The Blessings of Biking

motorcycle

I’m a pretty responsible guy. But every few days, I get on my motorcycle.

You may feel that I have just expressed a contradiction in terms. My wife used to think so, too.

Back when we were in our twenties, I rode a small black motorcycle in the Chicago traffic. Fair spouse was nervous about my riding in that traffic, and then put her size 5 1/2 foot down when baby number one arrived. I pledged not to ride again and sold the bike.

Thirty years later, however, my father died and left me his motorcycle. It is a 1992 Kawasaki Vulcan with less than 7000 miles on it, perfectly preserved in the dry heat of my father’s adopted home of West Texas. Fair spouse changed her mind and said my father would be honoured by my bringing the bike up to Canada and riding it.

(I was also, of course, much better insured by then.)

So I did bring it up, had it reconditioned, and the bike was good to go. But I wasn’t.

Deep into middle age, I was terrified of falling off the bike in a way I wasn’t during my testosterone-addled youth. Then I read that 90 per cent of accidents happen to riders who taught themselves or had a friend teach them. So I went to school.

For six days.

The first two days we didn’t leave the classroom. (I learned three life-saving things every hour that I didn’t know in my twenties.) The next two days we didn’t leave the parking lot: all low-speed maneuvers up and down little hills. The last two days on the open road we had…rain. (If you can’t ride in rain, you can’t ride in Vancouver—which is where I’ve been living the last twenty years.)

I got my license and have been happily riding again ever since.

Why do I ride? It’s not because of the adventure. Sure, I feel a surge of excitement when I go into a corner fast. But I also quite readily feel a surge of nausea when I go into one a little too fast. I’m not an adrenaline junkie and instead quite vividly imagine myself smeared across the asphalt.

No, I ride because on a bike you are overwhelmed by reality. And that’s a rare gift.

There is no roofline on a bike. The landscape is all there, from the trees to the mountains to the sky. All there. And whether you’re in spectacular BC, or in the big sky country of the prairies, or in my gorgeous home landscape of the Canadian Shield, or among the lovely rolling hills of the Atlantic Provinces, you’re really in the landscape on a motorcycle as you aren’t in a car.

(In fact, we motorcycle riders pityingly refer to car drivers as “cagers.”)

There is also no floor on a bike. You’re not any closer to the ground on a motorcycle than in a car, but it surely feels like you are. The ground whizzes by and every ripple, let alone bump, in the road makes its impression.

In fact, because you must be alert to any threat to traction (loss of traction is the Single Big Bad Thing motorcycle riders fear most—besides negligent cagers), you pay attention to road surfaces, curves, cambers, everything about the road that you can blithely take in stride while driving a car. Indeed, today’s cars are so well made (versus the shiny rattletraps I grew up with) that you can hardly feel the road anymore, and you can see it only at a high angle, which reduces greatly the sense of speed.

(On a bike, speed is all you sense, at least the first hour you’re on one.)

“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1), and the fullness of the world presses itself upon you when you’re riding a motorcycle. Or sailing. Or climbing.

I think this sense of being immersed in the world is why older people still ride those upholstered behemoths around the country. You know: those giant Harleys and Honda Gold Wings with the huge fairings and plush seats and loud stereos. As much as they have put between themselves and the world on those two-wheeled (or even three-wheeled) yachts, they still are experiencing the world much more intensely than they would in a car.

And that’s a good experience to have, especially in our insulated middle-class Canadian lives, isn’t it? It’s good to really feel the world, even to feel its danger as well as its beauty, even to realize that if something breaks on this machine at 100 km/h (he said carefully, so as not to incriminate himself in terms of posted speed limits), one is at the mercy of forces beyond one’s control. The same is true in a car, of course, and on a bus or a plane—but it all feels much more real, more right here right now, on a motorcycle.

Which is why the only modification I made to my dad’s bike was removing the faring. Now there’s nothing between me and the world but my Aria helmet—full-face, of course. I’m not a fool.

Which brings me to the old saying that there are no atheists in foxholes, and the guess that motorcyclists do a lot more praying than do cagers.

And that’s a gift, too, right?

14 I like it
0 I don't like it

John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).