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The engines of joy

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On January 9th 2006, while riding my motorcycle to work, I had an accident. I thought the car ahead of me in the left-hand lane was going to swerve into my lane. That was not true, but I acted upon this false impression and I hit the front brake hard. The front wheel froze, the tire lost traction, the bike fell on the left side. I hit the road and tumbled a dozen times or more. The bike was a total loss. I was rushed to the hospital - the result: broken right ankle, broken left collarbone. I underwent surgery to fix my ankle, which put a metal piece in my foot and several screws to keep together the shattered bones. I had to do many months of physical therapy to recover the ankle, which may or may not be ever the same - it's too early to tell now, about 9 months later, although I made huge progress and the prospects look good. My own god damn fault, this whole affair, but that's not the topic of these pages.

And yet, one of the things I often - nay, I permanently dream about is to get back in the saddle. Keep reading to find out why.

I realize it's hard to describe the experience of riding a motorcycle. When I started riding, I had no idea what it meant.
I was always fascinated with fast vehicles. In school, I entertained dreams of building a go-kart, but the economic realities of the place and time I grew up in didn't allow such expensive plans to become real. But there was definitely something incredibly exciting about driving fast, something which didn't leave me when I grew up.

Fast forward many years later - I am a grown up man, family and all. One day I am visiting a friend who had just bought a motorcycle. It was a Kawasaki Ninja 250, an interesting choice, since it's shaped like a fast sportbike but has a pretty tame engine - about 36hp, top speed around 100mph (160km/h) - very user-friendly controls and it's quite lightweight at about 300lb (135kg) - overall, the perfect learning device for those who want to eventually graduate to more powerful machines.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kawasaki_Ninja_250R

I knew nothing about motorcycles, I had no idea what the Ninja 250 actually was, besides the fact that it was a bike and it looked good. I'm not sure why, but I got totally hooked. I just had to have a bike.

One day I may be able to freely explain my decision, but not now, since I am still in the same situation like 3 years ago. Suffice it to say that the bike that I got was quite different.

It was the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R. Same brand - Kawasaki - and still a Ninja. But a very different "animal". This was a "real" sportbike and, while it ranked among the small sportbikes, at nearly 100hp and 636cc, and revving up to 15,500 rpm, the engine seemed to me formidable, especially since it was mounted on a comparatively lightweight frame, 360lb (160kg). The vehicle was insanely fast - there are no "official" details on the top speed, but I've heard numbers in the vicinity of 160mph (260km/h) or more, which I was later on able to verify in practice. It has also been determined that this bike can go from 0 to 60mph (from 0 to 100km/h) in about 3.1 seconds, and can do the 1/4mile (400m) from full stop in a bit more than 10 seconds, if handled by a competent rider - numbers comparable to the fastest production sport cars nowadays.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kawasaki_Ninja_ZX-6R

In hindsight, this was a very bad decision. I was a totally inexperienced rider and this was a machine built for one purpose: to go to the race track, run the race, make no compromises, and win. No concessions to the newbie. No "forgiving" controls. A machine made for the expert racer. A merciless killer, built to conquer.

Still, I didn't lose my mind completely. I did the riding school with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which was an extremely good idea and something I recommend to every prospective rider. Loads of fun, too! I actually did it twice in about a year, just for kicks.

I was very fortunate to find an on-line community of motorcycle riders - South Bay Riders - which is pretty different from the typical bikers' forum: the SBR folks are, on average, mature and reasonable people who give a lot of thought to safety. Some of them are very fast and skilled riders, and any advice from such a person is valuable. I signed up and started listening, then soon I was asking questions.

All stars were aligned properly and I was ready.

Finally, I started to ride my own ZX-6R. I was blown away by the experience.

First off, a motorcycle, any motorcycle, is very different from a car. In a car, you're walled off, isolated from the environment, traveling in a little closed bubble away from wind, rain and temperature changes. Caged in the glass box, you're like many miles away from the places you're going to. Not so with the bike.

On a bike, it's like driving and walking at the same time, combining the best of both worlds. You go as fast as in a car, yet are immersed in the environment as you were taking a walk. You feel the wind, the heat and the cold, and hear the noises around you. Roads that are bland and boring in a car, become huge sources of fun on a bike.
A fast thoroughbred sportbike adds yet another dimension to all that.

My first contact with the 6R was exhilarating and scary at the same time. Being essentially a street-legal racing vehicle, the Ninja sportbike has a very "nervous" throttle: squeeze it a couple millimeters and BANG! the engine takes off with all its might. Or so it seemed. I was doing a mere 50mph (80km/h) and it felt like at least twice. The wind seemed like it was hellbent on ripping my ass off the saddle. And it didn't help that I was riding a racing bike, capable of an acceleration matched only by sport cars that cost $100,000 or more.

I had to build up speed and confidence very gradually. Over the course of several weeks, I went from a top speed of a whopping 40mph (65km/h) - I didn't have the guts to go faster than that at first - to 50, then 60, then more. That was a significant threshold that I had to step over. By the time I reached 100mph (160km/h) speed per se was not an issue anymore, from a psychological standpoint.

The first time I hit the powerband I almost fell off the bike. It's a characteristic of any internal combustion engine that the power increases with the rotation speed - the faster the engine is spinning, the stronger it becomes. But, for normal engines such as those on average cars, the power increase is gentle and not very high. On a sportbike, it's very steep, and keeps on climbing and climbing... and climbing. It's essentially like, past a certain point, a huge power wakes up and hits the bike in the ass shooting it forward. That's the powerband.
I knew about it theoretically. But the practice was something else entirely. My bike was just past the break-in period and I was free to rev it up as much as I wanted to. One day, I took a turn and entered one of the main roads in the area. Since nobody else was around and I was alone on the road, I squeezed the throttle deeply. HORROR! The bike blasted off ahead, and it was just my quick reflexes that made me hold on for dear life and saved me from embarrassment or even injury.
The novelty of the powerband wore off quickly and I learned to control the bike. But the huge adrenaline rush remained the same. The bike leaping forward full blast is one of the best things I ever experienced.

Then came the "twisties".

There's something about the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area which makes it one of world's motorcycle hot spots - it's sitting on the outskirts of the Santa Cruz Mountains, a mass of hills which separates it from the Pacific ocean. The mountains are covered with scenic roads that climb and descend the slopes, never in a straight line, just turn after turn after turn. Riding a motorcycle in a straight line is OK, but riding it on a winding road is something else entirely. The SF Bay Area has tons of such roads in its backyard. I just had to explore them.

First time I took Page Mill Road south I reached the outskirts of the hills and got scared. :-) I went back after a few turns. Not ready yet for the twisties. A few weeks later, almost by mistake, I stumbled upon the famous Highway 9, which connects the San Francisco Bay Area, across the hills, to Santa Cruz, 30 miles (50km) to the south. I went from Saratoga all the way to the top, where Highway 9 meets Skyline Boulevard.


View Larger Map

From that moment on, there was no turning back. I knew I was doing something I always wanted to do, and it was better than any experience before. I just kept going.

Over the next years, I explored the twisties, either alone, or during group rides, mostly organized by the South Bay Riders folks.

Every second of those rides was enormously fun. Every second I had one thought in my mind: to improve my skills, to become a better rider. Like most newbies, I went on stumblingly, doing all the typical mistakes. Yet I made noticeable progress.

http://florin.myip.org/gallery2/v/bike/

Like most newbies, I thought that a good rider is a fast rider. While certainly true, since a bike cannot be handled at a high speed through the turns without appreciable skill, this statement is misleading, and makes the newbies do dangerous things. There are several very tight turns on the frontside of Highway 9 where the posted speed limit is 20mph (32km/h). At first, all I could do was 20, and was biting my lips in frustration. Then I was able to do 30 through those turns. Then 40. Luckily, by the time I was consistently hitting 45mph (70km/h) through those turns, the good advice from the SBR people bore a hole through my thick skull and made it to the brain: "a good rider is a smooth rider, not a fast one - speed comes naturally after smoothness." Not a second too late, since I was already pushing my luck, and the signs were clear and loud - I was comfortable uphill, but was very nervous on the same roads downhill, and was going much slower than uphill, a sure sign of incomplete development of riding skills.

So I started to work more on the proper control of the vehicle.

This is a task which may take decades and still there may always be something to add, some technique to polish, some new trick to learn, some clever strategy to deal with the unexpected on the road. I was merrily walking my way, learning and having fun. Once you obtain at least a rudimentary control, the motorcycle is endless entertainment.

There's nothing quite like taking a tight turn on a fast bike. There's something deeply immersing and all-consuming, taking you thousands of miles away from the daily grind. You approach the turn, decide the best line to take, look through the turn, then lean the bike. All the way through, you keep leaning, since that's how the bike is steered. And you're doing 40 or maybe 50mph (65...80km/h), or more, sometimes lots more, depending on the turn, and the bike is leaning waaay over, and you're hanging off, miraculously suspended in the void, nothing between you and the road.
You look down, and there's a stream of asphalt rushing backwards, and it's like you're flying, and you feel immense joy running through your veins, and you scream and shout in your helmet - hey look, I can fly! And then you straighten it up, and prepare for the next turn, adjust your speed and your line, then lean, and fly again.

It's a miracle, it's Heaven on two wheels. Time is suspended and the present is simply joy burning white hot inside you.

There's a T-shirt that's popular with the bikers, you may have seen it - it says: "when I shift into the 6th, I forget everything she said." Beyond the humorous aspect, there's a deep truth revealed by that T-shirt - mainly, that riding a bike is something like Zen. You put your ass on the saddle, rev the engine, shift up and go and - lo and behold! - your mind becomes marvelously empty of all the daily crap. All the usual misery, all the little dirty things grinding your nerves are washed away by the mighty speed rush.

You start riding, and the world disappears. It's magic, and you unleash it with your right hand.

There's something else, too, about riding a bike. It's an experience that has an intrinsic quality of truth. There's no deceit, no faking it, you either can do it, or not.
If your buddy races you to the top of the hill, and makes it 1 minute faster than you, it's because he's 60 seconds faster. It's not because of political maneuvers that he outruns you. It's not through backstabbing and office politics that he leaves you behind. It's just his real value, and yours, compared truthfully.

Are you able to do certain things on a bike, and are unable to do other things? That's because that's your real value. It's not some stupid market fluctuations that decide which lines you are able to take through a turn, and which lines you aren't. It's not some remote faceless bureaucracy pondering your fate 6 years before deciding whether they should stamp your damn papers or not, and perhaps deciding against it even after all those years - it's none of those soul-shredding things that decide whether or not you can swerve your way out of danger. No, it's only your true value that makes the decision.

On a motorcycle, people and things are measured according to their inner truth. Everything you can do or not do, your strengths, weaknesses, skills or lack thereof, are laid bare and tested against a truthful ruler. If you make it, it's because you were able to. If you screw it up, it's your own goddamn fault and weakness and ignorance, not because of "market conditions" or backstage alliances.

Far away from the pettiness of the world, a man can measure his true value and find the true answer. The bike leaves nothing hidden, it doesn't care.

And when all pieces really fall together and you feel you're becoming one with the bike and move together with it like it's part of your own body... it gets even better.
I will not attempt to describe the first time it happened, as it's too cryptic for non-riders (although I'm sure bikers would understand), but I will tell you how it was probably the second or third time, pretty much at the point where it stopped being an event and it was learning to become a habit.

We were a small group of 5 or 6, riding uphill on Highway 84 from the ocean towards the hill top. The leader was a more experienced rider than the rest of us, but was riding a less capable bike. This made for interesting group dynamics, since we were able to keep up and even get closer in the straight lines, while in the turns the leader was simply railing, while we were struggling for control at those speeds. Fortunately, the leader was also a rational person, aware of the skill level of the group and was not pulling us too fast. In the excitement of the moment, at least some of us would have followed, with perhaps less than ideal results.

In any case, we were moving uphill at what was to me, at that time, insanely great speed. We were railing through turn after turn, leaning left, then right, then left again, braking before, leaning, accelerating through the exit. Somehow, it seemed like all those turn lines were invisibly stitched together and my bike was just sliding from one line to the next, effortlessly.

At some point, we fell behind a car which was going rather fast, but slower than the speed we maintained up to that point. The leader was stalking it, just waiting for the first opportunity. I remember muttering in my helmet "don't do it, don't do it, don't... goddamit! he did it!" The leader swerved left, then right, and leaped ahead of the car.

I was being the third in line through the entire ride. The guy in front of me waited for the next opportunity, I was again muttering something, but to no avail. Number two swerved, accelerated and disappeared ahead of the car.

I was next.

I probably didn't wait more than a few dozen seconds, but it seemed like forever. I was (im)patiently following the car a few feet behind, confident in the stopping power of my racing bike, watching for the next opening like the hunter waiting for game, hidden behind the trees.

And finally it came. It was a short straight line before a right-hand turn. The car driver took the opportunity and stepped on it, but my decision was already made. I downshifted twice or trice, swerved left and squeezed the throttle all the way through.

The next few seconds remain in my memory under the appearance of a slow-motion movie. I was engaged in the passing of the car, rushing uphill on the straight line, with the right-hand turn approaching fast. My mind was probably racing at the speed of light, calculating lines and estimating distances, comparing speeds and keeping a tight control over the bike.
But all that was quite unnecessary. Even before I swerved left, I was already sure of the result.

It's hard to explain, but somehow, I SAW the line that I was supposed to take. It was like the first meridian, or something, a line that's invisible in reality, yet perfectly defined. And, to my mind, was clearly visible, it was there, on the road, and my body and my bike, one and the same, were just doing the right things to follow it.

I saw that there was plenty of room to spare, I just had to do such-and-such things and there was no risk involved. I was going to pass the car safely, with room for error, and enter the turn long after the car was going to fall behind.

I hit the engine with a wave of fuel. The engine woke up.

There was an enormous scream as the pistons were drilling their way up to the red line at 15,000 rotations per minute or so, and the hundred horsepower was rushing like a torrent to the rear wheel. I was leaning to the right, hanging off, flying above the asphalt, as I was already head-to-head with the car and starting to move back to the right-hand lane, but I was also leaning forward, "kissing the mirror" on the handlebar, to put more weight on the front wheel which, under the gigantic torque at the rear, was playing basketball and was gently bouncing off the asphalt - tap, tap, tap. Small leap, touch the asphalt, small leap, touch again.

In real time, I probably exploded past the car in a second, the engine yelling and hollering in savage joy, but on my virtual display I was perched atop the leaning bike, one with the vehicle, one with the road, just a moving dot on the ideal line through the turn. I was aware of the car, aware of the bike and, somehow, inexplicably but nevertheless real, aware of the surroundings, the hill to the right, the ravine to the left, and everything else nearby. I was behind the pair of eyes grasping the full image, but I was also "in" the bike, "in" the road and beyond. The awareness was so expanded, it seemed like I was on psychedelics.

Swerve left, then right, then through the turn. And I was gone.

The rest doesn't matter much, but it was just smooth line after smooth line all the way up. We stopped at the top, in the parking lot across the street from Alice's Restaurant. We turned off the engines and unstrapped our helmets. We looked at each other, and there was the same twinkle in the other guy's eyes, like a thousand volts were running through our nerves. "How was it?" asked the leader. "It was a freaking blast!" shouted someone. "Hell yeah!" followed the rest of us.

And it was true. We were on top of the hill, but it seemed like we were on top of the world. There was an intense sense of freedom, and power, and joy, and excitement. I searched my memory, looking for something comparable, but nothing was quite close to that. Peak experience, quite literally.

I remember seeing a movie made by fellow riders. The technique is simple: one rider takes the lead, the other follows with a camera strapped to the bike, filming the leader. Since I was not riding, but just looking at the computer screen, I allowed myself to relax and fall into a more analytical state of mind. And then I realized something.

(click here if there's no movie below)

 

As I was watching the rider effortlessly taking turn after turn, leaning quickly, always on that ideal line which is the perfect balance between all the forces involved, I realized that there's no coincidence that every time I was grabbing the handlebars on my Kawasaki bike it was like holding in my hand a Japanese katana sword. I saw that a gifted bike rider is like a master swordsman, a combination between the grace and precision of a ballerina and the physical authority and presence of a fighter. It takes a lot of physical effort to toss the bike left then right then left again through many dozen miles and turns, yet all has to be done with utmost sharpness. And, since a fast rider cannot be but a smooth rider, a delicate balance and sense of precision have to be maintained permanently.

I was watching the precise and swift technique of the rider in the movie and I was surprised by my own reaction. I am not what you would call a religious man, but somehow I was so in awe with what I was seeing that a voice inside me started to say: "God, or whoever is in charge, when it's my time to turn the page, please make it so that I'm not leaving like a limp maggot, disabled and squeaking in an anonymous hospital bed. Please make it so that, when I go, I'm living full blast, throttle all the way up, the engine at the red line - free, awareness expanded, full of joy and strength."

I'm not sure if anyone heard it. But I can hope.

When a group of motorcycle riders discuss some fatal accident involving other riders, one of the comments you will often hear is: "at least they were doing what they loved most." It makes no sense for the non-rider and it sounds crazy. But I think now you can understand that comment better - at least for any rider, it makes perfect sense.

In any case, perhaps now you can also understand what happened when, after my accident, I was taken to the emergency room. I was laying down, with my broken shoulder and my smashed ankle, waiting for the medical personnel to do their thing. A nurse came and asked if I prefer the painkiller immediately or whether I can wait a bit more. I smiled and declined. I kept smiling and joking with the people in the ER, and declined the painkillers several times. I've heard two nurses muttering something about "high pain tolerance" or some kind of medical mumbo-jumbo like that.

Inside, I kind of shrugged and I knew it was not true. I knew exactly how many bucks I was worth. Since I had the accident, I fell from grace and became an ordinary man, but at that moment, I was still under that borrowed power, call it adrenalin or whatever you like, and a shattered ankle seemed like nothing at all.

Months have passed since those events. I went back several times to the hills - sadly, on four wheels instead of two. I stopped at Alice's and talked with some of the SBR folks who, by coincidence, were hanging around. I took a few steps on my not-quite-healed foot through the parking lot. It felt like returning home after many years. But I was not yet allowed to abide. That may come later. Or not.

Time passed again. Not too many weeks ago, I went to one of the local Triumph dealers. Triumph made a spectacular entry in the sportbike market, which is to them new territory, with what is probably one of the most beautiful sportbikes ever: the Daytona 675. It's very much like my late bike, except stronger, leaner and more nimble. I asked a guy at the dealership to accompany me on a test ride. He agreed immediately and, after a bit of paperwork, I borrowed a helmet, a jacket and gloves, and off we go!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triumph_Daytona_675

The 675's engine was quite different from what I was used to. Much smoother, not quite as quick to leap forward at just a light touch of the throttle, but instead building speed more progressively. But, at a higher RPM, it pulls like a raging bull on crystal meth. And the sound of the engine intake is something like jet aircraft taking off. I fell in love immediately with the bike.

Alas, it was just a test ride.

As I was returning home, I noticed I was smiling for no apparent reason. That special and unique joy that I used to experience before, was back.

One day, I thought. One day, it's gonna be back definitively. You just wait. One day.

I kept moving forward, smiling like a fool, talking and laughing to myself. For a day, I was once more unreasonably happy.

P.S.: In February 2015, nearly a decade after the crash, I got the BMW S1000RR, an innovative, agile, very powerful sportbike. The story continues.

--

You can read the follow-up to this essay, called "The decision tree", here:

http://florin.myip.org/blog/node/25