Sunday, November 29, 2009

Down by the sea

As has been the case lately, Sunday is the only day I have time for a decent ride, and this Sunday was no exception. It was sunny and in the low 50s, about as good as it gets, considering it's almost December, so I took advantage of the weather and hopped on my bike. I saw many other bikers out today, as if they instinctively realized that this would be one of the few semi-pleasant riding days remaining before the snow flies.

It was around noontime and I had a craving for clamcakes and chowder, so I called the three popular clam shacks near the Narragansett beaches. Two places had recordings saying they were closed for the season, but the third, Monahan's, had a recording saying that they would be open this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, with all menu items half-price! Excited, I hopped on my bike, got gas, cash and made beeline for Monahan's. I should have known it was too good to be true - the place was closed. Whoever recorded the message didn't list the dates for their final weekend, and the recording had not been updated. Oh well.

I rode past the sea wall, passing two groups of motorcyclists, and up Route 1A, where I stopped for a meatball grinder at Subway. From there, I took the bridge to Jamestown and decided to go to Beavertail Point, a rocky peninsula with a state park and lighthouse. There was a decent number of people sightseeing there, despite the brisk temperature. This time of year, it strikes me how Beavertail can be so desolate and beautiful at the same time.

By the time I rode home, my fingers were half-numb from the cold, so I did a quick-thaw, holding them under warm water. I then treated my bike to an oil and filter change. I don't know if it's just psychological, but the bike seemed to run better and quieter after the oil change.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I got a fever ....

I was driving my van on Route 1 this morning when I saw a motorcycle in the breakdown lane. He started moving, so I let him on the road ahead of me. I could tell by the sound of the exhaust that it was a Harley.

I passed him, but found myself hoping he would pass me so I could listen to the bike again.

Some people like the way motorcycles look, and I do too, but for me, motorcycles - especially Harleys - stimulate my sense of hearing the most. I love that Harley rumble (or roar, depending on the type of pipes).

Eventually, the rider, who I think was riding a Sportster (eventually, I'll get better at identifying Harleys), passed me, and I rolled my window down so I could hear the pipes blaring.

It reminded me of that classic Saturday Night Live skit that featured guest host Christopher Walken, who played a music producer obsessed with the sound of the cowbell percussion instrument.

"Guess what?! I got a fever, and the only prescription ... is more cowbell!" goes Walken's famous line.

I got a fever too. My only prescription: a Harley. Nothing else will do.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Awesome song!

I was at Beth's house last Sunday watching television, when a commercial for the video game "Left 4 Dead 2" came on. Neither one of us is into video games, but we both digged the song on the commercial so much that we Googled it, and then listened to it on YouTube.

Beth couldn't stop dancing to this song, and I couldn't help thinking the song would go great while riding a Harley. And I'm not the only person who thinks the song would be a good pick for a Sons of Anarchy episode.

Anyway, the name of the song is "Electric Worry," by the band Clutch (the band's name is appropriate for motorcycling). It's blues/rock song with a driving beat, kind of like the ZZ Top song "Le Grange," but harder.

Here's a link to the song (just copy and paste into your browser):

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Knees in the wind

There's been some decent riding weather this past week, especially for this time of year. Many days have been sunny, with high temps in the 60s (and close to 70 on Friday!), but I've been too busy with work these past few weeks, so riding has taken a back seat, so to speak. The night time temps have averaged in the low or mid-40s, which is too cold for pleasant riding, so lately, the only day I've ridden is Sunday.

This Sunday morning, I just had to ride my Yamaha Virago to church; I was having withdrawal symptoms from not having ridden in a full week, so I just had to get my "knees in the wind," as another biker and fellow blogger wrote.

Apparently, my bike was having withdrawal symptoms too. She started no problem, but kept wanting to stall unless I gave it some throttle. The choke did not help. But, by the time I hit the first stop light, the engine smoothed out, and the 13-mile ride to church was enjoyable as I banged through the gears and leaned through the turns. Yep, all was good again! I wore my half-helmet, so even though I had not drank much coffee at home, the brisk air hitting my face woke me up quite well, thank you.

Motorcycles are increasingly scarce on the road this late in the season (or I guess we're in the post-season now), so they tend to stand out a lot more. I passed what appeared to be a black Sportster on Route 1 north (I'm not certain it was a Sporty, because I was traveling 65 mph at the time and didn't want to take my eyes off the road too long). On the way back from church (I took a longer, scenic route home), I passed an on road/off road bike, and later, a sport bike (or, as I like to call them, "crotch rockets"). We all waved as we passed each other. I think because there are so few of us riding in late November, there is an even greater camaraderie. Whether you ride a Harley, metric cruiser, crotch rocket or even a dirt bike, it sure feels good to get your knees in the wind, even if the wind is brisk.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The "Vicarious Shopper"

Our Romans 8 Riders chapter president, Michael "Spike" Ludwig (pictured on the left), has been one of my closest friends among my CMA brothers and sisters. He has helped me grow both as a biker and as a Christian, and is always there with an encouraging word or helpful advice.

When I mentioned a couple months ago that I was outgrowing my Yamaha Virago, Spike was quick to agree. When I added that I wanted my second bike to be a Harley, Spike, who rides an Electra Glide, was even more enthusiastic:

"I think it's time for you to step into a 'biker' bike, now that you have some experience riding," he wrote in an email.

I told Spike I'm looking for a used Sportster between $4,000 and $5,000, so he has been on the lookout for me, and sends me emails with links to potential deals he finds online.

We agree that I would be much better off with a 1200 Sporty, instead of the 883, which is sometimes known as a "chick's bike". Spike also doesn't like the standard Sportsters, which have the short 'peanut' style gas tank. Instead, he advises, "get the custom" model, which sports a longer gas tank and spoke wheels.

I had some time to kill this afternoon and stopped by Rider's Motorcycles. Spike and Mike Chretien just happened to be there, helping the owner, Frank, clean some old parts out of storage. Spike asked if I've been getting the emails he's been sending of Sportsters, and it's clear he enjoys searching for bikes, even if they're not for him. I guess he's shopping vicariously through me.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The pitfalls of buying motorcycle parts on eBay

Well, I just got burned again buying parts for my motorcycle on eBay. This time, I bought a used rear fender for my Yamaha Virago that was described as being in good condition, with "no dings or dents." I paid $40, plus about $15 for shipping.

I received the package and opened the box to find the fender creatively packed. Instead of newspaper or styrofoam peanuts, the seller had used two empty Bud Light 18-pack cartons to cushion the fender. But he may as well have not even bothered, since the fender was NOT in good condition. The mounting holes for the left and right rear turn signals were both deformed, indicating the donor bike had been dropped on each side. This was the reason I wanted to replace my fender in the first place. Second, two rather large holes had been drilled on each side of the fender. This was not mentioned in the auction description. Needless to say, I am ticked off and will be contacting the seller seeking a refund.

The first time I bought a part from eBay, I also had a problem with the part, an aftermarket turn signal stem. The part fit poorly, and I had to modify it (i.e., butcher it) to get the wires to run through the stem. I rode it, then the bike blew a fuse, leaving me stranded at night. I have since disconnected the wiring to this turn signal so it will not short out again. Also, the stem will not stay secure, so it rotates until the lens is pointing skyward, not to the rear. That seller said he rarely has complaints about that particular aftermarket part, but he did apologize and promptly gave me a refund.

Original parts from the local Yamaha dealer cost a small fortune (for example, about $300 for a fuel pump - basically just a tiny electric motor). Good used parts for a bike more than 20 years old are hard to find. Also, there are relatively few add-on accessories for my bike, a 535 cc model, compared to its big brothers, the 750 and 1100 cc Viragos.

My plans for the bike over the winter were to get a good, straight rear fender, a used rear turn signal, also in good condition and a mirror to replace one that broke off. Then I wanted to remove both fenders, side panels and gas tank, paint them black, reassemble the bike and give it a good detail cleaning. The bike, now a dark red, would look sharp in black.

Now, I'm not sure I want to keep spending money on parts for my Yamaha when I'm saving for a Harley.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Something to look forward to ....

Today I was doing some painting with Roland C., another Romans 8 Rider, and somehow the conversation turned to Daytona Bike Week, a big motorcycle rally in early spring. Roland goes each year, driving his pickup truck, which tows a spacious travel trailer that carries his motorcycle, an Electra Glide Ultra Classic.

Roland usually hosts a guest or two, and this year, he invited me to stay with him and another CMA member, Butch S., at the campground. The epicenter of the rally, Main Street in Daytona Beach, Florida, gets pretty crazy, he said, so they don't spend much time there, but make a lot of side trips, including a day at this place (I forget the details) where anyone with a valid motorcycle license and a helmet can test drive just about any motorcycle currently manufactured.

Just being able to ride in a t-shirt in early March, in 70 to 80-degree weather, is worth the trip to Florida.

Roland said I could drive my van down, with my motorcycle inside. He doesn't recommend riding a motorcycle from Rhode Island to Florida, even with a touring bike, because it's just too taxing.

I'm seriously thinking about taking him up on his offer. I've been laid off for a year, with few prospects of finding a permanent, full-time job anytime soon, so there's a fair chance I'll still be in the same boat come March. Even if I do find a job, I can always tell an employer that I will not be available the first week of March due to a prior commitment.

So, the only issue will be whether I have the money. Time will tell.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

How I Came to Ride, Part 3 - My First Motorcycle

By December 2008, I had my motorcycle license. My goal was to save enough money to buy a used Harley-Davidson Sportster for somewhere between $4,000 and $5,000. That was a tall order, seeing as how I had gotten laid off from my job a couple of months before due to the bad economy.

I saved every bit of money that didn't go toward paying bills, even rolling coins. I put off things like eating out or movie tickets. I scrimped and saved, and got odd jobs here and there. Meanwhile, I scanned motorcycles for sale on Craigslist. In early February, some of my fellow CMA/Romans 8 Riders members and I attended the Northeast Motorcycle Expo, my first big motorcycle show. Several used bikes were for sale, and I sat on my first Harleys.

Seasoned bikers told me the best deals on bikes were in the winter, and prices would go up in the spring. I had abandoned all hope of getting a Sportster, since there was no way I'd save up enough in time for spring, still being out of work. In fact, I began to worry if I'd even be able to get any kind of bike. Realistically, I'd only managed to save about $1,500 by late February, and from browsing online, there appeared to be few decent bikes in the $1,000-$1,500 range.

Then, a few people from Romans 8 Riders suggested I call Frank Rider, who owns Rider's Motorcycles, a repair shop in West Warwick, R.I. Frank, who is also a Christian biker, also sells motorcycles on consignment. I called Frank and he had a 1987 Yamaha Virago 535 for sale. The owner was asking $1,500 for it. So I went down and looked at the bike, which was very clean for an older bike, plus it had very low mileage (3,000). I didn't get to ride it, but Frank, whose shop had done the recent maintenance on the bike, assured me it ran very well. Since it needed new tires (it still had the original tires, but they were dry-rotted), I offered $1,000, and the owner accepted my offer. Frank's shop ordered and installed new tires, and a few days later, I picked it up in my van. I believe God had reserved that bike for me. Someone else was about to buy it shortly before I did, but the deal didn't go through.

After getting an insurance policy, the next step was registering the bike. At the registry, I got an unwelcome surprise - I couldn't register the bike because I owed taxes to two towns for my van. I'd moved so many times since I'd bought my van that I never got any late notices. I found out I owed $500 to one town, and $400 to another. This put a huge crimp in my budget, and the bike sat in the garage while I scrimped and scraped enough money to pay the back taxes, sales tax and registration fees. I even had to sell off some tools. Finally, in mid-March, it was registered, and by that time, the snow had melted, so I took to the road, cold be damned - I was too excited to wait for warmer weather.

At first, I stuck to roads in my neighborhood. Then, after a few days, I went on two-lane roads with more traffic and traffic lights. Then when I was comfortable with that, I drove on four-lane roads with higher speeds. Before long, I was riding on interstate highways.

The Virago 535 is a good beginner's bike. It is well balanced and easy to handle, has enough power to ride on the highway, and is fun to drive around town or on back country roads. I've had it up to 95 mph, although once you get past 55, the engine is buzzing pretty hard. The suspension leaves a lot to be desired, especially on the lousy Rhode Island roads; the bike feels like it bottoms out a lot and the ride can be jarring. The stock exhaust systems looks cool, but makes the engine sound like a sewing machine.

I found out that Virago 535s - which have kind of a cult following in England, Europe and parts of Asia - have a lot of quirks, such as a gas tank that is underneath the seat (the seat actually swivels up to access the gas cap); a fuel pump; an electronic fuel reserve switch instead of a petcock; and a sticky starter button that may cause your headlight to go out (there is an easy fix for that).

I've had newer cars and trucks the last several years, but I quickly found that owning an older bike means you either learn to be a mechanic, or else be prepared to constantly pay a garage for repairs. I chose to do my own repairs, since I used to work on my own clunkers in high school and well into my 20s. I replaced a throttle cable, changed the oil and filter, adjusted the valve clearance and changed the fork oil on my Virago so far. This summer, it left me stranded a few times when the main fuse blew. I think it may have been a bad ground connection. I cleaned the ground connection and it's been okay since, so I'm hoping that was the problem.

The bike has no saddlebags or windshield, so it's not really suited for long rides. Your butt gets numb after about 45 minutes on the bike.

Still, for all its shortcomings, it was fun to ride, and stylish to boot. I put 6,000 miles on it between March and November. I've never dumped it while riding. The only times I dropped it was when I parked it and thought I had the kickstand locked in, but apparently it wasn't. It broke the left rear turn signal and dented the rear fender a bit. Another time I had to push it off the road after it broke down. I lost my balance on some grass, and the bike fell over and broke the right mirror.

In late September, while riding on the highway, I began noticing the bike would not go faster than 65 mph, even if I buried the throttle. I suspect a faulty fuel pump, but haven't had time to really troubleshoot it. But the bottom line is I have outgrown this bike, which weighs just over 400 pounds. Even before the possible fuel pump issue, I had been wanting for more power and acceleration. Basically, it's just not a Harley ...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

How I Came to Ride, Part 2 - The CMA

In October, 2008, I was going through several life-changing events. Having gone to court for my divorce at the end of August, I was having a tough time emotionally. Court went smoothly, since it was a simple, uncontested divorce, but I wasn't prepared for the emotional aftermath. Something inside of me (I later realize it was God) told me I had to deal with these emotions head-on, instead of drinking and using women to numb them. So, I got active in AA and found a Christian-based divorce recovery group at a local church. Soon after, I made a decision to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.

Around this time, I was also working on getting my motorcycle license, when I got an email from Pam, a friend of mine. She forwarded me an email from her friend, Bob, who I had met once before. I forget what the email was about, but Bob's email signature had a link to a group called the Christian Motorcyclists Association. So I clicked on the link and learned about the CMA, whose main purpose is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the motorcycling community. I thought it was great there was an organization that combined two of my new interests - Jesus Christ and motorcycles.

I saw that Bob was the road captain of the local CMA chapter, Romans 8 Riders, so I emailed him to ask some questions. He invited me to the chapter's next monthly meeting, which was at a Bickford's restaurant. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the restaurant. I didn't know if I would fit in - I didn't even own a motorcycle yet. Several members greeted me, some of them were intimidating looking - a few big guys, with tattoos, earrings, leather, including one guy named "Spike" (now our chapter president) - but their smiles and friendly attitudes made me feel welcome. They had dinner before the meeting, and followed with a group prayer.

Well, I've been going to just about every monthly meeting of Romans 8 since November 2008 and quickly got to know everyone. After several months, I became a CMA member and earned a back patch after completing a ministry training course, and then was voted in as a member of Romans 8 Riders chapter soon after.

You couldn't ask for a nicer bunch of people. Besides the meetings, I've participated in group rides, bike blessings, bike shows, retreats and a toy run. I've gotten to know people from other CMA chapters also. My CMA brothers and sisters helped me find my first bike, improved my riding skills, prayed for me and encouraged me when I've gone through difficult times. Basically, they have helped me to become a better biker and a better Christian.

How I Came to Ride, Part 1 - The License

I don't come from a family of bikers, and never had friends who rode. Prior to 2008, I had only ridden a motorcycle on two occasions. Around 1990, an acquaintance let me take his bike for a spin around the neighborhood, and in 2000, my boss at the time let me take his bike around the block a few times. Neither bike was anything special, just older, mid-displacement metrics, around 600 or 700 cc's. The motorcycle bug hadn't bitten me.

After I got married in 2001, I casually mentioned the idea of getting a motorcycle to my wife, who quickly vetoed the idea. She was riding on the back of her first husband's bike and they went down. They weren't badly hurt, but it scared her off motorcycles forever. Like I said, I didn't have the bug then, so I let it go.

I separated from my wife for good in 2007, and, in the spring and summer of 2008, I was basically living like a 40-year-old frat boy. Outside of working hours, my life focused on drinking and chasing women. I was making up for lost time, you could say. The idea popped into my head about getting a motorcycle, preferably a Harley, now that there was no wife to veto the idea. I thought it would be a fun diversion, and a way to impress women. I think it was partly a mild case of midlife crisis.

The only problem was, I was broke, even though I was working full time then. Most of my money went to support my soon-to-be-ex-wife, who had not worked for a year and a half while she attended New England Tech. Even though I had moved out of our apartment, I was still paying her rent, utilities, groceries, insurance - all her expenses - while I had to move back into my mother's house.

Still, I had to get a motorcycle endorsement on my license before I could get a motorcycle anyway. So I signed up at for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation basic rider course at the Community College of Rhode Island in October, 2008. The two classroom sessions were mostly common sense. For the riding sessions, I bought cold weather riding gloves ($50) and borrowed a helmet. The written portion of the test was easy. The riding portion of the test went fairly well ... I did okay for not having been on a motorcycle in nearly a decade. I went to the registry to get my motorcycle permit, and, after holding it for 30 days, went back to the registry to get the motorcycle endorsement on my license. So, I had the license, but no bike, and my prospects were not looking very good. It was almost December, and I had been laid off from my job.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Another Harley convert

Tonight, my local Christian Motorcyclists Association chapter had its monthly meeting. The buzz was that Mike C., who rides a Honda Goldwing, is now the proud owner of a Harley Electra Glide Ultra Classic.

Mike was among members of our CMA chapter, the Romans 8 Riders, who attended the Blackstone Valley (Mass.) H.O.G.s toy run last Sunday. The run kicked off at Precision Harley-Davidson in Pawtucket, R.I., which had several used motorcycles displayed outside for the occasion. Mike saw one he liked and asked about it, mostly out of curiosity, and a salesperson invited him inside. He said he hadn't planned on buying the bike, and, as the talk progressed, didn't think he would be able to, but he was approved and took delivery of the bike a few days later.

"I'm still floating," said the often-reserved Mike, who was unable to stop smiling that night. Hmmm ... much like the same effect my test ride on the Sportster had on me.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My first ride on a Harley ...

A local (non-Harley) dealership has a 2002 Sportster 1200 they took as a trade-in. I stopped by last week to look at it and ask if they allowed test rides, which they do, so I called today to schedule a test ride. It has forward controls, drag bars and straight pipes. The aftermarket seat was comfortable, and the forward controls were a bit awkward at first (my bike, a Yamaha Virago, has mid controls), but I quickly adjusted and found them more comfortable. I disliked the drag bars, though. They made me hunch forward too much, and the all-chrome grips were, well, hard to grip.

The bike was cold-blooded. The temp was in the mid- to upper-60s, and my bike would start and run fine with no choke. The Sporty had to be slightly choked, and it coughed enough to be slightly annoying, even after what should have been enough warm-up time. Also, the vibration levels on pre-2004 Sportsters, which some people have complained about, turned out to be an issue for me too (the 2004 and up models have rubber-mounted engines). The foot pegs buzzed much more than my bike, especially at highway speeds. If it was enough to annoy me on a 10-minute run, how much more would an hour-long trip wear on me? And the rear view mirrors vibrated so much I couldn't really identify what type of vehicle was behind me. That was important, because the Sportster is like a Corvette on two wheels, so I was on the lookout for cops - it was fast, loud and red! The torque slid my butt back on the seat, and I was only giving it maybe 80 percent of wide-open throttle, since I was unfamiliar with the bike and it wasn't mine. Zero to 70 mph elapsed quickly, and at that speed, the Sportster was easily chugging along, whereas my Virago would be revving pretty high.

Contrary to reviews I've read online, I did not find the Sportster to be "top-heavy". The seat height is significantly higher than my current bike, but it felt better, and I could still flat-foot it while stopped (I'm 5'8"). It felt well-balanced and agile. Admittedly, I didn't push it hard in the turns and curves (and there were few in the suggested test route), but I didn't have to "muscle" the bike to keep it down in a turn, another comment I've read. Sportsters aren't known for having road-absorbing suspensions, but, compared to my bike, it rode like a Cadillac.

Other than the aftermarket drag bars, the bike had good ergonomics. The speedometer and tachometer were in easy view, and the levers, turn signal switches and choke lever were all within easy reach. I was most impressed with the smoothness and quietness with which the gear lever shifted the five speed transmission. It was like butter! My Yamaha is much clunkier changing gears.

To me, the exhaust sounds are the best part of riding a Harley. I don't know if there is a word that adquately describes the growl or crackle the pipes make when you roll off the throttle as you upshift while accelerating, but it's a sound that seems to penetrate my soul, and is why I want a Harley over another make. Let's just say that even an hour after I ended my test ride, I had a grin on my face ....

Yes, I had to return with the bike, which has 22K on the odometer. What they are asking seems like a really good price, almost too good. The bike would come with a 30-day warranty, but I'd want someone who knows Harleys to check it out for me. But at this point, I'm not sure I want to commit to this particular bike. I've saved almost enough to buy a decent used Sportster, but would have to save double what I have now if I want to buy even a basic a Big Twin model. Whatever I decide to do, I am determined to buy with my head, not based on my emotions - which is a difficult thing to do when it comes to a Harley.