Moto Guzzi California EV Touring - The Midnight Run Diary

Two Wheels Never Felt So Cold

The inaugural Crotona Midnight Run took place on New Year's Eve, 1911. It's taken place every year since, except for a hiatus during the first and second World War. Although the Run now takes place in mid-February, the timed road-run format and the challenges facing the riders remain much as they were during the early years. Riders must be able to follow the route sheet and maintain a 30-mph average speed while contending with bitter cold, darkness, ice-spotted roads and, if it comes to it, snow. Fortunately, most motorcycles now come equipped with electric headlights, an unaffordable option for many riders during those early years. Originally sponsored by the Crotona Motorcycle Club, the Midnight Run was adopted by the Ramapo Motorcycle Club in 1999. The 2004 run marked the event's 86th anniversary.

Friday, February 20, 11:15 a.m. I'm thrashing like a madman trying to get ready for another Midnight Run. As usual I've waited until the last minute before making any serious attempt to prepare myself. At this point I've yet to come up with a practical route-sheet holder and some way of illuminating it. Riding with a flashlight in my mouth just doesn't seem like the hot setup. Since I'm blind as a mole, the task is somewhat more difficult than it would be if I had anything like normal vision. This year I'm riding a brand-new Moto Guzzi California EV Touring, so at least I don't have to worry about breakdowns.

2:05 p.m. After two hours and a rampage through the junk bin, I've cobbled together what I need. An ancient license-plate light controlled by a toggle switch is bolted to an el-cheapo clipboard. Power is fed through the Guzzi's accessory electrical outlet. Velcro holds the temperature controller for my heated socks and gloves to the top of the clipboard. The whole megillah is tie-wrapped and velcroed to the top of my magnetic tank bag. It ain't rocket science, but it works just fine.

Friday night I knock off a quick 100 miles just to acclimate myself to riding in the cold and dark. During the ride it starts to spit snow and ice, not enough to make the road slippery, but more than enough to make me wonder why on earth I want to do another Midnight Run. Shortly after 11:00 p.m. I return home and flick on the Weather Channel only to have some chirping imbecile inform me that Saturday will be rainy. Snow and cold I can deal with, but the prospect of riding through a February night while soaked to the bone sucks. I lie awake trying to dream up some excuse to bail. Since I doubt Jamie will buy any of them, I resign myself to my fate.

Saturday, February 21, noon-10:00 p.m. I can't believe it-no rain, bright sunshine, temperatures in the high 40s. All afternoon I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting a nor'easter to blow in at any second. By 9 p.m. little has changed on the weather front. The night is clear, with a few scattered clouds and temperatures in the low 30s. Oddly, I'm somewhat disappointed-harsh conditions are what make the Midnight Run a challenge. Two slightly addled riding buddies have agreed to make the run with me. As we head to the staging area, about one hour south, it begins to flurry. My spirits rise.

The trip down is uneventful. The Guzzi works fine; its heated grips keep my digits warmer than I'd expected. I've managed to score a mint pair of Vetter Hippo Hands (circa 1974). Between the grips and the fleece-lined Hippos my hands are as warm as they'd be on any summer day. Last year I damn near froze my toes off. This year a pair of Gerbing's electric socks means I'll be able to walk without assistance at the end of the ride. I've never ridden with electric clothing before. As the temperature continues to drop, I decide to make them a permanent winter accessory. In case things really turn frigid I've got a pair of Gerbing's electric gloves in my saddlebags. Ironically, last year the temperature never rose above 8 degrees. I rode all night wearing the same basic gear I'd wear on any cold day and nearly froze my butt off. This year I've got it dialed, yet the temperature refuses to drop much below 30.

Saturday, 10:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. The run starts from a mall parking lot in Yonkers, New York, right next to a Nathan's Famous hot-dog stand. For those of you not from the greater New York area, Nathan's hot dogs, especially a Nathan's hot dog fresh from the grill, are the only hot dogs worth having. Predictably, that's what I do. What the hell, no sense riding on an empty stomach, is there?

Sign-up starts at 11:00 p.m. I'm 10th in line, meaning I'll ride out at midnight, plus 10 minutes. The hardcore road-run guys line up first. These dudes are all experienced road-rally types, adept at reading route sheets and keeping perfect time. They are hard to beat, but I aim to try. We'll be heading north through rural New York. The course is tough, not suicidal; for the most part we'll be riding on decently maintained back roads. At exactly midnight, the first rider is flagged off. The rest follow at one-minute intervals.

Sunday, February 22, 12:15 a.m. Expert navigator that I am, I lose four minutes right off the bat when I overshoot the first turn and get stuck at a light before I can pull a U-turn. Unbelievably, I lose more time when, oblivious, I sail past the second turn. Figuring three knuckleheads are better than one, I hook up with my buddies, who are also way off schedule. We decide to pool our resources to make things easier. Riding like lunatics, we make up some time, but I'm nine minutes late at the first checkpoint. Last year's winner only lost six minutes all night.

Sunday morning, 1:00-2:00 a.m. Things begin to settle down and we fall into a rhythm. Headed down one icy hill, I lose it and almost collect a guardrail, but other than that the ride is becoming routine. Then we blow another turn. Pretty soon six of us are milling around trying to decide if we're on foot or on horseback. Turning around on the narrow road, one rider tips over. By the time we pick up his ST1300, we're seriously behind schedule. Eventually we get back on track and manage to find the rest of the checkpoints without incident. We roll into the halfway point, the Carmel diner, about 12 minutes late. In the world of timed road runs, that's a lifetime. Stick a fork in this one, buddy, it's done. The best I can hope for now is a finisher's pin.

Sunday, 4:00 a.m. Two hours and a plate of see-through steak and greasy eggs later we're ready to hit the second leg. At least I am; two boneheads at the next table have spent the break tanking up on Budweiser. I'd noticed them wobbling around earlier and assumed they were having trouble with slippery roads or something. Now that I know better I'll give them a wider berth.

We're in my neck of the woods now. We make good time, riding on our minute and not missing a single turn or checkpoint. At one point I'm maybe a mile from home; I contemplate calling it a night for maybe three seconds. Then we press on.

The southbound leg is always the easiest. You're heading home, and by about 5:30 a.m. or so it's getting light. Unfortunately, my eyes are shot. I can't read the route sheet without stopping, so I have to follow someone. I ask my buddy to play pathfinder. He's tired, cold and bored. We've no chance at a decent finish, so he turns up the gas, causing us to hit the remaining checkpoints way too soon. Since the penalty for arriving at a checkpoint early is double that of arriving late, we're really hurting ourselves.

Sunday, 6:15 a.m. Finishing the Midnight Run is always a relief. The scorer checks in the riders as they arrive, and we can all relax. This year 27 riders started and 23 finished. That's many more than usual. The first four will get trophies, the rest, a small commemorative badge. It'll be a few days before the results are posted, and maybe a week before the finisher's pins and trophies are mailed out. Since I dropped more points by the second check than the top four riders combined did in total, I'm pretty sure my name won't be on the top of the list. Right now, I really don't give a rat's ass. All I can think of is the ride home, a hot shower and a warm bed.

A week later I get the results and my finisher's pin. Nineteenth out of 27-not a stellar result, perhaps, but like they say, there's always next year.

Moto Guzzi California EV Touring
I've always found myself oddly attracted to Guzzis, yet at the same time a bit wary of them. Kind of a yin-yang thing caused in no small part by some of their oddball quirks. On the one hand you've got legendary reliability, a strong, easily maintained engine and driveline and a certain flair for style that only the Italians can ever really pull off. On the other hand you've got those weird Harold linked brakes (yeah, I know lots of manufacturers use linked brakes. I don't like those any better) and what might possibly be, at least from the standpoint of my own ergonomic inclinations, the worst foot controls in motorcycling.

Understand then that I was a bit hesitant when Moto Guzzi offered me a new California EV Touring to ride in this year's Midnight Run. But then the last time I'd ridden an EV I'd liked it just fine, and whatever quibbles I had with some aspects of the design, I knew it wouldn't let me down when the going got tough. Besides, the Touring comes with some very nice standard accessories: heated grips, a windscreen and decently sized hard bags. All good things to have on a ride that starts at midnight in February. So after about 30 seconds of serious thought, I grabbed the keys and ran.

Truthfully, the first few miles on the EV had me wondering if I'd made the right decision. Those damn foot controls nearly drove me nuts. Believe me, any gears I managed to engage on the first attempt were purely accidental. Stopping with the rear brake was simply out of the question. The pedal was awkward to reach and hard to modulate. Clearly a bit of adjustment was required. A little spanner work put the shifter where I could at least use it, and I placed the foot brake to a position that wasn't so uncomfortable. In candor, once the pedals were adjusted I suppose I could get used to them. But the reality of it is that the lower controls need a complete redesign, preferably by someone who's ridden one of the floorboard-equipped bikes from H-D or any of the Big Four, or at least has roughly humanly proportioned dimensions. With careful adjustment and the right technique they can be made to work, but frankly, it takes dedicated Guzzistis to put up with them in standard trim.

On that same note, linked brakes are something I've never really developed a taste for. Considering the majority of roads I'd be on while riding the EV were likely to be at best sandy and slippery, and at worst covered with snow and ice, a linked brake system, especially one without ABS, would seem to create more problems than it solves. Fortunately, for the most part the roads remained dry, and my arguments against linked brakes remained largely theoretical.

Other than those two issues, there is a lot to like about the EV. The 1064cc V-twin revs a little slow, but it pulls like Jack the Bear, especially in the midrange. The engine management package is superb. When it comes to fuel injection MG has really done its homework, and it shows. The bike started easily despite the cold, even when the temperature dropped into the single digits, and it immediately settled into a consistent idle, with none of the snorting, spitting or stalling that plagues some other bikes. There was no lean surging or any other indication that the mapping was less than perfect.

The transmission is still a bit on the agricultural side, but it shifts much better than any of its predecessors. It's still possible to miss a gear change here and there, but that's mainly due to the balky shift mechanism.

Once underway the EV handles quite well. It's a bit firmer than most cruisers, but likely the best-handling member of the club, at least until Ducati starts building one. The bike steers accurately, holds its lines well and has a light, taut feel that belies its cruiser moniker. On the open highway it feels planted and stable at high speed, high speed of course being a relative term when you're riding the thing in below-freezing temperatures all night. Dedicated Guzzi riders tell me they routinely drag the high floorboards on these things, though I'm not sure that's something to be proud about.

While my stint on the EV took place in midwinter, riding the EV during Mother Nature's worst isn't as tough as it sounds. The weather protection is first-rate for a cruiser, and not at all bad by touring-bike standards. The small fairing/windscreen and foot guards block more wind than you'd think, and the heavily valanced fenders keep the muck and mire at bay. When you factor in the heated grips, why it's practically as easy as taking the car.

In the end, the California EV Touring is a good, if slightly flawed, motorcycle, especially if you like your cruising with a sporting flair and some touring capability. It has that indisputable Italian bike cachet as well, if that sort of feature is important to you. Now if they'd only fit decent foot controls to the thing... -MZ