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Horses of Steel

Essay
Arthur Powell

Horses of Steel

There is nothing like it. The cold wind snaps at you, the mountain scenery races by but you see it all. The curve ahead is a long looping left, you point your head towards the exit and the bike begins to tip into the turn. You gently increase acceleration as you see the exit before flicking the bike up and opening the throttle fully. Total harmony with existence. Primordial joy surges in your blood. Visions of the steppe from eons ago awaken in your mind. Not hooves propelling you across the plains but rubber meeting asphalt. A metallic steed hastens you on.

 

This? This is, riding in the 21st century.

 

Motorcycles are a perfect way to identify if other men are conditioned to life in the matriarchal longhouse.

 

“Those are dangerous”

“Hope you’re an organ donor”

“My mother/girlfriend/wife would never let me ride”.

 

Pity these men. They will never know what it is like to be free. They will also never know what a thrill motorcycling can be. Motorcycling is a wonderful example of how a fulfilling life demands a balance of risk for reward. There are certainly inherent risks. You are exposed to the elements, there is no protective cocoon should an AWFL wine aunt merge into your lane. You come off a bike at speed and it’s going to be a painful day in the best case scenario. The worst case scenario? You are walking the fields of Elysium. Well that doesn’t sound so bad now does it…

 

Morbidity aside, motorcycling has changed how I view commuting, errands, and exploration. Driving a car is somewhat sterile, especially if you drive an automatic. It is too easy to put on a podcast, listen to music, be distracted and bored on familiar routes. There is no sense of occasion or real focus. It is the opposite with a bike – putting on your gear, planning your route (I eschew phone mounts), and then the actual journey itself. It is a connection to nature through unnatural means. Man was not born going this fast. The closest we got in ages past WAS the horse at a gallop. The very riding position of bikes harkens back to this. Even with my excellent earplugs and good helmet the wind roars in my ears and roots me to the reality of speed. The first time I hit 60 on my bike it felt like I was driving 120 in a car. Most lazy people cruise their car on the highway at 70 whilst browsing Faceberg, no concentration or appreciation for the wizardry of speed and metal. Keep in mind I don’t even ride a fast bike; no, I ride an underpowered but aesthetically beautiful Royal Enfield. It can be beaten at lights by a lot of cars if I’m not on my game! Yet this single-cylinder-engine, easily maneuverable bike has been a revelation.

 

This bike has opened my eyes to the beauty of the mountains once more. Curvy canyon roads become destinations in and of themselves. I am all the more aware of the scenery and the vivid intersection of the man-made and nature as I follow the snaking tarmac ever upwards. Corners are one of the most dangerous places for motorcyclists, it is where people succumb to their fear. Where they feel they can’t lean any further, where they get target fixation, kill the throttle and high-side themselves into the abyss. I would be remiss to ignore my own brushes with mortality. Drifting over that center line. Thanking the Gods nothing was coming the other way. But overcoming that fear, learning your limits in the twisties and pushing them is so rewarding. Modern man does not conquer death enough anymore. Many just drift and realize we have no real rites of initiation as a wider culture. Instead we have sub-cultures with initiation rites like weightlifting or BJJ. Motorcycling today straddles a line between tribe and culture; although it is not what it once was, and the variety of motorcyclists today on the road runs the gamut from inner city youths wheeling in their ghettos to your stereotypical old Harley dudes. 1% clubs certainly exist but the group identity of the motorcyclist is wider. You greet other riders on the road, the left hand down and outstretched with two fingers. A loose tribe. My spry 60-year-old instructor chuckled when he told us in his younger days Harley riders wouldn’t acknowledge him on a Japanese bike. It’s not like that any more.

 

Connection to your fellow Americans feels harder every day; a malicious media and ideological divide separate us. But none of that matters on the road. Call it escapism or idealism but truly, it doesn’t matter. In fact most things fade away. The basic MSF course instructs you not to ride whilst overly emotional, and that is wise, albeit perhaps overly cautious, advice. To ride well and safely does require focus. You enter a flow state of sorts, a form of meditation. Many will know what this is like, where you do not have time to think because you are so focused on the present. I have felt it whilst trail running, skiing, grappling, and now motorcycling. It is a moment of Zen. The priestly caste say we can attain this through meditation, focusing on the breath, the here and now. Perhaps they can but for me nirvana is somehow more real when all the senses are attuned to the chaos of reality. The sound of the wind, the vibrations of the bike, the smell of petrol, the sight of unfolding road, the metallic taste in my mouth. This all anchors me to the present. It strips my mind of worries, of fear, of unhappiness. Balancing the throttle and pushing the handlebars are all that matters.

 

What does matter to you today anyway? We live in a consumerist age where purchases provide pleasure, or so we are led to believe. Buying a bike is not expensive and is merely the first step, from there on it is a skill you are developing. A wealthy man upon a sail-ship without knot skills is about as useful as rubber sword in battle. Do bikes have costs of ownership associated with them? Yes. Is it mainly a hobbyist pursuit in much of the West? Yes. But in spite of that these machines are not cheapened by this. Some of them are remarkably simple to work on and adjust – there is a reason ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is a best-selling book that also went onto inspire “The Case for Working with your Hands”. Both books make the argument that the most fulfilling type of work is often the material manipulation of the world, making or fixing things. Their arguments stem from the grounded reality of connection. Connection to the world is important. In the day and age of comfort where it is rare for us to challenge or risk the motorcycle remains this fascinating machine that can free you.

 

Escape the Longhouse. Ride.

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