The Truth(s) About Motorcycles
Her hands had been on my shoulders as we rode, and when we stopped the kiss was done in one motion, quickly, as she leaned forward and climbed off the bike: a light touch of her lips upon my cheek, and then she swung her leg over the seat and walked away toward the others.
She’d insisted on wearing a skirt and heels for her first ride on the motorcycle, and I wondered that she’d dismounted so gracefully, balancing the smallest part of her shoe on the foot peg before spinning to step down, pulling her skirt into place at the same time. She was Ukrainian and Romani, I believe, strong and feminine with a dark burst of fireworks for hair, and here in the woods along the Dnepr River just outside of Kiev, it was good to look at her. We could hardly say a word to each other—her English was as bad as my Russian—but she loved the motorcycle, and it was enough.
This is how I picture motorcycling: friends in late summer, a campfire picnic on a river in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home and nothing but the road in front of us. Even today, when I ride it’s with that idea in mind, the solid feel of the engine under me, the shifting colors of the landscape and my bike moving within it, and the isolating sound that creates space and which drives me forward in so many ways. There are truths in all of this, but I can’t be bothered to separate them out, and for anyone who doesn’t ride such truths would be indecipherable anyway. As with making love or witnessing the birth of a child, there’s only one way to know. Outside of that understanding, for the many who don’t ride, there is often only one truth to the motorcycle: its danger. But this is an impossibly shallow assessment of the vehicle. If nothing else, let us say that the motorcycle reveals different truths to different people, and reserves only one to be shared universally with all who ride it: honesty.
In May of 1974 at California’s San Jose Mile, dirt track racing legend Mert Lawwill crashed twice in one day, both times at more than 100mph. A wipeout in qualifying saw his body slide into a trackside post at speed (a 1975 Cycle World article offered that “the resulting ‘whump’ ended the horrible tumble”) and he was temporarily knocked unconscious, but the Harley-Davidson rider changed clothes, re-entered on a backup motorcycle, qualified 9th fastest and then won his heat—much to the delight of the crowd. Already in severe pain at the start of the 25-lap main event, Lawwill crashed again during the second lap when he swerved to avoid another rider who’d gone down, caught a hay bale and slammed into the wall. This one took him out of the race for good.
After a month recuperating—during which he stepped on a hornets’ nest and suffered a severe sunburn—Lawwill returned to racing and crashed yet again, going into the wall at Santa Fe before being run over by another rider. He finished 11th overall for the year, with a re-dislocated shoulder, a re-injured elbow, a broken ankle, cracked ribs, pulled muscles, and all kinds of hurt.
“That’s crazy, isn’t it,” Lawwill says, after I recap the year for him, then ask if he ever considered quitting the bike. “Not seriously. All I ever thought about was how could I get over this injury real quick. It was just a necessary evil,” he says. “I just rode within what I felt was my comfort zone. Every time I fell down it surprised me.”
The 1969 AMA Grand National Champion retired in 1977 with an incredible 161 Grand National finishes, earning himself a place in the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. “I always tell people I was as comfortable sliding sideways at 120mph on a racetrack as I was sitting on my sofa,” he says, a statement backed up by the 1971 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday, in which Lawwill appears alongside off-road racer Malcolm Smith and actor/motorcyclist Steve McQueen, among others.
My first motorcycle was a Dnepr 16, purchased new at the factory in Kiev for just under $300, sidecar included. On an adventure in 1992, a friend and I spent most of our money on a pair of them, figuring they’d provide both transport to Western Europe and something to sell once we got there. The men at the factory laughed at the idea of us riding 1,700 miles to Paris on bikes they’d built and suggested we purchase a third one as well—for parts. The Dnepr was a copy of a late 1930s BMW R71, but any similarities between the German bike and ours, built to low standards with sub-par materials in the tough years following Ukraine’s 1989 revolution, were cosmetic. In the end we made it as far as Austria before my motorcycle surrendered, gasping and chugging across the Viennese border with a cracked cylinder head, failing clutch, and array of other afflictions. While I was tearing into it with a wrench—again—on the side of the road, a male dancer with the Vienna State Opera pulled up, admired the bikes and offered to buy them both. My friend and I quadrupled our money, and took a train to Paris.
Protect and Serve “I think like any little boy, it’s something that your mother doesn’t want you to do,” says Ofc. Anthony Sciarrino of the Los Angeles Police Department’s prestigious motorcycle division, talking about how he got into riding. “That danger aspect appeals to all of us who like that adrenaline rush, to go out there and go off dirt jumps and get better and better. It’s exciting as a little kid, and as you get older you become one with it. If you don’t, that’s when bad things happen.”
Sciarrino has been riding motorcycles with the LAPD for 13 years, starting and stopping his bike’s engine as many as 60 times per day as he patrols the city. Statistically speaking, Sciarrino says, the motor officers’ job is the most dangerous in the department, with the highest number of injuries despite the fact that the elite squad of 257 officers among the LAPD’s 10,000 are some of the best trained motorcyclists anywhere. “It’s like a pinball machine on the highway: tool boxes, barbeques, mattresses, ladders… All these hazards that are out there, we’ve hit them,” he says.
To blow off steam, Sciarrino occasionally heads out for a weekend track day to race motorcycles with other enthusiasts, who don’t always know he’s a police officer.
“You’re in the pits and talking to guys: oh I’m a doctor, I’m a dentist, I’m a construction worker and suddenly, ‘I’m a police officer,’ and you leave it at that, and everybody kind of goes, ‘What!? You don’t seem like a cop, you’re cool.’ They’ll say silly things like that. We’re just regular folks.”
Mom rarely smiled when my motorcycle was mentioned. Ironically, she was partly to blame for it. When I was five or so she’d let a friend take me for a ride, me sitting on the gas tank and grinning under the adult-sized helmet resting on my shoulders, on which Mom had insisted. By the time we made the first turn, I was hooked. Years later, Mom cemented my fascination with a story about an Indian Scout my father had ridden while he was in the Army, near the time he went to Vietnam. “He told me the Indian had a suicide clutch, that it was fast, and that he really loved it,” she said.
My father died after the war but before I knew him, and as a young man I was desperate for any connection. Unable to remember his voice, it was difficult to imagine us in conversation. But I could easily picture him on the Indian, racing around on back roads—and that’s an experience we could share, even if it was separated by death.
This is one of the motorcycle’s truths: that it crosses boundaries. The essence of those boundaries is different for everyone who rides and may consist of nothing more than distance. But for some motorcyclists the experience goes deeper, and it usually begins with crossing a line that many people consider to be another truth of the motorcycle: danger. Perhaps ironically, crossing this line seems to trouble non-motorcyclists as much as—or more than—those who ride.
“When you ask people who don’t ride why not, or if you tell someone you ride, the first thing you hear back is usually something about some accident they know about,” says Dr. Scott Stoltenberg, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies behavior genetics, and who rides motorcycles. “The danger is first and foremost in some people’s minds.”
“I mean, realistically Reade, I guess subconsciously that’s one of the reasons I do ride, if that makes sense,” says my friend Michael Malry. “Why do thrill seekers seek thrills, putting themselves on the edge of their tolerance level, if you will? It’s a rush—and you’re aware.”
“There are people who are risk takers, so I can see danger can be a reason to ride,” says Stoltenberg. “From an evolutionary sense, taking risks has a lot of strong benefits. We need to take risks at times. I think that there’s some natural selection for people to take risks, but there are also individual differences. That’s not why I like to ride. I also knew somebody who was in a serious accident and had a brain injury because of motorcycling, and after that I thought pretty deeply about whether I was going to continue riding or not. I can’t give up something that I really enjoy doing because there’s some risk involved, I don’t want to spend my whole life sitting on my couch.”
“I got fed up riding around roads where I lived, and I just wanted to go farther,” says Phil Weston, a 64-year-old building site manager in England and president of the country’s Iron Butt Association, which is an offshoot of an American club of long-distance motorcyclists. Complete a verified 1,000-mile ride in a single day and you can join. After that, it’s anything goes. “I went to Istanbul for dinner on a Saturday night, then back. It took four days: two days there, two back. Once you can do 1,000 miles a day you can go anywhere,” he says.
Weston has completed two of America’s Iron Butt Rallies—11,000 miles in 11 days around the States—and he placed 14th out of 80-some participants the last time he rode. Part of the challenge is managing fatigue, something with which most Iron Butt members are all too familiar.
“Maybe you start to slow down or you change lanes and don’t see something, or you yawn… If you yawn you might as well stop straightaway… I just like sitting on the bike and going places. I don’t really care what roads I’m riding. People say, ‘oh, you don’t see anything,’ but I was in Istanbul sitting in a roof garden having a coffee listening to a singer in a mosque. It’s almost worth it just to do that. Who wants to see the same old cathedrals? If I want a pizza I’ll go to Italy.”
I-80 took me past Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, which I’d wanted to see, but it was October and I’d foolishly thought I could beat the weather to Wyoming. For several days, the new 2002 Indian Chief I was riding had been a dream, carrying me out of Huntington Beach, California, where I breathed the salt air of the coast before turning inland to spice my lungs with Gilroy—“the garlic capital of the state!”After that came the deserts and the Salt Flats, but somewhere east of Salt Lake City I realized my mistake. I was in the blizzard before I hit Rock Springs, and then I disappeared. It took three days to cross Wyoming, riding as slow as 15mph, icicles hanging off my clutch and brake levers, wearing everything I had, hazard lights blinking and me praying I wasn’t run off the road by one of the large trucks that kept spraying snow and ice over me and my sidecar rig, which was forever sliding. It was my own damn fault for being here, and there was nothing for it: either I kept going or I parked the bike until spring, and that wasn’t an option. The odd car passed with a young boy’s face pressed up against the window, mouth agape, but otherwise I was so very much alone, riding in a darkness that shifted from white to black even at noon. The trip was for a magazine story, and I could have taken any route back to New York City. Someone was trying to resurrect the Indian Motorcycle Company, originally in business from 1901 to 1953. There had been a couple of half-hearted attempts to revive the brand before, but the guys in Gilroy were the first to create a new motor and it looked like they might pull it off. East of Buford I started losing elevation, finally, but it was still snowing in Cheyenne and I didn’t see the sun until Nebraska. Not long after I pulled into New York, my hands only beginning to lose the ache they’d found on the trip, the motorcycle was stolen. And shortly after that the magazine went out of business, and so there you go.
“Motorcycling has always given people a sense of freedom,” says Kerry Gibson of the Christian Motorcyclists Association (CMA), whose 160,000 global members help raise millions each year for the ministry, which uses motorcycles as a tool for outreach. “You can feel the air, you’re in the wind, you can smell the smells, and you’re sharing that experience together. If you ride a motorcycle very much you’re going to ride through rain and bad weather, and other people that do it know what that’s all about. There’s a common thread if you look at a relationship with God: It’s about freedom, being free from your sin, free from the hardships of life… When you ride you understand what somebody else is going through on their ride, and it is the same way with a relationship with God.”
“Jewish people have camaraderie anyway,” says Betsy Ahrens, president of the Jewish Motorcycle Alliance (JMA), who says that motorcycles don’t really build anything for her organization that didn’t exist already. Instead, she says her members (nearly 7,000 worldwide) just like to ride. Once a year they raise money for Holocaust awareness, but it’s more about education than any kind of ministry. Otherwise, the JMA is practical: “The way we look at it as motorcyclists is that anything is dangerous. If you have to think about how dangerous it is, you shouldn’t be doing it.” As for any notion of mortality while motorcycling, “it’s pretty much pushed to the back of the mind in Judaism—it works out much better [as a motorcyclist],” she says.
“It’s a form of worship for us,” says Dawud, one of the 50 members of the United Muslim Motorcyclist Association (UMMA). “Everything we do is to please our Lord.” For UMMA’s members, as far afield as South Africa and Malaysia, the motorcycle is also an important bridge between old and new: “Muslims rode horses in ancient times,” Dawud says. “They did the same things on horses that we do on motorcycles, race, have fun… It helped keep their camaraderie together. And today we reach out to club members with our old clubs that we used to ride with. The motorcycle is the one thing that still connects to the way I used to live and the way I live now, it’s one thing that keeps our friendship connected.”
Women can join UMMA and the group welcomes contact with other clubs, so there has been outreach and conversations across secular and religious lines, crossing boundaries that many might have considered insurmountable.
“Motorcycling opens up, not only to the Muslim but to the non-Muslim, that we have a world and a society that we have to get along in, that we have to socialize together without bringing the destruction to our own selves, and if motorcycling is doing that and it’s doing it on a positive level, I just see it’s been a good thing.”
You can lie to a car, and a car will lie to you. But a motorcycle won’t listen if you don’t come honest, and it will always give it to you straight. Decisions have consequences, and those decisions begin before you climb onto the bike. But at the end of it, you mostly get a fair shake.
This is my truth of the motorcycle; yours might be different. In a forest clearing by a river with friends thousands of miles from home, or flying up the highway solo with gold Pacific light roaring overhead, the only danger that I accept is being overwhelmed by all the beauty.