Whenever a person who doesn’t ride motorcycles finds out what I do for a living, they almost immediately ask me two questions. Inexplicably, the first is “Do you ride motorcycles?” How I could possibly write for a motorcycle publication and not ride motorcycles truly perplexes me, but ask it they do. I guess that my career is so far outside of their frame of existence that it mentally locks them up for a moment or so, and the result is this nonsensical question.
The second question is one that, no matter how many times I’m asked, I have yet to develop a graceful answer. The search for the elusive answer has spun in my mind for years. Like a dog chasing its tail, it’s fun, frustrating, and, ultimately, exhausting. It’s an activity I turn to when I have an extended period of time – like at the beginning of a long flight – that I want to fill with some low-impact mental gymnastics to decouple from the day-to-day before drifting off to sleep or just semi-conscious, eyes half-closed daydreams.
The question is deceptively simple: “What is your favorite motorcycle?”
I usually respond by saying that answering this kind of question is difficult because I’ve ridden so many different kinds of motorcycles, making it impossible for me to choose a single one that accommodates my varied moto-personas. Instead, I suggest that they ask me my favorites in the various categories of motorcycles – my favorite cruiser, sportbike, adventure bike or tourer, a favorite scooter or sport-tourer or muscle bike. But then there’s cruising tourers and touring cruisers, and let’s not forget naked bikes or streetfighters and standards plus the burgeoning field of electric motorcycles – and I only cover street bikes. Eventually, I grind to a halt only to be greeted with a blank stare. Yes, I know that, to most people, motorcycles are just two wheels and an engine, but to me, they’re all past relationships. Former lovers, even.
How do I tell the truth without sounding glib? Because the truth about my favorite motorcycle is simple: My favorite motorcycle is the one I’m riding at the moment. As recently as two weeks ago, I had five different bikes from four different manufacturers in my garage. Because of the laws of physics (and my laziness) a couple got buried, requiring that too many others be moved out of the way before I could throw a leg over them (my personal 2003 R6 is all too familiar with this issue). Still, I found myself riding different bikes on different days, and sometimes, I’d ride different bikes in the morning and afternoon.
I’m reminded of a saying my mentor in the moto-biz, Art Friedman, used to recite as we were saddling up for another comparison test or just selecting which bike to ride home after a day in the office. He’d look at me with a twinkle in his eye and say, “All motorcycles are good. We investigate.” And his statement was, at the time, essentially true and is even more true today.
There are no bad – or to put it another way – tragically flawed motorcycles anymore. Time and technological advances have improved the species to the point that we have to critique motorcycles on increasingly narrow criteria which itself is basically an expanding field of narrowly focused machines designed to excel in a particular range of motorcycle tasks.
Although I’m sure many would argue with me, I believe this is the golden age of motorcycling, or perhaps, more accurately, a golden age of motorcycling. Motorcycles have reached, and are continuing to strive for, unprecedented levels of reliability and performance. Traction control and ABS advances enable riders to explore and expand their limits on both pavement and in the dirt. In the area of travel, motorcycles are more comfortable and capable than ever. Advances in communications allow riders to navigate and communicate better more easily. Riding gear is more versatile and protective, and also available in a wide price range, permitting riders with thinner wallets to experience the comfort and protection of decent riding gear unlike ever before.
Following these trails of thoughts is why I have found this puzzle of the favorite motorcycle so compelling, but over this weekend, while pondering the question, as I sat on my back porch breathing in the darkness and the cool summer breeze, a different answer occurred to me. What if I’m missing a key component that many riders know so well? What if, by not settling down to live with one bike for a number of years, I’ve never learned how to really appreciate a motorcycle? Like the perennial bachelor who has enjoyed a lifetime of short-but-passionate relationships and done things that married folk can only barely imagine (and only then with a twinge of jealousy), perhaps I’ve missed out on one of the most fulfilling experiences of life: settling down and participating in the growth associated with a long-term moto-relationship.
Time changes all things – both the soft and fleshy and the forged from metal, plastic, and rubber. My relationship with my wife is certainly different from what it was when we married 19 years ago. My love for her is much deeper, but it’s also mostly devoid of the rainbows and sunbeams that come with youth and naivety. Instead, my love is based in the reality of being intimately acquainted with her strengths and weaknesses (and her with mine) through years of shared experiences. Through it all, I’ve chosen to stay with her rather than switch to a newer, more exciting model, and so far, she with me.
I’ve got friends that have owned a particular motorcycle for decades. Watching one of them prepare for a ride reveals an intimacy between rider and machine, and I’m not anthropomorphizing the motorcycle here. The way s/he lays hands on the motorcycle as s/he performs the ritual of gearing up, while addressing any of the bike’s idiosyncrasies before starting its engine, shows a familiarity that can’t be replicated on a new machine.
The opportunity to ride the latest and greatest machinery is certainly exciting; I wouldn’t be here after 18 years if I weren’t getting something out of the gig. Still, I’m beginning to think that something larger can be gained by spending years racking up the miles – and collecting bug carcasses – with a favorite bike. Perhaps someday, I’ll settle down and find out.