Saturday, December 31, 2011

Highwheeling at Exmoor

They don't have motors, but the simplicity and elegance of vintage bicycles holds a special charm for many motorcyclist.  The highwheeler, or pennyfarthing (so called because the large front wheel and small rear wheel apparently reminded early cyclists of the English penny and farthing coins)is a particularly fascinating machine, both because of its historical value as the forerunner of the modern safety bicycle, and its very oddness and Victorian charm.  I was surprised to find that a race is held in Knutsford, UK every ten years to showcase these "hopelessly obsolete and slightly dangerous machines" (in the words of the Guardian's article on the competition, which can be found here).  Unfortunately, the last Knutsford race was held in 2010, so we'll have to wait until 2020 for the next opportunity to see it, but the following video should provide plenty of daydream fodder in the mean time.  The boys of Team Spend a Penny ride in Exmoor National Park as part of their training for the 2010 Knutsford Race.  It's got lovely scenery, what looks like a vintage Land Rover to transport the bike, a break for a well-deserved pint, some very impressive riding (even a small climb can be a major trail on a pennyfarthing, nevermind the hills of Exmoor!), and good music to boot. Enjoy.

It's Better in the Wind

Scott Toepfer has produced a new masterpiece of motorcycle cinema with his short film "It's Better in the Wind."  It's 15 minutes of pure joy, Triumphs and the majestic scenery of the American West. There's not much else I can say by way of introduction, so I give you Mr. Toepfer's own words: 
"For the last two years I have been taking still photographs for a personal project entitled 'It's Better In The Wind,' all the while collecting video footage from each ride as we traveled around the Western United States together.
I have been slowly editing the footage into a visual scrapbook of sorts for those who partook, and those who followed us via the web. No preaching the triumphs and failures of the motorcycle industry, no divisive commentary between manufacturers and styles...just a collection of imagery that will hopefully inspire more people to take to the road and discover what there is outside of our respective communities.
Chuck Ragan was kind enough to collaborate with me to write an original soundtrack for the film, to give me some anthemic tunes to edit with, and I can't thank him enough for the kind gesture towards a fellow traveler.
Please, enjoy the film, everybody who took part in it is family, we are all grateful for your support these past two years while we tried to build a concept around the positive nature of motorcycling.
Cameras Used:
-Canon 5dMkII
-Minolta Super 8mm
Edited With:
-Final Cut Express
Film Processed by:
-Pro 8mm in Burbank, CA
Music Written, Recorded, and Produced by:
-Chuck Ragan (
Cover Art by:
-Leilani Derr ("

Toepfer's personal website is worth a look as well, for more of his photography and film work:

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Highland Scoot, 1959-2010

Yes, they're not motorcycles in the strictest sense of the word (though there is a Triumph cameo, if you look carefully), but this is a great little film apparently made by Castrol Oil, about the 1959 Highland Scoot, a 170 mile scooter rally organized by the Glasgow Vespa Club through the incredible scenery and terrain (at times quite rough, especially on a scooter!) of the Scottish Highlands.  

The event was revived by the Glasgow Gorehounds Scooter Club in 2010, retracing the route of the 1959 Highland Scoot.  As can be seen in the video, they opened the event to scooters of all makes and models-from vintage Vespas and Lambrettas to modern Asian-made vehicles, including at least one three-wheeler.  All in all, this looks like a great time-the Glasgow Gorehounds have since folded, but the Vespa Club of Scotland has another Highland Scoot in the works for May 2013.  Here's hoping the tradition continues!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Precision Motorcycle Drill by the Polizia di Roma, 1953

This video has circulated online for a while now, but is well worth seeing again.  It's hard to tell much of anything about the make and model of the bikes, but the riding is impressive, to say the least. This is an incredible display of teamwork and precision riding-any biker knows how hard it is to ride and maneuver at low speeds, not to mention swinging out of the saddle to fit under the bridges, and keeping in time with the rest of the very large group.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hunter Thompson's Song of the Sausage Creature

Ralph Steadman's original illustration for Cycle World

In 1995, "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson reviewed the Ducati 900 SS/SP for Cycle World Magazine. The resulting piece, entitled "Song of the Sausage Creature" doesn't give much detail on the machine itself, but captures the mental experience of riding on the edge of sanity quite well.
Hunter S. Thompson

There are some things nobody needs in this world, and a bright red,
hunchback, warp-speed 900cc café racer is one of them -- but I want
one anyway, and on some days I actually believe I need one. That is
why they are dangerous.

Everybody has fast motorcycles these days. Some people go 150
miles an hour on two-lane blacktop roads, but not often. There are too
many oncoming trucks and too many radar cops and too many stupid
animals in the way. You have to be a little crazy to ride these
super-torque high-speed crotch rockets anywhere except a racetrack --
and even there, they will scare the whimpering shit out of you.... There
is, after all, not a pig's eye worth of difference between going head-on
into a Peterbilt or sideways into the bleachers. On some days you get
what you want, and on others, you get what you need.

When Cycle World called me to ask if I would road-test the new
Harley Road King, I got uppity and said I'd rather have a Ducati superbike. It seemed like a chic decision at the time, and my friends on the superbike circuit got very excited. "Hot damn," they said, "We will take it to the track and blow the bastards away."

"Balls," I said. "Never mind the track. The track is for punks. We are Road People. We are Café Racers."

The Café Racer is a different breed, and we have our own situations. Pure speed in sixth gear on a 5,000-foot straightaway is one thing, but pure speed in third gear on a gravel-strewn downhill ess turn is quite another. But we like it. A thoroughbred Café Racer will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest decreasing-radius turn since Genghis Khan invented the corkscrew.

Café Racing is mainly a matter of taste. It is an atavistic mentality, a peculiar mix of low style, high speed, pure dumbness, and overweening commitment to the Café Life and all its dangerous pleasures.... I am a Café Racer myself, on some days -- and many nights for that matter -- and it is one of my finest addictions....

I am not without scars on my brain and my body, but I can live with them. I still feel a shudder in my spine every time I see a Vincent Black Shadow, or when I walk into a public restroom and hear crippled men whispering about the terrifying Kawasaki Triple.... I have visions of compound femur-fractures and large black men in white hospital suits holding me down on a gurney while a nurse called "Bess" sews the flaps of my scalp together with a stitching drill.

Ho, ho. Thank God for these flashbacks. The brain is such a wonderful instrument (until God sinks his teeth into it). Some people hear Tiny Tim singing when they go under, and others hear the song of the Sausage Creature.

When the Ducati turned up in my driveway, nobody knew what to do with it. I was in New York, covering a polo tournament, and people had threatened my life. My lawyer said I should give myself up and enroll in the Federal Witness Protection Program. Other people said it had something to do with the polo crowd.

The motorcycle business was the last straw. It had to be the work of my enemies, or people who wanted to hurt me. It was the vilest kind of bait, and they knew I would go for it. Of course. You want to cripple the bastard? Send him a 130-mph café racer. And include some license plates, so he'll think it's a streetbike. He's queer for anything fast.

Which is true. I have been a connoisseur of fast motorcycles all my life. I bought a brand-new 650 BSA Lightning when it was billed as "the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine." I have ridden a 500-pound Vincent through traffic on the Ventura Freeway with burning oil on my legs and run the Kawa 750 triple through Beverly Hills at night with a head full of acid.... I have ridden with Sonny Barger and smoked weed in biker bars with Jack Nicholson, Grace Slick, Ron Zigler, and my infamous old friend, Ken Kesey, a legendary Café Racer.

Some people will tell you that slow is good -- and it may be, on some days -- but I am here to tell you that fast is better. I've always believed this, in spite of the trouble it's caused me. Being shot out of a cannon will always be better than being squeezed out of a tube. That is why God made fast motorcycles, Bubba....

So when I got back from New York and found a fiery red rocket-style bike in my garage, I realized I was back in the road-testing business.
Ducati 900 SS/SP Supersport
The brand-new Ducati 900 Campione del Mundo Desmodue Supersport double-barreled magnum Café Racer filled me with feelings of lust every time I looked at it.
Others felt the same way. My garage quickly became a
magnet for drooling superbike groupies. They
quarreled and bitched at each other about who would be first to help
me evaluate my new toy.... And I did, of course, need a certain
spectrum of opinions, besides my own, to properly judge this
motorcycle. The Woody Creek Perverse Environmental Testing
Facility is a long way from Daytona or even top-fuel challenge sprints
on the Pacific Coast Highway, where teams of big-bore Kawasakis
and Yamahas are said to race head-on against each other in
death-defying games of "chicken" at 100 miles an hour....

No. Not everybody who buys a high-dollar torque-brute yearns to go
out in a ball of fire on a public street in L.A. Some of us are decent
people who want to stay out of the emergency room, but still blast
through neo-gridlock traffic in residential districts whenever we feel
like it.... For that we need fine Machinery.

Which we had -- no doubt about that. The Ducati people in New
Jersey had opted, for reasons of their own, to send me the 900SP for
testing -- rather than their 916 crazy-fast, state-of-the-art superbike
track racer. It was far too fast, they said -- and prohibitively expensive
-- to farm out for testing to a gang of half-mad Colorado cowboys who
think they're world-class Café Racers.

The Ducati 900 is a finely engineered machine. My neighbors
called it beautiful and admired its racing lines. The nasty little bugger
looked like it was going 90 miles an hour when it was standing still in
my garage.

Taking it on the road, though, was a genuinely terrifying experience.
I had no sense of speed until I was going 90 and coming up fast on a
bunch of pickup trucks going into a wet curve along the river. I went for
both brakes, but only the front one worked, and I almost went end over
end. I was out of control staring at the tailpipe of a U.S. Mail truck,
still stabbing frantically at my rear brake pedal, which I just couldn't
find.... I am too tall for these New Age roadracers; they are not built
for any rider taller than five-nine, and the rearset brake pedal was not
where I thought it would be. Midsize Italian pimps who like to race
from one café to another on the boulevards of Rome in a flat-line
prone position might like this, but I do not.

I was hunched over the tank like a person diving into a pool that
got emptied yesterday. Whacko! Bashed into the concrete bottom,
flesh ripped off, a Sausage Creature with no teeth, f-cked-up for the
rest of its life.

We all love Torque, and some of us have taken it straight over the
high side from time to time -- and there is always Pain in that.... But
there is also Fun, in the deadly element, and Fun is what you get when
you screw this monster on. BOOM! Instant takeoff, no screeching or
squawking around like a fool with your teeth clamping down on your
tongue and your mind completely empty of everything but fear.

No. This bugger digs right in and shoots you straight down the pipe,
for good or ill.

On my first takeoff, I hit second gear and went through the speed limit
on a two-lane blacktop highway full of ranch traffic. By the time I went up
to third, I was going 75 and the tach was barely above 4,000 rpm....

And that's when it got its second wind. From 4,000 to 6,000 in third
will take you from 75 to 95 in two seconds -- and after that, Bubba, you
still have fourth, fifth, and sixth. Ho, ho.

I never got into sixth, and I didn't get deep into fifth. This is a
shameful admission for a full-bore Café Racer, but let me tell you
something, old sport: This motorcycle is simply too goddamn fast to
ride at speed in any kind of normal road traffic unless you're ready to
go straight down the centerline with your nuts on fire and a silent
scream in your throat.

When aimed in the right direciton at high speed, though, it has
unnatural capabilities. This I unwittingly discovered as I made my
approach to a sharp turn across some railroad tracks, saw that
I was going way too fast and that my only chance was to veer right
and screw it on totally, in a desparate attempt to leapfrog the curve
by going airborne.

It was a bold and reckless move, but it was necessary. And it
worked: I felt like Evil Knievel as I soared across the tracks with
the rain in my eyes and my jaws clamped together in fear. I tried
to spit down on the tracks as I passed them, but my mouth was too
dry.... I landed hard on the edge of the road and lost my grip for
a moment as the Ducati began fishtailing crazily into oncoming
traffic. For two or three seconds I came face to face with the">
Sausage Creature....

But somehow the brute straightened out. I passed a school bus
on the right and then got the bike under control long enough to gear
down and pull off into an abandoned gravel driveway where I stopped
and turned off the engine. My hands had seized up like claws and
the rest of my body was numb. I felt nauseous and I cried for my
mama, but nobody heard, then I went into a trance for 30 or 40
seconds until I was finally able to light a cigarette and calm down
enough to ride home. I was too hysterical to shift gears, so I went
the whole way in first at 40 miles an hour.

Whoops! What am I saying? Tall stories, ho, ho.... We are
motorcycle people; we walk tall and we laugh at whatever's funny.
We shit on the chests of the Weird....

But when we ride very fast motorcycles, we ride with immaculate
sanity. We might abuse a substance here and there, but only when
it's right. The final measure of any rider's skill is the inverse ratio
of his preferred Traveling Speed to the number of bad scars on his
body. It is that simple: If you ride fast and crash, you are a bad rider.
If you go slow and crash, you are a bad rider. And if you are a bad
rider, you should not ride motorcycles.

The emergence of the superbike has heightened this equation
drastically. Motorcycle technology has made such a great leap
forward. Take the Ducati. You want optimum cruising speed on
this bugger? Try 90 mph in fifth at 5,500 rpm -- and just then, you
see a bull moose in the middle of the road. WHACKO! Meet the
Sausage Creature.

Or maybe not: The Ducati 900 is so finely engineered and
balanced and torqued that you can do 90 mph in fifth through a
35-mph zone and get away with it. The bike is not just fast -- it is
extremely quick and responsive, and it will do amazing things....
It is a little like riding the original Vincent Black Shadow, which would
outrun an F-86 jet fighter on the takeoff runway, but at the end, the
F-86 would go airborne and the Vincent would not, and there was
no point in trying to turn it. WHAMO! The Sausage Creature strikes again.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between the old
Vincents and the new bred of superbikes. If you rode the Black
Shadow at top speed for any length of time, you would almost
certainly die. That is why there are not many life members of the
Vincent Black Shadow Society. The Vincent was like a bullet that
went straight; the Ducati is like the magic bullet that went sideways
and hit JFK and the Governor of Texas at the same time. It was
impossible. But so was my terrifying sideways leap across railroad
tracks on the 900SP. The bike did it easily with the grace of a
fleeing tomcat. The landing was so easy I remember thinking,
goddamnit, if I had screwed it on a little more I could have gone
a lot further.

Maybe this is the new Café Racer macho. My bike is so much
faster than yours that I dare you to ride it, you lame little turd. Do you
have the balls to ride this BOTTOMLESS PIT OF TORQUE?

That is the attitude of the New Age superbike freak, and I am one
of them. On some days they are about the most fun you can have
with your clothes on. The Vincent just killed you a lot faster than
a superbike will. A fool couldn't ride the Vincent Black Shadow
more than once, but a fool can ride a Ducati 900 many times, and
it will always be bloodcurdling kind of fun. That is the Curse of Speed
which has plagued me all my life. I am a slave to it. On my tombstone
they will carve, "IT NEVER GOT FAST ENOUGH FOR ME."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Riding September

A few stills from the Riding September video
Blitz Motorcycles Independent Custom Garage is a 3-man French outfit that does great work turning vintage bikes (their website features bikes based on the BMW R100/7, R60/2, and R80/7, Kawasaki 650W and 650Z, Triumph T100, and Yamaha SR125, SR500, and JW125) into rough-and-ready customs that do a lovely job of holding onto the classic appeal of the bikes and referencing icons of old motorcycle culture, while being thoroughly unique and often innovative machines.  For example, the murdered-out R60/2 wearing dual-sport tires is called “Great Escape” in reference to the Steve McQueen film (ironically, he rode a Triumph Trophy 500 painted to look like a wartime German BMW in the film, but no matter), and the Triumph T100 wears stars and stripes on its tank and one of the more tasteful sets of Z bars I’ve seen, and is called “Tribute to Easy Rider”.  Their website is well worth a look, and most of the pages have an English option. 

The Blitz Motorcycles team also has a knack for making very good videos of their machines in action.  The BMW R60/2 promo video features a winter ride and music from Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus.  This is an unusual choice for a motorcycle video, but one that works rather well.

They are also responsible for what is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces of motorcycle videography in existence.  The video is called “Riding September”.  It features the Blitz Motorcycles crew riding a couple of SR500 flat trackers and a BMW R80/7 through some great scenery, goofing off, cooking dinner, and generally hanging out and having fun.  They’ve done a great job of capturing the camaraderie of riding buddies, and it’s great to see a shop crew out using their bikes as they were intended to be used, and custom bikes that are most definitely built to be ridden hard.  The soundtrack is “Frankie’s Gun” by the Felice Brothers.  Watch it-you’ll be glad you did.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A Public Service Announcement: Motorcycle Safety

Motorcycle stuntman John "Crash" Brown in action.
With the summer riding season well underway, motorcycles are everywhere.  Cruisers, crotch rockets, vintage bikes, dual sports, and touring bikes are a common sight on the roads, and one would think you can't help but notice the chrome of the cruisers, classic lines of the old bikes, and shiny plastic of the road racers, not to mention the symphony of engine sounds. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many of the distracted cagers with whom we share our highways (I was almost knocked down the other day by a driver-I made the mistake of assuming she'd seen me), and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation  compiled this list of 10 motorcycle safety rules rule for drivers (with a very eloquent 11th added by Hell for Leather Magazine) to help matters.  It’s worth a read, and worth sharing with your friends, whatever they ride or drive:

1. There are many more cars and trucks than motorcycles on the road and some drivers don’t “recognize” motorcyclists. They ignore them, usually unintentionally. Look for motorcycles, especially when checking traffic at an intersection.

2.  A motorcyclist may look farther away than he or she is in actuality. It may also be difficult to judge a motorcycle’s speed. When checking traffic to turn at an intersection or into (or out of) a driveway, estimate that a motorcycle is closer than it looks.

3.  A motorcycle can be easily hidden in a car’s blind spots or masked by objects or backgrounds outside the car. Thoroughly check traffic, whether you’re changing lanes or turning at intersections.

4.  A motorcycle may seem to be moving faster than it really is. Again, don’t immediately rely on your perceptions.

5.  Motorcyclists sometimes slow down by downshifting or merely rolling off the throttle, thus not activating the brake light. Don’t tailgate motorcyclists. At intersections, anticipate that motorcyclists may slow down without any visual warning.

6.  Turn signals on a motorcycle are not often automatically self-canceling. Some riders, (especially beginners) sometimes forget to turn them off. Try to determine whether a motorcycle’s turn signal is for real. And if you’re driving a car, remember to use your turn signals too. They’re a great communication tool for riders and drivers when used properly.  [In the words of the bumper sticker “Forget about world peace, visualize using your turn signals!"-IC]

7.  Motorcyclists often adjust position within a lane to be seen more easily, to avoid road debris, and deal with passing vehicles and wind. Understand that motorcyclists often adjust lane position for a purpose, and it’s not an invitation for a car to share the lane with them.

8.  Maneuverability can be one advantage for a motorcycle, but don’t expect that motorcyclist can always steer or swerve out of harm’s way. Please leave motorcyclists room on the road, wherever they are around you.

9.  Stopping distance for motorcycles can be nearly the same or better than that of cars. But wet or slippery pavement can put motorcyclists at a disadvantage. Don’t violate a motorcyclist’s right of way, especially in bad conditions.

10.   Don’t think of it as a motorcycle, a machine: Think of the rider; the person on board is someone’s son, daughter, spouse or parent. Unlike other motorists, protected by doors, roofs and airbags, motorcyclists have only their safety gear and are at greater risk from distracted drivers.
-Motorcycle Safety Foundation

And Hell for Leather Magazine’s addition:

11. Put the fucking cell phone down and pay attention to the road. You’re operating a goddamn 2-ton murder machine, take some responsibility for your own actions for Christ’s sake.
-Hell for Leather Magazine

Always wear gear that makes you stand out, like this Vincent rider.
To sum up, all motor vehicle operators should realize that their actions can have very serious consequences for themselves and those around them.  A modern car with an automatic transmission requires so little driver participation (no shifting, and sometimes you can barely even hear the engine) that it’s easy to become passive and isolated inside your own world with the windows up, a/c on, radio on, and a cell phone (or headset-legal in most states, but still distracting) on your ear, nevermind texting.  The more one can focus on driving, be aware of the road and all other road users (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, joggers) in the area, and what they might do, the better.
As motorcyclists, we have a responsibility to ride defensively, wear proper protective gear (protection can mean getting you noticed as well as armor and leather), and do everything we can to anticipate trouble. Expect everyone to do something stupid and plan accordingly, then you’ll be ready the one time someone does.  For example, whenever I see a car at a stop sign I assume they’re going to pull out in front of me, and plan a course of evasive action.  It's only happened once, but when it did I was ready, and avoided a serious collision, because the decision was already made, so I didn’t have to think before acting.  Think  several seconds ahead and several hundred feet down the road at all times.  You’ll be a better, safer, more aware rider or driver for it, and you never know-it might save a life!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Evel Knievel, American Daredevil

Evel Knievel in action astride a Harley-Davidson XR750
Robert Craig Knievel, better known as Evel Knievel, was a classic American daredevil and showman.  His motorcycle jumps continued the proud tradition of the boardtrack motorcycle racers and barnstorming pilots of the first half of the twentieth century: do something crazy enough, and people will come to see you do it, or crash spectacularly.  And crash he did-with 433 broken bones over the course of his career he earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broken bones in a lifetime.   This didn't disuade him, though-his jumping career included some 75 attempts between 1966 and 1980

On March 25th, 1967, Evel Knievel made a jump over 15 cars as part of the pre-race show in Gardena, California.  This was his first jump to be televised by Wide World of Sport.  For this jump he rode a Triumph, rather than the Harley XR750 that would later become his trademark machine, and yellow and black leathers, instead of his later signature red, white, and blue racing suit, complete with cape.

In December of the same year, Evel Knievel attempted to jump the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace Hotel in Las Vegas.  This jump was a catasrophic failure: the landing went bad, and Knievel wound up in the hospital with a crushed pelvis and femur, fractured hip, wrist, and ankles, and a concussion that kept him in a coma for 29 days.  

The following video shows Evel Knievel in his prime, jumping 17 vans and trucks in Portland, Oregon in 1973.  The jump goes off without a hitch, in spite of less than ideal conditions.  The interspersed commentary by the man himself shows both his legendary showmanship, and his down to earth, unassuming nature.

Evel Knievel's later career included the famous Snake River Canyon jump (which he mentions in the commentary on the Portland jump), and finally retirement in the 1980s.  He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999, and his death in 2007 was (somewhat surprisingly) not motorcycle related.  His career as daredevil showman was a shining example of a death-defying piece of Americana that is fast becoming a thing of the past, thanks to our current obsession with safety, insurance, and that sort of thing.  When they are all gone, our country will likely be safer without men like Evel, but will we really be better off?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Brough versus Bristol, with Lawrence of Arabia

A Bristol F2B races a Brough Superior, at Classic Fighters 2005.
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935) was better known as Lawrence of Arabia, because of his participation in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks during the First World War.  He is remembered as a soldier, adventurer, and author (especially for Seven Pillars of Wisdom, about his experiences in Arabia), and also as an enthusiastic motorcyclist, and connoisseur of Brough motorcycles.  He owned a total of seven Broughs during his lifetime, and was riding a Brough Superior at the time of the accident that led to his death in 1935.  The following is an excerpt from The Mint, a journal of Lawrence's service in the RAF following the First World War.  Lawrence calls his motorcycle "Boanerges"-this is a biblical term taken from Mark 3:17, when Christ "....surnamed them Boanerges, which is, the Sons of Thunder".  A fitting name for a machine fast enough to outrun an airplane, with the most powerful engine fitted to a stock motorcycle at the time.  The sheer exhilarating madness of Lawrence's race with the Bristol Fighter (which had a top speed of 123mph) is captured in his vivid prose, with crisp detail everywhere from the starting procedure to the organ music at the end of the ride.

Lawrence on his Brough Superior SS100, c.1925

The Road
The extravagance in which my surplus emotion expressed itself lay on the road. So long as roads were tarred blue and straight; not hedged; and empty and dry, so long I was rich.

Nightly I’d run up from the hangar, upon the last stroke of work, spurring my tired feet to be nimble. The very movement refreshed them, after the day-long restraint of service. In five minutes my bed would be down, ready for the night: in four more I was in breeches and puttees, pulling on my gauntlets as I walked over to my bike, which lived in a garage-hut, opposite. Its tyres never wanted air, its engine had a habit of starting at second kick: a good habit, for only by frantic plunges upon the starting pedal could my puny weight force the engine over the seven atmospheres of its compression.

Boanerges’ first glad roar at being alive again nightly jarred the huts of Cadet College into life. ‘There he goes, the noisy bugger,’ someone would say enviously in every flight. It is part of an airman’s profession to be knowing with engines: and a thoroughbred engine is our undying satisfaction. The camp wore the virtue of my Brough like a flower in its cap. Tonight Tug and Dusty came to the step of our hut to see me off. ‘Running down to Smoke, perhaps?’ jeered Dusty; hitting at my regular game of London and back for tea on fine Wednesday afternoons.

Boa is a top-gear machine, as sweet in that as most single-cylinders in middle. I chug lordlily past the guard-room and through the speed limit at no more than sixteen. Round the bend, past the farm, and the way straightens. Now for it. The engine’s final development is fifty-two horse-power. A miracle that all this docile strength waits behind one tiny lever for the pleasure of my hand.

Another bend: and I have the honour of one of England’ straightest and fastest roads. The burble of my exhaust unwound like a long cord behind me. Soon my speed snapped it, and I heard only the cry of the wind which my battering head split and fended aside. The cry rose with my speed to a shriek: while the air’s coldness streamed like two jets of iced water into my dissolving eyes. I screwed them to slits, and focused my sight two hundred yards ahead of me on the empty mosaic of the tar’s gravelled undulations.

Like arrows the tiny flies pricked my cheeks: and sometimes a heavier body, some house-fly or beetle, would crash into face or lips like a spent bullet. A glance at the speedometer: seventy-eight. Boanerges is warming up. I pull the throttle right open, on the top of the slope, and we swoop flying across the dip, and up-down up-down the switchback beyond: the weighty machine launching itself like a projectile with a whir of wheels into the air at the take-off of each rise, to land lurchingly with such a snatch of the driving chain as jerks my spine like a rictus.

Once we so fled across the evening light, with the yellow sun on my left, when a huge shadow roared just overhead. A Bristol Fighter, from Whitewash Villas, our neighbour aerodrome, was banking sharply round. I checked speed an instant to wave: and the slip-stream of my impetus snapped my arm and elbow astern, like a raised flail. The pilot pointed down the road towards Lincoln. I sat hard in the saddle, folded back my ears and went away after him, like a dog after a hare. Quickly we drew abreast, as the impulse of his dive to my level exhausted itself.

The next mile of road was rough. I braced my feet into the rests, thrust with my arms, and clenched my knees on the tank till its rubber grips goggled under my thighs. Over the first pot-hole Boanerges screamed in surprise, its mud-guard bottoming with a yawp upon the tyre. Through the plunges of the next ten seconds I clung on, wedging my gloved hand in the throttle lever so that no bump should close it and spoil our speed. Then the bicycle wrenched sideways into three long ruts: it swayed dizzily, wagging its tail for thirty awful yards. Out came the clutch, the engine raced freely: Boa checked and straightened his head with a shake, as a Brough should.

The bad ground was passed and on the new road our flight became birdlike. My head was blown out with air so that my ears had failed and we seemed to whirl soundlessly between the sun-gilt stubble fields. I dared, on a rise, to slow imperceptibly and glance sideways into the sky. There the Bif was, two hundred yards and more back. Play with the fellow? Why not? I slowed to ninety: signalled with my hand for him to overtake. Slowed ten more: sat up. Over he rattled. His passenger, a helmeted and goggled grin, hung out of the cock-pit to pass me the ‘Up yer’ RAF randy greeting.

They were hoping I was a flash in the pan, giving them best. Open went my throttle again. Boa crept level, fifty feet below: held them: sailed ahead into the clean and lonely country. An approaching car pulled nearly into its ditch at the sight of our race. The Bif was zooming among the trees and telegraph poles, with my scurrying spot only eighty yards ahead. I gained though, gained steadily: was perhaps five miles an hour the faster. Down went my left hand to give the engine two extra dollops of oil, for fear that something was running hot: but an overhead JAP twin, super-tuned like this one, would carry on to the moon and back, unfaltering.

We drew near the settlement. A long mile before the first houses I closed down and coasted to the cross-roads by the hospital. Bif caught up, banked, climbed and turned for home, waving to me as long as he was in sight. Fourteen miles from camp, we are, here: and fifteen minutes since I left Tug and Dusty at the hut door.
I let in the clutch again, and eased Boanerges down the hill along the tram-lines through the dirty streets and up-hill to the aloof cathedral, where it stood in frigid perfection above the cowering close. No message of mercy in Lincoln. Our God is a jealous God: and man’s very best offering will fall disdainfully short of worthiness, in the sight of Saint Hugh and his angels.

Remigius, earthy old Remigius, looks with more charity on and Boanerges. I stabled the steel magnificence of strength and speed at his west door and went in: to find the organist practising something slow and rhythmical, like a multiplication table in notes on the organ. The fretted, unsatisfying and unsatisfied lace-work of choir screen and spandrels drank in the main sound. Its surplus spilled thoughtfully into my ears.

By then my belly had forgotten its lunch, my eyes smarted and streamed. Out again, to sluice my head under the White Hart’s yard-pump. A cup of real chocolate and a muffin at the teashop: and Boa and I took the Newark road for the last hour of daylight. He ambles at forty-five and when roaring his utmost, surpasses the hundred. A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth, because of its logical extension of our faculties, and the hint, the provocation, to excess conferred by its honeyed untiring smoothness. Because Boa loves me, he gives me five more miles of speed than a stranger would get from him.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Music of Easy Rider

The 1969 Dennis Hopper/Peter Fonda/Jack Nicholson film Easy Rider is a classic of 1960s counterculture, and a milestone of motorcycle culture.  Part of what made the film great was the trio of actors, part of it was the pair of 60s Harley panhead choppers, and part of it was certainly the use of (in my humble opinion) some of the greatest music of the 20th century.  Many of the great artists of the era made a musical appearance in the film: The Byrds, Steppenwolf, The Holy Modal Rounders, Jimi Hendrix, and The Band, to name a few.  Here are a few of my personal favorites…we all need music to listen to while wrenching, riding (if you’re one of those high-tech types with earbuds under your helmet), or just daydreaming about old motorcycles.

A 1960s hard rock classic, “Born to Be Wild” was made famous by Steppenwolf, fronted by the charismatic John Kay, whose real name was Joachim Krauledat, and who was born in Germany. It was written by the Canadian rocker Mars Bonfire (known offstage as Dennis Edmonton), whose brother Jerry Edmonton was Steppenwolf’s drummer, and released in 1968. The lines in the second verse “I like smoke and lightning/heavy metal thunder” are credited with inspiring the name of the heavy metal genre. The song’s longstanding association with motorcycle culture originates with its use in the soundtrack Easy Rider, and has led to its inclusion on various “biker rock” compilations, covered by Ozzy Osbourne and Slayer, among others. 

The Band’s 1968 song “The Weight” was something of an anthem of 1960s counterculture.  It was written by Robbie Robertson, The Band’s guitarist, who said he wrote the song about the futility of trying to please everybody, and do everything anyone asked of you: “Someone says: ‘Listen, would you do me this favor? When you get there will you say 'hello' to somebody or will you give somebody this or will you pick up one of these for me?’ This is what it’s all about. So….one thing leads to another and it’s like ‘Holy Shit, what’s this turned into? I’ve only come here to say 'hello' for somebody and I’ve got myself in this incredible predicament.’”  “The Weight” was used in the soundtrack of Easy Rider, where its free and easy message-if you get too caught up in helping everybody, you won’t have any time left for yourself-fits right in with footage of Fonda and Hopper riding through spectacular southwestern scenery.  Incidentally, the song was used in the film as recorded by The Band, but a cover was recorded by Smith (best known for their record“A Group Called Smith”, released in 1969) for the ABC-Dunhill Records soundtrack recording, due to licensing problems.

The Byrds recorded “Wasn’t Born to Follow” in 1968 on The Notorious Byrd Brothers.  The song was written by the husband and wife songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, known as Goffin and King.  It is used in Easy Rider during another riding sequence.  One can imagine these songs in the film as the songs running through the riders heads-this happens when you’re riding, just listen for them.  Here the filmgoer is let into the secret, and can hear what the riders are hearing.  This song's lyrics are full of beautiful, colorful, almost psychedelic imagery (enhanced by the lens flare rainbows in the film), and the Byrds’ signature sparkling guitar work. 

Thursday, June 9, 2011

British Iron: Triumph Motorcycles at the Isle of Man TT

Tony Jefferies on his 490cc Triumph at Greeba Bridge, Isle of Man TT, 1969
This unabashedly patriotic advertising film (here in two parts) depicts the “Triumph Triumph” at the Isle of Man TT (labeled as 1969 on youtube, but actually 1971/2).  Triumph and British iron in general are clearly the focus here, with BSA and Norton also represented. German and Japanese motorcycles only receiving passing mention, always with a critical eye (the cornering difficulties presented by the protruding cylinders of the BMW’s boxer engine, and a slow start by the Suzuki, for example).  The Triumph cameramen captured the visceral excitement of the Isle of Man TT: the bikes fly by mere feet from the spectators at speeds in the neighborhood of 100 miles per hour (and sometimes airborne), on a very difficult, very dangerous 37 mile course bounded by stone walls and houses.  The film also shows us the pits, where the racers themselves work on their machines, and the many recreational motorcyclists who ride to the Isle of Man to see the TT each year.  The Royal Marines motorcycle drill team makes an appearance on their Triumphs in the festivities surrounding the race. 
Enough with the writing, though-turn up your volume (these old bikes sound beautiful) and enjoy the show!
-Ironhand Cycles

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A weekend ride

I've been writing about history for the past month, so here is a change of pace: the following is a piece I wrote about a weekend trip with a friend on early 1980s 750cc UJMs.
The Suzuki GS750T and Honda CB750F

I find myself laughing from the sheer joy of it all.  The shield of my full-face helmet is partway open, and I can taste the wind.  On my left New York’s Catskill Mountains tower, going from green to blue in the background, and the Hudson River is just over the hill to my right.  Route 9W unrolls ahead of me, a grey line winding through the Hudson Valley hills.  Underneath me the ’82 GS750’s four cylinders are running in full cry.  John Denver’s Country Roads runs through my head: “Almost heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River….Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong…”, and it dawns on me that this is it.  This is the moment I’ve been waiting for, this is what I’ve been working towards during all those long hours wrenching on the bike-busted knuckles, rusty, greasy hands, the improvised roadside repairs and nursing her home once or twice, that turned the machine I bought as an almost running bike (the previous owner used copious amounts of starter fluid to get it going so I could ride cautiously home) into a well running, happy motorcycle that starts with a prime and a touch of the button, and that I am now riding halfway across New York State with nothing more than the clothes, helmet, leather jacket, and boots I’m wearing. I learned to ride last fall and rode everywhere in the spring and summer while also learning to fix the little problems that kept cropping up, and this is my first trip outside of an hour or so from home. She may not be pretty-paint’s a project for next year, for now she’s still wearing the rough black she came with, since I want to ride-but she’s mine, and she’s running beautifully.  Here on the bike, with a road I’ve never ridden rolling out ahead, miles behind me and miles still to go, I feel perfectly at home, and totally self-reliant.  It’s a new feeling, but one I already know I’ll remember and go looking for again.

Route 9W gets interesting as it gets near Albany, winding through old industrial towns parallel with a railroad line.  There’s a tight curve under a bridge that takes me by surprise so I drag the edge of my boot on the pavement around the corner, but otherwise it’s easy, quick riding and I make it to the barbecue joint we were meeting at right on time.  After a solid dinner at Albany’s Capital Q Smokehouse (on Ontario Street), we saddle up-my ’82 Suzuki GS750T and my riding buddy’s ’80 Honda CB750F.  Our bikes are variations on the “Universal Japanese Motorcycle” inline four-cylinder theme of the 1970s and 80s, so we’re looking forward to riding them together and comparing machines.  We’ve been talking about motorcycle trips since college, took the MSF course together, and now here we are, finally riding.  We leave Albany and head north as evening falls.  Even though it’s late August, the temperature falls to the point where I have to zip up the open collar of my jacket to keep the night wind out.  The roads north are deserted, so we get a little heavy on our right wrists, and top out the speedometers for a while.  Granted, they only go up to 80mph indicated and our old bikes aren’t the fastest machines on the road, but the old saying that it’s more fun to go fast on a slow bike than slow on a fast bike applies here in spades.  We’re pushing the bikes hard, and having the time of our lives as we roar through the darkness side by side, following our twin headlights.   

We’re on the road early the next morning, headed for the Ilion Gorge.  This is a lovely twisty stretch of NYS Route 51 outside of Ilion, NY, that runs through the woods beside a creek. We take it easy the first time through the gorge, since I’ve never ridden it before and there are a few decreasing radius turns, and some areas where the road surface is a bit rough.  We stop in Ilion to talk it over, and decide to turn around and run back through the gorge a bit faster.  This time I ride ahead, and now that I know the road I take it at a good pace, dragging my foot pegs through a few corners while trying not to get distracted by the late summer scenery of upstate New York, and the creek chattering along by the road.  There’s a gravel-filled ditch across the road at one point, so I come off the throttle, pull in the clutch, let the bike roll over it, and then we’re at it again, eating up the road through the gorge.  It’s reasonably quick riding, but this is no place to push ourselves.  Riders on race replica sportbikes get themselves into trouble on this road, but that’s part of the charm of the old bikes we ride-we don’t have to run them hard for it to be fun.  We’re here to enjoy the sheer experience of riding our machines, whatever the pace.

For the ride back south to New Paltz we decide to follow NYS Route 32 down through the Catskill Mountains.  This is a road neither of us know, which should make for a much more interesting trip than a familiar route.  We see the mountains in the distance for a long time before the road starts climbing, and the houses start to thin out.  There are a few little towns, and mountain farms here and there, but the forest and mountains start to close in.  I get a chance to ride the CB750F for a while outside of Oneonta, and really enjoy it.  The bars are higher and wider than the superbike bars on my GS750T, and have aftermarket cushioned grips, so the ride is very comfortable and provides a welcome stretch for my shoulders.  The Honda is a bit heavier and taller than the Suzuki, but tracks beautifully, and the Kerker exhaust sounds mean compared to the stock pipes on the GS, giving the feeling of a lot of power.  The seat is comfortable, and riding position is so upright that I feel like I could keep going straight on to California with this bike, but for cornering performance and low speed maneuvering I might prefer my slightly lower, lighter machine, with narrower bars.  After a while (and an accidental detour when we get separated and go looking for each other in opposite directions) we switch back to our own bikes, and swinging a leg over the familiar Suzuki feels like coming home.  The road gets steeper and we start climbing in earnest, until finally we crest the last hill, and get the same idea simultaneously.  We brake, pull our bikes over to the shoulder, and dismount to take in the view.  Spread out in front us we see the Catskills, blue in the afternoon haze, with Route 32 twisting down the hill in front of us into the mountains.  We take a few pictures, and head down to the mountains.  Soon we find the border of the park, appropriately marked by the Kaaterskill creek.  We pull over again by the “Entering Catskill Park” sign, take a few more pictures, and walk onto the bridge to look at the creek and talk about fishing.  Somehow pulling over like this seems easier on a motorcycle than in a cage.  You’re already out in the wind, with the road flying by inches from your boots.  You feel the air temperature change as you pass a stream or a valley, taste the different air in the woods and mountains with a hint of carbureted four-stroke exhaust, and your attention is focused, awareness heightened, in a way unlike anything you get in a car.  You feel connected to the country you’re riding through, to the road, and to the machine, especially with a bike you’ve fixed yourself.  That’s what riding these old motorcycles is all about. This trip was nothing special-a few hundred miles there and back in two days of riding-but we were alive and free in a way neither of us had been before.  We’ll be going back.

Rt. 32, entering the Catskills

Kaaterskill Creek, origin of the name Catskills

At the edge of Catskill Park

Thursday, May 26, 2011

David Mann: Chopper Artist

"In the wind on Friday night", by David Mann

“Mann’s paintings set ‘outlaw’ Harley chopper motorcycles against surreal backgrounds, and distorted skylines, colourful images that celebrated the chopper motorcycle and the freedom of the open road.  Many of his images captured the ‘Easyrider’ ethos – speed, the open road, long flowing hair – freedom.”-David Stuart Haslett, in Riding at the Margins

Lowbrow chopper artist David Mann was born in 1940 in Kansas City, Missouri.  Hot rod cars were his first love, and he got his initial artistic experience while still in high school, when he worked pinstriping cars for a Kansas City custom shop.  After high school, Mann and his buddy Al Burnett drove a ’47 Chevy Coupe to Santa Monica, California.  He saw his first choppers there, at Bay Area Muffler, a custom car shop, and was drawn to the freedom and individuality expressed by the radical bikes.  Back in Kansas City a few years later, Mann began painting choppers, and built his own bike based on a 1948 Harley-Davidson panhead.

Mann with his panhead chopper, c.1965

He won an award for his bike at the 1963 Kansas City Custom Car Show, and in 1965 joined the El Forasteros (The Outsiders) motorcycle club in Kansas City.  Through a friend from the club, his paintings came to the attention of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a California car builder and hot rod artist, and a central figure of the “Kustom Kulture” movement, which included hot rods, lowriders, drag racers, and chopped motorcycles. In 1971, David Mann began illustrating for Roth's then-new motorcycle lifestyle and culture magazine “Easy Riders”, where his work continued to appear until shortly before his death in 2004.
"Beach Bums", by David Mann

His art is firmly rooted in the “Lowbrow” style, and is focused on the southern California culture surrounding the chopper motorcycles he loved.  He captured the freedom and camaraderie of the biker culture, and the “Kustom Kulture” world of chopped Harley-Davidsons, motorcycle clubs, hot rods, long hair, sunglasses, leather, denim, cowboy boots, pretty girls, sun, sand, highways, rock-n-roll, and city lights.

"Saturday Night and Sunday Morning", by David Mann

 David Mann portrayed the clash between the motorcycle counterculture and the straight-laced, upper class “squares”, and saw the biker as a worthy successor to the cowboy of the Old West: a half-wild breed living on the edge of respectable society, but free, and somehow fascinating.

"Ghostrider", by David Mann

The worldview of the people he depicts is summed up in the graffiti scrawled on the wall of a motorcycle clubhouse in one of his paintings: “Know ye that this is the kingdom of kicks-beer and bikes and drugs and chicks”.  Mann’s paintings are classic motorcycle art, and played an important role in shaping our idea of motorcycle culture, especially the distinctively American “outlaw biker” and custom chopper worlds. 

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A rose by any other name: the Enfield Indians

An Indian advertisement from 1955, the first year of the Enfield Indians.
The full range of Enfield-Indian motorcycles as produced in the late 1950s.

The Indian Motorcycle Company was founded in 1901 in Springfield, Massachusetts, by George Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedstrom.  The company is best known for its iconic Scout (introduced in 1920), Chief (introduced in 1922) models-big cruisers with v-twin engines, and some of the most distinctive styling in motorcycle history.  They were renowned for their reliability, performance and handling.  An Indian won the Isle of Man TT in 1911, and Erwin “Cannonball” Baker set a cross-country speed record on one in 1914, among other early racing victories. Burt Munro clocked the fastest time ever officially recorded on an Indian by making 190.07mph on a modified 1920 Scout at Bonneville in 1967, and some Wall of Death riders still use Scouts today.  The left handgrip throttle (as opposed to the right handgrip setup promoted by Harley-Davidson and other manufacturers, which eventually won out) was advertised as ideal for military and police use, since it left the right hand free to fire a handgun, leading to a number of contracts from police forces (the Indian was the first motorcycle adopted by the NYPD in 1907, to chase down runaway horses), and the US Army during the first and second world wars.  In spite of their popularity, the original Indian motorcycle company stopped production in 1953, after struggling to reenter the civilian market following the Second World War.  The name would later be revived and applied to a new generation of big American v-twin motorcycles, but for over forty years (1953-1999) it was kept alive by rebadging foreign machines for sale as Indians. 

The initial crop of rebadged bikes was introduced in1955.  These were Royal Enfields, and included the Woodsman (a 500cc single-cylinder scrambler/trials model), the Trailblazer (a 700cc twin cylinder standard), the Tomahawk (500cc twin super sport), and the Fire Arrow (250cc single). Mechanically they were identical to the motorcycles being sold under the Royal Enfield marque, with cosmetic changes and accessories to help them fill the moccasins recently left empty by Indian Motorcycles.  Advertising literature describes the Trailblazer as “the big red machine”, and promises “real western-type handlebars” on all but the Fire Arrow.  The Trailblazer and Fire Arrow even carried the distinctive Indian head light on the front mudguard.   Later model years included more western-style names, capitalizing on the distinctively American mythology of the cowboy and the Old West: Apache, Westerner, Lance, Hound’s Arrow, and even Chief.  Indian styling cues reached an all-time high with the Chief, sold (under the Matchless-Indian marque) as late as 1961.  This was a big machine, based on the same 700cc Enfield twin as the Trailblazer, but with big mudguards (complete with Indian head light on the front), sidebags, “western-style” bars, and sometimes even a windscreen-except for the engine, not so very different in appearance from the bona fide Chief. 

The Indian brand appeared on everything from Velocettes to mopeds and even Asian-made minibikes until the late 1990s, when the first real revival took place, with production runs from 1999-2003, prior to the opening of the most recent Indian Motorcycle Company (moved from Springfield, MA to King’s Mountain, NC) in 2004.  The brand has now been bought by Polaris, makers of the Victory motorcycle, and while no new designs have appeared, it is probably safe to assume they will closely resemble the iconic v-twin Chief.  Though the Indian marque is now back on American v-twin heavyweight cruisers where it might be said to “belong”, the rebadged machines make up a fascinating chapter in the history of the Indian motorcycle.  The Enfield-Indians are especially interesting-mechanically they’re British bikes, with unmistakably American styling cues from the Indian heritage.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Mystique of the Vincent Black Lightning

The Vincent HRD Motors Series C Rapide "Black Lightning"

Rollie Free on a Black Lightning at Bonneville, 1948

In the vintage motorcycle world, few machines command as much respect as the Vincent Black Lightning.  This bike realized the dream of RFC pilot Howard Raymond Davies, founder of HRD, who is said to have decided to build the world’s fastest motorcycles while held in a German prisoner camp in 1917.  After the war, he founded HRD Motors Ltd., which was bought by Phil Vincent in 1928.  HRD Motors built motorcycles using outsourced engines, mainly by J.A. Prestwich Industries (JAP), but after a disappointing performance by all three Vincent HRD entries in the 1934 Isle of Man TT, the company began building its own engines.  These included the 500cc single used in the Meteor and Comet models, and the 998cc v-twin used in the Rapide models, with minor changes between series.  This engine became the stuff of legend, and is the heart of Vincent hybrids such as the Vindian, Vincati, and Norvin, when placed in frames by other makers.  Introduced in 1948, the Vincent HRD Black Lightning was the racing version of the 1948 Series C Rapide, called the Black Shadow.  It was powered by the same 998cc, 50 degree v-twin engine, developing approximately 54 bhp at 5,700rpm, and was lightened from 458lbs to 380lbs by the use of magnesium components wherever possible, and removal of any parts not absolutely necessary to make it go, and go fast.  A solo racing seat was all you got, and when Rollie Free clocked 184.83mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in nothing but swimming trunks, sneakers, and a leather cap he removed even that, and stretched out over the rear mudguard, forehead on the tank.  Vincent Motors never achieved great commercial success (the last Vincent came off the production line a mere seven years after the introduction of the Black Shadow, in December of 1955), but their machines, and especially the Series C Rapides, quickly acquired an almost mythological aura about them.  Especially among Brit iron aficionados, they are the Holy Grail of motorcycling, and while there have been several attempts to revive the Vincent marque, nothing will ever replace the mystique of an original Black Lightning. 

The Vincent Black Lightning holds the distinction of being (to my knowledge) the only motorcycle to have a song dedicated to it:"1952 Vincent Black Lightning", by the great English guitarist and singer Richard Thompson (first recorded on his Rumor and Sigh, 1991).