Three friends set off on a 350-mile California dirt-bike tour, with a motocross race at the end.
"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king," sang Frank Sinatra in That's Life. The same might apply to my motorcycling career, thanks to a longtime interest in vintage dirt bikes, street bikes and road racers, modern superbikes and motocrossers, and even touring. With such schizophrenic tastes, sometimes it's hard to know what to pursue next. Last year I decided to combine three longtime loves — vintage enduro bikes, touring and motocross — into one grand adventure. "Vintage Tour Cross" was born.
The plan was simple enough: Aboard a 1969 Suzuki TS250 Savage, a 1971 OSSA Pioneer 250 Enduro, and a 1975 Honda XL350, we'd load up Aerostich saddlebags, backpacks and sleeping bags, and ride 350 miles over two-lane backroads from Santa Barbara to Hollister, California, where the 21st round of the AHRMA Vintage Motocross championship would be held. We'd then camp in the pits and race the vintage national on Sunday. Unprecedented? Yes. Unlikely? Sure. But we wanted to try.
Volunteers included 10-time car racing national champion and avid motorcyclist Randy "The Rocket" Pobst; his friend Deborah Inskeep, a marine biologist and sport bike enthusiast; and racing photographer and rock climber Seth DeDoes, following in a Ford F-250 Super Duty pickup with his camera gear, tents, and some gas, oil and tools. With some 500 car races to his credit, Pobst had just one motorcycle event under his belt. And Inskeep had never ridden in the dirt. Like challenges much?
Randy's Suzuki was stock and nearly all there, until close inspection uncovered mousy wiring, a horn that intermittently bleated on and off, nonfunctioning turn signals, an inoperative tachometer, a gummed-up carburetor and, worst of all, much piston slap. But it showed just 4,100 miles on the odometer, and after a carb rebuild it started, idled, ran and shifted through the gears fine.
My beloved OSSA was essentially fit for duty, except for a questionable charging system and the possibility that the Spanish fiberglass tank — coated several years ago with Caswell — would start seeping anew on the long road ride. Even after 46 years, the venerable Pioneer had gone only 2,800 miles.
And Deborah's Honda? Well, just like a Honda, everything worked, including the lights, fork lock and turn signals. After cleaning the carburetor, Randy had turned it into a real pussycat. With just 2,950 miles on the clock, the XL350 was eager to go.
The bikes' tires were OK for a road ride, but not for the Hollister motocross. On an MX track, nothing helps more than fresh, square-edged knobbies, so I fitted new Dunlop tires to the 2-strokes. With Deborah new to dirt bikes, we carried her Dunlops in the truck to install them upon arrival at Hollister, giving her the security of the Honda's more street-oriented tires on the two-day tour. Lubricants were changed to fresh Lucas Oil products and new Regina drive chains were rolled on. As the piece de resistance, FastLane MX prepared some customized numbers, which I applied to standard 9 x 11-inch oval plates attached with simple aluminum bracketry. Suddenly, our otherwise standard vintage enduros looked like bona fide ISDT bikes. So cool!
Our 8 a.m. planned departure morphed into 1 p.m. as our group assembled, sorted through riding gear, packed up the chase truck and bungee-corded sleeping bags and gear onto the bikes. Finally on the road, I felt a surge of emotions: excitement to be underway on a unique trip; anxiety about possible mechanical problems; and worry about being behind schedule. Fortunately, the first leg from Santa Barbara to the mountain town of Ojai was uneventful. So far, so good!
The first challenge was climbing Pine Mountain above Ojai, a nearly mile-high summit that tested both power and stamina. All three bikes made it without complaint, but as the sun set behind the Cuyama Valley, and the temperature likewise dropped to "shivering," it was clearly going to be a long ride to our intended overnight stop in Coalinga, a 202-mile day.
Dusk and deeper cold arrived as our group gamely turned onto SR 166, heading for the little town of Maricopa. There was zero need for discussion. We all knew where we were, what time it was, how far behind we were, how far we had to go, and what the temperature was. So we kept going. That resolve proved that exactly the right people had signed on for the trip.
As darkness arrived, so did the first mechanical problem: a no-go OSSA headlight. Pulling into a truck brake-check area, I dug out a voltmeter, spare fuses and patch cords, and tracked the circuitry back to the magneto, whose lighting coil was producing no useful electrons.
The solution? Two ultra-bright flashlights, including a six-cell Maglite up front and a two-cell LED unit, with the OSSA's taillight lens taped over it, in back. Amazingly, the result nearly equaled the Pioneer's 6-volt OE lighting, and we proceeded northward to Taft, countering the cold by doubling up gloves and tripling up other layers. Some hot Mexican food in a wonderfully lumpy, naugahyde-upholstered local diner completed our abbreviated day one — 112 miles — in style.
Sunup brought a glorious sight — cloudless skies, and our three vintage enduro bikes parked side by side by side, two with their Dunlop knobbies freshly broken in, bugs nicely splattered across all three front number plates, and chain lube and exhaust streaks already covering the back ends. After a quick breakfast, we refueled, repacked and remounted for the longest day of our trip — over 220 miles north to the Hollister Hills State Vehicle Recreation Area, home of the motocross national.
The day started great, riding with our backs to the sun, soaking up the day's growing warmth and clicking off the miles. If you like gritty vistas, ride SR 33 north from Taft sometime: Mile after mile of pumping oil derricks, dirt roads, oily pipelines, service trucks and tumbleweeds — it's all here, just like a scene from John Wayne's Hellfighters.
And it's also where real bike trouble found us, as the prolonged high speeds brought the death of the Savage's top end as the engine slowed, soured, and then lost power altogether. Randy coasted to a stop on a dirt turnout, and Deborah and I circled back. Alarmingly, the TS250 had no compression, and the kickstarter turned uselessly as the piston slid up and down in the bore. ¡No bueno!
Tools we had, duct tape and wire we had, spark plugs and spare oil and gas we had. But we didn't have a piston kit for a 48-year-old Savage, so we ceremoniously loaded the Suzuki into the pickup and carried on.
Arriving in Coalinga around lunchtime, we refueled and then set about calculating a Suzuki fix. What greeted us inside the combustion chamber was beyond disturbing. The entire front of the piston crown was eaten away by detonation. With no parts available, fixing this would require creativity — and a miracle. The local Ace Hardware yielded a $9 gallon of muriatic acid for dissolving aluminum off the iron bore, and the local auto-parts store produced an adjustable cylinder hone for $34. Doubtful outcome? Yes. But we were willing to try. We had to try.
I'll feel forever guilty that The Rocket missed riding the best part of the trip, SR 198 and 25 from Coalinga to Hollister. Rising and falling, twisting and turning, and flanked by golden fields and grasslands straight out of Steinbeck's East of Eden, the route is 92 miles of bucolic beauty.
The sun ducked behind Hollister Hills as we finally pulled into the campground, where we found a gypsy park full of like-minded souls, their CZs and Pursangs, BSAs and Greeves stationed like sentries guarding tents, trailers and trucks. We quickly located a lovely camping spot under a broad oak tree, but there was no time for dinner. Out of the F-250 came the Suzuki and off came its exhaust pipe, carburetor and cylinder to reveal a worst-case scenario. The cylinder, once a precise 72mm diameter barrel, now carried nasty streaks of aluminum at the exhaust port. The piston was even worse, its crown crumbling, its top ring pinched tight by melted aluminum, and its lower ring literally welded in place.
We swarmed the bike until after 10 p.m., a volunteer from a nearby campsite doing a great job cleaning up the cylinder with the muriatic acid, the chemical reaction bubbling away the aluminum streak. But the piston was a much tougher save, and I spent two hours with a knife, razor blade, wet-and-dry sandpaper and file, freeing the top ring but then running into a roadblock trying to unstick the lower ring. Ultimately, it just got too late, and with the OSSA and Honda needing only minimal attention to race, we called time on the day. We'd been at it 14 hours.
Up at dawn to the distant sound of a 2-stroke warming up, and the start of one of the most harried classic bike days imaginable. As a team, we wanted just one thing: For all three bikes to line up and race. However, another surprise awaited as I swapped out the Honda's dual-sport front tire for the new Dunlop knobby, and prepared to do the same for the rear. The Honda would not start, for anyone, nowhere, no how. Off came the fuel line to check gas flow, which was fine. Out came the spark plug to check for spark. There was none. Check the switches, check the lights, check the fuse. Still no spark.
Deducing a bad coil, we borrowed the torn-down Suzuki's and tried it on the Honda. Still no spark. We tried jumping directly from the battery to the coil. No spark again. Finally, Bobby Weindorf, the curator at the Moto Talbott Museum and a former Honda factory Superbike mechanic, offered to troubleshoot the bike. His deduction: a bad ignition stator. What had 24 hours before been a mission on track was now a mission in shambles, with the two Japanese bikes dismantled in our campground and the Spanish machine running fine. Was this a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or what?
This next part is too incredible to believe, but I swear it's true. The previous night, a visitor casually mentioned that an early Honda Elsinore piston directly interchanges with the TS250's. On a whim, we relayed this to event officials first thing on race morning, and they made an appeal — for either piston — in their morning briefing. Appreciative of the gesture, I thought nothing more of it, and had put both the Honda and Suzuki out of mind as I lined up for the first moto on the OSSA. It ran great, and after a race-long battle up from mid-pack, I finished competitively in third place. Ecstatic with this result on a stock bike that had just toured 350 miles (and was still wearing its lights, license plate and muffler!), I returned to the pits, took off my helmet — and spied a small box in between a power drill and a loaf of bread. It said "Wiseco" and "CR250" on it.
"Where did this come from?" I asked. Randy knew. "A guy named Stan Clayton brought it by," he said. "His son James heard the announcement at 7:30, called home and woke up his wife, and asked her to go to the garage and get it," he explained. "She then drove it to the track and Stan walked it over here. He refused to take any money for it."
In the box was indeed a new standard piston for an early Elsinore, plus a pair of rings. But would it really fit the Suzuki? I grabbed the cleaned-up cylinder, inserted the piston... and they fit together perfectly. The Suzuki wrist pin fit the piston as well. Suddenly, we had a solution, thanks to the kindness of Santa Clara Riders Unlimited (the event's host club) and the Clayton family.
The only hiccup was that the Suzuki's needle bearing was too wide to fit inside the Wiseco piston's wrist-pin bosses. With Randy's and my moto coming up fast, I grabbed the drill and a grinding wheel, a neighbor fired up his generator, and I clamped the bearing cage with Vice-Grips and had at it. The ad hoc bench grinder narrowed the bearing in short order, and with the top end hastily assembled, the Suzuki started in one swing of the kickstarter. And none too soon, either, as our race was just about to line up.
Rolling up to the starting gate with Randy was surreal. It was the climax of a trip we had long discussed, and most especially because just a half-hour before, Randy's Suzuki was a dirty, road-weary bike with its top end torn off. I looked over and yelled, "I told you I would get you to the gate!" But The Rocket wasn't listening — he was staring straight ahead. The gate dropped, and the renewed Suzuki and OSSA lunged ahead, side by side. In one moment, three days of toil and stress, hundreds of miles of travel, frayed tempers and problems ceased to be important. Vintage Tour Cross was real!
Señor Rocket did a great job on track, riding nearly mistake-free and finishing, as he described it later, "Not last! A wide-eyed rookie, I surveyed the line of hardened veterans. Thrilled, scared and excited, I suppressed a loud voice in my head saying, 'What the hay are you thinking? This is totally nuts.' Then the gate dropped and 'Hooweee!' off we went!" The OSSA likewise had another good run, again finishing third for an overall podium in a vintage national.
And then it was Deborah's turn to walk on fire. With the Honda out, we swapped her number plates to the Suzuki, and she rolled to the gate. Incredibly, having never ridden in the dirt, she sparred with two other riders before falling while attempting a pass. She got up and finished though, covered in mud and wearing a huge grin. "I didn't know what was going to happen, but I never thought I couldn't do it," she said later. "So when the gate dropped I went for it, screaming 'C'mon, c'mon!' into my helmet. Even after things went awry, I just kept working angles until I succeeded. I think that's what we all did."
"Life is sloppy," mused a psychologist friend one time. She was right, of course, but she couldn't have known just how well those three words would suit our crazy, brazen experiment. Yes, it was sloppy. It was also stressful and exhilarating, challenging and frustrating, scenic and beautiful, and in the end, euphoric. But at its core, it was so simple: Three vintage bikes, loaded with gear. Three friends, ready to ride. A long, open road upon which to chase a dream. And then, finally, a race track showdown. All with no guarantees.
Despite all the challenges, the first-ever Vintage Tour Cross turned out almost perfect. My takeaway? When you have a dream, resist overthinking it, or you may never go — or ever truly live. MC
Originally published at Hagerty.com
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