Kansas Breakdown

Article And Photos By Scooter Tramp Scotty

Originally Published In The October 2013 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine

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The time in Billings, MT. had been unusually strange, if not a little fantastic, but the story I’d like to tell now would not begin until two weeks later in Kansas. It was just after Sturgis and while on the road to Montana that the weld on my transmission’s shifting arm broke. The entire arm began to wobble loosely and I knew it was just a matter of time before the thing failed leaving good old Betsy stuck in a single gear. This was not an easy fix. Although the parts are relatively small and inexpensive, the job required that the entire outer and inner primary, clutch and compensator be pulled, and that the tranny be completely gutted before they could be installed. But all was not lost… It had been earlier that year that an old friend had conned me into coming to Lyons, Kansas T with the promise of a re-roof job (I was a roofing contractor in another life) that one of his mother’s rental houses was in need of. I had agreed. This was now very good news indeed. Derek McCloud is an entrepreneur/workaholic who grew up in the little town of Lyons. Although he’s built and sold a verity of successful businesses over the course of his lifetime, for many years now Derek has been buying and selling wholesale Big Dog, custom chopper parts.

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Having visited before, I knew that his world would easily accommodate the needs of my little transmission dilemma. Set in a vast sea of wide open no-man’s land, Lyons is a place that makes one wonder what it is that people do in such small and isolated places. On the outskirts of town, a little cloud of dust trailed the old FL as I gazed from the pilot’s seat to beyond the arrow straight dirt road and across the miles of farmland and sporadic trees that were separated by only an occasional ranch house. It was beautiful country. The gate that led to Derek’s own 85 acre parcel had been left unlocked; I turned into the driveway. To the right, his old house, the one with which I was familiar, sat abandoned while farther on and to the left stood the new place which had been constructed in the image of a huge barn. Three of its sides were surrounded by a large manmade pond stocked with fish while beyond that stood a line of trees for added privacy. A three bay garage was attached to the house with two SUVs parked out front while farther down the driveway sat a large metal building. It was an impressive sight. Derek met me at the door and I was ushered into what was quite possibly the nicest “barn” in existence. Derek’s wife Donna greeted me with the Boston accent and warm welcome I’d come to expect of her. After dinner (Derek cooks, Donna doesn’t), we all retired to lawn chairs set before the rock fireplace built into the back patio. Both of my hosts are beer drinkers and the bullshit session dragged on long into the evening. Again I wondered why this guy has always liked me so much, because in general, he hates people. This is why most of his business is done over the Internet. In colorful contrast to this oddity, he also has an uncommon sense of community.

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As a service to the little town, since he doesn’t really need the money, Derek works one day a week as an elected official to the County Commissioner’s seat. He’s in charge of the town’s money. It’s because of his uncanny ability in this arena that the townspeople continue to favor him at every reelection. He has also made a few anonymous contributions to the little community. And still he generally hates people. What a trip! Yet, there’s little more I love than listening to the exploits of his strange world. It was with genuine interest that I continually goaded him to tell more stories. For to him the world’s business is only as one big Monopoly board — it’s just a game. But again in contrast, Derek wears everyday clothes and his favorite tennis shoes are held together with duct tape. This guy totally entertains me. I was offered a room in the house, but since I’d become unaccustomed to houses so many years ago, I opted instead to make camp in the metal building. Morning brought a moment’s disorientation as I came awake to the sight of a metal roof hovering high above, then noticed that my bed was pushed against a wall, set on a concrete floor, surrounded by a sea of high-dollar choppers, and a rather large family of cats. Then I remembered: Oh yeah, Derek’s metal storage building. Eventually the driveway led me to Derek’s front door and from there the day was spent mostly bombing around town in his SUV. We visited Derek’s warehouse in town and I searched through racks of parts in an attempt to locate those needed for the job. But it was more than the transmission that I intended to fix…

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A couple years ago, I learned that the reason the older bikes’ scream down the highway is because they were geared lower than those five speeds of today, turning about 3,400 RPM at 70 MPH. Very irritating. The Factory’s switch to higher gears had been made sometime in the early ‘90s by simply changing clutch and compensator ratios in the primary. One year ago, a friend had talked me into rectifying this inconvenience by simply installing a front belt-pulley with two extra teeth that would accomplish the same thing. This inexpensive mod had reduced my ratio to only 3,100 RPM at 70 MPH which provided a much improved highway ride. The problem was that my Electra Glide now lacked the power to get its fat ass up steep highspeed grades like the grapevine. Not wanting to give up the new gearing, I’d decided to deviate from my motto — stock last longest — and try an Andrews’ EV 27 bolt-in cam to gain the needed power. In Derek’s sea of high power chopper parts however, there was not a mellow, bolt-in cam to be found. Back at the house, Derek led me to an older Softail that had been sitting for a long time. He said that if I made it run, I could use it while my own bike was down. After that he’d sell it. It took less than an hour to breathe life into the neglected thing. That night Derek ordered my cam from the net with his own credit card because I’ve never owned plastic money. The next day, the work began and I set to the task of gutting my transmission and cam compartment. Although necessity has pushed me to become a fair HD mechanic over the years (there’s not much I can’t fix), I don’t work on bikes everyday and am in general pretty slow. The better part of a week was allotted for this job. When installing a new cam, it’s always a good idea to have the gear pressed off the old one then installed on the new. Failure to do so can cause either serious gear clearance problems, or simply a lot of unneeded noise. Fortunately, All Things Chopped was only 20 miles away in the town of Great Bend. This was a small, one man, and wife, HD shop. The owner swapped the cam gear for a reasonable $20.

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Within a week my FL tranny was right again, and after richening the carburetor as per the instructions that came with the new cam, the bike had its little boost of power and was running better than it ever had. I learned that day that the stock cams are governed by EPA regulations, and that the valves want a little more duration to accommodate the V-twin’s long stroke. In other words, this simple boltin cam was not hot rod stuff, it simply made the engine run like it was originally designed to. With that segment of the work behind, a short break seemed in order. I said goodbye to the Softail, loaded a jacket onto the old FL, and lit out for the town of Hutchinson and the Kansas Cosmo Sphere and Space Center located some 40 miles away. Although far bigger than Lyons, Hutchinson is by no means a major city and it truly amazes me that such an incredible museum is located in such a small and relatively isolated Kansas town. A good friend of mine had left San Diego many years ago and now lived in Hutchinson so I decided to pay him a visit as well. Hell, we’d known each other for 25 years. Clint rides a late model Softail and it was at his little bachelor pad that we talked into the night. Before I left for the ride back to Lyons at 2 a.m., we vowed to do some riding together on the weekend when he had time. Next came the roofing job and I spent the better part of a week on that project.

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When the smoke finally cleared I was $1,500 richer. But now I was in debt becasue besides the new cam that had been charged to Derek’s card, I’d also purchased a new set of boots, new tent, and a few other odds and ends. And although Derek wasn’t really worried about my bill, I certainly was. Rather than paying cash, for Derek it’s always a welcomed option to simply work your debt off. So again the labor began. Derek makes his living by buying large loads of brand new and possibly slightly dinged or defective chopper parts as well as the occasional complete or partially disassembled motorcycle at an obscenely reduced rate. What a racket! This business generates the great piles of slightly screwed up or partially disassembled transmissions, engines, etc. that littered the floor of his warehouse in town. To settle my debt, I set to assembling whole, functioning, six speed transmissions for later sale to Derek’s customers. Then I was put to work on the choppers that surrounded my camp inside the metal building that stands beside Derek’s house. On weekends, Clint and I made a habit of getting together to carouse the area on our bikes while often ending up at one party, BBQ, or whatever. After all he was a local, and generally knew where the happenings were. In the past, I’d always ridden through small, isolated towns and wondered what it is people do there. What I learned on this extended stay is that if there is even any kind of small event going on in the tiniest most backwoods town, then people will often ride a 100 miles to be in attendance. Because of this farmland ritual, we got to travel a lot of beautiful country and I came to see the same faces again and again. One weekend Clint called to invite me to a birthday BBQ that would be held in the backyard of his ex-wife’s house. He said that his two kids and all of her ex-husbands would be in attendance, and that the food was free. It sounded weird; of course I agreed to go.

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It was a big old house in which she lived and besides ourselves, there was only one other rider in attendance. The air was friendly, but in a low budget sort of way, it was a good backyard party. Although aged a bit, the ex that I’ll call Kathy was pretty much as I’d remembered from twenty-some odd years back. It was really good to see her again. In private, Clint explained that Kathy’s present husband and ex-number two are best friends. Both were in attendance and a closer look revealed that he was probably right. Then there was Clint (ex number one), a couple of old boyfriends, and even I had gone out with her way back in the day. It seemed like a “who banged Kathy party” which struck me as being extremely funny. Nevertheless, everyone was friendly and the vibe seemed uncommonly good. It’s a mystery how she pulled that one off! With the bike again mechanically sound, my pocket filled with change, the road was calling again. The chilled air that now hinted to the coming fall made the highways that meandered toward the warm southern climates seem the best choice. As the old Electra Glide beat its fateful rhythm against the southbound pavement of this American dream, my mind wandered back over the strange events that once again had replenished the simple needs of this nomadic life. Ahead lies the town of Austin, Texas; I wondered what manner of adventure might lie there…

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