Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Impressions from Riding the Buell Firebolt

My First Sport Bike, by Jim Beyer, new Firebolt owner. This was published in ThunderPress in 2003, but I forget exactly when.

A person's impressions are determined by his/her previous experiences, or “where you are going depends on where you are coming from”. My first impressions of the Buell Firebolt were colored by a quarter-century of riding Harley Big Twins. When I opened the magazine, my thought was “looks Jap”, then “just another Sportster” and finally, when I read the statistics, I thought “a Jap 600 can beat it”.

Having dismissed the Firebolt, I gave it little thought until my buddy Pete confessed that he wanted one. For the 25 years I have known Pete, I have rarely, if ever, seen him buy something new. Until August, the newest bike he owned was a 1962 Sportster, although he once owned a ’76 Shovelhead dresser. I went to Pete’s house to complain about my divorce and he nattered on about how he saw a beautiful blue Firebolt at Montana Harley Davidson, Buell, Ducati. He said, “the color looked just like burning gases flared off by the refinery” where he worked. A rather industrial, but poetic, metaphor. Pete was “cowboy rich” having just slaved for 60 days straight, rebuilding a refinery in the bay area of California. So I told him to buy it—not realizing the implications.

Pete rode his new prize down to the Rhino Bar, where the Montana Legends hang out, all hunched over like he was making love to the gas tank and grinning like the Cheshire cat. Few of his buds could believe that he was riding a 21st century bike, let alone a motorcycle built in the last half of the 20th century. What really impressed me was the way young women gravitated toward the Buell. Pete really couldn’t give a damn, since he is in a happy relationship with the mother of his children, while I, on the other hand, am suddenly single after 20 years of marriage.

After the bike was broken in, Pete let me take it for a ride. I buzzed up the freeway for about five miles and was impressed enough with the performance to start hoarding money to buy my own. I have a modest collection of antique bikes and an even more modest business selling them. I offered to trade my Vincent Comet straight across for a Firebolt. No takers, so I loaded up a trailer full of stuff and headed to the Antique Motorcycle Club show and swap meet at Davenport, Iowa. My motivation was to get rid of stuff and bring home money, therefore I was making deals and selling inventory for almost any offer, reasonable or not. I dumped five small bikes and came home with a pitiful pile of dollars. Working the internet, I sold another ten old bikes and a bunch of Harley 45 parts for cheap. I was about half way there.

Being a good consumer, I shopped around and found the best deal at Big Sky Harley-Davidson, Buell in Great Falls. They were willing to take my XR883 Sportster as trade in and sold me the Buell at MSRP. My local shop did not want my Sportster, so I loaded it up and drove to Great Falls, in a snowstorm, on October 1st. This is Montana after all.

Wearing as much clothing as I could, looking like the Michelin man, I took the Firebolt for a test drive. This was more of a formality, than a decision-maker, since I was pre-disposed to buying it. Since the bike was not broken in, I turned the right twist grip to “moderate” instead of “loud” and put on 20 freezing cold miles up the twisty road to Sand Coulee. When I came back, I told Big Sky’s owner, Brian Moen that “the bike was no fun at 70 mph”. His face fell with disappointment, fearing I did not like the cycle. I followed the remark with “but it will be lots of fun at a hundred”. I also thought the Firebolt needs a sixth gear and the mirrors suck. Small details did not deter me from buying it.

Now for some impressions of the bike:
The transmission needs a sixth gear, an overdrive or bigger rear sprocket or something. At least I think so. I am used to riding my Harleys at a range of two to four thousand RPMs. When the Firebolt hit four grand, I am ready to shift up. After riding the bike for 1,100 miles, I am beginning to realize that the Buell hits its power band at about five grand. This isn’t your Father’s Sportster, this is an all new beast. I managed to run the bike up to a hundred at about 5,000-5,500 RPM, (which was great until I met the Highway Patrolman) but I wonder what it would do with sixth gear. The tranny seems clunky and “Sportsterish”, but it is loosening up a bit and shifts a little easier. I find it hard to locate neutral some times. Late in the evening, alcohol may play a part in this difficulty, but during the day I blame the bike.

The mirrors look real cool, but they are nearly worthless. I look in them and get a great view of my elbows. I have to raise my left hand off the bars or twist my shoulder and elbow up and out of the way to see what is behind me. The alternative is to turn my head down and to the right or left to look behind me. This means I am looking backward and upside-down through a bug splattered face shield. Whoa dude! Acid flashback!! After one of those, I did my first stoppie – trying to avoid a pickup truck bumper. The brakes are great. Why didn’t some one think of the ring front brake 20 years ago?

The engine rattles like my Dodge Cummins diesel. Pete took his into the dealer complaining that the rods were knocking and it was not even broken in. The mechanics fussed over the bike and eventually called Buell. The factory confirmed that all that banging and thrashing were perfectly normal. I guess the problem is that the muffler is so quiet that a person can hear the engine. I never had that problem on my Big Twin. (Loud pipes save lives you know.) After 1,200 miles, my engine sounds like a rock crusher too. I mentioned to my dealer that I have another 51 weeks to see if it blows up. He winced. I swore a long time ago that I wouldn’t buy another first-year vehicle, but here I am doing final product testing for the factory. I assume they will stand behind their product, but not too far behind it. The gaskets leak on the primary and cam cover sides of the engine. I commented to Sean the mechanic that I thought I bought a Buell, not a Harley. I guess the acorn does not fall far from the tree. My BMW has been around Harleys so long that it leaks too. It must be contagious.

The riding position is surprisingly comfortable, for me. The windscreen funnels the wind on to your chest and face, which helps keep your weight off your wrists. I managed a 250-mile afternoon on the second day I owned the bike and a 400-mile day, four days later. Neither ride killed me, although my riding skills nearly did. The skinny seat has minimal padding. I find I am sitting on my upper thighs as much as my hip bones. This is no touring bike, but it is not bad as a day cruiser. The Buell offers no significant weather protection. Any crap in the air is directed to your chest and helmet (an item I now recommend). After one little ride my face was stung red with large flies, gnats and an occasional grasshopper. My leather is coated with insect slime, as is the front of the bike. I have not ridden the bike in the rain and do not look forward to the experience.

I dropped the bike off its side stand about 28 hours after I bought it. I started the engine to warm the Firebolt late in the evening, having consumed an adequate amount of beer and two jalapeño Stolis. As I turned, with the intent to pee in the alley, I heard a horrific crash. It took both Joyce and me to lift the bike off it side. It seems heavier than the stated 445 pounds dry weight. I cursed and fumed, but realized that the only noticeable damage was a busted turn signal lens. The next day, when the fog cleared, I noticed that my left wrist was bent differently than my right one. A quick check proved that both hands were still attached and were working, so I concluded that I bent the little stub handlebar on the left side. Upon further reflection, I decided that I liked the angle of the bent bar better than the straight one. I concluded that if I could bend the bars at a several degree angle where they exit the top triple tree, my arms and wrists would rest in a more natural way. (Eric Buell — pay attention, you can sell angled replacement bars with different degrees of bend to accommodate different body types.) The new turn signal was only $6.00. Buell must not be selling replacement parts at Harley prices.

The Firebolt is extremely nimble. I rode up Highway 12 to Lolo Pass at speeds greatly in excess of what I could attain on my Fat Boy. Being an old Harley rider (a double entendre — meaning I am old and I ride old Harleys), I am not used to seeing my knees so near the ground. Unless I am falling off. My first bike was a 1947 Harley 45, which has a lean angle of about ten degrees and the merest suggestion of brakes. It taught me to take my time while going around curves and never hit the brakes when leaned over. The Buell allows me to hit decreasing radius blind curves at too high a speed and live to tell about it. My buddy, Matt at Performance Sport Bike, advises Pete and me to take some lessons at a track in California so we can use the Buell at something near its potential, without screwing up big time. By the way, Matt is a dyed in the wool Honda fan and he says the Firebolt is the first Harley he would ever, ever, EVER, consider buying. He was impressed how he could pull off the I-90 Bonner exit at 125 mph, take the sweeping curve and still merge with the logging trucks at the bottom at a more sedate 30 mph.

The Firebolt can pass anything except a gas station. It holds 3.7 gallons of gas in its hollow frame. The little yellow “low fuel warning light” comes on after approximately three gallons have been consumed. Having not studied the operator’s manual carefully, and being blissfully ignorant of the importance of little yellow lights, I blew by the last gas station on the Seely-Swan highway just as the light came on. Let me say that you meet the most interesting people in the back woods of Montana, when you pull in their drive with a sputtering motorcycle. I will now backtrack five or ten miles to a gas station to avoid making that mistake again. Another niggling gripe is that I can not read the numbers on the speedometer. I would rather blame the graphics designers at Buell, than the effect of three decades of self-abuse. None the less, the numbers could be lots bigger. The faster the bike, the less time you want to spend looking at the speedo. The old Vincent Black Shadow had a speedo as big as a wall clock. The Buell’s speedometer is a mere 3 inches across and there is not enough contrast between the numbers and the background.

People ask me to compare the Firebolt with my 1994 BMW R1100RS, an 1100 CC sport-touring bike. (It is for sale, by the way.) There is really little comparison. The BMW is far superior to the Buell, for long-distance touring. It handles well, is faster, has luggage, a well-padded seat, and a windshield. It needs no maintenance other than tires, is absolutely reliable and lacks soul. It’s also uglier than Janet Reno. In contrast, the Buell is sleek, sexy and graceful – like a Ducati – without the eight-hour valve adjustments. When I bought the BMW in 1994, I wrote to Vaughn Beals that if Harley ever built a sport bike that wasn’t a warmed over Sportster, I would buy it. Harley did and I stuck to my end of the bargain.

The Buell is a babe magnet. It attracts girls’ attention better than stapling a hundred-dollar bill to your forehead. The Friday after I bought my Firebolt, I was giving young ladies rides. The first one, Tracy is tall, skinny and has a pierced tongue. You know what Chris Rock says about pierced tongues on women. On Sunday, I gave Heather a fast ride up Lolo Creek Road. On Wednesday, I had an hour-long tete-a-tete with Bonnie, a young Beemer riding intellectual. She asked me to go sky diving with her. (Ah — the things I might do for love.)

Perhaps, one of the better parts of the deal, is when a girl asks if she can ride on the back of your Harley, you can say “sure” without actually lying to her. The Buell does not have “Jap bike” performance, “Jap bike” price and may not have “Jap bike” reliability, but it is “Made in the good ol’ U.S.A”. In these times of recession and possible war, it seems important to support the home team. To be absolutely clear, I love the new Buell, in spite of its warts. If I wanted technical perfection, I would stick with the BMW. If I wanted absolute speed, I would have bought a Hayabusa and if I wanted gorgeous European styling, I would have bought an Italian bike. Like America, the Buell is a melting pot of all these cultures. Not perfect, but above average.

PS. Any allusions to alleged infractions of the laws of the State of Montana are exaggerations for literary purposes only and not to be taken literally. For those who object to the reference “Jap bike”, let me say that I have nothing but admiration for the Japanese nation, Japanese people and Americans of Japanese descent. “Jap bike” is a mildly pejorative term that is in popular use, in the USA among Harley riders. There fore I feel it is acceptable to use it as a colorful, descriptive term for a class of imported motorcycles. For those who object to my use of “girl” to describe a nubile, twenty-thirty something, female, human being, I say to you, get a life — like I am trying to do.

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