Odometers are a funny thing. We want ours to show lots of miles to prove our metal and illustrate the miles we have logged on our bikes. However, a ‘low mile’ bike is a thing to covet for collectors, or when purchasing to ensure good value, or when selling to get top price. It’s the quintessential dichotomy. I love when my odometer shows high miles when I tell stories of my asphalt exploits, but hate it when it comes time to trade in or sell. I must say that about half the bikes I’ve had the privilege to own, didn’t even have odometers. A title proves legal ownership, but really we are just shepherds passing used bikes to the next owner, who in turn hopefully passes a bigger odometer number to the next. Such is my taste in antiquated metal. Nonetheless, I cannot say that I have ever logged a quarter million miles on any one particular bike. Not so for the Dad of my good friend Rick Elias, of Thunder Road Studios. Rick hails from Canada, our sister country to the North. His Mom and Dad reside there still. We were talking about the upcoming holidays, and Rick told me he is traveling to Canada, to attend his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. These people put high miles on everything, even each other! He recently told me his dad rides a 1998 Anniversary Edition Road King, since new with… stay with me now … over 227,041.8 miles on it! All logged by Senior Mr. Elias. This is particularly cool, given the fact that Dad is over 70 years old and really only has 6 or 7 months of decent riding weather, given all the snow in the frozen north country. Needless to say, the odometer speaks volumes of the man and his machine.

Odometers have been around a long time. My guess, before a little research, would have been about a hundred years. This is about as long as internal combustion cars and bikes. WRONG. As it turns out Alexander the Great in the third century BC employed ‘Bematists,’ persons who specialized in measuring distances with a ‘mechanical device,’ in order to measure distances between cities. The mechanical blueprint of these devices (Odometers) is not clear and their actual function has been lost to time. However, the high precision of the Bematists’ measurements used in Alexander’s military campaigns through Asia rather proves their usefulness. For example, the section between the cities Hecatompylos and Alexandria Areion, which later became a part of the silk road, was given by Alexander’s Bematists as 529 English miles long, that is with a deviation of 0.4% from the actual distance (531 English miles). Not bad for a 2,300 year old odometer.

I have an old triumph twin a bit newer than the Bematist’s devices of old, that uses mechanical gears in its odometer, nonetheless. The bike has no gas gauge, just a cable and gear driven odometer on the bottom of the speedometer, that works well enough. After 100 miles, it tells me the 2 1/2 gallon gas tank is filled with more air and less gas. I’ve owned this old bike for about 20 years and have never run dry on fuel. No warning lights, no bells and whistles, but when the odometer clicks past 100 miles, I know it’s time to refuel. Simple. The overall odometer reading is 38,946 miles. That , after one original owner, and two full restorations.

My new Harley (Road Glide) has a digital unit that gives me two trip measurements for those occasions where I need to be in two places at once. Huh? Of course it has a ‘total miles logged’ setting and also tells me how far I can go before I sputter to a stop roadside. Convenient stuff. Not necessarily ‘hard core’ or ‘old school cool’ though. There is in fact something James Dean cool about straddling your old bike feet flat on the ground and twisting the cap off to peer one eyed into the tank to check for gas. Perhaps a left-right nudge from the knees to actuate what little gas sloshes around the bottom of the tank. A real old school dude will know how long he’s got. He can do the gas tank shake and easily estimate volume, multiply by his bike’s miles per gallon (jetting set lean) and divide by distance home to see if a gas stop is necessary. Not so much in math but in second nature guess. Me, I like to have a gauge at most and at least the trusty old odometer to leave out the left/right knee nudge – single eye peering guesswork.

I’ve run out of gas more than once in my life. Hell, I’ve run out of gas several times on the same day on the same bike more than once! But never with a gas gauge and never with an odometer. I’ve ridden to the grocery store south of my neighborhood a thousand times. Bread, Eggs, a six pack, diapers (though not for many years) and I really can’t tell you how many miles it is without referencing my odometer. Certainly couldn’t tell you within a deviation of 0.4%! I guess that’s what made Alexander so ‘great.’

Well, signing off for now. Ride strong, ride safe and in the end, make sure you ride home.

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