In less than 300 miles, spring looked like winter againWouldn’t you think that after riding motorcycles for more than 47 years and snowmobiles and mini-bikes for about five years before that, the first motorcycle ride of each season wouldn’t be a big deal?Well, sorry to say, for me, that just hasn’t happened. To this day, I’m still like that 14-year-old kid who would crank and crank and crank on the recoil starter of the poor, tired 2.5 hp Briggs & Stratton flathead that powered my mini-bike trying to get it going for that first ride. Such machines were not tuned to start very well in cool, late-winter temps.
It goes like this—it’s been another long, snowy winter in the snow belt. It’s now March and the sun has finally started to arc high enough in the sky to do some serious damage to the snow and ice.The sky turns from slate gray to luminous blue one day and the temperatures soar past the thirties to the forties, the fifties, or maybe even into the sixties.There is no wind or maybe just a breath of a breeze—in the sun, it is warm! People appear wearing jogging shorts and t-shirts! It teases the arrival of spring. Of course, here in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, we who grew up here know that’s all it is.The saying goes, “the snow is only melting to make room for more.” Despite the sun and the warmth, there will be more snow before spring is here for real. That doesn’t stop us from deluding ourselves and feeling the urge to get the bike out.Another part of the compulsion is the mystery of it. Will the thing start? How much repair will be necessary before the machine will actually be able to venture out? One of the most confounding questions is why are there things that don’t work on the bike now that worked fine when I parked it?How did that chain get so loose? Why does the throttle stick now? And what about the brake light switch? How can a spark plug that fired perfectly five months ago, not fire now when all it’s been doing is sitting there?How did those tires lose so much air? How did that motor oil get so cruddy-looking? How did that brake fluid get so low? I couldn’t have parked this thing needing all that maintenance—could I?So, all that leads to a feverish session of overdue pre-ride maintenance where at least the most essential items are taken care of—assuming the bike in question does start.At our place in southern Wisconsin, winter comes about a month later and leaves about a month sooner than in our old stomping grounds of northern Wisconsin and the U.P. of Michigan. So, my first ride of 2021 happened in the broad Wisconsin River Valley. But with roots also in the far north, there is the need for not one, but two “first rides.”March 9, the temperature in southern Wisconsin by 3:30 PM was about 64° F, skies spectacular blue. Unfortunately, a sheet of inch-thick, wet, glossy-slick ice still lingered in the shaded north-facing side of my shed where the overhead door is.It only extended out about four feet but it was so slick even walking on it was tricky—transiting a bike across was asking for trouble. Still, a day like that couldn’t be missed. Time for an ice-breaker!I searched for my crow-bar, with the intent of doing some ice-breaking to hammer out an ice-free six-inch wide track through the ice to freedom. I couldn’t find the crow-bar but did find a section of heavy iron T-shaped fence post. That worked fine.This year, the honor (get on ‘er and stay on ‘er) of my southern first ride would be bequeathed to my 1984 Honda VF500C Magna.It’s light, quick, very easy to handle, and stays the course when coming upon unexpected swatches of sand-covered pavement at intersections and corners. The sand, and sometimes even worse, pea-gravel, is at those points left-over from winter road crew efforts to provide some traction to vehicles. When the snow and ice are gone come spring, the effort has the opposite effect.Due to a late afternoon start, the ride only covered about 50 miles but it sure felt great to get out in the wind. One of my favorite spots for a stop on a ride is at an ancient sandstone formation called Elephant Trunk Rock.Located near Ithaca, Wisc., on STH 58, it is aptly named—the stone formation closely resembles an elephant’s trunk. It was formed by the erosive power of outwash from the melting glaciers of the ice age.It was a relaxing, comfortable, but far too short first ride—but it was better than no first ride.The following weekend, we made a trip north to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I keep two old bikes up there—a 1981 Yamaha XJ750RH Seca and a 1985 Honda VT500C Shadow.Those two bikes needed to be checked out started, and ridden since they were untouched for the entire winter. The weather cooperated giving me a sunny Saturday that saw the temperatures climb to about 54°F with virtually no wind.The problem with getting in a first ride in the far north is that there were still a lot of winters left lying around. In less than 300 road miles, spring seemed to have devolved back into winter. However, there hadn’t been any fresh snow for about a week so most of the main roads and streets on that day were ice and snow-free.That said, the less-traveled roads I like to ride up there had spots of water over the road, mud in stretches, potholes, busted pavement or no pavement, and frost heaves that make the ride seem more off-road than on. Indeed, some of the really out-of-the-way roads I like haven’t even been plowed during the winter, so they are still under enough snow to be impassable.On the bright side, the Battery Tenders did their job and the bikes turned over briskly. The Honda fired up after ten seconds of the first prod of the starter. The Yamaha started on the fourth touch of the starter and they both settled into a nice quick idle with their chokes on.Each needed a little air pressure in the tires, some WD-40 as a preventive measure on throttles, brake switches, levers, and so on. Coolant in the liquid-cooled Honda was in good shape and things otherwise checked out fine. On the Seca, I switched out its semi-rigid textile saddlebags for a set of leather bags I picked up at a yard sale last summer. Cheap is good.After letting the bikes warm-up, I took each in turn for their much-needed first ride. Or maybe it could be thought of as more of a test drive since I took each for only about a 30-mile tour around the area.Up there, a great scenic stop is at one of the shoreline spots on Sunday Lake in Wakefield, Mich. The lake was still hidden under the softening ice that no longer would allow snowmobiling across the lake, nor ice fishing through it.As I write this, it is March 15 and here in southern Wisconsin, one of those “more snow” events is happening outside my window. After having nearly all our snow gone—we now have two inches of fresh, wet, heavy snow on the ground and more on the way.On the bright side, snow eliminates the danger of wildfires in the dry, dead grass and leaves. And, spring will come—one of these days.For another tale of a great day for a first ride of the season, see:
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This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena gives us his impression of the outrageously cool-looking new Indian Scout Rogue. The Rogue features a larger front wheel among several other changes, and the bobbed-looks and excellent 100 horsepower motor make the Scout Rogue an interesting—and very real—competitor to the offerings from Milwaukee.
In the second segment Neale Bayly brings us the third and final segment from Brian Slark—the man who helped bring Norton motorcycles to America. Having spent 27 years and counting at the Barber Museum in Birmingham Alabama, Brian talks us through the final part of his career, that of course includes how the museum got started and where it’s going.
From all of us here at Ultimate Motorcycling, we hope you enjoy this episode!