The Sign of the Snake

by Gary Charpentier

You know the sign I’m talking about…black serpentine on a yellow background, usually mounted over a number which, in miles per hour, is your “suggested safe transit speed”. I love these signs. I’ve been tempted to collect them, rationalizing that the money I’ve spent on gas taxes and speeding tickets over the years certainly entitles me to a few freebies. I would mount them on my garage wall, like trophies of honored but vanquished foes. Unfortunately, conscience dictates that I leave them there for the unwary, common motorist. After all, despite modern technology, there are still those road users who will actually come to grief if they fail to heed the sign and exceed the ridiculously low advisory speed.

My fellow Cafe Racers, however, see these signs as a neon advertisement for “Tarmac Amusement Park Ahead: Free Admission!”. Twisting and heaving like the wildest roller coasters, these are the masterworks of bored civil engineers, longing to express the Art in their stifled, bureaucratic souls. We owe it to them to use their creations in the manner secretly intended!

Why, just last weekend, my friend Mark Foster and I embarked on a veritable grand tour of the very best Pavement Pythons that southern Wisconsin has to offer. Trolling along Highway 14, we kept swiveling our heads at every intersection, peeling off and rolling in whenever we saw that sacred serpentine crest. County roads in Wisconsin are often designated by letters, hence the nickname “Alphabet Roads”. Often these come in convenient combinations, like county road HH, which I take to mean Hooligan’s Heaven. Then there are the junction signs that tell you which roads are coming up. The best I’ve seen yet were a pair mounted together which read “JCT: O – OO”. Both of these roads wind under the Sign of the Snake, and I can only speculate that they were named after some of the initial test-runs. I mean, they could denote exclamations from the first fellow to negotiate them in a farm truck (OH! Oh oh…). But then maybe they signify multiple orgasms for the adrenaholic speed freak, who knows? These guys who design roads for a living have a twisted sense of humor…

cafe58Sometimes they do such a good job that they drop all pretense and simply christen the whole area like a Six Flags amusement park. WildcatMountain is one such venue in the land of cheese. Talk about your Asphalt Anaconda! There was one decreasing radius left-hander midway up the hill that caught me out when Mark had to hit the binders to avoid some gravel at the apex of the corner. I was right on his ass, and my old drum brakes couldn’t match his stopping power. So I had to bail into a thoughtfully located run-off area just behind him, in order to avoid a painful t-bone incident. No drama ensued, however. I just turned the bars hard left and gassed it, slinging dirt as we re-entered the racetrack…er, I mean road. No corner workers here, heh heh.

After WildcatMountain, there were other surprises in store… You would think I’d have gotten a clue when we passed the first “road apple”, but my mind was on The Line. So it gave me quite a jolt when I came blasting out of a semi-blind corner to find an Amish horse and buggy directly in front of me, the big orange triangle burning it’s image into my retinas. All I could do was back out of the throttle slightly and lean hard over, scraping sparks off the left footpeg as we passed him. That really was too close for comfort. I checked my mirrors to make sure we hadn’t spooked the horse, and promptly decided to back off to about seven tenths until we were well out of this bizarre, timewarped landscape.

At Pine Bluff, where we gathered for the 2003 Slimey Crud Run, we found hundreds of other Snake Sign devotees. Amongst the obvious showbikes and trailer queens, there were battle-scarred racebikes with token lights and dubious license plates mounted for the occasion. Modern sportbikes with mostly young riders prowled the parking lots, edgy and nervous… Then there were the vintage ton-up relics like my own Quasi Moto, built and refined over the course of decades, well sorted with tires worn to the ragged edge. This was a different crowd from your typical motorcycle gathering. Descended from the Rockers of yore, eyes glinting with the gunslinger’s stare, we are the blood-bound members of the Cult of the Concrete Cobra. We don’t waste our tires on showy burn-outs, or abuse clutches and steering head bearings with gratuitous wheelies. Our creed is about perfect control at speed; whether racing to the cafe, or the finish line.

This year I tagged along with several different groups, testing my 450 Cafe Scrambler on these beautiful roads for the first time. We had trouble staying with the sportbikes down the straights, but these young guns really like to use their brakes on corner entry, and that’s where we blew right by them. I had to laugh when they looked down at the side cover badges and realized that they had just been smoked by a 32 year-old bike with half the displacement and one-third the horsepower. It’s nice to know that riding skill and experience still count for something.

As Sunday afternoon wore on, the weather closed in and the rain which had been threatening all day finally fell. I rode down to Spring Green and got a room at the Germania Country Inn, where I could park Quasi Moto under the awning, right outside the window. It became obvious that the innkeeper has dealt with my ilk before, as he volunteered that he had some old worn-out towels just perfect for wiping down the bike next morning, so I wouldn’t have to use his nice new bath towels for the purpose. Somewhat chagrined, I thanked him and settled in for the night, keeping a weather eye on the TV forecast. It looked like the storm might break up a bit late Monday morning, and I could make my dash for the border then.

Alas, it was not to be. I rode the whole way back to the Twin Cities in drizzle to light rain. My leather jacket, boots, and gloves got soaked through, despite the spray-can waterproofer I had applied Friday night, and I was damn-near hypothermic by the time I stopped for gas. Then, about fifty miles from home, Quasi-Moto’s engine noise picked up an extra beat. Though there was no appreciable loss of power, I could tell that something was definitely, drastically wrong. After investigating with the old screwdriver/stethoscope trick, I found that the noise is emanating from the crankcase, and most likely from the needle roller main bearing on the right side.

This was no surprise, after all. We had spent much of the weekend at redline, and well over it on the occasional missed shift. One such instance comes painfully to mind: as I was exiting Leland for the last time on Sunday, I made a full-throttle, clutchless run through the gears heading out of town. I wanted them to hear that double overhead cam twin howling through the resonant scrambler exhaust at nine thousand rpm. First and second shifted all right, but there has always been a slight hole between second and third. Sure enough, (there were so many people watching that this was inevitable), I kicked the shifter into a false neutral and the tach needle bounced off the 12-grand ceiling before I could boot it firmly into gear on the second attempt. I’m sure that incident contributed to the crankshaft bearing’s untimely demise.

So the motor has to come out. I’m going to use this opportunity to build my Cafe Scrambler into the little hotrod I always wanted it to be. I’ve got another stock 1970 CL450 waiting in the wings, and it will now take over as my daily rider. After we apply some M3 Racing magic to Quasi Moto’s engine, I’m going to pay some attention to reducing weight (both mine and the bike’s), upgrading suspension, and generally improving everything to the next level. When finished, I think a track day might be in order, to sort everything out one more time. Then it’s off to Wisconsin again, for another squid hunting expedition out beyond the Sign of the Snake…



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