Thursday, April 1, 2010


You'll note a few changes to my blog!  I haven't been posting this past week, as I've really struggled to 'come out' to all my readers and friends about a profound change in my life, one which has serious implications to my work, my audience, my nascent career as a motorcycle commentator and historian.

After 32 years in the saddle of a motorcycle, four years of writing this blog, ownership of something near 300 motorcycles, and road- or track-testing hundreds of the most exotic, rare, and unusual motorcycles in the world, I did something I've never done before.
 I rode a Harley Davidson 'Shovelhead'.  

The object of my derision for all these years (since this model was in still in production, actually), it took a chance set of circumstances, call it Fate, to plant me on the saddle of 'Lee Roy', a 1971 Harley Davidson Electra Glide, with 10,420 miles on the odometer, original metalflake green paint with white flashes, white saddlebags, white vinyl saddle and pillion, and a plexi fairing.  Owned by my pal Rick Najera (who sits on the Board of the A.M.C.A.), it was purchased locally a year ago with only 6200 miles showing on the clock, from Lee Roy Gaskin, the original owner, who had never left the city limits of San Francisco on the machine.  Lee Roy affixed a small plaque on the handlebar clamp cover; 'Owned and Driven by Lee Roy Gaskin', thus the man's name is forever linked with this motorcycle.

Our local branch of the AMCA, the Yerba Buena Chapter, had a 'day after' ride, post our All-American motorcycle show, which was a great success and had quite a few pre-1916 and racing bikes on display.  See details in another post.  As the organizer of the ride, I thought it prudent to attend, but my Norton didn't agree, and after two attempts to fix a flat rear tire, the clock won, and Rick (below) kindly loaned me a motorcycle.  Beggars can't be choosers, and he offered his gold '38 Knucklehead 'bob-job', which seemed an interesting prospect.  As luck would have it, the Knuck also had a flat, but Rick has a few bikes up his sleeve, and offered 'Lee Roy'.  

I admit that I laughed loud and long when presented with the opportunity to ride a Shovelhead.  Nemesis pointed her finger at the bike, and said, "For all the times you've mocked this motorcycle, today you'll have the ride of your life".   And so it was.
While the 1971 Electra Glide is a big machine at 750lbs wet, the wide 16" wheels (whitewall tires of course) and low center of gravity meant it was easy to man-handle out of the garage, although the rubber-mounted handlebars had me a little uncertain at first.  Starting her up was too easy; pull the plastic knob by the fuel tap for choke, turn the big chrome knob on the tank top for ignition, push the handlebar button, and Karoom!  Potato potato potato potato.
Riding the beast was certainly easy enough, with a heel-and-toe shifter (white rubbers!) on the left footboard, and a big brake pedal on the right... yes footboard.  'Lee Roy' has that throwback to Veteran practice of using planks of steel with a rubber mat for your feet.  Combined with a well-padded (white) saddle on a sprung telescopic pillar, and a pair of wide, swept-back handlebars, and the riding position wouldn't feel markedly different from a Harley of the 'Teens.

But the power and chassis certainly would.  Having ridden many H-Ds from the 'Teens and Twenties, the handling and power characteristic of the Electra Glide were sure-footed and predictable.  The bike felt like there was no chance of a slide on even the loosest of surfaces, with those wide tires and low c-of-g.  Prediction became important on some of the twisty mountain roads I sampled on my 250-mile initiation, as the mighty green beast preferred wide, sweeping lines around corners, instead of the cut and thrust of the tiny Vintage racers I've been piloting of late.  In this, the H-D reminded me of the several Brough Superiors I've owned, which shared a long frame and low-hanging metal to limit cornering angles.
 Truly, I felt like a 'yachtsman at the helm of the Queen Mary', as Phil Irving famously remarked of his first ride on an Indian Chief.  Rapid progress was certainly possible with 58hp and 102mph on tap from the 1200cc engine, and deliberate cornering yielded a fast clip indeed.  I blame California's horrifically maintained roads for any grounding of the footboards on corners - it was only an issue when large bumps or heaves were encountered mid-bend, where a sharp graunch reminded me to pay attention!  After a particularly narrow and bumpy set of bends, I felt it the honorable thing to offer Rick compensation, by weight, for any metal lost from the Electra Glide.
Other than on the twisty stuff, bumps and potholes were a non-issue.  Riding light and rigid-framed Vintage machines has taught me to fear deep ruts while traveling at speed, but the Harley didn't pay them any mind at all, simply, well, gliding over even vicious hillocks with total aplomb.  It was the most comfortable motorcycle in this regard that I have ever ridden; if the Norton has the 'feather bed' of frames, surely the Electra Glide has added the 'pillow top' to the mattress!  With a goose down quilt to boot.

As this machine is pre-'Evolution' and rubber-mounted engine, it's a fair question to ask about vibration.  Yes, the engine vibrated, but no more than my Norton Atlas; I never had trouble keeping my feet on the 'boards, and the handlebar was isolated completely from the shakes. 
 At the end of my day, I felt exhilarated and fresh as a daisy, having come to an understanding that the exotic road racing motorcycles which have been the focus of my attention for so long are simply ridiculous for any serious mileage.  The road is not my personal race track to carve up as I see fit. On a machine such as 'Lee Roy', riding in a pack at the posted speed limit makes perfect sense - what is the point of going any faster?  The allure of a big H-D combines comfort and practicality with a real sense of joining a Brotherhood of motorcyclists who value the Road for what it offers the Individual; the Freedom to enjoy and respect what our great Country has to offer.

Thanks for indulging in my annual April Fools column!  I did enjoy riding Lee Roy, but haven't crossed over to the Dark Side...