Just home from Memphis yesterday, I drove into a traffic jam on 880, as cars crept by an accident. Lined up beside the median: one forest green minivan, one red sedan, one large man in black leathers lying on the asphalt with his arm over his face, two people leaning over him, and one huge Harley, all decked out in shiny chrome and copper-studded black leather saddlebags, on its side, rear wheel crushed.
Cars are “cages,” newbies and show-offs are “squids.” When you crash, you casually say that you “dropped” your bike, like something small you cradled in your hand, something that simply slipped out. You can “low-side” it (fall to the left) or, generally worse, “high-side” it (to the right).
I hate the phrase “motorcycle down.” Radio announcers seem to get such a kick out of saying it, punching out the syllables, as if they’re vicariously cool. My stomach crumples when I hear it.
I learned how to ride on littler bikes in China and Japan in the 80s. I started on a robin egg blue 50-cc Honda that my soon-to-be husband let me ride up a dirt hill outside of Beijing. (Then he had to talk me down, inch by inch.) In China in the 80s, motorcycles were some of the first private property people could own post-Cultural Revolution. They were symbols of rebellion, indirect appeals for democracy, during that expressive decade before Tiananmen Square. Otherwise, in both China and Japan, they’re mostly just a convenient and cheap form of transportation.
Here, they’re a proclamation. I got my Suzuki SV650 (did I mention it’s for sale?) after a biker boyfriend moved on to another gal. One friend suggested that I was using it as a man substitute. (I won’t repeat his precise words, since my mother may read this.) For sure, after I started riding it, adolescent boys suddenly talked to me, when I was invisible to them before, and I encountered many extreme reactions, both encouraging and disapproving. That, and some sad looks from men friends who said their wives would never let them ride. (Any suggestions on how best to respond to that one?)
I’ve dropped my bike three times—twice in gravel on country roads and once when my front wheel got caught in a rut in the road. I bought expensive boots after the first sprained ankle. (Thank you, www.helimot.com.) I also became an expert at replacing the easily snapped gear shift lever, and I started carrying a spare in the storage under my seat. A lot of bikers think its bad luck to do that, as if you’re asking for an accident, but whatever.
Here’s a breakdown of the Bay Area biker stereotypes:
- Harley and other cruiser riders—all-Americans who tend not to wear serious protective gear. They’re too cool for that. Other bikers call their flimsy helmets “brain buckets.” Once a newbie Harley rider looked longingly at my gear and said he’d like to wear that sort of thing, but his riding buddies would make fun of him. Many Harley riders put bells on their bikes to ward off bad luck. No comment on the idea of using tiny bells instead of proper gear.
- “Crotch rocket” riders—you know those racing style bikes with flashy fairings, where you lean way over and hug your gas tank. These folks wear lots of bright gear, but kill themselves quicker than anyone, especially “squids” who “ride over their heads.”
- BMW riders—the responsible ones. They sit straight up, wear sensible gear, train seriously, talk intellectually, stop to help accident victims, commute in all weather, take long camping trips in the wilderness, and sport scruffy gray beards.
Then there are riders of café racers, dual-sport bikes, standard bikes, naked bikes, old bikes. And of course there are scooters, but those are in a different ecosystem.
The Bay Area’s a biker mecca, with its good weather and irresistible “twisties”—the winding roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Alice’s Restaurant, on highway 35, which runs along the crest of the mountain range, is a big hangout. It’s kind of intimidating.
Around here, most all motorcycle riders wave to each other when they pass. No discrimination, they say. A lot of bikers have multiple bike types in their garage. They don’t wave to people on scooters, though, and they definitely don’t wave to bicyclists. Bicyclists don’t wave at anyone, as far as I can tell, including each other.
I keep thinking about that guy, just out for a fun Saturday. Shining up the bike, packing the saddlebags, excited for the wind and the road. I hope he’ll be okay.
If you’re getting into bikes in Silicon Valley, check out BARF (www.bayarearidersforum.com). Get some good boots and gear, and keep the rubber to the road.