I call them the Four Horsemen. Not because of any ill will they bring, but because of their propensity for roaming the countryside with a swift, sure certainty.
They are an eclectic bunch, tending toward middle age, not especially notable when they're off their bikes. Just four friends who happen to share a love of riding. Typical sport riders, you might think, seeing them laughing and talking quietly amongst themselves at the caf. But you'd be wrong.
Their bikes are diverse and, some would say, uninspiring: a 929, a several-years-old GSX-R750, an RC51 and a first-generation R1. Not exactly cutting edge. But all four machines are well maintained. You never see any of them without good tires, chains, brakes and cables, the machines washed and clean. But they all show the signs of much use--little worn bits here and there, dull rubbings on the wheels from countless tire changes, not-quite-as-bright-as-it-once-was bodywork. These guys are definitely riders, not polishers. The first clue you get, even before you see them on the road, is written in their odometers.
A closer inspection of their bikes reveals a second clue: Despite their age and miles and lack of flashy aftermarket accessories, each of the four bikes wears top-notch suspenders fore and aft. The hlins and Penske units sit there in subtle contrast to the mundane plainness of the rest of the bikes. You see those expensive bits and wonder a little bit, and then a dawning sense of these riders' priorities starts to emerge.
If you asked--you'd have to ask because they won't offer it--you'd find that each of the four has been riding for quite a long time. One has a club-racing background. All have done dozens of track days. And though they all obviously love the sport--you see them out almost every weekend--you never hear the brashness and boasting that usually accompanies a group of riders getting together. Oh, they'll talk at length about good roads they've been on or a particular corner that was fun, challenging or scary, and they'll regale one another with the technicalities of this tire or that suspension setting or who did well in the race last weekend. Just like the rest of us. But hearing it from them somehow seems different. Somewhere along the line these four riders found a way to leave their egos behind.
They're friendly enough, freely talking to anyone who engages them. But with a smiling "thanks anyway" they'll politely decline offers to join the large throngs of riders who get together on the weekends in the usual haunts. They tend to head toward roads of their own choosing, a little farther away than most, a little less well-known, a little less crowded. And, preferably, they ride those roads with just each other--a small circle of friends where trust and respect were long ago earned. Once the morning coffee is finished they'll be gone, four shadows flashing quickly across the landscape, not to be seen again for many hours.
If you make the effort to get out there on those same distant roads yourself, you might see it where it matters most--in their riding. To trail behind them and watch is to see poetry in motion, a perfect, rolling form snaking across the landscape. Closely matched in terms of speed, temperament and style, they'll swap off the lead occasionally, but otherwise you never see them pass one another. They just ride along in perfect synch, a half-dozen bike lengths separating one from the next, as if each were connected by an invisible wire.
Deceptively fast, their smoothness and lack of any abruptness lends a quiet sense of nonchalance to their cadence. You see them carving gracefully through the corners with lots of lean angle but not a lot of hanging off. They make time--but without any sense of effort. After a while it comes to you what you're witnessing, what it reminds you of: the liquid flow of running water.
Like driving a car, the basic skills needed to pilot a motorcycle are pretty straightforward. The MSF manages to get rank neophytes up to a minimal level of ability in a brief, 20-hour curriculum, after all. Riding well, though, especially at speed--that's a whole different ball game that requires a set of competencies and a collection of judgments that can be astonishingly intricate. Definitely not the kinds of things that can be taught quickly. Add to those complexities the considerable risk in not getting it right, and riding a motorcycle suddenly seems to have a lot more in common with the aviation community than it does with our four-wheel brethren on the ground.
Fortunately, motorcycling--and sport riding in particular--responds well to all the attributes that aviation has long found essential: consistent machine preparation, an openness to learning from others, an honest, thoughtful, deliberative outlook toward our own experiences, and an attitude that our ability is never quite good enough--training and improvement are a never-ending process.
Whether we adopt that attitude is up to us. Many don't. We've all known friends and acquaintances who shared this sport with us for a while--a year or two or three. But when you rode with them there was always that nagging feeling that they didn't quite get it--consistently riding over their heads or making too many mistakes or suffering too many close calls. And sure enough, eventually there would be the inevitable crash, or the close call that was a little too close. And then they quit--and for once you were glad, knowing they were never really cut out for it in the first place.
Sport riders--and with that label I'm talking about the type of riding one prefers, not the kind of bike one owns--are particularly suited to the aviation analogy. Our community sees both ends of the spectrum. On the one hand, perhaps because of the "cool" factor associated with sportbikes, we see a lot of very young riders, those with little experience. Lacking the good fortune to hook up with an experienced mentor, a lot of these new riders unfortunately end up heading down the wrong path. We're all familiar with the typical squid image, so I won't belabor it here--but suffice it to say that the vast majority of the squid population are very young and very inexperienced. Their riding choices reflect that.
On the other hand, the sport-riding community also counts among its members many of those with the highest levels of experience, talent and ability in all of motorcycling. These are the squinty-eyed veterans who long-since passed through--survived--those early years of riding innocence and came out on the other end with a set of hard-won skills and battle-tested experiences that can't be bought for any amount of money. Like hours in the air, the only way you get those skills is with seat time. These are the guys who consistently wear the right gear; they're the ones who study the dynamics of the sport, think about why what works does and why what doesn't doesn't, who watch racing not just for the pleasure it evokes but also for the technical nuance it offers. They are the riders who spend time on the track, for fun, sure, but also because they know that's the best and fastest place to improve their skills. They've taken the dictum to heart that we--none of us--are never quite good enough.
The upshot is that these riders often exhibit the highest levels of judgment, skill and safety seen in the entire sport. That experience, too, is reflected in their riding choices, which tend toward restraint and discipline. It's not that these guys never light it up--they do--but they do it in a way and in a manner of their own careful choosing. They know some lessons shouldn't be learned twice.
Motorcycling--and sport riding, especially--is an activity that doesn't suffer fools lightly. It's too bad we have to go through a process of Darwinian selection in order to arrive at the place we all want to be. But at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that, having gone through that process, what we're left with is a community of oftentimes exceptional individuals--riders of serious intent who bring an extraordinary level of ability to the game. Something we can all aspire to.
Like the four horsemen.-SR