Originally published in Rider Magazine. Lately I have been spending a lot of time on my 1974 Honda CB 750. I enjoy the sit-up-and-grin riding position, the languid feel of the bike, and the visceral growl of those four pipes—the world’s first true superbike.
But there’s another reason the old CB is so enjoyable: It never laughs at me. When riding the ancient four, there is nothing about it that says go faster you wimp. Lean farther. Accelerate harder.
Mostly, this is because it can’t do any of those things—at least with me on it. The fact is, the CB offers the singular pleasure of enforced slowness. There are no challenges to my supposed manhood. I go slow. I look around. I am happy.
I think most classic bike riders, and many cruiser enthusiasts, appreciate their machines for the same reason. When it comes to riding prowess, we are collective underachievers. Things like an 8,000-rpm rev limit, slapping cam chains, skinny tires, and a spark-throwing centerstand have a way of tempering one’s exuberance. Kind of like a longtime friend who keeps you from doing the tequila shots before you end up with a lampshade on your head, doing karaoke, or in jail. It’s for your own good.
Hey, we all like to ride on the edge of our envelopes. It’s just that many of us have elected to reduce the size of the envelopes.
This is not to say I don’t enjoy speed. I also own a Honda VFR Interceptor, which of course is a fantastic motorcycle—smooth, powerful, sweet handling. The difference is, the VFR embarrasses me with its competence. Even though I have been riding most of my life, teach motorcycle safety, and do regular track days to improve my skills, there is still a yawning gap between my abilities and the capabilities of the VFR. I am reminded of this fact every time I do one of Reg Pridmore’s CLASS instructional schools. Just when I think I am getting fast, Reg eases past on the outside of turn two at Laguna Seca—riding two-up and simultaneously fiddling with an on-bike video camera. Though I can hang with the faster “A” group, and have been known to put my knee on the ground on a good day, Reg’s display has a way of convincing me that I will never run with the big dogs. As the Vermont farmer said when asked directions: You can’t get there from here. If riding skills are in the genes, then I picked the wrong parents.
You’d think it might make me sad to confront my limitations in this way, but it doesn’t. There’s plenty of fun to be had riding the VFR at half its capability, and by the same token, there’s even more fun to be had riding the CB 750 at what feels like three fourths of its capability—without ever exceeding 70 mph!
Come to think of it, this theory can be applied in a progressive way, such that equal amounts of pleasure can be had riding my 1969 Triumph TR6 at 50 mph, as is derived from the CB at 70, or the VFR at 100. It is also the underlying reason that there are adults racing vintage motocross, and may explain the popularity of racing in the 125 and 250 classes. It may also clarify why getting out of bed is, for me, the psychological equivalent of running a marathon. I like to set myself up for success. In motorcycling, there is something satisfying in working within defined and approachable boundaries. Take something smaller, or less powerful, and push it closer to the edge of its capability. My happy place.
They say agoraphobia is the fear of open spaces. I have something similar—let’s call it Hayabusaphobia—the fear of open displacement and unlimited horsepower. (It may also involve an aversion to CAT scans and traction.)
I understand if you choose to malign me for my underachieving ways. My friend Tom, a motorcycle mechanic who seems to acquire a new bike weekly, cannot understand the attraction of such flint-and-steel mechanical devices as the CB 750. (Even though he was an invaluable resource during its restoration.) “I just like new bikes,” he says. “They go faster and brake better.”
He is absolutely right, of course. The logic of Tom’s viewpoint is unassailable. Then again, if I were logical, I would not have sunk thousands of dollars into the restorations of the two vintage bikes in the first place. (Or, in my most delusional moment, would I have purchased my latest restoration project, a 1970 Honda Mini-Trail Z50, a bike that strains to go 30 mph and makes me look like André the Giant. But that’s a story for another day.) Logic and motorcycling rarely seem to intersect, in my experience. I’m pretty sure that’s what we like about it.
So in the meantime, I will keep riding, and enjoying, ancient technology of limited potential. (Funny thing, my wife describes me in similar terms.) Sportbike riders will appear suddenly in my mirrors, like apparitions, then pass disdainfully and leave me for dead. I will not feel insulted when this happens.
I will also continue to enjoy my VFR, even though it may scoff at me on occasion. But while the VFR snickers, the CB 750 is awed by my riding prowess. This is kind of like wowing the wallflower at the prom, playing down two levels in tennis, or winning a golf tournament with a 30-stroke handicap.
The CB 750 thinks I might just be Valentino Rossi, and I am happy to prolong the illusion—every chance I get.