It was in that sparkling age of early adolescence that I first fell under the spell of motorcycle magazines. Tech manuals to chopper rags, they papered my walls with photos of wheelies and trophy chicks, they filled my nights with dreams of fuel and freedom. I had many flirtations, but only one subscription. To a tender young Hoosier, hunkered in a bathtub in southern Indiana, the words of Cycle magazine, written by Ivy League eggheads transported to the magic land of California, read like poetry from far pavilions:
With all that power and all that slinky, silky smoothness, those good looks and paint job that dares to call itself Olympic Flame and Silver and gets away with it, the Triumph is just about the rightest machine around . . . .
They can call this bike what they want: Rose Petal, Black Bart or Claude. But it's a Kawasaki, and it acts like a Kawasaki, and it feels like a Kawasaki. You know what that means: fast, tough and a trifle crude. Just the way we like it.
If you want a faithful servant, get yourself a Honda. But if what you want in a motorcycle is the mechanical equivalent of a good drinking buddy, one who'll lead you into temptation and punch you in the eye for letting life go to your head, a buddy who'll mess with your women, probably plunder your wallet, and make your days glow with raffish excitement . . . .
It was Cycle that first broke me loose, got me thinking about California. And when I graduated with a terminal degree in Let's Get Out of Here in the '70s, I bought a mottled blue 650 Yamaha--a poor man's Triumph--and set off on a pilgrimage to find the West.
I wrote a story, a fanciful piece about climbing Mt. Everest on a Husqvarna (which is basically a Swedish chain saw with a pair of wheels bolted on). Cycle World published it. I spent a year as an editor at one bike magazine, and about 15 minutes at another. Before long, I found myself with a desk, a chair, an office and a suit of creaking, tailored leathers hand-stitched with the logo of mighty Cycle magazine.
In the scrofulous world of "bike books," which makes your average gun show look like a philosopher's convention, Cycle was an oasis. The staff could actually spell, the editor pounded out famous words on an ancient Underwood, and he hand-tuned little 250 cc Grand Prix bikes, tiny and ferocious as alley cats, that raced against giant factory teams from Japan. He had stacks of racing slicks chained like Nubians to his workbench. He didn't even flinch at the word "scrofulous."
I also found it incalculably cool that the world's largest motorcycle magazine was run like a skunk works, operating out of a hole-in-the-wall address in a beige stucco business mall occupied by freelance aerospace machine shops. The office reeked of history and beat-up furniture, while in the garage lay 2,000 horsepower encased in motorcycles of every kind--a glittering, ever-changing corral of the latest thoroughbred dream bikes, waiting to be whipped through canyons, measureless to man, down to the sunlit, surf-babe Malibu sea. Gigazillionaires don't have it so good.
Motorcycles continued to be my ticket to a wider world, populated by a colorful collection of the only two types of people I know: geniuses and idiots. I met a trophy girl who could spot a winner on the starting grid before a race. ("While everybody else is puking," she said, "they're the ones that are always half asleep.") I met a champion racer who claimed Jesus rode on his handlebar, right next to the clutch. I witnessed a gang of towering German biker chicks in full black leathers, beer-drunk and roaring with laughter as they punched each other out at Oktoberfest. In his design studio near the dilapidated Harley-Davidson plant in Milwaukee, I interviewed revered motorcycle guru Willie G. Davidson, who explained why he liked to place a fuel tank glistening with 18 coats of hand-laid lacquer next to an engine that looked as if it had been hammered from the casting with a 20-pound sledge. "It's that tension of hard and soft, rough and smooth, raw and refined. It's like, well, Paul," he said, twinkling like some lascivious biker leprechaun, "it's like sex."
I survived and came to enjoy a taste of the pen's delicious, invisible power. The term "squid," a pejorative in use even today among the flaky brotherhood of Southern California canyon racers, came out of my typewriter. And one evening, on a popular television show about the perils of junior high, I was taken aback when my favorite character swung open his locker to reveal, taped inside, a stock hard-cornering "hero shot" that looked familiar. It was me, knee on the ground, bending through turn seven at Riverside International Raceway aboard some super-bike, doing my bit to corrupt a new generation.
Perhaps it was Cycle magazine's extensive insurance coverage, but I never worried about the razor's edge of riding. I was off on Planet Bike, protected by the gods who seem to enfold the testosterone clod in a temporary state of grace. I crashed and walked away in Italy and Japan, and felt a black 1000 Ninja lift up and begin to float beneath me on El Mirage Dry Lake at 160 mph. I also developed an almost daily association with the verities of real, outer-limit speed. Lesson One: If the bike's in shape, it doesn't matter what the brakes and tires are doing. Lesson Two: If the bike's out of shape, it doesn't matter what the brakes and tires are doing. There is no Lesson Three.
If you're lucky, you get to learn from other people's mistakes. And so it was that, as a grizzled Cycle veteran of four years, I found myself in the basement grotto of some mad king's castle in Bavaria, lounging around the natural hot springs with a gathering of fellow bike hacks ("the cream of the world's motorcycling press," read the invitation) as guests of BMW. It had been a hard day of visiting officially sanctioned terror upon the local countryside aboard the company's latest uberbikes, and now we were obliged to kick back, relax and take the waters at the grand resort.
To uphold their speed credentials, magazines tend to fill such assignments with their young Turks, whose job is to ride like hell and try not to drag their leathers in the soup. In this business it takes about 20 minutes to become an elder statesman, so it didn't come as much of a surprise that, in my 30s, I was the oldest in the room.
My second insight was more disconcerting. As the cream (or froth) of the world's motorcycling press cavorted in the king's steamy underworld, naked as jaybirds, I couldn't help but notice that this was a scene of carnage as from some terrible battle. Most of the men walked funny. One had a bent arm, another a crooked back. A couple had shoulders that went sideways. Someone else bore a livid purple scar that ran from his sternum to his pubic bone. In fact, I gulped, looking around, there was only one body left unbroken on this killing floor, and that was mine--my whole and beautiful body . . . .
When you start thinking that maybe there's a job where you can make one leetle mistake and not spend the next six months in traction, it's probably time to get out. Or perhaps the tug of time's eternal wheel tells you. Motorcycle sales had fallen off the graph, and even Cycle could not survive the merger fever of the '80s. The competition bought the magazine and moved us into palatial new offices befitting our premier status. Later they claimed that the offices were too expensive and rolled us into their "family" of shoddy publications.
It all happened quickly, and with the loss motorcycle books soon returned to their scrofulous ways. Jobs that were lucky to have the people were filled by people lucky to have the jobs. Several months after the death of Cycle magazine, I happened on my suit of glamorous, custom-tailored leathers hanging in the closet, still wearing a deep laceration along the left flank (rainy day at Willow Springs) and fell back in shock. "That," I thought, "is a uniform for a very dangerous job."
The traditional path for bike journalists in their spiral toward oblivion is to take a crack at cars, and some actually make it. I tried for a while and drove some of the coolest four-wheelers in the world: a Porsche Turbo on the autobahn, Miatas in Hawaii, souped-up Bentleys at Le Mans. And while I managed a workman-like competence, I never developed the knack for making a ton and a half of shrieking, squirming metal actually go fast--a talent that seemed to involve heavy doses of numb insensibility. Compared to the airy motions of motorcycles, cars at high speeds felt violent, hulking, scary.
British racer John Surtees, the only man to win Formula One championships on bikes and in cars, put it best: You come close to the unity of man and bike "in a Grand Prix car [at speed] in the rain. Only then was there the same sensitivity, the softness of controls. But even Grand Prix cars lack that delicate flow of messages a bike's always relaying, and you feel removed from the machine by contrast."
When I returned to private life, I kept my hand in with a sleek little 750 Ninja, a sign of real maturity, I thought; it topped out at a modest 155 mph in the thick dawn air of a deserted highway at the edge of the Mojave. Indeed, I felt this way about my warm and fuzzy road hatchet until the day I rode off to a rendezvous at a restaurant for lunch. I turned right onto Melrose Avenue, and then some sluggardly Toyota wandered into my path.
Any sport bike worthy of the name, you understand, possesses the ability to utterly erase such niggling wrinkles in the space-time continuum, so I gave the Ninja a little stick. The front end rose, just a little popper, about two-thirds up. The car blurred past on my left, I caught second gear, then started back down, waiting for that little chirp of rubber--like the sound airplanes make when they touch down--that is the hallmark of any righteous wheelie. Instead, from the front tire came a thin, ominous squall. And all of a sudden, things began to happen very slowly.
Crashing is like an earthquake: nothing makes sense for a second, then you know exactly what is going on. I'd set down on some off-kilter undulation in the pavement, almost invisible, but it was large enough to set the front end shaking. No problem: I braced both palms down, hard, against the handlebars. But the wiggle grew into a wobble, followed by a really ugly sideways oscillation. Then the bike just twisted itself out of shape. I remember thinking, "This could be a bad one" as I pushed off, watched it fall away and immediately began flailing around like a shrimp on a griddle, which is what you do when you go down at 50 mph or so on hot pavement in jeans and a T-shirt.
When I got out of the hospital, I hobbled down to the garage, put my boots on and kicked the Ninja hard in the front tire. "That," I said, "is for trying to kill me." I put it up for sale, never rode the thing again. To go down in traffic and come out with only a few stitches and a square foot or so of oozing "road rash" (optimally distributed, I noted somewhat proudly) felt like the tail end of a long lucky streak, and perhaps the onset at last of wisdom.
For a while I cast around for a replacement, something a little less spooky, a little more stately. But there wasn't one. Motorcycles were deep in their Baroque Period, with super-bikes so fast no one could uncork their otherworldly speed on Planet Earth. As for the cruising scene, the chrome just got bigger and more embarrassing, while the cult of flag-waving Harley riders with their Harley mugs, Harley tattoos and official Harley panties looked more like in-laws than outlaws to me.
Surprisingly, the absence of riding left no aching void. I settled instead for racquetball, long hot baths and the quiet joys of my wife's ratty Beemer, where I could talk on the phone, rock out to the radio and beat the dog against the door on fast left turns. I was filled, I suppose, with a survivor's love of life. I had drunk the jolly cup full measure, escaped my demons more or less intact and now was perfectly content to fade away into that great sweeping L.A. river of steel boxes on wheels. Motorcycles, well, they slipped off my radar screen.
To the hardy women who have made it this far in my tale of the unbearable Lightness of Biking, I beseech you now to listen: The human condition of the adult American male is to flail around in a room crowded with alligators in the dark, with three bullhorns blaring in his ear and a pile of stinging nettles in his pants. One is required to behave like an idiot almost every waking minute, and even if all seems secure, for every guy there is something--a drug, a woman, a low-draft fishing boat--that can make him rise up and abandon his sleeping babies in the middle of the night to prowl the angry streets. Like any hopeless addict, you pray that this will never happen. But then, of course, it always does.
For me, the deed took place on a quiet spring afternoon when I ambled, without an inkling of desire, into the showroom of Pro Italia Motorsports in Glendale, sat down on a Ducati 750 Monster and fell off the wagon.
To this day, I cannot tell you why. Something in the shape was primordial and bare ("Le naked bike classique" read the brochure), the way bikes used to be and yet dripping with the latest hardware. The front end, for instance, put so many trick pieces together in one place that you almost had to turn away to take it all in. And there was something about the paint color, a shell of egg yolk yellow, that looked 4 feet thick.
Or perhaps it was, quite simply, Italian. All I know is, from the moment my hands touched the bars, I felt something snap into place inside me, something so primal and familiar that, with a shiver, I understood: I was lost without it. I had to have that bike. I was standing on a precipice in a high wind, preparing to jump and, at that moment, a voice cut through the vertigo: "In two months you will be 50," my wife said, appearing like an angel, leaning lightly over my left shoulder. "Why don't you just . . . buy it?"
Can a lifetime change in a single moment? Yes, it can. After a decade spent clutching a steering wheel and coffee thermos, I was riding home on a new Ducati, the tight, fresh engine singing beneath me. The freeway, at first a rush, soon became hair-raising. Every bump and hole in the pavement came pounding through the handlebars, and the wind howled like a hurricane. Even little old ladies, adjusting their air-conditioning under glass at 80 mph, looked like craven speed maniacs to me. I got home, rolled the Monster into the garage and spent the rest of the day in a kind of stupor, torquing and retorquing the axle nuts.
It took more than a month to put on the 600 miles required for the Monster's break-in period. But that was fine with me. I was breaking in too, dusting off old skills and learning the nature of my beast. The bike was perfect: light, agile, quick. Its feel was direct and mechanical, like an extremely well-made farm implement. Pulling from idle, the rhythm of thumps and clicks even sounded like a tractor. And unlike the styling of Japanese sport bikes, which fling pieces together as if the bikes have been wadded up, the Ducati looked simple, flowing, almost too beautiful to crash.
It felt trusty, safe and, when I finally turned my Monster loose to explore its upper register above 6,000 rpm, I also discovered something so long-buried and beguiling that it stood my neck hairs on end: I still knew how--the knowledge seemed to flow from my wrists and ankles--to ride like the wind.
But guess what? I didn't. It wasn't for lack of temptation. A little pianoforte at the Ducati's controls, and it would spin out arching, sky-high wheelies, brake like a draft horse and lean over until my ears drained. I slipped inside my trusty Cycle leathers and tried it all, leaving streaks of sliding rubber on my favorite turns. But after a single hour of canyon racing, I slowed down and, well, just stayed there.
Strange. It was like seeing a movie years later through different eyes. The chorus of inner voices that used to goad me while on a motorcycle ("Wimp! Go faster!") were now accompanied by a stronger, deeper voice that said, simply, "Buzz off." And that made all the difference.
Since those early, lonely rides out to the reservoir when I was a boy in Indiana, I have always been drawn to deserted back roads. Once it was to fly faster than the traffic; now it is to move more slowly. In the saddle, I find myself inclined to float and dawdle, to play the childhood game of flipping pebbles with the tires and sing Nirvana inside my helmet. I still can't resist a good cork-popping wheelie now and then, or to touch a knee on the pavement, or take a little sip of scaryfast. I'm not sure if it's me or the Monster that does these things, but there ought to be a word for Just Showing Off When There's Nobody There.
Some days I feel like Zeus, and some days I feel like Sandra Day O'Connor. But it doesn't seem to matter: I am squared away, I am good to go. If this is the final act of motorcycling, then it is also the best--ripe with wisdom and surprise, sharp applause, joy and a certain kind of flinty, hard-earned grace. In the end, who could have guessed that the memories were still alive and strong? Who knew that gray hair and black leather would go so well together, that the bikes would be so beautiful, or that there would be so many places left to go?
So on the day that I turned 50, I took a ride. I rode into the mountains, up to where the air is crisp and the sky turns blue-black and sharp, like photographs from outer space. In the thin air of 7,000 feet, the Monster felt as if it were growing lighter, running fat. It was making maybe 40 horsepower, tops. But they were 40 of the sweetest little horses, fluttering like birds, so smooth and soft the sound was almost lost in the rush of cooling wind.
At a small mountain town I turned northwest, following a ridge of escarpment descending in narrow switchbacks to the desert floor. Running downhill the bike was growing stronger, pulling at a steady canter that seemed to flow into the landscape, a rush of bright and dusty yellows following the meanderings of a dry riverbed.
I took the freeway to a canyon, tacking back and forth and over the top, and down again toward the glossy ocean. Together we pulled up on a rocky promontory beside the sea and watched the surfers. I listened to the sounds of the waves and to the engine, pinging with heat, and, as the sun turned, I did reach across and stroke its flank and say, "There, there."
Little Monster, full of dreams. It can take me to the edge of this blue ocean, through the heat of desert winds and up into the cathedral of mountains waiting to fall upon Los Angeles--up into thin air so high, so free, so close to God that I can almost see His face.
And it can take me home.