We’ve all seen the guy: he rolls up to Cars & Coffee wearing a bad ass leather jacket, boots, and carrying around his helmet like a badge of honor. In spite of the subtle inferiority we may experience at that moment, we admire him — even if he does park on the sidewalk.
The man is a motorcyclist. He rides the roads on two wheels, with nothing but a broken-in pair of jeans (or something kevlar-lined if he’s smart) separating him from a painful alternative.
As car enthusiasts, it’s tricky because we identify with the motorcyclist in many ways. He’s a risk taker, he usually has a good sense of style, and he is undeniably a gear head. But, at the same time, he’s different. His sense of speed is warped — you’re a bit jaded when you’ve had two wheels on a twisty road at three-digit speeds — and he would prefer to watch MotoGP over Formula 1.
Motorcycling is the distant City on a Hill for many car enthusiasts who dream of riding one day. I was one of those enthusiasts until three months ago, when I finally decided to visit.
I’d never ridden a motorcycle before — shit, I hadn’t even ridden a bicycle in about two years. So, I visited my local European bike dealer and they connected me with a certified instructor. I preferred this to the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course (which is an excellent program) because the one-on-one experience was tailored to me and my learning pace. It also introduced me to a number of motorcycle enthusiasts in the area and the riding community is a big part of what makes motorcycling so much fun.
After three two-hour sessions, I felt comfortable on my rented and well-worn Honda Rebel and I was ready to start shopping.
However, before I entertained the idea of purchasing a bike of my own, I needed to get legal and that meant taking the written motorcycle permit exam. In North Carolina, passing the written exam gets you a motorcycle learners permit that is good for one year, with the option to extend six moths thereafter. The permit’s only restriction is that you’re not allowed to carry a passenger — which I wouldn’t advise for some time anyways.
Once I completed the permit process, I tested a couple of bikes from my local dealership. This is not common, as beginning riders without full endorsements are not usually allowed to conduct test rides. This is also where my instructor helped me tremendously. Because of his rapport with the sales team at the dealership, he rode the bike over to our “training grounds” and this allowed me to get a feel for each bike in a controlled environment.
After watching hours of YouTube videos, reading countless opinion posts all over the internet, and some bona fide seat time, I decided I wanted a bike that I could grow into, but wouldn’t get me hurt. I’m also 5’6, so seat height was a big concern for me, too.
Full disclosure: I’ve always wanted a Ducati Monster. To me, the Monster is the quintessential motorcycle. It looks badass, it’s fast (but not too fast), and it’s a bike with heritage and cache. If it’s good enough for Ayrton Senna to ride around the Monaco Circuit (and everywhere else, for that matter), need I say more?
But, I also like the modern/retro/cafe bikes that have been burning up the internet for the last few years, and the Ducati Scrambler was another bike that interested me. I rode both, and ended up buying a lightly-used 2014 Monster 696 the dealership had in its inventory. I didn’t want a new bike for various reasons, and the Monster was priced right. To my benefit, I also purchased a two-year, zero deductible warranty that has already nearly paid for itself (I didn’t say Italian motorcycles were perfect).
I want to note that I purchased all my gear before taking delivery of the Monster. This is something I can’t advocate for enough. You don’t want to become a statistic, and good judgement paired with appropriate gear is the only way you can prevent that.
For the first two weeks, I simply road around on local secondary roads. I spent the first few nights of ownership doing laps of my neighborhood getting familiar with the controls and practicing my slow-speed maneuvering. To my wife’s surprise, running errands and picking up odds and ends at the grocery store was my new favorite thing.
Once I felt comfortable, I starting riding to work on casual Fridays. I left my pleated pants at home in favor of a solid pair of riding jeans that I can wear while completing my TPS reports.
About two months into my ownership journey, I participated in my first organized ride with my instructor and a few acquaintances I’d met along the way.
At this point, I had put about 500 miles on my bike — mostly low speed stuff around town, with some time on the highways. But, with few exceptions, I hadn’t had a chance to ride on twisty, technical roads.
The all-day organized ride allowed me to open the bike up and push my limits as a rider in ways that, honestly, scared me a bit. The day left me feeling a mixture of adrenaline-induced joy and genuinely questioning if this whole thing is worth the risk.
The feeling of freedom that a motorcycle allows is unmatched by any four-wheeled endeavor. When you’re leaned over at a high-rate of speed, you feel alive in a way that is difficult to explain. The feeling is addictive, but it has a cost — a tax, so to speak. I’ve become hyper aware of my own mortality and it has led me to question other aspects of my life. On a deeply personal level, these questions have both helped me and distracted me since I made the leap from four wheels to two.
For one, riding has strained my relationship with my wife and family. It’s created a great deal of concern for many people that are close to me. And, that concern, if I’m being honest with myself, is often valid.
Riding is selfish. There’s no way around that fact. This gives me pause each time I put on my helmet.
So will I continue to ride? I think so. This may sound odd, but I often feel like I’m having an affair with motorcycle culture and leaving behind a lifetime of passion for cars. I feel a deeper connection to the car hobby than I do motorcycling, but I truly enjoy riding.
Retrospectively, buying the bike was an impulse decision and those sometimes aren’t good ones. At this point, I can’t afford to make too many of those and continue to maintain the more important priorities in my life.
The bike is for sale right now. Oddly, riding has helped me understand that it’s not the right time for me to own a motorcycle. I’m proud of myself for learning a new skill — one that has made me a better driver and offered me insight into a place I thought was a distant city I’d never actually have the balls to visit.
Regardless of my decision to sell the bike, I’m not giving up on motorcycling, I’m simply taking a sabbatical.