Archive for January, 2012

If I have to explain, (I will but read this first…)

(A reprinted blog post  from Rider Magazine, January 19, 2012 which is just fantastic reading…) 

Motor vehicles that expose their riders and passengers to the elements and fall over if you don’t plant your feet at every stop just don’t register with everyone. Many folks will never understand how joy arises from the speed and motion created on a motorcycle. To each his own.

Gladly most people driving cars, even those who don’t “get” motorcycles, are sufficiently safe and courteous to keep an eye out for those of us motoring on two wheels. They’re not all so obliging, of course, and some drivers have been downright hostile to me seemingly for no other reason than my choice of transportation and whatever stereotypes they attach to me as a result.

Whether motorists mean me well or ill, I try to be an ambassador for the two wheeled community every chance I get.  One cool summer morning I was riding home to New England after a few days carving up mountain roads of West Virginia and Ohio. Since first light I had been zigging and zagging to stay ahead of severe thunderstorms and options for staying dry were diminishing. At a roadside rest area in central Pennsylvania I stopped to check the latest weather radar. I was ahead of the rain, but just barely. I decided to don rain gear, reasoning that making the effort to put it on would lessen the need for it.

A man walked by me on the way back to his car. I offered a good morning greeting, which he returned. He looked up at the ominous sky and then at me. Shaking his head he said, “I can’t believe you’re out riding in this. Hope you don’t have far to go.” I said that I didn’t, just a couple hundred more miles home.  “A couplehundred?” he replied.  “Man, that’s just nuts. I mean really, what is the appeal of riding a motorcycle?”

Perhaps the question was meant to be rhetorical, but given the impending deluge it wasn’t unreasonable. More than once, I’ve heard a rider dismiss a similar question by saying, “If I have to explain it to you, then you wouldn’t understand.” On one level that kind of indifference is rude. On another, it’s the failure to answer a simple question: if a rider can’t explain the appeal of riding a motorcycle, why should the person asking the question believe that even the rider understands?

It doesn’t take much for me to shift into ambassador mode, so I started to think of a way to convey the appeal of riding a motorcycle to this man. It hit me quickly. “Sir, I wish it were a sunny day but it’s not. This gear will keep me dry and so far I’m managing to stay ahead of the storms. Besides, I’d much rather be on two wheels than in a car. Riding a motorcycle is dancing with a machine.”

He paused briefly and then nodded, as though my answer made a bit of sense; perhaps I was onto something. He wished me safe travels and drove off. Soon after, I returned to the task of keeping those black clouds in my rearview mirrors.

As I put more miles behind me, I kept bouncing the “dancing with a machine” metaphor around in my mind. The more I thought about it the more it made sense.  Dancing with a machine begins with a symphony of mechanical music:

  • a throaty whoosh of exhaust as a motor springs to life;
  • the staccato pulse as it settles into a slow, steady rhythm;
  • a percussive clunk as my foot engages first gear;
  • a stepped crescendo of motor and gear whine as speed builds;
  • the race of wind across my helmet that muffles the din of reciprocation below.

I sit astride a machine that converts a rush of air and a spray of gasoline into power made for motion. I hold onto my partner with gloved hands and padded knees, the soles of my boots and the seat of my pants. Unrolling beneath us is a dance floor of asphalt that continually changes in direction, texture, width, elevation and state of repair. Entering a turn, I slide across the arc of the saddle, push harder on the bars and lean into the turn. Yeah!  The machine powers me through the curve and into the straightaway. Moving as one, my partner and I glide through twists and banks and dips and rises, continually responding to one another via pressure and resistance. Under power, my mechanized dance partner becomes a solid extension of my own body. I guide its motions and it moves me, both physically and emotionally.

Through the years my road dances have paired me with a variety of partners:

  • balanced lightweights who follow my lead with effortless grace;
  • easy going heavyweights whose composure belies their mass;
  • temperamental prima donnas who can be flicked around – yet bite if not handled with a sensitive touch.

Time and experience have taught me to leverage each partner’s unique qualities and quirks and blend them with my own. A winding two-lane is a different encounter on a sport bike than on a luxury tourer, yet each can provide a satisfying dance that reflects whatever capabilities my partner has to offer.

Sometimes friends join in a group dance, individually maneuvering their partners gracefully through curves one after the other, each taking their own line. Other times the dance floor belongs to my partner and me alone, brief as an S-curve exit ramp or boundless as the vanishing point on the western skyline. The search for an empty floor often finds us dancing earlier or later than anyone else, or venturing farther. Then, when perfect pavement comes into view, I live in that moment, relishing the here and now, savoring the dance.

Eventually each dance approaches its finale. The volume diminishes. The tempo slows. Carefully I balance my partner and put down my feet as we stop. The turn of a key silences the music. I deploy the side stand and leave my partner at rest until the next dance is called.

For me, the heart of the motorcycle dance is leaning into turns. It’s a phenomenon that physics demands of one-track vehicles, and a joy from which drivers of two-track vehicles are precluded. But perhaps those drivers know how it feels to dance. Perhaps they can imagine that their dance partner is a machine they control, that their dance floor can be any road they choose. If I can help someone who doesn’t ride motorcycles begin to understand what compels people they see on bikes to choose that manner of getting around, maybe that will create some understanding. Maybe that will keep us all a bit safer out there.

To that man at the rest stop in Pennsylvania and to anyone else who may wonder, it’s the dance with a mechanized partner that makes me prefer two wheels to four. Not simply driving a motor vehicle but interacting with it. Turning a machine into an extension of my mind and my body, an orchestra that plays mechanical music, a well-matched partner dancing with me in perfect time across an ever changing dance floor of asphalt.

For me, that’s the appeal.


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