Motorcycling, What Is It and Who Is It For?
by Thomas Day
I recently read an article in an industry rag that described motorcycling as a “sport.” I’ve called it that before, but I’m not sure it makes sense to describe what we do as “sport.” Webster’s defines sport as:
1. An activity involving physical exertion and skill that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often undertaken competitively.
2. An active pastime; recreation. . .
Ok, motorcycling is definitely an “active pastime” and it’s part “recreation,” part transportation. Racing is competitive and has rules and customs, but general-purpose motorcycling only has rules specific to the activity if you’re in a biker gang and have to maintain parade formation during a ride. Most motorcyclists ride to get away from rules and custom. I know I do. Being a fair-weather existentialist, I tend to think of the universe, and especially society, as being a hostile environment that is most interesting when I’m escaping or breaking rules and customs. I don’t think I’d be interested in motorcycling if it weren’t a physical sport that required skill, so it could be a sport.
Personally, I’m inclined to think of motorcycling as more “activity” than sport. Webster’s gives us these definitions for “activity”:
1. The state of being active.
2. Energetic action or movement; liveliness.
3. a. A specified pursuit in which a person partakes. b. An educational process or procedure intended to stimulate learning through actual experience. . .
Some motorcyclists are “active.” A fair number of us exhibit an ability for “energetic action” and some aspects of “liveliness.” I especially like section “b” of the third definition of activity; “an educational process or procedure intended to stimulate learning through actual experience.” All of the skilled riders I know are constantly in “learn mode.” Riders who keep at the sport/activity for a long time not only spend time learning new things about motorcycling, they practice basic and advanced skills to maintain their abilities and to stay aware of how aging has effected those abilities. (Yes, Virginia, old people aren’t as quick, strong, or alert as young people. Nature is not an aging motorcyclist’s friend. Nature fully expected the majority of us to die a good bit before age 40 and put in considerable effort into making that happen. You can, in fact, fool Mother Nature, but she’s not going to take that insult kindly.)
There are gradations of “sport” and “activity” that make this discussion more complicated than I’d like. If physical exertion is a criteria and more physical exertion means the activity is more of a sport, than basketball is more of a sport for me than it was for Michael Jordan, since I have to work a lot harder to do a lot less. On the other hand, he is capable of producing a lot more work than me, so he’s probably still more your ideal sportsman. See what I mean about complications? As a motorcyclist, Roger DeCoster was probably the least sporty motocrosser of all the 20th Century world champs, since he rarely seemed to be doing much more than cruising the neighborhood while he was winning motos and whipping his more energy-inefficient competition. On the mechanical end, the Sportster Sport is probably the least sporting motorcycle ever built but you’d sure have to physically exert yourself if you wanted to put that bike on any sort of race track. Now I’m completely confused.
If motorcycling is a “sport” or an “energetic activity,” is it a good thing that motorcycle manufacturers are catering an awful lot of their output to folks who are neither lively, energetic, capable of measurable physical exertion, or skill? Judging by the industry trends, I suspect that it’s possible that a lot of non-sporting types are being hand-held through the most minimal, basic motorcycling skills, resulting in a lot of new motorcyclists who are not capable of meeting the physical and mental demands of a sport or an activity that requires “liveliness.” The upside is that more people are buying and, possibly, riding motorcycles. The downside is we’re attracting more attention as those activity-deficient folks are contributing to a disproportionate number of crashes and injuries. I suspect there is a minimum physical and mental capability requirement for motorcycling that is rarely considered when dealers are trying to peddle a hippo-bike to an short, overweight, desk jockey who can barely lift a coffee cup without groaning, hasn’t seen his feet since grade school, and couldn’t turn his head far enough to see the corner of his desk. In conversations with other MSF instructors, I’ve heard numbers as large as 2% and as small as 0.1% regarding the percentage of the population who have the mental and physical capacity to be competent motorcyclists. I tend toward the smaller number.
It bothers me that there are no physical recommendations being given to new riders. It always appeared obvious to me that a person should be a good tricycle rider before trying out bicycles. And that bicycles should come before motorcycles. I’m even of the opinion that off-road motorcycles ought to be experienced before a rider is tested by highway conditions. In fact, in my pre-MSF instructor, pre-sensitivity days, I used to tell prospective motorcyclists that I think they ought to be competent enough, off-road, to get out of the novice motocross class before even considering a street bike. That might be extreme, but it’s still more my belief than the prevailing theory that anyone who can straddle an office chair should be able to ride a motorcycle. Motorcycling is not a rational activity for the timid, physically or mentally disabled, or folks who are easily distracted by pretty colored lights.
Of course, I don’t think the requirements for cage piloting should be as minimal as they are, either. Drivers’ licenses come in Cracker Jack boxes these days and that’s a crime. I’m even radical enough to believe that cops and firefighters should be able to pass exactly the same physical tests at the end of their career that they had to suffer in the police and firefighter academies. While we’re at it, I think politicians and civil servants should be subjected to lie detector tests every 3 months. This could go on for a whole lot more words than I am allowed in this column.
Neither of my daughters ride, possibly partly because I always insisted that they get really good on a bicycle before they try out dirt biking. Motorcycling wasn’t that interesting to them and they both appear to be happy getting their two-wheeled kicks on self-powered vehicles. I’m Ok with that. Motorcycling isn’t for everyone. Motorcycling is a high risk sport/activity and you ought to be committed to accepting the risk and earning the skills when you take on this activity/sport. If you expect cagers and physics to compensate for your inabilities, you’re bound to become a statistic.
For several years, the majority of motorcycle crashes and fatalities in Minnesota have involved only a single vehicle. My bet is that these riders discovered just how physically demanding this sport is just a few seconds before they contributed to this particular statistic. If you want to smell the flowers, see the sights, or daydream your way through the country side, walk, ride a bicycle, or travel by train. Motorcycling is about focus, road strategy, physical skills and, sometimes, instantaneous and life-threatening decision making. There is nothing sexy about hospital time, large patches of road rash, and permanent injury. I don’t care what the motorcycle ads tell you, this is an adventure that comes with considerable risk. If you’re ready for the adventure, you’re going to keep yourself fit, well trained, and well protected. If you’re not, stick with the office chair. It’s boring, but so is any visit to a hospital.