4.20.2009

Choppin' and Bobbin'

My personal path toward and within "the biker lifestyle" has never followed the standard arc. When it comes to the bikes themselves, only one of the five machines I've owned might charitably be called authentic by "chopper" standards. The Master Gator (every hand-built death trap deserves a silly name) boasted the typical trappings of a suicide machine—rigid frame, Harley big-twin motor, open primary and springer fork—but was little more than an entry-level kit bike for denim-and-leather neophytes. Still, I immersed myself in that first build with vigor, consuming everything I could about the history, style, pedigree and performance of choppers in the process. What I learned could fill a thimble. More research was clearly necessary, so my friends and I made plans to host a proper chopper hoedown in Mexico. 



The Master Gator and I clocked our first substantial highway miles in the fall of 2005 during a 600-mile pre-run of our Baja road trip scheduled for the following spring. My bike ran flawlessly until I crossed the US border, at which point a loose wire stranded me north of San Diego. I got her running with a roll of electrical tape and a Leatherman tool, and by doing so crossed the second bridge to bikerdom: the unassisted roadside repair. With my newfound confidence I dove head first into my second build in 12 months—the Sportfighter.



The hardest lesson I learned on my El Diablo pre-run was this: rigid frames, forward controls and springer forks are the main ingredients in a brutally uncomfortable ride. Rigid frames are exactly that—no further explanation required. While the supine position of forward controls might mimic the ergonomics of a Barcalounger, smacking a pothole with legs akimbo is anything but relaxing. Springer forks have springs, but so do pogo sticks. Draw any conclusion from that comparison you like.

Because my Sportfighter featured none of these standard chopper technologies, it was more comfortable. Unfortunately, thanks to its eclectic mix of used parts, it was also less reliable. I finished the Sportfighter in time for the first official El Diablo Run in 2006, but electrical bugs and a roofing nail stopped my second circumnavigation of Baja 50 miles west of San Felipe.  



On EDR I in 2006 I met Jason Kidd from Flyrite Choppers. FRC was developing a rigid frame for Harley's late-model Sportster motor, and because he knew I was fond of The Motor Company's pint-sized powerplant, Jason gave me one of his Smokin' Gun frames as soon as they were available. To build on my skill set and to increase the amount of fabrication work I could tackle in my own garage, I spent every dime from the sale of my Sportfighter on a TIG welder, a mill and a drill press. With these tools I taught myself how to weld and do simple machining. While none of my fab work won any awards for precision or originality, it was reliable enough to get me and my Smokin' Gun to Mexico and back without incident. To celebrate that achievement, I did with my third build what I've done with every bike before it—I went on a couple rides, then sold it for a grand less than it cost me to create it. Real bikers are supposed to ride their machines, but I've always found that challenge less rewarding and more stressful than simply building them. After constructing three bikes in three years for three different trips on the same three Mexican highways, it was time to change things up.


For my third El Diablo Run in 2008, I bought an '07 G650 X-Challenge, BMW's under-loved and overpriced 650cc dualsport bike. When my friend Chris Moeller's '79 Shovelhead gave up the ghost on day one of our Mexican adventure, we threw his busted Harley on the chase trailer and Mad Dog took my Teutonic trail bike on its maiden voyage. I've only ridden my G650 X a couple times since then, but every ride is a sweet reminder of what got me into motorcycles in the first place. I love riding trails. If there was another hand-built motorcycle in my future, that machine would have to possess both nominal off-road capability and circa-'70's dirt-track styling.



After six months of procrastination, hundreds of hours of Internet research and eight harried weeks of foot-dragging on the part of two key sub-contractors, my 1971 CB450 street tracker finally coughed to life at last weekend's Biltwell Bash. It will take some tuning to get her in full throat, but when she's dialed my street tracker promises to be a blast to ride. At around 300 pounds, it weighs less than the transmission and motor of my first bike. Given it's woeful low-end grunt, 5/8th-scale proportions and schizophrenic pedigree, it hardly qualifies as a chopper. But in terms of fit and finish, no bike I've built before it even comes close. To everyone that helped me get Rob Warren's complimentary basket case on two wheels, thanks for all your help.  

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1 comment:

ohitson said...

Hell, I love 'em all. I've been trying to find a cheap dual-sport to mess around on. I love the thought of riding in on a trail somewhere in the NC mountains and camping out.