Montana: That first ride of the season

Editor’s note: We’ve started a periodical for our part of the world called Northern Rockies Rider. This is a personal column from the editor and publisher, who also published 2012’s “Motorcycling Montana,” the definitive guide to riding the Big Sky Country.

By Cole Boehler

Editor and Publisher

Northern Rockies Rider

Some lucky few who live in the Northern Rockies can ride year-around, those mossbacks over on the coast. The rest of us igloo dwellers anxiously scan long-range weather forecasts looking for the first window of opportunity.

This year in southwest Montana there were actually a few days in January nice enough to get out and ride. Work and other obligations kept me from taking advantage.

In February we saw most of our winter, which wasn’t much but it was cold and the occasional snow meant ice hazards.

As March arrived we had a warm, dry spell forecast toward the end of the first week, high temperatures in the upper 50s and surfaces dry if not clean. Keeping an eye on the weather, I called my brother who lives about 115 miles away to see if he was ready. He was.

The 2011-12 layup had been just been four months and one week – not bad by Montana standards.

The night-before pre-first-ride check is usually a fine time. It is me and my machine in the garage, some tunes on the stereo, maybe a fire burning in my wood stove, a cold brew on the bench. Marilyn is in the house digging out, checking and organizing all the cold weather riding gear.

I had taken care late last fall to make sure the mount would be as road worthy as possible with minimum fuss come spring.

The battery did not need installation or checking since I’d kept it on a Battery Tender. Fresh oil was in the crankcase and a new filter was screwed to the block.

When I went to verify tire pressures, I discovered my digital gauge had given up the ghost over the winter. I dug the old-style pencil gauge out of the tool box: decidedly low-tech but reliable enough.

Then I discovered that the valve in the front tire stem must have been gunked solid or sealed with a dab of ice, for air would not go in. Was I foiled right out of the chute? Much fiddling (and some cursing) and the tire took air. The rear was no problem.

Kaput digital gauge, reluctant stem valve… If anything you own is marginal, winter will reveal it to you. Check this stuff the night before the first ride.

In the past, a few pieces of stray dog food kibble below the bike caused some alarm, especially since we don’t have a dog. Had the rodents made a mouse house in my air box? Investigation revealed they found elsewhere to make a winter nest. No kibble in the vicinity this year.

The oil level was good. Brake and clutch hydraulic fluids were right where they should be and still honey-colored after last season’s change. No leaks were evident anywhere including engine oil and coolant, forks or shock.

Bulbs in headlights, tail and brake lights, turn signals and running lights all functioned properly.

All controls operated smoothly but I noticed a little too much slop in the throttle. A quick adjustment and the slack was gone.

The key slid into the ignition switch. I gave it a turn and the electrics came to life with gauge needles sweeping the dials to indicate a ready state.

I pulled in the clutch and touched the starter button. The engine turned over twice, maybe three times before there was fire in the hole – in all the holes! There was no miss or rough running thanks to a fully charged battery and to treating the gasoline at layup last fall.

I realized I was smiling.

The computer told the electronic fuel injection to enrich the mixture and push RPMs to 2,300 where it stayed for 60 seconds or so before gradually dropping down to 1,100 as the temperature gauge began to register.

I made sure I had it in neutral before working the clutch lever several times to free up likely sticky plates. It dropped into gear with a moderate clunk. Excellent! We’re ready!

It’s 32 degrees when we start the coffee pot the next morning. We aren’t leaving for a couple of hours so it’s warmed up to a balmy 36 when we’re ready to mount. Three layers below the belt, four above. It’s so warm I decide against my silk sock and glove liners. My glasses keep steaming up, though, as we finish preparations.

Two miles from our house we begin an eastward climb over 6,700-foot Homestake Pass. It’s nippy on top, probably 30 degrees or so, but we only have to endure that for five minutes before we begin losing altitude and gaining degrees.

As we ascend, then descend, the summit, we are wary of roadside snow that may have been melting and has turned to ice. We are relieved to find the surface is dry and the sand is gone. We run along at 80 miles per hour, feeling good – really good! The sun is shining, the grass still in brown hibernation. It will be greening up soon enough.

We see my brother is waiting in the bakery parking lot, dabbing his bike with a cleaning rag. We are all smiling and talking. We run into friends at the bakery and visit a bit over steaming cups of good coffee.

Then it’s out onto a two-lane highway and we head south with me in the lead, brother following.

The wind begins to pick up, not bad when it’s a true headwind but more annoying when it’s quartering. We have no wind shortage in Montana and soon it’s beating us. It comes with the territory and the season, a small price to pay to be riding good bikes with good company through awesome country with the roads practically all our own.

We enjoy a hearty brunch an hour down the road. As we eat, I remark to my wife that for some reason I don’t feel the usual lay-up rust in my reflexes and muscle memory.

I’m hitting my cornering lines fine: not too early, not too late, no significant mid-corner corrections. My throttle-clutch-shift coordination is just fine, no clumsy gear gnashing. No extraneous environmental factors are catching me off guard. Why is that? Usually I’m quite tentative on the first ride until “the groove” returns.

Our route takes us more southwest, still battering our way through the gusts. I follow Brother over the next mountain pass which is also clean and dry. We get to scuff the outer edges of the tread. Nice!

Now our route turns northwest and we getting hammered by a side wind. As we head more northerly, the wind comes in quartering from behind. In certain sections it is an outright tailwind and you can hear the engine and exhaust plainly. It feels almost as though we are riding in a total calm.

My brother heads east, we head west toward home, this time over Pipestone Pass. Here there is water running over the surface in places but at 3:30 p.m. freezing is not a threat, even near 7,000 feet. But there is plenty of sand so we ease back down into the Summit Valley, no corner carving here, respecting the limitations of motorcycle tires and just two wheels.

We unload our gear and paraphernalia, then snug the bike into it’s usual spot in the garage. It’s got muddy water sprayed all over the undercarriage and lowers but that’s merely evidence we have been playing today. It can be washed off another time.

The Battery Tender is connected and the cover goes on.

We head into the house and strip off the heavy outer garments and then the under- layers. Then it’s time to grab a cold beer from the refrigerator and drop the end gate of the pickup for a place to sit. We enjoy the spring-like weather and late-day sun as we celebrate another wonderful day of Northern Rockies riding.

Of course, the conversation drifts around to, “Hope the weather is good next weekend. You know, we could take that routes through Deep Creek and over Kings Hill, maybe come back along the Missouri. Yeah, that’s it … as long as the weather holds.”

Damn, that beer is good!

And so is life!

– Ride hard, ride free, ride well, ride safe.

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