This article may seem extraordinarily introspective for me and perhaps you may casually dismiss it as pointless egotistical preening, or think that I am just being arrogant:
… “Why do we care what he thinks about”… or you may even see it as flatly irrelevant to you or your Attack chopper.
But I have always encouraged you all to pull inspiration and ideas from all sources… to suck the inspirational marrow out of all vehicles, motorsport events, designs, engineering, machines, buildings, structures, formulas, thought processes, philosophies, styles, genres, and anything else you can contemplate to use as fuel for your Attack chopper project.
And I am presenting this article to you; the reader in just that manner:
Look deep, and evaluate carefully… see if you can use any of it.
If you find nothing of use to you… so be it.
I’m not your wet nurse, you can find your own creative nourishment, but I just thought I would offer you something a bit different.
But I encourage you that there is a method to my madness… I am attempting to record my thought processes, the experiments, the failures, the denial, the self manipulation, the abuse, the confusion, the pain, the mistakes, and the successes… the reason I have started this now is that up until now, I wasn’t sure it was pertinent to the blog or to the reader’s journey of self discovery either… and I think now I can see a little farther down the road and realize that I need to start actively documenting this for you while it is fresh in my mind, or it may be lost, forgotten and useless to everyone.
This project MAY NOT turn out to anything special to me or to you, but I have already learned a lot from it and I think it is fair to assume that it might go somewhere worth going to.
“Bikes are more than just transportation; they’re vehicles of personal discovery, a lens through which to view what you’re made of, and to bring the world around you into focus. And the fact that you can wheelie them for an entire city block ain’t too bad either.”
First and foremost: I love motorcycles.
ALL KINDS of motorcycles.
They all fascinate me.
As I sit here in my garage, smoking cigars with my wife, writing this out on my laptop… I look around and realize I am surrounded by all kinds of motorcycle paraphernalia.
I see my Kawasaki Vulcan. I see the mostly assembled stock XS650 that I have been piecing together for years. I see a row of full face helmets. I see parts from 70’s era Japanese dirt bikes, dual sports, and street bikes.
I see old vintage 70’s chopper parts, and a carbon sportbike can. I see milk crates full of steel for future fab work.
I see a locked up XT500 motor on the bench, I see piles of bent dirt bike bars, I see gauges and fairings from sportbikes. I see old motocross boots, I see Aerostich combat touring boots, I see piles of jackets for all sorts of weather and riding conditions.
I see a Harley part or two, I see another XS650 motor being used a doorstop, next to that are some CBR600 wheels, brakes and forks, and behind that door, leaning against the back of the garage are the pair of XL350 Honda’s that I need to get going.
I see posters of Scottish streetfighters, British café racers, Italian race bikes, Vincents and poems about Vincents, a picture of my old Attack chopper, my old streetfighter, a picture of me doing a burnout on my old GS750 in my Utilikilt, more pics of Vincents, AJS’s, CR750s, and yes… even a 5 foot long poster of a BMW GS climbing a mountain path.
Stuntbikes, Motords, Japanses customs, dirtbikes, racebikes, choppers, and Ducatis.
The fact is… I can be entertained with ANY motorcycles.
So, I do not always think 100% in the Attack chopper direction.
At least I didn’t use too.
The Attack chopper philosophy has started to infect my brain and is changing my conscious and subconscious thoughts quite a bit these days.
I am being forced to see everything within the motorcycle sphere through the Attack Chopper lens because I cannot deny the cold hard facts of physics that work… and that work in motorcycles… all motorcycles… what I learn and discover in writing this blog and building Attack choppers …. Apply everywhere…
I am pinioned by reason, by logic, and I cannot deny reality any longer…
So here goes.
This is the story of how I came to own a Japanese cruiser, what has happened since I acquired it, and what it has taught me about motorcycles, Attack choppers, ergonomics, physics, design, myself, aesthetics, performance, stereotypes, assumptions, and peer pressure.
So fasten your seat belts people… this might be a little confusing… but stick with me… I have a flow chart.
About 2-3 years ago (give or take) I was in a bad place.
I had gone through several Jap bikes in the recent past and was unhappy with the ergos no matter what I seemed to do with them. I needed a bike I could put some miles on and I wasn’t getting it to happen for me.
I had many custom bikes that I loved, but I could not put miles on them.
Café racers, streetfighters, trackers, long bikes, survival bikes, rat bikes… they were all wonderfully fun, but nothing I could do big miles on.
Except for one. The XS650 Attack chopper. Which of course I had to sell. (as you all know)
So I set about setting some guidelines for the new bike purchase:
1: A cheap bike
2: A bike that would start every time and be reliable
3: a bike that would be more comfy for me than the UJM ergo’s that were causing me pain at the time.
4: A bike that my wife and I could ride on comfortably with a sissy bar
5: A bike that I could go across several states on without crippling me in the process.
I had been convinced by the straight press and by many people on the internet that were only two options for a comfortable practical riding position:
The UJM position or the adventure motorcycle position.
So I started looking… and at the time I found nothing I could afford… but I had been noticing a trend in my area…
I saw all these guys around my area that had picked up cheap bikes and they were putting some miles on them with no troubles. However….they were on Jap cruisers….I loathed Jap Cruisers on principle alone.
I had never considered owning one before… and I never would as far as I was concerned.
And to complicate the matter even further; I had ABOSLUTELY NO desire to own a Harley at this point. NONE. I was violently anti Harley at this point.
I should mention that I have always separated “HARLEY” aesthetics from “CHOPPER” aesthetics. They were different. One was based around a stripped down rigid frame. The other was always around a swingarm or softail and they had their own goals and “acceptable” modifications that would make them “cool” or “practical”. I never confused the two. I liked Harley choppers… I hated Harleys.
So the Jap Cruiser was JUST barely better than a Harley.
But in most ways it was much worse.
You all can relate… you know what a Jap cruiser is… we have all thought it:
“The Jap cruiser for just for the dude who knows nothing about motorcycles, and just wanted to buy a Harley to be cool/get laid and he was too poor to afford a Harley, or too weak to handle a “BIG AND HEAVY” bike… so he went out and bought a Jap cruiser in order to try to FOOL the lame chicks into giving it up for him.”
I mean, that is the way I always thought of Jap cruiser guys and I’ve met many, many other self respecting bike guys who thought the same way.
I had at this point NEVER even CONSIDERED it possible that a cruiser could function as a usable, practical motorcycle. They were the essence of pure and phony aesthetics to me.
False, phony, illegitimate, non-working, fraudulent, bogus, poser motorcycles that didn’t really work.
Jap Cruisers are something LESS than a real motorcycle… they are a third class of motorcycle:
There is the Harley
There is everything else that isn’t a Jap cruiser
And then there are the untouchables.
The Jap Cruisers.
They are the sexually confused. They are trying to be something they are not, and become something less than they were to begin with, in the process.
And you know what your friends have told you about them.
You know what the internet forums tell you.
You know what the straight press magazines tell you about them… If I heard it once, I have heard it a million times:
“Cruisers don’t work, can’t work and are a joke. No self respecting motorcyclist should even consider one of them a real bike.”
You want to see blood and hair all over the walls? Tell people on a non-cruiser motorcycle forum that a cruiser can work.
So, I was horribly conflicted at the thought of owning one, but I could not ignore the fact that they were working without breaking, they were able to carry two people, they were cheap (I was speaking strictly of wrecked salvage titled bikes… I have never been able to afford more than 1000$ for a bike. Ever.)
And the owners were not getting off of the bikes and pissing and moaning about how much it hurt to ride them.
So… one day… I admitted to myself that I was entertaining thoughts that maybe Jap cruisers wouldn’t be so horrible if I could make one look as though I really didn’t want to own a Harley.
If I could just make them look different enough, so that no one looked at me and thought I was one of those lame guys who wanted to own a Harley and couldn’t. If it was radical enough… I thought people would be forced to think: “Wow! That guy CLEARLY didn’t want a Harley and he found a way to build a cheap good working bike from a bike that really sucked! Cool!”
And MAYBE they really COULD be made to work properly.
Maybe I could put some sportbike and dirtbike technology into them and make them a real motorcycle… because the suspension and brakes they come with are a joke, right?
So, at this point I still held onto the idea that the ideal ergonomic position for ALL of mankind is the UJM position.
People violently defended it on the internet and in the magazines (Straight press of course) … and openly and viscously mocked the Harley or cruiser ergos and being:
“Lame, uncomfortable, and totally detrimental to riding a bike fast. There was no way a bike set up like that can handle or work properly.”
They all hated forward controls and insisted that pegs, frame, and pipes would all scrape and I would have no ground clearance.
Not to mention the motors didn’t make ANY power at all and were engineering jokes.
So, I got to thinking to myself… “You know… I’m screwed. I can’t make a UJM comfortable. I am in pain after an hour on a UJM. So what hope for me is there? It has to me be. I’m the problem. I’m not man enough to ride a bike long distance. I’m a total wuss and I will never be able to travel for more than an hour without being miserable. I suck.”
But then I remembered… I’ve been riding for 15 years… I didn’t always think this way…before I got very performance conscious on my XS650 chopper, the very first evolutionary step was very 70’s influenced. I remembered my shake down run for the chopper was a trip to Kansas city with some guys, and I had been running a king and queen seat, sleeping bag strapped to the sissy bar for back support, forward controls that weren’t WAY forward...but sort of forward… and 12” baby apes.
And I remembered that I NEVER felt uncomfortable. And that was on a rigid!
I had totally blocked it out over the years because I became so convinced that I needed to run a solo style seat, wide and low bars, and work towards getting mid pegs on it!
I had purposefully forgotten so I wouldn’t have to deal with reconciling my aesthetics with comfort and performance on that chopper!
I knew I had painted myself into a corner logically and intellectually.
I had proven that at one time my body preferred the “Harley” riding position and not the UJM position.
It was then that I realized that I had to try to make a cruiser work.
It didn’t hurt matters any that I was too poor to go out and buy any new bike, and even wrecked UJM’s (The newer Naked bikes) and Adventure bikes were still way out there for me.
Otherwise it was back to looking for another air cooled inline 4 our trying to somehow afford a Yamaha FZ1 or a Suzuki Bandit and see if that worked for my body.
(Everyone and I mean EVERYONE … assured me that was the only option for me.)
Everyone that is, but my friend Flynch.
He agreed that maybe I was onto something.
So we posed this theory on the web and to my local bike friends and to anybody that would listen.
We became social lepers. Flynch and I were shouted down, treated like idiots, told that we were talking nonsense, mocked, poked fun at, harassed and totally pissed on.
My friends who were “cool” bike guys and were supposed to be open minded… all hated the idea.
No one would give me or Flynch any credit at all.
NO ONE believed that a Jap cruiser could work, could be made to work, or even should be treated as a viable platform to TRY to make into a usable motorcycle.
Needless to say, Flynch and I were pissed.
Flynch poured gasoline of the flames by getting a 100 mile test ride on a borrowed Suzuki M109R.
Sure it was a POWER Cruiser, and was piped and jetted and was brand new and supposedly had GSXR technology all over it… but it was still a cruiser riding position and had a huge wide back tire.
Flynch loved it. He went 100-120 MPH the whole way. He found curvy roads on and diced it up, he swears that he shredded on this thing.
He even kept a few squids at bay on a few sportbikes and was totally comfy while doing so.
(Flynch is no new guy folks… he swims in dangerous waters… his roads are nasty, curvy, hilly and dangerous… sportbike territory. He has been riding hard and fast for years on all kinds of bikes. Choppers, Harleys, sportbikes, ect)
When he shared that story with the internet… it all blew up. People swore was he was lying and was crazy.
Needless to say, that was the final straw.
Flynch walked out of the forums and never came back.
I did so in support of him and the theory that he was standing up for…
I went straight out and bought a wrecked 02 VN800 Kawasaki Vulcan which I had been eye balling for some time while trying to come up with the 600$ cash to buy it.
As I fixed up the Vulcan and got it running and rode it for the first few times…
I was stunned by how well it DID work.
It balanced SO much better than I expected and totally blew my mind by how light the steering was.
As an added bonus the motor was a blast. Sure it’s not the 80 horse at the rear wheel that my piped and jetted GS750ET was (It was a 4 valve head model) ...but this was real, usable, fun and practical torque.
I really enjoyed the motor and loved ripping around on it.
The suspension and brakes were FAR, FAR above my expectations and even though they aren’t sportbike quality… they worked very, very well.
I have ground clearance and lean angles that I never dreamed I could have… I can toss it over and it doesn’t scrape until you really get it over a ways…
Again… not sportbike angles, but dude… come on.
Bottom line… it all really worked great.
The ergos weren’t perfect… but it was light years ahead of my UJM’s.
I was MUCH more comfortable right out of the box.
So I had made some progress… but then in my attempts to make the bike look unique enough that no one thought I had bought it because I really wanted a Harley… I got carried away.
I thought that ANY mod that looked somewhat Harley-esque was a bad idea.
So, I tried to make it look ugly… but in a rat bike/weird bike/survival bike sort of way.
I won’t subject you all to the photos of every evolution of the bike… but here are a few…
I certainly don’t have to really on my bike to get me laid, so I simply continued down that path making it more practical, weird, ugly and strange…. until we arrived at this horrible point where we are in this picture:
Yes… that is in fact a large flatbed truck/tail hybrid thingy on there.
It worked VERY well for carrying anything my tiny little Midwestern mind desired.
I told myself I was happy.
I loved the very practical and comfortable bizarre bike that I had created… that I didn’t care at all about the aesthetics… that this was what I set out to achieve… I told myself that I was enlightened and all the people who didn’t talk to me about my bike or expressed disgust with the appearance were puritans and they needed to get a clue and quit reading Cycle World and Motorcyclist and check out the Ratbikezone more often.
I convinced myself that I had done it perfect. I got what I was after for the price I was after.
But… something was missing… I couldn’t figure out what… but something wasn’t QUITE right…
And then… Tom Rose staged an intervention.
One night after many arguments about my bike’s weight, and aesthetics… he coldly stated that:
“Your wife is way too hot to ride around on such an ugly motorcycle. You are abusing her… fix it.”
That was it… that was what had been bothering me…I knew deep down that he was right… but I didn’t want to admit it. The bike wasn’t cool… it was hideous.
She WAS way too hot to ride around on an ugly bike… AND my bike was pretty heavy and it’d didn’t have to be.
I thought that if I admitted that my bike was ugly… I would have to go back to an uncomfortable bike and I would be back to square one. I couldn’t see anyway around this…. It was either pretty… or comfy.
It couldn’t be both.
But Tom wasn’t having any of it… he simply said that: “You have to make it work. It can be both.”
I was in denial, and I fought and fought him… I assured him that it was fine.
Fortunately Tom is WAY more stubborn than I am… and he won.
I caved. I couldn’t handle his mocking phone calls, and emails…
And then funny thing happened… as I surrendered to the Harley-esque aesthetic that I thought I despised so much, I immediately became happier when I looked at my bike.
I REALLY liked to look at it again… it excited me… I was proud of the bike again… and not in that elitist, intellectual sort of way… I didn’t mock people who I considered to be unenlightened philistines because they thought my bike was ugly or weird… I realized that I had been making excuses for the bike for a long time.
I was trying to HIDE the fact that it was a cruiser… instead of just making it look better and work better. Sure the bike looked more like a Harley in the process… but I had finally admitted to myself that I didn’t HATE the Harley aesthetic… after all… the Harley aesthetic is kin to the chopper aesthetic!
I had just used my ergonomic and practical issues as my justification for the butcher job.
But here is the real shocker:
The bike still was comfortable and started to work better.
A LOT better!
I had removed covers, the tail, guards, mufflers, airboxes, windshields ,and the seat… then lighter taillights, headlight and handlebars for a total of 45 lbs of crap removed from the bike!
The bike worked so much better I couldn’t believe it… sure I knew it should… but the suspension worked so much better that it not only handled better, but it rode better.
The lower center of gravity helped everything… my comfort levels, the handling, braking, the balance, the acceleration, the bikes manners on lose surfaces, and with a passenger, my ability to misbehave on the bike and keep it in control, (Hello burnouts and brakeslides!)
… again all things I knew already, but I was not prepared for the magnitude of the improvements.
I changed my ergos from the lazy boy position, to the …er…well… hunched over position?
I was running 883R Sporty bars now that were much lower and wider instead of a buckhorn bend that came on the bike, and I had lowered my seat by at least 5 inches.
The “lean into the wind” angle was a huge change, but it still worked.
My enjoyment levels went through the roof on the bike.
Now I enjoyed the bike all the time:
I enjoyed it when it was parked in my garage while I looked at it, when I was working on it, when it was parked in public watching people look at it, when I was riding it fast, riding it slow, in the curves, on the highway, low speed turns, sliding, skidding, burnouts, on gravel, on dirt, talking to people about it, showing people where I lost the weight, anything I did with the bike I enjoyed it more… the bike became so much better so fast and so easily.
(A few shot's of my freind Shawn on the bike)
And what was really happening here?
Was I being driven to make the bike work worse merely by following the almighty aesthetic as I had originally feared?
No, I was making the bike look better WHILE I was making it work better… sure Tom had pushed me to make it look better, but Tom only pushed for mods that would improve looks AND performance….
(He’s good like that.)
And while I was modifying my not-so-sexy motorcycle… I felt something guiding my modifications …something easy that just sort of happened… some overarching direction, an archetype in my head that I wasn’t even conscious of yet….and then I realized what it was:
I was being driven by something that had been sneaking up on me from behind... the Attack Chopper philosophy.
The Vulcan was never intended to be an Attack chopper.
It was never even intended to be a good looking bike… merely a functional, practical, comfortable, reliable one.
But the Attack chopper reality was bleeding into the rest of my life… less weight, lower center of gravity, narrower bike, more crashable, better ground clearance, good lean angles ect, ect.
And the principles that I knew worked so well on the rigid framed assault vehicles… were very obviously becoming the way to make my cruiser work better and better all the time.
And the bike was becoming more comfortable and better looking at the same time!
Of course this bike can never have a kicker or a magneto without some SERIOUS modification that I am not willing to do, so it will always be a compromise… I may never be able to toss that most horrible of all creations: the battery… but the battery doesn’t have to be mounted up high messing up my low COG like it is now.
And even thought it’s WAY lighter than the Harley Softail custom that is was a copy of and it will ride circles around one… all of the parts don’t have to be as heavy as they are.
And while the softail replica frame may work a billion times better than the Harley softail…
(one light monoshock instead of two,and a stamped, folded and seam welded HOLLOW swingarm that weighs 25 lbs instead of the solid steel one on the Harley Softail.)
… it still has lots of extra weight, and garbage that needs to be lightened up.
And while it may not be as crashable as the most Mad Maxed out air cooled survival bike I can think of… I have highsided and lowsided it on the gravel, wiped out, fallen over and made a moron out of myself on it several times and not broken or bent a thing.
So, it is most CERTAINLY not the perfect platform to build an Attack Chopper out of… and I am still planning on building another XS650 Attack chopper, or getting my old one back from Flynch…and likely a few more… but I see no reason that I cannot Attack this bike up a bit.
Incredibly fun cheap, reliable motorcycle? You bet.
Full on Attack Chopper? No.
Can it be much more Attack choppery? Abosulutely.
Possible inspiration for a few of your projects? I think so.
So stay tuned, I will have small updates on the current state of the Vulcan, and what I plan on doing to it soon.
And yes… a hardtail is the plans.