Wednesday, August 26, 2009

First Rides and the Dangerous Learning Curve

I suspect that, like me, a lot of folks riding motorcycles today did so first on a Honda. I learned to ride on a 1966 Honda Super Hawk—and I still have the bike—but it’s not the first motorbike that I rode. No, my first motorized ride was as a youngster on a Honda Monkey Bike, and I recollect that I had only recently learned to ride two wheels of the manual sort. And before then I had been content with three-wheeled pedal travel only to discover the two-wheeled variety when my older brother, Shawn, crashed into me and my tricycle after he had removed the training wheels from his red Schwinn. We lay in a heap tangled in our ‘cycles with me stunned and Shawn laughing his head off. Shawn still rides a red bike (a 1939 Ariel Red Hunter), but his current machine has mechanicals that are heavier and slightly (just slightly) more advanced than his Schwinn.
It is completely irrelevant that my first two-wheeled voyage happened on Shawn’s red Schwinn and that the event was captured on film. My movie-camera-toting grandparents were in town, and they wanted to film me learning to ride a bike. Since I was too small to reach the ground, Dad agreed to get me started if Mom and the grandparents caught me. I had no previous experience with coaster brakes, nor brakes of any kind. My fate was sealed when I was told that, in order to stay upright, I had to keep pedaling. The home movie shows me wobbling down the sidewalk, picking up speed and getting steadier, riding past the Super-8 camera crew, riding off the curb at the end of the block, crossing the dead-end street, and disappearing into the blackberry bushes on the other side.
It was not too long after this incident that I rode the Monkey Bike. The machine belonged to the eldest child of one of my dad’s co-workers, whom our family went to visit one summer evening. While the grown-ups were in the house, Shawn and I were regaled with speed demonstrations as the Monkey Bike’s owner flogged his steed along the pock-marked dirt driveway, out to the road, and back. These folks lived in the country, so the driveway was long enough to let the Monkey Bike generate all the speed and noise it could.
Shawn was offered and accepted a ride, and, before I knew it, my turn came. I was instructed that to make the machine go I should twist the grip one way, and to make it slow down I should twist it again, or the other way, or more, or the other one, or something. Whatever.
I climbed aboard and the Monkey Bike shot off down the driveway, hitting every pothole, and splashing the mud out of the puddles. I held on for my dear, short life while the rest of me flew out behind like a pennant, occasionally coming down as the Monkey Bike bounded up. I couldn’t see clearly for all the bouncing, but somehow--and this is the strange part--I was able to stop, turn around, and tear back toward the kids, who were doubled over in hysterics. I bore in on them like a dive bomber, trusting that one of them would figure out how to stop this crazy thing before someone got hurt.
The Monkey Bike slowed, and Shawn and the others grabbed me as I went by. I didn’t kill any of the kids, and I didn’t put a Monkey-Bike shaped hole in the garage door. I also didn’t ride another motorbike for about two dozen years.
In 1994, I came across a very dead ’66 Honda Super Hawk. It was stored under some junk that was behind the pinball machine in a shop that I still rent with several friends. We were clearing out the shop one day, and someone decided that we should no longer be storing this forlorn motorcycle for Coast Guard Dave, the old cabinet maker across the street. In a fit of cleanliness, we marched over to Dave’s shop and told him that the bike was going to be wheeled out to the phone pole for the scrap hauler to collect. Coast Guard Dave didn’t seem too bothered. He turned to me and told me I could have it if I got it running. (That still seems like a bizarre offer. What if I tried but failed? Would he take it back and give it to the scrap hauler?) Puzzled, I accepted.
Dave was the second owner of the Super Hawk, but he had known it from new because a close friend was the original owner. In the late 1970s, Dave bought it from his friend thinking it would make a good bike for his wife. Not too long afterwards the engine locked up, and Dave’s wife divorced him. I assume the events were unrelated. By the time Dave had given the seized Honda to me, it was partly disassembled, the speedometer was stove in, as were the chrome panels on the gas tank, and all the chrome was orange with rust.
Over the summer I took it apart, cleaned and repaired it, got the necessary machine work done, and put it back together. The engine had locked when a wrist pin welded itself to a connecting rod (there are no bronze bushes in the small ends of Super Hawk con rods), and this was likely the result of a worn out oil pump.
Once work was underway, Dave told me his opinion of the problem with the Super Hawk. I was expecting stories of electrical faults or poor-quality parts. Instead, the problem was that, up to 60 mph, it would beat his 650 Triumph in a stop-light drag race. For me, this problem was easily cured by simply avoiding Dave’s perspective on the matter. The teardown revealed that Dave's friend had fitted the Honda with high-compression pistons and a smaller drive sprocket off the transmission to make it quick.
By the time the Super Hawk was ready to ride, I was intimately familiar with its mechanicals, but I still had never ridden a proper motorcycle. I climbed on and clumsily operated the controls, trying to mix how to drive a car with how various parts of the motorcycle work.
I was not smooth. Once underway I was as mechanical as the bike. Shifting required all my concentration: roll on throttle, reduce slightly, pull in clutch lever, tip left foot up to change gear, roll on throttle and let out clutch lever. I rode around and around the block. Coast Guard Dave stood in the doorway of his shop and shook his head in disgust. But I was triumphant—the machine worked! Looking out over the flat ‘bars there was just a headlight and the road rushing past. I felt like I was flying! I felt like a kid again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Major’s Story: A Racycle Odyssey 100 Years Ago

These days most antique bicycles are ridden only rarely. A terrific exception is the Wheelmen’s century in which Wheelmen ride 100 miles in a day on bicycles built in 1918 or earlier.
But those same antique bicycles were once new and modern conveniences of transportation. As such they were ridden plenty, but typically just for local trips; long-distance bicycle touring was never commonplace.
One of those rare and adventurous early bicycle tourists was the intrepid Major Edward Augustus Weed, who rode out of New York City on a Racycle Pacemaker in 1908 bound for Estrella, California. For his coast-to-coast journey, the major took his time to take in the sights. In all he rode 8,145 miles “on a Racycle Pacemaker in 18 months and 25 days, in 25 states…across uncle Sam’s big ranch….” The major might not have realized it, but during his trip the world had changed with the introduction of the Model T Ford.
We know of the major’s adventure because in 1910 he self published a brief description of his Racycle travels in a booklet entitled The Major’s Story. The Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company offered in its advertisements to send a copy of the booklet, along with a current Racycle catalog and other promotional goods, to anyone writing to the factory and sending along a two-cent stamp to cover return postage. The quoted excerpts in this post are reprinted with the kind permission of the copyright holder, who is the great grandson of Major Weed.
The Route
Major E.A. Weed was not one to take the direct route when there were interesting places to go and things to see. Starting from New York, he traveled up to Maine, then back south again along the eastern seaboard to Virginia before turning inland. He meandered westward through West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, then turned south through states along the mighty Mississippi until he got to Arkansas. He then continued roughly westward again through Oklahoma and Texas and the American Southwest to California. The major reached Estrella, California, on December 23, 1909.
About his route, Major Weed wrote, “My intention has not been to make any records for distance or speed, for I have often gone hundreds of miles out of my way to see any interesting locality or wonder of nature. Hence, the distance I have traveled is more than enough to have gone direct from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles and back again…. No grander and more comprehensive way of seeing the vastness of our country can be obtained than by riding a wheel [bicycle] leisurely and taking in every point of interest.”
The Racycle
A transcontinental bicycle trip is still a significant undertaking today even with paved roads and good maps. The fact that the major undertook his journey 100 years ago on a Racycle Pacemaker is nothing short of heroic. The rider had to be self reliant because the route was only very sparsely populated, and the few roads that existed were bad. “…But don’t think it was a boulevard, for much of the way is rough.”
The Racycle Pacemaker seems an unlikely choice for the trip because its front sprocket was so large (40 teeth, 1-inch pitch chain) that it typically resulted in tall gearing despite the range of rear sprockets available. (The actual gearing of the major's Pacemaker is not given in the story.) Nevertheless, the major was enthusiastic about his Racycle. For instance, when “poor Racy Pacy was ground to pieces on a trestle bridge by an express train, (the only thing that can smash a Racycle),” the major waited for a replacement Racycle to arrive rather than continue his journey on an inferior bicycle. He described the train incident thus:
“On the 12th of April, 1909, on a trestle bridge near Algodones, New Mexico, where I was walking across, I was suddenly overtaken by a California Limited on the Santa Fe and saved my life by jumping 15 feet to the dry sand below, but my wheel fell on the track and was crushed to pieces. The saddle, handlebars, pump, and my watch were uninjured and are still in use on the second wheel the Miami Co. sent to Albuquerque. The broken wheel I had ridden over 10 months in 23 states, 5,955 miles, and it was in perfect order, and would have been all right now had it not been demolished by the train.”
Express trains notwithstanding, the major had prepared his Pacemaker to survive the predictable hazards of the journey. He wrote that he used heavier gauge spokes and wider tires typical of tandem bicycles. The wider tires may have helped on the miles of sandy tracks that passed for roads.
His Pacemaker had a 24-inch frame and was equipped with a Musselman coaster brake, which was built in-house at the Miami Cycle & Manufacturing Company. When coaster brakes were still something of a novelty in 1908 and 1909 (most bicycles had fixed hubs), the Musselman brake was reported to work better than most and was simpler to maintain and repair. The Musselman was unusual in that it had no brake arm strapped to the chain stay but relied on an elegant design feature whereby the braking action was instead imparted into a lug that fit neatly into the rear dropout of the frame. For this reason, the makers termed it the “armless wonder.” Major Weed was of the opinion that it was a fine piece of equipment. “In descending mountains for several miles, I found that my Musselman brake would hold the wheel all right, and it was really marvelous to see the tremendous strength of the little ‘Armless Wonder’ not to mention the feeling of safety and security in coasting down those perilous grades.” The performance of the coaster brake is all the more surprising considering that the major claimed the loaded weight of his Pacemaker was over 90 pounds, “and over 100 pounds when canteens are full of water.”
The Rider
Reading The Major’s Story one is impressed as much by the author’s character as by his physical achievement. Major Weed seems to have been a free spirit in the sense that he had a singular passion for travel, but he also understood that satisfying this passion was his means to a contented and healthful life. In this respect, one could compare him with John Muir, who also appreciated nature for its own sake and for its transcendental qualities. Coincidently, Muir (born 1838) and Weed (born circa 1842) were nearly the same age, but Muir had already travelled and published widely by the time the major began his journey. Major Weed wrote, “I most heartily commend bicycle riding and Racycle riding in particular as one of the very best means to see our grand country and come in closer touch with God and nature.” The accompanying photo of John Muir is from the Wikipedia entry (
Despite the major’s age and the hardships he endured, he logged “not a sick day on the whole trip, but perfect health all the time, for you see I am a healthy, hearty young fellow, and only 68 years young…. Though thoroughly drenched with rain by night and day on numerous occasions, I was not injured in anyway, not even taking cold.”
The Major’s Story is entertaining reading if only for its insights into its author’s attitude toward life. As stated above, he knew what made him a happy and healthy man, and at several occasions in the booklet he takes care to fill in the rest of us as to the secrets of his success. “Good food and plenty of it, as much sleep as convenient, entire abstinence from liquor and tobacco in every form, an even disposition, and an avoidance of fret, worry, and anger have been largely instrumental in contributing to my health and happiness…. When short of food or water I make my mind control my appetite and never allow myself to think about it, so I never suffer with hunger or thirst. We can overcome much of our trouble or sorrow if our mind is under proper management. God has given us the ability to be peaceful and happy under nearly all conditions and amid nearly all environments.”
Consistent with his independent spirit, the major wanted his readers to understand that he was not in the pocket of the Miami Cycle Company, and they certainly were not holding his hand as he meandered across the US. Major E.A. Weed concluded his self-published travelogue with the following statement:
“I want it distinctly understood that I have had no salary or expense allowance from the Miami Cycle & Mfg. Co. of Middletown, Ohio, the makers of the Racycle, but rode that wheel because I believed it the best, and my long and hard ride has fully confirmed my former belief, that though there are possibly other good wheels, there cannot be any that compare with the easy riding, sturdily built Racycle Pacemaker.”
That was a century ago this year.

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