2.3 Flashback 1996

I’ve been thinking recently about how I got into motorcycling. Digging through my LA photo files from the pre-digital camera era, I came across a couple old motorcycle images, including one of my very first bike: a Honda FT500 Ascot.

I was brought up in an extremely risk-averse family, but of course my car fascination did bleed through into bikes. I mean, what teenager, even one who doesn’t actually give a damn about cars, wouldn’t want to go screaming down the road, girl in cut-off shorts and a sleeveless tie-dyed shirt on the back? I just didn’t have any access: no one I knew rode anything but dirtbikes, and I knew my parents would severely frown on any interest in streetbikes.

Or dirtbikes. Or minibikes. Or gokarts. Or golf carts…

Also keep in mind: I grew up in an era and an area where lime-green and white Kawasakis and garishly painted “slingshot” GSX-R’s ruled the roost, and their screaming, bland-sounding fours somehow didn’t appeal to me. And I certainly wasn’t going full-on leather-pirate Harley… Although a glimpse of Ducati red and the unexpected boom of a set of carbon cans flashing through NYC did catch my eye. Somehow it wasn’t the sound I imagined an Italian twin would make…

I came to bikes when I finally decided maintaining an Alfa Romeo as a daily driver on a very limited budget and no garage access was a losing proposition. Since this was 1996, I heard about someone selling a bike cheap through word-of-mouth, friend-of-a-friend-of-a-guy-a-friend-was-dating, and I headed down to a tattoo shop on Hollywood boulevard to see what was what.

The Honda FT500 was in a back room, dusty and on flat tires. The rear mudguard/license plate holder was missing, and the plate was drilled into the taillight. It started right up, rattling exhaust bouncing off the walls and, five Franklins later, I was wheeling my new ride up to my apartment a few blocks away.

I took my written test at the local DMV and spoke with my friend Adrian, whose boyfriend at the time had some biking experience and had referred me to the bike in the first place. Sitting out front next to the Honda, new black full-face, over-the-ankle workboots, and hand-me-down, police-style leather jacket and I was ready to ride, waiting for my friend and her beau to show up and show me the ropes.

The fine print on the learner’s permit specifically said “no lane splitting and no freeway travel.” Guess what we did within the first fifteen minutes of our ride? Adrian’s boyfriend showed me no mercy and, two minutes into my very first time on a motorcycle, we were ripping along between cars to the front of queue at stoplights, blasting away on the green.

On the way home, I had the throttle twisted to the stop, trying to keep up along the 101 Freeway.

So the Ascot is exactly what it looks like: a big single-cylinder dirtbike converted to street duty with the kickstart removed and a notoriously unreliable electric start added. Mine worked fine from cold, but god help you if you stalled it: hot restarts would give you just one crank, so you’d better make sure it caught quickly… Just the thing for a learner out on his first ride in LA surface-street traffic! Luckily, it was very easy to ride and nimble. The front brake barely worked and today I’d just get the thing rebuilt. At the time though, I just counted on the rear to stop me, which worked okay when it wasn’t wet out…

The bike was ugly, but kind of a blast: bang down through the gears headed into a corner, wrench its bars around, power out. “Power” of course being relative. It was fun on the street but freeway travel had vibrations numbing your hands inside of twenty minutes.

I never did crash that first bike or drop it as they tell you you’re guaranteed to do, and I parked it up in an alley when I got my second bike. One day, months later, I went out to find it gone, probably assumed “abandoned”. I hope it’s out there somewhere, happily vibrating itself to pieces.



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