Image Unconscious

by Thomas Day

When I started this rant, snow was still on the ground, my outside thermometer was barely pointed past zero, and my bike hadn’t moved for nearly a month. Still, I was thinking about the 2003 riding season. It could happen. It has every year for the past 30-some and I was confident that it would again this year.

Since last year, I think a lot more about new riders and the obstacles they face. I taught a pack of beginning MSF classes in 2002 and met a wide range of “new riders” through that experience. That’s a new thing for me. For the last 25 years, I’ve mostly ridden on my own, in remote areas, for long distances, and with my well-ingrained habits (good and bad) keeping me upright and maintaining momentum. The few riders I did know had been at it for years and most are much better at it than me. Working with new riders for a season forced me to re-evaluate a lot of old habits and beliefs. I ended up trashing an unusually large percentage of my own tendencies.

One of the more entertaining features of teaching motorcycling is seeing how many preconceptions students have formed into personal philosophy before they ever put a foot on a peg. The obvious stuff is “style.” A large number of adult newbies come to their first classroom in “biker gear”: designer leather jackets with fringe, quarter-dome helmets (always black), Doc Martins, chaps with fringe, and fingerless gloves. The MSF program doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to dissuade these fashion statements, but the effort it does expend seems to be wasted. Like music, politics and religion, the fashion statement made by riding gear appears to be an immovable object.

The bike style is another pre-conceived notion. The state owns a collection of bikes, ranging from late-1970’s standards to modern dual-purpose bikes to new retro-cruisers. All of the training bikes are 125cc to 250cc. The baby cruisers attract new riders like flies on . . . the stuff that flies love the best. The easiest to ride bikes, the standards, are completely ignored.

The exercises in the Basic Rider Course are hard enough that a fair number of experienced riders have problems executing them competently on the best of bikes. While the cruisers all have high-momentum engines that require minimal clutch skills, the first couple of exercises are the only place where that characteristic is of much use. Once we leave the straight-line exercises, the limitations of low ground clearance, long framed, poorly balanced and barely suspended motorcycles begin to cause problems. But the demand for this kind of bike marches on in the face of overwhelming silliness.

Outside of the course environment, the majority of new riders are convinced that a motor smaller than a liter is impractical for whatever purpose they intend to ride. Other than a few macho kids who are planning on moving directly from 125cc training bikes to 600cc 4-cylinder crotch rockets, most new riders are planning on bikes that are larger, heavier, less economical, and less maneuverable than small cars. In a recent beginner class, I polled twenty-one students and learned that sixteen of them already owned a motorcycle and fourteen of those bikes were Harleys or Harley clones. It’s a rare student who grasps the reason that we use small bikes for training purposes; small bikes are easier to ride. It’s a really rare student who actually takes that understanding to the next level and buys a small bike.

Every once in a while, a student will take the trip to my website’s motorcycle page and will notice that the largest bike I’ve ever owned was a 480 pound Yamaha 850 TDM and that, after that experience, my next bike was 200cc smaller and more than 100lbs lighter. That same student might also notice that I have several 3,000-mile-plus trip stories and have put a lot of mileage on my “small bikes.” Sometimes that trips a realization that a 200-pound geezer thinks, and has demonstrated, that a 500-650cc bike can be used for basic transportation, adventure touring, and long range sub-ballistic freeway travel. But mostly, students think I’m crazy for enjoying my small bikes and they buy what Milwaukee has convinced them to buy. Afterwards, I suspect they end up ridding only on special parade occasions.

One habit I don’t plan to change until I’m incapable of doing otherwise, is riding every half-decent day. Motorcycles aren’t just a weekend hobby for me. Every day that’s ride-able is a ride-to-work-day for me. Rain, shine, hot, cold, unless I’m stuck carrying equipment that won’t fit in my bags, I’m on the bike. I don’t have a speck of comprehension for motorcycle owners who keep their bikes garaged 90% of the year. I don’t keep bikes that I’m not riding.

That is also a rare concern for new riders. When I ride to an early season class or on a rainy day, I get a lot of questions about all-weather motorcycling and waterproof riding gear. I think way too many people consider motorcycles fair weather, recreation-only vehicles. Most of the motorcycling world use bikes as basic transportation. We could save millions of gallons of fuel and free up miles of freeway traffic if more Americans regarded two wheels to be better than four.

I think the penchant for hippo-bikes is part of what keeps riders off of the road. If it takes a major effort to move the old blimp out of the garage, you won’t make that effort unless the Shriners are doing something really special that weekend. A small bike is a lot less likely to crush you against the garage wall or to cause intestinal support failure, so they get ridden with considerably less motivation.

Our national motorcycling advocate, Andy Goldfine, is constantly harping on the fact that fewer than 5% of the licensed bikers actually ride regularly. Motorcyclists, as a group, cover fewer total miles, per year, than bicyclists. Bicyclists! I’d like to see Harley apply a little of its marketing skills toward convincing bikers to become something more active than motorcycle clothing models. I’d like to see them promote less posing and more riding.

In our under-educated country, marketing folks have been telling us “image is everything.” First, I want to remind you that anyone can write marketing drivel. There is no FCC/FDA/EPA/IRS or any other federal or state organization that limits the idiocy that marketing folks can put on paper or on the tube. So any opinions expressed by marketing departments are purely idiotic and do not represent the truth, reality, or any sort of useful information.

Image is nothing. You heard it here. Doing is everything, being is everything, but looking like you are doing or being isn’t fooling anyone, especially your motorcycle instructor or any real motorcyclist who can ride faster, longer, and safer than you.

M.M.M.

 

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