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Backroad Ramblings: The Disappearing Bike

Friday, August 26, 2011
Sport Ride
The rambling man goes zen, pondering the words of a wise moto journalist to become one with the bike.
Years ago when I was but a meager magazine intern attempting to master the art of writing decent bike tests, I recall receiving a bit of advice from a grizzly veteran journalist (who was probably only slightly older than I am now). He told me that the mark of a really superior motorcycle was one that disappeared beneath its rider in operation. Of course, to my overzealous way of reasoning at the time this didn’t sit well, and even now I find myself a bit conflicted with the logic.

I suppose the gist of the lesson was that any bike that displayed manners so refined that they drew no attention to themselves while cruising down the road was worthy of praise. After all, teeth-chattering vibration, headshake, inadequate brakes or parts dislodging themselves from the chassis are all fine examples of things a rider could find distracting at highway speeds. Looking at it that way, bikes that seem to vanish from the collective conscious entirely and allow the rider complete focus on the world around him would be ideal. The trouble is, or so I would conclude after many years pondering such things, many people like the bike being a part of the world around them while riding.

Think about it, if all we really sought was the experience of the ride itself, wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to prefer being a passenger rather than operating the motorcycle ourselves? The view would be the same (in some cases better), the sounds and smells the same, the feel of the bike’s power and handling characteristics would be there and best of all it would free us from all of the ‘distractions’ such as having to apply the throttle, downshift for twisties or decide just how much lean angle we could get away with. Or better still, why ride at all? Video games are getting better and better at recreating the motorcycling experience with each hardware generation. In that line of reasoning it will only be a matter of time before virtual reality arrives and experiencing a ride where the bike disappears beneath you will be literal.

The trouble with the original lesson here is that, in certain situations, a bike’s traits can be welcome distractions from the monotony of travel. Bikes that handle incredibly, exhaust systems that sound every bit as throaty as the catalog promised, engines that hum in triple-digit territory, soft leather seats that wrap around your back while pumping your iPod play-list in surround sound - these could be traits that we never wish to disappear. In fact, we likely paid good money to ensure that they do not.

Of course, I haven’t even scratched the surface of the idea that our own mental image of how we look to others on the bike is a major factor. If ever there was a distraction many of us would welcome into our routine, it’s this. It was the American sociologist Charles Cooley who told us that we are what we think others think we are. And while I would love to discuss the intricacies of the ‘looking-glass self’ as they pertain to motorcycling culture, I fear that in doing so you might judge me as being a geek, and hence I would be one.

2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000
The bike sits on the showroom floor, eagar to lure you into 60 months of payments. But will it be the one that makes your cares disappear with a twist of the throttle?
But I digress. The point to all of this rhetoric (and I’m pretty sure I have one) is that the young me could never come to terms with the idea that I could obsess over, read about and hang pictures of something that would disappear beneath me so that I could focus only on the road ahead.

For years I worked to disprove the cracked theory once and for all. I come closest when lusting over a bike as it sits on the dealership floor, when setting the machine into motion could be well worth parting with $197.40 for the next 60 months. The trouble is these experiences are followed by the ride. You know the type, where the weather is perfect, the visibility excellent, the air swirling around you like tepid bath water and the only scent tickling your nostrils is from some unseen grill wafting plumes of stomach-rumbling smoke into the atmosphere. In that instant, as the canyon you’ve been waiting to carve all week comes into focus, all distractions, concerns, deadlines - heck even the bike below you seem to disappear.

I can accept it disappearing, so long as it reappears just in time for me to step it down a gear, lean it as far over as gravity will allow and throttle smoothly into the first twisty.
Recent Backroad Ramblings
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Backroad Ramblings: Moto Decision Overload
Our Backroad Rambler considers the countless decisions modern motorcycle customers face and decides to trim his stock-pile of toys in a quest for simplicity.
Backroad Ramblings: Singletrack State of Mind
Distracted by the summer heat and other obligations, our Rambling Man shakes off the rust with an update on his balmy backroads adventures.

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blender   September 5, 2011 07:17 PM
Agreed- nicely written and a sensation we can all relate with. I love the fact that the author seeks a bike so undemanding as to be subliminal while riding but as he says it "young me could never come to terms with the idea that I could obsess over, read about and hang pictures of something that would disappear beneath me so that I could focus only on the road ahead." Haha! Truly! Nobody's hanging a picture of nothing but an empty stretch of road on their wall!
Freerider   September 4, 2011 03:50 PM
I get this. Basically, he means that you have a bike that is so instinctive to operate that you can let your subconscious mind handle the tasks of speed management, corner negotiation and traffic awareness, while your conscious mind is free to enjoy the sensations of wind speed, the beauty of your surroundings, and the kinetic thrill of leaning into bends. I only get this when I ride narrow, light single cylinder bikes, which are effortless to lean into corners, have good engine braking so you hardly ever have to use the brakes hard, and have flexible power bands which can cope with mountain roads in mostly a single gear. My favourite ever ride was a 1974 Honda XL350, and I currently ride a Suzuki Freewind, which is a DR650 dressed up for road use. This has got fabulous easy handling and a versatile motor. I don't have to focus hard on riding like I would with a four with a narrow power band, which makes riding so much more relaxing and enjoyable. If I was 18 and hyperactive I would love a GXS, but now I'm old and don't have to prove what I can or can't do. I come back from a ride refreshed and abuzz with enjoyment, not wired from adrenaline. I much prefer this.
Piglet2010   August 28, 2011 06:16 PM
All too often, "character" is code for poor engineering and/or cost cutting in the wrong places by the bean counters.