Test Ride

With New Year’s Day and its attendant resolutions looming, it’s time for emotional cleansing and introspective integrity. So let’s get honest with ourselves; motorcycles are not about need, they’re about want. With this self-indulgent thought and the lingering weight of our struggling economy’s income potential doldrums perched on my mind with the intractability of a New Year’s Eve reveler on a bar-stool, I pointed the great grey Honda CBX eastbound last Saturday morning. I was on a ninety mile journey to Lynchburg, home of MillerBuilt, the nearest Triumph dealership, to test ride a new motorcycle.

I hadn’t bought a new motorcycle in oh, some twenty-five odd years. Sure, I’d owned several since my return to motorcycling a decade ago, but all were used, some well-used, before they adorned my garage. Following an assortment of Yamaha Seca II’s and Honda Magnas, there came the little Honda Hawk GT. A platypus of a bike, pieced together with seemingly disparate parts, it quickly won my favor and its modest 650cc engine has delivered me over 35,000 mostly trouble-free miles. After purchasing that, I became enthralled with turbocharged bikes and bought a 1983 Honda CX-650 Turbo. This bike, a statement of Honda’s engineering expertise and technical clout arrived in its day with great fanfare but was a poor seller, gone from the market within a year. It’s a classic now, but in spite of the thrilling ride it provides, it has been constant trouble. My penultimate purchase was the venerable CBX, my conveyance for the day, an across-the-board six cylinder touring bike, also from Honda, manufactured in 1981. I’d bought it six years earlier for a modest $3500 and put twenty-five thousand miles on it since. It’s a classic and a joy to own and ride; a keeper. Lastly there was the Triumph Daytona, a 1997 specimen. This bike marked Triumph’s reemergence as a force in international motorcycling. In spite of its brilliance, it was, truth is told, too much for me: too fast, too loud, too uncomfortable. It was just grand for the single racetrack experience of my life, but overkill for everyday riding. I’d already decided to begin efforts to sell it when I crashed on some loose gravel on a country road earlier in the year. I’d spent six months piecing it back together and now was the time to unload it, before anything else untoward might happen.

So the garage census was this: a 1981 CBX and a 1998 Hawk GT, both keepers. A Triumph Daytona waiting to be sold. And an infirm CX-Turbo, awaiting some resolution. Time for something new, I convinced myself.

The morning was cold and crisp as I motored away. I’d been to Lynchburg the week before, courtesy of my friend Mike and his pickup. I’d accompanied him as he’d taken his big BMW to another Lynchburg dealership, Hammersley Motors. Sadly, he’d also taken a spill, dropping his bike on some ice before our Sunday morning ride a couple of weekends earlier. He left it for evaluation and repair.

Afterwards, we went to MillerBuilt to look at Triumphs with the thought of trading the Daytona. Hammersley and MillerBuilt were studies in contrast. The BMW dealership was in a suburban setting, gleaming and modern, with tile floors, accent lighting, and piped-in classical music in the men’s room. It shares space with BMW and Mercedes Cars. MillerBuilt is in an older, mid-city location. A dozen motorcycles sat amongst a hundred lawn-mowers and related lawn care products. MillerBuilt had two Sprint ST models on the floor, a 2001 and 2002, both with significant discounts. The 2001 was $1700 off retail and owner Bill Miller said he’d include the optional saddlebags that retail for another $700 at no charge. This was the model I thought might best fit my needs, so I was interested. I arranged to return the following week for a test ride.

Stopping for gas in Cloverdale I indulged in a twinge of pride of ownership. The CBX, if I said so myself, was a handsome bike, long, muscular and athletic. It had had its share of minor mechanical problems, but for a twenty-one year old motorcycle, it had done, and was doing, just great. I was proud of making such a good purchase decision years earlier, when I’d bought it sight-unseen and ridden it home a thousand miles from Oklahoma.

Of course, all purchase decisions are made with the best of intentions. Whenever I’ve bought a motorcycle, it was because it satisfied a need, fed a hunger, scratched an itch. It was what I wanted at the time, or thought I wanted. Time and tastes, vicissitudes of travel and experience, dictate whether that longing is truly satisfied or disappointed. Bikes aren’t like cars. Few riders aren’t passionate about their motorcycles. Cars, though, unless they’re Ferraris or Lamborghinis or Delorians, are just cars. Chrysler ads proclaim, “Drive = love,” but it’s a hollow promise. Few auto trips send shivers up our spines and for most of today’s drivers, that’s perfectly fine. In today’s WalMart, traffic jam, stoplight world, cars seldom crowd the redline of our adrenaline meters.

Conversely, motorcycles are emotion machines. Motorcycles are thrilling. At the risk of getting too self-indulgent or high-minded, for those that ride them, motorcycles are a metaphor for life. What’s important is not the destination, it’s the trip. Cars are about getting someplace. Motorcycles are about motorcycling. Lives without such a thrill aren’t real living.

Arriving at MillerBuilt I greeted Bill Miller who directed me towards my ride. The bike was a 2001 Triumph Sprint ST, a sport touring model painted in British Racing Green. It was handsome in a traditional, understated way, with subdued color and graphics. He admonished me to “Take it easy. This is a brand new motorcycle, never ridden before. It has new tires that are still slick. One of our mechanics dumped a bike recently right in front of our shop because the tires slipped out from under him. Oh, and the engine shouldn’t be overstressed because it hasn’t been broken in.”

Needless to say, while pulling into city traffic I was a knot of apprehension. Here was an infant bike imbued with a hundred horsepower, one each for every five pounds, and shod with slippery tires. The controls were awkward and unfamiliar and the seat, as typical, was too high for my inseam-impaired stature. I muttered to myself “Be cool,” merged gently onto the Lynchburg Expressway, and began to experience the bike. I grabbed a handful of throttle and was immediately impressed and excited. This thing’s got motor! Inputs to the right twist-grip rewarded me with muscular, linear power and acceleration. Nice! I was every bit as pleased as I hoped I’d be. The magazines had said this bike’s power delivery was better than the perennial class leader, Honda’s Interceptor, long the object of my desires. I was still impressed by the Interceptor, but “motor” is elemental to motorcycles. Other bikes in the class like Aprilia’s Futura, BMW’s K-1200-S, and Ducati’s ST-4 were non-contenders; too expensive, too exotic, and with dealers too far away.

Of course, the Honda dealers have been much less accommodating. For some reason, BMW and Triumph dealers are among those who almost shove keys into prospective buyers’ hands. Avid adherents to the principal of “touch and covet,” they give the bikes the opportunity to sell themselves. Honda dealers, typical of Japanese makes, mutter incoherently about insurance risk and the devaluation resultant of loss of newness of test-ridden bikes, and say, “If you’re committed to buying it, we’ll let you take it for a few miles before you sign the papers….” Why?

As I rode on, my attention drifted to other attributes. The clutch and brake levers were too high (fixable) and the handlebars were too far away and down and put my wrists in an awkward angle (not fixable, at least affordably). The instruments were just weird; the speedometer had tiny, difficult to read numbers incrementing by tens to 200 mph, the digital clock was too small to be seen readily, and everything on the dashboard seemed to be arranged in a happenstance manner. The seat was comfortable, but I sat awkwardly forward on it to reach the handlebars.

I left the Expressway and rode over the mountain on SR-501 towards Big Island and in spite of my trepidation at any aggressive cornering was enjoying myself. I could envision that once the tires and motor had some miles on them, this would be a nice handling bike. Governing myself to semi-legal speeds, I pondered the anatomy of desire. With the financial year I’d had, how could I justify still another motorcycle? Did Amelda have to ask Ferdinand if she could buy another pair of shoes? Did she have to rationalize why she needed thousands of pairs? Moreover, it’s hard to know, I thought to myself, how a seemingly inconsequential quirk might turn into a major aggravation over many miles and years of ownership. If this were to become my next bike, would we bond? Would I view it with pride and affection? Would I eagerly anticipate every ride or would it become anchored in the garage, another recalcitrant problem in want of a solution? My friend John Sholar often says, “The desiring is as much fun as the owning.” How disappointed would I be if I stuck with what I had?

I found a pull-over and turned around, did the same nice corners in the other direction, and headed back to town. I motored to the garage bay where I’d begun and dismounted. I switched off the ignition and listened to the bike tinkle and ping quietly, radiating its newfound heat. I returned the keys to Bill and expressed my appreciation. In snippets of conversation interrupted by service to other customers, he told me how tough the year had been. “I’ve been selling and fixing lawn mowers for twenty years and motorcycles for six, and this is the worst ever. The economy is awful and folks just aren’t shelling out money for bikes. And we had a lingering drought in the summer, so folks weren’t mowing their lawns, so their need for new mowers and repairs to old ones practically dried up. I only owe around $100,000 on this million dollar building, but the banks wouldn’t loan me operating money against it. I cut my take-home to about nothing and managed to keep from laying anybody off, but it’s been awful.” Thus the big discounts. He told me he didn’t want to discuss sale terms which would include the trade of my Daytona until the spring season arrived, because he would have little chance of re-selling it before warmer weather brought forward more riders.

He was kind enough to take a moment’s leave from one of his retail customers to walk me outdoors into the chill. He admired the big grey CBX and spoke several kind words while I ear-plugged and helmeted myself. I waved adieu and pointed myself westbound, eager for a soak in the spa to warm my tingling fingertips and toes.