Every year, I attend the traveling International Motorcycle Show, lately sponsored by Progressive Insurance. A big part of my motivation to do this stems from my heartfelt commitment to The Ride, lovingly accumulated over the past 20 years. The other motivation is rooted in my dislike of the first two months of the year, a period of time I have come to call "The Long Dark Tunnel." The show hits Washington DC usually in mid-January, thus providing a nice reminder that despite the gloom and cold of Winter, spring, and another riding season is on the approach.
There's a lot to see at these shows. The major manufacturers display their entire lines, and unlike most dealerships, people are encouraged to swing a leg over and sit on every one.
The criteria a choice for a particular bike is different for every rider. The first criteria is deciding what kind of riding a person is going to do. That determines the type of motorcycle to buy. Sport bikes, the powerful high-speed types commonly referred to as "crotch rockets," sport tourers, almost as fast but designed for the long haul, standards (also called nakeds for the lack of body panels), cruisers, the iconic beefy American design. Adventure tourers, also called dual sports, which appeal to those who prefer the back woods and trackless deserts along with regular paved surfaces, dirt bikes, basic frame-and-engine designed purely for off-road use, and of course, the big baggers, the touring bikes which carry loads of luggage and every comfort and convenient device ever conceived for motorcycles.
A relatively new design, the trike, has made serious inroads into the marketplace. There are two types. The conversion types, manufactured by companies such as Lehman, take existing bikes and convert them to three-wheelers, putting the dualies on the back. The other type, familiar through the Canadian firm Bombardier, puts the dual wheels on the front. These provide a transition point for those moving from cars to bikes for the first time. They also make it easier for those aging folks whose legs are no longer strong enough to hold up a bike, but are not yet willing to give up The Ride. Also, having three wheels expands the weather parameters into conditions that ordinarily would leave the bike in the garage.
Price point, of course, is the primary driver for this choice. But the most important factor is the fit. The rider has to be comfortable, because the focus must be on the road, not on the body's aches, pains, and cramps. So the act of sitting on the bike can be the point at which the rider accepts or rejects a particular motorcycle.
You don't so much try out a motorcycle as much as you try one on. It's a lot like buying a pair of jeans. You know you're going to wear this thing for a lot of hours, so it better feel good. Riding positions range from the crouch and crunch of a sport bike, to the more upright posture of the sport tourers, tourers, and standards, to the feet-forward and reclined posture of the cruisers. Older riders find out that their knees won't take being bent up for long periods of time and they are required to seek out a more relaxed seating position. Seat height is also crucial because when one rolls to a stop, you have to be able to stand the bike up with one or both feet planted firmly on the ground.
These are all practical matters. But there is one consideration that sits at the heart of the entire decision process.
Riders all understand the phrase "two wheels feed the soul." There is a spiritual aspect to The Ride which is all but impossible to articulate, but deeply understood nonetheless. Even within the walls of a convention center, this effect can be seen.
The rider approaches the bike, carefully doing a walk-around. Putting the bag full of brochures, catalogs, and freebies on the floor, the hands grasp the grips, the leg swings over and the body settles into the seat. The controls are measured for comfort and control as the eyes scan the gauges. The bike is leaned upright, and then something amazing happens. The eyes soften, the face slackens just a bit. At that moment, the convention center has been replaced by an open road, a clear horizon, and a perfect day with nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there.
This is an exercise in visualization; the search for the answer, "Can I see myself riding this bike?" This is the decision point.
For most, the connection between rider and machine is more relationship than ownership. The exact reason for this is a bit hard to understand. Why is it that a collection of mechanical parts, fluids, and paint gets under a person's skin like this? We know it happens, but we never question it. After all, why question euphoria?
A motorcycle show is a great place to mingle with others who share the passion. In a world grown increasingly impersonal, its a place to feel connected, less alone.
And that's how it should be when a dream is shared.