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COVID 19 and the Cafe racer

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

How an old bike collecting dust in the back of my garage helped keep me sane during the lockdown.

by: Jason McCombs - Co-Founder and Guild Member

My father instilled in me at a young age the love of motorcycles. Growing up he had always ridden a motorcycle. As soon as the Michigan weather would break from the winter I would always hear my dad's motorcycle starting up in the morning as he warmed it up before he left to go work on the line at GM. As a child riding on the back of my dad's bike, there was nothing more exhilarating. In my teenage years, I had ridden various dirt bikes, minibikes, and mopeds with my friends but the first motorcycle that was mine was my dad's old 1982 Honda v45. it was a 750 street bike it was the largest thing that I had ever ridden at that point and even though I had ridden before my dad took me out into a parking lot and taught me everything that he knew about how to handle a street bike. Shortly after that, I got my cycle endorsement. Ever since then I've always owned a motorcycle and at some points more than one. Some of my fondest memories were spending a summer rebuilding a 1979 Yamaha triple xs750 that I bought for $125. It was in 12 milk crates and I had to climb around a guy's garage for 2 hours to try and find all the parts for it. Unfortunately, there were always mechanical issues with the transmission that could never really be resolved without spending too much money to fix it. Regardless of never having a second gear, I rode it for a few years daily.

In 2005 I bought a 1982 Yamaha Virago 750 from my cousin. It had been sitting in the back of his garage having not been ridden in quite some time and largely being used as a shelf. For almost 3 years it was my only means of transportation. I was down on my luck and didn't own a car and several times I had dusted the snow off that bike and rode to work. It was not in the best of shape with a rusty tank and a torn seat but it was mine and it meant freedom.

Flash forward to 2018 that old Yamaha had fallen into disrepair. I had tried to do a carburetor conversion on it and had never got it quite running right so it was abandoned to the back of my garage where it sat for a couple of years. I had gotten married and we bought a new house so other priorities had come first. Then one day I pulled it out of the garage because to be quite honest it was just in the way and it made me a little depressed that I didn't have a motorcycle anymore so I started looking for something to pick up. Figured I could spend a few thousand dollars to have something decent and thought I would see what I could get for the old girl. Soon realized that in its current condition it wasn't worth more than a few hundred dollars however I discovered that it was actually a quite sought after bike for hobbyists to convert into cafe racers.

"Cafe Racers" get their name from old English wrench monkeys of the 1960s who would strip down their motorcycles to just the bare essentials and literally race from Cafe to Cafe. I started to pour over hundreds of other Yamaha virago cafe racer projects. Some of the most beautiful conversions. Video after video, photo after photo, I decided that why not? I have nothing to lose. The bike is not worth anything and one thing that my dad always told me growing up was "it can't be that hard if somebody else is doing it. ” One of those nuggets of fatherly advice that had always stuck with me. That simple phrase gave me the courage to do so many things in life without the fear of failure. So I pulled that old motorcycle out of the back of a dusty garage and took it over to my friend's shop where I would have space, tools, and time to pretty much do whatever I wanted with it. I started out gung ho and cocksure disassembling the bike and buying random bits from the internet. Now with a large pile of removed parts and no hope of restoring the motorcycle back to its original glory, I realized how large of a project I'd gotten myself into. So for the better part of a year, it just sat in now a much larger garage collecting dust once again.

Then one day the world stopped. COVID 19 was spreading rapidly throughout the globe and the US had finally come to a standstill. I was one of the lucky few who managed to hang on to my job working from home however the grind of never leaving my computer, never seeing my friends and the elimination of any kind of social life was taking its toll. I suddenly had free time. Life, as it was up till that point, had always had a way of filling every moment of time with something I needed to do. Some sort of engagement, some sort of project I was involved in. So I had taken refuge in having a distraction for my mind by going back to that old motorcycle and deciding that I was indeed going to ride again.

I found solace in the late nights of problem-solving, grinding, and welding. What worked and what didn't work. What looked great and what I needed to do over. I had some help with a few things that were out of my depth but for the vast majority of it it was just me and the machine and the transformation was beginning to take shape. It has definitely not been without its hurdles between lack of knowledge and lack of skill but by ever pushing forward there was light at the end of the tunnel.

As of today, I can say that I have a functioning cafe racer. It's not without its quirks. It's not as gorgeous as some of the immaculate conversions that I was using as a blueprint for how I would approach this project but in the end, I'm very happy and very proud that I was able to see it through. In a very real way, those quiet nights in the shop focused solely on the task at hand saved my sanity. Allowed me the diversion to let the rest of the world fall away and not think about the larger problems we all face together.

I was almost sad that I might be finished but then I remembered that the best part about a custom bike is that there's always work to do.

Live to Ride. Ride to Live.

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