Tag Archives: motorcycle

French Lick, Indiana or Bust: My Odyssey through the Heart of the American Heartland

 If you’re not from Indiana, or the Midwest, or America, or even if you are from Indiana, you could be forgiven if you think that a motorcycle road trip set entirely in Indiana would be boring. In my early 20’s I undertook a series of increasingly long motorcycle road trips with my father cumulating with one that took us to the banks of the winding Ohio River. We were able to peer across the river to Kentucky.
I was still on my first street bike then. A 1984 Honda Sabre that I had gotten in high school. It was advanced for the era, with dual front disc brakes, a liquid-cooled V-4, a 5-speed with overdrive, and shaft drive. It even had a gear indicator. The engine size had been reduced from 750cc of the previous year to 700. I didn’t have saddlebags for it, but I was able to tie down an overnight bag to the passenger seat. My father has a 2006 Harley Davidson Soft Tail Deluxe; it looks like it rode out of the 1950s complete with white walls. He did the heavy lifting with the luggage.
We left out of our small hometown on the Southernmost tip of what is known as Northwest Indiana. A grouping of increasingly big towns and cities that lead to Chicago. Leaving out of Lowell, Indiana, we headed south on US 41, famously mentioned in the Allman Brothers song Ramblin’ Man. This part of US 41 is rural. A few small towns dot the road, but it’s mostly farm fields and bits of what used to be a mighty forest. By the evening, we arrived at the city of Terre Haute, where we spent the night, roughly 135 miles away. Leaving out early in the morning, our trip was much the same as it had been, rural farmland with light traffic. That is until we saw the plane. Crop dusters are an amazing sight to behold. Their necessary yet acrobatic flying conjures up images of old-time barnstormers. Flying low enough to make sure whatever the hell pesticide it is they are spraying gets on the crops and pulls up quick enough to dodge telephone wires. The plane we saw was a crop duster, and it was coming in hot. We both wear full-face helmets; my father, looking behind him, noticed I had my visor down. He did the same. Cutting from right to left across my field of vision, the pilot pulled up as he closed the mechanism that releases the pesticide. It wasn’t exact as both of us, and our bikes were hit. I can honestly say without exaggeration that I have been crop dusted, probably one of a handful of people in all of history who can say the same. When we came to the next stoplight, we discussed what had happened. We then headed to a carwash in Washington, Indiana, for our bikes and ourselves. We hosed off our jackets, helmets, and motorcycles. That left only one question, what was it that sprayed us? Calling poison control wouldn’t help as there are so many things it could be. We needed to go to the source. We needed to find a crop-duster. That’s where Mom came in. We called home and let her know what happened. We later learned that my mom had gotten ahold of a crop duster, he paused the conversation saying he had to make a turn… in his plane. Turns out what we had been sprayed by wasn’t anything to be alarmed by. It was a short ride that day, only about 70 miles, just as well, given our distraction. After checking in to our hotel and dropping off our luggage, we headed to one of my favorite restaurants: Pizza Hut!
Our third day brought about a radical change in terrain. Gone were the long highways and vast expanses of farmland. Enter the Hoosier National Forrest. We were met with winding roads and massive elevation changes that wound through the deep forest. No fields in sight, as if by magic when we left the woods, we were greeted by another radical change in scenery: French Link, Indiana. French Lick does not look like it belongs in Indiana, surrounded by hills and forests on all sides. It even has a casino. Its sort of a resort town. It’s probably been called the French Rivera or the Los Vegas of Indiana at some point. We stopped off at the Indiana Railway Museum, which is outdoors. They had a steam locomotive, some train cars, and a handcart. They even offer train rides. We then headed to the West Barden Springs Hotel. Like many things in French Lick, the West Barden Springs Hotel does not look like it belongs in Indiana. It looks like a colorful castle mixed with a circus tent. We rode down the long brick driveway that lead to it, then we went into the massive dome that made up a large part of the building. In the outer circle, there were a variety of shops, including, interestingly enough, a Harley Davidson gift shop with a classic Harley on display.
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The author with his 1984 Honda Sabre at the West Barden Springs Hotel.
After leaving French Lick, we headed south, back into the countryside to Santa Clause, Indiana, a town famous for its Santa Claus themed amusement park. We then headed to the small border town of Tell City that is set against the winding Ohio River that marks the southern border of Indiana with Kentucky. We rode through the small town to the floodwall on the outskirts of town, following a road that runs on the other side. From there, we were able to see to the banks and hills that represented the start of Kentucky. From there we rode east tracing the Ohio River, on what is known as the Ohio River Scenic Byway. It’s a two-lane road. Hills and woods to our left. Passing a lock in the river. Turning inland, we rode up a steep hill to a lookout nestled in a forest that overlooks locks of the Ohio River known as Eagle’s Bluff. From there, peering over the trees on the hill, you get an amazing view of the locks, as well as the distant, forest cloaked hills in Kentucky. We then rode north to Bloomington, home of Indiana University.
From there, we headed northwest, hitting a light, steady rain, we stopped to put on our rain gear.  We eventually rejoined the path we took down in back north up Route 41. On our way back we stopped in New Port, a small city, known for its annual antique car hill climb. We rode up the hill that leads out of town that makes up the course, a line in the road painted to indicate the finish. Just as we did coming down, we passed just West of West Lafayette. Best known for being the home of Purdue University. Overall, we put on over 800 miles on our bikes. Both bikes did great with no mechanical problems. I’m looking forward to going on more and longer trips with my dad.

The Evolution of the Dirtbike.

                Although its purpose and general design has remained the same for over 50 years, the dirtbike has evolved considerably. With its evolution, the sport of motocross has changed with it. The dirtbike’s improvements often occur alongside its road-going counterparts. No matter how much dirtbikes change, one thing is for sure; manufacturers will continue to improve their bikes to get that competitive edge.
The 60’s: The Early Days.
                In the early days of motocross, the bikes often resembled something you might find on the street. Knobby tires helped bikes get traction off-road. Fiberglass fenders appeared in the 60s, making the bikes lighter then the steel they replaced. Motocross races of the time had smaller jumps then what is seen today, and they often incorporated natural terrain into the track.
Picture by Peprovira of a 60’s Bultaco dirtbike. Note the low-slung exhaust.
The 70’s: Rise of the Factory Teams.
                Motocross’ incredible popularity meant that a wide range of manufacturers were not only making dirtbikes but also fielding factory-backed pro motocross teams. Manufacturers from all over the world began making motocross bikes bringing with them innovations. Harley Davidson even got in on the act for several years. During this time, bikes saw new materials introduced to bikes such as plastic and aluminum, which meant better performance. During the 70s aluminum gas tanks appeared, as well as aluminum wheels helping the bikes to become lighter. Plastic fenders appeared as well. Factory “works” bikes appeared at professional races, with high-performance modifications not found on production bikes, showing how important the sport was for manufacturers. An example of this was Honda and their Mugen performance division.
Picture by Jeff Sanders of a 70’s Maico.
The 80’s: Changes for Bikes and Tracks.

Few eras saw such radical changes in motocross bikes then the 1980s. One of the significant improvements to come to dirtbikes during this time was the suspension. Bike suspensions got longer travel. The twin rear shocks were replaced by the single mono-shock. Disc brakes appeared as well. Gas tanks became plastic around this time. By looking at motocross’ indoor cousin, Supercross, it becomes clear how much the bikes advanced during this time period. When the first Supercross race was held in the mid 70’s the track closely resembled motocross tracks of that era, consisting of a few jumps. By the 80s, the number of jumps had grown in size and amount. Liquid cooling came about as well during this era.        
                                                                                                       
                As supercross jumps got bigger and bigger bikes evolved as well. One of the big changes came in the form of the inverted or “upside-down” front suspension. Although not universally adopted, the aluminum frame was another significant innovation that was utilized by almost all of the major manufacturers replacing steel ones. Interestingly spoke wheels have remained a constant in motocross for over 50 years, with a few deviations from it. A more recent change is the move to electronic fuel injection. As bikes continue to evolve, manufacturers are always looking for ways to gain an edge on their competitions, but one thing remains the same, great racing.


Picture by KTM AG. A modern KTM dirtbike. Note the heavy use of plastics.