Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Project Frankenbike

Project Frankenbike is steadily taking shape on the Mid Life Cycles’ operating table… errr, workbench.

A combination of mid-Eighties Honda XBR and GB parts, Frankenbike will be lighter, quicker and prettier than his XBR daddy (maybe not a difficult task…), with a few touches of mama GB and an unhealthy dose of custom or cut-about parts, from front guard to LED tail-light, Cycleworks exhaust to Nitroheads seat.

Cycleworks custom exhaust
Cycleworks custom chrome exhaust, polished footrest hanger-exhaust mount and Yoshimura black-n-gold shocks all follow the Frankenbike build plan

The Yoshimura-badged shocks out back pick up on the black-n-gold theme we’ve set for Frankie, but it’s the deep gloss-black tank with gold GT stripe and matching front guard, both courtesy of painter Trevor Whitty, that make this bike stand out.

Add the Cycleworks chrome exhaust, polished alloy footrest-exhaust carriers and the dull sheen of the external braided oil lines, set it against the black engine and pick out a few details and you’ve got a bike that’s less than fugly.

Nothing like a bit of gold jewellery, Cloth-ears, to offset the severe black 'n polished alloy penguin suit.

And then there’re the wheels with black powder-coated hubs and rims laced with stainless spokes, all courtesy of Lightfoot Engineering and a wallet-induced fainting spell, plus a small but special artistic touch, the gold chain stolen from a hairy-chested southern European… there’s no stopping the Frankenbike deconstruction squad.

Wiring spaghetti all the simpler without stupid-box and sundry bits…
We put Dr Roger in charge of the electrickery and he immediately performed a stupid-box-adectomy on the Honda wiring loom, removing all those civilised bits that tell you the tail-light bulb is about to blow, or the headlight is on… stuff that you either don’t need to know or don’t care about, or both.

Honda frame has lost its ugly bits, replaced by this neat rear loop and seat mount, with tail-light mount shaped and grafted into place.

Surgeon-in-charge Dr Darling has already put in the hours on the frame, removing the unsightly tail and grafting in a frame loop, seat mounts and a neat tail-light mount that follows the line of the seat and cleans up the beast’s back-end.

Standard dry-sump oil tank sits low and tight in the frame with K&N filter hiding under the tank.

We're stuck with the dry-sump oil tank, but it sits low in the frame and looks purposeful in black, as does the K&N filter tucked up tight between the top frame rails.

The Shorai battery sits neatly in place, with a few electrical tidy-ups to be done before the tank is re-fitted.

The standard battery box and bits are long gone, and Dr Electrickery’s assistant has fabricated a neat mount beneath the tank for the regulator and wiring, and the light-n-lean Shorai battery. Mount this electric-stick sideways or upside down and it’ll still crank the starter and illuminate the road ahead.

Standard Honda tacho takes pride of place in fabricated mounting.

The front-end has rebuilt forks and a custom gauge mount for the tacho. Dr D. will find somewhere out of mind, if not out of sight, to fit a speedo. We wouldn’t want Frankie to get a ticket the moment he emerged from the side lane outside the laboratory…

Napoleon bar-end mirrors are neat and effective and the quality matches the rest of the bike.

Then there are the Napoleon bar-end mirrors, courtesy of our friends at Motociclo in Sydney.
These are fitted to the neat ‘n standard Honda clip-ons, bolted above the top triple clamp so that Frankie’s new daddy doesn’t suffer spine-seizure after the first short ride.

There’s not much more to tell really… the plan is to have Frankie ready to crank over in the next week and maybe to set out on a short shakedown ride. Check everything, tighten everything else, hand over to Frankie’s very patient daddy… and start to plan the Bride of Frankenbike…

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Twinline Motorcycles - Sleepless in Seattle

The café racer craze has spread from its foundations in the England of the rockin’ Sixties through the UK and Europe and has now really taken hold in North America, shunting the increasingly radical and unrideable Show Custom choppers off the magazine covers.

It took the can-do attitude of the Yanks to launch a café racer magazine and then a cable TV show off the back of that, and to rocket the custom café racer scene to prominence in the minds of motorcycle enthusiasts.

Of course, some people had been building café racers for a while (and a select few hadn’t lost the faith or the know-how since their conversion in the early-Sixties). For others, it’s a new-generation thing and the guys at Twinline Motorcycles in sleety Seattle, Washington typify the new breed of builder-owner-rider.

Twinline founder Ian Halcott got things underway and when he relocated to sunny Southern California last year, Jeff “Tower” Pochodowicz took over leadership of the enthusiastic Twinline crew. Along the way, Twinline had relocated to larger premises in an industrial area south of Seattle’s central business district, providing plenty of room to build café racers and maintain customers’ classic bikes, mostly 1960s and 1970s Japanese machines that are reappearing from garages, sheds and barns all over the United States, and elsewhere.

“People drag these old bikes in here and ask us to get them going,” Jeff says. “Of course, they don’t realise there’s more to it than flushing out the tank, charging the battery, pumping the tires and ‘presto’, you’ve got a starting-running-stopping classic motorcycle.

“Because they spent a few hundred bucks buying the bike, they don’t factor in that it might cost two or three times that to get the bike running reliably and safely, much less looking like it did back when it first left the showroom. But the early bikes are fun. I guess I’m part of a whole new generation that started out on dirt bikes and we’re now learning to appreciate the early Japanese bikes for what they are and how good they were in their time.”

For Jeff and the team, the older machines also represent a ready supply of bikes and bits just begging for a café racer-style makeover. They’ve done the Honda CB twins and fours (including a stunning CB750), the Yamaha SR500 singles and 650 twins, and a motley collection of others, both two- and four-stroke. As Jeff notes, they’ve almost got too much warehouse storage, and dead bikes can start to take over what should be productive floor-space. But there’s still plenty of room for bike building and servicing.

“When you think I took over Twinline late last year, I’m about to become a new dad, and we’ve got these builds on and customers wanting their own bikes done, I’m having a few sleepless nights!”

But what better city to go sleepless in, or to build a new generation of café racers?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Lunch with Henderson

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was a highly-decorated World War One fighter ace who served with the American Expeditionary Forces on France's Western Front. Rickenbacker went on to a distinguished career as the head of Eastern Air Lines (USA), and was also a pioneer in automotive design and a one-time owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He died in 1973 at the age of 82.

Captain Eddie Rickenbacker's bar on the corner of 2nd and Minna in San Francisco's SOMA district has no connection with the distinguished American WW I war hero and businessman, other than the name. But whether or not the bar is a cheap trade on a prestigious name, it is memorable. One reviewer said this was because it was full of stuff that middle-aged men like. That's certainly true. Vintage motorcycles; US Cavalry guns in glass cases; a model train that circles the bar; young waitresses; antique Tiffany lamps... WTF?! The late owner of the bar was obviously a serious collector, but he also needed help...

Anyway, lunch wasn't memorable, and the coffee cups are still dirty (that for the benefit of some San Francisco foodie blogger who rightly questioned the joint's hygiene standards...). But it's a great place to have lunch with Henderson.

Henderson is a 1913 inline four cylinder motorcycle. It sat above and to the left of my table, its small alloy exhaust pipe pointing straight down into my coffee. Apparently, Henderson was originally the property of Captain Joachim Striker, skipper of the Star of India and one-time whaler out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Capt Striker knew the value of a good motorcycle – he kept Henderson in his cabin while at sea. According to a small card attached to the motorcycle, Henderson is worth US$75,000. And the rest, if we’re to believe the auction prices for less-distinguished vintage and veteran motorcycles that are regularly hauled before cashed-up buyers in North America and Europe.

Henderson is one of more than 40 motorcycles that are the most memorable feature of Eddie Rickenbacker’s bar. Hanging threateningly overhead from some apparently-flimsy cables is a 1930 Indian Super Chief, mounted (!) by a distinctly gay-looking Mountie (or maybe that’s just the combination of red jacket, gold braid and jodhpurs…).Before I further offend our Canadian Commonwealth cousins, this particular Indian belonged to the highly-decorated officer of the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), Constable Hildebrand Africa. Hildebrand. He must have hated his parents…

Anyway, Hildebrand hangs from the ceiling of Eddie Rickenbacker’s bar, perpetually in pursuit of the bad guys. Alongside is another guy of gay-ish distinction (according to all the movie gossip sites), Clark Gable. Well, Mr Gable himself is not hanging by a cable, but his Indian is. Clark’s motorcycle is a 1941 Indian presented to him by Samuel Goldwyn to thank the leading man for his“outstanding performance” in Gone with the Wind. So Sam gave him a motorcycle? What’s wrong with a Duesenberg? Goldwyn must’ve been a cheap bastard, but this Indian would be cheaper if you could buy it for the price quoted on its card of US$65,000.

And so it goes on… Henderson is in the company of classic, indeed vintage and veteran motorcycling royalty. A few too many Hardly Ablesons perhaps, but the best of those are pretty impressive. There’s a Moto Guzzi, a 1902 Peugeot, a 1907 Indian board-track racer, a 1921 New Imperial “Light Tourist” (not recently seen in America… or anywhere else that Yanks travel), an Ariel Square Four, a 1951 Wizzer Sportsman (sorry, it’s starting to get gay again…), a 1952 Monark Super Twin (as I said – Royalty…). This bar is bursting with rare and valuable classics. That’s Eddie Rickenbacker’s. For tourists (light or heavy) who need a GPS to find their way, the precise address is 133 2ndStreet. Henderson awaits.

Meeting Arlo's Alice

Having survived lunch with Henderson at Eddie Rickenbacker’s, I set out the next day to meet Alice of Arlo Guthrie fame at her eponymous restaurant. Alice is allegedly found at this joint on Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35), about 60 miles south of San Francisco at the intersection of La Honda (Highway 84). Now, sitting at an intersection of two roads named Skyline and La Honda, and me being of the classic Japanese persuasion, I hoped to see a mix of monster-exhausted Godzilla Nissan R32s and some of Soichiro’s finest parked up outside Alice’s modest establishment, but if there were a few classics of any ethnicity, they couldn’t be seen for all the bling and leather fringes. There were a couple of rally cars with stickers and noise, but as one had to agree to give his mate in a hot (?) Beetle a 10-minute start on the 20 mile stage to the next bar, they didn’t hold my attention. There were bicycles there too, with riders in very colorful shirts and tight, bulging shorts. Hmmm...

Alice was nowhere to be seen, but the people were friendly and even the guys wearing Ducati jackets didn’t swagger too far outside the circle of cool. The dude in the do-rag and tatts might have been on the outside edge of acceptable for this crowd, but the burgundy-metallic barn door fairing with disco-ball lights on his Fat Person cruiser marked him as more Wizened One than Wild.

It’s actually a helluva ride if you want to go see Alice. You can pick up Skyline Boulevard from several points, but from San Francisco you head out on Interstate 280, then cut across to Pacifica with a dive down over the hills to the coast road. Almost immediately you’re on Devil’s Slide, where you and/or the road are in imminent danger of slipping into the ocean.

Heading south, there are several options to reconnect with Skyline, but route 92 out of Half Moon Bay seems to work. Past the flower farms and pony-rides, up round the hill on a quick two-lane charge, react quickly when you see the sign to Skyline, make a right and enjoy the ride.

Only half a mile onto Skyline and most visitors will want to stop to admire and photograph the views on either side of this razorback ridge – looking down to the Pacific Ocean on one side, and the lower reaches of San Francisco Bay on the other. Miss that chance and it won’t come again in stereoscope, but there are many more vantage points to see either the Pacific coast or the southern reaches of San Francisco Bay.

Skyline is obviously a popular ride or drive and the road winds and climbs along the ridgeline. There’s one section that runs through a pine forest, with the trees crowding close to the road and blocking out sunlight. Here on a cool February day it gets chilly, even in full riding gear, and the worst of the bumps and ruts are hard to see under the shadow of the trees. The occasional bursts of sunlight are welcome, even if only to show the pockmarked road more clearly.

You come upon Alice’s Restaurant – or the complex of half a dozen buildings around the intersection – quite quickly, even on a Triumph Scrambler. There are lots of bikes parked either side of the road and the occasional family group looks a little out of place as they try to slip by with their bright green transparent drink bottles and fluro-pink sunhats. Oh wait, I’m confusing them with the cyclists…

The staff at Alice’s copes with the influx of hungry, thirsty road warriors with a friendly greeting and directions to take any available table. For the truly desperate, there’s a bar out the back. For those beyond desperation, the washrooms are behind the small gas station next door.

The food is standard American restaurant (café) fare – it’s never going to drop your fat count, but it is filling. I sat for a while to soak in the atmosphere, but when Allen Ginsberg failed to put in an appearance as advertised on a fading Flower Power poster, I decided it wasn’t worth staying for dinner. Besides, any more Coke and fries and I’d be doing more stopping than riding that afternoon.

The Scrambler’s off-road capabilities weren’t fully tested by the bit of gravel beneath my chosen parking spot, or even the drop off the low kerb onto the road. McQueen (Steve, not Humphrey) would’ve been unimpressed by my efforts.

From Alice’s, you can swing right onto La Honda and head back down to the coast and Highway 1, or continue on Skyline Boulevard. Again, the views soon after rejoining Skyline are impressive, with rolling hills down to the distant ocean, but it’s too soon to stop for another Kodak moment (and much too late for Kodak), so I head further down the road, with very little traffic going my way, but quite a lot making the climb to see Alice.

The sun’s out, there are no pine forests shading the road, plenty of corners and the riding is good. Feeling a little disappointed that I’m not sharing this with my mates, I’m grateful for the waves from oncoming bikers, whether it’s the flick of clutch fingers from an otherwise very busy sportsbike rider, or a low, slow five from the cruiser guys. This seems a uniquely American but nonetheless friendly acknowledgement, the left arm dropped briefly from the bars, palm out and open. If I sometimes managed only a nod in return guys, it’s because your friendliness caught me a little unawares, and of course, I was riding a Triumph, and the Brits can be a bit like that…

Reaching another intersection, I decided to follow the route I’d scribbled up the night before and turned into a quickly narrowing road towards the Big Basin Redwoods State Park. This proved to be eight miles of very slow going, mostly second-gear and I was glad of the Triumph’s low-down torque as it slogged out of one tightening radius hairpin to another. I was even more grateful for its narrowness and responses when a fully-laden pick-up truck appeared on one blind corner doing a slow apex on my small piece of road. He probably didn’t hear me, but he and his mother were roundly insulted as I dived for the last remaining bit of blacktop, momentarily forgetting that pick-up trucks and gun racks are sold as a matching pair in America. Good thing I was having a ride-awareness moment and automatically nudged the Trumpy to the right (not always a given for those of us who drive on the left at home). Then again, the rest of the road was full of truck…

My new best friend the Scrambler and I made it down into the Basin without further incident. The redwoods were truly magnificent and it was cool and quiet amongst the trees. We didn’t pause long though, as there were another eight or nine miles of twisting road back up to route 9 and the town of Boulder Creek, population 4,015. Here I tried to get gas, but was blocked by more damn pick-up trucks abandoned at the pumps while their drivers had loud conversations near the entrance to the store. Hey guys, pay and piss off, your mother’s waiting for you…

Eventually, I got to do battle with the gas pump, but it refused to take my card and in America, even small town America, you get to pay up front for the privilege of pumping your own gas. After two trips inside to get the guy to activate the pump, I eventually slapped 50 bucks on the counter and suggested the Triumph might need one-quarter of that. The attendant was apologetic, and having pumped gas as a kid I remember what it was like dealing with fractious customers, but this reminded me of interactions with the slowest kid in the class. In hindsight, maybe on this occasion I was the slow one…

Back on the road there was more traffic now as we headed down into Santa Cruz to rejoin Highway 1 for the run home to San Francisco. A quick chat at the lights with the rider of a new Harley 1200 Sportster and his lady revealed that he’d almost bought a Triumph. Can’t help thinking he made the wrong call, but nice of him to admire the Scrambler.

We were soon out on the coastal highway, but this was less than the expected good thing, as the wind had got up in the afternoon and it was fairly howling into my face, buffeting the bike and making 65 miles per hour feel like twice that. And there were more than 70 miles to go…

We struggled into Half Moon Bay from the south, having experienced a couple of big twitches as stronger gusts from between the bigger coastal dunes combined with road irregularities to keep me very focused. I decided to abandon the coast road and after a short stop at an accommodating gas station for a sugar hit, I was revisiting the morning ride back up towards Skyline, but this time we went straight on, over the other side of the ridgeline and down to join Interstate 280. The wind wasn’t much better here, but it wasn’t gusting unpredictably and I hunkered down to run with the traffic at well above the posted limit. Not for the first time on this leg of the ride I wished I was on my Thruxton sitting lower into the wind rather than high, wide and handsome on the Scrambler. But it was what it was and we made it back to the 6th Street exit, argued with another gas station attendant because 87-strength brew was never going to be kind enough to the Triumph’s innards, filled it with 91 and bobbed around the block to journey’s end.

Boots and bike rentals

I hadn’t actually planned to take a ride on this trip to the States, thinking I might visit one or two café racer haunts and maybe get some photos of custom and classic bikes for our Mid Life Cycles website ( . However, brother Andrew had rented a bike on a previous trip to San Francisco and recommended I check out the options at Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals ( in downtown San Francisco. I’m glad I did.

Dubbelju (pronounced double-you) recently celebrated their 20th anniversary, which is a good effort in any motorcycle business and particularly in something like rentals. The business was established by Wolfgang Taft in 1991. Several years earlier, Wolfgang had visited the States and found there was nowhere he could rent a bike to ride the famed Highway 1 on the US west coast. He came back for a second visit, decided to stay and set up a bike rental business.

Today, Dubbelju rents a variety of bikes, from BMW tourers through Harley cruisers, Hondas, Kawasakis, Suzukis and a Royal Enfield, to Triumph Bonneville and Scrambler. The latest addition to the fleet is sure to be a hit: a brand new Ducati Multistrada. Dubbelju rents bikes, stores bikes, and hoists a few precious collectables up into the rafters…

Staff members are friendly and helpful. Enthusiastic riders themselves, they’re happy to suggest good rides on some of California’s great roads, whether for a day or much longer. Dubbelju can supply helmets, jackets, pants and gloves in the rental price, but not boots (and that’s understandable given the myriad of size variations that would be needed).

Rental consultant Cherie was very patient while I tried on helmets and jackets, and was mortified when I stuck my hand into a bike glove only to find that it felt (and smelt) like someone’s wet sock. So, strike the gloves then… I didn’t really have suitable boots with me, but as I wasn’t riding till the next day I decided to look for some at a nearby Cycle Gear outlet ( For 80 bucks all up, I got some reasonable mid-weight gloves, a neck-warmer, thick socks and a pair of lace-up boots that protected the ankles but looked like I’d stolen them from Frankenfurter’s dressing-room. Should be good for several years’ wear, then…

Suitably attired for a six-day trial, I clumped over to the black Triumph Scrambler I’d decided to rent. Was this the same bike that Andrew had rented a year or two ago? Possibly, must check that. Some quick instructions from Cherie on how to make it around the block to the freeway entrance, and I was off. But so were my feet. I couldn’t find the damn pegs, much less the gearlever and tried to upchange using the left footpeg rubber. Aha, there they are, somewhere up near the front wheel compared with the Thruxton I’m used to. OK, now I’ve got it.

The Scrambler is an attractive retro-style bike, with suggestions of Steve McQueen and his Triumph Trophy – very appropriate associations for a San Francisco ride. It rides nicely, but this one was quieter than I’d like, the trademark off-beat burble of the 270-degree parallel twin fitted to this model muffled by the California fun police. On the freeway, the tyres hummed and whined on the rain grooves, but the bike held fairly steady. In the twisties, it was fun and predictable – and flickable, as the encounter with a rambling pick-up truck proved. It was like an old friend, but not like a Thruxton. One gripe though: the high pipes on the right side might look great, but the heat shield dug into my leg and caused a strange, one-leg-akimbo riding position – not from the heat, just from the sharp edge of the shield.

All up, it was an enjoyable day’s ride for less than US$180, T-shirt included. Thanks to Cherie and Dubbelju – a business run by enthusiasts who make it easy to ride great roads.

Cafe racer encounters

The café racer movement has taken a firm hold in San Francisco, as it has across the United States, and it was good to meet one very enthusiastic biker in Gabe Ets-Hokin and check out his very neat Honda CB350.

Gabe doubles as editor-in-chief of local motorcycle newspaper CityBike (Cover line: “Ride fast, Take Chances”). His Honda features some custom and off-the-shelf parts from several of the best suppliers and he credits local bike magician “Charlie”of Charlie’s Place on 17th Street with the quality build and some of the details that separate an also-ran from a really well-thought out café racer.

Certainly, Cherie from Dubbelju Motorcycle Rentals decided that a cafe racer might well be her next bike...

It’s significant that with various test bikes always at his disposal, Gabe chooses to ride the CB350 as often as possible. We understand.