Running and the art of motorcycle maintenance
If you want to go fast, sometimes you need to change the oil.
Posted Friday, 1 October, 2004
On a recent Sunday morning, the club that I am a member of had an event. It consisted of a long bicycle ride out to a member’s lake house for brunch and a swim. In the course of the day I learned something about running and the art of motorcycle maintenance.
Since I had been forbidden to abuse my knee while it strove to heal itself, I decided I’d take my old motorcycle for ride instead. I’d join them for a swim and get a nice long ride in the countryside with my beloved old friend, Honda.
As the peloton of fit, healthy club-mates set off on their morning grind, I swung into the rural two-lane with a satisfying down shift and a roar.
My motorcycle and my running are both things that I’ve clung to since my youth. I started riding a motorcycle around the same time I started running. They are both treasured possessions.
I started running ‘seriously’ in high school (25 years ago) as a way to get into shape for wrestling season. Wrestling was my real sport. I had an undistinguished two-year career on the varsity cross country team. I was the 5th man on a 5 man team. Slow and steady (nothing has changed). I learned some of the basics of training and racing.
The only events of any note I remember were pulling an Achilles at a meet, hitting the wall spectacularly (with less than 100 yards to go I hyper-ventilated and five people passed me), and falling down in a mud hole at the league championships. I got lots of warm praise for finishing the race covered head-to-toe with muck, like a human caramel apple.
This was not Eugene, Oregon. This was the middle of the pack in the small New England Prep-Private league.
It never occurred to me at the time that running would be the sport I’d carry forward later in life. Wrestling proved hard to carry forward as a recreational pastime. Can you imagine trying to organize a group of 40-somethings to go out for a Sunday morning ‘fun wrestle’? Actually, I think that may be illegal in Massachusetts; or it used to be!
Running is much more portable in life. I always ran. Not well, but I knew it was there when I needed it. At the same time, I always rode a motorcycle. I rode all through high school and college. It was part of how I defined myself as running is now.
We always had a minibike around the house when I was growing up. Those single-gear models with a throttle, a brake and a 3 ½ horse power Briggs and Stratton lawn mower engine for propulsion.
My Dad taught me to ride by tying a rope to the back of the minibike so that he could haul the whole works down if I was headed for trouble. I think I was nine or ten years old.
By the time I got to be a pre-teen I had a dirt bike. My friends and I ranged far and wide over the trails and power lines of then rural Groton. Ironically enough we tore up those same trails that, as a runner, I hate to see motorized vehicles on now.
I loved riding from the start. It gave me a sense of power, a sense of control and a sense of freedom in my world. No matter what was happening in my life, when I cranked back the throttle and threw dirt in the air, I was free.
It was no surprise that when I graduated from college one of the first things I wanted was a new bike. I had patched up my old CB350 so many times that it didn’t run right anymore.
Those of you who are old enough to have been watching TV in 1984 may remember the commercial. The scene opens on a drag racing track. A leather clad, helmeted rider is ‘smoking’ the back tire of a V65 Magna. The light turns green and man/machine surge forward in roaring acceleration. In a flash they are gone. The scene fades and the voice over said, “Need we say more?” It was the fastest ¼ mile of any production motorcycle in the world in 1984.
I went out and got one of those scary-fast V4-engine-humping machines. My wife had to sign the loan papers because, at 22, and a new graduate, I had no credit.
Twenty years later, that was the same machine I mounted for a country ride.
Since I was ten years old I’ve been running and riding. There are strong parallels. When I run, when I am in shape, I feel that same freedom on the trail and road, that same self possessed power of controlled energy. When I have a bad day I can go for a long trail run and everything falls into place. When the mood strikes me I can ‘open it up’ and throw dirt to the wind.
When I toss on the helmet, zip up the leather and roar onto the highway I am master of something; something that not everybody can do. I am somehow special, the power of the machine flows into me. I pull back the throttle. Heads turn. I am (to myself) a little god-like.
When I hit the track and pound out miles to qualify for Boston, I’m also doing something that not everybody can do. The power of my internal machine transcends the ordinary.
In both cases, when I engage, nothing else matters, for that moment, in that moment, I am untouchable.
The old motorcycle felt fragile Sunday morning. The front brakes were sticking. The tail pipe had developed a pin-hole leak from road salt pitting. The clutch was very low. The battery was so weak that I had to jump it.
I figured that, like my old body, after a few miles it would warn up. The kinks would work out and it would be as it always was. Soon I would be recapturing my youth when I used to race corvettes on interstate 495 at more the twice the legal speed limit (no kidding! Sometimes I wonder how I lived this long!)
Then she gave out. (Of course it’s a ‘she’) The battery wouldn’t take any more. I had to backtrack with my truck to haul her home.
Like my broken knee, my old motorcycle needs some TLC. This winter I’ll have to strip her down on fix her up. I think I owe her that after 20 years of uncomplaining service. I love that old bike like an old war buddy.
It got me thinking about how I’ve probably been riding my old body too hard. I guess I owe it some TLC too. Perhaps this winter I’ll strip my running down and see if I can fix it up. Maybe I can rub the pits out of my personal chrome. Maybe, with a little patience and TLC, I can coax some more performance from this old power plant.
I don’t ride much anymore. The kids and the career make it hard to get out. However, in a couple years things will be different and I’ll be able to take it out of the garage and enjoy its life-affirming power. Who knows? If I take care of it, I might be able to ride comfortably into my old age. Not as fast, but still living in the essence of the thing.
How about you? Have you expected too much from your machine? Have you ridden it hard for decades and not taken care of it? Is it time for you to show a little appreciation for all the miles?
It’s probably time for some TLC.