The more-or-less-straight sections are OK, the rider behind me staying reasonably close on my tail. But every time we enter a series of curves, I glance in my mirrors and find the trailing headlight falling farther and farther behind. That, even though my pace is anything but fast. Tepid would be a better description.
Rolling out of the throttle a bit and mentally drumming my fingertips for half a minute is usually enough for him to catch back up. Then we'll hang together for a mile or so, until the next set of curves, at which point we'll do it all over again.
Our little ride actually had its genesis months before, when Steve, a colleague at work, heard that I ride. After the usual "What kind of bike do you have?" query and my describing the three machines currently in my stable, his joking "When are you going to get a real bike?" rejoinder told me everything I needed to know.
Bad jokes aside, Steve is actually a great guy. And unlike the majority of Harley aficionados I know, he's actually quite a serious rider, putting 20,000 miles or so on his two Milwaukee-built machines every year. And he himself complained to me that most of his riding buddies prefer the rather shorter weekend breakfast or lunch rides to the longer jaunts that he favors. I took that as hope.
Getting our two schedules to line up was another thing. Eventually, though, we sorted out a Saturday morning that worked for both of us. It still being summer, I insisted on an early start. And Steve needed to be back by late morning, so what we had in front of us was about four hours. Enough to hit some of the good roads I know, but not enough to do the somewhat longer loop I originally had planned.
Of my three bikes, the R1200GS was the obvious choice. Although BMW's big adventure bike actually possesses a surprising amount of sporting prowess-one of the motorcycling world's better-kept secrets-its greatest strength lies in its remarkable versatility. If ever there was a bike that can pretty much do it all, this bike is it. I don't own a cruiser-have never even ridden one, in fact-but I reckoned that the straight-up seating position of the GS and its flexible boxer-twin motor would at least allow me to do a kinda-sorta imitation of one.
Or to say it a little differently, I've spent most of my life wondering how to be a smoother, faster and better rider. On this day, for the first time, I'm wondering how you go slow.
Arriving at Starbucks, I'm about as casual as I ever get when out riding: Aerostich Darien jacket, jeans, BMW boots, short-gauntlet deerskin gloves and my Arai full-face helmet. Steve's wearing chaps over his jeans, a light jacket, work boots, fingerless gloves and a helmet that is something between a beanie and a regular open-face helmet. There's the merest hint of awkwardness as the two of us sit at a table outside next to his big-engine Harley and enjoy a quick cup of coffee before we head out. It's clear we both approach the motorcycling world from very different viewpoints.
When we first starting talking about hooking up for a ride, I mentioned that I knew a lot of good roads. Even though we both live in the same community it was clear Steve wasn't familiar with most of the routes I described-lesser-known secondary roads, the more gnarly and technical the better. Turns out he and his pals mostly stay on the bigger, straighter thoroughfares.
But Steve's enthusiasm is genuine. And he wields that big Harley with a comfortable precision. The problem is simply that when we get into the twisties, at a point where my GS has hardly begun to dip into its cornering capacity, his machine has already exhausted all of its own. It occurs to me that if one is into Fourth of July light shows, a bike like Steve's isn't a bad choice.
The other thing that strikes me-I've got lots of time to think about all of this-is that this ride is distinctly different. Our pace is so modest-"cruising" is very much an apt metaphor-that the sensation remains one of being disconnected, of simply sitting atop the bike while it motors along. We never get to that threshold, that moment in time when the tires and the frame and the suspension all begin working together. That point is a crucial, transforming moment for many of us. It's the instant when a bike comes alive. It's when our senses become melded to what the machine is doing and saying. It's the moment of intimacy when, with our head in the right place, we and the bike might become one.
If a motorcycle ridden at pace on a curvy road has any distinction from the same bike when it's being used in a more humdrum, utilitarian fashion-say, for instance, when it's seeing commuting duty-it's in the confluence of its multiple dynamics. At slow speeds the various elements of the bike work perfectly fine, but there's no real sense that they're ever really working together. The engine does its thing. The tires and frame do theirs. And unless it's very softly sprung, the suspension sits there in the background, hardly working at all. It's only when the pace picks up sufficiently to reach that certain threshold that all those pieces begin to work in unison.
Engineers probably have a term to describe that point of harmony. I simply think of it as the point where the magic begins.
When I get home later I'll tell my wife, Ginny, "That was the slowest ride I've ever been on." Which is OK, even for someone like me who spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about such things. I've often said that speed shouldn't be the end-all of riding a motorcycle.
Except. Except that I deeply missed that very close, you-talk-to-me-and-I'll-talk-to-you interaction with my motorcycle that I normally have. This ride was kind of like being on a date where the talk is sparse and there's no sex at the end. You're left vaguely wondering exactly what the point was.
Which is not at all meant as a criticism toward the cruiser riders out there. I've no doubt that there is an enormous visceral pleasure to be derived from a throbbing, large-displacement V-twin motor. Such an enjoyment is not at all dependent upon how fast you're going and, in fact, probably starts to diminish beyond a certain speed. But for those of us who mostly live in the sport and sport-touring world, it does matter. For us, the engine is only one part of a larger package. How that package responds to the road is everything. And for that to work there has to be at least enough speed to awaken it from its slumber. You have to cross that line.
Back at the Starbucks, Steve and I shake hands. "Thanks for the great time," he says. "I don't have a clue of where we were, but I loved those roads." I smile knowingly. "Glad you enjoyed it."
As he mounts back up, Steve turns back to me one last time.
"Next time I'll bring the Sportster."