I didn’t ride a real, clutch-and-shift motorcycle until I was fifteen years old, when I managed to cajole a friend of a friend into letting me ride his 250 dirt bike around my neighborhood for an afternoon. Nor have I ever received any in-person instruction in motorcycle operation. Not to worry; I learned the skill by osmosis, watching two episodes of Eighties television. The first episode was the episode of Miami Vice where Danny Sullivan races a Ninja 600 against his father in a parking garage. From that, I learned body positioning and the idea that motorcycles steer by turning towards the apex at low speeds and away from the apex at high speeds. (This idea, known as countersteering, is apparently controversial. Some people really think that you steer a bike at freeway speeds by turning, not leaning.)
That’s an important lesson, but the critical thing, the knowledge that allowed me to ride away on that dirt bike without embarrassing myself, came from an episode of “Simon and Simon”. You probably don’t remember this, but “Simon and Simon” is basically a TV show about what would happen if Bark M. and I opened a private detective agency. The older brother is an unrefined boor who waves a .44 Magnum around and drives a Dodge Power Wagon — that would be me, of course. The younger brother is very suave and handsome and doesn’t like to get his hands dirty.
In one episode, they’re chasing a bad guy who hops on a motorcycle and rides away. There are two Harleys sitting around so the brothers jump on. Now, of course the younger Simon has no idea how to operate a Harley so the older brother yells, as he’s riding off in pursuit,
“There’s nothing to it! First is down, the other four are up!”
When I was twenty-two years old, I bought a Ninja 600 like the “Miami Vice” bikes, only in the slightly cooler black-and-red paint scheme. I rode the Ninja for two years before selling it. My next bike, which I bought at the age of twenty-eight, was a cafe-racer CB550. The following year, flush with money from Year 2000 consulting, I sold the CB, paid cash for a new black YZF600R, and bought my brother-in-law’s Honda CM250 Rebel from him. The following year, I sold both of those bikes so I could make room in my garage for a Lotus Seven clone.
For a decade, I didn’t own a bike. Then, motivated by middle-aged restlessness, I bought Kellee, my second CB550.. Kellee was absolutely wonderful — but her fuel tank sprung dozens of pinhole leaks and by the end of the summer in 2013 it wouldn’t hold more than a gallon of gas at a time. So I resolved to fix the issue in the spring of 2014, but fate intervened in the form of my January crash. That set me back a full year. I bought a new fuel tank for Kellee a few months ago, and I made plans to have a friend of mine help me get her back into running condition.
Those were my motorcycling plans for 2015 — but when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to trade him a guitar (and a few bucks) for a VFR800 25th Anniversary, I couldn’t refuse. The 25th Anniversary Interceptor, with its paint scheme that harks back to the VF750R and VF1000R bikes of my teenaged dreams, is my favorite version of one of my favorite bikes. More importantly, unlike the Ducati 1198 Pangiale Tricolore that is also one of my favorite bikes, I can ride it without too much pain.
The bike arrived last week. It’s rained pretty much every day since then.
I got caught in the mother of all Ohio severe thunderstorms last Wednesday night and I have to admit that it frightened me a bit. Still, the VFR proved to be a capable all-weather Interceptor (get it?) and we made it home just fine.
In my mid-forties, I’ve become a remarkably docile rider. The front wheel of the VFR hasn’t left the ground and the speedometer hasn’t registered anything over 95mph. I watch the traffic around me and I’m defensively courteous. I ordered the top-spec Arai helmet that I couldn’t afford in my early twenties and a high-visibility Fieldsheer all-weather jacket with armored back, elbows, and chest.
When the aforementioned items came in stock yesterday, after my son’s sixth birthday party, I took him with me to pick up the goods. Of course, he found this:
That’s a Yamaha PW50. Watching him pretend to ride it filled me with conflicting emotions, which I shall describe thusly:
* I wanted a motorcycle for pretty much every moment of my childhood, but my Brooklyn-born father was no more going to get me a dirt bike than he was going to take me to the Grand Ole Opry. It goes without saying that nobody in my entire extended family has ever owned a motorcycle, except for me, the official White Trash Baruth.
* 50cc motorcycles are very fast and the neck of a just-turned-six-year-old child is fragile and that, to me, is a bad and dangerous combination.
* But if he doesn’t learn about motorcycles from me, he’ll do what I did when he’s a teenager — he’ll find a bike to ride and I won’t know about it or have any way to make sure he’s riding safely.
All the way home from the bike shop I thought about this. Meanwhile, John was talking about motorcycles non-stop. Although he thought my VFR was “the dumbest motorcycle ever”, he really liked the dirt bikes and the Monster-style Ducatis. John is remarkably sensitive to things like this; he can tell, somehow, that the VFR is an old man’s motorcycle. He immediately and correctly identified the 160-horsepower GSXR-1000, the fabled “Gixxer thou” of my adult dreams, as “much cooler than your motorcycle”.
He also liked the Ninjas and I recalled that Power Wheels makes a “Ninja” four-wheeler so we stopped by Toys R Us on the way home. Once he was there, however, he immediately went for the two-wheel electric dirt bikes. After trying on a few for size, we settled on an “Avigo Extreme 24 Volt”.
When we got home, I assembled the thing, made sure it didn’t have too much charge in it, and then I gave him a long lecture about responsibility and not twisting the throttle too hard. “You’re going to crash this today, so make sure you’re going slowly.”
While he prepared to roll off, I thought about the call I’d gotten from my own father when I bought my Ninja. The old man was so angry he could barely speak. At the time, I attributed this anger to fifty percent middle-class disdain for sportbikes and fifty percent his desire to make sure I never enjoyed a moment of my life in any fashion. As John spun the back tire on the damp grass next to my house and rode away, with me running in pursuit, I realized that Dad’s super-uncool behavior was actually one hundred percent fear of having his son killed.
“SLOW DOWN! SLOW DOWN! SLOW! SLOW! SLOW!” But I needn’t have worried. John was apparently born to operate a motorcycle. He could ride it slowly, he could ride it quickly, he could turn it, he could manipulate the 62-pound bulk of the thing, he could pick it up when it fell over.
We went over to the meadow behind my house and John showed me that he could ride up and down hills. When he chose a hill too steep for the charge-depleted motor to conquer, he jumped off and let the bike slide down behind him like he’d been hill-climbing for a decade.
Two grade-school children from our neighborhood walked out of their houses and just stared at him with a caged-up middle-class longing I remembered from when I was eleven and my fourteen-year-old at school got mopeds. (Yes, I managed to cajole my way onto a moped back then as well. It’s a wonder I survived.) John rode for twenty minutes or so, becoming increasingly bold and terrifying with the throttle, until I called time on things and we walked the bike back home.
“Did you know, Dad, that I saw a video at the motorcycle store while you were looking at the other motorcycles and it showed me that you can jump motorcycles over things and do flips and take your hands off the handlebars and jump into lakes and…”
“You,” I interrupted, “cannot do any of those things!”
“Someday I can,” he responded, with the unspoken and you won’t be able to stop me hanging in the air between us.
“Well, maybe someday… someday you can. But today, we have the scariest trick of all time ahead of us, after we put the motorcycle away.”
“What’s that, Dad?”
“We have to tell your mother about this.”