Failure To Commit
by Thomas Day
On my 2009 summer tour of North Dakota, I had an amazing opportunity to ride a classic motorcycle, Denny Delzer’s Dick Busby-designed, Egli-framed Vincent. Denny’s Vincent is a forerunner to every race-based sport bike sold today. What I learned from the experience is that I have a guy-disease, a failure to commit.
The riding position of Denny’s bike is totally race-face, knees bent, feet way behind your butt, a lot of your weight solidly on the bars, and it is difficult to do anything but go fast in this riding position. Add an aggressive steering damper to the equation and anything but high speed maneuvers are difficult. When you are in the seat of this Vincent, you are as able to focus on (or able to see) what’s behind you as a lion hunting zebras. The Egli-Vincent is made for focused-forward aggressive riding. I’m not that aggressive.
Sport bikes are the polar opposite of the passive cruiser feet-forward-hands-in-the-air position that pretends that our universe is a friendly universe. Cruising is the motorcycling equivalent of riding a La-Z-Boy in full-reclined position and those ergonomics assume that everyone on the highway is looking out for the rider because the rider is helpless to look out for himself. If you go to the extremes of this design, you’ll have your hands dangling over your head on ape-hangers and your feet spread wide as if you are being wheeled into a gynecologist’s exam. I’m not that passive.
It’s clear that I’m not happy in either of these extreme-riding attitudes. Our species, Homo sapiens, has been designed to transport itself with feet squarely below the butt. Consistent with my design, I want my feet under my butt and my weight balanced between the foot pegs, the seat, and the bars. I want to be able to see all around me, not just in front of me. I want to be able to use as much braking and acceleration as I’m capable of using, without falling off of the motorcycle. My capabilities, however, limit my need for 0-100mph quickness or wheel-lifting torque or stoppies. If I don’t need to go that fast, I won’t need to stop that quickly, either. I hope. I’m not willing to be so relaxed that I can’t grab a handful of brakes without launching myself into the void. I’m not so easy going that I can just dangle from the bars like a set of bicycle streamers as I plod away from a stoplight. If I need to get up on the pegs to reduce the shock of hitting some pothole or pile of junk in the road, I don’t want to have to haul myself up as if I’m laboring on some weird exercise machine. I just want to be able to stand, like a normal person might, and feel comfortable doing it.
Maybe these two extreme riding position designs are where the “sport” and the “everyman” aspect of motorcycling conflict are dramatically illustrated. Clearly, the sport bike riding position requires a more athletic rider, at least a more flexible rider with working knees. Cruisers, on the other hand, feel accessible to folks who otherwise might be inclined to use handicapped parking spaces. Feeling accessible and being capable are not mutually inclusive concepts. At the other end of the design spectrum, a bike that feels aggressive and capable does not transfer those abilities to the rider any more than a modern professional baseball mitt turns a beginner into a Golden Gloves fielder.
The majority of the military’s motorcycle fatalities have been on sport bikes. These are athletic young men, full of the sporting attitude, and often coming down from the thrill of a high-risk lifestyle, but short on the necessary skill to manage the capabilities of their motorcycle. The majority of fatalities for the rest of the riding public appears to be older riders on large cruiser or touring bikes. Like the military sport bikers, the skill set is probably well below the capability of the motorcycle but this second class of motorcycles are dramatically less maneuverable. Maneuverability and versatility are characteristics that many highway and in-town emergency situations require. In fact, riding a cruiser or loaded touring bike with skill requires a lot more ability than that needed to operate a more conventional motorcycle in a demanding situation. At the sport bike end of the design equation, controlling the rocket ship’s throttle, keeping all traffic obstacles in view, and compensating for the limitations of a race bike suspension is no simple task.
Riding Denny’s Vincent made all of that evident to me in just a few blocks. I am clearly not skilled enough to deal with the damn-the-consequences commitment the Egli Vincent requires. My last test ride on a cruiser proved that I’m not trusting enough to put myself at the whim and mercy of the road, nature, Emma’s SUV and her cell phone addiction. I simply cannot buy into that kind of faith in either my own skill or the rest of the world’s benevolence. I have the usual guy’s fear of all sorts of commitments, but very little scares me more than a motorcycle that demands that I jump headfirst into the void or a rolling La-Z-Boy® that asks me to close my eyes and hope for the best.