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The Life of Riding

pirsigbike

Photo: Author Robert M. Pirsig

I feel I came late to motorcycling. I started riding in 1998 when my father purchased a Suzuki Savage for my sister and I to learn to ride on. We both managed to pass our riding test but I ended up using the bike so much my dad politely asked when I was going to buy my own. The first bike I owned didn’t come until 2000. I was 26 at the time and purchased a 2000 Yamaha VStar 1100 Classic. The VStar and I enjoyed each other for a several years. This by no means made me an accomplished rider. Two accidents, one on the Suzuki and one on my VStar, proved that. When I got married in 2003 I sold the Yamaha (the Suzuki was sold some time earlier). It had only 5,000 miles on it. At the time I thought I wouldn’t miss it and for a few years I didn’t. I hardly thought about riding.

Just three years later in 2006 I had an awakening. I know that’s a strong word but I cannot think of any other that would describe it better. I became captivated by motorcycles.  I signed up for several magazine subscriptions. I read books about other riders and how to ride. I found myself hanging out at motorcycle dealers. All this culminated in the purchase of a used 2006 Harley Davidson Electra Glide Standard in 2008. Along with the Harley came my first set of real riding gear: pants, gloves, jacket, boots, and a decent full face helmet. My riding gear had previously been entirely inadequate to protect me. I have the scars from my two accidents to prove it.

For the first time I felt like I understood what was really involved in riding a motorcycle. I knew about the mechanics and physics of riding. I was aware of the dangers and the risks. I actively took steps to mitigate those risks through practice and education. More than a re-entry rider, I was a re-born rider. When someone now asks me “How long have you been riding?” I start counting from 2008. That’s how important this change was and still is to me.

With all that I read before buying my Harley, have read since, practiced, the work I do on my motorcycles, I still feel like a novice. When I read Peter Egan, Kevin Cameron, Kevin Ash, David Hough, and other moto-journalists/authors I’m struck by the length of their riding career, their knowledge of bikes, and the ease with which they are able to work on them. Their familiarity is born from a lifelong exposure to riding, owning, and fixing motorcycles. It makes me feel like I’m behind the curve. I struggle with the idea that this somehow diminishes me as a rider and motorcycle owner.

Conversations with other riders about how many miles they’ve ridden this year, what they have fixed on their bike or that they do all the maintenance themselves circle the tables of restaurants and rest stops when more than one rider is present. I have something to offer to these discussions, but not as much as I’d like. Why don’t I know more about how my bike works? When I see riders commuting to work on their bikes on days I chose not to it fills me with doubt. Am I a serious rider?

Of course all of this is in my head. Riding isn’t a competition (unless you ride professionally). The reason I ride is because I love it. I’ve taken to looking at the books and articles I read and conversations I have with other riders from a different perspective. We all want to share our knowledge and accomplishments with others and be appreciated for them. There’s a lot to gain from listening to experience and asking questions about things I don’t know or understand. My projecting of my own fears and inadequacy on others accomplishments limits my ability to learn from them. I need to ride and do as much as I’m comfortable with. Everything else is just an opportunity to learn more and become better.

Even Peter Egan wasn’t born riding a Triumph Bonneville with a wrench in his hand. We all have to start somewhere.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 6, 2013 in Motorcycling

 

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Can You Be A Nerd And Ride A Motorcycle?

Camping Ride in new Bilt GearI believe when most people call up the image of a nerd in their head it looks like the stereotypical Revenge of the Nerds poster boy: glasses, short sleeve white button down shirt, high-water dress pants, pens in the shirt pocket, etc. However, I have rarely met this mythical nerd and I’ve worked in internet technology for close to 20 years now. I’ve known from a young age what nerdy things are and who nerdy people are, even if I wasn’t consciously aware of it. Then I discovered the The Nerdist and WheelNerds podcasts and now I finally have a definition for and example of something I have felt for a long time but couldn’t put into words. Chris Hardwick, the Nerdist podcast co-host and creator, wrote a book entitled The Nerdist Way in which he defines a nerd as a creatively obsessive person with the ability to fixate on one thing to a very minute level. Todd and Chuck from WheelNerds offer a real life example of Hardwick’s definition of a nerd as applied to motorcycles. This fixation is what separates the hobbyist from the truly dedicated enthusiast in any pursuit. It’s in this context that I can answer the question: Can you be a nerd and ride a motorcycle?

So why even ask this question? Because, just as there’s a stereotype out there of what a nerd is there’s also one of what a motorcycle rider is. According to a certain motorcycle manufacturer’s marketing department, and every motorcycle show on television, the image of a motorcycle rider is one of a leather wearing, bearded, outlaw rebel. I don’t think this characterization is any more accurate than the one of a nerd. Most motorcycle riders I know are just people with jobs, families, and all that goes with that. They don’t fit the “biker” image any more than the programmers and engineers I work with fit the nerd image. Are there those out there that do? Sure. Do they represent the majority? No.

According to the definition of a nerdist by Hardwick I think I, and many others, are motorcycle nerds. I’ve learned to embrace this idea, but it wasn’t easy. My last bike was a Harley-Davidson Electra Glide®. I know that it shouldn’t matter what I ride as long as I’m riding, but every time I walked into an H-D dealership I felt out of place. I didn’t see many guys on an H-D in textile riding pants, full armored yellow riding jacket, and a yellow full face Nolan helmet. It doesn’t fit the “image” of an H-D rider. I even got ribbed by the guys in my riding club, and they all wear the same gear I do! But they don’t ride Harley’s. I felt like I was fighting with the idea of what I was supposed to be because of the bike that I rode and knowing that it wasn’t me. This should not have bothered me, but it did. I can’t help that, it’s how I’m wired. Having been a nerdy kid I’ve worked hard, like so many other nerds, just to blend and fit in with the crowd. I’ve become acutely sensitive to the feeling of being out of place or in the “wrong” place, and my first reaction is to flee and find somewhere I can be among my tribe.

What changed was my becoming aware of others like me in the motorcycling world. Commuters, long distance riders, camping riders, ADV riders, all manner of motorcyclists who pursue riding like my nerdy child self obsessed over video games, D&D, and computers. Obsessive may be too strong a word (unless you’re talking about the Iron Butt riders) but the enthusiasm these riders have for their bikes, for riding, for gear and gadgets, is refreshing in a very comfortable and familiar way to me.

For example there are gear-heads who are all consumed by upkeep, maintenance, and modification of motorcycles, specifically their engines. I equate these folks with robotics and mechanical enthusiasts. They can tell you anything you want to know about a motorcycle engine from almost any aspect. Kevin Cameron, a columnist for Cycle World magazine is an archetype for the mechanical motorcycle nerd. He writes about subjects that regularly require explanations of metallurgy, viscosity, structural integrity, and complex mechanical interactions. I admire his ability to textually illustrate intricate concepts that most people could only do with parts diagrams and pictures, yet I always feel like I understand what he’s written as if I’d seen it with my own eyes instead of just reading about it.

Also there are the gadget hounds in the motorcycle world. These folks are the closest to computer nerds in my opinion. Probably because most of them are computer nerds and the motorcycle is simply an extension of their love of technology. These are guys who put every gadget imaginable on their bikes: GPS, radar detectors, satellite radio, MP3 player, communications systems, etc. They also tend to buy bikes that are equipped from the factory with a lot of technology built in: tire pressure monitors, temperature gauge, fuel range, heated grips and/or seat, electronically adjustable suspension, the list goes on and on. I have a propensity to fall under the spell of putting many shiny things on my bike that have screens and tell me things, just like I do in life.

There are endless arguments that appeal to my nerd brain related to riding: chain vs. shaft vs. belt final drive, sport vs. cruiser vs. dual-sport, naked vs. fairing, textile vs. leather. The discussions are as varied and heated as any Mac vs. PC debate I’ve ever been a part of. In the true nerd fashion there are ardent supporters of all these topics who delve deep into the subjects innermost details. Conversations at motorcycles gatherings about the abrasion resistance relative to speed between leather and textile jackets or self lubricating o-ring chains are better than Kevlar belts are not uncommon. There are just so many aspects of riding a motorcycle that lend themselves to discussion and debate. It’s fascinating!

So, can you be a nerd and be a motorcyclist? I think that you can, and that I’m proud to be one. I hope that there are others out there who find out that motorcycling, like most things in life, can be molded to fit your life. It’s what you put into it and not what others tell you it is that’s important.

 
6 Comments

Posted by on February 25, 2012 in Motorcycling

 

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