I consider myself a pretty much a normal person. Well, maybe a few quirks here and there, such a wearing bowties, but really nothing out of the ordinary for a person 66 years old. Last fall however, in the space of only a few short weeks, I did something that gave me some pause as to that assessment. This is a story about motorcycles.
Let me step back just a moment and tell you about my father, a bombastic individual who saw the world in pretty much black and white. To him motorcycles were a form of transportation. As every school child knows, the process of transportation involves going from point A to point B. There are many modes of transportation that can do this with varying degrees of efficiency and comfort. In the face of inclement weather, however, a motorcycle was clearly an inferior form of transportation. Therefore, using the process of induction, those who rode motorcycles were either inferior or certainly guilty of inferior thinking. That’s pretty much the way I was raised.
Last October I went to visit my son who lives south of Atlanta, Georgia. He was in the midst of a divorce and I wanted to spend some time with him. Just after I arrived we began talking about the way things were going. He said to me, “Dad, given the long hours at my job, having to shop, do laundry, and take care of my son, I felt like I didn’t have much of a life, so I bought a motorcycle!” I resisted the temptation to make a Pavlovian response and simply nodded my head. We went out to take a look at the bike, a crotch rocket street machine similar to those I have seen weaving in and out of traffic in Chicago. I resisted the temptation to comment, but did marvel at the engineering and mechanical finish.
He needed to get an accessory for the bike so he put on his riding clothes and helmet while my grandson and I followed behind in the car. Stop signs and speed limits were heeded, so much for that concern. When we arrived at “Big Daddy’s Motorcycles” I began to wander around the showroom and marveled at the large cruiser style bikes matched by equally large price tags. After having looked at about a half-dozen cruisers was when I began to feel a little bit of the wanderlust awaken in me. By the time we returned to my son’s place I began to inquire about his new found passion. Before long I was reading various magazines and an instructional manual. I felt that this was part of my fatherly obligations to know and understand what your children are doing, even when they are 36 years old.
As an engineer by training, I found myself captivated by the mechanics of riding a motorcycle consisting of big, heavy, rotating wheels. I have peddled bicycles my entire life, but bicycle manufacturers purposely keep every part as lightweight as you can possibly achieve. On the other hand, a motorcycle is really a motorized gyroscope with powerful angular momentum and forces. By the time I left to come home, I wanted to know more.
The Secretary of State has a Driver’s License facility near where I work, so I stopped off to get a copy of the Illinois Motorcycle Operator’s Manual. I spent an evening reading the forty page manual that covers the various aspects of riding a motorcycle safely. I returned to the license facility the very next day. After a brief wait and discussion I was handed a short test on the contents of the manual. About 20 minutes later I handed the test back, it was graded on the spot, and was informed that I had passed. After just a few more minutes I heard my name called and was handed a piece of paper with the admonition, “Here’s your permit, don’t separate the two halves.” I inquired, “Just exactly what does this permit me to do?” The clerk responded, “It permits you to take lessons.”
The Internet is a wonderful tool. With an entry of “motorcycle schools Chicago” I quickly located several pages of possibilities. I finally settled on “Ride Chicago” for the reasons that they had a convenient schedule, a location near to my home, and the sound of motorcycle pipes rapping, which caused my wife to ask who was at the door?
The course consisted of two days of riding and one night of classroom discussion. I signed up for a Thursday/Friday class. Following the instructions provided on the site I purchased a heavy pair of general purpose boots and some really cool looking eye protectors. So far it had been interesting and not much of an investment and I eagerly looked forward to the class only about a week off.
I arranged for two days off at work and at 7:30 am Thursday morning arrived at the “school.” The location was one of the many unused parking lots surrounding the United Center. It turns out that there are several schools in these lots. In the corner of one lot I spied the name of my school on the side of a metal shipping container. I parked close by and introduced myself to Eugenia, my blond, twenties something, cigar smoking instructor who was busily removing well dented bikes from the container onto the parking lot surface. I was instructed to find a helmet and set of gloves. The gloves weren’t much of a problem but as my head began to sweat inside the helmet I started to think about all the previous students who had … Let’s not go there.
Precisely at the advertised starting time we were assigned our bikes. Since it was late October, the riding season was waning quickly and so was attendance in these schools. There were only four of us in the class with two instructors. This would be like having private instruction. I felt very fortunate.
The first 45 minutes were spent going over the various controls on the bikes. After many years of evolution, the layout for most bikes is pretty much the same just as it is for automobiles. We’re talking stripped down bikes here. Front and back brakes, clutch, throttle, shifter, turn signal, lights, ignition switch, starter, and a red switch that cuts off power regardless of everything else. I resisted the temptation to call it the “dead man’s switch.”
Mind you that at this point in time I have never actually been on a motorcycle. We were instructed to mount our bikes. The first task was to get a feel for the balance and weight of the motorcycle. I was assigned to a 250cc Honda Rebel, which I now understand to be a very small bike, but it sure looked big to me. Our task was to get the bike into neutral and to walk forward and back, use the kickstand to park the bike, etc. Then came the big moment when we fired up the motor. Again, using baby steps we learned how to slowly engage the clutch in first gear and walk forward. Before long we were riding in long wide ovals across the lot. By the end of the day we were shifting, turning, braking, and all the basic maneuvers. To be honest, it was exhilarating given that only a few hours ago we had started a ground zero.
The evening class covered both safety and basic riding skills using video tapes. I especially appreciated the parts on using body weight to control turning and the center of gravity on the bike for slow and fast turns.
The next day was spent on more practice of the basics with tighter turns, swerving, and hard braking. At the end of the day we practiced in a small rectangular area that is used by the Secretary of State to test one’s riding skills. The requirements are to be able to ride and stop in a designated area, weave around cones, do a U-turn, and hard brake.
I thought I did only so-so in the course, but with additional practice I not only could, but would, do better. The one and only surviving instructor (I forgot to tell you about the one instructor who broke a leg) said that I did quite well as she handed me my graduation certificate and t-shirt advertising the school. I nonchalantly inquired about what was the next step.
It turns out that the next step is to take the driving test. Many people at this point illegally ride a motorcycle to build up their abilities and then take the test. I won’t say that I never question authority, but I was not ready to ride without the proper license. Since this was virtually the last class of the season, my initial thought was to wait until next year and take additional instruction. My instructor informed me that the Secretary of State would be at their facility on Wednesday morning and that I should take the test.
I didn’t think that with only 12 hours of riding experience I would be able to pass the test, but given the circumstances I should go ahead and try. So, on the way to work on Wednesday morning, wearing a suit and bowtie, along with heavy boots I stopped off to take the test. I was the last one in line, and was able to observe a few blow their tests by dropping their bikes or missing the turns.
I took a deep breath, lined up, and the examiner motioned me forward. I did not do the course perfectly but evidently it was good enough as he stamped my permit as “passed.” I did not stop at work but went directly to the Driver’s License facility where they updated my license to be a fully licensed driver of a full-sized motorcycle. Since I had been at the facility several times in the last few weeks, the staff began to recognize me. “So now you know how to ride a motorcycle,” the clerk told me as she handed me my updated license. I had to confess that I really didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. True, my instruction and test pretty much guaranteed that I wouldn’t run over someone in a parking lot, but there was still a lot left to learn.
I called my son who was ecstatic about the news that his old man had made the grade. I told him that I would probably rent a bike for some additional practice before winter set in.
Again, the internet came to my aid, but without the results I had hoped for. I soon learned that renting is a very expensive proposition and that buying a motorcycle was really the only long-term solution. A visit to Craig’s List gave me hundreds of used bikes for sale in the Chicago area. Unfortunately, being so new to the game, I didn’t really know what to look for in a used bike. A Honda Rebel like the one I had trained on was available, but I had some reservations because its small size. Nothing else seemed to jump out even though many were advertised with low miles or in brand new condition. Was I making a big mistake here, or was all the joy in being an owner and not a rider?
This was early Wednesday evening. My son and I had traded a few e-mails back and forth that day when he called. “Dad,” he said, “you need the 2006 Kawasaki 800 Vulcan Drifter.”
A few more clicks on the Kawasaki site yielded a picture of a silver and black bike with big sculpted retro-fenders – it looked like something out of the Forties and, according to the write-up, was indeed fashioned after the 1939 Indian motorcycle. I knew instantly that this was the bike style for me. Besides, it had a “solo” seat that would eliminate any temptation to carry passengers since my wife had vowed she would never ride because of a chronically bad back.
Further down in the website I located a Chicago dealer, Champion Cycles, located at the corner of Western and Addison. I called and was told that they did have that exact bike in stock at the store and would be open late on Thursday. Since it was the end of the season they were ready to deal. A few more searches on the web indicated that this was a one-of-a-kind model for this year, and no used ones were available in the Chicago area.
After work on Thursday, I drove to Champion and met Julio, the salesman I had talked to over the phone the night before. After trying several bikes on for size I did settle on my original choice of the Vulcan Drifter. It looked even better in the showroom than the web photo, it was medium sized, and it easily accommodated my short legs so that I could sit in the saddle with both feet firmly planted on the ground. This is important. A bike weighs in at 500+ pounds, and the last thing you want to do is to lean over to the point where you can no longer hold on to, or should I say balance, the bike.
“Julio,” I said, “I am sold on this bike, but I have only one more hurdle to cross before I buy, and if that works out I will call you and be here on Saturday afternoon to pick it up.”
My friends at the Union League Club had been following this saga from the minute I returned from visiting my son. At every opportunity someone would tell me that I was crazy and should have my head examined. Heeding their advice, I booked an appointment with a psychiatrist for Saturday at Noon. At 12:50 pm I emerged from the appointment having established that I did not harbor any latent death wishes, knew the hazards of riding, and was not medically crazy. As a matter of fact, I even received some mild encouragement stating that I should get the motorcycle as soon as possible because “in a few years you will be too damn old for that sort of thing.”
I hopped on the CTA and called Julio at Champion to tell him the news. As I arrived at the bus stop at Addison and Western the skies opened up with torrents of rain coming down. Hunkering down in the shelter I waited for a break in the rain and then dashed across the street into the store. My plan was to finalize the sale of the bike and while they were prepping the bike I would buy the needed equipment, i.e. helmet, gloves, and jacket. When completed, I would ride home at a leisurely rate in plenty of time to make the black tie dinner my wife had accepted at Governor’s State University for 6:00 pm. I had even arranged a parking space with our condo garage manager along with a locker to store my riding apparel.
It was now approximately two o’clock. When Julio finished up with one customer we sat down and filled out the forms. Unlike a high volume auto dealer where everything is computerized, we went form after form, name after name, address after address, until we had everything ready to go. He must have thought that I might change my mind at any time, because it wasn’t until every eye had been dotted and tee crossed that he instructed the service manager to begin prepping the bike. I was getting a bit nervous because it was nearing 3 pm. It was at that time I heard the terrible news.
Motorcycles are shipped in crates pretty much broken down to conserve space and survive the shipment process. Fluids like oil, coolant, and fuel are normally not added or checked until the bike is ready to be delivered. That sounds reasonable. Then I learned that the battery would need to be charged, a process that takes about two hours or so! A little mental calculation indicated that I should call my spouse and explain the situation. I don’t dread these calls at all since she likes to take her time and arrive stylishly late, but I do need to alert her to the fact that I will only be able to go through about six to eight combinations of outfits to evaluate for her. Men are so lucky. I just throw on my one tuxedo along with one of three virtually identical formal shirts, and a bow tie. Now there’s where my dilemma starts. I could wear a black tie, but often choose something a bit more colorful. I already know how to tie one, so start to finish I can shower, shave, dress, and be ready to go in under 30 minutes, a feat I continuously practice with our schedule at the Union League Club, Economic Club of Chicago, and just about any other event. Governor’s State, however, does introduce a distance dimension that cannot be worked around.
My prayers that lightning would not strike and cut the power need for battery charging were answered as the sun peeked out from the clouds. Next, the shopping for a helmet went rather quickly. I had learned that visibility is important so I purchased an approved, full face model in bright red with lightening bolts. As a bicyclist I already knew the value of good gloves, so that was easy. The only task now was to pick out an appropriate jacket. Buying pants is usually not an option for me because of short legs, so I didn’t even go there. Again, visibility is important, but with variations in the weather you need to worry about hot days, cold days, and wet days. I wound up with this jacket complete with padded shoulder and arms and removable waterproof liner. I selected a size large enough to wear a down vest in colder weather. Wind is another factor. Nothing should flap in the wind, so this jacket has all sorts of snaps and loops along with two Velcro waist tabs, which when pulled make you look like something from outer space – totally cool. It’s now 4 o’clock, and time for another call home. Normally I would have suggested coming back on Sunday, but Champion is closed on Sunday. It was now or never.
At 4:20 pm I was informed that the bike was ready for me to inspect and learn about the controls. Rico, the service manager was wearing a leather beanie with studs and had a pencil thin moustache that complemented his sly grin. We went over the controls relatively quickly. Motorcycles have been standardized for several years in terms of control layouts with only a few variations between brands. Then Rico informed me that he would do the final check by taking it around the block. He zoomed out heading north on Western Avenue and a few minutes later reappeared. I fully expected him say everything was perfect, but he greeted me with a smile and said, “I just deflowered your bike.”
Sadly I watched him make a few minor adjustments. When finished he rolled the bike out to the street. I was finally ready to roll – helmeted, jacket snug, gloves on. Just then the light at Western and Addison turned green and large trucks and speeding automobiles began rumbling by. I stood there frozen until I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Rico had evidently had experienced these kinds of situations on more than one occasion and knew exactly what to do. He quickly rolled the bike around to the side of the store to a long alley. His reassuring parting words to me were, “You have two blocks to learn how the clutch, throttle, and brake work.”
Success! I made the two blocks without a hitch. Confidently I headed towards home. Instead of the leisurely ride initially planned, I wound up on Lake Shore Drive. Without self incrimination just let me say I kept up with traffic. At precisely 5:00 pm I parked my bike in the condo garage and headed upstairs. My wife and I made the black tie event at a stylishly 6:35 pm.
I suppose the story could end here. I had gone from nothing to an owner/rider in the space of only a few short weeks. One of the reasons behind much this recent behavior however, was my decision to “retire” in the near future. I was anxious to expand my social networking to fill the void of being a full-time participant in the workforce for over 40 years, with the last 23 at the same employer.
Once again the Internet was my salvation. I rapidly learned there were many riding groups, some of them are centered on a particular manufacturer while others chose certain locations. The now defunct Highland House at routes 41 and 22 was a well known Sunday morning hangout. It took just a few minutes for me to locate the Chaiway Riders, a Jewish motorcycle gang using Hamilton’s in Glenview Sunday mornings where, according to their website tagline, “we meet, we eat, we ride.” The list of approximately 50 members yielded about 30 who were within 10 years of my age. That Sunday I rode up to Glenview, met two old geezers named Bill and Barry, gave them my dues of $36 (a double Chai), received a pin, ate some eggs and ham (not alone on this), and rode to Wisconsin and back. I have enjoyed the same Sunday routine, without the riding because of inclement weather, for most of the past six months. My father was right, riding a motorcycle when its 10 degrees and snowing is not a good form of transportation. I do like the drive, the breakfast, and the congeniality of the group, however.
To my friends at the Union League Club, I intimated that I was forced to join the Chaiway Riders having been approached by two rival gangs. The truth is that I enjoy riding and enjoy riding with friends. I look forward to a wonderful summer and fall. I want to get a lot of riding in this year, because at some time in my life I am going to be too old for this kind of nonsense.