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.