A year and half after acceptance, the "My First Bike" article I wrote for the BMW Motorcycle Owners of America Owners' News finally appeared. You have to have a subscription to access it but, heck, here's the text. (I would add that regular readers of this blog have seen most of this already, but I know that there's no such thing).
The Mid-life Crisis Motorcycle
I am a classic mid-life crisis motorcyclist. 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 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 riding held a deep appeal.
As I contemplated this big plunge, I made several assumptions. One was riding a motorcycle would save money, given that gasoline prices had just spiked. A second was royalties from the book would pay for a motorcycle. But most of all, I assumed, 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.
As I first caught the motorcycle bug, I headed for the local Harley dealer. It was close to me and, like most Harley dealers, a real emporium. But it only took a few minutes of browsing before I realized I wasn’t a Harley person. I then went to the Honda dealer just down the road. All the bikes in stock were either crotch rocket sports bikes or cruisers – again, not me.
Luckily, the Honda dealer also sold BMWs, so I wandered down to that end of the showroom. I hadn’t really thought about BMWs before but was curious. I’ve always been a fan of German engineering, having driven German cars exclusively since the mid-1980s. So I was interested. Very interested. I briefly considered looking at Triumphs, but geography sealed it: the Triumph dealer was 30 miles from my house and the BMW dealer five.
Then I did something that was very unlike me. Normally when I buy anything, particularly a major purchase, I first do extensive research. This time, though, I was impulsive. I found the BMW looked cool and was in my price range. I asked the salesman and a buddy if they thought it would be okay as a starter bike. They both said, “Yes.” I later decided that was probably bad advice, but a few days after beginning to think about motorcycling, I bought a 2008 BMW F800ST.
I picked up some basic gear – a helmet, gloves and a jacket – and got a neighbor to ride it to my house. Five days after the first glimmer of an idea, I was a motorcyclist. Sort of.
I got the bike on a steaming hot Saturday morning in June and set out to ride around my neighborhood. While I’ve always been an autodidact – someone who teaches himself or herself – I now realize that was my second major stupid decision.
As I set out through the neighborhood (which, unfortunately was crowded with yard sale traffic that day), my immediate problem was stalling. Every time I stopped, I stalled multiple times before I’d get moving. I was also struck by the strangeness of motorcycle controls: the right hand controls the front brake, the right foot controls the rear brake, the left hand controls the clutch and the left foot shifts gears.
I did make it around the block a few times. Then on about the fifth circuit, I had what remains my closest encounter with a serious wreck. I had to make a left turn uphill from a stoplight and stalled several times. This frustrated me, so I vowed I wouldn’t stall the next time and gunned the throttle.
The bike took off. Of course, all I needed to do was either let go of the throttle or pull in the clutch. But in my panic, all I did was squeeze tighter. I careened toward a parked SUV and was already becoming angry with myself for wrecking the bike after owning it for an hour. As I flinched for impact, I instinctively leaned away from the SUV. This was just enough to steer me slightly away from it. I skirted the vehicle so closely I felt it brush my hand. But I made it. Barely.
I then began a rigorous skill development program. I rode every day, only moving on to the next level of difficulty when I felt comfortable with the previous one. First was riding around my neighborhood at 15–20 mph. Then short forays on 35 mph back roads at low traffic times. Then I took trips into town at low traffic times and trips on roads with 40–45 mph speed limits. Then it was on to rides at higher traffic times and trips over the mountain ridges on a few of the less challenging roads. Next, it was on to major roads and interstates during low traffic times. Eventually, I inched into busy interstates, rides into cities, a few rides at night, a few rides in the rain and mountain crossings on the twistier routes.
I vividly remember the first ride where the thought, “Hey! This is fun!” crept into the terror that normally accompanied each ride. I remember the first time I pulled back into my garage at the end of a ride and did not think, “I cheated the devil again!” I was getting comfortable enough on the motorcycle that I actually expected to live through a ride. I remember the first time I rode on a 65 mph divided highway – I was squeezing the grips so hard I had to pull off at every exit and rest my hands.
After about a month, I had 600 miles under my belt and was able to get into the Basic Rider safety course. To my utter amazement, I failed. According to the instructor, I went too slowly through the tests. I was shocked and angry. I jumped back on my bike, popped back on the interstate and came home.
Throughout the rest of the summer, I continued to practice, including parking lot sessions doing the exercises from the course. I also went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to take the test there for my M class license. It was a disaster. I lost my composure and stopped half way through. Another flunk.
But I was determined to both pass the safety course and get my license so I could ride to work. I expected to fail, but figured the additional coaching would help me. I dropped my bike during one of the exercises and had to have it lifted off of my foot, but I felt more and more in control as the day went on. After the coach compiled the test results, he said, “Unfortunately, not everyone passed.” Since I was expecting that, I began to walk away. Then to my surprise, I heard him call my name. I’d somehow passed.
By the summer’s end, I had a couple of thousand miles under my belt. I had my safety course card, and I had earned my M class license when I retook the test from the DMV. I’d also accumulated a mountain of gear as I searched for the perfect helmet, gloves, jacket, boots and pants. I was, sort of a rider.
I owned the F800ST for two years and put about 32,000 miles on it before trading for an R1200R. I still see the old one around town and some day will get a chance to talk to the new owner. For me, it clearly was a gateway drug – the R is my favorite possession of my entire life. I get in over 20,000 miles a year. I made it to the 2011 Bloomsburg Rally (but left because it was too cold). I’ve been able to explore nearly every twisty, isolated road in Pennsylvania, combining my passion for riding with my passion for photography (see my photos on my blog at http://hexhead.blogspot.com/). I’m certainly a different and happier person than the one who almost smeared himself on an SUV in his first hour of riding.