Death Valley Days: I fought the law and we both won

I could fill a book with stories of my interactions with cops – nearly always on my motorcycle and typically with city traffic police or highway patrol officers. In retrospect, my view of our relationship was somewhat warped. Me: A strong desire to ride at far higher speeds than the posted limits and Them: To stop my ass from doing that. I used technology (radar detectors and laser jammers), cunning, and paperwork against them. At one point, I even got a badge. This story covers one of the “with badge” incidents. Here is how it began.

I was living in Palo Alto, CA, when my good friend and riding buddy, David Ezequelle pulled out a single sheet of paper over lunch one day in March and showed me his idea for a week-long motorcycle excursion. It looked sort of like this:

Notes, April 2 to April 6, with locations

The start day finally came and I hopped on my Suzuki V-Strom, fresh from its suspension upgrade from Northern California’s most reputable motorcycle suspension tuner, Phil Douglas at “After Shocks.” Our riders meet for breakfast at Buck’s, the famous launching pad for hundreds of startup companies; where PayPal got their first money and many anxious entrepreneurs outline plans for the “next Google” to jaded venture capitalists. But no plans were pitched at our table this early Monday morning and napkins remained free of diagrams. Instead, bikes were inspected, tire pressures re-checked and coffee cups drained in anticipation of a week away from the office. This would be a Monday – Friday route on some of the best of California’s motorcycle roads, from Death Valley to Sequoia National Park.

The observatory at the top of Mt. Hamilton, east of San Jose

We watch countless commuters clog the highways leading into the former fruit groves of Silicon Valley, while we ride in the opposite direction, feeling as if we’re playing hooky. Our plan is to be in San Luis Obispo by nightfall so, of course, we head the other way to Patterson by way of Mt. Hamilton and a stop at the observatory perched on top. Highway 130 from San Jose to Mt. Hamilton is a fabulous road filled with tight technical corners providing plenty of opportunity to slide off the seat and push a knee toward the pavement. The narrow road hugs the contour of the land with so many switchbacks and direction changes, the compass indicator on the GPS never stops spinning. After a quick break at the observatory, we follow Hwy 130 down the back side as it becomes the Del Puerto Canyon Road and drops us into Patterson. This 100-mile section offers compressed, non-stop twisties. With endless sets of banked and off-camber turns, it is easily as interesting as the more popular westward routes from Silicon Valley up to Skyline Drive and down to the coast. But this road always has far less traffic, and on this Monday morning, we have it to ourselves.

David had figured out that with the right credentials, we could get onto the Ft. Hunter Liggett Army post and more importantly, exit out the back. We each had to show full documentation (driver’s license, bike registration and proof of insurance). We also underwent careful inspection by the guards at the gate and they had to be sure there were no live fire exercises scheduled while we would be in the area.

Ft. Hunter Liggett is interesting, not only because at 165,000 acres it is the largest US Army Reserve post anywhere, it also contains the Junipero Serra Peak and the headwaters of the Nacimiento River. We quickly pass through a small portion of the base, as our real goal is the Ft. Hunter Liggett road which turns into Forest Road 22S01 and winds thirty-five miles over the mountains to US 1. It is one of the most under-used and incredibly beautiful roads in the USA – gravel, of course. Riding through the tall trees and constant switchbacks, the smell of the distant moist ocean air quietly moving up the mountain towards us is intoxicating.

Dinner in San Luis Obispo was at the Tsurugi Japanese restaurant on Higuera Street, a short walk from our digs at the Best Western. The table is soon filled with work-of-art sushi and fresh sashimi and beer bottles. The Uni (sea urchin) draws raves from some, but the niguri and kohada sushi work for me. Everything is delicious on the tongue and beautiful to the eye.

In the morning we ride to Buttonwillow for breakfast, taking a short jaunt north on Hwy 101 and then the exquisite ride on Hwy 58 (California Canyon Highway) over the mountains and the north edge of Los Padres National Forest. This group believes in Fred Rau’s adage to “earn your breakfast,” which means riding at least an hour before pulling up a chair to the breakfast table. After eating we cruise through Bakersfield and down into Mojave, where we leave Hwy 58 and take Hwy 14 north to Death Valley.

Entering the Death Valley area, we’re near the Borax mines around Boron, CA. This is just south of Searles Valley and along the way to Furnace Creek. And this, boys and girls, is where my encounter with the local constabulary begins.

Coming into a small town, we’re stopped by an ore train of at least a hundred cars. We wait what seems like 20-30 minutes as the exceptionally slow-moving train passes and we finally see the last car. Just as that final car is within 25-30 yards of passing the crossing area, the train slows to a stop – pauses for a few minutes, and then reverses and slowly backs up a few hundred yards and stops again. It is hot. We are parched. For the next 15 minutes we wait as the train slowly reverses direction, pulls just about clear of the crossing area, stops for several minutes, and then reverses direction again. Being the somewhat impatient member of the group, the next time the final car gets almost across the road in front of us, I cross the left lane of traffic, turn onto the sidewalk and ride the sidewalk to cross the tracks right beyond where the final car of the train has stopped. Once past, I cross a grassy strip and get back onto the street. Finally I’m on the other side of this blasted train!

AZ Highway Patrol Challenge coin. Never leave home without it.

At the very moment when I’d begun to congratulate my ingenuity and creativity I saw the police officer leaning against his patrol car, motioning at me to join him. Oh Shit! (Or, as we learned in another story, Oh Shoot!) Damn! I pulled my bike to the front of his car and dismounted. I was in no hurry, as my riding buddies were still trapped on the other side of the train and oblivious. They couldn’t see me any better than I could see the police car waiting for me when I’d made the move to circumvent the train by riding on the sidewalk. Approaching me, he waits until my helmet is off and lets me reach for my wallet, with a smirk on his face. Opening my wallet and going for my driver’s license, I make sure he sees the prominently displayed AZ Highway Patrol challenge coin shaped like a police officer’s badge. “Ah, Damn, let me see that,” he says and I hand him my wallet. He looks at it for a few seconds and hands my wallet back saying, “Sheesh, we just paved that sidewalk bit a week ago and I’ve been out here just waiting for some idiot to use it to drive around the train so I could ticket them. And then the first guy around it has to be a god damn cop.”

I hastily explained that no I wasn’t an officer or even a former officer, but had gone through police moto officer training in Arizona and had many friends who were officers. I continued that I’d greatly appreciate it if he extended me the courtesy of a warning, but the letter of the unwritten rule (cops don’t ticket other cops) really wouldn’t apply. It was his call. He smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, okay, I get it, but I’m still not giving you a ticket.” We talked for another ten minutes or so. He was a super nice guy. Finally he says, “Well, knowing this train’s pattern, your friends should be coming past here in about 3 minutes if you want to get suited back up and on your way.”

Then I had an idea. “Hey, want to have some fun with these guys?” He looked at me quizzically as if to say ‘What have you got in mind?” I explained: “How about when they drive by, you have me bent over the front of your hood in cuffs, and you give them the hairy eye ball, angry cop look?” He loved the idea, “OK, this is better than getting to write you a ticket.” So, I assumed the position, he got his cuffs out and we were posed that way as Jon, David, Ron and Kevin rode by. You’ve never seen 4 guys ride past a police officer more sober than this group. From my vantage point splayed across the patrol car hood, I couldn’t see them very well, but when they’d driven past, my new officer pal told me their eyes were riveted down the road, far in the distance, never once even glancing at him or me.

After they were well down the road, we had a good laugh, shook hands and I was back on the V-Strom and riding off. Several miles down the road I saw my friends, pulled over and waiting by the side of the road. I slowed down, but kept my eyes focused straight ahead and rode past them without looking at them or stopping. They quickly pulled in behind me. As we headed for Furnace Creek I invented different ways to craft my story for them, before planning to eventually tell them the truth.

We arrived at our hotel in the aptly-named Furnace Creek with plenty of time to soak in the spring-fed pool where I related the details of my faux arrest. My story fell far short of the ones they’d imagined when they saw me laying across the hood of the patrol car.

Death Valley is hot. While everyone knows of Death Valley’s heat, it is hard to appreciate just how hot Furnace Creek can get. Back in 1913, it recorded the second-highest temperature ever recorded in the world of 134°F. But that is only the half of it. The ground temperature can be much warmer – as much as 80°F hotter than the air. A ground temperature of 201°F was once recorded. On average, the valley floor is 40 percent hotter than the surrounding air temperature. You don’t want to be walking to the pool barefoot! Thankfully, it is April and still less than 95°F.

Death Valley landscape is incredible.

Why so hot? Death Valley is a long, narrow basin up to 280 feet below sea level and walled by high, steep mountain ranges. With clear, dry air and virtually no plant cover, sunlight heats the surface of the desert relentlessly. The heat radiates and becomes trapped in the depth of the valley. While hot air does rise, this hot air is trapped by the high valley walls.

But the result is far from boring. The landscape in Death Valley is spectacular, with some of the most surreal topography on the globe – including sand dunes that go on for hundreds of miles, white salt flats that are blinding even behind extra-dark sun glasses, sculptured hills and badlands laced with rushing water, and multi-hued canyon walls.

On our first day we seek out the healing waters of the hot springs in Tecopa. Half of the group stays for a long soak while the rest of us head to the date farm at China Ranch. Reaching the date farm is a bit of a challenge the first time. Heading south from the hot springs at Tecopa, you stay left (east) on the unmarked Old Spanish Trail Hwy for about 2 miles. Spanish Trail Highway heads off to the left, but you’ll want to stay right on Furnace Creek Road until you see the sign for China Ranch. Jim Hyde of RawHyde Adventures, who rides a lot in this area, provided me with the best tip, the GPS coordinates, which got me right there (35° 48.00.36’N, 116° 11.42.45’W).

China Ranch is a working date farm in the middle of a vast desert.

Part of what amazes first time visitors to China Ranch is the contrast of traveling for hundreds of miles without seeing anything green, and then dropping down into this amazingly lush oasis in the middle of the desert. While open and welcoming to visitors (they have a gift shop with local art, honey and, of course, dates in a multitude of varietals, date bread, date cookies, date bars, date shakes and date cakes), this is a working date farm. The date grove was planted in the early 1920’s. Half the trees are male and produce only pollen, with the female date trees producing 100-300 pounds of dates each per season. Even without the delicious date shakes made fresh to order with thick vanilla ice cream, China Ranch is worth a visit.

The next morning, we decide to ride two hours for breakfast — something you only do on vacation and then, probably, only in places like Death Valley. Our early morning trek south on Hwy 178 from Furnace Creek to Shoshone was uneventful. Riding along with the Black Mountains in the distance, the morning sun causes the brilliant white salt in Badwater Basin to shimmer. It is easy to imagine it full of water. Reaching Shoshone, we’re hungry, and everything at the Crowbar Café is delicious.

After breakfast we head toward Zabriskie Point, before aiming the bikes back to our hotel for more pool time and dinner at the Wrangler Buffet. We take a spin up the nine-mile Artist’s Drive. This spectacular loop is 15 miles south of Furnace Creek on Hwy 178. When the sun strikes the rocks, the minerals reveal yellows, oranges, deep reds and even greens. Not far away is an overlook providing a view of the Devil’s Golf Course, 200 square miles of salt residue from Death Valley’s last significant lake which evaporated 2,000 years ago. Even the off-road tires of Kevin’s BMW 1200GS on this ride would do poorly amongst the gnarly salt clumps and spires, even if it were allowed, which it’s not.

To many people, nothing symbolizes Death Valley better than its Twenty Mule Teams, used to pull massive wagons hauling borax from the Harmony Borax Works mine near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave. This was a brutal 65 mile, ten day trip across dirt, barely improved, primitive roads. The teams only ran for six years, from 1883 to 1889, but they’ve come to symbolize the Old West. Part of this came about because of an advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap along with the Death Valley Days radio shows and later, the television program. There is one of these remaining wagons in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch and another one is located at Harmony Borax Works. These 20-mule teams were a massive technical improvement. Teamster Ed Stiles was credited with first hooking up an additional six mules to the head of a 12-mule string, with two draft horses as “wheelers,” allowing an extra wagon to be added and giving birth to what would become famous, the “20-mule team.”

In those days, a wagon cost $900 to build and had 7-foot-high rear wheels and 5-foot-wheels in front. The bed was 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Empty, they weighed just under 4 tons, but full, the two loaded wagons plus a 500 gallon water tank made a payload of 73,200 lbs or 36 ½ tons. Operating this “mule train” were a driver with a 20-foot long whip with a six foot handle and the teamster who harnessed and managed the mules, rode the horses and handled the brake of the lead wagon. A third team member was a “swamper,” who rode on the rear wagon and operated its brake on downgrades and also filled in as the cook and dishwasher. Dishes were washed with sand, as water was too precious to use for cleaning.

These ore hauling wagons were massive.

Each 20-mule team and two oak wagons completed the 130-mile round-trip between the works and the railhead at Mojave, Calif., in about 20 days. A team left the works every four days. At the top of the market, they would ship about 2 million pounds of borax a year from the two facilities, Harmony and Amargosa. The wagons went away when the narrow-gauge Borate & Daggett Railroad was completed in 1898. Today, Rio Tinto’s open pit U.S. Borax mine at Boron mines over 12,000 tons of industrial borates every day, half of the world’s total supply.

There’s no better way to conclude a trip to Death Valley than to experience the extreme opposite of hot and flat – the snow and peaks of Sequoia National Park. We leave early and stop for breakfast in Ridgecrest, then head over Walker Pass up to Isabella Lake and a bit of coffee. A variety of winding mountain roads brings us to our stop for the night in Three Rivers, about ten miles below the entrance to Sequoia National Park.

At over 7,500 ft elevation in Sequoia National Park. (L to R: Route planner David Ezequelle, his brother Jon, Sam Huey and Steve Larsen. (Photographer Kevin Berkholtz)

Our final stretch of good riding on this trip is into the park on Hwy 198. We climb over 6,500 feet and see snow on distant peaks. Passing the mighty sequoia forest and soaring Sierra peaks, we head for the crown jewel of the park and stop for lunch at Waksachi Lodge. In the parking lot we get pictures of the bikes against the snow and throw snowballs at each other. After lunch, we give a mother black bear and her cub a wide berth and point the bikes down to Squaw Valley. Sequoia is such a vast and wonderful park, it deserves it’s own separate newsletter. Skirting south of Fresno to avoid the traffic, we cut cross the central valley. In Hollister I stop at custom motorcycle seat manufacturer, Corbin. While we have lunch in their cafeteria, they install a new seat on the V-Strom. It takes a bit of caffeine, but we make it safely back to the bay area and home. All-in-all, a great way to spend a week and I’ll say it sure beat work.

Note: There are more pictures and maps in my original post.

A response to “One Bike to Rule them All”

Kaz, on the left, on a ride in Turkey. Andy Forrester and his BMW RT on the right.

After publishing my newsletter about on “One Bike to Rule Them All,” I got emails from fellow riders on their experiences owning multiple motorcycles. Kaz Uzunoglu, a very good friend and global motorcycle tour guide extraordinaire sent me a rationale for the six bikes in his garage. It is so good, I’ve decided to share it with all of you. Readers that ride will find this fascinating, the rest of you, maybe not so much.


Hi Steve,

Thanks for the mention in your article and forwarding it to me. I surely enjoyed reading the article, just like I always enjoy reading the other pieces you write in your blog.

I am suffering from the MBD (Larsen: Multiple Bike Disorder) as well and it’s always an ongoing debate in my mind and also with my wife. Don’t get me wrong, my wife has no objections against multiple bikes, she even enjoys seeing them in the garage. But the debate is a philosophical one.

These are the motorcycles I currently own:

  • 2017 KTM 1290 Adventure R
  • 2010 KTM 690 SMC
  • 2019 Yamaha Xmax 250
  • 2014 Vespa Primavera 150
  • 1998 Ducati 916SPS
  • 1952 BMW R51/3

My friends, especially non-motorcycling friends, gulp when they see 6 bikes in the garage and ask the inevitable questions. Why? Can you ride them all? My answer is usually a silly one to the why question. Sometimes I say it is an art exhibition named “how to spend your money uselessly”, sometimes I use the typical “why not” answer. Obviously non-motorcycle people can make no sense out of this disorder but if a good biker friend is interested in finding more about the motorcycles, we engage in a delightful conversation about what each bike means and can do to increase my utility.

I do believe that each bike has a separate intangible value that increases my utility in different aspects, ways and sensations. After all, we buy goods and services to retrieve as much utility as we can from that purchase. So I will try to delve into the utility I derive from my motorcycles.

The KTM 1290 is my work horse. I lead my tours riding this bike so it always has to be in good condition, reliable and safe. As you know, I used to own a KTM 990 Adventure for about 10 years. Even though I loved riding that motorcycle as well, it actually reached the end of its useful life for me in terms of an asset that I use while leading tours. It had clocked more than 80,000 miles and it started giving me the unexplainable feeling that it could go wrong at any point in time. Last thing I would want to do on a tour is to deal with my own bike’s problems. So I sold the 990 with no feelings attached and upgraded to the 1290 which proved to be many light years ahead of the 990 in terms of technology, reliability and safety. The best words that would describe the 1290 is solid and trustworthy. The engine can crank out 160HP and it comes with all the technological gizmos that help the rider understand how to treat this power turbine. In short, it is my perfect motorcycle for long distance riding and enjoying the scenery while riding and leading a group.

 

The 690 SMC is basically a hooligan’s bike. For a long time, it sported the most powerful mass produced single cylinder engine in a very light and nimble body. My experience is that this bike brings out the dark hooligan side that I believe exists in every motorcyclist. I know that I possess that mindset when I ride this bike. The sound of the engine and the aftermarket Wings exhaust indistinctly tell me to do wheelies and stoppies and ride down a set of public stairs or break every law there is. I will not go into details not to be embarrassed but I have to confess it makes me do things that cause me to question my identity and personality! Riding this bike feels like a constant battle between “should” and “can”. The utility I get out of this bike is that it vibrates my soul and flushes my hormones in the most immeasurable way all around my existence.

 

The Xmax is an errand runner. In my opinion, it is the perfect balance of engine, brakes, wind protection, efficiency, comfort, practicability, etc with the greatest price/performance ratio. I live in the suburbs now so every now and then I have to ride on the highway along with the fast traffic and trucks to reach the busy and narrow streets of my city Istanbul. The Xmax is extremely smooth and confidence–inspiring on the busy highways and yet when I reach downtown Istanbul, it is very agile, easy to park and ride around. I even do our supermarket shopping with this bike, thanks to its plenty of storage space under the seat. It may not be the best looking bike out there but obviously this bike is very utilitarian and the utility I get out of it relates mostly to the degree of ease and efficiency of serving my needs.

 

The Vespa is more for shorter rides within smaller radiuses in our community. Its unmistakably Italian styling makes it very desirable and the 150 cc engine is very smooth and down-to-earth. Yet its 11-inch wheels are not the best when you are riding/braking on wet streets or when you are cornering or riding over a pothole. But this small Italian bee means a lot to me because I have been able to ride it with my daughter since she was 4 years old (now 7) while she is standing in front of me, in the space between the seat and dashboard. She is growing taller now so this riding method will not be possible soon but for the time being the pleasure she and I get on the Vespa means maximum utility for me.

 

It’s hard to explain the utility of the Ducati. It is a collector’s bike, #457 of the 1,058 manufactured in 1998. The SPS stands for Sport Production Special and the primary reason behind this bike being built was to homologate the new 996cc engine for Superbike competition but fortunately, the installation of the 996 engine into the 916 setup produced a bike that was described as “legendary”, “astonishingly good” and “a true superbike”. This motorcycle is very often included in the “best motorcycle ever” lists compiled by magazines or other authorities. If I were to pick one word to describe this motorcycle, I think I would go for “sexy”. Stunning looks aside, riding this motorcycle feels like the ultimate sensation of being one – merging with the motorcycle that we always talk about when riding motorcycles. The motorcycle feels like it reads your mind before you even put it into action so leaning and going around curves give the rider a totally unprecedented feeling of oneness. Add on top the unparalleled symphonic sound of the engine, dry clutch and the Termignoni pipes as the icing on the cake and the unique utility from this motorcycle can only be explained as a delightful attack on all the senses.

 

The 68-year old BMW is another story in itself. I believe the biggest utility comes from the plain fact that the bike can still run and stop, well, with careful planning about how to stop and when to stop. It inevitably evokes a feeling of respect for the old and pure technology and its creators who were passionate about motorcycles. In addition, the classic puritan looks of the BMW give it a timeless esthetic. Sometimes I don’t even need to ride this black beauty. Looking at the motorcycle and listening to the engine and its mechanical overtures after a few kicks on the kick-start is enough to get the maximum yield from my utility curve over this one. I hope to increase my utility from this motorcycle by learning how to do basic maintenance work on its engine and hopefully carburetors in the near future.

Kaz and Burt Richmond on a tour in Turkey.

Therefore, I still cannot boil my list down to “The One Bike to Rule Them All.” It also feels as if I don’t yet have hands and eyes on such a bike and I can’t be sure if I ever will. I have ridden many different motorcycles and I have to confess I have liked them all despite their differences. So instead of one bike to rule them all, I guess I need to talk about the transcendental feelings that rule all feelings when we are riding: the sensation of freedom, feeling of satisfaction and the rational awareness of the physical parts that come together to evoke these feelings.

Best regards and wishes to you and Maggie,

Kaz

The One Bike to Rule Them All

My good friend, Rich Marin, in a situation where one bit of bad news was followed by another, flipped it around and came out smelling like a rose and the owner of a like-new BMW 1200GSA at a smokin’ deal. Rich appears as enthralled with his new GS as I am with my Tesla (Falling in Love: With a Tesla). However, my route to owning and becoming a committed fan of the BMW 1200GS was more circuitous than his.

Rich and I are long-term riders, starting as kids, and after only a few pauses, have kept it as lifelong pursuits. My love and involvement with motorcycle’s evolved into an avocation. Rich wrote a book about his riding life, The Ride is All. While it is true we’re discriminating to the point of opinionated about various brands and models, in the end, our focus is mostly about how these machines enhance our journey and where they take us.

I’ve extolled the advantages of the BMW 1200GS and recommended it to others for years. My friend, Roger Hansen, was urged by me to buy a GS, which he did, and then proceeded to ride it all over the world. My first long ride on one was in the fall of 2005, when I picked up a brand new GS in Istanbul, Turkey before a 12-day circumnavigation of the country, led by the famous Turkey tour guide, Kazim Uzunoglu. BMW had just replaced their venerable R1150GS with a new model weighing 66 lbs. less and increasing its horsepower to 100 bhp. The BMW faithful were livid. “It has too much plastic and feels like a Japanese bike,” they said, the ultimate put down from this circle of enthusiasts. I agree the R1100 and R1150GS had stability and tractability like no other mounts. But after spending two weeks riding it, my reaction was quite the opposite: I thought to myself, “they need to get over themselves, this is a fantastic motorcycle.” A moto-journalist colleague of mine, Fred Rau, also liked the new GS. He began his print review by saying “While vastly improved, the big GS remains so ugly bugs won’t hit it.” I recall Fred and MCN getting a good bit of complaints about Fred’s motorcycle aesthetics. Fred, however, made a great point: The GS is all about performance and the purity of riding, more than appearance.

After returning from the Dakar Rally in South America (also aboard a 1200GS) in 2011 and its painful pre-trip dismount on my Crown King tune-up ride, I grudgingly knew it was time to get rid of a bunch of motorcycles. The dirt bikes had to go and soon they were. My garage was suddenly down to only 2 motorcycles: the Honda Goldwing and Suzuki V-Strom. A Honda Grom was on its way, but I did not know that yet. At first loath to give up any of my motorcycles, my rationale for losing the off-road bikes was sound. The Dakar trip brought center stage a point about off-road riding I had forgotten. It is imperative to keep one’s speed up. In the dirt, speed, and staying pointed in the general direction you wish to go, often saves your butt. You don’t need to go 100 mph, but staying above 40 mph (45-50 mph is better) when travel surfaces loosen is critical. And here is the deal, in the dirt, you are going to occasionally go down. Assuming you wear all the appropriate riding gear, you are unlikely to get seriously hurt. However, after 60 years old, as I learned, you don’t heal as fast as 20-year-olds, who still seem to be made partly of rubber.

Loving my new extra garage space I decided it was time to go all the way and merge the Goldwing and V-Strom into one machine. You now have the background for my multi-year, epic quest, to do just that, to find “The One Bike to Rule them all.” (My apologies to J. R. R. Tolkien’s “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.”)

You cannot imagine how difficult this change in attitude was for me. For my entire motorcycling career I had strenuously argued that MBD (Multiple Bike Disorder) was not a disease, but in fact, the only proper way to approach motorcycle ownership. The correct answer to the question “How many motorcycles should one rider have?” is always, “One more than you have now.” Motorcycling only made sense in this context. Stick with me for a moment and allow me to explain: First of all, everyone knows you need a different motorcycle to ride off-road than riding on pavement. Right? No arguments here. But for pavement, there are many variations of riding. I found it took 3 machines to cover my street riding. These were: First, a Honda Goldwing for long-distance cruising, second, the Suzuki V-Strom for shorter sportier rides but still capable of carrying luggage, and lastly, a Ducati 750 Monster for carving the canyons around my place in the bay area. Understand, this still leaves out several important categories, such as a pure weekend cruising, represented by Harley and Indian models, (although other manufacturers have models in this category, too). In my list, you may notice there is no pure sport bike on the list, a motorcycle you could respectably take to a track day. You get the idea: to adequately cover the needs of an all-around street-only rider, you’ll need at least 5 motorcycles. And this is before getting to off-road bikes, where the choices are even more plentiful.

If you wish to ride off-road and go any significant distance, you need an adventure-oriented machine to handle luggage, spare parts, maybe even camping gear. If you want to go over jumps and whoops, you need a motocross bike and tons of suspension travel. If you want to go desert riding, you need a lighter, single-thumper model. A Trials Bike is dissimilar to all other off-road motorcycles – its first 3 gears are designed for less than 10 mph. I defy you to ride a typical Trial’s route on anything other than a Trials bike. You get the idea. A well-rounded off-road rider needs at least 5 different motorcycles, and before adding in any extras if you want to bring friends.

Do you see how this adds up, boys and girls? This is the vehement stance I defended each and every time someone asked to explain why I had 9 (yes, NINE) motorcycles. Over the years I watched countless riding friends search unsuccessfully for the one magic motorcycle that would do it all. And now here I was, attempting to try it myself. God help me!

After very little work, I found 9 initial candidates to be my one and only, including:

  • KTM 1190 (now the 1290)
  • BMW 1200GS (now 1250)
  • Triumph Tiger
  • Ducati 1200 Multistrada (now 1260)
  • Honda Africa Twin
  • Suzuki V-Strom 1000
  • Honda ST1200
  • Yamaha FJR1300
  • Kawasaki Concours

Although wonderful machines that I loved to ride, the Yamaha FJR, Honda ST1200, and Kawasaki Concours (“Connie”) were quickly eliminated as too road-oriented and why the BMW RT never made the list. The ultimate bike for me had to be up for some off-road duties. Now the list was six and after participating in a press shoot-out between the 650 cc and 1000 cc V-Strom and owning the 650 “Wee-Strom” for several years, I knew all-to-well its suspension limitations. The V-Strom’s elimination cut the list to now only five.

One great benefit of writing for motorcycle magazines is being able to try out any particular motorcycles for a week or two. The PR departments for most top brands are happy to find something for you to test. So, for the next few years, I “tested” these top 5 motorcycles. I read reviews, shoot-outs and comparisons of these specific models. Of the five, I had vestigial prejudices towards two of them which needed addressing. On the plus side, the Triumph Tiger: I’d ridden it in New Zealand for two weeks and was blown away by its handling on the tarmac and it prowess off-road when venturing into spots like Skipper’s Canyon. It was always well-planted, predictable and did everything right. On the other hand, the BMW 1200GS had negative issues: I’d ridden them a good deal and was greatly put off by its ubiquity. “You can’t swing a dead cat and not hit a 1200GS,” I’d often said. It is BMW’s biggest seller and outsells all other brands and models. I credit much of its popularity to Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman riding and filming of their trips documented in TV specials, Long Way Round and Long Way Down, which I hated. So, I began by not giving the BMW much of a chance. Honda’s Africa Twin was also difficult, although not because I was predisposed for or against it. The problem was the Africa Twin was hard to get in the US. I’d seen it several times on foreign trips, and it looked positively brilliant, but I was right to suspect difficulty in getting one to test.

Ducati has always been very good to me. I’ve become friends with several people in their PR department. They graciously provided me a 1200 Multistrada Touring model for use on a two week trip over the top of Italy and down the Dalmatian coast in the fall of 2013. This exquisite trip was in the company of a bevy of BMW riders and a KTM 990 EFI (precursor to the 1190), ridden down from Turkey by my friend, Kaz Uzunoglu. Not only did I get long days on the Ducati, I was able to swap with Kaz to test the KTM and some of the BMW riders to verify my riding impressions. The Ducati went from a starting point in the middle of the pack to now being my first choice after this trip, especially given its performance in the wet – which was simply amazing. The computerized “sky hook” automated, on-the-fly adjustments to suspension and ABS are nothing short of incredible. At the beginning of 2015, my list in order looked like this, the top 3 in a near dead heat: 1) Ducati 1200 Multistrada, 2) KTM 1190 (now the 1290), 3) BMW 1200GS, 4) Triumph Tiger and 5) Honda Africa Twin.

I am aware of the ultimate futility in detailed comparisons like the one here. I’ve participated in evaluating and writing motorcycle shootouts. Most readers of motorcycle magazine have no idea how difficult it is finding and highlighting differences between models in a single category. It is almost impossible. Motorcycles today have all gotten so damn good and so very similar. Here is how these reviews trips generally go: The first day of the trip/review, rides are frequently swapped so all writers in the group get at least one ride on each bike. At dinner the first night, we’d desperately try to find any real differences. The general feeling, from every tester/writer was “For this purpose, all of these are the same. It won’t matter which one a reader picks to buy, they’re going to be perfectly happy on any of them. They’re all priced within $500 of each other, weigh within a few lbs., have the same warranty, seating position, handling, acceleration, braking, etc.” Of course the lead writer for the piece is panicking. Somehow, publishing an article about five disparate 650 cc: sport bikes and saying “They’re all pretty much the same, any one of them will do,” isn’t going to make readers or advertisers happy. So, the task over the next two days is to tease out each tiny, superficial, insignificant difference and exaggerate them enough to make a story. Trust me, auto journalists have the same problem.

Given my experience above, I worked hard to focus attention only on things that would really matter. In reviewing my notes as I worked to a decision, two things stuck out: The first was that the Ducati did not have cruise control. For long rides where cranking out miles is paramount, cruise control was something I’d begun to rely upon. The second was the fact the KTM was chain-driven (as was the Ducati). While aware of the superiority of chains for performance reasons, having adjusted and cared for motorcycle chains my entire motorcycle life, I was done with them. Now the BMW 1200GS moved into first place, eliminating the rest. While it made total sense analytically, I struggled with the idea of owning the same bike as every other Tom, Dick, and Harry owned – or in this case, add in every Bob, Jim, Jane, Kevin (he has 3), and Roger (has two), etc. “Steve Larsen is highly discriminating and does not ride what everyone else rides. Period.”

Two years went by. A friend finally took my V-Strom and I added a Honda Grom to the garage, so I was down to two — or, 1½ if you don’t consider the Grom a full-size motorcycle, which it is not.

Late in 2016, I wandered through GoAZ in Scottsdale, my favorite dealer. They are always well-stocked and represent all major brands including Aprilla, BMW, Ducati, Husqvarna, Honda, Indian, Kawasaki and Royal Enfield. Don Reiff is the sales manager and a friend of mine from his days at North Valley Honda. I mentioned the possibility of trading in my Goldwing and Grom if I could find the right deal on a BMW 1200GS. The 2017 models had begun to arrive and Don had two brand new 2017 1200GS’s. He quickly went through the various features on both of them. One had everything I wanted and as it turns out, Don really wanted to get his hands on my super low mileage Grom. Before I knew it, the deal was done and a few days later I delivered my Goldwing and Grom to GoAZ and they sent me home on a new BMW, festooned with about $4K in accessories – which any GS owner can tell you, is only a drop in the bucket.

During the first couple of years, there were no performance or handling surprises. It was sublime. I gave it good workouts on the pavement and love how it dances around curves like something half its weight. Shod with off-road only knobby tires and other accessories for tackling dirt, I took it to Moab, UT for a couple of off-road adventures and once down to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. Before spending much time on a big bike like the GS in rough terrain, be sure to acquire the specific skills for this. RawHyde Adventures or Bill Dragoo’s DART classes are two of the best.

It still bothers me it is so incredibly popular and there are so many of them. My remedy was to configure my GS differently than others. I’ve made it unique to me, a bit on appearance but more significantly, on how it rides. The handlebars and foot pegs are customized for me and make a huge difference. Lighting is very unlike the stock version and my tires and wheels are interchangeable for the sorts of riding I do. So, after a few years of getting used to the commonness of the 1200GS, it’s grown on me and has become “The One Bike to Rule Them All.”

Me on my GS, outfitted for the dirt, near Moab, UT

Yeah, try that backward and one-handed

California Superbike School logo

One of my “beats” when writing for Motorcycle Consumer News was training schools. I loved going to them, ate up learning new riding techniques, and enjoyed writing about them. Things I’d always considered impossible on a motorcycle, at least for me, turned out to be doable with expert instruction, patience, practice, and a building block approach to acquiring new skills. Willingness to listen to instructors and executing what they said, greatly improved the odds of success.

I was lucky and able to attend nearly all of the biggest and most highly-ranked motorcycle riding schools. Different schools focused on teaching off-road skills, racing and track proficiency, slick track riding/drifting, advanced adventure-riding/survival techniques, motocross, trials riding and even a wheelie school. On top of these, I’m also the only civilian to take and pass both mulit-week police moto-officer training programs conducted by the AZ Highway Patrol and the Phoenix Police Departments. You can read about those experiences here: a) Top Cop Skills, and b) Ultimate Riding Skills: What Motor Officers Learn That Could Save Your Life.

One of the longest-running and most respected track schools is Keith Code’s California Superbike School. I begged Motorcycle Consumer News (MCN) editor, Dave Searle, to get me a spot in one of the classes and promised him a great story. Keith Code has trained some of the most successful motorcycle racers ever, including Wayne Rainey, James Toseland, and Leon Camier. Riders training with Code or at his schools have won over 60 world and national racing championships. If you wish to go fast around a race track on a motorcycle, Keith Code is the gold standard for perfecting this particular set of skills. Code’s class and his books present the right way to take a corner on a motorcycle. One of the most valuable things I took from his class were the observational skills necessary to critique my personal riding with an eye to continual improvement. Code’s class provides a template for converting any future ride you take into a class on better riding, with you as your instructor. A few months after my pleas to Editor Searle, on a sunny day in early April, I was in Rosamond, California driving into the Willow Springs Racing complex for a two-day stint at Keith Code’s world-famous track school. And oh yeah, I was nervous!

I’ll not recount the entire class experience here, as you can read about it in this article “Two Days and 5 Thousand Corners: Learning to Ride When You Already Know How.” However, in this short newsletter, I will recount two vivid memories. In the beginning, we were divided into three groups based on riding and track experience. The first group were the macho confident types (nearly all young males), familiar and experienced with racing on a track. The second group consisted of riders with a solid set of basic skills but a desire to get a knee down and go faster around a track. The third consisted of those with much less time on a motorcycle and I sort of wondered what they were doing there. I ended up in the middle group. It was a surprise to nearly all attendees that at the end of the second day, the fastest riders and best times were held by riders in a cross-section of all three groups. Why was that?

It turned out some in the first group had to spend time un-learning bad habits and poor technique before they could start learning to do things the correct way. Conversely, some of the faster riders emerging from the third group had few bad practices to unlearn, tended to pay closer attention to the instructors, and did precisely what they were told to do without thinking – and some of them got faster in short order.

All laps were timed and frequently videoed via a camera on the back of the bike. After a run (runs consisted of a warm-up lap and then 3 speed runs around the track) we went into the video room and watched our most recent attempt to put everything together with an instructor, clearly seeing what was done correctly and where we needed to improve. My lap times steadily decreased as I gained confidence. Following the instructor’s advice, I continued to push the bike, and myself, more and more. Damn, it was fun!

Toward the end of the second day, my times had begun to get fairly consistent. My instructor rode over to me and said, “Hey, Keith said you wanted to do a hot lap through the bowl at race speeds. You’re not sketchy at all, so if you want to do it, we could go now.”

Oh my God – I couldn’t believe this was happening. First, a bit of background: The Streets of Willow Springs is a 1.6-mile track, featuring 13 turns. Turn 8 is a big “bowl” or “sweeper-type” turn with a 20% camber. The track, by itself, is one of the fastest tracks in the world, and Turn 8 is one of the fastest turns on any track. Racers everywhere dream about getting a chance to ride the Streets of Willow Springs and try this turn, which can be taken pretty much as fast as you want to go. When signing up for the class months before, I’d asked if it might be possible to get a hot lap through the bowl, but I’d completely forgotten it until that moment. Hell, yes!

The instructor reminded me of what we’d done before. This would be just like all our other laps, just a lot faster. We’d first do a warm-up lap, then the hot lap as always, but this time we’d do only one additional lap and at full race speed. As always, the admonition echoed in my head to stick directly behind the tail of my instructor’s bike and I would be fine. We were riding the exact same bikes. If that bike was safe following a particular line at a specific speed, my bike would be safe, too. Plus, I thought how unlikely it would be for them to kill a moto-journalist at one of their classes? So, with no more prep than that, off we went. The warm-up lap was no problem, just me loosening up and working the butterflies out of my stomach. Then we crossed the timing line and went into the tight rabbit’s ear corner. Things immediately began to get different, and this is where you need to start paying attention, boys and girls.

Heading north, after turn 4, the track goes uphill in a gentle turn 5 before you head more steeply uphill to turn 6. Every other time I’d slowed at this spot, as I wasn’t able to see over the hill and what lay beyond. I like the idea of seeing where I am going and of course, this is the part of the track where one starts to set up for the bowl. But we didn’t slow this time – quite the opposite. Following my instructor who was not slowing, but accelerating, I came over the crest of the hill. While not actually getting air, the bike certainly got light, very light. Wow, that was scary! Before I could think too much about it, we were heading into the dramatic wide radius of the bowl, absolutely flat out. As I leaned the bike over and slid off the right side of the bike to drag my knee puck, I matched my instructor’s bike like an image in a mirror. I could feel the rear wheel bite and tear at the tarmac, but it held. My mind screamed at me, “You’re doing it! You’re riding the famous bowl full out. You’re going through here as fast as anyone ever has. This is exactly what true professional racers feel.” At this moment of maximum exhilaration and triumph, I saw my instructor turn her head around, look back at me, reach her hand out, and give me a thumbs up. And in that instant, it occurred to me, “Well, maybe this wasn’t the fastest ever through the bowl, because she is doing it one-handed and backwards. And she is a girl!” I’d been taking instruction from this young woman for the past two days, so I was familiar with her easy and fluid command of her bike and knowledge she exhibited when critiquing my riding in her efforts to make me better. My comment about her being a girl is aimed at any vestigial sexism you, dear reader, might have. Might I ask, did the first mention of my instructor as “her” in this story surprise you? Just a little bit? If it did, there’s the evidence – you’ve got some work to do on some of your latent sexist attitudes.

Like my other efforts to get beyond just being good, I always reach a point where the road ahead gets very clear. What is required of me to reach the next level snaps into focus, and I often, although not always, say to myself, “I’m okay. I’ll stop here. This is good enough.” My results for these few days of riding and competing at Willow Springs put me right in the middle of the pack of other students. I went on to do more track days with a group of ex-racer friends at various tracks around northern California but I never got much beyond the middle of the pack. In a race with 30 riders, I was happy to finish in the top ten and thrilled to get into the top five, which sometimes happened. Like a good high school or college basketball player watching the pros play, they see a different game than the one seen by casual fans who’ve never played at an advanced level. Professionals play a very different game and these classes revealed this secret in more detail.

MotoGP race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX

Years later, I attended and reported on the MotoGP racing series. These are the fastest, most powerful racing motorcycles on the planet, piloted by athletes of tremendous skill, mental and physical endurance. Watching those races track side and in the press tent, I realized I was seeing something very different from what the fans around me were watching. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts from the Keith Code experience and my time piloting track bikes was this perspective I’d not had before. Watching these riders, I began to be aware of what I was seeing, this incoming stream of data starting to make sense as it came together inside my skull. I found myself flashing back to my Willow Springs bowl experience and appreciating just how amazingly accomplished these professional riders are, which leads to my final memory of the Willow Springs event.

Late in the afternoon of the second day, as most of the riders were taking a break, I began to hear murmuring near the track starting line. Several guys I’d just been speaking to walked over to see what the commotion was and I followed. Then we heard it, “Keith’s going to ride. Code’s taking one of the bikes around the track.” We’d all heard rumors occasionally, although not always, Keith would get on a bike and ride it around the track. Of course, seeing this legend ride the track on which we’d just spent two days would be an exciting event. We all imagined the thrill of seeing him burning up the straights and diving into the corners at unbelievable angles. As we got closer, sure enough, it was the man himself zipping into a leather riding suit. Keith rode back into the paddock area for a bit, pushing the bike from side to side at a slow speed. He then aimed the bike toward the starting line and was off. We watched as he rode off and entered the first tight turns. He didn’t seem to be going very fast. One of the guys standing next to me said, “This must be his warm-up lap,” but everyone kept watching. Sure enough, Code showed very little stress as he circled the track. Many of us were disappointed when after crossing the finish line, Code didn’t continue into a hot lap, but instead pulled back around and dismounted the bike. Ah dang, we wanted to see him go really, really fast. As we grumbled, one of the students pointed to the timing clock high on a pole near the starting line. It was Code’s time. He’d just circled the track more than 4 seconds faster than the best time over the past two days. We’d all looked up at that timing clock a hundred times over the weekend and knew to a hundredth of a second, the current best time and when it was occasionally and rarely improved upon, and when it was, it was typically only by a few hundredths of a second. No one had shaved a full second from the clock since the early laps on the first day. So this was a second lesson: genuine professionals make what they do look easy. It’s only when trying to replicate it that one can appreciate the level of training, skill, and experience they bring. Code looked positively leisurely circling the track, when in fact, he was exceeding everyone’s best time by a wide margin.

One of my local riding heroes here in Phoenix is Dustin Apgar. Dustin’s riding business is near me and I stop in on occasion. Dustin’s bike control is as good as any track rider I’ve ever seen and he’s fast as hell. And I know the amount of training, preparation and endless practice he puts in to ride at this level. I want you to see what I’m talking about. Here is a video of Dustin dragging not just his knee – but his head around a racetrack turn. Now that’s a class I’m never taking.

Epilogue: One of the most consistent findings across all of these classes, irrespective of the type of riding skill being taught, is a building block approach. Code used it and it was the backbone of all the training the cops did. Off-road training from Dragoo, Hyde or LaPlante takes this approach as well and I always found it to be remarkably effective. It starts with a first step which is learned, repeated, and practiced until it becomes second nature. Only then is a second, more advanced move that builds on the first, introduced. It too is practiced and learned to perfection. Then these two moves are combined until they can be done repeatedly and easily. After that, a third move is introduced and the process repeated. Students running into difficulties are channeled back into working on earlier building blocks until they gained enough confidence to proceed.