An off-camber, downhill, 5-mph, horseshoe-shaped hairpin marks the beginning of the descent. The road up to this point has been pleasant, a mix of gentle sweepers slowly rising in elevation across a softly undulating landscape. A section to enjoy for its rustic beauty and mellow charm. A couple of miles back the road began to sharpen as it started its ascent, but the gradient on that side of the mountain is fairly even and so are the turns. This side is where it gets serious.
Dragging a touch of rear brake through the horseshoe settles the chassis. Then there's the rising of the exhaust note as the engine spools, a perfect complement to the falling away of the road itself.
My boots slide back on the pegs and my hands go soft as I point the GSX-R1000 toward the first of the long series of curves snaking down the mountain. My eyes flash through the deeply shadowed corner-rain washoff frequently leaves gravel on this upper section-and a smile pulls at my lips as the Suzuki carves its first razor-thin slice from the mountain.
Feeling for the feedback the bike provides, my head is wrapped around the contact patch of the front wheel. A downhill slalom is characterized more than anything by the need to manage load on the front end. Rolling in and out of the throttle allows me to minimize use of the front brake. But even so, the sprint downward leads to a slowly rising pace. If the first corners heading down are akin to drawing a slightly dull blade across a whetstone, with their ever-so-tiny feeling of resistance, the last ones are like that of the final strokes of metal upon stone, when any sense of drag has disappeared into infinitesimal smallness and the blade has reached that magical quality of absolute rightness.
That special place.The descent doesn't put me into a valley. After dropping a thousand feet, the road simply jinks northward, along the crest of a smaller series of peaks in this mountain range. The road opens up slightly, with alternating series of tight corners interspersed by sections where the road is more or less open for anything from a few hundred feet to a quarter mile. Holding the same pace across the roadway's entire length, the little straight sections give me a chance to relax and to enjoy the beauty of this place. To glance down at the flat topside of the Gixxer's tank and marvel at what a remarkable machine it is. To enjoy the mellowness that comes with feeling like you're in sync with the world.
And then I see the riders.There are three of them, specks in the distance as I exit a clump of curves and enter a straight section they are just leaving. My first thought, since I'm obviously gaining on them, is that they must be cruisers. But when they reappear on the next straight section a mile or so farther along, this time a little closer, their more compact profiles tell me something different.
"Well, hello, boys," I murmur to myself. My narrowed eyes take in their presence with a studied interest. Part of that is simply my avid passion for anything to do with motorcycles. But by the time they disappear back into the trees, then reappear in my vision half a mile farther along, I realize that my pace has bumped slightly and my chest is imbued with that old, slightly breathless feeling. The one where the air itself seems to hum with a mix of anticipation and excitement and possibility. The one I feel every November when, alone, still hunting deep in the steep forest mountains of southwestern Virginia, I cut fresh spoor and shift my rifle to the other hand as my eyes squint upward at the ridge above me.
My wife, Ginny, knows, even though we never ever really talked about it. Years ago, upon returning home from some errand or other, she would often joke, "They're out there." She'd balance those smiling teases with frequent admonishments to "be careful" and "act your age" as the thought settled and I couldn't stand it anymore and began pulling my gear together. But the underlying message was always clear, even if I was reluctant to admit it.
The thing is this: At its heart, sportbikes and sport riding are built upon a foundation of purposeful aggression. We may couch that in euphemisms, crafting a whole dialogue that pretends otherwise. We may outright deny it. But at whatever point we're honest with ourselves, what we're left with is that truism.
So what does that mean?It means that an awful lot of those things that we do and that we espouse are counter to our basic impulses. All of those exhortations to exhibit restraint and take it to the racetrack and "ride your own ride" are counterintuitive. Much as they make sense logically, they don't always resonate with us emotionally. They simply don't come naturally to a lot of us.
A sportbike is, by its very nature, an instrument of sharply extralegal speed potential. Combine that with a testosterone-induced desire to at least occasionally experience that performance potential, along with the sport's cultural affinity for competition-what other activity can you name that is so associated with racing-and it's no wonder we do what we do.
At a personal level, it's a little embarrassing. You'd think someone entering his fourth decade of riding, someone who has had plenty of opportunity to experience firsthand the deleterious consequences of bad decisions, would be a bit more mindful of what can happen when one amps up the throttle to run down another rider-or run away from one if we happen to be in the lead.
I do know this: That go-for-it response is, for many of us, an unconscious reflex. Were it not for that suddenly charged-with-electricity feeling, we might not even be aware of it. I also know something else: When I go on rides with my buddies I purposely ensconce myself somewhere back from the lead rider-and then resolutely stay in the position I've chosen. I know myself at least that well. As Ginny has often reminded me, "You're weak."
It's not all bad. Our too often politically correct world would have us believe otherwise, but a hint of aggression is inherent to many of the activities we see as constructive-success in business, success in politics, success in art, success even, sometimes, in affairs of the heart. You're probably not the only guy with an eye on that pretty girl out on the dance floor. And as for sport riders, I don't know that I've ever met a really good one who didn't exhibit a degree of aggression in his riding style. It's not always immediately apparent, because those are the same guys who also consistently demonstrate the most smoothness and precision in their riding, but look beneath those qualities and you'll see it.
Those who have read my columns here over the last few years will recognize that I have long been a proponent of reasonable behavior on the street. Many of my stories have revolved, in one way or another, around the question of speed, of pace. How much is OK? How much can I get away with? What happens if I exceed whatever that measure is? The reason for that emphasis, on what some might think is an incredibly simple question, is that...it's not simple. It's anything but. In fact, I'd argue that it is the singularly most difficult riding question that any of us ever have to answer. Some of us have wrestled with it for endless years and countless miles-and still don't have all the answers.
What we can do, though, is take an honest look at ourselves and try to understand what prompts us to do the things we do. And from that humble beginning, maybe, we can start to craft a riding strategy that gets us to that ultimate goal: being able to enjoy this, the finest of all sports, for as long as we ever would wish.
In 17th-century Japan there lived a fellow by the name of Miyamoto Musashi. Probably the greatest swordsman who ever lived, Musashi was a veteran of countless duels-usually to the death-with other martial-arts adepts. It says something about Musashi that he was confident enough in his abilities that he purposely chose to use a bokken, a wooden training sword, in many of those duels. By using the bokken, he hoped to avoid having the duel end in death-Musashi never felt the need to always prevail over opponents.
Legend has it that once, having approached a famous lord regarding a position, Musashi sat in the lord's parlor while awaiting his interview. While waiting, he pulled out his pens and paper and drew a picture of a flower.
During the interview, the lord acknowledged Musashi's great martial prowess, but wondered if he had the other kinds of qualities he was looking for. Musashi bowed respectfully and took his leave. It was only later, upon discovering the picture left behind in the parlor, that the lord realized his great mistake. The truly talented never feel the need to always prove themselves.
Within a few more miles I've run down the three riders. But having done so, something suddenly reminds me of that little vignette from Musashi's life and its message that the sword need not always be drawn. That restraint can sometimes be its own reward. Feeling suddenly guilty, I dial it down and hang back a ways. That gives me an opportunity to just watch them for a while, enjoying the spectacle of sportbikes carving across a landscape, that beautiful ballet that never grows old. Some miles farther along they turn off on another road, waving back to me as they do. Back alone, I'm reminded of what a wonderful day it is, of how clear everything seems, and of how extraordinarily lucky I am to have such a fine motorcycle as this.
And that it still has much to teach me.