I rouse with a start early, abnormally early, every day. I’m a creature of habit, I take comfort in my pre-dawn routine. I warm up a cup of coffee and read the Washington Post while everyone else is still drooling on their pillow in the dark. Must be some sort of survival mechanism, I want to know what blew up overnight. I can’t recommend this routine to everyone in good conscience though; the world’s headlines are no way to start the day, it’s woefully depressing stuff depicting a divisive world for the most part. I often retreat to the sports page where some respite from the real world can be found, well, in most regions anyway. “Most” regions does not include the Washington D.C. area though – our professional sports teams have been perennial disappointments. So inevitably, after reading about various sectarian factions trying to slaughter each other in the Middle East, and a third of the Washington Nationals starting rotation on the disabled list, I almost always find myself perusing bike sites on Facebook looking for something with a little less carnage and missed playoff opportunities. I was pretty dubious a few years back when I had a handful of friends pestering me about getting on Facebook. I didn’t really understand what it was all about. Well, I figured it out in short order, and one of the really cool things I discovered early on were the various sites dedicated to bikes and the people that ride them. I’m curious about the world and the people in it.

What the hell is that? This one is too easy; it’s the breast cancer awareness Beijing Batmobile

What the hell is that? This one is too easy; it’s the breast cancer awareness Beijing Batmobile

So you might, for example, see something interesting, maybe a picture of some guy’s bike, and he has a strange name bereft of vowels – an entire civilized culture that can function without vowels, that in itself is mind boggling – but you recognize the bike, maybe you owned something similar. You look at the picture and the bike is familiar yet the background; the buildings, the terrain, the dress, it’s not quite what you are used to. It’s different. He has a Honda Magna, once upon a time maybe you had a Honda Sabre, so you toss up a picture and say, “Howdy.” You look at his name again and you wonder, “Where the hell is that?” So, you play the “Where the hell is that?” game. You click on his name, you may not be able to identify the language right off but you have the pictures to give you clues. It might sound creepy and voyeuristic but it’s not, it’s just curiosity. Where’s this dude from that shares this passion for bikes? What’s it like there? What other kind of bikes do they ride? Is that an old MZ? Romania, he must be from Romania, the tags are a giveaway. And the pictures tell stories. You begin to see similarities as well; dogs the world over for example are not nation-specific, a dog from Bucharest looks just the same as a dog from Baltimore, and so is the enthusiasm displayed around their bikes, from Murmansk to Missoula, the riding experience is the same, you can see it on their face. Predawn here in the States, smiling Romanians around an old MZ beats the slaughter of Coptic Christians in northern Iraq every time. It’s nice to know, half a world away, we kind of speak the same language – Motorcycle – even if we might have difficulty communicating in the traditional sense of the word. This was evident in Ecuador. We were in Quito on a couple separate occasions, and you couldn’t turn around without tripping over a Suzuki GN125, a tiny little one-lunger of a cruiser bike. They were everywhere serving just about every function you can imagine, from the customized-air brushed-and-chromed, profiling in the club districts on a weekend night, to hauling produce around town during the work week. Can you imagine a more improbable situation? These guys live and work in a busy South American capital city sitting at just under 10,000 feet. Getting out of town involves actually having to climb higher in almost any direction – 11,000 feet, 12,000 feet, 13,000 feet. That’s the Andes; short of the Himalayas you’d be hard pressed to find a more difficult commute for a carbureted motorcycle.

“We ride the Andes with the bikes we have, not the bikes we wish we had.” – Donald Rumsfeld

“We ride the Andes with the bikes we have, not the bikes we wish we had.” – Donald Rumsfeld

And yet the little GN125 was the most popular bike in that area. The GN would be considered laughably slow in Kansas. And then one morning it snapped into focus. We were climbing out of Quito in some lumbering van of some sort up what seemed like Mount Suribachi, and here comes this working stiff in a full-tuck on his GN125 just inching by us ever so slowly. He had this thing wrung out. How wrung out? Try this on for size, a garden variety GN125 makes 11 horsepower at sea level, but this is not sea level, this is 10,000 feet and climbing. For you mathematically inclined types, the equation to calculate horsepower loss looks something like this: HP Loss = (elevation x 0.03 x horsepower @ sea level)/1000. If you slept through math class I’ll just give you the answer. That bike produces a whopping 7.7 horsepower in the capital city, having sacrificed 3.3 ponies to the altitude gods. I’ve used rototillers with more yonk. When I hear 7.7 horsepower, I think rental boats, Evinrude outboards, and bass fishing. And our full-tuck day laborer? He’s going higher yet. I love the improbable and the people that engage in it. This is that man’s normal, and he’s wringing every last 1/8th of a horsepower out of “The Little Engine That Could,” to simply get out of town. You have to respect that. I gave him a thumbs up as he went by, he returned the salute smiling. It makes you realize how good we have it here in the States, and what we take for granted. Wherever it might be – Asia, South America, Eastern Europe – they all love their bikes. In some cases, bikes we wouldn’t even take a second glance at – and they do amazing things with them. Do you fancy crossing the Gobi on a Russian-made, small-bore, two cycle DKW knockoff shod with street tires that looks as though it survived the Soviet invasion of Xinjiang? Not a problem. Step right up to a previously owned IZH Planeta 5s, proudly manufactured in the former USSR and built by the same folks who brought us the AK-47. This is standard Mongolian fare.

Anywhere you might travel there are universal truths; kids love bikes, a fresh cut steak is good, and riders love to personalize their rides.

Anywhere you might travel there are universal truths; kids love bikes, a fresh cut steak is good, and riders love to personalize their rides.

I found myself clambering out of a Russian jeep one lovely afternoon in the middle of nowhere on the Gobi steppes. You can seemingly see forever on the steppes, and the only thing that would indicate any form of human activity is a fuel point – not a gas station – a lonely, weathered petrol pump protruding from the featureless landscape and a small bunker-looking structure to keep it company. In the far distance I saw a dust trail getting kicked up and approaching at a serious clip. This seemed like an odd place for a land speed record attempt. “What the … What is that?” Two Mongolian kids hauling ass on a pair of well worn Evil Empire Mach IVs with the optional safari suspension package (i.e., blown fork seals). What’s the Mongolian word for rat bike? They came burning in, filtered their fuel into their respective tanks while tossing in some premix oil, fired up, and they were gone like they were running the Spring Nationals at Gainesville. I just stood there slack jawed. “Holy mother of … What’s the freaking hurry? There’s nothing here for a bazillion miles?” I think about guys back home that won’t go out in a race practice session because their front tire warmer crapped out, and these Mongolian kids are flying through some of the most inhospitable and desolate terrain on Earth where the nearest help, and the nearest asphalt, may be hundreds of miles away. Land navigation is critical, and every fuel point counts. What balls! Not to them though, that’s their normal. Like Ecuador, bikes serve a utilitarian function in Mongolia, and they are everywhere. But they are more than that. Like Ecuador, you can see the pride evident in the way they are customized and the competent manner in which they are ridden. It is the same the world over. The message is simple and always the same regardless of locale; I love my bike, and I can ride the wheels off this thing.

“If you can read this, the cow fell off”: photo credit - Francis Tapon

“If you can read this, the cow fell off”: photo credit – Francis Tapon

In a world that can seem so divisive, where simply scanning the morning headlines can bring on an acute sense of global-torpor, the thought that I totally understand those kids flying across the Gobi, or that working man climbing out of Quito to the ceiling of the world on his GN125, is comforting. It makes me feel good about people. I get them. I get the confidence and skill they display – and the mods they employ to make each bike their own. They are kin. And that? That’s a pretty good way to start a day. I am a creature of habit. I will continue to scan the headlines of the Washington Post first thing in the morning, but I’ll always end up at the same place, a better place, with bikes and the folks that ride them. That is just cross-cultural goodness, right there. The two-wheeled world is a better world, a world where we all speak the same language. Аяны зам урт хүлгийн жолоо өөдөө*…Be safe. *Ride hard, look where you want to go, and stay on the gas.


About the Author: Chris Kallfelz is an orphaned Irish Catholic German Jew from a broken home with distinctly Buddhist tendencies. He hasn’t got the sense God gave seafood. Nice women seem to like him on occasion, for which he is eternally thankful, and he wrecks cars, badly, which is why bikes make sense. He doesn’t wreck bikes, unless they are on a track in closed course competition, and then all bets are off. He can hold a reasonable dinner conversation, eats with his mouth closed, and quotes Blaise Pascal when he’s not trying to high-side something for a five-dollar trophy. He’s been educated everywhere, and can ride bikes, commercial airliners and main battle tanks.

  • howard kelly

    Nice Chris, nice.

    • Chris Kallfelz

      Thanks, Howard, appreciate it, bud…

  • Manny Barqueiro

    I often feel the same way but have never put it in words so well. It is nice to know we have kindred souls all over the world.

  • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

    Kallfelz and MO, two great tastes that taste great together.

    • Chris Kallfelz

      Evocative and unsettling, Sean…I always get a little concerned when you are evocative and unsettling…I feel like a lite beer, or a Resse’s peanut butter cup or something, but, uhh, thanks I think…

      • http://www.motorcycle.com/ Sean Alexander

        Light beer can be bitter, so that’s definitely John Burns. You’re just super-dooper-sweet, so you’re definitely a Resse’s, big boy.

        • Chris Kallfelz

          BWAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…Oh gawd…

        • Chris Kallfelz

          John? Are you gonna let him talk about you like that? Heh, heh…

  • Campisi

    Always wanted to go to Mongolia.

    • Chris Kallfelz

      Campisi, I love the place. The land, the people, it’s a fantastic place. Here, let’s see if this pic will work, here’s a shot for you, it’s where the steppes meet the Gobi desert at sunset. I hope this comes out, let’s see…

      https://fbcdn-sphotos-g-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-xaf1/v/t1.0-9/162623_176238575747360_1219170_n.jpg?oh=7e861c308fdb0afc5ac83b4657e2a419&oe=55D54255&__gda__=1440756850_9c0ca6397a86db5e4c041952e24d7209

      • Chris Kallfelz

        What appears to be mountains to the left? Those aren’t mountains, that’s sand, that’s the edge of the Gobi, it’s surreal…

      • Campisi

        How far apart are those fuel points?

        I almost spent a long weekend in Ulaanbataar a few years ago, but at the last minute a friend invited me along on a trip to Beijing during the same time slot. It’s an incredible place (on a clear day).

        • Chris Kallfelz

          Campisi, I don’t know that I can generalize with any answer that would be helpful. Local knowledge, or a good map and a gps w/compass backup, or both would be real helpful, as well as prior planning. On a bike I’d think you’d have to plan your trip around the fuel points. UB of course, you’re fine, you have all the comforts of home like concrete, asphalt and gas stations as you know. The farther out you go, the more desolate you get…

          The thing is the place is growing so much so fast with the mineral development and outside interest I can only imagine things getting better as far as getting around, not worse.

          I did however find a Mongolian WaWa/7-11/Quickiestop…

          https://scontent-lga.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-xpa1/v/t1.0-9/163208_176238602414024_7201401_n.jpg?oh=a6ae3f4f2b7f45492bc8a0d47c46ab5b&oe=55C57B1D

          • Campisi

            This all went into my decision to hit Beijing instead of Ulaanbataar. A four-day trip on short notice doesn’t lend itself well to getting out of the city, and going to Mongolia and staying in town is like flying into New York City and never leaving JFK.

          • Chris Kallfelz

            Oh yeah, four days? Yeah, that, no, that won’t work…What you said about never leaving JFK? Exactly…

        • Chris Kallfelz

          If it’s any reassurance, and maybe you witnessed this around UB, or not, UB is a little different, but out in the countryside there is an ethos, I dunno, zeitgeist, mindset, whatever to the Mongolian people that says you help…Somebody is out of fuel? You help. They have broken down? They’re stuck? They’re watering their goats? You stop, you help, and EVERYBODY does it. It’s not a question of if. They just do it, you do it too.

          I don’t know if that is a product of Buddhism, or that harsh environment and the need to live in it, or some combination of that, who knows. But it is remarkable to watch in action, and one reason I really think the world of those people.

          UB can be kind of city like, but I was there around Naadam, and things can get a little off the hook in all the festivities – any festivities anywhere – sometimes…

  • vastickel@gmail.com

    As you mention, Chris, we are incredibly privileged living in the country we do, and riding “state of the art” available to all. Of course, many people do not recognize this, until it disappears. Like our health, our good fortune is sadly taken for granted until reality strikes!

  • Roger Epps

    I had a Honda 125 in 1972 & a Harley 125 in 1981. There’s something different about a small bike compared to the bigger bikes I’ve owned. On a smaller bike even a ten or twenty mile ride is a sort of an adventure. Riding a bigger bike is more like driving a car – just a two wheeled car …