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