On the Road, Gravel and Paved, in 2016
It’s not quite 2017 as I write, but it might as well be here in the Midwest, with old man winter starting to make his annual appearance and the riding season suddenly drawing to a close. Maybe I’m getting wimpy in my old age, but anymore I call it quits once the temps fall to freezing and below.
I kind of look forward to the winter break, using it as an opportunity to catch up on deferred maintenance, but I worked in one last gravel ride on the 1973 BMW R75/5, a nice rambling run up into the bluffs of the Kansas River north of my house. I live on the edge of town, literally a stone’s throw from the city limit, giving me immediate access to some great roads, gravel and paved, and I’ve been hitting them regularly in 2016.
I’ve always loved riding country back roads, but until I bought the R75/5 early last summer it had been years since I’d had a good gravel grinder. Before the BMW I’d been using daughter Madeline’s 1976 Suzuki GT185 for occasional dirt duty. Light and easy to fling around, it’s good in the loose stuff, but it doesn’t inspire the same confidence as the R75/5, which has been something of a revelation in how well it performs in the back country. It’s hardly what you’d call a dual-purpose bike, but with a low center of gravity and a longish wheelbase it feels planted on dirt roads, even when it’s floating on the graveled surface. Those same characteristics shine through on the pavement, where the R75 rewards with great long-legged performance. In the same way it’s not a dual-purpose bike it’s also not especially quick, but it’s fast enough to take you anywhere you want to go in comfort, as son Charlie and I confirmed in October riding back to Kansas after the annual Barber Vintage Festival.
A tight production schedule nixed any hope of a round-trip ride to Alabama, but somehow I managed to con Tech Q-and-A man Keith Fellenstein into hauling the BMW to Barber behind his Chevy and friend of the magazine and BSA collector/restorer Dan Lowery into lashing my Laverda RGS onto his trailer-load of Barber-bound swap meet parts. That left Charlie and me free to fly in at the last hour, arriving at Barber with motorcycles in place and ready to ride. Talk about living a privileged life — not only did we have bikes to ride to the park every day, we made our first road trip together, spending two days riding the 800 miles from Barber back to our Kansas digs.
Charlie rode the BMW most of the way, and it never missed a beat. Settling into the rhythm of the road on the super slab between Birmingham, Alabama, and Memphis, Tennessee, he got to experience the solidness of an old airhead. Hitting the winding two-lanes of southern Missouri’s alphabet soup of back roads (they’re lettered, not numbered), he got to have fun with it in the turns. Granted, it’s hardly a canyon carver, and it was never meant to be, but get the tires warmed up and it’s amazing how competent an R75/5 is, with predictable handling and more than enough urge for the average rider.
In my book its only detraction is in the braking department, the front drum simply not up to the task of hauling you down from speed. But brakes can be improved, so I’m looking at new brake linings and getting them properly set up to bring the airhead down from speed faster and with more control.
I’m definitely going to need better brakes, because the way the year’s ending, I’ll be riding the BMW a lot more in 2017 than I might have thought thanks to an impending top-end overhaul for the Laverda, which decided to exhibit a sudden and concerning propensity for tight exhaust valves. Not exactly what I had planned for the new year, but after 11 years of flogging it, the Laverda’s due for some freshening up. It’s not much of a hardship, because as the BMW continues to prove itself to be one of the best all-around motorcycles ever made, I’m looking forward to getting more miles in its saddle.
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