Why do we ride?

There’s nothing like eight solid days of painting walls and doors to set the mind wandering. My mind wandered to motorcycling, as it so often does. Not because I’ve been riding this past week, because I haven’t. The dirt road that runs for the last kilometre to our house gets churned into a washboard by heavy logging trucks, making the V-Strom the only bike that can comfortably use it right now. When you’re lugging tins of paint and making random stops for new mixer taps, 5kg bags of tile grout and extractor fans, the double-cab bakkie (pick-up truck) is just more practical.

So as I applied no fewer than four coats of white paint to cover the previous owners’ taste in yucky green walls at a rental apartment we’re trying to make rentable again, I eased the tedium by pondering the question of why we motorcyclists ride our bikes. I came up with some answers, for me at least.

Obviously, most of us ride ‘cos it’s fun. I grew up in Ireland in the ‘50s and ‘60s when motorcycles were relatively uncommon and often ridden for reasons of affordability: some people just couldn’t afford cars, and bikes provided independent personal transport. But we live, in the developed world at least, in more prosperous times now where a car can be obtained quite cheaply, if that’s what you want.

So it’s not just about meeting basic transport needs. It’s so much more than that. When we ride, the sensations we experience come directly from inputs we provide with our hands, our fingers, our toes, our knees and our backsides. There’s a wonderful precision required between eyes, brain and the aforementioned extremities. Usually there are nuances based on our judgement calls: just a tad more throttle here, a feathering of the front brake there, maybe a quick down-change for optimum drive out of the next corner; a few millimetres of counter-steer, a bit of extra pressure on the tank from a knee, a roll of the throttle. We’re totally involved in the act of riding.

Then there are the sensations we experience as a result of those inputs: the sheer thrust of full-throttle acceleration in a straight line, with the attendant sense of being pushed backward while your arms strain to hold on; the sense you get with some bikes that you are being picked up by an unseen force and hurled at the horizon. Different bikes do it in different ways: the two-strokes of old would emit a banshee wail and shriek their way to the redline so fast that you really had to focus to change up in time; the relentless, gutsy urge of a powerful V-twin (I’m thinking Ducati rather than Harley here, but they both do it) that seems to grasp your very entrails and drag you forwards in a wall of sound and torque; the wide array of modern fours that combine a frenetic buzz with a smooth progression to uncanny speeds in the bat of an eye.

Of course, this isn’t happening in one dimension: the laws of physics put you and the bike in a state of balance whereby your brain can dial in just the right amount of lean to negotiate the next corner at the speed you’ve chosen. Then there’s the sensation of grip (hopefully!) as you literally feel this two small contact patches between rubber and road deliver the line you’ve selected. If your riding skills are at the far end of the expert spectrum, there’s the added thrill of feeling one or both tyres start to lose a little grip and you then controlling it all, right there on the edge.

Then you have to throw in a bunch of other factors that may be enhancing the experience: spectacular countryside, the warmth of the sun softening your leathers, the smell of newly mown grass, fresh air in your nostrils, the mesmeric flow of a series of bends that allow you to flick the bike this way and that, hitting your apexes and mastering that road. Oh, and the sound, the glorious sound that you’ve spent serious money to create: the thunderous snarl of a V-twin through a racing pipe, the race-track scream of a high-revving four, the solidity of a triple.

Your brain becomes your own personal mixing desk, dialling in precisely the blend of acceleration, lean, grip, speed, sound and cornering line, making tiny adjustments in real time and feeling the satisfaction of instant feedback every time. And you get to do that every few seconds, every corner of your ride. Your whole body joins in the fun: you feel the engine alive beneath you. Some riders even enjoy the vibration of some models as proof that the engine is working – I’m torn between the pleasant and mild vibes of my Ducati SportClassic and Suzuki TL1000S and the silky smoothness of my Valkyrie and Rune, but there’s never any doubt with any of them that there’s an engine down there doing its stuff.

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Riding position is another factor: flat bars or clip-ons generally put you in a more controlling stance, but a more upright position can still deliver plenty of feedback. My Valkyrie is a case in point. Very high bars and the sort of ape-hangers favoured by the Mayans on Sons of Anarchy detract from the amount of precision you can exercise at critical cornering moments, in my opinion, but you still get to enjoy the rest of the experience.

Then there’s the whole sense of being out there, actually in the scene rather than observing it from behind a windscreen; smelling the countryside directly through your nostrils rather than inhaling the filtered air from a car or coach’s aircon. The degree to which this is a benefit depends on where you live, how hardy you feel and your tolerance for being cold and wet. I’ve done cold and wet for most of my riding life, and I’ve done warm and dry, and warm and dry is better. It’s a matter of personal taste – and geography.

So your mind is doing this mixing desk control thing: observing, sensing, directing. Your body is feeling the horsepower and torque through every contact point. Your hands, fingers and toes are dancing endlessly, making it all happen. The chances are you’re riding a bike you’ve chosen, one that means something to you, and that adds a whole other dimension of pleasure: the familiar sight, sound and feel of a bike you love.

The fact that the bike may be taking you somewhere you need to be is almost coincidental; that you can probably park free of charge within a few yards or metres of your destination likewise; it’s all way beyond practicality. It’s one of life’s ultimate thrills, and it’s available on tap any time we choose.

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