by John Stahley
Growing up in St. Paul, near Marshall and Prior, the start of my love affair with two wheels began with a bicycle, much like the rest of the planet. However, just being content to ride around the block lost it’s thrill about the same time I lost my training wheels. Freedom, release, self-amusement! I could go places and see things. I could do things that scared the shit out of me, and if I didn’t get hurt too badly, I could do them again.
The adventure of riding down to the sand bar under the Lake Street bridge was very heady stuff for a third grader in 1966, but the real kicks came just a block from our house. There was a hill in the alley behind St. Mark’s School that would provide the wind in my face, the sensation of speed and the adrenaline rush that could be found nowhere else. I’m not sure if attending that catholic school indemnified me from getting creamed at the cross street at the end of my descent, but to this day I find it miraculous that I recall only one horn-blaring-tire-squealing moment of terror in the hundreds of laps I put down.
Although there were some cycles and scooters buzzing around, I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention until the day I heard the sound coming from right behind our house. Holy smokes, I had to check this out. Across the alley, the neighbor’s son had a couple cycles on a trailer. British twins they were–Triumph’s if pressed to guess. My dad later told me that the bikes were hill climbers. That didn’t mean a lot at the time, but some of the images were permanently etched in my mind. The shade of blue where the exhaust entered the cylinder head, those chrome megaphones and the sound. That noise and vibration spoke to me and I listened! I don’t think I ever put another playing card in my spokes after that day. Sure, I’d clip them on my younger brothers’ and the neighborhood youngsters’ bikes, but I had loftier aspirations after that.
We moved to Roseville, where my still forming brain was deluged by motorcycling impressions that will be with me forever. One of them is the “Loner’s” m.c. They hung out at LakeJosephine beach in the late 60s. They were outlaws I guess, but they were nice enough to me. They had choppers, and whether they were nice bikes or not is, to me, a moot point. They were loud and fast! I’d ride my bicycle down to the beach, park it on the grass, and walk up and down the row of ten to twenty bikes admiring them all.
They were different, they demanded your attention, and when they were running, especially when they were roaring out of the parking lot or down Lexington avenue, they provided a message–a statement so loud and blatant that it couldn’t be ignored. Yea, you could interpret it any way you wanted to but no way could you ignore it.
Then came the pit. The dirt bike craze was in its infancy but there were some locals who were very tuned in to this fast rising phenomenon. And times being what they were, there was plenty of open space a block from our house where you could ride all day. I still had my bicycle, as did most of my friends, but this didn’t stop us from hanging around and emulating our idols. When they weren’t flying around our little play ground, we would pedal like mad around those same trails, hills and jumps. We were politely tolerated by the guys with real bikes, from mini bikes to real live moto-crossers and without exception they were all cool, our standing in the group measured by distances flown and parts broken. To seriously potato chip a rim on landing meant you were truly okay.
I never did thank my cousin Penny for marrying Loren. He was pretty cool when they got hitched, but later when he got deep into racing enduros, his status was elevated to god-like proportions. He had a 185 Suzuki and a 125 Hodaka that he would let my older brother Bob and me ride a lot, so I got to be somewhat competent in the saddle in spite of not having a bike of my own.
And ham handed as it may be, this will serve nicely as a segue into the story of my first bike. Actually to say it was mine is to do a disservice to the truth because it was not mine. It was stolen. And though I did not steal it, I feel no less a thief. Some poor soul coasted into a parking lot on a 250 Kawasaki, unaware of the reserve function of the fuel petcock. He left to get gas, I assume, but the vultures were on the carcass before it was cool. I was present, and though I didn’t pull the wire or flip the valve, I was stupid enough to think I could keep the machine. I did for a short while, but justice was not long in coming. I went scurrying into the Army before the hammer could fall, leaving behind a messed up bike, a pissed off owner and a judge who figured that three years with our uncle might just be punishment enough.
And so the motorcycling beast sat dormant, reduced to caging rides off friends bikes for the next twenty EFFING YEARS! Sure I still dug bikes, but I found other things to give me a fix, to ease that performance jones. A string of fast street machines and a five or six year affair with drag racing, but that got to be real work, and I don’t recommend work as a recreational pursuit. So I bought a bike, and another, and another, and…that’s another story.