As part of my ever-expanding quest to seek out (and never say no to) new experiences, I recently took up motorcycling. I never thought of myself as a typical motorcyclist - far from it. If anything, I’m the typical nerd. Debate team, chess classes and piano lessons. Prius-driving tech worker who spends weekends with books and his cats.
But that’s the point of getting outside of one’s comfort zone. Learn something new and become someone new, if only for a weekend.
It all started when a coworker suggested taking a motorcycle safety course. Why not? For a very nominal fee, they teach you everything you need to know how to ride a motorcycle (in theory). A giant parking lot with many beat up 100cc motorcycles and four days of your life.
The best part of new experiences is meeting new kinds of people that you wouldn’t normally interact with. Surprisingly, many people there were like me. People who hadn’t ever touched a motorcycle - people who didn’t even know how to drive manual. I didn’t even know what a clutch was, never mind what it did or how it worked. It was just something cool to do over a weekend.
I met vegans from South Carolina who worked as coffee baristas and Australians who were riding veterans but who wanted to learn who safety was taught in the states. I met people from all sorts of socio-economic strata that I wouldn’t normally associate with. And surprisingly, I had a phenomenal time.
The decision to buy the bike came quite impulsively, to be honest. Work was shit for quite some time, and sometime in October, Recode suddenly announced that my company was planning layoffs. This was horrible particularly because the management hadn’t said anything about it. It was a total shock to all of us, and we’d all be losing friends. Work ground to a halt for most people who began using the daytime to take stock of their finances, understandably.
For many weeks after the class I had been watching late-night YouTube videos of various bike reviews. Channels like ChaseOnTwoWheels, CycleCruza, and Rabid Hedgehog became a nightly ritual. But all of this had simply been an idle curiosity in a world that, until recently, I hadn’t known really existed.
I discovered that, contrary to what I believed, I didn’t really handle stress well. I took an impromptu half-day off (who was keeping track, honestly), strolled down to East Bay Motorsports, and walked out with a 2014 Suzuki Boulevard s40. Well, not really. Motorcycle dealerships are awful. The entire process takes far too long and is filled with phrases like “can you fax me that information”. Basically, something that should have taken 20 minutes took 5 hours.
But that didn’t curb my enthusiasm!
:D Who cares if I may not have a job tomorrow - I have a motorcycle dammit! And damn if that didn’t make me feel cool. Walking out of there with a leather jacket, a cruiser, some boots and some awesome black gloves. That new leather smell wafting around me. Awesome.
And as soon as they gave me the keys and walked back inside, all that enthusiasm suddenly disappeared. Now I had to ride back home. In the streets. Next to cars. That moved fast. Oh - and did I mention I didn’t have any clue how to get home?
So I’m nervously staring at my phone, trying to memorize these driving directions as fast as I can. Ah, and as luck would have it, the dealership is located right before a road that exits to a highway, so there’s always traffic. I’m staring at the big “40” on the speed limit and wondering what I got myself into. The fastest I went was 15, in a parking lot. And, of course, the very first turn is a left turn. I chuckle. There’s no way I’m getting in the left most lane - not happening.
So I ride off in first gear, scared as hell, when a car zips by me. Nope, not happening. I move over to the bike lane - I don’t give a fuck, judge me all you want. And judge they did. The worst part was a hippy bicyclist rolls up next to me with, weirdly enough, a cat in his front basket. The light turns green, and of course, I stall. I stall another time. And a third time. By this point the cyclist is far ahead of me, and I finally manage to get it going. I pass him, going fifteen or so miles an hour (no way I’m shifting, are you kidding me?), only to stop at the next red light. He catches up to me before the light turns, and passes me again once I start stalling…
And so it went for five lights. Eventually, traffic dies down and I decide to make a U turn instead of the left turn I was supposed to make three blocks ago. I swing way too wide (target fixation guys), and go into a parking lot. Slowly, I go out onto the other side, this time on the right most lane, and keep going.
That twelve mile ride turned out to be a long and brutal 90 minutes. I kept getting lost, so I’d park the bike, pull out my phone, and memorize the next four turns. Add to that the stress of low battery and - oh yeah - not dying. Cars honking wondering why this motorcyclist doesn’t speed off into the sunset like every other biker made me realize that helmets are not for protection. No, they are for hiding your face so that humiliation and shame doesn’t kill you on the spot.
But eventually, slowly but surely, I made it home. I parked that bike and swore I’d never ride it again. What a horrible idea! How can I afford this? I might not even have a job tomorrow. God, what an idiot I was.
Only, I did have a job tomorrow. And apparently, a bike, too.
It was a week before I got on that bike again, but I forced myself. And you’d be surprised how quickly you improve. That second day I got on at 1AM - less traffic I told myself. I rode for two hours that night and stalled three times. The next night I did the same thing and stalled only once. And since then, red lights have not been a problem.
Of course, I eventually move on from basic problems to more complex ones - how do I shift quicker; how do I downshift properly when approaching a light; and so on, and so forth. And at some point, these night time rides became not chores but moments of relaxation and wonder. I started to look forward to them. And from that moment on, there was no looking back.
The key point that most people don’t understand is that motorcycling takes a lot more work than driving. Installing a bluetooth headset in my helmet instantly made my rides far more enjoyable. I could listen to music, have turn by turn navigation right in my ear, and just focus on the ride. All the stress instantly evaporated. Then came proper comfort. None of my gear really fit me, and worst of all, it wasn’t good for different kinds of weather. Freezing your butt off for two hours is not fun - no matter what motorcycle you’re on.
So now that I knew, sort of, what I was doing, I went back and got all new gear. A helmet that didn’t squeeze my head like a melon and give me migraines. Gloves that fit my hands. And most importantly, a jacket that kept me cozy even up to 30 degree temperatures. When you have the right gear, motorcycling feels as comfortable as driving but as enjoyable as… well, as motorcycling. Spending an extra $1000 on gear is almost always better than spending an extra $1000 on the bike. Earplugs make a world of a difference when riding on freeways. Not only does the wind noise prevent you from listening to your music (and the traffic), it actually does hurt your eardrums.
1. Riding Is About Freedom
I don’t think most people understand why motorcyclists ride. Certainly, at least some people ride for the usual reasons: they want the thrill of quick accelerations, or they want to look cool to impress someone. It’s undoubtedly true for at least some riders, but I don’t think it’s why most people ride.
America is graced with some of the most beautiful roads of any country, and not taking advantage of them just seems silly. Motorcycling is a dramatically different experience than driving a car.
Driving a car is like watching a movie. You’re watching the world go by without really ever interacting with it. It doesn’t really matter what you wear, as you have internal temperature controls. You insulate yourself from any smells with HEPA filters, internal air circulation, and the general cage that’s around you. And occasionally, you drive past dairy or beef farms and you crinkle your nose for about fifteen minutes. That minor inconvenience is your sole interaction with the world.
Motorcyclists are completely free. It’s funny how many people at the MSF course, when first sitting on the bike, instinctively reached for a seatbelt - myself included! We’ve conditioned ourselves to follow these neat rules set out for us unquestioningly at this point. We’ve fundamentally conditioned ourselves to be unaccustomed to most freedoms, strangely enough.
A rider notices each and every nook in the road; we have to because we don’t have 2 tons of steel protecting us from bumpy rides. Most drivers have no idea what parts of the roads are good or bad. Every rider does. I can recognize sections of the road simply by smell now. The experience of riding - even with the visor of the helmet closed - is orders of magnitude more immersive than driving. As I lean into each curve, completely one with the bike, focused on riding, all the temptations that plague most people disappear entirely.
Bored drivers fidget with their phone or fiddle with various radio stations. Not so with bikers. Bikers enjoy riding - it’s why we’re out there, risking our lives. Being on the road isn’t a nuisance; it’s an enjoyment. Is it any wonder why we’re better drivers?
2. But It’s Also About Discipline
This isn’t really a separate lesson, as much as a corollary to lesson number one. Any freedom must be exercised responsibly, since one person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. Many would argue that’s the whole point of having a society and a government in the first place. And risking your life every day comes at a cost.
Motorcyclists have to be in touch with the weather - no, seriously. Apple Weather isn’t enough. What’s the windspeed? Chance of rain? Fog? What time is sunset - do I need to bring by day visor or night visor? And before you go, you obviously have to gear up. No seriously - every goddamn time. No more hop in the car and peace out. Plan out your trips.
And unlike cars, you can’t just buy one and forget about it. Check your bike every week, or even more often. Oil, wear and tear, engine issues, and transmission problems are far more common on motorcycles than on cars, and it’s super important to take care of your bike. You will have to do a lot more maintenance than on cars. It’s a responsibility, not just a perk.
A rather funny channel that I think captures all of this discipline is this video.
3. The Community is Amazing
This may be divisive, especially considering the various wars between biker factions I see on YouTube, but my personal experience has been nothing short of miraculous. The moment I see an individual wearing a helmet, there’s an instant bond. It might be at 3AM when I’m drunk (AND TOOK AN UBER), but wherever I see this person, we instantly have a 10 minute conversation.
Bikers have massive respect for each other, and like any secret society of fanatics, we have our own secret handshake. No seriously - it’s amazing.
Motorcyclists are some of the nicest people you will meet, and although they may dress in ridiculous ways and, in general, be doing hooligan shit, there’s no one more likely to help a stranger. The community transcends the usual made up divisions, and for once, it’s a place where personally, I see everyone treat each other with respect (except those damn cagers!
At the end of the day, you’re putting your life on the line each and every day you’re on these streets, and it doesn’t matter what kind of bike you ride. I’ve never seen as much love as I have from all the awesome motovloggers on Youtube. Seriously - the community is amazing. I’m blown away each and every day by how much kindness I see from anyone who has ever ridden a motorcycle.
4. It’s Always Your Fault
Dress for the fall, not for the ride.
The motorcycle community, especially recently, has come out strong against ‘squids’ - people we shame relentlessly because they don’t wear gear, but the thing you have to remember is that we shame out of love. All it takes is one accident with improper (or no!) gear, and your whole live could be over.
This is once again part of the responsibility lesson, but seriously, every ride needs gear. And so, once again, it’s story time.
Fast forward a year of riding, and Old Nelly has been sold. Bye Nelly!
I’ve been on Kaley for a grand total of 3 weeks. Feeling super confident - been riding for a couple thousand miles by now, and all in all, things are looking good. Kaley is fantastic, and I’m loving how agile she is. Huge upgrade - not in terms of CC’s or anything, just a refinement in what I want. Now that I’ve been riding for a while I’ve matured and my tastes have changed, and I’m more confident in what kind of riding I’m going to be doing.
It’s a warm Thursday morning, so I decide to keep my leather pants inside and just go out on Jeans. I have my RF1200, my riding boots, and my Alpine Stars jacket. I’m riding on the Bay Bridge lane 1, and traffic is pretty stop and go. I lane split for a while, then I occupy lane 1. Then I lane split for a while, and then go back to just solidly occupying lane 1. And so it goes most mornings.
Traffic is loosening up and I’m solidly occupying lane 1. I shift up to third gear as I see there’s a lot of space in front of me and get ready to rev up when - WHAM - I go down. A minivan next to me had merged without doing a head check. I wasn’t lane splitting. I wasn’t behind him. I was literally right next to him. If he had just turned his head instead of looking in front, he would have seen me.
Luckily I’m in lane one, and even more luckily, I just lost control and low sided. The four foot walls on the Bay Bridge are the only barrier from a two hundred foot drop into the ocean. Would not have been pretty. But as it was, I slid into the highway gutter where, thankfully, no cars were behind me.
Three people stop, along with the driver who actually hit me. Getting hit sucks. No matter how minor the accident, your body feels like it was run over by a truck. Bruises all over, you’re gasping for air, and suddenly your helmet feels way to tight. Adrenaline is rushing through your system.
I was pretty lucky. The only part of me that got hurt was my leg, where I had some minor road rash. Why? Because I wore jeans. This is what I mean by it’s always your fault. At the end of the day, no slip of paper from Progressive is going to save your leg.
Of course that driver is an idiot - and no, he shouldn’t ever be allowed to drive again. But getting angry or being proven right won’t give you a limb back. At the end of the day, you have to behave like everyone on the road is out there to kill you, and you can’t be surprised when someone nearly does.
In my case, I was fairly lucky. He stopped. We exchanged info. Three other witnesses stopped, too, and everyone gave their statement to the police. It was super obvious whose fault it was, and I didn’t have to pay a dime. Not only that, thanks to Alpine Stars, I still have my hands. My gloves were worn down to the brim and the kevlar on my jacket was actually torn through. The gear worked as intended. No broken bones, no sprains. Some mild road rash on my knee, but everything was okay.
And it’s taught me to take this attitude to the rest of life.
“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
You can spend your whole life whining and complaining about the injustices in the world and demand the world to fix them - and get belligerently call anyone who disagrees with you as victim blamers - or you can take responsibility for your own actions and prepare for the worst.
And for what it was worth, although it could have been a real ‘fucked up day’, it turned out to be quite enjoyable. The tow company dropped me off at West Oakland where a Harley gang drove by, saw my situation, and kept me company for two hours while Progressive got their shit together and sent somebody. I bonded with twelve super cool dudes as we all told various ridiculous motorcycle stories, and at the end of the day, I made some great friends and still had my health. What more can someone ask for?
A day is only as fucked up as your attitude allows it to be. So be happy - it’s why you’re out here. But be prepared.
5. Know Yourself
Motorcycling will teach you a lot about… well, yourself. There’s just no other way around it. Do you overestimate your capabilities frequently? Do you underestimate yourself? Are you a prepare-er or a ‘let’s wing it’-er?
The issue is that, when motorcycling, the stakes are so high. Mistakes can be fatal, and you have to face the ugly truth of your own demons extremely quickly.
For me, it was that I’m actually a huge softie. I used to be the tough guy who would walk around in 30 degree weather without jackets and insist I wasn’t cold. I used to revel in being uncomfortable, and it was only when I nearly low-sided because my hands were too numb to properly clutch did I realize that my ego wasn’t an airbag that would save my life.
Wear proper gear, and leave your ego at the door.
The lessons you will learn about yourself will obviously vary because you may not share my demons. But face them all the same you will.
Coming face to face with your limitations and flaws is never fun - and some never do. Many of those end up dead. Others have the emotional maturity of a six year-old and will continue in their ways. But in nearly every situation, facing your demon is worth it. You become more secure in who you are.
I don’t care if I’m soft or people laugh at my full gear all the time policy. The people who laugh are those who have never gone down hard. And honestly, why be uncomfortable on your motorcycle? What’s there to gain?
Be happy with who you are, and enjoy the road. Motorcycling provides a kind of freedom that most people never get to experience - especially with the kinds of roads that we’re blessed to have in the US.
Just be safe.