A Bike is a Body

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There comes a time in your life when you know you can no longer take your health for granted. Sometimes it’s not so much a revelation as a creeping recognition, but in my case, it was a specific moment. I was in my 40’s, in good health, when I walked to the curb to retrieve the recycling blue box. I bent over, picked it up, and bam! Back spasm that sent me to the ground.

“What the hell was that?” I wondered. A back massage helped work out the stiffness, but it would take five osteopath appointments and a regular routine of Pilates to put me back to health, so to speak. Since then, when I get away from doing the Pilates on a regular basis, like when I’m especially busy at work, I have a relapse. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to do Pilates regularly for the rest of my life to keep my back healthy.

But it’s not just the back. I play soccer recreationally, and I have to keep training in the off season and between games to maintain my fitness and speed. As soon as I stop, even just for a few weeks, the muscles atrophy, including the most important one—the heart—and I struggle through that next run or game. At a certain point (I’m now in my 50’s), you have to do this training just to maintain what you’ve got! It’s diminishing returns with longer recovery times, but what’s the alternative? If you stop altogether, well . . . we won’t talk about that.

When we were young, we abused our bodies. We put chemicals through them, burnt the cilia from our windpipes with one puff of smoke, stayed up all night partying or studying, lay out unprotected in the direct sunlight for hours. We might have been involved in athletics, but few ever did any training. I ran a 16K road race when I was in my teens on the minimal preparation of a few runs in the weeks leading up to the race. I know someone who stayed up all night partying before a marathon. (Yes, he finished, but collapsed unconscious over his celebratory meal afterwards.)

I’m thinking of this now as I try to ramp up my training after a month or so hiatus. I’d like to carry a little momentum into the snowy winter months here in Montreal so I arrive in the spring fit for a new season of soccer and riding. And I’m thinking of it in relation to my motorcycle, which I’ve just winterized and stored away at the end of another riding season. Come to think of it, a bike is not unlike a body. It arrives on the showroom floor pristine and perfect. Then with age and use, a few things start to break, or wear out, and you have to work to get it back to health. It’s a constant struggle with diminishing returns to keep it in good working order.

Almost all the people I ride with have new motorcycles. They require very little maintenance beyond an oil change and a fresh coat of wax. My bike, on the other hand, is a 2006, and on a recent multi-day club tour, the running joke was that every time we stopped, I had to fix something. It’s true that on the five-day tour I fixed a helmet lock that had vibrated loose, a rear-view mirror that had cracked, and a persistent slow oil leak at the front of the engine.

I keep a pretty close eye on my bike. I have to. And not just an eye but an ear. I hear every new sound—every rattle, buzz, clunk, or ticking. I can tell when my oil is old from the sound of the engine. It’s just part of riding an older bike. You get used to doing a walk-around pretty regularly, and I’ve spotted on them a burnt taillight bulb, a cracked mudguard, missing hardware. Recently I learnt how to weld plastic using a soldering iron and zip tie to repair a cracked body panel and said mudguard. With age and UV rays, plastics atrophy and become brittle, fragile. And because I do some light off-roading with my ADV bike, there’s a lot of wear and tear, vibration from the single cylinder and from the terrain, drops, crashes. Every once in a while I’ll notice something else broken, and then I’ll have to either fix it or replace it to bring the bike back to 100%.

Fortunately, I can still obtain replacement parts. Okay, sometimes I have to wait two weeks for them to arrive from Germany, but when I recently lamented this to customer service of a large online parts distributor, the person replied, “Well, at least you can still get them. Good luck trying to get parts for a bike this old from one of those Japanese manufacturers.” I didn’t know, but apparently some companies just stop making the parts for older models. When Polaris bought Victory, they promised to support Victory bikes for ten years. When GM restructured and Saturn was killed, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d have difficulty getting parts for my L100.

With a body it’s not so easy. You can’t easily swap out a broken part, which is why I’m a strong proponent of preventive health practices and signing my donor card. Keeping your organs after death is the epitome of selfishness. (Yeah, I know the joke about “donorcycles.”) But even with my bike, I know there will come a time when I won’t be able to get a part, and then I’ll have to make it. I was this past autumn at a vintage motorcycle race, and as I walked through the pits, I marvelled at the beautifully restored classic bikes. Many of these guys must have to make their own parts. That’s another whole level of skills beyond regular bike maintenance.

When I retire, I’m going to buy not only a house with a heated garage or workshop but also machining tools so I can make my own parts. The dream is to restore an old classic bike, something that tugs on my heart-strings like an old Triumph or Norton, thinking of my British ancestry. As my body begins to fail in ways I won’t be able to stop or fix, I’ll bring an old, rusty machine beautifully back to life. “Time and tide wait for no man,” Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in The Canterbury Tales. But then, he hadn’t met a motorcycle mechanic.

David Percival’s BMW Museum

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Knowing that I ride a BMW, a colleague said to me last year, “I should put you in touch with a friend of mine. He knows someone who has a collection of BMW bikes.” My colleague is from Maine, where David Percival lives and stores his collection. David discovered BMW bikes while serving in the US Army and stationed in Germany in the late 1950’s. Prior to that time, he had thought motorcycles were dirty, always dripping oil. Then he saw a BMW and his mind changed. Here was a bike that not only didn’t drip oil but also was beautifully designed and engineered. He was taken.

He began riding BMWs with German riders and even started racing as the “monkey” (i.e. passenger) in a sidecar outfit. He started collecting BMW motorcycles in the 1970s. The result to date is a collection of over 100 bikes, the second largest private collection in the world. He has every model from the first BMW motorcycle, the R-32, built in 1923, to the R-90S, built in 1976. He is only missing two bikes, the R-37 and R-16. But let’s not focus on the negative. It’s an impressive collection, and last Saturday I led a small group of riders from my club down to meet David, look at his bikes, and hear their stories.

David lives in Andover, Maine, a few hours south of Sherbrooke. It’s a four-hour ride from Montreal so we left early and took the freeway down into the Eastern Townships. Once we crossed the border, we found ourselves on Highway 26, a twisting road that snakes through northern Maine. A deer crossed in front of me to remind me to take it easy and keep a close eye out at the sides of the road. We arrived in Andover at 1:00, starving, and decided to eat lunch before visiting David. But he found us first. He’d seen (or heard) us pass by his place and found us at the local park, eating the sandwiches we’d prepared to save time.

The first thing David showed us was his workshop. I was drooling. Since I don’t have a wide-angle lens on my phone, it takes three photos to capture the entire workshop. Here’s one, alongside a photo of my workshop, for comparative purposes.

Guess which one is David’s?

I won’t try to provide an exposé here of David’s collection. For that, see this issue of BMW Magazine and this article and photos by bfbrawn. I’ll just show you a few of my highlights, hopefully to whet your interest in visiting David. He loves to tell the stories of these bikes and is very generous with his time!

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One of the highlights of the collection, the R-32, the first BMW motorcycle (1923). 

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David with one of his prized bikes. 

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Wikipedia says the first GS, which refers to either Gelände/Straße (German: off-road/road) or Gelände Sport, is the R-80, first built in 1980. But here is a GS built in 1974! Obviously it was an experimental model. It’s 1000cc and has 109 HP. You can see the characteristic GS look from its inception: tank shape, telescopic forks with gaiters, wide saddle. Note the handle on the left for putting the bike on its centre-stand.

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Sidecar

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When Germany was split after WWII, the BMW factories in East Germany still made BMW bikes. A copyright lawsuit put an end to that, so they were rebranded under Eisenacher Motorenwerk. Here is a rare bike from that company behind the iron curtain. As you can see, the logo has a striking similarity to the original BMW logo. The company, however, could not keep up and continued to use pre-war technology in their bikes.

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This is a very small sample of David’s bikes. I didn’t take a lot of photos because I was too busy admiring them and listening to David. But it’s a very impressive collection, all lovingly restored. If you are interested in organizing a visit with your club or organization, shoot me a line and I’ll send you David’s email address. He books up early for the summer, so you are probably looking at next season for a visit. I feel privileged to have seen these rare machines and to have relived, through David’s stories, a part of motorsport history.