Which bike, which issue?

Golden Age

Brian Larsen, August 2011

The starting gate drops and I hear nothing but the sound of screaming two-strokes.  I get off the line pretty well, but several bikes are ahead of me. 

But things start to change.  Bike after bike seems to fall behind me and out of my vision as I move toward the front of the pack.  I stay on the gas as long as I can, hit the brakes hard, and dive into the first corner.  I charge out of the first turn, and I’m in front. 

Until last week, I haven’t ridden a bike at all in two years.  Until last week, I haven’t been on a motocross track in thirty years. I’m fifty years old and this is the first race of my life.   

“You ought to try vintage motocross,” Todd tells me.  The time is two years previous, and I’m at Todd’s farm where I’ve taken my daughter to ride horses with some friends.  They brush the horses, saddle up, and ride around a dusty arena, but Todd and I head straight for talking about farming and motorcycles.

I’ve known Todd all my life. We both come from long-time farm families in our hometown of Wilson Creek, Washington.  Our mothers have been friends for decades.  Todd is several years younger than I am, but we share a common love for dirt bikes.  We’re two of the most prominent dirt bike fanatics sprinkled through the history of our small town.

I listen to Todd talk about motocross, Huskys, and things motorcycle, but I don’t live here anymore and motorcycles seem to have faded to a forgotten corner of my existence.  I’m an English professor these days and live twelve hours away in Redding, California.  My world is filled with the more sedentary pursuits of reading books, grading essays, and writing papers.  I come home every summer to visit my family and anyone else I run into, to reconnect with farming, small town life, and to enjoy the wheat fields, rocks, sagebrush and wildflowers of eastern Washington.  Several times in the last few years I’ve bumped into Todd.

Like hidden seeds waiting to germinate, his words seem to stick with me.  My job is pretty good mostly, but the late spring becomes a real grind for everyone.  Perhaps to escape the crush of grading and work, I punch “vintage motocross northwest” into Google.  The search eventually leads me to the Hammer and Tongs website where I’m impressed by the vibrant scene of vintage motocross: multiple races, a season long series, and the resurgence of the late 1970s, the golden age of motocross.

I stumble onto some race results and see Todd’s name and enter his name on a search.  I discover that he’s been doing well, in fact winning a lot in the intermediate class.  I dig around on the Hammer and Tongs website and also discover that vintage motocross has two classes: vintage (pre-1974/pre-long travel suspension) and evolution (1974-1981) where the rules prohibit three things: disc brakes, liquid cooling, and linkage suspension.  The evolution class interests me because it covers the years when I was most involved in the sport and ends about the time I sold my 1976 Suzuki RM250A motocross bike and went off to college.

1982 Yamaha

1982 Yamaha IT250J sales brochure.

Up at my mom’s place in Wilson Creek I’ve got a Yamaha IT250 enduro stored in a grain bin since 1994 when I moved away.  I bought it used for $400 dollars at least twenty years ago to ride as a play bike and to herd cows.  Post college, I farmed with my dad for nine years and needed something better than my totally trashed Bultaco Alpina 250, purchased totally used for $35.00.  I’d never been a Yamaha fan, but I bought it because the price was right and because it was basically what I wanted: an enduro in good condition with a low first gear, a large gas tank, and a long travel suspension.  Besides, it’s blue and I like the color.  The bike later proves its worth when I use it to singlehandedly stop the only cattle stampede in the entire history of our ranch.

But I can’t remember if it has a disk brake or not.  I can’t even remember its year—somewhere in the early ‘80s—mental lapses that show how much I’d been thinking about motorcycles.  I didn’t think it had a disk brake, but several Google searches of early 80s Yamaha ITs prove inconclusive because none of them has the same color scheme as mine.  The Hammer and Tongs rules stipulate no disk brakes and also seems to indicate that 1981 is the last year of eligible bikes. I email Siege, the Hammer and Tongs guru, and he tells me that as long as it does not have the three items, it’s eligible.

Todd, the bike, and an approaching Hammer and Tongs summer race in Portland, Oregon (June 2011), seem to converge and push the idea of racing from wild fantasy into a flimsy and uncertain reality.  As a teenage bike fanatic, I desperately wanted to race, but my parents wouldn’t sign the release form.  I mention that I’m thinking about racing to my wife and family, and they seem to take it in stride.  Perhaps as a way to build up my courage, a kind of whistling in the dark, I mention it to my English Department colleagues.  Alan, our senior member, seems amazed; Tim laughs and tells me to be careful; Mardy says “You should” and tells me to take pictures.  I’m still not sure if I’ll really do it, but they’re my friends, the kind of people who will understand if I decide not to.

Motocross and academics are not normally associated with each other.  Most people stereotype college professors as a bunch of nerds, a stereotype to some extent true.  At conferences I’ve certainly seen more than a few weedy academics with tweed coats, thick glasses, large briefcases, and a kind of wild, unkempt, thrift shop look about them.  But some of my colleagues defy this stereotype: Bill is in his late 50s, bicycles to work every day and is still a great swimmer; Phil, in his late 50s, plays competitive basketball; and Dan in the Music department recently completed a full triathlon.  In a classic other life in other days kind of story, Suzanne, one of the librarians, raced sports cars when she was young. 

School’s out, I finish my paperwork for the year and drive up to Wilson Creek with my family to visit Mom.  Later in the summer, I’m going to stay with her and paint her house.  I call Todd.  “Vintage motocross has really taken off,” he says.  “There’s lots of guys our age.  People are really nice.  Lot’s of different bikes.  Bultacos, Hondas, Huskys, tons of YZs.  I think every Maico ever built is still running.  Yeah, I’m going to Portland.  You’re welcome to come join us if you like.”  I’m glad for this possibility.  I can’t think of anyone I’d rather go with than Todd: he’s a nice guy, a good rider, and a great mechanic.

But I need to check out the bike. From the hook in Mom’s house I get the key ring filled mostly with keys to non-existent locks, walk down the lane to the grain bin, and unlock the steel door.  It bangs with a hollow sound, lonely and thunderous.  The scene feels like stepping back into time, like opening a time capsule of my own life.  I peer inside and see mice scamper over some shelves in the back.

The bike is still there, right where I left it two years ago after I rode it for an hour.  I back it out of the bin, push it back to the house, and discover that a family of mice has been living a greasy existence in the air box.  The air filter is chewed up and ruined; it smells so bad that, even though I’m wearing gloves, I touch it only with a rag. The grips have the texture of black licorice and leave gooey stains on my gloves.  It will probably run—it always has—but not without some help.

I leave the bike alone and focus on the visit.  My son joins me on my yearly visit to the cemetery.  I tell him stories about people I once knew, or tell him stories about people I never knew but my dad told me about.  He’s here too now, having passed away in 2009.  He’s a story in himself: he farmed with horses when he was young and owned a cell phone when he was old.  If he were alive he would tell me I’m nuts.

In a few days my family and I leave for Seattle to visit my wife’s parents.  While there, I head down the to the Yamaha shop on Highway 99 in Lynnwood and order an aftermarket air filter that will arrive in a few days.  I go down and across the street to Bent Bike and buy a set of grips, a spark plug, and a bottle of Golden Spectro two stroke oil.  The knobs are starting to chunk on the front tire, but a new tire costs more than I want to spend for one event.

Back in Wilson Creek the next week, I install the new parts and pour fresh pre-mix into the tank.  Several kicks later, the bike starts.  Amazing.  I ride it around for a few minutes.  It’s got a blistering midrange and digs a trench into the driveway whenever I nail the throttle.

I call Todd.  “It runs,” I say.

“That’s always good,” he replies.

A few days later, I haul the bike out to Todd’s and we head out to his track.  It’s a nice track on a hillside with good berms and jumps, but the track is dusty this time of year, it’s laced with rocks, and I’m unfamiliar with it, so I back off a bit.  But I’m pleased that my basic skills and reflexes are still there, completely second nature from countless hours of riding decades ago. 

We ride several laps and stop.  Todd tells me “I’d say you’d be about mid-pack in the amateur class.”  I find his evaluation encouraging.  I’ve never raced and part of me wants to find out if I was really any good all those years ago.  I tell him that I’ve learned two things from the track time: that I still have my skills and that I’m not going to win. “You might,” he says.

But the bike needs more work.  A side plate is loose and I have to hold it in with my leg, the front pipe mount under the tank is broken, and I’ve got a lap full of premix from a cracked gas cap.  “Go down to Experience Powersports in Moses Lake,” Todd says, “and ask for Lance.  Tell him I sent you.  Maybe he can help you with the gas cap.”

I enter the shop and walk past new, chic looking Yamahas and KTMs painted and styled in ways that make them look faddish and generic.  I’m drawn to a beautiful late ‘70s Kawasaki KX 250, radiant in its Kawasaki green tank, fenders, shocks, and fork gaiters and gold anodized swing arm.  My motorcycle memory seems to be coming back.  “It’s a ’79” I tell myself.

I do what Todd says even though it seems a bit presumptuous on my part. “I’m looking for Lance,” I say. “Todd sent me.”  A serious vintage racer, Lance exudes a kind of gracious professionalism and helps me out.  He digs around in the back of his shop and finds a cap that looks like it will fit.  I’m glad I followed Todd’s plan.  “What do I owe you,” I ask.

“I don’t want to sell it,” he says, holding the two caps in his hands and closely comparing them. “It’s off an old Suzuki and I’d have to replace it.  But I’ll loan it to you for the weekend.” 

Before I leave I ask Lance if the KX is a ’79.  It is.

The cap fits perfectly and never leaks a drop.  To fix the pipe mount, I drill a hole through both metal plates and the rubber vibration dampener and bolt them together.  While I’m at it, I remove some haywire installed by a previous owner to hold the pipe on and secure it much better with a hose clamp.  I hammer and bend the number plate mounting bracket so that it tucks the number plate up under the seat like it was designed to, something I should have done years ago.

I test the bike in a small field across from Mom’s house where I used to have one of my tracks years ago.  I carve out a track, mostly following thin spots in the cheat grass.  It’s small with tight corners and one long straight where I probably hit fifth gear, maybe sixth.  I also practice starts.  Like Goldilocks’s porridge, first gear is too low and third gear is too high, but second gear seems right.  But my starts are inconsistent.  Traction is good and the bike wants to wheelie and go sideways.  Mentally, I give up on starts and resign myself to starting well back in Saturday’s race.  But on the other hand, I get used to shifting rapidly and riding that midrange hit.  And I get used to going really fast really suddenly, grabbing the brakes, and slowing down in a hurry.

We leave mid-day Friday for the seven hour drive to Portland, towing a trailer loaded with Todd’s Huskys, my Yamaha, and Dan’s Honda.  The trip includes Todd; Karen, Todd’s significant other; Dan, Todd’s racing buddy; and me.  Dan is in his early fifties, older than I am, and really nice.  Dan rides a Honda CR 250 that he bought for $450.00 from one of Todd’s neighbors who stored it for years in a barn.  Dan rebuilt the top end and started racing.  “He gets holeshots all the time with that thing,” Todd says.  Like me, Dan hadn’t ridden much for three decades, but he’s been vintage racing the past few years and burning up the +50 intermediate class. Riding hiatus, cheap bike, racing success, middle age youth—I love it.

The trip to Portland is wonderful.  Lots of bike talk. Karen doesn’t seem to mind it.  Dan and Todd recall past races; Todd and I talk farming and Wilson Creek; Karen, Todd, and I talk more Wilson Creek; Karen and I talk music and literature; Karen says I should write a story about the trip.  More bike talk. 

My favorite story is one Todd tells about racing back in high school at Egypt, a track north of Davenport, Washington.  The track was long and fast and he crashed hard off a big jump, coming to rest with his head in the dirt and his face a few inches from a steel sprinkler.  The crash ruined the handlebars and even tore off one of the grips. But the date is the real kicker: May 18, 1980.  Everyone in eastern Washington remembers this day, the day Mt. St. Helens exploded and spewed an apocalypse of darkness and ash over our half the of state.  The darkness lasted a few hours; the dust and ash lasted all summer.  In a miracle of timing, that day at the Baptist church in Wilson Creek Pastor Ruhlman preached on light and darkness, surely a sermon with one of the best illustrations of all time.  Providentially, Todd’s crash caused his family to pack up and head home where they arrived before the ash came and made the roads impassible.

I look out the window at the wonderful scenery.  I love the Columbia gorge.  Lewis and Clark, water, wind, wind surfers, railroads, dams, tug boats, barges, basalt cliffs, waterfalls, even a few mountain goats.  High above the river across from Biggs, Oregon, Maryhill Museum rests on a hill, a desolate and obscure location visited, unbelievably, by Queen Marie of Romania and, even more unbelievably, houses an important collection of Rodin sculptures.  The gorge seems like a timeline of history where geography forces humans and nature to share and interact, mile after mile, where whatever humans do seems somehow dwarfed by the wind, the hills, the river, and time.

We journey westbound past Maryhill and its replica of Stonehenge and watch the gorge transform from virtual desert to lush green garden—verdant and alive—working its green magic to transform us.  The gorge, where the water flows one way and the wind blows the other, transports us into the future and tomorrow’s race at the same time that it transports us into the green pastures of our past.

The track at Portland seems like a green paradise, especially to people from eastern Washington where green is a tenuous condition and a tree is a statement of defiance.  We’re in the infield section of Portland International Raceway, where grass covers almost everything and tall poplar trees surround us, making the place into a green motocross oasis right in the middle of the city, so much so that the setting creates the impression that the rest of the world does not exist.

Todd parks the pickup and sets up camp.  Dan and I check out the track.  It has two sections: a standard motocross track used for regular Thursday night motocross, and a new section marked off in the middle of a grass field.  It’s been disked in a few spots, but it looks like it’s never been ridden on.  I see a rock in the track, and the farmer in me takes over: I pick it up and pile it off the track next to a steel fence post.

That night I can’t sleep.  We’ve unloaded the bikes, and Dan and I sleep in the trailer on his nifty camp cots.  I’m not nervous or afraid—Dan and Todd and Karen have been wonderful and supportive—but I’m excited.  And a bit conflicted.  I remember that teenage bike fanatic who desperately wanted to race.  I had the bike—my Suzuki was the best 250 of its day—but never had the opportunity.  But my thoughts are not really about lost opportunities; my thoughts are about coming to terms with two parts of my life: my motorcycle youth and my professional present.  I’m been married for almost twenty-five years and have three almost grown children, and I’m a Ph.D. holding a position of responsibility with my students and colleagues.  I’m not sure how one self fits with the other.  I feel like the self of the present moment on the eve of his first motocross race has leaped into his past, or that the past has leaped into the present and somehow for a moment has wiped away a mid-career life with car troubles, professional frustrations, and mortgage payments.

The next day dawns in a bustle of activity.  I sign up for two classes based on engine size and rider age, respectively: the 250cc amateur, and the +50 amateur.  Dan, Todd, and I are more serious now and get dressed in our motocross gear.  I sit on a chair and slip my feet in to my circa 1977, Full House, Tony D signature, motocross boots—quality relics of a past era. Todd loans me goggles, a chest protector, and motocross gloves.  “I’ve got something for you,” Todd says. He emerges from the camper with a blue and yellow No Fear motocross jersey and hands it to me.  I’d planned to wear a blue, button down shirt and thought about wearing a tie.  “Karen won this as a door prize” he says.  “It’s too small for me.  It’s yours.”  My wife would love the Swedish colors, and maybe No Fear is something prophetic.  I’m thrilled.  I’m beginning to look more like a real motocrosser and feel like one too. 

I feel even more like a motocrosser when we saunter down to the riders’ meeting.  I’m sure some of the guys think it’s a bother, but at the same time it’s an important ritual of the day and most seem to enjoy it.  And I’ll get to meet Siege.  Todd’s earlier description intrigues me.

Siege ascends the stairway leading up to the scorer’s box and reaches a landing half way up.  He stops here to address the crowd.  Maybe he’ll begin with something literary like “Friends, Romans, Motocrossers—lend me you ears.”  But Siege commands attention in his own way.  He explains some of the safety rules, practice format, and future events.    The sun is at his back and in my eyes, so I turn sideways and listen carefully.  The meeting ends, Siege descends, and the riders head back to their bikes. 

Seige leads

Seige leads the riders' meeting. I'm near the middle in yellow and blue next to Todd (left in black hat and jacket) and Dan (hatless and left of Todd). Mark Hector photo.

Siege does a lot for vintage motocross in the northwest, one of the most dynamic vintage motocross scenes in the whole country.  The website builds community by hosting a chat room and displaying loads of pictures.  Unlike most vintage motocross websites, the Hammer and Tongs website clearly explains the bike classifications.  The organization seems to live up to its admirable goals of making vintage motocross fun, easy, and cheap.

At nine o’clock the track comes to life with the simmer of two strokes.    Practice is well underway when I put on my helmet and grab the bike.  I turn on the gas, push the choke, and stomp on the kick starter.  It fires.  It always has.  I ride slowly down to the entrance and on to the track.

Practice is chaotic, but it’s fun to be finally riding on the track.  Bikes zip past me at daredevil speeds, but I pass a bunch of riders, particularly on an off-chamber corner on the dirt section and in the grass section while braking after the long straight.  I ride just three or four laps and exit the track.  It’s a strategic decision.  I’ve seen enough of the track to know that I can ride it, and I want to conserve my energy.  Motocross is a tough, physically demanding sport; Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner says it’s one of the hardest things he’s ever done.  Todd has his finger on some wisdom when he says “Everyone rides like a twenty year old on the first lap.”  I know that my skill probably exceeds my stamina, so I take it easy. 

I’m in race number four in the 250cc amateur class, and everyone else is lined up at the starting gate when I arrive.  I find a place three or four spaces to the right of the start house, which sits in the middle of the starting line.  I’m relieved just to be here in the right race.  I kill the motor, turn off the gas, and look up.  I’m amazed.  The first turn, a leftie, seems like it’s out there in front of me like a wide-open door, absolutely straight ahead with no one else around.  Through dumb luck I seem to have gotten a great spot.  The far left of the starting line—the classic inside line—seems longer because of its angle with the first turn.  Even though it favors the outside line, the far right is better than the left, but still seems a bit longer than the middle.

The previous race winds down and riders around me on the line begin to fire up their bikes.  I turn on the gas, kick, and it fires.  When the track clears, the starter, dressed in green and white motocross gear, walks down the line and points his flag at each rider.  I nod my head when he points to me.  Everyone’s ready.  He walks briskly to the start house and drops the gate. 

I’m off the line cleanly and a little behind the bikes next to me, but not for long.  I feel like I’ve been shot out of a slingshot—I have no perception of shifting or anything.  I ride on pure instinct and suddenly I’m in front.  Todd tells me later that I hit the first turn one or two bike lengths in front of everyone.  I’ve accomplished the equivalent of a bases-loaded home run in my first at bat—a holeshot in my first race.

Holeshots are great, but they don’t win races.  I ride as fast as I can and stay in front for a while.  On the first lap, I round the corner next to our campsite and Dan and Todd stand by the track and wave me on.  Somewhere in the race, a Honda and Yamaha, clearly the two fastest riders, get around me and leave a big gap between themselves and me in third place.  But I’m not leaving much of a gap between me and a Yamaha in fourth place.  Rough doesn’t bother me, but I don’t like that fast back straight in the grass section with the slight curve and the mud puddle.  And some of the rutted corners in the grass section don’t agree with me.  Late on the last lap, I get passed by the Yamaha.  But I get around it on that downhill off-chamber where I passed people in practice.  We’re close to the finish line near the last tabletop jump, and the Yamaha passes me again. I finish fourth. 

me in the air

Me in the air on the Yamaha. I look like I'm about to loop it (the angle is even more vertical in another photo), but I don't remember being in trouble on this jump. Mark Hector photo.

Off the track and idling our bikes back to the pits, I look over and see the third place Yamaha rider next to me.  We exchange glances and give each other a thumbs-up, the Bultaco gesture.  It’ s been a great race.

Back in the pits I bask in the elation of my holeshot.  “It was easy,” I tell Dan and Todd.  And it was, so easy that it seemed strangely unreal, almost inevitable.  I’m amazed and dumbfounded.  I can’t believe it.  I tell my writing students never to use that cliché, but it really seems to express how I feel.  I can’t believe it.

Mostly, I’m impressed with the bike.  I never thought it would do that.  It simply won the drag race to the first turn, convincingly.  It stomped everything.  It’s an enduro and not a motocross bike, so it’s in a milder state of tune.  The bike has massive piston slap at high speed and probably has its original top end.  And I’d only recently resurrected it from the grain bin.  That killer mid-range I’d read about in a Cycle World test of the 1981 Yamaha YZ 250 seems to have powered its way into my ‘82 IT enduro.  I’ve been riding a blue rocket all these years and didn’t know it.


Dan, smooth and fast, on the CR250.
Mark Hector Photo.

I’m elated, but I’m also exhausted.  My legs are so tired that my walk is unsteady.  I grab a Powerade, watch some racing, and attempt to recover.  I’m particularly impressed with two Maico 490s racing closely and a guy in a vintage class on a CZ who’s really smooth and really fast.  I watch a race-long duel in an advanced 500cc class between a Yamaha and a Honda.  They’re both fast and the Yamaha is in front, but the guy on the Honda looks smoother and more aggressive.  “That Honda’s going to win,” I tell Dan, but the Yamaha hangs on for the checkered flag.

My next race is the +50 amateur class, race 13.  Several of the riders don’t look exactly trim and fit— +50 might refer to a few beltlines—but many of the bikes are open class bikes and I’ll be at a power disadvantage.  It’s my poorest start of the day.  Just like practice last week, the bike wheelies and I get crooked.  A photo sequence of this start on the Hammer and Tongs website shows that the guy next to me on a Husky goes crooked too.  I might have knocked him off his line, but I’m not sure.  Still, the bike helps me recover and powers me into a solid position mid-pack.  I finish sixth, but not before I get splashed big time at the mud puddle on the back stretch and learn all about getting pelted with chunks of mud shot slingshot-like from the big bikes.

I’m arrive a race early for the next 250cc amateur race and wait outside the starting area for the next race to get under way.  I’m not leaving the starting position to chance this time.  The bikes take off, the entrance opens, and I push my bike into the starting area and grab the same spot that worked so well in the first race.  The holeshot could be a fluke, but even so, a holeshot in my first race ever will be a delightful memory.

But it’s not a fluke.  Like the first race, I get off the line a bit slow and the bike takes over and rockets me to the front of the pack for my second convincing holeshot of the day.  Maybe the bike just has more power than the other bikes, maybe it’s transmission gear ratios are perfectly spaced, maybe I shift at just the right times—I don’t know.  Whatever it is, I get another moment of glory in front.  I finish fifth.

By the last race I’m finding that the starts are a lot of fun.  “They’re a real adrenaline rush,” Dan says.  The start of the last race in the +50 class is fun in a different way.  I’m about sixth or seventh going into the corner, but I emerge from the corner in third.  Some commotion on the outside line on my right tangles a few riders and lets me by. 


Todd on the gas with his Husky XC 500. Mark Hector photo.

But in this race and the previous race my racing inexperience and fatigue start to show.  I back off just before the mud puddle and someone gets by.  To avoid a deep rut on the inside, I take a mid-corner line in the grass section and someone gets by.  On the next lap I avoid the rut by taking the extreme inside line.  I’ve learned my lesson.  And I’m tired, so tired that I take off on jumps and wish that I didn’t have to stand up when I land.  To save energy, I take the smooth outside line on a corner in the dirt section and someone gets by me on the inside.  Late in the race, I can’t even see the bike ahead of me, but I can’t see the bike behind me either, so I take it easy on the last half of the last lap.  I finish seventh.

After the race, I check the overall results and walk over to tell Dan.  He’s sitting on his bike at the starting line.  “I’m third overall,” I tell him.  He gives me a high five.  “You’re on the podium,” he says.  There is no literal podium, but it’s nice to finish in the top three.  I finish sixth in the +50 class.  Dan and Todd have a good day.  Todd wins both the 125cc intermediate class (1,1) and the +40 intermediate (1,1); Dan finishes third in the 250cc intermediate class (2,3) and wins the +50 intermediate (1,1).

It’s been a great day, more than I’d hoped for.  I tell Todd and Dan that I’m not taking off the jersey.  Perhaps I think that the day will last as long as I wear it.  The sun lowers and the shadows lengthen as we leave the track and head up the river and back home.

Back in Wilson Creek for the next two weeks, I scrape, sand, caulk, and paint Mom’s house. I think about the race.  I leave the bike parked outside.  I look at it, but I don’t ride it.  I don’t ride it partly because I’ve got a job to do and I’ve got to be responsible.  I don’t ride it because I’m too tired.  I don’t ride it partly out of a kind of respect for the bike; somehow I think of it like a horse that performs some great feat and deserves a good rest. And I don’t ride the bike to keep the moment alive.

The bike has really earned my respect.  It surprised me, and as I look at it closely I begin to appreciate its details that I’ve seen countless times but never seen at all: the folding shift lever and rear brake; the 90 degree, straight-pull throttle; the quick release rear hub; the quality o-ring chain (still on the bike), the compact engine cases; the fully adjustable monoshock; the Powerboost induction system—details that show a lot of effort in its design and manufacture.  I’ve become a Yamaha fan, not just because of the bike, but because, more than any other manufacturer, Yamaha approached motocross hammer and tongs, constantly innovating and fielding competitive motocross bikes in all three size classifications every year throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, effort seen these days in the number of Yamahas at vintage races.

Besides motorcycles, Yamaha has played a great part in another passion of my life—guitars.  My first guitar was a Yamaha.  I bought it new in 1978, and more than any other object I’ve ever owned, it’s been with me everywhere ever since.  But these two Yamahas—the bike and the guitar—seem to summarize an ongoing tension in my life between motorcycles and music, the two main hobbies in my life.  I play the guitar a lot these days, and I sometimes wish that I’d played the guitar instead of riding bikes when I was young.  Even the Yamaha symbol—three tuning forks crossed in a circle—seems to touch on this tension. 

On the other hand, the race builds my respect for motocross.  It’s the ultimate human/machine sport, one where rider input and body position are critical for top performance in a way totally lacking in four wheel sports.  It demands complete attention: it’s like being up to bat in baseball, running a fast break in basketball or running a play in football—for the entire race.  A forty minute moto at any level is a grueling accomplishment.  The hammer and tongs attitude motocross requires benefits me in other areas of life.

As I paint the house, I try to maintain a steady hand in order to clearly define the lines between each color. But the lines between motorcycles and music, between my college professor and motocross selves and everything else refuse to clarify.  Maybe the two Yamahas and the Ph.D. are deep down about self expression or discovering something about life.  I don’t know.  Mostly, elements of my life seem to blend together in interesting ways, changing like a kaleidoscope with each change in point of view.  I’m old enough to recognize the tension; perhaps I’m old enough to accept the ambiguity.

In the meantime, I paint and think about my last ride for the summer.   I’ll ride down the Blackrock Road, past the wheat fields turning from spring green to summer gold, turn east on a one lane road lined with big sagebrush, cross two cattle guards, turn left, and ride on some land that we still own, a forgotten place loaded with interesting gullies that I haven’t seen in years.  I’ll take this ride just before I drain all the gas out of the tank and the carburetor, push the bike down the lane, place it back in the grain bin, and close the door one more time on that part of my life.


Brian Larsen, August 2011




Note: The author hopes to write a book about his motorcycle experiences.  Stay tuned.


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