ASSAULT ON PIKES PEAK, EXPEDITION II
Forty-three years ago, we did it with a Honda 50 and a Stella 10-speed bicycle. We’ve learned a lot since then…
50 Forty-three years ago, we did it with a Honda and a Stella 10-speed bicycle...
OOne Sunday morning in the summer of 1977, I was sitting in my living room in Madison, Wisconsin, reading the paper and scanning the motorcycle classifieds, as usual. One item that caught my eye that day was an ad for a 1964 Honda 50, a C100 step-through model, for a mere $100. Hmm…a slow motorcycle, yes, but a bona fide classic. The little bike that started it all. Introduced to this country in 1959 as the Super Cub, it took America by storm and enabled you to “Meet the Nicest People on a Honda”— instead of duking it out with Marlon Brando or Lee Marvin. Unbreakable, good-looking, leakproof, nicely finished, and capable of an almost unheard of 200 mpg, it was everything almost all other motorcycles at the time were not.
The small Hondas were suddenly everywhere. Even The Steve Allen Show opened with a shot of Steve himself riding one to work—in a suit and tie, no less. And there was no oil on his pants or shoes. The bikes were inexpensive too, starting at $245, or $275 if you wanted the optional electric start, and came with an automatic clutch, three-speed foot-shift transmission, and an advertised top speed of 45 mph, which Honda promised the bike would achieve “with never a murmur of protest.” That sounded a lot better than “while screaming its tiny heart out.”
I didn’t really need two-wheeled transportation at the time. I had a Norton 850 Commando and a Honda CB400F in the garage, but I coughed up the $100 and bought the Honda 50 anyway. In addition to being admittedly charmed by this inexpensive little gem, I had an ulterior motive.
Although working full-time as a foreign-car mechanic in Madison, I’d just sold my first-ever freelance touring story to Editor Allan Girdler at Cycle World and was already thinking about a follow-up.
I thus conceived the brilliant idea of taking the Honda 50 on a sort of mini odyssey, something befitting its modest top speed and thimblelike displacement. I discussed it with my fellow car mechanic, John Oakey, who was an avid bicycle racer and said he wouldn’t mind riding along with me—on his Stella 10-speed racing bicycle.
Sounded like fun. We could do an efficiency comparison between a pedal bike and one of the fuel-sipping champions of the 20th century.
We needed a destination, of course. Something that sounded monumental—but wasn’t—so we picked Pikes Peak State Park in Iowa, only 150 miles away, just across the Mississippi River.
Yes, Pikes Peak.
Not quite as impressive as the one in Colorado but named after the same guy. Zebulon Pike was a young Army officer and explorer, who in 1805 noticed an impressively high bluff (994-foot elevation) with a commanding view of the Mississippi River and suggested to the government that it might make a good site for a fort.
The Army demurred, but the bluff still bears his name.
Young Zebulon went off and found an even taller Pikes Peak in Colorado a year later, but John and I decided the Iowa version would be just right for a Honda 50 and a bicycle. It was 1,000 miles closer and 12,985 feet lower than the one out West.
It turned out to be a great trip, though a lot easier for me than for John. The rugged hill country of southwestern Wisconsin required every ounce of his stamina. And he needed a lot more food than I did. The Honda, of course, did more work than either of us, carrying me and all our camping gear.
For shelter, I brought along a Sears pup tent from my childhood that I’d dubbed “Big Pink,” in honor of Bob Dylan and the Band. Once red, it had faded with age into sort of a queasy Pepto-bismol pink. The tent was also about as rainproof as mosquito netting, but luckily it didn’t rain on our trip. We spent four days on the road before riding triumphantly back into Madison to surprisingly restrained fanfare.
In quick summary, the trip covered 303 miles, and the Honda consumed 1.8 gallons of gas at a cost of $1.13, for an average of 168.3 mpg, and used no oil. John ate $4 worth of granola bars that I did not consume, not to mention a peach, a banana, and three apples. Handsdown, the cheapest motorcycle trip I ever took. And the most efficient, in an era beset by successive fuel crises and high gas prices.
Fast-forward to 2020.
I’m 72, my wife, Barb, and I are living in the country south of Madison, and I’m mostly retired. John Oakey is 73, retired and living in Madison with his wife, Alice. He still rides bicycles regularly and rediscovered motorcycling just last year. He bought himself a new Honda CB300R, and we go riding about twice a week, stopping
John and I decided the Iowa version of Pikes Peak was just right for a Honda 50 and a bicycle. It was 1,000 miles closer and 12,895 feet lower than the one out West.
at scenic county parks for Clif Bar lunches. Life is good, and motorcycling has been a salvation in this very odd year, albeit with a beautiful summer, which is rapidly coming to a close.
Then, a few weeks ago, the phone rang. It was Cycle World Editor-in-chief Mark Hoyer, asking if I would like to do an update on the 1977 Pikes Peak story using a new Honda Super Cub. It looks nearly identical to the old one, but now displaces 125cc. It also has a fourspeed transmission, fuel injection, front-wheel ABS, and a telescopic fork. Mark suggested my buddy John might like to go along on the trip—riding a modern ebike.
Frankly, this was a great-minds-think-alike moment of psychic convergence.
I’d been pondering the new Honda Super Cub C125 ABS at our local dealership all summer, trying to think up some reason why I needed one, despite having three other bikes. I was also intrigued by the idea of getting an ebike. I rode one a few years ago and realized I could get as much exercise roaming 30 miles from home as I normally do in just 10 or 12 miles on my Bianchi road bike. John, too, is warming up to ebikes, as the limitations of age begin to shorten his formerly epic riding range. What else?
Oh yeah, California is on fire again. Also Colorado. My sister and half my friends in both places have recently been evacuated from their homes. And there’s another hurricane hitting New Orleans, my favorite city, this week.
As my Army drill sergeant used to say, “Do I have to draw you a picture?”
It seemed like a logical time to explore any avenue of fun and adventure that might lower my own carbon footprint slightly—using a smaller pair of shoes. I told Mark we were in.
A few days later, he phoned to say an Aventon Level ebike and a $3,749 Honda Super Cub were on the way, but the Honda wouldn’t be here until the weekend of October 24.
Hmm…last year, it snowed here just before Halloween.
The Aventon ebike (list price $1,599) arrived first, partially disassembled in a crate. John and I—falling back on our many years as paid mechanical geniuses—ignored the instructions and affixed the handlebars, seat, and front wheel with only minimal head-scratching. Aventon had sent two extra batteries for the bike, each said to be good for up to 40 miles of riding with pedal assist, with four to five hours of charging time.
Battery charged and installed, I took a short 2-mile jaunt down the road and came whizzing back up the driveway, grinning like a fool. John asked, “What do you think?”
“I have to buy one of these,” I replied. “This thing is
more fun than half a gallon of red ants.”
Besides giving you the illusion of soaring just above the ground under your own power, the bike lures you into a kind of euphoria of sustained speed. You tend to pedal harder than usual, just because it feels so good to go fast. A precise eight-speed Shimano rear derailleur is attached to the motorized rear hub, with five levels of pedal assist. There’s a healthy amount of added thrust to your peddling, even on Level 1, and Level 3 has you absolutely flying down the road, regardless of gear, like a Tour de France sprinter on EPO. There’s also a thumbpush throttle lever on the left handlebar that simply accelerates the bike like a motor scooter—quite zippy, but a rapid drain on the battery. A clear instrument screen shows you bars of power remaining, contingent on your current output, as well as the pedal-assist level, road speed, and total miles.
John took a ride and was similarly impressed, but said he’d like to install the narrow racing saddle off his own road bike for any long-distance riding. This done, we
We snapped a fresh battery into the bicycle frame, and John took off like someone who’d just downed a six-pack of Red Bull.
took some longer test rides and discovered the battery could be relied on to do about 35 miles of pedal assist before tapering off and leaving you with 62 pounds of bicycle to pedal up a hill.
Still, that was enough to get us through the typical 70mile day of our previous trip on just two batteries. If John didn’t suffer a heart attack. Now we awaited the Honda Super Cub as weather predictions got colder and grimmer.
The Honda arrived in a delivery truck two days before our scheduled trip, shining red and cream, with 700 break-in miles on the clock. The bike comes stock with just a solo saddle (pillion seat available), so I’d ordered a factory luggage rack to support my camping gear and bulging fabric saddlebags.
We left from my place on a sunny but cold Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m. We could have left at 7 a.m., but it was only 33 degrees, and we were waiting for the sun to heat things up. By 11:30, the temperature had soared to 34, so we hit the road.
John was clad in winter bike gear, with a neck warmer and helmet cover, and I was wearing more layers than the north rim of the Grand Canyon—gore-tex over fleece over wool, with my big, thick adventure-touring boots and battery-heated gloves. Both of us had flashing red LED bicycle lights affixed to the rear of our luggage racks as a warning to traffic that Something Weird was going on ahead.
I rode as John’s wingman, slightly to the left and rear, and soon discovered the Super Cub was quite happy at typical 15 to 28 mph ebike speeds, purring smoothly along in second or third gear, with fourth usable in our downhill 35 mph swoops. In solo riding, the Cub could go 55 mph on the level and about 62 mph on a mild downhill stretch, but its sweet zone for cruising with never a murmur of protest was 35 to 45 mph. Ideal for urban commuting, but you could also wring it out for brief stints on the highway.
We took our first rest stop in the little settlement of Postville at the village blacksmith shop, where we’d also stopped for a snack break in 1977. On that trip, there was a slightly tired-looking 1968 Triumph Bonneville leaning against the shop. I went back later and tracked down the owner, who was working at a sawmill a few miles away. He sold me the bike—my first Triumph—for $850. I restored the Bonneville and wrote a story about it for CW, called “Down the Road Again.”
And now, while John and I were standing in front of the same blacksmith shop, a genteel-looking woman wearing a black beret drove up and got out of a car. She said hello and started to unlock the shop. It turned out she and her husband, Bob Bergman, had owned the blacksmith shop and the sawmill for 50 years, and it was he who had sold me the Triumph. She said her name is Nana Schowalter and she’s a sculptor. Another one of motorcycling’s strange crossroads. We pressed on into the roller-coaster hills of western Wisconsin and, at about 30 miles, I noticed John slowing down like a wind-up toy losing spring tension. At 32 miles, it was time for a quick roadside battery swap. I was carrying our two 4.5-pound batteries in the Honda’s saddlebags. We snapped a fresh one into the bicycle frame, and John took off like someone who’d just downed a six-pack of Red Bull. We made it to our first overnight stop, the historic lead mining town of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, at 4:30 p.m. and checked into the grand old Brewer House Inn. We were joined by my wife, Barbara, and photographer Nick Berard, who were driving my Honda Ridgeline pickup. Which has a heater.
We put the dead ebike battery on the charger, and I went off to a gas station. After a 62.1-mile day, the Honda took 0.347 gallon of non-ethanol premium at a cost of 95 cents, averaging 178.9 mpg. Interestingly, John had consumed no more snacks than I had. Maybe I was eating too much.
That night, the four of us dined on takeout pizza in the elegant 19th-century dining room, and Barb had thoughtfully brought along ingredients for whiskey sours and my favorite bottle of Lagavulin scotch. We were warm at last, and I didn’t miss tent camping as much as you might think.
Sunday dawned cloudy and colder as we headed northwest into increasingly hilly country. Jack-o’-lanterns leered at us from the front porches of old farmhouses, and wispy dime-store wraiths fluttered from trees in the wind. The sky was growing as dark as evil itself.
John pressed on like a relentless pedaling machine, and we made our second battery change before starting our descent toward the junction of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers.
As we crossed the busy Wisconsin River bridge, three things happened at once: It started to snow, the battery light went out on my right glove, and we passed a junction marked “Utopia Road.”
Some Utopia, but we had less than 20 miles to go. We cruised north on Highway 18 into Prairie du Chien, turned left across the Big Muddy into Iowa, and immediately south through Mcgregor to begin the long, winding ascent to the park. Ahead of us now rose the White Goddess, the very summit itself, which was getting whiter by the moment, though still sort of an angry slate gray.
Suddenly, we were rolling up to a sign that said Pikes Peak State Park. John came to a stop and, completely spent, did a symbolic flop on the ground that said
“Done!” He was 73 years old and had just pedaled 79.9 miles into a stiff headwind. I, meanwhile, had sat on a nice cushy Honda and merely watched, trying not to freeze to death, however one does that. Let me know if you think of something.
I picked out a nice campsite (No. 15) near the bluff overlooking the river in the nearly empty campground, and began to set up Big Pink and unfurl my Everest-class down mummy bag.
Barb and Nick showed up in the Ridgeline and helped me get a roaring campfire going, then left to drop off the exhausted John at a nearby motel and deliver Nick to the Madison airport that evening. I, however, was determined to get one final night’s worth of camping out of my boyhood tent, and to sleep on the summit.
I had a strangely pleasant evening at that campsite. I pulled a picnic table close to the fire, trying to avoid melted-boot syndrome as I dined on beef jerky and Oreos, enjoying an occasional sip of Lagavulin. Light snow fell softly through the trees, and across the Mississippi I could see the rotating beacon at the Prairie du Chien airport and the roving headlights of BNSF freight trains that rumbled through. I’d shoveled
gravel on that very roadbed one summer, putting myself through a year of college by working on a Burlington section crew.
Also visible were the city lights of Prairie du Chien, where Barb had bought me a new Honda CB350 as a surprise birthday present after I came home from Vietnam. On the bluffs across the river was Wyalusing State Park, where I’d camped one freezing autumn night in 1967 on a geology field trip. I suddenly felt as if I were sitting at the center of some geographical intersection of memory and time. Maybe it was the scotch.
Barb came back with the truck in the morning and picked both of us up. We loaded the bikes and made it home on major highways in two hours. I unloaded the Honda the next day and rode it an extra 6 miles to a gas station.
With 86.5 miles on our second tank of gas, the little 1-gallon tank under the seat took 0.517 gallon at a cost of $1.45, which means we averaged 171.99 mpg on our 148.6 miles of travel and spent $2.40 on fuel. That’s a 3.69 mpg improvement over the Honda 50, which had exactly half the C125’s 9 hp and was about 15 mph slower.
The Aventon Level ebike used up four full battery charges and a small amount of a fifth, just to make it up the peak. How much that cost would depend on the amount of coal, gas, atomic energy, wind, or sunlight— and infrastructure—required of the power company. As far as I could tell, John and I ate about the same amount of food, though he drank no alcohol. Raised Presbyterian, you know, rather than Irish Catholic.
So, adjusted for inflation, I would say this trip was slightly cheaper and more energy-efficient than the last one. On the other hand, we didn’t ride our bikes all the way back to Madison this time. Too old. And too cold.
In summary, I would say these are both superbly engineered machines that encapsulate a thousand lessons learned over many decades of motorcycle and bicycle manufacturing. They deliver a level of refinement and technology we couldn’t have foreseen on our first trip— newer, better, smoother, and faster.
Also more fun. A promising note of cheer on the brink of winter.