If you ask a stupid question, you may feel stupid; if you don’t ask a stupid question, you remain stupid.
When I tell the hoi polloi about my alter ego as a moto-journalist, the most frequently asked question besides, “what’s a moto-journalist?” is “so what’s your favorite motorcycle?” I’m usually stumped. Anyone who has owned or ridden more than one motorcycle knows that this question is impossible to answer. Or is it?
After all, here at MO we’ve always been able to determine the champion of a comparison, be it one of our famed dozen-bike cluster-flucks or a simple one-on-one best-of-the-best sort of thing. Editor Duke has us fill out a lengthy form, with subjective and objective scores for everything from power to comfort. So it should be easy to figure out my most-favored personal ride, right? Why my personal ride? Because as MO Founder Ashley Hamilton told me, at the end of the day, the only subjective opinion – maybe even the only opinion of any kind that matters – is what you’d buy with your personal stash of nickels and dimes.
So what do I buy? Like anybody else, I get the bike that fits my needs and budget, but those factors change over the years, so I’ve had a lot of motorcycles. But which was my favorite? To answer that, I made a spreadsheet with all the bikes I could remember owning (I may have missed a few) in the last 30 years and scored them one to five stars because my day job is driving for Uber and think we should rate everything from one to five stars. Interestingly, of the 30-ish bikes I’ve owned, not counting incomplete projects or flippers, five got five stars, about 20 got four stars, and five got ones, twos and threes. Here is what I found, bestest and worstest.
My top five faves:
This little 49cc two-stroke screamer was cheap, handled like a champ – at 220 pounds or so, how could it not? – and was easy to modify. With about $500 in soup-up parts I punched it out to 72cc and would see 80-plus mph, at least until I seized it on a freeway off-ramp. It really showed its stuff on the racetrack, delivering my only supermoto trophy. But most importantly, it got the attention of Maximum MOron Sean Alexander, leading to my employment here at MO.
Steve McQueen said “racing is life. Anything before or after is just waiting.” And that’s why the Kawasaki Ninja – I think I’ve owned three or four – will someday be in the Gabe Ets-Hokin Motorcycle Museum and Waffle House. Not that fast, not that light, and not that durable, but when I started racing in 1994 this was the best way to do it. Put 65 riders on a grid, all riding Ninjas (except the random weirdos with VTR250s) and you’re going to learn more about yourself and riding than you thought possible.
When I was looking for a faster way to burn my money than the Ninja, a custom-built Single racer seemed as good a way as any. I met my old friend Ivan Thelin, who had done an incredible job building a crusty old Ascot thumper into a pretty cool racer – 300 pounds, 50 hp at the wheel and almost every component replaced or modified. I will never turn lap times like that again, and I won a few trophies. I even learned how to rebuild an engine from the crankshaft up. It died a heroic, smoky death on the starting grid at Sonoma Raceway when the piston skirt bashed itself apart on the case. I never said I learned how to rebuild an engine from the crankshaft up correctly.
I read about the Skorpion on MO, which ignited my love affair with Singles. I found mine pretty cheap and rode the pee out of it. It’s the first bike I touched a knee down with, in Thunderhill Raceway’s long, sweeping Turn 2, and with short gearing I could embarrass just about anybody on the tight, bumpy, twisty road from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach on California’s Highway 1. It survived my ownership, believe it or not.
We don’t really like the bike, do we? I think what we love is who we were and what we were doing when we owned it. My five years and 80,000 miles on my clunky German ride were action-packed and filled with fun, friends, gin, long trips, money spent, new things tried and ended abruptly when I high-sided the thing up on Mount Hamilton. My girlfriend – now my wife – had her first motorcycle ride on the back and maybe that was the best thing about that banged-up Slash Seven.
And now, the not-so-favorites…
This bike was pretty fun… when it started. That year, the U.S. models were equipped with Edelbrock carbs for some reason, and it was not a happy relationship, though I did build up my left leg muscles. Not a keeper, and not a bad bike, really, but the most awful thing about it is I bought it from my friend Julius Long, who was killed by a road-rager not long afterwards. Horrible.
After wrecking my ’77 BMW, I bought this one from a friend down the street, but it wasn’t the same, for some reason. It didn’t run as well, or maybe I just realized that 20-year-old tech wasn’t the safe and smooth alternative for hardcore sport riding. Or maybe a little bit of my spirit was broken along with my tibia and fibula.
How can the same model be on both lists? Easy – after a four-year hiatus from road racing, I bought another Ninja, expecting to relive my glory days. Nope. After getting beaten by just about everybody my first few races, I decided racing was just not a thing I could do anymore. Plus, my credit cards were maxed out.
I have had happy relationships with Ducatis, but it’s always hit-or-miss with those things. My first one was no different. She looked so beautiful, gleaming immaculately in the seller’s SOMA loft. But the badly-repaired aluminum swingarm (that the dude didn’t tell me about) and various other niggles coaxed me into selling it after numerous strandings and trips to welders and other professionals. With its Ferracci exhaust and gleaming red-and-silver paint it got attention – but not my love.
Can a man hate an inanimate object? Maybe it wasn’t hate, but my CB350 filled me with self-loathing, angst and misery for years, like a spiteful spouse who refuses to get divorced. I was going to build the ultimate café-racer project, an AHRMA racebike for the street, but what was I thinking? My builder didn’t do a good job delivering a rideable machine, I didn’t do a good job keeping it running, and though it looked great, was almost as reliable as an Italian cyclotron. A much more committed hipster bought it from me, and hopefully a more capable person than me is riding it now. Better yet, maybe a sensible person who will keep it in a living room where it belongs.
Our favorite rides tell our stories with gas and rubber, punctuating our lives’ successes and failures. That BMW may not have been my favorite bike, but I rode it in my favorite motorcycling years, when even crashing was fun, I had so much to learn, and my friends were all riding with me.
Gabe Ets-Hokin’s a real nowhere man, living in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. He thinks Instagram is a commie plot.