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Why We Ride Motorcycles

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Kevin Cameron has been writing about motorcycles for nearly 50 years, first for <em>Cycle magazine</em> and, since 1992, for <em>Cycle World</em>.
Kevin Cameron has been writing about motorcycles for nearly 50 years, first for <em>Cycle magazine</em> and, since 1992, for <em>Cycle World</em>. (Robert Martin/)

Why do we ride motorcycles? Is motorcycling, as marketing people have so long insisted, just another leisure activity, like watching sports on TV or stargazing? Hmmmm, don’t know what to do with myself for the next couple of hours. Maybe I’ll cool down my photomultiplier tube and have a quick gander at Epsilon Aurigae.

While it may be like that for a few riders, for most of us the motorcycle is not an elective time killer. It is a permanent state, a part of our lives.

For most of those who take up riding, motorcycles become a permanent part of their lives.
For most of those who take up riding, motorcycles become a permanent part of their lives. (Jeff Allen/)

For some, the wind and the 360-degree view of the world provided by motorcycles remind us that life is not a video game. For others, it’s the practice of skills in an unforgiving environment. For still others, it’s the rush of acceleration and cornering.

Although tolerance for motorcycles increased after the era of “You meet the nicest people,” there remains, especially in the case of parents, wide disapproval, fear, or outright prohibition. This, naturally, only increases the appeal of these machines to young people. As they seek to find their place among the many, the motorcycle becomes an instrument of resistance toward the humid smugness of a conforming majority: the <i>Rebel Without a Cause</i> aspect. When I bought my first motorcycle, a BSA Bantam hardly worthy of the name, I was told, “Well of course, you’ll have to sell it. Those things are just too dangerous.”

Needless to say, I did not sell it, and I did get safely through the critical first six months.

Young people are naturally drawn to activities that fight conformity, motorcycles fit that bill.
Young people are naturally drawn to activities that fight conformity, motorcycles fit that bill. (Jeff Allen/)

Older self-styled experts assured me that the law of averages dictated the longer I rode, the more certain I was to be injured or killed. I knew that was stupid nonsense, otherwise no airline pilot could ever reach retirement age. The simple fact is that the more a rider rides, and the more flight hours a pilot accumulates, the more secure they become, thanks to their ever-increasing experience.

The first reason to ride is that it looks like fun, and is. Would you rather be skiing or riding in the resort’s snow tractor? On skis, once you’ve acquired the basic skills, you are free to transmute height into velocity and back again, and you can play the powerful forces of turning against gravity. In the snow tractor, with the heater and CD player blasting, you’re just self-loading freight.

Some riders I’ve known just got it from the beginning. They were the naturals whose existence former GP racer Mike Baldwin has always denied. (“Everything I know how to do on a motorcycle, I had to learn.”) One of the naturals was Bill Dutcher, who for years ran the Aspencade Rally. He has always declared, “A motorcycle is a motorcycle,” meaning that once you’ve attained some proficiency in one discipline, say, motocross, you will find the other disciplines, such as trials, roadracing, or enduro, to be closely related. He demonstrated over and over that he could ride anything, on or off-road. Another was Anthony Gobert, who seemed to jump on a bike and win races effortlessly, no thought or analysis required. Sitting on a hillside with him, overlooking the track at Laguna Seca, I asked him how he’d got his skills.

“I didn’t,” he said. “I could just always ride a motorbike.”

Gobert has not had an easy life since, but his riding ability was remarkable.

For some others, learning the necessary skills was the first problem that really focused their interest. Nick Richichi took his Z1 Kawasaki streetbike to Loudon, crashed it, and painfully sprained a foot. To many, this would have been a disaster, but Richichi was delighted!

“No cops, man! Go as fast as you want!”

But he wanted more, to run with the really fast people, and he was persistent and methodical about learning how to excel.

In the simplest of terms: Motorcycles are fun. Plain and simple.
In the simplest of terms: Motorcycles are fun. Plain and simple. (Jeff Allen/)

Can any of us admit, even a little bit, that the motorcycle can also be the elk’s antlers or the peacock’s plumage, attracting attention? (Cough, cough, chrome, cough.)

Riding a motorcycle can drain life’s pond of distractions, revealing with clarity the bare bones. A BMW rider I knew was a chemist. When confronted with a problem he wasn’t able to solve in his office chair or by awakening at 4 a.m. in where-am-I confusion, he would just get on his bike and ride, heading out of town and onto some go-anywhere rural roads. Over a period of three hours, the concentration riding required would gradually push aside the mess in his mind and shake the problem down to essentials. A solution would appear. And it worked over and over.

The motorcycle is also play, and play is rehearsal for life. When it has rained steadily for days and now the sun comes out, horses that have been standing in stalls are let out to pasture. They gallop, they leap straight in the air, they turn, kicking up clods of earth, and they lie down and roll. They are excited to be in the open. This is nature’s way of honing our survival skills: by making them enjoyable.

How different is an office cubicle from that stall? A part of every one of us longs—needs!—to leap and gallop. On one of my trips to visit Continental Tire in Germany, my guide waved toward a glass-sided office building and said, “What you must understand about these salarymen is that they know too much about their future: when they can afford to marry, to own a car, how much their pensions will pay. Life is good, but a prison. So for them, the motorcycle is a door. They will never open the door to ride across Africa to Dakar, but it is there, quietly reassuring them. That is a freedom.”

A motorcycle in the garage promises the ability to go anywhere, anytime. It is freedom.
A motorcycle in the garage promises the ability to go anywhere, anytime. It is freedom. (Sebas Romero/)

The motorcycle binds together freedom and responsibility. Manage the freedom or fall. That bargain stays with every rider.

What happens to us during our first six months on a motorcycle? We either learn the alert vigilance of squirrels, mountain climbers, and combat soldiers, or we quit. I once visited a friend in the hospital after his third urban motorcycle crash. He gave this evidence against himself: “Every damn time, I’ve had the right of way.”

There is no right of way for the motorcyclist. We alone can assure our own security. So many motorists just don’t see motorcycles at all, and others are barely conscious, texting. Constant alert vigilance is the only security. Just as the horse takes delight in running up and down, so we are refreshed by exercising this high state of awareness that is so underused in our daily lives.

The motorcycle, product of human imagination, magnifies our own limited animal speed and strength. This power and expansion of being fills us with excitement, as it did those unknown adventurers who, more than 50 centuries ago, first learned to ride horses.

Many of my friends are unable to separate that excitement from the process of trying to get the most from motorcycle performance. I think of the distinguished rider-engineers, such as Bill Lomas, Hurley Wilvert, Albert Gunter, and Kel Carruthers. And for myself, the motorcycle has been the Christmas tree on which the decorations are the many technologies I need to study in the process of seeking the most from the machine.

The late Ian Gunn, eminent creator of the Gunn diode, a microwave-source-on-a-chip, was a physicist at IBM Watson and a lifelong motorcyclist. One day people from the hard-drive group appeared in his office. They explained they were having trouble reducing the time taken by hard-drive read heads in flicking from data track to data track. (Today, solid-state drives eliminate those read heads and spinning discs.)

Taking a torn-open envelope from his desk, he sketched a read-head arm of minimum polar moment, tapering from wider at the pivot to narrow at the head, with a tapering series of lightening holes through it. They took the envelope and returned to their section.

Weeks later they came back to thank him, saying his sketch had produced a much faster drive. He was puzzled.

“Why did you bring this question to me?”

“Because we see you sometimes in the parking lot, doing stuff to your motorcycle, so we thought you might have some idea about this kind of thing.”

They were right to ask him, because a motorcycle requires practical understanding and practical skills. Being just a pair of wheels, an engine, and a place to sit, it reveals the principles that make it possible.

Motorcycles require grace. The late Big Sid Biberman, builder and poet of Vincent motorcycles, once said to me, “I’ve always been big. In my whole life, the motorcycle was my first experience of grace.”

Big Sid Biberman, 1930-2013.
Big Sid Biberman, 1930-2013. (Cycle World Archives/)

Grace: elegance or refinement of movement. A state in which varying forces are continuously in balance. Physical grace fosters a mental state of grace.

Others say this more simply: Speed is life.

Speed is life.
Speed is life. (Larry Chen/)

Big Sid brought this back down to earth by saying there is nothing better than motoring along a country road on a fine day, on a long-legged motorcycle, seeing everything. That too is a state of grace.

More of the clarifying power of the motorcycle was revealed by a friend who is a published poet. His written words said to me that when his mind was distressed and stopped by the problem of finding sense in life, he rode his motorcycle. It combed the nonessentials, the do-loops from his mind, streamlining his thought process. It left him in alert vigilance, aware of everything around him, safe, clear-headed, and alive.

That, and more, is why we ride.

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Yep that’s a good article. I particularly liked his chemist friend bit  ...the concentration riding required would gradually push aside the mess in his mind and shake the problem down to essentials. A solution would appear. And it worked over and over...

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