4 Insane Things Nobody Tells You About Riding a Motorcycle
I've been gone a few weeks, but I can explain: I just bought a motorcycle. Which means that I've pretty much spent the last fortnight on a motorcycle, thinking about a motorcycle, fixing a motorcycle, almost crashing a motorcycle, gazing longingly at a motorcycle and pushing a dead motorcycle around a parking garage looking for a jump. I could try to give you some useful advice here, like "Don't take the Motorcycle Safety Course with a fever," or "When the floaty elf tells you to 'ramp that shit,' don't listen -- that's just the fever talking." But that stuff is probably pretty apparent to most of you, and if it's not, try listening to the elf a few times; some lessons you can only learn from mistakes. So instead, I'm going to tell you about a few very obvious fundamentals that, honestly, any idiot could figure out -- but that nobody ever seemed to mention to this particular idiot before he got himself into this mess.
We Go Way Too Fast
A few motorcyclists just read that heading and thought something like "Fuck yeah, we go too fast! We're daredevils, bro. You suckers can keep your cages, we're free." (Yes, some bikers refer to cars as "cages," because literally everything has its embarrassing elitist jerks.) But I'm not talking about the reckless velocity of dudes without enough brain cells to comprehend mortality. I meant exactly what I said: "We all go way too fast."
First, let me say this: I'm not a wizened old hand at this motorcycling business (for example, I refer to it as "motorcycling business"), and so far I spend most of my bike time wobbling to a terrified stop after every pothole. But my limited experience atop a motorcycle has taught me a valuable lesson already, and it is this: All of us -- every human being alive today -- are traveling way, way faster than we have any right to. And I don't mean "We're in too much of a rush," like it's some symptom of our modern world; I'm saying that, since the advent of the engine, humanity has always flitted about at a ridiculously incomprehensible speed. It's just that we're removed from it in our cars: They're aerodynamic and sound-proof and shock absorbing and sealed off from all external stimuli to make commuting an isolated and relaxing experience.
But on a motorcycle, you sit right down on top of an engine with wheels, and the second you start moving, you realize that even our posted speed limits are still three to eight times faster than our species was ever meant to go. Our stupid eyeballs and ears and brains simply cannot reconcile our established rate of travel without all the buffers of a car around us, because our instincts understand that this should not be possible. But on a motorcycle, suddenly you comprehend the wrongness of speed. You feel every tiny bump in the road as you hurtle over them at a sacrilegious pace, the wind screaming in your ears, because that's what happens when you try to outrace the very air itself, objects flying by too quickly for your eyes to fully register.
"We are running way too fucking fast!" your primal brain screams. "How did this even happen?! ARE WE FALLING?" And then your rational brain glances in the rear view mirror and says "Speed up, man, this is a school zone: You have to do at least 20 mph."
That's not just me being a pussy about the whole thing (I mean, it is totally that, but there are other factors, too). When the automobile first started seeing major usage, the U.K. passed the Motor Car Act in 1903 to dictate proper road speeds. Here's the debate lawmakers had about the matter. There were some passionate responses to the matter on both sides, with some advocating reduced limits, while others argued for the limits being abolished entirely. A fairly typical argument went like this:
" wished to protest against the great speed at which motor-cars were driven. He thought the danger would be increased and not decreased when motor-cars came more generally into use, and he urged the right hon. Gentleman to meet this danger in time. It had been suggested that there should be a sphere of danger and another sphere of comparative safety, but he thought those in the danger sphere would have a very bad time indeed. It was no use being able to recognise the number of a motor-car after they had been nearly killed."
Man, is this when they lowered the speed limits to 55? How fast were they going that they wanted to designate special "danger spheres" for suicidal motorists? Why does a speed limit debate read like panicked religious zealots reading the Book of Revelations? And while we're at it, what is a Danger Sphere, and can I have one?
For answers to (most of) those questions, here's the rest of the quote:
"... and the only effective way to deal with the question was to make cars illegal which ran at more than about 15 or 20 miles an hour, or whatever speed was fixed as reasonable. He hoped something of this kind would be done, otherwise what was now a great nuisance might become a great danger."
That's right: This bitter debate regarding the crazy, irresponsible, blasphemous highway speeds at the time was about raising the speed limit ... from 14 to 20 mph. That's ridiculous now, seeing those numbers. They're talking about speeds lower than our absolute bare minimums like the devil himself was hurtling by their houses every night leaving little Back to the Future flame tracks in his wake. But if you want to understand why, just hop onto a motorcycle. Early cars were built somewhat similarly to modern bikes: They were small, open to the air, bumpy, windy, loud, careening minimalist carriages that made you pay for every mile with an ounce of old-timey fear urine. But nobody ever tells you that before you go out and buy a motorcycle.
There's no helpful FAQ out there that says "Caution: We've all been defying the laws of nature this whole time, and you're about to realize it."
Other Drivers Hate You
You've probably heard that phrase before, or something like it: "Drive like they're all out to get you," your drunken, paranoid uncle might have told you, right before he took you out for "driving lessons" that always seemed to start at one bar and end at his house. But I mean it literally here: If you ride a bike, every other driver on the road despises you. As soon as you set ass to motorized cycle, you become Unclean.
I don't know if it's something in the perceived image that mounting a slightly narrower than normal vehicle makes you more of a man, or a tough guy, or a reckless daredevil, but traffic hates motorcycles. Not only hates them, but possesses a rage so intense that murder is the only solution. Other drivers will tailgate the crap out of you, regardless of your speed, and that's kind of a bigger deal when, y'know, you don't have a tail or a gate. So there's a several-ton steel box traveling more than fast enough to crush you to death in a nanosecond, and its operator has decided that his safe stopping distance is "up your asshole." And there's no way to make him back off, either. He's comfortable there, inside your asshole; he shows no signs of moving. He's going to make a life up in your colon -- hell, he's already planting a garden and having his mail forwarded there, so you better get used to him.
Drivers will also pass you in-lane -- just flying by on the right in a one-lane street -- because a bike is smaller, so there's technically enough space to slip by. Technically there's enough space to fit your Prius in a school gymnasium, too, but shockingly, it's still generally frowned upon when you mow down a dodge ball game. And if you think I'm embellishing, or that this behavior is exclusive to me and how I ride (which, for the record, is a bit timid, all adorably knock-kneed and shaky-legged like a newborn deer), check out this study by the California Office of Traffic Safety.
The survey was conducted to find out whether Californians knew that lane-sharing was legal for motorcycles (that's when you drive in the space between lanes to cut through traffic). Most did not, but that's not the interesting part: The interesting part was exactly how many of them -- 7 percent -- freely admitted to the survey conductor that they "tried to prevent lane sharing." That dry, objective phrasing makes it sound like no big deal, but the only way you can "try to prevent lane sharing" is to abruptly block a lane with your car when you see a bike coming (i.e., ramming a motorcycle off the road).
That is a shocking piece of information to volunteer to anybody at any time, and 7 percent of people freely admitted it to a total stranger. Find any other scenario where nearly one out of ten passerby will casually, almost happily cop to attempted murder on a regular basis:
"Excuse me, sir; were you aware that commercial fishing within two miles of the coastline is legal in California?"
"Why, no, random stranger, I was not! And in fact, I regularly hurl knives and flaming bottles of kerosene at boats when I see them fishing too close to the beach! Hahaha, joke's on me, I guess! Welp, see you later, I'm off to stab pedestrians crossing at intersections without crosswalks -- have a good one!"
Wearing Protective Gear
I'd always heard that riding gear consisted of a leather jacket, jeans and a helmet. And I didn't question it, because damn near every motorcycle rider I saw was wearing a leather jacket, jeans and a helmet. Go figure. Sure, the occasional sport-bike rider would speed by in an elaborate strappy number with jagged stripes, brand names and patches everywhere, but I thought it was mostly a style thing. Hey, some dudes wear Tapout shirts on purpose; there's just no accounting for taste. Then, doing the research, I learned that you're supposed to have actual riding gear designed for that purpose.
And I can tell you firsthand that it is all just as uncomfortable, constricting and awkward-looking as you'd expect. And that it's also totally badass. Motorcycle protective gear is, by definition, insanely durable. Jackets, pants, bags and damn near every other type of clothing is made out of the toughest fabrics on the planet: Kevlar, Cordura, ballistic nylon -- this is shit that, when layered properly, stops bullets and knives. That's not to mention the thick, padded gauntlets with carbon fiber knuckles meant to withstand crashes at highway speeds and impenetrable leather boots with oil-resistant non-slip soles. And beyond all that, there are pads, inserts and plates hidden all throughout the fabric to protect your major joints and body parts.
For the more nerdily inclined among you, you're probably already getting it: It's not "safety gear," it's fucking armor.
Riding gear is a full suit of armor that is socially acceptable to wear in public. You walk into a Starbucks wearing your period authentic replica half-plate, and at best you're going to get some impolite stares; at worst, you're going to get a news piece with the headline "Police Fell Local Knight With Bear Mace, Mocking Laughter."
But you walk in there in motorcycle gear and, depending on how much the other customers want to piss off their father, you're either a responsible commuter or a naughty rebellion just waiting for a sexy coup.
I have no idea why I didn't know this -- why every motorcycle rider wasn't constantly daring me to hit them (seriously, hit me, guys! It's awesome!) and laughing as my blows rain off of their helmets. I have no idea why zombie movies even exist anymore, because they sell full suits of bite-proof armor in your local auto parts store. The drama would probably be somewhat diminished if every episode of The Walking Dead was just a smugly grinning Rick wading unharmed through the undead horde.
Even though a lot of riding gear is designed to resemble ordinary clothing as much as possible, you're still leaving the house with hardened knuckles, slip-resistant boots, knife-proof fabric and impact pads. That's like, half a super power. So while you may look like this:
You feel like this:Source.
It's Like Riding a Bicycle ... That Hates You
One of the first things the instructor at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course said to us was "It's a lot like riding a bicycle."
And she was right; she just didn't finish the sentence.
I'm sure what she meant to say was "It's a lot like riding a bicycle ... off a cliff."
The basic principle is the same, sure, but if you've ridden a bicycle and are therefore counting on already possessing the skill set needed to ride a motorcycle, you are in for a terrifying, bloody disappointment. Some of the very basic maneuvers will feel familiar -- most of the time you steer, take off and stop using the same motions -- but there's so much more. For instance, for reasons that are entirely beyond me, motorcycles have the clutch on the handlebar and the gear shifter at your foot, forcing me to assume that Bill Motorcycle, the inventor of the motorcycle, was either medically dyslexic or some sort of drunken acrobat who exclusively rode bikes while doing headstands. You also control the throttle with your hand instead of foot, and have not one but two brakes -- using either of which at the wrong time will hurl you off the bike like a meat trebuchet.
The clutch is going to be familiar to you if you've driven a stick shift before, true, but now you have to do it backward, and upside down. You'll get the concept, but the motions are just foreign enough to require an all-new learning curve. Oh, and you have to practice in live traffic -- traffic which, again, has admitted to trying to murder you in the name of ill-informed justice. The end result is you attempting to master an only half-familiar skill (that is, if you've actually driven stick before. If you haven't, it's a totally unfamiliar skill to you and oh, God, what are you doing?! That's first gear; go up, no -- up, man, brake! Shit! Tree!) with an entirely different layout, and all while careening down the road at speeds that made your great-grandfather's monocle pop out in astonishment.
So yeah, sure, it's just like riding a bicycle ... while playing Moonlight Sonata, on a glockenspiel, and sprinting full bore through a psych ward full of murderers.
In short: It's awesome.
You should get a bike right now, and a full set of armor that's like blood red, and you can start zipping around like those forest speeder things from Jedi and you'll be like "WHOOOAAAA" and your bike will be like "VROOOOOO-"
You can buy Robert's other book, Everything Is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or follow him on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook.