Mount Up and Get Aquainted

I walked up to the fleet barn in L.A.at noon on an overcast showery Friday, got the bike and an owner's manual, and rode out the gate. The motorcycle was "Midnight Black", with the standard 27.5 inch seat height. I felt clumsy at first, so I turned away from traffic into a quiet residential area to get used to the new machine's controls and response, and its upright riding position.

The Blast's saddle and footpeg relation is similar to a Sportster's, with a 27-inch wide handlebar mounting the grips in easy reach - the Classic Roadster, from the days of yesteryear when 100 mph headwinds were not often a problem. The grip-mounted switches are easy to operate, and quick to learn by feel.

Aside from the exhaust note, the Blast runs quiet: little valve clatter, and a silent belt final drive. It reminded me of a BMW boxer.

The bike only had 186 miles on it, and the engine and transmission were still in the early stages of break-in, a little rough and raw. I kept the new-motor mantra in mind: easy on the throttle, don't lug it, or over-rev it, or overheat it. Accelerating off idle set up a quaking vibration, so I let it rev a little and slipped the clutch to spare the engine.The low first gear makes smooth getaways easy enough.

Weighing 360 pounds dry, with a 55-inch wheelbase and a 30 horsepower engine, this is a light, compact motorcycle. It's not small, but thanks to the16-inch wheels and low-slung engine, it looks and feels much smaller than it is. At low speeds, it handles like a bicycle, and in tight spots where most road bikes couldn't get out of their own way, the Blast can dance. After 15 minutes of accelerating from a stop, turning, and braking, we were ready to play in traffic.

I haven't been to a big city in years, but it's the same old story: high rents, gorgeous honeys. Growling and prowling around the boulevards, I saw a red-haired beauty in a green body suit sashay down the street like a model on a runway, lovely, friendly, flirtatious. I thought about renting a bench, but I already had a good ride under me, and we were just getting started. I opened the throttle and we boomed on down the road.

Coming from the desert, I could smell the ocean, and rode back streets to Venice Beach. It was almost deserted under the low clouds, and the surf was crashing in. I idled up to a spot at the edge of the pavement and let the engine cool a while in the damp sea breeze.

The weather was looking foul, and we had 175 miles ahead of us, so didn't stay long. I pressed the starter and put it in gear. When the engine's cool, the automatic enrichener runs it at a high idle; thanks to the transmision's inertia, first then engages with a grind and a loud "BONK". I eventually got in the habit of holding the clutch in for a count of 5 when starting off cold. We turned and twisted through a maze of waterfront streets and tourist traffic, onto the Pacific Coast Highway north, and now had an open road ahead where I could work through the gears.

The clutch is light, with a smooth engagement. Shifting took little effort, but the lever requires a full throw - half a poke got me between gears more than once. When I got it, I heard it: Smack, into third; Smack, into fourth; Smack, into fifth, and the engine settles in to a steady bass drumroll.

As well as the bike handled low-speed maneuvers, I expected it to be twitchy at highway speed. Not so. Its low center of gravity gives it inherent stability, a forgiving quality I often appreciated in the range of riding situations ahead.

I pulled up at a light east of Topanga Canyon and saw some surfers off the beach. Time for another rest, so I bolted across the road and parked on the edge of a high bluff.

The Blast gets people's attention. A fiftyish gent strolled by, glanced at the bike, then snapped back to it and stopped, fascinated. We had an interesting conversation, and he peered into every nook and cranny of the bike. The Los Angeleno knows his motorcycles.

A few miles further along the coast I turned north into Topanga Canyon and got my first taste of a twisty road on the Blast. In the curves, handling was stable and precise, and leaning the bike right and left through the turns was so easy it felt like power steering. Traffic kept the speed down, though; I'd get around one Mercedes SUV and a few curves later find myself stuck behind another one. Rich folks up there, and mighty slow.

On L.A. Freeways, Life Begins At 80

I rode the surface streets from light to light across Valley Girls Valley, stopping at a Big 5 store for a $25 rainsuit. Then, the freeway, east on 118.

As soon as I got on the ramp I was accelerating at high revs in fast traffic. I couldn't spare the engine here, so I gave it the whip and we took off. Up on the roadway the minimum safe speed was 75. No problem - until I hit a stretch of truly cussed road.

I'd been warned about "rain grooves", but they weren't a problem. This road had rain grooves and some kind of buckled surface that hammered the bike's suspension front and rear. New York's infamous West Side Highway wasn't this bad when it was on the verge of collapse. I found out later I was riding near the epicenter of the 6.7 Northridge earthquake of '94, and I wonder if this section was quake-damaged. It's some ugly pavement, and it was a rough ride for a short wheelbase motorcycle with short-travel road-bike suspension; but we got over it safely at freeway speed.

The bike's springs are pretty cushy, but the compression damping was quite stiff - it also needed to break in. In the early miles a hard bump made the bike feel almost rigid.

We got out of town on I-5 north, "The Grapevine", climbing to Tejon Pass at about 4200 feet. I found I was at full throttle climbing the grade at 70 in high gear, so dropped to fourth and took it easy at 60.

The road climbed right into the low clouds, visibility 30 to 70 yards. Traffic continued at 75, outrunning their brakes by about 40 mph. Now I know why they have such massive pile-ups here. I got between two professionally-driven semis doing 35 in the truck lane and got through the fog without worries.

Coming down out of the clouds on the other side of the range, I got off at the first exit for some hot coffee. The motor died, fuel-starved, as I got off the ramp, so I put it on reserve and kept on to a fast-food stand. I got in line behind a good-looking, sharp-dressed blonde in a black suit. She turned around and said, "Tough riding?" I was surprised; then I remembered the Blast. Sure enough, she's eager to start riding, taking the CHP motorcycle course soon. She thought the Blast looked cool; but her boyfriend already had her hooked up with an Ascot v-Twin. Shucks, and shucks.

Well warmed up with coffee and conversation, I got 1.6 gallons of fuel and made fast time over the next 80 miles, past Bakersfield and up the twisty Kern River canyon into the sierra. I aimed to rendezvous with Jerry Haughton, alias "Ferris Bueller", publisher of the PACBOG website and Sportbike USA magazine. Ferris has been riding Buell V-Twins for years, and I wanted to get his opinion of the Blast. We planned to spend the weekend touring in Death Valley.

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joe@gazette9.com

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