The Other End of Sunset

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Another few days in LA, and a new toy.

I cruised down to Los Angeles this week for a work event. It was cool, with interesting people and good food. Plus I like to hang out in the office there.

But I took the opportunity to buy myself a present: A new Benelli Tornado. Yup, it’s an Italian motorcycle, with a weirdo engine, and very strange design. A smarter purchase was never made – let’s see, Italian manufacturing, a cooling system with MOVING PARTS, and a race transmission. Yeah, this story ends well.

However, in addition to these adorable features, it also has Italian design. Which means it is oh-so-beautiful. It’s a work of art. I like surrounding myself with works of art, of all types. I believe that life is precious, and wondrous, and I never want to forget that. Being surrounded by art that makes me smile, or makes me nervous, or makes me think, or makes me grow, whatever, helps me appreciate life. Some of the art is paint-on-canvas, some is ink-on-paper, some is welded aluminum, and some is made of carbon and water. But it all makes me better.

Including this bike. I'd like to thank the designers, and the academy. You love me, you really love me.

It is important to take some time to learn to ride a new bike. Each one is different, with its own quirks, characteristics, and willingness to listen. Kind of like partners, each is wonderful, and each is different.

In this case, the bike is TOTALLY different from my Victory. The Victory is heavy, stable, not jumpy, and rides through bumps like my Mercedes – bump? What bump? Carries straight, even if I were to take my hands off. Creepy solid.

The Benelli? A little different. It’s jumpy, nervous, demanding of attention. It’s not quite a first date, but it’s clearly early in a relationship. You aren’t quite comfortable yet, you don’t remember which colors are good, and which flowers make her smile.

That’s how my Tornado is.

It has these hot little mirrors that are completely useless. I can see my elbows in them. And that’s all. Frankly, I'm not worried about my elbows hurting me, I worry more about traffic. And ain’t no way I can see any traffic in those little things. Oh, well, got to suffer for my art, I guess. The transmission is VERY finicky. Want to find neutral on the road? Forget it – stall the bike, then you can probably find it. Smell that? Right, that’s the transmission leaving bits of itself in the air – because the clutch is very sensitive, and you didn’t disengage it well enough. Back brake? What back brake – use the front dude. The rear disk is about 4 inches in diameter – it looks like it was taken off a 10-speed with disk brakes. The front? A little different – twin rotors of about 10 inches, with massive calipers. It’s really easy to stop the bike with the front brakes. Don’t bother with the rear. I'm thinking of removing the rear pedal. It’s pointless, and a bit in the way.

In case you are wondering, yes, it has a pillion seat. (For those of you who don’t spend time on bikes, that’s a kind of seat in back for a passenger.) Pillion seats are NOT comfortable. Really. She has to REALLY like you to ride back there. And she has to not be particularly worried about her kidneys. And she better be holding on tightly to you, because friction is not going to hold her on the bike. And she had better be pretty small – the seat is like 6 inches long. And I'm being a bit sexist in calling the passenger “she”, but I could not even get on the pillion, and I'm a fairly small guy, so I feel ok in the generalization.

Now, do I have anyone who would want to ride it? Perhaps. But probably nobody sane would!

It turns out it isn’t easy to buy a bike from a rare bike dealer. They are used to a 3 day process. You hand them a money order, they do some magic, set the bike up, go to the DMV and deal with all that, and then you get the bike. I didn’t have three days. I didn’t have three hours. And I wanted the bike. So I showed up in North Hollywood at 8:30am, and had decided to buy it about 30 minutes later. Talk about love at first sight! Anyway. So, I tried to give them a personal check. No dice – too much fraud potential. I asked if they had one of those check verification systems. Nope. OK, call my financial advisor and ask how long it will take to get a wire out the door – probably by 11:30. I don’t have that long. OK, think, think. Wait – how about a credit card? I have no idea what the limit on my Visa is. I never use it. I use Amex for everything. They don’t take Amex. Ok, think, think. Hey, my debit card! No limit! Maybe – call advisor again, have him call fraud guys, and lo-and-behold, it’s cool. So I charged the bike. On a debit card. How odd. I wonder if I get points.

However, the whole idea of putting a bike on a credit card so I could get out the door quickly triggered the dealer’s suspicions, just a bit. OK, well how do I convince you? Here’s my driver’s license. Nope, the address doesn’t match. Ok. Here’s my business card – you can call my boss and check that I exist. Right, you don’t care. Ok. Dude, really I am real!!! So what convinces them? They talk to my financial advisor, on the phone. Umm, well, I'm glad you gave me the bike, but why would you believe a disembodied voice on a phone that I SAY is a financial guy? Don’t think that this call should have materially improved their assessment of my likelihood to pay. Anyway, I used a debit card, you have the cash now. But I guess I could charge it back or something. Anyway, I have the bike, I paid, and I'm happy.

My friend is storing the bike in his garage, because, technically, I don’t live in LA. Think I will be spending more time there now that I have that beautiful bike there? Uhh, yeah.

My “check rides” included riding back from North Hollywood to Santa Monica. On the freeways. Dull, dull, dull, but a good place to figure out the throttle and brakes. My next ride was out PCH to Sunset, up Sunset to the Palisades, down Chataqua back to PCH, and back to the office. A few hills, more curves, some town driving with lights and pedestrians, but still pretty manageable. Last ride of the trip was out PCH to Topanga Canyon, up the Canyon to the Valley, onto the 101, back to the 10, and back home. Lots of freeways, so did a little speeding, lots of curves at lower speed with hills and other stuff (the Canyon is a tough ride), and some more ocean.

I'm an ocean addict. It’s good for me to see it, to smell it, to hear it. Whenever I am upset, I go to the ocean. She doesn’t care what I did wrong, or who I hurt. She just is. And she listens to me, and doesn’t judge. I love to ride along the ocean. I feel calmer.

The Canyon is work, but good work, like a really great gym trip. It isn’t so fun being the lead car in a pack, though. No matter how fast you go, you feel that you are holding the people up behind you. And a speed that is comfortable if you are IN the pack is terrifying at the front. I did most of the Canyon behind a person who was scared. Not quite scared enough to pull off and let all of us go past, but scared enough to be braking through the curves. That’s not great on a bike, because I need to be accelerating slightly through the curves. It’s really important to do this – rolling on a little throttle stabilizes the bike, helping maintain a lean angle, and making the bike more resilient to the occasional bump. If I'm speeding up, and the car in front is slowing down, what happens? Right, I get closer. So I have to leave some space between me and that car, but if I slow down too much, the huge truck behind me will get close to me again – and it’s pretty scary to have a car so close behind you that you can hear it. So it’s a balancing act, but braking during a curve is really bad news, so one should try not to do it. I had to brake a couple of times, and I didn’t like the feeling.

That said, I couldn’t entirely blame the guy, since I didn’t want to be lead vehicle either! It’s scary up there. So, I just hung out there, a little slower than I would have gone, and focused on my form, and holding on to the bike with my knees, and relaxing my hands, and all that good stuff. And chilling. Feeling the Zen of motorcycling. That part rocks.

The freeway was uneventful. Except to say that 80 mph on a freeway feels terrifying to me, whereas I have done >100 mph on a track and it didn’t scare me (much…). Funny how other traffic, bad road surface, and miscellaneous distractions make it hard to deal with a bike.

It’s easy to love LA. It’s even easier on a motorcycle. I guess I don’t really have to rent cars in LA now? Unless it’s raining, of course, in which case I‘ll take a taxi, I think.

Watch out for me as you drive around, the green-and-white paint job is a clue, as is the huge smile on my face…