Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why I Ride

Why do I ride? It is a good question. One I asked myself this morning. The temperature here in Portland was 41 degrees, high humidity, and 40 mph winds. I had been waiting all week for the rains to stop and have a sunny day. Last Friday and Saturday were good riding days, and the weather forecast showed sunny skies today, but high winds and cool temperatures. Tomorrow the rains return and no sun for days. So I got up early, dressed appropriately, and headed out.

At 45 degrees … at 45 mph or faster … it is cold as hell. (Odd expression. Hell’s reputation is for sunny skies and extra warm weather.) I was well dressed above the waist, but in plain old blue jeans which don't keep you warm under these conditions. Heavy boots and socks kept my feet warm, and good gloves and a riding jacket with wind screen, rain screen, and nice tight cuffs and neck. I wore a 3/4 helmet with full face shield, but my neck was exposed. Wish I had thought of a scarf.

At 35 things were pretty comfy, but higher speeds definitely introduced wind chill. Still it is better riding weather here than back in Colorado suffering from below freezing temps and snow. So I should be glad I can ride at all.

Yet I missed my Ford Flex for comfort. Driving it, like most cars, is like taking your living room for a ride. I set the heater thermostat to a comfortable 70 degrees. I tune in my favorite tunes or news or even the Car Guys. I lean back in my comfortable leather seat — seat heat available if needed — and enjoy watching life go by through my picture window. All the comforts of home, and the safety of half a dozen air bags and the convenience of a dozen cup holders and 12-volt outlets — what we used to call “cigarette lighters.” It’s a home on wheels.

A motorcycle, on the other hand, or even a bicycle, leaves you out there in the wind and rain and all kinds of weather. It is not as comfortable, nor as safe as being in a steel cage with the comforts of home. So, let me ask again. Why do I ride?

There are reasons. Let me explain. For young people it is a natural thing to be out there in the weather and nature and the risks only add to the excitement. A little adrenaline is a good thing. But what about us old guys? I know you’ve seen us. Our gray beards blowing in the wind. Our XL bodies stuffed into leather suits intended for younger men (or women). Our slight case of arthritis made all the more difficult as we operate hand clutches and hand brakes and lift our legs high over tank and seat to climb aboard or to put our feet down to the ground at every stop to keep from falling over.

Yes, riding is a young man (or woman)’s game. Yet I ride. At 67 when, perhaps, I ought to be thinking more about social security and a nursing home than displacement of a V-twin or helmet designs. It isn’t always comfortable. The clutch is hard to pull and the wind cuts through you. You are truly “out there” exposed to all that comes your way.

So why? I’ve thought about that answer. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

No matter what your religious views or lack of religion, there is no escaping that we have a limited time here on this earth. I see no reason to waste any of that time sitting in a chair and watching TV. Maybe late at night, after a long ride, it would be good to enjoy a little tube time to rest the body and mind. But not as an avocation where you know the weekly TV schedule by heart and subscribe to TV Guide just so you won’t miss anything.

Oh, and what are you missing when you go for a ride in your car? Answer: plenty. You could roll down the windows in your steel Goliath, but it is really out here, on two wheels, wrapped up in the wind and elements, that you experience nature. Whether it is traveling down a city street and taking in the smells of garden, Laundromat, and bakery; or a windy (rhymes with "wine-y") country road filled with trees, leaves, and the smell of cows it is an EXPERIENCE. You may be cruising down the super slab, watchfully viewing the cars around you — EXPERIENCE. In any of these circumstances, you are in the moment. No day dreaming when your very life depends on keeping track of all that's going on around you, from that lady about to turn in front of you, to that teenager on his cell phone drifting into your lane, and that guy about to run the stop sign at the next intersection.


There is no denying the danger when you are riding on two wheels. There is no protection wrapped around your body except for your own skills and cunning … and a little good luck. (In my experience, most riders make their own luck.) As my good friend, David Hough, taught me, it’s about risks, dynamics, tactics, booby traps, special situations, and survival. Cars don’t worry about grooves in the road directing your front tire where you don’t intend, or a bug hit, or bird hit, or something else crashing into your bike. They don’t have to watch out for that odd obstacle in the roadway that only causes a bump to those big four wheelers, but can really ruin the day for you if you’re only on two.

You keep an eye on the cars in front, beside, and even behind. A simple “fender bender” when you are rear ended at a stop light is a quick trip to the insurance company for a fix and it is good as new in your car, truck, or wagon. The same accident can be fatal if you’re on a bike. I always watch my rear when stopped in traffic. Maybe this extra edge of awareness is what it is all about. I can’t really say.

It is dangerous. The facts bear that out. In 2005 there were more than 4,500 motorcycle fatalities. By the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration accounts, about 80% of motorcycle crashes result in injury or death, compared to only 20% for car crashes. The fatality rate for motorcycles was 4.8 times as great as for a car. With only 2.4% of the registered vehicles, bikes account for 10.5% of the fatalities. I expect that a statistic based on miles would show an even greater discrepancy.

Experience has a lot to do with this data. Those with 0-6 months experience riding in traffic have 1.4 times the risk of an accident compared to the mean for all motorbike crashes, while those with 48 months or more experience have about 0.83 times the mean. Interestingly, the rate drops with experience and then climbs again for those with 25-36 months and then drops down again with more time in the saddle. I suspect that is a peak where the riders lose their beginners caution, but have not yet gained real expertise.

Personally, I fit in the 48 month plus category, but I often don’t ride for a considerable amount of time, moving back into a high risk category. I try to practice panic stops and panic steering on a dry and safe parking lot regularly, but I really don’t brake as hard in those experimental situations as I would probably try when the mom with five kids pulls out in front of me from the grocery store parking lot.

ABS brakes are appearing on the large bikes, and that is a great (really great) safety feature. Some large models make it standard. Some charge extra, and usually around $1,000 more for the model with ABS. I hope that this brake technology continues to spread to more models and brands and comes down in price as an option. Unlike cars, bikes already have a tougher situation with separate front and rear brake controls which need to be modulated very carefully and skillfully to maximize control and minimize stopping distance. A lot can go wrong when braking hard on a bike, but a lot more can go wrong if you can't stop in time. I don’t have the feel for extreme braking that that I once had.

Collisions with other vehicles cause a little over 50% of motorcycle accidents, while issues like loose sand or gravel, edge traps (things that grab the wheel), slick surfaces, animals, and cornering errors provide the other half. So all things are considered as you motor down the highway.

Life can be rough and so can the road when you drop down onto the pavement and leave the bike behind. Metal and chrome have less friction than rubber tires, so it is better to slow down while still upright. Sliding is best left to baseball players.

People make very poor missiles and telephone poles don’t give. I look suspiciously at every tree and pole I pass. Which one will jump out and get me? Just down from my house is a straight road that takes a dog leg near the end. It has a 35 mph limit, but a biker tried it at 70 not too long ago. He lost it in the dog leg and collided with a light pole. Now people put flowers and crosses on that pole. Lesson learned. Of course, two other guys took themselves out on the other side of town in a Mitsubishi sports car going around 70, so crazy can be fatal on two wheels and four.

I’m not afraid when I’m on a bike. I am careful. Things a driver doesn’t think twice about: some wet leaves, a puddle of water or oil, a dog running out barking, people that don’t see you or think you are far away since you appear so small. These are on the mind of every biker as he or she rounds a curve or approaches a wet man hole cover. Traction can be gone in an instant, and there are no four wheels to keep you upright.

I like bright colors and bright lights, but I always assume those others don’t see me at all. I always have a plan at every intersection and every stop sign. I always assume that jerk will run the stop sign and pull right out in front of me. I drop speed 10 mph in every intersection and, when the light turns green, I let someone else put their toe in the water first. I don’t want to be first to the scene of an accident, and I can show how fast (and how loud) my bike is once I clear the intersection. Head on a swivel and hand on the brakes. That’s my riding style.

Riding Clothes

Safety is one reason why I wear riding clothes. That and comfort. I have mesh clothing that is cool in the summer, yet still affords protection to exposed elbows and shoulders and backs. A little bit of armor, a helmet and gloves. Ready to do battle with the road, the weather, and other drivers.

Heavy boots, not flip flops. Heavy pants, not shorts. These spell the difference between some scuffs and a stay in the hospital. Actually, I mostly wear Levi pants, and they don’t really provide good protection when one finds oneself sliding on the pavement. So even I don’t follow the “riding clothes” rules completely, but I do better than many that I see. Never mind the Interstate. Most accidents occur near your home. That’s where you really need the protective garb.

I always wear a helmet, even though it is not the law in Colorado. I think it would be best if all 50 states required helmets just like they require seat belts. Not all riders agree, and some even argue helmets block hearing and sight and are unsafe. The statistics say otherwise.

Sure, sometimes I only wear a half helmet, and I know the data on where on your head the crash will hit you. Really, the full coverage is the best. But I compromise. Depends on circumstances. I have a large collection of helmets of all levels of coverage just to allow me choice. It depends a bit on the weather and where I’m going.

A German book on motorcycles woke me up to the statistics on the part of a helmet that is impacted in a crash. Bad news for us 1/2 and 3/4 helmet wearers. Fully 24.6% are “on the chin.” It is the single most often hit area. Just above the eyes gathers another 18% of the impacts. The very top of a helmet only gets hit 0.8% of the time. About ten percent of the impacts are right in the eyes, so shield might help, but no helmet covers the eyes. Helmets protect. Helmets save. But you’re still in great danger.

It was after T.E. Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash from head injuries that doctors began studying helmets as a life saver. They are that, but don’t match up with seat belts, air bags, and collapsing car parts. Face it, the car is safer, a whole lot safer. Now I’ve even got myself scared!

No one lives forever, at least on this orb. It was said in the past that we have three score and ten on this earth. At 67 I don’t like to focus on that number which works out as 70 for those that can’t score a “score.” Hopefully modern medical science will stretch that out for ten or twenty more for me personally. For you? You’re on your own. But no one can count on much more than four score and ten, and I don’t know what will come of me. Therefore I don’t spend time worrying about that. I plan to slide into home plate shouting “safe.”

I don’t ride because of the risk or danger; even though I am well aware of the danger, as the above discussion proves. Rather, it is the risk that puts me in the moment. No one on a bike should be daydreaming or focused on the music on their iPod or the pretty girl on the corner. Certainly some adrenaline junkies ride for the danger. And they increase that danger with speed, daring, and sharp turns taken fast. You see them on TV, capturing snakes, swimming with sharks, jumping upside down on bikes, and skateboards, and on snow mobiles. I'm not one of those. You could say I ride regardless of the danger, but I try to ride as safely and sanely as possible.

On the other hand, all these difficulties just mean that bikers must always be in the moment, living an edgy experience that focuses all your attention on the simple fact of staying alive. It takes a focus on the road and a skill with what you are doing. These things strengthen the soul and the mind. Yogi Berra said you can "observe a lot by just watching." That's what I'm talking about. That's riding a bike. You really have to watch — out.


I don't ride for comfort, although a bike can be very nice on a hot day. But after 100 miles, even on the best motorcycle seat, you really start to look for a chiropractor, or at least a good back rub. No, bikes are too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. They are wet in the rain and don't even try going on snow. Bikes and inclement weather mix like whiskey and milk. Not to my taste.

As I mentioned before, motorcycles can really accentuate the bad weather. When it is cool, it will be cold at 55 mph. When it is cold, it will be freezing at 45. And if you're dressed for it, and stop at a light, now you get too hot. A helmet is uncomfortable on a 100 degree day, and all that protective gear is hot and heavy. There is a perfect temperature for a bike ride and a nice spring or summer day is quite enjoyable, but nothing really beats the comfort of a nice motor car, complete with heater and air conditioner … and cup holders.


There was a time when riding was also good for your mechanical skills and knowledge, because you often had to fix your ride to finish your ride. I love working on bikes, but when I’m riding, I just want to ride. Modern motorcycles, especially the ones from Japan, have freed us in most cases from being roadside mechanics. It can still happen, and a wise rider carries some tools, especially when a long way from home. I’ve had particularly good luck in that regard, but then I keep my bikes very mechanically sound … and safe.

I do enjoy the skill of riding. I've learned a lot of things throughout my life, and I think I handle a bike pretty well, although I'm no great rider. I even tried my hand at racing. I didn't do too well in that attempt. But I learned more about handling a bike and reaching the edge of performance.


There's plenty of that in riding. Have you ever noticed how most bikers wave to each other when they pass? Oh, not a goofy wave, but a real cool, down low, peace sign wave. That is, other than me. I wave goofy: hand up in the air, waving like mad as I pass a fellow biker.

There are bike clubs … some of them outlaws, and colors, and meetings, and the AMA. (That's the American Motorcyclist Association.) There are group rides and Bikers for Christ. But I'm more of a lone wolf. I enjoy the solitude of riding alone and it is a lot more convenient as I don't have to communicate or synchronize or keep pace with or even dodge fellow riders. I know group rides can be a lot of fun, but I'm just not into that.

So Why?

So, getting back to why I ride. It is not because of the danger. It isn’t for comfort. That’s not it. It's not for the skills. It isn't for convenience or gas mileage, although those are advantages. It isn’t because I think I’m Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, although I do get a few stares when I roll by. It’s not for safety, nor is it for the risk. It isn’t for the mechanical challenge or even for the glances one gets from the loud muffler’s announcement that something special is coming down the street … although that is fun.

The danger simply puts me in a good mental state. Aware of what is around me. Taking in the sights (and the sounds and the smells) in an exposed manner that no car can duplicate. The world rolls by my view and my focus is on that world in its beauty and its danger. It is living in the moment and fuzzy thinking better be postponed for the evening review at the pub with other riders. While the pavement races by at speeds even the fastest four legged animal can’t catch, like those predators, your senses are on keen aware mode and you are always on the lookout. That is living. In fact, the danger is really off-putting to me; so's the discomfort and pain and the cold. I don't really like any of those things.

Although there are lot of reasons to ride, there may be a list of equal length why not to ride. But it really comes down to this. I ride because it is FUN. Kids have their toys. So do us grown ups. Our toys just cost more. I do it for the grins. I do it for the giggles. I do it for the highs. I do it for the sighs. I do it for the lifestyle.

That is how I like to live … life … to the fullest. I’m not an adrenaline junky nor a big risk taker. However, Eleanor was right. Reaching out for newer and richer experiences. It is the experience. There’s not much like it. Some might sky dive. Some might mountain climb. Some might scuba dive. Some might fly airplanes. Heck, some just play softball or bowl or play chess. It doesn’t matter. The key to living is to “live.” That’s why I ride. I ride to live! (And for fun.)

There might be a slogan in that: “Live to Ride, Ride to Live.” I think I’d better get down to the tee shirt store to see if that one has a copyright. I might be sitting on a million dollar idea. I’ll just ride my bike down. It will be fun!

1 comment:

  1. Mickey, I really enjoyed trading your blog on motorcycling, the pleasures and dangers you described reminded me of my daily commutes to High School and work back in the 60's. I always thought I'd someday upgrade to a twin cylinder and riding leather but haven't been on a bike since joining the Navy. Anyway it was good reliving road experiences through your writing.