Sitting there on the brand new SL70, it’s shiny candy colored tank glistening like a gem, I felt like a free man, a king. Uncommanded by other men. Free to do my own bidding. A simple twist of the throttle & I was on my own. Away from mom, away from my pesky brothers & sisters,… flying. I was truly in control of my own destiny!
I learned how to ride on that bike. I learned the delicate coordination, between the throttle, clutch, & shifter. It fit my small frame perfectly, I could touch the ground with both feet, the saddle & controls were just right. It’s pictures from the sales brochure were plastered all over my bedroom walls. In fact, It was the salesman at the Honda shop that first taught me to ride. Though I could never recall his name, he unselfishly spent hours & hours with me to ensure that I had it right. Slowly with the gas & clutch, one down & the rest up. I loved that bike, I rode it every day, every day but Sunday that is…they were closed on Sunday.
You see I never really owned the beautiful blue SL70. Oh I wanted it ...bad.
While the other guys wanted HO trains & slot cars, my only wish for Christmas was a Honda SL70. Sadly, I had no concept of Santa’s financial situation, and didn’t for some years to come. At least I learned the basics of riding without injury...except my throat was a little hoarse from the motor sounds.
The first bike I actually rode was a Suzuki Trail Hopper fifty. It wasn’t even mine. But instead it was the blue & white pride of the boy who lived in the apartment below us.
I met him as a result of the second enthusiasm of my life, at the time, besides dirt bikes… I had the hots for his teenage sister, Maureen. But those things with girls never last.
He shared it with me ( the bike ) of his own free will, never going out for a ride without first askin’ if I wanted to go. And foolishly I might add. Looking back now, I see that I, being already trained in the fine art of cycle riding, was prone to monopolize the after school rides.
We had a TT track laid out in a vacant, grass field, behind the apartments. It was flat, & square, & had one jump, made from a couple of bricks & a two by six pilfered from a local construction site. I thought fer sure that I was on my way to incarceration when a burley construction worker from that same site came strolling over towards us the next day.
He musta known it was me that burgled the goods. He looked right through me.
"Where’d ya git the board & bricks boys?"
We were doomed.
"We were just borrowing it for our jump" I stammered.
"It’s so flat here, & we had to have a jump."
" We were gonna bring it back"
He looked at me. He looked at the Suzuki Trail Hopper 50. Then Suddenly he got a big "gotcha" grin on his tanned face. I knew then that I was saved.
"Just kiddin’ guys. I’m a rider myself", he boasted.
Further, he explained, "I jus’ thought I’d come over & ask if either of you guys knew anyone who would be interested in a bike"?
"What kind ?" we both sounded in unison.
" Well it’s a Suzuki, a 90."
I had heard of these 13 horsepower monsters before. They came from the shop with real knobbies, high fenders, lights, & everything! A real motorcycle!
At fifteen years old I knew that a drivers license was only a deal away. In Texas at the time, you could get your license a year early If it was for a motorbike with five horsepower or less. And everyone knew that the Suzuki 90s were ‘rated’ at five horsepower for the state, but really had thirteen !!
When he said "three hundred dollars" my heart sank. In the last three minutes I had gone from terrified, to relieved, to elated, & now to sunk.
However, I had to try, so I escorted him to see my mom, hoping that they could work a deal.
Mom never really thought that much of bikes. And no, they didn’t work a deal.
The good news was that mom didn’t care if I had one, if I bought it myself.
As it worked out, the guy felt sorry for me ( or had an eye for my mom ), & gave me a job workin’ there at the apartments , helpin’ to blow Hydro mulch. And soon ( not soon enough ), I had earned the capital to purchase my first bike.
It was a beauty! Yellow & black, with chrome high-rise fenders. And it would easily smoke Ed’s little fifty. He threw in an open face, visorless helmet, that was red, white & blue glitter, like the American flag. And ( of course ) nine sizes too large, so that when I hit any bump above 3 miles an hour, it would spin around rendering it’s owner temporarily blind.
I don’t remember the construction workers name, but I do remember that for a bit we were quite close. Biker buddies. He taught me about knobbies on sandy streets, & how to bandage a scraped elbow, …& knee, …& back…so that Mom wouldn’t find out.
It was when my mom got transferred to Tennessee, that I really started to learn to ride. And a few other things. It seemed that where ever you went with a dirt bike, you could pretty easily find a friend. Guys would just come outta the woodwork to ask if I wanted to go ridin’. It was on one of these rides that I learned to jump over actual hills, rather than the current standard jump…two bricks, & a 2x6.
It was shortly thereafter that I realized one of the worst feelings that a biker can have…my scooter blew up.
I dunno, maybe it was the lack of oil in the cci injection system. Maybe it was the lack of any air filter. All I knew at the time is that it was busted, & so was I.
When I didn’t show for the next ride, one of the guys ( an older guy, that lived close by ) came over and introduced himself one day. As it turned out, he heard of my poor luck, and being the friendly biker dude he was, offered me a part-time job at his beauty salon…so I could afford to by a used bike he had. A Suzuki. TS 125.
Of course I jumped on his offer, and again, it wasn’t too long before I was riding.
It was this hairdresser guy that took me under his wing, & for several months, would come pick me up at the house, & take me to the local MX track in Memphis. He was a 125 racer and I held him in awe. The bike he sold me was a few years old of course, but his new TM 125 was fantastic. It wasn’t a week before I had stripped off all the street going stuff & converted my TS to a ‘spray can yellow’ TM…sorta. Just like Rogers. He taught me about momentum, & RPM, & not shifting ‘till it sounded like a jet.
There was a trail there in Memphis that we called the Mississippi Trail. This was ( rightly so ) because you could ride from the suburbs, through the alleys, & across fields, to a trail that would wind across the city to the Mississippi River. It was long, through ditches, and under highways, some real good riding, with lots of switchbacks, freeway straights, & monster hills.
One afternoon during summer break, I decided that I, having never ridden all the way to the end, to the Mississippi, that is, would try it on my own. I had been most of the way with the other guys before, so I figured with an extra fifty cents for a couple of gallons of gas, I could make it there & back before the parents got home that evening.
The first part of the ride was fairly easy. The course from my house led through some fences, down some alleys, and across a familiar field where I would always jerk back on the handlebars & try to pull a little two inch wheelie.
After I wound through a few construction sites, & dropped down into an old quarry, the trail turned into singletrack, & started to head westward to the river.
I guess I’d been riding merrily along for about half an hour, when I noticed that I had only been here once or twice before.
It was nice though. The trail was wide enough, & the hills were rolling enough, that a pretty brisk third gear pace could be adhered too. The trees made that kinda tunnel-like canopy that I’ve only seen southern trees make…must be the Spanish Moss or something.
After a while I came to a place in the trail that I was sure that I’d not seen before.
I stopped the pseudo Roger Replica, & surveyed the area ahead. What lay before me was the biggest downhill that I’d ever seen. Probably sixty or seventy feet. We had nothing like this in Texas, and I didn’t recall ever seeing an obstacle quite like this in my one year career as a newbie dirt rider.
The dirt went down at what then seemed to be, just this side of a straight drop, then bottomed out in a concrete viaduct, that was about ten feet wide. Then back up an equally steep incline & on to the muddy Mississippi. The U shaped concrete area at the bottom, held just a tiny trickle of water that did a poor job of hiding the layer of moss that painted a two foot wide green swath through the middle of the ditch. It looked a little intimidating to me, so the first thing I looked for was a way around. There was none. To my right I could see a chain link fence that separated the trail area from a passing highway. To the left, the concrete ended about twenty yards downstream, & the water trickled off the edge of the cement, into a small swampy area…with Alligators.
Nope, no way around. I could see that the trail was well used, with tire marks up & down both sides of the concrete ‘U’.
So, Seeing that it could be done, or at least had been done, & feeling that this was the only remaining obstacle between me & the river, I started My descent…on foot.
Now folks as I always say, you shouldn’t laugh at another riders miseries…and so it goes now.
Having never negotiated a steep decent like this, I figured that I should walk the bike down, holding the front brakes, so as not to go too fast. At the bottom, I’d simply remount, & ride up the other side, after all, I had seen uphills before.
It only took a moment for me to realize that this was not the way to accomplish my goal, for as the front wheel edged over the side of the culvert, I became like a sixteen year old
Rodeo cowboy, trying to wrestle down a Texas Longhorn steer. The spray can yellow Suzuki, wanted to go fast, I leaned back, pulling against the bars & grabbing a fist full of front brake. The hill was so steep, that I was nearly sittin on my butt, when the rear tire became airborne, & swung around, hitting me in the back, & wiping me off the side of that hill, like a cow swishing flies with it’s tail.
We ( me & the cow ), tumbled to the bottom of the trench, I, sliding on my chest, arms outstretched, like Superman, filling the front of my jeans with dirt. And the Suzuki, mercifully sliding down on one footpeg, and one bar end. Neither of us were damaged much, and I did make it to the bottom. The funny thing was that at the last second the bike took a twist, & flipped upside down, & came to rest on it’s handlebars, & seat, as if I had put it that way to pump water out of the cylinder or somethin’. Fuel was already making it’s way out of the old metal gas cap.
When I realized that I wasn’t hurt ( sixteen year old guys don’t get hurt ), I actually laughed at the thought of what that musta looked like.
Well, after a moment of rest, I was able to remount, & thankfully, start the machine with just a few kicks.
My first attempt at the uphill was a complete failure. And once again, my scooter was upside down, on bars & seat. Only this time It pinned me under it much like an older brother would sit astride a younger sibling to display dominance. Hmmm.
Again I laughed, It was, of course, ridiculous.
With the exception of not getting ‘pinned’, this time, my second try was little different from the first. Or the third. Or fourth. I tried to push it up…it flipped. I tried to get a slight run at it by riding through the gully a few yards, then turning into the hill…that made lots of sparks & almost fed me to the Alligators.
I was stuck…really stuck. I couldn’t go forward, I couldn’t go back the way I came. A fence one way, Alligators the other.
As I sat there on the side of the hill, convincing myself that this is how the Japanese would entrap U.S. tanks in the war. And that between the Alligators & fence, that no one could steal my bike if I had to walk home, I heard a most wonderful sound.
Yes of course it was the sound of another rider, a sound that I hadn’t heard all day.
It was a big throaty bike, and it was coming fast. I couldn’t tell if it was behind or in front of me. The Sound came from everywhere. I think I even looked skyward, as if to see the medi-vac chopper coming to rescue me & my fallen comrade.
From over my right shoulder I saw the flash of silver ! It missed me by only inches, bike & rider flying through the air, on the way into the Japanese tank trap. He was on a Yamaha 360 MX. What a bitchin' cruise. He hit the bottom so hard that I felt the ground shake. Then with gas on hard, was up the other side & out of site, with only a trail of dust & the echo of the big 360 to mark his passing.
I was stunned. So that’s how it’s done. I guess I didn’t learn the momentum lesson after all.
A moment later, I heard a call from above. "You alright?"
It was the Yamaha rider. I was saved!!
"I’m stuck" I called, trying to hide the quivering voice.
"Which way ya goin’" he called back.
I motioned back over my shoulder with a raised thumb, "back that way." I yelled. "Could I get a hand?"
"Sure!" came his reply, and as he started sidestepping down the hill, I sure he was doing his best to suppress a laugh.
Well we struggled for some time, trying to drag the poor 125 up the hill, all the while with me trying to explain how I had come to this lowly state.
When we finally made it to the top, we both sat there, huffing & puffing, & sweating. I could now see his 360 MX across the gorge leaning quietly against a tree on the far side of the ‘tank trap’.
He sat there & talked to me a while. He explained about momentum. He demonstrated on my Suzuki how to push yourself to the rear when descending. He even climbed over & got his own bike & demonstrated, by effortlessly slammin’ the ‘tank trap’ a couple of times, back & forth, before he wheelied away.
I noticed that he wasn’t wearing a riding jersey but rather just a red plaid flannel shirt, & blue jeans, kinda plain for the Yamagod.
During the Thanksgiving holidays, I saw, on a music orientated station, video clips of guys named NIC-Nak, & Sho Boat, flying their motocrossers through the air, with their feet behind their ears, rings in their noses, & green hair. Kewl.
It’s now some twenty six years later. I’ll not forget the things I learned in those days, nor will I soon forget the people who unselfishly helped me out, though I admit I can’t recall, or maybe didn’t know, any of their names. Just good people, who, ‘cause I shared a sport with them, were willing to lend a helping hand.
So, as it’s fast approaching Christmas, I’d like to take this opportunity to say, to the Honda salesman, the construction worker, the hairdresser dude, the guy on the 360, the couple on the fourwheeler that helped me fix my brakes at Cactus Alley, & all the others whose names I don’t know, Thanks.
Thanks for keeping the true spirit of off-road cycling alive.
And the next time your settin’ the trail on fire aboard your carbon fiber ‘crosser, if ya come across an old dude stuck on the side of the trail, give a friendly wave to keep the spirit alive…before you roost ‘em all the way to Idaho!!
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