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Cycle-wary

Why I Love/Hate Motorcycles


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An old biker adage says there are two kinds of motorcycle riders: those who have been down, and those who are going down.

Bikers court danger; it’s part of the thrill of riding. And the axiom is their way of acknowledging the inevitable.

Spend enough time in the World of Two Wheels, though, and you become forcibly acquainted with a third category: Riders who have been down and down and down again. Knocked down and plowed down. Dragged behind trucks. Pinched between fenders. Raked across loose gravel.

Starshine Roshell

My dad falls into this category—tumbles into it regularly, in fact. Dad loves biking for its “illusion of flying” but too often experiences the “actuality of flying” while hurtling through an intersection face-first. The details of his many hospital-requiring collisions congeal in my memory; sutures blend into slings blend into surgeries. But I can recall with startling accuracy the sickening feeling of hearing him say, each time, “I’m really lucky. I should have been dead.”

Last week, two days after Dad’s 65th birthday, an SUV plowed through a red light, busting his clavicle in two. It wasn’t the first time he’d broken a clavicle. It wasn’t even the first time he’d broken that clavicle. But it was the first time I resented him for making me worry so much.

The thing is, I get it. I understand the allure. I grew up on a motorcycle. Dad had me riding his 1937 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead before I could walk, my car seat strapped to the sissy bar with bungee cords. When he picked me up from grade school on his chopper, my classmates stood at the fence and watched me climb on, start the engine, and gun the accelerator before we howled off.

He adapts his bikes with a “suicide” foot clutch and jockey shift lever made from a chrome sword handle. In a word, they’re bitchin’.

In college, I got a Class M license and piloted a Honda scooter around L.A. I had some near misses, frequently froze my throttle off, and could scarcely get to class when it rained. But I loved the bike’s alchemic ability to turn still air into bracing, skin-whipping wind. I loved zig-zagging between clunky sedans on clogged urban arteries and parking any-flipping-where I wanted. I loved leaning my body into the bends of the road and having a roller coaster at my fingertips.

Riding a motorcycle isn’t just exhilarating. It’s life-affirming, like riding a bullet. With the street a menacing black blur streaming just inches beneath your feet, you’re so close to danger it’s intoxicating. And like any good drug, it clouds your judgment.

Once, Dad took my young son for a ride. Outfitted in a leather jacket, skull-cap helmet, and the widest smile of his life thus far, my kid cruised Santa Barbara with his bugs-in-the-teeth granddad. Days later, alone in the saddle again, Dad was clipped by a truck and dragged across pavement for a dozen feet on the mangled hog.

He was really lucky. He should have been dead. The more he wrecks, the more I fret, but I can’t ask him to stop. Because the more he climbs back on, the more I realize how much he loves it.

Dad’s given up other vices: drinking, smoking. He’s trying to quit donuts. And this last wreck may have finally convinced him to hang up his helmet. “When it’s doing more to you than it does for you, it’s time to quit,” he told me recently, to my shock.

Hard to imagine Dad trading the illusion of flying for the reality of living. But I sure love the image of him zooming freely into a fourth category of biker: Those who are done going down.

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Starshine Roshell is the author of Keep Your Skirt On.

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