My bike is a single-cylinder, also known as “a thumper.” If you haven’t figured it out yet, that single piston fills a chamber 650 cc (652 to be exact) in size. There are pros and cons to a single-cylinder bike, but one downside is that, well . . . it thumps. But thumping is really a bit of a misnomer. The piston may thump at TDC (top dead centre) and BDC (bottom dead centre), despite its counter-weight, but at idle it gurgles, at 3,000 rpm is growls, and at 4,000-5,000, it buzzes. Thumpers are known to be a little buzzy in the handlebars.
Some are worse than others. I have it on good report that of all the single-cylinder bikes ever made, BMW’s Rotax engine is among the smoothest. (The KTM 690, by contrast, is known as a paint-shaker.) But still, when I’m on the highway buzzing along at 100-120 km/hr, my throttle hand goes numb. It starts in the thumb and then travels into the other fingers, up the arm, splits at the shoulder, and disperses partly into my chest and downward (we won’t go there) and partly up into my cranium.
I imagine it like the Coyote when he’s flattened by a massive boulder then struck by the second falling rock or back-firing projectile he was aiming at the Roadrunner. In the cartoon, we see the wave of energy travel through his wafer-thin body. Only with me the wave is oscillating at 5000 rpm. The worst is when it moves into my nose and develops an itch deep inside my sinuses. It’s not like I can simply reach up and rub the bridge of my nose to dispel the itch, although that’s what I tried to do the first time this happened, only to be reminded that there’s this thing called a visor in the way. In a full-face helmet, your face is safely guarded inside its shell of carbon fibre and plastic from bugs, pavement, and probing fingers. Then I turn into Samantha on Bewitched, desperately issuing the anti-nose-itch spell over and over again.
Actually that’s not the worst. The worst is when it’s cold and my hand has another element making it go numb. Then I actually have to be careful because I need some feeling to operate the brake lever properly when needed. I know someone who was sitting cross-legged at a party once and whose leg went to sleep without him knowing and when he got up to go get another beer he fell over and broke his leg! Of course, he might have simply had too much to drink but these kinds of things do happen when the tactile sense goes AWOL. Maybe that’s in part why my bike has heated hand-grips.
After a 350 K ride, which is what my club has been doing on its day trips, my entire body is vibrating in sympathy with the engine. We have become one, synching our bodies in a kind of energetic dance akin to the pogo. I step off the bike and it’s like stepping onto land again after being at sea or in a canoe for a week; there is the sensation that I am static and the earth is moving, although in fact it’s the opposite. My vision is blurred and my thoughts are fuzzy. I have to leave the bike and sit with a beer (preferably on my lawn lounge chair that has a cushion) while the sensation subsides. I’m not very communicative (although this is also because I’m exhausted) and I can’t make any major decisions, such as what we could make for dinner. I stretch out and, if possible, close my eyes. It’s a total body stone that lasts for hours.
By now you might be wondering what the advantages are. For one, because the cylinder is so big (as opposed to two or several smaller ones), more power is transferred to the wheel with each stroke, so the bike has a lot of torque through low and mid-range. Okay, so it has a sucky top end, but when you are off-roading, who wants to be riding at 100-120 + km/h? Only folks who race in the Dakar, that’s who, (which, incidentally, a version of my bike, appropriately named the Dakar, won two consecutive years in 1999 and 2000). Through gears 1-4 I have tons of power to climb hills, sand dunes, fallen trees, and out of Montreal potholes.
The other big advantage is that I don’t have to shift gears as much; there’s a broader range of speed through those middle gears with lots of overlap. I can start from stand-still in 2nd gear if I want to (or if I forget to gear all the way down at a light (doh!)), and if I’m in stop-and-go traffic, I can slowly roll on the throttle and ease out the clutch when traffic picks up again instead of having to gear down and back up. But where my bike really excels, I’m beginning to learn, is “the twisties”—the stretches of secondary highway that contain lots of twists and turns, preferably with hills, that every motorcyclist lives for.
I can see the other guys in my club working like mad to prevent their bikes from either over-revving or chugging as our speed varies through the straights and turns. But with my bike, I can pretty much stay in one gear, usually 4th, and simply roll off the throttle into the turn, then roll it back on with a growl on the way out. My dad calls it a “true European touring bike.” Yeah, the Honda Gold Wing might have been designed for the super slabs of North America, but my bike was built for twisting highways that cut through the Bavarian forest. And when I do get my full licence and start touring, you can bet I will be going on the straight-and-boring only as much as necessary. There are now motorcycle GPSs that have a setting to take you on Twisties, and you can be sure I’ll have my GPS set for that.
In the meantime, I’ve installed something called Grip Buddies (clearly a knock-off of Grip Puppies out of the UK). They are neoprene sleeves that wrap around the handle-grips and help alleviate the vibration, I think. This will help me on those sections of our club trips when we are forced to take the highway to get to where the ride really starts.
I’m also learning to enjoy the buzz.