Thursday, February 3, 2011

A 555 rider sets his sights even lower (on the map)

With the whole central part of the U.S. in the grip of a serious winter storm, my thoughts are occasionally drifting south. But with no travel budget, it's only my thoughts that are headed to sunnier climes. Of course, there's no budget and then there's no budget. The masters of miserly moto mayhem make me look spendthrift...

Take two informal clubs, one in Portland, Oregon and the other in Knoxville, Tennessee. Actually, let me start over. The Sang Froid Riding Club, in Portland, is a club. When I asked Mike Fairman whether he and his friends were part of any club in Knoxville he said, “No, we're just a bunch of knuckleheads.”

The Knoxville bunch and the SFRC have some kind of karmic alignment though; and last year was the third year in a row that they've ridden between each others' cities. These trips already have legendary status in both Portland and Knoxville's alienated-hipster subculture.

Mike's brother Cody, with the CB450 that started the 555 phenomenon. Mike Fairman pic.
Fairman, 31, is a part-time carpenter and bike mechanic in Knoxville who's been riding since he was 15, mostly favoring '60s and '70s vintage Japanese bikes and making a point of riding bikes he's picked up for a few hundred bucks or less. “I have a tendency to take on projects that I shouldn't,” he explained. “I once bought a '64 Superhawk for $23 and a chocolate brownie.”

A few years ago, his little brother Cody told him that he'd like a motorcycle too. The next day, someone offered them a pretty complete Honda 450 for nothing. By the time they'd finished wrenching on it, they'd somehow concluded that a sensible destination for Cody's first motorcycle ride would their big brother's house. The catch: he lived in Portland – over 2,600 miles away. A few of their friends invited themselves along, but Mike didn't want Cody blowing up his worse-for-wear 450 trying to keep up with anyone on a bike that was actually good. So he made up a rule: anyone coming along had to do so on a bike they'd bought and prepared for under $500, that was under 500cc, and built pre-'75.

Now, this is how you save money on motels. Mike Fairman, photographed by his sidecar partner and fabrication ace Mike Barillaro. Judging from his recent blog postings from Mexico's drug war-zone, he's warmer but not sleeping any sounder.
Within a few weeks, five more guys had signed on, and they'd coined a name for the upcoming ride: 5-5-5. The trip took about two and a half weeks, mainly because their all-for-one, one-for-all commitment meant that everyone waited while each breakdown was repaired. They posted daily blog reports, which somehow came to the attention of the Sang Froid Riding Club in Portland. The SFRC promised to buy the booze when the 555ers arrived.

Radiating optimism. Eric Ohlgren photo.
The SFRC waited at Portland's infamous Sandy Hut bar (aka 'the Handy Slut') on the appointed evening but Knoxville crew didn't show. More breakdowns. Next night; same thing. On the third night, the SFRC guys decided to attend a bike night at another watering hole. That was the night the 555 crew finally got to Portland. While looking for the Handy Slut, they mistakenly pulled into that other bike night, where they were warmly welcomed by the SFRC. See what I mean? Pure karma.

Several of their bikes were so trashed that the owners just pulled off the license plates and abandoned them on the street in Portland, before flying home. Mike rode his back. And the next year a dozen members of the SFRC took up the challenge. They rode even smaller bikes (several SFRCers are part of Portland's thriving CB160 vintage racing scene, so they rode CB160s.) And they got to Knoxville quite a bit quicker. So it was sort of tag, you're it.

This summer, Mike hatched an even crazier idea. Eight Knoxville 555ers would build four Honda CB350 outfits. That way, with one guy sleeping in the sidecar while his partner rode, they could stay on the road around the clock and get to Portland in a few days. One obvious problem: it is completely impossible to actually sleep in an open sidecar with your head two feet from a redlining Honda twin. Another one that should have occurred to them but didn't: none of them had a clue how to actually make a sidecar. And one more thing a sensible guy wouldn't do: decide to make articulating sidecars, so that they'd be able to lean their bikes like they were used to.

The Cycle Stop, in Knoxville, loaned them the use of their shop after closing time. Although all the sidehacks were roughly similar, they had different bodywork. Mike got extra points for style by skinning his with the fender from a '58 Ford Fairlane car. Style will only get you so far though; the first time they tested their outfit, the front wheel came off the ground and it ploughed straight off Cycle Stop's circular driveway into the woods.

You can probably guess that the plan to run around the clock wasn't destined for success, but you may not guess just how utterly it failed. They blew their first head gasket in just 200 miles. Then on the ouskirts of Memphis, in what Mike described as “a racing incident”, one of them holed a piston. They found a bike breaker with, literally, a pile of old engines out back. They scrounged a piston and spent the night in his parking lot warmed by a pallet bonfire, drinking beer and doing their second engine rebuild in 72 hours. They had not yet left the state of Tennessee.

By the time they reached Denver, six of the eight guys realized that they couldn't afford to pass the last airport along their route when they had to report for work in another few days. Two of the sidehacks were abandoned, and Mike and one other guy loaded all their tools and spares into the remaining two sidecars and pressed on to Portland. Tag!

On the road again. Although this time, it may not be paved. (Ohlgren photo again, thanks.)
Their arrival was the motorcycle equivalent of the return of Napoleon's army to Paris from Moscow, but the SFRC treated them like conquering heroes. “Before I'd even taken my helmet off,” Mike said, “I had a Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboy in one hand and a Jameson's in the other.”

Apparently the SFRC already has about 20 takers for a 555 ride to Knoxville next summer on CT-70s. The route from Portland to Knoxville pretty much passes through Kansas City, and I had half a mind to invite myself onto the second leg of the ride as an embedded journalist. My Honda Dream should be roadworthy in a few months (though there are some afore-mentioned budget issues.) The question is, will Mike be back by then? You see, just before this surprisingly harsh winter set in, Mike lit out again. On a '70s-vintage Honda XL250. 

For Brazil. His blog is worth following. I know it's as close as I'll get to good riding weather in the next couple of months, but I'm not sure I have the sand to tag along.

1 comment:

  1. Super cool, and I think it goes without saying that the 555's are close to my heart. All the best to their adventuring ways!! - Greg Tracy fellow 555