Motorcycles, Though They Clearly Might Kill You, Are Hard To Give Up
Growing up, my dad always had motorcycles. The one I remember best was his 1980 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide. If you look at the picture, with me pretending to rev it up, you can see why.
The thing had friggin’ flames on it.
The story, as my dad would tell it to me, is that they only made three of these custom things at the factory, and that it was the first factory custom Harley did. They did it to celebrate the new model year for this bike.
To seven-year-old me, it was most awesome thing I had ever seen. The roar of the pipes, the rattle and sputtering of the engine, it was amazing.
I’d sit on the back, holding tight to my dad with one hand as he’d race down the street, ripping the gears. I’d lift the other hand up into the air, making a fist, yelling “Rise it and keep it there!”
I don’t know what I meant by it, but it stuck, and I still find myself saying it over thirty years later.
My mom didn’t want us to have motorcycles
When I was three, my Dad was riding his 1972 Honda Scrambler CL175 in the backyard when something happened.
To this day, he doesn’t know what caused it, but he flipped forward over the handlebars and landed hard on his face and his spine.
My dad couldn’t walk.
“I broke my face and my back,” he told me the other day when I called him to ask about it.
“Well, obviously your face never healed,” I quickly retorted.
“Ha. Funny guy.”
I was too young to remember, and my dad was too dazed from the accident, but somehow my mom got the three of us got to the hospital, where eventually my dad was able to walk, but one of his vertebrae was seriously damaged.
“The doctor said his tongue was black and blue, all the way down,” my Mom told me, “It was awful. He tried to shrug it off like he was fine. But clearly, he wasn’t.”
There was a “no more motorcycles” decree set forth by my mom.
Nearly 40 years later, the part of his body that hurts the most for him, every single day, even after surviving prostate cancer, is his back. Motorcycle injuries never really heal. Motorcycles can kill you.
My parents got divorced about five years later.
First thing my dad did? He went out a bought a new motorcycle.
My First Bike
I don’t remember what the equivalent of craigslist was in 1983, but whatever it was, my dad used it to buy me a very-used 1977 Honda Z50A.
The little trail bike that we bought from some guy in the woods — I wasn’t even 10 yet, so I don’t remember where exactly, but it felt pretty woodsy for suburban Boston.
1984 Suzuki DS 80
That little Honda didn’t last long, maybe under a year, and the whole time it was breaking down and under need of constant repair.
So, my dad decided for my birthday and Christmas combined present, he’d buy me a brand new bike.
This little Suzuki remains the most favorite bike I’ve ever owned.
Off-road and trail riding is a million times more fun that street riding. When you’re on a dirty trail in the woods, going 40 feels like going 100, and your whole body is tested. Want to make a hard turn? Slow down, plant your leg, pivot — so good. You can’t do that on the street.
That bike was so much fun. We had BMX trails down the street from our house and I used my bike on all of them, and helped make them.
I’d hold the front brake, apply pressure, give it gas and use the back wheel as a crazy rotary-shovel, digging into the dirt making jumps and ramps.
And once those jumps were built? I’d jump over neighborhood kids.
Don’t let anyone tell you the late 70s and early 80s weren’t a dangerously magical time. Because they were.
Our hero was Evel Knievel, who’d famously jump over busses, cars, flames and more, while a nation of onlookers sat glued two feet from the TV.
Five neighborhood kids laid down on the ground right next to the two-foot dirt jump we’d made, looking up in fear and wonder. I’d get a good start, gun it and hit the jump flying — about five feet above them.
It’s a wonder none of us were ever killed.
I rode that bike every day after school for years.
I don’t actually remember when that bike finally left the family. I think I might have blocked it out as too traumatic, but more likely I physically out grew it. It was a pretty small bike. So, my dad sold it.
Then I entered the longest motorcycle-less period of my life. My next bike wouldn’t arrive until after I graduated college.
1978 Honda CB750A
I didn’t know they made automatic motorcyles until I bought one.
I was driving my 1974 Dodge Dart with a carload full of punks (six of us in all) from Olympia to Seattle to see a Sleater-Kinney show at The Velvet Elvis when we started hearing some rumbling in the back of the car.
“Do you guys hear something banging?”
I lost power seconds later, and heard metal clanging. Looking in the mirror, I saw pieces of the crankshaft on the ground behind me. I pulled over. The car wasn’t going to make it to the show.
A small bus pulled over almost immediately after it happened, saying they saw our trouble. The punks got on board and headed towards Seattle. My girlfriend at the time and I stayed behind. We were in Lakewood, so we walked to the nearest exit to see if we could call tow truck.
The first place we stumbled across was a used motorcycle shop.
“Do you even know how to ride a motorcycle?” she wondered.
Of course I do, I told her, and we bought the cheapest one they had. It was already beat up, had a dented tank, but seemed to run decent enough.
Spent $700 on the bike and another $60 on two cheap helmets.
I didn’t have a motorcycle license at the time, so we opted to press our luck and skip the Sleater-Kinney show.
She climbed on the back, grabbed on and we rode back to Olympia. It was fun as hell.
It was like falling in love again.
I rode that bike everywhere and all the time. Never really adopting proper riding gear, either, I’d often cruise around town in just a t-shirt and shorts. If helmets weren’t required by law, I wouldn’t have worn one.
Honda’s legendary reliability had me convinced I’d own the bike forever.
Eventually, though, things literally started falling off the bike.
I was working in Tacoma and had a 30 minute or so drive to work each day. There was a handful of us making a similar commute, so often we’d end up seeing each other on the highway and get into a bit of a casual race.
On the last such race, against a woman from marketing driving a late model Acura, I was topping out at over 80 MPH when the brake fluid reservoir — a little plastic container mounted on the handle bars that holds the hydraulic fluid used to stop the bike — broke off and was dangling off the handle bars, swinging back and forth rapidly, whacking me repeatedly in the hand.
Bikes as an Infections Disease
Driving that bike to work every day had an unintended side-effect on a few of my co-workers.
They went out and bought motorcycles, too.
There ended up being, I think, five of us who worked at that job who ended up riding motorcycles every day.
2005 Triumph Bonneville
I was able to fix the brake fluid reservoir, but other things kept breaking. It got to the point where it didn’t feel safe riding it anymore (and that’s saying something, since at the time I was still fairly sure I was immune to any sort of injury). I ended up riding it less and less. Things like “oh, some gas is dripping causing little fires when it hits the pipes” meant no one else was really willing to ride it with me, either.
So, I started thinking about buying a new bike.
An all-new bike. I hadn’t had one of those since I was 10.
I went to the Triumph dealer and put a brand new 2005 Triumph Bonneville on my credit card and rode off.
Picking the triumph was fairly easy. I realized long ago that I wasn’t a Harley man like my dad. And, Honda didn’t really make anything in the style of their 70s bikes anymore. The best looking bike at the time was the Triumph, who just a couple years before had reintroduced their classic look with updated internals.
I loved that bike.
It made me feel like a kid again.
Okay, well, maybe not that young.
But it was great, and I put over 10k miles on that thing without incident.
For almost half a decade, I’d take an annual trip from Seattle down to Las Vegas on it with buddies (the ones from the Tacoma job who got their bikes after seeing me ride everyday), and I’d ride it as much as I could. For a while, when we first moved to Portland, it was my only vehicle.
I even had a ridiculous-looking one-piece jumper I’d wear so I could stay relatively dry in Portland’s rain. Things were great.
Trigger warning: This next part gets a little graphic.
A car had decided at the last minute to take a right instead of the left they were signaling for, and didn’t see me in the lane next to them. I saw their front bumper about to crash into my leg so I swerved and accelerated. The car hit my rear tire instead, sending me sliding. My helmet, my left hand, and the bike took the brunt of the damage.
My head slid into the curb, my hand was bloodied, but I was okay enough to stand. I was a little disoriented and I tried to get my helmet off, but more what I was doing was just covering it in blood.
Now my wife and I were both at the gallery opening, and she was driving home at the same time. She was two cars behind me.
When your wife arrives at the scene and sees your helmet covered in blood, and when they have to cut your wedding ring off so they could x-ray your hand, well, it becomes time to get rid of your motorcycle.
Insurance agreed with my wife, and since the bike was considered totaled, I cashed out. I bought a pinball machine instead.
2014 Triumph Scrambler
Once in your blood, though, it’s hard to stop riding. And in this case, I’m clearly my father’s son.
Every few months, I’d ride out to the Triumph dealer and check out the bikes. I missed riding, but decided it wasn’t worth the money and hassle.
Until one sunny weekend, three years after my accident, when we were at the Triumph dealership (again), the saleswoman said to me, casually, “You know, we have a great deal on financing right now. Would you like to see if you qualify?”
0.9% is a hard rate to pass up, I mean, it’s like free money.
That was the argument I made with my wife, who replied, “Do whatever makes you happy.” I love her, because it wasn’t that sarcastic “Don’t buy a motorcycle” at all, it was her recognizing that I did really want it.
So, I found myself once again buying a motorcycle.
This time with two helmets, one for me and one for my son.
“Vinnie,” I asked him one day, “What’s your favorite part of riding the motorcycle? Is it the speed, taking the corners, the wind in your hair?”
“My favorite part is doing this as we pass people: 👍”