In my life, whenever I was feeling low, my mom would tell me to go do something I really enjoyed doing. And as we all know, moms are always right. So, in my thirties, I played some guitar. In my forties, I felt pretty good, so I didn’t even think about this advice. But in my fifties, I was looking for something I really enjoyed, so after a thirty-year layoff, I re-entered the world of motorcycles. Mid-life crisis or just ran out of things I really liked to do? I don’t know and honestly, I don’t care. I loved riding when I was a kid, and now that I had a chance to do it again, I decided to go for it. Usually, I can analyze any idea to death, and more often than not, I would miss the window of opportunity. This time I philosophized from one extreme, “This is really a stupid idea Frank” to the other “Life is too short so grab it while you can Frank.” I rationalized about the gas savings (spend $15,000 to save $30 per week IF I really do ride it to work every day) and the traffic maneuverability (this was really a stretch). I was getting sucked into another procrastination disappointment.
I talked to Irina, my wife, and she said yes, so I was in business. (In my home, I have a saying, “If momma is happy, everybody is happy.”)
Three weeks before my 56th birthday, I picked up my new motorcycle. I bought a Harley. No sport bike (it just looks uncomfortable) and no BMW/Goldwing touring (just not my style) but a genuine, all-American, rumbling, shaking, Harley Davidson. My heart wanted a chrome monster Softtail but my budget dictated a Sportster. [Mistake: Everyone told me that when you start with a Sportster after about 6 months you will want to upgrade to the big Harley. They were right.]
In the Harley family of motorcycles, the Sportster is the entry-level ride. It comes in two main flavors, the 883 cc, and the 1200cc. I bought the more powerful (read expensive) 1200 cc because I had heard some bikers call the 883 cc a girl’s bike. [Mistake: Who cares what they say, the 883 looks like a 1200, is just as fast, and is less expensive.]
My very own Sportster 1200 Custom, black and chrome, Screaming Eagle Stage 1 with the HD 100th Anniversary tank, and a bunch of other motorcycle stuff that I had no idea about. It was a thing of pure beauty. The dealer rolled it out of the showroom and gave me the keys. My wife, Irina, had my shiny new full-face helmet in her hands as I just stood there grinning at her. The experienced dealer had left us alone to enjoy this moment of passage in privacy. Well, after all, it was a life milestone, wasn’t it? Buying a new Harley ranked right up there with birth, marriage and your first kiss.
I swung my leg over and sat on 540 pounds of American engineering that was just a moment away from starting up and opening a new chapter in my life. I call this chapter My Harley Years and hopefully, not My Stupid Guy Years.
Street jacket, Levis, my old hiking boots, and my wife Irina handed me my shiny new helmet. (Mistake: Too many riding gear mistakes to list here, check out my matrix.) I put the helmet and the gloves on and started it up. Wow, what a feeling! My own Harley was throbbing and roaring and I was ready to ride home with Irina following me in the car.
I made it out of the Harley dealer’s parking lot without crashing and turned right on the highway, I ran it through the gears, and I was on the road.
Having just completed the IMF motorcycle safety course three weeks ago, I had enough recent experience riding that I was able to remember which way to shift (up or down?) and how to keep it vertical. However, the safety course, which was one weekend (with 8 hours of class and 8 hours of riding), was on a Honda Rebel, a 250 cc, 300-pound cruiser. Quite a bit easier to handle than the Sportster I was riding today.
The safety course had reminded me of a lot of the fundamentals and taking that course was the smartest thing I ever did in preparation for My Harley Years.
I had about ten miles of pleasant weather on a two-lane country highway between me and home. The traffic was light, and I was hitting fifty-five, staying in the slow lane, knees in, buffer zone all around me between the cars, focused on the ride and scared. Yes, it’s true, I was scared. I had not performed the startup checklist. (Mistake: Always check your machine before you ride.) Were the tires inflated properly or would they spin-off, shredding in the chain and flipping me over the handlebars at fifty-five mph? Did I even have a chain? Did I have the correct oil level, or would the engine seize up, again flipping me over the handlebars at fifty-five mph? Would I hit a pothole, stopping the motorcycle dead in its tracks and flip me over the handlebars at fifty-five mph?
Every possibility I could think of ended up with me airborne over the handlebars at fifty-five mph. This got to the point where I was the thing about flipping over the handlebars so much that just thinking about it may make it happen because I was so distracted.
In between the flipping anxiety, I did experience the thrill that I wanted from riding. The feeling of freedom (mixed with the anxiety of flipping), the wind trying to blow on my face through the full-face helmet (well there was a little coming through the face shield seal), and the Zen quality of inter peace (mixed with the flipping anxiety).
A dozen stoplights, one or two quick rearview mirror looks to make sure Irina was still in hot pursuit, and I rolled into our driveway.
Which switch turned it off? Did I put down the kickstand before I got off? Eventually, as Irina pulled up in our car, I was standing beside the new Sportster with my first ride under my belt. I was an experienced biker and I loved it.
That was five years ago and, like the song says, “I wish I knew then what I know now”.
I wish I knew about the motorcycle “going where you look”, never using the front brake at low speeds, what in the world is the friction zone, and a whole bunch more.
So that is how I started what I call my “Harley Years”. I am sure that every rider has a similar story, and I am also sure that every rider wishes they could start out with five years of riding experience under their belt on that first ride. There is no substitute for experience and the only way to get that experience is to do it.