I’ve already mentioned many of the irrational fears I developed as a child and still hold today, and throughout this project, I’ve done my best to overcome them. It’s hard to dispute that a manly man is afraid of nothing. Yes, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, but that’s more the chink in the armor that’s meant to humanize a fictional character. I don’t think anyone is rushing out to see a movie about a boy-man who has trouble talking to barbers. Don’t get me wrong – that doesn’t deter me from actively trying to sell the film rights to this blog. (Interested producers, please note: I will only consider musical adaptations.)
I’m starting to wonder whether my own proclivities should affect my journey into manhood. How can I tell the difference between fear and simple dislike of a new activity? Should my enjoyment even come into it? I think I’m becoming less reluctant to try something new, but I’ve always been a pro at deceiving myself. I’ve convinced myself before to avoid risks for a myriad of rational reasons, without ever understanding the real reason I’m playing it safe. It’s only been through the pretense of this blog that I’ve been able to let go of that reluctance borne out of fear.
I like bike riding okay, I suppose. I asked for a mountain bike on my fifteenth birthday, making the mistake that I would still want to ride it after receiving my driver’s license and access to a car. My desire to attract the opposite sex in high school was so overwhelming that any activity that could be seen as counterproductive (see: video games, “forgetting” to floss) fell by the wayside. Even before then, I’d ride occasionally but never got any thrills from it. My friends in the neighborhood lived next door, and the mall and movie theaters were too far to bike.
What I’ve neglected to say is that I was never completely devoid of fear while riding a bike. When my training wheels were first removed, I was riding around on the sidewalk when my front tire got caught on a tree branch, flipping me over the handlebars onto the ground. I scraped my hands but was left mostly unhurt, a truly fortunate outcome considering I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I got back on the bike soon after that, but I had lost the carefree invincibility that made those early days of riding so exciting. From then on, I mostly kept to the cul-de-sac and avoided steep hills. I always wore a helmet, and although I don’t regret that decision, it somehow reiterated the fact that I fell once and could again.
When I get on a bike now, usually once in a blue moon when we’re tourists in an unknown town, I’m not as careful or nervous as I used to be. But I’ve never been able to revisit the thrill I experienced racing around my neighborhood, practically flying off the sidewalk, feeling completely free. I decided a little twist of the formula might help. So I signed up for the Introductory Motorcycle Experience offered by the Motorcycle Safety School.
I arrive in the parking lot of the nearby college where the lesson will take place and find an advanced class already in progress. A gaggle of students huddle together for warmth as they watch their instructor ride in circles around the track, delineated by short orange traffic cones. Seeing that the students in the advanced class look more like me and less like Hell’s Angels in training reduces the intimidation factor tenfold.
I enter through the main part of campus and discover the classroom where the first half of the Introductory Motorcycle Experience will take place. Though I’m expecting a class size similar to the group outside, I find only my instructor and a single student present. Since this one-day lesson is meant to help students decide if they want to pursue motorcycling further, I guess it makes sense to have such low attendance. Motorcycling is not a sport that elicits much ambivalence.
Our instructor Jimmy is a special fellow whom I still find endearing after he boasts about running four-minute miles in his teens and sports awards he won in college because his enthusiasm for life is so infectious. A self-professed prodigy, Jimmy started riding motorcycles at age ten, following in the footsteps of his father who taught policemen how to ride. He says he used to practice three to four times each day when he was growing up, often riding his cycle up and down the stairs of his family’s Bronx apartment. I can totally relate. When I was younger, I used to slide down the stairs at my grandparents’ house with a pillow underneath my stomach. Just a couple of kid daredevils, me and Jimmy were.
As an icebreaker, Jimmy asks me how I got interested in motorcycling. I decide not to tell him the truth – that were it not for this blog, I would not be here today. Instead, I rattle off some half-truths, mentioning that my friend loved taking a similar class to this one, that I’ve always been fascinated with motorcycles, that Easy Rider is near the top of my Netflix queue, blah-de-blah-de-blah. As I ramble, my mind starts wandering and I start worrying that I’ve lost my passion for becoming a man. By abandoning each weekly challenge in pursuit of a new one the next week, am I merely riding a carousel of mediocrity and apathy, without any regard for competency? Maybe I’ve gone about this the wrong way.
Thankfully, Jimmy is an enthusiastic teacher and I snap back into focus. I figure the best thing to do right now is simply enjoy the class, so I save my deep thoughts for another time. Jimmy explains the mechanics of a motorcycle and offers a brief rundown of safety equipment: helmet, jacket, boots, and gloves. When talking about the helmet, he alludes to a crash in which he was lucky to emerge unscathed. He mentions the date it happened (“springtime of ‘72”), but refuses to elaborate further, citing that he doesn’t want to scare us on our first lesson or bring up painful memories for himself, though it all might be a calculated bit to appear more badass. Either way, it works. Jimmy says the rest of the lesson will be better served with a visual aid, so we head outside to the parking lot.
When we arrive, I see the advanced class still in progress, but now each student rides a motorcycle in controlled circles around a loop. In a short amount of time, the class has seemingly graduated from a nervous cluster of students to individuals ready for Rolling Thunder. I can only hope to be half as successful with my lesson.
Jimmy hands me and my fellow student a helmet each, demonstrating the correct way to wear it. When I loop the chinstrap around the D-ring and yank it tight, I get a rush of that nervous energy I felt when I first arrived and saw the bikes. There’s something to be said for looking the part, and when I get a glimpse of myself in dark shades, a bomber jacket, and leather gloves, I know I could stand next to the row of motorcycles out front and give the impression I owned one, as long as whoever sees me is no less than fifty feet away and squints.
Once we’re ready to go, Jimmy points out all of the different levers, switches, and brakes on the 250-cc Suzukis he set up for us. He gives us a mnemonic device to remember the starting procedure, FINEC, which stands for checking the Fuel valve, turning on the Ignition, finding the Neutral gear, flicking the Engine cutoff switch on, and setting the Choke. It reminds of acronyms we learned in school like Every Good Boy Does Fine or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, and the comfort of a new mnemonic device eases my worries. My nerdy side is happy to join the party.
Once we start the motorcycles, and the familiar hum of the engine wakes my whole body up, Jimmy asks us to practice finding neutral. The neutral gear on a motorcycle is actually located about three-fourths of the way from first gear to second gear, so the idea is to kick the gear shifter up from first to second, and then lightly tap your foot down on the lever to find neutral.
It’s not as easy as it sounds, at least not for someone like me who has a tendency to drive with a lead foot. There’s a little light next to the speedometer that lights up when the cycle is in neutral, but even with that guidance, I have trouble going missing the gear completely. The neutral light on my fellow student’s bike is broken, but she still knocks it into neutral nearly every time. I get a little competitive knowing I’m being shown up, but it doesn’t help matters. It’s not until I force myself to relax that I can successfully find neutral.
Now that Jimmy has walked us through all of the instruction he can fit into our first lesson, he allows us time to start riding the motorcycles. We start with power walking, which involves staying in first gear and letting go of the brake so that the cycle glides forward at a slow speed while your feet stay on the ground. It’s enjoyable – it might be best described as skiing on pavement – but the thrill matches what I could experience through rollerblading or scootering. It’s the motorcycle equivalent of training wheels, or perhaps Power Wheels for adults, which on second thought, makes it sound cooler than it actually is.
After the third power walk to each end of the parking lot, it grows dark and the street lamps switch on. The advanced class next to us has already begun the process of parking their cycles and removing their safety gear. I see Jimmy nervously check his watch. Back in the classroom, he said he wouldn’t be able to give us a chance to properly ride if it got too dark, and sure enough, we’re facing that very dilemma.
Though just an hour ago I was unsure of why I was even taking this class, I now realize I would be sorely disappointed to miss out on a proper ride. Like a catchy pop song, the thrill of the 250-cc Suzuki snuck up on me, and before I knew it, I was singing along. But before I could fall into a funk, I notice Jimmy moving the orange cones to the other end of the parking lot, making our practice area twice as big. He yells for us to power walk to where he stands and make a U-turn with our bikes.
Once we’re there, Jimmy says this will be the last ride of the night, and if we feel comfortable enough, we can lift up our feet and really experience what it is to ride a motorcycle. Without another word, I let go of the brake, twist the throttle, and pick my feet up.
In the seconds it takes to ride from one end of the parking lot to the other, I regress to my twelve-year-old self. I am on the Wayne’s World rollercoaster at Kings Dominion in Virginia, and I am raising my hands to the sky. I am sitting alongside my godfather in his convertible, and we are speeding down the parkway with the top down. I am riding my Huffy bike down the steepest hill in my neighborhood. It’s a gleeful euphoria that is rarer and rarer to find the older I get.
I’m tempted to disregard Jimmy’s instructions and continue the ride out of the parking lot. I could just say the throttle got away from me, and it would probably be good five minutes before anyone could catch up. But when I snap out of my daydream, I find I’m already parked next to the other bikes, so I cut off the engine, take the key out of the ignition, and knock down the kickstand. Another time, perhaps.
Jimmy takes a seat at a nearby bench and asks us to join him while I am still basking in the afterglow of my first ride. He gives us a final pep talk, encouraging us to continue lessons and congratulating us on our first ride. He concludes our lesson with a motto that sums up his passion quite nicely: “Four wheels can move your car, but two wheels can move your soul.”
So did motorcycling move my soul? I don’t know. Despite my buzz immediately after my final ride, once I returned home, I more or less returned to reality. I told Q that although I had a great time, I didn’t see myself buying a 250-cc Suzuki in the near future. Even beyond the safety aspect, I just prefer the creature comforts of the car – the ability to sing my heart out to Katy Perry songs in a safe, enclosed space is a pleasure I could never give up. But how much of that is truly a preference as opposed to a fear of the motorcycle? I’m still not sure. Whether or not that prevents me from becoming a fully actualized man is going to take a few more months to figure out. For the time being, I can settle for a five-second thrill and another check on my list.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
If you were to enter the dwelling of the prototypical manly man, after you walked over the bearskin rug in the living room, smelled the steak and scotch in the dining room, and saw the boots caked in mud and blood in the hallway, I think you’d find a motorcycle or two in the garage. I felt the rush in my brief lesson and I can totally see why people who are passionate about motorcycling are truly passionate to an extreme. I’m not sure if I’ll hop on a bike anytime soon, but it’s undoubtedly something special. 4.17.
NEXT WEEK: My sights are set on Sochi.