Monday, October 13, 2014

Motorcycle Tales, PART III — Colorado

After the Navy, I spent a few months living with my parents in Spokane. Then I headed for Colorado. It was always my plan, and the plan of many of my Navy buddies, to relocate to Denver once we got out. Many of us went to school at Lowry Air Force Base (that’s right, Navy guys at an Air Force School) and thought it would be a great place to live. The mountains and the climate beckoned us.

Colorado has more motorcycle friendly roads per capita than any other state in the union, and many of those twisty roads recommended for bikes are right here in Boulder County. People trailer in from the other 49 just to ride the twisty Colorado canyons and between our 53 fourteeners (That's a mountain taller than 14,000 feet. We've got more than any other state. Heck, we've got more than all the other states combined.)

Colorado is motorcycle paradise … at least for half the year … and you can always ski the other half. (Really the riding weather is pretty good for more like 8 to 10 months a year.)

While on the Vulcan, there was a sailor, Tom Aerts, temporarily assigned while his ship, the USS Inchon, was completing construction. He was from Longmont, Colorado, and he suggested I look him up when I got out. So I did and ended up staying with him and his wife for a few weeks until I got my own place in Longmont. By then I had a job in Boulder, and Longmont seemed a good place to live.

Tom’s wife, Linda, had a brother, Chuck. Although he was younger than me, we hit it off as friends. We shared many common interests including music and motorcycles. He had a Honda 250 thumper. A four-stroke, single cylinder dirt bike that was very state-of-the-art. I helped him out a bit with that bike. He needed to change a bushing inside one of the side cases. I explained that the case was some exotic metal Honda chose for light weight, probably magnesium alloy. Since it would expand more than the copper bushing, I suggested we heat up the case in the oven and it would be easier to remove the bushing. I didn’t realize that Honda had coated the outside of the case with clear plastic to protect it from the elements and the plastic started to smoke. We had a hard time explaining to Chuck’s mom why we had his motorcycle parts in the oven.

Shortly thereafter, Woody arrived in his VW minibus containing his Harley Sportster and a two-stroke dirt bike … I think a Yamaha or Suzuki. So there I was with nothing but four-wheels and Woody was on his scooter. That had to change.

Woody found a Yamaha RD350 in the paper and started to explain to me just what a powerful bike it was. Since my Triumph was a 650, I didn’t think I’d be satisfied with a 350. Woody quickly clued me in to the error of my ways.

In the first place, since a two-stroke engine fires twice as often as a four-stroke (the RD was a two-stroke), it produced more power than a comparable displacement Honda. And since the engine is lighter, the weight / horsepower ratio favors a two-stroke. Plus, the RD350 had a good racing heritage, with the frame, brakes, etc. based on the Yamaha road racing bike. The RD350 evolved directly from the piston port (pre-reed valve intake tract), front drum-braked, five-speed Yamaha 350 cc “R5.” The front brake was a single disc and a rear drum brake, a combination described by Cycle Magazine as the best in its class. (I've noticed a trend here in the 21st century to return to drum brakes in the rear with disk in the front. It works very well for machines under 500 cc.)

Although the frames for the racing bike and the street bike had many features in common, the RD’s frame weighed about twice the road racer version, primarily due to the brackets added for street required equipment such as lights and the like. Still the RD’s 350 pounds was coupled to an engine producing around 40 HP at 7,000 rpm and it was a real “crotch rocket.” It had a six speed transmission, so you could keep it in the "power band" at any speed.

Maybe not a hot rod comparable to the mega-bike 750cc triple from Kawasaki, but those bruisers would only go in a straight line and you had to drag your feet to assist with the brakes. Nor was it the equal of the Honda big four, but then those couldn't really lean without hitting something from pipes to engine cases. No, the RD350 was a very fine tuned ride, albeit a bit on the small size. But, then again, back then, I, too, was on the small size.

In addition, the engine was even more efficient than the race version with the reed-valve injection and the additional gear. As I was later to prove, or at least demonstrate, this was a road racing wolf in sheep's clothing. The balance between power and handling, braking and acceleration, made it a perfect ride for someone that was more at home on the street than the race track. It was really a perfect bike for me, and I often wish I still had it.

I had to shop around for a bank that would loan me any money, but I succeeded in obtaining the few hundred dollars requested for the near-new Yamaha. It had an oil injection system, so you didn’t have to add oil to the gasoline, and it was a very fast bike, although, on the Interstate, its small size and weight made it a bit of a problem keeping up with Woody’s bigger (900cc) Harley. But when the roads got twisty, which they do a lot in the Colorado mountains, the Yamaha’s spry handling, great brakes, and multiple gears let me keep right up, if not pull ahead.

Chuck would join us at the Berthoud Raceway, a combination motocross track with a TT dirt track. TT tracks have left and right turns and one jump, but aren’t as extreme as a motocross course. We would race Woody’s bike and Chuck's and switch off rides. It was lots of fun and a good way to spend the weekend. I didn't ride the RD on the dirt. We rode Woody's dirt bike and Chucks Honda 250.

Later Chuck bought his own RD350 which a coworker at the FAA almost immediately drove into the fence denting the tank. Chuck later rode that bike all the way to Fairbanks, Alaska and back, and then it sat in a shed at his dad’s until a few years ago when I put it together and sold it to some young kid. The engine was seized from sitting in a wet shed for over 25 years and the chain was more rust than steel, but the kid was going to rebuild it and realized the price was right for such a great bike.

Woody lived with me in Longmont for about a year, and we had a lot of adventures, both road riding with our large bikes, and also racing his dirt bike at nearby tracks. I’ve recounted some of those adventures elsewhere on this blog. But, eventually, Woody felt the pull of home and returned to his native state of New Hampshire, leaving me alone, but with a new job in Denver replacing my original work in Boulder. So I moved to an apartment in Denver just off the turnpike and about equal distance from Boulder and downtown Denver. I began attending Metropolitan State College. Now in those days, Metro (as it was affectionally known) held classes in rented spaces all over downtown Denver. Since I was working full time, I took all my classes in the evening. One night I went to class and parked my bike on the street with the front fork locked so it could only go in a circle.

But, when I returned later that night after class, the bike was gone. I reported it to the police and my insurance and soon received a settlement that I used to purchase a used Honda CB550 four cylinder. I had friends with the bigger, “super-bike,” Honda 750 four when I was in the Navy, and I was very impressed. Although the engine was a bit wide, the technology in the Japanese bike, and the sound — reminiscent of some European sports car — sold me. I don’t remember if I bought the smaller cousin of the 750 because it was there or it was what I could afford, but, in truth, the CB550 was a much better handling bike and a lot more fun to ride than its bigger cousin which was a large bike for a small guy like me.

I quickly changed the exhaust system into a “four-into-one” set painted flat black. Now the sound was even sweeter. My 550 was colored turd brown, but I even like that. Then the cops found my RD. It was in a basement near where it was stolen. I think some bum drug / rolled it into a building with unknown intent, but it was as good as the day I lost it except for a broken mirror, so now I had two bikes.

By then I had moved closer to downtown Denver. I had a very nice duplex on King street about a quarter mile from Mile High Stadium. The house had a garage and I kept the bikes in there. I had my van, but rode the bikes whenever the streets were dry. By then I was dating Chuck’s sister, Linda. She lived in Longmont and I would travel up there on weekends.

I remember one trip up. I had a cold beer in my pocket. I always took the “back roads,” because the Interstate is a bummer on a bike. I was on US 287 just leaving Broomfield and headed down that big hill toward Lafayette one early evening. I pulled the beer out and, riding with no hands, opened it up. I put the beer between my legs to free up my throttle and clutch hand. At 60 mph the wind over the top of the open beer can started sucking the cold liquid out and onto my pants.

Before I could finish the beer, it ended up all over me just below the waist. Fortunately, dark blue Levis don’t show that and the night air soon dried my pants. Remember what I said, “Don’t drink and Ride.” It’s a good motto for everyone. I’m just a slow learner.

One of the great roads in Boulder County is the “Peak-to-Peak” highway. That road winds from Nederland at the top of Boulder Canyon, past the magnificent Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker, ending up in Estes Park. I had Linda on the back of the little 350 and I was scraping the foot pegs on the deep curves. She was not impressed. "Slow down!" she shouted in my ear. "OK." But you’ll have to relax your grip around my chest so I can breath. (That was the best part of a bike ride, making the girl on back hold on tight. But let’s just keep that little secret between us boys.) I think she cracked a couple of my ribs on that ride, but it was worth it.

Before he left, Woody helped me get a job teaching at Electronics Technical Institute in Denver. However, I didn’t really quit my old job at A.R.F. Products. I had a key to the small building and I’d go there after work at E.T.I or on weekends and test Command Receivers. The extra money was nice and I enjoyed working in the lab all alone.

One Saturday, after working all day at A.R.F., I arrived at Linda’s apartment. I told her I was too tired to go out and I fell asleep on the couch. The next morning she asked if I wanted to go on a picnic. I told her I going back to work. At that point she realized I didn’t seem to have any time for her and she made the very wise decision to kick me out of her life. She told me to take my drum and beat it. Take my horn and blow. There I was, sitting out on the curb with the other trash, and that was the end of our romance. She is a very wise person, and I’m just lucky it took her so long to boot me out of her life. It was fun while it lasted. But now what?

As a result of our parting, I was faced with a summer with no girl friend and nothing but two jobs and two motorcycles. I quit the job at A.R.F. products shortly after that and started stripping down the RD. It was a race bike at heart, and I was sure I could do well with her … at least until she too tossed me off.

I removed all the city gear from mirrors to turn signals to headlight and taillight. I got a new seat with a low, aerodynamic back and clip on handlebars. I adjusted the pegs and controls backward to facilitate the new riding position. I joined the M.R.A. (Motorcycle Roadracing Association) and started entering road races.

(Pictured below is a slightly newer YZ250. I didn't have a fairing on my RD racing conversion, or the special tank. But I did have the seat and the clip on bars. I remember Woody telling me that the power band on the YZ is so narrow it was like riding a light switch. It was either "on" or "off." No "in-between.")

I should have taken a clue from the question on the MRA application that wanted to know my blood type. Why do you need that, I asked naively? Soon I was in a pack of riders all accelerating at maximum throttle toward a tight, hair-pin turn. The track in Aspen was one of my favorites, partly because it was a tight track and you never got going too fast. At the end of the first straight-away was a sharp turn, over 110 degrees. If you missed the turn there was a big rock about the size of a dump truck that would bring you and bike to a quick halt.

As the pack of racers zoomed toward the turn and that immovable rock, everyone would wait until the last possible moment to slam on the brakes and then lay their bikes into the ultra-tight turn. I was always the first one to hit the brakes. I quickly realized that I didn’t have the intestinal fortitude for racing. Besides, I wasn’t as good a rider as those other guys anyway. In any case, with jokers to the right of me and clowns to the left, I quickly realized that gasoline didn't really run in my veins and I was definately stuck in the middle again.

I did meet some cool people like Bruce Sass who rode this Suzuki 500 Titan. He was a great rider and is now in the Colorado Race Hall of Fame. I rode in a few races in Aspen and at the Douglas County Fair Grounds, but my racing career was short and sweet. I never ate the asphalt and I never won a race.

With still more summer to dispose of I thought I’d take a road trip. The Honda was big enough for around town, but it was a bit small for the Interstate. But it was the only bike I had that was still street legal, so I pointed it north on I-25 for Lewistown, Montana. Boy it’s a long ride across Wyoming! By the time I got to Billings, Montana the ride got better and soon I was back in my old home town.

I met up with my old friend, Jack Barney. He had completed four years (in the Navy, I think) plus four years of college and now he was on the local police force. I think he was a deputy sheriff. We were sitting in a bar with my bike parked outside at the curb when his radio sounded off about some suspicious motorcycle with Colorado plates. Jack responded that he was “questioning the suspect at that time.”

Nearly 30 years later I would return to Lewistown for a high school reunion and Jack would loan me one of his bikes (a Yamaha V-Twin if I’m not mistaken) for a great ride with several classmates. Linda was holding on tightly in back, as before. And, also as before, I really liked that.

But back to the past. As that summer of "single life" turned to fall, I was back in Longmont. I drove out to Chuck’s parents to visit him and Linda was there doing laundry. We talked and I asked her if she would like to go for a ride. I drove up North to Loveland and then into the mountains up the Big Thompson canyon. No bike, just my van. We both had a good time. (Well, I did.)

I think she might have missed me. I know I had missed her … a LOT!!

We started dating again and, in a couple of months, I proposed. We were married the last few days of December, 1976. We’ve now been married for nearly forty years. I’m lucky we got back together as I can’t imagine anyone else who would have put up with my silliness for all these years. We've had a wonderful life together, and I'm about the luckiest guy in the world to have that sweet lady as my bride.

We returned to Longmont from Spokane, Washington where we were married at my parents. Within two months we bought our first house. I sold the Honda 550 for $1,000, exactly the price of a new refrigerator. Now that's domestication. I sold it to one of my students at E.T.I. A week later he told me he got drunk and rode it up the steps at the State Capital. He tore off the entire four-into-one exhaust. I keep telling you, "Don't drink and ride." It is a lesson learned in the school of hard knocks.

It was about twenty years later before I put my Yamaha 350 back together and got it on the street, only to sell it to another young kid. But I didn't remain without a bike for too long.

Oh, I had my distractions. I bought a Mazda Miata. That's a little, two-seater roadster that is the closest thing to a motorcycle you will find on four wheels. Even has a six speed shifter. And, if it rains, you can put the top up. But not the same.

So I started hunting for a new ride and eventually found myself back on a Triumph. This one's a Bonny. The design has changed a little through the years and carburetors became fuel injectors and displacement was increased to compensate for the added weight and emissions doo-dads. Other than the modern stuff added, the bike maintains the classic look and sound. It has that beautiful Limey vertical twin rumble through those original style, pea-shooter pipes. Now I'm out ridin' again … but not drinking. I finally learned that lesson.

Took Linda for a cruise up to Nederland and north on Peak-to-Peak. I gunned it a bit in the sweepers. She squeezed me tight. Some old tricks still work. I've got out the maps and I'm drawing lines through those winding Colorado canyons that make summer a time of joy for two wheelers.

This bike I probably won't tear down in the living room. After all, now I have a garage!

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