I don’t know what I feared more: that it would be too hard and I would fuck up, or that I would be too easy and I’d never want to stop. Unfortunately, for my safety and well-being, it was the latter.
I’ve always been one of those casual motorcycle admirers who never got as far as actually riding. Everything seemed to point me towards but never all the way to them. I grew up riding bicycles, sure. I lived in a place where you could ride year round. Of all the cars I liked, even, the cars I liked the best were those that were most motorcycle-esque: small, simple, cheap and probably a little on the frail side.
But I didn’t grow up with anyone who rode a motorcycle, I never really had access to one, and I never felt enough of a commitment to start my motorcycle experience with buying one. They’re two-wheeled death machines, I’d say as a cooler version of myself rode by through traffic. Then I would try to keep the feelings of motorcycle desire tamped down for a little while longer.
But over the weekend I was at Englishtown in New Jersey watching the first-ever Rallysprint at the racetrack, put on by one of my old drifting/rallying buddies Bill Petrow. I knew a lot of people there from the drifting events that E-Town usually hosts, including Brandon.
Here is Brandon. Brandon had his little dirt bike/pit bike there. Brandon is a very nice person. Brandon let me ride his dirt bike.
There wasn’t any theater to it. He was standing by his bike, I was eyeing it, he asked me if I wanted to ride it, I explained I didn’t know how, he showed me all the controls, and then I gave it a try.
There was a great deal of terror in my heart before I got on that bike. It brought back to mind all of those hesitant needles of fear before getting into a car for the first time. Visions of the vehicle out of your control. I was specifically advised that if anything were to happen, ditch the bike. Let it go. Don’t be afraid to ditch the bike. If something happens, I’d rather have you ditch the bike than try to save it, Brandon explained, miming me flailing at the controls and crashing into the side of the toilets.
I got a quick walkaround of the bike’s controls. It was a Honda XR100R, a four-stroke dirt bike, very easy to ride as I was told. Handlebars: clutch lever and engine kill button on the left, front brake and throttle on the right. (That never made sense to my bicycling mind, I admitted.) Pedals: shifter on the left, kick start and rear brake on the right. The gears sounded quite simple, with first all the way down, then a half click up to neutral, then second third fourth in single sequential toe clicks up from there.
I have since looked up the specs as you, the reader, will likely find them interesting. At the time all I knew or cared about was it was a motorcycle that worked and had a nice low seat. At the moment I can say it is a 99cc single-cylinder, four-stroke bike from the early 2000s that still has a carburetor. Horsepower is somewhere in the single digits and weight is supposedly 165 pounds.
It sounded simple, but I was utterly obsessed with the thought that I would get confused and caught out and wrecked. Skin torn off. Bones busted. I even tucked in the laces in my boots, thinking that they might get caught in a little peg, somehow whiskey throttling me to a broken leg.
But I set off and after a few clunky shifts I was happily riding around. It did take a few runs to get a feel of how to match the gas and the clutch with my hands, and how much a click was or wasn’t through the toe of my boot. Other than that I was breezing through gears around the pits in no time. The muscle memory came fast, and it was tested fast. A little dirt buggy racing in the Rallysprint cut a corner coming down a row in the pits and I had to quickly clutch, brake, stop out of his way without looking like a janky moron. I didn’t even stay standing there with the clutch in and throttle on. I was very proud of myself.
Not long after that, Brandon pointed me in the direction of some woods and I got to flop and flail around in the mud too. It took me a minute to get used to having a leg out for balance, but it wasn’t long before I felt comfortable relaxing a bit and getting my eyes up. This started the thrilling and mind-absorbing game of picking lines through the muck. In my most serene moments, I could feel the bike’s front plopping up and down over ruts, happy here or unhappy there. I was beginning to feel what the bike could or couldn’t do. It brought me great joy.
And this is where I could really derail this story into a convoluted discussion of interfacing with the machine and feeling exposed and mixing the two in a weird way you don’t get in a car. I wasn’t really thinking about any of this at the time. it was more like oh wow woods wow cool I’m riding a bike this is cool mud right here wow. I’m getting a little high-minded now, but it was weird to have this kind of car-like interaction with a machine, but without the confines of the vehicle and its seat.
Every sensation from being pretty upright and being in open air was telling my brain that I was outside like normal, like I was going for a walk, only it was at at speed and hinged on how I interacted with machine. Once more, none of that was in my mind at the time. I was only obsessed with the figuring how everything worked, and how to do it better.
I returned the bike with a smile, comfortable with the baby steps I had taken, not wanting to press more into the dark.
And now I’m on Craigslist looking at old Hondas. Maybe something older and street legal, like an enduro. I halfway wished they were too expensive for me.
They’re not. Shit.