On riding old motorcycles

In Motorcycles by gfaherty30 Comments

I am currently re-reading “Shopcraft as Soulcraft” a fantastic book about the value of work by Matthew B. Crawford.   His description of kick-starting an old bike perfectly mirrors my experience trying to get my first Harley started.   It was a 79 Sportster that was kick start only and the scene he describes below was played out time and time again, but usually in front of a crowd of my friends who had lined up on the sidewalk for a good laugh.

“Riding an early motorcycle entailed a certain preparation that went like this:  Set the throttle at a very small opening, set the choke at a position judged the appropriate one for the ambient temperature, and retard the spark timing manually by several degrees.  Then approach the kick-starter with due apprehension, bracing yourself for yet another blow to your chronically bruised shin.  The thing about kick-starters is, they tend to kick back.  This is especially likely if you don’t retard the timing far enough, as then the motor backfires mechanically, as it were, through the kick-starter, sending your shin to its fated meeting with the foot peg….Having positioned the piston at the start of its intake stroke, you are ready to kick-start the bike.  But first check to make sure there are no attractive women present to witness your display, nor any rivals, for it is likely to be a drama of strenuous impotence.

Before taking the first kick, it is traditional to light a cigarette and set it dangling at an angle that suggests nonchalance. While you’re at it, send up a little prayer for fuel atomization.  You wouldn’t be riding a motorcycle if you weren’t an optimist.  ”


Photo Credit: Maurice van den Tillaard

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