They Shoot Turbos, Don’t They

You know the day, you can see it in your mind. Friday, July 5th, the day after Independence Day, a "free-bee". The wife and kid were out of town, the factory was closed. An entire day to myself and my motorcycles. Fluffy white clouds, crisp morning air, and an eager CX-650 Turbo in the garage. Lunch was packed, the tank was full, and I had a 200 mile route picked through some of the finest Appalachian back-roads. Perfect.

I wasn't two miles from home down the bypass when disaster struck. The wind kicked my boot off the foot-peg at only 55mph! Never happened before; what gives? I looked down to find my boot and peg covered with oil. I wheeled around on my perch and discovered a wispy, ominous plume of white smoke trailing MY TURBO!

I pulled off the road and did an assessment. The bike was a hemorrhaging, filthy, Exxon Valdez replica mess. Petroleum goo was emanating from the turbo area, somewhere deep within the dark, hidden recesses of the fairing. Gathering my wits while muttering curses, I checked the dipstick, which thankfully still showed sufficient oil to limp home on the back-road, and so I did.

I'd just bought the bike a few weeks before. This specimen was gleaming white, near-perfect cosmetically, and had just granted me a relatively trouble-free weekend at the Turbo rally two hours away in Staunton. Still, the clock had already malfunctioned (This was the bike pictured in the last issue of Turbo News in a serious state of disassembly in the hotel's parking lot, undergoing a clock-endectomy.). Now there was this problem. What kind of monster had I bought?

You've seen the stallion in the field near home. Big. White. Unrideable by any but the best. Menacing aura. Bulging muscles, Olympic athleticism, beautiful hide gleaming in the sun. Even the stable owner keeps his distance, won't look at him in the eyes. Calls him "Mr. Intimidator." This equine has a mind of his own and will never be fully tamed. He has hurt several lesser riders; visions of Christopher Reeve dance in every admirer's subconscious.

The red mare grazes comfortably in the next pasture. Tame. A memorable ride in her own right, but sans the emotional stress. Grab the tack and go. She's predictable, rewarding.

While I'm not totally ignorant of things mechanical, I am more a mechanic of the necessity-driven rather than of the inveterate type. What I'm saying is that I'd rather ride 'em than fiddle with 'em. Oil change? No problem. Bleed the brakes. Fine. But did I buy something which would need constant attention, something I couldn't handle mechanically, something that would have me twisting wrenches more often than throttles?

Even more discouraging, I had just spoken to my friend, John, who was the guy who'd turned me on to Turbo's in the first place. He'd bought a CX-500, not to keep, but for his German friend Martin (see the letters section of the last issue of Turbo News) to ride in America and take home with him to Germany. John had just returned from a 3000 mile trip through Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia on it and had nary a glitch. "The ultimate passing machine," sez John....

Resigning myself to the fact that I was not going to spend the day riding, but instead to be working on the bike, I got busy. I pulled the radiator cover and the chin fairing. Then came the windshield, headlight, seat, gas tank, and full fairing. Then, with the help of a local mechanic who thankfully makes house-calls, removed the various and multitudinous brackets for the turbocharger and the covers of its miles of ducting. We drained the coolant and removed the radiator. FINALLY, we spotted the source of all this frustration: a ruptured oil line, presumably the lubricant feed for the turbocharger. This hose, no more that three inches long and no greater in diameter than a kindergartners's pencil, had split under pressure and age, and had spewed oil above and behind the turbocharger.

The stable owner says the great white stallion is part horse, part devil. Don't let him into your head, he warns. Bold young riders don't listen. Drawn as if he were an ominous magnet, they finds their psychic compasses swinging towards him, forcing them to ride him. But for most, he is too much horse. Legends spawn.

We replaced the ruptured line with a reinforced copy, mopped the remaining oil as best we could, given the difficulty of reaching around the turbocharger, and slapped the whole affair back together. Seven hours.

Foggy. Surreal. I sit astride my Turbo. I grab the front brake and squeeze, the lever sinks to the grip. Am I riding or merely bleeding the brakes? The brake line bulges like a just-fed boa. Phantasmagoria. Otherworldly. I reach down to the caliper, find it strangely pliant, rubbery. Three dimensional Dante-vision. Brake fluid spills out, evaporates before my eyes like rain on heated asphalt..... BRRRRZZZZ. The alarm rings. A dream.

My first test ride elicited this reverie:
Repairs took forever. Had this magnitude of problem occurred on my trusty red Hawk GT, it would have been fixed in minutes, not hours.
The broken part was insignificant in cost. What would a REAL problem, like a blown turbocharger or gearbox, cost in down-time and dollars? Could I trust it at any distance from home?

Delusion time was over, time to get a grip, a dose of brutal reality. Motorcycles are a rush, that's primarily why we ride them, yes? Like flying, where what separates a great flight from the worst (or last!) experience of one's life is whether you can walk back to the terminal, so is there a fine line between exhilaration and disaster as one approaches triple digit speed on two wheels.

I realized that turbocharged bikes are just like other bikes, only more so. This one has been somewhat the better of me already. It is a huge, gleaming white stallion of a bike, capable of awe-inspiring speed and acceleration. It weighs almost four times my 150 pounds. Its elevated seat is more than a stretch for my 5-foot, 5-inch, inseam-impaired frame. Easy to handle while underway, it becomes a real handful at parking lot speeds. I come to each carefully planned stop tippy-toed. If it ever fell, I'd not be able to right it alone; damage to my body and budget would inevitably be considerable.

Was I, am I, "Turbo material?"

I left the driveway nervously, anxiously. The bike seemed peaceful, eager to please. The turbo itself produced its familiar whine. The brakes worked, even with the fine coating of oil still clinging to the rotors. But the pall of doom followed like a late afternoon shadow. Intellectually, I was certain the leak was fixed, yet viscerally, doubt draped me like a day-old hangover. Whenever I stopped, an acrid stench rose from the steering tube area, byproduct of burning oil residue.

At a red-light, an admirer gave a thumbs-up. "Nice bike!" If he only knew.

Legend says that when a stallion becomes hobbled with a broken leg, it's the kiss of death. An untamable creature cannot endure surgery and rehabilitation and must be put to sleep. Lesser beings can endure; hawks can have a broken wing repaired, dogs can wear a cast for weeks. But they shoot stallions.

The bike was fixed, undoubtedly an easy repair for many more experienced Turbo Association members who write in each issue of Turbo News nonchalant about their abilities to change stators at a whim, rebuild gearboxes over a weekend. But my trust in my Turbo was shaken by the most minor of failures, my wallet left to live in fearful anticipation of "the REAL breakdown." Would I ultimately love this bold, striking bike, or would I eagerly look forward to the day I could unload it and its psychic intensity on someone else, someone in possession of greater size, strength, and most of all, fortitude?

On the following weekend's ride, I rode the Hawk GT.

Presumably one day soon, I'll crack my thumb-warn copy of Pirsig's Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance and peruse its wisdom-infested chapters. I'll descend the stairway to the garage, and capture an eyeful of my Turbo. I'll see and understand the quality into which Siochiro Honda and his mates impregnated this machine. I'll don my helmet, twist the key, wait the obligatory moment for the fuel system warning light to perform its hidden, preparatory magic, press the starter, and ride away. I'll hit the bypass, the turbocharger will sing its mysterious, urgent song, the boost gauge will spread its arching LED wings, the tachometer needle will make its awe-inspiring, frantic dash to redline, and the countryside will blur. The miles will melt away as will the bike, leaving me with only the wind and the road and the purest of motorcycling exhilaration.

Frankly, I look forward to the day.... with all the excitement of a pre-schooler on Christmas morn.