When the machine breaks down, do we break down?
Life’s biggest heartaches are often delivered by the people or things you trust the most. Put your faith in someone or something, lower your guard, open the gates of your heart and hurt floods in past the dam. Trust can be life’s gateway to misery, and something can only punch you in the gut when you let it get close.
Those like me whose soul runs deep experience life’s highs to extreme degrees and the lows in heart ripping valleys. We love stronger, mourn deeper, spontaneously hug our riding buddies whether they like it or not and weep at videos of soldiers returning home. Such overwhelming feelings can be useful as a writer, enabling us to peel away vast layers of meaning in things as simple as a smile and a snowflake.
It is a blessing. And a curse.
The misery began like it sometimes does, with an innocent conversation that should have never started. I blame Todd Shiflett. Infamous in his own circle, “The Carb Whisperer” meant no harm, but as soon as he stared the discussion, I knew the jinx was on. While at his “Garage Mahal” using our joint custody tire changer to spoon on tires for Road Dirt’s summer tire testing he looked at me and asked how many miles my faithful 1998 Honda VFR800 had on the odometer.
“About 118,000,” I said. “People ask me all the time how long I think it will last. I think it will last forever.”
“It will be mechanical,” he replied. “A crank bearing, something like that. But these things are pretty reliable.”
I have torn the bodywork off the VFR so many times that if I found a donor bike with better plastics, I could make off with it before anyone noticed.
Reliable. The word echoed in my head.
There are some things in life you never say. Never remind a big league pitcher before he takes the mound in the 9th inning that he has a no-hitter. Never tell people that your dog does not bite. Never tell your buddies that your girlfriend is perfect. And never, ever, tell someone that you have the most reliable motorcycle on the planet.
Days later I was riding down to Oregon to meet Dave “White Girl” Wensveen to begin our summer tire shootout, pointed downhill approaching Yakima. The speed limit was 70, but I may have been going a bit faster. Just a bit. I was on a downhill right hand bend, speeding around the outside of a tanker truck when it happened.
The red fuel injection warning light came on. The engine died. Time slowed.
In motorcycling physics, miles per hour equals radius. More speed means a wider circle. Cut throttle (or have sudden power loss) and your circle tightens immediately. Engine power that had been keeping me passing the tanker truck around the outside abruptly left like a girlfriend scorned, and my radius tightened towards the tanker truck on my right.
I looked down at the red fuel injection warning light in shock, wasting valuable nanoseconds that should have been spent correcting my line. Coming to my senses I fixed my line, the red light disappeared and power came back. I said words in my helmet that cannot be published here for fear that people will think less of me (and Rob would never publish them). I may have invented a few of my own.
And The Carb Whisperer’s words came back to mind. Reliable.
Garage dogs are mandatory. While they are great for sympathy, a tongue in the ear makes focusing difficult. Take the good with the bad. And yes, I do all my mechanical work in flip-flops.
The next day, after White Girl and I had completed our tire testing, we were descending into The Dalles, Oregon when again the fuel injection warning light came on, only for a second, then again extinguished. Just for a second.
The landslide had begun.
On the ride home the red light of death flashed persistently, cutting power every time the bike was pointed downhill and the throttle was closed. I nursed the bike home and grabbed my phone to use my newly invented vocabulary with The Carb Whisperer.
He suggested the bank angle sensor was bad and cutting power on the downhill. Made sense. After as many curves and gravel roads that the VFR had done surely that fragile pendulum was worn. I replaced it with no effect. The engine code gave a bad MAP sensor fault, so that got replaced as well. Surely all was good now. What could possibly go wrong?
This bike is my mechanical soul mate. I’ve made countless miles and memories in its saddle, like the time I chased a Ferrari 458 Italia in northern Oregon. How could she fail me now?
A few days later I left for our annual June ride where my dad and others had dinner waiting for me in Montana. While merging with thick Spokane I-90 traffic at 5:00pm on a Friday the bike died at speed and did not restart. I managed to work the bike to the shoulder without getting run over and coasted to an off ramp where I replaced a blown fuel injection fuse. Was that the problem all along?
As I merged back onto the freeway, the light came on. Again. I exited the freeway into a parking lot and admitted defeat. Bill “Mots” Motsenbocker, my riding partner, continued on while I stayed behind and called my son to bring the trailer and pick up me and the ailing VFR.
This photo was taken at highway speed. Notice the fuel injection light on and rev counter at zero. Please don’t ask how fast I was going, or how I got the picture, those answers are classified.
Sitting there alone in a parking lot in a sketchy part of town where all the bathrooms are locked, my chin hit my chest. I inhaled a deep breath and choked back emotions. It had been a very, long, day. It hurt. It hurt a lot. I put my faith and soul into something that was letting me down, repeatedly, and the betrayal cut hard. I would not make it to Montana, not make our annual June ride for the first time in a decade and would not be with my dad for Father’s Day. I was just an hour from him but instead, the bike was loaded up, strapped down and trailered three hours back home.
Attempts in the following days to fix the bike’s electrics proved futile. Everything from throttle position sensor to camshaft position sensor to charging systems were verified okay by The Carb Whisperer, the detestable man whose conversation began the misery. I have replaced the battery, regulator/rectifier, spark plugs, ECU and checked every ground with no improvement. Something is electrically wrong with the bike, we just don’t know what.
The Carb Whisperer digs into the VFR. It’s his fault anyway.
Electrical problems are sent by Satan straight up from the deepest butt crack of hell (will editor Rob Brooks let that publish? We will see). Mechanical problems are a different animal: you can hold the broken clutch spring bolt in your hand, you can spot the twisted rear subframe, you can cry over the gaping hole in the radiator, you can hear the grinding of the bearing. Been there often. Done all those things.
But electrical gremlins are their own animal. Hidden behind the veil of wiring and unseen electrons they make no noise, emit no smell and are not visible to the naked eye. Their intermittent nature makes you want to throw a crescent wrench through a window, pour salt on your tongue and lick a 9V battery with testing probes shoved up your nostrils. I would rather have a bent rim, twisted forks, a seized engine or an exhaust valve that got its head sucked off into the combustion chamber then ground to a pulp like a Ninja blender on full puree than have a red warning light that sometimes doesn’t work, then sometimes does.
The problem is in there, somewhere…
Some have suggested selling the aged high mileage 1998 VFR800. Practical, but souls like mine are not practical. Such is the curse of the emotionally deep that we make decisions using our corrupted heart, throwing money where our foolishness lies, following our soul above logic and refusing to quit relationships that bring more pain than pleasure. Keeping the bike makes no sense, but neither does motorcycling. Seriously, who puts an engine between their thighs, two wheels between their feet, dresses in dead cow skin and tears off across the country with their body hanging out in the wind?
Turns out I do. And I love it so.
I also love this bike. We have been through so much together in enough miles to lap the globe four times that I cannot give up. Stories of our travels are many, and those stories are food for my pen. Without this bike, I would not be a motojournalist. It has violated my trust, but I will stay true. It has ditched me in the worst possible way, breaking my heart, but I am not ready to let go.
I am never ready to let go.