Thursday, July 9, 1998
Maybe it''s a middle-age-crazy thing, a desire to recapture some sense of independence traded away decades ago, but I can''t drive by a motorcycle showroom without trying to look in the window. When a biker pulls up next to me, I stare rudely at his (occasionally her) machine, psychically changing places with them. When they take off from the stoplight, their slipstream blows in my face and their departure diminishes me somehow. I tag along behind them, seat-belted safely behind windshield and steering wheel.
The bikes that have been customized by their owners especially catch my attention. The custom-painted gas tanks, the hand-polished engine parts, the fanciful exhaust pipe detailing all testify to an attempt at breaking free from corporately dictated rat races. And, at least for me, that''s what it''s all about.
This weekend, there''ll be lots of motorcyclists, mounted on their two-wheeled rockets, in town to watch the Dunlop World Superbike Championship. But most of the bikes on the street, with their fat tires and low-slung handlebars dangling like vestigial arms around broad-shouldered gas tanks are about as artful as a football lineman bulked up on steroids. With their factory paint jobs in colors best suited for Barbie''s Dream Bike, they merely ape the designs of race bikes built to go really fast around and around in predetermined circles--which seems philosophically antithetical to the whole notion of freedom.
Maybe it''s an American thing, but it''s the open road that sings the song of freedom most sweetly for me. And the bikes that lead the chorus are Harley Davidsons, built for comfort as much as for speed. With design lines that flow from front wheel through handlebars and sweep back, creating imaginary arcs flowing from handgrips to the engines and out the exhaust pipes, they''re bikes that look like they''re in motion even when they''re sitting on a showroom floor. Even straight from the factory, Harleys--whether they''re the low-end Sportsters (in the $6,000 range, according to the manufacturer) or top-end touring bikes like the Electra Glides ($16,000 and up)--are beautiful. And with their bad-boy image enhanced by Easy Rider and their reputation as the bike of choice for the Hell''s Angels, they''ve captured the imagination of a whole generation of outlaws and would-be outlaws.
So strong is the Harley Davidson allure, that Japanese motorcycle makers have Vulcans, and Valkyries, and Viragos, and more that mimic the basic Harley design. On the whole, they''re as beautiful as HD machines--and generally a helluva lot cheaper--but it''s going to take a long time for these machines to ever capture the imagination in the same way Harley has done since it produced its first three motorcycles in 1903.
But the factory models are just starting points for serious riders. Drop into most any shop specializing in Harley Davidson equipment (there are at least three in Monterey County), and you''ll find a world of chrome and leather and special accessories from saddlebags to jackets, so each rider can modify his bike to suit his particular esthetic. And you''ll find guys like Mike Clark, who has owned his Electra Glide for 23 years. Give him a chance and he''ll tell you how he''s spent his lunch hours at work, hand-polishing various engine parts on his bike. And how he bought the bike as a standard factory make and then totally changed it with ape-hanger handlebars and front forks. Rode it that way for years. Then pulled all the original parts out of storage and painstakingly put it all back together just the way it came from the factory. You ask him why, and he''ll smile and shrug, and say, "I just love that old machine." You don''t often find that kind of dedication to automobiles.
Maybe that''s because driving a car is a totally different experience. Riding a bike is an intimate experience shared by machine and rider, the same wind or fog that whips through the rider''s hair is the same wind slipping through the cooling fins on the engine. I am no horseman, but it must be the same way a cowboy feels when riding a well-trained horse. Maybe there are cars like that but I''ve never driven one. With the motorcycle''s controls attached to every appendage, there''s a liberating sense that bike and rider have merged, transcending the sum of their parts.
But maybe there''s a dark side to that freedom because it is a freedom that comes from knowing you''re inches away from death. One mistake at 65mph means you''re hamburger--or a comatose vegetable. But sometimes, the only way to feel alive is to be aware that you are close to death; your senses are keyed to a higher pitch than normal, you have to be alert to danger so you don''t become roadkill. I forgot that once, years ago, on a high spring morning.
It was one of those days when the sky was too blue to be true, you could smell every tree along Mark Thomas Drive and the morning air across my face was just beginning to warm with the promise of a day to fall in love with the universe. I forgot about the asphalt speeding by six inches below me. And the cars. One of which was stopped dead 10 feet in front of me. I went into his back bumper at about 40 miles an hour, catapulted diagonally across his trunk, and bloodied several yards of roadway when I landed. Luckily, I''d managed a last minute swerve so I didn''t go through the windshield, because that was in the days before mandatory helmets. I got up bloody but otherwise unbowed. Pulled my bike, with its front fork wrapped around the engine, to the side of the road (where it was stolen before the next morning) and walked to work.
Riding a bike is inherently an unsafe activity, more so when you do stupid things like forget. But nearly 18 years later, I still remember the blue of the sky and the smell of the trees and the feel of the wind as it kissed my face. And the sense of freedom while drinking those sensations.
Maybe, though, freedom is not a popular priority in the safety-conscious ''90s. Everywhere you look, society seems to turn its back on notions of freedom in favor of safety rulings. For the safety of neighborhoods we''re willing to sacrifice the right to assembly; it''s more acceptable to put spy cameras in stoplights than it is to change the timing so there''s a longer gap between yellow and red lights, to ban guns instead of requiring trigger locks...and to require helmets on motorcyclists, who have to be protected from making their own decisions.
Nobody, nobody, kept statistics about the correlation between helmets and physical safety before the law was passed. But that didn''t stop proponents of the law from claiming that helmets would increase motorcycle safety. And they were arrogant about it.
When the two sources cited by Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Gardena), the author of the mandatory helmet bill, denied his figures and accused him of falsifying figures, his response, according to the San Jose Mercury News, was, "Who gives a fuck?"
In the five years since California''s mandatory motorcycle helmet law went into effect, motorcycle registrations in Monterey County have declined by somewhat more than 30 percent (from 5,965 at the end of ''93 to 4,166 at the end of ''97), which mirrors the statewide downturn of approximately 33 percent (577, 986 to 391,080). When asked why he thought registrations have declined so dramatically, Bill Enders of Bill''s Monterey Custom Motorcycles, has a terse answer, "The helmet law."
"When the helmet law first came out, a lot of people just said, ''to heck with it,''" says Enders. "They just wouldn''t ride."
Maybe Floyd was on to something: A motorcyclist is definitely safer off his bike than on it.
But now, in the summer of my life, I still remember the feel of a spring morning on my face. And it''s only a matter of time and finances before I''m back on the road. cw