Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Breaking Rules

I had already broken my first rule of motorcycle purchasing by arriving after dark to check out a Kawasaki KDX200.  The owner's garage was fairly well lit, so I had a good look at the machine and I knew I wanted it.  Sure it had a few too many gaudy stickers on it, but the spokes were tight, the suspension was not incontinent and the overall condition was clean.

We wheeled the beast out in the dark to start it up, which it did on first kick with a cold engine (yes, I checked), but smoked like a bastard.  It was at this point the owner told me that the motor had been completely re-built (yes, completely, he said) and he pre-mixed a lot of extra oil in it.  Like a real lot, as in fogging the whole neighborhood a lot.

This sounds well and good, more oil the better, right?  What these well meaning owners fail to understand is that in a pre-mix situation, oil displaces fuel.  More oil means what?  Yup, less fuel passing through those tiny little carburetor jets.  And what does less fuel mean?  Lean mixture, the bane of the two-stroke engine.

I am not going to be able to get any idea of how the engine actually runs, what kind of power it makes, because the thing can barely keep from oil fouling the spark plug.  My price limit will have to be set according to the cost for me to rebuild the engine if necessary.  The fact that the deal includes an "almost" running complete parts bike takes some of the sting out of that reality, it also means the asking price of $1,600 is too high.

The owner is insistent that I take the thing for a test ride.  I politely refuse twice, but the third time he asks has me breaking another one of my rules.  Oh yeah, did I mention it was dark and the headlight wasn't working and that I hadn't brought a helmet?

I ride the bike around his yard under the outside light.  This limits me to about 2nd gear and gives me no real impression.  The owner suggests we take my van out onto his road (dirt, no neighbors) with the headlights on so I can wring it out a little more.  Getting slowly hooked on this machine, I agree.

The headlights give me about enough light to hit third gear before having to turn around and come back.  The second time I do this, I catch a rut in the dark and go down, breaking another one of my damn rules (don't crash on a test ride!).  No injury to bike or rider (other than my pride), but I am unable to pick the bike up before the owner sees my plight.  Stupid, stupid.  I now feel more obligated to buy this thing (as if there was any doubt).

The bike's owner is a good sort, blue collar family man up to his eyeballs in drag racing cars and working as a diesel mechanic.  I believe him when he says there is no extra time in his life to ride dirt bikes, and if he feels that 44 is too old to be riding in the dirt who am I (at 41) to argue?

We talk bikes and cars for the next two hours, building a genuine rapport.  This will make it harder for me to lowball him on price, but it won't stop me.  The final number I am stuck on is $1000, which would normally be way too much for a 26 year old dirt bike, but the condition is so good, the model has a reputation for reliability and fun, the extra parts bike, the street title, the fact that I crashed somebody else's shit, that it's getting late and I am cold, would make that price a damn good deal.  The owner has other ideas.

He immediately refuses my $800 offer without so much as a thought.  He knows I want it and is going to make me pay for it.  I hem and haw a few moments before raising the offer to $900, which is rejected without hesitation.  Dammit, this son of a bitch is going to take me for everything I've brought.  I pretend I am ready to walk, but I have a feeling he sees through the ruse.  I have to lay it all on the table, I tell him I've got $1000 and that's as high as I can comfortably go and I am prepared to stick to it.

He counters by saying that his wife's car needs new tires that will cost $1,100.  I am not sure what kind of tires he is getting for her Impala, but that seems really high.  I hold firm at $1000, claiming it's all I have, to no avail.  The poor white guy schtick is not working for me and I can't believe he is ready to let me walk for $100, but he genuinely appears to be.  Must be her tires aren't that bad after all.  I tell him $1,050 is the best I can do and that I will have to walk away sad if he doesn't take it.  I think he knows I mean it, because he agrees.  And I break another rule, spending more than my limit.

Money changes hands, bikes and parts are loaded and I smile, preparing to re-enter a different dimension of the motorcycling universe.  I must be out of my fucking mind.

Kris Larrivee Kristopher Larrivee


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

10 Rules

A call to the KDX owner reveals that he actually does not know much about it, but he puts me in touch with the friend he purchased it from, a "certified" mechanic (two words that usually make me run like hell). This "certified" friend seems reasonably knowledgeable, but the deciding factor in my going to look at the machine are his last words to me, "This is not your normal, clapped out 20 year old piece of shit." Sounds like something I might say.....

Scheduling a time to look at the bike proves nearly impossible due to the owner's work schedule, and I almost give up. We finally agree to a late evening appointment, which sucks because it will be well after dark by the time I arrive breaking my Rule #1 (I have several rules when purchasing a used Craigslist bike, some of them follow below. This list is not complete, I am not ready to give up all my secrets, because the next bike I buy might be from you.):

1. Never look at a bike in the dark. You can't see shit and you will miss something. Just like women, motorcycles always look better when the lights are low and many a defect surfaces in the cold light of day.

2. Always be prepared to buy a bike on the spot and take it home with you that day. Leaving the machine in the soon to be ex-owner's hands any longer than absolutely necessary is asking for trouble. Sometimes they get nostalgic and take "one last ride" and break something they conveniently forget to mention, for the shadier sellers, they will occasionally remove good parts in favor of less valuable or junk items. There is nothing like taking what you know was a running motorcycle home only to find the bastard removed the battery while you went to get your truck (true story).

3. Set your price limit before seeing the merchandise and have exactly that much cash with you, preferably locked up in your vehicle with another party who will remain there. Obviously the seller does not need to know you have any cash on or near your person at all, let 'em think you are a CL tire-kicker timewaster.

3a. Have a little extra cash with you somewhere in case the bike is really cool and you really have to have it and it exceeds your price limit!

4. Make sure the VIN# on the title matches the VIN# on the frame. Been caught out once or twice on this, not fun.

5. Never let on that you know more about motorcycles than the seller. Ask open-ended questions like: "What can you tell me about the bike?" and then let them run their mouths. They will tell you more than you ever wanted to know in an effort to look honest. If you catch them blatantly lying don't point it out right away, it might come in handy for negotiating later.

6. Don't point out every little thing in an attempt to get a better price, this is what scumbags and Craigslist lowballers do. For many sellers their pride is more important than whatever silly offer you make after noting every scratch, ding and spot of rust. Kneel down, touch the items that concern you (like tires, shredded seat cover, weeping fork seals) and ask the seller about them. I find it is best to let them come to their own conclusions. Don't rush, let your concern and internal struggle show.

7. NEVER test ride the motorcycle! This might seem counter-intuitive, but there is just too much that can go wrong here (crashes, blowing the damn thing up, getting pulled over by a cop to find out the thing is stolen/not registered just to name a few, grabbing a handful of front brake to find out there is none, etc., etc..). Let the owner drive it up and down the street and shift it through the gears for you. Pay attention and you will know if they are skipping gears or if the clutch slips horribly. Today's streetbikes are so fast that you can't tell much riding around a cul-de-sac and most of what you need to know will be readily apparent just by looking the machine over: leaking suspension, rounded off bolts and odd fasteners, that goddamn orange silicone squeezing out of every gasket and mating surface.

7a. IF YOU MUST TEST RIDE the motorcycle, don't crash the fucking thing! This is self-explanatory.

8. Remember, projects cost two things: time and money. Lots of both and something most of us are short on. A $500 bike becomes a $2500 project before you even get to ride the damn thing. If you care at all about riding what you are buying, pay more for something that is working, you will save in the long run. I need to remind myself of Rule #8 constantly, or my house would be filled with dilapidated motorcycles.

9. Add-ons add no real value. A $1200 motorcycle with a $1000 exhaust system is not a $2,200 item. Stock, untampered with is best and I don't want your sweaty Joe Rocket mesh jacket or stinky 15 year old Fulmer helmet and damn near every repair manual can be downloaded dirt cheap from the information superhighway.

10. Walk away. If the deal isn't right, walk away. Unless you are buying Gunga Din or some other historically significant motorcycle, there is probably another one out there just like it and the next one might be nicer and have a nicer price!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Bigfoot Lives

As a moth to the flame I returned to the cyber enabler of my two-wheeled obsession: Craigslist. Buying a used dirt bike is a crap shoot. Most of them are hideously abused and neglected, crashed with enough regularity to bend just about everything, on top of that they are forced to survive on a steady diet of dust, grit, mud, water and massaging by ham-fisted blockheads with vice grips and Cro-Magnon intentions. Buying a good dirt bike in my price range ($1000 or less) is akin to cryptozoology, there are legends and rumors and occasionally a blurry photo, but these creatures probably don't really exist. Still, it is fun looking.

Exhaustive searching turns up the usual suspects: clapped out shit boxes breathing their last breaths with blown suspensions, loose spokes, swingarms half sawed through by stretched out chains advertised as "completely rebuilt" because Billy and Dylan stuck a brand new "Wiz Co" piston in a scored cylinder without so much as honing it or using new gaskets. Despite having been away from the dirt bike racket for over a decade, I guess some things never change.

Most of these ads don't warrant a second look, with titles written in broken English that truly epitomize the failure of our public education system. This would be almost funny except for the fact that these monkeys are loose all over the internet, and they appear to be breeding at an alarming rate.

Only one ad piques my interest, it is for a 1989 KDX200. From the pictures it appears to be well preserved, with many juicy upgrades such as Excel rims, stainless spokes and an FMF pipe. Two more details convince me to contact the owner: 1. It comes with a "running" parts bike and 2. It has a clear street legal title. The asking price is $1,600, out of my range, but as anyone who has used Craigslist before knows, everything is negotiable.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Place In The Dirt

I began my riding career off-road, as did many. Dirt was the most accessible way to learn the craft of two-wheel riding. As I, ahem, matured, off-road became off limits while fear of lawsuits grew and the barbed wire and NO TRESPASSING signs went up. Sure there were a few marked trails left, but they were gravel roads patrolled by Forest Police, it was like the difference between the Wild West and some cowboy ride at Disney World. Please keep your hands inside the car until it comes to a complete stop, make sure you take all your belongings with you and be sure to buy your picture in the gift shop....

In many ways dirt riding was safer than road riding. There was almost no traffic, no grandmas backing out of driveways to flatten you, the speeds were lower. And while crashes are more frequent, they were almost always less severe off road. When people ask, I always say that you are more likely to fall down in the dirt and suffer minor injury, but you are more likely to be killed, riding on the street.

Riding in the dirt is physical, manhandling a 200lb machine through ruts and roots, over logs and rocks will test your body and brain. The terrain is constantly changing, as is the traction. You have to develop a feel for what the tires are doing every moment, be ready to recover from the inevitable slip and slide. One minute you can't see from the dust, the next you are up to the knees in mud and water, bouncing around, constantly moving to keep the bike upright, dodging trees. It's great fun, if you have the bike and the wherewithal to punish yourself thusly in the name of enjoyment. The biggest requirement, and in this day and age, the most difficult to obtain, is a place to ride. Many a dirt dream has been crushed by encroaching development, neighbors who don't enjoy the sound of 'BRAAP BRAAP' on a Sunday morning, liability, cops, urban sprawl and too much asphalt.

Needless to say I was skeptical when I heard about a riding area that was local to me, within the city limits, free, and purportedly not a bust. Legend said this spot had been ridden for the last two decades without incident. Sound too good to be true? That's exactly what I was thinking. I travelled to the spot with a local and soon discovered a single-track Shangri-La tucked in behind some corporate box stores and rail-road tracks, surrounded on all sides by highways, densely wooded, low-lying and wet and not appealing to developers.

I salivated at the chance to play again in the dirt like a kid. My roots were calling me, their grasp was strong. I needed....needed....needed..............................a dirt bike!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Score To Settle

Sunday is a re-run of Saturday without the rain. Joe beats me both times and leaves me without excuses. Since I beat him at Mid-Ohio, I thought it would be the same at PIRC. There was a glimmer of hope getting the jump on him at the start, but he railed around me going into Turn 1, showing what I pansy I was truly being. My lack of familiarity with the track could be used as a reason, but after being shown the way by a perfectly matched adversary, I could still not get the job done.

I had no particular love for the track layout, but that doesn't matter, everyone has to run the same track, the same corners, the same bumps, deal with the same weather. Put riders on near identical equipment and the cream will have to force its way to the top. I felt like sour milk crying sour grapes after my weekend in Pennsylvania, but we rented some go-carts Sunday night and I beat my brother, so that was some consolation.

Thoughts turned to the Grand National Finals at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, AL. A little birdy told me Joe won the V5 race there last year on his EX. I decide it is up to me to make sure he cannot repeat this, in spite of only having raced on the track once, 9 years ago. There is a pretty big chip on my shoulder and an even bigger score to settle.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Scales Balance

PIRC proves to be a somewhat rough, but fast race track. There is one kink on the back section of the track that can be taken wide open in top gear if your balls are big enough, and brakes good enough to get it slowed down before the slightly uphill right hander that leads onto the front straight.

I am struggling a little bit with the bike, as it has developed a high idle issue when warm, as in idling at 5k rpms. Not good. I check over all the normal stuff, but to no avail. The weather is all over the map, hot and humid one minute, then cold and rainy the next.

My newfound nemesis is in attendance this weekend, and one thing is certain, he knows his way around this track. I get behind him in practice, but lose him after a few corners. It appears Saturday's races will be dry, so I leave the slick tires on.

The rain starts halfway through my first race, I am leading my class. I can see Joe on his EX and I attempt to run him down, but he refuses to be caught. As the rain intensifies my courage diminishes. The slicks have no siping on them to shed the water and become exactly as their name describes: slick. Joe is on slicks as well, but it does not seem to be slowing him down. I lose my nerve and let him go, as well as two other guys with more fire in their bellies than me on this day. I finish third, happy to have stayed upright.

There is a greater incentive this weekend to keep it on two wheels, my brother and parents as well as some good friends have showed up to watch me race. I want to give them a good show and place well, but the pressure is on to do it without cartwheeling down the front straight.

The pavement dries for my second race, and I win my class. Joe is running in Expert, so we technically are not competing against one another, but this does nothing to temper the rivalry that is building. I come up short and for the second time today he beats me. I can see him, but I can't catch him.

I have never been a quick learner at new tracks (or much of anything for that matter) and it is proving no different here in Pennsylvania. Given another 25-30 laps I might figure out my flow, but with the limited track time available on a race weekend, that ain't gonna happen.

The undulating front straight at PIRC

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Start With a Large One

The penultimate round of my 2014 WERA race season was to take place at Pittsburgh International Race Complex (PIRC), a mere 6.5 hour drive from the capital of the Confederacy. This was a new to me track about which I had received varying reports. Some riders loved it, others disliked it. Some complained the track was rough and bumpy, others said it was fine. Like most things in life I guess I would just have to experience it myself and draw my own conclusions.

Down a back road outside of an old industrial town (steel? coal?), then up an even more back road was the entrance to the track, although there was no bright signage to declare it as such, just a chain link fence and gate, which appeared to be deserted. I drove a little bit farther and found a booth with an attendant, who was more like a highwayman, as he soon relieved me of a large amount of cash.

I am always irked by a racetrack that would charge racers/participants to sleep overnight in their own rigs, sans water or electric hookups of any sort. I have paid the gate fee, the entry fees for my races and chances are very good that I will at some point drop more coin at your concession stand for ice, water, food and possibly a t-shirt. Is it really necessary to nickel and dime me to death for sleeping in a goddamn van? How is that camping? The only difference between someone who drops a trailer off and goes to a hotel (and does not pay a camping fee) and what I do is the fact that I am sleeping in the van with my stuff. So a warm body means between $20 and $35 a night? I have no problem with a charge for electric and water, makes perfect sense, but it gets my panties in a wad paying for "camping" as a racer.

For the more well off teams it's merely a drop in a very large bucket, but for the guys that budget down to the last penny on their frayed shoe strings it's a burden. I've watched the accessibility (and consequently, popularity) of road-racing plummet in the last 15 years as Joe Working Class has been pushed out by ever increasing costs. I suppose that's fine if we want road-racing to end up an elite club of rich assholes like polo or yachting, but it has always been a lot more than that, at least to me.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Taking Stock and Jumping Ship

The 2014 race season started to wind down, with only two events left: Pittsburgh International Race Complex (PIRC) in September and the WERA Grand National Finals in October at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham AL.

I began to take stock of the season to this point. Aside from minor teething problems my EX500 hybrid had proven reliable and fast enough to run in the top five in the classes it contested. I managed to beat every other EX on the grid with it, not every time, but more often than not. The question remained, as the rider improved, could the bike become a regular winner?

Mid-Ohio provided the answer. As the FZRs and Hawks stormed past, I knew that no amount of riding at the limit or over my head could make up for the difference in speed, power and handling. I also knew that to attempt to extract more from the EX would turn it into a grenade. Something had to change or I would have to settle, knowing that chances of victory were slim on the Kawasaki. I am not one to settle.

Emails were sent, then phone calls made and before I knew it a deposit sent via everybody's least favorite online payment service. The deposit was for an FZR400 racebike in New Orleans, LA. I would pick it up at the WERA GNF in October at Barber Motorsports Park. Yes, I was buying another motorcycle, but this was a RACE bike!