Archive for January, 2007

The Abomination in My Garage

Wednesday, January 31st, 2007

The Abomination is the Bike that Should Not Be. It is too horrible to contemplate. It is Evil, and it is Wrong. That is why it has been sitting there, gathering dust, for so long. Look away…

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The Abomination can only be viewed safely one piece at a time.

-Seriously. To view this motorcycle in it’s entirety is to risk brain damage, or at least serious injury to your sense of aesthetics. To ride it is even worse. Though I never thought I would say this, I think I have finally found a Bad Motorbike.

It wasn’t born that way, mind you. Oh no. In it’s infancy, it was a 1979 Yamaha XS650 Special; one of Japan’s first forays into the motorcycle cruiser realm. Yamaha took a perfectly wonderful copy of a Triumph Bonneville and tried to make it into a “factory custom”. The 16″ rear wheel and slightly raked front end, the peanut-shaped fuel tank and stepped saddle all represented baby steps towards what we would eventually call the “Yama-Hog”, or Virago.

I’m told these were comfortable, stable, and well-behaved on the street. It was only when you tried to ride them fast on twisty two-lanes that they began to exhibit bad manners.

Why then, did my good friend Anonymous try to force one into the guise of a vintage road racer?

Well, it was the same combination of financial and relationship factors that endangers the mental wellbeing of many old racers when they get married and start a family. They sell the racebike(s) to make a down-payment on a house, and then sit and mope around said house every race weekend, while the wife picks out wallpaper patterns and carpet swatches.

It is a miserable period in their existence, and it sometimes breeds an unreasoning desparation. So it was for poor Anonymous.

He picked up the XS650 in bone stock trim for next to nothing. It had all the usual vintage Japanese motorbike maladies: Dead battery, gummed up carbs, and all periodic maintenance items due at the same time. Somebody had “moved on” in their life, and left the poor thing in storage. But the price was right, and he was without a hobby for the moment, so he smuggled it home and hid it under a tarp in his garage.

He began to scheme and scrounge through all the bits and pieces collected throughout a long and illustrious amateur racing career. The fairing from an old BMW, spare clip-ons from another old racebike, a boat-tail saddle from an old Harley Davidson Superglide, all of these were blended together into a Thing which, to his fevered imagination, represented an entry into the wonderful world of Vintage Road Racing!

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It doesn’t look any better from this side…

Next came hours of drilling and safety-wiring. For those of you mercifully uninitiated, this involves breaking many tiny drill-bits in the process of boring holes in assorted nuts, bolts and your oil drain plug, through which you then thread mild steel “safety-wire”. Then you must twist those strands together and route them in a complicated and arcane practice known only to racers and aviation mechanics. This is done ostensibly for safety reasons, but I suspect it is really intended to assert the absolute authority of tech inspectors.

But Anonymous was determined to feel the thrill of the racetrack again, so he persevered. Through all the fabrication and innovation, all of Mr. Murphy’s interruptions, he pressed forward towards the objective. Do I even need to tell you that Anonymous is a fellow Marine?

Finally the day came, when he found himself at Brainerd International Raceway. With The Abomination on a trailer, towed behind the family mini-van, he registered to race. I have no idea whether or what he told his wife. But there he was, ready to whack that throttle and feel that rush, once again.

Although they received many strange, even pained looks from the inspectors, they passed tech on the first try. It probably hurt too much to examine so closely. They recognized my friend from races past, and could see the mad conviction in his eyes. In a rare moment of mercy, they let him go… Anonymous suited up and readied himself for the first practice session.

The Abomination ran well on 100+ octane race gas. It bellowed through it’s “economical” Mac two-into-one header. With nothing more to do, Anonymous twisted the grip and blasted through the gears down the long straightaway, headed for turn one.

He never told me exactly what happened next. Every time I ask, his face turns white, and his eyes get that thousand-yard stare. But he tells me this is definitely NOT a racebike, and I should never try to use it in anger.

I took it off his hands with the trade of a .22 caliber Browning Buckmark target pistol. I hadn’t used that in a long time anyway, and I was curious as to what I could do with such a crazy collection of machinery, all safety-wired together.

In the early years, I started it up once in awhile, just to annoy the neighbors. But I have never ridden it in it’s current configuration. Anonymous’ reaction was enough for me.

Someday, I will take The Abomination apart, and sell all of it’s racy bits to finance The Resurrection. I don’t know if it will be a Street Tracker or a Bobber. My tastes prefer the former, but the bike’s chassis begs the latter. For now, I test my fortitude by going out and looking at it, even sitting on it, once in awhile. Yes, it hurts. But that which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.

Cafe Racer Retrospective: Ol’ One Nine Seven

Saturday, January 27th, 2007

When we were shunted off the track at one hundred and forty miles per hour, I knew I was going to die…

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“Gogo”, my beloved 1995 Ducati 900SS, in the paddock at B.I.R.

Brainerd International Raceway, Turn One. It comes up after a full mile of drag-strip straightaway, and you are at terminal velocity for whatever motorbike you are riding when this steeply banked 90° right-hander looms up at you. Tucked-in, under “the bubble”, it comes on fast. Very fast. And it is beyond anything you have ever experienced on the street. Trust me on this.

It was the last lap of a sprint race, Gogo and I were running fourth. A rider on a CBR 600 had been dogging us all race long. In the tight, technical infield, we owned him, blasting out of the corners on waves of Ducati torque that he couldn’t hope to match. But as soon as we throttled out of turn ten, he began to draft us, and he had a whole mile to wind it out and make his move on high-rpm, four-cylinder horsepower.

That was the chess game we played throughout the race; torque versus horsepower. On the white-flag lap, Gogo and I got a great run out of turn ten, and we still led going into turn one. When we reached the end of the straight, in a desperate move, Mr. Squidly dived down to the point where the banking transitioned, and his bike got into a wicked tank-slapper. He wobbled up the banking, slamming into Gogo and I, and knocked us off the track. The force of the impact stabilized his bike, and he finished the race. In fourth. The Bastard…

Meanwhile, on the shaggy wet grass of the outfield, my 900SS Ducati bucked like a bronco when it’s suspension bottomed out over lumps that it wasn’t designed to take. Clamping my knees around the tank, and trying in vain to hold the bars straight, there was no hope of applying Brembo braking power to slow us down. It was all I could do just to hang on.

As the ditch in front of the access road approached, I felt helpless to stop the raging forces of momentum, and resigned myself to an ignominious end; just another victim of high-velocity physics…

How the heck did I get into this mess?

Brainerd International Raceway was the birthplace of the Central Roadracing Association. In the mid nineteen-nineties, I started hanging around, and it didn’t take long before I caught the racing bug.

Working two full-time technical jobs; eighteen hours a day, ninety hours a week, I was able to save enough cash in six months to buy a brand new 1995 Ducati 900SS Cafe Racer.

It was a brutal Winter. I spent that entire six months of double full-time hell staring at wallpaper of this bike on the various PCs that I was working with at the time. The Italian mystique of those beautiful lines, and their total dedication to speed captured my very soul. That brilliant red image was burned into my retinas, and haunted the few hours of REM sleep that I managed to get during any given week.

But the reality of that Ducati was even better than I could have imagined, and it boosted me into the trajectory of the life I live today.

Immediately, I became a devotee of espresso. Gogo and I haunted “Bob’s Java Hut”, where we would hang out and wait for others of our kind to congregate. At some point, we would reach critical mass, and a Ride would form. That would usually take us onto the Alphabet Roads of nearby Wisconsin, at ton-up speeds and maximum adrenaline overload.

That was where I learned to scrape my kneepucks on the ground and eliminate the “chicken strips” from my tires. That was where I broke in my racing leathers. That was where I acquired the desire to race for real, against other speed freaks on that fearsome track at Brainerd.

And that was where I made a decision which very nearly ended my life.

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“The brand-new Ducati 900 Campione del Mundo Desmodue Supersport double-barreled magnum Cafe Racer filled me with feelings of lust every time I looked at it.” – Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

The crash was a good one. It’s too bad the TV cameras weren’t there to capture the carnage. Gogo dived down into that ditch and threw me a long way over the road, and out into the woods. At some point, my right knee disassembled itself. Ribs cracked, muscles tore, and I hit my head hard enough to break the visor on my helmet. But I never lost consciousness.

What I remember is staring up at the sky, unable to breathe, as I listened to the slap-slap-slap of corner worker’s shoes crossing the racetrack. Then, their heads popped into view around the perimeter of my blurred vision. “Are you alright?”

My reply, of course, was a weak “Aughkt! Argh! Ack!”.

They lifted me to my feet, and eventually I was able to hobble over to the ditch where Gogo had come to rest. She was a pitiful, broken sight, and I wanted to die. But then the ambulance arrived, and I had to take the mandatory ride back to the medical facility.

What followed was many months of recuperation, both mine and Gogo’s. After tending to the bent frame, forks, and wheels, I purchased a set of Sharkskinz bodywork for her, with a Powerbronze dual-round-headlight front end, and a new paint job that I had designed during my rehabilitation.

This took us through the Winter of 1996, and it was Spring of `97 before we got back on the road. My boss at the time was kind enough to terminate my employment with a generous severance package, just in time to enjoy the upcoming riding season.

For six blissful, unemployed months, I explored my new avocation as a cafe racer and budding motojournalist. Those were the happiest days of my life, up to that point. That was when I started writing “Diary of a Cafe Racer” for Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, and when I found my true calling in life.

But my old maxim, “Nothing cool ever lasts…”, was never so true as it was in the years to come. I won’t go into details here, but life definitely took a turn for the worse. There were employment problems, legal hassles, and the constant pressure of living up to my new “Outlaw Cafe Racer” image. When my daughter Emily was born in November of `99, I had to leave all of that behind me.

I did so, with no regrets. Today, my life is much more relaxed. The role of father and family man is a challenge worthy of my best efforts. My motorbikes are slower, but the riding experience is richer. My old racing leathers don’t fit anymore, and that is probably a Good Thing.

Ramble Plan Foxtrot: Joseph’s Grill

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007

Weather: 24°F (-4°C)
Road Conditions: Salty, with slush in shaded areas.

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Scarlet parks illegally for a photograph. We moved to a legal spot after.

The sun came out this afternoon, after a long absence. It was a welcome surprise, like an old friend dropping in for a visit. The Windsock and Crystal Ball Guild predicted clouds and snow flurries for most of the day, but we all know how accurate they have been lately.

I was energized by the warmth and light, so much that I hastily sketched out a new Ramble Plan to explore after work. Ramble Plan Foxtrot is really a modified R-P Bravo; there are only so many main routes I can take on the way home, at least until the good weather comes and I can ramble long distance.

Foxtrot diverges from Bravo at West 7th Street and Wabasha in downtown Saint Paul. Here I take a right and head across the river on the newish Wabasha Bridge. Just before the first stoplight, there is an entrance off to the left, into the parking lot of Joseph’s Grill.

I was a regular at Joseph’s, back when they occupied their old location at Concorde and State Streets, barely a mile down the hill from my house, “Ton-Up Manor”.

Working third shift at the time, I would ride my old Ducati 900SS home around seven a.m. and stop in for breakfast… er, just before going home to sleep. Yeah, third shift is a weird way to live. I often accompanied my Fajita Omelet with a Bloody Mary, the better to relax before bedtime.

Later, when I got a normal day-job, I stopped going to Joseph’s. Things had changed, my daughter was born, and the next time I went looking for the place, it was gone! Well, not completely gone, as in no longer existing. But they had moved, and were certainly changed at their new location. Bigger, better (according to some definitions of the word), certainly more profitable, the new Joseph’s fits right in with Saint Paul’s “Riverside Rennaissance”.

But I had grown attached to the old Joseph’s, and hesitated to try the new version, until tonight.

The new facility is huge inside, with lots of varnished woodwork, and plasma-screen televisions enough to rival any sports-bar in the area. The clientele trends toward overcoats and suits, and I began to feel a little self-conscious in my Aerostich. But then my waiter Tyler arrived, and I got down to this business of another Rush Hour Restaurant Review.

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Joseph’s Fajitas reflect the whole “bigger and better” theme.
(Caution: Don’t click on the image unless you want to get hungry.)

I seem to remember the old Joseph’s had a Fajita Special night. You got enough grilled beef or chicken with onions and peppers, to fill three tortillas for around seven bucks. That was enough to satisfy most appetites, but it was nothing like the feast pictured above.

The Beef Fajitas I ordered tonight still came with three tortillas, but now the mass of fajitas has almost doubled, with only a modest increase in price. The salsa was fresh, though perhaps a tad milder than I remember, but still delicious. I could taste the chopped garlic and citrus in the marinade, and the vegetables were crisp perfection.

Tyler had to bring me a to-go box so I could take the sizable remainder home. This will make for a fine lunch at work tomorrow…

My only complaint was that the tortillas seemed to have been waiting awhile for me to show up. They were a little hard around the edges, and stuck together in the middle when I tried to separate them. This sometimes happens when you arrive for dinner at four-thirty in the evening.

Overall, it was a meal worthy of my memories of the old Joseph’s, and one that I shall return for again in the future. The rest of the menu looks intriguing, and if you live in the area, Joseph’s is definitely worth a visit. Their blend of Lebanese and Mexican heritage has always made for interesting dining.

The ride home was a familiar ritual: negotiating our city traffic in darkness with nobody seeing, much less looking-for, the maniac riding the scooter. With caution and quick reflexes, Scarlet and I made it home, safe and sound.

I’m feeling a bit reminiscent during these dark Winter days, and someone has requested another Cafe Racer Retrospective. If I get enough interest in the comments section, I’ll see what I can come up with this weekend.