- COOL AT LAST: Chilson rides.
I first fell in love with motorcycles when I was 5 years old. Back then, Sears sold motorcycles, and the bikes hypnotized me.
Sears' bikes sat right next to the hardware department, chrome gleaming under the cheap fluorescent lights. Huge wheels, massive motor-driven chains that thrust the bike down the road at speeds only dreamt of by little boys like me, who hadn't quite worked up the nerve to ask dad to remove the training wheels from the Schwinn.
Even though I was only 5 and the possibility of ever legally driving a motorcycle still a distant 11 years away, my mother was so upset with my motorcycle fixation that she took me aside and explained my chances of EVER being on a motorized vehicle with less than four wheels: They weren't good.
At age 16 and two years into my first job, my bank account rose dangerously close to allowing me the freedom of the road. As I searched in vain for that illusive cherry red Camaro owned by some old lady who drove it to church on Sunday, a thought occurred to me. I had more than enough for a motorcycle. Surely my mother hadn't meant to make it a lifetime ban. It was my money, right? I'd sit down and reason it out with her now that I was grown.
I'm not sure, but that might have been the first time I ever heard my mother curse. Bringing up the “but it's my money” angle had been a BIG mistake.
Fast forward five years, and my best friend and I are standing in the Harley-Davidson dealership — though only briefly, because Harley is and always was one of the most expensive motorcycles on the market and they don't like cash-deprived kids standing around, sucking up the expensive air in their showrooms. Nonetheless, we cooked up a plan. We were both a year away from college graduation and had pretty good night jobs. We'd seen ads for cheap Japanese motorcycles almost within our price range. There was just no way our mothers could object this time. It really wasn't their decision anymore. We were men.
I'm pretty sure my mother would eventually have let me back in the house if I'd gone through with it, and that the threat of having to “sleep on that damn motorcycle in the street” was a joke. But she outsmarted me. She offered to help my buy a Mustang.
Fast-forward another 20 years — a little better paycheck, a little less hair. There I was at the gas station watching my dollars fly into the gas tank of my Oldsmobile when I saw a guy on a scooter zip past. Suddenly that guy didn't seem like such an idiot. In fact, at 70 miles per gallon on average for a scooter, that guy looked like a genius. My wife — reasonable woman — immediately recognized the genius of my plan. No more pouring $200 a month into our sedan — and the scooters were so cute. I resolved to give a motorized two-wheeler another try.
This time I was thwarted by the Dork Factor. The helmet was the breaking point Big helmets look ridiculous on a person riding a scooter. Considering the fact that I fight a daily battle to avoid being the biggest dork in any given room, it was a no go.
With my wife's somewhat amused and skeptical agreement, and a promise on my part to first complete a training course, I was ready for a motorcycle. Except for one last thing: I had promised my mother I'd never ride a motorcycle, and she'd promised she'd help me buy a car when I was old enough. She'd kept her promise, but I was about to break mine. So, at 43, before I could finally live my dream, I had to go ask my mommy. She said OK.
I soon found myself sitting on a motorcycle on a parking lot in Fayetteville surrounded by nine other students at a motorcycle safety class for beginners. I'd had about an hour of sleep — air-conditioning in our hotel the night before being what it was — and had downed a big cup of coffee. I was wired like a fuse box.
To take the class, students are required to wear a long-sleeved shirt or jacket over ankle-high leather boots, jeans or other long pants, and a helmet and gloves. The temperature that day was around 92 degrees, so I was soon sweating like Sarah Palin playing “Trivial Pursuit.”
I was issued a brand new, never-before-ridden Honda Nighthawk — a 250 cc motorcycle made for beginners and unlikely to be beyond my ability to control. The instructors walked us slowly through the process of how to turn on the motorcycle, how to operate the clutch and gearshift with your left hand and foot while controlling the brakes and throttle with your right hand and foot, all the while trying to keep proper balance so you don't drop their $4,000 bike on the ground. The lessons steadily increased in difficulty, starting with simple starting and stopping and progressing to slow-speed figure eights and moderate speed emergency stops. Turning, it seems, isn't as easy as it looks on a motorcycle. Motorcycle tires have curved tread on the bottom, and there's a reason for that: To turn correctly, you have to lean into it. Studies show that improper cornering causes 37 percent of the fatal accidents involving new riders.
Our group was sort of a cross section of society: a couple of teen-agers, a few guys like me whose wives had finally relented, a guy who'd been riding his whole life but wanted to learn to ride better, a guy who won a bike at a casino, a recently divorced woman whose ex once told her she wasn't allowed to ride because she wasn't capable.
I was NOT the star of the class. I did OK on most of the exercises and great at the emergency stop. But with no food in my stomach, no sleep and an unexplained, possibly motel-mattress-related rash that had appeared on my leg that morning, I had the smooth and easy demeanor of a gerbil. The instructor repeatedly pulled me aside to tell me, “You're doing fine, but you need to calm the hell down.”
Before we knew it, we were all driving around on our motorcycles, shifting, taking curves, dodging imaginary obstacles, all at the blistering speed of 20 miles per hour, which seems lightening fast to a beginner, without incident. There was one dropped bike, but it was righted immediately with only a few paint scratches. As the day wore on we all got better and to my great relief I passed the class. The woman whose ex forbade her to ride — she passed too.
Just a few days after taking the class I took possession of my new obsession, a 2008 Triumph Bonneville with an 865 cc engine.
But is the reality of gas savings everything I'd dreamed?
Well, yes and no. First of all, I've found that the numbers quoted by salesmen for average miles per gallon on a given motorcycle are — being charitable — damn lies. I'm not saying that 50 miles per gallon isn't possible on my bike. If I weighed 50 pounds, molded myself to the tank to reduce all wind resistance, shaved off all my body hair and wore a skin tight suit like Michael Phelps, and was going down hill all the way, I'm sure that 50 miles per gallon might be possible. The reality is closer to 35 or 40, depending on how much gear I pack on the bike. But that's still WAY better mileage than I get out of my Olds.
The reality is, if you want a motorcycle that gets great mileage, you have to buy a smaller engine than most guys want. The bigger bikes look cooler and they make more noise, but Prius-busting mileage is only possible with a smaller-cc bike.
I've learned other things too. Such as: riding in the rain straight up sucks, women in SUVs always tailgate motorcycles, and guys in pick-up trucks are out to kill me.
But I'm glad I made the plunge. Guys stand around admiring my bike on the parking lot and then watch in envy as I jump on and ride off. I get to wear a bad-ass biker jacket so I can keep my skin on if I fall.
And the coolest thing of all? On my first ride into work, coming toward me on a thundering Harley, a real biker reached his left hand down and flashed me what I would learn later was the secret hand signal — a sign of respect from biker to biker acknowledging you are part of the brotherhood. Long after I put my Schwinn away, I was finally cool.