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Archive for February, 2010

I Was There


You don’t buy a motorcycle for transportation, in my opinion. Sure, when you turn your car in at the shop, you might use your bike, but that’s an exception. As a general rule, bikes don’t have enough cargo space, they’re too vulnerable to foul weather, and they’re entirely too expensive. No, you have a car for transportation, and you have a bike because it’s fun.

Cars are boxes, and their occupants (aside from those who live a little and drive convertibles) are very much “inside.” They’re protected from the elements, hidden from the wind, and climate-controlled. At times they’re so stuffy that the gastrological behavior of a passenger in the back seat can ruinously disturb the driver up front. And as far as I’m concerned, drivers are spectators to the scenery and a world that swiftly passes them by. They are simply relocating from point A to point B. What lies between the two goes largely unnoticed.

But then there are the motorcycles. You have the wind in your face, regardless of the speed. You have the 20 degree wind chill (at 60mph) to factor into any weather report. You have bug guts slathered across various areas of your
leathers and motorcycle helmet (or windshield), and perhaps a few on your face. When it rains, you get wet; and when the road is treacherous, you stand a chance of seeing it even more closely – pinned under your bike in a skid. Riding is a real-time interaction with the scenery, the weather, the road, the buffeting wind, and the bike itself – constantly. Whereas drivers occupy the mental wasteland between their starting points and their destinations, riders are always precisely where they need and want to be: riding. Not spectators, but participants.

If I were to close my eyes while riding (and I assure you that I don’t), I would still know where I was. Aside from the freedom and thrill of the riding itself, my favorite aspect is the smell. It changes constantly, and it always tells you
something. One moment it’s a skunk, and the next a cow pasture. Then it’s fresh-cut hay, or the dead leaves of autumn. In the Appalachians it’s wet rocks and moss. In downtown areas it’s the occasional whiff of marijuana, then
exhaust, then asphalt and rubber, then somebody’s grill in the back yard. On Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, it’s a virtual cloud of marijuana, movie theater popcorn, and the distinct aroma of weird. At random intervals along any
road, it’s roadkill. Regardless, it changes with the scenery, and I like it. Drivers miss every bit of this.

When they aren’t punching at their cell phones or wishing they’d reached their destinations, drivers might look about long enough to remember a billboard or a particularly rough section of road. I will remember how an area smelled. Then I will remember that I was on my bike at the time, and then I will remember how much I enjoyed it. It didn’t matter where I was going, or where I came from; it mattered that I enjoyed the ride. Why? Well, it’s easy. I didn’t pass a place; I was in it.

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Silver City New Mexico
Silver City, New Mexico

When I enlisted in the Marine Corps Infantry, I was surprised with the responses I received when others learned the news. Most, probably envisioning me marching away to war, expressed concern for my safety, a handful indicated they were proud of me, and the vast majority tried to relate: “hey, I have a cousin in the Army. He says he likes it, I guess.” A few, however, blurted that I was going to get myself killed. Thankfully, that reaction (a disconcerting one) was rare. But when I purchased a motorcycle, it was the norm.

 “So you just got a motorcycle, huh? Well, you’re gonna crash and die.”

 An incredible number also felt compelled to tell me about specific incidents where that had happened, too. It was always somebody distant to them, like the husband of a cousin’s neighbor’s niece. Invariably, something horrible had taken place. That, too, was disconcerting. It was always bad news…

  “You got a motorcycle? Yeah, I just had a patient who ground his entire lower body to a nub when he skidded off his bike doing 100mph on a back road. Have fun riding.”

 “You got a motorcycle? Our prayer requests in Bible study yesterday were for the surviving family of a man killed when he was riding his motorcycle on his farm.”

 “Motorcycle, huh…..you ever seen that video of Evil Knievel hitting the pavement after his jump? I think he broke every bone in his body – at least twice. It was heinous. He looked like a rag doll.”

 “Yeah, my cousin bought a bike, but he crashed it on his first ride and now he’s in a wheelchair.”

 “One of the neighbor’s kids used to ride, but then he wrapped himself around a tree and died. I think he was about 20.”

 “Well, bikes are neat, but I’m too afraid to ride. I’m terrified that somebody will open a car door and I’ll go flying off. Have you seen that movie where there’s this scene….the guy landed in an intersection and got run over. It was pretty cool. But I don’t want to ride a bike, though. Too risky.”

I even had one person offer to pay me NOT to purchase a motorcycle. Naturally, I declined.

 Yes, it may be dangerous, but so is life itself. Besides which, there are number of measures one can easily take to mitigate the risks – beginning with a motorcycle safety course, leathers, and a motorcycle helmet. Furthermore, most other risks can be drastically reduced if riders set aside their pride, ignore the compulsion to exceed the speed limit, and simply enjoy the road. That you have a bike – a sleek, powerful beast with lots of shiny parts – is showing off enough. Respect it, be hyper-vigilant, and you’ll be just fine. You have a greater risk of injury riding a horse (according to the Hughston Sports Medicine Foundation).

In looking back on the whole ordeal, I’ve reached the conclusion that the first thing that comes to mind with a non-rider is the dangers of motorcycling. Thus, that’s what comes out of their mouths. For a rider, however, is the freedom, the road, the roar of the pipes inside your helmet, and the known fact that people in their boring little cars are staring at you with envy. All their kids are waving, too, much to the horror of their mothers. Maybe everybody’s a killjoy because they’re jealous that I’m going to have a lot of fun and they’re not. 

And here’s the best part: Now only two years after purchasing my first motorcycle, nearly every person who said something negative about riding has since gone riding with me and thoroughly enjoyed it – to include the person who offered to pay me to not buy the bike. At least one has purchased a bike of his own, and several more have expressed interest in buying them in the future. I win, folks. Well, motorcycles win. (I will note that one passenger kept peering over my shoulder to monitor the speedometer, but I think she still had fun.)

 There’s something about a motorcycle that’s almost universally appealing. Something about the way it hugs the road in curves and bolts up the long inclines that cars struggle to climb. Or the deep rumble as you cut through tunnels and under overpasses. Maybe it’s the subtle statement that, “I can go fast if I want to, but I’m happy just relishing the ride.” All you naysayers, we’ll win you over yet. And then, we’ll see you out there on a bike of your own. You can’t help it; it’s just fun.
About Ben Shaw, the author

Motorcycle Trip Planning-To Plan or Not To

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Motorcycle Trip Planning
For those of you planning a lengthy motorcycle trip, my advice is to quit planning immediately. Planning means stating your intentions. And that means the gods of fortune are alerted to the fact you have hopes of doing something, at which point they unite against you to ensure that plenty of things go wrong. Two years ago, when I began arranging a multi-state ride, I knew none of this and planned carefully. Catching me totally unaware, the fortune gods ruined me.

Prior to embarking on a long ride far from home, it seems logical that you should turn in your bike for a thorough servicing. Take every precaution to ensure that your bike won’t leave you stranded, irritated, and walking from the Middle of Nowhere to Somewhere. Or worse. In my case, Molinara – yes, she has a name – received valve adjustments, fluid servicing, new brakes, and a new rear tire. The bill, of course, was astronomical. But, we can’t place a price on safety, right?

When the repairs were complete – and only a few days prior to my much anticipated departure – I had a friend drive me to the dealer to pick up the bike. I left like a bat out of hell, leaving my friend to drive back at a more reasonable, responsible speed.

26.5 miles later, roaring along swimmingly at 70mph on the highway, I heard a loud ping, a crash, and suddenly the bike sounded like it was on the verge of death. To my credit, I didn’t panic and do something novice. Instead, I simply pulled over, discovered my PIPES missing from the mid-joint back, and an enormous gouge torn out of my new rear tire. My pipes, by the way, were a quarter behind me in the ditch, severely dented, scratched, and at that moment searing a char mark into the grass. Despite being livid, I was thankful that my friend would be along shortly to spot me on the shoulder and help me out.

Completely ignoring me, he drove right by. Use a cell phone? No way. He never turns his on. He might have to actually TALK to somebody, you see. So, I called the dealer (who was now closed), informed them that I was standing on the side of the road with a broken bike, and that it was entirely their fault. That done, I limped the bike to a nearby exit, found a Waffle House, and sulked.

To my surprise, the manager called me back fairly promptly and announced that a vehicle had been dispatched to deliver me a loaner bike from their floor, and take mine back for repairs. They even paid for my Waffle House lunch.

But the loaner, of course, was tiny. And I’m 6ft 3in tall. I’ve listed the pro’s and con’s below:
Disadvantages of the loaner bike:

1. No windshield – and my friend called me a weenie for objecting
2. I ate bugs on the way home – I want to see HIM eat bugs
3. Smaller
4. Not loud and attention-getting
5. No saddlebags
6. It’s not my bike

Advantages of the loaner bike:

1. Um, it’s not my bike (ride hard)
2. I got home safely
3. It’s black
4. It’s better than walking, which isn’t cool at all

My Bike
Ben's Bike

Loaner bike
Loaner Bike

To shorten a very long story, the dealer discovered that they had failed to properly reattach my pipes after their work. The tire was replaced, the bike fixed, and returned to me – still broken and lathered in grease marks. So I took it back, and they fixed it again (meanwhile, I’m leaving in a couple days). Then my brand new sissy bar bag broke some buckles. Then it rained. Then I finally left – and was immediately rained on. And then, a state later, Molinara broke again, leaving me stranded, and sleeping overnight on a concrete stoop outside another dealer’s repair shop. And the next morning I was almost mugged in a gas station bathroom. Then, I tried something different.

Quite simply, I stopped planning. I would go where the road took me, stop when locals insisted there was something to see, and not stick to any schedule whatsoever. And you know, it worked perfectly. The next 13,000 miles were completely disaster free.

Don’t plan, folks. Sneak up on your trip and surprise it. The gods of fortune will never know what hit them.

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Ben Shaw -Jafrum's Motorcycle Blog Writer
Ben Shaw has been a rider since August 2007, when, freshly returned from multiple combat tours with the US Marines in Iraq, he purchased a Yamaha Virago 250. Ten days later, dissatisfied with its small size, he purchased an 1100.

In 2008, Shaw rode cross-country, expecting to cover 5,500 miles in roughly a month. Four and a half months and 9,500 photographs later, he returned – having ridden 13,500 miles. Since then, he has undertaken several shorter rides, and looks forward to available time to cross the United States on a northern route.

Shaw’s experience with riding is that there is danger, beautiful scenery, long, low curves through beautiful countryside, and a profusion of interesting people met along the way – often just as savory or unbelievable as the ride itself. The most important thing about biking, thus, is being simply curious about everything. Without fail, schedules never work, the weather never cooperates, weird and amazing people abound, but it all becomes the stuff of stories riders will tell for years to come. As any rider knows, strange things always happen on the road.

Shaw currently resides in Virginia, and works as a combat journalist and veteran advocacy writer.

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