I have a confession to make – one that might seem odd for a person who has devoted the bulk of his professional life to the hardware associated with motorcycling. Over my tenure scribbling about street-going, two-wheeled, motor-driven vehicles, I have ridden just about every model for sale to the public. Yes, there are a few exceptions, some of which would pain me to admit, since I still want a chance to ride them. (The Honda RC30 immediately comes to mind.) This, however, isn’t my confession. Instead, my disclosure is a fairly simple one: Despite my love of the machinery, when I encounter a motorcycle out on the street, after giving the bike a quick once-over to see if it is anything unusual, I immediately shift my attention to the rider.
To me, motorcycling is all about the interaction between the human and the machine. Without a pilot, a motorcycle is nothing more than untapped potential. Yes, I get excited by the news of upcoming bikes and the relentless advancement of technology. (I will be up late tonight drinking coffee, typing fingers at the ready, sitting in impatient anticipation of the moto-news from on the other side of the world at EICMA.) I enjoy looking at vintage bikes at a show or museum. I even gaze at the hardware and marvel at how far our machinery has come in such a relatively short period in human history. But – and there is always this but – I eventually end up imagining how the bike looked and behaved when ridden during the period of its construction. If there are photos of the bike in action, I’ll dwell over them, building a narrative around the photos.
I can’t help myself, I’m terribly interested in the human element of motorcycling I encounter on the street. What’s the person’s body language? Are they wearing proper riding gear? Do they look like they really know how to ride a motorcycle or are they throwing their shoulders one way and then the other, unconsciously counter-steering, to change lanes? Are they wobblers who drag their sneakers like outriggers along the pavement for 20-30 feet when pulling away from a stop or do they manipulate their motorcycle with the finesse that betrays years of riding? When they dismount, do they display the giddy grins so frequently seen on the faces of new riders as they experience the early stages of motorcycle infatuation or the well-practiced, automatic routine of doffing gear developed over decades?
You see, all motorcycles leave their respective factories the same as all of their siblings. It is only through their relationship with their owners that they begin to differentiate themselves from each other. From custom bits and aftermarket exhausts to battle scars from conflicts with the pavement or, perhaps, just a liberal coating of bugs and road grime that point to a happy, well-used motorcycle, bikes frequently mirror their riders’ personalities. The latest, greatest sportbike will often have a rider sporting the newest riding gear – or, ironically, well-worn gear that has seen many track days and more than one tumble. Then there are the touring riders who seem to have brought the residue of multiple states along with them on their jackets. Or the cruiser’s vest lined with pins and patches from various rallies. I’ve written before about how our motorcycle gear carries our stories, but our gear also helps to locate us within the many tribes of motorcyclists. These are all things that can be gleaned from just a few seconds’ glance at a passing rider.
Perhaps also, the reason I focus on the rider is that we share a special bond as motorcyclists. Much in the same way that I will almost always approach and talk to other riders if I have the time for a visit, my observations are an attempt to tap into the current motorcycling zeitgeist as evidenced by passing riders. While we may not have much in common outside our love of motorcycling, we share an important belief: Motorcycles are good for the soul.