An XS650 love story

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Some of the commenters from my last article asked, where’s the love? That’s a fair enough question. It’s great to be cynical and sarcastic, but that’s not really why we’re here. We’re here — on HFL, on the road, in our garages — because of something we love. This is a story about that.

Take a look at this picture. That’s my brother on the Yamaha, circa 1982. I’m in the background playing catch. I remember when this picture was taken, and I can tell you I was more interested in that bike than the ball. I never did get any good at throwing and catching, but the bike changed my life.

I’m not telling you this story because I think it’s unique or special. Just the opposite: I’m telling you because pretty much every biker has their own version of this story, and if we were having beers together, I would want to hear yours.

Remember that this was before everybody had a bike. Riding was still pretty fringy. In the Cleveland suburbs where we lived, you didn’t see a bike on the road every day, and if you did, it was usually a scary-looking Hephestus riding it. A Harley shop was basically a garage where you could buy bikes, and there weren’t very many of them. You generally “financed” a bike by saving up for it — I’m sure more than one cat paid the sales tax on his first bike in change. “Factory custom” was still an oxymoron. I don’t mean it was “purer” or “better” — just that things were different 30 years ago.

The bike was cool and dangerous, which I was not. I could pretend to be Indiana Jones or Han Solo, but this was real. My brother and I didn’t have a lot in common then, but we were both misfits in our own ways. He had a well-honed loathing for everything high-school and suburbia represented, and I was just plain awkward. Everybody wants to be a misfit now, but it wasn’t like that then. If you weren’t in, you were out. We were each privately dealing with our parents’ bitter divorce in our own ways; I think we both wanted to get away, and he had a Millenium Falcon.

When my brother went to the Marines, the Yamaha stayed, and I grunted into adolescence. This bike was the girl-next-door obsession, only she lived in our garage. Instead of peeking through the curtains into her bedroom, I was stealing glances on my way out of the house. It was always there, full of potential energy, like a rock perched over the town. It was a naked singularity that warped time and space around it.

Then one day when my brother was home, he tossed the key at my feet and said, “You dropped the key to your bike.” The clouds parted. Golden sunshine streamed onto that spot on the shag carpet. Hosts of angels sang “Get on the Good Foot.”

“The key…” he repeated, “to your bike.” I was incredulous. I think I even forgot to say, “thank you.” All I could do was look stupid. He was out of the Corps and in grad school at this point, and I know he could have used the money he would’ve gotten from selling it. I’m not sure what prompted him to give it to me. Maybe he knew I secretly coveted his possession. We’re not one of those families that “talk” about their “feelings;” we spoke through deeds. He had just said what he needed to say.

The bike needed some work (not much) after sitting for several years, and I tinkered at the carbs with some advice from my brother and his friends.

I was alone with the bike when I bump-started it down the driveway. I let the clutch out, it took off. Suddenly I was going way too fast with no idea how to turn and only a vague notion how to stop. Everything went out of my head. I was a muppet hanging on in a hurricane. I degaussed my brain.

I managed to resist the urge to put my feet down, which would’ve been disastrous. Down the street, over the curb, I stopped in a neighbor’s treelawn, stalled, dripping in terror sweat. When I rebooted my brain, something was different. Some of the neurons had been fried and had re-wired themselves. The change had happened. You know what I mean. You remember when it happened to you. You unlocked a lost atavistic pattern, poked the ancient lizard in your medulla. The T-Rex smells the exhaust, and he knows you’re burning his bones. He wants them back. You’re going to give them to him. You will be his high priest. You will sacrifice dinosaur bones for the thunder lizard. For me, that cul-de-sac was the Road to Damascus.

I couldn’t bump-start the bike in the grass, so I had to slowly and awkwardly muscle it into the street. When I couldn’t start it again, the coy rebuff just fed the fever. Teasing bitch. I pushed the bike home.

I fooled around with the bike all summer. As it was, I never got past second base with that XS — riding it around the block. I had no money, tools, or skills, but I was fascinated by the machine and its potential. I went off to school that fall, and a few years later we sold the bike and I went into the Navy.

If I had that bike now, I would have it tuned tighter than a banjo string, and I would beat it all up and down Cleveland. It would scream. Our safe word would be “There is no safe word.” XS650s are timeless; they’re still cool, maybe moreso than they were back then.

I didn’t have it too long, and of course I regret selling it, but it doesn’t really matter: the change was done. The mental mutation would not be reversed. Two years later I got another bike and haven’t been without one since. I was never able to replicate my brother’s menacing slouch, though. I just look tired when I try it.

I think we put a lot of energy into thinking about who counts as a “real” biker, or what bikes we approve of, or who is worthy to wave to. Are we part of some mystical brotherhood just because we’re all on the road? Is that guy a poser? It doesn’t fucking matter. It’s not a club, and we don’t have to match. You don’t even have to like me. We just have that one thing in common: that kink in the brain that happened the first time a naked singularity passed through it. Sometimes people get it, but it passes by. It works itself out. Sometimes it just gets kinkier and twistier. You’re a carrier. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a big dude on a Road King or a hipster on a CB350. You’re a high priest of the thunder lizard.

Carter Edman is an architect, writer, and rider in Cleveland, Ohio. He teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” and other courses at Case Western Reserve University. He wrote this story in Peru, immediately before consuming a guinea pig and assures us every word of it is absolute truth.

  • bluemilew

  • Glenngineer

    Great article.

    “and I grunted into adolescence”

  • Al Herbert

    “menacing slouch”, priceless. alltogether great stuff.

  • Fresh Dave

    Did your brother ever get another bike?

  • Cro

    Nailed it.

  • Joe

    Wow. That was a really good piece. I don’t have anything witty to add, but thank you.

  • je

    ” I think we both wanted to get away, and he had a Millenium Falcon.” – very few words have ever been laid on paper that made me want to ride more the ones above.

    *slow clap*

  • TheZakken

    My first bike was an 82 xs 650. It had bad breaks, crooked bars, and made no power but damn it was fun. It belonged to my friend Robert, it was his first bike before he passed to me for the customary $300. A modest fee that came with a promise to keep the bike running. He in turn bought it from Nick for the same $300. I sold it to a guy named Rocker as his first bike. That xs650 popped a lot of cherries. Rocker since passed it to another new rider and the xs lives on. I wonder where it is now.

    • markbvt

      That’s funny, my first bike was an old XT350 that I got for $500 from a friend, which he’d gotten for $500 from his girlfriend, which she’d gotten for $500 from a friend of hers… the deal was the bike could never be resold for more than $500. Once I got my Triumph I sold the XT to another friend for $500, and years later he sold it to another friend of mine for $500. And he still has it.

      I had a large BBQ this spring, and at one point a bunch of us were standing around chatting when we suddenly realized there were five generations of XT owners present. That bike has done a lot of good in its life.

  • Gene

    Right on target. This is getting printed out and put on my wall.

    I miss my ’82 CB450SC… that was a COMFY bike and took 15-20 crashes w/o ever needing more than new turnsignals.

    I also miss my college buddies with Interceptors, VFRs, Ninja 900s, 1100 Sabres, Hurricanes, 600F2s, ZX-11s, Maxims, Secas, RZ-350s, and even an RC30 and an ’86 GSXR-LE.

    And I really really miss the super-hot babe that taught me how to ride a bike and got me that 450.

    • JMcMahon

      My brother gifted me a CM450. I rode 9000 miles over course of a season on that little bike. The bike passed to my sister, she bounced into a freshly cultivated corn field. The bike then passed to my buddy, who turned it into a bobber/cafe bike. It still burns dinosaur bones to this day.

  • filly-fuzz

    Fuck Yes!

  • randry

    It was 1972,I was twelve, my dad had a Moto Guzzi 750. We were on a ride and he pulled over to the side of the road one day out of the blue. He let me take control of that big thump’n beast with him on the back. I couldn’t touch the ground. I was no longer the same kid. I had rode mini bikes up until that day, now those were for little kids. It was a whole new world. I had always rode on the back up until that point, from then on he always gave me a turn. A couple years later I bought my first bike an OSSA 250. Funny how one moment can change your entire life.
    Thanks for showing the love.

    • stempere

      That’s so freaking awesome.

      I don’t have kids of my own, but when my nephew looks at me on my bike i feel like Fonzy. For now he’s only 5 and seats on it with the engine stopped but my guess is he’ll want to ride with me pretty soon (sooner than his mother would like it anyway).
      I’m stoked to give him an early taste of that feeling.

  • Mark D [EX500]

    Great article. Its a story that’s been told many times, and I have my own version of it; but its the telling that matters.

    Mine was a ’78 CB400. I bought it from a middle-aged Cantabridgian who bought it on a whim for his wife (he rode a Triumph Tiger), who never developed a fondness for it. After handing him over $850 in cash and getting a key and (I hoped) a clean title, I tried to ride the damn thing in city traffic back to my apartment. Half a mile might as well have been 200. The battery was spent from starting it at his apartment, so when I stalled it when a light turned green, I had no choice but to try and kick start it. The blaring horns behind me just made me more frantic, and my pant leg caught on the lever after the 7th or 8th of 55th time. The bike fell awkwardly to the side, but I barely caught it, got it started, and rode away with an upraised middle finger to the cars behind me. Pretty sure the light turned red before any of them made it through.

    I did make it back to my apartment, covered in sweat on a chilly October evening, with a nasty bruise on my right leg, and a knot from my adrenaline-fueled attempt to keep the whole thing from pinning my leg to the ground in the middle of the street. That knot was there all winter.

    Good times.

  • Brad

    Great story,I was about 14 when my older brother’s friend took me for a ride on his Norton, thanks to the motorcycle gods, I’ve never been the same !!

  • doublet

    It may be that story we all have, but so very well done, and some interestingly put and well defined angles!

    “high priest of the thunder lizard” I think Jim Morrison would approve! I wonder if he ever rode a bike? I know he had a Shelby GT500. Ride the snake.

    Now, this does, in a way, voice such a poignant lament, in respect to the recent ‘electric’ articles.

  • The Other Will

    It’s a shame that this has fewer replies than the last article, because this one is much better (and is the polar opposite). Enjoyed it thoroughly, Mr. Edman.

    • ike6116

      This article is an evergreen and talks a lot without saying much, preaching to the converted if you like. I think a lot of you are clapping like seals. What’s next, “Why I sold my cage” a HFL article about how riding a motorcycle is cool? Come on.

      Every RideApart is not the “best yet” or “full of win” they aren’t all crap either. The internet comments on the extremes mostly, when something is really good or really bad.

      This article did nothing for me, it didn’t offend me either. If you wanted a comment out of me since it’s “a shame” there aren’t more I’d probably say that it was lazy and highly dubious because as you pointed it out it’s the polar opposite of the last article by this new author.

      • JMcMahon

        I liked Carter’s story much better than yours.

  • verucht

    A, friggin’, men!

  • Jesse

    So much resonates here. My Dad is a carrier, and he gifted it to me at a young age. I have fond memories of being a small bobble-head on the back of his Goldwing, taking me down local streets at speeds unbecoming of refined gentlemen.

    I just keep falling in love again with every bike and every ride. In a matter of weeks I’ll be a father, and I hope that this is a dominant trait.

  • nymoto

    “The T-Rex smells the exhaust, and he knows you’re burning his bones. He wants them back. You’re going to give them to him. You will be his high priest. You will sacrifice dinosaur bones for the thunder lizard. For me, that cul-de-sac was the Road to Damascus.”

  • BigRooster

    …and just like that you totally redeem yourself after that last POS.

    Great work and exactly what I expect from HFL.

    Thunder Lizard!!

  • Tim N.

    “Who is worthy to wave to?”
    – This didn’t take much thought or energy: Anyone that waves first and anyone that looks like they could use some reinforcement that it’s cool they’re riding, e.g. scooters and female riders.
    “Are we part of some mystical brotherhood just because we’re all on the road?”
    – I grew up thinking bikers were loners, e.g. Han Solo and Wolverine. It’s amazing how cliquey some of these “tough” guys are. What’s tough about matching outfits and brand loyalties?
    “Is that guy a poser?”
    – Well you answered that just about perfectly: “It doesn’t fucking matter. It’s not a club, and we don’t have to match. You don’t even have to like me.”

  • Triman023

    Great story!
    New neighbors moved in across the street. The man of the household came over to look at my Buell and remarked that he was looking for a bike. We talked 250s and he went back inside. A few days later I rolled out my 69 Bonnyville and started it up in my driveway, at the first exhaust note he came flying out of his house like a jack in the box. After the required reminiscing about bikes of the yore, I asked him how his search was going. He said, he was now getting a non vintage Triumph Bonnyville, and he had this gleam in his eye… I figure, my work is done.

    • HammSammich


  • HammSammich

    I grew up on the back of my dad’s Gold Wing, but I don’t think that alone would’ve infected me with a love of motorcycles.

    On a warm summer morning during a camping trip in Roslyn, WA I pushed a dusty red Honda Trail 90 up to a tree stump (a stepstool for my 5 year old legs that couldn’t quite reach the ground from the saddle). My dad reached over and gave the kickstarter a tug with his hand, and the bike popped and sputtered to life. The handlbars vibrated against my palms. Dad showed me the throttle, the brakes, and the two-speed shifter and I was off.

    I remember the intoxicating feeling of being in control of what seemed like such a tremendous external force. It urged me forward even as I locked my gaze on a pine tree in my path, and my determination to avoid it gave way to the physics of target fixation. I crashed.

    I was hurt and scared but within the hour I was heading back toward that stump…

    The Trail 90 was eventually replaced by a Yamaha MX175 and years later I was even riding my dad’s colossal(or so it seemed) XR500.

    It’s been almost 30 years since that first ride, but just about every morning when I fire up my Bonnie I get a brief glimpse of the world through the goggles of my 5-year-old self. It leaves me feeling pretty happy with how things have turned out.

    • BMW11GS

      I think this one speaks the most to me. Especially the giant XR500 comment that you thought you would never be large enough to ride and it made your dad some kinda super hero to be able to ride it too.

      • HammSammich

        Yep, he was totally a superhero to me, with a Bell Moto 5 instead of a cape! :)

  • Andy Gregory

    This is the best thing I’ve read in a long while. And that picture is great too. Well done.

  • Mr.Paynter

    It really is so true, everyone has that tale which is so easy to share with that moment which is so hard to put in to words, the world changes, you will never be the same again.

    Mine was visiting my dying grandfather in Zimbabwe for a month at about 13 or so and staying with my uncle who wheeled out his old CB 750 and proceeded to take each of his kids in turn and then my brother and (finally) I on a run through their strip town and out on to the highway!

    We all came back beaming and I walked around with the ego of a GP-winner after he got off and told my mom she was going to have a problem with me… He said he’d “stretched the bike’s legs” and I’d shown no fear, no death grip, just urging him to keep going faster.

    My immediate family never had bikes again til I bought one at 17, a cheap Korean import, a knock-off of a Honda CG 125.

    I come from what I consider rich stock though, family living away were all bike-crazy, my uncle, my grandfather and his 6 brothers all lived and some died on their bikes and I treasure the tales I get out of the surviving members and the photos of the bunch of them on everything from old Matchless’s and Bonnies to CB750s to FJ1100s.

    I can’t imagine my life without motorcycles in it. Not at all.

  • James

    I remember it more vividly than any other childhood memory, even the major road-rash I got from binning my BMX that same day pales into insignificance. My family was on holiday driving around France, which usually meant bordem and heat stroke, but this stop was different. They had a mini-mx track and it cost 10 Francs for a couple of laps. I`ll never forget the smell of burnt 2-stroke oil and in the next 10 minutes I stacked it more times than I care to recall, but always wanted more.

    From then on I just had to have a bike, but my mother thought they`d kill me. Though she may yet be proved right, I wasn`t an independently wealthy 6 year old. It wasn`t until 16 years later where a chance encounter with a bike rental place in Thailand got me back on track. `Got no licence? Then you`d better not go fast` was all the inspiration I needed.

  • Ben W

    What a comeback! Way to deliver, Carter.

  • zato1414

    They say you should live your life with no regrets… but there is always “That Bike” you wish you would have kept.

  • Alejandro Zapata

    I’m a relatively new guy to this whole thing so my story stars more modern bikes…

    I can say that it started the day I watched the second Matrix movie and I saw a dark, glossy, powerful, beautiful Trinity ride an equally dark, glossy, powerful and beyond beautiful Ducati 916, I was in love, with the bike not the girl, at first sight, the sound, the look and the speed just left me in awe for quite some time…

    But the exact moment this story describes happened the first time I rode with a friend on his CBR F2, then it actually 100% clicked for me…

    I’ve been in love with bikes ever since and it’s only ever gotten stronger, it’s always been an internal struggle between bikes and cars for me, and it’s always tough to put everything into well-defined priorities, but I try…