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A beautiful top end transfixion

Friday, April 14, 2017   (5 Comments)
Posted by: Lee Foote #173220

Motorcycles deliver surprising treasures of insight. While adjusting valves on my R 1200 GS one day, I discovered the cold pleasure of sitting and looking at an engine laid bare; its top end of still, crisp metallurgy coated with a veneer of translucent reddish-brown oil. The friction-cheating properties of oil are noteworthy, but once I advanced the cams a few degrees toward top dead center, the valves crept to life and stole the show as surely as a slow-motion marionette.

The word that came to mind (a prefix actually) was trans-, partly because I was transfixed, but also because of the clear transformation of orbital concentricity to simple directional vectors: yin and yang, in and out, up and down, reciprocate and vacillate, cis and trans, abject orthogonality. In anthropomorphic terms, I suspect my wife would be the cam and I the valve. We work well together; I take the heat and blast just fine, wear-in my hardened guides over time and making some clatter when I am out of sorts. She spins, pushes and does her smoothly recirculating holistic things based on various inputs. Her decisions are circumspection in action; my decisions are simpler, more immediate. Works for her, works for me. Nonetheless, in our working world, my solo rides are the oil that reduces the friction between this valve and that cam. To borrow an old saw from canoeists, "Paddle double, sleep single; paddle single, sleep double."

The similarity between motorcycle engines and a beating heart was quite clear to me when I gently pried on the valve cover until the tacky rubber gasket let go. There, with its liquid coating, sat the exquisite valve complex, springs, guides, flow-evolved intake ports and aorta-like exhaust manifold. In our bikes, the piston/cylinder does the ventricle and atrial pumping while the flow of energy-rich liquid is neatly directed by the valves to channel and manage that energy transformation. Cool gasoline streams in and fiery gases flow out musically. We borrow just a little of this explosive energy to fling ourselves down the road.

We sense the transport even with well-seated earplugs in place, the thut-thut-thut of one- and two-cylinder BMW engines is discernible through one’s body as surely as electricity traverses this mortal bag of 98.6-degree salt water. The power pulses connect from coccyx to clavicle to cochlea in meaningful time. For all their power production, engines in wonderful machines such as Kawasaki GSX600s, V-10 Jaguars, helicopter turbines and GE’s jet engines lack this power-pulse connection to the visceral and elemental. Those high-output engines are wondrous in their power, but we naked apes have nothing in our evolutionary history to allow us to fully grasp such strident, smooth and somewhat frantic power delivery. We do however understand the pounding of heartbeats, horse’s hooves and drums. We are good with processing to about 2000 RPM – then faith takes over.

Before the year 1500 BP, humankind had exactly one thing they could direct to speeds exceeding the sound barrier: the tippet of a whip. Our primal psyche seems to have a mental rev-limiter on understanding the flow dynamics of extreme speeds. Yes, internal combustion in high speed engines, firearms and fireworks intrigue, excite and attract us with their marvelous and awesome natures. It is a special engine that reassures and comforts our primitive psyche when we know from whence that power comes. Maybe the attuned mind can make sense of these lower-speed BMW engines better than it can process those higher RPM machines. This might be part of the cultish love affair with single cylinder bikes and the low-RPM opposed twins.

There is an intuitive flow of responsibility-taking that comes from placing gasoline into the tank, regulating the throttle with one’s wrist, and feeling the piston(s) working at interpretable speeds. It yields an auditory confirmation of the individually discernible power pulses that move us down the road. Such an integrated riding experience is as close to organic and heartbeat-like as internal combustion can provide. This could be a major draw for people who immerse themselves into the full experience of riding as a continuous flow process instead of a heartless power source that simply excels at propulsion and excessive tire-spin. I kind of get it when some tell me the 500 RPM note of a Harley vibrates something deep in their soul.

One final trans: Riding deliberately and thoughtfully can be a transcendent experience of isolation from the world as a result of the complex requirements of riding well, riding precisely, and riding in a life-giving and life-preserving way. In terms of energy and pollution, high-mileage motorcycles do indeed preserve planetary life as they replace more wasteful methods of travel. One of the beauties and ultimate escapes in motorcycling is, contrary to the avalanche of messages we claw through daily, that less actually is more. We motorcyclists deliberately limit our comfort and vehicular appurtenances. As a result, we escape. While riding we (thankfully) can’t afford the extra mental bandwidth to fret over family worries, mortgages, job tensions or home repairs. It is the essence of escapism.

Riding a motorcycle with full attention draws us in and, for a short while, provides a respite and uplifting from the ugly and weighty things in life. This may be why after a long day’s ride my body aches, my hearing is slightly buzzed, and my skin is tingly, but ultimately I am refreshed. Long days in the saddle produce a delicious, deep fatigue and unapologetic sleep, thus, are particularly good for one’s soul and life perspective.

We are besieged by naysayers quoting risk statistics, but we rarely hear of the mental health benefits to the motorcycle rider and quite possibly to the recuperative space provided to their loved ones. Family members see a tensely harried parent or spouse leave the house with helmet in hand and return eight hours or eight days later as an exhausted, yet relaxed individual who has lowered their sword and is ready to sit still and embrace the other really important things in their world.

Though we love the lines of vintage Ducatis, the cross-plane howl of GP racers rolling on the throttle, and the sliding bite of motocrossers’ acrobatics, commentary is scant about the aesthetics of becoming intimate with the internals of a motorcycle. As authors Robert Pirsig, Kevin Cameron and Ted Bishop have confided, shaking hands with a wrench is a great introduction to this world of appreciation. It is art in action and we can understand it mechanically, aesthetically and with our senses.

Contemplating the Mobius strip movement of a valve train brings comfort and hope as process incarnate, or more accurately, inmetallicate. Imagine mounting the top end of a BMW opposed twin on a nice hardwood plaque with a stainless-steel matte background. I would love to have this amazing component mounted on my wall with a small hand crank to run the valves and activate their orderly tactile progression. This is the sort of precise, Germanic cause-and-effect determinism that we all seek but of course, will never find in our messy chaotic lives. Humanity is far less in tune than the average motorcycle.

This brings us back to riding with that precise mechanical partner spinning and tapping away right by our knee cap as we move through this world wondering what uncertainty might be around the next bend.


Hans D. Kindermann says...
Posted Monday, July 9, 2018
Well done. Thought provoking prose that had me checking myself over some older and recent riding memories (sensations), and why I ride. I see that I must practice more patience with this 'sport'. I start out slow and 'taking it all in' but invariably end up 'rushing it' a bit, caught up in the moments of speed. Thanks!
Larry Venezia says...
Posted Wednesday, August 23, 2017
If I could get my wife to read this beautiful essay, she may understand I'm not as crazy as she thinks I am about riding my R100R
T. Redd says...
Posted Sunday, May 28, 2017
Heavy and pondering.//// Good spin up!
Mark J. Miller says...
Posted Saturday, May 27, 2017
This is indeed a marvelous piece of writing, spot on in the observation of somehow being exhausted and energized at the same time at the end of the ride, and how grasping that wrench makes us a partner in the art and soul that is our mount. A niggle: I'd posit that the K-Bike whine is just as soul satisfying, in its own way, as the single or the Boxer. Aside from that, perfection.
Bruce Herbert says...
Posted Monday, April 17, 2017
Thanks for writing this Lee. It is beautifully written and so precisely captures my own thoughts and feelings about riding, particularly now that I have finally been converted to the serenity of the boxer motor. I am not sure all that ride on two wheels get the experience of "full attention" but for those who do I too blievenit to be a truly transcendent experience and one that I look forward to every time I turn the key.

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