The Cold Ride Home

The Suzuki RF900R is an oddball sport-tourer that leans toward the sporty side of the spectrum, with low-mount clip-ons and an engine derived from a GSX-R1100, putting out about 115 rear wheel horsepower. It was in production from 1994 to 1999, and Wikipedia has a write-up on the machine here.

I’d never heard of this bike before I received an email from CMG reader Michael Hill, offering to give me his RF900R and even to store it for the winter in his garage in Burlington, Ont. Yes, give. Such a beautiful word. It had been dropped and scuffed and its Blue Book value is only $1,450, but Michael just wanted it to go to a good home.

I said thank you, but I’ll just come get it now and ride it home to Saint John, New Brunswick. This way, it will give me the chance to ride across the northeast US and then I can tinker on the bike all winter long. And I didn’t want him to change his mind. But most important, it seemed like a ripping good adventure for late November.

So last Monday, I flew to Toronto with the bike already registered to my name, met Michael in Burlington, wired heated gear into the bike, and headed east on Hwy. 401 to stay in Cobourg at Mark Richardson’s place for the night, before crossing into upstate New York. The temperature was above freezing, traffic was light, my borrowed heated jacket was keeping me warm: What could go wrong?

Zac and the RF900R look pretty good outside Mark’s house, and the price was right.

The Chain

Of course, it quickly went all CMG. While mostly sound, the Suzuki had a noticeable vibration at speed; I narrowed it down to a driveline issue. At Mark’s place, we saw the chain had a tight spot, meaning sometimes it was far too tight, other times far too loose.

Surely it would be no problem to find a chain, make a quick swap, and be on my way? Then I looked up the chain size, and discovered the RF900R uses an oddball 532 pitch chain. I could get a replacement in Montreal, but that wasn’t on my planned route, and it would involve five hours of highway riding on a sketchy chain. Costa, who lives in Montreal, figured I could run a 530 chain just to get home, then change sprockets, but again, this solution wasn’t ideal. But where would I get a 532 chain locally?

The extensive network of CMG operatives came through: Larry Tate suggested a shop in Belleville might have the chain. I called first thing Tuesday morning and they indeed had one in stock, to their surprise and mine. Then they dropped the bomb: The sticker price was $230.

But the crew at Belleville Sport and Lawn are typical of the old-school crowd that runs long-established small-town dealerships. Without me even asking, they dropped the price to $170, and said they could install it for me right away, allowing me to enter upstate NY at Ogdensburg just after lunch. Surely the worst was over, right?

The first full day of riding saw me cross upstate New York, through the Adirondacks.

The Ice

Across the St. Lawrence, I realized I might be in trouble again. I’d  intended to lay down some serious distance in Tuesday’s warm temperatures, but there was a lot of snow beside the roads in New York. My chain replacement meant I was riding later in the day, with dropping sun and temperatures, and I faced the possibility of thawed snow re-freezing on the roadway. So much for my plan of maximum speed through the Adirondacks; I’d have to use maximum caution instead. This meant a slower ride, which meant I’d make less distance, or have to ride after dark.

The worst part was, the riding was really, really good. Starting with Rt. 68, I worked my way eastward through small towns like Canton, Colton, Sevey and Long Lake. There wasn’t much traffic, the pavement was almost all in good shape, and there were few houses on the stretches between towns, meaning I had little chance of hitting a blue-haired granny backing out her driveway. This is just the kind of area where you can lay the hammer down, and here I was, doddering along and wearing the heels out of my boots by doing constant friction tests on the pavement.

The Hot Biscuit Diner did not disappoint.

Thankfully, the surface actually got better the farther east I went, and I thought I just might be able to make it to my goal of Ticonderoga after all, as long as the roads were clear — but it would mean breaking my self-imposed rule of no riding after dark.

Decision time. The sun was setting fast, temperatures were dropping. After the mountains, it would be an easy ride down I-87 towards Ticonderoga. Question was, would I make the interstate without hitting black ice in the mountains in the dark?

Local motorists said it was safe, so I figured I’d try it, and just take it slow.

The route from Long Lake to I-87 took almost twice as long as it would have in summer. The route itself (28N and Blue Ridge Road) was spectacular, with lots of curves and elevation changes, but there were few houses, and it was difficult to see far enough ahead to watch for ice, especially with fog along much of the route. I dropped my speed to a crawl and gritted my teeth. I was the only eastbound vehicle the whole trip. A crash would have meant serious trouble in this remote area.

Thankfully, I made the interstate without incident, then Ticonderoga shortly after, where I set up camp at the Stone House Motel, complete with smelly plumbing, a non-working TV and dodgy wifi. But the owner had the heat cranked and the excellent Hot Biscuit Diner was just across the street. And the room was only $50. I’d call that an even draw.

On Day 2, I intended to head to Portland, Maine, but only made it as far as Manchester, New Hampshire. It would have been quicker to cut through the top of the state, but I wanted to avoid the elevation of the White Mountains. With the temperatures on the edge of freezing, I wanted to steer clear of potential black ice.

The Gremlins

The roadway was slippery Wednesday morning, so I delayed my departure for a few minutes, thinking the roads might thaw out a bit, and I might dodge the forecast rain.

I was right on the first guess, but not the second. It started raining before I even got to Vermont, never letting up for more than a few minutes for the rest of the day. And my troubles were just beginning.

At an intersection in Vermont, Trouble #1: the bike died. I assumed I’d just been sloppy with the clutch due to cold hands and stalled it, but the bike wouldn’t start. I ended up bump-starting it and revving the engine at stops to keep the rpms up. Bump-starting a sport tourer is something you don’t want to do very often. It gets tiring.

With water seeping into my gear, grimly blipping the throttle and saying rude things about Google Maps as it directed me through small-town stop-and-go traffic, I figured things were as bad as they could get. And then, something shorted out in the electric clothing and Trouble #2: the shocks started.

I don’t know if the heated jacket and glove liners were responsible, or the heated grips, or something else entirely. Whatever the problem, I was now riding through small towns, scared to use the clutch because I didn’t want another shot of voltage through my hand. Then, rolling into lunch, Trouble #3: I noticed fuel spewing from the bike’s petcock. Just the sort of thing you want, with electrical shocks running through the bike.

Late-night motorcycle maintenance in the EconoLodge parking lot in Manchester, New Hampshire. Good thing I packed the toolkit.

I’d heeded my own advice and packed a pretty decent toolkit; I managed to stop the flow, leaving a gasoline slick in the parking lot that would enrage a Greenpeace activist. Even now, I’m looking over my shoulder fearfully, worried Bernie Sanders and a team of Vermont’s toughest eco-warriors may track me down.

My reply, of course, would be that it might be more environmentally friendly to keep older vehicles on the road, as it reduces industrial pollution, but even I would have to admit that keeping the Suzuki running was getting to be quite a chore — especially when, Trouble #4:  it once again inexplicably quit after lunch.

I stripped all the heated gear off the bike,  bump-started it again and continued on, noting the engine had ceased its usual four-cylinder purr; instead of a contented tiger, it now seemed more of a bucking bronco. Not good, especially when I made it back to the four-lane highway. And then, Trouble #5: light snow flurries began.

Once again, I had a hard decision. The goal was to make it home by Thursday. Despite the gremlins, I was making slow forward progress, and the engine troubles were only intermittent. The flurries stopped and I decided to press on to Concord, New Hampshire; I’d pull off into a motel if I couldn’t make it that far. With no heated gear, fading daylight, in the pouring rain, and on a sputtering bike, I finally made Concord; realizing Manchester wasn’t much farther, I decided to try to make it there. Every kilometre I made today was one less I’d do Thursday.

When the motorcycle quit again at a toll booth, it was too late to turn back. I pulled over and managed to bump start it one last time, whereupon it ran like a champ all the rest of the way to the Econo Lodge. Go figure.

I desperately needed a good sleep, but had to tinker with the bike in the motel parking lot, surrounded by pushers, junkies, hookers, and other cheerful locals. I wanted to be ready to start early the next morning. Thursday would be a long haul, even if I didn’t break down. But the bike had run strongly for the last few kilometres and Thursday would be sunny, if cold. Surely the worst was past?

Day 3: Time to make serious miles. I wanted to make it all the way from Manchester to Saint John, but the bike thought otherwise …

The Starter

The worst was not past. Try as I might, on Thursday morning the bike refused to start, even after rolling  down a long hill. The starter would turn over but the engine wouldn’t kick in. No problem, I thought — I’d just get a boost from the Suzuki dealer, conveniently located right next door to the motel, once they opened.

And then, I realized it was American Thanksgiving. Nobody was open — not the Suzuki dealer,  nor anyone else. I had to solve this myself, or call my brother-in-law to come and collect me in his truck.

I’d made it this far and the bike was running fine the night before. I refused to quit and started pushing again. Eventually, the engine gave a healthy four-cylinder burp and the bike roared to life.

I hit the highway, exhausted. At this point, there’d been three days of adversity and it was dragging me down, but the bike was running well, and I decided I’d press on as far as I could.

I’d gambled the bike’s electrical issues would disappear in the rain-free weather, and wired my heated jacket and gloves back into the battery. I was right: I managed to maintain a semblance of warmth on the road north-east. Portland, Augusta, Bangor: I opened the throttle and watched Maine’s cities fly by. There was only one last enemy.

Parked on the side of Rt. 9. The Airline Road was the best part of the trip, with the lanes clear of traffic and cops.

Route 9

Route 9, aka the Airline Road, is one of the better biking roads on the east coast, in my opinion, but it’s not a great place to be when the sun sets in sub-zero temperatures. It’s fairly curvy, with lots of hills, and travels through remote wilderness. I ran constant mental calculations as I watched the mileage tick off, and figured I could clear the highway before dark, making it to the relative safety of New Brunswick’s four-lane Rt. 1 before losing the light.

I gambled right. With the locals safely tucked away for Thanksgiving dinner, and the state troopers seemingly all on holiday instead of highway duty, I found myself  the only vehicle in the northbound lane, and I could ride as fast as I wanted. With a golden sunset casting my shadow ahead of me, I finally knew it was all going to be okay. The Suzuki was running fine and I knew I’d be home soon. Getting back into familiar territory in southern NB, I burned down the highway and made it back to Saint John about an hour after sunset.

Not bad for a day that started off looking like I’d be stuck, waiting for a pickup truck to bail me out.

Conclusion

You know you’re home when you see the Tim Hortons signs.

I knew this trip wouldn’t be easy. That’s why I wanted to do it.  I also expected mechanical hiccups with the motorcycle. It would be crazy to ride a 21-year-old bike across the country without expecting some sort of trouble.

But it all worked out, and now I have the winter to repair and tune the bike. Thanks again, Michael, for the ride. I look forward to sharing more adventures with this Suzuki on CMG in the future — but hopefully, we’ve seen the last of the gremlins.

24 thoughts on “The Cold Ride Home”

  1. Enjoyed reading about your ride home, very interesting about the chain being different. but a bike that has been looked after as Michael said, he probably never took it as fast as you perhaps did, so if anything was going to “blow”, it probably did, glad you made it all the way with the bike well done.

  2. Great story Zac. Love reading about the trials and tribulations one has, and a somewhat “always dodgy weather conditions” ride. And the issues with the bike to go along with it. Reminds me of my early days of riding; well, the precarious weather condition part anyway.

  3. That was a very entertaining and interesting to read article. Looking forward to hearing more about the Suzuki and it’s travels with you.

  4. My Bandit started missing one cylinder occasionally in heavy Vermont rain; maybe it’s a Suzuki/Vermont thing.

    All I did was spray a bunch of WD40 around the spark plug wires, both ends, and it was fine. At least until I traded it in anyway …

  5. Hi Zac,
    I read your tale of woes and triumphs with a great deal of pleasure. I’m glad you made it home safe and sound. I have a couple of thoughts about your tribulations with the RF…
    1)I never noticed the vibration “at speed” which led you to replace the chain. But then, I’m sure your “at speed” was considerably faster than I was driving the RF during the last ten years!
    2)I bought the bike on Dec 20, 2000, my 50th birthday. In the almost 17 years I owned the bike I only had one electrical problem. The battery was not being charged. Wasn’t the regulator/rectifier; I can’t remember the exact part that had failed but once we replaced whatever it was, the bike never had a problem. Of course, I never took the bike on a 1400 km winter jaunt, so there’s a good chance that played a part in your issues.
    What I would suggest is that the battery is the first place to start. I am guessing that the addition of the heated grips, vest and gloves may have overtaxed the ability of the alternator to charge the battery (which may not be 100%). The bike was not ridden all summer and was only put on a battery tender a week before you came to collect it. The battery may be pooched.
    3)The petcock leaked a couple of years ago and I got a rebuild kit from PartsNMore in Stratford, http://www.partsnmore.com/parts/suzuki/rf900r/?filters%5Byear%5D=1996 an online seller. The price was way less than the Suzuki kit. Hopefully, a take apart and re-positioning of the gaskets will resolve the issue. If not, the rebuild kit was only about $US 8.50.
    I hope everything gets resolved over the winter and that next spring you have as much fun on the bike as I did. It was a pleasure to meet you, if only briefly.

    Michael Hill (RFporteno)

    1. Thanks for the ideas.

      1). I suspect the chain issue was mainly noticeable because I weigh more, and I had maybe 40 lbs of gear on the bike too. I’ve had similar problems show up on other bikes that were set up for a rider lighter than myself. Of course, speed might have come into it too …
      2). I’m guessing the electrical problems were either due to the Oxford heated grips, or a short in the ignition circuit. The charging system puts out 400 watts, which is more than enough to run all the heated gear I had, and more, and I didn’t even run it all at once. I’d guess either the wiring to the heated grips shorted out under the fuel tank, or else there was something amiss in the ignition. I’m going to check the heated grips first. The battery is also a must-replace.
      3). I did order a rebuild kit from the UK (Suzuki wouldn’t sell me one in the states when I asked, so I presume they’re also not available in Canada).

      All in all, nothing too serious, and like you say, winter riding is going to make issues more noticeable.

  6. It’s one thing to ride a bike in the city on a cold day but all day on open roads… Men your though! I had to push a Kawa Concours 1000 a couple of times before I could find its car like battery… Never again.

    1. I’ve done enough cold weather riding to figure out that bump starting (or kickstarting, if possible) has some advantages. When everything has contracted in the cold, getting the engine internals moving around a bit before you hit the starter seems to help. At least in my experience. Of course in this case, it didn’t make a difference.

  7. I’ve ridden from Toronto to PEI 4 times and usally take a version of this route, although I tend to stick closer to highway 2. Fantastic riding country especially VT and NH. Although I prefer the weird little crossing at McAdam but that must feel like falling off the edge of the earth in late November.

    1. I wanted to do Rt. 2, but figured it would be more mountainous, and therefore more dangerous in the cold.

      I’ve never taken the McAdam crossing, but my sister-in-law is from there. A weird town, in that its greatest industry is a gun store with national sales.

  8. Great story Zac! Sounds like a fun winter project chasing the few little electrical gremlins! With no more Motorcycle show near us we’ll need to make our own plans to meet up in winter!

    1. The DR650 SHOULD be rolled out of the sunporch pretty soon. Whether it starts or not, it’s headed to the shed for the winter, and I’m going to get going on the RF900R.

    2. I had a 15 yr old 600 Katana that started to cut out when I put the turn signal on. I lifted the tank and found the sheathing on two of the spark plug wires had basically liquified due to heat and age. Considering this bike’s vintage, it might be worth a look.

      1. I’m sure it’s something like that. I’m guessing a spark plug wire was the culprit. I’ll find out either way this winter.

        1. First thing I’d do is follow Michael’s advice and get a new battery. Look at the rest of the stuff, sure, but I’ll bet he’s right that it’s the source of the grief.

          1. Certainly on the list. It takes the same battery as my DR650, and that one’s on the way out too, so maybe I’ll buy one and just swap it between bikes? That’s the frugal CMG spirit!

  9. Great writing Zac – had me on the edge of my seat. I really enjoy reading about bike gremlins during a trip, and trying to figure out what the issues might be as they occur. It’s fun to try to solve these kinds of mysteries all while enjoying the adventures along the way. 🙂

    Mike

    1. This was the toughest slog I’ve ever had on a tour, unless you count the time my XS650 self-destructed on my first-ever tour. But I got through it, and the bike ran like a beast when it wasn’t wet! I’m very much looking forward to next summer on board the 900.

Join the conversation!