Why you should care
Because they call them “murdercycles” for a reason.
It would be incorrect to blame Tom Cruise. Or the shibboleths connected to feeling the need for motorcycle speed. It would, however, be totally correct to blame circumstance and an outsize hunger for a certain kind of superlative. Power. Speed. Extremes. All reaching their conclusion as I stood at Camden Honda in San Jose in the shadow of the great Kawasaki KZ1000R Eddie Lawson Replica.
To be clear, the kind of reverence that Hunter S. Thompson held for the near-mythical, Brit-born Vincent Black Shadow — only 1,700 were ever made — closely mimics what many felt for the Eddie Lawson Replica. Eddie Lawson, the superbike racing champ who was known for never crashing, had Kawasaki design a replica of the bike he rode into the Hall of Fame. Deep lime green, only about 500 pounds and sitting at well over 1000cc, the bike was a monster. Light bike, heavy engine: The math is really quite simple. And only 1,000 of them were made.
“Yeah, he’s having his first baby so his wife is making him get rid of it,” the salesman said with a level of enthusiasm usually reserved for funerals. RE-selling a Kawasaki at a Honda shop? When I made a serious offer, he said he’d have to call the owner, and by the time he got back to where I jealously guarded the bike, he came back with the owner.
“Not a lot of folks know this,” he said. “I just wanted it to go to someone who knew.” He was sad but regaled me with tales of what he had done to get it cranked up and over 140 horsepower. Which was all sort of a blur to me. I knew bikes but was not a wrencher, and the only kind of measure I was concerned with concerned top-end speeds.
“I can get over 100 miles per hour in third gear,” he said. “Top speed is about 160, but I’ve never had the balls to get it there.”
Which is to say: catnip. For a guy who’s as afraid to die as I am, I’ve steadfastly managed to make a lifelong calling out of doing stuff that could make you die: scuba diving while not knowing how to scuba dive. Subway-tunnel spelunking. Riots.
It was much less about cheating or beating death and much more about the endorphin surge.
In fifth I hit 150 mph, and for the first time I began to consider the “what ifs.”
“I’ve done a bunch of engine work on it,” the former owner said as I suited up to drive it off the lot. “So baby it for the first 500 miles. Then change the oil, filter and …” He didn’t finish. He couldn’t. I pulled out onto Camden Avenue and into the 500 miles that would introduce me to excess.
Thompson, the aforementioned other sensation addict who mentioned the Vincent Black Shadow numerous times during his drug-addled trip in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, once famously said of the bike, “If you rode the Black Shadow at top speed (125 mph) for any length of time, you would almost certainly die.”
Interstate 280, once dubbed “The World’s Most Beautiful Freeway,” was supposedly designed by a race car driver. And with its dips, curves, straightaways and wide, capacious bosom? Easy enough to believe.
Even more so on a sunny April day when, after the odometer clicked over the 500-mile mark, I determined that today was the day. A day when my deep obsession with a certain kind of sensation had taken full flight, fully reflected in the friends I surrounded myself with.
There were those who “submarined” their vehicles with switches that would completely black them out from the rear by dousing brake lights (the better to avoid California Highway Patrol). There were those with rotating James Bond license plates, used for the same reason. Those who, with a flick of a switch, could spit copious and obscuring clouds of smoke from their tailpipes.
Yes. Lunatics. But lunatics obsessed with the same thing I was in this instance: speed and its companion, lawlessness. Because certainly that had to be part of it.
And pulling onto the 280 at Page Mill Road, I had a straight shot with only a few lazy curves up to Redwood City. Which was almost immaterial as I was already in third gear. Which is to say, doing 100 mph. When I snapped up into fourth gear and yanked the throttle back, my head jerked and the scenery shot by, starting to blur. At 125 miles an hour, cars seemed to be parked.
In fifth I hit 150 mph, and for the first time I began to consider the “what ifs.” I guess I had been looking for fear — and had finally found it. At that speed a pebble could have been fatal. Another 30 seconds? Pebbles and resulting wheelchairs. IF I was lucky. Stomping back down through the gears, I exited. Heart insane, pulse pounding, but weirdly at peace. I needed to prove nothing to anyone but me, and I was satisfied.
Or so I thought as I pulled into a foursquare intersection. Middle lane. Red light. And where, based on a slick of oil, an accident had maybe just occurred. I braked, the brakes didn’t catch in the spread of slick, and the bike went squirrelly. In front of me traffic whizzed by crossways. Tried to stop, couldn’t stop, and eventually the bike, all 500 pounds of it, hit the ground with me under it. I was doing 30 miles an hour as I skidded to a stop right before the cross lanes of traffic started.
“You OK?” Some guy screamed from his rolled-down window.
“Me? Oh, yeah.” I yanked the bike upright. Got back on and pulled off into traffic, knowing that beyond a shadow of a doubt, God works in mysterious ways.