I recently sat down with Steve Strickland, our Service Manager here at Motoworks Chicago, and we chatted about his history with motorcycles, his love for his BMW R100 RS, and what he looks for in a quality mechanic. Our chat was terrific, and we want to share all of it, but it was long, so we’re going to break it up into two parts. Here’s part one:
Nathaniel: How did you get into fixing bikes?
Steve: It was my old man. He’s not a mechanic, technician or anything like that but he would do the oil changes on the cars when I was a kid. Once I got old enough, I started doing that stuff with him. I liked it and I got into it that way. What got me into motorcycles was my family used to go out to West Virginia every summer. My aunt and uncle had a motorcycle shop out there. Every summer we’d be out there for two weeks to a month.
One time, I was seven years old, we were out there for the whole summer. My aunt and uncle had a little dirt bike and a three-wheeler on the property.
Of course I’m like, “Can I ride that?”
Mom said “No.”
I begged and begged and begged and I finally got to ride it [the three-wheeler] and that started my addiction to the motorcycle. I rode that three-wheeler the whole time that I was there. That was at seven-years-old. I came back home after that summer break and just would not stop. “I want motorcycle.”
The begging began.
Yeah, the begging began, but what my dad also saw was that I liked doing the mechanical side of things, such as with the cars, at that point. Being into the mechanical side of it helped push him over the edge. We got a motorcycle for me — actually my first bike — a 1971 Honda CL100.
I had no idea dad was getting it for me. No clue, even though I had begged and begged for a motorcycle. He shows up one day at the house, coming home early from work, and in the trunk of the Volvo was this sweet little CL100. It was like, “Wow!” but I’m eight, maybe nine years old at that point. This bike’s too big for me.
I was going to say that’s a lot of bike for a 9-year-old, yeah. Were you able to ride it?
What ended up happening was I had an uncle who was into motorcycles back in Chicago. It was Fourth of July weekend. My uncle, my mom and dad are having a party. I jumped on the bike and my uncle says, “Let’s go ride the bike.” Of course I’m all for it.
I already knew how to do clutch and throttle and all that from the three-wheeler. So my uncle puts me on this thing, and I can’t put my feet on the ground. He’s the one holding up the bike. I’m actually on the streets in the neighborhood right then. Not even the yard. He puts me on top of this thing, I let the clutch out, give it gas, and off I go riding around the neighborhood on the Fourth of July.
I’m 8, maybe 9-years old, and can’t put my feet down so I didn’t want to stop, obviously. So I just kept doing laps around the neighborhood. What ended up happening was being in the neighborhood somebody, obviously, called the police. A police cruiser come by and gotten up behind me to pull me over, but I still couldn’t stop. I wasn’t even close to the house at this point, so I had to keep going. They kept following me through the neighborhood, but I still wouldn’t stop because I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to wreck the bike. I finally came back around and my uncle sees me and the police following behind me.
He’s yells, “Come on!” and stands there ready to catch me. I’m coming by with the bike and he’s running along side. He grabs the bike, slows it down and I’m finally able to get off the bike. So my first experience of riding a motorcycle by myself was with police behind me.
How’d that work out?
Well I’m just a kid so they proceeded to give my father a ticket for my being too young to drive a motorized vehicle. With that, my first experience on a motorcycle was over. That wasn’t the end though. I was hooked and also being interested in the mechanical side of it, what I wanted to do next was race motocross.
I had to have a motocross bike. I wanted to race. Of course my dad structured it as, “If you’re going to have a motocross bike, you’re going to have to work on this thing. It’s part of it.” That’s really where my wrenching experience started. After that CL100, soon after that we went into a XR-80. Rode that for a year and then we went into the YZ80. That’s when I started actually racing motorcycles.
The thing with my dad was, I had to work on the bike, I had to maintain it and I would not be going to the racetrack unless the bike was clean. That was the deal. He would not let me race unless that bike was spotless and clean. The track wasn’t the only place we could ride. We had some property behind the house that we could ride on and go mudding and all that. For racing though, that bike had to be clean.
How old were you by the time you started to do the racing?
Racing started when I was about twelve years old, I think. At that point I was addicted to motorcycles. That’s all I wanted to do. My dad saw that and used it on us boys. I was bugging him, “Pops you know I’ve raced this bike for a year and now I need another bike. I want to get a new bike.” He made a deal that if my brother and I stayed on the honor roll in school, he’d buy us each a new bike every other year. My brother and I both raced at this point.
That’s cool. That’s a good incentive.
Yeah, it was a huge incentive. As a kid I figured out how to play the game. My dad knew how to play the game, also. He figured, “I’ve got two boys and these boys can get themselves in trouble, but they love motorcycles. If I tell them to get good grades they can get another bike, that’ll help keep them out of trouble.”
It worked. I was honor roll, pretty much, all the way up until my senior year in high school. It was over after that, since I knew I was getting out of school. But Brian, my brother, stayed on the honor roll all through school. Brian was a way better student, and a way better rider than me, too. I was scared of jumping. It just intimidated me. I played little league baseball as a kid. I pitched and I played first base, but just like being scared to jump a motorcycle, I was always scared to be at bat because I didn’t want to get hit by that ball. I’d just been pummeled by that ball too many times. It did not work out so good. Same with jumping the bike.
I can relate to that. I have never done a wheelie on purpose. After eight years of riding I’m just now starting to ride off-road. I haven’t even actually done it yet. I’m in the process of getting a bike together to be able to do that. I’m the same as you, though. I won’t be jumping over anything any time soon. I just don’t have that gene.
It’s surprising to me, though, that you didn’t want to do jumps but still wanted to race. Racing is an aggressive thing.
So basic jumping is no problem. It’s the big jumps — the double jumps and the tabletops. That was the scary stuff. Little jumps and the whoops and all that were no problem. It’s just that big finish line jump where you have to land on the downside slant of the other side. That’s what I hated doing.
The Evil Knievel jump?
Yeah, the Evil Knievel jump. I tell you what, I did eventually do it. I was out practicing with Brian. He was practicing at a track and I was with him. So I’d see my little brother doing this stuff, right? I’m like, “All right, little brother’s showing me up here.” That’s why I say he was a better rider than me. He always was.
He had a YZ250 at that point, and that’s when I said, “All right, I’m going to take this YZ250 and I’m going to double this jump.” That first time I hit that jump, I hit the ramp and overshot. I landed way over the other side — the down ramp. I landed hard, “BAM!” solid onto the ground. It jarred me — put my chest into the fuel tank and my head went into the handlebars. I kept on going around though. I probably did about a dozen jumps and finally got it on the downside. It was just a matter of getting over that fear. Also, trusting the bike.
You’ve got to have confidence in your bike. I knew the bike could do it because I was using the same bike that Brian was doing it on, it was just a matter of my ability.
Yeah, that’s so funny. That whole idea right there: that the bike is more capable than the rider. That’s so core to any type of riding. That, I feel like, is always true. It’s always been true for me, even though all I’ve ever ridden are street bikes. I’ve done a couple of track things, and the bike is always more capable than I am. From my perspective, I feel that that’s a good thing — that I’m not overriding the bike — that its limits are over the horizon.
Yeah, and it is a good thing. It’s usually not a matter of the bike being capable of doing it. It’s a matter of me being capable of doing it.
It helps you get through. I really feel that anybody that rides on the street should ride on the dirt first. You can learn so much about a motorcycle being on the dirt. It’s all about sliding. On the dirt you slide around. You get used to the rear wheel coming around. Or losing traction on the front wheel. You really learn how to ride a motorcycle that way.
By the time I got onto the street bikes it was different going 100 mph on pavement instead of 60 mph in the dirt. I got addicted to the speed. By 17, 18 years old, I was pretty much done with motocross and got onto the street stuff then.
Okay, so did you ever do any road racing on the track?
No road racing. No, my only racing was street racing.
So, non-sanctioned events, shall we say?
Right, Not sanctioned events. I tell you though, it’s the same thing with road riding as dirt riding. It’s about confidence. On the street you’ve got to have confidence in those tires.
I worked with this guy, Danny Hughes, who had an R1 and I’d just follow him around up in Wisconsin. It was the same kind of thing as before. I knew my bike could keep up. It was just a matter of me myself keeping up. I’d keep thinking, “If Danny can go around that corner, so can I.” I was on a Triumph 955 or Daytona then. I don’t remember which. It was a matter of having confidence in those tires to getting that bike leaned over through those corners. I followed him around for a year. All summer long we’d go riding up in Wisconsin. That made me much more confident on the street? This was also when I first started working for Johnny, back in 2004, 2005 somewhere in there.
Okay, that’s pretty close to the beginning of Motoworks then.
Yeah, it was the beginning of Motoworks. I came to work for Johnny’s after the shop’s first season being open. That would have been January or February, of his second season.
Johnny had organized a track day, and I’d never ridden on a track before, but I had done all these corners on the street with Danny, and all that kind of crazy stuff. Yet I was not a good rider on the track, because the track’s a totally different thing.
Well it’s the safest place to ride. Ambulance is right over there. Helicopter can land over here.
No intersections, no cars.
Exactly. Yeah, after that first track day, the improvement in my riding experience was unbelievable. You’ve been, right?
I’ve been once, yeah. Last year. A big improvement for me skill-wise. I went there looking for corner confidence. I gained some, but I wouldn’t say that I am confident in corners, yet. I am more confident than I was.
I’m looking forward to this year’s track event. At this point I’m not entirely sure what I’ll ride but I’m definitely going to do it again. At least a few sessions.
Yeah. You learn so much. I left that track that year thinking, “Holy shit. This is a lot of fun.” I had ridden a bike up that year and I definitely left that track a better rider — a more aggressive rider — with a lot more confidence in the tires. The bike could do it, and now so could I.
So tell me about your bikes over the years. Let’s do a bike history.
Sure. Let’s stick to street bikes. My first street bike was a Yamaha Radian 600. I had that for about three years while I was working at Des Plaines Yamaha/Suzuki. They had a trade in of a Yamaha Fazer, which had the 700cc motor with 5-valves. Kind of like a mini V-Max, you know?
Yeah, I know the Fazer.
I never really got into sport bikes, and I never got into cruisers but I was more into naked sport bikes. That’s the kind of bike I like, so I went into the Fazer, which wasn’t a sport bike, but it had a sport bike motor in it.
Yeah. I got into that and rode that bike for several years. Then in ’92 or ’93, I started working for Cyclewerks in Barrington, IL. I went there because I was working on Suzukis it was a little bit closer to home. Cyclewerks was a Suzuki/BMW shop, and that’s where I was first exposed to BMWs. I really liked them.
What was it that you liked about BMW’s in particular?
What attracted me to the BMWs was that they’re different. There’s the look of their twin, which is just a very different look for a motorcycle. All my friends had Japanese bikes and that opposed twin just appealed to me.
Yeah, the boxer motor?
Right, the boxer twin. It’s an ugly motor, actually. It ain’t that pretty at all. When I was growing up, the neighbor next door had an R65 — a black one. BMW R65. This would have been probably somewhere in the ’80’s. My buddies and I, we’d all ride motorcycles out of my house.
This neighbor would come out on his R65 and we would all kind of harass him about it. He didn’t care for us either, because we’d be on our motorcycles buzzing his house and stuff. We’d make fun of that BMW as teenagers, but five, six years later, there I was riding a BMW myself. It was all about that twin. For me, a real motorcycle is an air-cooled engine with two cylinders. That’s a street bike to me and that’s what I love. The BMW’s also such a simple machine, but for some reason not everybody can work on them.
There not complicated?
I think once you get down a BMW airhead you can pretty much work on anything. The BMW’s such a simple machine. It’s also very consistent over the years. All the way from /2, /5, /6, /7, and all the way up to basically the last airheads in 1995. It’s all the same stuff. It’s just put together a little different.
Variations on the same ideas?
I was attracted to all BMW’s, but I really like the vintage stuff. In particular, the RS. The R100 RS is a beautiful bike to me. I was so attracted to it and that’s what I had to have. I found one — a ’92’ or ’93 — in Wisconsin in somebody’s shed. It’d been in there for quite a few years. We pulled it out of the shed to take a look at it. I’d just brought a battery and a gallon of gas with me. It had been sitting in this shed for so long, it had bird shit all over it. It had spiders all over it. It was just a nasty old shed up in Wisconsin. Anyway, we pulled this bike out, poured some gas in it, and put a battery in it. Bike fired right up.
Of course it did.
That’s what it did. I rode it down the street, rode it back, and gave him $3,500. We loaded it up in the truck and took it home. That was the beginning of my BMW.
So is that your BMW that’s here at Motoworks?
Yeah, my R100 RS. I love riding that bike, and there’s not another bike out there that does the same thing for me. It’s kind of like, to me, like once you find the right girl. It does everything for me. So yeah, that’s one bike that I won’t be getting rid of anytime soon. That bike has taken me all kinds of places. I got that bike with about 30,000 miles on it. Been through a few speedos, so I don’t keep track of actual mileage anymore, but if I were to add up some trips over the years I think I’ve probably got at least 150,000 miles in saddle-time on that thing.
To be continued in part two, where we dig into detail on Steve’s R100 RS, what he looks for in a quality mechanic, and his advice for anyone looking to keep their motorcycle in good health. Stay tuned.