Writers and Riders: Meeting Melissa Holbrook Pierson and John Ryan

In his 1929 short story, Chains, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy hatched the idea of six degrees of separation, whereby every person on earth could be connected to every other person on earth through a “friend of a friend” chain with six or fewer links. Nearly seven decades later, in 1997, American author Melissa Holbrook Pierson published The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles, a delightful book that chronicles her love affair with motorcycles (Moto Guzzis in particular) as well as the unique cultural and historical landscape of the two-wheeled world. And the following year, in 1998, while struggling my way through graduate school in Philadelphia, I bought a motorcycle and learned to ride.

The Perfect VehicleWithin the first year or two of my own love affair with motorcycling, I read—no, I devoured—The Perfect Vehicle. Not only did Pierson artfully articulate the full spectrum of emotions, sensations and experiences that are familiar to any motorcyclist and evoke the “ride to live, live to ride” credo, she educated me about the exciting new world I had come to inhabit. The Perfect Vehicle added depth and context to what I gleaned from reading motorcycle magazines and talking to other motorcyclists, giving me a more well-rounded understanding of the source of my new-found passion.

When I read Pierson’s account of buying a Moto Guzzi Lario from a small European bike shop called The Spare Parts Company tucked away on a narrow street in the Old City section of Philadelphia, an area  I explored regularly on late-night pub crawls and weekend wanderings, I felt an even stronger connection to her book. The degrees of separation were few: I had been to the shop before, and my then-girlfriend was friends with the proprietor (a guy named Roland, not Franz, the founder of the shop who features prominently in Pierson’s book).

The Man Who Would Stop At NothingFast-forward to the present. For three-and-a-half years I’ve been the Road Test Editor at Rider, having turned my passion into a career. An email arrives in my inbox announcing that Melissa Holbrook Pierson has a new motorcycle book coming out called The Man Who Would Stop At Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road. Then an industry colleague informs me that Pierson will be at a book signing at JC Motors in Irvine, about two hours from Ventura. He gives me her email address, and we arrange to have lunch before the signing.

Thus the degrees of separation were reduced to one and I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Melissa Holbrook Pierson, sharing a casual meal with not only her but also John Ryan, an Iron Butt legend who is, along with autobiographical accounts of her recent motorcycling experiences, the subject of Pierson’s new book. Some of you may recall the following announcement, which was posted on Rider’s website and ran in our September 2009 issue:

John Ryan at Key West
John Ryan in Key West, Florida, after riding from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in 86 hours, 31 minutes.

John Ryan recently rode a Yamaha FJR1300 outfitted with Metzeler Z6 Interact sport-touring tires from Prudhoe Bay on the north shore of Alaska to Key West, Florida, in 86 hours, 31 minutes, says Metzeler, besting the previous time achieved by Gary Eagan by 9 hours, 30 minutes. While covering the 5,645 miles, Ryan was held up at the Canadian border for about 90 minutes, and made a wrong turn in Tennessee that added about 120 miles to his trip. Ryan said, “I could have done better and figure I gave up about three hours. The bike and tires were more than great. Not only did they go the distance, but with my enlarged fuel tank and extra gear everything is really stressed to the limit. I had over 140,000 miles on my FJR1300 when I started, and it’s still under warranty. Over 100 people helped me on this trip, and I’m indebted to them all and Metzeler and Yamaha.”

This amazing feat of motorcycling endurance is described in The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing. Over an eclectic lunch cobbled together from the hot/cold food bar at a Whole Foods Market, Melissa and John told me other stories that are chronicled in the book: how Melissa took a hiatus from motorcycling to raise a family; how she met John at a BMW rally and, over the course of a couple of years, he convinced her to buy another motorcycle; how, after the Moto Guzzi community found out Melissa was riding a BMW, a group of them banded together to buy her another Lario and restore it to like-new condition (she says The Perfect Vehicle was “a valentine to Moto Guzzi,” and the faithful wanted to see her back on their favorite brand of bike). They both signed my new hardcover copy of The Man Would Would Stop at Nothing, and I gave Melissa two early-‘90s copies of Rider that contain stories she wrote. Melissa and John are the sort of soft-spoken, unassuming, unpretentious people you wish were more common in this world. In a gesture of generosity that is certainly not lost on me, John shared his $7 Mo’s Milk Chocolate Bacon Bar with me.

Iron Butt Assocation tattoo
A dedicated rider, IBA member #456.

After lunch, we headed over to the book signing, which was a small, casual gathering. Clint Lawrence, the affable president of JC Motors, a company which sells motorcycle parts/accessories and ships motorcycles all over the country, opened his shop on a Sunday just for the occasion. A Schuberth van was there so folks could try on helmets. Those in attendance were mostly members of the Iron Butt Association (“The World’s Toughest Motorcycle Riders”), a group of hardcore riders who were honored to meet a legendary member of their tribe and an author who has eloquently described what so many riders (and writers) have difficulty putting into words. One IBA member had ridden 400 miles to be there and would ride another 400 miles to get home.

Now, with pleasure, I’m re-reading The Perfect Vehicle (read Andy Saunder’s review from the August 1997 issue of Rider) , and I look forward to diving into The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing. I’ll post a review when I’m finished. In the meantime, do yourself a favor and pick up copies of both books, which are available from Aerostich/Riderwearhouse:

The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles

The Man Who Would Stop At Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road




  1. I have the honor of calling John Ryan a friend. He’s one of those humble, unassuming guys who you can meet once and be friends forever. I actually met him for the first time at a bed & breakfast in Wiseman Alaska, headed to Prudhoe for his first attempt at the UCC. I knew OF him before them, and was thrilled to meet him, especially given the circumstances.

    Since that meeting, we’ve met in WA DC and he’s stopped by my house in Colorado while he was out and about travelling the country. Great guy, can’t wait to read the book and see how Melissa tells the story!

  2. A wonderful write up… shamelessly only a few days ago I was not aware of who Melissa and John were! I do now and happy of that aspect! My long-distance days are stored in the past, Spirit does not allow me!!! Poor Dog…
    Be well… always.
    Ara & Spirit

  3. My friend Mike and I were the 400 mile riders coming in from Phoenix. 854 total for the day since we took a slight detour to ride some sweet mountain roads SW of Palm Springs on the way home.

    Good write-up, Greg. Come see some more of us at Pinks Hot Dogs in Hollywood at 10 pm on Nov 19th. This is Dean Tanji’s annual Bite The Wieeenie RTE which attracts LD riders from around the country.

    Great photo of Doug’s IBA ink, and those are my books that Melissa and John are holding. 🙂

  4. Like you, I learned how to ride in 1997-8 so I was eager at that time to consume everything in print about motorcycling. “The Perfect Vehicle” was the best book I read of dozens. Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s lucid writing style and deep philosophical insights impressed me greatly and I return to that book often. I give copies out to friends and strongly encourage everyone to read it.

  5. I was unfortunate to have a recent mishap and unable to ride the last 4 weeks. A friend mailed me a copy of the new book and it is a wonderful read. Around 160 pages and it is one of those kind you cant stop in the middle. I am famaliar with John Ryan and his wrong turn in Tennessee and his three attempts before his record run. Two great people corroborating on a wonderful book.

  6. I have respect for MHP as a writer but find myself amazed that she got involved with these longdistance types. I suggest that they should call themselves ‘Conquistadores of the Useless.’

    I searched the site here for mention of Dan Walsh and cant believe there is no mention of his writings.

    There’s a whole world of m/cycling out there beyond your country. Come on and enjoy it.

  7. The IBA tattoo which declares them to be ‘The World’s Toughest Riders’ is of course open to question. I can easily think of other bike events which are tougher, e.g., the Isle of Man TT, or any Irish road race, or the Paris-Dakar or, or, etc. But even the word ‘tougher’ is highly questionable, and smacks of an outdated, macho world of motos which has no useful place today, outside of Harley riders, where this illusion is part of the culture they buy. Yes, ‘macho’ and ‘tough’ are something that the naive can buy for cash. Amazing.

    No, I can think of other superlatives than ‘Toughest’ but they would be too hurtful to tell.


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