Categories: Features
30 | Updated 30

Head Shake – It’s a Small World After All

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

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

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.

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

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.