That little glimpse of clear blue sky I spied through a hotel window was a lie. Minutes later a fine mist coats my dark-tinted visor. Rain falls hard enough that we're throwing up white rooster tails over the inky, oily tarmac. I am cold. I am damp. I have a brand new Yamaha FJ-09 under me, and it has traction control and heated grips, and it's good.
So I live with the rain.
And I live with it happily, despite an earlier foreboding feeling of familiarity. The FJ-09 is a close relation of Yamaha's wild thing, the FZ-09. The Eff-Zed is a wheelie-happy and often intractable 847cc explosion of three-cylinder euphoria and fear-related clenching. It's a riot and a favorite, but not the kind of motorcycle I look forward to riding when it's slick. A too-h suspension often sends your senses looking for traction down twisty roads and a moment later the frighteningly sensitive electronic throttle lofts your front wheel with the slightest input. Even worse, it's inexpensive, so I've spent the last year debating buying one.
Despite sharing most of its parts, a frame and an engine, the FJ-09 is the mature twin. It can keep a job, and isn't on a first name basis with its jailer. Just a couple little tweaks have made the taller tourer into a friend with manners. The three-mode electronic throttle has been remapped; A-mode, the most aggressive of the lot, remains snappy, but Standard and B-mode are markedly easier on the whiplash muscles. Wheelie-quieting traction control is another standard feature and added benefit of the FJ-09's found maturity.
We ride into the damp and the clouds through orange orchards. Highway 33 follows a stream through sheer stone canyons. The mountains close ranks and the air takes a chill off the water. I find the controls for the heated grips and get them cooing. We bend through tree tunnels searching for traction through wet oak leaves. It's tight, fast riding. The FJ-09 soaks it up, and despite the damp and debris on the road, the Yamaha's Dunlop D222F's stick so well there are few brushes with traction control.
What a difference that confidence makes. Minutes later I'm bending the bike into Highway 33's wet sweepers and toying with the throttle. That crossplane-tripple, man. It's shuttered up behind a catalytic converter and a conservative muffler and still—what a joy. My happiness and admiration should part these clouds. It does not, but I no longer feel rained upon. We climb higher.
When I have moments to fiddle, I fiddle. Most of the comfort adjustments are toolless. The seat adjusts for height, a godsend for the shorter legged. Mine stretch the 33 inches from the seat to the ground just fine, so I jack it up as high as I can get it and find cleaner air coming off the FJ-09's height adjustable windscreen. I fiddle with that too, and screw it all up. Lowered all the way it makes the mantis face of the Yamaha a little more menacing and I leave it be.
It's made for covering fast and interesting miles, this thing, and it does so almost perfectly. The luggage out back will swallow anything so long as it's smaller than a full-face helmet. Parenthetically, my helmet is always the item I most want to put in my hard luggage. Despite that bummer, space in the two cases is still ample and the low mounted pipe doesn't intrude on interior volume, so both boxes do their fair share of the work. As we climb up toward the summit the highway stretches into fast sweepers and I wonder: How far are the big hard cases from the asphalt anyway?
Lockwood Valley is a scraggly and foreign-looking place. The sun starts to peek out as we make the turnoff. It's more tight corners, just less verdant, more weather and wind worn. The road dives into washes at a whim, or changes camber and turns on itself. The Yamaha carries its 462-lb wet-weight marvelously, despite these tricks, and big four-piston brakes up front haul our combined mass down to creeping speed when we find mud and gravel painted through typically dry stream crossings.
Miles away, Lockwood Valley bursts out onto the Interstate. At highway speed the windscreen makes a rocket takeoff rumble. The sun comes out to stay and I turn down the handgrip heat. They're $284 accessories, these things, but they plug straight into the bike, can be controlled by the standard switchgear, and monitored on the big, boxy dash. Worth every penny.
Four lanes of traffic pass Pyramid Lake, then Castaic, then blurs through a stretch of stucco and sound walls and Jesuchristo Payday Loans at 75 miles an hour. Interstate 5 is monotonous; not even a motorcycle can disguise the lack of appeal in our sprawl.
We head West the first chance we get, and that points us into the orange orchards again, and then toward Santa Paula, where Steve McQueen wisely hid out and kept his stuff in a hangar at the airport. I wonder if he would have admired the Yamaha, and then suppose he wouldn't, because it's thin on faults.
The trees cast long winter shadows, and when the oranges turn back into oaks on highway 150, we know the road will again follow a cold stream through the mountains. This time we'll have the sun slicing through the leaves to warm us and dry our way. Pity the motorcycle riding soul that doesn't like the rain. It makes the appearance of the sun so good.