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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why I Ride

I try to set a good example for my colleagues, my family, my kids…but sometimes I fail.  For twenty years now I’ve had a dangerous habit I can’t seem to break. I don’t even want to break it. It’s an example I don’t want you to follow. I ride a motorcycle, and I can’t recommend it in good conscience.
Why do I do it? I’m not trying to make sense to you. Humor me- I just need a sympathetic ear while I exercise my demons.

I tell myself motorcycling is very practical.
I dance through traffic on a gas sipping road-rocket; the rest of you doze in your rolling cages. I can park where you can’t, and cheaper. I save 60 bucks a month on bridge tolls alone. My insurance is less too- if I hit something I make a smaller dent.
 Teaching new riders even got me where I am today. I’ve developed skills as a motorcycle safety instructor that I use in my day job as a technical trainer.
I’ve adapted to all the benefits. It would be hard to give it up now. Except that…

Motorcycling is very impractical
Motorcycling is intellectual. It requires more understanding of physics and mechanics than driving a car. A rider is forced to adapt to his bike, concentrate, and drive defensively because he won’t win in crash. I have to wear armor. It’s sweaty in hot weather, but laundry is cheaper than skin grafts. I could wear less but even strong sunscreen has a weak pavement protection factor.
In cold weather I freeze. My only shelter is what I wear. I have to bundle up like the Michelin Man and my face shield fogs up. A sneeze in my helmet means an instant white-out. Rain, ice and snow are bad not only for comfort but also for traction.
Motorcycles carry less and sometimes luggage falls off the bike. Years ago I doubled-back for my poorly secured Franklin Planner, only to see pages explode out of the binder as a large truck hit it. Some riders use a backpack, but anything tied to your body could beat you to a pulp sliding down the pavement.
Carrying passengers is tougher too. We can’t talk face to face, even if we could hear over the motor and wind roar. A wiggly passenger jiggles the whole bike. Most passengers are more reluctant to accept a ride on a bike as well.

Ultimately I’ve found motorcycling is a metaphor for life.

I steer with my eyes. As in life, if I focus on my goal instead of impending disaster, I better my odds. Where I look is where I’m most likely to go. Years ago I taught a class for the U.S. Park Police in Presidio, San Francisco. At one point, the sergeant sponsoring the class brought us up a large concrete staircase where California Street dead-ends just west of 32nd Ave (Hey, we were on dual-sport police bikes). I couldn’t believe I was riding a motorcycle on a staircase, and almost fell when I looked down at the stairs passing under my wheels. Then I remembered to look to my destination, and soon I was at the top of the stairs looking down.

Balance takes a certain amount of speed. Too slow and I wobble around trying hold a course: that day we also rode Ocean Beach. In the deep sand, the bikes would bog down easily if we went too slowly. With speed, the bike would ‘float’ a little more and I could keep a good pace and straight line.  A little forward momentum can carry me over the rough spots more smoothly.

Motorcycling is social. I think about consequences of my actions more. On the road we’re all trying to get somewhere. Because I’m more vulnerable, I cooperate more to get where I’m going. Nobody wins in a crash, but the biker loses the most.

It’s more physical and sensual. Car driving is like watching TV. You sit on your motor-couch with the remote-wheel in your hands, viewing the world from your glass bubble. On a motorcycle nothing blocks peripheral vision. I can feel my speed through slicing the wind instead of reading it on a gauge. I lean into the turn with my bike and see the ground leaning back at me. I can smell rain coming, soak up morning mist in the lowlands, and feel the chill of a November ride burn my thighs.

We riders wave at each other, understanding the vulnerable journey we share. It attracts techies and unstable people who like this sort of thing. We pack lighter to experience life more fully. I think Helen Keller said it best: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all”- she would have made a great motorcyclist (or perhaps better a passenger).

I guess I’ve talked myself into it again, but please don’t follow my dangerous example. Don’t expose yourself to the risk. Keep a big steel wall between you and the rest of the world, and carry as much as you want.
Perhaps someday I can overcome my habit, but don’t count on it.

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