In the Beginning

Driving a car, your relationship with the road is like that with a friend. Bumps are softened. On a motorcycle, the relationship is much more intimate, like that with a lover. You feel every small bump and dip.

Me, November 2011


This is the unfolding story of motorcycling and me. While I'd toyed with the idea of riding for several years, I'd never thrown a leg over a motorcycle until I was 51. Then the time seemed right. My youngest kid had finished high school so I considered myself expendable. I'd just spent two years with every waking moment was consumed writing a book. With it completed, I again owned my life and was looking for a new obsession.

My driving force in life has always been pushing myself, taking on new challenges and mastering new skills. I thrive on exploring new places and always prefer to be outside with the wind on me as much as possible. So I gravitated to riding.

As I contemplated this big plunge, I made several assumptions. One was that riding a motorcycle would save money given that gasoline prices had just spiked. A second was that royalties from the book would pay for a motorcycle. But most of all, I assumed that having put in thousands of miles on road racing and mountain bicycles, and manual transmission cars for years, I'd pick up motorcycle riding easily.

These assumptions all turned out to be wrong. What I spent on motorcycling far exceeded any savings from higher gas mileage. I didn't sell enough books to cover the costs. And learning to ride was much, much more difficult than I expected. But it was also much more fulfilling. In life, I've always wanted to be where I'm not. And I'm rushing to get there.

In the few years since I began riding, I've fallen passionately in love with it. The average American motorcyclist rides 1800 miles per year. I did 16,000 my first year, 18,000 the second, and over 20,000 in the third. I've continued to average 15,000 to 16,000 miles per year even when I began writing a weekly column that eats up much of my Sundays. At night I often dream of squiggly lines on a map. Seriously.

When everything is clicking--I'm alone on a winding country road, I've got my "A" game, the music is in a groove--I sometimes forget the motorcycle is there and feel like I'm simply flying. If you don't want to take my word for it, trust Alton Brown.

Luckily, I live close to some fine riding, with twisty roads over mountain ridges, large state forests, miles of farmland (which often requires dodging Amish buggies), charming little towns (each different from all the others), and lots of historic sites. There's always somewhere new to see. (Here's a map of my favorite routes and road food). I particularly like combining riding with photography--one of my other passions.

When I began this blog I was riding a 2010 BMW R1200R. In BMW jargon, this bike was a "hexhead" (named because the engine cylinder covers are hexagonal). So these are the "Hexhead Diaries." I'll update them regularly with stories and pictures. Stay tuned!

Friday, June 22, 2012

American and European Motorcycle Cultures

I've been thinking about the difference between American and European motorcycle cultures as seen in both how and why people ride, and in the bikes and riding apparel they use. It seems to me that this is a result of the different origins of the two cultures. 

While motorcycles had been around in the United States for a long time, motorcycling really took off after World War II. Many returning veterans had a difficult time re-adjusting to civilian life after their wartime experience. They had developed a high risk tolerance and felt more comfortable in the company of other men in a rough setting rather than "polite society." So they gravitated to riding. Some of them even formed the motorcycle gangs that still exist today.  Riding was not a necessity--America was the land of cars--but a lifestyle choice.

The key was that riding a motorcycle was intended as an act of nonconformity to social norms or even outright rebellion. So the riders reveled in a tough image and disdain for personal safety.

This continues today. Many, perhaps most people in American motorcycle culture, centered around Harley--which at least since the 1980s has been absolutely genius at making motorcycling "bad" and respectable at the same time--see it as an act of nonconformity or rebellion.  While Harley as a company doesn't embrace criminal motorcycle gangs, it also doesn't distance itself from the segment of its customer base that takes on that look and demeanor--the motorcycle gang posers. 

This heritage and culture is the reason that Harley bikes  and gear tend toward retro design. It's the reason that a lot of Harley riders dress like a pirate. And it's the reason that Harley riders are significantly less likely to  wear a helmet and other full protective gear than people coming out of different traditions and cultures.  Taunting death and the rules of "polite society" are a deliberate part of the ethos even though it's a statistical fact that things like wearing full protective gear and taking coached safety courses dramatically decreases the chances of a crash.

The origin of European and Japanese motorcycling was different. People rode not as an act of nonconformity or rebellion, but because few could afford cars in the decades after the war, and because they traveled congested areas with narrow streets. Because motorcyclists relying on their bikes for basic transportation had to ride in all kinds of weather conditions, the bikes and the apparel had to be reliable and practical rather than a statement of rebellion.

One good example of this was Honda's advertising campaign when it was making a big dent in the motorcycle market in the 1960s: "You meet the nicest people on a Honda."  In other words, it was intended to be practical, convenient and fun, not "bad." College students--future attorneys, CEOs, and country club office holders--rode them

This idea continues today, particularly with European motorcycles and motorcycle apparel which concentrate on cutting edge technology, performance and handling, and safety rather than the traditional or retro look. You'll seldom see someone on a BMW, Ducati, or Triumph without a helmet and other protective gear, or with "ape hanger" handlebars (which have to be the single stupidest thing people do to motorcycles) or extremely loud mufflers or, even worse, straight pipes (which are kind of a pathetic scream for attention). People with European motorcycles are much more likely to ride through the winter rather than putting their bikes up.  And they're much more like to take coached safety courses even if they don't have to (I've taken six in five years of riding).

I don't intend this as a critique of American motorcycle culture or Harleys. While I've cast my lot with the European approach, I'm not suggesting it's somehow better or preferable. But I just thought it was interesting to lay out the origin of the differences between the two cultures.

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