It Was a Long Winter

It’s been a long off-season for riding.  My October didn’t line up well, I either had plans or it was raining every Saturday or Sunday during the month and I never really did any fall riding. After that, winter set in and the season was over.  I got the bike to my dealer and back in March to repair a faulty speedometer but other than that, this was the first weekend I was able to ride for fun since September.  Usually I can get on the road earlier in March. Again, the weather didn’t cooperate.

This weekend was the first time I was able to get out and ride in earnest, and I couldn’t wait to hit the road.  Saturday was just a local run in Hudson County.  My time was constrained so I kept it short.

Of the 21 counties in the state of New Jersey, Hudson is probably the worst to ride around in.  For all the great things Hudson County has to offer, none of them are the types of things that Harley riders crave such as open roads and scenic views.  The closest two things we have to “scenic” are Liberty State Park in Jersey City and JFK Blvd. East in Weehawken so I hit both of those spots.  On my way home, I got stuck in a traffic jam on Port Imperial Blvd. in Weehawken.  While it felt good to get out, it was a rather unremarkable ride.

JFK Blvd. East in Weehawken, NJ

JFK Blvd. East in Weehawken, NJ

Sunday was wide open on the schedule and the weather was perfect so I got up and split.  I had all winter to think about where my first ride should be yet somehow I managed to pull out of my garage and I had no idea where I was headed.  I’m not sure why I didn’t plan anything out but I just figured that it would work itself out.

The first thing to do when you ride in Hoboken is to leave town quickly.  Options in this area are pretty much to the west and the north to start and you can branch out from there.  So, I jumped on NJ Route 495 and then on NJ Route 3 and headed west.

At some point as I was passing the Meadowlands, it occurred to me that I had been meaning to visit the Paterson Great Falls.  It seemed like a decent destination even if the roads there wouldn’t be all that exciting so I made my way up to I-80 West and exited in Paterson and followed my GPS to the park.

I hadn’t been to the falls since I was a child and it was neat to see them again.  Unfortunately the foot bridge that gives the best view of the falls was closed so I wasn’t able to get very close.  I snapped a few pictures and headed back on the road, this time with no particular destination.

Paterson Great Falls

Paterson Great Falls

Riding with no place to go is one of the most enjoyable ways to do it.  It frees you up to just head in random directions and try roads you find if they look interesting.  I don’t even know where I was exactly for the next hour or so, I just headed north until something looked familiar.

I ended up in Wanaque which is a town I’ve been to quite often.  It is known for its scenery and open roads around the reservoirs in town and I passed dozens of other bikers along the way who apparently had the same idea that I did.  I have a route that I almost always take that snakes around the lakes but this time I went around them a different way.  Again, I wasn’t exactly sure where I was but the road had to come out somewhere that would be familiar.

Eventually, I found Greenwood Lake and headed north along the lake into Orange County, NY.  The road that tracks the west shore of the lake is normally bustling with activity in the summer months, but it was pretty empty that day.  It didn’t seem like too many boaters got an early start to the season.

New York Route 17A passes the northern tip of Greenwood Lake.  I headed east from there and that route becomes one of the most scenic and interesting rides that you can find within an hour of Hudson County.  It heads up and down through the hills of The Sterling Forest and eventually turns into County Route 106.  The scenery felt like a sharp contrast to the weather.  It was a warm and sunny day but there were no signs of spring anywhere along the route.  Roads that are normally shaded by lush green leaves were instead lined by gray and brown trees with no signs of even the first buds of the season.  There were even still a few stubborn patches of snow that had yet to melt along the landscape.

If there was ever a road that I could use to easily demonstrate to someone the pleasure and excitement of riding a motorcycle, it would be this stretch.  It has elevation changes, twisting roads, and tracks several bodies of water.  It challenges your skills as a rider, forcing you to break and accelerate properly into and out of curves, and to pay very close attention to where you are going.

County Route 106 eventually comes to a T at US-9W in Rockland County.  I made the right and started to head south along the Hudson River towards home.  It was along the way that I noticed something unusual about my new speedometer.  It had a digital read that displayed what gear the bike is in.  I’ve never had a gauge like that, in fact I didn’t even know they made one.  Shortly after I noticed it, I realized that it doesn’t work very well.  It doesn’t have a sensor inside the transmission that can tell what gear the bike is in, it simply calculates what the gear it thinks the bike is in based on RPM and speed.  Therefore, if you are headed up a hill and don’t downshift, the gauge will guess incorrectly and display the wrong gear.  It also only works when the bike is rolling so if you look down while you are in neutral to try to see if the bike is in first gear, it will be blank.  I came to the conclusion that this feature is unnecessary, annoying, and useless.


An anchor I found along the river on US 9W near Tomkins Cove, NY.

US-9W crosses into New Jersey in northern Bergen County and runs along Palisades Interstate Park.  I wanted to track Henry Hudson Drive along the river but it is not fully opened yet for 2015.  I managed to make it to the Alpine Boat basin and parked there for a bit before headed back up to the highway.

On the final push home, I got stuck in a traffic jam in Weehawken on Port Imperial Blvd.  I guess I hadn’t learned my lesson on Saturday.  From now on, I’m never going that way home during the day again.

I made it to Hoboken and did a loop around town, trying to set off car alarms with the roar of the engine.  That generally gets on peoples nerves so I enjoy doing it.  There were tons of people on Washington Street, crowding the outdoor areas of the bars.  As much fun as that looked, I was pretty content to have spent my day on the bike instead of drinking.

I made it back with 140 miles on the trip meter for the day.  My nose was slightly tanned, I got to see some new and old places, and I managed to set off one car alarm.  Winter is over and for the rest of the season, it’s time to let it rip.

Getting on the Road

I grew up in Rutherford, NJ and throughout my high school years I rode a Schwinn 12-speed bike all over Bergen County.  I loved that bike, I rode it every day in the summertime and as often as I could when school was in session.  My 17th birthday wasn’t until December of my senior year so I had to wait until then to get my driver’s license.  Riding my bike was no only my favorite hobby, it was also the only means I had of self-transportation until I was old enough to drive.

While I can’t remember the exact time, I can recall in vivid detail the exact moment and place that my interest in motorcycling was sparked, and it all happened very quickly.  I was stopped at the red light on the corner of Jackson and Union in Rutherford.  A gray-bearded man on a Harley-Davidson pulled up next to me and stopped at the light.  He looked to his right where I was waiting on my Schwinn, and nodded hello.  The light turned green, and with a loud roar of his engine, he took off across Jackson Avenue at what seemed like 100 mph compared to the top speed of my bike.

Out of nowhere, my Schwinn suddenly felt entirely inadequate.  There was something about the nod the guy gave me that was intriguing.  It was almost as if it were some sort of acknowledgement that there was a kinship between the two of us being that we were both riding through town on two-wheeled vehicles.  As the noise of his engine faded while the distance between us grew, all I knew was “Man, when I’m an adult, I gotta upgrade to one of those!”

A few years later in college, one of my Fraternity brothers bought a Harley-Davidson Sportster 883.  The 883 model was, and still is, a very good starter bike.  It has the lightest frame of any standard Harley and has the smallest engine, making it the easiest to control.  It is also the cheapest making it affordable to my buddy.

One day he took me for a ride on the back of it up the Hudson River Valley.  It was a fall day and the foliage was beautiful.  It was an entirely new experience seeing the colored leaves from a bike, I was surrounded by them in a way that was completely different than if we had been enclosed in a car. He showed me the wave, and it was the first time I noticed that bikers do it.  Every time he approached another bike headed in the opposite direction, he waved with his left hand and the other rider always reciprocated.  Above all else, I learned that day that being on a motorcycle was not about the destination, it was about the journey.

It took me a few more years to actually go and do something about it.  Lack of funds was pretty much the only thing that was holding me back until I was out of college for about two years.  It was a bit of a “now what do I do?” moment when I decided to go ahead and learn how to ride.  I was getting used to being an adult and making my own decisions and I had a few bucks in my pocket.  I was bored living in a small apartment and I needed a hobby other than drinking.  A few friends and I signed up for the Rider Education of New Jersey motorcycle safety program.

The RENJ program was geared towards beginners and was held over a weekend at a community college in New Jersey.  Half of the course was in a classroom, and the other half was on motorcycles that they provided.  They put us on the bikes, set up some drills, and showed us how to do them.  The bikes were very small and underpowered and very difficult to put into gear without stalling.  It was my first time ever at the controls of a motorcycle and even in a parking lot was very exciting.  At the end, we had to pass a written test and a road test.  Once that was done, we were eligible to get our motorcycle endorsements on our New Jersey licenses.  Happy to say that I aced both tests and was on my way.

I did some shopping around for various brands of bikes, but I knew what I wanted.  After a few courtesy visits to Honda, Yamaha, and BMW dealers, I went to Legends Harley Davidson in Clifton, NJ and put a deposit down on a 1999 Harley Davidson Sportster 883.  Legends was a hole-in-the-wall run by a bunch of slovenly looking jerks who had the people skills of prison guards.  It was quite the contrast of today’s modern Harley Davidson dealership that is bright, large, airy, and run by friendly people.  Either way, my check cleared so they were happy to sell me a bike and then have me come back for service on it for years.

At that time, Harley Davidson was a much different company than it is today.  You couldn’t just walk into a dealership and buy whatever bike you wanted off of the floor.  You had to put a deposit down and wait.  They gave me a six month estimate and it took eight for the bike to arrive.  I spent eight full months filled with both excitement and dread about the day I would be able to ride off.  I knew I had to get the bike from Clifton back home to Hoboken, which was a harrowing concept.  My experience on a motorcycle was on a 125cc Suzuki in a parking lot, I never even got it higher than second gear.  I would have to take an 883cc Harley home on at highway speed.  On top of that, there was a grated bridge crossing the Passaic River that I knew I had to cross.  All my training manuals had special advice on how to handle grated bridges as they tend to make the bike feel like it doesn’t have traction and makes it wobble.

My Sportster 883

My first bike, a red Harley-Davidson Sportster 883, pictured in October, 2004 near West Point, NY.

The day came in May 1999 to pick up the bike.  I had a few friends take me to the dealer in Clifton and I rode it around the block a few times.  From what my buddies told me, the people standing around the dealership could easily tell that it was my first bike and were laughing at me trying to shift gears.  I had my buddies follow me in the car as I headed home.  We got to Route 21 in Clifton and I started to accelerate and upshift.  It felt so fast I thought I was doing 80mph.  I looked at the controls and was doing 35mph.  We hit Route 3 and headed east, towards the grated bridge.  Eight months of dread were over as I crossed it with no issue.  I pumped my fist in celebration and kept on towards home.  Sitting in traffic under an overpass on Route 495, I revved the engine just to hear the echo.  Not as loud as I would have liked it, but it was a start.

I made it to Hoboken without incident.  All the fear and dread was gone, I knew I could do it from then on.  I had arranged for a parking spot at a local lot in Hoboken and pulled in.  I went through the checklist in my mind from the dealership on how to turn the bike off.  I cut the engine, took the key out of the ignition, and got off the bike.  Instantly I realized there was a detail that they didn’t give me because they assumed I would have figured that part out.  Before you get off the bike, you have to put the kickstand down.  I promptly dropped the bike on its left side and my left foot landed underneath it.  The only thing that kept me from getting pinned was the saddle bag on the rear that caught the bike at the bottom.  After all that, I dropped my brand new bike on my first trip home. At least I wasn’t moving!  I managed to pick it up, no small feat considering that it weighed about 500 pounds and surveyed the damage. I had bent the clutch lever at its tip, and scratched the side view mirror.  I sure learned that lesson the hard way.

This was 1999, it is now 2015 and I am on my third bike.  I now own a 2006 Harley Davidson Fat Boy, my dream bike.  This bike is an exact replica of my second bike which was stolen the year I bought it from my garage.  I loved it so much that I called the dealer immediately and told him to build me a new one exactly like the last one.  The big difference is that now I have LoJack! I have a custom green/black paint scheme on the sheet metal, which to this day is very rare.  I have a set of Vance & Hines Short Shot exhaust pipes, it is decorated with the Harley-Davidson Skull logo on all sides, and it has a detachable sissy bar with a touring rack.

My Harley-Davidson Fat Boy

My current bike, a 2006 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. Pictured here in July 2014 on Skyline Drive outside of Front Royal, VA. This was during a week long trip, the touring mount provides enough cargo space for a long trip.

By my estimate, since my first day on the bike, I have over 85,000 miles of riding experience.  I’ve been from Canada to Georgia, covering every major mountain range in between.  I take my camera whenever I’m on the bike (iPhone photos suck in comparison to a regular point-and-shoot) and have pictures of everywhere I’ve been.  I’ve been to the Green Mountains, White Mountains, Pocono Mountains, Allegheny Mountains, Catskill Mountains, Adirondack Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Smoky Mountains, and a bunch of others up and down Appalachia.  I’ve hit every standard motorcycle trip there is along the mountains on the east coast such as Tail of The Dragon, Cherohala Skyway, The Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive.  I’ve invented some of my own routes along state and US highways, along roads that you wouldn’t have known were there unless you went looking for them.

At my first dealership, they threw in a t-shirt with the purchase of the bike.  It read “Harley-Davidson: If I had to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.”  As I write this blog today, those words still hold true.  Riding a motorcycle is a very personal experience that affects individuals in different ways.  I’ve adjusted my style over the years, in the beginning all I wanted to do was to see how many miles I could rack up in a day.  These days I take a much more deliberate approach, making stops on the way to see the sights along the way.  But when I’m on the bike on an out of the way road, and I’m all alone with my thoughts, nothing can touch me.  I’m immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of my surroundings, all while at the controls of my own personal roller coaster.  It is an experience that can’t be substituted in a car on a bicycle.  Riding a motorcycle defines who I am and I can’t imagine what life would be like without my bike.

It’s now March, 2015.  I was going to buy myself a new bike for my 40th birthday last December but got cold feet for two reasons.  One is that I’m saving up for a new primary home and every dollar counts at this point.  But, more importantly, I’m not ready to part with my bike.  It doesn’t have some of the fancier bells and whistles that the newer bikes have, but it’s mine and I don’t need anything else right now.  Barring unforeseen circumstances such as a crash or a catastrophic engine failure, I’m hanging on to it for the foreseeable future.  I have this week off of work and yesterday the weather cooperated for the first time all year.  I started it up for the first time since October and took it to my dealership in Morris Plains, NJ.  Man, did it feel good to get back on it.  I have an electrical issue with the speedometer which the dealer is going to fix and it will be ready for the season.  I am looking forward to my first Saturday all-day ride.