I got up at 5:30 a.m. an hour earlier than planned. I felt rested, relaxed. I quickly got dressed, putting on my new motorcycle shoes and an old pair of blue jeans. I took a drive with Harry, my five-year-old Cavalier, to the coffee shop for a double espresso and a blueberry muffin. I took my time enjoying the thought of what was to come, savoring the future.
I returned home at 7:00 am. Everything was prepped and ready. Harry and Simon, Harry’s two-year-old brother, were running around the Vulcan, excited to explore this object of beauty that clearly had meaning to me. Finally it was time. I took Harry and Simon inside the house, apologizing for not being able to take them with me. Simon looked at me sadly but Harry reluctantly understood.
I put on my jacket and helmet, straddled the seat and clicked the ignition. The cycle opened it’s eye and purred back. A little throttle for it to warm its way to a wakeful state. And then, into first gear and a coordinated dance of throttle and clutch to pull out into the deserted quarter-mile loop my house sits on. Slowly I rode around in first gear, a bit jerky at first, as I turned the throttle and I synched our movements. I settled into the feel of the brakes, then the clutch, then the coordinated action of brakes, clutch and throttle. The first lap was over.
The second lap was more of the same as the dance tightened up. I was now ready to allow my awareness of the surround to come online. Like an artificial intelligence machine, I quickly scanned, identified and rated objects for their risk potential. No potential dangers. Quiet street. Wait, a person walking a dog, on leash, they see me, I slow just in case. Then another person on the sidewalk, with their back to me. All okay. Second lap over.
I pulled back into my driveway, putting the bike in neutral and let it run. I went inside and told Renee, my wife, all went well, briefly describing the experience. “The bike really rides itself,” I said. She smiled. “Okay” I said, “time to venture out beyond our little loop. I’ll be riding around the larger complex. Should be 40 or 50 mins, I made a playlist last night, so ‘ll I’ll being playing it. Should be all okay.” “Okay,” she said, “have fun.”
I returned to the cycle with my iPad which had already been bluetooth’ed to the helmet speakers. I started my playlist. The open track: Riders on the Storm, by The Doors. I smiled thinking, “A little corny but let’s be honest, can you really imagine a better tune? Anyway, maybe it is corny, but you’ve NEVER DONE THIS. To you, this is the real experience before it becomes corny. This is your experience. Forget corny. Just forget it.”
I pulled out and off I went, feeling surprisingly settled. I rode to the loop opening and pulled into the larger network of roads within our gated community, experimenting with first and second gear. It was still early and the streets were just now waking up, the morning light just 45 mins old. I rode around at 25 mph down the streets, scanning the environment for any safety risks as well as enjoying the wind beginning to rush over me. Suddenly I realized that it was 75 degrees, clear skies, and there was a moist smell in the morning air. I was neither hot or cold, and with all vents open on the helmet, the air flow kept my head in a perfect state. “My God.” It’s all I could think to myself right then.
After about five minutes of riding, I moved out on to the main road through our complex, a two-way street with a speed limit of 25 mph. I found it easy to stay under 30 mph, a well-behaved motorcycle if ever there was one. I found myself naturally shifting into third gear and let myself briefly take it up to 50 mph, then quickly braked to feel the effect. Acceleration was quick without any sense of roughness. When I braked, I dropped to 30 mph in less than two seconds without any jerkiness. I did this a couple more times, wanting to have a good feel for how quickly I could accelerate and decelerate without it feeling urgent.
Next, I focused on cornering. I found a side street which just happened to wind like a gentle snake for a couple of miles before reconnecting with the main street. I let myself follow the road, leaning gently as various speeds. All very natural. By this point, I noticed I was using the clutch, throttle and brakes without thinking much about it. It was already happening right below consciousness. I was aware of it all but not really thinking of the movements, just the actions to be preformed: accelerate, turn, lean, brake, slow, commands that were happening at the machine/body interface without my direct attention. My “wet computer” firmware was getting updated right then and there. I didn’t think I would get here so quickly.
And then I had to laugh at my naivety and having bought into the dangerous, tough guy hype of “how dangerous motorcycles are.” I have been riding a high performance road bike since I was 25. I have 50,000 miles in the saddle and have ridden in bike pelotons, almost touching elbows with other riders as we flew down the road. I have done high-speed descents in the Rockie Mountains at 55 mph on a twenty pound bike, in a racing style aerodynamic tuck position. I am an experienced cyclist with the kind of riding skill that only comes from decades of riding on two wheels. I have had my share of crashes, so I know all too well where my “skill envelope” begins and ends. When I ride, the bike and I become one. We breath together. There is no two, only one. It is perhaps the greatest gift life has given me, to have developed my riding to the point where I can experience this on command. The oneness.
“But a motorcycle is not a bike!” I can hear them all scream. “Don’t make that mistake, you need to learn how to ride a motorcycle whether you can ride a bike or not.” Well, yes, of course. A motorcycle is not a bicycle. And yes, a motorcycle can be dangerous. And really, the only thing they have in common is that both have two wheels and thus allow you to lean when turning. And they both look cool. That’s it. Everything else is truly different, especially one critical factor: a bicycle is much more demanding to ride well.
Let’s wait a moment to allow all those motorcyclists to stop screaming: “Are you crazy! You can die on a motorcycle if you make a mistake, even kill others. It’s much more dangerous than a bicycle” they keep saying. Yes, true. But I didn’t disagree with that. I said a motorcycle is easier to ride, not that it isn’t more dangerous. And this, I think, is the key to how quickly I seem to have settled into the motorcycle. Compared to a bicycle, a motorcycle is easier to ride. You certainly never need to learn to ride side by side at race speeds like in a race peloton. Can you image a pack of motorcyclists riding at 130 mph, close enough to touch? Cyclists ride at 30 mph, top speeds for a racing pack on flat ground, heart pounding at 170 bpm, aggressively hammering on the crank and maneuvering for position, all the while close enough to hear each other breathing. Watch a cyclist pack sprint at the end of road race and then tell me what a motorcyclist does takes as much skill.
This is not to disparage motorcyclists at all. It’s simply to point out mastering a motorcycle is a different but easier set of skills. Having driving a manual shift in the hills of San Francisco, the idea of a throttle, clutch, and foot and hand brake just came together quickly for me. So, arrogant as it may be to say, within 30 mins of my riding this beautiful, perfectly built cruiser, I felt shockingly comfortable.
Now is where my two-wheel skills began to kick in; for me, I was operating well within my performance envelope on the complex roads. Used to riding situations that require much greater skill, it felt like a treat to be riding down the road with so few things to process. I was certainly doing all the things I was taught to do during the safety class, I was practicing all the skills as I was taught to practice them. It’s just that I still had 60% of my processing power in reserve. On my road bike, it’s more like 25% in reserve because there is simply more to monitor and integrate into a heavenly dance.
What is different — and this is no small difference — is the danger level. The crash risk on a motorcycle is lower than a bicycle, but the severity of the crash is much higher. it’s not easy to kill yourself on a bike though you certainly can. it is easy to get killed on a motorcycle. Here is the key factor in bringing all this together: my skill level on a bike is high and a lot of it seem to transfer over pretty quickly. But a crash on a motorcycle is much more serious and unforgiving, so testing the risk envelope on a motorcycle would be both stupid and dangerous. On a bike, testing the risk envelope, depending on the circumstances, isn’t such a terrible thing. I’ve had crashes, some serious, and walked away from everything. I do not ever want to crash on a motorcycle. Besides the damage to the cycle, there is a good chance I will not walk away or, worse still, take someone else with me. The danger is simply to high to have anything but a zero tolerance to risk. Like a jet pilot, I suppose.
Okay, so now that we have all that sorted, we can get back to the ride. And yes, I did run through all that while I was riding. It takes a lot longer to describe it than think it through: barely interrupted the ride for me.
So, where were we? On the nested loop of roads. Back on to the main road and riding toward the gate. Do I go out? I said I would not. I turned left before the gate, riding some side roads for a little longer, wondering what to do. I came back to the main road and headed toward the gate. Can I really do this? Is this dangerous? How much of my performance envelope did I need? How much skill reserve do I have? What if my excitement has the better of me. Do what’s safe, go home …. no, that feels off. Do I trust myself? Do I trust myself? Well?
I pulled up to the gate. The sensor took a long time to respond but the gate finally raised. I pulled past and turned right on the main public road, a two-way road with a large divider between opposing traffic. As safe as it gets. Lucky break. I become aware of my rear view mirrors. Hadn’t even thought about them before now. I see light traffic behind me. I am in traffic, moving at 35 mph. Boom! Here we are, I’m riding in traffic.
I keep going, more curious than nervous, checking in with myself the whole time, “Where are you in your performance envelope?” Still very low though slightly higher. Checking mirrors, scanning surrounding, I’m driving now, just like a car, I am driving now. I wasn’t really before. I come to my first intersection with a stop light. No problems. Cars all around. Everything feels natural, no mechanical glitches with clutch or throttle. It is all as it should be. I go down a little further and come to the next intersection. This time, I turn right on to a larger road, still one lane each way but no divider between the lanes. All still feels good. I move into fourth gear for the first time and am moving at 50 mph. speed limit is 45, so all is good. 50 mph? The thought makes me nervous. but the experience? No, it feels okay, well within my performance envelope, cycle performing beautifully with traffic moderate at best. Nothing hinky by any stretch of the imagination. Now I’m filling up 50-65% of my performance envelope. I still have a good reserve. I notice I am more fully engaged than before in a pleasant way. Riding around the complex quickly felt boring. Now, I am not bored. At two-thirds full envelope, I feel engaged and comfortable. Can I still crash? Can I still get seriously hurt of killed at 50 mph? You bet. But that’s why I’m at 65% and not 95% of my envelop. If you are looking for a situation where you won’t get killed under any circumstances, no matter how safe or careful you are, you shouldn’t be on a motorcycle. Minimize risk, large margins of safety, ride smart, expect the unexpected — that’s what you can do on a motorcycle. What you can’t do is control whatever reality may be waiting for you that day.
Cruising at 50 mph on a two lane road, 75 degrees with clear blue skies, the wind rushing over me, the music has been playing in my helmet all this time. It’s starting to sound like a Hollywood scene. Yet here we are. It’s real. This is my first ride, and it is perfect. To go from circling the quarter-mile loop at home to this in 35 minutes. I am fully conscious that this is my first ride ever as it is happening. I am in the moment, for sure. There is nothing else but The Now.
The road snakes out in front of me, gently bending left and right. I let myself lean and enjoy the effects of gravity on my body. I can see a car in the rear view mirror, just hanging there a safe distance behind me. My speed is still 45-50 mph, so all is good. I finally come to an intersection in the distance. I start to downshift from fourth, using my gears to slow down. So now I see why this is a good way to do this rather than just braking. Anticipating how I want to decelerate, I can let the engine do the work for me, carefully monitoring the engine speed and matching “engine speed to bike speed” as they religiously said during the training. It’s actually fun to do this since it takes a little skill to do well. A touch of braking toward the final slowing and then, an easy right turn on to the next road.
Accelerating on to the new road, I realize I don’t know where I am exactly. Hum. Maybe I need to start doubling back at this point? Okay. I go down the road a little more looking for a turn around. Going, going, feeding on to something … a larger road. Lots of traffic. Cool. This still feels good performance envelope wise, but where exactly am I?
I see a turn around and have plenty of time to move to the left lane. I practice using my blinker for the first time. Really had no need before now. Easy peasy. Make a proper U-turn. Start to head back but still don’t know what road I am on. There are more lanes now, three lanes each way, more traffic. This is real driving now. Still feels within my performance envelope, maybe at 70-75%, kinda where I am when I I ride my road bike.
I have an idea the direction I need to head to get home and I see where I can turn, so I do. Roads all around me, I notice overpasses. Wait a minute, an overpass? And then—and here we go, the unexpected does indeed happens — I’m on a onramp to Interstate 75. What? What! How on earth did I get here? And what do I do? Performance envelope still at 75% Okay. Should I pull over, keep going? I’m still doing fine. Time to decide. And so, I do: get on, stay to the right, maintain the speed limit.
I am now riding on Interstate 75 at the speed flow of traffic, 70 mph. Four lanes, I have cars all around me to my left hand side. I feel a little nervous, only because the thought of being on an Interstate at 70 mph on my first ride seems beyond insane. The experience? Truth be told, I am at a very alert 80-85% of my performance envelope. I would not want something unexpected to happen now. With only 15-20% of my performance envelope left to play with, I think I’ve reached my comfort point for today. I want to get off at the next exit since I don’t need to tempt fate, having some insane Act of God happens in front of me. As long as we have normal freeway conditions, however, this feels okay. My only anxiety is, “Do I tell Renee? She will lose the color from her face.” I don’t want to lie to her, maybe I’ll just say nothing when I get home. I don’t know, nor does it really matter now. Figure it out later.
There is the next exit, 3.4 miles to Exit 204, which is exactly the exit I happen to need, so my hunch was correct that this was the direction to go. Here we are, perfect exit, mellow left turn on to main multi-lane road. From here, I know I will be in commuter traffic for less than five minutes before my turn on to a more quiet two lane road back to home. After the Interstate, driving with dozens of cars at 20-30 mph actually feels good. Lots of stop-and-go and now, I’m totally comfortable, couldn’t feel more natural. Here is my first red light, down shifting to slow and then stop. I’ve been moving over to the left, changing lanes, using my blinkers, checking blind spot, this is the kind of driving I love, probably from when I worked as a bike messenger in NYC during the summer between college and my going off to graduate school, a couple of lifetimes ago.
Waiting for the light to change. I’m in the turn lane and look up to see a delivery truck on my right waiting for the light as well. The driver, a middle age Mexican looking man was behind the wheel. He looks straight at me, then my motorcycle, and then a big smile comes across his face. I give him a thumbs up and he keeps smiling. I glance at his eyes and I can see what he is feeling, I can so see what he is feeling: that sense of longing, that look of i’m-right-there-with-you-man, as if he wanted to climb out of the truck and hop on right then and there. The light changed and off we went our separate directions.
Almost home now, just a few miles, starting to wind down the ride, songs on the playlist are almost over. The timing of the music was beyond perfect, from the moody start of The Door’s Riders on the Storm to the increasing intensity of songs like Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath, Stevie Ray Vaughn’s The Sky is Crying, and eventually JimmI Hendrix’s All Along the Watch Tower and Voodoo Child while on the Interstate. None of this was planned with such precision, I simply could not have done that. With the 55 minute playlist almost over, U2’s Where the Street s Have No Name is playing just as I come to the complex gate. I ride the finally few minutes on the last track, Elton John’s Rocket Man, a song which has been with my soul since I was 16. If I were to ever be associated with one song in this life, Rocket Man is probably it.
I am shaking my head as I realize Rocket Man will probably end just as I’m pulling up to my driveway. Impossible. I never knew I would go for a ride outside the complex, much less end up on the Highway 75. How on earth can something like this even happen? I resist the urge to change my speed to help the timing, I just want to see if it will happen. Will it happen? Can life ever be this perfect? That’s ridiculous, beyond ridiculous even. Life is not a Hollywood movie.
Rocket Man ends when I am eight seconds from my driveway. I counted. I was within eight seconds a miracle. Will I ever come this close to a miracle again? Because, let me tell you, this ride was as close to a miracle as any human being will ever experience on this earth.
May You Always Enjoy The Ride