Friday, November 28, 2008

1973 Yamaha LT100

Sometime in
Junior High, around 1973 when I was 13, I caught the motocross bug. This was the age of DeCoster and Lackey, the cross-up and peace sign wheelie. I was hopelessly hooked.

One of my Junior High buddies had a big brother that raced, so one weekend we went to the famous Widowmaker motocross to watch he and some other amateur heroes do battle. Local pro Bob Plumb and his brother were there that day racing, Bob on his big Maico and little brother Rick on a modified Hodaka Super Rat (with a burly leading-link fork) in the 100 class.

The main memory I took from that day was standing by the finish line as the riders exited the track after the race. These guys were larger than life to me, with their white Bell open-face helmets, Jofa mouthguards and Carrera goggles. They had their flat visors duct taped on, Champion spark plug stickers on their gas tanks, cotton jerseys under goatskin chest protectors, and the requisite leather pants and heavy boots. As I watched the last riders roll by, I remember being in awe of them, the thought that if I could someday be out there, even as the last-placed rider in a race, that would be a huge achievement.

The gears were churning. I went in search of the dream, picking the brains of every Junior High kid that was so lucky to own a mini bike. Every time I saw someone riding a dirt bike I would study every nuance, the sleek simple shape of a CZ gas tank, the graceful down pipe on a Maico, the raspy crackle of a 2-stroke exhaust, the smell of castor oil in the air. Some of my contemporaries at school also had the bug, and since many of them already had motorcycles of some shape or form I had to get one.

Enter the 1973 Yamaha LT100 MX, an early version of the developing japanese motocross bike, basically an enduro bike with the lights removed. It was a 2-stroke, 100cc lightweight "racer" with oil injection (a leftover from the enduro model), steel fenders, a cool downpipe that looked the part, and rubber footpegs (not cool). The grips had hard rubber "fins" covering them, the source of many blisters to come. I purchased this fine bike from a classmate named Matt Finley who I have come to know as an adult, he is a very fine guy. He is my car mechanic to this day, but that's a story for another time.

I spent many hours in the fields riding this bike, experienced many slide outs and bloody knees. My first semi-panic-ridden mechanical thrashes were on this thing, wire and tape repairs so that I could get back to my passionate scrambling.

I had a great battle one day after school in the small field just to the South of our Junior High Seminary building, a lumpy oval dirt track with a some gravelly corners and 2 fast straights. My rival that day was my great friend Kelly who was mounted on a sweet Bultaco trials bike. Pride was at stake here and both of us raced it out, skidding around and bottoming out suspension, until one of us gave up. I think Kelly won, he being faster and with steely resolve borne of the fear of losing to a punk beginner like me. After we finished our race, we were treated to the spectacle of another kid blitzing around the track on his cool Honda CR125, all style, wheelies and speed! This turned out to be another lifelong friend, Steve.

I used to ride this bike, ninja style, through the neighborhoods in search of terrain. One of my favorite memories is flying around the cinder running track that was right next to the aforementioned Seminary building. I descended on this field with engine screaming, cut 2 or 3 dusty laps and beat it home before the startled teacher and students knew what hit them. Good times.

My first race was on this bike, sometime in 1973. The race was at 5600 West, a track named "Motoqua" which we simply knew as "'56". I had practiced enough that I felt I was ready to race, and nervousness notwithstanding, had lined up behind a rubber band in the 100 Novice class with 20-30 other racer hopefuls. As the start approached, I started the bike several times just to test it, being anxious and also a little worried. But when the time came to kick the engine to life for real, it refused to start. I kicked and kicked. The race referee held the start for me. I kicked the lever until it fell off! Some friends pushed me in an attempt to compression start it, and still it refused to light. Dejected (and a little relieved) I pushed my bike back to the pits and watched my class race around without me.

I was finally able to get it going again in the several hours between motos, the culprit being a fouled spark plug. After replacing the oily part with a clean one, while riding around the pits I saw a strange sight. Several guys were standing around watching as this dude would start his bike, put it into gear and let out the clutch, wereupon the bike would move... backward! Good for some laughs at the time, I am sure he did not think it was that cool.

The second moto went off, and I took the start with the others and raced — the details which do not come readily to mind — except that I took last place. My dad had gotten off work to come see me race, and he joked later that he didn't know if I was far ahead or far behind, but there I was, circulating by myself, living the motocross dream at last.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Azuki 10 Speed

The next bike that comes up on my radar is the white Azuki 10 speed. This was about 1973 or 1974 when I was about 14. Somehow I had become aware of the genre of the 10 speed racing bicycle and had my sights set on getting one. It was probably visits to a bike shop close to my house, about 2 or 3 miles away, that sparked my interest. The exact details are lost to ancient history.

I do remember there were posters of road racers on the walls of that bike shop, funny striped hats topping their heads. They looked like super athletes to me, pedaling their 10 speeds up mountains, a look of hard determination on their faces.

On one of these trips to the bike shop I decided I wanted one of those cool 10 speeds. The thought of that many gears held a special fascination for me, being a technically-minded young man. I remember being enamored with the shiny paint job on that bike, the clean lines and purposeful stance, plus it had a sweet pair of gear shifters mounted right on the stem! A pair of top mounted brake levers completed the package.

I had saved my money for this bike, and had probably dreamed and planned a fair bit before I got up enough courage to ask my dad if it was OK. Being a shy and respectful kid I probably agonized some about just how to pop the question. But I was determined, and a foreshadowing of a lifelong trait emerged that summer: when I want a bike, I get it. There is not much that can stand in my way when it comes to acquiring a bike I want... that's just the way it was and is to this day.

I chose an evening of TV watching as the time and place to get the last thing I needed, dad's permission. My dad has always been a super cool guy, but I was super nervous with so much riding on it. I remember it took a really long time to get up the guts to ask, and it dragged on late into the evening. I am pretty sure he knew I had something on my mind, but he said nothing so it was up to me to finally squeak out the words. Talk about stage fright. It felt like this was a big moment with big consequences and I was keenly aware of the short silence as he mulled over my request. To my vast relief, he said yes—that is if I had my own money for the bike— I could get it.

Little did dad know, this was not the last time we would wrangle over a bike I wanted.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Penelope the mongrel

The next bike I owned was salvaged from our backyard junk pile. I am not sure where she came from, but I saw potential in her red curves and fat tires. She was an old 1969-ish Schwinn Hollywood, girl's model, and I named her Penelope. I am not sure where my Sting Ray had gotten to at this point, maybe I sold it.

Anyway, I modified my new bike with a banana seat—a must for that dirt bike aura—and some BMX handlebars I mail ordered from a magazine. This was 1972 and BMX was still in it's infancy. I remember being super excited to find some bars with a real crossbar just like the motorcycles I dreamed about. I also ordered some motocross-type grips, and I even managed to find some knobby tires for the 26" rims.

Armed with these mods and a 12-year-old's imagination I was on my way to real motocross. One of my favorite after school activities was to ride in the field by my house. The area we grew up in, Holladay, still had a few vacant tracts of land and it was here I spent many hours in search of entertainment. There were several ridges running downhill from the top end of the field down to the bottom, with trails running along these ridges. The soil was rather sandy, making it almost impossible to ride up the trails. But a few minutes of pushing uphill rewarded me with some precious seconds of downhill racing, shredding the turns, foot out and sliding.

One Saturday I found an old car hood out in the field. It was perfectly shaped with a wide flat back and peaked at the front, just made to serve a moto crazy kid some air time. I placed this hood at the top of a small uphill that was at the end of one of my downhill trails. This made for a great finish to the fast downhill run as you carried just enough speed from the downhill to crest the small hill and boost that car hood to major air. I was loving it.

I was getting off the ground a couple of feet maybe, but it felt to me like some major hang time. One particular pass at the car hood, after executing a bitchen jump, I experienced a hard landing that folded my frame (it was a girl's bike with no top tube) and sent the cranks downward and dragging on the ground. Not good for performance. I walked Penelope back home and set about brainstorming a fix. Being a resourceful kid, and having a genius for a big brother, a solution for the bent frame was soon found. We used a car jack to straighten the frame, and a piece of steel tubing resurrected from the back yard junk pile was inserted to serve as a top tube. Some steel putty and duct tape secured the new part in place, and viola!

This bike was fun to ride downhill because the 26" wheels carried momentum. Penelope was a silly bike by any standard, but she took many victories over the Sting Rays owned by my friends. When I got those big wheels rolling along, watch out! They say necessity is the mother of invention, and this bike brought this concept home to me. I began to learn about creative fixes, performance modifications, desire to succeed and the first thrills of winning races on this bike, so it will always hold special memories for me.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Blue Sting Ray

The first bike on my list is the 1970 Schwinn Sting Ray, blue in color, I received for Christmas when I was 10. My brother and I had been pestering our parents for these bikes—they were a hot commodity among the kids in our neighborhood. Some kids had cheaper imitations, the Huffy comes to mind, but we were lucky enough to get genuine Schwinns. Of course we would have loved to get the hot rod “Orange Crate” model with a stick shift (!) on the top tube but we were happy with what our parents bought.

One of my memories of that time was how my Grandpa Clawson took an interest in what was going on in the run up to Christmas and the whole "kids want bicycles” news. He and Grammie came over to our house sometime before the holidays and showed us some of his racing medals. Grandpa had been a Utah State Champion in the early 1920s and we most certainly would have seen some of his photos and his State Champ jersey on that day. Honestly, I don't remember much about those things. We were not really excited about bike riding, or racing, at least not the old fashioned "10 speed" type of racing that Grandpa had done.

We wanted Sting Rays because they looked sort of like choppers or at least some vague hippie-type conveyance. We wanted to cruise around, pull wheelies and scramble in the dirt sort of like we were on motorcycles. Now that was cool!

One day a group of friends was out in the field by our house. A kid from the neighborhood named Mark Knudsen had made a jump out of some sod, placed at the nexus of a rocky downhill-to-dip trail that had the potential to launch a kid plus bike at least a couple of feet into the air. I remember Mark was great on a bike. He could wheelie his Sting Ray down the street and perform a number of sweet tricks such as standing on the seat, skidding using the coaster brake, and of course jumping. My group of friends were all more adept at jumping than me, and on this day were giving me (chicken) tips on jumping technique.

As I recall, the thrust of the discussion was proper weight centering that would give the best chance for a successful jump. "Successful" would be a jump that didn't end badly. The true fact is, I was scared to death.

After some serious self talk and a couple of aborted runs at the ramp, I made my first attempt. Rolling down the rocky hill and up the face of the jump I realized to my terror that I had not pulled up on the bars like I was instructed by my friends. The result was a classic endo, the first of my career. Ass over teakettle would describe it, and a face full of dirt and misery were my rewards. For a timid kid such as I, this was a humiliating experience... in front of my peers no less, suffice it to say I was afraid to try again—but just pissed off enough to give it another go. Dammit! (yes I was into cursing even back then.)

Fortified with anger and resolve to redeem myself, and with the repeated instructions to "pull back" ringing in my ears, I was back on the bike for another run. This time I was NOT going to endo. As I crested the jump for the second time, I did pull back on the bars. Way back. The dreaded loop out, right onto my ass with a thump that was felt all the way to my teeth. This was a prelude to many future crashes, and many encounters with a mouth-full of dirt, severe pain, and a mixture of anxiety and determination that would ultimately keep me coming back for more.

Love of racing bikes

In this space I will write, in chronological order, the history of the bikes I have owned in my riding (and racing) life. Some great stories circulate around the bikes I’ve owned, and I hope this blog will jog the memory to recall some of the great experiences I have had through my passion for bikes.

I will start with the earliest bikes I can reliably remember (trikes and such excluded), and will frame the list with bikes I have raced, because that's the other point of this blog. I have always loved racing. From my early teens on, I have been fascinated with bike racing. From racing neighborhood friends on clunkers down trails in the fields where I grew up, to racing against more serious competitors on motorcycles—and later back to bicycles—racing has always been the point of most of the riding.

It's interesting to note that my early years of bike riding were an attempt to emulate what I dreamed of... motocross racing. In my late 30s it came full circle, back to bicycles. Maybe it was a reaction to the danger and complexity of motocross racing, that was certainly part of it. I was shocked and saddened to see two of my motocross heroes, Danny “Magoo” Chandler and David Bailey injured racing, and those events got me thinking more about the danger of that sport.

But I think it was also a desire to move on to a new challenge, something I could improve on every day. I think that's what I really love about bike racing. There's no limit— there’s always something you can work on.