Tuesday 29 October 2013

OddBike USA Tour: Part V - Alabama Bound

Ducati in Maggie Valley North Carolina

Part V of the OddBike USA Tour Travelogue. Click here for Part IPart IIPart III, and Part IV


Thursday morning is sunny and cool, but appreciably warmer than it had been in Virginia. We are finally making progress in terms of temperature, the one element I hoped to escape quickly once I had started riding south. I wake at sunrise and walk around the Wheels Through Time property, taking photos of the beautiful surroundings as the light of dawn creeps into the valley.

I pack up my tent and gear, but I'm in no hurry today. Up until this point I had been hitting the road just after sunrise and arriving at my destination in the early afternoon. Today I want to take my time. I wander around the museum again, taking in some more of the endless details that I had missed on my whirlwind approach the previous day. I meet Jack, one of the museum employees, when I'm raiding the coffee pot and planning a route to Birmingham. I had originally thought about going east through the Smoky Mountains, then south through Tennessee, but he suggests a quicker route through Georgia. Later on I would discover his advice was quite sound, given how technical my original route proved to be.

Babbling brook Maggie Valley North Carolina

I quickly discover that Jack is as much a part of the museum collection as he is a caretaker of it. I don't mean that in a facetious way, so please don't misinterpret my description - I mean he is a piece of true American motorcycling history himself, a veteran rider who has seen it all, done it all, and been on both sides of the law. He started riding in the late 1940s, secretly racing borrowed bikes at the local fairgrounds. He shares stories that could be lifted straight out of a pulp novel, riding and fighting with regional outlaw gangs before leaving once the big boys from Oakland showed up to clean house and take over the territory. He is a fascinating man who has lived through the significant changes that have occurred in motorcycle culture over the decades. But he is more than a conduit of Americana - he is intelligent, wizened with experience, and has a friendly progressive attitude. I wish I had had more time to talk to him and listen to his stories.

So if you find yourself at the museum, take the time to chat with Jack for an unfiltered first-hand history lesson. And not just him, as every member of the staff - Dale, Matt, Trish, Cindy and anyone else I may have missed - is a genuine, stand up person. These are the people who are passionate about what they do and what they curate, and it shows.    

Joe Gardella in the Wheels Through Time workshop

Around 10am I'm ready to go. Despite the initial anxieties I described in Part II, once I am in the midst of a journey I can't wait to hit the road again and see where it takes me next. This trip in particular brought forth my intense wanderlust as each day was more incredible than the last, each destination more interesting than the previous one. I was itching to fire up the bike and get going again to see what would happen next.

Babbling brook Maggie Valley

Of course I now had to deal with that damnable cold starting problem - but now with an audience. Wheels Through Time is a popular destination and people began streaming in as soon as the gates opened, so by mid-morning there was a sizeable crowd of riders gathered in the front yard. I dreaded this moment, knowing that I would be fulfilling the Italian motorcycle stereotype in spades by sitting here in front of a crowd of domestic and metric motorcycles, coaxing and fiddling with a recalcitrant Latin machine while quietly muttering pleading for it to Just. Please. Fucking. Start. Sure enough it behaves just like it had on the two previous mornings, but now I'm beginning to figure out a formula, in part due to Joe's notes on the hard starting of his 955 SPA. Ignition on, thumb the starter for a few seconds. Wait 30 seconds to a minute. Repeat. As soon as the engine starts to pop and catch, stop. Wait again. Repeat.

The engine is barely catching and promptly stalling after a few lumpy misfires and I'm getting frustrated. I can feel eyes on the back of my neck as my under-the-breath pleas grow more desperate. I pause and Matt comes over to say goodbye. I double check the route I planned with him and wish him well; I expect I'll encounter the guys again at Barber after the Century Race on Saturday. He heads back into the museum, I thumb the starter again, and the bike instantly thunders to life. I may have pumped my fist and shouted "YES" a little too loud. I'm not a superstitious man, but I briefly think about kidnapping Matt for use as a good luck charm.

Wheels Through Time Museum

I warm up the bike and finish putting on my gear. If ever there was a picture perfect example of 916 ownership, this was it. Hard starting, sputtering, owner begging it to behave as if it was a colicky child. Then a flourish of mechanical racket as the beast cooperates for one glorious moment. All I would need now to complete the scene would be for it to stall just as I pull out in front of the crowd... GOD DAMN IT. I restart and give it a little too much throttle cutting across the wet lawn, sliding the back wheel out a good 20 degrees. At least I left with a proper attitude, looking like a confident rider taming a barely contained brute as I thundered out onto the main road. At least that's what I'd like to think. More likely I looked like a squid with a barely-functional old Italian piece of shit who almost highsided on the front lawn in front of a group of Harley riders.

Sunrise in Maggie Valley North Carolina

I head south along the secondary highway as per Jack's advice, on my way towards Atlanta before I cut west to Birmingham. I stop at a Wendy's for an early lunch. I watch Fox News as I sip my coffee, getting my fill of vitriolic right-wing bullshit for the day, including hyperbolic coverage of the infamous Range Rover incident in New York. I shift uncomfortably in my seat while images of Edwin Mieses Jr. being trampled by a 5000 pound British suburban tank are repeated several times on the flatscreen in the centre of the restaurant. I'm sitting here in full motorcyclist regalia, helmet on table, my bright red "crotch rocket" sitting in front of the building. I am the very thing the Fox anchors are viciously and ignorantly disparaging and I now feel a bit ill at ease. I'm intensely aware of how that single incident has inflamed old prejudices around the world and set back our public relations a good 30 years. Several times during the trip people would bring up the incident, seeking my opinion, but I would always politely dodge discussing the "issue". I will say my thoughts on the motorcycle "cult of persecution" in North America turned out to be, unfortunately, a bit too prescient.

I briefly wonder what Jack thinks of all this nonsense.

As I'm on my way out, the manager comes over to say hello and quizzes me a bit on my trip. He warns me to take care around the local drivers: this was the number one piece of advice I received along the way. Everybody seemed to be convinced their local drivers were the worst, but rest assured that dealing with Montreal traffic for a single ride is by far much worse than anything I encountered over my two weeks in the United States.

He wishes me well on my journey. I don't ask, but I know he is a fellow rider just by his graciousness and his genuine interest in my well being. I forget about the melodramatic Fox coverage and return to the road.

Wheels Through Time property

I ride south along a half dozen secondary highways into Georgia, passing through countless small rural communities. Despite being rural the density of the population along these routes is far more than you'd find on a similar area in Canada. It's a slow, relatively unexciting ride. As I approach Gainesville the roads straighten and the landscape begins to flatten out. No more mountain passes from here onward. I loop around Atlanta through moderate afternoon traffic and head straight for Birmingham to meet my host.

Winslow contacted me through OddBike shortly after I began the OddBike USA Tour Indiegogo campaign. He graciously offered me a place to stay in Birmingham, which was a great relief because my original plan had me camping at the Barber festival for three days. Not a bad thing and probably a good way to meet some people, but it's nice to have a shower now and then. While I was en-route I gave him a call to give him a head's up, and asked him if he knew anyone who might be able to help with my hunt for a coolant sensor. He obliged by making a post on a local rider's forum and got a few leads, meanwhile I called some Ducati contacts who were supposed to be at Barber for the weekend and started the ball rolling to locate that elusive little bastard that nobody seemed to stock.

Wheels Through Time property

I arrived in Birmingham around suppertime and promptly got lost in a rough looking neighbourhood off the Interstate. I tried to follow my Google map printout to Winslow's address but got thoroughly disoriented. Birmingham is one of those cities that is laid out in a way that is so rational that it is impossible to navigate. Streets are laid out in numerical order, but then you have the city divided into quadrants, so you end up with four different 52nd streets in totally different parts of town. Of course I had no clue where I was or how to get where I was going, so I swallowed my pride and called Winslow to get directions. Turns out he was only a few blocks away and once we joined up it was easy to locate his place... But I still would never have found my way on my own, and it turned out my map was actually wrong. I ended up being so totally screwed up by Birmingham's wonky city planning that I relied on Winslow to either drive me or directly lead me around town for the duration of my stay.

Turns out that Winslow works as a graphic designer for Mental Floss, which is an interesting trivia and general interest magazine. His home is littered with interesting objects, little items that visual designers often keep handy to offer examples and inspiration. He also does woodworking as a sideline when he isn't tinkering with his two-wheeled projects which comprised a Yamaha XS400 and XS500, and a Honda GL1000.

Wheels Through Time Museum Maggie Valley NC

Once I had the chance to park the bike and take a shower I had one simple request for my host: take me to the best damn southern BBQ joint you know. Winslow obliged and drove us to Saw's Soul Kitchen, a magnificent smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall conveniently located next to a microbrewery that is lenient with people bringing their own food. We grabbed some of Saw's signature pork and grits with deep fried onions and arugula, a fantastic introduction to a southern tradition I had been desperately wanting to try after hearing so much about smoked-off-the-bone secret recipes from down south. While Canadians would like to think they have some pretty decent BBQ skills, and lots of Montreal hotspots would claim to have the best smoked meats at their disposal, nothing is comparable to the so-tender-it-defies-belief slab of pork I got unceremoniously presented in a styrofoam go-box. Mission accomplished.

We head next door to the brewery where I score a delicious stout to wash down my sticky mix of meat and grits. It became my mission to try a new local brew at every destination, another element of adventure to add to the many nuances of my journey. That and I hate hoppy pisswater beers - I like a serious, rich, flavour-addled brew that got scraped out of the bottom of whatever barrel had been sitting in the warehouse the longest.

We spent the evening talking bikes, as you might imagine. Winslow was a relatively new rider, having some limited experience in his youth but only really taking up the sport in the last few years. He dove in headfirst by taking on several project bikes and tearing them apart himself to learn things hands-on. Which is similar to how I got into wrenching bikes (being stupid enough to start messing with my own machines without much supervision) though I didn't have the benefit of several bikes at my disposal so that I would have good odds of at least one being rideable. He mentions that he is working on a friend's late-model Triumph Bonneville and having some trouble setting the carburettors. Being a former Triumph tech I offer to have a look at it to see if I can help sort it out. I figure it's the least I can do considering he is letting my stay in his home for the next three days.

We finish our beers and head back to the house. We dive into the Bonnie and I discover a relatively simple throttle cable issue that fixes a high idle problem, but the carbs remained properly buggered up and would require tearing apart for further cleaning. While we are in the garage I give the 916 a once-over to check for anything amiss. I make a note to pick up some JB Weld to patch the cracked coolant union back together. I adjust the chain and add a direct ground to the temperature sensor to fix the wonky temp gauge. While working on the bike in the driveway I discover that cockroaches in Alabama are goddamned huge. And quite resilient. I dreaded starting the bike in the morning and having a swarm of the fuckers come skittering out of every vent on the bike, a prophesy that thankfully didn't come to pass.

Aside from the coolant union there is nothing amiss after 1600 miles on the road, though I am still concerned about my rich-running issue. I send an email to Mike at Gotham Cycles in Florida to ask if he has a coolant sensor he could send express to my next stop in New Orleans. Mike has been a stand-up source of hard-to-find parts over the years, and is one of the best Ducati salvage operations out there. He has helped me out in of a few binds, and supplied me with some key parts that I've used to refurbish my 916 over the years. The only pain is that he only communicates via email so you always have to resort to emailing him a panicked message and praying he responds in a timely manner. In this case he does - and he has one on hand, so I arrange to have the part shipped to my next stop in New Orleans.

Side note: I can already imagine a few Ducati guys preparing to type a response saying "but you can buy that sensor at NAPA!". I know. The sensor that was on my bike was that NAPA replacement, changed last season as part of my troubleshooting of what turned out to be a faulty crank position sensor. It never ran quite right with the NAPA part - always too rich on WOT with occasional misfires in the midrange. I just wanted to start from zero and get the correct Ducati original part, because odds were the equivalent part was sending weird info to the ECU and throwing the fuel mixture way off.

The exhaustion of a day's riding sped along by a hearty meal of meat and beer catches up to me and I crash hard for the night, helped in no small part due to the first real bed I've seen since I left Pennsylvania. Tomorrow we head to the Barber Vintage Festival.

Scary ass spider


  1. Keep up the good work! I keep checking back daily for updates and have enjoyed them all immensely.

  2. Well, I'll join those who admire your persistence and adventure attitude... I would feel overwhelmed by the journey in my old, but still quite reliable and confortable, '80 enduro (an Honda XL 600 LM, older than me in fact).
    And I envy you for the possibility to reach and visit that magnificent "Wheels through time" museum... Living in Europe, I fear I would not be able to do a "touch and go" visit in that Eldorado of hystoric motorcycles. At least, I managed to know of its esistence, thanks to you.

    Ah, by the way... Oddbike is one of the best pages I've ever read in the web. Good work mate!