Written and photographed by Marc Bondarenko
The reasons are as unique and as varied as the riders themselves. Each of us has his or her own very personal reasons why we love motorcycles.
Though our reasons may be personal, they are anything but private. Everyone I know who loves motorcycles is happy to talk to anyone about why they love to ride. Please allow me to tell you.
I ride because it’s so physically demanding. I ride because, when I’m in the flow, it’s truly a meditative experience. I ride because I’m a competitive person who likes to test his limits—against others and against myself. I ride because I’ve never found any other recreational or sporting activity which has remained unfailingly challenging to me for over four decades. I ride because it’s fun.
I’ve been riding motorcycles for almost 45 years. But until my friends at B-Metro posed the question, I never sat down and thought in detail about what makes riding so great—for me and for millions of others.
Like many of us who love motorcycles and motorcycling, my first exposure to riding came from my father. My family lived in Southern California, smack in the middle of the Mojave Desert. It was the early ’60s. My dad bought a Triumph Tiger Cub. It was bright orange with a 250cc single cylinder motor. To my six-year-old eyes, it seemed huge! (Nowadays, when I see one of those old Tiger Cubs, it looks positively tiny).
Dad would take my younger sister and me for rides on the arrow-straight roads across the desert floor near home. With sis perched in front, straddling the gas tank and me holding onto my dad from behind, that bike seemed absolutely magical in the way it carried us along. Of course, none of us wore helmets, didn’t even know such things existed. Riding along with my dad was both thrilling and relaxing, And, I suspect, had a lot to do with imprinting my psyche as it relates to motorcycles.
Another experience that had a profound influence on me and on thousands of other kids of my era was the film The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen (who happened to ride and race motorcycles in his personal life). In the iconic scene from that movie, McQueen speeds, slides, turns and jumps his motorcycle across a garden-like French countryside. That scene, performed by McQueen (and his friend and stuntman/racer Bud Ekins), helped to fuel the popularity of off-road riding that happened in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
After watching those seemingly superhuman feats of skill on a motorcycle, we kids hopped on our Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycles and did our best to imitate the amazing Mr. McQueen. Soon, we were riding our bicycles everywhere: around the neighborhood, in the woods, at construction sites. We pushed the limits of our skills and dreamed of the day we’d be riding real motorcycles.
That day finally came for me in 1972. I’d saved money from throwing newspapers and bought myself a used 1971 Yamaha Enduro. I was young and enthusiastic. With help from my friend Jim, with whom I still ride, I learned to control the machine, to be comfortable negotiating the natural obstacles on the trails we rode and to be a reasonably competent mechanic.
The more I rode, the more I discovered how exhilarating, challenging and fulfilling motorcycling can be.
Riding and controlling a motorcycle is challenging. It’s powerful. Even a small bike has a power-to-weight ratio comparable to that of a sports car. It requires good eye-hand coordination and excellent speed and depth perception. It takes time and practice to train one’s hands, feet, eyes and brain to reflexively operate a motorcycle. Training oneself to the point that the operation of the machine is pure reflex requires lots of repetition, but that is just the first step in truly learning to ride.
What requires more time is learning to develop the perception and judgment to anticipate and recognize hazards before they become unavoidable or unmanageable. On the road, it means being aware of everything around you and everything ahead of you as far as your senses will allow and having a strategy and sufficient skill to avoid or preempt those dangers. Off-road, it means identifying the obstacles and hazards presented by the natural terrain and having the skills and physical fitness necessary to negotiate and overcome those challenges. Practicing, refining and perfecting the connection of brain and body is empowering. It’s very satisfying and invigorating after a trail ride to know that I possessed the skills and confidence to successfully negotiate that six-foot high rock step-up obstacle or safely ford that rocky creek bed. On the road, it’s comforting to recall after my ride that I was able to recognize that the guy in the SUV waiting to pull onto the road I was traveling did not see me beforehand, but since I recognized he didn’t see me, I was prepared to act in time to avoid a collision. It’s reassuring to recall that when the person in the car next to me on the highway moved over and took my lane space—because they didn’t notice I was there—I was able to quickly and confidently take the open space in the lane next to me, because I had just a moment before confirmed the lane space I needed was clear. None of this is luck. It’s perception, awareness and preparation joined with skill and concentration.
These examples are not intended to suggest that I or any competent motorcyclists are cocky about our skills and abilities. Rather, I hope they convey another rewarding part of motorcycling: having the skills, confidence and determination to recognize, meet and overcome challenges.
Which leads me to think about another thing that a skilled motorcyclist has: humility. Riding a motorcycle really well, and doing it safely and consistently, is incredibly difficult. New riders usually don’t yet know how much they don’t know, but experienced riders become very aware of their own limitations and the limitations of the machine. And, as we all know, the costs of error while riding can be quite high.
Speaking of costs, one of the costs (and rewards) of riding is physical fitness. As I mentioned, riding is physically demanding. Some kinds of riding—like off-road riding, racing and long distance riding—are incredibly taxing and require a level of physical fitness only possible through strenuous training and lots of practice. For example, an off-road race, even a local amateur event, is two to five hours long. Riders negotiate a natural terrain course, often a narrow trail two- to four-feet wide, at the fastest speed their skills and ability will allow. Rocks often litter the course. Some are large and must be ridden over, others are smaller—grapefruit sized or less—and loose. Fallen trees, sometimes more than 12 inches in diameter, sometimes block the trail. There are steep uphills and downhills. There are tree roots large and small. If it’s been raining, everything is slippery and muddy. All of these obstacles have to be negotiated at speed. Keeping up speed and keeping the bike upright requires skillful coordination of throttle, brakes, clutch and gear selection. All the while, the rider is focused ahead, identifying and preparing for the next obstacle. The physical exertion and mental focus required is like nothing else that I, personally, have ever done.
When everything is working just right, the rider reaches a state of mental/physical focus and harmony that is universally described as “flow.” A rider in the flow is completely and solely in the moment. Time slows down, and everything seems to happen in slow motion—even though being in the flow allows the rider to actually be faster. The experience is truly meditative. In the aftermath of the ride, one is physically spent but mentally and spiritually refreshed and invigorated.
Getting into the flow may be the single most satisfying and addictive part of riding. I have never done traditional meditation, but have heard others rave about its therapeutic effects. The benefits I hear them describe about meditation are uncannily similar to the benefits I derive from riding. And the benefits truly are addictive. After a lifetime of riding, I have learned that if I go too long without a ride, I become a bit impatient with life’s little frustrations. I find myself being just a little depressed. Nothing serious, just depressed enough to feel pessimistic about things that shouldn’t bother me. The emotional and spiritual benefits of riding are, for me, the most important reasons why I ride.
Add to all this that most people who love motorcycles also enjoy and are challenged by the mechanical aspects of the sport. As mechanical systems, motorcycles are accessible, both intellectually and physically. Relatively speaking, bikes are fairly simple compared to a modern automobile. The system that is a motorcycle consists of a chassis, an engine, two wheels, shock absorbers to suspend the wheels from the chassis and controls to connect the rider to the machine. Of course, there’s a fuel tank, a seat, in some cases lights and some wiring. But because most all of the parts are exposed, it offers even a beginner the chance to do most of their own maintenance and repairs. With the ability to take responsibility for and have authority over the condition of the machine, most motorcyclists begin to feel an emotional connection to their machines that I suspect most car owners never experience (I know this is true for me). When one gets on his or her bike to go for a ride, we all are aware of the potential risks—and for me, the knowledge that I personally have prepared and inspected my bike, checked the air in the tires, checked the condition of the brakes, made sure all the fasteners are tight, and so on, gives me confidence that the machine is working its best and I can depend on it, if the need arises, to help me avoid a potentially catastrophic situation.
Of course, we can’t overlook the mystique of the motorcycle and rider. Whether deserved or not, motorcyclists, or bikers, have the reputation in popular culture as rebels and loners. People who flout convention and routine and dare others to challenge them. We’re often seen as slightly unbalanced risk takers. As people who value their freedom and independence even above their own safety.
Some riders are all of those things, all are probably some of those things. Allow me to suggest that motorcycle riders are also optimists. Optimists because, I believe, only an optimist would put themselves on a 120-horsepower machine closer in size to a bicycle than a car and travel on roads crowded with 5,000-pound SUV’s with no protection other than the body armor they wear and the power of their own wits and physical conditioning, and have the expectation that they could negotiate and overcome any hazard that might arise.
Some might read that and conclude that rather than being optimists, motorcyclists are crazy. Certainly, whenever we get on our bikes we risk injury or worse. What we get in exchange for accepting those risks is excitement, mental and physical challenge, spiritual and emotional fulfillment. We get a way of viewing the world and our lives that is hopeful and full of anticipation for the next adventure. We become part of a group whose members relate to and befriend each other, no matter where we’re from or where we meet.
All of us understand why we ride. Sometimes, we try to explain our passion to those who don’t.
The thing that binds all riders is the certain knowledge that no matter what we say to non-riders about riding and how much it means to our lives, until someone does it for themselves and understands it from within themselves, there are no words that can light the fire in our hearts and souls that roars to life every time we start our bikes.
Tags: january 2017