~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Ein Kliene Nachtmusik


I was given the chance to ride an original Triumph engined Rickman Metisse when I was in California a few years ago. It happened like this...

I drove over to Pismo Beach from Arizona to help my parents celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. At the appointed party time on Sunday I found myself munching mom's cookies and hobnobbing with seldom seen family and friends also in town for the anniversary bash. After a bit I wandered out onto the patio to enjoy the distant view of the ocean and eat the extra cookies I'd slipped from the buffet table. From my older brother I heard that a friend of his named Mark had "some old Italian bikes and some Bull Tacos" and that I was welcome to pay the guy a visit and take a look at them if I wanted.

Since my brother knows a lot about business but nothing about motorcycles I was interested but didn't get my hopes up for seeing anything too grand. Over the years, from one person or another, I've heard a good many stories about the guy who "has an Indian in his barn" or "a whole collection of Harley's in his den." Most of the time when I finally got to the bikes they turned out to be bones or just plain non-existent but once a guy actually had an un-restored '48 Indian Chief in his garage. Sadly, he knew exactly what it was worth so my offer of $1200 cash money didn't impress him.

Late in the pleasantly warm afternoon just before sundown, bro and I sneaked away from the party and headed off in the car, motoring down some wonderful winding back roads dotted on each side with small farms, vineyards and upscale "estate" homes. The road was great fun to drive with the car and I kept thinking that next time I came over I'd bring my bike to explore and enjoy the roads properly.

When we arrived at Mark's house I thought maybe I was actually on to something for a change. The home was very nice and situated on several acres of mostly undeveloped hills and there sitting in the driveway was a fairly nice '75 Bultaco Alpina. Things were looking up. We were welcomed cordially by Mark but he quickly apologized that his best bikes were not there just then. Seems his 1974 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport and Vincent Black Shadow were out being restored. Hmm... Normally at that point I'd have been very skeptical about ever seeing such wonderful machines in someone's garage instead of at a concours but the assemblage of interesting vehicles and goodies setting around suggested that here was a fellow that put his money where his heart was.

After a few pleasantries about the Alpina. and bikes in general we wandered into the rather crowded garage. Right off I could see that most of the garage was taken up with assorted motorcycles and other toys and the nice automobiles sat in the driveway. Obviously Mark was a man who knew what was important in life.

Two bikes caught my eye right off, an early '70s Yamaha AT 125 Enduro in nice condition and wonder of wonders a very nice 650 Triumph-engined Rickman Metisse. And not just any Metisse mind you but an enduro model with complete lighting and a current California license plate. I always loved the look of the Rickman bikes, their nickel plated frames showed a touch of class that made them stand out from their contemporaries. Even today nothing catches the eye at a vintage event quicker than a nicely done Rickman.

I was sort of slobbering all over the Metisse when Mark casually asked if I wanted to take it for a ride. Does a bear relieve himself in the old growth forest? Cool! I've ridden all kinds of bikes over the years but somehow had never gotten the opportunity to ride a Rickman of any kind. It was just about dark and I was dressed in my "good clothes" from the party (clean sneakers, clean Levi's, and a shirt that didn't have the name of a motorcycle anywhere on it) and of course didn't have a helmet with me. Not exactly ideally dressed for an early evening ride on a 30 year old motorcycle but hey, Mark found a helmet that fit my rather large cranium and I knew mom would understand if I came back to the house covered with bug guts and a grin (it wouldn't be the first time). Mark was kind enough to start the beast for me as my Brit bike starting skills are all but dried up and after giving the engine a brief warm up period I hopped on, clicked the right side shifter into first gear and took off down the winding drive and out onto the highway.

As I blasted up through the gears I was impressed with the pulling power of the Triumph. Mark told me later that the engine had been breathed on a bit but nothing too radical had been done to it. I was glad that I've ridden a lot of Bultacos so the Triumph's right side shifter posed no problems for me. The right side shifter also means that lesser men, those unable to shift on the right as proper motor-cyclists all are able to do, will shy away from the Triumphs and Bultacos and the other true motorcycles in the world thereby keeping small the numbers of us who can truly enjoy foreign pleasures. With quirky obsolescence comes a certain exclusivity.

The Rickman brakes on the other hand were just as nebulous as one expects in an old, none-too-light, British bike. Braking is best planned in advance lest ordinary stops turn into those wide eyed maneuvers that threaten to leave one sweating in soiled shorts.

Mark's bike was fitted with snaky, chrome plated, high exhaust pipes and the ends of the pipes capped with some mostly-for-show small chrome mufflers. The sound as I wound the engine up and leaned through the first curves was really wonderful and makes me think that much of the success of the modern Yamaha four-stroke motocross bikes is in the rumble as much as the performance. Doug Henry's excellent races on Yamaha's YZ400F in the AMA Supercross series and outdoor motocross series back in '99 introduced a whole new generation of riders to what motorcycles sounded like when men were men and didn't need neon colored pants to show how fast they were. I don't care how good a 2-stroke is tuned it will never sound as wonderful as an open pipe 4-stroker. The Triumph sound is timeless.

The Triumph pipes were loud and the sound ricocheted off the canyon walls playing havoc with the early evening peace of the gentrified rural area. As a serious and concerned motorcycle enthusiast it occurred to me to roll back the throttle a bit and moderate the din. On the other hand I was riding a beauty of a blue Rickman Triumph on a winding California back road on a warm summer evening. The twin pipe Triumph symphony continued unabated by prudence.

As I returned to driveway I could make out that the land in front of the Mark's house was on occasion used for dirt bike activities. Some short curving trails, a small jump and the rough outline of an oval left no doubt in my mind that the Rickman and other bikes in the garage had been exercised there so I took the liberty of blasting through the dirt rather than taking the winding drive back up to the house.

My short sprint across and around the dirt field convinced me that the Metisse was never going to flip back and forth as nicely as my old Bultaco Pursang did but I still ached for a chance to try a nice long power slide with the shiny blue beast. Sadly, the unfamiliar rough ground and my street attire made that a "maybe someday" wish. To me, one of the biggest things lacking in modern motocross racing (besides Bultacos) is the lack of a fast sweeping turn and the beautiful arcing slides that a good rider can draw with the back wheel and a careful throttle hand. Much of the style and finesse of real motocross has been replaced with hyperbole and pogo stick jumping.

The Rickman was reluctantly returned to the garage but I did toss in a small wheelie on approach remembering to leave some extra runout room for the disinterested brakes. My non-cycling brother asked with a certain "I-can-tell-you-like-it-so-it-must-be-wrong" look in his eyes, "Are those pipes legal for the street??" I responded "Nope. What's your point?"

I would have been happy just spending the next hour of that fine evening lofting the front wheel and exploring the power band of the 650 twin but manners, fear of damaging the bike, losing skin, or offending my ever-so-generous host reined me in. It's one thing to sneak away from your mom and dad's 60th wedding anniversary party to look at old bikes and quite another to risk offending a fellow old bike enthusiast.

I rolled into the garage, shut down the engine and sat there with a silly grin on my face wondering how many other things I'd have to give up to own a Rickman. I calculated quickly that as magical as the Rickman was, I was just as enamored of eating and wearing clothes as I was with blue and nickel dash of the Rickman Brother's creation.

I thanked Mark for the ride and we talked for a bit about the other bikes in the garage and the two he had out being restored. But as we talked about the Alpina and the Guzzi and the little 125 Yamaha, the din of the open Triumph pipes buzzed in my head and distracted me in a way that made it hard...in a pleasant way...to follow the conversation.

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