The MMM Cheap Bike Challenge

by Lee Bruns, Thomas Day, Mike Etlicher, and Kevin Kocur

Like many an idea here at MMM World Headquarters, the Cheap Bike Challenge was spawned from an alcohol-soaked “planning session” and a marathon of Top Gear episodes. The call went out to MMM staff, contributors and friends. Each entrant was to be given $300 and two months to find a bike and prep it for an event that would require the riders to ride an unspecified distance and complete special challenges. Like the International Six Days Trial, the event would test both man and machine. Many applied, three were accepted: Geezer Thomas Day and contributors Kevin Kocur and Lee Bruns. MMM cheerfully welcomed a privateer entry, known insomniac Mike Etlicher, after he foolishly fronted his own $300.

For those asking why, our answer is you don’t need $20K for a maxi-chopper, touring bike or over-farkled adventure rig to have fun on a bike. To prove our point, we baited these four unsuspecting riders to plunge into the unknown on crappy old bikes. Simply put, it’s all about the ride, not the bike.

feature108aSo, fast forward to the day prior to the challenge. Kevin stopped by MMM World Headquarters to show off his CBC steed. Editor Pearman and Wanchena only snickered thinking of what lay ahead for this intrepid competitor. As he left, we watched the police Crown Victoria make the U-turn. 20 seconds later it was reds and blues. Ten hours before the event was to start and Kevin had already gotten pulled over. Should we give him extra points for this?

The competition was slated to begin Saturday, September 6 at 6 AM. Lee was on time, but only because he spent the night in MMM HQ. Mike was 20 minutes late. Thomas arrived 50 minutes late, after calling for directions despite using his GPS. Lee, impatient to get underway, whined, “Do we have to wait for Kevin? He’s going to take forever to get dressed!” Kevin finally showed up, an hour late.

Lee built a frame-up custom street-tracker using a KZ400 frame and a KZ440 engine along with a homemade fiberglass tail piece and seat. Lee’s bike was named “the Red Pirate Roberts” because “as everyone knows the Red Pirate Roberts never takes prisoners.”

Etlicher arrived on a Yamaha XS-400 featuring a Wild Ones tribute trophy tied to the handlebars with enough rope to anchor the Queen Mary, and a pneumatic-operated “bird” mounted on the rear milk-crate. The mighty XS wore several layers of paint and a book of matches taped to the handlebars labeled “Plan B”. Lee’s theory was, “Mike deliberately made his bike look bad. He’s hiding something.”

Thomas purchased a Honda CB-450 just two days prior and its lack of prep-time showed. The tires were original to the bike. Thomas chose not to replace them, not wanting to disturb the rust-riddled rims. The CB had so much rust on it, we all wondered about our last tetanus shot. Thomas says, “The other “competitors” got a big jump on me. I probably should have passed on being a Cheap Bike competitor, since the contest deadline conflicted with my annual “big ride”. My trip plan put me on the road August 1st and got me back anywhere between August 20th and the 30th. July 4th, Victor announced the competitor list and, surprise, I was one. I spent most of July getting my V-Strom ready for the trip east and chasing dead-end leads for a Cheap Bike.”

While everyone was pounding coffee and eating donuts, Kevin finally arrived on a well-worn Kawasaki KLR250 that wheezed, popped and farted even more than its owner. The rear shock was so far gone that the thing bounced up and down like a low rider cruising Lake Street. He claimed the suspension was “set up just like a trials bike…you know…just in case”. No one was buying it. The bike wore a rattle-can blue paint job, which was covered with pithy sayings and a giant red handprint on the rear quarter.

“Like the Indians used to do before going to war”, quipped Kevin. “Geez, don’t you guys ever read a history book?” In retrospect, Kevin should have emulated the winners of those wars. The purpose in reading history is to learn something from the mistakes of the past.

feature108bWithout knowing what the challenges were going to be, there was no way to know what the best bike would be. Lee’s plan was to build a bike that would not be best at anything, but would be fair at everything. On the opposite end of the preparation scale, Thomas felt vindicated just being able to make it to the MMM headquarters. Meanwhile, Kevin was secretly applying sparkly rainbow stickers to the other competitor’s bikes.

The event began with a curbside bike show at MMM Headquarters. Categories such as “baldest tires” and “most oil leaks” favored Thomas’ bike, while “best paint’” favored Lee’s bike. Lee’s bike wasn’t outstanding per se, its just that the competition was rather grotty. Kevin won “best dressed” for the addition of cartoonish dog ears to his helmet. When the points were totaled, the CB450 took 1st, Lee’s KZ and Mike’s XS tied for 2nd, and Kevin’s KLR took 4th place, causing him to question why he hadn’t bribed the judges more.

Lee pontificated, “Riding cheap does not mean riding junk. It does mean that you have to invest your time.”

The group quickly split in half with Mike and Lee charging off into the lead while Thomas and Kevin dawdled. The CB450 began to bleed oil on the MMM tarmac. Past issues of MMM were deployed to contain the mess. We weren’t voted “Most Absorbent” two years in a row for nothing. Gus took photos. Editor Pearman ate another doughnut.

Publisher Wanchena and Associate Editor Tammy brought up the rear in the chase truck. A Fire & Rescue vehicle passed them in Delano. They got very excited, thinking that Mike had employed “Plan B.”

By the first fuel stop in Litchfield, the ancient Honda needed almost a quart of oil. It didn’t help that Kevin would run into the back of the Honda at every opportunity. While Thomas worried about the oil in his crankcase, Lee wondered how much oil was left in the KZ’s front suspension. Early on, the fork seal leaks cleared up; probably not a good thing. Thomas’ Honda continued to leak identifiable and unidentifiable fluids. Kids: this is called foreshadowing.

While in the restroom during the fuel stop, Kevin pondered the adult novelty dispenser on the wall. As the day wore on, riders would find “a little something extra” affixed to their bikes.

The second stop came 150 miles later in Appleton, MN. This time, the Honda needed 1& 1/2 quarts of oil and the Geezer’s brilliant maintenance tactic was to add a quart of oil and a half-quart of JB Oil Leak Stopper. Thomas extolled the virtues of this “magical elixer”, as Editor Pearman skeptically read the empty can.

feature108cThe first challenge and lunch, was at MMM’s former chemical slurry pond-turned testing facility. Lunch featured occasional attempts at sabotage by various competitors. Kevin left his cooling fan on. Lee patiently waited for it to drain his battery, but Kevin’s kickstart saved him. Meanwhile, Mike got a good long look at how bad his rear sprocket and chain looked. After pondering the situation, he decided that a liberal dousing of Taco Bell hot sauce was the cure. Editor Pearman applauded this ingenuity until learning that Etlicher had obtained the sauce from his emergency stash.

Sabotage was a waste of time, since we would each find ways to sabotage ourselves. On the way to the next challenge, only a few yards away, Mike demonstrated his dirt bike skills. He crashed on a little hillside loop, providing a demo of how not to climb a hill with an XS400. Kevin rode the hill to see what was going on, pointed, laughed and rode back down. After Mike disentangled himself, we all proceeded to the start of Challenge Two.

We were to ride one timed lap on the so-called enduro course. Lee rode first, but snapped his foot pegs off on a jump while on the practice lap. Mike was up next, and crashed hard early on the loop. The contents of the XS400’s milk crate spread out over several counties, and a hatchet was employed to beat his kickstand back into shape (see From the Hip, MMM #106).

The CB450 exhibited signs of terminal exhaustion on Thomas’ practice lap. The old bike died coming out of the first turn and barely kicked back to life. Thomas planned to make a careful race of this trial, but was forced to stay on the gas just to get around the track. Even so, Thomas ran a smooth, deceptively-fast lap, showcasing his formidable off-road talents.

Kevin’s worn rear shock and poor throttle performance hurt his lap time, as well as costing him a license plate. Kevin protested “The hill didn’t look that steep. A second later, the KLR was unicycling on its front wheel between two jumps, and I was staring straight down at the dirt. It seemed like forever before the rear tire finally touched down.”

When the dust literally settled, Thomas ran the fastest lap, Lee scored 2nd, Kevin came in 3rd, and Mike was the slowest. Kevin, “I really need more off road practice. Also, don’t wire the license plate within easy grasp of the rear tire.”

Next, the entourage motored toward Granite Falls. Lightnin’ Lee and Mad Mike had sprinted ahead, while Captain Tetanus and Captain Slow bought up the rear. The KLR’s ailing carb wouldn’t allow it to go much over 50 (Ed -Indicated.) Kevin was keeping up with the Honda, but with good reason: just outside of Granite Falls, the Honda’s shifting routine had become more complicated. For the next 40-some miles to Morton, the Geezer was stuck in 3rd. If you have to be stuck in a gear on a 1971 Honda CB450, 3rd is the one to be in. The event route followed the gravel road along the Minnesota River, heading for the historic Harkin Store and the second challenge. The CB’s charging system failed to keep up with the additional head light demand in Morton.

Sev and Gus stopped taking pictures of high school girls and helped push the Honda out of traffic. Thomas jump-started it from the wife’s car, only to find that someone had managed to manipulate the Honda transmission into neutral while he had been troubleshooting the electrical system problems. Sabotage or mercy killing?

feature108dMike got ahead of Lee on the river road. While trying to catch up to him, Lee’s rear wheel stepped out on a curve. He stuck a foot out, rolled on the gas and was flat tracking nicely around the corner. A field approach came along, so he “chose to ride off into the soybean field rather than continue the corner.” Mike got farther ahead.

Back in Morton, the Honda was loaded into the truck after 220 miles into the event. A little-known codicil of the rules state that competitors must complete the event still astride their machines, but the ancient coward muttered something about “Minnesota Statute 169.686” while turning on the heater as he slithered into his wife’s car for the rest of the event.

Mike and Lee arrived at the Harkin Store first, followed by Kevin, then Gus and Editor Pearman in the paparazzi sidecar. The second challenge was a timed competition. Riders had to remove their battery, reinstall it, and fire up the bike. Lee went first and fumbled with the battery bolts before knocking an important wire loose. Mike went next, but the tape that held the wires to the camcorder battery he had used hindered his efforts. Kevin went last and even though he inexplicably spent extra time reinstalling his bodywork and had to repeatedly kick start the bike, had the fastest time. Lee took another 2nd place, Mike 3rd, and the Geezer’s bike stayed in the truck while the Geezer stocked up on leftover food and water for the rest of the trip home. Thomas boasted, “I’d have won this challenge, too. The Honda was made for this event.”

Lee chided, “If your engine, tranny and clutch all use the same oil, its probably a bad idea to dump in “stop leak.”

Thomas, “Smartass.”

The three remaining riders geared up and prepared to continue downriver. Lee: “I am the hare. Kevin is the tortoise. If I slow down or slip at a challenge Kevin will win. He is relentless.”

The weather turned vicious for the remaining competitors. What had been a light drizzle became a steady, cold rain. On route to the third challenge, Lee sputtered to a stop, out of fuel. Mike rolled up next to him. Lee said, “I’m out of gas. If you want to win, now is your chance.” Mike thought for a second and replied, “I have plenty of gas” and siphoned three quarts of fuel from his tank. Then he followed Lee into New Ulm to make sure he got there OK. (Ed – Unfortunately, New Ulm wasn’t on our competition route.) Mike would have won the Sportsman Award, had there been one. The remaining trio of competitors stopped one more time for fuel, and to add layers of clothing before setting off for the next challenge. Thomas cranked up the heat in his wife’s car.

The third challenge was a timed acceleration test on a muddy road between a muddy cornfield and a muddy soybean field. Lee was first up, and though his top speed was off-pace, his launch made up the difference for the win. Mike sputtered off the start, but had a higher trap speed, good for 2nd place. Kevin’s superior tires helped for a good launch, but his lack of power doomed him to 3rd place. Thomas’ bike stayed in the truck and he offered his dry gear to the remaining competitors. Lee swapped out his drenched sweatshirt for a dry Aerostich jacket liner. Oddly, Gus elected to stick with his trials helmet and to continue doing his turtle impression in the photo sidecar.

As the sun set, the riders forged ahead in the rain to MMM headquarters for the final challenge. At the final gas stop, Kevin provided a good deal of entertainment with his kick starting routine. At one point, it looked like he’d need to join the Honda in the MMM Chase Vehicle, but he managed to get it going one last time. The temperature continued to drop, and visibility shrunk to a few dozen yards in the weak Cheap Bike headlights.

The dark revealed that Kevin’s KLR headlamp was aimed at the treetops, Mike’s headlamp emitted an alleged, orange glow and Lee’s taillight had burned out. Lee switched the wires so that his brake light stayed lit and Mike tucked in behind Lee to let the KZ headlamp illuminate the way. The 55 watt driving light that Lee wired in as a headlamp looked small, but performed really well. Kevin stayed close to the sidecar for the final twenty miles. Two blocks from the finish line, Lee pulled over. Mike rolled up next and Lee waved him past. The first-in win wasn’t worth any points, but Lee wanted Mike to be first to the finish.

The final challenge turned out to be a fuel economy comparison at MMM’s HQ. Hypothermia had set in and the fuel receipts and odometer readings were less than accurate. Lee: “Using the GPS for a speedo/odo was a really bad idea. It kept shutting itself off on the washboard road or potholes. I would have to pull over and turn it back on, losing mileage and hurting fuel economy numbers.”

First place for fuel economy was awarded to Kevin, under protest.

When it was all sorted out, Lee was the over-all winner. Kevin and Mike tied for second, and Thomas got the lone DNF. Lee decided, after inhaling half of a large pizza, that he was, “more than a little bummed that Mike didn’t win. I couldn’t have asked for a better riding partner.”

feature108eThomas was the only competitor who didn’t set himself on fire in the MMM garage to warm up. Several competitors made snide remarks about the apparent “planning” of the CB450’s demise, but the Geezer just smiled and drank the magazine’s beer, ate more pizza and cookies. Editor Pearman “volunteered” to haul the Honda home the following day. Thomas appeared to be unconcerned about the future of his motorcycle and tried to give Sev a wrong address for the delivery of the bike. Someone reminded him that “we know where you live” as he snagged the last piece of pizza and slunk into the warmth of his wife’s car for the ride home.

Here are some miscellaneous lessons learned from the Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly Cheap Bike Challenge:

Kevin: “Witty slogans on your bike are no substitute for a functioning carburetor.”

Lee: “Duct tape is great, but has its limits. Using it to reduce the airflow into the velocity stacks was another bad idea.”

Thomas: “Never tell anyone where you live.”

Mike: “What the %$#@ am I waiting for now?”


1 Comment

  1. Definitely a MMM highlight. I still have my “trophy” mounted on my office wall. Since we’re trying to sell the house, it’s about all that’s still on the wall. In spite of my POS Honda and the resulting idiocy when I got rid of it, it was an adventure I’m glad to have shared with an amazing group of competitors and our brilliant MMM support staff.

    This was, however, my last gasp with old motorcycles. “Never again” is my motto when it comes to anything with a carburetor; the Holocaust of mechanical and fluid engineering. When my 450 was “state of whatever passed for street bike art at the time,” I was only riding 2-stroke dirt bikes and couldn’t understand what anyone saw in street bikes. After being possessed by an example of that period’s street machinery, I am convinced I was a smarter-than-the-usual-bear 1970’s motorcyclist. Old street bikes suck.

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