Archive for July, 2006

Iron Range Reunion

Wednesday, July 19th, 2006

Continued from “Let the Good Times Roll!”…

It's Good to be King!
My cousin Eric, on his steed, in front of his castle. Life is Good…

When I left off on the last post, Eric and I were riding our Kawasakis on Minnesota Highway One, between Duluth and Ely, through the heart of Iron Range country.

This road rises and falls, twists and turns through thousands of acres of young forest. It is well-seasoned pavement, but still free of potholes and large cracks, and it has none of those treacherous tar-snakes that upset Frogwing’s suspension so much, when we are out playing Cafe Racer.

We followed Eric and Gypsy effortlessly up and down the hills and around the corners. I can ride Frogwing surprisingly fast on challenging pavement, so long as I remember the old beer commercial maxim: “Smooth over everything.”

With gangly forks and a tall, relaxed frame geometry, Frogwing doesn’t like fast, twitchy control inputs. This sets up oscillations which take awhile to damp out. But when ridden smoothly, Frogwing can dance through the corners just as fast as most average sportbikes.

Just when we had settled into a fast groove, the tall grass at the left side of the road exploded in a blur of buckskin!

This yearling buck must have panicked when he heard us coming, because he leapt onto the road just thirty feet in front of Eric and Gypsy. As soon as his hoofs hit the pavement, he slipped. Hunkered down and scrambling, he was lucky that Eric’s Playstation-honed reflexes were so quick. Hard on the binders, Eric locked up the rear tire, but the dual discs up front slowed Gypsy enough that they missed the deer by about five feet.

What fascinated me most about this episode was the way my adrenaline kicked in, and I experienced that slow-motion vision that occurs to some of us in moments of extreme danger.

Time was suddenly moving as slowly during my free time as it does at work!

My hands and feet did what they were supposed to on Frogwing’s controls automatically, while my brain sorted through our options. My vision sharpened, and I was able to see a wider field of view. I was measuring the progress of the young buck against the closing velocity of Eric and Gypsy, while mapping out my own escape route should they collide in front of me.

This is where riding in a staggered formation really makes sense. Had we been travelling side-by-side or single-file like some riders do, we would have gotten in each other’s way during our avoidance maneuvers, potentially ending in a bike-to-bike collision. But offset to one side and well behind, I was able to calmly assess my options and make the necessary steering and brake inputs to miss both Eric and the deer, with plenty of room to spare.

I notice that Eric doesn’t discuss this near-miss over in his blog, as this is such a common occurance in his daily riding that it didn’t even occur to him to mention it. This is just a normal traffic hazard up on the Iron Range.

So the deer escaped with his life, and Eric and I rode on as though nothing had happened.

When we reached the `sweet spot’ of Highway One, Eric pulled over to the side and asked me if I would like to have a go with Gypsy, now that he has built her into the bike I always wanted her to be. I’d have been a fool to say no….

I was amazed at the way my muscle memory came back as soon as I mounted her saddle. Gypsy and I had some epic rides together, back in the day, and the old magic came back almost instantly. Within the first half-mile, I already felt comfortable with this old friend that I hadn’t ridden in over three years.

Much of this should be credited to Eric’s work on the suspension, however. Progressive fork springs and a fork brace have transformed Gypsy’s steering from slightly flighty to rock solid and compliant. Gone were the little tank-slappers that I used to experience when I rode her fast. Oh, and we did go fast.

That Kerker race pipe is a musical instrument equal to the Termignonis on my old Ducati. The little GPz 550 needs to rev a little to stay in the power band, so we were playing a speed-metal symphony of clutchless upshifts and rev-matched downshifts, over several octaves of the musical scale, back and forth through the twisty sections of Highway One.

It was pure musical, motorcycle bliss!

Gypsy and I were having so much fun that we rode the same serpentine half-mile four times, back-to-back, before Eric came by in the opposite direction on Frogwing. It’s a good thing too, because the sides of my boots were getting bevelled going through the corners. I don’t wear kneepucks anymore. We stopped and compared notes for a bit on the side of the road, snapped some photos, and continued on.

Later we both went back to our own bikes, for the ride to Eric’s parent’s house in Bigfork.

During that ride, we came across the strangest road. This stretch of pavement ran between farms and forestland, in straight lines and 90° corners, with no stopsigns. The left-hand corners were posted for 15 miles per hour, and the right-hand corners were posted for 10.

Now, those of you who are well-versed in sportbike lore will recognize the following formula:


For those of you who are not adrenaline junkies, let me `splain…

This refers to those friendly yellow advisory signs posted at the entrance to sharp corners on most paved, public roads. Cafe racers apply this formula to whatever number they see on that sign, and that is the speed at which they enter the corner.

Thusly, a 10 mph corner is entered at 30, and a 15 mph corner is entered at 40 miles per hour.

These kinds of speeds require serious lean angles, and perfect pavement conditions in order to reward the rider with a little taste of what he could experience routinely on a racetrack.

But public roads being what they are, subject to government budget cutbacks and the like, you are ill-advised to try to apply this formula to any road you do not know intimately.

That said, I must admit I was feeling very racy on that sunny Saturday afternoon. Following Eric through the first few of these turns, I realized that he had yet to learn “the formula”. So as we approached a clean left-hander, with no gravel visible on the racing line, and no oncoming traffic, I banked Frogwing over on his ear and gassed it through the corner, on the inside, and blasted out of the corner on a wave of big thumper torque.

Then, I waved him back past me, and re-assumed my position to his right-rear. When we came upon a clean right hander, I decided to try the outside line this time. He turned in to clip the apex at the proper point, and I waited just a split second later. Then, banking hard over, I gave Frogwing a handfull of throttle, and we sailed past them again, inside of their exit line. This time, I smiled and waved as we squirted by.

Oh, this was more fun than I’ve had in a long time!

Well, we finished up with that foolishness and headed for Bigfork, to visit with Eric’s folks. After that, we rode back to Chisholm, to spend another evening racing motorcycles in cyberspace.

Chisholm, Minnesota welcomes you.
Chisholm, Minnesota has one of the nicest main streets I’ve ever seen.

On Sunday morning, I awoke early again, but this time I let Eric sleep. I rode Frogwing around town, to find a photograph with which to close this little story. There it is, above. Then we rode around town a little more, just to store more images in my memory banks, and finally we went back to Eric’s house to say our goodbyes.

We talked about the familiar metaphor of motorcycles and women. Many years ago, I left my first wife to wander the West Pacific with the Marine Corps. When I returned, she had lost thirty pounds and presented me with divorce papers. Huh.

Three years ago, I parked Gypsy in my shed while I built more exotic Cafe Racers. This past weekend, I rode her again, better than she ever was, but no longer my bike. I think I detected a certain note of vindication in the howl of her well-tuned exhaust.

Scooter Tease

Tuesday, July 18th, 2006

The scooter soon to be known as “Scarlet” became roadworthy tonight. She is my reward for all the, um, struggle and hardship during the Baron in Winter project. Yeah, that’s it.

She looks exactly like her brother The Red Baron, right now, but sports a motor that is 100ccs larger. Eventually, she will get a red front end and fender, so she fully lives up to her given name. She will be my companion for Ride to Work Day tomorrow.

We have had some development issues, and I have installed a governor on her to limit the stresses during break-in. Once that process is finished, I plan to install carburetor and exhaust upgrades, and unleash the beast on unsuspecting Vespas and Stellas all over the Twin Cities.

Photos to follow soon.

We now return you to the program already in progress…

Let the Good Times Roll!

Monday, July 17th, 2006

Friday – Saturday, 14-15 July, 2006
Weather: Heat wave! Flirting with 100 degrees F.

Gypsy in her natural habitat.
“Kawasaki let’s the good times roll!” -Indeed.

Does anyone else remember those old Kawasaki ads from the `Eighties?

“…Get aboard, get away, and you’re gonna say, Let the Good Times Roll…”

For some reason, that little ditty lodged itself firmly inside my helmet as soon as I mounted Frogwing for my Ride to Work on Friday.

I was only working a half-day, because I had planned a long weekend touring the Iron Range of northern Minnesota with my cousin Eric. You have to get out of town early on Summer Fridays, or you get caught like a rat in the maze of road construction and frantic SUV drivers heading for the suburbs.

We entered Highway 52 at the top of Ton-Up Hill, and started down into the valley. For one ecstatic moment, I imagined us rotating skyward and launching towards the northern horizon, like the corporate jet that was taking-off from Holman Field, over to our right.

Have you ever had one of those flying dreams where suddenly, for no reason at all, you can leap into the air and soar wherever you want? Well, that’s exactly how I felt as we gathered speed and merged into the traffic on `52. How often does that happen to a “driver”? (Don’t answer that… rhetorical.)

This, I thought, is a Good Omen.

Work went quickly, so Frogwing and I were clear of city traffic by noon. Cruising at a comfortable seventy miles per hour, we made good time on Highway 169. I was just beginning to think about lunch when we passed a sign that said, “Chico’s Place, Mexican and American Food”.

Well, Mexican food is my absolute favorite, so we turned around and headed back, finding a parking spot right in front. Since it was the middle of lunchtime, and the parking lot was almost empty, this should have been a clue…

Let me sum it up quickly: The beef burrito special was basically a cheeseburger in a tortilla. The “hot sauce” wasn’t. It was served in a squeeze-bottle like ketchup used to be, and the taste was similar. And to think that they charged $3.50 for a basket of chips to go with it?

This was “Mexican Food” as interpreted by milquetoast Scandinavians. Mexi-wegian, perhaps?

Well, scratch that one off my list. Lunch came to over ten bucks, twelve with the tip, and it was very disappointing. Just another clip-joint whose only advantage is that they are the perfect distance from the Twin Cities to lure the unwary tourist.

Back on the road, we made good time up to McGregor. There I visited with my Dad at his trailer in the swamp, which is rapidly becoming a mini-resort. He has electricity now, you see, which means that he also has air-conditioning. That’s a good thing, when it gets this hot. He also has a fridge, out of which he produced an ice-cold can of Special Export as soon as he heard us coming down the trail. I love my Dad. He is so good to me.

We sat around his card table and chatted for awhile, family stuff. But I was anxious to get going, so I didn’t stay long. Frogwing and I still had many miles to go before we reached Chisholm, home of my cousin Eric and my ex-bike Gypsy.

We pulled up to Eric’s house just before five. Together, we rode to Virginia, Minnesota and met Eric’s brother Chad, along with his wife Michelle, for dinner at a Chinese buffet. This meal was wonderful, and made up for my terrible lunch.

Then we took a tour of Chad and Michelle’s new home, complete with basement walls done in a “Spongebob Squarepants” mural. Michelle did the illustration herself, and Chad “colored between the lines” with the paint brush. If I get enough requests in the comments section, I do have a photo…

After dinner, Eric and I rode back to his place, and decided to take it easy. We spent the evening playing “Tourist Trophy” on his Play Station 2. This is a motorcycle roadrace game that is almost photo-realistic. It was the perfect activity to psyche us up for our long sport-tour on Saturday.

Eric is an absolute master at this game by now, while I was flopping all over the track. What can I say? There weren’t any handlebars. How can you steer a motorcycle with a goofy little hatswitch? That’s alright, I thought… I’ll get my revenge tomorrow on the road!

"Caution Moose, Next 4 Miles"
The sign says, “Caution Moose, Next 4 Miles”. That gets your attention.

Saturday morning, I woke up at dawn. Vibrating with anticipation, I found Eric fast asleep on the couch, with the TV still going. He awoke reluctantly, this being way earlier than he usually rises.

While he was grumbling and stumbling about, I decided to clean my helmet visor for the ride ahead. At home, I have a sponge and scrubber combination that is safe for teflon pans, and it has been perfect for cleaning the dried bug splats off my visor with nothing more caustic than tap water. This avoids exposing the clear plastic to chemicals which may cause it to cloud up, and I am convinced that it extends the life of my visors by at least a factor of two.

So I found a similar object on the shelf above Eric’s sink, and without testing it on an uncritical part of the visor, I just scrubbed the whole thing like I would at home. The result was a totally useless visor, criss-crossed by scratches made by the S.O.S. pad side of his non-teflon safe scouring pad. Oh goody…

I removed the visor from my helmet, and resigned myself to the fact that I would have to ride with no more eye protection than that afforded by my sunglasses. Well, that’s what most Harley riders depend on. Can they all be wrong? (Again… rhetorical.)

What I ended up with was a Ram Air Bug Collector. Every single bug that would have bounced off that visor either ended up splattered on my sunglasses, or dying violently in the space between the helmet padding and my ear. This was distracting, to say the least. At it’s worst was the venomous bastard who stung me right in the temple as we were approaching Eric’s mother’s house… but I am getting ahead of myself here.

Despite Eric’s difficulties waking up, and my own problems with my helmet, the lure of the ride was pulling on both of us, and soon we were on the road.

Breakfast was forgettable, so I won’t even talk about it. It provided fuel, and that’s what we needed. Then we rode out into the sunrise, locked and loaded, onto roads I have never seen before.

I have a confession to make: Despite all of my zen-talk and dual-sport antics, it is still the fast ride on twisty pavement that gets my motor running. To this day, despite all the trouble it has caused me, I remain a Cafe Racer to the bone.

I followed Eric, so I didn’t keep track of the long, straight roads that delivered us to the twisties. But Minnesota Highway One is legendary amongst local riders as the best pavement northern Minnesota has to offer. I think the photo at the top of this page will attest to that.

The second photo refers to giant creatures that Eric has encountered on this stretch of road before. Though we didn’t see any moose on Saturday, we did have a close call with another wild thing that could have ended the day in disaster for both of us. But that is a story for next time, as this is getting long.

I will update again on Wednesday, and tell you all about my brief and torrid fling with Gypsy. Until then… stay tuned.