Common Tread

Risk and reward: How we end up on two wheels

Jul 18, 2014

"Get on," my Uncle Bob said with a devilish grin. He didn't even bother with his standard, "Don't tell your mom."

My legs were barely long enough to climb onto the passenger seat of his KLR650, but I didn't waste a second. We were instantly rolling out of the driveway of my parents' house, the protesting screams of my mother fading behind us in the engine pulses of that big thumper. It was my 12th birthday and I knew at that moment my life would never be the same.

Everyone has a different story of how they started their journey into the world of motorcycling. Some folks were lucky enough to have parents who surprised them with a minibike on their fifth birthday, while others decide that turning 40 warrants a new adventure. Whatever the catalyst, we are all members of the same club.

Like many others, I was raised in a house where my parents were less than supportive of the idea of their son driving around in anything less than a steel cage with four wheels firmly planted on the ground. Unlike most people out there, I had a father who would spend weekends dragging me to every motorcycle shop in eastern Pennsylvania while constantly telling me I could look, but not touch. I was doomed from the start.

Where does the ride begin? The story is different for everyone. What story are you writing? Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar.

My parents actually met when my dad offered my mom a ride home on the back seat of his royal blue 1975 Suzuki GT500 two-stroke. As the story goes, Dad dropped Mom off and my grandparents hit the roof, immediately forbidding her from ever riding with my father again. I am living proof that my mother clearly defied her parents.

That's me at age 3 with my father. Not long after the photo was taken, he got rid of his last motorcycle, leaving me to live a boyhood of frustration, unable to ride. Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar

Dad moved on to bigger and better motorcycles, but by the time I was 4 years old, they had all been sold, and my parents raised my brothers and me on a healthy diet of responsibility and practicality. Thus, motorcycles became the ultimate act of rebellion in my house, trumping 10-fold the electric guitar and rock 'n' roll music.

There is no denying the ultimate sense of rebellion associated with motorcycles. For most of the people I have met on the road of life, learning to ride a motorcycle was their undeniable coming of age moment. The moment when they cast off the tethers of their parents, their office, their world as they know it, and headed out for parts unknown.

Johnny Kowalsky flogging his $400 Honda Nighthawk on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Everyone has a different story of their first bike and the road that led them to it. Some begin on a rusted-out Japanese machine passed down from an older sibling, while others pick up a 250cc pint-sized sport bike that they keep just long enough to learn how to shift it correctly. My buddy, Johnny, bought his 1984 Honda Nighthawk 650 for $400 and we spent two weeks rebuilding it. He promptly hit the highway in a trial-by-fire tour, learning how to ride it on an epic 2,000-mile journey spanning the plateaus of central Tennessee and the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina.

I began my journey on the eve of my 22nd birthday. I pulled my life savings out of the bank and placed a significant cash deposit down on my first bike: a brand-new 2005 Phantom Black Triumph Bonneville T-100 that is still sitting in my garage today, with close to 70,000 miles on the clock. To be accurate, I do not think Triumph ever called this color "Phantom Black," but it reminded me of the bike ridden by the love-struck young rebel in the Meat Loaf hit, "Bat Out of Hell." In my opinion, no other song better represents the freedom of motorcycling. The irony of the fact that the main character ends up dying in a motorcycle crash is not lost on me.

My parents, then. Photo by Barbara Jo Dunbar.

No one has ever embraced motorcycles on the premise of ultimate practicality.

"Well, Bill, you could buy that minivan, but this Ural with a sidecar rig would be a much more sensible option for getting little Timmy to soccer practice."

Practicality is how we sell our passion to others, and how we justify our purchases. How many times do you think the line, "Honey, think of how much money we will save on gas…" has been used to convince a significant other that a motorcycle would be a good addition to the garage?

We don’t ride motorcycles to be practical. We ride motorcycles for the thrill. A motorcycle can turn a daunting daily commute into a wild adventure. Don’t believe me? Check out Lemmy’s story about "Adventure Commuting." You can squeeze more fun out of a $1,500 motorcycle than you can out of any car on the market.

My parents, now. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar
We ride motorcycles for the camaraderie. I have convinced best friends to buy motorcycles, and fellow motorcyclists have become my best friends. Dad made it six months from me showing up with the Bonnie before he rolled a brand new Suzuki V-Strom into the garage. Last weekend, I rode up and met him and Mom for a morning ride through the Pennsylvania countryside. After 32 years of marriage, motorcycling is still something they share. Motorcycles bring people together.

If you have always wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle but have been putting it off, make 2014 your year to change that. Sign up for a Motorcycle Safety Foundation training course, check out inventory at a local dealer, talk to others who already ride, and prepare yourself for the adventure which follows.

Every person who has ever taken a ride on a motorcycle has experienced that moment of pure terror mixed with an unsurpassed sense of freedom when they realize their life will never be the same. For some, it sends them running, satisfied to spend the rest of their lives in a steel box with four wheels, airbags and safety restraints. Meanwhile, the rest of us are emptying out savings accounts and dropping off deposit checks at the local dealer, jonesing for our next fix.

More important than the bike you end up with is the story you tell with it. What is your story going to be?