by Kristin Leary
Going into my fourth season as a motorcycle rider, one thing has become quite clear. If you can’t talk the talk, conversations with other motorcyclists end pretty quickly.
This realization set in very early in my solo riding career. Naturally, one of the first questions other bikers asked was what kind of bike I rode. I had a Yamaha XS 400 Special, but when I first learned to ride, I couldn’t get the order of the “XS 400 Special” part of the name right. Suddenly, all of my enthusiasm for riding, the incredible feeling of accomplishment of learning to ride, the indescribable experience of riding some curvy back roads on a sunny day meant nothing if I couldn’t get that name right on the first try.
It escalated from there. I had to know the other kinds of bikes; I had to distinguish a dirt bike from a dual sport, a touring bike from a sport-tourer, a cruiser from a heavyweight cruiser, including the subsets of Japanese knockoffs vs. European knockoffs of American styles.
Then came the name of bikes’ major components: shaft, chain or belt drives; liquid, air or oil cooled; thumper, V-twin, V-4, flat-two, four or six, parallel twin, in-line-four (or even six).
Do I dare even discuss all of the accessories? The exhaust systems alone are…well…exhausting: six-into-six, or two; four-into-four, two or one; two-into-two or one; fish tail, slash cut, bologna, megaphone…on and on ad nauseum. Don’t even ask me about fenders, taillights, wheels or suspensions.
I was about to weakly blame my genetic composition for prohibiting me from getting all of the terms right when a male friend told me of his embarrassing experience in this arena. On his way out to Sturgis in his second year of riding, a rough-looking biker in a gas station asked him if his bike had “ape hangers.” Not sure what the inquisitor meant, his mind clicked over to the closest-sounding term he knew: “eight banger,” as in eight cylinders in his engine. His red-faced response was, “No, just four.” (His embarrassment even made him forget that his bike actually only had two cylinders.) My friend discovered later the biker was asking about his style of handlebars. Everyone has suffered at some point.
Just as I was starting to get more comfortable talking about bikes, along comes another biker language: riders’ hand signals. I actually found a book that has more than 100 illustrations of hand signals and hand phrases that cyclists can use to communicate while riding. I agree that some of these signals are important to the safety of those you are leading, but many go just a tad too far. Signals for “bathing” and “work”? I don’t think you need to hold lengthy conversations using hand signals while riding, just pull off the damn road and talk about it.
Maybe one of these years I’ll ignore the simple joys of getting out and riding and concentrate instead on learning the important things about motorcycling. You never know when you may be called upon to discuss the proper names of the internal components of a single crank pin engine or the correct hand signal for communicating to other riders, “Wow, that house sure needs a new roof, doesn’t it?” Then again, maybe not.