July 17, 2011 — It was hot out when I opened up my garage door. Not wimpy, midwestern hot, but genuinely tropical, drop dead hot. The weather app on my iPhone said it was going to be 101ºF with 98% humidity – tying the all-time state heat index record at 116ºF. This kind of weather makes me angry because in my mind, the whole point of putting up with Minnesota winters is for gorgeous, temperate weather the rest of the year. Typically, that’s what we get, but this year our state’s weather seems to be stuck in riffraff mode regardless of season. I didn’t care though, I had an air show to attend.
Every year at the Flying Cloud Airport, the area’s historical aircraft get together for an event called AirExpo. With just two weeks left before EAA Oshkosh AirVenture, it’s an event a lot of the area’s aerial historians use as a practice run. I won’t be able to get to Oshkosh this year, so I wanted to make sure to catch what bits of vintage aviation I could this summer. I was also compelled to ride a motorcycle if it wasn’t just pouring rain. It’d been far too many days since I’d sat astride anything old, loud and two-wheeled. I’d been working on my own bikes and hanging around Bluecat Motors quite a bit, but hadn’t had any seat time in a while. That had to change. Since the Mrs’ Honda CM400 is the only working bike we have at the moment, I rolled it out into the boggy, wretched noon air.
This was going to be a ride of many variables. Would I be able to tolerate the heat and humidity, even when rolling? Would the motorcycle have an issue with those extra 15-20 degrees of temperature? Would riding into the airport grounds or finding parking be an issue on a bike? As I donned my mesh riding jacket, helmet and gloves, I had my doubts. Even with my typical UnderArmor undershirt on, the heat was oppressive. Thankfully though, the Honda fired right up and ran contentedly straight away. I hopped aboard and we galloped off into the sauna of the southeast Twin Cities. To my relief, the heat was kind of nice once I was moving. It was strangely enjoyable, though I’d never pick it as my preferred riding weather. My thoughts turned to my GL1100, and how if I could handle this heat and humidity, the trips I’ve been thinking about lately become that much more plausible. Heat tolerance means I’m not stuck with the unpredictable rain of spring or the oft changing temperatures of autumn if I want to take a big road trip. Granted, I’d still probably rather travel in September if by moto.
Heading out from Eagan over to Eden Prairie for the air show was a trip down memory lane in a lot of ways. Zipping up the Crosstown Hwy 62, and later down Hwy 7, brought back memories of my first real season of riding back in 2008. It was me and my Genuine Blur 150 tearing down that very road as fast as its little motor could move me — flowing through traffic as quickly as I dared. These “B roads” were my paths of choice because they felt a lot safer on two wheels then the larger arteries. Traversing these same roads on the Honda 400 was a very different experience. Plucky effort was replaced by real capability. The Honda could outperform the Blur without even using all of its gears. That’s no commentary on the Blur or on scooters in general, but more so on my own maturity as a rider. I’ve come a long way since those early days. I’m a lot safer, and I have a much better sense of what I really enjoy about riding.
I turned south onto Baker Rd in Minnetonka and wound my way through the sleepy, tree shaded hills into Hopkins. My route was interrupted slightly, as I had to detour around some sort of charity foot race. There were cop cars on the side streets with their lights going and officers in bright orange vests directing joggers and traffic alike. I felt a real pity for those poor slobs out hoofing it in this heat. It was bad enough on a motorcycle. I have a feeling the event organizers hadn’t remotely anticipated that their little race would happen to fall on the second hottest, most humid day in the recorded Minnesota history. Oops.
Continuing down Baker into Eden Prairie, I saw two scooters coming toward me in the opposite direction — a pink Genuine Buddy 125 and a sea foam green Genuine Stella. My first thought was that it might be our scooter friends Lynn and Santiago (who regular readers may recall from this story), who live on this end of town. However, Santiago’s Stella was red in my memory. As we passed, I recognized Santiago’s trademark mustache. It was them! I got on the brakes fairly hard and whipped into the next side street. I pulled a U-turn and went tearing after them, not sure if they’d recognized me in my full face helmet and riding something other than my Vespa. Just as I caught them, they pulled off onto a driveway for a big apartment community. I was going a bit too fast to whip in after them, so I pulled one more quick turn ’round before finally pulling up alongside the two of them. They’d already gotten off their scooters and pulled their helmets off. I pealed off my Camelback, camera bag, jacket, helmet and gloves so that I wouldn’t just boil in the noon sun.
We talked only briefly, but it was so good to see them. Santiago observed that without a scooter rally this year (which sadly, won’t happen this season), there wasn’t that built in excuse for all of us blockers to get together every weekend and ride the upcoming rally route together. I hadn’t thought about it, but he was right. Usually by this point in the season we would have had at least two or three check rides. Since I’d sold my Vespa and am still lacking a running bike of my own, the thought of organizing some group rides of my own hadn’t even occurred to me. We also talked about what we were riding. Turns out the green Stella was an insurance replacement for the one that’d been wrecked during last year’s Rattle My Bones. I pointed to the CM400 and remarked how the last time the two of them had seen this bike, it was spewing oil out of a blown head gasket in Hastings, MN. Since then, the CM had undergone both a mechanical and an aesthetic transformation to become the reliable, darling little half-cafe it is today. We made mutual vows to get together and travel as soon as I had something of my own to ride, and I set off again to meet Ryan for AirExpo.
It was a relief to get back in the wind again. Buzzing down Baker Rd, I passed our old apartment — the place where The Mrs and I had first lived after we got married. I remembered that townhouse that was too big for us, and the garage that was too small. I thought about our struggles to get my first bike, a Vespa P200E, safely off of her truck so that I could learn to ride it. These roads were where all my 2-wheel adventures began. Baker Rd turns into Mitchell where it crosses Hwy 5. Thinking back to 2007, it was this little stretch of road that took me to my proving grounds: a giant church parking lot where Mitchell meets Pioneer Trail. I used to go there and practice my swerves, my shifting and my panic stops. As I passed it then on the CM400, all I could focus on was the church traffic letting out — praying to Jesus that the drowsy parishioners would see me and not run me over as they pulled out onto Mitchell. That safely navigated, it was all a very pleasant ride down memory lane.
I took the left fork onto Spring Rd, looking forward to its sweeping turns and elevation changes. I screwed on the CM’s throttle and whipped into the tree shade. Being surrounded by that many trees, I could feel the humidity spike even higher, which didn’t even seem possible at that point. I was looking for the Fredrick-Miller spring, where I’d meet up with Ryan and his wife, Dana. It turned out to be one of those little half circle drives with a plaque and the obligatory walking trail off into the woods that pop up randomly along the back roads in this part of the Twin Cities. I pulled up behind Ryan’s beautiful ’46 Chevy hot rod. No sooner did I dismount and start to peel off my riding gear then I was confronted by a small posse of children, all enthralled by my wife’s little motorcycle.
“Is it loud?” one of them asked.
“Not really.” I told him. I looked over toward the spring and saw Ryan and Dana talking to a guy who by process of elimination had to be the parental unit for this little group of three kids. I pointed over at Ryan and said “That guy over there, he helped me make this.”
“You made this motorcycle?” the oldest girl asked with surprise. I hadn’t though about how hyper-literal kid logic is.
“No, we didn’t make it from scratch. But he helped me fix it. He owns a motorcycle shop.” I explained. There were collective and appropriate oohs and ahs.
Right about then their guardian came over, said hello, and politely herded them away. Ryan and Dana were filling their water bottles from the free flowing spring. They said the water was nice and cold and I had to take their word for it. I had ice water in my Camelbak, so I was good to go. No sooner than I arrived, we decided to head down to Lion’s Tap and grab some lunch. If you’re looking for a great, unassuming burger in the Twin Cities, you’ll do no better than Lion’s Tap. Good fries too. We fueled up on proper air show food and basked in the air conditioning, talking about being out and about and discussed future trips that Bluecat could take as a group. My personal front runner would be a motorcycle run out to watch the Reno Air Races. I’m going to try to make that happen.
With lunch, and no small amount of iced tea mixed with lemonade consumed (thanks, Arnold), I tossed my riding jacket into Ryan’s back seat, then put my helmet and gloves back on to make the short hop over to Flying Cloud Airport. There was a B-17 flying overhead as we left, its massive radial engines groaning in unison that way only an old bomber’s do. Passing through the gates, teenagers in camo pants and bright orange vests took our money and split us up for parking. I was sent across a short stretch of dry field to a strip of concrete where all the bikes were parked. Kudos to the AirExpo event planners for thinking ahead and having parking set aside for motorcycles. It was not only paved, it was concrete on the edges – so no worries about pushing a kickstand through the blacktop. That’s a critical detail on a day as hot as this one.
AirExpo is not a big show, if we’re honest. It’s really just a handful of planes, but they’re interesting planes. There was a Blimp at one end of the field, two helicopters giving paying customers little hops around Eden Prairie, a handful of T-6 training aircraft from WWII, the B-17 we’d seen flying earlier, and even planes from the local chapter of the Commemorative Air Force. I recognized their B-25 Mitchell and P-51C Mustang painted up to commemorate the Tuskegee Airmen. We soon got to hear its mighty Merlin engine fire to life and we enjoyed the cooling prop wash for a moment. We tooled around, looking at the planes close up, which when they weren’t running, folks were able to get right up next to and even touch them. There was this great feeling of community about the crowd that if you were there, at an event like this, it was because you love classic aviation and you’re going to be respectful in your curiosity. There were no ropes quartering off the exhibited aircraft. Simply spotters around planes that were actually running, moving and ready for action.
We saw one plane which I’d never actually seen flying in person before, a Hawker Sea Fury. Ryan and I are both fans of classic british motorcycles, so seeing an iconic british WWII fighter fire up and fly was particularly interesting. The massive radial engine up front spit and sputtered to life before positively roaring out of its straight pipe exhaust. I swear, I have more pipe length on my Honda GL than that Sea Fury had on all 18 cylinders put together. It billowed smoke at first before finally clearing and getting happy — still snarling very pleasantly through its short exhaust. This particular Sea Fury is also a Reno racer, and upon learning that, I pitched the idea to Ryan to close the shop this or next autumn and ride bikes down to Reno for the air races. That’d be an epic trip. Days of motorcycle touring through gorgeous country capped off by more days of the most spectacular races on earth.
I wouldn’t call AirExpo disappointing, but it was a tad small. I’d expected more to see, more to do, but it’s actually very likely that a lot of planes weren’t able to come because of horrible weather on Friday. It’s not cheap to keep these old birds in the air, so I can understand why you wouldn’t want to make the trip for just a single day at the show. I’m grateful for those who did show up though, especially the P-38 that flew over. I’ve never seen one of those in the air before and I can only imagine the eerie and menacing site that plane must have been for the German and Japanese forces it went up against. They didn’t call it the “fork-tailed devil” for nothing. It looked mean. All in all, I was really glad I went. Spending some non-motorcycle time with Ryan and Dana was definitely a treat and running into Lynn and Santiago was a delightfully happy accident. Though the event itself was small, it was still a big day. Riding home in the still sweltering heat, I was glad I went. It was so much fun to reconnect to the aviation enthusiasm of my youth and cross-pollenate it with my adult passion for motorcycles. Riding home in the heat filled me with a very strong desire to ride out to Reno, or over to Oshkosh as often as I can in the future. I don’t want to simply attend these events, I want to travel to them on a motorcycle. It feels like I couldn’t really enjoy them the same way otherwise. Now that temperature and humidity don’t deter me from riding, those trips are a real possibility. That’s encouraging. Now I know I can fly the highway and enjoy it regardless of the dew point. Who’s coming with?
Awesome. I’d love to go to Reno. How long before your GL’s up and running?
I have basically all the parts I need to make it road-worthy. So optimistically I’d be only a few weeks away from something I could ride reliably. That wouldn’t have it quite ready to tour yet (need to make luggage for it), and definitely far from show ready, but I’m planning on at least one good trip this year on that old sled. I haven’t ruled out this year’s races as a second trip. Next year I want to do Bonneville, Reno, or Oshkosh, if not all three. All on one bike or another.
Nice story, Nathaniel. Glad that you were able to get your wife’s bike up and running in time for the event. Anxious to see photos of both the CM400 half café and the GL1000 in-progress — vicarious enjoyment while I’m still between bikes.
Well here’s the ’80 CM400:
And here’s the ’83 GL1100:
Just pulled the carb rack off the GL last night for the first time. It wasn’t running awful, but with a full carb rebuild kit in-hand, the time is now to do all the work and forget about it. I want to replace all the 30 year-old rubber I can get to and put those carb bodies through the ultrasonic washer down at Bluecat Motors so that I don’t have to pull them apart again for a long, long time. I’ll be doing pre-emptive rebuilds on all the brake components as well, master cylinders and calipers alike. That, plus fresh pads and tires, a quick check of the valve clearance and that bike ought to be good for a decade or better of regular use. Then all that remains is all the customization.