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Two Wheels, One Life

January 26, 2003|Paul Gordon | Paul Gordon is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. He currently is saving for his 12,000-mile tuneup.

It was in that sparkling age of early adolescence that I first fell under the spell of motorcycle magazines. Tech manuals to chopper rags, they papered my walls with photos of wheelies and trophy chicks, they filled my nights with dreams of fuel and freedom. I had many flirtations, but only one subscription. To a tender young Hoosier, hunkered in a bathtub in southern Indiana, the words of Cycle magazine, written by Ivy League eggheads transported to the magic land of California, read like poetry from far pavilions:

Triumph Bonneville

With all that power and all that slinky, silky smoothness, those good looks and paint job that dares to call itself Olympic Flame and Silver and gets away with it, the Triumph is just about the rightest machine around . . . .

Kawasaki Z1-R

They can call this bike what they want: Rose Petal, Black Bart or Claude. But it's a Kawasaki, and it acts like a Kawasaki, and it feels like a Kawasaki. You know what that means: fast, tough and a trifle crude. Just the way we like it.

Laverda 1000

If you want a faithful servant, get yourself a Honda. But if what you want in a motorcycle is the mechanical equivalent of a good drinking buddy, one who'll lead you into temptation and punch you in the eye for letting life go to your head, a buddy who'll mess with your women, probably plunder your wallet, and make your days glow with raffish excitement . . . .

It was Cycle that first broke me loose, got me thinking about California. And when I graduated with a terminal degree in Let's Get Out of Here in the '70s, I bought a mottled blue 650 Yamaha--a poor man's Triumph--and set off on a pilgrimage to find the West.

I wrote a story, a fanciful piece about climbing Mt. Everest on a Husqvarna (which is basically a Swedish chain saw with a pair of wheels bolted on). Cycle World published it. I spent a year as an editor at one bike magazine, and about 15 minutes at another. Before long, I found myself with a desk, a chair, an office and a suit of creaking, tailored leathers hand-stitched with the logo of mighty Cycle magazine.

In the scrofulous world of "bike books," which makes your average gun show look like a philosopher's convention, Cycle was an oasis. The staff could actually spell, the editor pounded out famous words on an ancient Underwood, and he hand-tuned little 250 cc Grand Prix bikes, tiny and ferocious as alley cats, that raced against giant factory teams from Japan. He had stacks of racing slicks chained like Nubians to his workbench. He didn't even flinch at the word "scrofulous."

I also found it incalculably cool that the world's largest motorcycle magazine was run like a skunk works, operating out of a hole-in-the-wall address in a beige stucco business mall occupied by freelance aerospace machine shops. The office reeked of history and beat-up furniture, while in the garage lay 2,000 horsepower encased in motorcycles of every kind--a glittering, ever-changing corral of the latest thoroughbred dream bikes, waiting to be whipped through canyons, measureless to man, down to the sunlit, surf-babe Malibu sea. Gigazillionaires don't have it so good.

Motorcycles continued to be my ticket to a wider world, populated by a colorful collection of the only two types of people I know: geniuses and idiots. I met a trophy girl who could spot a winner on the starting grid before a race. ("While everybody else is puking," she said, "they're the ones that are always half asleep.") I met a champion racer who claimed Jesus rode on his handlebar, right next to the clutch. I witnessed a gang of towering German biker chicks in full black leathers, beer-drunk and roaring with laughter as they punched each other out at Oktoberfest. In his design studio near the dilapidated Harley-Davidson plant in Milwaukee, I interviewed revered motorcycle guru Willie G. Davidson, who explained why he liked to place a fuel tank glistening with 18 coats of hand-laid lacquer next to an engine that looked as if it had been hammered from the casting with a 20-pound sledge. "It's that tension of hard and soft, rough and smooth, raw and refined. It's like, well, Paul," he said, twinkling like some lascivious biker leprechaun, "it's like sex."

I survived and came to enjoy a taste of the pen's delicious, invisible power. The term "squid," a pejorative in use even today among the flaky brotherhood of Southern California canyon racers, came out of my typewriter. And one evening, on a popular television show about the perils of junior high, I was taken aback when my favorite character swung open his locker to reveal, taped inside, a stock hard-cornering "hero shot" that looked familiar. It was me, knee on the ground, bending through turn seven at Riverside International Raceway aboard some super-bike, doing my bit to corrupt a new generation.

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