I raced a vintage bike for the first time and now I can’t stop. No literally, I can’t stop. Like it won’t slow down when I pull the lever. And it’s not all that great at turning either. How did people ever race moto on these things?
These were the thoughts going through my head during my first practice session at the Husky World Championship. I was riding a 1981 OR 250 provided by my good friend Dave Brosius, who practically insisted I ride his vintage Husqvarna from the moment the inaugural Husky World Championship was announced.
“As long as the brake and shifter are on the right—or should I say correct—sides,” I replied. Even then, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into, and now I was even more concerned—not only that I wouldn’t perform well on Dave’s proud steed, but that I might crash it or dent it. The old-school scrambler-style motocross bike sure was a sight with the red and chrome metal tank, dual shocks and “right-side-up” forks. Yes, the shifter and rear brake were on the correct sides, but I should have also asked about the kickstarter… note to self.
The drum brakes were one of my biggest concerns, since a 250cc two-stroke of any generation ought to have good stoppers. When I sampled the braking power (or lack thereof), my concern grew to horror, as the bike only showed signs of slowing when I gave the right lever a hard squeeze. A front-brake stab like that would throw me over the bars of my RM-Z250, yet this old Husky seemed to have the quick-stopping power of a freight train. The wise adage “don’t go faster than you can stop” made me think perhaps I shouldn’t go faster than walking speed.
“Mary McGee is even tougher than I thought,” I mused as I carefully navigated my first lap on the Cahuilla vet track. I’m a regular here, yet I felt like I was learning to ride all over again.
Turning was another challenge. As I got my weight forward and positioned myself to carve into the turn I noticed two things: one, the shockingly cold metal tank between my legs on this fair 40-degree morning, and two, the fact that I wasn’t turning. I quickly realized this is a rear-wheel-steering bike, the polar opposite of my razor-sharp turning RM-Z. This would take some getting used to, and my three laps of practice were hardly enough to get acquainted with the old Husky.
Shifting was another problem; I couldn’t seem to get from first to second to save my life. The shifter seemed to have a longer throw than the kickstarter!
Along with the challenges, there were some pleasant surprises with the OR 250. The engine had a nice tractable pull—strong in the mid-to-top range, though roll-on power was a little soft. The clutch didn’t do much to punch it up either, since there was really no progression. The clutch was like an on/off switch, so bursting out of turns was difficult. It was an exercise in carrying corner speed… now if only I could figure out how to corner. Another pleasant surprise—it actually had decent engine braking, which turned into a very useful tool. A two-stroke with engine braking, who knew?
The suspension was far better than I expected. I pushed a little harder each time and was eventually clearing (almost) all the same jumps. Note to self: land with rear wheel first.
I was starting to get the hang of this.
Some friendly neighbors in the pits (seasoned vintage racers) were also kind enough to offer some advice.
“Don’t get forward in the corners,” offered Guy Shidner. “Stay back, put your leg out and stick your outside knee under the tank right here. It’ll turn,” he assured me. It seemed a bit awkward at the time, but I gave it a shot. I discovered cornering was a bit of a free-fall, but you had to have faith, lean it over and gas it. Sure enough, the fat 17” knobby dug into the perfect traction at Cahuilla and I sailed through the turn.
Lori Payne offered some advice on shifting. “Knee,” she pointed, “to chin.” She gestured much how a Pilates instructor would demonstrate a core strengthening exercise. Indeed, shifting an old Husky takes core strength and deliberate upward motion of the entire leg. Got it.
I headed out for my second moto, where I felt much more at home on the old ’81 and made Dave proud with a winning ride.
I know (now more than ever) how spoiled we are with modern bikes. It has often made me wonder if I would be a moto enthusiast had I been born 30 years earlier. Would it have enticed me the same way it does today, or would it have been so difficult that I would have found a different hobby?
My first vintage adventure answered that question.
We may be pampered by today’s technology, but the same thrills are alive and well in the older bikes. It brings new challenges to the ride, but when you hit that corner just right, put the bike right where it performs best, it sure is a great feeling! Even though I felt like Bambi learning to walk in the morning, the old OR had me grinning like an idiot by the end of the day. It made me glad I wasn’t wearing an open-face helmet (after all, not all vintage traditions need to be relived). CN