Sunday, July 7, 2013

Why I Ride

It is in my nature to be excessive. If I have no interest in a thing I can ignore it completely but if something takes my fancy I will pursue it to hell and back. If you think it's tiring for me imagine how wearisome it can be for those around me. My mother got me started on motorcycles when we were lined up to take a ferry o Sardinia one summer and a couple of leather clad motorcyclists pulled onto the ramp in front of us. "One day," my mother said, "that will be you." She also wanted me to learn to play the church organ so the brain tumor that took her life when I was but 14 prevented her from feeling the acute disappointment over my tuba playing, while it also deprived her of knowing that the motorcycle seed planted by her took root. Quite deeply too.

I was acutely embarrassed by my mother's purchase of a bright orange Vespa 50 when I was twelve years old. The legal age for moped riding in Italy is actually 14 so I was slightly ahead of the curve on that, but no amount of embarrassment would prevent me from stealing fifty and hundred lire coins from my mother's purse to fill the tank with two stroke fuel mix. With fuel in the tank, no helmet, no safety gear, no (optional ) speedometer but with a three speed gearbox I took off riding everywhere I could through the mountains every summer vacation. I was born to be a motorcycle traveler. I taught girls how to shift in exchange for a kiss which felt less exciting to me than riding the Vespa so I guess I was an actual nerd which was not at all what my mother had in mind for me.

I guess most people with a motorcycle in their lives view the machine as convenient transport or more likely in North America as a social tool, a way to meet people and not be alone while having fun. For me riding is a solitary pleasure, a way to be able to tell the world I am out of touch, unreadable, off the phone because I am out riding. Sometimes I arrive at work and find a text message from my boss, who, after nine years working with me forgets I'm out of touch between five and six pm on my commute...

In a car the essence is to be removed from your environment, protected from danger and discomfort. The trade off is to sit passively in line and accept whatever traffic conditions dole out to you. Initiative while driving wins social ostracism. Riding a motorcycle is a way not to accept the social compact, it's a way to thumb your nose at the weather, at the poor bloody drivers bored out of their skulls, feeling nothing and hoping for nothing. On a motorcycle you get to feel the rain, the cold, the proximity of indifferent sheet metal and you are exhilarated by it. You arrive as safe and sound and dry as the drones in cages but you earned it. In a world dedicated to the proposition that no corn fed American should feel anything much, least of all discomfort, motorcycles are an easy way, any day to get feeling back in your body. A rider needs no drugs to get high. And speed is not necessarily the buzz, not when you have outgrown your youth. Just being on the road, not necessarily at high speed, is the essence of idling. Scooters can qualify.

I don't know how well the analogy holds up but I compare sailing to riding while steering a cage is akin to driving a power boat. A power boat, cabin cruiser or center console, you drive, while a sailboat is encouraged not driven. A sailboat under sail takes feel and skill, the sails need to be set, the direction of travel is compromise between wave action, wind direction and the boat's ability to balance hull and keel against the other forces. A power boat you steer and it follows the line as directed by the prop. You could  bear in mind the boater's saying that if you want to go from A to B use a power boat boat; if you want to leave A take a sailboat. In the same way a jounrey undertaken by car will get you to your detination where a jounrey on a motorcycle is an adventure, outcome uncertain.  A motorcycle is also ridden by feel with skills learned and practiced where a car is driven. You cannot ride a motorcycle while somnolent or distracted because that is how you die, and riding takes attention. Perhaps that's what makes it cool, I know that's what makes it fun. Even cool people think motorcycles are fun.

Nowadays technology has created a new class of motorcycle for widespread consumption and they call them scooters. The technology is such that the line separating scooters from motorcycles is getting hard to discern. A scooter, roughly speaking has no gears, includes some built in storage has a modicum of weather protection and usually allows the rider to step through the bike rather than swing a leg over to get onboard. Originally these features were intended to encourage women to ride and they did too decades ago before scooters became automatics. Nowadays manufacturers are starting to create automatic motorcycles and some even have built in storage. I read people's comments on forums remarking how easy automatics are to ride as though gearboxes are too complicated for riders to use. In point of fact I believe the fear of the gearbox is what separates riders from drivers. A gearbox is a useful tool for a motorcycle, and should not be feared but embraced as one more skill we riders enjoy mastering. I once read a hardened sailor complaining that modern pretend sailors turn on their motors at the least sign of missing a deadline. She blamed the habit as a development of the automobile and the habit of driving carried over into the poseur world of modern sailing. Cars corrupt was the thesis and perhaps she was right all those years ago. Lyn Pardey still sails an engineless boat out of her adopted home in New Zealand. Lin & Larry Pardey: Newsletters & Cruising Tips | Sailing Newsletters & Cruising Tips
I enjoy the control a gearbox gives and that was one reason I bought a 34 year old Vespa currently being professionally restored. The other reason is pure nostalgia, as the best tour I ever undertook was on a similar machine bought new in New York in 1981 and ridden to San Francisco by way of Mexico (above). I was encouraged to undertake the trip on a Vespa not a Harley by the adventurer and author shown below, Roberto Patrignani photographed in Afghanistan on his way to Tokyo from Italy on a 1964 Vespa adapted to the purpose. His success convinced me the Vespa would make an excellent touring machine, a notion that sounds absurd in the 21st century when motorcycles are specialized and modern tourers are six hundred pound machines loaded with computers and electronics and leave nothing to chance.

I toured much of my world by motorcycle, criss crossing Europe on a variety of unsuitable small cyclones motorcycles, all I had in the 1970s. I rode to Africa twice, once on a 350 cafĂ© racer with luggage attached as best I could manage. I've crossed the United States several times not only on the Vespa but once I even rode a fully dressed Yamaha with a full Vetter cruising fairing complete with FM radio and speakers to Florida from California. Since my Vespa tour I always try to travel as lightly as possible. It took me a few tours to figure out I preferred riding a lightly loaded bike which is also the best way to avoid breakdowns as it happens, as weight stresses every part of a machine car or motorcycle. I started out worrying too much and trying to carry crap for every eventuality. I came to understand after a while that adventures can happen to you anywhere anytime for any reason. Breakdowns caused by overloading are a pain because the bike is no fun to ride when it's loaded like a badly built haystack. Most places you ride you can buy any odd thing you may have left behind or find you suddenly happen to need. on my Vespa trip in 1981 I had a backpack on the back, a fuel jug and sleeping pad on the front and when I stopped to buy food for a picnic dinner I'd hang it in a sack under the front of the seat. Simplicity was wonderful and I learned my life lesson - less is more and traveling light is more fun.
Some people name their motorbikes as though they are living things. Then they buy stuff to make them more personal then they sell them to make room for a more interesting hobby or perhaps to buy a bigger motorcycle they have suddenly discovered they "need." The fondly named machine is discarded like yesterday's newspaper. I made a name for myself as a traveling sailor when I wrote stuff for sailing magazines. Would-be travelers used to ask me for advice about their forthcoming sailing trips and they wanted to know about the latest electronic machinery. They were invariably disappointed when I advised them not to buy stuff but to take their boats out sailing so they could get to know them and learn to trust their boats and so feel at ease when facing the high seas. Then I said travel light to reduce stress on your rigging and hull and carry less stuff for inevitably it will break on you. They ignored me. I say the same to modern riders though I only say it under my breath as the advice is the same and would be ignored just as thoroughly. All you need to travel by bike is time money and the machine you have, lightly loaded. Oh and the will to actually cut the ties that bind and take off, that's the hardest part. You might want to,load a copy of Jack Riepe's book (above) to remind you of the romance of riding as you find yourself alone and lonely on the road...
I ride because it's fun and because I enjoy it. That it is also useful and replaces a car on my commute is a bonus. I look forward to getting my motorcycle or my scooter out and taking off even if only to run down to the store to buy groceries. I'm glad I lived through the seventies when motorcycling entered the modern era and we knew no better and rode in street clothes and learned not fear falling off. I love riding and miss it every day I don't get to ride. I encourage anyone to give it a go but I don't really care what you do. When I'm riding it's all about me and my nameless machine. How lucky I am to look forward to something as routine as a commute. All thanks to my motorcycle, my flying machine, my magic carpet and thanks to my mother who got me started.