We rode back from the big Six-Pack Superbike Shootout covered in glory, triumphant heroes who had conquered all the logistics and Russian nested-doll email chains that culminated in the whole MO crew getting to flog the latest greatest high-tech hardware around the crazy twists and turns of Laguna Seca raceway. A couple of us even had the good fortune to ride a couple of the bikes home afterward. (One of us even got to ride up!) Followed by another couple of days roosting all over hell and back for the street portion of the test. It’s a lot like a military operation, it really is, minus the shooting. In fact there’s shooting, too, but photos and video instead of projectiles. Anyway, when it’s all over and everybody returns home to their loved ones (with only one flesh wound), you seriously do feel like you’ve accomplished something. Or helped accomplish something in my case, since E-i-C Duke and Troy S. did most of the heavy logisticing.

Task Force MO, Brasfield’s Column

Task Force MO, Brasfield’s Column

Maybe it’s not that big a deal, but I feel like a kind of grizzled veteran at this stuff now, proud to have survived thus far and chuffed to be able to adapt to the modern electronic battlefield (though maybe I didn’t like the BMW so much on the track because I had it in Sport mode instead of Race? I can’t remember for certain…). Let’s face it, I have become a master of motorcycling able to deal with any crisis, dodge any Laguna Seca squirrel and expertly solve any motorcycle-related conundrum!

The movie Patton made famous the slave riding along behind the conquering Roman hero in the victory parade, whispering in his ear, “all fame is fleeting, sic transit gloria”… to keep success from going to his head. Instead of the slave, I have a Honda XR400. I barely ever ride the thing anymore, and in deciding to make the attempt to get my garage in order, it’s one of the things that has to go. It’s only still around out of entropy, and I’m tired of trying to ignore it sitting in the backyard. Some masochist could be making good use of it. The problem is I refuse to be one of those guys who posts an ad for a bike that doesn’t run: “Ran great when I parked it!” I can’t do that.

When it’s good, it’s very good.

When it’s good, it’s very good.

I guess I last rode it on a trip to Glamis. No wait, it made it to Ocotillo Wells once last winter for a Brad Banister weekend, too. My biggest complaint, nay, my only complaint with the old beast, is getting it started, which is accomplished with a medieval torture device called a “kickstarter.” Everybody knows by now to drain the gas from any bike when it sits for more than a week or two, which is what I did with the XR after the last time I rode it, including draining the fuel from the float bowl. But it doesn’t really matter how fresh the gas is, the XR starts with the randomness of a Sarah Palin hot flash. All kinds of guys on forums have all kinds of advice: “Mine starts great. Just kick it 10 times with the choke on and the throttle closed, then 12 more times with the throttle wide open and the choke off, and then it’ll start every time within the next 25 kicks. Unless it’s hot.”

Actually, mine always starts sort of okay once it’s warmed up (by which I mean it’ll usually start on the last kick you have strength to give after you’ve reached the acceptance stage out there in the desert and are about to fall over and die), but getting it to fire up after it’s served as a tomato cage for six months has always been a crapshoot. I adjusted its valves last summer, since that’s another thing the XR forum guys say will cure all its ills. Seems like it became a little harder to start when I had all four of them perfect. (At least it’s the world’s easiest bike to work on. It’s like the engineers are taunting you.)


Over the years you wise up, though. This time when I admitted it to the garage sanctorum for its Craigslist clean-up, I didn’t even ask it to start: I took off its carburetor and dropped it at Chris Redpath’s MotoGP Werks for a nice cleaning in his high-tech hot tank. It looked brand new when I got it back. I bolted it carefully back in place, reconnecting all the vent tubes and things, with the fuel screw two turns out per Redpath’s expert opinion. Lubed its cables. Cleaned its nearly new air filter. Heck man, I even sprang for a new spark plug and watched it produce fat blue sparks before I screwed it in, then rode round to the Shell station on the SMAX for a gallon of fresh Premium, which I introduced into the gas tank only after shaking and blowing out every tiny dust mote. Two taps of the float bowl with screwdriver, also per Redpath, to unstick the float just in case. Loosen drain to check for gas flow. Check!

Then I climbed on, flipped on the choke, and commenced kicking. And kicking and kicking and kicking … good thing I’ve been riding the bicycle! Oh, here’s the problem; the decompression lever’s stuck open! How stupid of me…

Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, nothing. You POS SOB. Choke off maybe? Kick kick kick kick kick kick nothing. Choke halfway, throttle cracked? Kick kick kick kick kick kick kick kick kick pop! kick nothing.

All possible combinations of choke and throttle, kick kick kick kick kick…

Sweating profusely, good workout! Kick kick kick kick!

Okay, beer me. Remove tank, check wires to coil, undo them and do them back again, unplug and replug ECU. Kick kick kick kick kick kick… Ahhh, there’s a can of starting fluid on the shelf, have a nice big shot of this you f*%#@&g prick! Kick kick kick kick kick kick kick kick kick!!!

Reduced to a slobbering, sweating, one-legged nicotine-craving shell of my former self, I give the lever one final half-hearted Gumby anger kick and ROOOOOOOOAAAARRRRRRR!! she fires up and idles perfectly (once I adjust the idle speed). And I know from experience that once we’re out on the trail, that engine will lug you out of any quagmire or up any loose mountain of shale, down to like 32 rpm, without stalling or complaint. Sometimes, I think, against my will, that some Japanese engineering decisions are made in retaliation for the War. This two-stage choke will fix their wagon, Hiroshi!

Wouldn’t one of those little squeeze bulbs to shoot in a few spritzes of fuel do the trick, like my lawnmower has? Why, Lord, why must such a sweet, uncomplicated motorcycle be so abysmally hard to start?

I don’t even mind the crashes; it’s the re-starting that kills me.

I don’t even mind the crashes; it’s the re-starting that kills me.

Well, there are no shortage of guys on the forums to answer that question, but at my age, I just don’t care anymore, and I mourn all the bleached skeletons next to XR400s out there in the Mojave and wherever else they may be. I don’t want to spend the days I have left changing jets and adjusting float heights and developing a right leg like Popeye’s forearms. There are too many motorcycles, like Honda’s own CRF250L for instance, that’ll do almost everything my old 400 will do, but with an electric starter and a license plate.

I’m tempted to keep it, though, just because the old XR does keep me grounded. It reminds me of near-death experiences every time I see it, of the infinite ambivalence of nature, the bottomless frailty of my understanding of things and of life. It inspires me to update the old AA poem:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to sell off the truly stupid stuff to the next poor sap.
  • B.Hoop

    Hilarious! I went with a buddy, about 10 years ago, when he bought a used xr600l. It stalled on the way home and i watched him kick the living sh*t out of it for like a half an hour before it finally started…I would’ve left it lying in the ditch…seriously.

    • David

      I also had an XR600L that could only be started when parked on a steep hill.

  • stevenatt

    Pity the fool who buys this torture device from you. It occurs to me that you should join a BDSM forum and list it there… Put black garters around the fork legs and you’ll get twice what someone will pay you via Craigslist.

    • john burns

      the lucky buyer of this little jewel will be like the man who finds a pearl in his Spaghetti’Os when the wife’s out of town mate. Once the code is cracked she’s a beauty…

  • Old MOron

    At first I thought “Whatever!” and “Keeping it real” might be oxyMOronic. Then again, “Whatever!” is a very real sentiment. It’s kind of a one-word summary of the infinite ambivalence of nature and the bottomless frailty of understanding you describe.

    I guess I keep it real with my DRZ400SM. Well, maybe not. The bike has an electric starter. Anyway, I really enjoyed this installment of Whatever!.

  • JMDonald

    I couldn’t sell any of my bikes that weren’t running. I had to get them fixed or fixed them myself. As much as I loved them I was glad to see them go. Usually for a newer nicer model. The only bike I sold that I wish I still had was my first bike. A Honda mini trail.

  • Donnie

    A real man can start a 4 stroke single with a sideways glance. Hell, I’ve seen 80 year old Dick Mann kickstart a BSA Goldstar without any problem. I bet that he doesn’t weigh a buck thirty. But no one has any doubt that he is a real man!

    • john burns

      Send him over. Tell him to pack a lunch.

  • john phyyt

    Just wonderful: I too owned a XR 400, I commuted as well as dirt on the weekends; It generally always started after one to three kicks?
    The oddest thing about this particular model is that it has the same engine as a honda ATV ; Which has a (reliable) electric starter. It isn’t like big red to overlook this on a model which was a massive seller! Go figure: I read the test of the new 450 yamaha motocrosser it is a super-bikes > These bikes along with their enduro half sisters are so focused that, (being older) I wouldn’t consider buying. But an updated XR 400 well maybe.

  • Tod Rafferty

    Ain’t many bikes I’ve had two of, but the XR400 is one. Starting issue and stock suspension notwithstanding, mayhaps the last best air-cooled trail bike. That said, when trying to sell a motorcycle, a photo of it lying on its side in a sand dune will be of little help.

    • pennswoodsed

      Tony Foale has one . Rides it as a trail bike with lowered seat/subframe.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Once running, the XR400 is a great trail bike. The forks and frame flex a bit, the suspension is squishy, the power smooth. It all comes together to make a nice “please just ride the crap out of me” personality.

    Ya, it is not a modern 450 MX bike by any stretch, but bikes like that are oh so serious and remind me of how old and inadequate I am as a rider. Even in my current semi decrepit state, I am the master of the XR400. Gotta love the XR400 for that – it makes me feel good about myself.

  • Pete Rouse

    Mr. Burns,

    Your prose elicits memories of deeds distant past. I can recall reducing myself to a quivering mass of guava jelly trying to start a KLX300 after a spectacular dismount. followed by an even more impressive impact; dynamic re-entry crater, if you will. Hot starting a 4-stroke? Better to try breast feeding a teething great white during a blood drive. Perhaps, as we age with the grace and aplomb of an egg salad sandwich left in the break room refrigerator for a month, we might realize that we too have limits. Electric starters should not be a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of intelligence. “Go ahead and kick your brains out, classic boy. I will motor off to the promised land, wrapped in my electric start splendor. While you are feverishly torturing your Golds Gym developed quadriceps, I shall be sipping cool beverages of choice at the finish line. Oh look, the Banana Boat Girls want someone to help rub in the tanning oil as they wait for the end of the race.”

    Please keep writing, as I truly enjoy your prose.

    • Craig Hoffman

      My current Husaberg FE450 has FI and e-start. It starts instantly under all circumstances, even after wadding it up into a tree. Your hilarious response makes me appreciate it more than ever. Thank you! 🙂

  • Bruce Wilson

    I had an XR 250 and it had the same mysterious starting habits. I abandoned it in a barn for three weeks once when it absolutely refused to start. When I returned, I noticed (…had overlooked in my frenzy of kicking) the carb had vibrated loose from the engine. That made it run verrrrry lean and difficult to start.

    I too paid close attention to the valve adjustments. Then it died when the 2 exhaust valve adjusters came loose and hammered the snot out of that easy-to-access valve adjustment plug. Too much aluminum in the bottom end for my liking after that.

    It was “de” parted for $500. I now have an e-start bike, still Japanese, and no mechanical worries. Don’t miss the idiosyncrasies or the workouts.


  • Gord Knox

    Good story Burns. Your not any less a man for being a victim of Honda’s idiocyncratic design. Of course, it reminds of my old XL500 (88?) which launched my right leg into the handle-bar when i used an improper starting routine and it decided to spin backwards for a bit. After much anguished cursing, it then started easily using my then crippled right leg. If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger, they say.

  • James Stewart

    Indeed Mr Burns, you must achieve total Buddist enlightenment with the Honda-san way… curseth not the toil of the kickstarter. Simply wheel the bitch to the bottom of your driveway, douse with 1/2 gal of 87 octane and give it the funeral pyre it so richly deserves. Having owned both an ’83 XL600L and an ’85 XR600R (quasi street legal in AZ & MI) , I know of the frustration of which you speak. I can only say that sometimes the Gods of Combustion do not wish to ignite the flame within the chamber with the Chevy Small Block-sized piston…no matter what throttle, choke, and crank position you choose. In theory, the 400 should be easier light off than the 600 – but obviously I see this not the case. The only real solution is obvious – a 2016 KTM 450 SX converted to trail bike – with it’s glorious electric start, EFI, and tiny lithium battery. Embrace your inner credit limit – and think not twice of the easy monthly payments derived from your $10k toy purchase.

  • Mad4TheCrest

    Man, Mr Burns, I nearly died laughing at this one. Maybe in part ’cause I’ve never experienced the kickstart frustration you describe: I’ve run e-start bikes since Nov 1977, with the sole exception a Yamaha 175 whose e-Start stopped working for a year, but it’s backup kickstart was a breeze.