Live life like you ride your motorbike

February 14, 2022

Am I the only person who gets it?

The old joke...How do you know if someone has an MBA? - They will tell you. The same applies to me and motorcycles. The scuffed toe, where the clutch has been rubbing, should speak for itself, but somehow I can't help telling everyone I meet I love to ride.

In most cases, they meet the information with the same reaction as saying I had spaghetti bolognese for dinner last night. “Oh, that’s good”, they say with forced enthusiasm.

Motorcycling scratches an itch

You must understand, motorcycling has a quasi-spiritual dimension to it - bikers cannot help but be evangelical or feel like they are holders of secret knowledge. It is life affirming, but rather too dangerous. Motorcycling is not for 95% of the population, but I think 5% have a genetic predisposition to the addiction if they were to give it a go. Once hooked, it will take more than a 12 step recovery programme to be free..Even those that take a break can't quite get rid of their bikes. They sit in garages covered in tarps, almost like that special bottle of whiskey kept at the back of the cupboard that will one day be consumed. The bond is strong...and maybe if you still have a bike; you are STILL a biker - your chance for adventure isn't written off yet.

‍How it happened to me

‍For me, it started when Kevin used to car share with my father. He left his bike at the back of the house. As a latchkey kid, I would be home from school before my parents and I would race to the rear patio and mount the burgundy Yamaha with chrome fittings, all while making revving noises, dreaming of crossing continents. How I never made that bike fall over i will never know. It could have ended badly before it started.

As I fell asleep at night, I would imagine myself as Steve McQueen in 'The Great Escape' - only I would make it over the barbed wire border fence to freedom

‍How not to do it

‍At the age of 20, I sat my motorcycle test on a 125cc and I knew the drill. Pass the test and wait two years and then I could buy any bike I wanted. I did. I bought a brand new YZF600 Yamaha Thundercat in Aldershot - If you know little about bikes..don't worry, all you need to know is that it is not the bike for someone with 8 hours’ experience on a 125cc should be buying. The older me cringes! It took me about 2000 miles riding before I had any competence on that rocket. The younger me was as pleased as punch, if not for the occasional heart-stopping moment.  

I came home to Northern Ireland and eventually changed to a Yamaha R6, a sportier version of the above. 2 near misses ( because of excess speed) and the hope of having children made me decide that actually I shouldn't be riding bikes. Also, at the time there was something missing and i couldn't work out what it was....

Me with the YZF Thundercat 1998

It’s not speed but adventure

Only several years ago did I finally work out what was missing from the early years. I had just bought what everyone else was buying. A sports bike, but actually it was stories of people like Ted Simon who wrote the classic book Jupiter's travels about his 4 year Round The World adventure - that type of riding was what I craved all along. I didn't want to carve up A roads. I wanted to go far, over crappy roads, in far-flung lands and meet new, different people, and that would never happen on a sports bike.

I bought an adventure bike

I took the leap and bought a 10-year-old F800GS (BMW Adventure Bike) and over the last 3 years have upgraded it. The old girl already has 30,000 miles on the clock, which some may say is high for a bike, but I’ve invested a few pounds keeping her on the road getting her ready for when the world opens up again.

So am I going on an adventure?

With the end of this wretched pandemic in sight, adventure awaits, right?  

Er, maybe not yet.. What I have been conveniently ignoring is now looming - I talk a good game, but do I have the time, money or opportunity to pack everything up and head out on my travels? The short, depressing answer is no.. Actually, when push comes to shove, I'm held like many by the love of a good woman, and tied with the responsibilities of family and employment. Right now, sheepishly, I'm prepared to live vicariously through the lives and journeys of others, such as RTW Paul, Sterling Noren or Noraly of Itchy-boots fame. I'll let them put in the sweat and worry while I dream. This feels like an unsatisfactory arrangement, but it is likely the right one for the time being. I'm going to settle for shorter jaunts and skills training over the next few years.

All in good time

As the book of Ecclesiastes points out -everything has its appointed time. The hard part is trying to work out whether that time is now? Nothing is without sacrifice. Having spent many months away from home over the years, I know the days can be enjoyably busy, but the nights are mostly lonely. Snatched zoom calls over a dodgy Wi-Fi leave you more empty than uplifted. I have people who rely on me here and I see life as like 4 gas hobs on a cooker, but the mains supply only allows enough to run three at full tilt. You can run 4, but you pay a price in terms of time and heat. Success in life requires enormous focus in certain seasons. As much as I want it, now is not the time to pack the panniers to the gunnels and disappear for 6 months to West Africa.

Everything must be measured. Everything has a price

For some men, separation from family is part of the sacrifice to put bread on the table at home - I've been there, but there is also the concept of abandoning your post before the end of the duty period. This is never a good look. Yet many of us - myself included - can concoct fantastical reasons about why other matters must be attended to rather than the task at hand. Right now, the family comes first. Maybe there is a reason the average age of an adventure bike rider is 54.

We can compare successful living with riding a motorcycle

To get to the main point of this article, over the years I have often reflected on how life is like riding a motorcycle. Read on to see what I mean..

Shut up and ride!

Motorcyclists are a mixed bunch and they ride for different reasons, but at the core they wouldn't do it if they didn't enjoy it . For it can be a fraught but rewarding and every biker knows the laser-like focus, the feeling at one with the bike, and the grin that comes over your face at various moments during the trip. Within the biker community, while there is banter, no one cares if you ride a chopper or an adventure bike or how far or fast you are going. Just shut up and ride. Same with life - No one is really that impressed with you. They care little about your job title or how you invaluable you are. They may give you a passing thought now and again and due credit if necessary, but if you are not getting in the way, you are an afterthought. We all have our own destination and personality. That said, when another biker has to deal with a breakdown or some other unexpected interruption, he is quickly going to get some help from another passing biker. Are we too busy getting to our destination to stop, to help our friends and colleagues who are having difficulties?

Motorcycles resemble their owners

Motorcycles are mercurial. Animated yet fickle beasts who can read you better than you can read yourself. If you are well-rested , the ride will be smooth and seamless. If you are tired or distracted, be ready for the bike to read your mood and respond accordingly. It is a giant biofeedback loop. The slightest input rapidly alters your road position. A single moment of prolonged distraction and you will be in a ditch. Riding a bike is a metaphor for being alive - it needs immense concentration, firm yet gentle direction and second by second input. Life similarly works on rhythms and patterns - we can't always be feeling sharp, but you have to know when to ride hard and aggressively and on other days you need to dial it back a bit. Another strange quirk of a motorcycle is it will go where you are looking, especially when danger looms. It is called "target fixation". It is a very natural urge all bikers learn to resist. "Look where you want to go." Often this will mean there is a narrow escape route. For those crucial moments, you must quickly select your path and put every fibre of your being into slotting into that gap. In life, most of us target fixate. We see problems looming and we freeze into inaction. At these moments be like the skillful biker. Set your eye on the escape route, take all physical action you can to point in the direction you need to go and when nothing more can be done. Hang on tight and pray.  

Some days - it rains

Living in Northern Ireland, it is hard but not impossible to be an all year round biker. Most guys I know don't like to get their bikes too dirty and so keep them for dry days. I'm a less precious. I get out often. In winter, if the road is greasy, the sky overcast, as much as I love biking, it can leave me strangely deflated. Then there are other days the road is dry and empty of vehicles and the sun is out. The adrenaline flows. You feel glad to be alive.

Life has good and bad days and we do ourselves a disservice pursuing continuous entertainment and happiness. If you get the odd ray of sunshine; if some relief and joy comes your way; relish it, bathe in it. The pattern of life is like British weather - 4 seasons. Good times, follow hard times. You don't have to always be "on it." Some days it is ok to plod along with little reward, know when to dial off the throttle, but when the sun shines let 'er rip.

Put your body into it

Motorcycles strike fear into the uninitiated. They are snarling, grumbling monsters. Even those of us who have been around them a while know they need respect. At any moment, they can bite. Think of the lion tamer eaten by his own lion. If you are going to ride you need to take charge because if you go into that corner half heartedly and bottle it - you will get ejected.

The right technique is to look where you want to go - give it the right amount of throttle - let it know who is boss. Yet how many of us live our lives like this? We live under an unspeakable dread, hiding our lamps under bushels, afraid that if we raise our heads above the parapet, it will be cleaved off. We drive through life with the "brakes on," afraid of losing control. This is mentally corrosive. This doesn't mean being reckless, but get off the brake - set yourself up properly and apply some throttle. Counter-intuitively, with a bit of positive momentum, there is a greater sense of control. This is down to courage management. courage is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Sometimes you just have uncoil that tightly wound internal spring, relax and say, I'm going for this. Allow your intuition to carry you through.

Be visible

Car drivers suffer from unintentional blindness. they are not looking for bikers on the road. Some bikers say "loud pipes (exhausts) save lives" - I'm wary of this philosophy as it reminds me of "empty vessels making the most noise".

I am all in favour of making yourself more visible. On my bike i now have side auxiliary lights. If an emerging car driver hits me and says he didn't see me, I can only assume I burnt out his retinas, they are so powerful. In life, we need to assertively mark our position on the road so others can safely manoeuvre around us. Being too shy, bland or quiet won't help - there are plenty of SUV drivers chatting on their phone who will just drive over the top of you without a moment’s thought. Be visible - this might be in how you dress, how you speak and how you act. Do all the above with some forward momentum and poise. Let people at least think you are going somewhere purposefully even if you are just going to office with a badly made chicken sandwich, at least put it in your hand-stitched leather Italian briefcase.

Parting shot

Riding a bike is like being in the movie rather than watching it. How can you be an actor in your life rather than a spectator?

Somewhere down the west coast of Ireland near Easky (In the rain)

Somewhere near Easky on the west coast of the Republic of Ireland