Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Two Wheel Affinity

As a cyclist I've never felt much of a connection to motorbikes. Yes, they have two wheels, they lack an enclosure, and they are kinda sorta bike shaped. But so much of the cycling experience is about pedal power, which is not part of the motorbike experience. They are motor vehicles. For me, this put them in a category closer to cars than bicycles.

It's been interesting to learn that in Northern Ireland many see it differently. There is a lot of overlap here between cyclists and motorcyclists, both in racing and in recreational riding cultures. One friend did short circuit motorbike racing in parallel to bicycle road racing through the '80s and '90s. Several others spent their youth involved in motocross or trials. Others collect vintage motorcycles along with vintage bikes. And others simply enjoy riding motorcycles for pleasure or touring much like they enjoy these activities on a bicycle. To explain the connection, they describe the similarities: The feel of being out in the elements, the handling skills, the sensation of wind on one's face. It's similar, with enough of a difference to make switching back and forth interesting in its own right. "You should try it!" Oh of course, ha ha.

Two big-deal motorcycle races are held on the open roads of Northern Ireland: the North West 200 and the Ulster Grand Prix. Unwittingly I became a spectator of the former when I visited in Spring 2012. The course passed nearby and one day I sat on the grass watching the machines fly past at incredible speeds (top speeds of over 200mph, I later learned). Even for someone with no interest in the sport, it was an exciting thing to see. The following summer I was staying with friends and they watched the Ulster Grand Prix on television. This was around the time I was starting to get a feel for cornering and other bicycle handling skills. And watching the racers go around the bends of roads that looked just like the roads I cycled on - leaning their motorbikes this way and that at dramatic angles - I grew absolutely absorbed in their movements and could almost feel the road from their perspective. For the first time, I felt the connection.

From the fields behind my house, I can sometimes hear a distant buzzing sound. I know there's a motocross practice track somewhere there and plan to have a look one of these days. When I finally do, the Magilligan Motocross Track is grander and more beautiful than anything I expected. An expanse of tall sand dunes on the shore of Lough Foyle, topped with windswept silver-green grass. With a crazed buzz and violent sprays of soil, dirt bikes race through these hilly muddy sandy loops, whirlwinds of colour. The impression is that of a naturally occurring landscape that happens to be perfect for their mad purpose.

Seen up close they are viscerally stunning. It is like being near enormous wild animals and watching their antics whilst keeping out of the way for the sake of self-preservation. Filthy bike and rider are one creature as they take to the air, twisting, roaring, spraying dirt, a controlled wildness to them.

Seen from a distance they are surreal. Bikes flying over dunes, over water, over the mountains of Donegal. Bikes in the sky, bikes in the clouds. In their flight they trace a perfect arc and there is an illusion of slow motion. In this scene there is overwhelming serenity.

Motocross is likely the most popular form of motorcycling here. Kids ask for "scramblers" for birthdays and special occasions. They can start riding (on kiddie tracks) as early as age 5.

Motocross bikes are made to race off road. They are sporty-clunky, vaguely MTB-esque looking things, with wide knobby tires and lots of front suspension. They are made to accelerate quickly and can go from zero to "whoa" at the blink of an eye. You can tell the manufacturer by the colour. And aside from that, I don't know much - other than that a mad sparkle glistens in the eyes of friends who used to be into the sport whenever they talk about it. Most of them quit before they entered their 40s, not wanting to risk injury once the responsibilities of family or steady employment set in. Safer to stick to cycling.

Though I've yet to even ride on the back of motorbike, I do feel more of an affinity with them than I used to. How do other cyclists feel about this?

If you're a fan of motocross, you can see some more photos of this beautiful track here.

30 comments:

  1. I rode motorcycles extensively for about ten years--road motorcycles for sport and touring, and commuting. Put about 80,000 miles on the things and repaired them professionally for a while.

    I've also ridden bicycles almost continuously for nearly fifty years, and currently put about 5000 miles a year on my pedal bike. I no longer have a motorcycle nor any personal interest in private motor vehicles. (I do dote on passenger trains though!).

    I don't find them that similar, even though my initial conception was that the motorcycle was a halfway point between cars and pedal bikes. The fact is, the motor and the speed do effectively isolate you from the world that pedal bikes weave you into so wonderfully. The exigencies of controlling a machine, and the speed they allow, require that you narrow your focus, and they thus take you away from your surroundings. (not as much as sitting in cars does, of course.) They are exciting, there is no doubt of that at all; but it's a simplified excitement. I speak as one who indulged in both sport riding, on canyon roads, and long-distance touring, as well as urban commuting, by both motorcycle and bicycle (and car too). I put more miles on my motorcycles than the vast majority of throttle jockeys out there, and I do understand their appeal. I also understand their limitations.

    The bicycling experience is, perhaps, more exhilarating than exciting, considerably richer. Also a bit more demanding emotionally. It's quite different from motorcycling. The bicycle extends and amplifies things in you that the motorcycle replaces. It's the difference between playing a piece on the piano, and playing it on the stereo.

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    1. It's just a different tune, 'sall.

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    2. That's an absolutely priceless final paragraph, and it confirms my own experience. Thanks rickrise, and Velouria!

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  2. The Acoustic Motorbike, Luka Bloom . a Irish thought on the subject .Here in BC, we have a ATV problem , butwe do have bicycle herding Border Collies.

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  3. Road motors ..bmw touring and dual sport for over a decade. I (mostly) quit d/t the elevate risk profile and my beemer wanted to hum at 80+ mph. There are indeed many similarities but motors have much more adrenalin dumping with out the ability to burn off the chemicals vie pedaling. Thus I would get off the motor all jacked up. I am zen man after a good ride on velo. All that said I still have a classic shifty scooter with rear bicycle rack (yes u heard correctly) and sometimes get to cross races in this contraption. Btw..dig your blot.

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  4. I've never been big on motocross exactly -- maybe the same reasons I prefer road bicycles to mountain bikes. But I do enjoy motorcycling and have owned several motorcycles over the years. The sensations of riding one are similar to being on a bicycle -- the balance, the way they turn and change direction -- but effortless, and much much faster. I feel more in-tune with a bicycle -- it's more "pure." Since I am the "engine" there's much more of a symbiotic connection. But motorcycles can be exhilarating. I don't have one anymore, but I imagine I'm not done with them entirely.

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  5. Affinity towards motos coming from a pure bike-as-art background, isn't anything surprising. Intellectualize what a moto must be, therefore it is closer to a car. Wait, no it isn't as much. Well I'll think about it and not ride one.

    Anyway, the manifestation of sport into pure thought is always a black hole, opinons formed without participation is mostly specious.

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  6. My interest in vintage/classical motorcycles started when I was ca. 13 years old, just about the same time when I was getting back into riding bicycles. With the bicycle, it was all about riding it, being outside, moving through different sceneries, seeing interesting things of all kinds, while my interest in motorcycles is (and always was) focused on their looks and – in the first place – on the sound(s) they are able to produce (so it is not hard to see why I tend to find most modern motorcycles rather uninteresting …).

    Some years later, when I was 19 years old, I started working on old bikes, restoring them, keeping them in good running order, riding them. This again holds true for bicycles and motorcycles likewise; I started restoring classic bicycles from the 1930s to the 1950s in 1985, and two years later I began my first full restoration of a motorcycle, a 1954 DKW RT 200/2 (a model that maybe is not very well known outside Germany).

    Today, I still tinker with older (or 'classic') bicycles, nowadays mostly using frames that were made in the 1980s - for me, bicycles from this period are the most versatile, and they can easily be rebuilt and upgraded without ruining 'historical values'.
    And I own a 1971 BMW R 75/5 motorcycle, but in fact I rarely ride it, because in everyday life, riding a bicycle is much more fun for me - with a motorcycle, you have all those limitations and regulations that you have when you drive a car, plus the need to wear protective gear (and yes, I am wearing a helmet when riding a bike, but of course there is no need for full leather motorcycle gear, and for boots or gloves in summer ...).

    But the fascination for the raw and sometimes brutal qualities of classic motorcycles never waned, and while I may act out my 'need for speed' on my different bicycles in daytime, I love to get me a good portion of 'motor porn' in the evening by watching classic motorcycle racing videos on the internet. If somebody is interested, this video of Dave Roper doing a practice lap on a Matchless G 50 at the Isle of Man in 1993, commented by himself, would be a good start: http://vimeo.com/51504539 . Admittedly, the video quality is very poor by today's standards (it was indeed taped on video cassette back then …), but the sound quality is good (I strongly recommend the use of headphones of course … ;-) ), and the fascination of racing a classic motorcycle on public streets and going through quiet Manx' villages in the morning at >100 mph comes through very clearly I think …
    There is another good Manx video from the same vintage featuring Dave Roper on a 1967 Benelli 350 four GP racer, but to put things in their proper context, I suggest reading his annotations to this video before watching it: http://www.daveroperracing.blogspot.de/2011/12/ken-richardson-has-posted-part-2-of.html - it is about the imminent dangers of motorcycle racing, an issue that finally kept me away from trying a hand at it (although honestly I would have loved to do it …).

    Matthias

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  7. Here in Southern California, motocross was very popular in the 70's. Then urban sprawl forced the closure of most of the tracks. So many on the ex-motocrossers started mountain biking and there seems to be many similarities in handling skills between these two sports. For many of the older guys, the risk of injury became too great with motocross and mountain biking is a way for them to stay fit and healthy, and also to continue competing. I also tried motocross as a teenager but I prefer a road bicycle. I never thought I would read about motocross in your blog, but as so often, you make an interesting connection to bicycling.

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  8. Not such an odd mix, one begot the other after all.

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  9. OOOHHH!!! Motorbikes!!! I've had a few, some old and slowish, others way too fast and full of murderous tendencies. Sometimes I find myself staring at them on the street from inside my car like an addict nervously waving to his pusher from the back seat of a police car.

    Modern dual-purpose bikes are so practical(and you can race em' in scrambles all over the place(!)) and as capable as the Moto-X racers of my youth. Getting one kinda' seems like the responsible thing to do, for commuting. Or going for medicine for my children in an emergency, that sort of thing. A friend has most of the makings for a nice scruffy Triton (Triumph Twin in a Norton featherbed frame, the ultimate 60s Café-Racer) that I'm tempted to carry back to my house a bit at a time, but... I need another motorcycle about like I need a secret family.

    Old motorcycles, rag-wing airplanes, snotty little sportscars, I'll never have any spare money or time.

    Posts like this make me wonder about you sometimes V. Perhaps you're only a chromosome away from the same sort of affliction...

    Spindizzy

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    1. Dual purpose - so would you like remove the lights and fenders and such to race it?

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    2. No, They aren't quite motocross bikes, the lights are usually behind guards and the other stuff like battery and starter etc. are tucked up out of the way and not made to come off.

      The races people do with them (called Hare Scrambles around here) are point to point on trails and old fire roads and such. Usually an hour or so up to 3 or 4 hour enduro's or even longer. Not quite MX but still lot's of mud and dirt and while not wide open ALL the time, lot's of wheelies, roostertails of dirt everywhere and big air in the fast spots. Like a XC Mountainbike race with 95 more decibels. The bikes aren't out of place on a track like you show here but you couldn't race there unless they had a class just for Enduro's.

      Motocross was huge in Texas growing up (probably still is a big deal) but I never got involved, poor wretch that I was, watching from the side in my tattered breeches and threadbare waistcoat. By the time I could afford to jump in, going round and round on a bike you couldn't ride on the road and had to haul everywhere, and loud enough to scare away all the birds and bunnies and half the patio furniture, seemed like too much hassle.

      Moto's are REALLY polarizing with cyclists around here, you either get it or want em' banned. There does seem to be consensus that the "LOUD PIPES SAVES LIVES" crowd on Harleys are up to something that only they can understand though...

      Spindizzy

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    3. Ah, I see. Interesting how there are so many variations of these things, often location-specific. Is "trials" something they have in the US as well or is that a European only thing?

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  10. Motocross are close to four-wheel drive which allows ability to travel across off road in the wilds.
    You’ve described similarities with bicycles but you forgot noise pollution for other persons who have not affinity with motorbike community. Wasp loud sound can be very unpleasant, it’s better for environment if motorcycle races are in enclosed area with fence , far from common lovely nature.
    L.

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    1. The motocross tracks here (and there are several smaller ones in addition to this one) are usually so far from residential clusters that it's not an issue. For me, the worst sound is that loud pipe noise of some street motorcycles in the US. I know they do it deliberately thinking it's safer to be noisy, but I find it difficult to take.

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  11. Have seen the video of the perfect combination of bicycle and motorcycle? I embedded it in one of my posts but for some reason it only seems to show up on a PC. Anyway, if you can see something moving, worth checking out and dreaming the dream! http://theresherides.blogspot.com/2013/09/there-she-rides-discovers-secret-of.html

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  12. I see more fat motor bikers than I do cyclists. They may get a wind rush when motor biking but they don't have the quiet satisfaction of feeling it under their own power. It's kind of the difference between motor boats and sail boats. I'd choose sails.

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  13. "They are motor vehicles. For me, this put them in a category closer to cars than bicycles."

    That. It is not about the number of wheels and I will happily pedal a trike before I would get on a motorbike.

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  14. There is a consanguinity between cyclists and motorcyclists. We have similar issues on the road -- not being seen or respected by cars, similar issues with the weather, and so on. Whenever I happen to be around a motorcyclist with my bike I sense a mutual respect. We're both out on the road, dealing with the cagers.

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  15. Motorcycles on the roadways at least use less resources than private autos (assuming - relatively safe - that most auto trips are made with driver and one or no passenger).

    Off road motor bikes wreak an incredible amount of environmental damage, killing plants and creatures, compacting soil and all. MTBs as well, but it takes a lot of MTB trampling to equal the impact of one motor bike.

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  16. Growing up, a bike was my transportation around the neighborhood, from the time I was 5 to 11 or 12. Around then, my brother and I got little dirtbikes... mine was an Honda XR. We lived on them when we weren't in school. But, when I turned 16 and had my driver's license and a car, I'd not gotten on a motorcycle since.

    While in college, I kept a pair of bikes; I had my dad's road bike (a Nishiki as old as me), but it wasn't great at crossing campus curbs, so I also had a Nishiki MTB for commuter duties around campus, and light trails. After college, it was used for semi-annual bike rides on the Creeper Trail, but hardly used otherwise.

    It was only four or five years ago that I became interested in biking again. Now have a few Rivendells, set up differently (a Ram as a rando, a Bomba for camping, and a canti-Rom as a gravel grinder).

    But it's funny you mention motorcycles. My brother stuck w/ motorcycles, but had a bad accident right out of high-school, so motorcycles were taboo in the family for awhile. I enjoyed riding, but was gun-shy about traffic... much like riding a bike on a roadside instead of a bikepath, I was just afraid of getting run over by a car...

    But a couple of years ago, something switched in my head... I now *want* a motorcycle. I want a BMW GS, I want a Triumph Tiger 800, I want a Moto Guzzi, I want a cafe racer, I want a BMW /5.... just really crazy, that I wanted nothing to do with bikes of either kind on the road, just away from traffic for years, but now, just over the past few years, have had a desire for migrating to two wheels in traffic situations....

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    1. I had a BMW R-5 /5 I bobbed and made clip-ons bars for. So slow, soo weedy, sooo much fun.
      Throttle open all the way all the time and still barely speeding. Sigh... Good times.

      Spindizzy

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  17. I've yet to cross the line, but after I invested in a set of Whitworth wrenches for my vintage English bicycles, it did occur to me that I could just start working on a Triumph or BSA. Honestly, the tinkering is more attractive than the riding.

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  18. Before I ever drove cars (I grew up in Manhattan), I rode motorcycles while living in Taiwan for 14 years. Tiny things by American standards (125 cc) that could nonetheless go 100 KPH easily with a rider and passenger. It was all for the convenience. Fastest way around town by far. No parking hassles like with riding a car. No sweat like with riding a bike. (Would give you a bad case of helmet hair, though.) Cheap too. Only US$300 or so for decent used motorbike that would last for many years. It was a utility/commuting form of motorbiking. Not that it wasn't fun.

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  19. Lots of interestingly different perspectives here. Motorbikes are great fun to ride but all the associated hassle (maintenance, insurance, tax, dressing up) is too much for me. Also motorcycling is tiring - few riders do the kind of full days that are possible on a bicycle. And adding to all the health risks, if you do spend a long time on a motorbike the risks of deep vein thrombosis are even higher than on long-haul flights. Liz and rickrise upthread do a great job of capturing the qualitative differences ... thanks.

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    1. "if you do spend a long time on a motorbike the risks of deep vein thrombosis are even higher than on long-haul flights"

      Never considered that, but it makes sense because the sitting position never changes. Gosh.

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  20. Given the similarities and the fact that those motorcyclists I know always complain about lack of respect from cars etc, I am always astonished at the general lack of respect I get from motorcycles when I'm out on my bike.
    I can honestly say that my most unsettling moments on the road have always been caused by motorcycles; too close; too fast.
    If you are a motorcyclist reading this, prove me wrong sometime and overtake me with you over the other side of the road and without the urge to accelerate loudly as you do it. Please.

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  21. A really nice post - thanks for writing it. I've been riding bicycles for about 50 years, and motorcycles for about 40 or so. During the 1970s I raced motocross for about 10 years, and I definitely found those skills to transfer over to mountain bike riding when mountain bikes came about. These days I only ride a motorcycles a bit, and a vintage cafe bike at that. Most of my two-wheel time is spent on bicycles commuting and riding for fun. I've really been enjoying my Box Dog Pelican randonneur bicycle. The way I see it that any time I spend on two wheels is a great blessing - whether with a motor or without - but these days I'm the motor most of the time! I love your blog - keep up the great writing!

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  22. There should be an affinity between the two, there is with me at least. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and it is very politicized here, especially with land use. I love to ride motorized enduro style - travel and navigation as opposed to tricks and racing, but this has become very hard to do living where I do, requiring very long drives in a truck and very long days. Off road motorcyclists tend to be extremely fit. It is very demanding, much more so than road or mountain bicycling. I have found myself stopping and breathing as hard as I could, with every muscle burning and quivering, just trying to gather the strength to carry on.
    There is an affinity between the two in the more rural Western US. In Moab, Utah I encountered a guided mountain bike group, who had stopped to dry off and put clothes back on after fording a stream of about 2 feet depth. They were ready to go, but held up because they heard me approaching, and wanted to see how a motorcyclist handled the fording and then the steep climbing of the bank which was actually big wet tree roots. When I made it I got a standing ovation from them! And on the ride back into town, I encountered many such groups, and they would all give me the clenched fist salute. That is how it should be!
    I have 7 bicycles, 2 modern and the rest vintage, and 4 motorcycles, 2 enduros and 2 street bikes, including a vintage BSA enduro and vintage Honda street bike. Keeping the BSA running is a challenge, requiring excellent industrial archaeology and mechanical skills.

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