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 ...

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