In my hair
Shifting and drifting
Hot metal and oil
The scented country air
Sunlight on chrome
The blur of the landscape
Every nerve aware.
~Rush, Red Barchetta
A long time ago in a place far away (1990 and Rahway NJ) I walked into a Harley Davidson dealership with my childhood friend (and then roommate) Ed Fry. They had just gotten something very special in, the oddly named new model, Fat Boy motorcycle. It was huge, like a back streets brawler and had an attitude you could taste, smell, see, feel and hear. I’ll be honest, I have always harbored a fear of the motorcycle; it seemed too unsafe, too unprotected, and too easy to crash with my devil may care attitude towards speed. I couldn’t afford the bike back then, so I bought a pair of gloves.
Life and time passed. I took a road that would not include a Fat Boy. A Harley Davidson is not like any other motorcycle. Riding and owning a Harley says something about your attitude that is not easy to quantify at once, because it spans many aspects of personality, means, and commitments. It’s part Rock and Roll, part Rebel and very Bad Ass. You either get it or not, you either can handle this or are secretly intimidated by it.
Over the years I harbored the idea of riding a hog as they were called when I first spied that Fat Boy. One time coming out of late night speak easy in Seattle a ruffian/artist going by the name of Reuter offered me a ride across town to Pioneer Square on his bike. It wasn’t a Harley, but it was big and dark and fast. I rode bitch and hung on as we sped across a deserted 1st avenue. Damn what a way to cross-cities. In 2002 I got to spend 3 months studying Italian in Milan. During that time I secured the loan of a scooter and learned how to ride on the mean streets of Milan. Those Italians are daredevils I tell you. I actually love a scooter in the city, they are very nimble and make short work of hellish traffic. And you can park virtually anywhere once you Velcro your plate. As a wedding gift my in-laws gave Barbara and I a shiny red Vespa. Scooters might not be big motorcycles but in the city, where your top speed rarely exceeds 30 MPH and you close navigate the other cagers (enclosed cars), trucks, and taxi cabs you gain a skill that is akin to Olympic levels. We have ridden that little red jammer everywhere, but it was the long-range trips that begged to roll out on more powerful motorcycle.
This year we had a brutal winter. I longed for a motorcycle, a nice big roaring V-Twin beast of chrome, Iron and rubber that could take me further. Twenty Fourteen would be the time, and NYC would be the place. I hit up the local Triumph-Ducati on 6th and Spring in SoHo. Sitting on an American, the Triumph line of cruisers, I knew a cruiser would be my bike. The café racer style of the Bonneville T100 and the sprightly Thruxton were certainly rating high on the cool factor. While I can wave the American flag along with the best of them, I really have no issue with a British made bike. Triumph has bikes for all; adventure, hipster, brawler, classic, ultra-sporty and lets face it, Great Britain is the ultimate ally of the Allies. But… and you knew it was coming right? No V-Twin. Triumph engines are parallel twins. V is for Vendetta, V for Victory right? I digress… sorry.
In the fall of 2013 I had a great visit to Harley Davidson NYC with my fellow bad ass photographer (notice as we get deeper in this post the badd-ass-ness just keeps getting louder) Jason Geller. He had the bug for a two-wheeler as well. The trip out to Queens was well worth it; the staff was excellent and they really helped me discover the Sportster 1200 Custom as the bike that was what I wanted deep down. A Fat Boy might be in the future, but I need a little less weight and nimbleness for the city. The XL1200C comes stock with key options that fit my needs really well. I would just have to add saddle bags and the bike would be pretty darn perfect. Over the brutal winter I was reading everything I could about Harleys and checking out Ebay. I found Staten Island’s Lombardi Brothers, a dealership that has been in the same family since 1905! The showroom is tiny and packed with bikes. They listed a 2008 1200 Custom in vivid black. The price was half that a 2014 would be, and it was perfect at 3400 miles. Over a snowy day I took the Staten Island ferry across to check out this bike.
Lombardi Harley is a 15-minute brisk walk from the Ferry. When I got there, they were a good bunch of guys and they showed me out back, in a little snow, my soon to be new ride. Right off the bat, the Skeleton Skull looked me in the eye and the bonding occurred. I knew it, the bike knew it, the dealer knew it, and the Carthaginians knew it: this was the one.
Mechanical creations of such beauty need a name, and this would be the Raven Wing, named after the fast attack mounted Space Marines of the Dark Angles Chapter. The Raven Wing is fast- the fuel injected 1200 CC V-Twin 5 speed can hit a ¼ mile in 4.3 seconds.
I added a set of cool bags from Viking Leather. The Raven Wing needs to hold stuff for the paintball and photography journeys. The mounting hardware provided by Viking isn’t the best and easy to mount, but the bags are super cool and not overpriced like the Harley saddle bags. Barbara and I had a big fight over the chrome studs. I won.
I’ll be the first to admit it and Barbara the next, but riding the bike obsesses me. It’s thrilling, exhilarating, and just plain fun. The throttle is very heavy, and the Raven Wing gives throaty roars when it revs up through second and third gear. The front suspension rises up and you get pulled back into the saddle while hanging on. The Raven Wing is like a wild horse you have tamed, it is heroic to ride but still a little scary.
Funny thing about riding a red Vespa and a black Harley-Davidson, the women check you out and smile when on the vespa, but on the hog the dudes check you out and give you thumbs up and nods. Dudes always hating on the Vespa, saying it’s pussy. Nah, the Vespa is confidence and intelligence for an urban explorer. The big Sportster is something entirely else, but not any more masculine, it’s an attitude thing. And hey, the chicks dig the Vespa and the guys dig the Harley… so what’s it going to be those who would say the Vespa is pussy?
Now if you’re a rider, this part is something you are familiar with, and if you’re not a rider, let me elaborate on riding which is both cathartic and tactile. It takes all extremities to ride, your left hand is on the clutch, left foot on the gearshift, right hand on throttle and front brake and lastly your right foot is on rear brake. All your visual senses are on overdrive looking for road debris, potholes and shitty drivers. Your brain is firing off instructions to your arms and legs and processing data at alarming speeds. You simply are in sense over-drive. Shifting gears is evaluated with your ears and feeling the engine (whine and vibration) while a moment of laxity and it’s the curb for you. It is wonderful to ride, and if you are bothered by the daily grind, when you ride, the grind is gone. It’s magic. It’s called the thrill of riding a motorcycle.
So one last story, this past weekend I was at a red light, and a young African man was crossing by and admired the bike, I gave him a wave and he really took a close look at the bike, smiled big and held his hand over his heart and became revenant. The Raven Wing, a HD Sportster moved this man, his emotion was tangible. What is it that can spur such a response? I don’t know exactly, but I look forward into riding into conclusions.
This post is dedicated to Ed Fry, my mechanic and blood brother. Rest In Peace Brother, a piece of you will always be riding alongside of me down the Highway to Hell.