In Search of My (then) Lost Moto-Mojo

Years ago I wrote a blog called "Midlife Rider."  I found this essay recently and thought it worth republishing.  The irony of this article is that both before and later after, I've been a true "tool guy." But it still makes for a fun read. If you're not interested in mechanical things, probably pass on this one.  First published in 2008.


Robert Pirsig famously opined, or perhaps it was whined, in his landmark “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” about the importance/beauty/honor/rightness of deep involvement with the mechanics of the motorcycle.  I remember nodding along in righteous agreement. I was 23 at the time and then made my living (sort of) as a carpenter/plumber/electrician/dry wall monkey. I didn’t own a motorcycle then, but I wanted one. I did however own a clapped out Volvo 144 that constantly called for my attention. Just to pick one grim memory, I can remember lying under the car in the snow by the side of the road changing out a fragged clutch cable. More than once.

This was also a time when motorcycles sported carburetors, freely leaked fluids, completed combustion in two-strokes (well, a lot of them did), and were comprised of slightly more than 73 moving parts.  Metallurgy had barely advanced past the high standards set by the cookware industry. Fifty percent of the riding public knew the Prince of Darkness personally. Ultimate bragging rights were swapped between the Norton Commando, Kawi Z1 and the strangely colored BMW R90S. The idea that you didn’t know your way around a set of wrenches . . . well, there really was no choice B.

Yes, those were the days all right. Real men used tools. And there was a special place in the manly firmament reserved for men who used power tools. Riders didn’t expect their bikes to run longer than 500 miles without some roadside excitement, and were seldom disappointed. They knew about gaps, and rings, and things.

Three decades on, it’s all different. Any prole can wander down to Home Depot and come home with a trunk load of “contractor grade” tools. Front line bikes are more complex than last year’s top class race winner. 

Yes, there are still true moto-men amongst us. I see pictures of their work on forums from time to time: Their garages, or better still their living rooms, are taken over by an explosion of bike parts in service of the perfect HID light installation, the ultimate farkle, or a year-long project in powder coating 487 unseen parts. These few, proud, moto-men stand as beacons for the rest of us, our psychic links through Pirsig to the sword benders and armor makers of ancient times.

The rest of us are pleased when we can switch the trip computer from average fuel consumption to ambient temperature. A big day is actually finding the oil level window and note there’s something “kind of brown” in there. Checking tire pressure is cause for a shot and a beer. NASA takes hopeful notice every time another GPS unit is successfully programmed for the destination the rider actually had in mind. Men, we’ve lost our mojo.

Mid-Life Riding

When I returned to motorcycles after the “valley of the shadow of ‘responsibility’” I did so with an unflagging conviction that the journey ahead would not involve tools. At least not any that I owned. As one half of my brain thrilled to the immense capability and complexity of a modern bike, the other half just went tilt at the idea of doing anything more complicated than washing it.  I mean really, even Harley Davidson has gone fuelie, ABS, and fly-by-wire. The days of fixing these things with a hammer and a stick found by the roadside are gone.

After a brief fling with a Temptress from Bologna [Ducati], I leapt into the arms of mama-yama [Yamaha], lulled by the promise of vast horizons to conquer, 130 ponies at my beck and call, and a reasonable expectation that my bike wouldn’t see the inside of a dealer more than once a year unless I rode the wheels of the thing.

In the words of Erica Jong, I was looking for the single-track equivalent of the “zipless f@#k.”

Ahhh, but motorcycles are truly a gift from the gods. From the first one to now, they seduce with a potent promise of freedom and ultimate responsibility, danger and release, awe and terror, zen-like peace and PAY ATTENTION RIGHT NOW sphincter-clenching.

While the practical need to be one part mechanic has faded with time, the call for total immersion and involvement has not. You simply can’t own and ride bikes for very long without feeling the stirrings of your latent moto-man/ancient warrior coming to life.

Moto-Manliness

Unless your moto-manliness is already in full flower, the first noticeable urge is usually to farkle. To modify. Looking at bikes at shows and at dealers doesn’t trigger it.  Then, they’re just bikes. Glorious to be sure, but just bikes. Once home in your shed, they become something different. A Muse, or maybe a Siren. I’ve already used the word Temptress.

At first you think the call is simply to ride. And at first, it is. But then the tone changes. Something is no longer right in your two-wheeled world.  You don’t know it at first but what you’re now hearing is the call to get involved. To get physical.  To mark this bike as your own. To have your way.

So you buy your first doodad. Just a little thing like a Cramp Buster or maybe a throttle lock.

If you’re already well bitten, that first doodad is on its way before the bike rolls through the garage door. For the novitiate, you don’t yet know about, much less suspect the damage that will be visited on your wallet by the likes of Touratech, Aerostich, and Parts Unlimited. 

With luck, that first doodad doesn’t require tools beyond the screwdriver you found buried in the top drawer in the kitchen . . . the one your wife borrowed three years ago and you’ve been looking for since. But if not this doodad, then the next one will require tools. And that’s how it begins. The affair has moved to another phase.

The minute you buy tools to work on your bike, you’re officially involved.

For me, the climb began slowly. I didn’t dare do anything to my Ducati but ride it. If I wanted something modified, I took it to the dealer. There would be a tribal gathering at the catalog next to the cash register, the parts guy would incant secret phrases, and my bank balance would plummet.  Ted Bishop describes this phase well in his book, Riding with Rilke . . .

When I tighten the chain, I feel like a real mechanic.  After all, I’m using two wrenches.  Clearly, Ted and the Art of motorcycle maintenance would be a short book.  I don’t tune the carburetors.  For a Ducati, you need a two-year training course and proficiency in Italian even to find the carburetors.  And to set the valves, you need special tools and special shims that come handcrafted from Bologna and cost twice as much as those for any other motorcycle.  (Shims are the bits of metal that go under the valve stems to change how far they open and close; I’ve never seen one, but I’m assured they exist and when they appear on my work order, they are extravagantly expensive.)

Behold the FJR

The Yamaha presented itself as a more complete work than the Duc. Everything about it seemed just perfect. Until I got it home. Then it began.

I am a huge fan of heated clothing. I had the Ducati dealer install the wire the last time around. With 20 miles on the FJR, I decided that I was man enough to hook two wires to a battery, so down to the garage I went. It was Friday night. I was going for a 400-mile ride the next day.

Within minutes, disaster struck. Fumbling about, I managed to drop one of the infernally small and evilly placed battery terminal screws into the bowels of the bike.  It was irretrievably lost, somewhere inside the fairing. The bits might as well have fallen through a wormhole. I think I actually cried.

I will admit this now as it’s been two years and lots of therapy since. I went upstairs and asked my wife for help. In therapy they call it an intervention. The bike had cast its spell on me but she was completely immune. It was she that suggested that we just take the fairing off the beast in order to find the part that had gone missing.

TAKE THE FAIRING OFF? My new bike? But that would require tools! Something might go wrong! If God wanted me to see the bike naked, he wouldn’t have granted it clothes! But she was right. Having ruled out taking the bike back to the dealer and asking for another, there was no other obvious course of action.

I actually think the bike conjured this episode for my behalf. You have to pop your cherry at some point and the bike, in its infinite inanimate wisdom, decided that the best time and place to reintroduce me to my tools was in a decently lit garage for small stakes poker.

Bit by bit the panels came away from the side of the bike, revealing Thor’s own workroom beneath. The bike didn’t blush and neither did I at the sight of all that alloy and wires and tubes and things. I tried not to gasp.

The stupid little prick of a nut kept chasing deeper and deeper into the fairing until I had Tupperware all over the garage. But we finally drove it to earth. My bloodlust up by now, I danced and pounded my chest at this act of unvarnished manliness. No two cent part is going to get the best of me! I am moto-man. My wife kept her opinion to herself.

Miraculously, all the parts went back the way they came off with nothing left over. My wife, she with the prehensile paws, graciously aided in completing the task that had previously defeated me: attaching the red lead to the screw under the red rubber boot. Victory was truly mine. Cigars and single malt all around. Bike and wife just smiled.

My Moto-Mojo is Back

Over the months that followed my quest to reclaim my moto-mojo knew no bounds. What a crock. It knew lots of bounds, but I was not so easily defeated when it came to fooling the small stuff.  I successfully installed a raft of critical parts like a new windscreen, grips, hand guards, sliders, throttle tube, throttle lock, and fork brace. Soon a Givi rear rack followed. And then, in an act of supreme confidence, I undertook the diabolically difficult installation of a Power Commander, which required tipping up the tank and actually disconnecting electrical things! And the bike still ran when I was done!

And then one day a new disaster struck. Some piece of excrement cretin pig broke into our building. Our very secure, fully alarmed, multi-tenant fortress of a building. And of all the things that @$^&#>?$ might have taken, all he grabbed were MY TOOLS! And not very good ones at that. Nothing but a mismatched set of sockets, handles, and open-ends. But they were my tools!

It cranked me no end that he also took my radar detector, but I wanted a new one anyway. And he took the cheek pads out of my Shoei in order to get at a $20 pair of helmet speakers. Whatever. But my tools! My beloved, had-them-for-30-years tools! What a bastard!

Over the years I’ve been on the bad side of a break-in four times. One time it was my hi-fi. The other three times it was my tools that got lifted. It always feels like a huge violation, but particularly when it comes to tools. A man’s work is wrapped up in those things. His identity. His ability to respond to his muse.  There is a special place in the depths of hell reserved for people who steal another man’s tools.

Beyond the normal hurt and anger came the extra aggravation that I was now without some specialized tools I had acquired to do specialized things like setting the sag on the whippy cool HyperPro shock I had installed. Double-damn. You see, I had now moved beyond the initiate to moto-man, fourth degree, only six more levels to climb! 

  • Level 1: Use of tools
  • Level 2: Buy tools to use
  • Level 3: Own more than one shop manual
  • Level 4: Buy specialized tools; power tools go here
  • Level 5: Undertake a job that requires the use of multiple tools at the same time
  • Level 6: Undertake a job that requires multiple types of tools
  • Level 7: Complete disassembly and reassembly of something with more than 50 parts.
  • Level 8: Custom fabrication / extensive modification of existing structures
  • Level 9: Diagnosis and repair or rebuild of mission critical assembly (like a motor rebuild)
  • Level 10: Diagnosis and repair or rebuild or anything anywhere without tools.

So the tool-taking wasn’t just a casual violation as it might have been for a struggling Level 1. This was tugging on Super Man’s cape. This was taking a run at the USS Nimitz in a speed boat. This was trifling with Thor’s Hammer!

Patrimony Restored

Into the soup of worst parts was added my thousand dollar insurance deductible. But it is just these challenges that make a man. It is just these sorts of calls that bring out a man’s true moto-mojo. Before the sun set that day I was the proud new owner of a full set of new tools. NEW TOOLS. New tools from the forges of the Fatherland, hammered into existence by the wizened hands of master craftsmen. New sockets, new wrenches, a new torque wrench scribed in Newton meters for God’s sake!

Patrimony restored, I was now tooled up and free to farkle and adjust with new confidence. As I write this, my FJR is at the dealer getting all the greasy and grimy stuff done in anticipation of a big riding season. So truth be told, I completely fail the Pirsig purity test. But one of the joys of advanced years and perspective is the possibility of some security in your own skin. I’m involved. I heard the Muse. I bought the tools. I answered the call. Now if I could only transfer my deep insights into the truth about motorcycles to the arthritis in my neck . . .

Kevin Hoffberg