For me, 2011 was truly epic. It was long, arduous, fun, tedious, surprising, frustrating and a hell of a lot of fun. Looking back, I can’t believe how much happened in just a single year. With 2012 in full swing, I’m looking back on the 2011 that was, what I learned, what I experienced, and where I’m headed from here. I’ve told many of the stories already, but there are still so many I haven’t got down in words yet. Trouble is, it’s already a new year, a new riding season and I’m already having experiences that I really want to share. So rather than fight the backlog, I’m going to give in to it and catch up now so I can move forward. Here’s how 2011 went down.
A Year of Storytelling
I spent the entirety of 2011 as BlueCat Motors’ official documentarian. Each week I told a new story of what was going on at the shop. There are very few things in my entire life that I’ve enjoyed more than I enjoyed writing their blog each week. The connection I made with the guys, all the time I got to spend in the shop, and everything I learned in return was an experience I’ll always cherish. Jeff and Robb made a mechanic out of me. Ryan showed me how you don’t always have to take things quite so seriously. But above all, I found a place for myself — a clubhouse culture of men who love old mechanical things and the smell of grease and exhaust. It was a privilege to be on the inside of that place — to be beyond the “Employees Only” sign and part of everybody pushing forward to help build something. I got to be at the center of a movement and growing culture of young riders who love old motorcycles.
BlueCat Motors was, above all else, the place I was saddest to leave when I came to Chicago. But in that weird twist of life, not long after moving here, things changed drastically at BCM. Key people left. Relationships were fractured. In the long run, I think it’s all for the best for everybody involved, but I’m still sad to see it change — sad to know that my favorite place in the Twin Cities is not how I left it. That’s inevitable though, I suppose. You can never go home again. Yet, I know I will try. I know every time I visit the Twin Cities, I’ll be stopping in at BlueCat Motors to see what’s shakin’. Chances are, I’ll have my camera in hand when I do. I always feel naked there without it.
The writing I did for BCM is, I think, some of my best work to date. One part photojournalism, one part content marketing, it was something I not only enjoyed doing, but something that genuinely helped their business. It helped establish their expertise. It helped them build their fan base. It helped tell a very personal story of a group of people focused on keeping forgotten machines in working order. And if I’m fully honest, I’m proud of myself for fully delivering. All 52 weeks of 2011 saw new content, from me, on the BlueCat Motors blog. I delivered on what I said I’d do for them. For anyone who does creative work, you know delivering is much harder than it sounds. I’m proud to have held up my end of the bargain I made with Jeff and Ryan at the end of 2010, as they more than held up their end of it.
A Year of MINI Adventures
In addition to the writing I did for BlueCat Motors, my year was also spent writing about MINIs for MotoringFile on a nearly daily basis. Beyond reporting the news and crafting our editorial, I got to go on three very special trips as a reporter for MotoringFile. The first was to the quintessential grassroots MINI event: The Dragon. I spent nearly a week traversing the winding roads of Tennessee and North Carolina. I got to finally meet MotoringFile founder and future colleague Gabe Bridger in person. I got to spend several days making party with fellow White Roof Radio hosts Todd Pearson and Chad Miller. I got to nerd out about MINIs with several hundred complete strangers. What was perhaps most significant about my trip to MINIs on the Dragon was that at the time, I’d just lost my job. Having some time away from home, isolated in the Smokey Mountains with plenty of good folks for company, was just what I needed. I only wish The Mrs had come with me.
My second MINI adventure was an autumn press trip to Nashville, TN for the official launch of the MINI Coupé. Not only did I get to spend three days with a terrific, exclusive new car, I got to spend some quality time with several key people inside MINI USA. I learned that MINI USA product manager Vinnie Kung shares my sickness for old Honda motorcycles. I got to go on a road trip with MINI USA chief Jim McDowell — who was utterly charming and enjoyable as a co-driver. Best of all, I got autocross driving lessons from rally racing legend and all-around swell guy, Rauno Aaltonen. I now drive my own MINI better because of what Rauno showed me in just 20 minutes.
In December, I received a real treat. As MotoringFile’s official representative, I got to attend the MINI Snowman event in Insbruck, Austria and drive a prototype of their all-wheel-drive John Cooper Works Countryman All4. I’d never been to Europe before and this event dropped me into the middle of the Alps the week before Christmas. It doesn’t get much more charming than that. I got to reconnect with Nathalie from MINI USA on her home turf in Europe, and got to zoom up a snowy alpine road as Rauno’s co-driver in a classic Mini Cooper S. For a lifelong Mini fan, it doesn’t get much better. I’ll be writing more about this experience soon. It was truly life-altering.
A Year of Working on Old Hondas
In 2010 I did a lot of riding. Between my Vespa GT and my Honda CB650, I rode to work. I rode to the store. I rode for shits and giggles. I went on trips into Wisconsin and took my first baby steps into maintaining and customizing motorcycles. In contrast, 2011 was a year of dirty hands, sore knuckles and lots of waiting. By Spring I’d culled the fleet down to almost nothing. The CB650 was gone. Both scooters found new homes. I’d fallen absolutely in love with motorcycles and while I always knew I’d return to scooters, my affection for motorcycles had now taken two forms: riding and wrenching. Jeff and I had rebuilt and customized The Mrs’ CM400 to great success. It was running like a top and was so much fun to ride, it drove the scooters out of our garage for the time being.
I’d sold the CB650 because I didn’t like its inline four cylinder engine. Also, CB650s have a terrible reputation — something I didn’t know when I bought it. My buddy Bree bought almost an identical machine to mine, but his was an endless plague of problems. In its place, I’d scratched a foolish but fun itch and bought a 1983 Honda Goldwing Standard. It had nearly 50,000 miles on it and a pair of ultra rare engine covers I couldn’t pass up. Regular readers have seen my posts about this beast. Between waiting for parts, and work done on other motorcycle projects, it would be mid-October before my GL1100 was sorted out for the road.
The ugly Harley lights were gone. The bike had two new shoes on its feet. New brake pads all around and freshly bled brakes meant the thing actually stopped well. Sync’d carburetors had it running strong, even if it was a bit grumpy when cold. New superbike handlebars, grips and bar-end mirrors had the controls sorted out much closer to my liking. Best of all, the GL was starting to look like the bike I wanted it to look like all along. A late start to winter meant I got to enjoy riding the GL until nearly Thanksgiving. Knowing that the move to Chicago was coming, riding the GL on those autumn afternoons became my way of saying goodbye to the cities where I’d fallen in love with riding in the first place. I retraced all my favorite routes and even found a few new ones. The GL soon went into winter hibernation and when it emerged, the old sled found itself in a new city. Though well on its way, the GL is still a work-in-progress here in 2012. More of that story to come.
In late May, I bought a long-neglected 1974 Honda CB450 Supersport from the boys at BlueCat Motors. I paid barely more than the value of its custom Vinyl-Lux seat. The assumption was that the motor was trashed by an improperly-routed cam chain. Jeff and I rerouted the chain and checked the compression. Readings were good so we did a lot of work putting the rest of the bike back together, assuming that it’d run when we were finished. It did, but then again it didn’t. In the end, there was more wrong in the engine than we’d thought. That part of the story has been told. What I haven’t gotten to yet was my experience finding a replacement engine. I searched eBay, Craigslist and finally the local motorcycle salvage yard for a motor with good compression. I learned a couple of important lessons:
1. The customer service at Sport Wheels is worse than you’d expect, even for a junk yard
2. If you want an accurate compression reading on an engine that’s been sitting for years, you need to squirt a little oil in the cylinders
I was especially proud of myself for managing to talk SW down more than $150 on the engine. For some reason, they tend to price oxidized junk like it’s new-old-stock that’s been dipped in precious metals. Unfortunately, when I got the motor back to BlueCat and opened up, I found that the cam lobes were badly pitted — most likely from heat and oil starvation. I had good cams and followers in the original engine at least, but it meant I’d have to frankenstein the two motors together. The new motor also had a screwed up shift lever. Someone had welded the lever to the shift shaft. So that’d have to get sorted out too. Just as all of these factors became known, the fates conspired to take The Mrs and me to Chicago. When I broke the news to the boys at BlueCat Motors, they offered to take care of the CB450 for me as a thank you for all my writing. So that bike is actually still in Minnesota — a perfect excuse for me to get back there sometime soon. I recently talked to Robb, and apparently he’s “taken an interest” in my little 450. While I don’t currently have an ETA, his intentions are to tune the living hell out of it. There are apparently ongoing talks with former Honda factory race technicians and other key pieces of espionage taking place to make my CB450 will “breathe fire and shit speed.” It should be well worth the wait.
There came a point in 2011 where it seemed like I was collecting old Hondas the way old shut-ins collect cats. In July I bought a 1981 Honda CB750 off a work buddy of mine. The bike had under 30,000 miles, looked great and the price was right. Unfortunately, the thing had been sitting for more than six years. The story has been told about how Robb and I breathed life back into the green machine. What I haven’t had a chance to talk about is how not long after bringing it home, the front brake master cylinder return port clogged and the front calipers wouldn’t release. I had to limp the bike home after setting off for BCM one Saturday morning. The calipers were clamped so tight I physically couldn’t push the bike. It took 77 hp of internal combustion to get the old boy to roll back into my garage. Rebuilding a master cylinder isn’t actually that big a deal, it was just damned inconvenient. That bike went on to be my go-to machine for the end of the season. The Mrs and I went on a couple rides and I used it on our yearly trip to Alma, Wisconsin. On the trip, the charging system failed, but that’s a story I’m actually going to take the time to tell separately, so stay tuned. The CB750 remains in the fleet today, but once a handful of little things are finished, it’s going on the sale block. I have other interests, and it was never my intention to keep the bike — only to rehab it. Who wants it?
I couldn’t begin to summarize everything I learned from Jeff and Robb during our Moto Dojo sessions at BlueCat Motors. Working on my own machines last year, and helping Jeff with some of his, I leveled-up big time from where I started on my CB650 — swapping handlebars and doing oil changes. At this point the only thing I haven’t either done myself or received specific instruction on is bottom-end engine rebuilds. I’m sure that day will come when it’s time to split the cases. What’s important, though, is that thanks to Robb, and especially Jeff, I know I can handle it. I feel like with the right tools, the right parts, and the service manual, I ought to be able to fix damn near anything. And in a pinch, I feel like I might be able to eek out a living doing basic bike work. That confidence is not easily given. It can only be earned by turning a lot of bolts under the watchful eyes of experts.
A Year of Little Riding
Sadly, the downside to all the mechanical work I got to do last year was how little actual riding I did. I’d sold my running fleet to travel down the road toward mechanical competence. Sure, I put about 1,500 miles on The Mrs’ CM400, but I spent most of the season without a bike of my own to ride. Having a project bike is one thing, but trying to juggle three project bikes just in an effort to have something — anything — to ride is another thing entirely. I’d been overzealous, and it’s a mistake I’m trying very hard not to repeat in 2012.
That said, there were some riding highlights. There were lots of trips back and forth to BlueCat Motors on the CM400. There were occasional commute rides. I discovered some terrific, winding roads in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area along Baldwin and Spring Lake. It’s a lovely little network of county roads that if you’re not careful, loop back on themselves in a way that makes it hard to find your way back out. Riding out that way with my buddy Bree one afternoon, we even ran into Jeff and his lady on their way to an apple orchard. The Mrs and I took our matching pair of 1981 Hondas out for a lovely afternoon jaunt through the Minnesota River Valley on another day, even finding a site where they were erecting a new wind turbine. Bottom line, however, I did far too little riding in 2011. I plan to rectify this in 2012. I also plan to bring scooters back into the mix.
A Year of Big Changes
2011 started with me having a great time working in the world product development. It really was about as close to working on Mythbusters as a real world job is likely to get. Unfortunately, the company all but fell apart on me and several of us got laid off, myself included. I found work quickly, but it wasn’t a great fit for me. It remains a really good company, just not the combination of work and culture where I personally thrive. My dissatisfaction with work led to some very interesting conversations with a friend of mine in Chicago. He planted some seeds and introduced me to a couple of key people. This led to some very interesting opportunities not just for me, but for The Mrs as well. By year’s end, she’d been hired by a world class Chicago agency and we made the move to The Windy City together. Not more than a week into the new year, I was hired at Razorfish. It’s easily the best job I’ve ever had, which is fitting, as they’re considered the best in the world at what they do. And while I still miss the Twin Cities and the people we left behind, Chicago has turned out to be a worthy adventure.
As soon as we got moved in to our new place here in the Chicago area, my thoughts turned to motorcycles and even scooters. With Amerivespa coming to our area in June, and my founding of ScooterFile in February, it’s time to add a scooter back to the fleet. More on that to come. The biggest adjustment is that when it comes to keeping my old bikes on the road, I’m now much more on my own. I don’t have BlueCat Motors just up the road anymore. Thing is, this doesn’t scare me. I’ve got a place to work. I’ve got the tools it takes to do 90% of any motorcycle or scooter work I’ll ever need to do, and if need be, I can always pick up the phone. But most importantly, I spent a whole year, it feels, getting ready to be where I am now. Both professionally and as a recreational mechanic, it’s interesting to look back at the path that brought me here. Could I have come any other way? Now to move forward.