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Common Tread

Reliability Rally report: Sub-$1,000 motorcycles, 400 miles, two days, one trophy

Sep 24, 2021

A few weeks ago, I told the story of rescuing a crashed 1994 Kawasaki EX500 to enter in the Reliability Rally, a two-day, 400-mile challenge of riding and wrenching abilities. As promised, here are my log entries from the “Wild and Worrisome” run in West Virginia.

If you missed the preparation story, the RR rules are simple. Motorcycles must have a purchase price under $1,000 to enter. Rally competitors can spend as much as they want on mods, restoration, and safety items, so the bikes range from barely functional to near-mint. That thousand-dollar limit doesn’t mean that everyone is riding equally crappy motorcycles; getting battered bikes back on the road encompasses the spirit of the event. After all, any motorcycle under a grand will have its issues. Some are worse than others...

Note: The Reliability Rally uses part of their proceeds to support the Neighborhood Resilience Project, a community outreach program in the Rally founders’ hometown of Pittsburgh.

Prelude: July 9 to September 8, 2021

July 9, 2:31 p.m.: Notice thrashed Kawasaki Ninja 500 chained up outside local dealership. Bike is destined for the scrapyard. Interested.

July 12, 5:48 p.m.: Pay scrap value, save trip to junkyard. Thrashed Ninja 500 now parked in my garage instead.

July 13, 6:45-11:50 p.m.: Assess damage. (Read full rebuild article here.) Brother offers parts from his mint ‘87 EX500 for testing purposes only and shows how to hotwire a second-gen EX500 with a handful of wires and a resistor. Lights work, starter spins. Wait for new key to arrive. Weld clip-on back together.

July 14, 12:56 p.m.: Ninja starts, runs, and rides. Somewhat angry at bike that hardly needs any work to run so well. Look up “2021 Reliability Rally.” Regret missing their run at Tail of the Dragon. Vow to make the next event.

Ninja 500 repair
Here's the trusty EX, ready to ride. Did I find and fix all the major issues? Photo by Andy Greaser.

July 15 to August 15: Junk bike receives too many nice parts. Beg for money from the Common Tread coffers so a mechanical failure doesn’t throw rider/writer off West Virginia cliff. Spend most of sponsorship on tires, battery, and new front brake line. Spend remainder on purple underglow and stickers.

September 8, 5:41 p.m.: Cracked left mirror finally falls off. No time to order a replacement because the Rally is in two days. Notice that mirror thread fits an LED fog light from parts stash. Ninja now has auxiliary lighting. Stand back and admire battlebike. 

Broken down already: September 9 and 10

September 9, 7:57 p.m.: Load Ninja onto trailer and roll out. Plan to drive halfway, then visit friends and continue drive next day.

September 9, 10:45 p.m.: Arrive at friends’ place. Consider putting motorcycle cover on Ninja as theft deterrent. Decide that Ninja’s appearance is better theft deterrent.

September 10, 9:30 a.m.: Roll out for camp. Traffic is terrible. 

September 10, 4:52 p.m.: Notice smoke coming from Jeep’s brake caliper. Turn music down so I can see and smell better. Why are senses like this?

September 10, 4:56 p.m.: Torched brake smell is overwhelming. Caliper locking up. Construction means road shoulders are closed off. Scan anxiously for the first available exit.

September 10, 5:08 p.m.: Spot tire and lube place just off exit. Yes, they do brakes, but they are closing in 20 minutes. “Can’t help. Sorry!” Jeep now has "hill assist" from caliper. Not good.

September 10, 5:29 p.m.: Limp Jeep and trailer to auto parts store. Signs say not to work on cars here. Decide to work quickly.

September 10, 5:41 p.m.: Young guy working parts counter not terribly helpful. ("You need front driver's side... So would that be left or right?") Eventually find what I need, spend more on brake parts than I spent on Ninja. Bleed screw on new caliper is frustratingly stuck. Not even vise grips will move it. Decide to bleed through banjo bolt. Advanced dumb technique, do not try at home. 

Jeep breakdown
I'm not even at the Rally yet, and I'm already fixing things. Photo by Andy Greaser.

September 10, 7:15 p.m.: Test lap around parking lot and side street. Brakes mushy but adequate, like sandwich in console. Resume journey.

September 10, 8:16 p.m.-8:53 p.m.: Discover that every gas station in West Virginia apparently dumps coffee pots at quarter after eight. Search for coffee begins.

September 10, 9:14 p.m.: Find a 7-Eleven with awful joe in Wardensville, W.Va. Tastes like my brakes smelled. Drink the whole cup. 

September 10, 10:55 p.m.: Arrive at Reliability Rally. Eat food, meet riders, promise self that I will get to bed early.

Reliability Rally camp
This would have been my first view of camp if I had arrived on time. Reliability Rally photo.

September 10, 10:59 p.m.: Learn that the Reliability Rally philosophy of "cheap and good" extends to their Pittsburgh Brewing Company beer. 

Rally day one: September 11

September 11, 1:45 a.m.: Go to sleep.

September 11, 7:30 a.m.: First look at surroundings in daylight. West Virginia is beautiful. RR staff bought new coffeemaker, now drag racing it against old one. Everything competition here. Coffee extra strong, does not taste like burning brakes.

Reliability Rally camp
View from the cabin porch. Not bad at all. Reliability Rally photo.

September 11, 8:15 a.m.: Rider’s meeting. Ninja will be right behind RR organizer Colin and his 9/11 tribute Suzuki Bandit 400. Peel out and make our run on Spruce Knob hill climb.

September 11, 9:15 a.m.: Two bike issues already: Honda Rebel 250 out of gas, Honda PC800 battery not charging. Support truck saves both. Climb to top of Spruce Knob, 4,860 feet, highest point in state. West Virginia still beautiful. Continue riding U.S. 33.

September 11, 10:56 a.m.: Fuel stop in Harman, W.Va. Decide that Ninja 500 rules, could even podium. Honda Gold Wing crashed out on last section, but bike and rider make it back to camp. Next section tests max fuel economy; feel sad. Pinning throttle was fun. Meet riders on expensive Eurobikes who wish they were us, and plan to join next year. “Your bikes are awesome,” says rider whose motorcycle costs as much as all of ours put together. Chris' Honda Ascot needs a slight adjustment, backfires a little.

Honda Ascot repair
"It's not an unplanned stop if you make repairs during a planned stop, right?" Photo by Andy Greaser.

September 11, 11:30 a.m.: Decide that fuel economy is Ninja’s best shot at major points. Kawi rates EX500 at 64 mpg. Hypermiling ensues. Drafting, crouching behind windscreen, coasting down hills.

West Virginia motorcycling
Jim and Tina take a West Virginia curve. These roads go on for miles and miles. Reliability Rally photo.

September 11, 11:58 a.m.: Coffee stop in Thomas, W.Va. Unsure if buzz is from Ninja handlebars or previous cups of coffee. Drink more coffee. Meet riders on Harley-Davidson Pan America and BMW S 1000 XR who wish they had cheap bikes to ride with us. Pan Am paint option costs more than Ninja. Ride Routes 48, 42 and 28 to Smoke Hole Road and Shreve’s Country Store. Temporarily give up on winning fuel economy. Roads are too much fun.

Honda CB750 cafe
I got a good look at Ian's CB750 when we stopped for coffee, and I later gave him my vote for best custom. He rides it hard, too. Photo by Andy Greaser.

September 11, 1:55 p.m.: Snack stop at Shreve’s Country Store. Meet fast riders on a BMW K 1600 B. They get contact info, hope to join next year... Pattern seems to be forming with these interactions. Neat general store has snacks for hungry riders, but no magnets to stick on garage fridge. Ascot backfires mightily.

September 11, 1:46 p.m.: Riding U.S. 220 south. Temporarily give up on winning fuel economy again. 

Honda PC800 Pacific Coast
Spotted during the fuel stop. PC800 guy knows what's up. Photo by Andy Greaser.

September 11, 3:07 p.m.: Fuel stop in Franklin, W.Va. Consumed 1.4 gallons over fuel economy section, works out to 63 mpg! Old two-strokes both rolled in on fumes. Ascot backfires mightily.

Bandit 400
That Bandit 400 scream is delicious. I voted for Colin's Suzuki as my favorite sub-$1,000 machine. Reliability Rally photo.

September 11, 4:28 p.m.: Climb U.S. 33 at the Virginia border. Magic road is banked and twisted like racetrack. Ride up and down many times. Swap bikes with Colin for a pass. Bandit 400 rules. Forbid Colin from ever selling Bandit unless sold to me. Swap bikes with Lou to try Honda Nighthawk 750 and chase a Eurobike until getting stuck behind a truck. Lou and Colin love Ninja. Look up prices for Nighthawk like Lou’s. Know at least one sold for $1,000… 

September 11, 5:55 p.m.: Return to camp for pizza. Zero issues with Ninja all day. RR staffer Roland and I get Jeep brakes fully bled after cracking open bleed screw. Remind self to buy giant vice grips like Roland’s to keep in Jeep.

Reliability Rally Scooter of Shame
When it isn't hauling broken-down riders, the Scooter of Shame carries firewood. Reliability Rally photo.

September 11, 7:30 p.m.-???: Hang around fire, mostly talk about crappy motorcycles. Good people here.

Rally day two: September 12

September 12, 7:03 a.m.: More coffee, quick inspection of the Ninja. No nuts or bolts have fallen off. Bring spares in pocket anyway.

September 12, 8:29 a.m.: Ride out to Cass, W.Va. via U.S. 33, Routes 28 and 66. RR staff sure knows how to pick roads.

September 12, 9:54 a.m.: Ian’s Honda CB750 disappears from my mirrors. Colin signals U-turn. Find CB roadside with snapped pull throttle cable. 20-minute repair countdown begins. Ian attempts to repurpose push cable into pull cable, will take longer than breakdown time allowance. Colin says cables fail more than anything else on these rides.

Broken throttle cable end
Ruh roh, Raggy. Get the Helix! Reliability Rally photo.

September 12, 10:02 a.m.: Ian must ride the Scooter of Shame, a Honda Helix 250.

September 12, 10:03 a.m.: Mild shaming of Ian. CB750 is rolled onto chase truck trailer.

September 12, 11:04 a.m.: Arrive at Cass Scenic Railroad State Park for slow race. Notice steam locomotive with extra moving parts that turn out to be gears for climbing steep tracks into logging mountains. Junk bikes suddenly don’t feel so “old” anymore.

September 12, 11:32 a.m.: Begin slow race. Decide to go in first group. Whiff the slow race, experience disappointment.

September 12, 12:25 p.m.: Arrive in Huttonsville, W.Va. Fuel up and check Ninja’s eighth-mile time. First app does not work. Second app gives a slower time than expected. Looks like undercover car might be checking on Reliable Riders. Ascot backfires mightily. Stop eighth-mile testing and accept lackluster time. 

September 12, 12:51 a.m.: Leave for Fort Edward Johnson via U.S. 250. Fast, flowing roads get tighter and tighter. Should ride the Shenandoahs more. 

Fort Edward Johnson motorcycle ride
These roads were tighter and more technical than Saturday's. Make the trip if you're ever in the area. Reliability Rally photo.

September 12, 2:34 p.m.: Arrive at top of maniacal, snaking climb. Realize road design is not maniacal, but probably animal. Game trail becomes walking path over mountain becomes dirt road becomes paved road… Ninja needs cool-down break less than I do; temp gauge hasn’t moved all day.

September 12, 3:01 p.m.: Colin loans Bandit out to sweep truck driver, who gets overenthusiastic and puts it in a ditch. Nice lady gives sweep truck driver a lift back to the top to get sweep truck. Colin sad about Bandit. Am also sad about Bandit. Maybe road is maniacal after all. Explore remains of Confederate fortifications: piles of dirt and some rocks. Guess anything’s a fort if you have enough guns.

Crashed Bandit 400
The Bandit took the crash like a champ. Not pictured: rashed bar end weight, tweaked tail plastics. Impressively intact. That's a Suzuki for ya! Reliability Rally photo.

September 12, 3:15 p.m.: Bandit expected to make a full recovery, but not rideable with hole in ignition cover. Lou is now front group leader. Front group begins slightly more cautious descent. Rally has never had a crash before Gold Wing and Bandit. Lou and Colin forbid further crashing. Ascot backfires mightily.

September 12, 3:46 p.m.: Decide to abandon cautious behavior and start swapping bikes. Top of my list is the Scooter of Shame. First twist of throttle confirms that Scooter of Shame is terrible.

September 12, 4:10 p.m.: Scooter of Shame is sketchy and kinda fast downhill. Pass a Nissan Murano on an uphill somewhere on U.S. 33. “Shame!” I yell. “Shame!” Chase Jon’s Honda Pacific Coast for a while.

September 12, 4:46 p.m.: Pacific Coast runs through an oil slick and pulls over to clean tires, rest of group pulls over, too. Rider behind me says he “didn’t know you could ride a scooter like that!” Secretly want Helix 250 now. Swap Scooter of Shame for Pacific Coast with mostly clean tires. No idea where Ninja is or who is riding it. 

September 12, 4:47 p.m.: Pacific Coast ain’t bad at all. Twist the wick and chase a Kawi two-stroke triple and a Honda CB900, Rebel 250 and Helix in hot pursuit. Wonder where else in the world this happens. Probably nowhere.

Reliability Rally trophy
Justin (left) cleaned up with his SV650 to win a trophy beautifully crafted from motorcycle trash. Chris (center) took second aboard the customized Ascot, and co-founder Lou (right) beat me to third by one point. Reliability Rally photo.

September 12, 5:38 p.m.: Arrive at camp, ditch riding gear and get some quick interviews with riders. Hello again, Pittsburgh Brewing Company. Awards ceremony follows. Justin and his $1,000 Suzuki SV650 beat Chris and his FT500 custom by two points. Lou and his Nighthawk win third, I take fourth with the Ninja. Not bad for first time. Should have shown off underglow more and not whiffed slow race. Will return with champion slow race skills and even more underglow.

September 12, 6:01 p.m.: Start looking on Craigslist for next year’s bike. Remember Honda CBR600F3 ($200) and CB350F ($0, crashed) in storage. Close Craigslist, open eBay to go look for parts.

Meet some Reliable Riders

Radian 600
Paul Drenevich. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Paul Drenevich, 1986 Yamaha Radian 600

Price? $995

Rally prep? Added mirrors. It had bar ends, but you couldn’t see a darn thing. 

How much fun was it? A lot of fun. Just did the pre-ride, put about 200 miles on it without any test ride, and then we did 400 this weekend with no breakdowns. Just wish the gas tank was a little bigger!

ST1100
Mark Goodman. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Mark Goodman, 1991 Honda ST1100

Price? $1,000

Rally prep? The carbs were plugged with gas and the fluids were yucky. Cleaned the carbs, put them back in, and it started right up! Took a timing belt, pads, valve clearance check, and that was pretty much it. This is my second ST, as I bought one while I was living in Hawaii and got familiar with it. I always regretted selling that one, but after I moved to Tennessee, I found this one locally and snapped it up.

How much fun was it today? I feel like I was dreaming this whole weekend. Not only did I love the roads they picked out for us, but I rode 700 miles to get here, and I’ll ride 700 home. My confidence in the bike is higher than ever. I’ve actually calculated that this bike should last longer than the rest of my riding career!

Honda Rebel 250
Irv Hefner. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Irv Hefner, 1999 Honda Rebel 250

Price? $1,000

Rally prep? Nothing. It's fine.

How much fun was it today? The Rebel was incredibly fun. It’s better in the twisties than the hills, it’s very slow. Handles well. I was dragging the pegs here and there. It really likes downhill, tight turns. It surprises you. You can keep up with bikes twice its size or more. Just gotta watch those hills!

KZ1000 LTD
Chris Drnevich. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Chris Drnevich, 1982 Kawasaki KZ1000 LTD

Price? $900

Rally prep? It actually ran when I bought it. I had to do a carb rebuild, of course, then new pads, turn signals, rebuilt calipers, fork springs and seals, and new levers. This pipe was already on it. I got lucky with this one... First bike I ever bought that ran. You know what, this is the first bike I ever bought that had a motor in it!

How much fun was it today? There are no words to describe it. One of the most fun things I could ever do. I live for the drag race, I’m a straight-line guy, but it handled well. Pulls out of the turns very nicely. Little tough getting it pointed in, but it shoots out great!

Honda PC800
Jon Passauer. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Jon Passauer, 1989 Honda PC800 Pacific Coast

Price? $1,000

Rally prep? Nothing much. I did an oil change and I fixed a busted mirror. 

How much fun was it today? 10 out of 10! The bike works best on long, swooping sections where you can look around while riding. It’s more comfortable than a car! I had a little charging issue, but that was it. Yeah, it's heavy, kinda soggy, but good. Even carried all my camping gear in the back. I think Honda should re-release something like this.

CB900 Custom
Tina Gannon. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Tina Gannon, 1982 Honda CB900 Custom

Price? Birthday present! It only had 800 miles on it. I think somebody bought it, scared themselves, and then it sat for a very long time.

Rally prep? The mufflers needed paint, for sure. The air fork seals were redone, and it needed a replacement turn signal. The air filter got oily from a crash, too, so once that was replaced, it ran well. It also needed some brake work.

How much fun was it today? It was a blast! I don’t push it too hard, I baby it because I want to keep it for a long time. I can stay in high gear for a long time, and even if I get lazy, it’ll take off. The high/low is fun to play with, and we considered using it for the drag race. It’s not very useful, but it’s something special. People go, “It’s a 10-speed!?!” I love the looks of it. When I think of a motorcycle, or a motorcycle tattoo, this is what I imagine. It’s a cream puff, too. That seat sits so well. It’s perfect for me. 

Yamaha RD350
Harry Church. Photo by Andy Greaser.

Harry Church, 1974 Yamaha RD350

Price? $850

Rally prep? This bike had 5,500 miles on it when I picked it up about seven years ago, and it looked really bad. It was a runner, though. I just fixed things as I could, and as they came up. 1974 was the poorest period of my life, and at the time, I was living behind a Yamaha shop. I dreamed of an RD. Years later, I finally got this one at AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days. It now has a fully rebuilt motor by an RD expert. I painted the motor and frame myself (Harry's a pro painter), pieced together the chrome, and the carbs were swapped out for nicer examples. Jim (his fellow two-stroke rider at the RR) painted the tins. And I just love it.

How much fun was it? (Laughs) I’ve been saying how much fun it was to other people here, but you can’t print that.. I'll say this, I had the best time I’ve had in a long time. I tell you what, this group, they’re a bunch of good riders. And this RD eats up the twists, it’s a twist machine. We have lots of curvy roads back home, and I think we may do a RR down there in the future. 

Reliability Rally group photo
10/10, would rally again. Reliability Rally photo.

Cheating on my EX

Fixing up that old EX500 and attending the Rally was a highlight of my year, and I'll be back for more. If I'm honest with myself, the Ninja was almost too good for this event. Supremely competent and utterly reliable, it won best fuel economy and lowest purchase price at $60 (honorarily tied with Tina's gift CB900 after some discussion by the judges). Next year, I hope to bring something a little more challenging. Big respect to RR riders on difficult bikes like metric barges, two-strokes, and customized builds.

Colin, Lou, and the rest of the RR crew put on a phenomenal weekend with outstanding roads and plenty of good-natured competition. If you know one end of a wrench from the other and you'd like to try it for yourself, head over to the Reliability Rally web site to learn more.