Welcoming La Niña into my life
March 24th, 2008
Back in the Nixon administration my brother Dave bought a Honda Dream 305 motorcycle. When that was stolen he replaced it with a Bultaco 250. Our good friend Dan had a nice Suzuki 350 two stroke. Dave and Dan let me drive their cycles frequently, which I enjoyed a lot. I earned my ‘M’ drivers license endorsement back then; I vaguely recall being followed around the block near the 51st St DPS office by a trooper in a patrol car who honked once for a left turn, twice for a right. Amazingly, my driver’s license still carries the ‘M’ endorsement all these years later.
Interest in motorcycles never really died, but it smoldered in me for many years. Back in the 80s I put a deposit down on a Honda motorcycle, but a sudden transfer caused me to cancel that order. Interest remained, but I never quite got around to acting on it.
A couple of decades later, in fall 2007, my old friend Craig showed up at my house, having driven pretty much non-stop from Tucson on his magnificent Honda ST-1300. Craig’s Honda really caught my eye, and my long-smoldering interest in two wheel travel ignited like a magnesium flare.
There followed several months of web surfing, visiting motorcycle dealers, attending motorcycle shows, and pestering with questions any motorcycle rider who crossed my path.
All this led me to a Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginner’s course, taught by Total Rider here in Austin. The five hour Friday classroom school was about as interesting as a driver’s ed course could be. The real fun started before dawn the next morning, when I arrived to find eight small Kawasaki 125 motorcycles waiting for us eight excited student riders.
The MSF course was a lot of fun, and taught me a lot that I never learned all those years ago when I was riding Dave’s bikes. In retrospect, it is a miracle that I even survived riding with no training at all.
Motorcycle safety class 1: The MSF course confirmed to me that riding was as much fun in reality as it was in my imagination. Hanging with the the other students was as much fun as the actual riding. Most of our class were fairly young; one was only 16. There were a few old graybacks. I wasn’t the only one.
In any case, the shared experience erased whatever age, gender, and background differences that might otherwise have existed.
At this point I have to yet again thank my long-suffering spouse. She-who-may-not-be-named (the best tax person in Austin) wasn’t thrilled at all with the idea of her husband blasting around town on a two wheeled death machine. A lot of spouses might have just vetoed the whole idea, but not mine. She gave her reluctant consent for me to begin shopping for my own motorcycle.
By now I knew my end objective. I someday want what I’ve come to think of as one of the Starship class sport touring motorcycles. Besides the aforementioned ST-1300, this class includes the BMW R-1200RT, the Yamaha FJR, and the Kawasaki Concours. These are large, highly sophisticated motorcycles. They are very fast (~150mph) very comfortable, highly maneuverable, and very reliable. They are optimized for high speed long distance travel on interstates or twisty back roads. They are expensive and most assuredly not suitable for the beginner.
I was pretty convinced that I wanted a used bike, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money, no more than $3000. Every experienced rider I encountered told me that the odds were good that I’d drop my first bike. My MSF instructor pointed out that one low speed drop of a Starship class bike could easily cost more to fix than the total price of good used starter bike. It all made sense to me, especially after I took the MSF class.
When I started looking at bikes in earnest I assumed, as did all the salesmen and all my friends, that I wanted what’s called a cruiser, that is a Harley-Davidson style motorcycle. On a cruiser the rider sits on a wide, low seat, leans back, and places his or her feet on forward-placed pegs and controls. Certainly a cruiser like the Kawasaki Vulcan EN500 fit my budget and my body pretty well.
I found a couple of these motorcycles in good condition. One good thing about the little Vulcan that I liked was that it was very easy for me to mount. I have short, thick legs with not much flexibility. It’s hard for me to mount the taller motorcycles I looked at. For example, I really liked the so-called ‘dual sport’ Suzuki V-Strom 650. The V-Strom has a very comfortable, very upright riding position. It is a cross between a touring motorcycle and an off-road bike. Many say it combines the best of both these worlds. The problem for me was it was a real strain for me mount it. It took three or four tries for my legs to get over the saddle, and I was unsteady once I managed to climb on it. The good ones were beyond my budget, and I’m sure I’d drop a V-Strom within the first day or two of ownership.
I initially didn’t think I wanted a ‘crotch rocket’, or more correctly a ’sport bike’. But as I researched the subject I found that Kawasaki makes two sport bikes that are configured more for beginners. These bikes, the Ninja 250 and Ninja 500, have a fairly upright riding position and are not considered ‘tall’. I found a very clean Ninja 500 at TJ Cycles in Austin. I went and sat on it several times and spent a lot of time looking at it. Except for a missing lower fairing it seemed in almost mint condition. It was easy to mount and felt very comfortable. The handle bars are not extremely low, and I learned that there exist fairly low cost risers to make them even more upright. At 50hp it's powerful, but not insanely so. Most of all, the Ninja just seemed to excite me in a way that none of the cruisers did. I looked at all the pretty chrome and the wire spoke wheels on the cruisers and just thought they looked silly. The Ninja seemed like it was designed for the rider; the cruisers seemed more designed to impress some audience.
Since I’m old, fat, and dorky I know that I can have all the chrome in the world and I’ll still be old, fat, and dorky. I’m not buying this bike to impress other people.
The Ninja reminded me of the F-4s I flew back in the day. Simple, fast, functional. It spoke to me in a way the cruisers did not.
One thing I really liked about shopping at TJ’s is their zero pressure approach to sales. At the larger dealers the salesmen attach themselves to you as soon as you walk in the door. You are watched like a hawk every second you are on the premises. At TJ’s it is the polar opposite. You are ignored completely unless and until you choose to initiate a conversation. I sat on this red Ninja 500 on at least four different occasions. Not once was I noticed by the employees. My problem with this red Ninja was that the asking price of $3499 represented a several hundred dollar overrun of the maximum amount I was prepared to spend. The bike had been there for at least three weeks, so I figured there might be some seller motivation to deal. I went in to the dealer, introduced myself, took out my check book and offered $3100 plus ‘TTL’. The salesmen took my offer ‘back to Tom’ who came out and told me that they could not go below $3400. That was close to my budget, but still over. I thanked them and left, half expecting them to follow me to my car as many a car salesman had done in the past. They just went back to dusting the shelves. I was a little surprised.
Almost next door to my house is another dealer, Napalm Motorsports . They had a ‘Ninjette’, that is, the 25hp Ninja 250, smaller sibling of the red Ninja 500. They only wanted $1900 for it. It was bright yellow and looked pretty walking up to it. I found it very comfortable to mount and sit on. It’s light, only 350 pounds, and pretty. Sadly, the one at Napalm had bald tires and, worse yet, it had been dropped hard on both sides. There was a lot of damage evident. I thought about offering them $1000, but I decided I wanted my bike to at least start out nice.
I went home to ponder my options. About this time I had purchased an HJC CL-Max helmet, a Phoenix armored jacket, some heavy black work boots, and a pair of Alpinestar motorcycle gloves. I had everything I needed except a motorcycle.
I’d also discovered ninja250.org , a large and busy web site devoted to the Ninja 250. I was certainly impressed with the volume of information and the enthusiasm of the owners.
By now it had come down to a question of a Ninja 500 at the top of my budget, or a 250 that would fit well inside my wallet.
My MSF instructor, Jim, had told us to call him if we ever had a motorcycle question. I took him up on this offer and called to get his take on my dilemma. Jim told me that he had been friends with Tom, the owner of TJ’s, for many years, and believed that Tom wouldn’t knowingly sell a defective bike. Jim had a lot of enthusiasm for the Ninja 250. He was sure that it would have enough performance for even a fat old guy like me. That was a Friday afternoon.
The next day I resolved that I would buy a bike that day. I first went back to TJ’s, climbed on the red Ninja 500, and sat for about 10 minutes. I had to assume that they wouldn’t come down from $3400. With tax and title this would eat up $4000, leaving me no budget for the ‘farkels’ or accessories I knew I’d want, let alone any budget for repairs should I drop it going off the dealer’s lot. I remember an old math professor I had who used to say ‘to any number you can always add one’. The 500 was just a little too spendy for me at this point.
Just around the corner from TJ’s is another used car and bike dealer, Whiteside motors. I learned from the internet that he had three Ninja 250’s in stock. I had not yet gone to visit him because his list prices on his website were insane. He wanted more than the 2008 MSRP for a used 2006 model. But, since he was so close, I figured I ought to at least stop by. He did indeed have three 250s, all in good condition. The one he was so proud of was indeed very pretty, and had less than 1000 miles. Still, a quick call to a Kawasaki dealer confirmed I could have bought a new 2008 model for the same price. Good luck selling at that price, Mr Whiteside.
I wound up looking at his cheapest Ninja 250. It was a 2004 silver colored model. It seemed in excellent shape, except for tires that were getting thin. The silver and orange wasn’t as pretty as the bright red of the newer model, but it wasn’t a disgrace, far from it. No rash on it that I could detect, and it started and ran fine. His asking price wasn’t more than what I’d seen similar ones go for on eBay. I was able to dicker a few hundred dollars off the price, keeping it well below what I had budgeted. A hand shake, some paperwork, and I drove off the lot on the motorcycle I’ve come to call La Niña or ‘Baby Ninja’.
I was very glad that Whiteside adjoins a quiet residential area. I drove La Niña around the neighborhood for about half an hour, never going above about 35mph. The bike was very well behaved, it was very easy to drive, and was very comfortable. A few of my stops at stop signs were a little wobbly, but she is so light that it's easy to catch a mistake before the bike is on its side. Once I had some feel for the bike I took a deep breath and pulled on to busy Burnet road. The SUVs were sure big, but I had zero problems keeping up with traffic. I went north on Burnet to Braker Lane, where I pulled in to the outer of two left turn lanes. I think I stumbled a little pulling into the intersection, and my left turn veered wide, almost to the curb, giving me a little scare. I recovered and continued until I got to the MCC building, where I work. This building is encircled by a two lane road and has a number of parking lots. I drove this circle in both directions, pulling in and out of the parking lot practicing some of the MSF maneuvers I’d learned in class. I was quickly gaining confidence in the little bike. By now it was clear that it handled like a dream, and that it had plenty of power. To get to the power you had to be willing to use all six speeds to keep the engine rpms high. The power is there.
Over the last week I’ve driven her almost 400 miles. I’ve commuted in heavy traffic, been up to an indicated 85mph (with lots of room until redline) and zoomed along twisty country roads, where I had a little bit of a flash back to the fast jet low levels I used to fly in my glory days. It’s been a blast. I’ve learned a lot in this short time, and I know I have lot more to learn before I’m ready for that Starship.
I’m still a little nervous at times, especially in heavy traffic. I wear all my gear, even strap on knee protectors, all the time. I always wind up with a grin on my face.
I have lots of plans for her. I’m looking forward to thousands of miles riding this wonderful little machine.
Words can not express how grateful I am to my wonderful spouse for letting me have this new toy.