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.