I ride motorcycles. No one else in my family does. They never have. Kind of makes me a rebel—just not the kind that non-riders associate with those of us who ride.
People I meet at social events, in business situations and at vacation destinations are often surprised (and occasionally stunned) to learn that the skinny, clean-cut family guy they’re talking to rides motorcycles. When a childhood friend found me via Facebook, we exchanged life stories from the past 25 years. “Never took you for a motorcycle kinda guy,” he observed.
Coming from a childhood friend that’s a fair observation, as I didn’t grow up riding motorcycles. Dad made it abundantly clear: no motorcycles. I figure his decision was based on a combination of thrift and a lack of interest in things mechanical. I did my best to reason with him, explaining that several friends had minibikes and we could ride on the trails in Merrick’s Woods. I said I could earn a bike by mowing the lawn. That may not have been my best suggestion. Dad bought a secondhand, 5-horsepower Craftsman riding mower, explaining that it gave me wheels and a motor plus something worthwhile to accomplish.
He may truly have had my best interests in mind, but a riding lawn mower never cut it for me. I craved two wheels, not four. This preference arose from the bicycle culture in my neighborhood, with kids getting around on the Schwinns and Columbias of the day. My first pure two-wheeler was a metallic green Spyder Mark VII with high-rise handlebars, a silver and black banana seat, and a stick shifter with three speeds. I wasn’t the fastest rider in the neighborhood (that was Tim) but I could ride without using the handlebars. Bicycles lean into turns the same way motorcycles do and like most kids I grasped the concept instinctively.
My next bike, a yellow Vista 10-speed, had narrow turn-down handlebars that seemed designed for no-hands riding. A regular challenge was to complete my newspaper route – 70 deliveries on eight streets – without touching the bars. I accomplished a no-hands route just a couple times (on Saturday afternoons when both traffic and the newspaper were thin) but I set out most days with that goal in mind.
Riding daily, rain or shine, built my endurance for longer rides, and my middle school gym teacher, Mr. Kurtz, got me hooked. He was a diehard bicyclist who rode year round, no small feat in New England. Each spring, Mr. Kurtz organized after-school “bike hikes” for interested students. Long before the days of bike helmets, he taught us safe practices on the road, beginning each pre-ride meeting with these words: “It’s a jungle out there.” He taught us to keep to the right just like cars do, to use hand signals so drivers would know our intentions, and never to act unpredictably. His bike hike routes introduced me to many back roads and interesting locations to stop for a rest. My friend Steve and I soon became bike hike regulars, and Mr. Kurtz took us on longer rides.
Bicycle rides were fun, but they effectively fueled my desire for two wheels and a motor. Richie and Doug, brothers who lived two streets over, let me ride with them on their minibikes (a Kawasaki KV75 and a Suzuki MT50 if memory serves). Merrick’s Woods had a trailhead a hundred feet from my house but we always stayed one street over on the way to the trails so my parents wouldn’t see me. They were best kept on a need-to-know basis whenever motorcycles were involved.
Right next door, Mike had a Kawasaki KZ400. When he turned off our side street onto the main road and cranked the throttle, my parents often expressed disapproval. I thought to myself, “Someday…” Mike was older than I was, but his little brother Jimmy was my friend so often I was next door where that red Kawi was parked between rides. It was huge compared to the minibikes I’d ridden. Sometimes he let Jimmy’s friends sit on it. (Yes, I made motor noises.)
One summer day I was over playing with Jimmy when Mike was letting some friends ride his KZ. They were big enough to handle the bike and old enough to have driver’s licenses. While I hoped Mike would let me have a go, I didn’t really expect the chance. When he looked at me and said, “You wanna go next?” I said, “Yeah, OK.” My dream was before me. The motor was running. The chance was now. I went for it.
I slid across the seat and kept the bike upright with one foot down. I clunked the shifter into first gear, gave it some throttle and slowly let out the clutch. I was still years from a driver’s license, so I pointed the bike down the side street where I lived, right past my house. My dad wasn’t home. My mother didn’t notice. Good so far.
I shifted a couple times, built up speed and motored past all twenty houses on my street. I neared the intersection with no vehicles in sight, downshifted and took a right. My next right was interrupted by a car approaching from the left. I slowed to let the car pass. The driver slowed, too, probably wondering what that little kid on the motorcycle would do next. What I did next was stop awkwardly and stall the engine. The car rolled by as I balanced Mike’s bike with one foot on the ground.
I was too small to kick the bike started. There was nothing to do but wait. “I’m doomed,” I thought. In a few minutes, though, Mike came down the street on his bicycle to investigate. “Stall it?” Mike asked. “Yeah,” I admitted. I was embarrassed but Mike made no issue. He threw a leg over his KZ, kicked it back to life and told me to ride it back to his house. I motored past twenty more houses, scanning way ahead for cars to keep my options open. Before the main road I turned right onto the sidewalk and rolled into Mike’s yard. I fessed up to the others that I stalled it. They nodded, like they’d done that before. I thanked Mike for the ride and walked home, still buzzing.
Tim, whose house was on the other side of Mike’s, grew up with a “no motorcycle” rule like I did, but he did something about it. He bought a used Honda CB750, tuned it up, fixed the dents, covered the factory green paint with a rich maroon and parked it in his parents’ garage. They weren’t pleased, but I was. I sped down State Route 67 as Tim’s pillion, winding along the Quabog River. Tim rode that 750 as fast as I’d ever gone. Given my parents’ sedate driving style that wasn’t saying much, but it pasted a grin on my face and shot adrenalin through my veins.
Back in town, Tim pulled into an empty parking lot at the high school and asked if I wanted to give it a try. I started off slowly, weaving between the painted lines to get a feel for this machine. I rode around the bus lane and opened the throttle, sending that surge of adrenaline through me again.
If Tim managed to put a bike in his parents’ garage, maybe I could do the same at my parents’ place. I hatched a plan. First I qualified for my learner’s permit. Then, within days, the crucial element—a motorcycle—appeared courtesy of Russ, who had worked with Tim and me in the repair department of a vending company.
Russ had discovered airplanes and was selling his Honda CM400E. It was decked out for touring with a windshield, sissy bar, hard panniers and crash bars. Russ was six and a half feet tall and looked rather comical riding this small bike, with his knees pointed up and out, but my 5-foot-7 frame was well suited to the bike’s proportions. The only issue was coming up with the $600 Russ was asking. I didn’t have it. “You could give me $100 a month for six months,” he offered. With a handshake, the bike was mine, even before I handed over the first hundred.
Remaining was the issue of where to keep it. I had no place at my apartment, but my parents still lived in the suburban home where I grew up. I called Dad with an offer: “I’d like to clean your garage.”
“Go on,” he said, a bit skeptical.
“I need to make room for a motorcycle,” I explained. “I’ll organize the place and keep it clean. Think of a tidy garage as rent.” Dad accepted my proposal and my first motorcycle had a home.
That first motorcycle, and the others which followed, have bettered my life:
- I have grinned inside my helmet as serpentine stretches of asphalt unfold before me.
- I have turned around to ride those same stretches of road again.
- I have left home before first light in search of breakfast and kept riding because an empty road beats a full diner.
- I have stopped along a lakeshore as the setting sun reflected perfectly on the lake’s mirror surface.
- I have ventured long distances for little more than a slice of good pie.
- I have traveled thousands of miles with buddies and embraced the fellowship.
- I have ridden thousands of miles solo and savored the solitude.
- I have ridden in lots of sun, plenty of rain and a bit of snow. Some of the most memorable rides I’ve taken have been in rain.
- I have learned by following great leaders and shared what I know leading others.
- I have felt the zing of anticipation when leaving on a long trip and the joy of reunion on arriving home.
- I have found many answers to the question, “I wonder where that road goes?”
I’ve done all that and more on a motorcycle. Still, in the eyes of many who don’t ride, I am an unlikely motorcyclist. Short and skinny, a family guy without tattoos, riding quiet bikes that look more like space ships than something James Dean would ride, I don’t fit a “biker” stereotype.
Kind of makes me a rebel.