Friday, October 26, 2007

11: Sound Reasoning.

To a person that has no interest, it's very difficult to come up with an answer to the question, "Why motorcycles?"
Some people never ask. Some inquire only after they find that your interest in these machines borders on an obsession. (I refuse to recognize that term in this context. To me, an obsession implies something unsound or unhealthy. I can't find anything about an interest in motorbikes that would justify this definition). So, I generally don't explain myself in this regards, as I wouldn't require an explanation from an individual who enjoys guitars, vintage cars, war memorabilia, old vinyl LPs, or any other diversion that seems to have any merit -historical or otherwise.

(Note: one may question seemingly bizarre endeavors like Beanie Babies or DVD box-sets of terrible sitcoms. But even these things bring enjoyment to somebody, however mysterious it may seem to those of us who weren't fans of "Saved By The Bell").

But why motorcycles? And why multitudes, when each one is a functional machine in and of itself? To a non-enthusiast, it must seem much like having a garage full of Toyota Corollas. They all do the same thing, right? Maybe. In essence, yes. They all (most) have a key, you put some fuel in it, and you ride down the road. But this is really where the similarities end to a man (woman) who is paying attention. So many of these machines are so vital in the history and evolution of motorcycling and it's technology that it's hard not to covet them:

The early four-cylinder offerings of Mr. Soichiro Honda, which changed the face of the industry forever by putting great machines into the hands of Everyman. High performance, low cost, no maintenance. Mr. Honda did more for motorcycling in his lifetime than any other single individual. Testament to this is the number of his machines that are still on the road and in garages that probably haven't had an oil change in years yet are still running. In a time when British and American twins were spendy and unreliable, these gifts from the Orient made riding possible for everyone.

The venerable British parallel twins... the leaky brilliance of these bikes has drawn the eye of nearly every (true) motorcyclist. Even non-riders will recognize something special when a Triumph TR6C or Norton Commando rolls by. The musical grumble and clattering is like a symphony, and makes one forget about the fact that the British couldn't seem to figure out how to keep the oil inside the motor rather than on the garage floor. That oozing oil and gas is simply evidence of it's soul.

Italian super-engineering: Machines from Bologna and all over the Boot have been the most desirable bikes for many riders. Not always practical, not always attainable, but their mystique and quality is without question. You rarely find a layman on a 900SS or a Mille. The high standards of Italian manufacturers are on par with the art and culture of a country that has perpetually set the bar for creative excellence. Add the Germans to this category, as BMW's offerings are of equally high caliber.

And no less important - The American Big Twin. Willie G's legacy and icon of riding heritage has shaped the history of motorbikes and created the mold by which all other companies build their cruisers. Yeah yeah. The last two decades have seen this element go from real motorcycling to commercial obscenity and consumer nightmare. But Big Corporations have every right to make a buck... that's the system we asked for a couple/few hundred years ago, no? While I scoff at what has become of HD, I can't deny it's contribution to the cause. (But HD dog-collars and dinnerware? Come on, guys. It's tough to love you sometimes).

This doesn't really answer the question, "Why do YOU like motorcycles?"

I suppose my beginnings with bikes are similar to those of many. The girls and the aura. What better way for a young guy to catch the attention of girls, or the admiration of the guys, than to show up on a thundering machine wearing leather, unshaven for a few days and smelling of road-grime? You giggle, but it's true. My first (second, third) bike wasn't purchased with any love for the bike itself. I got them for how they made me feel... Cool. The ever important, adolescent Cool. It wasn't until much later in my personal evolution that I came to understand the real importance of the machine itself. An enlightenment long overdue. (Shedding the need for Cool comes later in a man's life, I think - but once that dead skin weight is lifted from you, the world becomes a much "cooler" place. This I know).

My first bike wasn't cool - 1981 Honda GL500 Silverwing, stripped of it's fairing and touring attire. Brown, slightly beat-up, and purchased for $400 from a guy who knew a guy. Not fast by today's standards, but at the time I thought I was Rollie Free. I would lay on that square-ish tank and open the throttle wide on the straight, flat secondary roads of Northern Illinois, eating every indigenous insect species along the way because helmets weren't Cool. I hadn't learned to turn well, and both sides of my shaft-driven Honda showed it. But it kept going, and even as ugly as it was, it was still more bike than my friends had at the time.

Later on, as my circle of "friends" changed (as they always do, I never really had many or any), I found myself eyeing sportbikes. Enter Tony DeFranze and his older brother Mike. The DeFranzes were friends of a friend, and they changed my riding life drastically. They reeked of Cool. Both brothers had CBR600F2's, in different states of customization and upgrade. (Chicago's sportbike scene was one of drag-racing, and the local bikes were built to suit). Not only were they Cool, but they were a doorway to a whole group of Cool guys. GSXRs, FZRs, CBRs - chromed, polished, stretched, punched. A cast of characters on them. Local hangouts, late night rides at highly illegal speeds. Weekend trips to the local drag-strips to prove one's mettle. I was sold. I bought my first GSXR, and sunk every dime I had into it - even some dimes I didn't have. But I wanted to be that guy. I wanted to be Tony and Mike DeFranze. Girls flocked to them. Guys at the track or on the street feared them. This was the life for me. I lived it from a distance, watching from the outside. Some of the best years of my life (motorcycle life) followed, and if nothing else, I gained a couple of life-long friends from that era.

It wasn't until later that I came to realize that it wasn't the bikes that made one Cool. It was the man. I still know these guys, and consider them the best of friends. But as we all matured and moved on, I found that the motorcycle had nothing to do with one's Coolness. Tony doesn't even have a motorcycle right now, but is still one of my most admired and respected friends.

(Irony: Tony now works for American Honda Motorcycle Corp. yet the demands of his job don't allow for much time to own or ride a motorcycle. It's very rare that we get to find work in a field that we truly love, and strange that when we do it's tough to enjoy it anymore).

Tony is talking about buying the new CBR1000RR next Spring. I wonder, now that we're old(er), if all of the Cool pretenses are finally thrown to the curb and we can finally just get out and ride. I am looking forward to it.

So the answer, then? I still ride because of how it makes me feel. But now that I don't have to worry about being Cool, I can ride what I want, when I want, and where I want. I can ride my little DRZ and get the same thrill that I did on my old Gixxer. It doesn't matter to me who I ride with or what they ride. I can buy a bikes solely based on what it does for me, not the girls at the bar or the guys on the road. No posturing. No image. No worries.

And that, my friends, is truly Cool.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

10: The Dream, Part 1

Once in a great while, sometimes a lifetime, one is presented with an opportunity to get his/her hands on a fantasy - a dream. Some dreams are situational, like finding that perfect job. Some are of a more personal dynamic, like meeting one's soul-mate.

And some are just downright material. The vintage car you've always wanted. The cabin in the woods you've wanted to spend your weekends in. Not necessary, but that doesn't make these dreams any less valid or important to the dreamer.

Today, I attained one of these dreams. (I have too many to list, and any victory is a big one).

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This Ducati 999 Testastretta.

I have spent many a day staring down a long, curvy road and fantasizing about owning such a machine. A masterpiece of engineering. A motorbike so finely tuned for it's environment, and so unapologetic in it's purpose, that it requires no explanation... it's simply self-evident. There is no need to explain it to anyone, and anyone that would need an explanation simply wouldn't understand.

I will expand upon this event in my life upon the bike being handed over from the dealership. (This photo is obviously a stock pic, and Ducati is prepping the 999 for delivery). But I just had to write this down and get it out. Who knows? Maybe it will be as exciting to another true motorcyclist as it is to me.

Look for a report of my first encounter with this new dream in a few days...