Have you ever loved a Harley?

We have a guest blogger today. I found this essay while doing some tidying up on the computer. Alan wrote it a couple years ago, as part of the application for a job editing a motorcycle magazine. They were still making up their minds when the Detroit News called, so it never saw print. Most people don’t know that before Alan became a bald guy who loves fly-fishing and sailing, he was a long-haired guy who loved motorcycles (and bore a strong resemblance to the young Bob Seger). He doesn’t know why I like this essay, and I’m not sure either; it could use a new lead and is a little gearhead-y for a general audience. But it has a few nice moments. It’s a window into a part of his life I wasn’t there for, and objectively, I think it will strike a chord in anyone who ever loved a beautiful machine that didn’t love them back.

By Alan Derringer

I once owned a Sportster XLCH that I bump-started all the way from Indianapolis to Glacier National Park after the kick-starter took a bite at my leg and tore a chunk out of the engine case instead.

It was a complicated relationship from the beginning. I knew better than to buy the Harley-Davidson. I read all the bike magazines and I knew: Even in 1974, the year my Sportster was built, the motorcycle was an anachronism.

For starters, the brake pedal was on the left and the shift lever was on the right. That orientation was the opposite of the Japanese motocrossers and street bikes imprinted in my muscle memory. In panic situations on the Sportster, I learned to curl down the toes of both feet, hoping one would find a brake pedal. Federal safety regulators forced AMF Harley-Davidson to reposition the brake for the 1975 model year, but that didn’t prevent me from trying to upshift my 1974 brake pedal. Even the shift pattern – one-up, three-down – was out of step with the world.

The 1000 cc iron-head V-twin vibrated like a paint shaker. The vibration numbed hands, feet and any other body part that touched the machine. The blur in the rearview mirror was useful only for getting a sense that something big was closing in. The lone rubber isolation mounts were beneath the handlebar risers, and they didn’t do much but add to the vagueness of the motorcycle’s cornering. It would be 30 years – model year 2004 – before Harley-Davidson isolated the Sportster’s engine from the frame with rubber mounts.

The real anachronism, however, was the kick-starter. The XLCH had no electric starter motor, only a vicious and schizophrenic manual kick-starter: Sometimes the engine would kick back the steel lever and try to pitch me over the handlebars. Other times, the pitiful teeth of the starter-clutch gear would slip against the kick-starter’s ratchet plate and allow my full weight to come crashing down.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. I bought the Sportster used in 1979 for $1,250, a bargain price for a Harley-Davidson even then. “Most people don’t want a kicker,” the seller shrugged. In hindsight, I believe he had a limp.

But I was seduced by the grunt of the staggered dual-exhaust when the Sportster was short-shifted. I was drawn to the polished aluminum eyebrow over the headlight, to the simplicity of the exposed push-rod tubes, the ribbed 19-inch Avon Speedmaster and the muscular 2 1/4-gallon peanut tank. I saw my future in the reflection of the canned-ham air-cleaner cover.

I had taken a year off college to work as a carpenter in Ohio, save money to buy a Harley-Davidson and ride around the American West for a couple of months. My best friend at the time, a college roommate, was going to do the same. When he announced he had squandered his money on beer and was returning home to work in his father’s tool-and-die shop, I reentered college and finished my senior year.

I rode my Sportster to classes. And I learned, mostly, how to tame that beast of a kick-starter: I’d straddle the bike and push the start-lever slowly with my right boot until I felt the pressure build at the top of the compression stroke. I’d allow the lever to ratchet up until it was almost perpendicular to the pavement. I’d grab on hard to the handgrips and let the engine compression give my boot a bounce like a diver off a springboard. Then I’d come down on the start-pedal with all my weight, fully committed.

One kick out of three, the motor would catch and I’d coax the throttle as the Sportster coughed to life. One kick out of 25, the motor would kick the start-lever back up. I broke the shanks of three pairs of boots. I tried starting the Sportster while wearing Topsiders exactly once.

A few years passed. I graduated from college and went to work. One of my friends from back home traded his decrepit Bultaco on a 750 Yamaha. We both strung together 10 days of vacation time and made plans to ride from Ohio to Glacier National Park, and then down to Yellowstone.

We were 135 miles into the 4,400-mile journey when we stopped in Indianapolis to refill that 2 1/4-gallon peanut tank. When I tried restarting the bike, it kicked back savagely. I looked down to see a wide crack in the outer engine case that supported the kick-start shaft. Without the case’s outboard support, the internal gears of the start mechanism gnashed uselessly against each other.

It was Labor Day and no Harley shops were open. So we pressed ahead: To start the bike, I would run alongside and push as fast as I could. I would mount the Sportster as if it were a pommel horse, spreading my knees wide at the last moment to clear the overstuffed saddlebags and the tent and sleeping bag bungied to the rear fender. I would bounce myself hard onto the seat and dump the clutch.

It wasn’t that much of a hardship bump-starting the Sportster for the first 1,900 miles. At one campground with deep-sand roads, I only had to push the bike a hundred yards until I found a patch of concrete. Whenever we stopped to gas up or eat or have a smoke, I tried making sure we parked at the top of a rise, no matter how small.

One morning, up high in the Rockies in Glacier National Park, I unzipped the tent door to discover three inches of snow. We broke camp and loaded the bikes. I tried bump-starting the Sportster on the snow-covered road. The back tire locked and skidded; the Sportster refused to start. We cleared a patch of road with our boots and threw down some sharp stone. The motor turned over and caught.

We headed out of the park, aiming for lower altitudes and warmer temperatures. We hit Missoula for the night, staying at an aunt’s house and thawing out our gear. In the morning, my uncle drove me to the Harley-Davidson dealership to buy a new engine case. I installed the new case and kicked the bike to ignition. We said goodbye and headed for Yellowstone National Park.

We followed the Madison River to the town of West Yellowstone, where we stopped for gas before entering the park. I hunted for the compression stroke with my boot, then came down hard. The motor kicked back and broke my brand-new engine case.

I bump-started the Sportster all the way through the snow of Yellowstone National Park, and then home to Ohio. The relationship had become a lot more complicated.

The guy who bought the bike from me saw nothing but the hard muscularity of the machine, heard nothing but the easy lope of the idle. “Most people don’t want a kicker,” I told him when the deal was done.

Posted at 9:30 am in Housekeeping |

13 responses to “Have you ever loved a Harley?”

  1. Bob said on December 19, 2006 at 10:26 am

    Wonderful story.

    My motorcycle experience was very limited; I never rode a Harley, but a buddy from high school had a nasty old Triumph that I rode exactly once. At 125 pounds, I could barely start it.

    Later I had a couple of Hondas, much better-suited to a guy my size. The last one was a 500 Twin that I put nearly 8,000 miles on in a single summer. The longest trip was to Toronto, and I realized partway through that I really should have had a bigger bike for that. I recall running 70mph on I-75 somewhere near Detroit and being passed by a dump truck that was leaking driveway stone. I got multiple bruises and a cracked visor, but I didn’t lose the bike.

    After all the road trips, the Honda met its end at a poor-visibility intersection on Stophlet Street when a kid in a tricked-out Camaro with custom paint failed to yield. I left the bike behind and went airborne over the Camaro, and then slid maybe fifty feet before getting jammed under a parked car.

    The cops addressed the kid by his first name and searched his car. I’ve forgotten his name now, but I remember that within a couple of years after our encounter, I saw it in the paper twice; once on a drug-dealing bust, and another time for abusing his live-in girlfriend’s infant.

    Amazingly, I came out of the experience without any fractures or internal injuries. By the time the extensive bruises and road-rash healed, I had decided that certain man/machine combinations were destined not to be. I went back to riding bicycles and restoring antique tractors.

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  2. brian stouder said on December 19, 2006 at 10:33 am

    “Most people don’t want a kicker,�? the seller shrugged. In hindsight, I believe he had a limp.

    …made me laugh out loud! Despite never owning (let alone ever riding) a motorcycle, the essay pulled me right in.

    Good stuff!

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  3. John said on December 19, 2006 at 10:43 am

    I can see why you like it, Nancy. The details get a bit gear-heady, yes. But they also show you why Alan loved the thing, even as he hated it. He knew it.
    And I agree with Brian. The “I believe he had a limp” line was a laugh-out-louder. It could have been the lead. Or if Alan stayed with what he had and flipped it, that would have worked too. In fact, combine the two:
    “The kick starter took a bite at my leg but tore a chunk the engine case instead. So I had to bump start my Sportster XLCH all the way from Indianapolis to Glacier National Park.
    “Most people don’t want a kicker,” the guy I’d bought it from had told me with a shrug.
    Looking back, I think he had a limp.”

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  4. Pam said on December 19, 2006 at 11:03 am

    Maybe you were too young to remember, but I had a bike back in the day too. I started out with a Suzuki 90 but blew a hole in its single piston out on the freeway. It was just too dirt bikey for me so I traded it for a Yamaha 250 or 360, can’t remember which. There was a “glass ceiling” even in bike ownership. I could only go as big as I could kick start. No electric starters then. I ended up on a medium sized Yamaha but could go no bigger, couldn’t kick start it. Never went to a National Park but rode it to Indian Lake once. I also rode it to Cincinnati and went across a grate style bridge where you could see the Ohio River below! Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down…. It was a real cheap way to get back and forth to work with free parking to boot. But finally, I had to think about a “career” and stop riding to work, wear big girl clothes, and buy a car. But I’ve always dreamed of owning a Honda Gold Wing and riding to Arizona …. The dream is no doubt far easier than the doing of it, so maybe an airplane would be best.

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  5. Pam said on December 19, 2006 at 11:06 am

    Oh and Great Essay, Alan! You are more patient than I previously thought! I think I would have pushed that bike off a cliff somewhere.

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  6. nancy said on December 19, 2006 at 11:12 am

    I remember both of those bikes, Pam; I wasn’t that young. Last summer I was riding my bike to get bagels when I saw one of the opticians from the eye doctor next door wheeling out in a really nice Vespa. She said she rode it all summer long to save money on gas, but strictly on surface streets around the area — SUV drivers were too terrifying to go one-on-one with.

    Oh, and you’re made for the Gold Wing crowd. Buy one today.

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  7. ashley said on December 19, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    A year to the day after my crash, I borrowed a friend’s sportster and rode it through the streets of LA.

    It didn’t move me anymore.

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  8. Dorothy said on December 19, 2006 at 1:21 pm

    “In hindsight, I believe he had a limp.” That’s the best damned sentence I’ve read all year! Terrific story. Loved it!

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  9. nancy said on December 19, 2006 at 6:26 pm

    Although I’d heard bits and pieces of this story over the years, it wasn’t until I read it in this form that I finally understood why Alan always sat impassively when Harley-lust was displayed in another venue. The whole Wall Street tycoon/Hollywood dipshit Harleypalooza thing left him entirely cold. It was probably at its peak when the second Terminator movie came out. You’ll recall the opening scenes, when Arnold walks naked into the biker bar and demands “your clothes, your boots and your motorcycle” from the nearest pool player. He looks at the bike with his Terminator-vision and the screen reads, “Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.”

    “What’s a Fat Boy?” I asked Alan.

    “A big, expensive bike for rich idiots,” he replied. Oh.

    While I think the line about the limp is the funniest, my favorite is this one:

    It wasn’t that much of a hardship bump-starting the Sportster for the first 1,900 miles.

    There’s something so dry about that. It just cracks me up.

    If Alan were picking out his dream bike today, it would be a Ducati.

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  10. jcburns said on December 19, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    I just want to see a picture of young Alan as Bob Seger.

    Great, great writing. Jeez, the whole family (I’m remembering Kate’s novel ‘the baby’, of course.)

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  11. alex said on December 19, 2006 at 10:05 pm

    Kind of reminds me of what Bimmers were when I was a wee lad. Cool to a geek. Nothing to a poseur arriviste philistine upper middle class American of the 1970s who had to have an obsolete-in-a-year GM piece of shit to show just how much money he could afford to throw away.

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  12. Kim said on December 20, 2006 at 10:16 am

    The line I loved was “It wasn’t that much of a hardship bump-starting the Sportster for the first 1,900 miles” because it summed up perfectly that sort of youthful wanderlust that makes you stick to The Plan, no matter what sort of slogging it requires. Wonderful!

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  13. Vinnie said on January 12, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    My FIRST bike was a 1964 XLCH. It didn’t kick back so severely as Alan’s did, but it required tremendous patience and hard work to start on cold mornings. Sometimes I’d give the engine a hot bath to warm it up. I think the SAE 50 oil had something to do with that. The rest of it was the 9:1 compression. But when it was warm, it started with no problem. I rode it from Norfolk, VA to Portland, OR in 1965.

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