WHY DO WE RIDE?
Riding is more real
Sitting an a automobile, we see the world as if it were on a television screen. Outside exists on the other side of the glass, another, slightly unreal world that doesnít conform to our controlled environment inside. Itís like watching a newscast from some foreign land, something vaguely worrisome, but that doesnít quite touch us.
We listen to the news of smog alerts and deteriorating ozone on the radio while we idle our cars in parking lots in order to maintain our air conditioning. We half-listen to news reports of road rage and traffic fatalities while we weave in and out of the flow of cars, distracted by cell phone conversations. We buy ugly, bloated, gas-guzzling SUVs that promise off-road adventure and excitement when we never leave the pavement except unwillingly at highway construction sites.
Most of our driving is to such exotic locations as the local mall, school or the parking lot at work. We carry carloads of kids or coworkers, groceries and yard sale treasures. In order to deny the dullness of our lives, we buy into the advertising hype of automobile manufacturers because they promise to lift us out of our boredom. We purchase over-powered, gaudy and uneconomical vehicles in a vain effort to ease the monotony of our daily lives.
Cars have become unreal and artificial environments, a protective metal shell that isolates us from the world outside and limits its intrusion into our personal space. In effect, it becomes our personal space. Inside our vehicle we have the devices to strengthen barriers between those inside and outside: music systems, a plethora of dials and devices, cell phones, climate controls, clocks and thermometers - even television sets and GPS indicators. The plush chairs lull us into believing weíre in a living room rather than a speeding mass of metal.
Inside the automobile, the art of conversation dies while the kids in the backseat watch their mini-TV sets or squabble over their handheld electronic games. Or proves impossible when we crank up the volume on our in-car stereos to ear-damaging volumes. We roll up the windows and turn on the air conditioning. The sounds of the world weíre driving through cannot get past the barriers of the raised windows.
Private space becomes defined by the boundaries of the vehicle. It is a social environment only inside - we donít include those outside the shell as part of our social contacts. In fact, we often hide ourselves by tinting windows so the world cannot see us inside. Our relationship with outsiders is increasingly sociopathic because we no longer relate to them as real people, but instead perceive them as simply images outside the vehicle, like TV cartoons.
The automobile has become ubiquitous, its use an automatic reflex. We get in the car to drive two blocks to a store, rather than walk. Our vehicles are an extension of our personal space. We hurry because everyone else is rushing and weíre part of the pack mentality. We speed along, uncaring when we run over cats or squirrels on local roads. We never look back to see if some petís owner is crying by the road over the death of their pet under our wheels.
Speed limits are annoyances best ignored in our rush to get to and from locations, not regulations or requirements.
The automobile is a wheeled isolation chamber that further alienates us from our neighbours, eroding the links that make these relationships into communities. We never walk any more: we drive everywhere. We turn valuable core land into tiered parking lots, tear down beautiful vintage buildings to erect faceless parking lots to accommodate more cars.
Our suburban culture has turned neighbourhoods into ugly suburban sprawl, unimaginative, cookie-cutter designs shoe-horned into the agricultural perimeter of our cities. Our inner cities die while suburbs designed to maximize the automobile consume valuable farmlands and green space around the urban cores. Driving isnít simply for transportation out there: it is a necessity in North American sprawl culture. Without the car, you are immobilized - there is little or no shopping outside the distant malls. Neighbourhood convenience stores, the Ďmom-and-popí variety operation - have been zoned out of existence in favour of massive box store plazas, strip malls and other concentrations of commerce, each surrounded by hectares of asphalt required to hold the daily swell of vehicles.
As the suburbs have evolved into architectural and aesthetic monocultures, and look-alike housing with all the charm of cold porridge has developed as the preferred home for our working class, the automobile has also changed to suit its new environment. Cars almost all look alike today, pumped out with Stalinist conformity that bludgeons the senses. Vehicle after vehicle displays the same uninspired engineering and derivative design. Mini-vans and SUVs in particular create the impression of a traffic stream full of clones.
Several years ago, I was camping in Kluane Park, in Canadaís Yukon. Late in the evening, my then-wife and I sat at a small fire, enjoying the beauty of the late sunset over the mountains and its reflection on the still water. A large RV pulled up beside us - taking the adjacent campsite when dozens of empty sites were available all around the campgrounds. The driver, a middle-aged man, got out of his vehicle and built a substantial fire in his campís pit - a fire larger than the need for cooking or heat would demand. Huge flames licked the sky and sent upwards clouds of dangerous, dancing sparks. Then he and his wife retreated inside to watch it from the security of their seats, all the windows rolled up, the engine running. Eventually they retreated into the interior and we could see the flickering blue light of their TV set arc across the night.
That for me defined the modern relationship most North Americans have with their vehicles. It summed up how most drivers perceive the real world: 'experienced' through the filtering windshield, seen but not participated in, a cartoon of reality.
On a motorcycle, the real world is never excluded from the experience of travelling. There are no cell phones; most bikes donít have stereo sets or radios to distract us. We can smell the world we travel through, feel the wind buffet us, hear the sound of traffic; we are aware of environmental relationships, of the road conditions, and of our surroundings.
We are acutely aware of other vehicles on the road, even if the car owners are blithely ignorant of us. We notice pets, pedestrians and potholes. You cannot run over anything, cannot contact another vehicle or person on a motorcycle without considerable trauma. We are vulnerable when we ride, to both the physical and emotional realities of the world.
We ride in the world, never merely past it. Motorcycles are not our shells, they are our transport.
Riding is more demanding
The trend in automobile technology has been to distance the driver from the actual process, from the mechanics, of driving. Thus the development of the automatic transmission - it removes from drivers the need to shift gears, but handicaps them by alienating them from the actualities of driving. It is a sad but true fact that million of drivers, especially in North America, are so unfamiliar with real driving and so unskilled that they cannot drive a car without an automatic transmission. Manual transmissions confound and frighten them. This is similar to people who can turn the pages on a book, but cannot read the letters on its pages.
Automobile technology has also attempted to turn driving into an Ďexperienceí instead of an act of transportation or a conscious activity. Devices to moderate and disguise the act of driving - such as sound systems, TV sets, GPS locators, and cell phones - distract from the act and shift attention to the peripherals. It is no wonder we are seeing increasing numbers of accidents and deaths on our roads: the very vehicles most people drive are designed to turn our focus away from driving to the devices inside the vehicle.
Add on top of this such assistive devices as power steering, power windows and electric locks, and the driver is further removed from having real control over his or her vehicle. It is just another thing in our lives that has slipped from our hands. This is compounded by soft driving legislation that does not test drivers frequently enough and seldom requires them to maintain or upgrade their skill levels. There is a mistaken belief among many North American drivers that automobiles and driving are somehow part of the basic "freedoms" enshrined in national constitutions. Thus the lack of seat belt and helmet laws despite proof that these save lives, reduce injuries and cost taxpayers less money in public health care.
Driving is a right, not a freedom. Governments should manage and control driving and its related issues like any other public issue. But most governments have abrogated their responsibilities in this area or bowed to pressures from automobile industry lobbies.
All of this has created a situation where our roads are increasingly dangerous because drivers have less control, are more distracted and are simply less capable. They mimic each otherís bad habits, are ignorant of safety issues, ignore traffic signals, refuse to use turn signals, disobey speed limits, drive aggressively, park poorly - a recipe for disaster on our roads. Road rage is prevalent, congestion continues to increase, cars are made faster, bigger, with more distracting toys. But testing and training remain frozen at levels more suited to 1930s automobiles and traffic levels.
Motorcycles are about control. Subtle changes in body position, a slight motion of the wrist, a casual shift in the location of elbows and knees - all of these affect the ride, the lean angle, the power applied to the wheels. Tiny movements translate into significant reactions. To ride a motorcycle is to apply your entire body to the act of riding. Everything the rider does has a result. You cannot ride and not be aware of how you sit, how your arms are flexed, the position of your shoulders or your legs.
To ride is to remember your body, to use it. To ride is to manage a vehicle and its resources.
Riding is a challenge
Riding on todayís roads requires the motorcyclist to extend his or her consciousness. Unlike in a car, you cannot ride without awareness. The cant of the road, the sharpness of the turn, the condition of the pavement - are all in the foremost of the riderís thoughts. Drivers can ignore animals who dart across the road and kill them without affecting the drive. For a motorcyclist, these can represent a serious, even lethal threat. We have to watch and be careful.
Car drivers can plow through all sorts of environmental conditions without changing the settings on their cruise control. Motorcyclists have to watch for and be prepared to react to water, rain, wind and changing road surfaces. And motorcyclists have to look ahead, consider the road in advance, plan and prepare in ways drivers never need to do.
Riding demands of the rider. It is an unforgiving mistress, never allowing for mistakes or carelessness. Without the steel-and-plastic protection provided by the automobile, motorcyclists are vulnerable to even minor obstacles.
In a world of virtual experiences, instant gratification, point-and-click interfaces, and automatic transmissions, riding is an anachronism. It gives us the pleasures of having to be awake and aware in our activities. Riding is not for the dull-witted. Driving modern vehicles with their consciousness-magnet devices, however, is perfectly suited for them.
Riding sets us apart
Before cars, there were motorcycles. In fact, for the first fifty years while the internal combustion engine was developed for powered transportation, motorcycles outnumbered cars in most countries. In many parts of Europe, cars did not overtake motorcycles as a popular form of transportation until the 1960s.
But today motorcyclists are in the minority in most nations. That puts us on the outskirts of popular culture. Most of us like it that way. We donít run with the pack. We are not counted in the lemming-like hordes of look-alike mini-vans and SUVs. We are outsiders, non-conformists, free thinkers, independent and proud of it.
In a car, you have never really left home. You are never really out of the office, or away from your family. The cell phone is the umbilical cord that never lets you break free, but the vehicle has been engineered to enforce conformity. Radio stations make sure you get the same dose of familiarity on the drive to and from work as you would simply sitting at home. Drivers bring familiar and comfortable music to play on the auto stereo systems to further intensive the relationship between home and car. TV sets are built into back seats so the kids never have the unsettling sensation of being alone with the parents. You never really run free of the pack in a car, no matter what the ads promise.
On a motorcycle, you canít be reached by cell phone. Without special equipment, you canít even hold a conversation with your passenger. Youíre alone, youíre unprotected, youíre not one of the crowd. Youíre alone with your thoughts, in a Zen-like bubble of consciousness. You look, you think and you ride.
Riding is more socially interactive
Drivers operate in an extended personal space that encourages sociopathic behaviour. Road rage is common and becoming more frequent. In more violent societies where gunfire is accepted as a socially acceptable form of interaction and firearm associations that encourage widespread gun ownership are considered "normal," it is not uncommon to read stories about drivers killing one another over such minor transgressions as cutting the other off. Road rage is an illness of drivers, not motorcyclists.
Blaring horns, rude and impolite gestures, mouthed curses glimpsed through windows - these are common daily scenes among drivers. Driving is one of the prime causes of the decay of Western morals and the ruin of socially acceptable behaviour. Manners are a thing of the past - at least among drivers.
In small towns where traditional values may still hold sway, recreational visitors in a hurry to their vacation spot seldom stop to allow a parked car to back out of a spot, seldom wait for a slow pedestrian to pass safely by before racing off. Yellow lights are ignored as drivers race to get through intersections, often even ignoring red lights. Stop signs and other traffic indicators like yield and slow are treated as optional or simply ignored.
Drivers will drive on the wrong side of a street to avoid having to walk the extra 30 feet to get to their destination. Intact drivers will park in spots reserved for the handicapped simply because they are too lazy to find another spot. Turn signals are unused as drivers careen in and out of traffic without warning. Drivers race along suburban streets well above the speed limit, uncaring about pedestrians, children, animals or urban wildlife.
Drivers will pull into a parking space ahead of you although you had your blinker on and were making a turn into it. Drivers will park their vehicles and leave them running to pollute the atmosphere, then argue against controls on idling as if destroying the environment were some sort of right and freedom.
Motorcyclists are not immune from stupidity, of course. Some less mature or more sociopathic riders will rise up and wheelie on suburban streets. Ignorant riders will scream down low-speed roads with a screech of rubber and a wisp of smoke. Foolish young riders will wear nothing more than a T-shirt and shorts for 'protection'... proof that not all riders are imbued with wit and wisdom and that some simply have a lot of growing up to do. Unfortunately they tend to give the better riders an equally bad reputation.
In general, motorcyclists are not so stupid. Responsible, mature and intelligent riders keep their stunts to the racetrack, donít endanger others and donít show off. They donít need to. A real motorcyclist doesnít need to do childish tricks to draw attention to him- or herself. The act of riding is all he or she needs.
Because enlightened motorcyclists are more aware of their surroundings, they ride through their communities with more respect for the others who share the road. They also watch for others because of the threat collisions pose to both parties. A healthy sense of paranoia never hurt a motorcycle rider. Itís far safer to slow down, far safer to stop than run the risk of an accident. A good rider knows this.
You see riders wave and nod at one another, greeting strangers simply because they also share the passion. You donít see drivers wave at one another because that violates the personal space idiom. In essence all other drivers are competitors, where most motorcyclists treat one another like companions. The rare time you will see a motorcyclist gesture rudely is usually at a driver who has performed a stupid, inconsiderate or dangerous (sometimes all three) act and threatened the safety of the rider.
Any gathering of riders is generally sociable and more friendly, a place where strangers talk animatedly about their interests and their bikes. Drawn together because of one common interest, motorcyclists have a basic underlying respect for anyone else who rides. Sure there are brand and style loyalties among riders, but the fact that you ride makes you welcome at almost any motorcycle event. And you never have to defend your passion among riders. They already know.
Riding is fun
Driving is mostly a chore, a function, or a requirement. If they wanted fun, all drivers would have small sports cars with manual transmissions. SUVs, mini-vans, station wagons, sedans, pick-up trucks... they are all dull, Boring. Anything with an automatic transmission is designed for somnambulance, not excitement. Itís a grocery-hauling machine, not an adventure.
Riding is simply a lot of fun. It is a joy to shift gears onto an open road, lean into twisty corners. It is a sensory delight to ride to the top of a hill and then scoot down it again. It is pleasurable to flick gears, tap the throttle, twitch a knee and have the bike obey like a trained quarter horse. Itís variously exciting, relaxing, enlightening and ennobling to ride.
Riding is also about looks and style, about fashion and individuality. Riders dress the part, dress their bikes, polish, clean and accessorize according to personal whims, tastes and perceived social standing. In a car no one cares what you wear. No one sees you. Accessories on cars are like ornaments on a Christmas tree - pretty but usually for decoration only. A family sedan with a spoiler on the trunk is still a dumpy, unromantic and unexciting, automatic transmission sedan no matter what you bolt to it. A spoiler wonít change that. You might as well wear plaid stretch pants and a backwards baseball cap while you drive because no one will think any less of you. Or any better.
Riding is passionate
Riding is about passion, about making the adrenaline flow, about pleasure, about awakened and heightened sensation. Driving is about - well, driving. Itís about getting from here to there in the least time with the least inconvenience. Itís about idling in bumper-to-bumper commuter jams, engine overheating, tempers flaring, kids screaming. Driving has all the passion of watching paint dry.
Riding is that moment of sphincter-clenching fear and excitement when you scream through a tight corner, leaned over further than you thought you could, then pop out into the straight with a whoop and a grin. Riding is that feeling in the morning when you open the garage and there it is in all its chrome and plastic glory, and you just have to smile even though youíve seen it a thousand mornings before. Riding is about the heads that turn to look as you pass by. Riding is about the envious glances from coworkers as they exit their dull cars and watch as you pop your bike onto its centrestand.
Riding is about taking that side road out of the traffic stream just to see where it goes. Riding is about filling up with $5 worth of gas instead of $50. Riding is about meeting strangers at a gas station and striking up a friendly conversation about motorcycles. Riding is about parking two or three bikes to a single space. Riding is about spending an hour or two washing and polishing and then looking at your work with deep pride.
Riding is about beauty. Every motorcycle is a work of art, some breath-taking in their sheer elegance. The only cars that can even come close to a bike in grace and form are European sports cars. Even the ugliest bike is a thousandfold more beautiful than any family sedan - and every bike is a millionfold more elegant and graceful than any SUV.
Riding is about fashion - the way men and women look in leather, the lean look of a sports bike rider in a full body suit, the rebellious look of a cruiser owner all dressed in black. It's about a crafted stylishness that's at once casual and formal. Riders form their own tribes, identified by their dress code as much as their vehicles. How you look is part of why we ride.
If you donít understand, I canít explain it in any more words. Sit in your mini-van and try to tell me that your heart beats a little faster when you turn the engine on. Pull into a mall parking lot full of so many mini-vans and urban-warrior-SUVS that you worry about recognizing your own vehicle - and try to tell me you felt a thrill about coming together with them all. Drive through the countryside with your windows rolled up, air conditioning on and music cranked up and try to express the experience of motion through the fresh air that smelled of new hay and cows.
If you've never ridden, you can't comprehend. But once you try it, you're hooked for life.
(PS. Riding is probably healthier, too. Since it's almost impossible to smoke while riding, motorcyclists are less likely to suffer the ills of tobacco-related diseases while riding. And since smoking reduces the flow of oxygen to the brain, which makes smokers less alert, non-smoking motorcyclists are probably smarter than smoking drivers.)
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