Artwork by Mr. Jensen

Real Motorcycles

In 1962 I bought my first motorcycle, a 250cc Honda twin called a Hawk or CB72. I didn’t know how to ride. An employee at the Honda shop, Dreyer Cycle in Indianapolis, rode the bike to my home. Another employee followed in a car to take him back to Dreyer’s.

I learned to ride in my neighborhood that afternoon, wandering around on quiet streets getting used to changing gears and using motorcycle brakes. The next morning I bungeed a bag of clothing onto the passenger part of the seat and left Indianapolis for distant Tucson, where my favorite aunt and her son had moved.

Three days later I was in Southeast Arizona. I feel sure that very few motorcyclists had done trips of that length, 1,800 miles one-way, on what were then considered small bikes. Small displacement motorcycles were for urban use or riding in the dirt, not for travel. BMWs and Harleys were for travel. They were serious motorcycles.

Small bikes were not comfortable enough or hardy enough for the long miles, or so we thought. Because I was absolutely new to riding, I was unaware of all this accepted wisdom. I rode that 24-horsepower Honda to Tucson and then to northern California. I didn’t know any better.

I should tell you that I did not have to limit my route choices to secondary roads. The roads we think of today as old or secondary or fun roads WERE the roads — in pre- interstate highway days.

I rode alone, so I didn’t have a friend with a larger, more powerful motorcycle to make mine feel under-powered would fly along on f lat roads and ask for a downshift on hills. Shifting down wasn’t a burden; it was part of the fun. It wasn’t much different from driving an MG in those days or a Miata today. It was getting a lot out of a little. It was sport.

I discovered on that trip what it was to relate to people as a motorcyclist. No one realized that I was a total novice and had only days earlier learned how to change gear with my foot and brake with my hand. I’d had no idea that I’d fit into society differently than when I drove cars or rode Greyhound buses or hitchhiked. But I did relate differently. I liked it and I like it still.

My red Honda was a sporty model but not a touring bike or dual-sport or adventure bike. There was no fairing or heated seat or electronic suspension adjustment. No one dreamed in 1962 that production street bikes would have any of those things, so we didn’t miss them.

We just rode along, satisfied with what we had. Hey, we didn’t know any better.

Artwork by Mr. Jensen

What brought all this into memory was a trip in late August on my ZRX, itself a pretty simple motorcycle if a bit more powerful than my old 250 Hawk. I left Denver and rode across SE Colorado and across southern Kansas to Joplin, Missouri, just across the Kansas line.

The Four-Stroke Single National Owners Club promoted three lunches in three more-or-less remote spots in Missouri and Arkansas. As a sort-of honorary member until I buy another single, I attended all three.

I noted that here and there among the usual single-cylinder suspects, Kawasaki KLR650s and F650
BMWs and DR650 Suzukis, there were several CBR250R Hondas.

They’re the little sportbike-looking models that are thought of as entry-level urban bikes. I understand that Honda has bumped their small bikes, the standard “F” and sporty “R,” to 300cc, while keeping their entry-level dual-sport at 250cc, but I haven’t seen them.

One of the CBRs belonged to a guy from Tulsa, a few hours ride away. Another had been ridden from nearby Hutchinson, Kansas. But the CBR that drew a crowd had been ridden to Asbury, Missouri from southern California, and that little black 250 single had 111,000 miles on it.

Is a tiny Honda single with over a hundred thousand miles on it less motorcycle than a so-called adventure behemoth with 8,500 miles showing? Which is the true adventure mount?

In 1962, when I rode my own little Honda two-thirds of the way across the country, a real motorcycle, a manly man’s motorcycle, was a 650. Those rocket ships had 50 horsepower and weighed maybe 425 pounds. Their riders thought of 250s as girls’ bikes. Today, riders of $20,000, 120-horsepower adventure bikes and 175-horsepower sport bikes and standards think of 650s as beginner bikes or girls’ bikes. And 250s?

They’re for people who just couldn’t get excited about buying a scooter.

That guy from southern Cal who rode his $4,000 CBR250R to Low Gap, Arkansas had to plan his journey so as to avoid interstates, where his little single would have felt ill-at-ease. He used the old roads, not our boringly uniform system of limited access superhighways.

He rode through tiny towns bypassed by the interstates, had coffee in local cafes unseen by the masses of motorists since the ‘60s. He talked to people who were glad to see him and curious about his trip and his home and his bike. He made friends. He found places he felt he should revisit, met people he’d remember. When he got home, he had stories to tell.

I’ve ridden thousands of fast but tedious miles on interstates and stopped at hundreds of service areas for fuel and food. I’ve been writing these stories about a life on motorcycles since 1985. I can’t remember a single tale about something that happened at the end of an exit ramp.

This story originally appeared in our November 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.