Wednesday, July 01, 2009


For the less fortunate souls who have never heard of the Moto Melee, let's just start by saying its probably the most demanding vintage motorcycle event on the planet. Three days tracking across California's notoriously deferred-maintenance backroads, through intense heat and often many miles from anything which could be called civilization. Racking up nearly a thousand miles of hard-core twisted mountain roads, punctuated by catch-up straight sections, where you might just make up a little time, and arrive at your destination (as a rule, a questionable Motel...) before dark, or at least in time for dinner.

That 75 people would clamor to attend such an event on a pre-1971 motorcycle speaks to some arcane need for Adventure, Challenge, and perhaps a little madness. The motorcycle attrition rate hovers between 25-33%, and that's a lot of 'chase truck' to fill - so this year we had 3... and still several people arranged their own transport for their crippled machinery, returning the following day on a different bike, ready to try again.

Those with less egregious calamities find ways to make do, which this year included quite a bit of parking lot fabrication (blanking plugs for engine shafts, welding footrests, repairing leaky tanks), the odd ingenious bodge (rectifiers from Radio Shack, 'borrowing' electricity from vending machines), and occasional 'liberation' of useful parts from derelict machinery found en route... (hence a horribly rotted and engine-less Honda quad suddenly found its gas tank bungeed to a Rickman Kawasaki; like the head of a mule transplanted to the body of a race horse - see photo below, with Jennifer Bromme happy to have finished the day).

The Melee traditionally starts from the hidden parking lot behind the Palace of Fine Arts (designed by Bernard Maybeck for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition... and never meant to last, but the structure is so lovely, funds are raised every few years to fix the rot). A surprising number of well-wishers, former attendees, and groupies show up at 8am to view the assembled warriors, ready for action... or being readied!

Several motorcycles had engine cases open, tanks being repaired, clutches adjusted, etc, as the coffee and pastries were dispensed (thanks Roger from Farley's) from the back of a truck (below, organizers Jeff Guzaitis and Harley Welch give the 'Don't Crash' speech, which was violated within the City limits!).

Familiar faces and quite a few newbies showed up, bringing a host of famous names; Triumph must be #1 in numbers, followed by Norton and Honda, with a smattering of MV, Vincent, Velocette, Suzuki, Bultaco, etc, and even two scooters! Engine capacities ranged from 200cc (Lambretta - albeit highly tuned) to 1200cc (the lone Indian Chief), with the average falling around 650cc, thanks to all those Triumph twins.

I rode my trusty '66 Norton Atlas, which has proved shockingly reliable and a good touring mount - plenty of power at 750cc, and suspension(!), which is a change from my previous Melee mount, my '33 Velocette KTT, which was airborne for probably a quarter of the mileage. My back thanked me for the choice.

Mine wasn't the only Atlas on hand; Justin from Glory in LA (top pic) brought his Norton cafe racer, decked out Manx-style, and looked distinctive in his candy-striped Ruby helmet - the object of much interest, and just a little envy (I visited the Ruby HQ in Paris last month; real enthusiasts, beautiful products). Justin's Atlas has perfect patina... although somehow it ended up on the second-floor motel balcony, very late Sunday night. Perhaps such a charming machine needed an elevated status...

As mentioned, the ride began inauspiciously with a minor get-off on the Golden Gate Bridge approach; a combination of heavy traffic, 75 motorcycles, a little adrenalin, and a moment of inattention. No major damage, and both rider and machine rode a further 900 miles without incident, although his hands looked like Mickey Mouse's, after hi-fiving the turned out later that Lou had broken bones in both hands, and ridden the entire route!

As we rode into the Wine Country, the temperature began to climb, from a cool 65 degrees in SF, rapidly into the 90s by lunchtime near Clear Lake. It looked like predictions for 106 degrees at our inland destination of Red Bluff would prove correct, and cries of 'hydration' were echoed amongst the riders. It became the sort of day where much liquid is taken in, but there's never a need for 'roadside relief', as its all sweated away. It seemed to take ages for riders to arrive at lunch, and it was clear that many, including myself (!), had taken creative liberties with the rally map. (Below, my off-route excursion onto Knoxville-Berryessa road, which is a sterling example of Cali roads at their worst.)

As we left Wine land and headed across the last Coastal Range hills to the Central Valley, the thermometer topped the 'ton', and we still had 150 miles to ride, through some Very remote areas, most of which had absolutely no shade. The destination was Red Bluff, certainly one of the hottest towns in the State, but rumors of a pool at the motel had everyone focussed on Arriving.

Tiny towns with gas pumps and ice cream are a blessing, with the added bonus of having distinctly old-fashioned frozen stock... Fudgesickles and 'bomb pops' being old favorites which are no longer chic enough for City freezers. (Above, Paul Zell, Jeff Guzaitis, and Kevin Burrell try to beat the heat)

A great surprise and visual treat was this MV Agusta 350, which ran with the fast boys all weekend, sounded hearty and bigger than its capacity, and made everyone think twice about the reliability of rare Italian hardware.

This little 350cc ohv twin is from the 'round' styling period from MV, which I prefer, although the later 'Elettronica' models are handsome in a 70s way.

We were greeted at our Motel in Red Bluff by 110 degree heat, a rather small (but thankfully cold) pool, and this amazing contraption brought out by a local collector, dubbed the 'Trashy Trike Trailering a Triumph'. The motive power is Volkswagen, or Budweiser, depending on which transfer/beer tap you trusted.

The pool was fairly suspect by 6pm, after 60 sweaty people jumped in. We heard rumors of seizures (Triumph, Bultaco) and broken bikes being whisked away by friendly hands, back to the City. A few showed up on the chase truck, and work commenced when the temperature dropped a little; welding footrests, scrounging bits, stopping leaks, adjusting valves, as on this 350cc Benelli/Riverside, which sounded a bit clattery to its owner.

Benellis were sold in the US by the Montgomery Wards department store chain as the 'Riverside' during the 1960s, and they turn up regularly with low mileage at bargain prices. They're neat little machines, and while not as exotic as an ohc bike with race pedigree, they give a lot of Italian flair for the money.Large-capacity twin cylinder machines weren't the only bikes of choice on the rally, and several classic Singles made the rally with no problems.


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Christian Mejia said...

Ruby Helmet? Mucho money

Frank Sider said...

Paul how can you do that to me ... :)
This kind of journey is what i'm waiting for since a while we goota be more "serious" next time you come to visit us.

Anonymous said...

Still enjoying the blog, Moto Melee sounds like a hoot.

theinvisibleagent said...

Looks like a blast!

Conchscooter said...

Holy hell, my first "real" motorbike was an MV 350 which I bougt lightly used in 1974 and rode all over western Europe until I sold it and got a Morini 350 sport. I am glad to hear it went well. What a memory.