Gerald O'Neil of Winnipeg Sport and Leisure with Clark's new Virago
Gerald O’Neil of Winnipeg Sport and Leisure with Clark’s new Virago. Click image to enlarge

Part Five – A new bike, some new speeds, and new friends
by Michael Clark

Uhm, anybody wanna buy an ’81 Yamaha XS 400 Special?

I haven’t quite decided to part with the 400, however it will definitely need to be stowed for the rest of the season. Thanks to the good people at Yamaha Motor Canada, I’ll be telling my two-wheeled tales from the comfy saddle of a 2006 Virago 250 cruiser. And yes, there is such a thing as new bike smell.

The most obvious difference between the two bikes is the configuration of the air-cooled mills. The 400 uses a parallel-twin set-up, while the Virago is a 60 degree V-twin. “A V-twin has a more comfortable feel,” said Gerald O’Neil, guru of all things Yamaha at Winnipeg Sport and Leisure. The Virago is specifically targeted towards the beginner, with a low seat height and a trim, 302-pound curb weight for easy manoeuvring.

Most new cars have forgotten about any form of engine break-in, however new motorcycles need a little TLC during the first few hundred kilometres. “The most important part of a break-in is warming up the engine properly,” said O’Neil. Simple air-cooled engines, such as the Virago, need about two to three minutes of warm-up time, while larger liquid-cooled bikes take a little longer. The Virago mill received a bench test before it was installed in the completed bike at the factory, which involves a redline run to ensure the Yamaha seal of approval. That doesn’t mean that the brand-new V-twin is ready for extended full-throttle twists. “You can use full power,” said O’Neil. “Just don’t hold it there too long.”

After the first 500 kilometres, the Virago will need it’s first oil and filter change. The 400 still uses a dipstick reading, while the Virago’s V-twin has an oil level “window” on the side of the crankcase for easy reference before each cruise. The drive chain will also need frequent lubrication, as much as a daily basis if I get brave enough to ride in the rain. Adjustments to the chain slack are fairly simple; just loosen the rear axle bolts, and adjust the tensioners on each side of the rear frame. The tensioners pull the wheel out in small increments, drawing up any unwanted slack. How much slack you want depends on the suspension travel of the bike, which is minimal on the Virago. “If it were really slack, you might hear the chain tapping on the chain guard,” said O’Neil.

The wheels on the Virago are of the spoke variety, which means an inner tube, just like your old Sekine. The main reason many newer bikes use alloy wheels with tubeless tires is the minimal air loss that occurs after a puncture. “A nail can cause a full air loss in less than a minute on a tire with a tube,” said O’Neil. Translation: avoid new home construction sites and roofing fairs.

The fuel tank shouldn’t break the bank; it’s a mere 9.5 litres. (2.1 gallons for the Imperial set.) An inner collar protrudes into the tank, the bottom edge of which being the “when” of the “say when” Full mark. This allows enough room for fuel expansion. An overfilled tank can spew the petrol out through the gas cap. O’Neil figures that the Virago should fetch about 60 miles per gallon, which roughly translates to a 200 kilometre cruising range. With no fuel gauge, it’s an educated guess. The best indicator of true fuel mileage is to record the distance using the trip odometer. When the engine starts to sputter, simply move the tank switch to “Reserve”. This should allow you the buffer needed to make it to the next service station. It’s important to familiarize yourself with the tank switch, being able to move it to the Reserve position at speed to avoid a potentially dangerous stall.

Tires are bias-ply, with radials reserved mostly for the sport bike set. “Radials are more important when you get to a bike with cornering capability.” said O’Neil. While most of the controls are in identical placement on the old 400, the choke has been moved to a lever box on the left handlebar. “That’s one of the greatest conveniences,” said O’Neil. He advises the use of a simple log book to record critical checks for new riders. “After a while, it will become second nature to you.”

As for the driving saga, the 400 reached some pivotal moments before the baton was passed to the Virago. The next gumption level was to head north on Henderson Highway, to the small hamlet of Lockport. The speed nips up to 80 km/h in some spots, which seemed like a piece of cake after the 65 km/h ‘oh-crap fest’. The counter-steering was working well as more and more lean was allowed by body and brain. I crossed the Red River at Lockport, aiming for the historic River Road stretch that runs south through St. Andrews.

Even at the early morning hour of seven AM and change, I saw another biker approaching. His left hand rose from the handlebar, giving the simplest of waves. I felt my left hand also rising up, almost out of instinct. A little farther down the road, I came across a pair of early easy riders. More waves, though a little different in scope. The first bike was more of a touring style, so the hand came upwards. The second was a cruiser style, with the left hand extending out and downward, almost mimicking a left signal. The 400 is more of a standard bike, so I kept the hand high. Seemed the right thing to do.

I turned around at the Larter’s Golf and Country Club, stopping for a moment to ponder the exchange. When’s the last time someone in a car waved at you? No, not that kind of wave, just simply to acknowledge the involvement in the great fraternity of automobile driving. The last time that happened was probably around 1910. And while motorcycles have existed as long as the automobile, the uniqueness of the fraternity remains.

The arrival of the Virago, without any 25 year-old “what-ifs” to worry about, seemed to spark a smidge more confidence. I made an almost identical run up Henderson Highway, with one major detour; Highway 202. That’s right, a highway with a number on it, not some glorified street like Henderson. Three-digit speed. Insert “gulp!” here.

O’Neil had figured that the 400 would still out-pace the Virago, however there’s a fire in the belly of that diminutive V-twin. 80, 90, 110, 110-ish. I leaned forward to cheat the pummelling wind. A slow-moving Explorer was ahead, with plenty of passing room. Pass? Moi? I squeezed in the clutch, dropped into fourth, and twisted the throttle. The Virago made short work of the manoeuvre, with a little more “ish” on the 110 needle. Just a little.

202 wasn’t as smooth as I remember, so I turned around and headed to Highway 44 East. This was a favourite with my old Miata. 44 East, South on 302, then back to Winnipeg on 15 West. How hard could it be? Hmmm, sure is windy today. From the North, methinks. Not too many trees around to break that wind up. Uh-oh.

Welcome to Crosswind 101, hopefully not a crash course. As I cleared the tree bank at the Highway 59 cloverleaf, I knew I was in over my head. I felt my knuckles tighten on the bars as I pressed on. They weren’t coming off for anybody, which means I have to apologize for not waving to my new fraternity members that I passed on the 44 stretch. “Just – hang – on”, I said, cursing the unseen blows bent on toppling the Virago. At least there was little pavement jostle. 302 was an absolute joy, the wind at my back.

The absence of windshield, hoods, and sound systems presents unique moments. As the sun rose above me, I noticed that the Highway 302 road surface south of Beausejour “sparkled”. I did a quick check of my faculties; I wasn’t feeling the effects of hypothermia or a mirage. There must have been an over-abundance of quartz in the road mix. It only lasted for a few kilometres. It was as if there were fresh-cut diamonds embedded in the surface. I never saw that in the Miata.

Highway 15 posed a new danger; the approaching semi-trailer. Tales of the gusts that followed close behind were recalled from my Gearing Up course. I moved to the outside of my lane as the first approached, a Freightliner. The blast was almost non-existent, hardly discernible with the crosswinds. A little further, and a Peterbilt approached. Nothing. I was nowhere near ‘cocky’, however I was maybe a little too relaxed when the International blew past. This one I felt; not enough to cause any swerve or jerk on my part, but definitely enough to never misjudge a semi again. I kept on truckin’.

With 140 kilometres on the fresh Virago, I grunted as I limped into the house. It appears that my spine needs to fuse into the new position of the cruiser seat. Now where did I put those steel pins?

Next time: Mean streets – Michael Clark takes on urban traffic

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