Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey
Like most other endeavors, motorcycle riding involves a sort of evolutionary track for the rider. From the day we first mount up and through the years and decades to follow, each ride is a learning experience, accumulating skills and experience and constantly becoming more proficient.
My first motorcycle was a 1981 Suzuki GS 550T, a relatively small naked standard. I learned a lot on this bike, like how to execute a climbing right hand turn from a dead stop, how to maneuver around a sofa and cushions that had flown off a flatbed trailer in front of me, and what to do when riding into a fogbank at night and having your windshield, faceshield, and then glasses cloud up leaving for visibility only that small gap between the edge of my glasses and my cheekbone available to find the solid white line that marked the edge of the shoulder, and safety.
On that bike, I fell over several times (a common occurrence for newbies), doing slight damage to the machine, but incalculable wreckage to my ego. I learned how important it was to be on a first-name-basis with the closest motorcycle salvage yard.
Most importantly, this was the bike I took to the MSF Rider Safety Course. That was a real eye-opener. I learned a ton that weekend, and I wasn’t the only one. On graduation day, a grizzled old guy got up and said that he had taken the course to reduce his insurance rates. But, he said, “I learned (stuff) this weekend that I haven’t learned in 25 years of riding.” That was all the endorsement I needed.
After a year in which I logged just under 7,000 miles, I moved up to a BMW K75RT. While the engine was only 200cc larger, the design of the bike produced a significant upgrade in power and performance. On this bike, I learned about how (and how not) to accelerate. My traffic instincts really improved on this bike, as I was far better at anticipating and even predicting driver shenanigans. This being my first touring bike, I learned about how to pack for a trip, what was and was not necessary. I learned how to pace myself through a day of traveling, knowing when to get off for a bit. I also learned that during those rest stops, to walk around vigorously, getting the blood circulating and waking up the mind.
But while I learned a lot about going forward, I discovered on one cold February morning that I didn’t know doodley-squat about braking. So on that day, when a deer burst out of the treeline in front of me, instead of compressing the brake in a controlled manner, I clamped down in the classic panic stop. Results? The bike and I went sideways. My helmet was trashed, and I ended up with a partially-torn Achilles tendon (my foot apparently thought it could stand the bike back up at 40 mph). Fortunately, I was wearing all my gear, so I escaped the painful road rash that is common with bike accidents.
Once my rehab was complete, and after saying a sad farewell to the Beemer, I picked up a rather rough-looking 1980 Yamaha XS-Eleven Special, an early cruiser type. On this bike I learned a lot about repair. While it was fun to ride, it had a multitude of problems – sometimes expensive problems – that required a significant outlay in cash during its relatively short stay. I remember one ride when the fuel petcock failed and the terror I experienced when I looked down to see gasoline pouring all over the hot engine. I killed the engine and got the bike stopped, bailing off in a manner that would have done credit to a professional bullrider.
The odometer was not functioning, so I wasn’t sure how many miles I had put on it, but since I used it at least as often as the other two, I’m sure I put at least 20k on it for the two years we were together. When I’d had about as much as I could take from the old Yama-hammer, I sold it to a guy from Kansas City, and after a couple of months spent searching, I discovered the bike that would become the love of my life.
I saw it in a print ad. A 1995 Honda Pacific Coast in Colorado. I contacted the owner, discussed terms, and agreed to meet halfway in Colby, Kansas. I hornswoggled a friend of mind into volunteering his pickup, and off we went. The forecast was supposed to be clear, but only an hour after arriving in Colby, big fat fluffy flakes began falling from the sky, the harbinger of what became a 12-inch late winter blizzard. I managed to take the bike for a short spin, then signed the paperwork, exchanged the money, loaded the bike into the pickup, and headed back for Missouri, sliding and sloshing the whole way. That unforecasted storm followed us all the way back to Kansas City. Once in Columbia, we off-loaded the bike and I rode it home as the dawn was breaking.
The PC and I embarked on a relationship that would last 7 years and 100,000 miles. The PC and I learned how to lean through curves, treating ourselves to a weekend at Deal’s Gap as a sort of graduation exercise. I learned about group rides, both as a planner and leader, and as a participant, and the value of a truly wonderful supportive community, the Internet Pacific Coast Riders Club. I learned how important regular maintenance was, and all about the confidence a good bike can give you, even when you take off on a solo ride into the Arizona desert. We took numerous trips, from 700-mile weekenders, to a 9-day 5,000 mile sojourn. I learned about “becoming one with the bike,” the process of learning a machine’s characteristics and idiosyncrasies so intimately as to be able to react instinctively to potential hazards. Finally, with 6 figures showing on the odometer, I learned about the pain of loss, as I saw my best buddy heading down the road carrying someone else besides me.
While in between bikes, my wife and I, yielding to a wild hair of sorts, rented a Honda Gold Wing and took off on a 7-day exploration of New England. It was rainy and cold in Vermont and New Hampshire, and brutally hot and humid in Boston. I discovered how poisonous the air inside a long tunnel can be when stuck in traffic. I also discovered how bracing the air could be along Cape Cod. A great trip. Turning that magnificent machine back in, after logging 1,600 miles in six days, was really hard to do.
Because of circumstances beyond my control, I had to endure two years without a bike. Finally, in the spring of 2009, I acquired my first real cruiser, a 2007 Vulcan 900. It was a different ride altogether than the sport-tourers I was used to. I only had that bike about a month, when I found out how different its braking system was. We went down hard avoiding a car that had slowed to a stop, while my attention was diverted to another vehicle that had started to pull out in front of me. This was a painful event, suffering badly bruised ribs (that’s a whoooole new kinda pain, let me tell you!), while trashing another helmet. This was another abject lesson in braking. But after healing up, I went right back out and bought another Vulcan 900, this one a 2006, managing to squeeze out a little under 4,000 miles in the back end of a shortened riding season. One of the first things I did with this newer bike was to go to a large parking lot and practice emergency braking. Kawasaki brakes are a lot more sensitive than Honda’s.
This brings me full circle to the present.
With the last of the snowfall (hopefully) behind me, I approach this year with a different attitude, one of caution.
In the last year, I’ve suffered some physical problems that have affected my stamina for long rides. I had planned to take a trip to Wisconsin this summer, but that journey is in abeyance for the moment while I sort through some new limitations.
This is the 19th year for me as a rider. Looking back, I see a lot of joyful moments, excitement and challenge, and yes, some pain as well. But I wouldn’t trade any of it. The experiences I’ve had, both the good and the bad, are worth far more that mere gold. Limitations that I once thought were doors, were only curtains, as I discovered I was capable of so much more than I had thought. Through it all, I’ve seen growth in myself, not only in riding skills, but in my ability to appreciate the world from an entirely new perspective. I’ve seen many parts of this country from the seat of a motorcycle, a vision better than any IMAX show ever conceived. I’ve felt the freedom of the open road, and the warmth of the many memories created there.
I am hopeful, even optimistic of a few more seasons, and memories, to follow.