Categories: Features

Head Shake – Retreat from Richmond

“From the time that the brigade struck the river at Rappahannock Bridge on the 15th, up to the crossing of the river on the 29th, it seemed as though the elements were combined against our advance; such rains and roads I had never seen.” —General John Buford


I was regretting my riding gear selection as we drove south to pick up a new bike. The temperature and humidity was climbing as was the traffic north of Richmond, but the weather had finally cleared for one day at least. Fifteen days of consecutive wet had left us soggy, and in some cases shut down. The traffic we were currently stuck in abruptly stopped, the temps and humidity did not, I called the dealership to let them know we’d be running late, and started running through my mental Rand-McNally plotting alternative ways out of this mess. Gazing over at the I-95 northbound lanes, which were getting increasingly more ensnarled, I knew where I did not want to be.

(Sidenote: The wife and I have a long history of motorcycle-related traffic jams starting back in the late summer of 1985 with a multi-vehicle crash on the Schuylkill Expressway outside of Philly. This parked us for a good portion of the night while they cleared the casualties. We were on the way to a WERA rider school at Pocono Raceway. 2018, and here we are again just north of Richmond. Those are the ones you marry, fellas.)

I was picking up a new Kawasaki 650 Versys LT from a dealership west of Richmond for a price bordering on larceny. I would have pushed the bike home for that out-the-door price. I reminded myself of that, and while having doubts about the wisdom of bringing my vented Vanson jacket – all 800 pounds of leather and armor of it –  I reminded myself that Buford’s Cav rode all over Hell’s half acre down here dressed in wool, and they weren’t getting a rat-killing deal on a new Kawi. Besides, I’ll be moving one way or another I thought, through force of will if nothing else.

Over two weeks of rain and the interminable sprawl north of Richmond on I-95 and Route 1 cared little about force of will. Closer to home we were still cleaning up due to flooding. And Richmond? When did Richmond become so popular? More effective than even Lee’s defenses of his day, the northern Richmond metro area was bristling with shopping malls, outlet centers, and road-choking suburban traffic of the brainless variety designed to bake rider and clutch plates alike.

“Where in the Hell did all this traffic come from?” —Major General Joseph Hooker, commuting to Richmond, circa. 1863

The salesman informed me that Kawasaki’s recommended break-in procedure mentions something about not exceeding 4,000 rpm in the first something-or-another miles. My break-in procedure is more barbaric, my school of thought espouses varying the rpm a good deal and loading up those rings on and off the gas. Give ’er the berries, or something like that. Nobody’s break-in procedure recommends idling 20 miles through clutch-slipping stop-and-go traffic in sweltering 90-plus degree southern humidity cooking fresh oil to temps normally associated with Earth reentry vehicles. But that was just what the day entailed.

All roads lead to Richmond, as a result, all roads also lead out of Richmond like spokes in a wagon wheel. That combined with the natural inconvenience of things like rivers serve to make speedy ingress and egress problematic depending upon where you intend to go, just ask anybody from George McClellan to present day. My problem was not the deplorable weather nor the confederates, it is the ungodly parking lot the I-95 corridor has become, combined with a collective ignorance that continues to insist that lane splitting is dangerous, or a public hazard, or an affront to God, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Hey? I’m trying to make my first tentative steps into adulthood here, look at this sensible bike, I thought. Where is my sensible world with sensible traffic flow? I was awash in sensible purchases, the Shoei GT-Air on my extra fat head; double visor, vents, cuts the air well. This thing flat out works for a traditional riding position, it was not designed for an afternoon in a full tuck on the banks of Pocono. I rode most of the way home with the shield open and the sun visor down.

You want venting? That’s venting, and in bumper to bumper traffic it was much appreciated. The few times I had clean asphalt it was a simple visor flip down and I was ready to rock. And rock the little Versys could, given a hole it was more than capable of leaving the lumbering herd with a little air under the front wheel hitting second, and the venting was heaven sent.

I have never felt passionately about a motorcycle saddle until now. The long suffering Melissa may have my heart, but Sargent has my ass.

A Sargent saddle, low type – comfortable – and not in that I can squirm my bird ass around from time to time and tolerate another hour on this seat comfortable. No, the thing is truly supportive in a firm but not hard-as-a-2×4 comfortable sort of way. It is quality built out of good materials, a seat pan I’d swear could be Mil-Spec if the US Army was ever concerned about motorcycle seat pans, and my ass never once made me think about the saddle; that is a good seat, a sensible seat. In 96-degree, stop-and-go, high-humidity traffic it was a delight. I have never gone on passionately about a saddle before but this is the one I’d bring home to meet Mom.

And what of Kawasaki’s hard bags? The hard bags are secure, weatherproof, and handy, how adult is that? If you don’t know me from all outward appearances I am, “The Most Sensible Man in the World!” Hard bags can also keep you humble as I was to find out.

And what do I get for this good faith effort? Insensible traffic laws. No lane splitting in a constipated traffic corridor like the I-95 parking lot, that is the state of ignorance we are subjected to on the East Coast. Say what you want about California, they have one thing absolutely, positively, gloriously right; lane splitting.

Consider the NYC slog, the standard issue DC march of the zombies, you cannot escape the hordes, workdays, weekends, you name it. I am here to tell you having amassed four decades worth of road racing trophies that speed does not kill – or at least it hasn’t killed me – heat stroke will. Why can’t we end this Bataan Death March for the most exposed road users who contribute next to nothing to road wear? Why not legalize lane splitting and limit our exposure to the hoi polloi with their cell phones and other insidious distractions just waiting to rear-end some innocent? But I digress.

Until then I have another plan for this little Versys, it involves lumens and dinero; namely pencil beams that project like landing lights at BWI. If you are going to deny me the day, I’ll own the night – with the wildlife’s permission of course. Nocturnal ass hauling, one of my favorite things. While the world sleeps I can cover ground. One man, 100,000 well aimed lumens, truckers, whitetails, drunks and other ne’er-do-wells punching holes in the night. That is my plan anyway until the glom can be escaped and normal sleep and travel patterns resumed.

This is the look I make after pulling into the driveway and biffing my wife’s dead Chevy Tracker paperweight with the right saddlebag. Unscheduled gymnastics of the my-own-fault variety irritates me.

I am looking forward to clearing New York City at dawn on the way to my folks’ house way over on the other side of Long Island. It is a beautiful skyline sans 6 million people in their cars. Portland, Maine, in my rearview mirror at dawn sounds about perfect. Those lights and an EZ-Pass could open the old routes I used to travel routinely during daylight hours before the urban populations doubled and the asphalt did not.

I wanted a bike for the real world, not my RC-51, which would have been murder in that Richmond heat and tech line traffic speeds, and not my old air-cooled Yamaha SR500, which would have turned its 20w50 into a nice viscous hot caramel glaze by Ashland. I needed a bike for gridlock, crap roads, worse drivers, and fun should some clean asphalt open up. And that is precisely what I found in the Versys 650 with its safari suspension and dirt track riding ergos.

I can survey acres of idiots from the vantage point of the tall saddle and plan accordingly, and given open field the little Versys can leave like Barry Sanders. And it can do it all comfortably with the luggage, with more than enough space for a wandering ascetic like me. It feels like a supermoto touring bike and the way it makes power lends itself to riding it like one. That makes me smile, and that is what riding is all about.

Ride hard, look where you want to go, improvise, adapt, and overcome… and have fun, lots of fun.

 

Chris Kallfelz

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Chris Kallfelz
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