Walter Champion stares contemplatively across the range at the six riders straddling their newly assigned cruisers one behind the next at the starting gate. The starting gate consists of two small, orange rubber cones, no more than three inches high.
“First rider,” he says, holding up his arm. Then he moves his arm from the front of his body to the other side indicating to get in gear and twist the throttle down. “Go!”
The first rider, Sean, complies. Just as he gets into second gear about 15 feet from the start gate, Walter points to the next ride and brings his arm down. Maggie takes off. Then he points to me, his arm up and then down. I take off easing the clutch out from my left hand, giving a little gas on the throttle with my right hand. I gain some speed, pull in the clutch, upshift with my left foot, ease out on the clutch with my left hand, and give it a little more gas with my right hand. And I’m in business. Second gear and entering the left curve at about thirteen mph. Lean left, push left. It feels good.
Counter steering is the act of pushing your handlebars forward (and away from) the direction you want to go. Everything in your mind and body tells you this is going to make you go the other direction, but it doesn’t. The lean is what keeps the tire’s traction on the ground. That, and the head turn. Look where you want to go, the bike magically follows.
Maggie stalls and kills her bike just after the third turn. The rest of us start to slow down. Since most of us don’t know how to downshift, let alone what happens when you break and not pull in the clutch, other riders start killing their bikes as we come to an awkward scattered stop.
As you might remember, rule number one is to obey Walter Champion at all times. Rule number two is do not pass another rider.
“Goddammit!” Walter yells as he takes long strides, fast and rhythmic, his black leather boots moving quickly in the direction of the stalled out rider. “Get out of first gear. Come on. Go.” Maggie restarts her bike just in time to accelerate away from approaching Walter. “Better. Good,” he says and looks around at us. “All of you, let’s go.”
It is not more than a three minutes later the same girl loses her gear shifter. It comes loose and drags under her bike. The silver metal piece shaped like a backwards upside-down L, which is used to shift gears from 1 half a notch up to Neutral then half a notch to 2 a full notch to 3 and so on, falls off its hinge but not off the bike completely. I have a pretty good look at it because my riding position is directly behind her. It reminds me of a small, shimmering snake slithering between her front and rear tires. It bounces and swings erratically with a few sparks shooting up from under her bike. It takes Walter a minute to fully recognize what’s happened.
Maggie stops her bike again. After pulling up the plastic face mask, she turns in Walter’s direction and says, “The thing fell off.”
I pull in the clutch, downshift, and cover my break in case I need to apply it. We’re going so slowly that it’s almost unnecessary. Once in first, the bike slows so much, you can pretty much glide to a stop. But I apply the front break gently, stop, and wait for further instructions.
“What in the world,” Walter barks. He looks under the bike and realizes that sure enough the chrome gear shifter has come off but not completely and her bike is unusable. He has her walk the broken bike over to the T, another staging area on the side of the range, and has us all line up behind her. He tells us to “shut ’em down,” which means kill the engine, turn the ignition key to off, put down the kickstand, and dismount on the left side of the bike. We comply and he gives us a break while he walks over to the offices, which are like mobile homes on blocks where the helmets and bikes are stored.
About ten minutes later, he rides over on a different bike. Before presenting it to one of us, he takes it around the course a few times and we all watch the expert rider corner. Finally, he’s satisfied and pulls it behind the rest of the bikes. Maggie puts her name tag in the new bike’s plastic slide cover taped to the headlight.
It’s not fifteen minutes later when Maggie breaks the gear shifter on another bike. The exact same affliction on a totally different bike. Again, we all stop and then pull into the staging area at the T. After dismounting, the riding crew jokes with Maggie in good fun, but there wasn’t a rider among us who didn’t steal a sideways stare at Maggie’s boots.
Again, Walter pulls the bike out of the lineup and walks over to the mobile offices. This time he rides over a different bike, a green one that is different than our smaller Kawasaki Eliminators. Walter tells Sean, who is the tallest of the group at six feet, to hop on because it’s a 250 cc, a heavier, faster and bigger bike so he should be able to handle it more easily than the rest of us. He directs Maggie to take Sean’s old bike.
In fairness to Maggie, all of the bikes are what my old bartender neighbor would call used and abused. Every one had been dropped, and dropped often. My red Eliminator shakes so badly in first gear that I felt I might get tossed off. Eventually I learned how to quickly upshift to second. It was dumb luck when it didn’t die in neutral, or when I could get it in neutral at all. The body is dented on both sides of the tank and rust covers the bigger of the two scars on the left side. It has almost 50,000 miles on it. It’s like a 30 year old who looks 90 because of their hard and fast life. Only in this case, it’s quite the opposite. My bike has lived a painfully slow life in first and second gear and lots of laying down.
On we go.