Friday, May 23, 2008

Up on three wheels...

I've been interested in motorcycles, riding and the vagaries of the social dynamic surrounding them for many years but I won't add the usual sobriquet of "so it's only natural that I own one". Almost everything about motorcycles is nominally unnatural!

For the price of a motorcycle you could purchase a car instead. Most people do. In many cases the automobile is actually cheaper and offers far more amenities than does a bike. Automobiles may have things like air conditioning, heating, power steering, power brakes, and automatic transmissions as options and almost all of them offer better protection from the elements of nature and other traffic.

No special protective gear is required for operation of an auto although in some cases we often tend towards the opinion that a strait jacket for some drivers might be a service to humanity.

A point that has always astounded me, personally, is that the automobile is quite probably the single most complicated machine that most people will ever operate yet with no introduction to the operating controls, many people will seat themselves in a totally unfamiliar auto and after locating the ignition lock, insert the ignition key, start the vehicle and drive off! They may not be able to access the correct gear shift pattern, turn on the windscreen wipers, the AC and heater or the turn indicators but after starting the car many try to learn the operation of the radio first or foremost.

I have always been of the opinion that operating a vehicle while in motion was a skill that should be attended to before any of the minor functions were to be concerned with but if the word "normal" is defined as being the majority opinion then I'm definitely not normal. I searched for a word to describe my opinion and after rejecting anachronistic, minority, aberrant and odd I settled on "skewed".

A quick glance around at any intersection signal will reveal people doing virtually any human behavior that you can imagine save those which require special aids and equipment or more space than is generally available in a passenger auto although I've seen some pretty creative exceptions to the second alternative.

Without resorting to imagination or second hand vignettes I can truthfully say that amongst the things which I, personally, have witnessed on the highway was a fashion model on her way to the Dallas,Texas Apparel Mart for a fashion show, driving with a magazine open on her steering wheel, applying her make up using the sun visor vanity mirror and drinking a beverage while driving with her knees (both hands were otherwise visibly occupied). All this being done simultaneously while traveling 55 miles per hour on the Dallas Toll Road in a complex piece of machinery weighing in the neighborhood of 1.75 tons!

This display probably deserves an award for vehicular activity multi-tasking.

Lest this essay turn into a quasi-rant on automobile drivers I'll turn back to motorcycles. As previously mentioned and in the face of evidence cited the motorcycle is almost unique in its lack of driver amenities, it has almost none to speak of unless the rider has added a softer seat. About the only thing that comes to mind concerning lack of driver amenities that might be comparable is a horse. The horse is ahead on points. When was the last time you heard of a person killed in a collision between horses?

The ventilation on a motorcycle is best described as "Evil thoughts blown clean away". Air conditioning is provided by Mother Nature whom also provides small inconveniences like torrential rain and snow or ice in season. Heating is ambient outdoor temperature. The result is that the air conditioning works best in winter and the heating works best in summer. There are no windscreen wipers simply by virtue of there often being no windscreen.

There are an interesting array of instruments and controls which require the use of both hands and both feet to operate while the rider's attention is occupied with road surface, throttle control, his or her "line" and constant awareness of other traffic as opposed to the standard method of automobile operation which often requires only one hand and one foot with attention to the road bearing some degree of optional activity.

As a standard, the controls are usually placed as follows:
The right hand controls the front brake and throttle, starter button if electric start is featured, and the "kill" switch.

The left hand has the turn indicator switch, horn (yes, motorcycles have them but when needed the rider is often more concerned with evasive maneuvering), choke, clutch (bikes are almost always standard transmission), high and low beam headlight switch and other accessories that may have been installed as in my case, the electric camber compensator for the sidecar and the driving lights.

There is no headlight off switch on modern motorcycles used in the United States, however this is of little concern as motorcycles are invisible to many drivers and having the headlight on constantly does not necessarily affect their visual acuity.

The right foot controls the rear brake or brakes (in my case).

The left foot controls the gear shift with, most often, five speeds and sometimes six. There is no reverse except on some specially fitted bikes with sidecars and trikes.

Along with this array are the dash instruments which the rider most often ignores, speedometer and frequently tachometer with a few blinky lights for color.

Unlike an auto, all of the above listed things require the attention of the rider who, additionally, is occupied with traffic conditions, weather, road surface conditions and prayer (which is often scanted in favor of the more terse but equally meaningful "Oh Shit!"). The rider shifts gears by listening to his bike's engine rather than using the tachometer and speed is most often determined by whether or not the rider feels lucky.

Common questions directed to riders are usually some variation of "Why do you ride?" followed closely by "Isn't it dangerous?". The most often used answers are "I like it" and "Yes" sometimes followed by various degrees of self justification from the responder. Like many other groups riders often have only a few things in common, primarily; they ride motorcycles. There are motorcycling sports, including racing, that include riders from ages as young as 5 to seniors over 70. Asking why they ride is rather like asking "Breathing, is it good?".

I've always been of the opinion that I do it because I like it. Riding isn't really a lifestyle for most save the 1% group as in "1% of the bikers make the other 99% look bad". Most are friendly, reasonably courteous, often helpful and concerned with ordinary things like family, jobs and daily life. Their lifestyle is normal other than they share a passion for motorcycles. `Riders share a concern for other riders same as other people share concerns with friends, family and groups.

This passion can last a lifetime or it can be quickly disabused. The average length of ownership of a first bike is somewhere around 6 months. In the first six months the rider will have fallen one or more times, given up riding because of family or relationships, wrecked the bike (as opposed to falling)
or otherwise terrified themselves.

Is it safe? No. Is it addictive? Less than cigarette smoking. Can it kill you or maim you for life? Oh, absolutely! Why do we do it? We want to.

I've never resorted to the "If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand" type of answer. I have my own fears to conquer as does everyone. Amongst them, the ground should not move, there should be breathable air around me and there should be explanations that can be supported by fact. As a result I don't scuba drive, live in California or seek out paranormal experiences. Riding is by comparison, quite tame although not without its moments of excitement.

My version of good sense does not encourage me to climb mountains, jump out of perfectly good, still flying airplanes or swim the length of the Amazon river. I'm a wuss. But I do ride which is probably quite as dangerous in a different fashion.

My first bike was a new experience for me. I sold my conservative VW Kombi Camper bus and used the cash to buy a Kawasaki S2 350cc "rice rocket" that weighed 350 pounds, had 45 horsepower and was capable of approximately 100 mph. I'd never been on a motorcycle, had little idea of what to expect and had no training past the usual "this is the throttle, this is the front brake, this is the turn signal switch" and a very brief lesson in how to start it with the kick start. I stalled it 5 times in the first 6 blocks. After the 5th time I decided I'd learn to ride or admit that I'd been terribly stupid. I was in my early 20's and nobody in their "fresh out into the big world" years is going to admit to being stupid.

I treated the throttle more aggressively, got the bike up onto the outer loop around Denver, Colorado and rode it home at over 80 miles an hour. A distance of about 40 miles. This February and 40 years later, I plunked down $9500 on a Yamaha V-Star 1100 custom with Hannigan Motorsports "Classic" sidecar and with all of 25 miles of first ride around Murray, Kentucky I rode it home to Texas, 652.5 miles in 14 hours. I hadn't been on a bike in 18 years and never on a sidecar rig. Some things don't change much in the way we approach events in our lives. If it worked once It might work the next time. It's all a matter of degree.

My excuse to myself for buying a sidecar rig was that I have really bad knees and didn't want to have to hold up the bike but the real reason was simply that I wanted it and could finally afford to buy it. Stupid? Maybe. satisfying? Definitely!

We all should have something in our lives that we've waited and wished for and finally was able to acquire; whether we bought it, built it, found it or acquired it in some other (hopefully legal) fashion. We form archetypes in our minds of what it is that we desire and throughout our lives we look for that certain something, tangible or intangible. Some very lucky and self motivated people actively seek out their desires, some focus on other desires eventually and some, sad to say, just give up and take whatever happens to them or do without. Everyone should have a real dream of some sort to search for even if they never achieve it.

For Edmund Hillary it was Everest, for Scott it was the south pole and for Joe Normal it might be the meticulously restored 1957 Chevrolet that he profiles in on Sunday afternoons. What it is doesn't matter really. What matters is that the dream exists. Mine was a sidecar rig, yours might be a good relationship, a perfect Christmas or a new home but quantity isn't what dreaming is all about. Most importantly it gives us goals and hope.

Quoting Joseph Campbell:
When you follow your bliss... doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn't be a door for anyone else.

It's a good philosophy to accept. Follow your bliss and by doing so take control of your life and your dream. It's seldom impossible to realize your wish. It's really all about the rider as much as the ride, even on 3 wheels.

1 comment:

Mad American said...

I really enjoyed reding this! Well done!