“Courage is to walk
through the valley of our thoughts
and in the desert that you fear
sit down with open ears”
— Senses Fail
Resolve can come from the strangest of places, and sometimes the lyrics from a song help me become a better rider. As a motorcyclist, every day on the street brings a new risk and the challenge to progress and overcome our fears. Those harrowing first few rides are wrought with enough tension to make a greenhorn rider want to put the kickstand down for good.
However, those who move past the gut-wrenching fright and grow comfortable develop an urge to buck the complacency. We yearn for a new challenge and to re-visit that sense of vulnerability, because that is the only way to truly grow.
I’ve been riding motorcycles for the past two and a half years, albeit with rough infrequency. My first two years were spent in the saddle of many a stubborn old machine that seldom ran properly, the first being a 1979 Honda Hawk TI. Constantly struggling to keep a 40-year-old machine up and running leaves little time to focus on riding technique and the multitude of experiences the road may bring.
After battling the constant tribulations and mechanical gremlins of vintage bikes, I put my foot down and picked up a BMW F 700 GS that glimmered with potential. When I threw a leg over the saddle, I instantly felt all the stories we could write together. The curves of roads uncharted and the satisfaction of truly honing my skills was now possible, instead of racking up credit card bills for new carburetor jets. However, anyone who has ridden the F 700 knows that its utilitarianism far exceeds the sensation of speed. After six months and 9,000 miles of pounding the pavement, I was ready for a new challenge.
In an urge to reinvigorate my senses, I sought out true power, the kind that threatens to pry your fingers from the bars when you snap the throttle. As fate would have it, my new position as a parts and apparel advisor at a BMW dealership presented that very opportunity. It was a painfully slow day at work when I got my wish and was handed the keys to a BMW S 1000 RR. This 200-horsepower beast was a demo floor model that needed the requisite 500 miles on the odometer before an eager young rider named Andrew could purchase it at the end of the week. Impulsively, I threw all caution to the wind and volunteered.
The first time throwing a leg over the bike was a very harrowing experience. Completely absent was the stately riding posture of the GS, and in its place was a tucked-in position that compressed my limbs and robbed me of all sense of control. As I took a test lap around the parking lot, I felt as though the bike was taking me for a ride, and that I was wholly incapable of directing this behemoth anywhere but in a straight line. To make matters worse, the ride home was a terrible trifecta of pouring rain, rush hour traffic, and cramped wrists from a foreign riding position. A knot twisted up in the bottom of my stomach as I pondered the true gravity of what I had done. The moment when you remember you’re sitting on a $20,000 motorcycle you don’t own and has enough power to kill you twice doesn’t instill a particularly strong sense of assurance.
The next day welcomed me with sunshine and a mid-January high of 60 degrees that reinvigorated my confidence as I dropped the clutch. Before I even made it into second gear, I knew I had made the right choice, and decided to go all out by putting the bike through its paces on Skyline Drive.
Devoid of all crossing traffic, Skyline Drive snakes for 109 miles along countless Shenandoah Mountain peaks 3,000 feet in the sky. It yields endless curves and breathtaking vistas that are a veritable feast for the eyes. For once in my life, I was actually happy to pay a toll, because this is no ordinary road.
Before I even reached the start of the road I was already wringing the RR for power. Still in the break-in period, the S 1000 RR was limited to 9,000 rpm, but even in restricted form it is still more powerful than most motorcycles. Acceleration rolls on in a deceptively surreptitious manner that has you wondering when the power band will hit. Of course then you look down to see that you’ve already hit triple digits in a short enough time to leave you behind a different set of bars with a reckless endangerment charge.
My first minute on Skyline instantly dealt a left hook to my confidence, however. As I rolled through the tollbooth, I was instantly met by a continuous layer of gravel that was unpredictably interrupted by thin strips of uncovered asphalt just wide enough for a tire to snake through. On top of that, sporadic patches of water would appear halfway through the apex of a closing-radius turn. My brain instantly kicked into survival mode, with a trial by fire on how to handle a bike far beyond my skill set. What was supposed to be a gracefully spirited jaunt though the picturesque scenery became a delicate dance with disaster.
This was clearly not the best environment to handle an entirely disparate sense of weight distribution and steering geometry. Coming from an upright bike with a longer wheelbase, I was expecting the sportier RR to slice through corners with surgical precision. Instead, I labored through every turn with an uncomfortable apprehensiveness.
All aspirations of hanging off the bike like a GP racer were long gone. With each passing mile, I realized that I needed to quickly adapt, as the anxiety inside threatened to drain me of all resolve. After an hour and a half of threading a needle through a rocky haystack, I felt my instincts sharpening. With each turn my knees grew increasingly closer to the pavement and a more spirited throttle hand sent a feral howl echoing across the mountain range.
As I learned how to wield the heft of the inline four, I felt it slowly become an extension of my body. The reward for my risk paid off wonderfully, with an overlook every few miles that yielded seemingly endless mountain peaks and the satisfaction of getting myself there. However, this trip was not done with me yet. With nightfall creeping over the Skyline, a new set of troubles tested my fortitude.
I should have listened to my voice of reason, but my determination to see the sun set pitted me in a race against time and nature. I was met with my greatest fear as deer began darting out from every direction. My headlights hit their beady eyes as they came within inches of contributing to the bright red color scheme of the bike. In that last 45 minutes, all the joy of riding was replaced with frantic paranoia. I breathed a sigh of relief as I made it through the exit gates, cut the engine and was filled with a sense of pride and a time to reflect.
Only a fool expects the thrill of motorcycling to be free of risk. When you're flying down the road at 70 mph, clinging to a hunk of metal filled with thousands of tiny explosions supported by two strips of rubber and your ability to balance, there’s a lot of potential for catastrophe.
However, riding is a form of escapism that frees our mind. In order to truly enjoy the ride, we must listen to the voice of our fears and silence it when we hit the apex.