Following direct orders to make an appearance, John Campbell loads up the Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 power cruiser dressed in touring trim, and makes a beeline for a grassroots event in central Alberta.
My sister Elizabeth is quite the organizer. Especially terrific at bossing people around, her chief strength lies in being able to convince people they’d be much happier, and ultimately better off, if only they did what they were told—by her. To illustrate my point: one year in the middle of July, a particularly hot prairie summer as I recall, Elizabeth ordered me into a full Santa Claus costume—beard, boots, buckle and all—which I was then to wear for the duration of my time on the Santa Claus float that was an integrated part of the County Fair parade in Olds, Alberta, the town my sister calls home. I’m still not clear on the thematic importance of Santa’s presence at a rural summer fair, but I was a real spectacle. Even the fake Elvis guy wanted to have his photo taken standing alongside me.
Elizabeth is always organizing something. Quite often it’s a muscle car show ‘n’ shine sponsored by the booming Fountain Tire dealership owned and operated by her husband Ken Kaehn in the town of Sundre, near Olds. But when the local motorcycle community asked her to organize a memorial ride for “fallen brothers and sisters” in general, but specifically for their friend and cancer victim Cliff Ehret, she didn’t refuse.
Nor did I, when she asked for my presence at the event in late May, though that corridor of Alberta had just been struck by a freakish spring storm that had left nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground. The snow was reported to be melting quickly however, and I reckoned it would be completely gone by the time I’d ridden from my home in Victoria to Ken and Elizabeth’s in Olds. Or not.
There were at least three important factors governing my ride to Alberta. The first was Elizabeth (see above). The second is my affection for smallish grassroots events, as opposed to bigger rides and rallies that come complete with boards of directors and fractious organizer cliques that often create hurt feelings and bloated gate admission prices as a byproduct.
The third was that a romp over the Rockies to the Ride to Remember would be an effective way to sample Kawasaki’s Vulcan 2000 Classic LT, a power cruiser converted for touring duty. In my mind, there are only six motorcycles in the heavy duty power cruiser class: Triumph Rocket III, Suzuki Boulevard M90, Harley-Davidson V-Rod, Honda VTX 1800, Yamaha Road Star Warrior and the Kawasaki Vulcan 2000—this last being the only member of the class that I, personally, had not had the opportunity to ride. I had long seen this as a gap in my education, so when Kawasaki Canada offered the loan of its press unit for my Alberta journey, I grabbed while the grabbing was good, and took delivery of the machine from Burnaby Kawasaki, with 287 kilometres showing on the odometer. It was painted two-tone red and black, trimmed with gold pinstriping, and augmented with a lustrous chrome package. Its leather saddlebags, deep rider saddle and passenger pillion were festooned with chrome studs—what competitor Yamaha might call its “Silverado” treatment. Rider floorboards, a passenger backrest and a tall windscreen rounded out the Vulcan’s dedicated touring kit. That, and a killer motor of course.
Displacing 2053cc, you have to really wrap your mind around the fact that the Vulcan’s engine is comprised of just two cylinders. If there’s a bigger displacement/cylinder ratio in the production motorcycle world, I’m not aware of it. For that matter, there’s probably not that many automotive applications displacing 1026cc per cylinder either. The big Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 mill, set in a liquid-cooled 52-degree V-Twin platform, is mated to a five-speed transmission with no tachometer in the instrument cluster. But with a claimed 141 ft/lbs torque at 3,000 rpm and a max 116 horsepower at 5,000 rpm there’s scarcely any need for one as the engine simply lopes in any gear selection. I did, however, notice an annoying drivetrain vibration in fifth, which made me tend to remain in fourth gear at highway speeds. Fourth is the Vulcan’s most flexible ratio; it allows clean, active pulls from its torquey motor even if it has idled down to lower range rpms, yet permits strong acceleration for highway roll-ons. The thing that bothered me most about the buzz in fifth had to do with fuel economy. For some reason, I became hyper absorbed in the bike’s gasoline consumption habits. A tach would certainly have helped as I strived to maximize fuel usage, but a fifth gear would have too as I maintained a 110-120 kmh average over the mountain ranges of British Columbia and through the foothills of Alberta.
This pace was counter-pointed with occasional forays into the high triple-digit range and over the course of my weekend tenure with the bike, I logged a total of 2380 kms while burning 162.57 litres of fuel. You do the math, but bear in mind that break-in time is critical to every aspect of a motor’s operation. Interestingly, the Vulcan consumed nearly 15 litres less fuel during my homeward journey.
Also odd was that for all its impressive spec-sheet numbers, the Vulcan 2000 LT simply did not evoke the same sensations in me that the others in the power cruiser class have. Though it vaults to full speed quickly enough, the bike seems built around something other than the raw terrifying mechanicality of the Boulevard M90, for example, or the crisp, glassy explosiveness of the V-Rod. More like a plush Cadillac than a fiery Corvette, the heavy-boned Vulcan tilts the scales at 360 kg (790 lbs.) and comes equipped with a road-absorbing suspension package that includes a 49mm front fork and rear monoshock with eight-way adjustability. For all its cushioning and weight though, the bike does respond well enough to steering inputs—not with the same alacrity of the Road Star Warrior, but not bad. The rigidly-mounted handlebars will leave your hands tingling after a few hours, but there’s an awful lot of motor down there that’s bound to have some telegraphed influence too.
That falls into the category of a minor snivel though, because wind protection from the nicely-curved two-position windshield is excellent, and the heavy road bike is literally unflinching, even against curt side gusts such as the ones blowing through the Shuswap, Rogers and Kicking Horse passes when I passed through. Complemented by a simply outstanding three-disc brake combo, the Vulcan 2000 LT is a luxurious touring bike that would only benefit with the inclusion of more capacious cargo holds. The available storage volume in leather saddlebags is always a disappointment, and the Vulcan’s were no exception to the rule. Especially compared to the excellence of Kawasaki’s own hardshell bags found mounted on the Vulcan 1600 Nomad.
THE RIDE TO REMEMBER WAS ALREADY IN FULL SWING By the time I arrived in Alberta on that last Saturday afternoon of May. It featured a staple on the small-event circuit—a poker run, with stops at a series of bustling farming towns tucked along a belt where central Alberta rolls into high prairies, then becomes foothills on the eastern apron of the Rocky Mountain range. Towns such as Olds, Didsbury, Carstairs and Cremona, which is where I finally caught up with the pack of riders I’d seen ripping up Highway 22, headed north. It was the last stop of the poker run and cards were to be collected at the bar of the Hawks Nest Motel, operated by a lovely couple from South Korea who really had no idea what to expect from the crowd now wandering into the premises. It was a mixed bunch of riders on BMWs, Yamahas and Hondas, but primarily Harley-Davidsons, as is so often the case at events where money is being raised for a charitable cause. In this case, my sister explained, the benefits were to be directed toward local individuals who were selected on the basis of need. This is very much a prairie tradition—though it may well be common in other parts of Canada too.
I suspect the practice has its roots in the Depression era when so many families were needy, but too proud to ask for help. In this socialist tradition, the community organizes an event to raise money which is then directed toward people who may have been identified by a local pastor or some such official as someone who “really needs a helping hand.” Identities are kept concealed, with neither benefactor nor recipient ever interacting, and everyone’s pride is kept intact. This is a good system.
I settled down at a table with my nephew Adam and niece Jesica, where we were joined before long by Jim and Penny Ross, two long-time motorcyclists who ride everywhere side-by-side and who have now inspired their two sons to ride. An on-the-spot plan called for Adam and I to overnight with the Ross’s and Jim, whose 2003 Ultra Classic was cooling its ticking pipes in the gravel parking lot outside, would eventually refuse to allow me to ride back to British Columbia by myself. Two days later, also on a spur-of-the-moment decision, he would accompany me all the way past the Alberta border, to as far as Golden. His theory: “You can’t send a guy off by himself when he’s come all this way just to be here. It wouldn’t be right.” Jim and I had never met till then, but the Ross’s sheer prairie hospitality is of the kind that always makes me feel happy to cross the mountainous divide separating British Columbia from the prairie provinces.
Meanwhile my sister was bellowing out orders with a blowhorn: “Get your cards. We’re here for half an hour, then we go to the hall at Harmattan.” Harmattan is more a state of mind than an actual place. Jim and Penny built their own log home on an acreage at Harmattan, but aside from that and a cluster of other tidy rural homes, there’s not much at Harmattan. Well, there is a community hall with a sprawling camping area fronting it. The Harmattan Hall was the final destination of the Ride to Remember, and in typical Alberta homemade fashion, the caretaker was a local who had turned the key over to brother-in-law Ken and the camping was free. People had wisely positioned their campers and trailers there during the day because they knew they’d be going absolutely nowhere once the steak dinners (Alberta beef) had been consumed and the live band had launched into its third set of classic rock mixed with current country hits. By 2:00 a.m. not one soul had made a move toward the door—except for those who were tending campfires outside, where the party would continue, the bikes would roar and the motorcycle talk carry on long after the hall was closed and the band Crossifre (who played for half their going rate) had gone home.
The tip jar in front of my nephew tending the bar was overflowing, while my niece continued to rack in the casually-tossed twenties at the ticket booth. Where things might have lagged, Elizabeth kept them moving with prizes, draws, contests and more orders: “Okay people, it’s time for the silent draw, put your bids in now.”
And, again in typical Alberta fashion, everyone dug deep into their pockets. Though there may have been only a little over 150 riders who turned out for the event—with those numbers bolstered somewhat as nearby residents drifted in for a drink or two—their ceaseless generosity raised $3,400. “And that’s after the bills,” says Elizabeth. “All the advertising, food, alcohol, and hall rental, and we still cleared $3,400.”
That’s grassroots Alberta for you.