Sunday, June 28, 2015

Riding Apologetically

I realized earlier this year that I have been riding two wheeled contraptions for 45 years. It seems like an appallingly long time now that I pause to look back, and I can hardly recognize myself as the eager 12 year old presented with a Vespa 50 and given the freedom of the surrounding country roads even though I was two years too young to be legal in Italy and equipped with no gear whatsoever. But my Vespa was simply a bicycle with a motor and I negotiated gravel roads at 25  miles per hour like I was born to it. Which I probably was as my mother propelled me into a life of motorcycles.
 I have always enjoyed traveling by motorcycle. When I was a youngster I learned to appreciate that a motorcycle served a dual purpose: One the one hand it replaced a car as a fun and potentially exciting way to get around and b) learning to ride an inherently unstable contraption, and to ride it well was going to be a challenge and a sport. All for many more miles per gallon than you could squeeze out of a car in the 1970s though fuel efficiency has improved since then. at least in cars. I can't say I get many more miles per gallon out of modern motorcycles but I am still riding for fun. My 2007 Bonneville has become my ideal ride, the machine I've been looking for all my life, a great all rounder well built and easy to use.
 I started out before the Internet of course and I grew into motorcycling in a rather isolated way as I lived in the country and I relied on magazines to bring the world of bikes into my life. In Italy there was but one magazine devoted to motorcycles and in its many glossy pages I read about cornering techniques, how to cope with road hazards and how to use a motorcycle to travel. Compared to today it was all extremely rudimentary, which is to say we did the same things that people do today for instance to get ready for a trip but our equipment was less specialized and less robust. Our motorcycles needed attention every three thousand miles at most so a long trip required routine maintenenace to be planned along the way,and oil changes were part of the long distance experience. Luggage was far less robust, waterproof or elegant in those days. This from the Internet, Europe 1977, but I traveled like this all over Europe and North Africa:
Mountains in Southern Spain
I have always valued the saddlebags I adapted to my machines as they make the motorcycle useful and windshields  help to make long distance riding bearable, if not comfortable. The notion that a motorcycle might be solely used for amusement never made sense to someone like myself who only ever had one bike at a time and that machine served for all journeys, long or short. In this way I found I was gaining riding experience without even realizing it. I rode in snow to go to technical college in South London one dreadful winter. I rode in the rain with waterproofs that weren't. I used the old trick of newspaper padded under my clothes and my boots wrapped in plastic bags to make me feel like I was "protected" against the elements. What a joke!
I fell off a few times and my protective gear was as protective as newspaper so my jeans got torn and my knees got scraped and I just lived with it. The ride was the thing. The odd part was that when I was told later in life to read books on proficient motorcycling (Hough's comes to mind) I was amazed to learn I had been employing his recommended techniques for years. I knew more than I realized I knew... In England I had taken advanced rider training and that contributed enormously to my understanding of best lane placement and looking ahead and staying alert. After all these years I still ride a motorcycle using my eyes and ears, without electronics on my handlebars or in my helmet. If I need a map I stop and look at a paper or electronic guide, or stick a piece of a paper map on my fuel tank as a rough guide. My concentration is all on the road and I take joy from riding if not fast at least well.
 I love the Internet, don't get me wrong, it is a fantastic tool, a superb resource and often it is also used as a sounding board for people seeking help. The qualities that make the information superhighway so useful also have the unfortunate tendency to reinforce prejudice and strongly held opinion, often with no factual back up. I thus find myself an outlier in the world of motorcycling. Because I have ridden for years and because I ride every day and because my motorcycle is a tool not a statement I have difficulty fitting into an online world where identities are masked and experience is unverified and opinions are strong. High visibility clothing is a must they tell us. I don't agree but who cares about my half century riding dressed in black? I think that riding with the expectation of being seen because you are highly visible is crazy. Wear day-glo if you like but don't expect it to penetrate the brains of drivers intent on day dreaming or texting or not noticing you on two wheels. 
I am astonished frequently by banter that turns nasty, and from people who seem to take greater satisfaction fiddling with their machines than riding them, and passing judgement all the time.  To me riding is an act of joy, its the place I feel most free to be alone, off the phone and lost in my thoughts. To be able to get around faster and more efficiently than cars is one thing but to gain pleasure and a sense of accomplishment doing that seems like a cherry on the icing. This in a world where driving is viewed more and more as a chore, not an act of liberation. Imagine self driving motorcycles being offered the way they propose with cars! What would be the point?
The American Motorcyclists Association is a national group that does the arduous task of herding hedgehogs and lobbying for all groups of riders. They are proposing a national discussion of California's example and suggesting that lane splitting might be a good idea across the US. LINK I have done it in Europe and California and the ability to get moving through slow traffic and then find parking at your destination makes motorcycling a great alternative to other transportation choices. Yet, instead of seeing everyone lobbying for motorcycles to make room on the roads most  car drivers, slumped in their boxes grind their teeth and limit themselves to envying our mobility. Makes no sense to me, one less car is good for everybody you'd think, but they want us all to suffer crowded traffic and slow travel.
I doubt lane splitting, like legal marijuana will ever come to the Sunshine State. I have no interest in weed but lane splitting is smart and effective. But this is a state that breeds intolerance on the roads. People speed up when you go to pass them, a violation of the rules of the road, they sit in the passing lane LINK and they speed when it suits them, especially to stop you merging into traffic. They don't look down the road and plan their maneuvers or anticipate their own changes of lane or direction. They sit in their cars like lumps and drink their coffee and send their texts. No wonder they hate driving, its a whole lot like riding an uncomfortable couch.  Besides which most people have little or no training on, say, how to use the confounding turning lane in the middle of alternating traffic flow. I meet lots of car drivers offended by my brisk steady 10 -15 mph over the speed limit on open highways but I know how to lose most of them - simply pass the car in front. Not many people know how to confidently and safely pass traffic on two lane roads. Instead of offering driver training, the solution is to reduce the places where passing is legal. 
I don't  think most of it is willful stupidity or mean spirited but the numerous distractions in cars, the lack of advanced training or the belief that training can help allied  with the sheer boredom of driving that discourages paying attention lead to situations where people are doing inexplicably stupid things from not thinking about driving or from feeling the need to drink or text or change the radio station. On a motorcycle no matter what your cargo the awareness of vulnerability and mortality is never far away. Not paying attention is not an option.
So the novice riders put their faith in passive safety devices. After all they work in cars. Airbags, seat belts and strong passenger cages are superb at saving lives. I've seen cars flattened from which people crawled out alive. On a motorcycle the same does not apply. Unfortunately wearing brightly colored clothes, using automatic headlight flashers and having advanced braking systems will not save you if you go down and hit something hard or get run over. What saves riders is the ability to anticipate and concentrate. Those skills will make for better car drivers as well. Watching the car in front, the unconscious positioning, the turn of the driver's head can give you an idea of what the vehicle will do next. When driving a car one doesn't have to bother to notice. I think the need for concentration and obsessive use of massive uncomfortable protective gear cuts back on the desire of many riders to actually ride. Like sailing, its putting in your time that makes better able to cope out there. Sitting at home reading Proficient Motorcycling or going online doesn't make you a better rider.
So when I read angry blog posts from novice riders getting mad at unruly motorcyclists for making "us all look bad" I wonder what the value of the Internet really is. The fact is we people who choose to ride already look bad. We dress weird, we deliberately choose danger over comfort and the movies portray us as gangsters. Its all stupid stereotyping but going out onto the road and asking car drivers to be nice to us is absurd and unrealistic. You are asking people who are barely conscious, who count the cup holders before they settle on a new vehicle, who use GPS to drive Highway One so helpless are they on this one and only road, to do your rebel ass a favor. Unlikely I say. Don't be rude to them or anyone else but don't surrender your freedom to their limitations.
I ride because I enjoy it. Getting on the road isn't a chore to me. Asking people who find driving a chore and who do it because they have to, to make an extra effort to notice me and respect my space on the road is a waste of time. When I ride I suit myself, and as long as I don't require anyone to swerve or brake when they encounter me on the road I've done my bit to let them enjoy a soul deadening drive uninterrupted by conscious thought or decision making. For my part I choose to view cars as obstacles to be enjoyed, I measure them up, check their speed, their ability to keep up, their lane positioning and if they look like an obstacle I dispatch them in one quick, swift, professionally executed pass. If I get busted for riding well by an officer who can't tell the difference I pay the fine. If I go down my wife knows what my final instructions are if I end up in a coma or burnt half alive. I am a realist.
I don't ride a motorcycle to pretend I am in an SUV lumbering down the road as though no one has the right to go faster, to pay closer attention, to impose their skill limitations on my limitations. I don't have a cup holder on my bike, or a radio in my helmet. I don't cruise, I make progress. This is how I was taught to ride: Making Progress With British Motorcycle Police and I don't propose to apologize for paying attention, and enjoying my ride. It's not a matter of being rude to other road users or being reckless or making a mess of anyone's day. It's a matter of being mindful and improving your skills and not having to apologize for being skilled and attentive.
When I'm on the road I ask you to do the same and if you can't, please just maintain speed and heading and let me do the rest. 
Thank you.