One Man’s Journey Through the Retro/Modern Motorcycle Universe
This story is not unique. Millions of middle-aged men before me have swilled Harley’s bright orange punch without getting hammered on the hardware or heritage of America’s preeminent motorcycle maker. I blame my Big Twin malaise on my childhood. As the sole progeny of a workaholic single mom in the ‘70s, I owned three motorcycles before my thirteenth birthday: a Montesa Cota 25 trials bike, a Chaparral 80 trail bike, and a Hodaka Dirt Squirt 100. The two-wheeled affliction of my adolescence turned me into a motorcycle nerd for life, with an affinity for Japanese machinery.
In motocross, it was the exploits of five-time world champ Roger DeCoster aboard his Suzuki RN400 that put nitrogen in my short-travel front end. Kenny Roberts—America’s first Moto GP winner and 3X FIM World Champ—was my hero in American dirt track and European road racing. Roberts’ legendary assault from the back of the grid on polesitter Jay Springsteen’s dominant Harley XR750 at the Indy Mile in ‘75 seared King Kenny and his works Yamaha TZ750 two-stroke into my brain. It took me five decades to do it, but I knew someday I’d own a Yamaha in screaming yellow, black and white livery. But first, I had to dip my toe into the kiddie pool.
ENTER THE DRAGGIN’
After building and flipping four Harley choppers between 2005 and 2011, I finally owned my truth and bought a Japanese street bike, Honda’s revolutionary new NC700x. While hardly the stuff childhood dreams are made of, Big Red’s New Concept commuter bike had a 68 MPG range and nearly four gallons under the seat, so fuel anxiety wasn’t an issue. A good thing, because Biltwell co-workers and I were planning a circumnavigation of Baja after the El Diablo Run in spring 2013. Having been derived from components in Honda’s automotive parts bin, the NC700x was reliable, but also low-revving and slow. Bringing up the rear as I did for every mile of that two-week journey, I had plenty of time to reflect on those shortcomings, and my own. As I learned the hard way after eight nights in a pup tent, sleeping on the ground was no longer my jam. Neither were roadside tune and service drills. After enjoying 3,000 miles of the most trouble-free riding of my life, I sold my NC700x and set about finding the ultimate motorcycle for my eclectic—others might say effeminate—tastes.
YESTERDAY’S STYLE, TOMORROW’S TECHNOLOGY
The successful rebirth of Triumph’s Bonneville marque in 2001 set an early tone for where motorcycle styling might be headed in the new millennium. I owned a mildly customized Hinkley Triumph in the mid-aughts, but determined its ROM (Regular Old Motorcycle) engine and architecture were better suited for bar hopping than cross-country hauling. In 2014 Ducati introduced their reimagined Scrambler. That machine’s modern engineering and playful desert sled aesthetic made the diminutive Duc a global success. Never one to be outdone by Italian competitors, BMW delivered their RnineT to US shores in 2015. As is so often the case with shiny things, I stared at that Bavarian boxer for three-and-a-half years before screwing up the shekels to buy one.
...one month into lockdown I burned my house to the ground with a dirty washcloth and a half-pint of boiled linseed oil.
According to BMW Motorrad’s website, the RnineT presents “bold opportunities for customization, and no limit to one’s self-realization.” Sold. I bought the cheapest model in BMW’s arsenal, strapped an EXFIL-115 to the rear fender, then blitzed backroads from SoCal to Seattle with friend and fellow ad flack Pete Kearney in September 2019. After 1,600 miles of effortless coastal cruising and canyon carving, however, Germany’s interpretation of the retro/modern motorcycle left me cold—too stoic in its Teutonic demeanor for my brasher tastes. I sold Frau Mërkel to a trust fund girl on Halloween, then bought a 2020 Moto Guzzi V85TT after Christmas. It wasn’t the Yamaha of my dreams, but copious internet research had convinced me Italy’s latest take on the retro renaissance was exactly what I needed to see the world. Before I could log even 350 break-in miles, however, my feces literally hit a Cat 5 hurricane-strength wind machine.
FIRE IN THE HOLE
Last year’s Covid-19 safety protocols gave bikeriders a great opportunity to enjoy socially distant me-time behind bars. I was prepared to draft that bandwagon, but one month into lockdown I burned my house to the ground with a dirty washcloth and a half-pint of boiled linseed oil. My brand-new Moto Guzzi went up in flames, along with all my other hopes and dreams. After receiving insurance money for that monumental fuckup, I scoured CycleTrader.com for a new motorcycle. An old-stock 2019 Yamaha XSR900 in bland burgundy and gunmetal livery caught my eye.
...my ass is too big for anything Yamaha engineers charitably call a seat, so Duane Ballard reshaped new foam on my stock pan, then covered it with clean leather
I’ve never been a fan of sport bikes. My fat ass won’t fit in the saddle, and my middle-aged spine doesn’t bend far enough to reach the clip-ons. While it shares an engine, chassis technology, and technical DNA with their vaunted FZ-09 (now MT-09) naked streetfighter, my more relaxed and refined XSR900 falls into what Yamaha calls their “Sport Heritage” category. I don’t know where that pigeonholes the XSR900 in popular parlance, but moto journalists seem to have an idea. After enjoying the XSR900’s upright ergonomics and 10k redline at its American press debut in 2016, magazine test riders and YouTube influencers alike hailed Yamaha’s naked/UJM hybrid the best “Neo-Retro” motorcycle from Japan. They might be correct. I’ve owned or ridden many of the best machines in today’s burgeoning retro/modern niche. Few challenge the XSR’s speed and quickness (113.5 hp/65 ft. lb. of torque), nimble handling (fully tunable suspension, 430 pounds wet), stopping power (triple discs), or the sonic satisfaction of its 847cc inline triple engine. In a word, I found Yamaha’s XSR900 sublime—all it needed was some mods and paint to make it mine.
When my victims are bicycles or choppers, wrenching comes easy. Things get weird when I buy motorcycles with ABS, EFI, YCC-T, VVT, D-MODE, eco LCD instrumentation, or kill switches on the kickstand. Gobsmacked by its glut of digital gimmicks, I decided simple ergonomic and aesthetic—not mechanical—tweaks were the best my Kenny Roberts replica would get.
I found a pair of riser gizmos on eBay that moved my XSR’s four-bend alloy bars two inches up and nearly three inches back. Sayonara, sciatica.
To address its slightly stretched-out, bent-over ergonomics, I found a pair of riser gizmos on eBay that moved my XSR’s four-bend alloy bars two inches up and nearly three inches back. Sayonara, sciatica. Although Yamaha claims they are mid-sets, the location of my XSR’s stock foot pegs put too much tweak in my knees. Time on FZ09.com yielded a solution from Germany that put my feet one inch forward and nearly two inches down—just enough extension to give my ACL some R & R. Of course, my ass is too big for anything Yamaha engineers charitably call a seat, so Duane Ballard reshaped new foam on my stock pan, then covered it with clean leather upholstery. After replacing the blinkers with micro LEDs and throwing on a 20-dollar fairing from Alibaba, my Kenny Roberts Replica was ready for racy new paint courtesy of “Hot Dog” Pete.
When it was time for Pete to wave his magic spray gun, I didn’t have the guts to put King Kenny’s iconic black-and-white stripes on my tarted-up retro rocket—that paint should be reserved for men who can drag a knee. Knowing Yamaha’s history as a piano maker (another thing I can’t do), I went with the mothership’s tuning fork logo. Now when I post up for mochas and motos at Starbucks, everyone can guess who ordered the skinny chai latte and German chocolate lollicake: the fat old man on his wife’s bright yellow Yamaha. Whatever. My best-in-class retro/modern Japanese screamer might not look like Roberts’ TZ750, but it damn sure performs like one. Being 44 years newer, I’ll say even better.