Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bikes, part II - Street to Dirt

As I had written in part I, I had stopped riding after wrecking my EX500 and separating my shoulder. A couple of months later, I was the proud father of a newborn baby boy, and my wishes to ride seemed a little selfish. I was responsible for another human being in a way I had never been before, so what business did I have risking my life on a bike out on the roads? Besides, taking care of a newborn is a trial, even for two parents. Those first few months went by in a blur of diapers, bottles and sleepless nights... What were we talking about again? Oh yeah, bikes...
Well, obviously the desire to ride never left, in fact it was probably intensified because I wasn't riding. Swede's (My wife's grandpa) stories of his dirtbike riding when he was younger did not help at all.
For three years I resisted, but eventually, selfishness won. I talked it over with my wife (so much so that she was probably sick of hearing about it) and we settled on a compromise... I would get a dirtbike so I could get my fix, and I didn't have to sweat dealing with traffic/idiots on the road. Riding dirt would be much safer, hey, it's still a bike, I can do this, no problem... riiiight...
Once we decided, it took me about a week to find a bike. My talks with Swede helped me determine that I wanted a four stroke, a thumper. We were pretty broke, what with the baby and a mortgage, so my options were limited. I found an ad for a 1980 Honda XR500 in town that was going for $800. Paid $700, got the bike plus a helmet. The bike had been first sold in '88 and the guy I bought it from had treated it really well. It looked old-fashioned, with dual shocks in the back, a big puffy seat and a metal tank, but it was clean. Started on the first kick and ran like a champ. One minor dent in the tank was the only problem it had.
I took it out in the hills north of town, and all my assumptions about riding dirt went clean out the window. I must have dumped it a half dozen times. Going up hills was cake, but coming down them and maintaining control was a whole different story. I learned rather quickly that riding a dirtbike required a whole new skill set. Long story short, it was mostly unpleasant, and by the end of the day I was considering packing the whole thing in. This was my first time on a dirtbike, and I was 30 years old. Did I really want to get into this?
Well, hell, I'd spent all this money on a bike, I wasn't going to write it off after one time. I hooked up with a coworker's brother who had also just bought a dirtbike (a mid - '90s XR400) and we started going out riding together. He had more experience than me, so I followed his lead, and started picking it up. I was getting more comfortable, and I really started to enjoy myself. This was a lot of fun!
Having lived the first part of my life in England, I had never much cared for the deserts of California. That all changed once I started riding. Getting out on open desert, winding out the throttle and holding on through all the bumps and dips was a blast. When you're out there, riding at the edge of your ability, your mind just empties of everything else. You're not thinking about work, you're not thinking about your bills, nothing. You're all about focus, concentration, watching the trail coming up ahead of you. A second's distraction, and you're on your ass. You're completely absorbed in the moment.
It's a lot of work, too, wrestling a big bike (that sucker was all steel... it was a pig) through miles of rough ground. The day after riding, my back and shoulder muscles would be stiff and sore.
That bike never let me down, even though I would dump it almost every time I went out. It always started on the first or second kick, except for those rare occasions when I flipped it and flooded the carb.
I got to know the guy at the prop shop in town pretty well, because I would frequently go to him to get my skid plate welded. I busted that a few times, hitting rocks and rough terrain. My worst spill bent up my handlebars and my clutch lever, but even then the bike got me home (well, back to the truck).
We rode in the high desert around Barstow and Victorville and I was introduced to the Slash X. This is a bar out by Stoddard Wells, where you can ride right up and kick back for a couple of drinks and food. The waitresses were pretty rough, but they were funny. My buddy told me that one time he heard a guy ask for his fries lightly done, and the waitress replied "You'll get 'em how we cook 'em".
I loved that bike, and I firmly believe that it was the best $700 I ever spent.
I had a couple of problems with it, though... my buddy would consistently leave me behind, because his bike was faster, and that suspension would just beat me up. I had the opportunity to ride newer bikes, and the difference in the suspension made up my mind. I wanted a faster, newer bike.
So... I sold my trusty 500 (for$500) and with some money I had saved as well as a tax return, I paid cash for my very first brand new bike - a 2002 XR650R (I bought it new in 2004, for $5300 OTD). I had the power-up kit installed, which consisted of bigger jets, a larger exhaust insert, a larger carb intake boot and removal of some airbox restrictions.
This is probably the fastest bike I've ridden; not top end, but man, out the gate, you'd better hold on! The only drawback is that it is a bitch to start. That high compression engine is a pain to turn over, and if you've been out in the dirt for a while, it can be real tiring. They don't call it the Big Red Pig for nothing! It's a great bike though, but I don't ride it as much as I'd like to.

This is a 1980 XR500. Mine looked a lot like this. You can see the rear shocks - not much travel at all. Still, all in all a great bike.

This is my XR650R. That seat may look less comfortable, but the suspension travel is way better. This is about as much bike as I think I'll ever need for the desert.


Julie said...

Must be a guy thing...

Kevin said...

Yup. No guuurls allowed:)

DirtCrashr said...

I know some girls who ride offroad, they're gnarly! ;-) Check out the Usenet newsgroup for riders in your area and general dirtbike blather. Suspension is everything, and IMO the key to suspension-function and rider longevity is weight - shed pounds and the bike turns easier, in case you ever get up in the mountains on a tight-and-twisty trail. When in doubt, gas-it!