Fact Checking My Email: Motorcycle Edition

It’s uncommon, but every so often, I get a forwarded chain letter from someone that I know “IRL,” as the kids say. I tend to delete these upon realizing that I’ve been sent yet another “if you send this to ten people, Bill Gates will give you money” but every once in a while, I get something that not only makes me pause, it compels me to write a blog post about it.

This particular email was titled something like “True Love, this will make you cry so much” etc. etc. I’m paraphrasing it since I read it on my smartphone and deleted it as soon as I finished. It was only later that I realized I could turn this into a blog post. Here’s the gist of the email as best I can remember:

A boy and a girl are riding on the boy’s motorcycle. They’re going very fast down the express way. So fast, like over 100 mph! The girl tells the boy that it’s too scary and that she wants to slow down, but the boy insists that it’s fun going this fast. Then the boy says something weird. He asks the girl to tell him that she loves him. She does. He asks her to hug him. She does. He asks her to take his helmet off and put it on herself, because “it’s been bugging him.” She does.

The next day, there’s a report in the local paper about a motorcycle accident. The girl survives, because she was wearing the boy’s helmet.

The truth was that while they were riding, the boy realized that the motorcycle’s brakes were broken. Rather than tell the girl and scare her, he had her say that she loved him, shared a final hug, and then sacrificed himself (by giving up his helmet) so that she could live.

Like, omg, you guys, isn’t that so sad? That’s like the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.

It makes me sad because it reminds me of the early days of the Internet, when shit like this happened all the time. It makes me sad that, despite how far we’ve come as an Internet, this sort of thing still happens.

It’s obvious that this story is impossible. But seeing as how I’m a motorcycle rider, I feel compelled by my very DNA to point out all the ways that this story is impossible. If you’re curious, Snopes looked into this particular story and also declared it false.

  1. The boy in the story “realizes that his brakes don’t work.” This seems incredibly unlikely, given that all motorcycles have independantly operating front and rear brakes. Your front brake is considerably more powerful than your rear brake, but they require completely separate systems to control. It’s very unlikely that both sets of brakes would fail at the same time.
  2. Even if BOTH brakes did fail, almost all motorcycles are manual transmissions. The rider could downshift into a lower gear which would begin cutting down the speed considerably. This is called “engine braking.” It wouldn’t work in most emergency braking situations, but in this particular scenario, the boy has enough time for a touching psuedo-farewell with his girlfriend. He would thus have more than enough time to drop down a few gears and slow down.
  3. Even if he somehow COULD NOT downshift (fuck it, let’s say his clutch is broken too), all he needs to do is release the accelerator. Motorcycles, even with two passengers, have FAR less mass than a car or truck. They aren’t able to efficiently overcome the coefficient of friction due to their reduced mass, so without a constant source of momentum from the engine, they slow down very quickly. Cars and trucks can coast for miles in a way that a motorcycle simply can’t.
  4. It is all but impossible to take off a motorcycle helmet and put it on one’s self while moving at 100 mph. As a person who travels at 100 mph quite often, I can attest that at this speed, your primary concern is going to be holding on for dear life.
  5. It’s equally impossible for two people to talk to one another at 100 mph, especially if one person is wearing a helmet and the other is not. Seriously. It’s really fucking loud at 100 mph. I tend to wear earplugs under my helmet so that I don’t go deaf.

Honestly, this wouldn’t bother me all that much if it weren’t for the fact that every single discussion I have about motorcycles with someone who doesn’t ride is some variation of an unsolicited story about someone on a motorcycle getting hurt or killed.

Thoughts On The 2013 Z1000

Last week, I brought this lovely little lady home with me. Meet Zoey, my new 2013 Kawasaki Z1000:Image

I thought about writing a post about my new ride as soon as I received it, but I realized that I wouldn’t have much to say with only a single ride home from the dealer under my belt. Well, now that I’ve had this motorcycle for over a week and I’ve already put over 400 miles on it, I think I can talk more about it.

My previous ride was a 2005 Ninja 500, so this jump from a 500 cc engine to a 1000 cc engine (actually 1043 cc, if we’re being picky) is a pretty big one. The Z is quick; really, really quick. It’s quick off the throttle, it’s quick to get up to speed. Everything about it is just that fast. It’s awesome.

I went with the 2013 model over the new 2014 Z1000 for two reasons. First, I wasn’t crazy about the price increase; the 2013 Z’s MSRP was $10,500, while the 2014 is about $2000 more. Since this was last year’s model, I was able to pick it up at a really, really nice price, which was a big bonus. Furthermore, I really don’t like the look of the 2014. I think the gun-metal grey with the green accents just isn’t as striking as the 2013’s full metallic blazed green paint job. Seriously, this thing sparkles in the sunlight. It’s very striking.

My favorite thing about the Z1000 is the upright riding position. I’d already gotten used to sitting upright on a bike since the Ninja 500 has a very upright posture considering its sport bike class. I’ve been on a few other sport bikes with more aggressive, over-the-tank postures and I didn’t care for it. The Z’s seat is really comfortable and it’s nice to sit upright on the thing. It certainly makes tooling around town more comfortable.

The puny windshield means that the wind above about 80 mph gets pretty intense. To be honest, I didn’t realize that the little windshield on the Ninja 500 was doing that much to deflect wind, but the difference is noticeable. I don’t mind the wind, honestly, although it’s a bit of an upper arm workout to hold on at speed, it’s not unbearable. Also, it really adds to the feeling of going Warp Nine when you’re really moving.

Really, I love everything about this bike. Whenever I think about it or someone asks me about my new ride, I get an absolutely ridiculous grin on my face. Riders will often talk about “smiles per mile” as a metric for value when it comes to their rides. In that regard, I think I’m getting my money’s worth, many times over.

Riders, It’s Time To Start Waving At Scooters

They’ll cover it in the MSF beginning rider course, even though it really has nothing to do with safety. Or you’ll learn its importance from the friend or family member who taught you how to rider (even though, seriously, go take an MSF course). Or you might just pick up on its importance after you’ve noticed your fellow riders flashing it at you as you pass each other like screaming chrome ships in the night.

That’s right, we’re talking about the motorcycle wave.

When you buy a motorcycle, you’re enrolled in a club. Enrollment is automatic and opting out is frowned upon. Like any good club, there are various traditions and disagreements about what behavior is proper and acceptable, but the bottom line is this: motorcyclists wave at one another.

For the non-riders out there, here’s how it works. If you’re on your bike and a fellow rider is coming towards you in the opposite lane, you stick your hand out in some fashion to that rider. Exceptions are made for circumstances such as when one’s left hand is busy with a shift or turn (in those instances, a head nod is acceptable if one can manage it).

There’s a lot of flexibility in what gesture you can make, as long as it’s not the raised middle finger, because that’s both rude to your brother or sister rider and also because we need to save that special gesture for, well, every single brain dead SUV, pickup and minivan driver that’s trying to kill us.

Me? I like a simple raised index and middle finger V (basically a peace sign) held out at a low angle towards the road. “Living the two wheeled life” is what it means to me. I have no idea if others interpret it that way. It doesn’t matter. It’s my wave and I like it.

Even with this tradition of waving to one another, there’s a lot of tribalism in motorcycle culture and that’s without even getting into the topic of motorcycle clubs or gangs.

You’re judged by what you ride, how you ride it, and what you’re wearing while riding it. Generally speaking, cruisers don’t like sport bike riders, and vice versa. Sport riders especially hate squids who tend to make sport riders as a whole look bad. And Harley riders hate everyone aside from themselves. They might even hate themselves. I don’t know any Harley riders, so I can’t verify.

I kid, I kid. You can’t take my opinion on Harleys seriously. I’m a Kawasaki rider.

The only thing all riders can agree on is a unanimous hatred of scooters.

Scooters don’t get the wave. At best, they get ignored. At worst, an icy glare and a feeling of smug superiority as one thinks of all the various ways scooters are doing it wrong and how we motorcycle riders are just so much better

Confession: I’ve been guilty of this.

“I don’t get scooter riders,” I’ve said. “I almost never see a scooter rider wearing a decent helmet, much less gloves, boots, or a jacket. Do they think that riding a scooter means the road will be somehow more forgiving when they go down on it because they fell off a scooter?”

Worst of all? “Scooter riders don’t even know about the wave. I can count the number of scooters who have waved at me on one hand and have five fingers left over.”

You know what I’ve begun to realize, though? This animosity between motorcycles and scooters is  ridiculous at best and pernicious at worst.

Let’s go back to the wave and why we do it.

I’ve tried to get a general sense of what rider culture is like with regards to the wave, so I’ve paid close attention to who initiates waves to me or who reciprocates waves that I initiate. My evidence is purely anecdotal, of course, since I don’t take the time to write down my findings while riding.

But what I’ve noticed is that Harley riders are the most responsive when it comes to waves in terms of both initiating and reciprocating, and that’s even coming from someone who is very clearly neither a Harley nor a cruiser rider.

Other cruiser brands are more hit-or-miss; I have to assume some of it is due to cruiser vs. sport bike rivalry. Sport riders are generally good about waving at me if and only if they’re a rider like me: full face helmet, jacket, gloves, etc. If the sport rider is in sandals and shorts i. e. a squid, I tend to get fewer waves than from any other group.

My feeling for this is based on the general rider profile. Harley riders, in general, tend to have a larger percentage of “the old guard” in their ranks and among the old guard, it seems that a rider is worthy of a wave no matter what he or she is riding. Other groups have less adherence to tradition, so there is correspondingly less waving.

How does this pertain to scooters?

My thought is this: maybe scooters don’t know about waving because so few motorcyclists take the time to wave to them. We haven’t invited them into our club. And why haven’t we?

It can’t be a gear thing, because many riders go without jackets, boots, or a brain bucket of any kind.

It can’t be a matter of engine size. We don’t judge a rider who putters by on a Honda Rebel 250. We think “there goes another new member of the tribe,” because a 250 is a fine bike to learn how to ride on, so we accept them as a member of the tribe or because it’s a cheap bike to buy and maintain and a cheap bike is always better than no bike.

Scooters tend to be cheaper than even little bikes like the 250. But regardless of the reason for why a scooter rider has chosen such a mount, the fact is they’re out there on two wheels, the same as us. They’re in it, just as we are, even if they don’t look as cool.

But that’s what the wave is all about, isn’t it? We wave at other riders to acknowledge that we’re all out here facing the same risks. We’re 37 times more likely to be killed than a cager and that breeds a certain solidarity, no matter what one is riding. Scooters are facing those same risks. They’re enjoying the same freedoms. I think that’s worthy of membership in the “wave club.”

And that’s why I wave at everyone now. Scooter, cruiser, Harley, tourer, it doesn’t matter. The wave is about solidarity. It’s about showing that we’re all in this together, that we’re all facing down the Grim Reaper when we swing our legs over our mounts. We’re all out there living life on two wheels. We’re all family in that regard.

. . .

Motorcycles just happen to be the cooler uncles and more awesome cousins of that particular family. 

To Pass Or Not To Pass: That Was My (Neurotic) Question

I turn the corner and accelerate onto the interstate. This is one of my favorite parts of riding. I like the feeling of getting up to speed. I like the way the engine growls as I push the RPMs. I like the rush of acceleration.

I glance over my shoulder and check that my lane is clear to merge. My lane is, but the lane next to mine isn’t.

There are two riders occupying that lane, riding in a side-by-side formation. Both are on big, black cruisers. I can’t tell the make from here, but they’re loud, even through my helmet and headphones I can hear the roar, and they’re both modded up; ape-hanger handlebars and all. Both riders are bearded and helmetless.

And both are wearing cut-off black leather vests.

I pull into my lane just as they zip past me, which gives me an opportunity to see the backs of those cuts. Classic one-percenters, right down to the patch, the top rocker, and so on. It’s not a club name that I’m familiar with (although later research indicates that my hesitation was justified, as the club in question is classified as an outlaw motorcycle club according to law enforcement).

My initial feeling is to give them a wide berth, until traffic works itself in such a way that I end up riding in their wake. They’re dominating their lane, going an easy 80 mph in the left lane. Speed limit is 75 mph.

Most people do 90+ if they can get away with it.

And now the dilemma. I’m behind them, riding in their wake. They can see me. They can see my bike. I’m riding a sport bike, long the enemy of the cruiser crowd. My blue Kawasaki isn’t going to win me friends here. We’re members of completely different tribes, even though we’re all sharing in the same potentially lethal two-wheeled experience.

I know that a big part of OMC culture is the idea of respect, something that’s shared with most gang or gang-like groups. When I worked in a south-side library in a tough part of town, one of my tasks was asking gang members in the library to put away their colors while in the library. It was frequently a terrifying experience; you try to handle the issue respectfully but you never know how the other guy is going to react. Fortunately, I never had a bad reaction.

What counts as disrespect when you’re sharing the highway with a pair of outlaw bikers? Passing them in the right lane seems disrespectful, because it frequently is exactly that, at least when I do it. “Go fucking faster” is what my bike is saying whenever that happens.

I really, really don’t want to communicate that particular message.

But do I follow along? Maybe that seems like I’m trying to edge into their business. Bikers are varied like that. I’ve found some people absolutely love the impromptu riding groups that sometimes pop up. You get into a group of riders, you follow them for a while because you’re all going the same way, it’s pretty fun.

But a sport rider trying to group up with a pair of one-percenters? Who knows what that looks like?

Since my only options were follow or pass, I decided ultimately the ambiguity of following in their wake was more respectful than a “fuck-you-right-lane-pass.” So I kept a good distance, focused on my commute, and wondered what, if anything, these guys were thinking about the blue rider on their tail in the full face helmet.

“Keep your distance, Chewie, but don’t look like you’re keeping your distance . . . I don’t know. Fly casual.”

If You’ve Ever Wanted To Feel Like Iron Man

Think about how much stuff Tony Stark needs in order to be Iron Man. He needs to have access to the different suits of armor in different places. He needs all the different pieces and the infrastructure to service those pieces. It takes a lot of work to be Iron Man, far moreso than it does to be Superman or Spider-Man, both of whom just have to worry about someone seeing them while they’re doing the laundry.

If you’d like to get an idea of the logistics that Tony Stark would have to go through each day (assuming he wasn’t a fictional character, of course), consider riding a motorcycle as your primary means of transportation.

The logistical consideration that goes into this process is rather intricate. I have to plan out which pieces of gear I’m going to need, where I can store it if I don’t need it at that moment, and how I’m going to carry it all. Here’s what a typical day looks like:

  1. Since I started wearing riding boots and armored pants, I need to bring a pair of jeans and comfortable shoes with me to work. Into the backpack they go, with the shoes wrapped in a plastic bag so they don’t get anything else dirty.
  2. I wear a smoke-tinted visor for the morning ride, but it’s still a little too dark by the time I leave in the evening, so I pack the clear visor and swap them out for the ride home.
  3. Since it’s still chilly out in the mornings (that 85+ mph freeway commute doesn’t help), I wear an extra layer over my riding pants. They’re snowboarding pants, which are great for being wind resistance, warm, and waterproof, but they’re bulky as hell and don’t provide any protection so I can’t wear them in lieu of riding pants.
  4. The wind chill also means wearing something under my riding jacket. Since I bought my jacket used and the guy had lost the warm insert lining, this ends up being a hoodie on chilly days (and on really cold days, a snowboarding jacket).
  5. What about gloves? I actually have three different pairs of gloves and can layer them in different ways, depending on the level of windchill. These are actually the least space-consuming part of my gear, since I can shove the unused gloves in my backpack’s external mesh net.
  6. Here’s where things get tricky: this setup works for the morning ride, when it’s about 40 degrees before factoring in windchill. But on the ride home in the evening, it’s too hot to wear the warm layers. So now the hoodie and the warm pants have to get crammed into my backpack along with the shoes, the jeans, the unused visor . . . and, you know, whatever things I might have needed to take to work with me that day, like my laptop or books or whatever.
  7. As a fun aside, I tried wearing the warm layers home once in the afternoon even though it was 80 degrees. I nearly passed out after an extended pause at a long stoplight.

That’s a brief look at how I’m handling the logistical side of clothing now that I’m living life on two wheels 100% of the time. I’m considering buying an extra pair of shoes just to leave at work so I don’t have to haul my sneakers back and forth every day.

One thing that’s nice is that the amount of gear I need to be able to haul in my pack is very temporary. In cold months, I wear my warm layers both to and from work and in the summer, I don’t need the warm layers at all. It’s only this weird time of year when we have chilly mornings and hot afternoons that I have to work around the space considerations. The longer summer days will also remove the need to swap visors, making that one less piece I need to carry.

So, yes, there’s a lot of gear and logistics that go into motorcycle commuting, especially if all the gear, all the time is your MO. I could make things easier on myself by not bothering with so much gear, but then I run the risk of one day knowing exactly what cheese feels like after meeting a cheese grater should I go down without that stuff. So I’ll keep wearing it and just work through the logistics with a smile, because the alternative is cheese graters except on my legs and feet. Yeah, no.

Had To Lay This Post Down

This post is going to be about motorcycles.

If you talk to a motorcycle rider long enough, it’s possible you’ve heard the phrase “laying the bike down” or some variation thereof. It generally refers to a situation where a rider is faced with a difficult choice: crash into some sort of obstacle or vehicle, or ditch the bike and intentionally crash to avoid the impact. It communicates a certainly steeliness that exists within the rider. It’s a willingness to make hard choices and to think quickly under pressure.

It’s an incredibly stupid phrase and I despise it.

I’ve dropped my motorcycle once. I’ve also fallen off my motorcycle once. I didn’t “lay it down” either time. I dropped it and I fell off it. The first time, I had no idea what I was doing and tried to turn far too slowly and sharply. The bike tipped and gravity took hold of 400+ pounds of metal and did the rest. It was tremendously embarrassing, especially since I hadn’t actually bought the bike yet. At least it was a used bike and the owner was my brother, instead of some stranger.

When I fell off my bike, it was exactly as it sounds: I was riding, I was inexperienced, and I tried to pull onto a shoulder and rode through a deep patch of gravel. The only thing I remember was having just enough time to think “well, shit” and then I was lying flat on my back on the side of the road. The only injuries were some bruises on my leg and my pride.

I didn’t lay the bike down, though. Let’s be clear on that.

The reason I dislike the phrase is that it implies that leaping off your motorcycle is some sort of valid defensive strategy, when really, it’s not. If you’re off your motorcycle when it’s moving, it’s a crash. Maybe it’s a small crash and does indeed avoid a bigger crash, but it’s still a crash.

The idea that you would have the time to see a dangerous situation oncoming, assess the situation, realize there was no time to swerve, brake, or otherwise evade the situation, steel your reserve, and then push yourself off the bike . . . does that seem realistic?

You know what’s easier and faster than jumping off a motorcycle while it’s moving? Hitting the brakes. You know what’s better than jumping off a motorcycle at 60 miles an hour and possibly getting crushed under your bike or run over by a car behind you or slide along the ground for a while? Braking first, so that even if you do hit something, you’ve cut your speed by 15 or 30 miles per hour.

It’s true, older bikes had inferior brakes to what’s available today. Maybe there was a time and a place when “laying it down” was the only viable strategy. But that’s come and gone and to suggest that it’s still a good idea is just ridiculous.

The fact is, most riders are too proud to admit that they fell off or that they braked incorrectly and locked the wheels. We need to start admitting that. Yeah, it’s embarrassing to say “I fell off my motorcycle” or “I crashed my motorcycle.” You know what’s not embarrassing, though? Following that up with: “even though I fell off my motorcycle, when I was physically able to do so, I got back on.”

Thoughts After Installing A New Radiator In My Isuzu

My car radiator developed a leak about two months ago, although leak is the wrong word. Leak implies a slow, steady drip and what really happened could be better described as “torrential, geyser-like, and/or relentless.” Due to the poverty imposed by paying for my grad school course out of my own pocket, I parked the car for a few months and became a motorcycle-0nly commuter. This decision was advantageous for several reasons!

  1. Riding a motorcycle is fun.
  2. Riding a motorcycle is very inexpensive. $8 for a week’s worth of gas is awesome.
  3. Riding a motorcyle makes you look cool.

However, this decision was made in early October and while the rest of the country might be experiencing the prelude to winter that is autumn, for us desert rats, October is still basically summer (except it’s not actually summer, because it’s “warm” rather than “Nazi-face-meltingly hot”).

When November rolled in and the temperature began to plummet, the good reasons for taking the motorcycle to work each day were gradually eclipsed by the fact that it’s very, very, very cold at eighty-five+ miles per hour when the thermometer is a blip above the freezing point of water. So fixing my Isuzu was something that was always on the back of my mind, though the cost of paying to have it done made it untenable.

Unless I did it myself!

Last week, I bought a new radiator. This past weekend, with qualified adult supervision (i.e. somebody who knows what the hell he’s actually doing), I found myself on my back in the dirt, wrenching and torquing and sawing and doing my best impression of “guy who can fix his own car.” Here are a few things that I learned during the process:

  • You know how in Indiana Jones movies, the ancient switches and traps still function after thousands of years? That’s bullshit. It took me almost an hour to pry off a basic metal clamp because after twelve years, it had merged with the tube it was clamping. The tube and the clamp were as one. There’s no way an ancient stone pressure plate is going to slide down just because you picked up the treasure it was supporting.
  • If you can’t get a metal clamp off after an hour of screwing and pulling (how very deviant sounding, but it’s really not), it’s okay to take a hacksaw and cut the damn thing off, since you’re replacing the tube anyway. This is immensely gratifying.
  • I had no idea radiators and transmissions were even connected, but it turns out, they are!
  • Old transmission fluid is really, really gross when it splatters on your face and collects in your hair.
  • On the positive side, you’ll fit in with the motley citizenry of South Tucson when you go to buy replacement clamps because the first set of clamps no longer fit due to all the screwing and pulling you did earlier.
  • The first store you go to will sell you the wrong clamps.
  • The second store will have the right clamps, but will try to get you out of there as quickly as possible because you look and smell like a derelict.
  • When it’s all said and done, you’ll feel absolutely awesome because you saved a few hundred dollars on labor.
  • You’ll feel better still because of the strong feeling of self-reliance in doing your own work.
  • You’ll be grateful to the person who supervised your efforts and made sure you didn’t accidentally hacksaw the brake cable, or something.
  • You’ll cry out in rage and despair when you realize the next day that now you are leaking transmission fluid from somewhere.

Looks like it’ll be another cold ride tomorrow until I can get that fixed. Sigh.

Hero Motorcyclist Saves Coffee Cup From Certain Death

Motorcyclists are getting a lot of bad press right now due to the road rage altercation that took place in New York a few days ago. Long story short: a reckless group of riders is swarming the streets, one rider “brake-checks” an SUV and gets taken out, group stops around the SUV, driver panics and runs over another rider on his way out of Dodge, chase and eventually violence ensue. Oh, and one of the riders caught the entire thing on his helmet cam and posted it on YouTube. So, there’s that.

As a motorcyclist myself, I don’t fault the SUV driver for doing what he did. I’ve been chased in a road-rage instance and it was a terrifying experience. Fortunately for me, it was just one guy in one truck and he gave up after a few miles. It still wasn’t something I’ll ever forget.

Still, it’s always unfortunate for motorcyclists when some of our tribe’s bad behavior makes international headlines. These guys were being jerks even before the collision that sparked the entire mess; in previous videos, they were running red lights and riding on sidewalks and just being jerks. The fact that one rider decided to brake-check a fucking SUV speaks volumes. You don’t brake-check someone on a motorcycle. You just don’t. It’s not like doing it in your old Ford pickup where you’ll get a dented bumper if the guy clips you.

Instead of focusing on those guys, however, I’d rather draw attention to a very different sort of reckless rider. Behold this video of a motorcyclist going out of his way to rescue a coffee cup from certain death.

Was it a stupid risk? Absolutely. But it’s the kind of stupid risk that makes you smile, because even though it’s pretty dumb to risk your life and your bike for something so trivial, it’s also kind of heartwarming at the same time.