right thing to do? 🙂 For anyone else that takes the course: stick it out. Even if you suck on Saturday, stick it out. It might just click.

I’ll obviously make updates here as things progress. More when it happens. 🙂

Learning to Ride, Saturday

I have several friends that ride motorcycles, and I’ve been curious about riding for several years now. I finally decided to bite the bullet and see if riding is something I would enjoy and something I would be good at. So, this weekend I participated in a beginning motorcycle rider course. I finished up Sunday afternoon, and this seemed like a good place to let folks know how it went. Fair warning, this one’s LONG. 🙂

First the credits… I took the “Basic RiderCourse” (BRC), a course designed both for people who have never ridden a motorcycle before and for beginning riders. It’s hosted by the Motorcycle Safety Program with the Alabama Traffic Safety Center at the University of Montevallo. They use a curriculum and materials developed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. Right off the bat, I’ll say that after 3 days of classroom and riding time, I’m convinced that these people do know what they’re doing. Speaking as someone who has never ridden before the course, I highly recommend this course to anyone who’s thinking about riding. MSF-affiliated courses are available all across the US. Follow the link above for more info.

It started out Friday evening with some classroom time. ATSC had sent me materials for study ahead of time, so I had a pretty good idea what we were going to cover that night. Even so, our two “RiderCoaches” (MSF apparently doesn’t like spaces) were quite friendly and open to questions. When we got to the section about proper rider gear, I had a couple of questions, and they were more than happy to answer. I also got to meet the other 5 people in our half-sized class. There was a husband and wife that wanted to learn to ride. There were two guys (one who looked younger than me, the other retired) who work on the Arsenal and needed the course credit to be able to ride and park their bikes on post. Finally, there was a woman whose husband has been riding for years (often with her as a passenger). All in all, I was probably tied for last place with one other person for having the least experience.

Bright and early Saturday morning, we met out on the riding range. It’s an area of asphalt laid specifically (and very generously) for this use by the county of Madison. It’s located off the end of the taxiways at the Madison County Executive Airport (MDQ) in Meridianville.

As a total aside, each of us picked a bike (they were pretty much all identical) and stayed with that bike for the entire course. Each bike had a number, and we obviously had to remember it. I swear it was a coincidence. I just kind of walked toward the first red bike I came to. It looked nice and friendly. 🙂 What number did I choose? 37. I had zero problems remembering my number for the entire weekend. Everyone say it with me, now: 37!?! One of the coaches asked me on Sunday what bike number I’d been riding. I told him, then asked if he’d seen Clerks. He said that he hadn’t, but that he wanted to. My response: “When you watch it, you’ll understand why I didn’t have any trouble remembering.” I love planting that little time bomb. 🙂

Anyway, I started out Saturday feeling pretty good. We started with some exercises to familiarize us with the bikes (BTW, the bike we used was a Kawasaki Eliminator 125). We did “rocking” and “power-walking” to get used to where the “friction zone” of the clutch is. Obviously, the exercises start out slow and easy. I won’t bore you with all the details, but things started getting a little bit trickier for me on about the fourth exercise.

I should mention that the MSF exercises are big on practicing multiple skills during the same exercise (and sometimes multiple skills simultaneously). The one that started getting me was where we had to shift up to second, do a controlled stop, and shift back down during the stop. We had to use both brakes, and shifting down during the stop was important. If you know about motorcycle controls, you know that means that we had to manipulate controls with both hands and both feet all simultaneously. For a minutes-old rider like me, this didn’t go all that smoothly (literally). My two biggest problems were not getting the downshift and (much more problematic) grabbing the front brake lever instead of squeezing it. The Eliminator 125 has a heck of a front brake for such a small and light bike. It doesn’t take much pressure to jerk the bike and not much more to lock the front wheel. On top of it all, for some reason I was bad about looking down (at what?) or looking at the coaches instead of up and ahead.

I don’t think I got that one completely right once. And, for added humiliation, right after the coach debriefed me about the stop I flubbed up, I had to make what’s called a “perimeter turn”. I didn’t get any of those right, either.

Again, skipping some details, most of Saturday was pretty depressing for me. I kept messing up exercises, and just when I felt like I was beginning to learn each one a little bit, it was over. The offset weave, stopping quickly, more perimeter turns… all of these were messing with me pretty badly. At some point we broke for lunch, and I pretty much decided that if things didn’t improve, I was going to just save myself some embarrassment and drop out. Heck, that’s why I was doing it, right? To figure out if I was going to be any good at it? I was basically going to give myself one more exercise to improve.

Then, as if to underscore my situation, the very next exercise involved THE BOX. THE BOX is 24′ by 60′. The idea is as follows: You make a short 90 degree left into one corner on the short side. You ride down the long side, make a left U-turn, cross back toward the corner where you started, make a right U-turn, then exit on the corner opposite the one you started at. All without touching the perimeter. Once you exit the box, you immediately move to navigating an S curve, then I think a perimeter turn. I literally thought to myself, “This is it. I’m obviously done after this one.” The first time through the box, I totally screwed it. Nowhere close. Shot the S-curve to hell as well. The second time was closer, but not nearly close enough. At that point, I’m not sure what kept me going. Probably realizing that stopping in the middle would cause more problems for other riders. I don’t know. Somehow, though, a miracle happened on the third try. I actually made it. Just barely, but I made it. The next two tries went even better. I even got the S-curve down. The coaches were literally clapping and throwing up their hands in joy each time I got out of the box. One more fairly easy exercise, and we were done on the range Saturday.

The course naturally involved a riding skills evaluation at the end on Sunday. I was worried Saturday night. I replayed each exercise in my head trying to absorb as much as I could out of what had happened. I gave myself about a 50/50 shot of passing. Somehow I did actually manage to fall asleep.