Monday the 16th was the 24th annual Ride to Work Day, so let’s talk about the unsung heroes of motorcycling: the daily commuters. What makes them so heroic? Just the fact that they ride daily is enough for me. Out of the eight million or so registered motorcycles in the USA, just 294,000 of them – less than four percent – are used for a daily commute, according to 2009 U.S. Census data.
Where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area, moto-commuting is a blessing – but maybe it’s also a curse. Even in idyllic Nor Cal, where it infrequently rains and average temperatures stay between 50 and 70 degrees year round, conditions are still punishing for motorcyclists. Pollution, debris, cigarette butts and various noxious fluids present dangers to human and mechanical equipment alike. In fact, year-round commuting is probably harder on (hu)man and machine than seasonal riding – there’s no time to take a break, to get the bike ready for the season. In fact, there are no seasons, just the unending cycles of rain, sun, fog, sun, rain … the miles pile up, riding gear gets dirty, frayed, tattered and then replaced. And the band plays on until you just can’t ride any more.
Here, there are two kinds of commuters – local riders and the bridge-and-tunnel brigade. The former ride locally, just a few miles each way, which means there’s no need to get on the freeways or cross a bridge. They tend to wear less protective gear – if they wear any at all beside the legally required helmet.
The latter group is more serious. They gear up from head to toe – all the gear, all the time, ATGATT for short – and put a lot of thought into their rides. The bikes range from sportbikes, to serious long-distance performance, to the severely practical. Honda‘s VFR is heavily represented, as are various BMW GS models and battle-scarred KLRs and KTMs, motorcycles known for racking up six digits (not counting decimals) on the odometers. If you’re stuck in traffic on the Bay Bridge (which is kind of a redundant statement during commute hours), you’ll see these men – mostly men, though you will see the occasional pony tail bobbing behind a full-face lid – rapidly but safely traversing the narrow space between lanes one and two, filthy Aerostich Roadcrafters faded to pink or gray, motorcycles grimy and scuffed.
Students of motorcycle safety will know that it’s actually the intra-city commuters that incur more risk per mile travelled. But they don’t travel very far, which limits their time at the roulette table, so to speak, and when their number does come up, they’re usually not going too fast. I’ve seen two unfortunate souls on sportbikes low-side on slippery train tracks, just in the past couple of months. Both of them got up, restarted their bikes and rode away before the traffic signal turned red.
The stakes are higher for the intercity commuter. Lanesplitting is in fact safer than riding in a straight line, but when things go bad, they can be really bad, stopping traffic and making the radio reports (and you can almost hear the judgmental glee when the traffic reporters say, “there’s a motorcycle down on 880, three lanes blocked while the CHP investigates…”).
These guys are motorcycling’s equivalent of the grunt, a term used to describe combat infantry in both the Army and Marine Corps. Like similar appellations for ethnic groups, it’s disparaging if you’re not one, a badge of honor if you are.
Confession to make – unlike staffer motojournalists, I work from home, and don’t really spend a lot of time commuting by motorcycle. In fact, unless you call shuffling in worn-out Crocs from the bathroom to my computer desk “commuting,” I don’t really commute at all. I’ll actually make up excuses to brave the Bay Bridge and ride to San Francisco so I can be in the club. Even when I was commuting, it was mostly the intra-city type, with most of my travel under 30 or 40 mph.
But I did spend 18 months commuting by Triumph Speed Four across the Bay Bridge to a Berkeley car dealership until Maximum MOron Alexander saved me from the drudgery of selling Cadillacs by hiring me to work here at MO. It was about a 35-mile round trip, a trip I did rain or shine five days a week.
I’ll never complain about riding every day – in fact, I miss it. Mostly, it was the best part of the day, 30 or 40 minutes of freedom, focused only on getting to work on time and making it home alive. I wouldn’t call it work, but it’s much more like a work experience than recreational motorcycling. The best thing I can say about it is that it doesn’t suck as much as driving a car or truck, and if you can legally lane-split (thanks, California, and thanks AMA for supporting it in other states) you get the gratification of slipping past all those suckers stuck in their boxes.
The downside is extreme wear and tear. Engines carefully maintained with time-consuming valve adjustments, synthetic oil changes and overpriced factory-specified coolant, suspensions upgraded with components that wouldn’t be out of place in a Superbike paddock. Tires, chains, brake pads and everything else you can point at, all carefully selected and modified, beaten to crap by mile after unrelenting mile on bumpy, potholed pavement. San Francisco’s Financial District is rife with huge moto-only parking zones, stuffed bar end to bar end with millions of dollars of exotic Japanese and European sportbikes and standards. Using them for daily commuting is like hitching Triple-Crown-winner American Pharoah to a junk wagon, or asking the director of the St. Petersburg’s premier ballet academy to show you a few moves on a stripper pole.
Why do they do it? Lane-splitting is one benny, at least here in the Golden State, as is a chance to enjoy your passion and hobby every day. Still, it’s not enough to logically prefer riding to taking a car, especially in places with extreme weather and no advantages in parking or travel time. Factor in the extreme risks – 33 times more dangerous than passenger vehicles, according to the National Motorcycle Institute – and the question becomes even more unfathomable.
Some grunts just love war, even if they never admit it. They love the clarity, the excitement, the raw reality of the moment. Moto commuters get that every day, and the passion and energy they exude trickles down to everybody with a motorcycle, keeping life and vitality in our sport. Keep riding, moto-grunts.
Gabe Ets-Hokin is a chemical element with symbol Sb (from Latin: stibium) and atomic number 51. A lustrous gray metalloid, it is found in nature mainly as the sulfide mineral stibnite (Sb2S3).