June 2: It’s not precisely motorcycle-related, but I’m wandering the magical Coventry area of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, on a brief photo recon for a dear friend — photographing scenes of distant memories for her — when I stumble across a memory of my own.
It’s a 1970s-era Raleigh Grand Prix bicycle, white with black trim, the exact same bike owned by a couple of my high school riding buddies, Tom McCray among them, I believe1.
It sits there like a thunderclap from the past, loosely chained to a bike rack. I circle it in delight, thinking, “McCray has got to see this.”
It has the same three-armed cottered crankset, DiaCompe centerpull brakes, chromed front forks, high-flanged hubs and Simplex derailleur group. I can’t get a good look at the rear derailleur without moving the bike, which I’m loathe to do, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a Prestige2.
It has to be someone’s daily commuter bike, and — aside from some surface rust and the handlebar tape starting to unravel on the left drop — looks pretty good for being 40 years old. The brake cables even have clamped metal caps on the ends, to prevent the cables from fraying, a nice touch.
That was the highlight of the day until, searching the location of the former renown Coventry restaurant earth by april3, I walk into the Bottle House Brewery and Meadery on Lee Road and find a beautiful Colnago on the wall.
Ah, Colnago, the high-end Italian racing bicycle. And this one, a 12-speed Nuovo Mexico from 1982, is perfect. Hand-made steel frame, all Campagnolo components (rear derailleur looks like a Super Record) chrome front fork, tightly-spaced Regina 13-20 freewheel, flawless paint job, just beautiful.
Just beautiful. Seeing it clamped to the wall as a decoration is revolting, but this is a seriously expensive and relatively rare bicycle. Maybe it’s safer inside. Still, it seems a shame it’s not being ridden; that’s why it was built.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, bicycles were a precursor to motorcycles for me. Both are vehicles of freedom, taking you farther than you thought possible.
So I remember our bicycling days with gratitude, to the extent that if the Grand Prix owner had appeared on Coventry Road, I would have made an offer for the bike, for the memories of where we’ve been, and the promise of where we’ll go.
1 — Eric Blemaster was another Grand Prix owner.
2 — Grand Prix bikes came with Simplex Prestige rear derailleurs, which are notable because they were the first with parallelograms built of delrin, a hardy plastic that could be finely machined. Unfortunately, delrin was not as durable as metal.
3 — It’s earth by april, no capitalization, since the name was taken from the 31st line of the e.e. cummings poem anyone lived in a pretty how town. The restaurant closed decades ago but is still fondly remembered.
En passant (in passing): In chess, a French term1 for a special pawn move allowing the capture of an opposing pawn on the fifth rank.
We met, not on the fifth rank, but way, way back in the fifth grade, at a school where I was new and alone and kinda scared.
I’ll never forget him turning around to look at me as we were identifying ourselves in class and how he caught up with me later and introduced himself. We were mates, as the English say, after that.
Thus began my decades-long friendship with Stephen Wargo. I became friends not only with him, but with his entire family — his parents, his brother George, and sisters Kathi and Barb, who always made me feel welcome. Wonderful folks, all.
I never called him Stephen, though I did call him Steve, but most times it was just Wargo or Dude. Or (rarely) Pišta, the Hungarian nickname used by his family. He called me Petras, of course.
We hung out together a lot, into high school, where we ran together on the cross-country team (though neither of us was very good) and we did a few epic bicycle trips to Punderson State Park and camping rides across Ohio 87 to Pymatuning State Park on the Pennsylvania border.
Those trips are important because they fired my desire for travel and eventually evolved into long-distance motorcycle rides2.
Steve and I drifted apart after high school, long before I got on motorcycles. He was ahead of me in doing some amazing courageous things, like hitchhiking Jack Kerouac-style to Colorado to see his beloved older brother George3.
Hitchhiking — I’d dreamed about doing something daring like that but could never work up the nerve, could never get past the danger. But Steve just went and did it. He loved skiing and fishing and Colorado and the West.
“Once you cross the Mississippi, you’ll never want to come back,” he told me. I thought about that in 1995, while I was driving from Ohio to Nevada for a newspaper job in Reno.
I was in a Ford Ranger pickup pulling a 5×8 trailer with Discovery, my 1994 Yamaha Virago, stuffed inside. I wished he could have seen me then.
I saw him briefly on a visit home to Ohio in 1997 but we didn’t see one another again until 2016, when his sister Barb found me on the Internet.
My wife Linda and I visited Steve that July. His mother had passed away in the previous November, I think, and it was obvious he was still deeply in mourning. But we were very glad to see each other and it was as if the time had not passed, or did not matter.
We had a lot of laughs and we talked about the bicycle rides and the hikes and the cross country team and our crazy rubber raft ride down the Chagrin River. I’d gotten some sort of two-man inflatable raft as a Christmas gift and he and I took it on the river through the Cleveland Metroparks.
It was really a stupid-ass thing to do. The river still had ice on it and we managed to slice open the underside of the floor chamber. The raft still floated, though.
Then Steve dropped one of the two paddles and the current took it away and I ended up crawling out on the ice to retrieve it. If the ice had broken, I would have gone in and probably risked hypothermia.
Good times. A link to the 3-minute video I did for him is here.
Somewhere, in the jungle of our attic at home, I have a photo of us carrying that raft. I also have pictures from our other adventures, the bicycle rides and the hikes.
I came away from our 2016 reunion seized by the idea of us retracing one of our grand bicycle rides, because it seemed like he was so steeped in grief about his parents and I wanted to get him out of the house and back on the road, or something. You know, something fun.
I wanted to recapture the magic, the special feeling that’s endured from those rides to the motorcycle adventures Linda and I had later.
I kept talking to Steve about it (putting myself at risk of becoming a pest, I’m afraid) but I think maybe he was getting used to the idea or I was wearing him down; the last time I saw him, in early November 2017, we visited a nice bicycle shop, and looked at a Fuji Touring bike that was really sweet. So I like to think we would have eventually done the ride.
But we didn’t. Steve died unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer on Feb. 19, 20184. The last time I saw him was Nov. 4, 2017.
I’m trying to remember every moment, everything Steve and I talked about. It’s like I want to account for every minute. Since Steve didn’t have email, I was writing physical letters to him once or twice a month and calling at least once a month, or more.
It’s so easy to let friends drift away; life crowds in, as they say, which is so true. I didn’t want to let Steve drift away again.
And now I have to find a way to cope with his death. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to do that. I think of him often, and I smile at many of those memories, and sometimes laugh out loud, and that helps a little.
I’ve talked to Linda and Tom McCray, another good friend who was a part of those bicycle rides, about recreating Pymatuning. That may happen.
But even if it doesn’t, I think I need to see Ohio 87 and Pymatuning again, on a bicycle or aboard Terra Nova. Either way, I know Steve will be there.
1 — It literally does translate to “in passing.” Phonetically, it’s pronounced “on pass-on,” in case you were wondering.
2 — Hence Wargo’s inclusion in a motorcycle-travel blog, though he himself did not ride a motorcycle. He’s mentioned elsewhere in Motorcycle Days, and I printed out and mailed him a couple of the travel stories since he disdained computers and was not online.
3 — George was a just super guy, the cool older brother I always wished I had.
4 — We knew Steve was sick, but I suspect the correct diagnosis came too late. I put together a video for his funeral, gave the eulogy, and was one of his pallbearers. God, I miss him.
“I give up,” Alice said. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said the Hatter.
“Nor I,” said the March Hare.
— Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”
I can’t speak to ravens and writing desks, but motorcycles and fountain pens are alike because you operate both with care.
Motorcycles demand much of their pilots. You get wet in the rain, chilled in the cold, and filthy from the road. You have to suit up like a deep-sea diver before climbing aboard.
Writers with fountain pens find their lines can skip, bleed through paper and leave stains on fingers. You have to make sure you have enough ink on hand because the supply will run low when you least expect it.
In short: A bit of suffering is endured with both.
In return: You experience something car drivers and computer keyboardists never get: The ability to see things in a different way, a greater level of personal control, and a sense of satisfaction at doing something few people do.
On a motorcycle, the road winds invitingly ahead of you; with a fountain pen, the writing unspools across the page in elegant lines of ink.
You’re also forced to live in the moment. On a motorcycle, you have to maintain situational awareness at all times, lest some inattentive motorist, road debris, or sudden turn tries to kill you.
With a fountain pen, you can’t backspace and delete. The words you’re writing will remain for eternity, unless you scratch them out (which is excruciatinglybad form) or start over.
So you have to think ahead with both.
I’ve been on motorcycles for 23 years and started using fountain pens back in high school. Both always make me smile.
Though it’ll never be as famous as Easy Rider’s Captain America motorcycle, Prince’s Purple Rain bike gets pretty close as a movie icon.
It doesn’t take center stage in the film, since the movie isn’t constructed around the bike. It does have a good amount of screen time, more than you’d expect in a film about music. It’s even featured on the movie poster and album cover.
Besides the Easy Rider bikes, these immediately come to mind when I think about motorcycles in movies:
Steve McQueen’s Triumph in The Great Escape
Mickey Rourke’s Harley in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man
Marlon Brando’s Triumph in The Wild One
Michael Parks’ Harley Sportster in Then Came Bronson
I started thinking about the Purple Rain bike while researching Prince’s family tree for a USA Today graphic the day after Prince’s death. I was running a few of his songs on my personal laptop – just to keep me in the moment, you understand.
I’m not really a Prince fan, though I do like a few of his songs. I’ve seen the movie once or twice and the motorcycle always sort of stood out.
So I finished the genealogy, did a bit of reading, and put together a short article about the bike for USAT, seeking to answer the unasked question: Did he really ride, or was the bike just a prop?
As it turned out, Prince’s bike was a 1981 Honda 400 Hondamatic, one of Honda’s attempts at a motorcycle without a clutch. And Prince, I was gratified to learn, actually did ride that bike. He liked the Hondamatic because of the no-shift operation and because – since he was only 5-foot-2 – he could get on and off it easily.
Steve McQueen, however, will always have the best motorcycle scene in any movie.
It’s near the end of The Great Escape, when he jumps the Triumph over the first fence but fails to clear the second and gets tangled up in barbed wire. As the Germans close in to recapture him, he reaches down and pats the gas tank of the Triumph as if to say, “Not your fault.” Not even Prince can beat that.
“Ed loved fine tools and instruments and conversely had a bitter dislike for bad ones. The honest workmanship of a good microscope gave him the greatest pleasure. Once I brought him from Sweden a set of the finest scalpels, surgical scissors, and delicate forceps. I remember his joy in them.”
– John Steinbeck, “About Ed Ricketts” from “The Log from the Sea of Cortez”
I once convinced Linda to purchase some Vera Wang cutlery – forks, spoons, and knives – because they felt as good in my hands as a Snap-On wrench.
I surprised even myself at that. Who thinks of garage tools while looking at table settings?
Apparently I do. To the exasperation of my wife, I normally don’t care what we use in our house. Dishes, glasses, bowls, none of them really interest me. As long as they’re durable and do the job, I’m happy.
But I was killing time in Macy’s one day, waiting as Linda was trying on something, and I drifted over to housewares, found the flatware, and started studying patterns, mostly those from Vera Wang. Wait, Vera Who?
Vera Wang (I learned later) is a celebrity Manhattan designer known for her clothing and bridal designs. She also designs jewelry, eyewear and lots of stuff for your house. Kinda like a classy, more expensive Martha Stewart, I reckon.
I didn’t care about that as I toyed with her Blanc Sur Blanc1 forks, knives and spoons, stainless steel utensils that have a minimalist design with a simple grid pattern on the handle. I was thinking, “These feel just like a Snap-On.”
Both are polished steel and feel good in your hands, nicely balanced and just heavy enough to make you realize you’re holding something substantial and valuable.
You have to look hard to find items of substantiality these days, since most things are designed to be used for a while and thrown away. You don’t toss out hand wrenches, but my sole Snap-On feels more durable, more precise, than any of my Craftsman, Husky or Kobalt tools. Those tools are good, the Snap-Ons just feel better.
They feel like the Leica M3 rangefinder camera I once saw in a camera shop in Orleans, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The M3 is a thing of mechanical perfection, absolute precision, and I wanted it very badly, but I couldn’t afford it. Nearly 30 years later, I remember what it felt like in my hands. I still want one today.
But like that Leica with its tactile precision, better tools and tableware come at a prohibitive price. Linda found some Blanc Sur Blancs on sale, else we would have never bought them. I doubt I’ll ever break down enough to pay the asking price of Snap-On.
Even so, my appreciation for tools has extended to tableware. Both can be works of precision and objects of art. And I wonder what a set of combination wrenches would look like, if Vera Wang designed them.
1 – Which is French for “White On White.” The cutlery line has been discontinued, sadly.
When I first started riding, I also devoured motorcycle magazines, which rapidly littered the house like November leaves on your lawn.
Motorcycle magazine content is hit-or-miss, but I remember reading a Peter Egan Cycle World column in which he marveled at the mountains of motorcycle gear he’d accumulated over the years.
“Yeah, right,” I thought. “Is he just bragging?”
Fast-forward 21 years and I realize he was telling the truth. I realized it when I bought my fifth motorcycle helmet.
Manufacturers tell us helmets have a lifespan of about five years before they start to lose their protective qualities. The Snell Foundation1, a nonprofit organization for high standards of helmet safety, says:
The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation.
Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal “wear and tear” all contribute to helmet degradation.
Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance.
Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards.
Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.
I buy full-face Arai helmets, which are admittedly expensive, but well-fitted. (We look for them on sale.) Comfort is important on long rides – you’ll be less fatigued after hours on the bike if your helmet sits right and shields you from wind and noise.
I get Arais for Linda, too; she can choose the color and style. But she has to have a safe helmet.
New riders quickly come to find how extremely personal helmets can be. You spend hours inside them, and the enclosure has to feel right. I’ve ended up eschewing graphics and colors and going with white helmets, which have better visibility to texting car drivers. Linda’s Arai matches the color of her Vespa scooter.
But what do you do with old helmets? Some people donate them to fire departments, for practice in motorcycle-accident responses; others make lamps or planters out of them.
Ours are lined up along the top of a bookcase in the guest bedroom, faceshields open, reminding me of the row of waiting spacesuits in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I take down the older ones every now and again and dust them off. Sometimes I’ll use one to take a bike for a quick ride after a wash.
But mostly they just sit there, self-contained with memories and stories of past rides. My father used my first Bieffe when I took him for a short ride aboard Discovery, my Yamaha Virago, many years ago; the black Bieffe has a white paint scar from hitting the side of a gas pump while fueling up with my Uncle Robert in California.
I wore the red Arai for our motorcycle travels in Europe; the white Arai was the camera mount for my first GoPro video, through Glacier National Park in Montana.
Motorcycle helmets. The memories they protect are the most precious of all.
1 — The foundation was created in 1957, the year after William “Pete” Snell, a popular sports car racer, died of head injuries in a crash. The helmet he was wearing failed to protect him.
“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
– Everett Sloan (as Mr. Bernstein) “Citizen Kane”
Motorcycles are visceral machines, vehicles to which you react with your gut and your heart, not your head – ethos a’plenty, logos in short supply, as they say.
Those of us who ride are always looking at bikes, even when we’re not looking to buy, and I think all riders keep an imaginary garage to store the bikes they lust after. This can go on for years and some of those garages can get pretty big.
It can’t be helped. Usually, the bike you don’t buy is attributed to a) money, or b) the deep-down realization that you won’t ride it as you should. I like riding long distances, for example; and so the bikes I have suit me.
That doesn’t stop me from putting bikes in my imaginary garage, though most of them probably would not be comfortable for cross-country rides.
A 1995 or 1996 Triumph Speed Triple is parked at the front of my stable. I saw one at the Triumph dealer in Reno, Nevada, back when Triumph was starting a comeback under its new owner, John Bloor.
The Speed Triple was a 98-hp factory café racer, available in two colors, Fireball Orange and Diablo Black. That’s a beautiful bike, lean, lightweight, fast. It looked positively menacing in Diablo Black but I loved the iconic Fireball Orange. I had the poster in my workshop for years. Even now, I still think about getting one.
After 1996, Triumph spoiled the Speed Triple’s look by giving it dual headlights and changing it from a café racer to a streetfighter. That killed it for me, but I still love the ’95 and ’96 models.
Next to the Speed Triple is a Moto Guzzi V11 LeMans, a 91-hp sport-tourer manufactured from 2001 to 2005. I saw a red one – the perfect color! – at a bike show in Washington one year and, like Mr. Bernstein, was never able to forget it. I fell into a daydream where I’d take it out West, in one of the empty states where all the highways are drawn dead-straight with rulers, open it up to 15o, and let it fly.
So I think about the V11, too. Moto Guzzi has the v7 Racer these days, a sweet bike, but it’s not the same.
Then there’s the 1999-2009 Harley-Davidson FXSTB Night Train, a blacked-out Softail with stripped-down chopper appeal, though it’s certainly not a chopper. I loved the drag bars and the lean, no-nonsense visual aspect of the bike, but it wasn’t the bike for the type of riding I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it, though.
There are others, of course, like the mid-’90s Triumph Tigers and the 2004 Ducati 998 in Matrix-inspired green, and Honda’s CBR1000RR in Repsol livery. Or the BMW R1200R Linda and I rented in Vienna and rode through Slovakia and Hungary in 2009. These are all beautiful bikes.
But they’re bikes I probably won’t get, unless I see a Speed Triple or a V11 for a really good price somewhere. That’s unlikely.
Besides, I enjoy riding Endurance, my 2000 BMW R1150GS and Terra Nova, my 2012 Yamaha Super Tenere. And I’ll bet if I was riding a Speed Triple or a V11 I’d probably be on the lookout for a GS or a Tenere, looking to move them from my imaginary motorcycle garage to my real one.