If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

... two wheels move the soul

OK, back to the two-wheels-good, four-wheels-bad question.

What is it about a motorcycle that, for the person suitably attuned to it, makes it preferable to any other means of transport? Apart from the weather conditions mentioned in an earlier post, I would choose a bike over a car (or van, truck, bus, train or plane) for any journey at any time, pretty much.

The following lines from Robert M Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance get to the heart of it.

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.

He's talking about touring, but it's just as true of your morning commute, or a quick blast at the weekend. On a bike, you are there. You're in it, and part of it. I like the reference to "just more TV". That's exactly how it feels to me. In a car, you are surrounded by metal and glass, and the world you see is through a screen. It's out there and you're watching it go by. The more creature comforts your car has, the greater the effect of merely observing. You are in your living room: a comfy chair, a place to put your feet, a nice arm-rest, your choice of music on the stereo, temperature just right, smoke if you want, have a drink, eat a meal. And your windscreen is that box in the corner with the moving images on it. No wonder car drivers so often go to sleep at the wheel - you are in the perfect environment for a pleasant doze after lunch.

On a bike, you are in the landscape. You can turn your head and see through 360° without interruption. Lift your head and look at the sky. Look down and watch the dotted white line strobing past beneath your feet. You are 100% there. The first time you ride at night away from the city lights, it can even be quite unnerving. But it's real. There is no danger of falling asleep through boredom, let me assure you.

But although Pirsig was right, that's not the half of it. There are several other aspects (distinct but related) which seem to me to be just as important, and which differentiate biking from driving a car.

The movement on a bike is totally different. Not just the way that bikes have to lean into corners, that so upsets the ignorant. The whole way you fit your body round the bike, your hands and feet meet the controls (where millimetres really matter), and the fluid manner in which you make your rapid way down the road, are utterly unlike sitting in a car like a sack of spuds. In a car, you make the movements that tell it what to do with your hands (or even fingertips) and the balls of your feet. On a bike, it's the hands, balls of feet, insteps, buttocks, knees, thighs, shoulders, even the elbows and head. It's physical. Your whole body moves about, shifting weight, balancing here, pulling there, and this means you are completely involved in your progress. And this is all the normal, everyday stuff. When you get onto really fast riding, you can add hanging off the bike to move the C of G inwards, leaning forwards to keep the front wheel on the deck over a crest, and so on. It has been said that riding a bike uses as much energy as walking for the same time. I doubt that (look at how many lardy-arsed bikers you see, especially on GoldWings and Harleys), but it's way more than you use switching from Radio 4 to Classic FM in your Nissota ThrustBastard.

From this, you have a lot more controlling to do. If you let a car slow down to a stop, that's all it does. Stops. If you try that with a bike, it will fall over. The bike will do almost anything you want it to, but you have to play your part - you are never a passenger. You have to be in control at all times, or it will all go horribly wrong. That's not a bad thing - it's a good thing. Being in control is where we feel most alive. Now cars these days are so automated and idiot-friendly that you get the impression that a well-trained chimp could drive one - indeed, from what I see on my ride to work every day, they already are. There's a chime to tell you that you've left the door open, another to tell you your lights are on, another to gently (but increasingly naggingly if you don't do as you are told) tell you to put your seat belt on. There's power steering, and servo-assisted braking, and ABS, and auto-dimming mirrors, and even rain-sensing wipers and automated headlights. For fuck's sake, what is the driver left to do? Bikes, thankfully and as a generality, have escaped this gradual deskilling of the average motorist. If you want to ride a bike well, or even ride at all, you need skills, and the penalty for being unskilled can be quite severe.

I'll give one example - braking. In a car, you need to stop in a hurry on a wet road. You move your right foot from the accelerator to the brake and press as hard as you can. Four wheels keep you upright. ABS stops you skidding helplessly into the oncoming beer-truck, and you stop. Absolutely no skill involved. You do the same on a bike (right hand grabs the brake lever and squeezes, right foot stamps on the brake pedal) and all hell is let loose. The front wheel starts to slide and then tucks under. The rear wheel starts sliding in the opposite direction. The front of the bike heads earthwards, you are spat off to the side, and land on your head with the bike chasing you down the road, and if the beer truck doesn't get you, your own bike, in a brutal display of biting the hand that feeds it, will. At a low speed, this is merely painful and expensive. At motorway speeds, it probably time to cash in your life insurance and write a few letters to your loved ones. Oh, too late.

This is the kind of scenario that feeds the 'all bikes are dangerous' feeling amongst those who don't know. But I can tell you that on a wet road, and with the correct technique, you can brake the bike so hard that it will virtually stand on its nose, and come to a halt in a painfully short space (painfully if you are a gentleman, that is). For those interested, it involves braking firmly but progressively, allowing time for the bike's mass to transfer to the front tyre's contact patch, which then increases in size and grip, and will support the full force of the braking. But that isn't simple, like the childish stamping of the foot demanded by a car. It needs firstly understanding of the principle, and secondly a lot of practice, mainly to reprogramme the brain not to grab the brakes hard when danger appears. A lot of bikers practice thngs like this away from traffic, just so that they increase their life-preserving skills. And, of course, when the beer truck rounds the corner on the greasy February road, and you brake for your life, and the bike stops on a sixpence without drama, it feels really good.

Another aspect of this is the motion that the bike/body combination makes through space while turning a corner. Bikers love corners, bends, twisties, kinks, sweepers (there are almost as many words in the biker's vocabulary for non-straight bits of tarmac as Eskimos reputedly have for snow, and for the same reason). And this is because it is in a corner where the movement of a bike is most magical. In a car, you turn a corner and centrifugal force pushes your body sideways to the outside of the bend. It's not a comfortable feeling. Better cars have seats that hold you in place, but you still feel the sideways pull. On a bike, you have to balance the centrifugal force by leaning the bike inwards on the bend, and this means that the force on your body is only ever downwards as far as your body is concerned, a bit like banking in an aeroplane. A hard corner forces you into your saddle, never sideways off the bike. And so for your body's motion sensors, a fast ride on a bendy road is purely up and down, like a series of hills and dips (the kind of road that made you go "wheeeeeeeeeeee!" as a child) without any of the sideways lurches that you get in a car. It's smooth, it's poetic, and the greatest thing is that it is almost totally automatic. You don't think corner ahead, 60m radius, speed 30 m/sec, tilt bike leftwards by 18.5 degrees. You just do it. Some bikes steer quickly (think of a corner and you are through it), while the ones I tend to ride need a bit more pushing about, but the laws of physics always ensure that the angle of the dangle is sufficient to counteract the desire of the mass of metal to go straight on. I can remember learning to ride a bicycle as a child. I started off with my Dad running alongside holding the saddle, then I wobbled and crashed a few times, and then suddenly 'click', and I got it. And once you've got it, it never leaves you, which is why I think that the pleasure in riding a two-wheeler is almost innate.

Then there's the awareness. In a car, you occupy most of the road width, so you haven't much choice over where to be. On a bike, you can be almost in the gutter, or almost on the white line, or anywhere in between, depending on road surface, camber, debris, the sight-line into the next corner, the position of the car in front, whether there is a side road entering your lane ahead, oncoming traffic, all sorts. And it all requires decisions. Not the 'slightly left, straight bit, slightly right' of a car driver, but a continuous thread of choices based on what you see five, ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand yards ahead of you. There is a bend as I leave my workplace: smooth, grippy tarmac, slightly downhill, and inevitably with a spray of gravel across it. At the speed I am doing (not a lot, but enough to engage the brain), I have to take a different line through there every time, as the gravel is always in a different place. If I don't take care, and I hit a bit of gravel with either wheel, the bike skips about six inches across the road. Not the End Of The World As We Know It, but slightly unnerving. Tonight, someone had swept the corner, and I flew through it with the right-hand footrest gently dragging along the surface. When you get it right, it feels good.

And there's not only awareness of the road - there's the other road users too. You have to read the body language of cars and vans, trying to guess what their next move will be, and if the laws of physics will allow you to slip through that gap before it closes. And an awareness of the weather (car with headlights on, rain ahead, wet surface) and the landscape (telegraph poles take a sharp right, ready for a tight bend) and your own mental state (angry at boss, judgement clouded, decide against satisfying-but-risky overtake).

I could go on all night, and if you buy me a drink I probably will. But these are just some of the reasons why riding a two-wheeler is, for me, the only way from A to B. You're doing something for yourself, you're making active decisions that matter, rather than Pirsig's 'passive observer', you're turning an inanimate object and a slurp of petrochemical into fantastic motion. And this is an addiction. It gets deeply into you. The more you do it, the more you want - need - to do it. And that is why my bike - either of them - any bike - can move my soul in a way a car never could.

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