Wednesday, April 6, 2011

2011 Relay Across America and Beyond (on a Honda SOHC4)

Few people in the world are lucky enough to find someone so understanding of who they are, so willing to embrace their unusual tendencies, and so able to overlook the seemingly illogical decisions they make as I am. Not only does my wife take my border-line insane ideas in stride, she seems to truly embrace them as part of the entirety of who I am. Most recently my lack of connection to reality surfaced as my request to participate in a relay across America. A forum for old Honda motorcycles I have been on for many years decided to put together this relay and one of the only rules is that our mascot (a 6” Godzilla) must ride on one of our 30+ year old bikes. That in itself would not be so bad if it hadn’t been during an unpredictable time of year (weather-wise) and if it wasn’t involving multiple full day rides totaling more than 1,000 miles for me. Combine that with a 9-month old son who is teething, has an ear infection, and has recently discovered that food is most fun when thrown and you start to get a picture of why I am still a little shocked my wife agreed to let me participate.

In my defense, my wife knew when she met me that I am at my core a motorcycle enthusiast. Part of the reason she agreed to our first date was the fact that I loved motorcycles. When she met me I had a chopper I had built from a ’78 Honda CB750 on the front porch and a ’73 CB500 that smelled much like a 30 year old motorcycle might if it were filled with 2-stroke gas mix parked on the curb. The oil stains on the porch and road in front of my house as well as the tattoo reminder of what these machines can do when not handled carefully were proof that I wasn’t as concerned with shiny perfection as I was with enjoying what I had and she fell in love with me anyway. We clocked many miles on the 500, smoke and all, and it did not take long for me to ask her to marry me but to understand how we got to a point where I thought that this relay ride was a somewhat reasonable request I have to give a little more history.


Not long after buying our house, but several months before we got married, I sold the chopper into which I had poured more sweat, blood, and tears than I like to admit and we bought a nice shiny Suzuki M50 Limited. I had dearly loved that chopper but having a dependable bike that we could both enjoy allowed me to begin the frame-up rebuild of the 500 which I had wanted to start for a long time but couldn’t because being without a 2-wheeled transportation for so long just wouldn’t work. There was the added benefit of not taking my life into my hands every time I went out for a ride so the wife was happy. I quickly began tearing down the 500 and making my plans for the finished product.

To be clear, I don’t do restorations; I do practical rebuilds on the cheap. Not that I don’t absolutely love a shiny, chromed, polished, perfectly painted classic. It’s just that I can’t bring myself to spend the money to get a part re-chromed (or buy another) when I can spend $5 and paint the part. Many purists would not think much of my process but I love it. Mechanically, I replace what needs to be replaced, rebuild what I can, and am as meticulous as I can be. I spent over a year getting the 550 power plant rebuilt and went with just a slight overbore to 555 (just to keep it tight). Since I’ve always been a fan of a blacked-out engine mine went dark as did the carbs and many other parts with just a few shiny parts left for accent. I even tried my hand with the spray gun and striping (red with a white stripe).

550 Painted Right Side

The problem is that I am not a mechanic nor a painter. Everything I know about working on engines I have learned from my Granddad Joe (responsible for my first orphaned motorcycle which just happened to be a ’73 350F) or many years later from the SOHC4 forum. Not having any real training on engine work other than what a manual or internet searching could provide, it was a very iterative approach to getting the bike running right.
• Tweak this, break that, start over.
• Repeat until it seems right.
• Find part under work bench that should have been installed 5 steps ago.

Internal mechanics were great if you don’t count a kick-starter that will only engage when she’s dead cold but carburetors are a completely different story. While I was able to get her started on the second or third try (and came running in the house with a shit eating grin smelling of gas fumes and grease) I could never get her to run quite right. Taking a page from one of my favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, I stepped away from the work until my frustration levels dropped and I could once again enjoy the work on the bike. This lasted much longer than anticipated and several months later I actually thought about selling the girl. My wife, as is all too common around our house, was the voice of reason and said that I would regret it if I did and she wasn’t going to spend the next 50 years listening to me talk about the bike I wish I never sold. After reminding me that I always say after riding it how I had forgotten how much fun it is to ride I had to concede that she was right (damn it). So the bike sat, ridden only rarely due to my ineptitude with carbs and gumption loss, for the better part of 3 years.

Enter the 2011 Relay Across America and beyond. When this amazing group of guys decided to trek a little Godzilla doll across the continent I had to be part of it but my bike was far from the condition I needed it to be in for a trip of any distance. In fact I had only put about 1,500 miles on her in the 3 years since the rebuild. In asking my wife if I could take part I may have conveniently left out the part about the grand distances it looked like I would need to travel. Slowly I began to work this in over the couple months of planning and she was a trooper. After work and several weekends I would head out to the work shop to try and figure out why she just wouldn’t run the way I knew she could. Along the way I discovered many little items that when added together made me wonder how she had made it the 1,500 miles she had.

Issues corrected (for the most part) I was confident in my bike’s ability to make the trek and the first leg fell on 3/27/11. As the weekend approached I noticed the forecast did not seem to care that I had a motorcycle trip planned. If you’ve never visited the VA mountains in early spring I’ll let you in on a little secret; rain and snow will happen, it’s just a matter of when and how much. The guys on the earlier legs of the trip noticed the quickly declining weather and moved their handoff up a day so the trip for me from Charlottesville to Roanoke and back could be done on the day before the snow was due to arrive. Of course that doesn’t mean it was warm. In fact the thermometer said 36 degrees (no, I was not looking at the Celsius marks) when I left that morning. With a smile on her face my loving wife said “be safe” and waved my son’s hand at me telling him to say bye bye to da da. Now that is real incentive to ride carefully.

Bundled up against the cold in my ridiculously bright yellow suit I took off toward the little lizard, bike sounding pretty darn good if I do say so. After about ½ hour I stopped at a little gas station to try and force my fingers to move again and stretch my frozen legs. Even long underwear, jeans, and a full 1-piece rain suit didn’t keep the cold out. As I get ready to leave I notice a large, fresh oily spot directly under my front sprocket. For those of you that don’t know, this is a notorious spot on these old bike for oil leaks to begin. The size of the spot was worrisome so I immediately checked the oil level. Didn’t look like I had lost any. Strange… As I started to pull off I noticed a trail of drops being left on the pavement and immediately shut her down. Luckily I discovered that it was not an oil leak but another notorious issue with these wonderful old bikes; a carb was pissing gas out the overflow tube. It just happened to have been on an old oil spot the first time and tricked me.

With the fresh adrenaline rush and thawed hands I was back on the road and made it to Roanoke in fairly decent time since I decided to take the main roads in and the more scenic route back home. After meeting up with Blueridgerunner (Gary in real life) and having some great motorcycle talk in the cold parking lot of a Taco Bell, I met a great friend and his lady for lunch then headed home. Since I wanted to get some nice scenic shots of Godzilla along the ride we took the Blue Ridge Parkway out of Roanoke heading north. Once again, for those that have never been to the VA mountains in the early spring, the parkway has a climate all it’s own. I noticed the temp drop immediately but thought it was just the Thai food playing tricks on me. After about an hour I needed to get some gas and thaw for a few. Coming off the mountain to the nearest gas station in Buchanan you could actually feel the temp rise. The local bank thermometer said it was a nice warm 46 degrees so I’m guessing it didn’t get out of the 40s on the parkway.

Being the ever considerate husband I am, I called home to check in with the wife and let her know I hadn’t fallen off the mountain. It was not a good call. Evidently our son had been less than his normal playful self for the entire day and she was getting a bit worn so I decided to hit the highway for the rest of the way home (still 3 hours out). The last hour was ridden on about 3 ½ cylinders and I had no idea why but wasn’t about to stop to try and work on the bike, especially since I didn’t have a clear shield with me for night riding. By the time I limped the 500 into the driveway our son was settled down and just about ready for bed. As I shed layers and unpacked Godzilla it was clear that the following weekend’s trip was going to increase my already large debt with my wife and I was just hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a complete disaster. Not wanting to add to the agitation I did not mention the bike issues to the wife right away.


Waking up to snow on the ground we were glad the trip had been moved. I was still a bit sore and my brain had been trying to troubleshoot the bike’s power loss all night but I decided to wait until Monday after work to take a look. On our way home from work the next day I mentioned to my wife that I needed to check a few things on the bike just to make sure she’d be ready for the next weekend. She was by this time fully aware that the trip of just over 700 miles round trip would prove risky and had no problem with me spending time trying to mitigate as much of the risk as I could. After a few hours I gave up and came inside. This pattern repeated itself for several days, each one providing clues but somehow I couldn’t put them together until, frustrated and needing to test one more thing, I went back out after putting our son to bed and tried to start her up in the dark.

Have you ever seen one of those Frankenstein electrical arches at the science museum? My bike had one of them from a plug boot to the head. Luckily I had an extra boot and swapped it out. Presto Chango. Suddenly she was back running smoothly (if a little rich). I took her to work on Friday and made a few tweaks when I got home which really livened her up. I’d never been so close to having a real live performance machine. The excitement for the next day’s trip was quickly stamped out with an update of the forecast. Snow in them there mountains. As had been the case with the previous week’s trip, we changed plans and moved the original 2-day trip for me and Tretnine (Brady in real life) to a Sunday round-trip. At best we’d be on the bikes for ~ 12 hours and Brady had just bought a nice shiny Concourse so he was up for it.

On Sunday morning at 7am I left my house, once again to my wife waving my young son’s hand saying “say bye bye to da da.” I would have had tears in my eyes had the ducts not been frozen shut. It was 33 degrees at that point and even with extra layers on it was no match for the wind. On a positive note, the bike was sounding better than she ever had and I was finally starting to think of her as a completed rebuild. Then I hit my first pothole which reminded me that the 38 year old shocks were completely useless as my ass was rammed into my neck.



We spent a few minutes taking pictures at Brady’s house and his lovely wife saw us off. Evidently she is just as understanding as my wife is. Are all motorcyclists lucky like that? On the road I lead and we kept a brisk pace of between 75 and 80 mph (about 6k rpm on the little 550 engine) stopping a little more frequently than would have been necessary in warmer weather.


At the VA / WV border we pulled over on the interstate for pics and I couldn’t feel my fingers on the front brake (same fingers that lost a little skin from the previous week’s trip) but man was it a beautiful ride. WV must have the most beautiful interstate travel of anywhere I’ve been. You are regularly leaning at 15 degrees or more while doing 80 mph around a large sweeping curve only to find another curve in the other direction just ahead.

We broke away from I64 just outside of Beckley and go on Rt 60 north to swing by the New River Gorge bridge for pics. This was the most surreal section of any ride I’ve ever been on. Not only does 60 wind up and down mountain after mountain with beautifully tight bends switchbacking their way through a rather dense forest, it had snowed a few inches on Saturday as the weatherman had predicted. The roads were clear (we thought) but the shoulders and surrounding land were covered in white. As we leaned through turn after turn it felt like all the cold melted away from my body and I was experiencing a true union between myself and the machine I had built. I could feel every twitch of the chassis that meant I had something else to tweak in the coming years but the engine felt as strong as a newer sport bike and pulled me through the turns as if it had been waiting for it’s chance to shine.



Stopping at the bridge for pictures and stretching, we followed Rt 19 back to I64 and hopped off at Rt 94 and on to Rt 3. Both of these were as twisty as Rt 60 was with brief breaks to cruise through small towns. I started to get really comfortable with how the 500 was eating up the curves and could feel the pegs getting close to scrapping once or twice. Then the sand came.

Up until this point the roads appeared to have just cleared themselves and there was no sign of any treatment. Coming up on a very sharp and shady right-hander I noticed too late the sand on the road and braking served to slow me down just a touch before my back end started to swing out from under me. I was lucky enough that no one was coming the other direction or you’d be reading a different story by another author right now. That little 500 regained it’s composure and we swept back into our lane after being about 3 feet from the guard rail on the other side, something I haven’t yet told the wife by the way. Brady, on the beast, was not far behind me and luckily saw me break loose with enough time to slow down a bit but he too got a bit wiggly in the turn somehow managing to keep the svelte 700 lb bike in the right lane.

We managed to calm ourselves and after a brief stop for verification of directions and to check to see if I needed to change my drawers, we made good time the rest of the way to Williamson only arriving 2 ½ hours later than planned. The guys we met were great and we enjoyed shooting the breeze with them, talking shop, and inspecting each other’s rides. There were 6 bikes in total gathered in the 7-11 parking lot, 3 of which were Honda SOHC4s. Chris’s pretty blue 750 with some nice Lester mags certainly looked the cleanest and Ben’s rat-cafĂ©-bobber-what-have-ya was ultra cool. In between sat my little 500 and I was extremely pleased that the machine I had almost abandoned a few years back had held up so well.



As we were saying out goodbyes to the guys I called home to let my wife know we were getting ready to head out and that I’d be home later than planned. She wasn’t surprised and I could hear a little concern in her voice but she just wished me safe travels and said she’d see me when I got home. I was reminded of that good old Alabama song Roll On 18 Wheeler for some reason and have to admit to being a little choked up as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed home.

Since we were leaving hours behind schedule and were sure to get home well after dark, Brady and I decide to take the quickest way we could. Rt 119 takes you from Williamson to Charleston and we hopped on I64 there. Not wanting to stop unless we had to in hopes of getting across the highest of the mountains before sundown we were pressing 80mph for the better part of 2 hours until a traffic jam slowed us up. These old air-cooled bikes don’t like sitting still for too long, especially after taking a beating like I was giving mine so I shut her down and just coasted (all downhill) in the traffic jam which would stop then get up to 5mph for ~ 100 feet at most. This must have been very offensive to the lady in the CRV in front of us because she actually got out of her car to berate me about not having a headlight on. We approached the cause of the backup and I fired the old girl back up. We pulled over to switch to clear shields and Brady took the lead with his immeasurably more effective headlights. Not wanting to drag the trip out any longer we stopped for gas and grabbed some candy bars and beef jerky for dinner before addressing the last 180 miles or so.

We stopped for one last fill up about 1 ½ hours from home. I grabbed the tools that Brady had been carrying in those great big saddle bags and strapped them to my sissy bar. We shook hands cause I wasn’t going to be stopping back by his place and hit the road for the last leg of the journey. It’s fitting that we should arrive at home late and with the temps not too much warmer than when we left that morning. At around 11:45 I walked through the door to my wonderful wife texting my worried mother that I was home safe even though she had to get up for work the next morning (I was going in late). She had set out bed clothes, got me a water and some Advil, and started a hot shower so I could thaw out before getting into bed.

I’ve spent a couple days now recovering from back, butt, legs and forearm cramps as well as nursing a few rather suspect spots on my fingers but it’s all been with a smile. Frozen and weary I came home to a wife that helped me shake off the cold and nurse the soreness even though it was all self-inflicted. My bike is parked in the shed getting some much deserved rest and I’ve been playing with my son after work instead of playing with wrenches. Satisfied that my little 500 can do whatever I ask her to I don’t feel the need to tweak anymore right now and it is a very calming condition.

The wife asked me if I minded if she got her hair cut this weekend then had her nails done. Of course I said, ”Sure. No problem.” She hasn’t said “You owe me” but we both know that would be an understatement.





1 comment:

  1. Kick ass ride and report guys. We couldn't be more proud of our 2011 SOHC4 Relay Ride Across America, Canada and Beyond riders and Godzilla. It's guys like you that make this a reality!

    Jerry Griffin
    Rally Coordinator