The mountain rises before me, a cut jewel, and a tingle of anticipation hums in my chest. The midmorning sunlight is perfect diffused by a soft overcast that throws even illumination into all those curves that, even before starting my ascent, I can see in my mind. In front of me the road tracks straight ahead, upward, for 300 feet, lifting us-this fast motorcycle and I from this beautiful valley. Then it jinks hard left, following the contours of the rugged landscape. That's where it begins.
Approaching, seeing the road twist away out of sight up ahead, there's a single, baited moment, a coy little tease, like when gazing with desire upon a girl about to be courted. Then that passes, replaced with an outright willfulness. My boots slide back on the pegs, my knee swings out and then back in a stretch and I roll my shoulders in an exaggerated arc. My own little habit the quick little routine that prompts me to gather myself mentally and get loose physically for what is to come. A motorcyclist's version of a batter taking a few false swings as he readies himself for the pitch. As the first curve approaches I'm exactly where I want to be, body compact, low and relaxed, hands soft on the grips. There's a growing excitement in my chest and a buzzing in my head. The next handful of miles are among the best in Virginia, across one of my favorite mountain passes, and I haven't been here in awhile.
Clicking a downshift and now, quickly, another. Back in the throttle, the bike steadies, its demeanor suddenly changed, hard now into its powerband. It knows I have charged it with the task it was built for and it sings its own song of delight. There's a subtle tension, an aura, around us now me and this machine I love a purposeful edge.
Pushing the motorcycle hard into the first turn, I feel the elastic firming of the tires and suspension as they compress, the frame and engine and everything all suddenly alive. The diving pull of the turn is electric, and a flush of exultation washes over me. There's a smooth texture to the sensation, like running one's fingertip along a piece of silk, and I can't restrain the laugh that breaks out under my helmet. God, I love it!
With the first corner having set the stage this will be an aggressive run I'm now in attack mode. The corners come quickly, like stabbing punches from a boxer, and I work the motorcycle as though it were the musical instrument it has become. The engine has that "packed" feeling when it's singing high in the sweet spot of its rev range. I revel in the delicacy required by the throttle, how the merest movement changes the motorcycle's whole demeanor. Two fingers are extended to the brake lever not that there's any hard braking here. Only an occasional gentle caress, trail-braking easily into the corners, like lightly brushing the face of that girl.
After a dozen curves I sense a danger, a need for caution in my growing delight. Easy, I tell myself, stay loose. It's with conscious effort that I keep my hands, arms and shoulders relaxed even as my lower body is tight with the physical effort of shifting my weight back and forth. But even with that tiresome effort below, the lifting movement from my calves and thighs feels good, a sprung feeling, like I'm part of the bike's suspension.
Halfway up the mountain the curves tighten even more, like the ever-shorter coils of a rope piled upon itself. The exit of one feeds almost instantly into the entrance of the next, and there's no time for contemplation. Seeking to maintain my pace, I shift my lines slightly, placing my track so as to capture as much of the road's wrinkled camber as possible. Pushing. Pushing. My eyes in a flashing glance grasp the story of what the road is telling me. Like a game of instant chess, the constant stream of input demands an instantaneous response, a judgment edged as much in instinct as anything in the here and now, and then I'm exiting that corner and am into the next. There's a verge here, something deep and dark. I'm on the cusp of where it all gets deadly serious, and I know it.
It's been there all along. The knowing. But it's one of those things that I like many of us when faced with the choice of experiencing this euphoria, this transcendent delight of the rush along a good road sometimes turn away from. As if simply ignoring it might make it go away.
It breaks back into my consciousness on one of the hard right-handers near the top. In one of those corners where, for just an instant, I see myself in my mind's eye in the whole context of what I'm doing. A flashing glance away from the road-from the entrance and exit points, the road camber, the texture of the tarmac and the is-there-gravel question, all the things my attention is normally focused upon and my peripheral vision captures the picture of my fairing and its angle to the road, and I realize I'm carrying an awful lot of lean angle. Having stopped a few times over the years to take pictures, I know what the landscape on this mountain holds. A dozen feet beyond the track of my tires, across the single oncoming lane and 18 inches of guard rail, lies nothing but a sheer drop-off. If you blow it here you'll probably die. And that's been my bet: every one of my corners will be nigh perfect. There will be no mistakes.
Among the activities that are reasonably accessible to most of us, motorcycling is nearly unique in the dual promise it holds. Imagine a rheostat, one of those round dials with a raised lip in the middle to be grasped between thumb and forefinger. Inscribed on the right side of the dial's flat face in bold lettering is FUN. Inscribed on the left side of the dial in a rather more subdued font is DANGER. As we twist that dial, turning up more and more of the fun that brought us here in the first place, the degree of danger advances too, right in lock step. They are inextricably tied together.
Therein lies the dilemma of every sport rider, from the very first moment we swing our leg across that seat when heading out for a day's ride. "How much fun shall we have today?"
Our cruiser and touring brethren have long since answered that question quite neatly for themselves: Just twist the dial a little bit, right to where it says "mild" in easy script above the switch, and leave it there. But for those of us who lean more toward the sporting end of the spectrum, there are choices to be made. For us, a day's ride is likely to encompass a whole range of experiences. Everything from a gentle, one-hand-on-the-bar easy cruise to that bread-and-butter, crisp sporting pace that always makes us smile to maybe a WFO sprint across a favored road that has our pulse pounding and head shaking later in disbelief at what we've just done.
I liken it to having two lines drawn in parallel, each representing a side of that risk/reward duality. The gap, the space between them, is the place where we spend our time. It's where we live as riders. It's in that imaginary space that we make all our decisions, where we make all the adjustments to our lines and braking and pace, where we tend to all the technical nuances of our sport. It's the place that each of us has chosen as an acceptable balance between fun and danger.
If that's all there was to it just find that reasonable balance, that spot where we can each nod to ourselves that, "Yeah, I'm OK right here," then go out and have at it we'd all be golden. Unfortunately, for us sport riders it rather quickly gets more complicated 'cause we still have that dial.
What happens is that when we start wicking it up looking for more and more of that exhilaration, those two lines start to converge on one another. That space wherein we operate, the gap that represents the degree of separation between fun and danger, swiftly gets narrower and narrower. Until, ultimately, there's hardly any discernible space between them at all we've reached that rarified place where the two lines have merged into one, a single blood-thin line. A place where no margins are left, no mistakes are possible. A place where it's all on the table in a single, bet-the-house bet. The razor's edge.
Not that we ever mean for it to happen, of course. We always leave home in the morning intending to be reasonable and smart and have some fun but surely not we won't be crazy. No sirree, not us. But then we get out there where the roads are perfect, where the laughter and the camaraderie lull us into believing that it's all OK, and where, sometimes, it seems we are blessed with a special grace. And it all starts to go away. Sometimes the difference between just right one more afternoon's delight to add to that box of memories and too much, a disaster etched in stark relief, is but the breadth of an angel's hair.
That challenge, somehow hewing to that balance, is the burden we carry in return for all the extraordinary pleasures this sport brings us. One thing's for sure no one can live very long at the razor's edge. Eventually those house odds surely catch up with us, trumping all our skills and intentions. The place is a slippery slope with a comeuppance as inevitable as the sun. So for those of us who intend to stay in the game for a long time, those of us who can't possibly fathom not doing this, we have to figure it out.
On this particular morning, recognizing what I'm doing and the place I've gotten to, I decide reluctantly to back it off. Not a lot just a click or two. But enough so that the humming urgency to get it all perfectly right every second, every corner mostly goes away. There's still a rush along the road, still a delight in the doing of this thing, but now there's some space here. A crack of daylight between Mr. Fun and Mr. Danger.
That extra little bit of space lets me see other things. Coming up the mountain I saw nothing but the road. The world outside the narrow boundaries of that ribbon of asphalt was little more than a blur of color, unnoticed and uncared for. Hooking the hard right-hander that marks the summit, my now slightly lesser pace affords me an occasional sneaking glance sideways as I begin my descent. And what I see is the world. Something that even those of us who aren't smell-the-roses types could take a look at every now and again.
On this day I'm lucky on many levels, and I know it. I'm lucky to have had that wonderful, flying run up the mountain I can't deny the joy in that. I'm lucky that that same flying run didn't end in disaster. And I'm lucky now, slicing my way down the mountain, seeing it all for what it is.
It's never easy. Those of us who find our delight in tiptoeing through a landscape that just also happens to be littered with dark horrors, like Dorothy on her yellow-brick road, need all the help we can get. Like moths drawn to a flame, our challenge is, in that nexus where joy and disaster intersect, to find the light without falling into the fire.
It reminds me that an awful lot of the people attracted to our sport aren't very long for it. Think of all the buddies you used to ride with five or 10 years ago. Chances are that a lot of them are still there, out with us on the roads. But I'd bet that for every rider who still suits up every Sunday, there's another who has long-since traded in his helmet for something else. And while a lot of that has to do with motorcycling in general things like getting married, having kids and changing jobs have always taken a toll on our ranks-there's another factor that causes riders to disproportionately leave our sport-riding fraternity.
The fear that comes from the sudden, inescapable understanding that yes damn straight it can happen to us. Most of us don't willingly walk up to that understanding. Most of us come to accept it only after something has happened. Usually after the big, "It has happened to me," or because it very nearly did, or because it did to one of our buddies. Then comes the ringing uncertainty around every corner and over every rise, and all of a sudden riding doesn't seem nearly so lighthearted and carefree. A few wooden rides later, just to prove, "Hell yeah, I got back on that horse," they're not fun anymore, and it's hard to imagine that they'll ever be fun. And there you go we've lost another one.
Which is a shame. And why I think this is all so important. Because, though I may be a little over the top in my passion for this sport I have been accused of such I honestly believe that out of all the fun and inspirational activities we might aspire to, riding a fast motorcycle over a good road is as good as it gets. And that's why it's such a pity every time we see another rider walk away.
Which is why we need to figure it out. Why we need to find that balance that allows us to keep on riding, forever.
In the end, it's a pretty basic question. We're all torn with wanting to go faster and faster, yet knowing that we shouldn't. The choice we make there a choice we'll be presented with many times on every single ride is probably the single most important one we make.
How much fun shall we have today?