July 19, 2012 — I had to pack light. No helmet. No armored jacket. No tools. I stuffed four pairs of socks and knickers down into the toe of a motorcycle boot. As many Under Armor shirts and black Ts went down the other. With both boots stuffed deep in my backpack I tucked the rest of my sundry items into the various pockets and compartments of my tired and true old blue bag. Armored gloves went in one mesh pocket, and my Nikon D40 took the waterproof top pouch. Just the essentials. Clothes. iPad. Camera. Title document. One bag for one man. I had a plane to catch in the morning.
It was 6:15 AM when my iPhone alarm chimed its familiar wake up tone. Today was the day — the start of a four day adventure on a motorcycle I’d only just met. Cab to the airport, through security and I was soon on a plane bound for Minneapolis. Barely an hour in the air safely delivered us to the Twin Cities. Not much longer than my daily commute, actually. Seeing familiar roads on the final approach had me feeling freshly nostalgic for my old stomping grounds. I’ve missed this place and frankly, it still feels like home. Stepping out of the airport I took a deep breath. For all of Chicago’s virtues, air quality isn’t one of them. That gray Minnesota morning smelled like I’d found Earth again. It was fresh, cool, dry and full of possibility.
A chatty cab ride delivered me to BlueCat Motors. As usual, a row of motorcycles sat out front serving as advertising for the shop. On the near end of that row: my very own rootbeer-colored 1974 Honda CB450 Supersport. We’d met before, about a month previous, at Road America. My preview of the 450 had been brief. Just enough to get an initial feel for the chassis and fall in love with the sound of the engine. I hadn’t done more than 30 mph meandering around the National Park of Speed. Today this new machine of mine would not only become an official part of my fleet, it would serve as my sole transportation for the following four days. Rain or shine, the 450 would have to haul me and my gear to and from several bike events, plus back and forth to BlueCat over the course of my long weekend. That’s why I’d packed light.
My arrival was met with a warm volley of handshakes and man hugs. It was good to be home away from home again. I was happy to find BlueCat Motors more or less as I’d left it. There were bikes everywhere, every lift was occupied and everybody was busy. Jeff has moved on to other things, and old shop apprentices have been replaced by new ones, but in all the ways that matter most, BlueCat pushes on and continues to grow its business and reputation. Behind the scenes and two states away, I’d reprised my old role as documentarian and site manager for a comprehensive refresh of BlueCat’s website. Yet there I stood, in the middle of the shop, my Nikon in hand. In as much as it could be, the team was back together.
I dumped my bag up in Lance’s parts office and came downstairs in search of a helmet. At my request, Lance ordered a handful of things for my arrival. Among them, two new tires for the CB450 and a gold metal flake Bell 500 Classic helmet. Its ’70s style matched my ’70s motorcycle perfectly. We paired it with a yellow bubble visor, which doesn’t quite replace sunglasses, but it does wash the landscape in a wonderful yellow hue that, in my mind anyway, makes the whole world look like it’s 1975. With a proper DOT lid, I could actually ride the 450 around in good conscience. Good thing too. For a guy on vacation, I had a lot of appointments. Places to go. People to see.
Later that afternoon I would be a guest on David Harrington’s Just Gotta Scoot podcast to talk about ScooterFile.com. That night was Third Thursday back at BlueCat. Then staying across town with my dear friends Susan and Sam I’d have to get out to their place with all my gear after Third Thursday. Friday morning I’d be back at BlueCat for a tire change and business discussions with Ryan. Saturday was The Bearded Lady Motorcycle Freak Show and whatever other adventures presented themselves. Events aside, my soul itched to ride some of my favorite Twin Cities roads on this new motorcycle. Among all of that, somewhere along the way I had to line up a box truck so I haul the CB450 back to Chicago. Let the games begin.
Back upstairs at BlueCat, I exchanged my frequent flyer’s flip flops for my motorcycle boots (a terrific brown pair of Icon 1000 Elsinores). Robb needed me to actually sit on the 450 so he could dial in the rear shocks. It all felt like pre-flight. Titles were exchanged and Robb gave me a preliminary checklist of things to keep in mind while riding for the weekend. “Let the bike warm up enough to get oil into the head. Don’t let it idle on the side stand for very long. You’re still breaking in the motor, so no long, high-speed runs. Vary the load.” With that sorted, it was time to really experience my CB450 for the first time.
Petcock lever down, headlight off, a smidge of choke, key to “on” position and I hit the starter button. The bike immediately fired to life, snarling like a sleeping lion that’d been roused from a very good dream. I closed the choke lever on the left carburetor, stroking the big cat’s ear. “Easy girl.” True to Robb’s description, the cam chain was an audible clatter for 20-30 seconds. Then the engine got quiet, calm and happy.
“You hear that? That’s what I’m talking about. Let the oil get all the way up into the head. Watch for the tach to really come alive. That’s a good indicator.” Robb projected into my left ear over the growl of the exhaust. “Now get out of here.”
He didn’t have to tell me twice. With my new Bell on my brain, I headed for Minneapolis to meet David Harrington. Pulling out of BlueCat and onto Prior Ave, I opened up the throttle and let the machine roar. It didn’t take much. One-third throttle had me and the bike moving along well. Unlike the buzzy, chipper little twin in The Mrs’s CM400, this CB450 motor was brutal. It’ll rev, but it doesn’t really need to. Even though the stock CB450 made 45 hp (and my modified one likely makes a couple more), it’s torque that sets this parallel twin apart. The noise trumpeting out of that two-into-one exhaust was pure racing, but without the unrefined pop and drone of your typical back yard, straight pipe, hack job and re-jet. Speaking of jetting, the stock CV carburetors on my 450 are mated to foam uni-filters on one side, and that terrific, free-flowing exhaust on the other. That’s a lot more air. So obviously, it’s running brass with bigger holes. Robb warned me I’d likely only get 35 mpg or so, but the result is worth it. The bike pulls as hard as any 450 has business pulling, but it’s not just sound and fury. My CB450 was unlike any bike I’ve ever ridden and there was a lot to get used to.
Firstly, the throttle response. The simple, re-jetted carbs on my 450 require smooth throttle operation. I couldn’t just screw it on and wait for the motor to catch up like I can on my newer Hondas. The 450 would buck and choke if I rode the throttle that way. Roll it on smoothly though, and the engine would pull with a furious output of torque and growl. I was going to need some earplugs.
Getting used to the CB450’s brand new clutch would prove my second lesson in learning this new machine. Robb had rebuilt the clutch “the right way” in that he faced the curve of each clutch plate in the same direction. This makes the clutch engagement much more positive and according to him, causes less slipping and longer clutch life. That all sounded great, but adjusting to the new clutch took a few miles. The engagement range is much narrower than most motorcycles, and this gives the clutch a bit of an on/off character. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s very different from what I’m used to.
The rest of the CB450 was an effortless transition. The suspension setup was taught, responsive and comfortable. Robb had matched the components and settings perfectly to my weight. I had been concerned about the 450’s shaved seat, wondering if it’d be comfortable for any period of time. What the seat lacked in inches of padding, the suspension made up for in soaking up road irregularities. Yet, the bike was absolutely planted through the turns. I could push the bike as deep into the turns as I liked — holding back only for the sake of its ancient tires.
As the bike and I got to know each other more, we roared down Larpenteur Ave toward Dave’s office. My yellow bubble visor colored the gray day with a retro tint appropriate to my time travel. The humidity had me sweating under my Dickies work shirt — my traveling man’s stand in for my usual armored jacket. Movement helped, but by then I’d simply consigned myself to hot summer riding. Comfort wasn’t really on my mind, though. The CB450 was so much fun, weather be damned. It was unlike anything I’d ever ridden — so tight and new and fresh, yet so old fashioned. Simultaneously, the CB450 felt gentlemanly and defiant — like an old man in a sharp suit, giving the finger to the mayor. It’s worlds away from a modern sport bike’s rarified performance envelope, yet my 450 was still extremely capable. Comfortable too. Between the grunty, picky character of the engine and the pitch perfect setup of the suspension, I imagine there’s many a road in the world where my CB450 would eat would-be, boy racer squids on their GSX-Rs for breakfast.
But that’s not the point.
The point was that this snarly old machine was capable and overflowing with character. It’s not about perfection, or even measurable proficiency. My CB450 was simply a brilliant old motorcycle, and so much more than the sum of its parts. Like any great old machine, it had its aches and pains, but just because a horse is old doesn’t mean it can’t gallop. And boy, did that bike gallop. Through all of my motorcycle travels on the CB450 that weekend, the persistent thought in my head was about the past — the time when this bike was new. This. This is what motorcycles were like in the ’70s. No wonder there were so many passionate Honda owners back in the day.
I arrived at Dave’s office all too quickly. Hot though it was, I was liking this whole motorcycle-as-trasport arrangement. I had nothing with me but the clothes on my back and the content of my pockets. No laptop, just my iPhone. No extra clothes. People would just have to take me as I came. I really enjoyed the simplicity of it all. All I had was myself and my trusty ride.
Recording the show was a blast, and you can hear the edited version of our conversation here or on iTunes.
Back toward BlueCat, I took a detour up to Bob’s Cycle Supply where I snagged a pair of Icon Field Armor sleeves for my elbows and a stand-alone Field Armor back protector. This turned my Dickies work shirt into an armored Dickies work shirt. Though the extra gear didn’t help with the heat, it certainly helped with my confidence as a two-wheel traveler — my gear climbing the scale higher and higher up from “better than nothing” to moderately safe. While an unwelcome expense, staying safe was critical to traveling entirely by motorcycle that weekend.
Back out into the heat, I arrived at BlueCat with enough time to quiz Robb for CB450 tech spec’s and maintenance intervals before Third Thursday that night. Basically, I’m going to have to give the bike a full tune up every 1,000 miles. Oil change, plugs, ignition timing (points), valve clearance check, and a handful of other things will have to happen very regularly if I want to keep this new old bike healthy. While some might see this as a hassle, I’m really looking forward to it — to showing this amazing little machine the reverence it deserves. After my first day of motorcycle-only travel aboard the CB450, I was more than happy to give the bike whatever it needed. It’d already taken great care of me.
To be continued…