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.
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.
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?
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: