Motorcycles and Risk
What do we tell our mothers?
[S]he breaks down from time to time, weeping as only a mother who has outlived a child can weep, betraying a sense of loss so huge and irreparable that the mind balks at taking its measure. Such bereavement, witnessed at close range, makes even the most eloquent apologia for high-risk activities ring fatuous and hollow. --Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
On June 23, 2000, my friend and coworker Greg McQuide died in a motorcycle accident. A few weeks later, as I discussed with my mother the effect of Greg's death on me and everyone who knew and loved him, she said, her voice cracking with the effort, "I don't know if I could survive if that happened to you." While I struggled to console her, I remembered a similar situation I faced 18 years earlier.
In my sophomore year of college, a friend of mine died in a freak helicopter accident. Despite his young age, he was a proficient pilot, logging well over a thousand hours of flight time. At his funeral, his mother asked me, "What was missing from his life that he felt he needed to take these chances?" I had no answer for her. At the age of 20, I had yet to discover the role risk would play in my own life.
I don't come from a motorcycling family. As a kid, captivated by the pictures I saw on the Easy Rider soundtrack in my parents' record collection, I began to spend hours sketching choppers. I don't know when my mother found out about my budding interest in motorcycles, but at some point she did. Years of Ann Landers and Dear Abby clippings about the dangers of motorcycling followed. Eventually I succumbed to the pressure, repressing my interest.
When I was 27, motorcycles reentered my life. Suddenly, like learning a new word and hearing it crop up in the conversations of others, I started seeing motorcycles everywhere. I began to visit the library to learn all I could about motorcycling in an attempt to understand my attraction and realistically assess the dangers involved in the activity. During my research, I discovered--contrary to the popular image of a devil-may-care-attitude--a good many thoughtful people ride motorcycles and rider safety is a topic of much discussion.
Throughout my 11 years riding motorcycles, I've frequently pondered the part risk plays in my love of motorcycling. I ride motorcycles for a living and race them as a hobby. Clearly, I endanger myself more than the average weekend motorcyclist. But awareness and acceptance of risk should not be perceived as pursuing or flirting with it. No rider actively seeks injury or death, but injury and death will always be a part of motorcycling, as they are of any human endeavor.
The difficulty I've experienced when trying to explain why I ride motorcycles comes from the dichotomy of the tangible, physical results of the hazards of motorcycling and the intangible benefits delivered by the sport. I've achieved a level of mastery in a challenging activity that I've never experienced before. In addition, riding daily has allowed me to explore the subtleties of motorcycling in ways I've carried into other areas of my life. And I've lost a close friend.
For me, the attraction of riding motorcycles comes from achieving total presence on the bike. At these moments, the past only contains the last few corners, the future exists just as far ahead as I can see, and the present consists of me, the motorcycle and the road. All are one in a dance; the air streaming past, my senses consumed by the exquisite instant at the threshold of being. Time stretches to encompass the sensation of the surface of the road, the subtle changes within the machine, the taste of the wind and my inner focus and calm.
Do I need to be pushing the limits of my ability and the motorcycle to reach this state? No. I've experienced it both competing on the track and meandering along back roads. Every ride contains a morsel of this feeling--just as every ride contains varying levels of risk.
Yet all these reasons ring hollow when I try to assuage my mother's very real fears. Or address the grief of a friend's mother at his funeral. Life is a gift we shouldn't squander--either by frivolous risk or excessive avoidance of it. By writing this text, I hope my explanation can be accepted as a gift by my mother, my family, by all mothers or people who care for someone who rides. For this is the closest I can bring you to understanding how I can embrace the beauty of this sport and acknowledge that it could be the instrument of my demise.
This text originally appeared in the February 2001 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.