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GOING THE DISTANCE
PHOTO BY GENGHIS
DOUBLE CROSS: Healthier knees than mine.
LATE JUNE 1969--Jackson Heights, Queens:
I stopped in front of the record store on 82nd Street off of Roosevelt Avenue, to check out what they had in stock. I stepped out of the store to fire up my Sportster XLCH Sally The Bitch. Man, she was a bitch to start, especially with that less than desirable Tillotson carb. I've gotta switch to an S & S when I get more bread.
I prime the carb with two kicks with the gas on, magneto turned off, and full choke. Magneto on, raise high in the air over the bike, and.....WHOOOSH..... come down on the kickstarter like the proverbial ton of bricks. Expecting the normal resistance from the kickstart mechanism, I'm painfully surprised by the total lack of resistance. What, did some gremlin inside the kickstarter file down the teeth of the gears while I was scopin' out records?
With all of my weight behind the kick, my right foot comes crashing down on the downstroke and I feel and hear an audible "Snap!" in my knee. I feel excruciating pain, like no other pain I'd ever felt before that.
There was a neuronal express straight from my ruined knee, to the pain sensors of my brain. Synapses fired along this nerve-crossing express train to pain, faster than the sparks flew from my bike's Champion J12Ys.
Something broke, man. It was the lateral collateral ligament in my dominant knee. I felt where it was a minute ago, where it should have been palpably extruding on the right side of my leg, and it just plain was not there anymore. It had completely snapped off either the femur or fibula, flappin' loose and free somwehere in the confines of my right leg, playin' hide and go seek. It was official:
I had Genuine, Officially-Licensed Sportster Knee.
EARLY JUNE 2011--The Lower East Side, Manhattan:
I just parked my ever-lovin' stroker Harley 74 "Mabel" in her Lower Beast Side parking lot (Space "M2") and man was my right knee killin' me. This was unusual. My right knee never bothered me after riding, before. Must be "Sportster Knee" catchin' up with me, ever since that kicking fiasco with Sally 42 years ago. It was bound to happen: arthritic changes. What was really starting to bother me was using the mid-control brake pedal for the rear brake. Scrunching up my knee on every braking rep was doing insidiously negative things to the nerve endings in my knee. Man, talk about "pain in the patella!"
My Super Glide in it's OEM form came with mid-controls, with the shift lever pivoted backwards toward the footpeg which placed the peg of the shifter directly in front of the footpeg, so that shifting had to be done in reversed and inverted order: up for first gear, and down for second, third and fourth. This was not right or natural!
I put forward pegs on Mabel and turned the shift lever around the way it supposed to be for that righteous down for one, and up for two-three-four- pattern, but never followed through on the other side with a forward brake pedal.
I also installed a heel-toe shifter for those neat all-down power shifting moves based on Snow's recommendation---he made me a believer. He said it was great, and he was righteously right. There's more power and leverage on a downstroke. There's nothin' like stompin' down on the back of that heel-toe shifter for positive shifts into the higher gears. It's aggressive, and I dig it! Check it out, man: ya wind out the mill so it's screaming near redline, then ya stomp down on that sucker to slam into second gear. Don't get any better 'n that, man.
What wasn't great was the mid-placement of the brake pedal.
To apply the rear brake, I had to retract my foot back to rest on the mid-footpeg, and press down with my toe, just as The Firm had misguidedly intended with the Super Glide. This added up to mucho right knee flexing.
What did The Firm think the FX was, a Sportster?
I scoff every time I see a magazine picture of a custom Harley big twin fitted only with mid-positioned footpegs and controls. Wotta travesty! Even when I had my XLCH, I put forward pegs on her, even though I didn't brake or shift from those pegs. At least, I had the option to stretch out my legs.
There's nothing like that stretched out feeling on a 74,, with a biker's legs extended out pointing to the onrushing highway, like a Norse god leading with his armored feet, before planting his Harley Hammer Of Death on some unsuspecting and distracted minivan driver talking on a cellphone.
Up until now, I was satisfied with this hybrid technique. But that was then---early June of this year, and this is now---late June.
"Now" consists of a different rear braking technique than I've used for the 26 years with Mabel. Nope, I didn't break down and install a forward brake lever. I simply leave my leg extended now---instead of pulling it all the way back to the mid-footpeg, and use the very back of my foot to exert pressure on the brake pedal. It's also more ergonomic, as the weight of my leg and gravity are sufficient to activate the 'ole hydraulic binders.
Problem solved, less effort and no bread spent.
What more could one ask for?
"Sportster Knee" is a common affliction among former or current pilots of kick-only, magneto-equipped XLCHs of famous biker lore. The 'CH was a tremendously light (dry weight of 450 pounds) and violently fast bike, but the price one paid for riding this beauty, was that at some point or other, an XLCH rider would either experience the resistanceless trip of the kickstarter to a town named Inevitable Injury, or have 900 CCs of Harley-Davidson motor kick back at ya like an angry mule.
Take my word for it. Retarding the timing by rotating the magneto, does not help very much to avoid this.
This leads 'CH riders to a biker community called Misery City, with several stops at Unbelievable Pain Gas Stations for regular fillups.
Of course, frequent stops at the I Don't Have Health Insurance Rest Areas don't help.
The highways and byways of America are littered with the battered bodies of XLCH adopters, who were unable to reach their destination of Healthy Knees, USA.
XLCH riders eventually end up in restorative sanitariums called the, I Wish I Had Electric Start Homes For Bikers, where they weave baskets and scarf down tranquilizers to ward off clinical depression.
Either way, man---yer screwed.
Sportster Knee was a joke within the biker subculture, but here's the thing: it ain't funny man, when it's your knee that's bein' racked up like a nine-ball game. All that's missing is Minnesota Fats swinging a pool cue at your knee.
Sure, The Firm no longer makes the infamous kick-only XLCH, but there are enough of 'em around to ruin plenty of knee ligaments among younger masochsitic riders. Mabel never exhibited these destructive urges. Even after Andrew Rosa stroked Mabel's 74 to 86 cubic inches, Mabel remained a far more civilized kick-start bike than Sally. Mabel never kicked back, and her kick mechanism never slipped through with no resistance, like a dildo greased with K-Y Jelly.
Not that I need it, because Mabel has had electric start since the late 1980s, but I can still apreciate her kickstarter for its civility. I did have to use it about six years ago when Mabel's battery was almost dead, but that was the only time I used it in the past two decades.
My Harley 74 is a far greater joy to ride than Sally was, and remains so after I changed up on my rear braking technique. After a couple of weeks of using the back of my right foot for rear braking, this technique feels natural to me. Muscle memory, man--it takes over. I do feel some nostalgia about my XLCH, though, and it turns out that you can go home again. The only problem is, you may discover to your dismay that the 'ole house you were born in and grew up in, may not be there when ya get there.
Just for the hell of it, I rode back this morning to where it all began for me. Mabel and I went to the site of Harley-Davidson of Manhattan on 76th Street where I got my first Harley in 1968, Sally The Bitch. I haven't been to this location in about 40 years, so I was curious about what type of business currently occupies that retail space. Turns out, it's a refrigeration and air conditioning store. One pleasant surprise was, that the same garage style roll-up doors that were there when H-D of Manhattan was there, is still in place. Memories, man. I germinated here when I bought that Sportster here, right off the showroom floor. Harley orange Sally was, but I had the dealership change the bench seat for a solo seat and p-pad before I took delivery.
Ah, Sally, if only you could see your original home now, huh babe? You'd have to look over a mighty distance though, since you're now spinning wheels in England. Who says you can't go home anymore? At least, I was able to, even if you aren't, Sally.
Your sister Mabel got a gander of the place of your---meaning our---origins. I could swear that I heard her idle quicken a little as we stopped in front of the former dealership. It was the increased pace of a Harley pulse, knowing, understanding and human-like. Man, bikes live, take my word for it.
One of these days, I may run into "Rebelene," Snow's old Wide Glide. He thinks that she's still in NYC where he sold her.
Will I recognize her? Probably not. Her one distinguishing characteristic, which was her rear fender with "Rebelene" painted on it, was kept by Snow as a keepsake. I'll just look for a Wide Glide without a rear fender. Later.