Tot Weerziens Robert

Robert and I first crossed paths just outside of San Jose, California on a group ride down to Death Valley back in 2008. We were a jolly group of 30 set out on President’s day weekend.  Many of us didn’t know each other but by the end of those 5 days we all shared our common experience and left friends.

I remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in high school thinking the book would be about motorcycles. I finished that novel feeling lost and confused. It wasn’t until many years later that I was riding my own bike and more importantly, servicing my own bike – that I really understood what Pirsig was communicating.

Most of my motorcycling career I understood servicing my motorcycle was necessary. I felt that it was too complex and an inaccessible endeavor for me. I feared messing something up.  I didn’t know if something would fall off at high speed.  Out of necessity, as the miles went on I learned to do some simple things like changing oil but I never felt really confident doing much beyond that.

I remember walking into Robert’s garage for the first time seeing a true artist at work. Robert lived the joy of motorcycle maintenance. His garage had bikes in various states and tools of all kinds to bring his vision to life. He always had a special soft spot for his Norton.  A few weeks ago he sent me a photo of how the real thing matched the model he had in his hand. Robert was one to always open his garage and share his art in your canvas. He did it under one condition – you had to hold the paintbrush.

Whenever a question would come up in my mind Robert would always say “Just come on over!”  My bike had hit the service interval for the valve adjustment – one of the more complex service items on a motorcycle that required the engine to be opened up. I’d avoided learning how to do this service as it felt like brain surgery and it was only required every 15,000 miles. Robert pushed me to do this whole service myself.

There were a number of points in the journey I didn’t have confidence in myself. Would I strip a screw? Would I drop something into the motor? Would the gaskets not seal correctly and leak? Robert had this firm confidence about him I always respected. I checked my valves and I’m a more confident and secure rider because of it. Sometimes when I was on the road I’d reach out and see what Robert thought of my tire tread – just for that extra layer of confidence.  We’d done a number of other maintenance items together over the 4 years we’ve really known each other. I’m a better rider (and teacher) because of his insight.

Robert lived only a mile or two away from me. On a few afternoons we took a long weekday lunch riding up to the top of Mount Diablo. We were colleauges in different, but related departments. I’m sure we mentioned the word work on those rides! Working from home most of the time I’d come to enjoy those hour long mid day rides – and especially those where Robert joined.

Robert shared the ride around Briones that I’ve come to appreciate as a fun adventure when I need to get out of the house. It’s a fourty minute ride that’s got some great backcountry in it and also serves as a great detour when the freeway is jammed.  We enjoyed that ride too!

One Sunday afternoon he tossed me the keys to one of the vintage bikes. My eyes opened up as big as Texas.  What if I drop it?  What if something happens?  This bike looked MINT!  On top of that, it was crazy having the break on my left foot and the gear shift on my right foot – just the opposite of a modern motorcycle.  I let out the clutch and felt the awesome only a vintage bike could provide!  My Aerostich riding suit still has a touch of oil on the pant leg from that black 1960s wonder. Every time I see that oil on my suit, I smile from the fun of that ride.

I was up in Canada visiting Randy this past summer and he’d mentioned that he needed to change the oil and coolant in his motorcycle. Robert and I did the same service on my bike. Randy’s bike was a Suzuki. My bike was a Suzuki. What could go wrong? Robert’s insight and certainty carried with me. Randy and I swapped the coolant and the oil all by ourselves and we were more confident for it.

When Randy was down here for Christmas I could see that he and Robert shared a unique connection. Back in World War II the Canadians liberated Holland. Robert is Dutch. Randy is Canadian. Both of them smiled about that connection. I could see in Randy’s eyes everything that I valued about knowing Robert: his wisdom, his art, his openness, and his let’s go for a ride approach to life.  Robert offered Randy the ability to ride one of his vintage motorcycles – just as he had me. Turns out that Randy was as floored as I was when offered to ride one of his bikes!

We spent the afternoon riding the Delta hoping to catch some of the ferries across the myriad of islands out there.  While the ferries were not running that day – we knew we were hanging out with the Real McCoy. It was an afternoon of new treasures for Randy and I: roads, conversations, and insights about life and bikes.  That’s what I respected most about him: he loved living his life and sharing it with others. He was a strong father, insightful and valued colleague, and the role model to me. He always said “just come on over” be it Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas break, or a random Sunday afternoon.

Robert was super excited to meet Randy – even more so knowing he was a fellow rider. His family embraced us as part of their community. We stayed up late playing games and solving puzzles with Robert’s family. Randy and I both loved doing life with Robert and his family.

Ever since I’ve known Robert he’s always had the yellow BMW GS. I always had the yellow Suzuki V-Strom. We were both long-term riders of yellow bikes.  When I finally upgraded to the new GS, he said “let’s go for a ride!” We swapped bikes. We talked about all things BMW and GS. I got to feel the difference between the two generations of motorcycles. I heard about all the differences in innovation between my bike and his.  He was always excited to talk about bikes.  I looked forward to working on the bikes together as BMW is a very different motorcycle than the V-Strom.  I miss him.  I miss knowing that we can’t share the two wheeled adventure ahead. I know I’ve lost a strong mentor and most importantly a friend.  I’m going to learn to work on my new bike. I’m going to find a copy of the service manual and trust the skills Robert has sewn into me.

We always talked about going up to the Sierras together for a long weekend. Robert and I always talked about crazy little roads all over the state. He saw that I lit up talking about this Sierras. As he always did he said “we should just go.”

I know you’re looking down on us. This summer we are going to the Sierras. I know you’ll be with us all the way, though I’m miss dearly seeing you here.

Dank u wel Robert. Dank u wel.

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