Penguin Chronicles: My Body and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance


I’m not going to put my body under a tarp in the garage and let it rust away. I’m doing my best to maintain it.

Pat Raymond is my oldest friend—not in age but in years of friendship. We worked together at a motorcycle dealership in the early 1970s. Our lives went in vastly different directions, but we have been in each other’s lives ever since.

Our mutual passion for motorcycles has never abated. Pat developed a mechanical expertise that was recognized and rewarded with a career in the industry. I have owned and ridden hundreds of motorcycles over the years. These days we tend to talk about our grandchildren and look back at classic motorcycles and wonder if there’s space in our garages.

One of these classics was a BSA 441 Victor, also called the Victim since that what nearly every owner became. Pat recalls servicing a particular 441: “ Of course on these bikes there was never a time when the repairs were actually completed, just pauses in an ongoing quest.”

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That’s when it hit me. In my life of activity—running, walking, cycling—there will never come a time when the process is complete. Each day of training, each race, each time a new goal is met or something unthinkable is accomplished, those are just pauses in an ongoing quest.

Too often I’ve thought of living an active life as being a middle-aged Sisyphus, pushing an increasingly resistant body up the hill of lower times and greater distances only to roll down the hill of injury and inactivity—and then to have to start again. Each time I try to push that body to new heights it seems harder than the time before.

What if I’m not Sisyphus? What if my body is a flesh and blood version of a 1968 BSA 441 Victor? Frank Melling wrote in “The Victor also needed to be ridden with a degree of circumspection. A nice Victor is theoretically capable of something in the region of 85mph flat out. The problem is that ridden like this, the motor will self-destruct in hours—which isn’t that much of a problem because the vibration will have killed the rider long before the engine blows up.”

I need to exercise with a degree if circumspection. I might be able to run a 5K in 20 minutes or a marathon in less than 4 hours but like the 441 Victor it’s likely that my body would self-destruct (though I’d be hobbled by IT band syndrome or plantar fasciitis long before I’d reach those goals!).

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Rather than viewing the endless cycle of training, racing and recovering as a Greek tragedy, I could view it as the relentless pursuit of balance between too much and not enough, much like the 441 Victor owner had to balance the right amount of throttle for the engine to start without causing the bike to backfire—which could throw you over the handlebars.

This new way of thinking has relieved me of my anxiety about the inevitable changes in my abilities. Brand new 441 Victors weren’t perfect. They leaked oil and fuel and suffered from chronic electrical problems. Owning one was an adventure. A lovingly restored 441 is better than new.

The time and energy I’m investing in staying active will make me better too. Not better than I was but better than I might be. I’m not going to put my body under a tarp in the garage and let it rust away. I’m doing my best to maintain it.

For all of the horror stories about the 441 Victor, when you did everything right—when you flooded the carburetor just enough, when you rotated the piston to just before the top of the power stroke, when you kicked hard enough to get a hot spark and gave it just enough throttle to start and idle instead of misfiring and going stone dead—it was euphoric.

For all of the horror stories of awful training days and terrible races, we all understand that if you get it exactly right—if you are well trained and well rested, when you settle into a rhythm at a pace you can handle and the day is perfect—it is euphoric. It’s the same as hearing that 441cc single puffing along underneath you.

On those days both the motorcycle and the running make perfect sense.


About The Author:

John Bingham, aka The Penguin, will share his running tales and experiences every month. Have a story of your own to share or a topic you’d like The Penguin to consider? E-mail him at

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