Getting back on a bike after an 18 year hiatus. . . .
Joe Curtin 3/2017
“How does it feel?”
Brian, my new best buddy from Chicago Harley-Davidson, stood a few feet away on the tarmac of the parking lot, his hands on his hips. He watched me settle in on the 2012 FXDF Dyna Fat Bob that he had sold me a few days earlier.
“It feels like I haven’t been on a bike in 18 years,” I replied.
This was my fifth bike but my first Harley. I had sold number four, my pristine ’94 Honda Magna, way back in 1998 shortly after my daughter was born, swearing I would one day ride again when she was raised proper and off to college. Much to the wife’s chagrin, I kept that promise to myself and when I spotted the bright orange FatBob on the Chicago Harley-Davidson website, I bit hard and took the bait, hook, line and sinker.
Sitting on it now, I wondered for just a moment if I should have worked my way up the food chain a bit—a Sportster, maybe? This bike was big. Everything about it appeared chunky and oversized, and the forward-mounted foot controls? Seemed a mile away.
It was heavy too—every ounce of the 700-pound advertised wet weight. I could feel every minute of my 58 years on this earth and realized at that moment that I was woefully out of shape.
C’mon Joe. It’s just like riding a bike—a really big bike. I raised myself up off the custom Corbin seat a few inches and adjusted my stance. With a firm hold on the grips, I rocked the sleeping beast back and forth a bit between my legs, gauging the center of gravity, getting a feel for the tipping point. I eased back down into the bucket of a saddle and squared my shoulders up. With some trepidation I peered out over the cowl and assessed for one last time, the long footprint of the FatBob from fender to fender.
Beefy 130mm front tire adorning slotted cast aluminum wheels. Check. Blacked out Lower fork legs. Check. Crinkle-black 103in V-Twin with polished cooling fins. Check. 2 into I into 2 exhaust pipes with a vented shield just like the ones that cool off Tommy guns. Check. Chrome, full metal jacket covers over the rear shocks. Check. Stout 180mm rear tire under a beautifully sculpted bobtail rear fender. Check.
The muscular, but somehow elegant profile harkened back to a 1950’s aesthetic of hot rods and bobbers rolling out of garages across America in the late 1950’s. Cruise nights, hamburger stands and heavy fuel, high octane drag racing at on empty stretches of backroad at 3:00AM.
I swallowed hard and nodded to Brian, hoping he’d seen this odd behavior before. “All right. Let’s light ‘er up.”
Sun blistered off the low-slung chrome console crowning the expansive orange tank as I flipped the switch cover open, unlocked the ignition and twisted the switch full left to IGN. There was a whir and few metallic clicks preceding the glow of the console’s analog instrumentation and the running lights, dim but discernable, under a cloudless sky.
I thumbed the OFF button to RUN, waited for the red oil light to fade and hit START.
It had only been a few days since I had heard this motor running in the show room but it still caught me off-guard. The initial belch from the Tommy Gun 2 into I into 2 pipes was a deafening thunder-clap, followed by staccato gunfire—no, mortar fire. A steady barrage of mortar fire. It sounded like war.
The few people milling around in the parking lot turned their heads to look approvingly. She was fitted with a dyno-tuned Screamin’ Eagle Stage 1 kit and Rush slip-ons with 2” baffles. I wasn’t going to be sneaking home late at night anytime soon with this monster unless I was riding through a hurricane.
It was alive beneath me now, shaking and growling like a junkyard dog at the end of its chain. I goosed the throttle and the rumpy exhaust note smoothed into something more harmonious but every bit as menacing.
I steeled myself for take-off, gripping the bars in a controlled panic. And then something happened.
The uneven thrumming of the big Twin-Cam shuddered up the down-tubes and into the chrome triple-clamps, climbed the black risers and pulsated across the drag-bars into my hands. Like a stream of electricity, it coursed up my arms, and across my shoulders, meeting at my spinal cord before flooding my central nervous system like a tsunami rampaging through the streets of an oceanfront village. At that singular moment the bike immediately felt 100 pounds lighter and perfectly balanced. I remain convinced to this day that this instance was nothing less than a supernatural transmutation of iron and leather into flesh and bone.
I casually blipped the throttle again before extending my hand to Brian, “Hey man, thanks for everything.”
“No-thank you”, Brian replied, shaking my hand. He looked out past the parking lot at the flow of traffic on Patriot Boulevard. “You’re good. Be careful.”
I nodded, reeled in the clutch and toed down into first gear with an audible “chunk”. This was some heavy-duty Iron. Milwaukee Iron. American Iron. It felt good. Solid. I smiled. “Better than good.”
I rolled the throttle on slowly while releasing the clutch. The gobs of torque from the 45-degree V-twin proved remarkably forgiving, giving way to a much smoother take-off than I had anticipated or deserved. I short-shifted into second before officially exiting the parking lot and leaned into the access road that ran parallel to the main thoroughfare that was Patriot Boulevard. I grabbed third and carefully rounded the bend, circling behind the dealership when I noticed the strategically arranged orange cones and pylons on the smooth blacktop to my right.
Chicago Harley operated one of the sanctioned riding schools in the area and although the sign clearly stated Course Closed, I felt it was put there just for me. I throttled down into a decent downshift, veered hard right, and rumbled up the curb onto the course.
The bike grew lighter and more grounded with every subsequent lean into and around the pylons. The precious few minutes I stole gliding around the controlled environment did wonders for my growing confidence and more importantly, recalled the forgotten but intuitive nature of the counter-steer.
I rolled discreetly off the course I and motored my way through the light traffic of residential Glenview, chipping away at nearly two decades of rust while contemplating what course of action I was going to take for the 45-mile ride home to the south suburbs of Chicago.
At the first stoplight I rolled to a halt atop my new mount feeling like DiCaprio at the bow of the Titanic. An older gentleman in a massive Suburban pulled up alongside me, his window open, our faces separated by only a few feet of unseasonably humid air. He was sporting horn rim glasses and a snappy white ascot atop his balding head. Our eyes met and he glowered at me a long moment before powering up his window with an irritated shake of his head—obviously not a fan of the pipes.
I had nearly forgotten about that part.
The long red turned to yellow then finally green. I cranked the throttle a ¼ turn and left the malcontent and his urban assault vehicle in my side-view mirror. The entrance ramp to I-294 South loomed up ahead to my left. I dumped it into third and launched onto the feeder ramp, hitting fourth gear as I made my way onto the super-slab and eased into the moderate traffic flow. Cruising along at a steady 65mph, the dank air that had hung over the morning like a soggy blanket gusted over me in a wave of cool wind more refreshing than anything I had felt in eighteen years.
I twisted my right wrist and snicked into 6th gear. The big V-twin purred effortlessly beneath me in overdrive at 75mph, emitting a soothing mantra-like humming that was unconditionally peaceful.
A semi blew by on my left, the airstream left in its wake nudging me over in my lane like a school bully shouldering his way down the hallway at first bell, a subtle reminder that there are some things in life that you should let pass you by.
Riding a motorcycle isn’t one of them.