Categories: Features

Head Shake – The Motorcycle Gene

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?

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?

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.

Chris Kallfelz

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Chris Kallfelz
Tags: chris kallfelzgenesgeneticsheadshakemotorcycle genes

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