Of the five primary senses that have been identified in humans, science suggests the sense of smell enjoys a privileged connection with the brain, capable of drawing up stored memories with unnerving clarity. Marcel Proust (1871 – 1922), the esteemed French writer who created his literary works in stream of consciousness, once commented that it was “by taste and smell alone” that the memories of his childhood came rushing back. His most prominent work, “Remembrance of Things Past,” is an intense testament to the power of the olfactory system.
Despite the fact that the sense of smell in humans is somewhat pitiful when compared to most animals, it is still highly acute and has the ability to magically transform millions of invisible odor particles into what science calls involuntary recall. We’ve all had those experiences where just the mere hint of a smell rouses a memory from our past with stunning lucidity. For those who have spent their lives riding motorcycles the olfactory system has the ability to unlock machine-themed memories steeped in sentimentality.
Over the past few years I have become increasingly aware of these predominantly fond recalls triggered by even just a trace of smell. They strike at the oddest moments and instantly take me to some wonderful time and place from my cherished two-wheel past. Recently I was hiking through a dense forest of eucalyptus trees and was transported back to my first motorcycle experience (I learned to ride in a small canyon lined with eucalyptus trees). The recall was vivid to the point of recalling the sound of my Trail 70’s puttering little engine and the clang of pebbles hitting the front fender.
The world of motorcycles has an extremely wide and varied array of smells associated with it — the most prevalent being gasoline and exhaust fumes. Most gearheads have a fondness for the sharp sting of gasoline when it hits the nose. It’s not that the smell is pleasant, it’s that we associate it with riding. Same for the lingering odor of burnt exhaust wafting in the air.
However, with regard to the smell of exhaust, without question the most powerful aroma in the motorcycle canon is that most magical of residues: burnt pre-mix "
If pump gas is a base olfactory inducement for recall among motorcyclists, then race fuel is the premium toke. To this day, when I attend a race, it’s not until I get my first good whiff of race fuel that I feel settled. However, with regard to the smell of exhaust, without question the most powerful aroma in the motorcycle canon is that most magical of residues: burnt pre-mix. As two-strokes go the way of the dinosaur, new generations of motorcycle enthusiasts will be denied this most entrancing of scents. To this day whenever an ill-tuned moped sweeps past, leaving behind a pale cloud of exhaust, I am transported in time to race tracks populated by hundreds of ringing two-strokes and the various smells produced by different brands of oil. The odor of burnt pre-mix conjures a host of memories, from reading fouled plugs to wringing the neck of my RD350 on Mulholland Highway.
However, with regard to the smell of exhaust, without question the most powerful aroma in the motorcycle canon is that most magical of residues: burnt pre-mix. As two-strokes go the way of the dinosaur, new generations of motorcycle enthusiasts will be denied this most entrancing of scents. To this day whenever an ill-tuned moped sweeps past, leaving behind a pale cloud of exhaust, I am transported in time to race tracks populated by hundreds of ringing two-strokes and the various smells produced by different brands of oil. The odor of burnt pre-mix conjures a host of memories, from reading fouled plugs to wringing the neck of my RD350 on Mulholland Highway.
Petrol and exhaust notwithstanding, we enter into a broader realm of aromas that have equal powers of association. Garages housing motorcycles are a treasure trove of olfactory recall; Simple Green, contact cleaner, motor oil (the pungent stench of thin, burnt old stuff to the scent of fresh, golden lube). WD-40 is one of the most powerful olfactory sensations for me. The slightest lingering whiff of this chemical aerosol instantly conjures memories of late nights rebuilding motors and performing general maintenance on a string of machines that passed through my possession. In my teenage years I was obsessed with motocross and next to duct tape (which has its own odor) nothing was as ubiquitous as WD-40. We practically brushed our teeth with the stuff. The garage list of smells goes on: gasket sealer, air filter oil, axle grease, the stale air emitted from a tire’s nipple, etc.
However, it’s possible to go much further with smells and delve into less obvious, perhaps more personal associations with riding. The one I noticed recently was the smell of tar snakes warming under an intense sun. That took me back instantly to fond memories of hot summers making spirited dashes with friends down Latigo Canyon to the beach.
I’ve done enough riding in the four seasons through various locations that I’ve actually catalogued a slew of smells associated with atmosphere. Seasonal changes bring their own specific recall. Obviously, the arrival of spring tends to dredge up memories of warm weather rides, travel, and track days. And yet winter holds a quality that can be equally pleasant. For some odd reason wet pavement has a positive effect on me, the smell taking me back to a number of foreign motorcycle trips where precipitation is merely a consequence of everyday life and riders simply pull on rain suits and go.
The slightest lingering whiff of this chemical aerosol instantly conjures memories of late nights rebuilding motors and performing general maintenance on a string "
The smells associated with the geography of rides over the years has contributed to a host of memories that get revisited every time I re-enter their splendors: the aromas of the desert, accented with heat and sage; coastlines, with their seaweed and salty air; forests; foothills; canyons. They all possess their own idiosyncratic smells that tend to remind me of a ride I once took. The foul smell of cows only conjures memories of rides through farmland for me.
Track days have smells all their own. Perhaps the strangest is the smell of melting plastic created by riders grinding down their knee pucks at speed against the pavement. It’s a horrid odor but I associate it with adrenaline-drenched memories. Even the food stand, with its wafting clouds of vaporized grease and the smell of overcooked hotdogs and hamburgers, conjures pleasurable memories.
Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t include the sensory overload associated with new stuff. Starting with that smell that all motorcycle shops seem to have — as if they all buy their air freshener from the same supplier. I was in a tire store recently and was instantly swept back to my teens by the smell of the showroom, recalling a youth filled with motorcycle shop visits to ogle bikes. How about the smell of buying your first new motorcycle? I got a whiff of packing grease recently and was instantly transported back to being sixteen and buying my first brand new bike.
Recently, another recall was initiated by buying shoes. The smell of new material unleashed when I opened a shoebox took me right back to getting a new helmet. There’s nothing like being indulged with the smell of brand new padding and paint when you get a new helmet. That glorious smell of unspoiled, sweat-free fabric that surrounds you each time you pull it on. It follows with leathers, gloves, boots. But there’s one smell that stands above almost all else in the category of brand new scents, the holy grail of olfactory sensation for riders: new tires.
Smell has the ability to instantaneously transport us back to some sublime moment from our past with uncanny lucidity. For me, the majority of these recalls tend to have motorcycles intertwined with them. Therefore the smells evoke deep emotions and pleasant recollections from a charmed and very fortunate two-wheeled past, the nostalgic memories allowing me to truly appreciate an idealized adolescence, which in no small way I owe to motorcycles. SR