Bikes – 1995 Kawasaki Vulcan 500

But… that’s not a car! I know, right? But I would be remiss if I overlooked my motorcycles. I ask that you pardon the brief detour(s) here.

This is a horrible selfie, taken with a potato in the kitchen of my old apartment in Edenville. That was the day I learned to love riding a motorcycle. I had brought my bike up to Cycle Motion in Middletown, NY to get inspected. The weather was clear, no rain to be found, a good day for a ride… leaving the dealership, in the distance, I saw something like this:

Borrowed this from Youtube:

That was between me and my home. The only way out was through, so I rode steady towards home when the rain and hail came down in torrents. All I was wearing at the time was blue jeans, work boots, a Carhardt denim jacket, dirt bike gloves and my helmet. Within seconds I was soaked, through and through. I took my time, the drivers behind me kept their distance, and the only time I came close to wiping out was when I let my rear tire cross the white painted line on the shoulder. Other than that, despite being completely saturated with water, pelted with heavy rain and hail, and on a motorcycle I had only owned for several weeks… I laughed my ass off. I was having FUN. That attitude stayed with me when it came to getting on two wheels.

My 1995 Kawasaki Vulcan 500

There she is, my first bike. Low mileage, enough power to get on a highway but not enough power to hurt myself (much) it was a good starter bike. Before I took my first ride though, I was taken for a ride by the original owner. I think I spent about $1500 on this bike. When I picked it up, I brought my brother along to check it out since he was already a licensed rider for many years.

When the owner tried to fire it up, the battery was dead… Conveniently, his mechanic showed up and did some magic to get it running. Red flags? What are those? My brother took it down the road and back and gave it a thumbs up. Into the bed of my Chevy it went. I was a motorcycle owner! Now all I needed to do was learn to ride it.

Before I could do that though, I came to discover that the bike’s alternator (called a stator) was shot. My brother and I would go out and ride, only for my bike to randomly shut down. Pop starting it didn’t work either. I’d jump the bike with a car, get enough charge on it to ride it, then it would die again. $800 later (from an excellent mechanic who has sadly retired) and all was well… for a few years at least.

My mechanic (Tony – from Get In Gear) – grew to hate that bike. The stator is basically a spoked wheel wrapped with copper. Around it spins a flywheel with magnets. That generates the electricity which keeps the battery charged and runs all the accessories including the ignition that keeps the bike running.

A typical motorcycle stator.

Well Kawasaki in their infinite wisdom, glued the magnets to the flywheel. One of these magnets came loose and proceeded to explode like a grenade in the crank case, causing the stator above to fail. Tony managed to clean it up as best as he could and get the bike going again. Later in its life I would replace that stator with another (in my warm living room, perks of bachelorhood and home ownership).

The other big repair was a result of the bike dying on my way to work. I was at a stoplight in Florida, NY when the engine simply died. I tried everything I could to diagnose it there, but had zero luck. In the end I got it towed back to Tonys, it turned out that the timing key on the crankshaft sheared off and failed, the timing jumped, and the engine was done. He fixed it again, advised me to sell it quickly, and thankfully up until the stator failed again, worked very well.

For anyone interested in learning to ride a motorcycle, I highly recommend spending a couple hundred dollars and taking one of those safety and riding courses. Not only does it teach you everything you’d ever want to know about operating a motorcycle, it also provides real training and tries to prepare you for as much as they can. Plus, you get a waiver for your road test (at least here in NY).

Once I had a permit and my course completion, I completely IGNORED my instructors advice and started riding. I quickly learned just how oblivious other motorists are to motorcycles (note: I’m including automobiles, trucks, AND motorcycles here). It doesn’t really matter what you wear, what colors you cover yourself with, how loud your bike is, people simply do not see you. Most of the time it’s not even their fault, humans are stupid.

I will say that people on motorcycles, in my experience, are generally worse than cars. Riders accept that drivers are predictably idiotic… we don’t really feel the same about other riders until enough instances when they nearly run us off the road in the name of showing off or simply being impatient. Back when I was still learning, I was doing 40mph on a 40mph road, my brother behind me in his Jeep. Then a sportbike with open pipes shot past me doing at least 80mph. I almost jumped off my ride right there.

For it being my first bike, and despite having a handful of close calls, I never put it down. The closest I ever came was on Route 17A entering Florida, NY. It’s a 55mph road with homes and businesses dotting the roadway. Just before town, a “courteous” idiot came to a dead stop in this 55mph zone to let a UPS delivery truck leave the parking lot they were trying to enter. Nobody was expecting this. The car behind them slammed on the brakes, HARD. The car in front of me then slammed on the brakes, HARD.

I was riding closer than I should have (blame it on being a n00b), and I slammed on the brakes, HARD. Now a motorcycle when stopped properly without locking up the wheels, will come to a stop drastically faster than just about any car. I had already aimed towards the shoulder with this emergency stop… I check my side view and see the car behind me not coming to a stop fast enough. Fearing that I may get hit from behind, I go straight for the grass at about 35mph. Did I mention the grass was wet?

My focus at this point is staying vertical and not wiping out as the rear wheel proceeded to dance over the grassy hill I was now riding down nearly out of control. I make it to the asphalt driveway and stop safely, turn back at the car, still stopped as the UPS truck finally pulls out, flip them off (of course), then in my fury overrev and drop the clutch. First and last time I’d ever popped a wheelie on ANYTHING in my life. I proceed to rip down towards the athletic club so I can head out the other exit…. A bystander (obviously clueless to the entire chain of events here) looks at me and puts their arms up in a “what the hell” sort of gesture… Don’t worry, I flipped them off too.

There was a brief period in time (which I’ll get to later) during the winter, where I really didn’t want to drive my car. Thankfully it was a relatively snow-free winter, albeit the temperatures never really went above 25F. That winter nearly every day, I rode the half hour round trip to and from work on my bike. Bundled up with Long Johns, a fleece balaclava, winter riding gloves, heavy winter boots, etc… The looks I got as I slowly froze…

I will say one of my favorite times to ride is when it is cold, and at night. You know those clear, crisp, starry nights in late autumn / early winter? Nights like that it always felt like I was flying above the road like some sort of sputtering wraith. I’d also ridden in very hot weather, which is fine and good until you stop moving. Then all the heat from that engine starts to rise…

Somewhere in Virginia I think… 2012

Back in 2012, my marriage was on the rocks. A lot of my dreams were heading towards an inevitable ending that I could not avoid, and to be honest – didn’t really care enough to anymore. That’s the thing when you get hurt badly enough, it’s actually pretty easy to throw your hands up in the air and give up. Now up until this point, my family would head down to the outer banks in North Carolina every summer.

This year, I made up an excuse not to go. Part of me really didn’t see the point in continuing to try and fix something beyond repair. What I planned to do was take a few days to myself to marinate some ideas… and then I decided that I was going. I wasn’t about to drive though, no. I loaded up enough provisions for 3 or 4 days at the condo, strapped them to my bike at 6pm on a Tuesday night, and ride the 600 miles to my family.

There was my little 500CC bike that I’d managed to shoehorn a set of Screaming Eagle exhaust pipes from a Harley Davidson Sportster onto… A small amount of luggage bungee corded to the sissy bar… and a solid 12 hour ride south. A couple of high points? Middle of nowhere, surrounded by black with nothing around me and nothing before me but the asphalt and white lines. Going through the Chesapeake Bay Tunnel at full throttle at 2am. Pulling up to the house and seeing my stepkids faces light up as I walked in the door.

Now normally, that bike with its 2.9 gallon tank was good for about 50mpg. At highway speeds though? That quickly dropped to around 36mpg. Every 90 miles I’d have to find another gas station. Most of the time I could plan ahead, but at one point on I believe it was I-95 south around Delaware… there I was, far left lane doing 90mph in a large pack of traffic doing 90mph when the engine starts to cut out.

This bike was pre-fuel injection, it had two carburetors, a tank with a reserve, and a small petcock (valve) that I could turn to switch to the reserve tank that held maybe a half gallon of fuel. So here I am, 90mph, bike rapidly slowing, me moving right, all the while trying to switch to my reserve. At about 50mph in the right lane, the engine sputtered back to life and I continued to the nearest rest stop for a 20oz can of Arizona and a full tank of gas.

Waiting for the Ferry

A few more stops like that and I was in North Carolina, waiting for the ferry. I must have looked silly at some points because to say the seat on that bike was uncomfortable would be like saying fire has manners. As the tailbone pain kicked in, I found myself regularly putting my feet on my rear pegs and leaning across the tank like a sport bike. Looked silly, but it worked.

Eventually I made landfall in Ocracoke, and after a few days decided to head back north and avoid possible storms. Remember what I said about riding in the heat? I think temps that day were around 102F on the way back up. Every stop, I would grab one of those 20oz Arizona’s that were half tea / half lemonade. I didn’t stop to take a leak once. What really added to the experience though was that my bike simply refused to start on its own.

At my first fuel break, I went to start the bike, and nothing. Here I am, several hundred miles from my home and my mechanic, nothing worked. Eventually I figured out it was the safety switch on the clutch handle that prevented the bike from starting if the clutch wasn’t depressed… at that point though, I tried bypassing both that and the kickstand safety with no luck. In the end, every time I stopped, I simply pop-started the bike.

When I finally got home I parked the bike in the garage, and did not go near it again until the following summer. I was almost afraid that I’d never ride again, but that’s a story for another day. I made it there and back safely, got yelled at by my brother for riding that far alone, so all in all it was a success. That little bike held its own up until I replaced in in 2014, eventually giving it to my mechanic’s nephew for his first bike. Who knows where it is now.

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