Why I ridePosted: 22 October, 2013
[Written for another purpose and not used. May as well blog it.]
According to the relevant chronicles, a thousand years ago Irish monks used to have themselves set adrift in a boat with no sail or rudder, that God might choose where they would end up. You might think that only a devotion to some higher calling would induce anyone to throw themselves at the mercy of fortune’s good graces with no reliable means of setting a heading and such eejits are not to be found nowadays.
In 1932, one Robert Edison Fulton Jr., trying to impress an attractive woman in London, said that he intended to ride home to the United States on a motorcycle. The president of the Douglas motorcycle company was present, and offered him a bike for the trip. When Fulton later regained consciousness in Turkey, he examined the evidence and concluded that the bridge he had been crossing was unfinished. Examining his motorcycle, he found that “the only damage I could find was a slightly bent front fork which thereafter tended to turn the machine in circles to the right.”
And there, before you, stands the motorcyclist: one part braggadocio before the gender of desire, one part steadfastness in the face of the facts, one part splendid disregard of the accepted principles of locomotion and mechanics. In Fulton’s case, the ability to set only an approximate course was the least of his problems: he had lost much of his engine oil in the unplanned jump. A local youth procured an acceptable substitute, mustard oil, of sufficient quality to allow him to ride to a mechanic. The resulting mustard gas nearly poisoned him, but he reached a town supplied with hydrocarbon-based lubricants and continued his journey exposed to only the normal hazards.
In our heads, all motorcyclists are Fulton: game for any dare, self-reliant, ready to travel in any direction because it looks as if it might be a bit of crack. In reality, our biggest adventure is usually surviving the by-pass in the rush-hour, but it still makes us more interesting than most company we find ourselves in. We do something which people can see, which they are slightly afraid of, and which is just unusual enough to be remarked upon. At the same time, we heft the weight of a century of semiotic baggage so that every thrill-seeker, dare-devil, and curled-lipped pin-up accretes to the patina of flies, grit, and oil that crust our leather jackets.
The motorcycle is the great anachronism, modernity in the service of atavism. As T. E. Lawrence put it, “a skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth”, and he is right to place the bike in a category with horses and camels. The motorcycle, unchanged in its essentials in a hundred years, is a riding animal, controlled like a horse. A car is not controlled in the way a coach and four is, but a bike is controlled by weight, pressure, touch, and the forces felt through hands and feet, thighs and gut. This literally visceral experience is the reason why we ride, and why the most meagre of motorcycles will always be better than the most powerful car.
We profit, exultantly, from the image. When Lawrence wrote of the bike as a riding animal, he spoke from experience, but the word was made horseflesh a few years later, in 1941, when Harley Davidson were commissioned to produce motorcycles for the U.S. Army. The bike they made, the WLA, is the one you see in movies. The silhouette could have been designed to dress the backdrop of a western: the panniers come straight from John Wayne’s horse; the leather Thompson gun holster on the front forks serves the same purpose as the carbine boot swinging from Quincannon’s saddle. The modern rider, on a thoroughbred sportsbike or a steady hack, will have a pannier hanging either side of the passenger seat, and a tent and sleeping bag strapped across the top, a rear profile Genghis Khan’s hordes would have recognized.
The essential item of clothing is the black leather jacket. A helmet lends the profile of a fast jet pilot, but the jacket does the semiotic heavy lifting, and doesn’t look silly in the aubergine aisle of Waitrose. Leather is still the best material for protection in a crash, but that is not why we wear it. We wear it because it scuffs nicely. The scrapes, the folds, the wrinkles, on black leather mark us out as one of the elect, garbed in the robes of a peregrine order, with a tonsure of scraped skin on the shoulder where we took a hairpin a touch too hot.
In spite of the intellectuals who have also been riders—Samuel Beckett, Thom Gunn, John Berger, Robert Hughes, Lawrence, Che Guevara (“just one of the boys” according to one bike magazine review)—motorcycling, like vanilla pornography and football hooliganism, has escaped theorization and hipsterismo eroico, and for the same reason. Riding a bike is just anti-social enough to earn contempt, but not odd or expensive enough to ever become trendy. `Creatives’ go to `work’ on Italian scooters, or on fixed-gear bicycles, but not on a motorcycle. It might be that bike boots crumple the roll-ups in your jeans, or the leathers make you sweat, but scooters don’t handle, and bicycles are work, so there must be something else. The reason why hipsters don’t wheelie is that bikes leave no room for self-deception. Given a sample of their writing, we might guess that John Berger and Robert Hughes are bikers, concerned with craft, skill, and the perfect line; would a conceptual artist put themselves astride eight hundred cubic centimetres of reality and twist the go-faster handle? Will there ever be a Twitter frenzy of denunciation of auto-normativism?
The connection with visual art is not capricious. The silhouette of the motorcyclist, mounted or unmounted, could have been used by David or Stubbs, but the painter’s eye is also like the rider’s. John Berger (Honda Blackbird 1100cc), has remarked that the motorcyclist, like the artist, is looking for the right line, with the difference that unlike the artist, the rider must get it right the first time, every time. The trace of a rider in open country is a high-speed calligraphy stroke, one flowing movement lasting hours. Where an Irish monk once left a note in the margin of a manuscript—`I did that last line in one dip of ink’—a motorcyclist will say `I did that on one fill of fuel’.
Motorcycle training, once you know how to change gear, is not about how to ride fast, or take a corner, but about how to see, and how to ride smoothly between corners. The difference between fast road riders and TT racers is the ability to see the line through a bend approaching at one hundred and fifty miles per hour. The bend, as much as the bike, is the memento mori, the reminder that you are mortal.
Every rider acquires a consciousness of mortality, because we are reminded of it, voluntarily or not, every time we ride a bike. Most often, the renewal notice is issued by a car driver who is not paying attention, but we also put ourselves in that position. Entering a new bend is a trial of nerve, and control; exiting the bend on an opening throttle, tyre six inches from the hard shoulder, toe of a boot skimming the tarmac, is the reminder that you are alive, exulting in something beyond existence and the continued operation of bodily functions. You might be collecting groceries ten minutes later, but you will be smiling in the aisles, and rear-wheel steering the trolley. When you string a sequence of sweepers together on the side of an Alpine valley, the technical exercise is like the kata of martial arts, a combination of muscle memory, immersion in the task, and decisions actively taken every second.
The point of motorcycling is that there is no intermediary between rider and reality. Where car advertisements are a catalogue of detachments from the world and from adult decisions—stereo, air-conditioning, airbags, self-adjusting seats, satellite navigation—motorcycles are sold by demonstrating how narrow is the gap between rider and response. When riders talk about riding, they talk about control, and control means corners. In the words of Hunter S. Thompson, a biker “will ride all night through a fog storm in freeway traffic to put himself into what somebody told him was the ugliest and tightest decreasing-radius turn since Genghis Khan invented the corkscrew” A numerical measure of your ability to control a motorcycle is the number of miles per hour you concede to a bend. Until the Japanese manufacturers adopted a self-denying ordinance, any fool with a spare ten grand could buy a two-hundred mile per hour road bike, and any fool with a straight dual carriage way, and no fear of the magistrate, could get it up to that double ton. Getting it round a corner is a whole other story, and that story is the story riders tell, though with different endings.
The reality we negotiate is, first, physical, Newtonian reality. Cornering a motorcycle is, in the precise sense, a balancing act, a deed of equilibrium, a setting equal of gravity, friction and centrifugal force. Those forces are functions of speed, corner radius, and angle of lean into the bend. The visual measure of rider ability is that angle: the further over you lean, the less speed you concede to the corner, but the greater your risk of sliding sideways when the tyres’ struggle with centrifugal force becomes unequal. As the machine swings to what seems the horizontal, that angle is felt by the rider as a lightness in the stomach, like a passenger’s response to a turbulent gust in an aircraft. The wilder kind of jockey will then deliberately force the rear tyre to break free of the road, and slip sideways to align the bike with the exit from the bend. This is something you do only once, or very, very often.
The outward and visible sign of grace on a respectable motorcycle is to be found by inspection of the rear tyre. A modern tyre is rounded and rolls sideways over the road, where a car’s is flat and sits square, so that the wear on the tyre tells you how far the owner leans the bike on corners. The strip of unworn black rubber on each side of the tyre is called a `chicken strip’, and its width is a proxy for a rider’s nerve. A motorcyclist sucking his teeth as he looks at a rear tyre is not commenting on the lack of tread, but on the excess, implying that the tyre’s owner should probably have his hormones looked at.
The inward and spiritual grace of a motorcycle is the thermodynamic reliquary of the engine, holder of the Pentecostal flame, holy of holies, chamber of combustion. Even riders who contract out the job of changing their oil talk of their engine with theological rigour and evangelical fervour. The elect invoke the names of the saints—Honda, Taglioni—in aid of claims that this engine stands in the apostolic succession from some earlier prophet of the creed of internal combustion. Your taste in engines is a prejudice acquired with your first leather jacket, a prejudice as deep-rooted, and reasonable, as your choice of hard liquor or favorite football team.
Riders talk about engines because we have contact with them. The driver of a modern car does not hear the engine (most of the noise comes from the tyres), and has probably never seen it. We see our engine every time we approach the bike; we feel its heat; we know its bulk. Part of the character of a bike is the noise and vibration of its engine, which are functions of its geometry and timing. If the banshee in the air intake of a sportsbike on full chat, or the exhaust tone of a well-tuned triple, does not leave your glands in a turmoil, you probably need chemical therapy. The voice of an engine is formed by its pipes and chambers, in the same way that a singer’s is, or an organ’s. That voice is formed by the designer, much as a teacher will form generations of singers, distinct, but recognizably of the same school.
The design of an engine is part of the heritage of a marque, and one of the things that does not change. Since the~1960s, when they produced the first superbike, Honda have produced elegant, spare, engines, calligraphy in metal; Ducati, near Bologna, make engines like Baroque altarpieces, gears within gears, little desmodromic cathedrals of power, an Escheresque fantasy, keeping mechanics in overtime.
This contact with the engine, and with the rest of the machine, drives the great underground culture of mechanical skill. At a minimum, an owner will perform basic maintenance on their machine, if only cleaning it, and checking and changing the fluids. A motorcycle cannot be taken safely through a car wash, and cleaning means touching almost every part of it. That familiarity is what makes the machine mine, and accounts for the wistful look in the eye of a rider when they talk about their first bike. Like that first trip to Paris, when you had no cash but wanted to do French things, your first bike is a struggle of penury against minor mechanical failures, scraping together a few pounds for new brake pads, in the same way that you lived on bread and cheese for a week so that you could visit the Louvre every day.
Maintenance is not enough, though, and some of us begin to modify. It starts innocently enough, discussions about exactly which tyre to fit, washers in the forks to stiffen the suspension, braided brake hoses, but soon the owner is fitting new handlebars, or a more comfortable seat for that thousand mile ride, or a new rear shock absorber. We tell ourselves that we do this to make the bike better for our uses, but we are lying, and we know it: we are making the bike ours. The sum of modifications is such as to make this machine unique to us. The final step on that road is the rebuild.
Many rebuilds are undertaken involuntarily, after an engine has been encouraged beyond the limits of its metal, or because wear has caught up with one component too many, but there is still a pleasure to be had from it. A one-time flatmate, of a type who stripped engines on principle, smiled when I bounced my Honda off the side of a bridge: he had never seen the inside of one of those before. Were I the Education Secretary, I would make the stripping and rebuilding of an engine part of the national curriculum, though if I were Education Secretary, we would not be in the current state of chassis.
The rebuild is both act of homage to the original manufacturer, and creation of a new machine. The principle is simple enough: take it all apart, put it back together again. If anything is broken, or worn, replace it. `If’ … The decision about what to replace, or recondition, or refurbish, usually swings towards the spending of more money, and by the time the machine is back on the road it is, like the bionic man, a superior version of the original. Indeed it should be. The original was mass-produced for quick sale as cheap transport. The rebuild is, literally, hand-built, usually with better quality fasteners (never discount the satisfaction to be had from a stainless steel bolt), and a superior finish on the frame coating. Like Maggie Smith in Gosford Park, sniffing at bought marmalade, I am now entitled to find the showroom-fresh motorcycle very feeble.
The culture of motorcycling looks monolithic from outside, but its internal divisions would stretch the cataloguing skills of a student of the early church or of 1970s Trotskyism. The one difference is that, with the exception of Harley owners, looked down upon as they look down on us, we all get along, sectarian arguments about drivetrains notwithstanding. There are overlapping subcultures of riders working on their own machines, for maintenance or racing, customizers, rebuilders and restorers. It is still possible to do first-class work on a motorcycle in a small back garden, or on a kitchen table if nobody objects to parts being cleaned in the dishwasher.
The Harley owner tends to be viewed as the Simon Magus of riding. As Simon Magus gave his name to simony, and found himself condemned to one of the deeper bolgie, the spendthrift finds that his money buys only contempt from motorcyclists. Buying a Harley, or an exotic Italian masterpiece, but not being able to ride it, is a gaffe of the type committed by the nouveaux riches when they fit out an oak panelled library with books they have not read, and could not understand if they did, or buy work by artists they have been told are great. The comparison is almost exact: in the way that an art lover thinks fondly of those minor pieces bought with money scraped together from scarce earnings, a motorcyclist thinks of the happy days of keeping their first cheap snotter on the road, of the bodges and repairs, of looking for the garage with a reputation for the exercise of discretion on MOTs. The highest respect in motorcycling is kept for those who can whip something feeble round a big sports bike, and embarrass the flash poseur who tried to buy the image. Conveniently, Simon Magus often wears a tasselled buckskin jacket and rides a thing that looks like a two-wheeled gin palace, so he’s easily spotted.
The mass-produced motorcycle is the automotive equivalent of the Hollywood movie, a vehicle for fantasy remade by everyone who buys a ticket, surprising in its ability to transcend the limits of its origins. Where Hollywood offers escape through fantasy, motorcycles give us escape via unmediated contact with reality, whether the laws of physics, or the medical consequences of not being as good as you bragged you were. We live in a time of second (-hand) life, when `friends’ are barely acquaintances, experience is simulated, and drone jockeys get medals for valour. Our lives are not our own, but a series of images of another, unlived, life, played through our eyes. Responsibility is a word power uses to blame the weak. In all of this, the motorcycle keeps two fingers raised to society, respectability, and conformist practicality, and is more real, more urgent, more alive than any other form of transport. The car has been no joy in forty years and can only be made tolerable by the addition of high quality stereo. The pleasures of the bicycle are of a different order, commensurate with the risk, and it is narrow between the thighs; the horse is as good, but hard to garage, and illegal to soup up; the aeroplane is a bus with wings. Only the motorcycle still carries the full charge of myth, violence, and gallant solitude, Grand Prix performance for the price of a used family car; lazy screenwriter’s symbol though it be, the bike in the garage is, as Dan Walsh put it, “a Beretta, half a mil in cash and a forged passport under the floorboards”, freedom, anonymity, and memento mori. Riding a bike is an adult pleasure.
If pushed, riders will justify biking as a practical way to get through traffic, as convenient in a city with limited parking space, as a courteous way of leaving more space on the road. Lies. We might fool you, but we do not fool ourselves. Riding a bike is as dear as driving a car, less comfortable, and more dangerous. If not anti-social, it is certainly anti-society. It is a noisy, smelly, sweaty, solitary vice, and that is why we do it. We take our own risks, and accept fully the responsibility for the consequences; this decision is mine, and I will make it. The reward is time that is our own, a rejection of vicarious experience, life lived completely, without mediation or apology.