Taking the Harley leap

The big decision is upon me. Should I buy a Harley and abandon a lifelong allegiance to bikes that go fast, handle and run well? Or do I plunk down my dough on more of the same?

It’s a choice I never thought I’d consider until recently. But it’s one I’m facing nonetheless.

For most of my riding life I’ve felt secure in the knowledge that sport bikes of Japanese or European manufacture were superior to the classic American cruiser. They represented a style that suited my quest for speed and dependability while setting me apart from the leather vest-and-black-T-shirt crowd.

My future?

But after more than three decades of riding the “right” bikes, my thinking changed. It’s hard to pinpoint when it happened. Maybe it was last fall when I was hunched over the tank of my BMW on a lonesome back road in the Arizona desert. Or it could have been more recently when a birthday sent me squarely into middle age.

I don’t know, but suddenly a Harley sounds pretty good to me.

Sure, it’ll be slow and unreliable and scrape its running boards around every turn. I won’t be able to keep up with the crotch-rocket set. Hell, they won’t even ride with me. They’re dis-owning me as we speak.

But I don’t care. I’ll be riding in comfort. I’ll be in Hog heaven.

Still, I have doubts. The prospect of owning a rolling boat anchor with about half the horsepower of my usual bikes gives me pause. Then there are the neighbors. Will they complain about all he noise?

Perhaps the biggest concern is that I’ll become like all the other Harley people. That I’ll start wearing Harley logo clothing and doff my full-coverage helmet for something out of Hogan’s Heros. Maybe I’ll sport a leather-billed cap and develop a fondness for chaps.

Well, I hope not. Then again, stranger things have happened.

FRTHO: Moving beyond LOL and LMAO

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I’m posting a link to the Taoist Biker’s glossary, which reveals, among other things, new ways to be profane without offending your grandmother. I especially like his no-nonsense definitions of common expletives and his unwavering allegiance to southern universities.

Click here and have yourself a chuckle: http://taoistbiker.wordpress.com/the-taoist-biker-glossary/

Riding the corkscrew in my back yard

I have the good fortune to live between two race tracks.

One’s the real thing with bleachers, paid admission and corporate sponsors jockeying to rename the place, seemingly on a weekly basis.

The other doesn’t have the high-profile or the big-money backers. It’s not even a real track. It’s a two-lane blacktop.
But Skaggs Springs-Stewart’s Point Road, or just Skaggs, as the locals call it, is the place many prefer.

The winding ribbon of asphalt stretching about 35 miles from Lake Sonoma to Highway 1 is the perfect spot to drag a knee or pin the throttle on a long straight. Its sweeping turns, elevation changes and noticeable lack of cars have helped it achieve a cult following.

Regulars congregate at the bridge

Much of Skaggs is a lonesome back road that narrows as you get near the coast. It’s slow-going and rough in places. You get the feeling the county road crew hasn’t been out there in a while.

But the first 10 miles is wonderful, track-quality stuff. People come from all over the Bay Area and beyond to ride it. YouTube videos are plentiful and the road is mentioned on riders’ forums everywhere. Comparisons to professional tracks abound.

Always wanted to ride Laguna Seca? Here you go.

On weekends, sport-riders in full leathers gather at the bridge at the 10-mile point. They swap stories about crashes or close-calls with cops while puffing cigarettes and swigging sports drinks. Their bikes cool in the shade next to a guard rail plastered with motorcycle stickers.

Many ride back and forth in a continuous loop, the roar from their engines echoing through the hills. Others are just passing through on their way to other adventures.

It’s beautiful country. When you’re not going 80 you might even see a bit of it. On the other hand, taking your eyes of the road for even a second can be foolish. Everyone in this crowd seems to know someone who’s been maimed — or worse.

Still, no one is wishing they were some place else, like Infineon or Sears Point or whatever it’s called. Who needs a real track when you have all this?

The beautiful thing that is lane splitting

I’m an addict. I admit it. There’s nothing I can do.

I’m hooked on lane splitting, the grin-inducing and perfectly legal maneuver that allows me to escape my otherwise grid-locked existence.

Ex-squeeze me!

The fun is two-fold. First, I can avoid traffic jams and the misery that comes with breathing car exhaust and melted plastic fairings.

More importantly, I get to whiz by everyone else in a high-speed slalom that is part down-hill skiing, part Indy 500.

It’s always just a bit scary when you’re sneaking up behind a car, poised to shoot the gap. There’s the possibility that a driver might change lanes suddenly or slam on the brakes.

And some cars are harder than others to get around. The Ford F-250 pickup with its hyper-extended mirrors is my least favorite vehicle to come across. And for some reason, hybrid drivers appear to be somewhat unpredictable.

But I’ve had no incidents so far, knock on wood, except, of course, for a ticket for going too fast between cars. The CHP officer who wrote me up said a bike is not permitted to go 10 mph faster than traffic when lane splitting.

Yeah, right.

I guess I’m just fortunate that it is allowed at all. California is one of the few states to permit it.

Anyway, here are a few tips and observations for successful lane splitting:
1. The ideal time to do it is when two cars are side-by-side. That way they can’t change lanes.
2. Be smooth. Don’t swing out wide before and after passing cars.
3. Pass cars quickly and before they notice you, if possible. It leaves less time for nervous drivers to hit the brakes or swerve.
4. Watch for sudden lane-changers in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
5. Be nice. Don’t act like you’re entitled. Drivers are watching you and they’re bigger than you.

Gonzo stayed here: Hunter S. Thompson visited Bay Area hospital after storied clash with bikers

I’m always on the look-out for trivia about my hometown of Santa Rosa.

And here’s a piece: While writing his biker-gang epic about the Hell’s Angels, Hunter S. Thompson was savagely beaten by the thugs and treated at a hospital in my humble burg.

His book is one of the coolest accounts of the bad-ass Angels, who continue to roam the North Coast of California and maintain a headquarters in Santa Rosa.

Here’s an excerpt from the book, Hell’s Angels, A Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.


On Labor Day 1966, I pushed my luck a little too far and got badly stomped by four or five Angels who seemed to feel I was taking advantage of them. A minor disagreement suddenly became very serious.

None of those who did me were among the group I considered my friends — but they were Angels, and that was enough to cause many of the others to participate after one of the brethren teed off on me. The first blow was launched with no hint of warning and I thought for a moment that it was just one of those drunken accidents that a man has to live with in this league. But within seconds I was clubbed from behind by the Angel I’d been talking to just a moment earlier. Then I was swarmed in a general flail. As I went down I caught a glimpse of Tiny, standing on the rim of the action. His was the only familiar face I could see … and if there is any one person a non-Angel does not want to see among his attackers, that person is Tiny. I yelled to him for help — but more out of desperation than hope.

Yet it was Tiny who pulled me out of the stomp circle before the others managed to fracture my skull or explode my groin. Even while the heavy boots were punching into my ribs and jolting my head back and forth I could hear Tiny somewhere above me, saying, “Come on, come on, that’s enough.” I suppose he helped more than I realized, but if he had done nothing else I owe him a huge favor for preventing one of the outlaws from crashing a huge rock down on my head. I could see the vicious swine trying to get at me with the stone held in a two-handed Godzilla grip above his head. Tiny kept him mercifully out of range … and then, during a lull in the boot action, he pulled me to my feet and hurried me off toward the highway.

Nobody followed. The attack ended with the same inexplicable suddenness that it had begun. There was no vocal aftermath, then or later. I didn’t expect one — no more than I’d expect a pack of sharks to explain their feeding frenzy.

I got in my car and sped off, spitting blood on the dashboard and weaving erratically across both lanes of the midnight highway until my one good eye finally came into focus. I hadn’t gone very far when I realized Magoo was asleep in the back seat. I pulled off the road and woke him up. He was jolted at the sight of my bloody face. “Jesus Christ!” he muttered. “Who’s after us? You shoulda woke me up!”

“Never mind,” I said. “You better get out. I’m leaving.” He nodded blankly, then lurched out to meet the enemy. I left him standing in the gravel beside the road.

My next stop was the hospital in Santa Rosa, nearly fifty miles south of the Angel encampment. The emergency-ward waiting room was full of wounded Gypsy Jokers. The most serious case was a broken jaw, the result of a clash earlier that evening with a pipe-wielding Hell’s Angel.

The Jokers told me they were on their way north to wipe the Angels out. “It’ll be a goddamn slaughter,” said one.

I agreed, and wished them luck. I wanted no part of it — not even with a shotgun. I was tired, swollen and whipped. My face looked like it had been jammed into the spokes of a speeding Harley, and the only thing keeping me awake was the spastic pain of a broken rib.

It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer. On my way back to San Francisco, I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!” ”

Loud pipes: Saving lives, one pissed-off neighbor at a time

I was walking down the street, talking baseball and spring training with a friend, when a guy on a Harley roared by.

The conversation stopped until we could hear our voices once again.

“Talk about your Boys of Summer,” my friend said. “That’s what I call the Noise of Summer. And it’s coming early this year.”

He was right. With the mild weather, bikers were getting a head start on the riding season. Not only could you see it but you could hear it.

Not lovin' loud pipes

The long-standing debate over loud pipes came to mind.

Some insist they save lives because people in cars hear you coming. It’s a hard point to argue if you’ve ever had a driver change lanes on you as you’re doing 80 on the freeway or had a car pull out in front of you in an intersection.

People get hurt. People get killed.

The flip side is the noise is annoying. Sure, it commands attention but it disrupts everything around it. Thoughts are forever lost. Nerves are frayed. And people cop an attitude about motorcycles.

As my friend points out, the safety argument falls flat when you consider that many Harley riders — no doubt the biggest offenders — place little importance on safety equipment. Half-dome helmets and sleeveless vests won’t do much to protect you when you’re sliding across the pavement.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself an avid motorcyclist, took a stab at solving the problem before leaving office. He passed into law an anti-tampering bill that sets fines starting at $50 for anyone riding a bike with a loud, modified exhaust. Police can’t pull people over for noise, but if they stop you for another violation and your exhaust system doesn’t have a federal emissions stamp on it you will get a fix-it ticket.

However, the law only applies to bikes built in 2013 or later, so expect at least one more noisy summer before anything changes.