This is part of an article I wrote that will be featured in Topwick this fall.
At precisely this moment someone, somewhere, is getting ready to ride. The motorcycle waits expectantly in the cool, dark garage. The leather-clad rider approaches, the helmet obscuring the world as it is pulled on, the chin strap buckled. The key slipped into the ignition, a leg swung over the seat, the rider thrusts the bike forward with his thighs. Now the 550 pounds of chrome, fuel and plastic rests in a fragile balance between the rider’s legs.
The starter button, pressed with the right thumb, makes the engine begin to trill. A twist of the throttle makes the bike bleat, then gulp, then roar. A fire is now contained inches away from fragile flesh. A pull of the left-hand clutch, then a neat press down with the left foot sends the bike into first gear. And thus begins the dance of man and machine.
The first motorcycle ever made resembles a torturing device. The German device, built in 1885 by Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach, was a wood-frame set upon two iron-tired wooden wheels. A single-cylinder gas engine acted as the power-plant.
Since then, motorcycles have been a staple in the American cultural landscape. In Europe, they have always been seen as a sensible mode of transportation. Here in the U.S., bikes have been a symbol of rebellion, freedom and anarchy. During the 1960’s and 70’s, motorcycle sales ballooned, in part due to the ethos of the time and a new era of experimentation. Then, between 1982 and 1991, annual sales freefell from 525,000 to 178,000.
Now, men from all walks of life are gobbling up motorcycles. From Harleys and Hondas to Suzuki’s and Triumphs, bike sales are at an all-time high. Partly spurred on by popular shows such as Sons of Anarchy and movies like The Motorcycle Diaries, documenting the cross-country trip of a prodigal son in South America, motorcycles are a trendy toy to have in your garage.
But why do we ride? What is the appeal of being exposed to the elements, of being inches away from death? Riding is a pastime defined by duplicities. Take the numbers, for instance: seven million riders against 225 million who don’t ride. Or the peculiar paradox of the faster you go the more control over the motorcycle you have. And the intricate tightrope you walk between fear and exhilaration; between life and death.
The road is constantly throwing tragedy toward the rider: oil spills, gravel, snow, water, daydreaming drivers, chasing dogs. Remember, riders are mortal. Beneath the leathers is tender skin. But it’s the deep affection for riding another mile, and then another, and then one more, that keeps a rider going.