I had cause to reflect back on 40-some-odd years of riding and the changes we have witnessed, with an inquiry seeking enlightenment from the MO Think Tank. The query was cause for reflection: “Will I Be Shunned if I Ride an Automatic Motorcycle?”
The note was written by a prospective rider:
I really want to start riding, but it seems like learning to ride will be a tall enough mountain to climb without having to learn all about shifting gears too. Do any motorcycles offer automatic transmissions, and are they real motorcycles? I don’t want a scooter. My boyfriend tells me real motorcycles have manual transmissions, and that I’m taking the coward’s way out. My cars have always been automatics, and nobody ever looked down their nose at me about them. What do you think?
Shiftless in Seattle
I pondered that for a moment. My knee-jerk reaction was the only proper one in this age of enlightenment and inclusion: shunning? Why, of course not. We are brothers and sisters on two wheels, are we not? There are many mansions in my Lord’s tech shed, but a nagging feeling persisted, a guilt, ghosts from the past, a more barbarous past when we burnt leaded fuel and bean oil. When we were savages, moto-savages, and we laughed and shunned a lot.
To wit: Scooters (see; Rockers vs. Mods), quads, cars, of course, moto-bagos, ill-tuned Harleys with drag pipes, bikes pulling trailers, and once a pack of Japanese cruisers heading to Ocean City with a cadre of exclusively bald guys piloting them which prompted the following roadside epiphany: “Nobody fucks with the Baldies.” Oh, and anyone, anywhere, who ever oiled a racetrack line.
We laughed, we pointed, and we shunned them all to varying degrees. We scoffed, we maligned, and we disparaged. It’s a shameful past, but there’s no denying it. But the worst of our scorn was reserved for slushbox motorcycles, and in our particular case, the lowly Honda CM400A, turned out in an eye-catching County Jail Coveralls Orange, piloted by our friend Brian.
That Honda we shunned unmercifully.
We had ample opportunity because it was not like he was going to outrun us. Every stop we’d wait for Brian and his borrowed orange thing to come trundling along wearing appropriate attire for the whole disgraceful display – a multi colored ski parka – and the guffawing would commence before the obligatory shunning resumed. That entire shameful day was pretty much filled with leaving Brian for dead, riding, stopping, guffawing, and shunning our way up the Potomac River and through three states to Summit Point. Shunning and guffawing were as natural as blipping the throttle to downshift, Brian knew it all too well and took it in stride. If any one of us had traded places with him, we would have become the object of scorn. It wasn’t Brian, it was Brian’s transmission.
But we have all evolved, of course, thank goodness. Looking back on those times with more than a little shame, it is easy now the see how insensitive we were, how loutish, how positively tribal.
Shunning was not always bad if you were in the right frame of mind for it. The frame of mind that says when they are shunning me they are leaving someone else alone. I once rode a Suzuki GN125L from Scotland, Maryland, to our shop in Lexington Park to be serviced. The bike belonged to a former stripper. Former strippers can ride GN125Ls to nothing but widespread acclaim; guys in Alpinestars boots cannot. I had it pinned most the way. I also laughed the whole way.
I felt absurd and it was liberating, like walking around the paddock sans leathers in your underwear on a hot August afternoon, with a soaking-wet checkered flag bandana tied around your head, chugging Gatorade, with a breeze blowing. That gets elected officials fired these days, you know. My friends at work made fun of me, impugning my character with charges of being a circus sideshow freak. What did we know? We were troglodytes.
Remember, if you are being shunned, somebody, somewhere is underestimating you. I ran a BMW R1100GS through a Suzuki Superbike School at Mid-Ohio for a story once. What occurred there when I pulled up that morning far exceeded shunning and went straight to pointing and laughing. I had removed the saddlebags from the big GS and safety wired a camouflage pig with sergeant stripes to the luggage rack and dubbed the big Beemer “War Pig II.” And me and the Pig had the last laugh that day; fried Metzelers, scraped pegs, and scorched blue ABS front discs with the lever coming back to the bar and all. The Pig had held her own against all comers that weren’t named Chuck Graves or David Aldana, the instructors.
The fact is that most of what passes for shunning these days is good-natured ribbing, not like the old days when I was physically lifted off the ground in an unpleasant fashion for suggesting to a chap in a jeans vest bearing colors that my Honda might be a bit quicker than his Harley. I even suggested if he was willing to throw a corner or two into his proposed street race, my oil-tight Honda would leave him and his steaming lump of Milwaukee iron like they were stapled to the asphalt. Never try to negotiate with a man named “Red Beard” who is a good 25 cans into a 30 pack, that’s what I always say. This might best be termed Shunning in Extremis. (For cross-cultural reference, see also; Australian Motorcycle News, Fred Gassit, “Biker or Bikie?” by Simon O’Leary)
“I painted mine pink.” That is what the man said to me in the parking lot of Mid-Ohio Suzuki Yamaha one morning as I was pulling my gloves out of my helmet. He had apparently painted the exhaust baffle of his bike pink and was grinning ear to ear. Gil and I were saddling up to continue north that morning, but this demanded further inquiry.
“Do you want to see it?” he asked.
Do I want to see it? Why yes, I must see it! Of course! Meanwhile, Gil was muttering, “No, no, no, no…”
And low and behold the man had painted his BUB pipe-baffle insert neon pink, and he launched into an extended diatribe telling me how he produced this oddity. Gil was still back there uttering, “NO, NO, NO, NO,” with greater volume and a bit more urgency. When that didn’t work, he fired up his bike and let the Yamaha tell me in no uncertain terms we were leaving. Gil chose shunning. Me? I chose a different path, a path of inclusivity, the way of the pink baffle, which really is the path of righteousness. It’s a big, weird, beautiful world out there, filled with any number of moto-wonders to admire if we only take the time to do so.
No, these days we have to look out for each other, and particularly be nothing but encouraging and helpful to any potentially new member of our two-wheeled tribe. We’re all riders, devotees of F=MA, and bending a bike – any bike – into a corner and rolling it on is what matters. But, by all means feel, free to shun cars, any miscreants who oil the line on a racetrack, and squids behaving badly. And have a happy holiday.
Ride hard, laugh more, and look where you want to go.