I was highballing up the freeway on a shiny new V Star 950 last week, feeling the mighty pistons of her 942cc radial Twin pulsating through my forward-mounted dogs, when the same song popped into my brain that often does when I’m riding a swashbuckling American-style cruiser; “The Wreck of the Old 97”. Mine’s the Johnny Cash version, which was on like the first album I ever bought, but the song was already old in 1968. The Old 97, for you kids, was a train powered by a steam locomotive. Running late, Johnny Cash turned and said to his black greasy fireman, “shovel on a little more coal”.

Throwing more coal in that aperture makes more power, eventually. Unlike the new Honda Africa Twin, steam locomotives did have cruise control. Somewhere.

Throwing more coal in that aperture makes more power, eventually. Unlike the new Honda Africa Twin, steam locomotives did have cruise control. Somewhere.

More coal, you see, would result in a hotter fire, more steam, and more speed. A little too much, unfortunately, in the case of the old 97. On the V Star, you just roll open the throttle, but that really just starts the acceleration process in motion rather than making the bike actually accelerate, like your typical sportbike or the Suzuki Bandit 1250 I’d just traded it for. On fast, multi-cylinder bikes like those, it’s easy to forget there are pistons providing the power, but on long low, shiny ones with cooling fins like the V Star, my synapses automatically make the steam locomotive connection like a telephone switchboard. Which is not to slam the V Star, since I love my steam engines.

Steam engines, of course, are where pistons being propelled through cylinders to provide motive power came from in the first place. In a steam engine, expanding steam pushes the piston down the bore. In an internal combustion one, it’s an ablation of fuel and air that pushes the piston. Either way, it’s technology that was first brought seriously to market by James Watt in the late 1700s. Before that, we were horse-drawn or traveled by LPC (leather personnel carrier). I like to think the idea came from somebody riding along behind a flatulent horse: Hmmmm, if only we could harness the power of expanding gas inside a sealed tube, hmmmmm…

Natch, when James Watt pulled it off, there were plenty of problems and explosions and people who said it would never work and that our heads would explode if we traveled faster than 13 mph. But it did work, and steam powered the planet for 200 years. Heck, it still does: Far as I know, most if not all power plants, be they nuclear, coal-fired or whatever, generate power by turning water into steam. Seems pretty archaic when you think about it. But not nearly as archaic as four pistons, 16 valves, and two camshafts spinning wildly around at 15,000 rpm to produce mostly wasted heat.

I’m reading quite a bit of news lately, after last month’s big climate talks in Paris, to the effect that we’ve really turned the corner on alternative fuels, that going forward fossil fuels are going to be on the downswing, and that “alternative” energy is increasingly a financially viable alternative as prices on things like solar panels continue downward. Even in Dubai, solar panels will be made mandatory for all rooftops by 2030. “Our goal is to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050,” said Sheikh bin Rashid Mohammed, vice president and ruler, when announcing the initiative.

Early adapter Evans Brasfield deployed a solar panel array on our recent adventure tour to charge things and communicate with his people on Tralfamadore.

Early adapter Evans Brasfield deployed a solar panel array on our recent adventure tour to charge things and communicate with his people on Tralfamadore.

Most of these kinds of news items go on to say change will come more slowly to our transportation devices, mostly because of the simple fact it’ll take a while to replace gas stations with charging ones (while overcoming the lobbying power of XOM and BP), and because of the limits of current battery technology. In the grand scheme, these seem roughly equivalent to what James Watt went through with a few boiler explosions, or what the first guy who decided it would be a good idea to climb on top of a horse to pop round to the liquor store encountered.

So far, I think it’s pretty cool to know my old Yamaha R1 will fire up instantly on its Shorai lithium-iron battery even though I haven’t plugged it into a charger for years, and I can foresee a time when you probably won’t even need charging stations for your electric car since your bodywork will be made of solar panels. Or something. This is borne out by Finn and Rey finding the old Millennium Falcon in a junkyard, hopping in and having it start right up in the new Star Wars movie. Will we miss infernal combustion? Of course, but maybe not as much as we think; did you happen to see Jay’s Cobra get smoked by a Tesla on Jay Leno’s Garage the other night? I haven’t ridden an electric streetbike that’s really blown my skirt up yet, but riding the Zero FX off-road a few years ago awakened me to the awesome potential of a motorcycle that lets you hear the birds tweet and the river splash, while making maximum boulder-climbing torque from a standstill.

In the end, it’s the motion that matters, and how you generate it may be largely inconsequential. Though steam locomotives are hugely romantic and interesting to look at, when you climb into the cab of one, you don’t get the idea that they were very comfortable workplaces for the people whose job it was to operate them every day. I guess I was expecting lots of teak and brass when I toured the USS Iowa a few years ago; the reality was cold, thick, claustrophobic armor painted gray, and cheap linoleum; not a pleasant place to be terrified while other battleships hurled Volkswagen-sized projectiles at you from over the horizon.

123015-whatever-wreck-vincent

Will today’s BMW S1000RR be as archaic as a Vincent Black Shadow in a few years? The answer is yes it will, and the current Yamaha R1 may even be mistaken for a torture device. I may not get there with you, but I won’t be surprised if there comes a time when I take my first-gen R1 out for a spin and have to stop and ask at a few charging stations for directions to the nearest fossil fuel station, since I probably will still be too stupid to find one on my iPhone 32.

Change is good, people, especially the kind that helps ward off our extinction. Why fight it? If you must answer that rhetorical question, feel free to Comment below.

  • DickRuble

    “I haven’t ridden an electric streetbike that’s really blown my skirt up yet” — nobody wants to witness that… but if you find a stretch of desolate road with no one around, try the Lightning LS-218.

    • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

      Email Kevin and tell him to send me to ride one!

      • john burns

        I thought I read they’d thrown in the towel? No?

        • DickRuble

          That would be worth reporting too..

    • Born to Ride

      Seeing the lightning in person at WSBK Laguna last year was justification enough for the price. The fit and finish was second to nothing that I have ever seen, except perhaps for a Ferrari or two. Also being able to claim that you manufacture the fastest production bike(at the time) is also a boon when asking about the same price as a Tesla Model S

      • DickRuble

        The LS-218 is priced between $38,800-46,800. Tesla Model S starts at $69,900

        • Born to Ride

          I stand corrected. I was confusing lightning pricing for Mission RS pricing, which was nearly 60 grand as I recall.

          • DickRuble

            68,800 for the first version in 2009. They had lowered the price for the later versions, in 2014 (there is a segment on Leno’s garage).

  • JMDonald

    It all boils down to what is available. If the powers that be allow only electric vehicles then we will only have electric vehicles. Unless there are some huge advances in battery technology electric bikes as they are currently cannot compete with the fossil fuel version. Perhaps a nuclear cold fusion version is somewhere on the horizon. Right now I will settle for a new T140.

    • ‘Mike Smith

      That’s funny, 4000+ miles on my 2015 Zero SR, while my R1 collects dust. Yet I miss scalded ankles and reeking of gasoline. Mmmmm, huffing gas….

      • JMDonald

        There but for the grace of government go you Mr. Smith. Enjoy your choices while you can. Ride safe.

        • ‘Mike Smith

          Choices for me now depend on the ambient temperature of Central Florida. R1 when it’s chilly and I don’t have my girlfriend around to bitch about smelling like a gas pump attendent, Zero the rest of the year…

  • Alexander Pityuk

    Will today’s BMW S1000RR be as archaic as a Vincent Black Shadow in a few years?

    Probably not. 15 years passed since Nokia 3310 and mobile phones changed dramatically. An alien wouldn’t even be able to tell that it and an iphone are essentially the same devices. Yet Nokia is still working pretty well, it is bulletproof and relatively pleasant to use. Apart from that steam locomotive, where there were leaks and smoke and heat and whatnot. We crossed the line, beyond which we can’t build completely terrible things anymore.

    • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

      You haven’t driven a Chevy HHR, apparently.

  • panthalassa

    if apple’s current release schedule is extrapolated forward, we might expect the iphone 32 in the mid 2060s; may you still be riding and writing.
    happy new year!

  • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

    ““Our goal is to become the city with the smallest carbon footprint in the world by 2050,” said Sheikh bin Rashid Mohammed…

    He will achieve that goal, because Dubai, like most of the Arabian peninsula, will be an uninhabited wasteland in 2050.

    • John B.

      As my Grandmother used to say, “Inshallah,” which roughly translates to, from your lips to God’s ears.

      Imagine the chaos that will ensue when/if oil becomes a worthless commodity. Countries like Saudi Arabia have virtually no economy without oil. Can you imagine the reaction if western technology makes oil worthless? Jihad overload.

      Perhaps a Middle East conflict will precipitate the end of civilization. There’s gonna be a revolution… you can feel it coming.

      • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

        No economy without oil? That’s what you think!

        • John B.

          Petroleum accounts for 45% of GDP in Saudi Arabia, and government officials there have struggled to further diversify the economy. Unless something changes, the economies of countries like Saudi Arabia would collapse without revenue from oil. You disagree? What was the economy like before oil in the region where Saudi Arabia now lies?

          • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

            Like this?

          • John B.

            Yes, similar to what would happen to motorcycle publications if bike manufacturers stopped buying advertising. There’s other revenue, but…. Open carry starts at midnight in Texas. Headed to an “Open Carry” New Years Eve party. Should be a blast. Happy New Year Gabe!

          • Ser Samsquamsh

            Lawrence and Kurt in one post? This is shaping up to be a good year!

      • Sayyed Bashir

        Was your grandmother muslim? Inshallah means “God willing”. Look up the definition on Google “if Allah wills it”, it will happen. Or by the grace of God, it will happen.

        • John B.

          My Grandmother was a Lebanese (Maronite) Christian. The translation you cite is correct, however, in context I took the saying to mean, “from your lips to God’s ears,” or “May God Will it.” For example, when I was a kid, I told my Grandmother I wanted to become a doctor. She said, “Inshallah!”

          • Sayyed Bashir

            Which meant “God willing”, you will become a doctor. Whenever muslims hope something good will happen, they say Inshallah, which means if it is God’s will, it will happen.

  • John B.

    If you like steam engines, you will not find a more scenic train ride than on the Silverton narrow-gauge steam-engine train in Silverton, Colorado. You can watch workmen shovel coal into the furnace to generate the power necessary to carry the train and passengers up steep mountain inclines. It’s impressive. Also, the motorcycle ride from Silverton to Ouray, CO is near the top of every top 10 list of most scenic motorcycle rides in America.

    • Born to Ride

      Ha, I rode that train when I was 15 years old. As I recall, it was freezing, took 3 hours, and the lemonade they served in the hospitality car was mind blowing. Also, Silverton is home to the best chili I have ever been served in all my travels.

  • John B.

    Change is not only good, it’s inevitable and continual. In fact, the notion things stay the same from moment to moment is an illusion our limited ability to perceive creates. To oppose change is like opposing an incoming tide. The politics of change related to energy, however, drips with corruption, misinformation, and illicit patronage. As such, change in the energy industry is anything but organic.

    Increasingly in America (especially since Citizens United) those with vast wealth have outsized influence on politicians, and the law and government action reflects the will of those with the greatest access to politicians. This arrangement is antithetical to our representative democracy.

    The Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders) phenomena may, in part, be a rebuke to the political environment Citizens United created, i.e., ordinary citizens rejecting a system wherein big money controls establishment politicians. If big money donors thought Citizens United guaranteed political control, they were mistaken. Donald Trump is not the best presidential candidate, however, his viability in the 2016 race is a thumb in the eye of big-money donors and establishment politicians, and that’s is a good thing for citizens. It’s no wonder Trump’s viability horrifies the establishment. People freak out when someone attacks their golden goose. It tells you something that Trump and Bernie Sanders supporters combined may constitute a majority of voters. How awesome is that?

    • Douglas

      Well, it’s interesting to talk about big politics and powers that be, but who exactly are these individuals who can accomplish this….extraordinary control over so many facets of modern life? Can we name names, get specific?

      • John B.

        We can Douglas. Among others, Thomas F. and Kathryn Ann Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Charles and Elizabeth Koch, George Soros, Bob J. and Doylene Perry, Kenneth W. Davis, Jr., and entities such as, General Electric, The American Medical Assn, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Pharmaceutical Research & Mfrs of America, Northrup Gumman, Boeing Co., Exxon Mobil, and Lockheed Martin.

        • Craig Hoffman

          Well stated and supported.

  • Andrew Capone

    I eagerly await Ducati Kid weighing in with a photoshopped electric Vincent.

    • Ducati Kid

      AC,

      Phil’s (Irving) now gone leave the VINCENT (or Irving-Vincent) alone!

      Decades ahead of it’s time …

      Electric? ‘Chasing electrons’ for too many years!

      LOVE the style and V-Twin powerplant …

    • TheSeaward

      I hope that’s sarcasm.

    • Ducati Kid

      AC,

      Don’t use ABOBE Photoshop (Lightroom’s not bad) – G.I.M.P.!

      An homage to Phil Irving who did most of the BRILLIANT work at VINCENT.

    • Ducati Kid

      AC,

      Don’t use ADOBE Photoshop (Lightroom’s not bad) – G.I.M.P.!

      UPDATED –

      An homage to Phil Irving who did most of the legendary work at VELOCETTE Rear Shock Adjustability) then VINCENT.

  • Ser Samsquamsh

    Oil is a fantastically useful and essential substance for fertilizer, plastics, medicine, dyes, Kraft cheese slices and more. It will never go out of style. It’s a low down dirty shame we set fire to so much of it.

    Have a happy New Year – your resolution; more Vonnegut references.

    • kenneth_moore

      Thanks for making this point; its been one of my “pet peeves” since the 1970’s fake gas shortage. Burning oil is a horrible waste of a unique resource that has proven to be extremely difficult to duplicate. The list of modern materials and products that are petroleum based is astonishing enough, but when you add in the fact that modern agriculture is completely dependent on oil for fertilizer and insect control, burning it for fuel seems near insanity.

      • Ser Samsquamsh

        Thank you! I like rumbling engines and afterburners but oil is near miraculous substance.

  • Starmag

    Coal powered steam train = archaic

    Coal powered(electric) motorcycle = Modern and hip

    Solar panels to make solar panels?

    Solar powered semi tractors?

    We should start at the top, someone should send this article to the biggest single user of oil in the world, you know, the US military.

  • Craig Hoffman

    It does not matter what provides the propulsion, as long as there is enough propulsion on tap to grievously the unwise user, the conveyance will be fun to operate. In the case of John’s old R1, 150 plus at the wheel never really goes out of style!

  • Gordo

    Why are people so gullible. The end of the earth due to the use of fossil fuels is greatly exaggerated with fraudulent science. Let free markets decide forever what types of energy are most practical, efficient and least expensive. CO2, which for some stupid reason was used as the reason we need to cut fossil fuels, is PLANT FOOD. It is a trace gas that is essential to all human life. They always tell you how much is released into the climate without once telling you how much is sequestered into plants, oceans, soils, and other places. The range of CO2 in the air at any time varies, of course, but there is absolutely no evidence that CO2 causes warming. CO2 is about 1.4 inches to a football field of inches in our atmosphere. When CO2 static levels increase it is good for plant life, which is in turn good for human and animal life. Please people, don’t be so gullible. We have greatly cut down TOXINS that are released by internal combustion, and that is good. Toxins are bad. CO2 is not one of those toxins.

    Electric creation and usage has its own set of major problems, including toxins. Let markets decide. Electric may be centuries away from being viable.

    • GreggJ

      Well, the governments of 196 nations (just for your information, that is all of them) just unanimously disagreed with you by signing the Paris Climate Agreement. Wow there Nellie, that is a heap big lot of gullible people ya got there Pard. That is, um, like every single government in the entire world. Liberal, Conservative, Middle of the Road, Far Right, Far Left, and everything in between. Democratic, Communist, Socialist, Dictatorship, Fascist, Royal. Every Single One. So either every single leader of every single government in the entire world is wrong, or you are right. Might want to think about that for a while.

      • Gordo

        Government is not science. Science is not government. If you don’t understand why any other country would sign, you don’t understand the power of American money for those mostly poverty stricken countries…..and by the way, every country in the world did not sign the Agreement, and I think you know that. Facts are not allowed to exist when a fraudulent hypothesis is promoted for the purpose of enriching elitist politicians,

        • GreggJ

          So it appears that you do think that the leaders of every single country in the world are wrong and you are right. Nice to have such a healthy ego. Obviously there is no point in continuing this discussion. Finally, just to keep our facts straight, there are only 196 nations, they all signed. Google it.

          • Gordo

            “to draw up a new global climate agreement covering all countries, to be adopted in 2015″………it is supposed to “cover” all countries, but has not even received instuments of ratification by the top 55 countries yet……..you may want to read up on how these United Nations things work.

          • Gordo

            Again, they didn’t “sign” it……….they are just members of the UN. They don’t have enough votes to override any “Adoption”, but they are included in the total because the Leftist UN wants you to think it is popular. And again, these votes by countries wanting to share in the wealth are not SCIENCE. The science is fraudulent.

        • kenneth_moore

          Do you know that it was a worldwide consortium of SCIENTISTS who brought the issue of greenhouse gasses to the attention of the political community, not the other way around? Are you aware that Exxon Mobile’s own scientists brought their data on and concerns about climate change forward decades ago, only to have it suppressed by Exxon executives (for obvious reasons)?

          You’re spouting ridiculously outdated rhetoric that has been systematically disproven again and again. It’s actually remarkable that anyone is still troweling this crap out at this point.

  • Shlomi

    I really don’t care what engine push my bike forward. I used to have 2 strokes, they are long gone and I don’t miss them. Keep it powerful cheap, and with sufficient range and minimal charging time and I’m all electric, atomic, what ever

  • Mike Johnson

    Hey, I want a bike with a ton of low end torque in a better handling frame like a Yam Stryker 1300 mill in an aluminum spar frame 24 degrees of rake, 4.2 in trail and a wheelbase just under 60 inches. Please see if you can get that done before you save the World, no offense intended but you may want to blog on one of the hankie twisting social justice sites like http://www.handwringer.com