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.

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