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Kalikiano Kalei

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A Victim of Gravity: Grave Undertakings
9/30/2011 10:00:35 AM

More ponderings on the two-wheeled vehicle as an alternative to automobiles.


One of my favorite politically incorrect sayings is “Gravity’s a bitch!” Whether the gender nomenclature strikes one as annoyingly impermissible or not, it’s certainly true enough, for gravity may be ignored only at one’s dire peril (in the same manner of women in general).  [Note: Another popular variant of this aphorism is frequently seen on T-shirts worn by sky-divers: “Gravity sucks!”]

Those of us who ride two-wheeled vehicles, whether of the human-powered (bicycle) or motor-powered (motorcycle) types, are usually pretty well acquainted with this particular nuance of the basic laws of physical science and regardless of whether you passed college physics with an A or a D, if you ride a bike of any kind it’s a fair bet you are already rather well versed in what happens when gravity is spurned (at any speed).

Some of us, accustomed to occasionally operating in a higher sphere (aviation), are even more intimately familiar with the consequences of falling afoul of ‘Lady G’, since while the effects of a fall or spill on a bike are bad enough, unexpectedly plunging a vertical distance of anything over a few feet (how about 30,000 feet?) is probably the last conscious physical act any one of us will ever undertake.

Fortunately, the natural human sensory system with its internally stabilised and spatially regulated equilibrium is pretty reliable; so much so that like so many other critically important things in life, we take it for granted and don’t give it a thought until our precious sense of balance is suddenly radically altered or otherwise rendered inoperative. Loss of balance can be quite disastrous, of course, not just for those operating a vehicle but even for something as basic as walking or remaining upright while standing still. Although certain disease processes may prematurely render one’s sense of balance dysfunctional (i.e. loss of normal vestibular sensory feedback, as in vertigo, et al), quite often balance impairments are synonymous with conditions attendant to the onset of advanced age or in circumstances involving severe cerebral or circulatory problems, such as stroke, etc. Just another joy of getting older, as it were.

Regardless of all that contextual data, the most fundamental key to riding any two wheeled vehicle successfully is possession of a good sense of balance, since without balance virtually no activity except remaining seated and/or stationary is even possible.  Understandably, operating a bicycle (or motorcycle) involves far more of the human neurological processes than operating an automobile, and flying an aircraft requires even greater levels of neuro-muscular coordination. In terms of my own personal experience, I have been a life-long bicycle rider, still commuting to the office today at age 65, but I’ve ridden motorcycles almost as long, having begun my fondness for powered cycles as a sophomore in high school (early 60s) with my very first bike, a Honda C-110 Super Sport (49 ccs displacement; that’s about 4.5 HP).

At that time (1962) Sochiro Honda’s new generation of small displacement motorised cycles first began to penetrate the American consumer market and I was one of the first to get one, thanks to a personal campaign of applied psychological terror dedicated towards driving my poor mother either totally insane with my pleading, or to the local Honda dealer with cash in hand (so as to finally shut my incessant whining up once and for all). Post-war Japan, victim of the widespread industrial devastation that resulted from Allied strategic bombing in the last stages of the war, had a unique ‘advantage’ in the fact that it wasn’t saddled with outmoded technological and industrial resources. Although capital was still in short supply, the Japanese were able to begin at the very bottom and build a vast new industrial base for their economy from the ruins of their society. Part of that effort resulted in the development of low-cost, highly efficient and cleverly designed small two-wheeled vehicles for transport and along the way, Japan was able to develop a whole new approach to motorcycle technology. The moment these new personal transportation devices hit American shores for the first time they became a big hit with youthful consumers of the 1960s.

Part of the blame for getting me onto what my mother called murdersicles may be fairly levied (at least in part) upon a boyhood buddy named William Baise, a neighborhood cohort in the small town I was living in at the time. Billy was quite an interesting little character, having a grammar school teacher mother and a bus-driver father (who operated a local short-haul passenger feeder coach). Billy was a bit thin and effete in his outwards affect, given to playing the Wurlitzer organ (he had been put through organ lessons from an early age, his mother having been inspired by Lawrence Whelk) they had at home and even less ‘rough and tumble’ than I was (and I was a pretty woosy kid myself, I admit), and led a somewhat protected life thanks to his ever hovering-nearby mother.

Another good friend and I had talked over the new Honda motorbike matter and had resolved to do anything possible to get one, since the small new bikes were then as hot as the surfing craze (in fact none other than the number one surf band at the time, the Beach Boys, had written a popular puerile song about them, titled ‘Little Honda’). Since my friend and I were totally caught up in the new surfing craze that had taken California’s youth culture by storm, anything associated with surfing was instantly ‘hot’, and thanks to the Beach Boys, we both had to have one of the new Japanese motorbikes.

Billy Baise overheard us discussing this idea at school one day and, well, being the little ‘Wilyam’ snot that he was had to make a covert grandstand attempt to steal our thunder by getting a bike before we did. Unfortunately, when Billy looked around and couldn’t find one of the new small Honda motorbikes in the vicinity, he instead found another brand of motorised bike in a nearby larger city just being introduced to the US market by the Tohatsu Company (Japan).

Their small motorbike was marketed under the most amusing name of the ‘Runpet Sport’ (undoubtedly a direct translation of the original Japanese name, in much the same manner that the highly successful Datsun 240 Z had originally been sold under the name of the Datsun ‘Fair Lady’!). The Tohatsu Runpet 50 Sport was a small 50 cc motorbike of the same general type and class as the Honda 50 counterparts, but there were a number of differences that marked the two little beasts apart from each other. Whereas the new small Honda had a precisely engineered, very efficient and quiet four-cycle engine, the little Tohatsu used a noisy, tinny-sounding two-cycle engine with a compression ratio of 15:1. The Tohatsu didn’t use oil-injection (like the later Yamaha YICS system) either, requiring its fuel to be mixed with oil; therefore its engine was not just loud and tinny, it left a virtual vapor trail of noisome and odoriferous fumes in its wake that were thoroughly objectionable (not to mention considerably unhealthy). The practical result was that one could hear and see Billy’s sky-blue bike long before he actually came into physical view, with the dark clouds of oily smoke and tinny “RRRRRRRIIIINNNGGGG-diDING, diDING, diDING-DING-DING” sounds being detectable well in advance of his actual arrival.

Unfortunately for Billy, the small Tohatsu was also quite cheaply constructed (compared to the well-engineered and precision-manufactured Honda counterpart) and apart from its overall flimsy appearance and cheaply stamped metal bodywork, the two pathetic little small purse-sized saddlebags it was fitted with looked only about big enough to hold a girl’s small rubber ball and jacks set. Naturally, being the nasty young little adolescent savages that we were, we never missed a chance to rib Billy mercilessly about how woosy his new two-cycle RINGDINGDINGER was (compared to our slick new four-cycle Hondas) and besides, no popular rad surfing band had composed a song about his trashy little Tohatsu, had they?

I would probably have forgotten entirely about Billy’s Tohatsu Runpet 50 Sport had it not been for my running across a web page on the internet last week that deals with the ‘other’ small Japanese motorbikes of that early 60s era ( and I was admittedly somewhat amazed to learn that these formerly immensely forgettable motorised two wheelers of the early 60s are now considered highly collectible! Naturally enough I had failed to reflect upon the fact that in a consumer culture gone half technology crazy like ours, sooner or later EVERYTHING must be considered an artifact suitable for obsessed collectors to esoterically argue over and compete to acquire, endlessly.

Whereas the small Hondas introduced a whole new era to motorcycling, the little underdog Tohatsu bikes had a relatively brief life of only several years and soon disappeared from the marketplace almost as quickly as they had been introduced. In complete contrast, the small Honda 50s soon set the stage for the successful introduction of incrementally larger bikes, such as the 90, the 125 and 150 cc Hondas. They in turn yielded to even larger displacement bikes as the ‘new era’ Japanese motorcycles gained strong popular market share among young Americans.

Although my very first bike was the 1962 Honda C-110 50cc ‘Super Sport’ street bike, less than a year later I had traded up to a Honda 90 street bike, then to a ‘Bentley’ 125 and ‘Dream’ 150. From there, in my first year in college, I purchased a Dream 305 (my Honda buddy had worked his way up to a Honda 305 Super Sport). The so-called Honda ‘Dreams’ used a pressed steel framework and had massive fenders that gave them a sort of squared-off boat-like appearance and I am given to understand that Sochiro Honda had a special regard for them (for personal reasons that are unclear). The later Honda sports bikes of this late 60s period (such as the 305 ‘Super Sport’)  featured a more conventional (and traditional) tubular steel frame and ‘standard’ conventional wheel semi-circular fenders, giving them an appearance that was more recognisably traditional ‘motorcycle’.

Over subsequent years I remained happy with a successive series of the new Honda CB-350 bikes and an occasional CB-360 (350 and 360 ccs, respectively), since being a fairly slender and lightweight person, they seemed plenty big enough to suit my needs. I distinctly recall being vastly impressed with the new 1969 Honda CB-750 when they first appeared. They are today viewed as somewhat of a motorcycle landmark in terms of the engineering advances and technological features of that ‘bigger’ 4 cylinder model and in fact two of my good friends (and fellow lab technologists) had purchased the new 750 bikes themselves. While impressive, they struck me (then) as still being a bit too big and powerful for my tastes. Viewed against that backdrop of my life I can today far more accurately gauge how timorous I actually am in the living of my life, despite all my (often elaborate) pretensions that I am not, by such grossly conservative assessments!

Eventually and many years later, after returning from the Middle East, I acquired a beautifully maintained and cared for (the former owner had been a motorcycle mechanic in Santa Cruz) 1982 Yamaha XJ550R ‘Seca’ (chain-driven and red), switching from my long favored Hondas to the Yamaha marque.  Not much longer after that I additionally acquired a nicely preserved 1981 Yamaha XJ750R ‘Seca’ (black and shaft driven). Both were excellent machines with low miles and since I never put many miles on my bikes, I kept them both up until very recently, when in a fit of addlepation I sold them both, thinking I was getting too long of tooth and slow in reflex to warrant continuing my long love affair with motorcycles. It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with either the conflicts of advancing age or the testosterone battles men are constantly waging throughout their lives that I ended up immensely regretting my haste in letting those two beautiful bikes go, especially after I checked the current market for used motorcycles and realised that good older bikes are getting harder to find (and lots more expensive).

I had let my pristine 1982 XJ550R (with only 20,000 miles) go for only US$ 500 and the 1981 XJ750R (with 23,000 miles) go for US$ 1200 (including a new and unused Stinger single-bike trailer). That’s literally giving them away by most reckoning. By contrast today, almost anyone offering a bike for sale (used) is asking a small fortune for it (including the trashed-out ones run to exhaustion by overly hyped-up younger drivers who think revving a 13,000 RPM bike past the redline is ‘cool’).

As a result of my search, being someone who was newly re-entered in the market for a replacement bike, I very quickly acquired a whole new, vastly increased sensitivity to all things motorcycle, including an enhanced awareness that when searching for a suitably well cared for sportsbike machine of higher displacement (600 through 1300), one must take extraordinary care to NOT negotiate a purchase with any cyclist under the age of 30 (generally speaking) or any who give ample immediate evidence of being in the lower third of the population scholastically or academically (the ideal ‘used bike’ ad posting has in it somewhere the following information: “Used gently by a MATURE adult rider”). Surprisingly, there are enough of those favored and protected machines to be found among all the motorcycle ads placed on Craig’s List (among other venues) to yield a few really superlative specimens among the many over-revved and crapped out examples one typically runs across.

Very recently, upon reading author Pat Hahn’s thoughtful expostulations on ‘advanced motorcycling’ (i.e. ‘RIDE HARD, RIDE SMART’, a Motorbooks publication), I found much in it to warrant thoughtful pause for reflection, for Hahn, aside from having compiled a book full of very cogent street strategies to help a motorcycle rider stay alive on today’s mean highways and roads, is himself someone whom I can relate to quite well in terms of social values and valuational outlooks. Self-deprecatingly describing himself (unfairly) as a ‘safety nerd’,  it’s pretty clear that Hahn is simply an appropriately cautious individual who has basically drawn much of his material from that vast pool of common sense we see drying up everywhere in today’s America. Calling upon the findings presented in the 1988 ‘Hurt Report’ on motorcycling safety, Hahn presents cogent arguments that make it clear that aside from the basic reckless immaturity of adolescents (that is a given), most accidents on motorcycles result from a more or less total abnegation of prudent concern for others and their daily interactions (as well as self regard) by motorists.

Riding any two-wheeled vehicle, whether human powered or motor-driven, on today’s roads is increasingly hazardous on inherent merits alone, not even considering growing causes of recent motorist distraction (such as use of cellular phones while driving). Aside from basically ignorant motorist disinterest in the safety of others and a failure to recognise the need to constantly and actively search for smaller vehicle operators (bikes and cycle) in the vicinity of one’s vehicle, my own hypothesis is that a large amount of blame for motor vehicle cluelessness may be ascribed to a lack of understanding by four-wheelers about what operating an unstable, two wheeled vehicle is actually like.

While most of us have had the usual childhood experiences with a tricycle and/or bicycle, the greater proportion of Americans forever leave two-wheeled vehicle skills far behind them when they reach adulthood. Such people embrace the curious notion that automobiles are the absolute, rock-hard norm and that anything that acts to potentially interfere with their complete freedom to operate same is somehow an aberration not to be tolerated. We can thank marketing and advertising elements of commercial corporations associated with the automobile manufacturing and energy (read petroleum) industries for socializing us to buy, unquestioning, into the curious premise that four wheeled vehicles are somehow ascendent and two-wheeled vehicles are somehow not. Blame it on the usual corporate pandering to human weakness, upon the tendency corporations have to ruthlessly exploit inherent human gullibility and also upon a lack of strongly enforced personal principles and moral perceptivity, but whatever the reason, it’s pretty clear that most four-wheelers regard themselves as the only legitimate users of roads. Assuming that to be true, for the sake of the argument, there’s little wonder that motorists consistently fail to exercise reasonable awareness in the operation of their vehicles. After all, the chances of being involved in a fatal accident are quite small for automobile operators, whereas ANY physical encounter (read: collision) at all between a cyclist (either a bicyclist or a motorcyclist) and an automobile is assuredly going to have severe (perhaps fatal) consequences for the two-wheeler (even if virtually inconsequential for the motorist).

Regardless of increasing efforts to teach motorists to be more aware of other vehicles that present lessened profiles and possess less visually detectable appearances, the typical motorist reads the DMV instruction material, takes the written test (in which most of these things are spelled out pretty clearly, after all) and promptly hops into his new H-3 Hummer, immediately forgetting entirely everything he has just read.

As someone who has had the advantage of operating a number of different vehicles in several different venues (in the air, on the land, and at sea), I am convinced that the concentric circles of awareness peculiar to each type of vehicle operating experience overlap and complement themselves quite excellently. That is to say, all of my life-long operator skills garnered from decades of bicycle riding work quite beneficially to enhance my operator skills on motorcycles, just as they do automobile driving. In other words, I’ve seen and experienced driving in a range of venues and on both sides of the given model. When I am operating a car, I am quite mindful of bicycle and motorcycles…not just of their presence, but also of their requirements and limitations. When I am on a motorcycle, I am mindful of the potential liabilities any motorist is presented with when he operates a car. In an aircraft, all my store of experiences, awarenesses and understandings relating to safe bicycle, motorcycle and automobile operation come together perfectly to provide me with a far more broadly encompassing capability to perform and experience.

All of this leads me to reflect on the fact that in order to get automobile drivers to regard bicycle and motorcycles as being a priority concern on roadways, perhaps what we also need to do in require all motor vehicle license applicants to ALSO undergo supplemental training on bicycles and motorcycles (as well as in cars). Of course given the vast complexities pertinent to today’s highly ‘motorised’ culture, and cognizant of the many millions of drivers and ‘drivers-to-be’ seeking licenses, such carefully structured and methodically carried out programs are a logistical impossibility. Still, nothing heightens a person’s awareness and sensitivities to the need to regard two-wheeled vehicles more circumspectly quite like being forced to sit on a bicycle (or motorcycle) and successfully navigate a busy thoroughfare or roadway on an inherently unstable two wheeled vehicle.

In other words, if you could just get that ‘house-mouse’ mom out of her oversized SUV, or that reactively belligerent, ball-cap wearing Chevy pick-up driver out of his full-sized American vehicle, and put them on a bicycle, it would probably result in something along the lines of an emphatic  personal epiphany for both! I say that fully mindful of the fact that unchecked, unmodified and long term reactive ignorance is something that is extremely difficult to modify under the best of circumstances and can seldom be eliminated completely (the same people who take secret delight in running over squirrels and cats on the road would likely enjoy squashing a cyclist just as much…). Sadly enough, once a mean-spirited, narrow-minded bigot, always a mean-spirited, narrow minded bigot, all too frequently!

Another way of looking at this would be to suddenly take the pilot of a 500,000 pound, eight-engined  Air Force Boeing B-52H strategic bomber and put him behind the control stick of a 135 pound ‘superlight aircraft’ (basically a box-kite with a household cooling fan powering it). It tends to expand your horizons considerably as you realise that there’s a lot more to experiential life than you may have ever previously imagined.

As I remarked earlier, my association with two wheeled powered vehicles began in high school on a dinky little (but very fun) Honda 50 and it took me almost a half century to finally work my way up to a full one liter (1000 cc) motorcycle. Along the way, as I grew familiar with each successively larger bike, I gained not just maturity and broadened awareness, but vastly improved skills in handling more demanding machines. This mix of consciousness raising elements all came together to produce what I am today: someone who is very safety-minded and constantly on the look-out for the welfare of both myself and others as we interact on roads and freeways.

One of the reasons why it took me so long to work up to a full one liter sized motorcycle, aside from a generalised respect for size and power ratings, and the cumulative effects of gravity, was the fact that motorcycles were expensive and money wasn’t always available to plunk down several thousand dollars on a state-of-the-art, one-off, race-track variant Superbike. I also learned that ‘the need for speed’ is often vastly overrated (contrary to Tom Cruise’s mantra in the seminal mid-1980s movie TOP GUN). As someone who has topped Mach-2 in a high performance military aircraft a number of times, I’ve ‘been there and done that’ often enough to satiate whatever boy-racer instincts my earlier iteration might have still needed to work out. Fortunately, as an early-on student of Asian culture and an appreciator of the existentialist movement, I also learned at an early age that life is far better experienced at a more leisurely pace and in more of an up-close and personal mode. The old admonishment to slow down and smell the flowers, although likely a familiar one to us all, is a valuable tutorial instruction that often takes a lifetime to sink in and truly be appreciated by too many individuals. For all these reasons, I was perfectly content to get by with just enough power and speed to meet my immediate needs (mainly the need to stay safely out from under the wheels of some lumbering semi-truck & trailer). The need to have so much power that I could effortlessly spin wheelies at 90 MPH was definitely not part of my A-list two-wheel rider’s agenda.

One of the more substantial problems we face today, concerning two-wheeled operation and attendant safety concerns, is the fact that far too many younger riders start out their acquaintance with motorcycles not on a small and manageable machine, but on one of the monstrously powerful Superbikes. That is to say, instead of starting out on a dinky little Honda 50 (or even, perish the thought, a ‘Mo-Ped’), today’s teen-something kid goes straight out to buy (with his burger-flipping after school job money) the biggest, baddest, and most powerful road bike he can afford (that usually works out to at least a 600 cc machine, such as a Kawasaki Ninja 600). Given the vast improvements in the technology underlying modern motorcycle research and engineering design, a modern 600 is roughly the equal to a 1970s vintage machine of almost twice the displacement. There’s enough instant throttle response and raw power on tap in one of those new steroid-fueled crotch-rocket Superbikes to go from zero-to-oblivion in mere seconds.  That should be frightening, but strangely enough it is not for most people.

We see examples of this every day on the highways, as kids in nothing more than T-shirts, shorts and running shoes go zipping by the fast-lane four-wheeled traffic at speeds that would make F-1 and Indy race driver Mario Andretti blanche. Chances are good that that blazingly fast two-wheeled crotch-rocket is the kid’s first bike, too…not the ultimate incremental result of years of familiarity gained through use of successively larger machines. Frankly, as someone who can relate to skeletal fractures and severe road-rash all too well, the mere thought of a kid like that taking a spill at speed (helmet or not) gives me a chill. As sophomores in HS at age 15/16, we were driving Honda 50s and Tohatsu Runpet Sport 50s, and having a complete blast with only 49 ccs under the saddle (less than 5 HP); today, kids only slightly older than that not infrequently are riding Superbikes with more than 500 ccs (60-85 HP). While you can still kill yourself on a Runpet Sport, it’s a whole lot easier to do do…and quite messily, I should add…on a monster Sportbike street machine. Even at age 65 today I well recall travelling wide-open on my Honda 50 (at 45 mph) back then and thinking I was just a shade short of the speed of sound! I guess it’s all a matter of awareness and proportion.

One of the many things author Pat Hahn has to say about riding safety particularly stands out in my mind and that is his observation that it’s probably far safer to develop a mind-set that supports the belief that everyone else you share the road with is personally out to kill you. This bit of advice works amazingly well on both bicycles and motorcycles and in my own example, each day when I ride my bicycle to the office, I recognise a feeling residing deep within that I am actually far more of a hunted rabbit with hounds nipping at its heels than a cool, confident and experienced road-bike stud. When you constantly feel as if your next moment will be your last, it’s very difficult to settle into that roadway complacency of feeling too comfortably familiar with your route (surroundings, et al) that can result in a crash or other serious encounter. Regardless of the virtually unending paranoia generated therein, it does help to keep you alive (arguably).

Just as in the teaching field it is recognised that there’s no better spur to developing excellence in academic teaching than by constantly learning, so too no single dynamic factor is more valuable to a two-wheeled vehicle rider than maintaining a constant sense of hyper-alertness and situational awareness. In that vein, those tedious flag-waving pseudo patriot yahoos we see each day among us who are constantly trying to hide their ignorantly simplistic perceptions in the folds of our national symbol of freedom would likely be quick to remind us that ‘The price of liberty is eternal vigilance’. So too, the price of two wheeled survival on today’s mean streets and highways is constant, unrelenting awareness.

One fact that should always remain clear, whether one is used to three-dimensional high speed flight at altitude, or travelling in a ground level linear environment on two wheels, and that is that all things (human beings included) are affected by the laws of physics equally. The elemental forces of mass and inertia govern and affect our every movement in life, but have far more deadly consequences on or in powered vehicles. It is dangerous enough gambling with one’s personal safety and survival on those forces, but just as portentous is flaunting the admonishments of ever-unforgiving Madame Gravity. Naturally enough, in the end (at the end of anyone’s life), we’re all victims of Dame Gravity to some extent or another, but with proper prudence, due diligence and a bit of cautious awareness to intercede on our behalf, none of us need encounter ‘She who must be obeyed’  before our appointed time!

Ride well and ride safe!

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• Scratch the Man, Find the Child. - Thursday, February 28, 2008
• The 'Governator' in Sun Valley - Wednesday, February 27, 2008
• Tales of Manpower and Horsepower - Friday, February 15, 2008
• Getting High - Wednesday, February 13, 2008
• Da Arda Gud Riting - Tuesday, February 05, 2008
• The Grand Panjandrum Speaks - Thursday, January 31, 2008
• Notes From the Bunker - Wednesday, January 30, 2008
• I Piss on You From a Great Height! - Tuesday, January 29, 2008
• An Ocean Ran Through it - Saturday, January 26, 2008
• Why are we hated so much? - Tuesday, January 22, 2008
• A Dark and Stormy Night - Monday, January 21, 2008
• Just Some Idiot Pounding on a Drum - Sunday, January 20, 2008
• Not Celine's Children... - Friday, January 18, 2008