The Pleasure of Enforced Slowness

CB650
A vintage bike, like my 1974 Honda CB750, almost makes me feel skilled. I’m not quite at the edge of its performance envelope—but I can see it from here. The CB’s 1974 state-of-the-art powerplant churned out a fearsome…67 horsepower. Hey, it’s all relative! (Photos by the author)

Lately I have been spending a lot of time on my 1974 Honda CB750. 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.

Honda VFR800 Interceptor
My Honda VFR may be old, but it can still embarrass me with its competence. Even when I’m pushing hard, it just sighs. “Is that all you got?”

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 talent is 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 CB750 at what feels like 3/4 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.

Honda VFR800 Interceptor
King Ridge Road in Northern California provides ample proof: I am not worthy of the technology beneath me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it….

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 CB750. (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. (Nor, 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 CB750 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 CB750 thinks I might just be Valentino Rossi, and I am happy to prolong the illusion—every chance I get.

10 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve never had the pleasure to ride a vintage bike, however, I do have a Z125pro. It certainly makes me feel like a rockstar riding at what I believe to be the bikes 90% potential. When I switch to my Ninja 1000 I’m quickly reminded how much more I need to learn.

  2. Ha. I also remember riding a Triumph TR6 at 50 mph with the owner trailing behind in his car. It was very pleasant at that speed, but as it dumped a half pint of oil on my foot when I dismounted, it was relatively easy to regretfully decline the opportunity to buy it. I too have many limitations but I also have medical certificates and hospital stays to confirm that I am well past my prime, if not my sell-by date.

  3. You could get something like a KTM 390 duke and have the best of both worlds: modern dynamics and the sense of reaching a bike’s limits. If you live rural, all is good, in the urban world, even at a slow pace you will have moments where everything has to happen fast and with alacrity. I’ll take the modern bike in that scenario.

  4. I’ve owned/ridden many litre plus and sporty 750s (when they were top dog), once thought I had to have latest, fastest, best. A decade ago I downsized to a 650 twin. Smart move, even tho not consciously planned. It was a second bike. Price, ins. costs, mpg were considerations, but light weight, easy handling, a match for my aging reflexes and skills, and enjoyment of scenery pace touring turned out to be the real plusses of downsizing. Deliberately choosing the backroads of California, finding the gnarly and deer rich, and no warning roads where I MUST go slow, gives me more pleasure and more hours and days of enjoyment than ever in my near 60+ years of riding. Mind you the 650 will register 130 mph. with me on it (in a safe place just once). It has speed when needed. But I often get 58-60 mpg riding 40-55 mph., riding beautiful and varied roads. Since I’m in no hurry, I often stop to meet the most interesting and friendly people. And not mentioned in Geoff’s article, when you are alone or paired, riding slow and quiet, you are an excellent ambassador for motorcycling! Especially in the very rural areas, the small towns, even in the suburbs. When I stop, folks are friendly, walk up to me and talk. When I’m riding, folks wave and smile (yes I see that at a relaxed pace) and seem a little envious how much I can see all that is around me. Doug, NorCal.

  5. Modern retro’s also work at enforcing slowness. I dipped my motorcycling toe into that pool with my recent purchase of a 2018 BMW RnineT Urban G/S. The air-cooled motor has surprising poke but the chassis is reminiscent of a rusted solid 70’s rat bike. Do not attempt to ride this fast on bumpy back roads as you are reminded of what a “Flying W” is at 40mph from a little frost heave. “Oh you unweight the seat just like the old days”, you remind yourself as you line up the next one.

  6. Very much enjoyed this article. Motorcycling is a personal endeavour and everyone approaches it differently.
    I love classic bikes, and have owned everything from the (real) Ducati scrambler when I was homeported in Gaeta, Italy
    many years ago to a 95 Ducati Supersport, which Peter Egan considered one of the most enjoyable motorcycles.
    Twenty or so motorcycles over the years and each with a different personality, just like people.
    I am just an average rider, but as the author of this article stated, I also derive as much pleasure from this wonderful
    past time as the most expert rider. Kicking over an old Triumph for a Sunday dawn patrol is just a downright thing of joy.
    I have been riding since I was in my 20’s and will turn 70 this year. I still go out to my 10 x 20 shed in the middle of the
    night, turn on the light and look at my bike. How lucky am I .

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here