Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Motorcycle Diaries, Part 1

There are many reasons people will give for why they ride motorcycles. But there is only one honest one: Because it is fun. It's really as simple as that. It's the exact same kind of addicting thrill and satisfaction that others get from skiing, surfing, scuba diving, or any similar pastime that never gets old to those who get sucked in.

Yes, you can cite tons of practical reasons why motorcycling can be a good thing. I do all the time. For me, personally, it's the only way I could even imagine working at my current job. my commute to Electronic Arts in Redwood City from my home in Berkeley is 35 miles each way, on some of the most notoriously congested freeway in the entire country. Riding my motorcycle means not only do I save tons of money on gas, and get to cross the bridge without paying toll in the carpool lane, but because it's legal to lanesplit in California, I am essentially immune to the daily traffic mess. I have to ride much slower, yes (the accepted lanesplitting wisdom is to never go faster than 10 mph faster than the flow of traffic), but at least I can keep moving, unlike all the poor saps trapped forever in their cars. My commute takes me about 45 minutes on average on my bike. On those occasions when I'm forced to drive, it takes twice as long, each way. That's 3 hours of commuting a day--and, frankly, I would just go fucking insane if I had to do that every day.

So, see? I can make a good, logical case for it. It's fast, it's cheap, it saves me a huge amount of time that I can otherwise devote to my family and my work. But all of that wouldn't mean a dang thing if the greater truth didn't exist: That I still get a palpable thrill every single time I hop on the bike and ride.

Some people, I think, are just two-wheel types. Before motorcycles--and before I got too lazy--I used to ride my bike all the time. (And, man, I really need to get back into it.) That was, by far, my preferred form of exercise, and my wife and I would ride in Berkeley whenever and wherever we could, rather than take the car. We also used to be pretty good at it--riding way up into the Berkeley and Oakland hills, on inclines that now make me tired just to look at.

Conversely, I've never been a car guy at all. I really just kinda hate cars, and I hate driving them. It's just not me. And it's not because I'm a motorcyclist. My hatred of driving predates my motorcycle riding. I don't know what it is, honestly, but I just find sitting behind the wheel of a car an utter burden. I'd rather walk, or ride a pack mule, or just sit in the dirt and go nowhere. I get tense and frustrated in cars. I get impatient. It brings out a lame side of me: Yelling at other drivers, aggressively passing people who annoy me. George Carlin had a great line about driving: "Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac? " That's how I get. It's just too much stress for me.

Maybe it's about control, at least a little bit. On the bike, I feel completely in charge of my own destiny. Barring a total roadblock by emergency vehicles or something, there's nothing I can't get around, there's no way to get stuck on the motorcycle. Whereas in a car, if you're stuck, you're stuck. That's part of it.

But I think the bigger truth is that it's just a particular frame of mind, and state of being, that being on a motorcycle puts you in. Again, it's like skiing. On a motorcycle, you are completely in the moment, always. There is simply no way to ride and not be 100 percent focused on the riding, every moment of the experience. It's all about the journey, in this case--not the destination. Riding requires intense concentration, and thus requires you, for the most part, to bleach your mind of any extraneous noise. This doesn't mean that those thoughts won't invade your mind--because they can't help it. It's like meditation that way. You have to acknowledge they're there, but then gently push them aside and get back to the business of riding. For me, those 70 miles a day are actually a form of meditation. It's 90 minutes out of my day in which what I am doing is riding a motorcycle, and not preoccupying myself with anything else. It's a form of rejuvenation, and even, at times, as ridiculous as it may seem to some, of spiritual uplift.

It focuses my mind and reduces things to one essential, primal goal: Stay alive.

Next time: What I ride, and why.


Jason Maskell said...

Wow, legal lane-splitting in California. That simultaneously excites and terrifies me.

Just like riding without a helmet in Florida - I love doing it, but I'm not sure I would on a regular basis.

backsattack said...

You are killing me with these Motorcycle posts. I have been trying so hard to get a bike but the economy keeps pulling the rug out from under me. Hopefully money will be better and bikes will be cheaper come the fall/winter.

Anonymous said...

So it takes you half the amount of time to commute to work on your motorbike - because of this lane splitting thing?

45 minutes on the bike, and an hour-and-a-half by car.

Okay, let's think about this:

That's an hour-and-a-half saved every day by motorbike. Multiply that by five... and you save... let's think about this... seven-and-a-half hours every week.

That's a savings of roughly thirty hours every month.

And every year, because you're riding your motorbike instead of driving your car, you're saving a total of three-hundred-and-sixty hours.

That's 15 days.


You save 15 days' worth of time because you commute to work on a bike?

Jeff Green said...

Yep: Seriously, that's how much time I save. It's crazy.

Anonymous said...

My parents ride motorcycles and recently bought a smaller bike. Whenever I get a weekend to go to my parents and practice I do. The rush from riding is something I've never experienced before and I want my own bike as soon as I can afford one!

Karl Rosner said...

An excellent post Jeff. I always wanted to get my self a bike, but haven't had a reason until recently.

I think I would most likely go with some thing Japense, but I don't know crap about riding so I'll have to look into it.


Isaac said...

Can't help but nod my head in agreement to what you are saying. Something you haven't touched on is the flying comparison. When I am on my motorcycle going down an open stretch of road with a clear blue sky over head . . . . it just makes me feel like I'm flying.

Jim d said...

Jeff - I really liked this post. I'm past-due for my mid-life crisis and my wife has been encouraging me to do the stereotypical thing and purchase a bike. She's not a fan of bikes, but prefers it to other mid-life crisis therapies (divorce, cheating on her) and I'm inclined to agree.

Keep these posts comin. I hope this doesn't come off as an insult, but it's interesting to me to read riding stories coming from a video-game nerd type as opposed to the biker-gang-wannabe type.

Ian U said...

Good post. I think you guys nailed the EA Podcast last time (#3), by the way. Your personalities came over well, and I thought you each took a few minor risks which really paid off.

Unknown said...

I can't wait to get a bike someday.Probably after I finish college. Lane-splitting would feel so weird to me, like I was some a-hole breaking in line.

ProtocolSnow said...

I would love to ride a bike, but as a health professional, I have seen and heard about so many motorcycle accidents. It can be pretty gruesome, and that is a big turn-off.

Commuting in a bike might not be for free, but I still want to learn how to ride one recreationally. I get a big rush going really fast in just a bicycle.

ProtocolSnow said...

*might not be for me, I meant

Anonymous said...

hey Jeff, what kind of bike do you ride?

Anonymous said...

Riding a bike is better for an infinite amount of reasons except one:

If you crash, you will die. If you are crashed into, you will die. And, if you somehow manage to survive then you are either incredibly lucky or completely fucked.

Worth the risk though.

Ben Ciotti said...

Sometimes I feel the same way when driving a car as Jeff. However, there have been a few times when I could drive on hill country roads, unabated by traffic, and the trip would become fun and zen-like. Either way, your story has convinced me to try riding a motorcycle.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, how would you feel about giving out your BF: Heroes name? Some of us would enjoy being your banana ryda.

Stephen said...

(Motorbike - engine) + (pedals + crankshaft) = exercise.

Graham said...

Great article, Jeff. As a motorcyclist myself, I understand everything you discuss. The meditation-like aspect in particular is why riding is my therapy. It is so rare to have the opportunity to focus on a task utterly and without distraction. I reach this state even in heavy traffic, but prefer to be there when picking lines and chasing vanishing points on a twisty backroad.

A couple of points to the comments:

- Lane splitting has been argued to be safer than sitting in traffic as it reduces the risk of being rear ended by someone who is focused on the car in front. Also, I fail to understand the complaints of car drivers who rail at the "cutting in line" aspect. How is the motorcycle causing you to get to your destination slower in any measurable way?

- The danger of riding is what keeps me coming back. The combination of the "speed rush" along with the high stakes for an error are what force me into that meditative state. It's also why you don't get the road rage that comes with driving a car. No time to be bored means no time to get frustrated means no time to get angry.

- To those who are inspired to get on a bike by Jeff's words, please do two things: Get proper training and wear proper gear. I don't mean to come across all nannyish (Lord knows I take multiple risks when riding, and speed limits are only general guidelines), but those two things are the basics. Taking training gives you information about something that is not entirely intuitive (counter steering anyone?) and allows you to make educated decisions when bad things happen on the road. And when bad things do happen (they will!), not wearing gear can make a minor situation major in a hurry. It may be a bit of a pain, especially in a hot summer, but having gravel removed from your skin with a scrub brush will make up for it. Believe me.

Looking forward to the rest, Jeff. Thanks.

Sean Boocock said...

Your posts remind me of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild. A lot of people, myself included, yearn for the sort of pure experience that driving a motorcycle is for you. For some it is climbing mountains, for others various forms of meditation. For me it has been long distance running during which I can at times lose myself, or at least the sense of obligation that attends most of my waking thoughts.

I do have one question though. How do you reconcile the responsibility to your family and others with the increased danger inherent to riding a motorcycle? Is the satisfaction of riding on the edge enough to justify the risk that one day it might all catch up with you?

subliminal_criminal said...


That article is awesome. The zen like meditation is such a hard thing to describe to people who don't ride. I have been riding since I was 17, I am 23 now and without a doubt it is one of my greatest joys. I have had my fair share of close calls and in my former years would not be adverse to taking out wing mirrors with my elbows. But these days I let them pass, life is too short to get angry at every person who nearly ends your life.
I am from the UK so I am assuming that lane splitting is what we call filtering here in the UK. It is weird that over there it is illegal out right. Over here it is a grey area that the Police turn a blind eye too. The way I see it, is that it is our right as bikers filter and it is one of the things that brings me the greatest of joys. At the moment I have a Honda Shadow so filtering can be, ahem, tricky, harder than the Japanese 600's I have had. But it still brings the same sense of satisfaction when it all comes together in flowing lines.
I often think the world would be a better place if everyone rode and we got rid of cars. There would be less traffic for a start.
I could ramble on about biking for ages. No one has broached the subject of cornering yet, of scraping pegs and flicking from left to right. Damn, it is such a shame summer is so short in the UK and I spent most of my time wet or covered in frost, tru fax.

Keep up the good work


Signal to Noise said...

Ali, if cars were abolished (not gonna happen) and everyone rode motorcycles there would certainly be less traffic because there would be an exponential increase in vehicular FATALITIES.

But then again maybe that would be a good thing.

trip said...

Whoops - i think i left my comment on an older blog....d'oh

anyway jeff, you left out the part where you raged at sportscar boy.

and as always - you are welcome to join my wife and me for the toy run here in phila in november.

Cliff said...

Hey Jeff I hope you wear a helmet. Also I hope that you have good life insurance, you know so the family won't worry about you.

You don't seem like a Harley man but I think that it would be a good way to go. They are great bikes.

They have three wheel bikes out there. You could look into one of those when you get old. Plus you could pull a small trailer along later when you retire and travel.

I had a Honda 50 I bought new in Santa Barbara CA when I was young and put 16,500 miles on it and had to overhaul the engine. It was fun but could only go 50mph. It was great. I got 125 MPG. But the bike wore out and now it just sits back on the farm in Idaho.

Be careful Jeff I sure don't want you to get hurt.

Anonymous said...

Being a motorcycle rider myself I completely identify with everything written here. In all honesty the main reason I ride is because I love it. Everything else is just a bullet point.

Ryan said...

Due to the high cost of insurance up here in Winnipeg, motorcycles aren't a practical option for most. As much as I want a bike, I can't justify the almost $2k a year it would cost me to insure it. Especially with our riding season being only 4 to 5 months of the year :(

Chris Roshore said...

I was born into what I like to call a biker family. Everyone on my dad side of the family is pretty much the typical southern Harley Davidson biker. Its to the point where its a right of passage to becoming a man in our family(I was taught to hear the differences between Harley' Engines and was tested on it regularly ) I can remember back when I was younger looking up to my godfather or cousin riding around and waiting for my chance to be one of the family.
Sadly this all came to a shrieking stop when during the June of 07 my Godfather "The Rooster" got hit and suffered such bad injuries that he ultimately lived his life as a vegetable until October of that same year. The biker family as I knew was emotionally derailed and we no longer are associated with the beautiful Harley Davidson engines.
So all I have to say to you about your riding is that you be careful. We need someone running the present and future podcasts about gaming.

From an avid fan,

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