As my 50th approaches, I have decided to embrace the cliche-ness of it, mainly owing to having no better ideas. Decline and death await and I can think of no better way to respond than by behaving irresponsibly. Take that mortality! I will show you… sort of.
In that vein, I recently purchased my first motorcycle.
Originally, my thought was to take a ride on some sort of touring bike up the coast, visit Karen in Buellton, and maybe sleep under the stars at one of the State Parks she patrols. When I discovered a Gold Wing weighs slightly more than an adult elephant and can easily crush human bone into a fine powder, I realized that there were a few bugs in my plan. The things also cost more than I paid for my last car, so I was a bit concerned about depreciation should I find it less than fun.
So I scaled back and shopped around for a little “starter” bike to get my feet wet (hopefully, not with the blood spurting out of my severed femoral artery.)
As it turns out, what with the gas thing going on (have you heard? It’s like almost five bucks now!) practically every male inhabitant of Southern California was looking for the same bike, albeit for different reasons.
I visited some local dealers. “We don’t have any 250’s, and we won’t get any more until the 2009 models come out and we don’t know when we’ll be getting those. Why don’t you buy a “real” bike instead?”
Well, sir, because I’m a major pussy for starters.
I expanded my search radius out to fifty miles and eventually found a Suzuki GZ250 at a dealer in San Juan Capistrano. An hour drive, two hours of crapping around with paperwork, half hearted negotiations (hard to negotiate when there is a guy standing behind you saying, “Uh, I’ll take it if he don’t want it.”) followed by the usual plethora of signing one’s name, and I had overpaid for something I didn’t really need and everyone I had talked to about had assured me I would kill myself on. Woo-hoo!
I had to have them deliver it to my house – I wasn’t about to hop on it, and hit the freeway for forty miles on day one. In the meantime, I picked up a helmet, some gloves and a ten pound leather jacket with body armor sewn into the shoulders and forearms.
The guy dropped the bike off on Sunday and I rolled it into the garage. I found I could buy insurance online, and later in the day went off to Boot Barn to find some suitable footwear. (Warning, if you haven’t been, do NOT park your Prius at Boot Barn with your Obama ’08 bumper sticker. And try not to make fun of the cowboy hats they’re all wearing indoors. They will not hesitate to kick your ass. And they all wear special boots designed just for that purpose.) I ended up with some metal-reinforced, non-slip, above-the-ankles certified as appropriate for clamoring over heavy machinery.
If you ask anyone involved in motorcycling how to go about learning how to drive one, 9 out of 10 people will tell you to go to a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Class first. (The tenth guy will tell you it’s for pussies, which, in my case, pretty much makes it unanimous.) Unfortunately, given the surge in motorcycle popularity, and the ridiculously low cost of the course (it’s only $150 for fifteen hours, and that includes the motorcycle and the helmet) the classes are sold out for months. (I’m signed up for September 19th.)
So here I sit, with the jeans, and the gloves, and the jacket, and the helmet, and the steel toed boots, and the motorcycle permit, and the temporary registration and the shiny new motorcycle, but I’ve never ridden one and I won’t be learning how for seven more weeks.
I took a picture of it and posted it on my MySpace.
After about a half day of frustration, I figure, “I’m legally entitled to ride the damn thing on the street, so by dammit, that’s what I’m going to do.”
I did some research online first. Okay, a lot of research. I can’t say it helped build my confidence. Pretty much every other sentence about learning to ride a motorcycle ends with something to the effect of, “…and you will probably kill yourself.” The sentences in between regale you with fun anecdotes about perfectly preserved heads in helmets no longer attached to their owners and interesting facts enumerating how many feet of sliding it takes to scrape off your lower torso (not much, actually.) Not exactly the sort of information to put your mind at ease for that first taste of sweet freedom.
Eventually I was able to gather enough data to put together the theory of riding. It’s actually pretty complicated. You have balancing issues, turning, defensive driving, mirror scans, dealing with the helmet, road hazards, pre-ride mechanical inspections – and that’s before you even get to the clutch, gear shift, brakes and throttle. I limited my first day to locating all the controls and switches, turning it on in my driveway, and slowly easing it, in first gear, back into the garage. Mission Accomplished!
After twelve hours of resisting the urge, I threw caution to the wind. Or at least put it temporarily aside, neatly folded, in the back of my sock drawer. I put on all my riding shit (takes about ten minutes, lots of straps, snaps and zippers), pointed the thing towards the street, started it up, let out the clutch and off I went.
I stalled out once or twice on my first trip around the block, but I got it into second gear about halfway down the street. Some of my stops were a bit ugly and my clutch work was not winning any prizes, but I was doing what was required to make it go, and it was, in fact, going. In a few minutes, I was roughly circumnavigating my block and the one behind it. Did about five or six laps, even encountered a little traffic in front and behind, and drove it back into the garage.
After dark, I got up my nerve and drove it about a mile uphill on the main road to an elementary school parking lot. You’re supposed to get in 10-15 hours of parking lot practice before you venture out on the public streets. The parking lot was mostly empty and I did about 20-30 studious laps around it, practicing taking off, shifting into second and third and back down to a stop. Sounds pretty simple, but you get bored with it before you get good at it. Plus the shifter on the Suzuki is a little balky and sometimes isn’t in the gear you think it’s in (or any gear at all!) I gave it about 30-40 minutes before I headed home. On the way back down the hill I got all the way up to 4th gear (doing nearly 30 miles an hour!) before I put it away. The odometer was just clicking over from 8.9 miles.
I still have trouble getting into second, I’ve only used the pedal brake about twice and, on occasion, I will attempt to take off in neutral. But, mentally, I’ve already outgrown the 250. I know I’ve gone all of nine miles. But…
…I’m gonna need a bigger bike.