You slide in behind him-or maybe he glides smoothly around in front of you-and within a handful of corners you know there's something special here. It's not his hardware, which might be anything from an ancient BMW Airhead to a years-old Japanese Standard to the latest race-replica tackle. Nor is it his clothing, which, if anything, probably carries a patina of age-the leather or nylon faded from long miles in the sun and spotted from uncounted bug-cleanings. Nor is it just that he's fast, though he probably carries a pretty crisp pace. No, what instantly gets your attention is the utter casualness-the sheer effortlessness-with which he rides along the road, dispatching the curves like so many pieces of candy. There's a relaxed assurance in his demeanor, a perfect confidence in his swift cadence, which gives rise to a certainty of what the next miles will bring. His speed is just-so. We watch for a while-assuming we're able to stay with him-and in our heart of hearts, where our desires stir and our egos live, we couch what we're seeing in the same way we always do. We know some guy, maybe we know lots of guys, buddies who are surely faster than Mr. Smooth and Effortless. Hell, maybe we're faster. But even as we think these things, salve for the ego, we can't escape the growing suspicion that this rider in front of us is just playing. Not with us, but with the road-probably the merest touch of a smile tugging at his lips as he glides through the corners-even as our own heart hammers a staccato beat as we're carried along in the rush behind him. Maybe it dawns on us, in a moment of honesty, that he could just walk away if he wanted. One of those things you just know. So why doesn't he? Why is it that he seems content to just roll along, playing those curves in the road like so many riffs drifting easily from a well-worn guitar? We all talk about being good, about being smooth. Well, there he is, right in front of you. The poster child.
In a sport whose very appeal is built around the merits of speed-a sport where our greatest heroes are those who go the fastest, a sport where even the most mundane machinery comes dripping with performance, where even the clothes we wear are based upon the need to attenuate the risk we perceive attendant to that speed-it's hard not to get caught up in the notion that speed is the thing. It's both the yardstick by which we measure ourselves and the mantle in which we wish to be draped. Hell, who doesn't want to be fast?
The corollary, an article of faith repeated so often that it seems to beg any argument, is that speed-too much of it at least -is a bad thing. It's the bogeyman waiting to catch us out any time we cross the imaginary line of too much. Most of us nod our heads when we hear that.
The thing is, that doesn't always jive with our experience. We see guys all the time who manage to crash at quite modest speeds. And we know some-admittedly a much smaller number-who ride really fast, and have for a long time, but who never seem to crash. Not as in they don't crash very often. As in they never crash.
We all undertake a modicum of risk every time we thumb the starter-it's just inherent to the sport. But those of us who choose to adopt a faster pace deliberately assume more of that danger. We knowingly engage the laws of probability in a game of chicken. You play it long enough and you lose. That's what we've always been told, right?
Why is it, then, that such a select group of riders manages to ride at an elevated pace over many miles, weekend after weekend, trip after trip, year after year, with little in the way of mishap? Why are these riders seemingly held apart, aloof, from the carnage which too-often otherwise afflicts our sport? And how is it that so many other riders, traveling at much lesser speeds, still manage to toss away their bikes with such depressing frequency?
Well, maybe we've been looking in the wrong place all along. Maybe, just maybe, it's not about speed after all-at least not in the way we usually think of it. Maybe it's about something else, something as simple as the degree of control we exercise over a span of road.
It might happen on any ride, on any Sunday. We head out with some buddies, or maybe we hook up with that group of guys we were talking to down at the gas station, or maybe that devil on our shoulder is simply a little more vigorous in his exhortations this day. However it happens, we soon get to the road. The good one. The one that brought us out here in the first place. And there, in that mix of camaraderie and good tarmac and adrenaline-laced delight, we find ourselves giving away that which we had sworn to hold tight to-our judgment. It doesn't happen all at once. We give it away a little click here, a little click there, like a ratcheting cord. Soon, rolling through the curves faster and faster and laughing under our helmets all the while, we enter a new realm.
We've all been there. We instantly know we're in a new place because it's suddenly different. Our lines are no longer quite so clean. We're on the brakes more, and we're making little mistakes in our timing. And instead of that Zen-like rush through the corners we enjoyed just moments ago-the state of grace that is the prize of this sport-we're now caught up in the brief slivers of time between corners trying to fix those mistakes. They seem to be coming faster now-both the corners and the mistakes-and there doesn't seem to be quite enough time to do what we need to do, the errors piling up in an increasingly dissonant heap. Our normally smooth riding is suddenly ragged, with an edgy and anxious quality. Inside our helmets the laughter mutes and then is gone altogether, replaced by a grim determination to stay on pace. We start to mutter little self-reproaches with each newborn error.
Soon enough we'll blow it. We'll get into one particular corner too hot-realization and regret crystallizing in a single hot moment-and from that instant until whatever's going to happen does, we're just along for the ride. It will be what it will be. With a touch of luck we'll come away with nothing more than a nervous laugh and a promise to ourselves not to do that again. That and maybe one more little debt to pay. You know, the one we just made to God-if he would please just get us out of this mess we'd gotten ourselves into. Just this one last time, promise.
Just one of those moments, huh?
It has to do with choices. When we ride a challenging road-at whatever speed-there is an observable, knowable degree of control that we exhibit. Not just over one corner. Not even over just one section. But over the entire road. On some days our mastery is complete-we've chosen to stay well within our own personal skill envelope. On other days-well, on other days maybe we choose to push toward the edge of that envelope. To a place where our mastery begins to diminish. To a place where the degree of control we exhibit gradually decreases. Ultimately, to the tipping point-where all our skills seem to go to hell and gone in one big hurry.
There's a predictability to it. A good rider, riding within his proper envelope, will have none of those moments. There will be no spikes in his heart rate. No sudden bursts of adrenaline. Nothing but a smooth, flowing movement across the road. He will be this side of the tipping point-the tipping point for him. It'll be different for each of us. And it'll vary from day to day, maybe even hour to hour, depending upon how we feel. Sometimes we're in the groove and sometimes we're not. But I think the key is that as long as the rider stays this side of the tipping point, he can probably ride a surprisingly long time without ill effect.
And that's the message. The predictor of bad stuff, the closest thing we have to a crystal ball, are those moments. They are part of the landscape, part of the sport. And they happen to all of us. But for any given rider, they need to be very rare. If they happen with any frequency at all, I'd say the tipping point is at hand. And if that's a place you choose to hang around much, there's probably something very ugly waiting for you not too far down the road.
Think about all those riders who've ever impressed us, like our rider at the beginning of this story. They all seem to have a smooth, fluid, easy quality about them, an assurance which belies any stress or fear. They're always balanced, always in control. I suspect somewhere along the line they've acquired a germ of wisdom, hard-won over many miles, which has given them an appreciation of their own limits. They know where that tipping point is-where their mastery of their bike, the road and the environment begins to slip away-and they long ago made the decision to stay this side of it.
When you do find them testing their limits-surely there's an argument to be made for exploring the edges of one's ability-it's likely to be at a time and place of very careful choosing, and it probably involves a racetrack. Much of wisdom involves simply knowing when and where to lose those impulses that we all carry.
So maybe it's never been about speed after all. Maybe that's why such a small, select group of people are able to ride for years and years without crashing-the fact that they ride fast is secondary to the fact that they're always in control. They know their own limits.
And that's the lesson for the rest of us-at least for those of us who wish to enjoy this sport for a long, long time. There's a choice to be made, every time we thumb the starter.
Not that it's easy. If it were, we wouldn't see the carnage among our ranks that we do every weekend. But for those who manage it, for those who bring restraint and discipline to mix with their skill and daring, there's an upside, even beyond the satisfaction of bringing one's bike and body back unscathed after an afternoon's ride. There's something to be said for gathering up one's powers, like the magician that motorcycle makes us feel like, and wielding them well along a good road. There's art to be found there.
This article originally appeared in the October, 2003 issue of Sport Rider