June 9, 2012 — Sometimes a journey is the destination. Sometimes it’s the road. Other times it’s surprises along the way that happen when I intersect other journeys I didn’t even know I was taking. This time, it was all of the above.
Since moving to Chicago I’ve been trying to figure out my riding calendar. In the Twin Cities, there was a rhythm of events that I relied on to mark the passage of each year’s riding season. And while I fully intend to travel to MSP for some of those events each summer, a new city means a new riding community and a new spectrum of events to attend in the Chicago area. One of those events is the AMHRA Vintage Motorcycle Races, just a short ride away, at Road America.
I couldn’t have been more excited to attend the races. I’d never been to a real live motorcycle race, and more importantly, the boys from BlueCat Motors had made this event a sort of pilgrimage. They’d shut down the shop for the weekend, made the trip out to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, and were staying for the whole event. Makes sense for a bunch of vintage motorcycle mechanics.
Unfortunately, I could only spend the day, but I’d take what I could get. Best of all, I’d have company on my two-and-a-half-hour journey past Milwaukee. Both Bree (now affectionately known as “the wookie”) and The Mrs were coming with me. The plan was to set off fairly early, spend the day, then return a little before dark. I’d be riding my Honda GL1100, The Mrs would be on her BlueCat-bred Honda CM400, and Bree would rock his Triumph Bonneville T100. We’d be a cheery little caravan of (mostly) old bikes off to gather with hundreds of others.
The weather was perfect. It wasn’t hot. It wasn’t chilly. The sun was shining and all our bikes were running strong. The GL1100 had been flawless since its proving run out to Beloit, Wisconsin, and back — a trip of nearly equal road time to what we planned to tackle that day. Better yet, the GL had freshly reconfigured brakes. It was more roadworthy than ever and I couldn’t wait to show it off to everybody at Road America, especially the boys from BlueCat. Confidence notwithstanding, I still packed a significant toolkit and a handful of spare parts should our day’s road trip turn into another episode of This Old Bike.
We shot up HWY 41, beyond Chicago’s sprawling satellite neighborhoods, and out into the Wisconsin countryside. As a new Chicago resident, I’m learning the value of getting the hell out of town once in a while. Chicago is a wonderful city, but it’s dense. The streets are close together. The houses are close together. The people are close together. Everything is right up next to everything else. It can make anyone feel a bit claustrophobic. That density pretty much sucks all the joy out of driving around town on anything but a scooter. Escaping the city helps remind me that there’s still living green and open road in the world.
A couple hours on, we’d punched north through Milwaukee’s horrible snarl of road construction and the three of us pulled aside for a pit stop. The break did us good after the stress of navigating the road mess and the general butt discomfort from simply sitting on a bike for two hours. Pulling off the road for a while gave me a chance to reflect on our little squadron. Small packets of Harleys would rumble by every few minutes — no surprise on such a lovely day. I couldn’t help but feel proud. Here were three bikes well outside the norm. We had the sleepy Brit cruiser, the light and nimble Honda 400, and my beastly, chocolate brown muscle bike with its bizarre boxer four cylinder and sweeping covers. We were hardly the typical weekend warrior tribe and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
North of Milwaukee we encountered some genuinely lovely countryside. I’m talking rolling hills and red barns — real Americana shit. Our bikes galloped up the hills and ate up the miles as we pushed through those last 30 miles to Road America. As we went, the rural road became thicker and thicker with motorcycles. At a gas stop, we encountered his-and-hers classic Hondas: a gold CB350 and a dull red CB400 Four Supersport. At least I knew we were headed in the right direction.
“Vintage bike races?”
“Yup! Should be fun.”
“See you there.”
There’s something truly special about the camaraderie of motorcycle people — especially those who seem to appreciate bikes for their own sake, rather than as extensions of their own ego. You can’t (or at least you shouldn’t) get a big head about a 30+-year-old Japanese motorcycle. Yet they’re easy machines to love. It’s easy to obsess. It’s easy to dote. With a weird old bike it’s not about me, it’s about the machine. Yeah, there’s pride in it being my machine, but the bike itself is the star. When that kind of people get together, it’s easy to find common ground and easy to feel that kindred spirit. The closer we got to Road America, I swear, I could smell it in the air.
I’d never been to Road America before. I was shocked at the scale of the place. It’s huge. It’s sprawling. What’s more, the track is everywhere. The race course weaves in and around the property like a twisted river. There are no grandstands that overlook the whole track. It’s too much of a road course for that. Instead, spectators were able to wander around basically unchecked behind the scenes, pick a spot with an overview of a corner or straight, and watch that little segment of the action. Every couple minutes, a small pack of old and angry motorcycles would go screaming by. First the leaders, then the rest. The terrific noise of the racing, plus the stereo growl of thousands of bikes on our side of the fence gave the whole facility a kinetic energy I could taste. The paddock was also absolutely overflowing with motorcycles. We hadn’t found the BlueCat boys yet, but I was already a pig in shit.
The lads from BlueCat Motors had their trailer and a handful of bikes strewn atop a large hill inside the main gate. Hiding in plain sight, they were the only ones up there — as if to say “We claim this land for Minnesota!” A flag planted in the ground would not have looked out of place. Their vantage point overlooked a pretty sharp turn in the track plus an uphill straight. We had to ride our bikes across 200 yards of grass and up six stories to get to them. My GL is shod with sport profile road tires, so I navigated the grass cautiously. In order to summit the hill, I had to give the bike a final surge of throttle to make sure I didn’t lose momentum half way up the slope. I had to be gentle though. Losing traction in that grass would have been awkward and likely disastrous. Nothing like wrecking your ride home, right? That final burst of throttle pushed me over the crest to see Ryan Scott, owner of BlueCat Motors standing there to welcome us. Reunited, and it felt so good.
We shed our riding clothes and received everyone’s warm greetings. Greasing up with a fresh layer of sunblock, I surveyed the scene. An open cargo trailer provided shade, its tow vehicle still attached. There was Jake’s franken-moped, a 50cc knockaround scooter, and then right at home in the vintage racing scene was Robb’s root beer brown ’74 Honda CB450. His bike was the spitting image of my own, longsuffering-but-still-broken CB450. It’d come into the shop on consignment, and was such a good deal they’d just kept it. At the time, I was tempted to buy it myself in hopes of frankenstein-ing together a working motorcycle. Once I left for Chicago, that shop 450 became Robb’s daily rider. Ryan and I had been talking over the phone recently about my own CB450, which was still in their shop awaiting an engine rebuild. He mentioned that Robb had been using his 450 as the prototype for what they wanted to do with my machine, so I was excited to see what Robb had done so far with his bike. Also, Lance had sent me a text message the day before with a photo of Robb’s 450. At the time, I was very curious and a bit annoyed to see my bike’s racing pipes on Robb’s motorcycle. What was that all about?
When I’d last seen Robb in late February, I was in the Twin Cities to retrieve my motorcycle fleet and bring it to Chicago (minus my CB450). That weekend just happened to be the same weekend as BlueCat’s annual “Illegal” Pinecar Derby. Robb and I arrived at roughly the same time, and on our way into Grumpy’s, he said something very intriguing.
“I’ve taken an interest in your little 450.” He said with his usual, friendly intensity. “I’ve got one of my own now — the brown one we got in on consignment — I like it. I’m using it as a test bed for what I want to do to your bike. I’ve been in touch with some guys who used to be involved with the factory Honda race team back in the day and they’re giving me the low down on how to tune that engine. You won’t have some crazy top end, but I should be able to give you tons of mid-range. Most of all, it’ll be solid and reliable.”
It all sounded great, and really, who was I to argue? I figured only good things could come from his “taking an interest.” In the months that followed, I was intrigued to hear about little updates here and there to Robb’s prototype bike. I’d heard about his complete re-engineering of the front suspension with new valving, springs and all manner of skunkworks modifications. Apparently they’d also used the racing pipes off my 450 to create a jig for producing copies of that discontinued design. Seeing my pipes on Robb’s machine there at Road America, I could only assume they were there for R&D purposes. Then again, I also couldn’t blame him for commandeering them. After all, they sounded fantastic on my bike when it ran.
Finally seeing his bike in person, I was very curious to see how all of the prototyping had shaken out. Robb put an arm on my shoulder and walked me over to his 450. “Let me introduce you to this little beauty.” He was right. The bike was gorgeous. From its drilled front rotor all the way back to its borrowed Yamaha taillight, Robb’s 450 was just terrific. Knowing this bike was intended as the prototype for my own machine, it felt like looking into a very bright future. Robb went on to explain all the tweaks and substituted components. The brakes were new. There were no stock components left inside the front forks. The engine was freshly rebuilt using parts from this bike’s K7 motor and a CB500T. The front fender was from a CB550, as was the longer kick starter. The seat was a shaved, custom unit from Vinyl-Lux. The rear indicators had been shortened and relocated from the tail light back to the frame where they belong. The terrible, square Honda tail light assembly was gone and in its place, a round Yamaha unit that matched the bike perfectly. The whole package was stunning. The bike was stock at a glance, but to knowing eyes, it was something very, very special.
“It’s the CB450 Supersport Honda never built, but always should have.” Robb continued, “I’m not quite done with it. The charging system is all new and pumping out amps, but I want to put slightly hotter coils on it so it’s got a nice strong spark. Then I’m going to swap the rear shocks with upgraded units to match what I did in the front suspension. It also needs tires. So I’ll need it for another month or so. But after that, we’ll just trade titles and that’ll be that.”
I was confused. “Wait. What? Trade titles?”
Confusion gave way to disbelief. I looked at the bike, then back at Robb, then back at the bike. “Okay, I need to clarify this. Are you saying this is my motorcycle? Am I understanding you correctly?”
“Yup.” Robb elaborated, “You know how I am. I lose interest as soon as the project is done. And besides, your bike, cute as it is, is a piece of shit. This is a much better machine. Yours is a K6. This is a K7. The motor has way more bugs worked out of it. This is a better seat for the lines of this bike. I figure, I’ve got this one right, why bother building another one? I’ll have a signed title for you when you come to pick it up and I’ll just take the title for your machine back in the shop. But I’m going to need this bike for a about a month to wrap it up and figure out a different bike for me. We’ve got a customer who may sell me his Bonneville T100. I’m too old for this shit,” he said, pointing at the 450. “I just want something I can cruise around on.”
I was speechless. He’d been so matter-of-fact about it all, as though to say, “Of course this is your bike, stupid. Who else would I have built it for?” I knew the BlueCat boys were going to fix my bike, but I didn’t expect they’d build me a new one. My pipes on this bike made sense now. They’re on this machine because this was actually my motorcycle. It was more than my brain could take in. How do you even say thank you for this kind of thing? All I could do was awkwardly hug the guy.
Sure, this bike was in trade for website and content work I’d done and continue to do for them, but what the BlueCat boys did with this CB450 was well above and beyond. It was more than a trade. It was a thank you. Their business had grown by leaps and bounds and by their estimation, I played a big part in that. But rather than just check the box — rather than just rebuilding a broken engine — they built me a complete motorcycle. They took their time, and most of all, they cared deeply about the result. The suspension setup wasn’t just improved, it was bespoke — spec’d and built specifically for me, my weight and the way I ride. The engine was tuned for mid-range and reliability so that this motorcycle could be my very own growly city bike. Not some finicky, high strung racing motor turned purely for peak horsepower and self-destruction. It was what Robb called a “rolling patina restoration” and the name fit the result. What I had here was a 1974 Honda CB450, that rather than being kitted out or rebuilt bright and shiny from the frame up, had the look of an original bike that had been carefully and meticulously cared for, and recently refreshed.
We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on shop news and Chicago adventures and bombing around the race course infield looking for better views of the track. My mode of transportation? The bike-to-be. The 450 snarled and growled like no old Honda I’ve ever heard. It wasn’t the fickle, empty drone of poorly matched aftermarket pipes, pod filters and piss-poor jetting you hear from most modified old Japanese bikes. This was different. This engine was properly tuned for its exhaust. There was just the right amount of back pressure and just the right amount of pause in the resonator. As we’d pass through the many tunnels that run under the race course, I’d pull in the clutch and give the engine a handful of surging revs. I couldn’t help myself. The sound was addictive, but the fury was even better. It signified everything an old bike should be — the substance of a fine machine for the ages.
Everything about the bike felt tight and new. The suspension carried my weight without issue. The brand new clutch was positive and quick to engage. The brakes felt new because they were. The engine felt smooth and precise, effortlessly creating torque and moving the bike along from idle on up — even though Robb had up-geared the bike by four teeth. As we wove our way through the infield, I was one proud papa. For all the myriad of old machines in attendance, I knew I was riding something very, very special. My little brown bike got looks everywhere it went, and for every onlooker who saw a groovy old custom Honda 450, I had the deeper knowledge of how special this little bike really was. Special not just for all the work and re-engineering that went into it, but all the more for the care and goodwill in every bolt and detail. This CB450 was now an old bike imbued with a young soul — a vigor born of gratitude, friendship and brotherhood.
Sadly, we couldn’t stay. We were only there for the day and as the sun got lower in the sky, it was time to get home to the dogs. The BlueCat boys would soldier on another day at the event, my new Honda CB450 safe in their keeping. I hopped on the bike for one last lap of the facility. Glorious. The 450 had completely overshadowed the actual races for me and I couldn’t wait to get this thing back to my garage in the coming months. I parked the 450 and we said our goodbyes. I then climbed aboard my other brown Honda. The GL fired to life and the three of us headed back down grassy hill and out the main gate.
As expected, the GL dutifully gobbled up the 135 miles home. Part of me would have rather ridden the 325 miles back to the Twin Cities on the CB450, but the closer we got to Evanston, the more familiar this new feeling of home in Chicago started to feel. That’s okay for now. Chicago is where my journeys are starting and ending these days, but other journeys are still ongoing. Journeys that still start and end in St. Paul, Minnesota, at a little motorcycle shop called BlueCat Motors. One such journey was coming up soon, in fact. I had to take delivery of a metallic brown 1974 Honda CB450 K7 Supersport. A bike built just for me.