The word itself conjures up a surprising range of words. Excitement. Danger. Freedom. Elements. Irresponsible. Fun. Fast. Cool.
What is it about two wheels and an engine that captures the imagination in so many different ways? Ultimately it is just transportation – getting from one place to another. And yet, even more so than a car, motorcycles reflect our personality.
I got my first real lesson in this when I started riding dirt bikes about fifteen years ago. A friend and I travelled to a nearby OHV (off highway vehicle) trail for an afternoon. We unloaded the bikes as another group was unloading their four-wheelers. We donned protective riding clothes, helmets, boots, shin guards, goggles, gloves, and chest protector. Our four-wheeling friends wore jeans and ball cap turned backwards.
I continued to ride off road for years, seeing this disparity almost everywhere I went. There is some crossover. Occasionally we would run across some guy in a T-shirt and shorts on an old broken down motorcycle, almost always a smoking Honda XR200 with leaking front forks. Invariably he’d be rail thin and, like the bike, smoking. And, from time to time, we’d run across a well-geared rider on a sport four-wheeler – almost always riding with a well-geared group on dirtbikes. But for the most part, the two groups ride different, dress different, talk different. They are just different.
I thought the differences were big off road. Then I started riding on the street.
Basically, there are three groups of riders on street bikes. You have your sport-bike crowd. These guys – yes, they are almost all guys – are generally younger, though not always, and ride almost exclusively Japanese made sport motorcycles. These are the ones you see with the guy leaning way forward, shirt flapping in the wind, flip flops, and the engine sounds like a diving Stuka. Some of these bikes are incredibly fast and these guys take them in the 160 mph-range on public roads. King among these is the Suzuki Hayabusa. It doesn’t handle for beans but goes in a straight line like nothing else. These are the idiots that give motorcycles a bad name and skew the statistics to make them seem more dangerous than they really are. They either die in high speed accidents or grow out of it when they see their friends die in high speed accidents.
Next, of course, are the cruiser riders. While the sport bike guys are all about speed, the cruiser guys are all about looks. Sure, they enjoy riding, but they enjoy it a lot more in character. For starters, their bikes, usually Harleys, are covered with chrome. That’s why Harley’s weigh about 850 pounds. Then, they’ve got that huge, air-cooled 45-degree V-twin that sounds like an Italian helicopter and idles like a jackhammer. It’s a terrible, massively unbalanced, bulletproof engine design that hasn’t really changed since it was introduced in 1903, and that’s the way the riders like it. We’ve all seen them on the weekends, decked out in black leather and all manner of fun helmets, from the Spiked German helm to horns. Funny thing is, these Harley’s are terribly expensive and the people riding them are mostly successful people just riding for fun. It’s their alter-ego so to speak.
And then there is the touring crowd riding BMW, Honda, and other touring/standard bikes. There number one goal is getting around in style and they crave efficiency. They are almost always wearing top notch gear from Kevlar jackets and pants to gloves, boots, and the latest helmets. They keep their bikes in top operating condition and take safety seriously. They don’t tend to ride as fast as the sport-bikers, but are often excellent riders who have logged countless highway miles. They know their bikes inside and out and they know how to work on them. Motorcycles in this category tend to be the most versatile with upright riding positions. The professions these riders come from reflect their attention to detail, being doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals.
But don’t make the mistake of thinking that because these folks are different, that they don’t get along. While this might be true in politics, it is definitely not true in motorcycles. Sure they’ll gather into their own groups at Bike Week and keep to themselves. But pass a fellow biker on the road an you’ll always get a wave. And if a biker needs help, a biker will stop. Doesn’t matter what group needs help or what group is giving it. It may sound silly, but there’s a bond there. Maybe it’s because there aren’t very many of us. We’re a tiny fraction of vehicles on the road and minorities tend to clump together. But I think it’s deeper than that. Riders don’t ride because it’s comfortable, or because it is quicker. They ride because it gives a sense of freedom. Any rider will tell you this. It takes a special kind of person to accept the risk, accept the discomfort and inconvenience, and keep doing it. So while each of us might identify with a different group, go a little deeper and we’re all the same.
This week’s writing prompt:
Write a brief character sketch for a motorcycle rider. Why does he, or she choose the type of bike they do? What do they get out of riding?
John C. Brewer is the author of Multiplayer, a novel for young adults, and The Silla Project, a North Korean nuclear thriller.