Billy Wilcox Loves To Ride

Typically, motorcycle feature stories revolve around a technical description of the bike with a few tidbits about the owner tossed in to provide a human element. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the story of Bill's Sportster is interesting-how many bikes do you know of that have racked up 77,690 miles in four years?-the real tale here isn't about the motorcycle so much as it is about the man.

Like many of us Bill got his first motorcycle (a Triumph TR6 of indeterminate age) while he was in high school-except in Bill's case, it was tech school. After graduating first in his auto mechanics class, he took a job as a boat mechanic and quickly replaced the Trumpet with a '56 Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide. He soon realized that working on boats wasn't nearly as fun as working on motorcycles, so in 1962 he went to work for Jim Ransom's Harley-Davidsondealership in Greenwich, Connecticut.

The motorcycle mechanic trade has never been what you'd you call lucrative, and it was even less so in the early '60s, so Bill supplemented his income by working for a small custom shop called RB Cycles. Somewhat unusually for the time, the owner of RB, Robert Blackson, was African-American, which considering the era makes the mentorship all the more special. Blackson, now in his '70s, was an expert mechanic and, as Bill put it, "one of the best and taught me a lot."

In 1970 Bill decided to strike out on his own. He figured that since his strong suit was repairing motorcycles he'd be happy running a small, independent shop. As he tells it, "one day I was out riding and found the perfect place; it had been built as a body shop and even came with a house." It was easy to get to, and the area was popular with motorcycle riders from four states. In 1973 he opened Wilcox motorcycle Service in Gaylordsville, Connecticut.

The shop got off to a slow start. The mid '70s were hardly boom years, so Bill worked on whatever came through the door. Although his service area was set up primarily for Harleys, there were lots of Hondas running around that neck of the woods. Bill soon earned a reputation as the go-to guy if you wanted your bike-Honda or Harley-fixed right the first time.

Bill was no slouch as a rider, either. He could and still can ride anything from a full-dress Harley to an ice racer with uncanny smoothness, but what really catches people's attention is his penchant for riding in weather that's better suited to snowmobiling.

It all started when he was working for Jim Ransom. Bill recalls, "Ransom was a terrific rider, and he'd ride to work every day no matter what. one day it snowed and here came Jim riding to work, making it look easy. I thought it was really neat and decided to learn how to do it. I fell a lot at first but then came up with the idea of lacing up a 15-inch rear rim to my Hydra-Glide and using a studded VW snow tire."

Bill now rides a modified dual sportbike with studded tires through the winter months. He says the studs make the bike tricky to ride on clean pavement but work great in the snow. Allow me to digress here and point out that mr. Wilcox's riding attire is definitely old-school. To keep warm he layers his clothing, topping it all off with a snowmobile suit and old-fashioned Harley- Davidson leather mittens. He doesn't use electrically heated gear: "Guys that wear electric stuff tend to dress too lightly. If the bike breaks down they'll be cold, and I'll still be warm."

Winter or summer, Billy just loves to ride. He's up early, usually by 3:30 a.m., and by 4 he's headed to breakfast at the Sunrise Diner in Sheffield, massachusetts, 38 miles away, so he can make it to the shop by 7, which gives him a jump on the day before he officially opens at 9. on Sundays he tours upstate New york, his favorite place to ride, and the worse the weather the better he likes it.

Being 66 and semiretired, Bill has cut back some, at least as far as work goes. He's still open Tuesday through Saturday but now concentrates on general service and routine maintenance. To find him, head up Route 7 until you come to the gaily painted Victorian house with the small sign that says "Wilcox motorcycle est. 1973." The shop is out back. Bring some coffee with you. Bill likes his with cream, no sugar
-Mark Zimmerman

I did say this story was about Billy's Sportster, didn't I? The funny thing is there's not much to tell. It's an '04 1200 Roadster with 77,690 miles on it, to which Bill has added electra Glide solo seats, crashbars (which he modified to act as an oil cooler) and hard bags. There's also a Dyna Convertible windshield and a Sportster Custom tank that increases fuel capacity by just over a gallon. Bill installed PIAA spotlights and heated grips, and he narrowed the footpegs, moving them forward an inch. He relocated the ignition switch from under the tank to the top clamp and, after breaking two drive belts, installed a cush drive in the rear hub. He tells me he gets about 10K to a set of tires and that the bike has never needed anything other than tires, routine servicing and those two belts. I should also mention that this is Bill's "good-weather bike" and only gets ridden until the first snowfall.
Bill keeps a good stock of studded tires on hand for those pesky winter rides.