MacArthur Maze fallout

As threatened in earlier posts about the collapse of the MacArthur Maze, I did indeed get back into the motorcycling game, so here is an overdue picture of the new baby, a 2002 Honda VFR 800FIA. Candy was reluctant to pose with me, perhaps miffed that we can’t seem to find her a helmet that fits.

In lay terms, it’s an 800cc Interceptor sportbike with fuel injection and antilock brakes. It’s by far the most modern bike I’ve ever ridden. No choke! A fuel gauge! A clock! ABS! VTEC! What do all these things mean in practical terms?

No choke means one less step while starting the bike. It means no hassles with having to fiddle with the choke level until you can coax the bike into starting. It means not having to remember to turn the choke back down after the bike has warmed up (about a mile from home). It means not having to fiddle with the choke during the first mile to get the mixture just rich enough but not too rich. It means a little lever isn’t in the way of your left thumb when you’re whacking the headlights’ low/high beam switch.

A fuel guage means that you can keep track of how much fuel you have. Big deal? Well, in all the other bikes I’ve had, there was no fuel gauge. Instead, you had a two-part fuel intake from the tank. Most of the time, you operate the bike with the fuel dial in the main position, and fuel ran into a hose positioned too high to catch the bottom 1/8th of the tank. At some point, the fuel fell below this intake, the engine started to sputter, the rider started to panic (especially if executing traffic maneuvers), and the rider eventually recognized the behavior as a symptom of low fuel, took her left hand off the grip and clutch lever (after completing a shift, if applicable), grabbed for the dial under her left knee, tried to move it to the bottom “reserve” position while wearing gloves and continuing to maneuver in traffic, and then waited for fuel to make its way from the secondary intake at the lowest point of the tankbottom, down the hose, and into the engine, which would then give one last sputter and start running smoothly again. That’s if all went well. If instead you were confused or clumsy too long, the engine killed, and you had to restart it (perhaps after pulling over, figuring out what just happened, and then waiting for gravity to draw fuel through the hose since the killed engine wasn’t exerting any suck). You then knew you had about 15 miles (more or less, depending on the bike, the slope, etc.) to get to a gas station, fill the tank, and if you’re smart, return the fuel dial to the regular position. If you forgot and left it on “reserve,” you were at risk of running out of gas with no warning, no reserve, and no hope of getting to a gas station. Ask me how I know. Ask any rider how she knows. Having a fuel gauge is so much nicer! Now I just need to remember to glance at it now and again. Ask Mom how I forgot to do that in North Dakota in my rental car a few months ago and she had to drive five miles from her hotel with a red plastic tank of gas to get me going again. Ask me how embarrassing it is to have to ask your senior citizen mother to rescue you five miles from town. No, don’t.

A clock means you actually know what time it is while you’re riding, without having to pull over or else attempt to shove your zipped-tight leather jacket sleeve up, your long leather glove gauntlet down, and look at a wrist watch while riding. It’s sort of a two-handed operation, and for the most part you only have half a hand available for ancillary tasks while riding. You can get little throttle clamps, which are a sort of lame substitute for cruise control, but the one I had didn’t work very well, and it’s not hard to think of why these devices aren’t the safest things to be using. Suppose you have one, though. You can, in fact, ride no-handed, just like on a bicycle, but it doesn’t feel good–at least not to this wimpy excuse for a motorcyclist.

ABS’s benefits should be obvious to anyone who’s ever used anti-lock brakes in any kind of vehicle. Basically, they’re the difference between hitting something and stopping quickly enough to avoid hitting something, especially on wet, icy, or gravelly surfaces. In a car this means saving money by avoiding rear-end collisions. On a motorcycle, this means saving your ass by avoiding all kinds of collisions, spinouts, and lockups. The problem with braking (without ABS) on a motorcycle is that if you lock up a wheel, you have problems. If you lock up the rear wheel (easy to do, since the rear brake is operated by your right foot, and our legs are stronger than we usually realize), it fishtails behind you, and if you’re skilled, you can ease up on it and recover; if you’re not, you’ll go down. If you lock up the front wheel, which is harder since you operate it with your right hand and because front brakes are ridiculously effective on bikes, then the rear part of the bike flips around or over the front part, the bike goes down, and you go flying. I’ve only done this once, on my old Hawk GT, while deciding to test full-effort braking at a stop sign, not realizing that it had started to mist, the pavement was wet, and I was approaching an oily spot. Everything was fine until the last inches (literally) of my stop, when the front wheel slipped, the brake locked it, and the bike ever so gently bucked me off. It wasn’t a big deal of an accident at all–1 mph, no traffic around me, no damage to the bike–but I caught myself with my right hand, bent my fingers back HARD. I got back on, rode the rest of the way home, and then my hand started to throb. A lot of ice, vicodin, two doctors, an NP, and an X-ray later, I had a broken finger diagnosed. (The prescription? Use it as much as you can stand. Use ice and pain killers as needed.) Having ABS means this accident, minor though it was, wouldn’t have happened. It shortens stopping distance by astonishing amounts (say 40%) on wet pavement. It can slightly lengthen stopping distance on ideal road conditions, but only if you’re a much more skilled rider than I am. ABS is good. I’ll never buy another vehicle of any kind without ABS, and I get annoyed when rental cars don’t have it. It should be required by law, just like airbags and seatbelts.

VTEC’s benefits are the most esoteric, but in the age of global warming, they’re not trivial. (A motorcyclist getting green seems weird to you? C’mon–this bike gets 54 mpg, which is on average better than your Prius, took far less energy and resources to produce than your Prius, will last two or three times as long, will take far less energy and resources to destroy when it’s dead, will consume far less parking space and the materials and energy it takes to create parking spaces, and will never need huge batteries replaced and the old ones destroyed like your Prius. And ALL of Honda’s vehicles have the best fuel economy in their class, and they don’t even make the most egregious monster vehicles. Your Prius might get great mileage, but when you buy a Toyota vehicle, you’re underwriting all those massive SUVs and trucks that Toyota also sells. If you think I’m a Honda bigot, you’re right.) VTEC means that of the four cylinders on this bike, only two of them are firing under light loads. When the load increases enough (around the speed limit or during wicked acceleration), the other two cylinders kick in. That’s right–this is a four-cylinder bike, but most of the time it’s acting like a two-cylinder bike. Pretty cool.

In addition to being an ecology nut, I’m a safety nut. That might seem weird, too, but as much as I like motorcycling, I like my life better. So here’s my hi-viz puke-yellow Aerostich Roadcrafter suit. I suppose some people might like this color, but it’s not my favorite, and it certainly doesn’t coordinate all that well with my red bike. But did you know that red is almost invisible to people, especially at night? This color is wicked visible always. To make sure, I asked Victoria to take a few pictures of it at night.

In the first picture, I’m standing in the low light of a distant driveway light. In the next three, that light has gone off, and the flash is doing its best. Can you find the black lab in these three pictures? Probably not. But would you miss seeing me if we were out playing in traffic together? Not a chance.

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