During the mid 80s the cold war was in full effect, with geopolitical instability fueling an arms race between opposing global super powers. At this time there was another arms race of sorts going on in the motorcycle world – the leading Japanese manufacturers were vying to produce an off-road 2 stroke bike with the most horsepower. This wasn’t tractable power delivered in a benevolent manner, this was hard hitting rip-your-arms-out-and-beat-you-with-them power.
At this point motorcycles had been built and refined for 100 years but development of off-road specific bikes was still in its relative infancy. By the early 80s engines were becoming more and more powerful while drum brakes remained, well, drum brakes. With everyone so focused on going fast, slowing down or stopping seemed to be an afterthought. Mercifully the mid 80s did see the introduction of at least one disc brake to most models.
Suspension was another area that suffered from a lack of attention. While the Monoshock had been out for 10 years and Suzuki had advanced rear suspension substantially with its Full Floater system, suspension still felt like a blown out mattress at an hourly rate motel. To use a technical term, it felt ‘squishy’.
Brute horsepower with easily compressed rear suspension and brakes that are merely suggestive of stopping is a recipe for unintentional and uncontrollable wheelies. Of all the bikes produced during this period, no single machine epitomized this more than the 1986 Honda CR500. For many people it was the paradigm of everything that could go horribly wrong on a dirt bike, and it just so happens that one of those people was me.
One day many years ago when I was young, vigorous, and a complete moron, my friend Mark called me excited about the ’86 CR500 he had just bought at a garage sale. He went into a detailed verbal description about the 10-year-old bike and in doing so infected me with his enthusiasm. I agreed to meet him immediately at a spot in the national forest south of town for a test ride. So I slipped on an old pair of sneakers and headed out the door.
I arrived to find Mark fiddling with the engine, a light sheen of sweat on his forehead. This thing is fast, he said with a dazed look in his eyes and a strange grin on his face. It might have been a grimace, I couldn’t quite tell. Eventually I just assumed it was because he was stoned, which would not be considered unusual by any stretch.
At this point in my life I was into street bikes. I had ridden dirt bikes once or twice before – benign 1970s small displacement four strokes with little horsepower that were fun to play around on. I had a blast riding those bikes and felt fairly comfortable in the dirt. I relayed this to Mark as he finished fiddling with the bike. He explained that this was going to be a little different experience.
You want me to show you how to start it? he asked.
Kick start, right? I replied. Nah, I’ve ridden a DT175 before. I got it.
I hopped on the bike and turned the kick start lever out. Mark walked over and offered me a helmet. Nah. I said, declining it. Don’t need it, I’m just going to putt up this little hill and tool down that forest service road for a stretch.
I put my sneaker on the kick start lever and pushed down hard. It didn’t budge. Is this thing seized? I asked.
Nope, he answered with a smile. You have to kick the crap out of it.
I tried again and nearly fell over. I got off the bike and pushed it a few feet to a tree. Leaning up against the tree I was able to stand on the left peg and use my entire 160 pounds to push down on the kick start lever. It went down slowly and incrementally. I tried again. And again. And again. My frustration built to a head and finally I just hopped in the air and stomped as hard as I could.
Here’s the thing with some older bikes – sometimes when you kick them they kick back, which is exactly what this one did. It kicked like Bruce Lee loaded on PCP. Now I was quite certain my right foot was broken.
Of course, being young and macho I attempted to be nonchalant about the fact that it felt like someone had just hit the arch of my foot with a ball peen hammer – using a full swing and a running start.
You want me to try and start it for you? asked Mark. I have boots on.Uh, sure.
I slid off the bike and stood to the side while Mark got on, kicked the bike over a few times and it roared to life. He jumped off and held the bike out to me. I limped over and clamored back on. I sat on the bike revving it slightly. It was loud. It popped and crackled and shuddered and twitched underneath me. This was definitely different from that old Yamaha DT175.
I gave it a bit of throttle and slowly let out the clutch – it engaged immediately, shooting the bike forward a foot and stalling the engine. I was embarrassed.
I swear I’ve done this before, I said.
You’ve got to give it more gas than that, Mark replied. We switched places and he restarted the bike for me. This time I was determined to get it right.
I cracked the throttle a bit more and let out the clutch. The CR500 moved forward for a second and then began to sputter and bog, so I twisted the throttle hard. The bike lunged forward violently and I raced across the dirt, suddenly finding myself at the bottom of a long gentle hill that was 100 yards away just a second ago. Shit, I thought, I’m not even in second gear yet.
The front wheel hit a grapefruit sized rock at the base of the hill and rebounded into the air, then plowed into the face of the hill as I rocketed forward and began to ascend it. The inertia of this caused my wrists to drop downwards, inadvertently causing me to twist harder on the throttle. This, in turn, shot the front end straight up and the crash pad on the handle bars nearly stamped my forehead.
To the untrained eye I probably appeared to be a pro, busting a huge wheelie and sustaining it up and over the top of the hill. In reality my brain had completely shut down and my muscles locked up, leaving me with a tenuous death grip on the handlebars. Fate was now in complete control. My only salvation was the universal force that had protected me through many perilous situations – dumb luck.
Upon cresting the top of the hill the Honda’s front end dropped just enough to allow me to regain some composure. I was able to roll off the throttle, slow down, and navigate over to the forest service road. Wanting to save face, I did manage to get the bike into second and third gear without a complete mental breakdown. I was tempted to try to find fourth but at that point my eyes were watering and my nose was running. I might have been crying. I also realized I would have to attempt to turn around at some point, which absolutely terrified me. But not as much as the thought of stalling it and having to try to restart it. Or limping all the way back to my friend who was now almost a mile away.
Eventually I got it turned around without stalling and, after a few more unintentional wheelies and a severe case of whiplash, made it back.
Hitting the kill switch instantly stopped the powerful engine from shuddering and shaking beneath me. I, however, continued to shudder and shake and twitch. This went on for several hours, I think. Memories of the rest of that day are lost in the vortex of PTSD. I remember wondering if I should go to the hospital to get my foot x-rayed. I remember wondering if I would ever ride a motorcycle again.
The only thing I didn’t wonder about was my underwear, which needed to be disposed of immediately.