Friday, October 12, 2012

The Hunt

My third summer on the Wee-Strom is quickly coming to a close, and after three years on the Strom, I am more convinced than ever that it really is a great bike. It's done everything I've asked of it, and when I've reached the limits, it's almost always been *my* limits, rather than the Strom's. I've touched the pegs in tight corners -- several times -- for the first time this year. I made it to the end of the "motorized vehicles allowed" section of the trail on Canyon Road. I took a ride way the heck back Petersville Road, and over the top of Hatcher's Pass. Suzuki really did a great job engineering this bike. Neither a sport bike nor a dirt bike, it nevertheless seems to reach a phenomenal balance between both extremes without overly compromising performance in either category.

Nevertheless, I found myself wanting a smaller, nimbler, lighter, more balanced (weight-wise) steed this summer.

To a large degree, this is due to my new interest in moto-gymkhana. I am quite fond of my Wee-Strom, so I really don't want to drop and damage it. However, accepted wisdom among those who've been doing gymkhana longer than I is that if you want to get good, you will drop your bike. You can't learn where the performance limits are if you don't cross them once or twice. I've come close a number of times, and so I finally realized that I'm eventually going to come up snake-eyes if I keep rolling the dice with the Strom.

Also, when practicing, I have found that I am frequently lugging the engine, unless I slip the clutch, but slipping the clutch wears it prematurely. And, I'm almost always riding the rear brake -- S.O.P. in gymkhana -- which has caused a considerable degree of wear in the brand-freaking-new Galfer organic pad I installed at the end of July. The OEM pad lasted two summers; the Galfer is almost worn out after two MONTHS. (To be fair, I hadn't done a good job keeping the brake piston clean, and I am reasonably sure it was sticking, meaning that it was wearing considerably faster than it should have.)

Because my Wee is my only bike, I found myself deferring maintenance that would take it down for more than just an evening. I commute to and from work, to the store...pretty much everywhere I need to go throughout the summer in Alaska. The riding season up here is rather short, so every day that the bike is down for maintenance, I'm losing riding time. For example, I lost a week of riding while waiting for replacement brake pads after the OEMs wore out this summer. I also have a wheel bearing that is going bad, but I haven't pulled it yet because I'm worried that once I start working on it, I might not have the bike back together for a couple of days. I've only got another two weeks to ride this year, so I am loath to lose even a couple of days' riding. Therefore, I keep hoping the bearing will last just a little longer.

Lastly, and related to the point above, I wanted a project bike. The Wee is great as-is. There are a few things I've thought about changing, but truthfully, it serves its intended purpose very well right now. Tweaking things in the ways that I've considered -- such as removing the fairing -- would require trade-offs that I don't really want to make with such a well-rounded bike. And, as much as I love tinkering on bikes, I like riding them even more, so as I've already mentioned, I don't want to spend the short riding season doing maintenance and installing upgrades.

The end result is that I found myself dreaming of something in the 250cc to 450cc range this year. Specifically, I wanted an old Honda CB like some of the bikes my dad owned back when I was a kid.
Yes, that's me and my dad back when I was about six years old.

Additionally, I also wanted a project, a bike that had a good engine and frame, but needed a little love :) In my mind, I envisioned a cafe/streetfighter styled, small-displacement UJM geared with a huge rear sprocket to maximize acceleration and allow me to do the gymkhana-thing without lugging the engine and/or slipping the clutch all the time.

Fortunately, I had a little cash squirreled away from the sale of the engine, prop, instruments and intercom out of the experimental airplane my dad and I bought in 2004. We got a wet, heavy snowfall late last winter, and by the time I got out to the airport to check on the airplane, the weight of the snow on the wings had snapped the fuselage(!). While I am saddened by the loss of the airplane, the silver lining is that the money I have raised by selling the parts from the airplane that are still good can fund my motorcycle project.

Spousal approval finally obtained :) I set out on the hunt for a suitable project bike. I pored over Craigslist ads. I found a Ninja 500 that had had the fairings damaged and subsequently removed, but at $1000, it was too expensive and wasn't a vintage UJM like I envisioned. Next, I drove out to Eagle River to look at an early '70s CB175 for $250 -- eventually down to $175 -- but it was smaller than I wanted, the top end had been removed from the engine, and the seller had neither title nor keys (alarm bells starting ringing at this point). I considered a beautiful, pristine '74 Suzuki TS185, but it was a two-stroke dirt bike, and at $800 was at the top end of my budget. Next, I drove out to the valley to look at a decrepit '74 Kawasaki 250 dirt bike, but again, I wasn't really looking for a two-stroke dirt bike, it wasn't running, the seller again had neither title nor keys, and it needed a *lot* of work. At $100, the price was good, but I passed on it anyway.

I really got excited by another '74 Kawasaki, this one a KZ400 with a rebuilt engine, for $300. Cosmetically, it needed quite a bit of work, but it was exactly what I was looking for. The ad was posted after I left for work at 8:00 that morning. I called shortly after noon and left a message. I called again shortly after 5:00 pm and got voice mail again. I called at 7:30 pm, once again talking to the answering machine. Finally, at 8:45 pm, a very sweet-sounding lady called me back. "I'm sorry dear heart, we've already sold it." (Yes, she actually called me "dear heart" was kind of odd, but, well, <shrug>). I cursed and moped for a day or so, then started searching Craigslist again.

Funny thing is, I kept coming back to this one ad over and over again. Another seller in Eagle River had a 1977 Yamaha XS750 with a hideous beige and charcoal seat that looked like an overstuffed sofa, a rather poorly done metallic blue and white sunburst paint job on the gas tank, and high, swooping '70s handlebars. I checked out the specs on the bike: shaft drive, so I can't change the rear sprocket to alter the gearing for gymkhana; physically smaller than my Wee-Strom, but 100cc bigger displacement; 512 pounds wet weight vs. 478 for the Wee...about the only two checkboxes this bike matched were cost ($500) and '70s Japanese bike. I called the owner anyway, and made an appointment to go check it out.

As soon as I pulled into the owner's driveway, I was interested. It was like the first time I met my wife -- something was there, something I couldn't define or explain. It just felt...right. Then, the owner fired the bike up for me and I was sold. That Yamaha triple had the most incredible sound. Loud, but not obnoxiously so, with a deep, bass rumble. Yeah...that's what a motorcycle is supposed to sound like! We did the obligatory looking the bike over, discussing things that needed to be fixed, dickering over price, and a loop around the block (during which I stalled the engine twice), but these were mere formalities. I already knew, this was my bike.

The laundry list of things that needed to be fixed was long. The tires were shot; the rear looked like a racing slick, and the front was significantly weather checked. After riding the bike home from Eagle River, about 30 miles or so, I found that the cord was showing through the front tire sidewalls! The front brake was 100% inoperative. The engine idle was all over the map, so low that it stalled on me at one intersection when I released the throttle, but idling at 3,000 RPM at another intersection. The starter button was missing, so the previous owner had been shorting out the contacts with a key to start it. When the engine stalled on the way home, I didn't have any keys but the single ignition key, so I had to bump start it to get going again (still not sure why the kick starter didn't seem to be engaging, since it works fine now). Two turn signals are broken, and then there's the aforementioned paint and seat that needs to be addressed. There's light corrosion all over the bike, and the rear rack needs to come off. The left rear-view mirror is missing, and the right one shows me a great view of my shoulders, but not much of the road behind me.

And then, there's the handlebars. I'm firmly convinced that Yamaha recruited the ghost of Torquemada himself to engineer the handlebars. Despite being just a touch over 6 feet tall, I am nevertheless not a particularly large guy, yet I felt like a linebacker flying in economy class on the way home due to the width -- or more accurately, the lack thereof -- of the handlebars. I literally had to scrunch up my shoulders to ride home, they were so narrow. And those graceful, swooping curves...yeah, they were apparently cleverly crafted to put your wrists in the precise location to most quickly induce carpal tunnel syndrome. The poor wrist angle coupled with a heavy clutch made it virtually impossible to feel the friction zone, and difficult (at best) to hold the heavy clutch handle against the bars at stop lights.

But that engine...Oh my, what an engine. It has torque out the yin-yang. Whether I was lugging it at 3000 RPM or had the engine singing at 7000, twist that throttle and the bike instantly responded. It had power to spare, and the sound coming from those twin pipes was like the Heavenly Host in chorus. Such sweet, mechanical music!

I can't honestly say that this bike is exactly what I was looking for, but I think it may turn out to be far more fun than I expected. I'm looking forward to the build. I've already spec'd out a boatload of parts, and created priorities for each of the items on the list. At the top of the list are things to get the bike road-safe, like tires, turn signals and brake fluid. Next are things to get the bike comfortable and reliable, like handlebars, oil and an oil filter. Third are the components and materials to address some of the more egregious aesthetic issues, like new paint and bar-end mirrors. The lowest priority, once the bike is rideable and at least minimally presentable, are the components that will shave weight, improve performance and/or really transform the bike from yet-another-vintage-UJM to my dream cafe racer/streetfighter, like K&N pod filters, suspension upgrades, a 3-into-1 exhaust, HID headlight, anodized aluminum brake and clutch levers, racing rear sets, etc.

Stay tuned...I'll keep posting as work progresses!

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