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Motorcycling... some thoughts

Posted 15 April 2008, 1.15 am by Villager

I was never the biker type. I never imagined I would even sit on a motorcycle, let alone be inclined to ride one. I wasnít much bothered by cars, either; A to B and all that. If it was cheap, reliable and comfortable, that was enough for me. It was only because I was accepted onto a university course 10 days before it started, and there was no public transport to speak of, that I need to get myself mobile. I knew it was impossible to learn how to drive and pass a test in that time, and my brother suggested a ď125Ē (a small-engined motorbike with a top speed of 60-80 mph, if you donít know much about bikes). Thereís no need for a test, you just do your Compulsory Basic Training; four hoursí instruction, without running anyone over or falling off too much, and youíre away. I wasnít exactly keen on the idea; on a bike you have no protection from the weather, other vehicles, or the tarmac. But I had no choice.

My CBT instructor was a man called Steve. Steve spent the day smoking and making misogynist jokes, but did manage the minor miracle of making me borderline competent by the end of the day. Being a student I was inevitably broke, and was hunting for used bargains, when I stumbled across a cheap Chinese import by the name of Huoniao, a 125cc cruiser for £550, new, I snapped it up. I picked it up from a warehouse on the beach and carried it home in the back of my brotherís VW Golf, with about 40% of the bike sticking out of the boot.

It was a pig to ride. It looked nice enough, with classic styling and lots of chrome-effect parts, even the sound of the engine belied its pedigree. But performance was poor. It did 0-60 in about a week, and I am struggling to find the words to describe how shockingly awful the handling was. Part of the problem was the weight balance; I came off a number of times when turning at low speed, simply because the bike couldnít hold itself up. Whenever there was more than a mild breeze, it felt like I was sitting atop a unicycle, on a tightrope, amidst an apocalyptic thunderstorm. Iím only talking about 25pmh winds here. It was impossible to feel safe, even cruising on straights. I lost count of the number of times I had to stop because I felt I was beginning to lose control.

I also discovered why it was so cheap. The mudguard fell off after 1,200 miles. The electric start button failed after 1,500. Rust began to appear wherever there was metal. Part of the rear subframe snapped under braking after 4,000 miles (my dad had to weld on a replacement as by this time, 6 months later, the supplier had mysteriously disappeared).

Despite all of that, I loved it. It looked far cooler than any of the bangers that my friends were driving and riding, and I gained an unexpected respect from the older boys at the school where I was training to become a teacher. But it was much more than that. The sense of freedom, adventure and closeness to the road was lovely, and unexpected. From being a reluctant commuter, I quickly realised that I would need to take my test and buy a proper bike.

My test instructor was, oddly enough, also named Steve, but his jokes were more tasteful and his vice was to be found at the burger van we stopped at each day. I rode a Yamaha Diversion 400, which gave me terrible leg cramps throughout the three daysí training; imagine riding for six hours in the foetal position and youíll have a decent idea of what I mean. I liked Steve, and I trusted him; so I bought a bike he had for sale, a 1998 Suzuki GS500. I knew nothing about the bike, but he let me test ride it and it was so comfortable, so easy to manoeuvre and control, that I went for it.

If anyoneís still reading, this is what Iím building up to. After a few weeks of tentatively exploring the new power at my control, I fell in love with this bike. Itís difficult to explain in a meaningful way to non-riders what I mean, but Iíll try. Driving a car is a functional experience. Even with performance cars that Iíve driven, even when theyíre driven aggressively, they offer a sterile experience. You are securely strapped into a big metal box, protected from the elements and separated from the road by a ton of metal and mechanics. Even before you get on a bike, you are confronted with the realisation that if the tiniest thing goes wrong at the wrong moment, you can end up maimed or worse. Even low-speed accidents can be fatal on a bike; imagine hitting something at 70mph, and becoming separated from your vehicle.

Riding a bike is about experiencing your journey, not just being a passenger on it. You live the undulating, twisting curves, feel and respond to every bump and imperfection in the road. You feel the wind, and adjust yourself to sit in harmony with it. You feel the power of the engine sitting between your legs, and you respect that power severely because it can kill you. It is no exaggeration to call it a spiritual experience. There is CD player on a bike, no In Car Entertainment; you canít talk on the phone and you canít talk to your passenger. There is only you, and the road. Especially on long journeys, you are left alone with only your thoughts, and I found it disturbing at first; how often do you spend hours simply THINKING? I find it immensely calming. Itís also deadly serious; that thinking time necessarily includes contemplation of mortality and self-control. You cannot make mistakes on a motorcycle and survive. How many times, driving a car, have you hit a kerb, found yourself going round a corner too fast and had to brake and turn sharply, found your eyelids heavy on the motorway, left too little stopping distance, not looked before leaving a junction or changing lanes? Any of these small lapses are lethal to a rider. You develop discipline, or you crash.

I love that riders nod to each other. Itís not a macho club, men smugly acknowledging each otherís masculinity (Iím sure it is for some). Itís a recognition that this person, too, has discovered a pleasure in life unknown to others; recognition that this person is likely a much more aware and responsible road user than most drivers. Itís almost as if to say, ĎBrilliant, isnít it?í

And it is. I love motorcycling because it combines the mundane functionality of travel with raw pleasure and simple joy. I always look forward to my journeys, and every one is an adventure, even if the route is the same. How many car drivers can say that?

on 19 April 2008, 4.28 pm
I must say, that was a particularly passionate and thoughtful piece on something I always thought of as a simple insanity. Quite insightful. I lost my perspicacity and loquacious predisposition when I moved from the written word to the visual image, but I definitely want to give congrats on changing my opinion and letting me see into the philosophy of riding.

on 1 May 2008, 6.28 pm
Yeah, riding a bike is an awesome feeling. I'm currently saving enough cash to buy one. Not just for the pure enjoyment though. No No. I'm going to try and get a better paying job. Right now I have to get the minibus my ever-so-kind employers put on.

on 9 May 2008, 7.07 pm
That was the most eloquent reasoning I've ever heard for why anybody would want to risk their life on one of those things. I rode a small bike for about six months, but turned in the keys on the third time of cheating death. You make me want to ride again Vill, but more importantly, you earned a bunch of badass points.

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