Okay, I’ll admit the title is misleading — I’m just having a little fun. I’d like to talk about two experiences I had during the same ride, not the same time. Let’s start with opening the throttle in fifth gear.
It’s hard for any motorcyclist to resist finding out how fast his motorcycle can go on an open straight away. But there is more than just knowing this fact, you want to experience “opening the throttle in fifth gear.” The velocity is certainly part of it but each motorcycle is of course different. The stock cruiser I own, the Kawasaki Vulcan 900, has a decent top speed when opening the throttle in fifth gear. Under ideal conditions you may be able to push a few more miles per hour out of it but that’s it. Compare that to the Kawasaki Ninja which on a race track with an experienced racer can reach terrifying speeds for the normal rider. Quite a difference indeed. But speed isn’t the whole story.
For the rider, it’s also the idea that you are taking you and your motorcycle to their maximum. You want to experience how you both preform when you are both all out. Like life, how high your personal peaks reach is less important than knowing your are achieving your best, pushing yourself to 101% of your potential. It is here that you will find flow, a concept coined by Csíkszentmihályi. It refers to that mental state where “performance matches potential.” We all know that feeling, where we are doing as well as we can with something that we have some natural talent to do well. For someone like Mozart to experience flow must have took a lot more than your average musician. And yet, that average musician can still achieve the subjective experience of flow as long at he is working at his maximum potential. Pretty simple, no? Csíkszentmihályi was the first person to actually study this phenomenon and as a result, gained a number of critical insights into how it works.
My point is that the rider/motorcycle union has it’s own state of integrated flow: that place where rider and motorcycle are working at their joint peak performance. Together they are in a state of flow. And flow is an important state, especially for this blog. Eudaimonia, living a flourishing life, is full of flow. Without it, it is hard for any life to be fully flourishing. Learning how to seek it out, develop it and experience it, using it as a guide to tell if you are on the right track, all these things will concern us on our cruising and photography journeys over the coming years.
Okay, let’s get back to opening the throttle. On the Vulcan, opening the throttle will result in a decent enough speed for a solid beginner if in a safe place to do it. Well, I thought I was in a reasonably safe place (it was indeed a safe place when it came to assessing the risk potential). It was a well paved dry and clean road with traffic typically moving at highway speeds. I found quarter to half mile straight aways where I could count out the cars in the distance at 10-12 seconds away — about 1300 feet — of clear straight road. Safe conditions.
I then began to think about my road bike experiences in which I would do mountain descents at 55 mph on a 20 pound road bike with half inch wide tires. Now those were intense, let me tell you. With such a small amount of tire traction, you could not afford the slightest error or problem. Skilled cyclists are use to sizing up such situations, so it’s not as insane as it sounds to determine the risk potential of descents like this. In Colorado where I use to ride, there were plenty of opportunities to find reasonable places for these descents. What it came down to was if the cyclist was skilled enough to handle the challenge. Not easy but certainly learnable. If you get there, you will experience flow —with a high performance racing bike, you and the bike become one. For me, 55 mph coming down a mountain while negotiating and a set of gentle curves was plenty good for me. Those moments of flow were absolutely amazing. Everything became surreal, you find reality moving at slow speed, like those moments in The Matrix where Neo finally breaks through and he is moving partly outside the program code when fighting his adversaries, ducting bullets come at him at slow speed. Okay, I wasn’t ducking bullets but you’d be surprised how close it feels like you are in those moments. And there is certainly an element of controlled fear since you know you can’t afford for anything to go wrong. Your nerve plays a part in not just doing these descents but how many times you’ll willing to tempt fate. I didn’t do it too often. But boy o boy, those times will be with me for a life time. I was in an eudaimonic state, life was as it should be lived. Flow was everywhere. I was 26 years old working as a post doc in chemistry at UC Boulder. Flow was everywhere.
That’s sorta what experience I was hoping for with my Vulcan at open throttle. So, with everything looking good, I finally opened the throttle. i quickly accelerated to high stable speed and then started drifting higher. A road rider, I instinctually dropped into a tuck position, my nose almost touching the speedometer with my legs and arms tucked in, my knees touching the engine and feeling it work at its maximum, sending a steady gentle vibration throughout my body.
I kept one eye on the speedometer and one on the road ahead of me. After 20-30 seconds, I could see the cycle had topped out. Nice, a little more than tI had expected. So many little things: how well you minimized drag with your tuck, whether you had cross wind, if the road grade was down hill or not (not this time), the idiosyncrasies of your specific engine, etc. Such things add up under these conditions. And this time, the conditions were just a little favorable for exceeding the expected at open throttle in fifth gear. I could see cars receding in the rear view mirrors, and then approach again as I sat up to slow down the cycle. I did this a few times, each time checking the maximum. Give or take within two miles, an open throttle results in about the same speed for my cycle. okay, we’re done.
But wait, did I experience flow? Well, it was fun for sure. But no flow. The Vulcan 900 is such a well built machine that it handles this end of its envelop with great aplomb. At 620 pounds and a 24 inch high seat (below the average for cruisers) and those two inch wide tires grabbing the road, you are so stable and solid, it almost felt like you were sitting on your couch at home. Really, I’m not kidding. This was not flying down a mountain on a road bike, it was something a lot more mellow. For some, this might have brought them to the edge of their performance envelop and flow would have ensued. For me, I was still aways off from it. I could tell I had more l in reserve, I certainly wasn’t feeling like Neo 🙂
Oh well. All those years on the road bike have obviously raised my needs for creating conditions that will bring me to a state of flow. If I had to guess, I would have needed a cycle that could allow me to achieve race track speeds. Or maybe I’m just strutting and I would have found it just five miles per hour higher. Hard to say, really. Let’s say race track speeds for discussion sake. At that speed, everything would be moving just fast enough that my reaction time would be getting challenged or I would start to feel that fear factor or the cycle would start to make it’s vulnerabilities known. That’s how you know you’re getting close. You could also do all this under harder conditions with less safety but that’s just plain stupid. You want to control the situation, not seek out Acts Of Little g.
So, was I disappointed. Yeah, a little. But let’s not forget I’ve only been riding for three weeks and here I was flying down the road on my cycle with open throttle leaving cars in the rear view window. That’s not exactly a boring experience. It was lots of fun. And it certainly gave a big boost to my cockiness: “look at me, open throttle and I’m as cool as a sliced cucumber. I’m so cool.”
Little g heard me.
Earlier in the ride I had also been practicing letting my riding technique drop into that preconscious zone where your brain’s firmware takes over. You don’t need to consciously coordinate all your movements; rather, you just think the commands “turn,” “corner,” “brake hard,” brake slow,” “up shift,” down shift,” and these things seem to just happen. I’ve been somewhat lucky in getting her so quickly but as of yesterday, I noticed that was how I could ride if I wanted to. Without the need to devote conscious space to these activities I was fully free to watch the traffic and my surroundings, the ultimate safety goal for all riders. You know when you are here because your riding develops a “snap” to it, at least for me it does. You sense you can just do things and stop hesitating in the least. You also begin to have your proprioception system anticipate where you and your cycle are in space and where it will be in the next few microseconds. This means your body will not experiences any inertial surprises: you will feel like you are floating in an antigravity chamber. Yes indeed, you will feel like you are floating on mother earth. And here, my friends, was the flow I was looking at. It took everything I had to make this work just right, so I was at my performance edge, the best I could do, and the man/machine union was floating in and out of curves, stopping at lights on a dime, starting up and shifting from first into second into third with perfect smoothness in a matter of seconds. All this at moderate traffic speeds. I’m sure that from the outside I must have looked like a seasoned rider during some of those better moments. I was so happy, floating and snapping away. It’s hard enough to find such experiences when you are young and everything is fresh beyond belief. I’m 55 years old and here I was floating and snapping away in ordinary traffic on an ordinary afternoon in Sarasota, Florida. Who would know that if I didn’t tell them?
By the time I was coming home after my open throttle experience, feeling quite full of myself, I started floating and snapping away again, this time even more intensely than earlier. If anyone was watching this time around, they would be able to tell. I was swaying the bike a bit in a playful manner, and if they could have seen the look on my face through the visor, they would have seen a big smile. At the stop light I was dancing to the music, bopping away. Oh yeah, forgot to mention I had the helmet speakers on, listening to Queen during the whole ride: Bohemian Rhapsody, Another One Bites the Dust, You’re My Best Friend, and one of my favorites, Fat Bottom Girls, which was playing at the stop light:
Hey I was just a skinny lad
Never knew no good from bad
But I knew love before I left my nursery
Left alone with big fat Fanny
She was such a naughty nanny
Heap big woman, you made a bad boy out of me
Mocking drum rolls and all, there I was at the stop lights playing virtual drums in the air. With my helmet hiding my age, I must have looked like some some young guy who was getting back from seeing his girlfriend or something. And that’s exactly correct. That is who I felt like inside my helmet. When the light changed, I was back to snapping and floating into a left turn to go home. Man o man, was I happy.
Finally I approach my driveway and see the garage door open with a big clearing inside as we were in the process of cleaning it up. I decided, “I’m gonna float right into that space, defying the laws of gravity, there’s no stopping me now. I’m gonna be a supersonic man.” I execute the turn with perfection, but just a hair too fast. I have to brake a little harder than I was fully waiting expecting. And then — my proprioception didn’t quit anticipate the cycle slowing down quite so quickly. That feeling of floating suddenly became 620 pounds of dead weight under me. The cycle started to drop to the left as I struggled to hold it up, the kickstand digging a groove into the cement floor. The wheel left a black half moon skid on the floor as I slid into my road bike that happened to be right there. I actually pinned it ever so gently against the wall. Any harder and I would have damaged it. Thankfully, miraculously, it was just pressed into a frozen dance posture with the motorcycle.
I just couldn’t hold that Vulcan fully up, but I did manage to keep it from slamming down or doing any damage to it. Lucky break if ever there was one. I then gave it one last heave when everything stopped moving, got it back up and saw the bikes embracing, the half-moon skid, and the groove I dug into the floor. I started to laugh so loud that Renee said she could hear me in the back of house, wondering what was so funny. I laughed for a good sixty seconds. I did try to stop a couple of times but I just couldn’t stop laughing..
Because Little g heard me. He heard me back there when I felt so smug about not hitting my performance envelop and thinking, “Look at me, open throttle and I’m as cool as a sliced cucumber. I’m so cool.”
“You don’t say?” he must have thought, adding “Yeah, maybe. Maybe not.”
Little g found a way to show me I wasn’t anywhere near as cool or in control of this motorcycle as I wanted to fantasize I was. And apparently he has a gentle but firm hand and a good sense of humor. Little g showed me what I needed, and did it with just a little dollop of fear but without causing any serious damage — but I came very close — and then having all of it end in uncontrollable hysterical laughter. And in case I should ever need a reminder, I now have a scar carved by the kickstand in the garage floor that will barely be noticed or have any meaning to anyone except me. And now, you, of course.
May You Always Enjoy The Ride
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