by Thomas Day
I’ve already ranted about riders’ fashion statements, so this month I thought I’d pick at what riders do once they leave the bar and swing a leg over the bike. If I was more inclined to believe in conspiracies, I’d suspect that many of you assemble Cirque du Soleil clown routines, just so I’ll be consistently entertained and have material for a Geezer rant. If that’s true, I’ll try to justify your efforts. If it’s just the natural human tendency to be the silliest animal in the gene pool, keep up the good work.
Take for instance a friend of mine who has been riding, and crashing, bikes for a lot of years. He was a dyed-in-the-leather fan of the “protective headband” set who has spent a good bit of his riding miles in the company of dozens of other bikers who were equally unprotected. Many of his favorite riding experiences involve close formation drills on the highways with extended stops at every bar along the way. At the end of one of our heated motorcycling discussions, we agreed to disagree about the fundamental mindset in two wheeled motor transportation. His position was that a motorcycle is a great way to be part of the great outdoors. Smelling the flowers, enjoying the colors, feeling the wind in your hair and the bugs up your nose while flowing with the energy of the planet at the speed of most of its inhabitants.
Grinding my teeth down to a fraction past the base of the enamel just from the new-agey-ness of that description, I countered with my belief that motorcycling is about getting the front wheel through every corner and around every obstacle as quickly, efficiently, and gracefully as possible. It was racing’s total concentration mindset that originally brought me to motorcycling. I’m most in love with our mode of transportation when the terrain, or speed, requires me to focus completely on where the front wheel is headed and what’s next on the road. If I want to count the leaves on a clover or look for farm animals in cloud formations, I’ll park the bike and take a walk.
I hate the ride between here and Sturgis because there is nothing for me and my motorcycle to do for 300 miles. It’s straight, far too well patrolled by bored, quota-motivated cops, and the only part of the tire that gets used is the center patch. I’d rather walk to Sturgis than ride my bike there. My biker friend likes the drive because he has time and space to observe the wheat growing and feel the wind blowing and he can share the camaraderie of his fellow bikers. All those “individuals” in a two-mile long parade of plodding bikers might as well be on a train, in my opinion. Or in a tour bus. Or in a convoy of Airstream campers or Fed-X trucks. Now, I have worn my teeth down to stubby little nubs suitable for carefully mashing warm applesauce.
And there is the alternative circus parade that usually makes a two-month appearance beginning in early July; the Biker Boyz. Sandal-strapped onto their Pokemon green, orange, red, and purple crotch-rockets, often protected by muscle shirts and baggy shorts, these road-rash test fixtures demonstrate to the average Minnesotan why lane-splitting is such a bad idea. Blasting around and between cars with the skill and daring of testosterone pumped lemmings, these Boyz even make me want to squash a biker between an SUV and a Starbucks semi. (Mmmmm, coffee roasted pork cooked over an unleaded gas fire.)
The Boyz find ways to make twelve lane changes per mile, even if the road is empty. Some of them can even wheelie, which is no terrific talent on a 300lb, 160hp bike that can levitate the front wheel in all five gears. If tires tell the story, few of them can turn. When the center of their rear tire is completely bald and the injection nubs at the outer 80% are as untouched as the day the tire was made, you know the bike hasn’t experienced a noticeable lean angle. Expensive sticky tires are a waste of technology on these dudes.
Boyz also seem to be pack animals. Usually the pack is smaller, four to ten bikes, than the slower and larger species I described earlier. Statistics are unavailable to support this theory, but I believe that members of this sub-group are short-lived or only ride as a passing post-adolescent fad. Some researchers suspect that the Boyz only ride for the sex appeal and as soon as they actually have sex they sell their motorcycles. Some experts have reported that, like the halibut, the Boyz mutate at maturity and become suit-wearing, Mercedes-leasing middle management types. However, the Boyz survival rate is low and their characteristics at maturity are difficult to verify.
Another favorite of mine is the adventure touring wannabes. Many of the folks who build an efficiency apartment around a two wheeled foundation are a marketing manager’s wet dream. I’ve seen Givi bags that are as scratch-free as the typical yuppie’s Dodge Ram pickup bed. The interiors are as perfect as the day they were molded. Often these bikes will be barricaded up with case guards, bash-plates, hand guards, windshields, GPS and radar detectors, map windows, and fully instrumented communication centers. I swear I saw one biker followed by an IS department, in case his computer network needed service between the office and home.
The favorite bike of the middle class adventure bunch is the KLR 650 or the BMW F650 GS. The KLR is cheap and there isn’t an accessory you can dream of that hasn’t been made for it. The F650 is more expensive and a little less utilitarian. The rich and powerful own the BMW R1150 GS. The big BMWs (like their nearest relative, the Range Rover) rarely touch dirt unless it’s been carefully painted on by a detailing service. I think the theory is that the capability (the motorcycle’s capability, not the rider’s) is there if it’s ever needed. I think the off-road capability of a 600 pound motorcycle is incredibly limited, but what do I know? Besides, we’re living in a “perception is everything” world where actual performance is an extra-cost accessory. The KLR, on the other hand, is pretty competent on bad roads and lots of KLRs have seen serious cross-country abuse. Some more than others, and it’s impossible to tell the used from the wanna-look-used by the amount of off-road hardware bolted to the frame.
It’s easy to confuse the posers in any of these three groups with the role models who created the style. I envy and admire the protective headband bikers who ride year-around in rain and cold and hot and dry weather. Nobody has bigger basketballs than road racers who touch knees to the road at supersonic speeds on a Wisconsin letter road. The adventure biker who has “four cornered” the world, carrying his belongings and a complete repair shop in three aluminum cases and a half-dozen soft bags strapped to the bike and his body, is a god among men and women. But, let’s face it, as in all human activity “90% of everything is crap” and the majority of folks who’ve adopted a heroic style are more form than substance.
Finally, we come to the commuter biker. I’m one and there are at least five others in the Cities. This is a group (if a microscopic minority can be called a “group”) that merges daily into traffic which is completely unaware of the existence of two-wheeled vehicles. Rabbits raised in the lion cages at Como Zoo would have less developed self-preservation tactics than commuting motorcyclists. Brake light flashing, lane-position calculating, space preservation maneuvering and as intent on making eye contact as Bill Clinton in the Playboy mansion, this is an entertaining riding style.
Visually, this assortment of bikers doesn’t share anything in common. Commuters wear everything from bad boy leather to business suits to coveralls to high tech racing suits. Helmets and helmet-less, new BMWs and rat bikes, road bikes, sport tourers, cruisers, crotch-rockets, dirt bikes, trikes, and sidecars; the only thing we all have in common is that we share the bumper sticker saying “a bad day on a motorcycle is better than the best day in a cage.” “Ride to Work Day” is every day for many of these folks. I know one guy who travels by four wheels only when the snow stops him and it takes about a foot of the stuff to force him off of his Ural sidecar rig.
Following an experienced motorcycle commuter is like watching a psychotic cutting horse pick out a calf from the herd. If the consequences weren’t so significant, all that hassle would seem hilarious. Just visualize the signals, lane positioning moves, and the strategic calculations made to get from point A (home) to point B (work) on a typical rush hour morning. Now put all that activity on an empty freeway. And that’s good comedy.
Just thinking about the ride into St. Paul among the coffee sucking, cell-phone babbling caged hoard has worn my teeth to the gums and fitting a set of wooden dentures will now be much less complicated. In my quest for moments of intense solitude occasionally relieved by burst of high comedy and intermittent terror, it’s tough to beat the fifteen minute ride to and from work. Ride safe, ride fast, look where you’re going, and try to do something funny to entertain the folks who might be watching. After all, it’s a motorcycling tradition.