Does Harley ownership mean shaving your head (or other body parts)?

As stated earlier, I might soon buy a Harley, ending a more than 30-year tradition of owning only bikes that go, stop and handle well.

I’ll admit I’m now attracted to the imperfect machines. I love the thought of all that torque coupled with Lazy Boy ergonomics that should make my next 1,000-mile ride to the desert and back more enjoyable. Beside, I’m getting too old for my sports bike.

Biker man

There’s only one thing holding me up besides the hefty price tag. The bad-boy image associated with the Harley crowd is giving me pause.

To see if I could fit in with the men and women in black T-shirts and cut-off vests, I attended the 21st annual Tattoos & Blues festival in Santa Rosa.

As I pulled up I could see I’d come to the right place. Hogs lined the parking lot of the Flamingo Hotel and people with necks tats and ear gauges mingled among the chrome and flame paint.

I walked up as a leather-clad couple exited. I eavesdropped just long enough to catch a conversation about shaved body parts.

“It itches,” he said.

“How low did you take it?” she asked.

“It’s Telly Savales down there,” he replied.

I headed in, trying not to notice the two dudes in Hells Angels vests standing at the door. Apparently, the event was sponsored by the Sonoma County chapter.

Inside I inquired about the offering. Tattoos in one room and blues in another. There’s also a full bar, I was told.

Hmmm. I figured I could skip the body engraving but a little music and booze sounded good, so I started to walk in when the man extended a tattoo covered arm and stopped me.

“That’ll be $20,” he said.

“Oh, OK. Maybe I’ll come back later,” I stammered and did an about-face.

I walked outside in time to hear an Angel hawk a lugey in a planter. Two weathered women smoking cigarettes stopped talking as I walked by.

In the parking space beside my car were three bikers, unstrapping and getting ready to go in. I asked them how they liked their Road Kings. They liked them a lot.

One guy, perhaps sensing I was not yet of the “brotherhood,” pointed to a message on his tank painted in red cursive. It said “Just effing ride.”

“It doesn’t matter what you ride,” he said. “As long as you ride.”


Confessions from an obsessive oil changer

Spend any time talking to motorcycle riders and the subject of oil comes up. Vigorous debate can erupt over which is the best brand or weight, or whether one should use synthetic or “dinosaur” oil. Simply raising the question “How often should I change my oil?” on an enthusiast website can lead to multiple responses and sometimes fierce argument.

The life-blood of a bike’s engine is one of those hot-button topics — like tires — that really set people off.

I guess I’m no different. And I know why. Like almost every man in America, I can recall my father instructing me at a young age about the importance of checking my oil, whether it was in the family station wagon, my bike or lawn mower. He had strong opinions about the best brand that were never fully explained. “Always use Castrol,” he would say. “If you can’t find it get Valvoline.”

Really old oil

Back then everything was 30 weight. And it was changed, according to dad, every 5,000 miles, period. If the odometer was about to roll over and you were late for the movies, you stopped everything, jumped under the car and pulled the oil plug. That was law and it was reinforced by hundreds of lectures, reminders and brow-beatings.

So it’s no mystery why I also became an obsessive oil changer. And for reasons that remain unknown to me I upped the frequency to every 3,000 miles.

That created a bit of a problem for the avid rider, who began changing oil a lot. At one point, the inside of my garage looked like a used oil storage facility. Every plastic jug or old anti-freeze bottle I had was filled with the spent brownish liquid, which I stashed on shelves and behind boxes, waiting, I guess, for the oil fairy to come and take them away.

The oil fairy never came, but a friend gave me a tip that changed everything. Turns out, oil change businesses like Jiffy Lube will take used oil and filters and recycle them for you — for free. All you have to do is haul it down to them. Voila!

Today, my garage is used oil-free. I also have cranked back a bit on how the frequency of oil changes. My bike can take it and you know what? It’s better for the planet, which, afterall, is a beautiful place to ride.

High-speed Kiwi

Hollywood has had a long love affair with the motorcycle, producing hits like The Wild One and Easy Rider and not-so-great flicks like Wild Hogs — the tale of a group of CPA-types who hit the highway on Harleys and meet up with real bikers.


Add another film to the list with The World’s Fastest Indian, which came out in 2005 but made my TV screen for the first time last night. The rule of thumb in my household is if I haven’t seen it, it’s still new.

Actor Anthony Hopkins plays real-life New Zealander Burt Munro, who spent a lifetime dreaming about coming to America to run his Indian motorcycle on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.

The first half of the film details his eccentric lifestyle down under. The elderly man lives in a cinder block shack and pees on his lemon tree each morning. Good fertilizer, he tells a neighbor boy.

The movie takes off when Munro books passage aboard a cargo ship and sets sail for Los Angeles.

He arrives in 1960s Hollywood, shacks up briefly at a flea bag on the Sunset Strip and buys an old Chevy to carry him and his bike to Bonneville.

Munro has adventures along the way that include amorous times with another senior citizen and dinner with a real-live American Indian.

He has to run a gauntlet of Bonneville bureaucracy to be allowed to participate but eventually does with the help of racing heavyweights who’ve taken a shine to him.

The last half-hour of the film contains realistic clips of Hopkins as Munro rumbling across the salt, reaching speeds of more than 200 mph.

I was impressed by the cockpit view, which blurred as the antique V-twin got up to speed. When the bike fishtailed, I felt myself trying to correct it by letting off an imaginary throttle.

It was humbling to see an old Kiwi go so fast on such an obsolete machine. It made me think of the last time I pushed it on my much more modern bike.

I was in the Salinas Valley last fall on one of those endlessly flat farm roads. It was a weekend and there were no tractors, laborers or CHP in sight.

I cranked it, rolling right up to 130 mph. I took my eyes off the road just long enough to glimpse the speedometer, which seemed to be floating.

But despite being decked out in the best protective gear and riding a bike with excellent brakes and suspension, I quickly backed off, worried about blow-outs, potholes and other gremlins.

There are only a handful of people who can set records at Bonneville. I’m not one of them.

Why I blame my parents for my covetous ways

When I think back on the day many decades ago I got my first motorcycle, I can hardly believe it. It seems so story-book, so unreal. And certainly, my parents were never nicer.

My bike looked just like this

I was 9 years old and woke up Christmas morning to find a brand-new Honda SL-70 under the tree. It was yellow with a black stripe across the tank and sported lights, which would soon be removed and lost forever in some forgotten storage box.

It was the beginning of a life-long interest — bordering on obsession — and the first of more than 15 motorcycles that I’ve owned. I’ve had dirt bikes, street bikes, cafe racers. Some were nice; others, junk. I bought them new and used, at flea markets and on the Internet.

Today, I scour Craigslist almost daily for good deals. The winter season is the best time for that. It’s become habit, one that takes priority over actual work. The routine: get to the office, logon, search Craigslist, then eBay. Reluctantly begin working.

I covet all things fast and exotic. And lately, as I advance into middle-age, I’m thinking for the first time about a Harley. Imagine that!

My wife, non-rider that she is, groans. I tell her it’s my parents’ fault for getting me started.
Anyway, here are the bikes on my short list of future acquisitions (I’ll be lucky to get one of them). Let’s see yours.

Ducati ST4s
Triumph Daytona 955i
Harley Road King Classic

Dream machine? The Ducati ST4s.

Swiss Army knife of bikes -- BMW R1200GS

Triumph Daytona 955i. British royalty.

The King. Name speaks for itself.

What are your favorite places to ride in Northern California?

As an avid motorcyclist, I’m fortunate to live in Northern California, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, where there are an abundance of places to ride.

Anderson Valley farmhouse, Highway 128, Mendocino County

I can go short or long, taking day trips to picturesque coastal towns like Pt. Reyes Station or Mendocino, or pack my saddlebags and head off for multi-day adventures up the Redwood Highway or to the Northern Sierra. Personal favorites include Highway 128 through Anderson Valley for short jaunts and Highway 36 to the Trinity Wilderness for overnight stays.

Mt. Lassen from Highway 89

Last summer, I ventured northeast into the foothills and up Highway 70 to Bucks Lake, where patches of snow remained into late July. This year I hope to cross state lines into Oregon or points north in a weeklong escape.

I’m open to suggestions on exactly where to go, not just for long trips but for weekend rides. Where do you like to get out on two wheels in Northern California? What are you favorites trips? What are road conditions like? Please share.

If this is winter, how come I’m still riding?

It’s the middle of winter in the Bay Area and my internal motorcycling clock should be directing me toward a number of off-season repair projects.

My bike’s in desperate need of a valve adjustment and oil change. And there are two small scratches I picked up last summer that need to be sanded down and re-painted.

But the valves are still clacking. The oil is unchanged. And the can of touch-up paint I bought at great expense is still staring at me from across my garage, unopened.

I can’t bring myself to do the usual chores in preparation for spring because winter never really came this year. I never stopped riding.

Motorcycling with friends on the Central Coast, near Lake Nacimiento

Unlike years past when I camped out with my bike in the garage, staring out the window at a cold rain, this winter has been dry and sunny. I’m taking advantage of the great weather, feeling almost guilty as I don a spring riding jacket and hit the road.

I’m not alone. As I hurtle down the freeway I see the rest of you out there too. I feel like we’re getting away with something that people in cars don’t understand. It’s February … and we’re riding! I’m grinning under my full-coverage helmet.

But as I pull onto a favorite country road and head into some twisties, I feel the bike hesitate, ever-so-slightly. I should change the air cleaner and replace the plugs, I think. I sense throttle play when I exit a turn a little wide. Maybe the cables are worn. I should fix that.

Then my mind drifts to the ugly scratches on the front fairing. I hope no one sees me in this condition, I think.


What am I doing out here? I slow down, flip a u-turn, head back to the barn. I’ve got work to do.