The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself.

–Robert Pirsig

Pirsig’s words ring true as I fast approach the one-year anniversary of a hospital stay that woke me to the fact that life is not an 8-lap sprint race, it’s an endurance event, and you never know exactly when the checkered flag will fall. I do tend to miss the glaringly obvious at times, it’s true, my DNA says so, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My 8-lap sprint attitude landed me in the ICU for the better part of a week last year while a whole team of medical professionals tried to coax my internal chemistry back into a range normally associated with the living. As my new nephrologist cheerfully observed while reviewing my blood results after they had stuck a PICC line in my jugular, “People have died with these numbers!” She didn’t have to be so chipper about it.

The first column I wrote upon being liberated from the hospital recounted a weird memory that had been jogged in what was truly a mind-bending experience in recuperation. My life didn’t flash before my eyes – a Harley-Davidson Sturgis I had seen almost 40 years previous did. My priorities have always been a bit skewed. A change in race strategy was called for, aside from some lifestyle changes which have left me viceless save but for the occasional profane outburst now and again, I’m a virtual choir boy now, albeit a choir boy with a lifelong motorcycle monkey on his back. That habit is not open to negotiation.

That unplanned hospital stay prompted a lot of questions from a lot of smart and educated people about just what makes me tick, and a good deal of time since then has been devoted to trying to figure that out. I’ve had a question or two as well – near-death experiences have a way of focusing the mind that way. In the absence of a family medical history to provide hints as to why when a butterfly flutters in my bile duct my sodium levels go into the basement, one place I looked for clues was in my DNA analysis.

The research in this field is mind boggling, far beyond the simple what color your eyes are apt to be or your likelihood of waking up one morning to male pattern baldness. The genome geniuses are casting their net far and wide into all manner of things including the existence of a God – or god – gene depending upon your ecclesiastical orientation. They have gone so far as to isolate a warrior/worrier gene and draw links between gene combinations and dopamine levels which can have powerful effects upon behavior. I’ve had a related question for quite awhile, too: Are we hard-wired to ride? And if we are, what does that say about the choices we make, choices that would seem to some in the four-wheeled majority to be irrational.

Is “born to ride” just a well-worn phrase or a genetic predisposition?

Is “born to ride” just a well-worn phrase or a genetic predisposition?

Are gene pairs just waiting to be turned on that once exposed to riding cannot be turned off in those predisposed? Some linguists have long held that we are hard-wired for language – what else are we hard-wired for?

I take a quick tally of decisions made over a lifetime that seem at first glance to fly in the face of rational decision making. The offer of a free car from a former father-in-law conditioned upon my selling my bike, an offer I summarily dismissed. That would have been money in our pocket, a luxury for a young couple living on junior NCO pay at the time, all-weather transportation in the relative comfort of a car for me to and from base, and my father-in-law’s daughter nowhere near any two wheeled contraption that might hurt her. That was reasonable… and unthinkable. And when that marriage subsequently blew up, my primary concern was keeping the bike. I had an educational opportunity I passed up because I couldn’t bring a bike. All of this would seem to fly in the face of reason, but does it?

This goes to something fundamental, I think. In none of those cases was it a matter of simply losing the bike, a Honda this or a Yamaha that. No, it was losing the ride, the sensation of riding, the whole sensory experience. It wasn’t as though I knew in my heart of hearts that life wouldn’t be worth living if I didn’t have my Yamaha or Honda, it was that life would be miserable if I couldn’t ride. Some might chalk that up to a passion, but I think it goes well beyond that for us, and, yes, I think there is most certainly an “us” in play here because I believe I’m not alone in this regard.

While the geneticists are busy isolating gene pairs and linking them to dopamine levels and neural reward sensitivities, I’m here as a walking-talking example of a guy with a lifelong habit of employing two-wheeled coping mechanisms. Science informs me that my rs1800487 (C:T) gene combination may result in “Reduced response to errors and increased addictive behavior.” I have a pile of rashed bodywork to attest to that fact.

“The reduced number of dopamine binding sites may play a role in nicotine addiction by causing an understimulated state that can be relieved by smoking (and/or use of other drugs).” Or the use of a Suzuki, for that matter. Or the last call in the paddock for your race as the case may be.

Some people enjoy the ride; others are possessed by it. Could this be just an accident of gene pairing?

Some people enjoy the ride; others are possessed by it. Could this be just an accident of gene pairing?

Just as surely as a predisposition for something like psoriasis or pancreatitis exists, I suspect kneedragging may be encoded in us. You know the type – they roll into the track with a $30,000 bike in the back of a $2,000 truck.

Consider genetic predispositions and gene pairs switched on by experience and exposure. Why do many try riding but it doesn’t take, yet others live for it? Is it age dependent, triggered earlier it may have greater influence; later or delayed it may have little or no influence? What role do dopamine levels play? Is high-velocity stimulus-seeking the domain of the dopamine deprived? What is a more all encompassing sensory experience than riding a bike at speed? Okay, besides what you are thinking, with your clothes on, something we can all talk about at the in-laws’ dinner table.

Consider something as fundamental as smell: think dead skunk on an August evening or a fall wood fire or that early spring damp forest smell while riding. Upon discharge from the hospital, I first became acutely aware of my lack of taste and smell when involved in two activities, one obvious and one not so: eating and riding, respectively. It was surprising how much I missed it. This is the most basic of physical sensations that we encounter in a thousand variations each time we ride. That olfactory experience does not occur in a car in the same way. From the smell of race fuel or two-stroke exhaust, to low tide in a back bay or an incoming rain shower, we encounter all of that very viscerally firsthand riding. There is something primordial about the senses at that level. And the fact that I most miss my sense of smell when I ride of all things? I don’t think that is a coincidence – it’s when my senses are most attuned to what is going on around me.

And that’s my puzzle, I’m the puzzle, so are you, and I’m looking for a puzzle solver. I know on some level the folks I have hung with in the paddock over the years are different animals, so too the lifelong riders and those who have devoted decades of their lives to our avocation. Who are we and why? There would be something affirming in being able to point at some empirical evidence to say: “That, there it is, that is us.” I suspect that answer is in there, in that genome.

For now a bunch of old trophies and friends will have to do anecdotally. It’s all about the ride.

Ride hard, look where you want to go, and make the checkers.

  • Born to Ride

    I can’t comment on the science of neurology in relation to genetic predisposition, but I can say that my quality of life seems to improve when riding is a daily occurrence. If I go a week without riding, I become noticeably morose. I can completely relate to making life decisions based on the availability of riding time. motorcycle gene huh? Well if anyone’s got it, it’d surely be us MOrons.

    • spiff

      Ever have a bad day, but the ride home was cool? Bikes transcend happiness/sadness for me. Kind of like no matter how your day went, a bowl of icecream is a good way to end it.

      • Born to Ride

        I find myself riding more the more I am stressed out. The balance and calm afforded through riding is invaluable

        • spiff

          It is a form of meditation. It brings you into the moment, allowing you to forget what stressed you out in the first place. Can’t think about TPS reports when hunting an apex.

    • blansky

      I wonder if anyone has done a study of the brain chemistry of going for a ride. I play hockey three times a week and the intensity of the play, the breathing, the fact that you can get hurt (which I think is a defining factor in this) all add up to incredible endorphin rushes and I’m sure other great chemicals as well. And the sense of well being, afterwards is amazing. In fact you are so engrossed you have to remind yourself what day it is etc, afterwards because you were so involved in the play. (hopefully not from a concussion)

      It would be interesting to see a study of a motorcyclist and an automobile driver brain scans on the same road, at virtually the same speeds and see what difference there were.

      I’m convinced the motorcyclist would be releasing a lot more good shit into his system.

  • Johnny Blue

    Great article! Thank you! I could never explain why I ride, but I know ‘I need to’. My ex wife decided one day that she wants to see how’s to ride a bike. She got on the back seat and as soon as I started the engine she started screaming that she want to get off. The bike wasn’t even in gear. People can be so different.
    Oh… and that photo with the Ninja brought back memories. That was my first bike.

  • Prakasit

    I am convinced, for me, it was the first time my dad took me to the market standing on the floor board of his scooter.

  • Old MOron

    “And that’s my puzzle, I’m the puzzle, so are you, and I’m looking for a puzzle solver.”

    Good onya, Chris. I’ve looked for meaning in life and in things for almost as long as I can remember. Truth is the older I get, the less meaning I can find. But I’m not jaded.
    I can’t find meaning in things, but they still matter to me. LOL, is it better to be jaded or conflicted?

    As for missing your lost sense of smell, I believe you. And I empathize. There is a section of Camarillo, between Hwy 101 and the ocean, where they grow strawberries, onions, peppers and more. Sometimes when I pass through there I can smell the crops, the soil, and the sea all at the same time. I’ve considered stopping the bike to prolong the olfactory experience, but I never do. It’s just as you say. Somehow being on the bike makes it better!

    I like the latest addition to your sig line, “make the checkers.”

    • John B.

      Interesting thoughts OM. I do not think I’m jaded either, but I’m increasingly convinced human beings are meaning manufacturing machines who create meaning where none exists. Perhaps, this tendency to create meaning is an unintended consequence of intelligence, and/or serves some evolutionary purpose. I don’t know.

      • Old MOron

        Almost 35 years ago, maybe the Pythons had it right:
        “Try and be nice to people, avoid getting fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

        • John B.

          That sounds about right to me, however, “The Meaning of Life” was a comedy.

          • Old MOron

            Good point.
            “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”
            “Jesters do oft prove prophets.”
            in risu veritas

    • JMDGT

      The greatest challenge I have faced growing older is finding something to be passionate about. I have to do a lot of things. Some I am passionate about but the passion is short lived. Most things I just do because I have to. Motorcycle riding has been a passion for me all my life. It still gets me right. Since the age of twelve anyway. Of course you’re not jaded. You are experienced.

      • Craig Hoffman

        Well said.

    • TrophyMike

      Old MOron, I have ridden the same ride MANY times! I live in Ventura County and commuted to Thousand Oaks (from the Northern part of the county) pretty much everyday on my bike and have smelled the same smells, in the same stretch of freeway…nothing like it! I’m fortunate enough to ride past the Ventura pier and beach everyday and the smells are always great…better than morning coffee!

      As for this article, you either have it or you don’t. You’re born to ride and there’s nothing that’s going to change that! I’ve wanted to ride since I knew what riding was and that feeling has NEVER gone away! Then there’s those that are well into adulthood and decide they want to start riding, like it’s something you can just start doing and do well. I believe there are people (like most of us) that were born to be on a bike and then there’s those that think they want to be, but shouldn’t be. My wife has said it many times, “there are those that ride because they’re born that way and those that ride because they want to fit in”. I’m in the “born to ride” group and ride everyday, unless it’s raining, and I don’t ride in the rain ONLY because I can’t stand how dirty the bike gets…otherwise, I’d ride then too!

      • Old MOron

        My Brudda! I don’t ride in the rain because I hate washing my bike. And since we live in SoCal, it’s easy to wait for the next sunny day.

        • TrophyMike

          I clean my bike every weekend because I ride every day and like a clean bike, but the rain makes it so much worse! Like you said, we get so little rain that it’s best to just let it sit for the “3 days a year” we get rain…LOL!

  • John B.

    Great article Chris.

    It’s fascinating you would find comfort in identifying a genetic switch that accounts for your lifelong devotion to motorcycling. I would rather believe free will led me to motorcycling, but free will may be an illusion.

    In some instances, doctors (geneticists) can turn off/on genetic switches, which means there may be an enzyme that would end your interest in motorcycling. Also, environmental factors turn genetic switches on and off, which explains why one identical twin gets cancer while the other does not, even though they have the same DNA.

    If it were possible, would you undergo a procedure to turn off the genetic switch that makes you enjoy motorcycling, and turn on a switch that makes you enjoy a safer avocation such as sailing or gardening? If it’s all chemical reactions, what difference does it make where one’s passion resides?

    • JMDGT

      Having the switch hard wired in the on position works nicely with free will. It enabled me to choose motorcycling. Some that have the switch on choose other things. The ones with the switch in the off position well, they have no free will. They do nothing. In my opinion of course.

  • JMDGT

    It has to be hard wired. I think it hit home for me seeing Steve McQueen’s character in the Great Escape jump the fence trying to escape from the Germans. I wanted to do that. Luckily my grand parents had a Farm that allowed me the privilege of being able to ride. When I was old enough to ride the street it was a way to get out of Dodge. Riding the country roads helped me keep a proper perspective. To me it is a meditative task. One that requires focus. Having your mind right better enables you to perform all the necessary functions demanded of riding. We all know about being in the groove. In my opinion anyone who can appreciate that has it hard wired in their psyche. Well done.

    • throwedoff

      I don’t know if it’s genetic or psychological, but I have the same feeling. I started out on a Doodle Bug mini bike when I was 10 years old. Moved up to a Honda CL100 when I was thirteen. At sixteen I was on an ’76 XS650 that was two years old. I rode that until ’84 when I had to sell it to help cover tuition and books (I was not without wheels as I also had a ’71 Super Beetle). There was really no choice between the two as to which one to sell. Winters in the Texas panhandle are not long, but the conditions can be brutal. I went without a bike for twenty-one years after that due to financial constraints. I missed my bike every day of those years. Now I ride either my DR650 or my dad’s handed down ’06 Bonneville. It is comforting to just be able to go out in the garage and look at them and start them up when the weather is not conducive for riding. I got rid of my ATV a couple of years ago as it had sat unused since I blew out my left elbow and split my left Ulna exiting my truck during a freezing mist bout. That incident pretty much woke me up to my mortality. I was 48 and no longer bullet proof. It didn’t make me give up on all my activities. Just the ones with the greatest probability for injury. Well maybe not completely as I tore my left rotator cuff in March of 2016 skiing at Wolf Creek, Colorado. So now I’ve got an 8 inch scar on the dorsal side of my left elbow, and a 4 inch scar on the top of my left shoulder to go along with two blown out knees and carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists! Still love to ride though and ride both bikes like I stole them!

      • JMDGT

        Life without risk isn’t life. It’s an existence. I am fighting injuries I have had since high school. It’s a cost of doing business. I will continue to ride as long as possible. I am looking to get a mid sized bike that is lighter and theoretically easier to ride. I like the Street Triple. My sport bike days are over. Ride safe.

        • throwedoff

          Amen to that. There are so many amazing bikes on my bucket list, but I have to keep it real and within my sensibilities. It’s not just my well being I’m responsible for anymore. I have a twelve year old daughter that I’ve got to be responsible for along with her mother. Just thinking about college for my daughter in another six years usually puts a damper on any unseemly thoughts. I also try to include her in as many activities as I can, so I have to keep her safety and well being in mind. That doesn’t mean we don’t get wild and crazy, It means I calculate the risks and rewards well in advance. I would never do anything to intentionally endanger my daughter. She knows that everyday I go to work I face the possibility of not coming home the way I left for work or even coming home at all. She also knows that I do everything I can to make sure I am safe at work as well as making sure my coworkers are safe in our job performance. In eighteen years and untold numbers of uses of force I have only had a couple of minor injuries requiring no treatment and no missed days of work.

      • Craig Hoffman

        A life well lived is probably going to involve orthopedic surgery. That is my theory anyway!

        • throwedoff

          I try to adhere to that mindset, but convincing my wife that being active is what keeps me young gets harder each time. I do a lot more risk analysis now before acting.

  • azicat

    Chris I think your search down the genetic theory path is a red herring. Behavioural psychology, attachment theory, and Foucault’s discourses of power may offer more insights.

  • CDR C

    Good article. A thought –

    Perhaps many riders are wired not directly to ride, but are wired instead directly to be independent, rebellious, resent being told what to do, etc. And an excellent way to do that is to do things ‘against the common wisdom” – such as ride. The temporary father-in-law in the article was an authority figure, so by refusing his car offer the author was asserting independence AND resisting authority.

  • octodad

    it is a mindset….ever have to climb a tree, need to see what is over there….get a buzz from being alone and going fast….sore, when pulling in, feeling complete….

    • Jonathan Allain

      One telling thing, though, is as perfectly as you just described it, is that it’s ultimately temporary. A fix. Never truly, ultimately satisfying.

  • Jonathan Allain

    For me, there was zero nurture. It was originally fulfilled in piloting for the USAF, but now that’s over, I needed something else, and a motorcycle is the closes thing to the sensations of the world wheeling about oneself and perspective without the prohibitive cost of flying (which comes in much smaller amounts than riding).

    For me, in other words, it’s the visceral feel of motion, momentum, and challenge to brain-hands-body coordination. That’s genetic, or nature, or as I prefer: God’s design of this fleshly body I inhabit.

    The moment this article really grabbed me was with the olfactory reference. I too, notice the smells, the temperature changes, the sensations we only experience riding in such exposed a manner.

  • TrophyMike

    I’m reading the comments and we’re all on the same page. Something about being on the bike, there’s nothing like it! If you ride you’re in a brotherhood. You don’t see cagers waiving to each other as they pass! What we do is something the majority of people can’t understand, they have no clue what it is or why we do it! Some think it’s cool and others think we’re fools! Bottom line is, it’s “2 wheel therapy”! I’m fortunate enough to ride everyday and I never get tired if it! It just gets better and better. No matter what my day was like, getting on the bike makes everything else go away! I’m 52, been through the sport bikes but am now in the Sport Touring class. I enjoy the hard riding of sport bikes but appreciate the comfort of touring bikes. I’m currently riding a 2016 Triumph Trophy. No matter what you ride, bottom line is “you’re riding” and I believe that being on a bike keeps us alive, as strange as that may sound. I’m going for a ride today…lol!

  • Craig Hoffman

    Was 11 years old when I got my first “bike” a Honda CT70. Asked my parents if I could get one, we had trails and power lines nearby to follow and I wondered where they all went. My parents were not thrilled, but my Dad, thinking I would lose interest before being able to swing it said “you have to earn all the money to pay for it”. Next day there was a little Honda in the garage. I had already saved all the money!

    To this day, I still love riding off road, have had at least one dirt bike in the garage for 44 consecutive years. Have been blessed to ride in some amazing places, and even though my sense of direction sucks, still wondering where that trail goes like the little me did all those years ago. Off road riding is adventurous and fun. No constraints on the aggression level other than the rider’s personal intersection of self preservation and talent, lot of “improvisational” riding, good times with friends. Dirt bikes are a riot.

    The street bike is meditative. I ride alone most times and like the crispness and efficiency of line on the street. Also like the isolation – no phones, nobody talking at me, and the ability to zip away from anyone on a powerful bike like my FZ1 feels quite empowering in a world full of obligation and BS. Street is a different vibe for me – it is an escape. Off road makes me feel like a playful kid again. A capable and fast street bike makes me feel like I am in charge of my destiny. Being able to ride on both types of machine totally rocks.

    Dunno if I was “born to ride” or not. I suppose so, because I can’t imagine my life without my motorcycles, it would almost not be worth living without them.

  • Mad4TheCrest

    Riding …no, controlling, a motorcycle taps into nearly every core survival ‘feature’ natural evolution built into humans. It utilizes mind and body and links both together through a machine down to the road and Earth itself. No wonder that despite our other hobbies and obsessions we always need the ride.

    • vastickel@gmail.com

      I’m with you! Never tried to analyze too awfully much, but in 50 years plus of riding, I,’ve always appreciated the control, and mastery of an object that when left on it’s own-would fall over! Still working on it, also! Kind of counterculture to boot. The fact that us motorcyclists are out there, doing what most people don’t choose to attempt, also has an allure.