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Common Tread

New rider, 45-year-old motorcycle, and Colorado high country

Oct 16, 2020

With only about 20 miles to go in my all-day, 230-mile trip, I was stopped, waiting.

The construction flagger told me it would be about half an hour until I could get through this short part of Cottonwood Pass, a lightly trafficked dirt route from Gypsum to Carbondale, Colorado. About to move on to the car behind me with the same bad news, he paused.

“You know,” he said, “there’s a trail just past these first few cones that goes up the canyon. A lot of dirt bikes have been taking it today to get past this work.”

I paused, but not for long. I couldn’t resist. I started up my 1975 Honda CL360 and pointed it down the singletrack. At this point, I’d tackled so many unknowns, from the December night when I picked up this 45-year-old rescue in the dark to many trips to the salvage yard to late nights in the garage to this day, the longest motorcycle ride I’d ever attempted. Why not throw in one last challenge?

CL360 in Colorado
The 1975 Honda CL360 takes its first voyage after resurrection. Photo by Spencer Powlison.

How I started motorcycling on an antique Honda

The 360, and this trip I took on it, start and end with my friend, Anthony. That December night, he was on the phone, convincing me to pick up what was essentially a rolling donor bike for $700. After that, we exchanged many texts troubleshooting carburetors, electrical systems and timing adjustments, enough to fill a book. I’m not sure who would ever read that book, though.

It was a pretty extensive project, the likes of which I’d never experienced, but by mid-April my old bike was running. A few months later, Anthony and his family moved to Carbondale. So, with the 360 running like a top all summer, late September seemed like a great time to pay him a visit and put my work to the test.

odometer at 10,000 miles
That's an average of less than 200 miles per year, but more than 200 miles in one day on its first trip. Photo by Spencer Powlison.
Apart from a year’s experience riding dirt bikes, I was essentially new to motorcycles when I embarked on the first leg of this journey in my workshop. The moto obsession is perhaps my third-life crisis (not quite mid-life, unless things go badly in my 60s). However, I’ve always loved traveling on two wheels — the last 23 years on the pedals, not the throttle. I’d ridden 200-plus miles on a bicycle a few times, so that kind of distance with a motor seemed entirely doable.

I rolled out from my home near Boulder on a perfect fall morning, flying up the freshly graded dirt of Sunshine Canyon, through Gold Hill, and onward to the Peak to Peak Highway. Happily revving along at 5,000 rpm, my little Honda twin sounded amazing. Those aftermarket mufflers and CB-style low pipes were one of my first challenges back in the wintertime.

The bike came with some slash-cut low pipes with baffles. They didn’t really fit right or look great. Plus, I wasn’t too keen on the noise. No problem, I thought, I’ll find some cool scrambler-style high pipes.

This became my first hard lesson in the challenges that come with cobbling together an old motorcycle with limited know-how and tools. After a couple of fruitless trips to the salvage yard, and many discouraging searches on eBay, I compromised. Low pipes would be fine. Who am I kidding anyway? I’d probably end up with severe burns from a set of high pipes.

Back on the Peak to Peak, and a little south of Nederland, I stopped to put on another layer next to a stand of bright yellow Aspens. The day’s forecast was ideal for my ride, but that didn’t make 8 a.m. at 9,000 feet above sea level any warmer. A crew of guys on V-twin cruisers roared past in the other direction, happily waving. Each time this happens, I get a little less self-conscious about my scruffy little bike and my novice-level experience. For all of the hyper-specialization of motorcycles, riding styles, and gear, everyone sure is friendly.

CL360 with some abandoned buildings
A relic from another time. And a couple of old buildings, too. Photo by Spencer Powlison.

I bungled the navigation at the south end of Peak to Peak in the gambling town of Central City but eventually found myself on Virginia Canyon, a.k.a. Oh My God Road. Maybe the person who named it was riding an old Honda like mine with a single-piston front disc brake. Though the brake did everything I asked of it, I certainly got an earful as it squeaked and squealed all the way down the dirt switchbacks into Idaho Springs.

In its defense, though I rebuilt the master cylinder and calipers, it is mostly original. Thanks to Anthony’s ultrasonic cleaner, I was able to salvage those ancient pieces of cast aluminum. But even with the thorough cleaning, the brake is stone-age technology, and don’t even consider riding it when it’s wet.

Though I was next to I-70 at that point, I was content to cruise up the frontage road to Empire and avoid the leaf-peeping traffic heading into the mountains. I turned up Berthoud Pass and swooped around the switchbacks that climbed to over 11,000 feet.

Looking across at the famous Disney avalanche path, named for a movie production that kicked off a disastrous slide in the Clear Creek valley, I started to think about carburetors. How would these two little Keihin CV carbs handle the thin air? I’d given them a fighting chance. Between Anthony’s ultrasonic cleaner, a rebuild kit, smaller jets, and a synchronization using some old-school mercury, they had been breathing like marathon runners. And to my pleasant surprise, it was no trouble at all to crest the pass and drop into the Grand Valley through Winter Park, Frasier and Granby.

I did my best to avoid highway 40, the main drag through those towns and on to Kremmling, because on a little motorcycle that didn’t do much faster than 60 or 65 mph, it was kind of sketchy. The engine was revving past 5,000 rpm in sixth gear. I imagined the cam spinning blindingly fast at the top of the casing.

Back in the spring, I was beside myself trying to get the 360 to idle correctly. I took apart the top end and found the cam was frighteningly dry. The bearing surfaces were a bit pitted and worn. Oil wasn't pumping through. All of this was due to a very dumb mistake I'd made by forcing the right engine cover back on and ignoring a pop that was my oil pump gear shearing in two. I was freaked out. Anthony talked me down, told me to liberally douse the top-end with a mixture of engine oil and stabilizer, put it back together, and be glad I caught this as soon as I did.

The cam was fine, thankfully. It was actually just all the cars and traffic on highway 40 that worried me. So, I turned onto a little dirt pass (a second Cottonwood Pass, in fact), and happily cut over to Hot Sulphur Springs before connecting to Kremmling.

CL360 on a dirt road
These are the types of roads I preferred for my trip. Photo by Spencer Powlison.

Meanwhile, back on the trail on Cottonwood Pass

By now it might be obvious, but I prefer riding on dirt. Between Oh My God Road, the two Cottonwood Passes, and the wonderful Trough Road that follows the Colorado River out of Kremmling, I did my best to avoid paved highway miles on this trip. Even though the knobbies on my 360 were a bit old (OK, very old), they had plenty of tread left, and provided confidence even on the loose, dusty roads that come at the end of a dry summer.

The original ride plan did not include singletrack, though. I knew it was a little risky to follow that construction worker’s suggestion and hop on the trail to skirt the closure. From a practical standpoint, I could say my years of mountain biking experience give me a sense for how trails will be — hard or easy, rocky or smooth, steep or flat, based on terrain, location, proximity to roads, and on and on. But really, my decision came from the gut. And often, I’m a little hungry for a thrill.

trail on Cottonwood Pass
The trail on Cottonwood Pass got quite narrow. Photo by Spencer Powlison.

The canyon turned out to be much narrower than I realized. The trail wound tightly through brush and trees, challenging my spatial awareness with the extra-wide scrambler bars I found in the salvage yard. I frequently clipped my pegs on rocks, too.

As I was starting to feel the flow of the trail, I came to a low tree and had to slow to squeeze under it. Two riders on dirt bikes came down in the opposite direction. They marveled at my old Honda and probably laughed to themselves about my extremely ill-suited gear — black leather jacket (hot), helmet with visor flipped up (easy to catch on branches), makeshift luggage bungeed to the seat (tippy). But they were mostly stoked and gave me a quick explanation of how to get back to the road.

Thanking them for the help, I carried on up the trail. Soon I encountered two really steep pitches where my adventure could have gone very, very wrong. I gave it the beans, slipped the clutch as much as I dared, and somehow got up each. On the second, I looked across to the road at the top and sure enough, there was Anthony, jumping up and down with excitement, having watched me power my way up this dirt bike trail.

As promised, the trail perfectly skirted the construction. Anthony was waiting with his XR600. We caught up for a moment. I took off my leather jacket, soaked in sweat. Then we rode the final miles — perhaps the best of the day between the scenery, foliage, and road — to get to his home.

CL360 and XR600 meet up in town
The CL360 meets up with Anthony's XR600. Photo by Spencer Powlison.

Why start with an old motorcycle?

A couple days later, I returned to Boulder via a similar route, although with a few excellent alternate roads, such as the Colorado River Road out of Dotsero and Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. Other than a leaky tachometer oil seal (probably blown in my off-road excursion), the 360 was flawless.

It’s hard to say exactly what drew me, a novice in both riding and wrenching on motorcycles, to a 1975 project bike. A late-model adventure bike would have been far better suited for a ride like this, and I freely admit that. But the 360 did everything I asked of it. A modern motorcycle also wouldn’t have taken 100-plus hours in the workshop simply to get it running either, never mind the grueling bureaucratic journey I faced in getting a new title from the DMV.

This was not the easy way to do it.

Even though the bike only cost $700, I’m sure I spent just as much in parts, so I wouldn’t even say it was the cheap way to do it either. Yes, style is important to me. But while I am drawn to the vintage look versus most modern bikes, I think what kept driving me forward in this project and on this ride was my sense of ownership. This truly was my bike, and I’d seen it through from start to finish.

CL360 at an overlook
One advantage of a slow, old bike is that it encourages stops to enjoy the scenery, like this overlook of the Colorado River Gorge on Trough Road near Kremmling. Photo by Spencer Powlison.

At one point after I arrived in Carbondale, in an impressed tone, Anthony said, “You know, doing that ride on your old Honda was a little bit crazy.”

I guess I never saw it that way. It was definitely crazy to buy this old bike with a plan to bring it back to life, barely knowing a carburetor from a camshaft or a stator from a solenoid. But by the time I rolled out of my driveway, 10 months later, I knew this CL360 inside and out. I was sure it could handle everything I’d planned to ride, and then some.