Monday, 10 June 2013

In Praise of Slow

BMW K100RS Honda VFR400R Cabot Trail
On the Cabot Trail in Cape Breton with my dad, circa 2004.

Let’s get one thing straight. I’ve done plenty of wheelies. I’ve dragged parts in turns, my own and my bike’s. I’ve ridden far in excess of the posted limit. I’ve woven through traffic at triple digit speeds. I’ve done many a stupid thing on two wheels, and I’ve been fortunate enough to live to ride another day.

And now, I’m quite content to ride as slow as I goddamn well please.



You see, I’ve always ridden sport bikes, or bikes with sporting pretensions. In the sport bike community, there is a certain level of expectation with regards to your capabilities. This expectation is twofold: you have the dumb, inexperienced squids who expect you to ride at terminal velocity along the highway and wheelie at every opportunity, and then you have the seasoned sport riding veterans who expect you to be able to drag your knee through every switchback. The first group judges your skill (and the quality of a machine) exclusively on its ability to go vertical and how quickly you can achieve multiples of the speed limit. The second group judges based on your ability to keep up with them through a tight set of twisties without dying violently in the process.

I fall into another, seldom mentioned category of rider – seasoned, skilled, and having a strong sense of self-preservation. I am a slow rider. And I am here to proselytize my style of riding, and speak in praise of slow.

I began riding bikes when I was 17. I was young and foolish, as everyone is when they first hop on the back of a bike fueled by a mixture of high test and ego, and I did Very Stupid Things. Usually in pursuit of other, more experienced idiots. I associated with a group of extremely fast and young riders who favoured high-powered Japanese machines (your typical rice-rocket crowd, as I often heard dumb cagers generalize us). These were reckless, fearless, and stupid folks. Among the younger members, usually under 25, macho bravado was a part of the initiation – you weren’t accepted until you’d “kept up” with the group on a daredevil run or done a few high-speed monos. These folks were balanced out by the veterans, mostly 30 or older, who dismissed these young punks as the dumb kids they were and blew them off when the going got twisty.

The problem with riding in North America is that most provinces and states have lax licensing laws and laughably easy processes to get a full, unrestricted license. Graduated licensing is a joke, if it exists at all – most places have two categories, small or big bike, and the only difference between the two is the size of the bike you use to take the practical test. I earned (and I use that term loosely) my unrestricted license by taking a one-page multiple-choice test and then performing a slalom and a figure-eight in the parking lot on a 1000cc BMW. After an hour at the DMV, I was allowed to buy and ride anything with two wheels I pleased. No restrictions, no training, no graduated licensing. “You can ride in the parking lot without falling over? Here’s your license, have fun.”

Thus the market for small, easy to handle bikes in the US and Canada is virtually nonexistent. Everyone wants the biggest, baddest, fastest, most chrome-laden penis extension they can afford the moment they get their license. The cruiser crowd looks down their noses at 1200cc Sportsters as girly bikes, and sport riders consider a 600cc supersport a “beginner” bike. And so we have completely inexperienced riders hopping aboard massively powerful, hair-trigger machines they have no business touching, let alone piloting on public roads. Freedom is great, until you end up paying insurance and registration premiums to cover the mistakes of other riders.

The cult of speed and dick-wavery among sportbike riders is as astonishing as it is embarrassing. It seems to be a prerequisite that every inexperienced rider who buys a sporty machine has to be an arrogant, boastful dumbass who will proclaim their (nonexistent) abilities to anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot. And I fell into that trap just like everyone else did. The community becomes a bad case of blind-leading-the-blind and incessant one-upmanship that leads to bruised egos, smashed bikes, and far too many deaths. It’s only after years of riding and building your experience, and a few serious schoolings from experienced riders, that you will realize how idiotic it all is and how dumb you were. It’s at that point that you will become one of the vets, and you will despise those snot-nosed squids going around measuring chicken strips and boasting about how great they are at wheelies. Getting there is a long, arduous process, and you may never demand the respect of other riders, you can only earn it. Weekend warriors, squids, and born-again R.U.B.s need not apply.

Honda NC24 VFR400R
Me and my NC24 in my young and stupid days.

I began my riding career just trying to keep up. I had a Honda NC24 at the time, which was a 400cc supersport with all of 60hp, and most rides had me pegging the tach and the speedo in a futile attempt to stay within sight of the throttle jockeys on far faster machines. Unlike most nitwits my age I abstained from buying the most powerful bike I could afford, although the prospect of owning an overpowered widowmaker was tempting on the days I was getting dusted on the straights. I soon realized that keeping up with the group was a pointless exercise and I settled into a pattern – start the ride at the back of the group, and stay there. I made no attempt to keep up. My fear and sense of mortality overwhelmed my reptilian ego and I became one of the “slow” guys from an early point in my riding life.

While this attitude didn’t endear me to the squids, it did earn me respect from the vets. I recall one day a large group of us met at a (supposedly) abandoned airstrip somewhere out in the boonies of New Brunswick to do some drag racing. We had our fun, discovered the airstrip wasn’t quite as abandoned as we had been informed, and hightailed it late in the day. I spent some time with my bike pegged at redline trying to keep up with the group, as per usual, and my bike started running a bit rough from being thrashed. I was fed up and tired of even attempting to keep up.

We stopped at a restaurant for dinner that evening before starting the ride back home, which would entail about an hour and a half following a series of fast backroads. I joined a group of older riders and before we set out I told them straight up: I didn’t want to ride like a moron trying to keep up. I told them not to worry about me or expect me to keep up, just ride their usual pace and I’d catch up when they stopped. I was met with some silent gazes but no commentary, and we set out. The ride was uneventful and I was content to be a backmarker, taking in the scenery and learning the road, dodging the odd bit of wildlife along the way.

We arrived back in our hometown and stopped at the house of one of the riders to relax and scrape the bugs off our faces. One of the elder guys, a soft-spoken fellow who rode a GSX-R 1000 with aplomb, pulled me aside and told me something that has stuck with me ever since. He said that by putting my ego aside and admitting that I didn’t want to ride like an idiot to keep up with them, I had earned a great deal of respect and brownie points among the seasoned guys.

They were used to cocksure squids that would brag about their abilities and utterly fail to back up their smack talk out on the road, usually endangering themselves and anyone within skidding distance on the asphalt in the process of trying to keep up with the big boys. I was the only kid who admitted I was inexperienced and who rode at my own pace without trying to impress anyone. From that day forward I embraced that macho-be-damned attitude and rode my way. I ride for myself, not to impress some turkey on a Yamondakawazuki.

I soon tired of the macho head butting and dangerous cat-and-mouse riding we usually ended up doing and I quietly stopped joining the group rides. More and more accidents were occurring, and a string of fatalities - five in one season, in a tight-knit community of several hundred riders – finally convinced me that this lifestyle wasn’t sustainable and I would be better off on my own. The final straw was when I made the cardinal mistake of buying a Ducati, a quick way to alienate yourself from the Japcrap crowd in those days. At the time Ducati wasn’t the sexy, popular option it is today. They were the choice of masochistic oddballs who paid a big premium to get less power, less refinement, and a whole lot more maintenance. So when I bought my 916, my reception was… in a word, vitriolic. That, in my mind, was my official departure point from that crowd.

Ducati 916 Superbike

Since then I’ve remained a lone-wolf rider, someone who prefers to ride solo and at my own pace. I shy away from group rides and prefer not to share road space with anyone. If I get caught up in an impromptu group on the backroads, I either wave them past or put some distance between us, depending on the situation. If I must accompany someone, I only do so with strict rules on how things will proceed, and I will not ride with them again if they do anything to endanger me, or if they show a lack of respect for my pace. Thems the rules, take ‘em or leave ‘em.

I’ve developed a smooth style of riding that focuses on precision and maintaining a fluid stringing of corners together. Maximum lean angles and eyeball-flattening speeds are not my aims. I’ve learned over 10 short years of riding that in The Real World roads are not absolute or inviolable no matter how many times you travel the same route. Gravel and sand gets pulled through the apexes by dumb drivers clipping the shoulder. Potholes and frostheaves appear in the spring. Bad patchwork and tarsnakes materialize mid-summer. Fallen leaves slick the road surface in the fall. And all season long you will be encountering clueless and distracted drivers - usually mid-corner, in your lane, in a blind decreasing radius bend. I am not scared by my bike or my own mistakes - more than anything I’m scared of other drivers. I ride with a wide margin of safety to compensate for the idiocy of everyone else on the road. I was once given a simple but effective piece of advice in my early days of riding - ride like everyone else on the road is trying to kill you.

I know many people who turn to the track as a relatively safe and fully controlled outlet for their need for speed. I, however, subscribe to Hunter S. Thompson’s riding philosophy:

When Cycle World called me to ask if I would road-test the new Harley Road King, I got uppity and said I'd rather have a Ducati superbike. It seemed like a chic decision at the time, and my friends on the superbike circuit got very excited. "Hot damn," they said. "We will take it to the track and blow the bastards away."

I’ve always ridden on the street. I will always ride on the street. I’ve developed and honed my skills there, and I will continue to apply them there. I don’t have any desire to sink oodles of money into trackdays when that money could be better spent on gear, gas and road trips (and, in the case of my Ducati, maintenance).

My philosophy is thus precision and fluidity within a safe margin of error. I like Keith Code’s analogy of your attention being the equivalent of a ten-dollar bill. Each action cost a portion of your "funds". If you use up your ten bucks you are unable to devote any additional attention to unforeseen variables or tasks. If you overdraw, you screw up - and possibly crash. Every action costs attention – your goal is to become so proficient that your actions only cost a small amount of your tenner, so you will have more attention to spare to hone your skills and get through the corner faster. The context is for racing, but the idea can easily be applied to the road as well. Riding at 9/10ths or maxed out on the road is reckless and suicidal. Your maximum pace in street riding should not exceed 7 or 8 tenths, leaving enough margin to anticipate and correct for road conditions, other drivers, or wildlife spoiling the party.

The next time you see a rider, be it on the road or in a video, observe their mannerisms on the machine. Watch how they sit, how they shift their body around, how they position their head and where they look. Then look at their performance, see how their bike moves through the turns and how they handle the machine. Odds are most people will be timid and overly conservative, or will be balls-to-the-wall and flighty. The first group appears hesitant, stiff, and ill at ease, and pick their way through turns with a multitude of inputs. They don't trust the bike or their actions. The second group looks violent and out of control, flying from one corner to the next in a flurry of unpredictable moves. They are too confident and are on the ragged edge of their ability. Few fall into the happy medium, which is confident smoothness. That is my goal. I want to ride well, not fast. There is an important distinction to be made between the two. I am always working towards the "ideal", and I am constantly honing my abilities.

I also enjoy the act of riding itself – being on the road, seeing the scenery, experiencing the smells. I’m not leaving in the morning with the intention of scrubbing my chicken strips off. I’m going out to explore, enjoy the journey, and bask in the magnificence of the route. I don’t want to have all my attention devoted to extracting that last iota of performance out of my machine, while dodging other drivers and crappy roads. I want to have enough ease to take in the surroundings and enjoy the journey.

You might read all this and think “okay, so why does he ride a sport bike? Sounds like he should have a cruiser or a tourer”. Well some of us like the performance and agility of a sport machine, even if we have no intention of using even half of its potential. I like to feel like I’m taming a vicious and obstinate animal every time I ride, even if I’m doing the speed limit. I like to feel the barely-contained fury of a malevolent machine that demands flawless inputs. I like to sense the subtle feedback and precise response of a tight chassis. You don’t need to ride like a maniac to appreciate the finer points of a sport bike. And you certainly don’t have to resign yourself to some stodgy mount just because you aren’t dragging your knees everywhere. As long as you don’t mind the lack of comfort, anyway.

In fact, no one who rides a sport bike on the street is using it to its full potential - if they claim otherwise they are either a loudmouthed squid or a damned liar. Anyone who claims to be an expert isn’t. A seasoned racer would not be able to extract 100% out of a superbike under the best track conditions, let alone on the street.

That doesn’t mean I pootle along at the speed limit everywhere I go. I don’t ride like a granny, and I hate pig-headed jerkoffs who H.O.G. the lane and clutter up the twisties without letting quicker riders past. When conditions are right and the roads are clear, I’ll drop the hammer and have some fun, and I enjoy a high speed blast as much as the next adrenaline junkie. There is a time and place for such shenanigans, and in my experience they are few and far between while on the street. If you recognize that and respect your machine, your abilities, and the conditions around you, you’ll be a far more comfortable and confident rider. That is my definition of slow - respecting the variables and the conditions and riding with the intent of making it home in one piece. My slow might be far faster than the average rider, but it is within a wide margin of safety and it is well within my comfort zone.

The older I get, the more I understand that surviving the day is far more important than setting a record pace. Fast has its place, and I respect riders who can ride quickly and smoothly without looking like a goddamned high-speed trainwreck in progress. But I’m here to praise slow. I'm here to proclaim the virtues of enjoying the ride and the experience, and riding within your capabilities, without making every ride into a do-or-die misadventure. It's time for a change in sport riding culture; no more dick-waving, no more ego clashing, no more squidly pursuits on public roads. There is a time and a place for fast, and it isn't on the street. I for one am willing to admit: I am a sport bike rider, and I am slow.

Ducati 916 Superbike

10 comments:

  1. Excellent article.
    When i was a young idiot, i thought it was a good idea to buy a GSXR750 as my first bike. Luckily i never crashed on it, riding as a teenager for many years on 50cc mopeds probably helped. Still, i'm certain that i really learned to ride reasonably properly later, when i bought a FJ600 and a GSX600F as daily runabouts. People who start on a big-bore sportsbike almost never learn to ride properly, things like most efficient braking, maximizing momentum etc.
    Now, 9 bikes later, i'm more than happy on a 70hp R100RS Airhead.

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  2. Well said. Nothing more to add to this. Pure motorcycling honesty!
    Cheers,
    Jacopo (Italy)

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  3. Very well said. I am 46, and ride a ZRX1100. In my youth I had a GSX1100 and other sports bikes, and rode like a madman, even with mates dying on the road beside me.

    I agree with pretty much everything you have said, even riding like a madman as a youth, I was concern with smoothness and trying to "make it look easy" (not easy on an 80's superbike..). I stopped riding when I first had a family, then got back into it, riding a suzuki VL800. I soon discovered that I was not a cruiser rider - just riding at "normal" speeds was pushing the bike up to what I considered to be more than 80% of its ability (a lot of the time it felt like 110%).
    Buying a sportsbike means I can ride at less than 80% - hell, I'd be lucky to push it to 50%. My tires are rarely pushed.. I can find a nice windy road and scrub a bit of rubber off the side, but its controlled - as you said, there are few places it is safe to do so.

    Sure, I occasionally have a rush of blood to the head ... but these days they are becoming fewer and further between. Thanks for this article.

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  4. While, I don't own a Ducati, my first impression was that I could have written this article myself. thank you for sharing this with us.

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  5. Wise words indeed. Although I have to admit my 916 rarely sees public roads anymore after I discovered how amazing it feels on the track. I admire you for using yours as you do but I prefer my beemer for the streets.
    Thanks a lot for your writing efforts.

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  6. Well said. I rode fast as a kid too, lucky to survive. Now I'm 47 and while I do ride a Blackbird (CBR1100XX), it's the great balance of the bike that is so enjoyable, not the amazing speed. That said, on those special roads I know I'm safe, it is fun to crack it open for a bit. But for the most part, i'm 10 over the limit at most.

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  7. Amazing how closely this mirrors my experience as a cyclist (as in without the motor). I also quit the group rides after narrowly avoiding an accident that put the rider in front of me into a coma. Nowadays, I take pleasure in getting into the flow and riding smoothly with a minimum of mistakes.

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  8. Excellent article. Interesting how most of the advice you were given is the same as what I was, halfway round the world.
    May I complement you on your choice of starter bike. I love those little jap pocket rockets and consider them possibly the best bikes to learn on ever.
    Currently starting my third year riding a CBR250R ('89 model, not 2011+)and I'm constantly asked why don't I upgrade to a big bike now that I hall a full unrestricted licence. While my answer is usually along the lines of lack of finances the unspoken truth is I don't think I've learned how to properly ride the hyperactive little beast yet.
    Would be nice if you could do a review of the NC24 at some point.

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  9. Your article is spot on. I live in Australia where there is a similar mentality - that unless you ride a one litre sportsbike you are no where. Having owned a `81 600 Pantah since `89 and a M600 since 2000 I tend to ride by myself. I do commute about 50 klms a day on the monster.
    I`ve never ridden a 1000cc bike so I can`t comment on them but I find my bikes bring a smile to my face on the right road at the right time, isn`t that what it`s about.
    Mike.

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  10. Very thought inspiring read. Some of us come to the reality of cause and effect earlier then others. Some never make it and end up being their own worst enemy. Like you I was the one taking less chances when running with the pack (hot rod compacts like VW GTI Honda SI's) in my youth.
    I'll be honest though I'm still a bit of a Novice rider and I was not finding a reasonable middle of the road bike to fit what I desired in a bike. The bikes that fit my desires are Sport touring and Dual sports. I ended up with a 1995 BMW K1100LT. It was the cheapest bike I could find that came with saddle bags, trunk and effective fairing for cross country jaunts. Its a forgiving bike happy to putt along 30mph in 3rd at 2200 rpm. It does go from elevator muzak to Crazy train if you twist that throttle past 4k. The reality is the difference between this and a RS is the final drive ratio, plastics and handle bars. It is big but at 6'1" 230lb so am I. I just keep short shifting it at 4500rpm to keep myself out of trouble.

    I just couldn't do the Buy a 500-600cc something drive it for a year being unhappy with it the whole time then having to eventually sell it when what fit my list of needs and wants was only a couple hundred more or in many cases $1000 less.
    So far maturity has prevailed and 3,000 mile under my belt my skill level is improving but I admit it was not the best choice of a first bike. Your post just reinforcing my attempt to be moderate when I ride.

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