It’s a motorcycle: You gonna look at it or ride it?

Speed Triple at RevZilla HQ

My 1997 Triumph Speed Triple joined the other motorcycles ridden to work at RevZilla, though mine was ridden 500 miles to get there. That’s Spurgeon’s 2015 Triumph Tiger next to it, covered in mud from a hard weekend of off-road riding and held together with zip-ties and hope. I thought it might make my old bike look better. It seems that didn’t work as well as I’d hoped.

Two of my colleagues at RevZilla were considering my 1997 Triumph Speed Triple. “It’s kind of sad that a bike owned by someone in the industry is in that condition,” one of them said after a minute’s hesitation.

OK. So maybe that’s not what I was expecting to hear. Or, on another level, maybe I was. 

This conversation was made possible by my tendency to do things a harder way than necessary, whether that’s making not just one, but two, road trips in February or riding to the rain forest in Puerto Rico on a cheap and battered Chinese-built scooter. The easy and comfortable way is rarely the most memorable way, yet that’s the choice my generation chooses about 99 times out of 100. (“Why?” is a question worth examining, but that’s another topic.)

I’ve made the 1,000-mile round trip from my home to RevZilla HQ probably a dozen times or so now, always before on my Kawasaki Versys. This month, just to break the routine, I decided to ride my 20-year-old Speed Triple, which would roll over 103,000 miles before the trip was done. That’s how it came to be sitting in the RevZilla motorcycle parking area, where it received the not-so-flattering appraisal.

roadside picnic

How many times has this scene been repeated over the 19 years I’ve been riding this bike? A roadside stop and then back on the highway.

The whys of riding motorcycles

We ride for all kinds of reasons, and in the United States, those reasons usually don’t have to do primarily with transportation. For some people, motorcycles are weekend toys, like a pleasure boat, or a recreational hobby, like golf. For some, they are an essential tool of social life, because getting together with friends revolves around riding (and riding revolves around being with friends). For others, they are works of art, and far more attention is lavished on achieving just the right look than on finding the right function.

That’s where I’m different. Motorcycles are some of those things for me, too. They’re my main recreational interest and, of course, they’re part of my job, too. But they have also been my primary mode of transportation for about the last 25 years. I’ve only had (and will ever only have) one motorcycle that could be considered a garage queen, and that’s my Daytona. Still, while I try to keep it looking good, the main reason I have it is to take it to track days, where I rev it to redline and run the risk of tumbling into the kitty litter and destroying that beautiful red fairing. The Daytona would give me no real joy if I didn’t use it. A collector I am definitely not.

The Speed Triple has had a tough life, by comparison, and it shows. It did two sea voyages between Florida and Puerto Rico, spent two years mostly in storage, and did one track day. But daily life took a toll on it more than any of those things. It was never a motorcycle designed for hauling camping gear on a multi-day trip, but since it was the bike I had, that’s how I used it, several times. The resulting scuffs and scratches on the bodywork are no surprise. There are more scuffs and scratches from the time I locked the front tire on a cold morning, just after leaving my house, when a woman turned left in front of me in a big hurry to get into McDonald’s for breakfast. It has been ridden in every kind of weather (yes, including snow, just once, by accident). The paint on the frame is stained from where an overflow tube failed and dribbled gasoline down it. On and on.

motorcycle by the lake

A 500-mile day when I need to get home doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing, but I did take the “shortcut” that makes the trip 25 miles shorter but 15 minutes longer and adds some scenery.

At the same time, despite its age and condition, it performed just fine on this 1,000-mile round trip. I had recently put a new chain and sprockets and new tires on it. Just to be extra cautious, I replaced a set of front brake pads that shouldn’t have needed replacing for thousands of miles, but one of them looked funny, almost like the pad material was flaking apart. I bled the brake fluid while I was at it. In other words, I addressed the critical systems before taking the bike on a ride far from home, even if I ignore the small stuff, like the oil weep.

I will give credit to the guys casting a critical eye on my bike in the ZLA parking. They ride their machines hard and also keep them in top condition. Me, I’m less concerned with the small stuff. The imperfections are just reminders of good times and bad over the 19 years I’ve had this bike.

frost on the motorcycle gauges

I easily remember the last long trip I did on the Speed Triple before this ride to Philadelphia. For an article that appeared in Rider magazine, I went on a camping trip to the mountains of West Virginia way back in 2008, trying to catch the peak of the foliage colors. I did, but I also caught a particularly cold night for camping out.

Or, as my colleague Spurgeon put it, “That bike is cool not because it’s a garage queen. It’s because it has survived things like camping trips through the snowy mountains of West Virginia.”

chainsaw carvers sign

Sometimes you just have to do something a little different. Move beyond your normal circles.

The ride home was uneventful. At a gas stop in western Pennsylvania, an older rider with a gray pony tail rolled in on a Harley-Davidson and, to my surprise, ambled over to speak to me.

“Is that a Triumph triple?” he asked.

“Yep. It’s 20 years old and it shows it,” I replied. I guess by now I’ve been conditioned to apologize in advance for my motorcycle’s appearance.

“Well, you’ re riding it,” he said.

“Yep. Has 103,000 miles on it.”

“No shit?!”

No sir, I thought. No shit at all. He strolled off with a nod and I mounted up for the last leg of the ride home. Of all the times I’ve made this round trip to Philadelphia, I think this ride home may have been the best one. At very least, I’ll remember this one, while most of the others blur together, and all just because I did something different and made the ride on a 20-year-old bike that, in many ways and despite its imperfections, is still my favorite.