A Rat’s Tale

You want a hotdog with that mustard?

A motorbike represents many things to different people. For some, it’s the joy of the mechanics of the machine. For others, it could be the convenience of getting around in a city, or the opportunity for wide-ranging adventure. Motorcycles are many different things.

For me, there is a hierarchy of needs the bike has to address. Although it is definitely about the ride and the contemplative time I spend in the saddle, the motorbike is also a work tool. I use it to scout locations and for transportation to many an assignment. I also use it as a supporting model for some of my fashion work. A dependable, long-haul, fun to ride, and good looking motorbike is not just a preference—it’s a requirement.

My Enfields have satisfied many of these requirements. They’re very dependable and fun to ride, and definitely good looking. The long-haul aspect has, however, been lacking. I tested my B5’s capabilities as a highway machine on The Lot assignment. That ride took me from Philadelphia to Brooklyn, mostly along Route 1, and with sections of I-278. The 500cc engine screamed at highway speeds, and the stock shocks were absolutely punishing. The bike did the trip, but not without a toll on my kidneys. 

So I’ve been on the hunt for a bike with a wider travel range that is still iconic. I thought I’d found such a bike in a 1977 BMW R80/7. Like many an old bike’s story, this one was complicated. It had sat for years before being passed from one owner to another. Somewhere along the way, the paperwork went missing. And so the bike sat even more until winding up in the garage of a friend.  

It seemed to fill the bill, though: an iconic BMW airhead that had enough power for the highway while still being maneuverable at the low speeds I need for city work. But it had no papers.

Nevertheless, this wasn’t a deal breaker. Papers are solvable several ways, including the very liberal approach that Vermont takes to issuing titles. With a bit of money and some time, papers can be had.

The problem was much more superficial. The bike is yellow. Really yellow. It had been professionally painted and the paint was in excellent condition. But yellow. Much of my work is in black and white, and yellow does not translate well—it becomes a distracting and strange shade of white. What I needed was a black bike. 

In an effort to resolve the issue I went through every iteration of how to deal with the color, from making inquiries on a professional repainting (Around $1k, and eight weeks of time) to educating myself on the joys of painting with spray cans. In the end, the best course was rattle cans and replacing the tank. This would have brought the decent price of the bike to a very unreasonable level, and I eventually gave up the effort. It was simply too expensive a proposition and too time consuming, especially considering that I need a bike that will last for years.

And then the internet stepped into my wallowing disappointment. On a Monday evening, out of nowhere appeared a 2009 Triumph Bonneville with only 9,000 miles on it. And black. Indeed, it’s the black edition, which has black engine cases. Moreover, it was only $3700—well under the price the BMW would have winded up. It was the answer to every requirement on the list: iconic, dependable, great to ride, an 865cc engine to handle the highways, and stunningly good looking. It also had a clear title. 

The Pitts

But like all good things, there was a wrinkle. The bike was at a dealer in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, which is an hour northeast of Pittsburgh. That’s about a five hour car drive. Nevertheless, Tuesday morning I called the dealer and inspected the bike by phone. I put a deposit on it, and then tried to figure out what to do next.

Buying a motorcycle sight unseen might work for some people, but it seemed like a really bad idea to me. Although I had some faith in the dealer, I decided it was still too much money and potential headache to get the bike shipped to me. The only answer I could come up with was to go look at it. Worst case, I’d lose a day or two. Best case, it would solve many problems. Driving was the easiest option, but would then leave me with two vehicles to deal with. 

Downtown Pittsburgh at a sleepy 7 a.m.

Since problems don’t get better with time, Tuesday afternoon I booked a ticket on an overnight Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh. Leaving just after midnight. I “slept" on the bus with my helmet in my lap. I was in Pittsburgh at 7 a.m. Wednesday and then took another bus for an hour to Tarentum.  By 9 a.m., I’d gotten a chocolate milk for breakfast and walked around the town until the shop opened at 10 a.m. 10:15, test ride. Paperwork done by 11 a.m. I started riding back to toward Philadelphia at 11:45 am. 

I was leisurely in the return. Not only was this a new bike to learn, but the terrain around the Allegheny’s is often technical. The combination dictated a slow pace. Ultimately, the ride back took nine hours. The route was through beautiful mountains, and some gorgeous farm country which demanded frequent stops for photographs. 

The bike is pretty amazing. The jump from the 500cc single Enfield to an 865cc parallel twin is a radical one. The Bonneville easily handles 80 mph on the highway, with power still for passing. On the low end there is tons of torque and a very wide power band. It’s extremely stable both slow and fast, and dealt with the mountain switchbacks like a champ. And it's black. Black black everywhere black. It will be great for pictures, and will open the door to longer trips.

I learned three lessons: 1) Pittsburgh is very far away. 2) An overnight Greyhound bus is a frightening experience, which one should avoid. 3) The speedo is probably right and you are actually going as fast as it says—which means that you are likely going too fast for that curve and you’re going to go wide. But it was an enjoyably insane 22 hour adventure which ended with a Triumph in my garage, so life is good!