I am an evangelical motorcyclist. It’s an unsettling realization. I’m not entirely comfortable in that role, as being an evangelical anything can be something of an annoyance at times, but when I consider the facts, there is no denying it. I try to curb my preaching so as not to be overbearing. But if I detect the slightest interest from a potential new rider, or an ex-rider who wants to come back to motorcycling, I don my Vanson frock of Two-Wheeled Salvation and grab the tie downs. I’m just hardwired that way. If I see an opportunity to increase the size of our flock, and spend somebody else’s money in the process acquiring a new-to-them motorcycle, what’s better than that?
This was brought back to me last week as I talked to my friend Scott, who had just spied a used Triumph for sale in the local Craigslist for a surprisingly affordable price. Now, I’ve seen the following objections time and again, because motorcycling missionaries of my ilk almost always meet two common lines of resistance when attempting to convert a four-wheeled infidel. Scott hit on both points.
The fear thing is a hard perception to dispel. It’s like people’s fear of flying, or sharks, or for that matter recoiling in horror at the thought of a motorcycle ridden by a properly trained, licensed, halfway-sensible and not wasted human being. The perception of risk amongst the hoi polloi is off scale – the actual risk is small, or smaller than popular perception suggests.
If most of the Great Unwashed had any idea the dangers presented by the bathtub in their home, and the stairs in their split-level, most of the country would likely live in ranch-style houses and forgo bathing. Unfortunately perceptions are hard to change, facts notwithstanding. Humans are notoriously bad at assessing actual risk. You are on your own trying to sell the idea that riding a bike is not a death sentence. However, the cost involved in getting on the street, or the trail, or the track, these problems can be addressed.
Scott and I had been through this drill before when he first started riding on the street. Back then, the answer to our problems came in the form of a former Maryland Motorcycle Safety Program bike, a 250 Honda Nighthawk, a bike known only as “The Roach,” ever since. It was black, it was endearingly ugly, and it could change directions with a simple shove on the bars so fast it could be under your fridge long before you could stomp on it.
Before I get going here, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a simple fact of moto-life in present-day America. It is not lost on me that right now, today, the major manufacturers are offering a wider array of entry-level bikes than they have in a long time. I mean dating back to the late ‘60s-early-’70s sort of long time. With their financing deals, they are in many cases giving money away at zero percent or infinitesimal rates such that you can walk into a showroom and ride out on a new bike, with a warranty, and the assurance that you and you alone can properly care for that bike from day one.
That’s a very good deal; it is a lot to choose from, and free money to buy it with. But we are talking a different animal here. We are talking about a great many of us who have other demands in life – a kid going to college, a wife who wants a new house, maybe you want a boat too, or maybe you’re just a cheap joker who doesn’t want to be forced into debt just so you can go riding. And that? That is where recycling comes in. In today’s internet age, it’s easier than ever. The bike that is perfect for you is already out there. It is just a matter of finding it.
A proper search requires patience and the ability to walk away from some potential deals. And never, ever, fall in love with anything you’re looking at, because a potentially better bike is always just around the corner. When you do find the one, you have to be ready to jump on that deal, which is precisely why Scott and I were heading north of Baltimore on that crisp fall day to scope out that Nighthawk 250.
We had learned of this bike the old-fashioned way, by word of mouth, or what passes for word of mouth in the 21st Century… word of keyboard. The guy selling it was a mutual acquaintance we knew from an online fishing forum of all things. He’d originally bought it for his wife to learn how to ride, and now that she had a larger bike of her own, they no longer had any use for the little Honda. It seems the bike had spent its whole life teaching new riders how not to fall down and go boom during its valiant service across countless parking lots as an MSF Basic Riders Course mule. It was our sincere hope it could now help to train one more.
We were able to find the seller’s place without too much drama. Steve met us in his driveway and we did the time-honored guy thing of leaning against the bed of the pickup and talking about everything from how the fish were biting on Chesapeake to Steve’s brace of Harleys and how he and his kid went off-road riding in Pennsylvania. This is typical, you don’t want to appear overeager, and finally we got around to the topic of, “The Roach.”
Steve pushed the thing out of an outbuilding and fired it up. I poked and prodded. It wasn’t going to win any bike shows, as it had obviously been tossed by more than a few novice riders. But it looked mechanically solid and well maintained, and Steve produced receipts of its maintenance schedule while it was in the custody of the Maryland Motorcycle Safety Program. I took it for a quick ride to run it through the gears, while Scott was talking money. A deal was struck, we tossed her in the truck, and we were out of the driveway and down the road for $450, about half of what a comparable Nighthawk 250 goes for in this area. That certainly qualifies as killer deal.
We were pretty pleased with ourselves. Scott was set. He had a solid bike, he had gotten in the door on the cheap, he had good safety gear, we had seen to that, and he was scheduled for an MSF course that would provide a license waiver for the state’s purposes. We had everything covered. Well, almost. Every once in awhile, once every generation or so, you encounter that man for whom the pursuit of knowledge is boundless. It wasn’t enough for a man like Scott to simply learn how to ride a motorcycle, he obviously must have been drawn to the idea of learning how to wrench on them as well. At least that is the only explanation I have for why he snapped-off an exhaust stud by over-torquing it with his uncalibrated muscles. In strict accordance with Murphy’s Law, it was the stud adjacent to the downtube on the frame, thus requiring the removal of the engine to get to it with a drill and an EZ-Out.
After threatening to safety-wire Scott’s toolbox shut, we gathered our courage and pulled the motor. Then we sent the head off to the machine shop. Besides, I was curious to see what was inside the mill after its lifetime of lugging around parking lots. The engine’s internals looked remarkably good, without galled bearing surfaces or things of that nature. We put it back together while I extolled the virtues of a good torque wrench at every step of the rebuild.
That little Honda proved to be an able platform for my friend Scott, and he became a very good rider. So good, in fact, that when I landed on my head at Summit Point Raceway and ended up in the hospital for a week, I tossed — well, insofar as I could toss anything except the contents of my stomach at that time — the keys to my RC51 to him so he could exercise the bike while I recuperated, and get the feel for something with a couple tons more huevos.
We had a new convert. “The Roach” had been that little taste, and now my RC51 had Scott hooked. As every experienced motorcyclist knows, once you are hooked, there is simply no looking back. Like many of the finer things in life, once you have that feeling, you’ll want it again and again and again.
This brings us to one C. Patrick Depkin; licensed pilot, analytical guy, man with large toolboxes and the knowledge to employ them properly, and a prodigal motorcyclist. Pat had strayed from the flock for those tedious “responsible” life reasons that will crop-up from time to time, but his responsible life reason had now grown into a fine young man and left home to pursue his own goals. Now that Pat had raised his son, he was going to get back into riding.
Pat had criteria, he knew what he wanted, and it was pretty straightforward; it had to have spoked wheels, it had to have a kick starter, it had to run, and most importantly it had to be cheap. He found all these things in the form of a well used 1974 Yamaha TX-650, the predecessor to the XS650. He got home with the bike $1,600 lighter in the wallet, but he was on budget.
Pat did the perfectly predictable Pat thing. He took it home and squirreled it away in his shop, then he tore it down to its last fastener – nothing was overlooked. Then he methodically set about putting it all back together again with the aim of reversing 40 years of mechanical entropy. I need to find a doctor like Pat, but I digress.
The TX’s cylinders got sent off to the machine shop to be bored and honed, the bearings replaced, gasket sets ordered and new fasteners obtained. A fist full of new spokes arrived at the Depkin Resurrection Garage, and every little pieces-part got polished, from fork lowers to engine covers. The frame and body parts were painted and a new-used headlight bucket ordered. He needed rear shocks. I had some in the parts silo downstairs that would serve his needs, and I sent them off. He took his time to ensure that everything was done right and when he was done, he had turned an eyesore into a very nice early TX-650, and more importantly, he had rebuilt it to precisely his tastes, as he would have wanted it if Yamaha had bothered to ask him back in ’74. He pulled all this off with only an additional $500 to $750 in parts and labor costs, plus his own sweat equity of course.
I asked him, with the time and patience it took to do all that, why? Why did you do it, Pat? For that matter why do you ride? His answer sums up this whole deal, whether it’s a new rider like Scott, or a returning rider like Pat.
“Because it’s fun. I could get all metaphysical about relating to the machine, the mechanical symphony, the physics of a corner or acceleration, but distilled to the basic essence, it’s just fun. And it is sort of a test, for me anyway, of independence and self-reliance. Roadside repairs that get you home, when necessary. Like, you got to earn your fun to fully appreciate it. Kind of perverse, I suppose. And it is probably as close as I’ll ever get to owning an open-cockpit aircraft and duplicating that sensory experience, which is sublime. The build process has some appeal as well, besides the chance to put your own personal touches on the machine; you get totally familiar with all aspects. When something breaks, you know where it is, and likely why it broke.”
And there you have it. There are many roads to the same place. If you know someone who has been saying they’d love to get into riding, or maybe get back into riding, but it’s just too expensive, suggest recycling an old bike. The rewards far outweigh the costs. If you can give them a hand, have at it. It really is rewarding and, yes, even fun. To my fellow MO-rons: Go forth and convert the non-believers, ride safe, and always look where you want to go.