Why We Ride


Why We Ride: The Joy of Motorcycling By Stephen M. John

What attracts people to motorcycling?

When faced with the numerous personalities of both riders and motorcycles, there may not be a single answer. Despite the differences between touring rider and hill climber, chrome-encrusted cruiser and nimble Grand Prix race bike, there are some universal attributes that get under the skin of the motorcyclist and feed the desire to ride.

Freedom is often cited as an attraction, but what does that mean? Compared to driving a car, riding a motorcycle offers freedom from the constraints of four-wheeled physics. When a car negotiates a turn, it leans to the outside of a corner, struggling to maintain its former direction of travel. A motorcycle leans into a corner.

This may not sound like much, but until you’ve experienced both you can’t understand the superior grace and simplicity of this mode of travel. Cornering becomes a symphony of precise movements instead of an awkward wallow, working in harmony with the road instead of fighting it tooth and nail.

The Sense(s) of Freedom
Once freed of your steel cage you are thrust into the world to experience a broader existence unfettered by HEPA filters and climate control. Your nose will get a vivid introduction to skunk roadkill and diesel exhaust, but will also revel in bread baking and plants blooming. Your body will feel the thousand tiny impacts of raindrops and absorb the buffeting of the wind. Your skin will feel the gently warming temperature as you crest a hill and drop to the valley floor below. You are no longer huddled behind a wheel disconnected from nature. It’s Lawrence of Arabia in Cinerama versus a daguerreotype of a camel.

Wrap all of this freedom in a lovely ribbon of performance, and you get what experts call fun. Not the fake hood scoop, chrome wheels and racing stripe school of performance. Picture instead a carrier launch and you’ll be in the right neighborhood, and you don’t even have to pledge seven years of service. Best of all, this astounding performance is dirt cheap. For less than half the cost of most commuter pods you can buy a stock motorcycle capable of 9-second quarter miles.

Don’t bother figuring the cost for a production car with matching performance, because you won’t find one. AMG teamed with Mercedes to make the CLK-GTR capable of a 9.4 second quarter mile, and it’s a steal at a measly $1,000,000. Performance cars do have the edge in aerodynamics and top speed, but to use them you’ll need lottery winnings and the Autobahn.

All of this freedom and fun doesn’t come without a price. First of all, you have to learn how to ride. Given the right training and the right attitude, the skills can be acquired by just about anyone. Want proof? One of my first forays was on my dad’s 1975 Honda CB125S, a ride so mild it’s hard to believe it could burn gasoline. I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t remember how to stop, and ended up using a conveniently located pickup to do the job. Fortunately the Motorcycle Safety Foundation runs well-organized classes where you can safely learn motorcycling in a pickup-free environment.

Motorcycles? Practical?
What about practicality? Over the years I’ve carried a turkey, two-by-fours, a dozen roses, crutches and a bookcase on a motorcycle, but even I haven’t tried transporting an infant or a major appliance. But how often do you really use the cargo capacity of a four-wheeler? Not often, judging by the throngs of single-occupant vehicles choking the roadway, wasting gas and time hauling around a sluggish, three-quarter-empty steel box.

Finally, there’s the favorite of mothers and fathers everywhere: danger. On a motorcycle you are more vulnerable and you’d better accept that fact and ride accordingly. I always ride as if I am invisible to the sea of cars around me, because all too often it’s true. I wear a helmet, jacket, boots and gloves regardless of the temperature or length of the ride. You might think it’s a hassle just to reach the corner store, and it does take more time than slipping on a seat belt. For me it is an important ritual, a reminder I am about to engage in an activity with a fair amount of personal risk. Donning my helmet triggers a pre-recorded message telling me I better be alert if I don’t want to end up as a hood ornament.

Risk is inherent in motorcycling, but it can be managed and turned into an advantage, one that I think is the real long-term attraction of riding. A new rider must first gain experience, since at first everything you have is spent just keeping upright. Gradually shifting gears and scanning for Dozy Joe Auto blowing through a stop sign takes less effort, as your brain adjusts to a new sensory plateau.

Engaging the World Around You
While motorcycling you are still fully engaged with the outside world, but the rest of your brain is free to explore paths otherwise unavailable. With your mind free of rigid supervision and self-awareness, all sorts of problems get solved in the background and tension evaporates. Exactly the opposite happens in an automobile. Driving makes so few demands on our minds and bodies we go on autopilot. How many times have you driven to a familiar location, and arrived only to realize you don’t remember large parts of the journey?

Need another rationalization regarding the two-wheeled wonder? Motorcycling is a resounding social plus: reduced traffic and parking congestion, better fuel economy and fewer noxious emissions. Motorcycle ownership should be a Green party litmus test. Sadly, these benefits are lost on the majority of Americans, whose opinion of motorcycles seems to have been forged solely by watching Marlon Brando tear up a small town in The Wild One. This shared sense of being outcast and knowledge of how much fun we’re having leads to a sense of community among riders. Have you ever seen two automobile drivers wave to each other because they were driving? For me, waving to a fellow rider is nearly a daily occurrence. The horror, the horror.

Freedom. Fun.  A clear mind and a clear conscience. These are all powerful reasons for staying in the saddle. But an even simpler truth about motorcycling keeps me coming back for more: I always feel better after a ride than I did before.